By Alan Hurst
A couple of weeks ago we focused on the Best Actress category in the forties, this week it’s Best Actor. Not surprisingly, with World War II in full swing and many actors serving in the army, navy or air force, the Best Actor races were not always as competitive as the distaff side. But when you start looking year by year, you still find a wealth of terrific performances.
1940: Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath
This was the year that James Stewart won his only Academy Award for a terrific comedic performance in The Philadelphia Story. But even then it was viewed as a consolation prize for losing out the previous year for career-best work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Stewart and Katharine Hepburn were delightful together in The Philadelphia Story and it’s unfortunate they were never teamed again. But my choice in 1940 would have been Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, one of the great performances of all time and one that cemented his reputation as a plain talking, sincere leading man of considerable depth. Fonda is flawless as Tom Joad, the just paroled son of a family who have lost their farm and decide to head west. John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel is a stark, honest look at the plight of the common man during the great depression. Other nominees that year included Charles Chaplin for the bravely satirical The Great Dictator, Laurence Olivier for Rebecca, and Raymond Massey for Abe Lincoln in Illinois. I think both Edward G. Robinson for Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet and Cary Grant for His Girl Friday should have been in the final five, probably in place Olivier and Massey.
1941: Gary Cooper in Sergeant York
I’m in total agreement with the Academy’s choice in 1941: Gary Cooper for Sergeant York. Cooper was not an performer with a wide range, but within that range he was a fine screen actor. He found his ideal role in the true story of Alvin York, a pacifist torn between his desire to serve his country and his non-violent beliefs. York was an expert with a rifle which earned him honours as he fought in World War I. Cooper’s stoic manner and quiet, low key delivery fit the role beautifully. The film itself served as a stirring morale booster as America was just about to enter World War II. If the Oscar didn’t go to Cooper, I would have selected the non-nominated Humphrey Bogart for either High Sierra or The Maltese Falcon, the two excellent performances that pushed him to the front ranks that year. Other nominees were Orson Welles making a big impact with Citizen Kane, Walter Huston for All That Money Can Buy, Robert Montgomery for Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and Cary Grant for Penny Serenade.
1942: James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy
I think the Academy got it right again in 1942 with the Oscar for James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, one of the star’s quintessential performances. Cagney is perfect in this somewhat whitewashed film biography of performer George M. Cohan. It’s a performance full of bravado, energy and wit in a film that director Michael Curtiz guides seamlessly to a beautiful and patriotic ending. What Yankee Doodle Dandy did for Cagney was give him one of his few film opportunities to show what a spectacularly unique dancer he was. Cagney’s musical numbers are the highlight of the film. No other actor came close to keeping Cagney away from the winner’s podium that year. Next in line would have been Ronald Coleman for the moving Random Harvest or Gary Cooper again for Pride of the Yankees. The other two nominees were Walter Pidgeon for Mrs. Miniver and Monty Woolley for The Pied Piper. I think Joel McCrea for Sullivan’s Travels and Spencer Tracy for Woman of the Year should been in the final five instead of Pidgeon and Woolley.
1943: Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
Although it was released in some markets in 1942, Casablanca was part of the 1943 Oscar race, winning Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Curtiz, and Best Screenplay. For me there is no question that Humphrey Bogart should have been part of that group of winners for his best performance in what is now acknowledged as the best film ever to come out of the studio system. Without Bogart there is no Casablanca. His work as Rick – the cynical, romantic and ultimately good-hearted hero – is iconic for a reason. The winner that year was Paul Lukas for another Warner Brothers film, the serious and well-made anti-war film Watch on the Rhine. Lukas is good, if two dimensional, as the anti-fascist activist created by writer Lillian Hellman. Lukas and Watch on the Rhine are certainly watchable with a message that still resonates, but neither film nor performance are in the same league as Bogart and Casablanca. Other nominees that year were Mickey Rooney for The Human Comedy, Walter Pidgeon for Madame Curie, and Gary Cooper for For Whom the Bell Tolls. I don’t think Pidgeon and Cooper should have been in the final five that year – Henry Fonda’s work in The Ox-Bow Incident and Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt were more deserving.
1944: Charles Boyer in Gaslight
America’s favourite crooner – Bing Crosby – was accepted as a serious actor in 1944 with a nomination and ultimately a win for the highly sentimental but well-made Going My Way. In fact Going My Way dominated the Oscar’s that year, winning seven. I don’t think that should have happened in a film year that also produced Gaslight, Double Indemnity, Laura and Meet Me in St. Louis. Nor do I think Crosby deserved the award when you look at the career-best work of Charles Boyer in Gaslight. Boyer was a very good actor who enjoyed major success in the late thirties and forties. Gaslight – an excellent Victorian suspense tale directed by George Cukor – contains his best performance. At first you believe Boyer is as charming as he’s trying to be in wooing Ingrid Bergman, but then you aren’t so sure. It’s a credit to Boyer that he has no problem allowing you to distrust and then really hate him by the end of the film. He really creates s a terrific, multi-faceted villain. Other nominees were Alexander Knox for Wilson, Cary Grant for None But the Lonely Heart, and Barry Fitzgerald for Going My Way (who was also nominated for and won Best Supporting Actor for the same role). Fred MacMurray should have been there instead for Double Indemnity.
1945: Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend
This was one of the weaker years for the Best Actor race, with Ray Milland ultimately winning for his portrayal of an alcoholic in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. Milland’s performance is good, and he surprised a lot of people as the alcoholic writer. It was probably the starkest and most realistic depiction of alcoholism seen up to that point, but it isn’t subtle. Still, I agree with the Academy’s choice of Milland. It definitely was a career peak for him. The other nominees show how unusually week the field was: Gene Kelly for the lightweight Anchors Aweigh, Bing Crosby nominated again for playing the priest from Going My Way in the sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s, Cornel Wilde for the Chopin biography A Song to Remember. Milland’s strongest competition was probably Gregory Peck, garnering his first nomination for The Keys to the Kingdom. I would have liked to see Boris Karloff on the list for The Body Snatcher, a perfect little horror film; Robert Montgomery for the great war film They Were Expendable; and Edward G. Robinson for the noir classic Scarlet Street. Those three in place of Kelly, Crosby and Wilde would have made a stronger slate.
1946: Laurence Olivier in Henry V
We’re back to a very competitive year again. Fredric March was Oscar’s choice for the wonderful drama The Best Years of Our Lives, about three veterans returning to the home front. But there was also Laurence Olivier in the rousing adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, one of his best film performances, and James Stewart for the classic, dark holiday themed It’s a Wonderful Life. I think my choice that year would have been Olivier. As both director and star of Henry V (released in Britain in 1944 as a morale booster), he gave Brits and the allies an exciting and accessible depiction of a king who emerges victorious in the face of insurmountable odds. Olivier was among the most respected actors of the last century, but to present day audiences his bravura style can be distancing, but that’s not the case here. Other nominees that year were Larry Parks for playing Al Jolson in The Jolson Story and Gregory Peck in the heartwarming adaptation of The Yearling. My choices for those two slots would have been between John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cary Grant in Notorious, Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, Vincent Price in Dragonwyck, Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep or Glenn Ford for Gilda. A very good year for male performances.
1947: William Powell in Life with Father
Ronald Colman won his only Oscar in 1947 for the noir classic A Double Life, a film that is not seen too widely today. Colman is excellent as the temperamental actor who is driven to murder by Shakespeare’s Othello, the character he’s playing on stage. As good as Colman is, however, I think my choice that year would have been William Powell as the put-upon father in the adaptation of the long running Broadway play Life with Father. It’s an old-fashioned comedy and very creaky by today’s standards, but Powell is at his delightful, blustering best. He was one of the best light comedians of the thirties and forties and, aside from his signature performance in The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels, this is Powell at his best. Colman definitely comes a close second, and John Garfield in the boxing drama Body and Soul was also a strong contender. Other nominees were Gregory Peck for Gentlemen’s Agreement and Michael Redgrave for Mourning Becomes Electra. I think Robert Mitchum for Out of the Past and Tyrone Power for Nightmare Alley should have been there instead.
1948: Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre
The nominees this year were a surprising bunch. There were a couple of strong performances that made the list, but some other very strong performances didn’t. Laurence Olivier for Hamlet and Montgomery Clift for The Search definitely deserved to be there, but I’m not sure how Lew Ayres for Johnny Belinda, Dan Dailey for When My Baby Smiles at Me and Clifton Webb for Sitting Pretty got there. Ayres is good but in a very ordinary role – Johnny Belinda is completely Jane Wyman’s film. Dailey was a good musical comedy performer and he has some dramatic moments in this Betty Grable film (I love Betty Grable movies), but it’s not Oscar worthy. Webb is very fun as a babysitter in Sitting Pretty, but he essentially played the same character in all his films. Olivier was the winner for Hamlet, a good performance in a very condensed version of the play, but my vote would have gone to Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. This is one of Bogart’s toughest and most desperate characters. He’s a drifter who teams up with Tim Holt and Walter Huston in search of gold in the Mexican desert. They encounter trouble along the way in the form of bandits, but also each other as they start to second guess motives. This is one of the great adventure films of all time. My other nominee would have been John Wayne for the powerful Red River.
1949: James Cagney in White Heat
Broderick Crawford was named best actor in 1949 for his acclaimed work as Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, a story about the rise and fall of a corrupt southern politician and somewhat based on the real-life Huey Long. Crawford is tough, bombastic and scary as the politician and this put him on the Hollywood map after years of supporting roles and second leads. But Crawford doesn’t give the character many different shades. It’s all testosterone. My choice would have been non-nominee James Cagney in White Heat, one of the great, scary, complex gangsters ever created for the screen. Cagney is also all testosterone here, but he’s also psychotic with a distinct mother complex. He’s fascinating to watch from start to finish. Other nominees were Kirk Douglas in the excellent boxing drama Champion, a strong Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High, Richard Todd in The Hasty Heart and John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima. The weakest nominee of the group is Todd, and I’d be putting Cagney in there. I also think Wayne got his nomination for the wrong film – I much prefer his excellent performance in the very enjoyable She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.