Armchair Oscars – 1941

Best Picture

How Green Was My Valley (Directed by John Ford)
The Nominees: Blossoms in the Dust, Citizen Kane, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the Dawn, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, One Foot in Heaven, Sergeant York, Suspicion

Citizen Kane (Directed by Orson Welles)
My Nominees:
Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks), Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen), High Sierra (Raoul Walsh), The Maltese Falcon (John Ford)


As a consolation prize for having overlooked The Grapes of Wrath for Best Picture of 1940, the academy voters rewarded John Ford for his follow-up, an adaptation of Robert Lewyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley, another epic about a family facing hardship, tragedy and broken dreams.  The major difference is that the story here – about the ups and downs that befall a Welsh family as their land is spoiled by a mining operation – is far less compelling.  Our rooting interest in The Grapes of Wrath were the characters and their hardship as they head out across the American west.  How Green Was My Valley doesn’t offer anything new and the hardships experienced by The Morgan family seem to well up out of the screenplay rather than the natural progression of the story.  Perhaps for those reasons, How Green Was My Valley has, more or less, faded into obscurity. It has its place in film history but ordinary film fans rarely screen it.

My choice however, doesn’t have that problem.  When you look at the landscape of American cinema, there are few points that stand higher than Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.  Routinely tagged with the qualifier “The Greatest Film Ever Made,” Welles, at the age of only 25, made perhaps the most influential contribution to the art of motion pictures of the sound era. He created an epic, a film of such mysterious power that it almost demands repeat viewings. You can’t really wrap your hands around it until you’ve studied his sets, the interiors of his shots and the composition of his lighting and cinematography.

Everything about Citizen Kane is legendary, even its history. Twenty-five year-old Orson Welles was given complete control over his project – calling it “The greatest train set a boy could ever play with” – and what he produced would change the art of the motion picture more than any film since the introduction of sound.  Those contributions meant nothing to some people, least of all newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who took issue with the story of Charles Foster Kane and deemed it to be a thinly veiled – and unflattering – biography of his own life (mostly due to the fact that “rosebud” was the nickname he privately gave to his mistress’ vagina).  Angry at Welles, Hearst used his muscle to keep Citizen Kane out of the presses and the studios, under pressure, made sure that the film was rarely screened.  But history would have the last laugh.  What was essentially buried by bad press at the time would never-the-less become friendly with time itself.  Today, over anyone’s objections, the film routinely makes lists of the greatest films of all time and it studied, reviewed and written about.  Best of all, it is routinely screened in revival houses and on television – the best legacy for any great film.

No, it didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture, but I won’t deny it my award.  The academy was content to reward the film with nine Oscar nominations but were not content to give it more than the screenplay award (which went to Welles and Herman Manchewitz).  While, the reasons that it was robbed of a Best Picture award can be endlessly debated, I prefer to focus on what it achieved rather than what it should have received.  Citizen Kane is one of the greatest of moviegoing experiences.  It is a sort-of Mecca for movie lovers, sooner or later everyone who loves the craft of movies comes around to it. Citizen Kane is a film that was made by a man who was so generous with this skills and so open in his imagination that he managed to create a story that reveals itself more and more, each time you come back to it. Every time you come back to the films, there is always a new trick, a new treat, something you didn’t notice before.

This is a film about the mystery of human identity, seen through the prism of Charles Foster Kane, a man who took his family fortune and built a media empire that made him millions. It afforded him warehouses full of valuable art and treasures of the world, but it never allowed him to recapture the purity and innocence of his lost childhood.

We meet Kane on his deathbed.  Alone in his room, he breathes his dying word: “rosebud.”  What does it mean?  Was it a woman?  A nickname? A private joke?  Even when we get the answer, it only serves to open up more questions.  The rest of the film is told in a series of flashbacks as we circle back through the scope of his entire life, hoping to pick up the answer along the way.

Following his death, the red-letter events of Kane’s life are laid out in a three-minute newsreel, “News on the March” (a parody of “The March of Times”). A boisterous Walter Winchell-type announcer (played by William Alland) spotlights the rise and fall of this prolific figure.  As a kid, his mother came into a fortune and sent him east to be educated.  When he came of age, he gained his family fortune and took over a small newspaper that had been acquired in a foreclosure. He knew nothing of the newspaper business yet it eventually made him millions and turned him into one of the most famous men in the world.

Later he married a president’s niece, Emily (Ruth Warrick), and lived blissfully for several years until routine (and his tainted reputation) soured the marriage.  He made a bid for Governor, but his campaign was destroyed by a scandal involving a wannabe saloon singer Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore).  When his wife and son died in a car accident, he married Susan and tried desperately to turn her into an Opera singer despite her lack of any real talent. He even went so far as to build her a four million dollar Opera House in which to perform.  His business suffered, he maintained his wealth but lived the last few years of his life as a lonely old man in his vast mansion with no one to spend time with.

The newsreel is viewed by a group of newspaper men who see the scope of Kane’s life in the film but still find themselves at arm’s length from who the man really was. “Here’s a man that could have been president,” Mr. Rawlston says, “who was as loved and hated and as talked about as any man in our time. But when he comes to die, he’s got something on his mind called ‘Rosebud.’ Now what does that mean?” He wants his charges to get to the bottom of this mystery and the eager Mr. Thompson (William Alland, again) is excited about the task.  In their investigation, the rest of the film sees Kane’s life through interviews by those who knew him best, or at least those who knew him well.

Mr. Thompson visits with people from Kane’s past like Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), the chairman of “The Inquirer” who knew the real Charles Foster Kane and seems somewhat amused by the media’s attempts to understand this man.

Then Thompson takes a look into the personal journal of the late Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s first financial adviser. They reveal some facts about his childhood, how his mother Mary (Agnes Moorehead) made a fortune from the deed to a mining operation that literally fell into her hands, then sent 10 year-old Charles east to go to school. About how he turned a small defaulting newspaper into a media empire.

There’s the dottery old Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) who resides in a nursing home.  He was a columnist for Kane’s paper and his best friend.  He gets us closer than anyone to discovering the mystery of the man’s life when he laments: “All he really wanted out of life was love.  That’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it.”

Interspersed within these interviews are flashbacks to Kane’s life, but they are more than just informational set pieces. Welles uses an entire arsenal of camera tricks, camera angles, sound, deep focus, upward shots (featuring the ceilings, which were seen for the first time), downward shots, props and tricks involving creative editing to tell Kane’s story. One of his best editing tricks takes place during Susan’s disastrous debut at the opera house as he focuses on her in center stage, then pulls up past the top of the curtain and way up into the rafters, eventually settling on two stagehands standing on a scaffold just at the moment when one looks at the other and pinches his nose.

There are two dozens shots like that, shots that take our perspective and fool our eye. There is a moment when the elder Kane sits at a table with two colleagues, then gets up and walks toward two windows.  As he strolls toward the back wall, the figure of the man gets smaller and smaller and reveals that the two windows are much larger than we had thought. The same goes for a later scene in which Susan sits at a table working a puzzle and Kane again walks into the background toward a fireplace that is much larger than we had assumed, in fact the fireplace is nearly as tall as the man.

Welles also has a brilliant way of suggesting the character’s point of view. We can see that in a wonderful early scene after young Charles has been sent away with Mr. Thatcher. The boy receives a sled for Christmas and looks angrily up at Mr. Thatcher who, from his perspective, seems to be about ten feet tall.

He uses great camera tricks to pull us back and forth in time, such as the moment when Mr. Thompson sits at the table to read Mr. Thatcher’s memoirs. The camera scans over an extreme close-up of the words then fades to the memory that he is reading. Later, there great moment during the interview with Mr. Leland when he begins a memory of Charles. The actor remains well lit, but the background fades to black and then the memory fades in.

Welles also creates several moments in which he allows his cameras to pan where it could not logically go. In the earliest memory at Mary Kane’s boarding house, we see the young Charles out playing in the snow and the camera pulls back into the house, through the window, past a table to the other side of the room. Logically, the camera should not be able to pass through these objects but, again, Welles knows how to play with our perceptions. He also does this in a later scene when Mr. Thompson goes back to talk to Susan Alexander. The scene starts on the roof of a nightclub and moves forward through a billboard and then swoops downward through a skylight to Susan sitting at a table in the middle of the room.

Personally, my favorite camera trick in Citizen Kane takes place right at the beginning with the first shots of Xanadu, Kane’s massive estate. The camera begins with a shot of an ominous “No Trespassing” sign, then begins to climb that fence, past wrought iron gates and up to the top so that we can see over it, to the mansion in the distance, dark save for one light still lit. We see then a series of shots, of animals in cages, boats rotting in the lagoon, a golf course, a stone patio. All of these shots are established to bring us ever-closer to the house and to that lit window, but the curious thing is that through each shot, the lit window stays in the same place, just in the top right corner of the screen. It even remains in the same position when we see it reflected in water. All of these scenes are used to bring us closer to a man to whom we will never really know. This is, in effect, the closest we will ever really come to him at all.

The camera tricks are brilliant but they would be nothing without a great story to tell and this is the great American story. Kane’s life is a sad life, a prolific life. He seems to have been a man of great wealth who gained his immortality but was also very guarded. How well can a person really know the mind of another person? The media can present the grand arc of his life and pinpoint the moments to try and understand the full breadth of his existence, but can they ever really understand his mind? That’s where “rosebud” comes in. The media is left out in the cold but we, the patient viewer, are treated to the answer. We see the sled tossed into a furnace and Welles allows us more insight into Charles Foster Kane than anyone that we’ve just spent the last 2 hours with, yet it still doesn’t give us a clear answer. For the reporters like Mr. Rawlston and Mr. Thompson, Rosebud is a carrot on a stick leading the reporters around in circles. Welles said in a 1960 interview that he was ashamed of this device, saying “I’m ashamed of rosebud, I think its a rather taudry device. It is the thing I like least in ‘Kane'” Yet, I think it provides us with an ample excuse to want to probe deeper into Kane’s life, it is the carrot on a stick that we can’t help chasing..

We saw young Charlie Kane playing with that sled as a child and then spends the rest of his life trying to buy his way back to that kind of purity and happiness.  There is a moment in the middle of the film, the only moment when Kane comes close to revealing himself, when he tells Susan that his mother has recently passed away and that he is on his way back home to find something that he lost.  I’ve always wondered what it would have meant to him if he had found it.  Would it have changed his destiny?  I don’t think so.  Would it have changed his heart?  Would finding Rosebud have made him a better man or were his heart and soul doomed for ever having had it in the first place?

Who knows?  Volumes could be written about Charles Foster Kane and every volume would like tell a different story.   What we cull from the memories of each interviewee is a man who was complex, who was was many things to many people, who was driven, angry, playful, wistful, loving, determined and sometimes spiteful and cruel. We see a man who could be charming or could display the loving genteel nature of a pit viper.  But he was also guarded, his mind was always focused on something he needed to obtain and he worked his entire life to try and find the one thing that his life was missing.  In other words, Charles Foster Kane just like the rest of us, just an ordinary man looking for something that he lost.

Best Actor

Gary Cooper (
Sergeant York)
The Nominees: Cary Grant (Penny Serenade), Walter Huston (The Devil and Daniel Webster), Robert Montgomery (Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)

Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon)
My Nominees:
Gary Cooper (Ball of Fire), Humphrey Bogart (High Sierra), Cary Grant (Suspicion), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)


There is a wonderful moment in Sergeant York when the young Alvin York sits on a hillside looking off toward the horizon with his Army manual at one side and his Bible at the other.   It is a powerful image worthy of Hemingway.  Unfortunately, the rest of the film has not aged very well.  The mystique that once surrounded Sergeant York, the most decorated American soldier of World War I has, today, passed out of common knowledge and so has Gary Cooper’s once beloved performance.

I have to admit that there is something about Cooper’s performance (particularly his accent) that feels forced.  I prefer Cooper in his other performance from 1941, in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire where he plays a professor of English who is working on an encyclopedia of slang and falls for a lounge singer.  That performance seemed genuine and showed Cooper’s gift for screwball comedy.

Humphrey Bogart also benefited from two high profile performances, but sadly both of his went unnominated. First, as escaped convict Roy “Mad Dog” Earle in High Sierra and then in the role that would make him a star as Sam Spade in John Huston’s adaptation of Dashall Hammit’s The Maltese Falcon.

I don’t think there has ever been an actor who fit so comfortably in a role.  Bogart’s tough guy image had been established in films like Dead End and Angels With Dirty Faces and turned them into a cold-blooded hero.  Sam Spade fit him like a glove.  The trouble he finds himself in is classic Dashall Hammit, as Spade begins with a simple matter of trying to figure out who killed his partner and finds a string of murders that lead up to the theft of a supposedly valuable ancient statue.  There is hardly anyone he can trust and that leads him through a bizarre cast of characters on his way to finding out who nicked the bird and why someone has to die for it.

This is the world of film noir, a blistering cold world where the line between hero and villain is drawn in shades of gray.  Sam Spade is hard, cold, and mean.  His hangdog face and tired eyes suggest a lifetime of walking in the footsteps of heartbreak and despair.  He is not a dirty cop, but he doesn’t play by the book either.  He’s a violent man who breaks things, issues threats and seems to enjoy it.  He beats up an effeminate little man, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), just because he wears a fancy perfume (the movie indicates that he is a homosexual whereas in the book Spade tells us “this guy is queer.”)  Later he roughs up Kasper Gutman and there is a satisfied smile.

Spade loves Brigid O’Shaughnessy and she loves him back, but when he finds that she killed his partner he doesn’t bat an eyelash.  There’s that moment when he tells her “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.  The chances are you’ll get off with life.  That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in twenty years.  I’ll be waiting for you.  If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

If Spade doesn’t live by the book then that is only because he has his own book.  As a private detective, he isn’t bound by the policeman’s code and that means he can step outside the normal bounds to get done what needs to be done.  Spade is the classic film noir hero, the guy whose ethics ride the fine line of morality.  He hated his dead partner but still feels obligated to do something about it.  When the man’s widow comes calling, Spade kisses her.  He hates just about everyone but his bitterness, we sense, comes from place he never reveals.

Bogart was a natural actor in his best roles.  His characters, like Sam Spade seemed as if they existed within the story long before the film began.  His face betrays the weariness of a hard life and it was never put to better effect than in this film.  I am always grateful that Bogart got this role (George Raft had turned it down) because it changed his career.  He had spent the 30s in violent gangster pictures but he was more of a dependable second-string rather than the quarterback.

The Maltese Falcon
, I believe, was this breakthrough role, the film that signaled a brilliant career to come.  It made him a leading man, a role he would perfect and refine in films like Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Big Sleep (in which he plays Phillip Marlowe) and Key Largo.  He won the Oscar in 1952 for playing a good-hearted drunk in Huston’s The African Queen, a kind-of pussycat role that wasn’t his best.  I wish he had won the Oscar for The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca because these were the two roles that became his legacy, the guy who sticks his neck out for nobody and plays by his own set of rules.

Best Actress

Joan Fontaine (Suspicion)
The Nominees: Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Olivia de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire)

Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire)
My Nominees: Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Vivien Leigh (The Hamilton Woman), Barbara Stanwyck (The Lady Eve)


For the second year in a row, Joan Fontaine was nominated for Best Actress for a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This time she won and became the only actress to win an Oscar for a performance in a Hitchcock film.  In Suspicion, just as in Rebecca, she plays a weak-willed woman who marries a man she finds she doesn’t really know.  As Lina, a woman who marries a devil-may-care bachelor out of fear of spinsterhood only to find that he is willing to kill to pay off a gambling debt, Fontaine’s face registers three speeds: mild happiness, alarm and a timid smile that withers into disappointment.

Far more interesting than her performance was the drama off-screen.  Fontaine went toe-to-toe in the same category with her older sister Olivia de Havilland, who was nominated for playing a schoolteacher who marries a Mexican gigolo to get him into the country in Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn. Fontaine would win this year but de Havilland won two Oscars before the decade was out.

To be honest, I am not crazy about either performance.  My first reaction in selecting a Best Actress for nineteen forty-one was another two-time Oscar winner, Vivien Leigh for her forgotten performance in Alexander Korda’s That Hamilton Woman.  But here I must mention one of the academy’s crimes against humanity in never rewarding Barbara Stanwyck with a competitive Oscar.

Nominated four times, Stanwyck wasn’t recognized by the academy until 1981 when she received an honorary award for her body of work.  Having studied that body of work what surprised me was her versatility.  Her best work came in the 1940’s when she gave two of her best performances, first in my favorite performance in Ball of Fire and later in Double Indemnity.

If you follow Barbara Stanwyck’s career chronologically, Ball of Fire is a bit of a shock because up until then she had spent the previous decade playing evil women who destroy men’s souls.  In Frank Capra’s great Ball of Fire she shows a softer side of herself and proves that she has a remarkable gift for comedy.  When Howard Hawks was putting together Ball of Fire he had wanted Ginger Rogers but the actress had declined so Stanwyck stepped in and the result is one of her best performances.

She plays Katherine “Sugerpuss” O’Shea, a lounge singer who thinks that her way to the top is through marrying her no-good mobster boyfriend Joe Lilac (played by a miscast Dana Andrews).  She says she wants a life of diamonds and furs but we sense that it’s because she senses that she can do no better. Then she crosses paths with a stuffy English professor Bertrum Potter (Gary Cooper), who wants to use her in a study of American slang for an encyclopedia that he is writing.  She agrees to meet him at his place upon his invitation mostly due to the fact that she needs a place to hide when the Feds start breathing down Lilac’s neck. Her open personality and bright sunny outlook amuse Bertrum and the seven old men he shares a house with (comparisons to the seven dwarfs are inevitable). Her life has been a series of rotten deals, broken dreams and bad men as a means to get the material goods that she thinks will make her happy.  In turn, her personality opens these eight sheltered men to a jazzier world that, up till now, they have been sheltered from.

Stanwyck also has moments of lovely tenderness as in the scenes in which she shares with Cooper.  He is unabashedly in love with her but we can see in her eyes that she believes that her limited lifestyle will only bring him pain and heartache. Will he love her nearly as much when he finds out that she is bad news? When he opens his eyes to a new and brighter world will he leave her for a better opportunity?

The best way to understand what a good actress Stanwyck was is that study her work from the beginning.  Start with the unforgettable Babyface from 1933 in which she plays a cold-blooded bitch from the docks who turned tricks for her father from the age of 14 then in her 20s sleeps her way to the top, to a million dollar lifestyle. That character had no redeeming qualities but if you follow her through to Ball of Fire, you’ll see a character that isn’t a million miles removed.  These are women who use their resources and taunt and tease men to get what they want because they don’t see any other way. The difference is that in Ball of Fire, Sugarpuss is a woman who finds the redeeming qualities of pure love through the heart of a man who only sees her for what good qualities that she tries to hide.

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