Armchair Oscars – 1942

Best Picture

Mrs. Miniver (Directed by William Wyler)
The Nominees: 49th Parallel, King’s Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Pied Piper, Pride of the Yankees, Random Harvest, Talk of the Town, Wake Island, Yankee Doodle Dandy

To Be or Not to Be (Directed by Ernst Lubitsch)
My Nominees:
Bambi (David Hand), The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles), Pride of the Yankees (Sam Wood), Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturgis)


By the time Mrs. Miniver became the fifteenth film to be named Best Picture, it had so moved the American public that even FDR was calling it some kind of a masterpiece.  He was so moved by its closing dialogue that he ordered it to be written onto leaflets and air-dropped over German-occupied territory.  Later it was broadcast over the Voice of America, and printed in several magazines.  Dialogue aside, this movie, as stirring as it may have been at the time, seems today a bit over-melodramatic.  Sure, it is difficult to watch the story of a family suffering the bulldozing machinery of the Nazi expansion and not feel something but for me, it wasn’t worthy of an Oscar for Best Picture.

I guess, given the tensions of the time, I can see how the public would have been stirred by this film.  It is an emotional story but today, away from those tense times the drama comes off a bit overcooked. The impact it may have once had is long gone.

My favorite film of Nineteen Forty-Two was not a million miles removed from Mrs. Miniver but I think the effort was a little more challenging.  To Be or Not to Be also features Europeans suffering the tyranny of Adolf Hitler but I think this film did a brilliant job of turning it into a comedy.  While it is true that turning the Nazis into a gaggle of cartoonish buffoons at the very moment that they were goose stepping their way across Europe might have seemed somewhat insensitive, I think it proves that sometimes the best way to outwit evil is the laugh in it’s face.

Brilliantly written by Edwin Justus Mayer and directed by Ernst Lubitsch (who was a German Jew who had his citizenship revoked by the Nazis), the movie involves a small theater group in Warsaw at the time when Hitler’s thugs are strong-arming their way into the country.  The actors are led by husband and wife Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carol Lombard respectively).  Joseph Tura is a self-baked ham who believes that his greatest triumph is himself.  He believes his acting chops are flawless but he isn’t fond of being continually interrupted during his “To be or not to be” speech by a man in the second row excuses himself down the aisle presumably to make his way to the toilet.  The man is a pilot named Soebinsky (Robert Stack) who is sneaking backstage to make time with Maria.  Joseph is unaware of the affair but is irritated that this interruption goes on every night.

We meet these actors at the moment when they are about to open their latest project, a Hitler-inspired satire called “Gestapo” which they are told has been disallowed for fear that it might offend The Feurer. This would be a bad move since Poland has been invaded by the Nazis.  As a response to the invasion, a small underground movement is formed and the names of those in the movement become a high priority to the SS.  The names reside within this small group of actors who discover that in their midst is a traitor, Professor Joseph Selitzski (Stanley Ridges), who plans to turn over the names to the Fuehrer personally.  It is up to the actors to use their considerable skills to stay just one step ahead of him.

That is only the surface plot.  What gives To Be or Not To Be it’s flavoring are the minor details and supporting characters.  For example, there is Bronsky (Tom Dugan) who resembles Hitler and was all set to play him in “Gestapo” but is saddened it is shut down.  And Greenberg (Felix Bressart), who has spent his time in the backgrounds and dreams of the moment when he can play Shylock’s beautiful “Tickle us do we not laugh” speech.  He ends up getting his chance later before a real troop of Nazis.

There are moments that are perfectly modulated, like the scene in which Tura disguises himself as Commandant Erhardt and meets with Solitski.  Tura doesn’t know a thing about ad-libbing and continually returns to the ice breaker: “So they call me Concentration Camp Erhardt?!” The line is repeated again and again but the punchline comes later when the real Erhardt says the same thing.

The point of To Be or Not to Be is not just that art imitates life but that the whole Nazi organization was full of overstuffed, blind loyalties and needless pageantry. The opening passages take place within the rehearsal of the play suggesting that a hint of disloyalty can be cleared by declaring “Heil Hitler!” with a bolt of enthusiasm.  It also suggests that anyone, at anytime can be made to turn on anyone else such as a moment when Joseph, playing a Nazi commandant bribes a child with a toy tank into spilling a secret about his own parents. It is funny to watch the satire being rehearsed but very clever that, when the real Nazis show up, their machinations seem just as silly and fruitless as the satire.  What is the message here? That Nazism was it’s own parody? Notice how easily Joseph is able to imitate Commandant Erhardt and how blindly everyone buys the deception.

Best Actor

James Cagney (
Yankee Doodle Dandy)
The Nominees: Ronald Colman (Random Harvest), Gary Cooper (Pride of the Yankees), Walter Pigeon (Mrs. Miniver), Monty Woolley (The Pied Piper)

Gary Cooper (Pride of the Yankees)
My Nominees:
Joseph Cotton (The Magnificent Ambersons)


James Cagney became famous playing violent, quick-tempered mobsters in Warner Brothers. popular gangster pictures of the 1930s but it was an image he didn’t much like. “I’m sick of carrying guns and beating up women,” he said, even though The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces and Doorway to Hell made him a very wealthy man.  In 1943, he received his only Oscar for Michael Curtiz’ Yankee Doodle Dandy playing composer, writer, actor, dancer George Cohan. The surprise, for me, in seeing the film is what an effortless dancer Cagney was.  I knew he could handle a pistol but I had no idea he was so light on his feet.

I liked Yankee Doodle Dandy but when it comes to James Cagney, I still prefer his gun-toting to his soft-shoe and for my Best Actor pick of 1942, I side-step that soft-shoe in favor of Gary Cooper’s pin-stripes.  I speak of course of Pride of the Yankees in which Cooper famously plays Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig from his college days to his famous early retirement in 1939.

This is a case where the performance is better than the movie, which takes some liberties with Gehrig’s story and presents a standard sports movie plot, figuring in all the usual ups and downs.  Cooper plays the baseball hero as a man who never gets a swelled head.  He keeps himself in check and always keeps his word.

When we first meet him, he is a boy (played by Douglas Croft) who gets in on a baseball game with the other kids and hits a wallop that breaks a window.  A stern looking cop brings him home where he congratulates the boy on a perfect home run.  His mother doesn’t approve of baseball makes him promise he will give it up.

Years later, we meet him (now played by Cooper) as he is headed for college, still holding on to his mother’s wish that he become an engineer.  He expresses to his mother his eagerness to play baseball, but she still thinks it is a waste of time and wants him to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, the only member of the family to go to college.  At school he catches the eye of the recruiter who talks him into taking a position on the team, but he knows he must hide it from his mother.  She is furious when she finds out but as the headlines begin to bear his name, she loosens up.

He gets on the team but does not make a good first impression, tripping over the bats and earning the nickname “tangle-foot” from a woman in the first row. That woman is Eleanor Twitchel (Teresa Wright) who will later become his wife.  He silences the laughter and proves himself to be a great player and as his fame grows, his name becomes a household word.  He works his way through all the usual ups and downs of fame and fortune but he never loses a sense of himself.  All through his career he maintains the same gee-whiz curiosity that he had when he was a rookie.

The key to Cooper’s performance is how he rises above the material. The movie is basically a standard baseball picture with buckets of clichés about the blossoming of a great athlete, including the standard scene of the kid in the hospital, to whom our hero promises two homeruns in the World Series. The movie represents a story of the All-American dream, of portraying its hero as flawless and unblemished.  But in the middle of all this baseball movie hoo-ha, Cooper’s performance remains grounded.  We feel as if we are watching a real person, not just a token to move around the plot.

Cooper has always been an actor whose emotions come out around the edges of his face.  That is especially true in the later scenes as his face withers when the doc tells him “it’s three strikes”, when he contracts amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (never mentioned by name) signaling the end of his brief but brilliant career.

His expressive face is really put to effect in the last scene, during his famous retirement speech and the now-legendary life, “today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”  He seems near tears and in his expression you can read the sorrow just underneath.  I have no idea if Cooper was acting or was just genuinely touched by the moment. but if it was just acting, then this man is a better actor that I thought he was.

Best Actress

Greer Garson (Mrs. Miniver)
The Nominees: Bette Davis (Now, Voyager), Katherine Hepburn (Woman of the Year), Rosalind Russell (My Sister Eileen), Teresa Wright (Pride of the Yankees)

Carole Lombard (To Be or Not to Be)
The Nominees: Katharine Hepburn (Woman of the Year), Veronica Lake (Sullivan’s Travels)


At the time, Mrs. Miniver was hailed as the most important picture ever made and that moniker mostly rested on the shoulders of Greer Garson, playing the role for which she would best be remembered.  As the title character, a British middle-class mother who tries to protect her family from the oncoming onslaught of the Nazi terror, Garson’s performance isn’t bad, but somehow I find her character a little one-dimensional.  She is so noble that it is hard to find any real meat to the character.  Today, other films have come along that have surpassed Mrs. Miniver in importance, and Garson’s once-beloved performance is mostly remembered for that famous long-winded five-and-a half-minute acceptance speech – which remains today as the longest acceptance speech in Oscar history.

Not a million miles removed from Garson’s Kay Miniver is Maria Tura, played to perfection by Carole Lombard in To Be Or Not To Be.  Sadly, this would be her farewell performance, she was killed in a plane crash just before the movie was released.  It’s a tricky role, and one that only an actress in complete command of all of her skills could pull off.

Lombard is Maria Tura, wife of Joseph Tura the two lead performers of a theatrical troop in Warsaw at the opening of World War II. The troup is famous for it’s anti-Nazi plays but they are forced to switch gears when the Nazi occupations begins.  The actors are hunted because of their involvement with an underground movement and as they get closer and closer, the actors have to rely on their acting skills to evade the Nazis and save their own skin.

What is amazing about Lombard is her ability to play many different notes and, as an actor, to keep switching from bold comedy to serious drama almost at a moment’s notice. She moves between several different men, between the good-looking but soft-headed bomber pilot Sobinski, her foppish husband Joseph, and the Nazi rat Silitsky.  She performs three personalities for all three men and she has the ability to switch from one persona to the next.  She can go from dunderhead, to sure-headed, from grounded to ethereal.

This is tricky because she not only has to tip-toe around her husband to keep him from finding out that she has a lover but she also has to employ her considerable skills to pull off an act to stop a Nazi informer who has a list of members of the resistance. That means she has to move between the serious and the comic and she does so beautifully.  Some of her comic moments are perfectly modulated like a dialogue she has with Joseph over the fact that she doesn’t mind her name is above his on the marquee, the look in her eyes when he informs her that he had already known that so the billing will stay just as it was.  I also love the look in her eyes when her lover drops “You might not believe it, but I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes, does that interest you?”  he asks “It certainly does”, she says.

I think Lombard was one of the most skilled comediennes of her time.  She wasn’t just content to tell a joke but she could modulate a scene and play it with skill and perfection.  Her performance in To Be or Not To Be showed that she was capable of playing different notes, sometimes in the same scene.

Sadly, Lombard would never see the finished product, she was killed in a plane crash just outside of Las Vegas just a few months before the film was released. I think an Oscar for her performance in this film would have been so poignant.

Home | What is all this? | Contact Me

2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996 | 1995 | 1994 | 1993 | 1992 | 1991 | 1990 | 1989 | 1988 | 1987 | 1986 | 1985 | 1984 | 1983 | 1982 | 1981 | 1980 | 1979 | 1978 | 1977 | 1976 | 1975 | 1974 | 1973 | 1972 | 1971 | 1970 | 1969 | 1968 | 1967 | 1966 | 1965 | 1964 | 1963 | 1962 | 1961 | 1960 | 1959 | 1958 | 1957 | 1956 | 1955 | 1954 | 1953 | 1952 | 1951 | 1950 | 1949 | 1948 | 1947 | 1946 | 1945 | 1944 | 1943 | 1942 | 1941 | 1940 | 1939 | 1938 | 1937 | 1936 | 1935 | 1934 | 1932-33 | 1931-32 | 1930-31 | 1929-30 | 1928-29 | 1927-28 |

Contact me @