or an event that almost never came to be, the annual Oscars ceremony of 1942 was one of the more contentious in what was, at the time, the short history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Host Bob Hope handed out fake awards; two sisters competed in the same category; and a group of particularly nasty audience members booed their least favorite contender—all this in the midst of a war, coinciding with an air-raid scare just days earlier in Los Angeles. Rivalries were intense—or possibly just hyped up by the press?—and some attendees were outraged by certain winners. Like it or not, the Academy Awards are never purely about artistic merit: they’re about which films reflect the moment, whether they swept the box office, advanced the art form, or both, in a perfect world. They give us a lens into their time, not just by showing us some of the best films produced, but those reflecting the attitudes of the day. Under that criteria, the 14th annual ceremony was successful, even if many of its winners are largely forgotten today.
Originally on December 17, the Academy announced they were cancelling the annual banquet in consideration of the war. However, after copious criticism of this decision from the press and the industry, the Academy announced on January 30 that the show was back on—but it would be a “dinner,” not the extravagant banquet of past years. There would be no dancing, and formal wear was prohibited. That last rule upset columnist Hedda Hopper, who asked, “Would it break down anyone’s morale to see our girls beautifully dressed?”1
Hopper defiantly wore a gown, alongside the likes of Linda Darnell and Ginger Rogers. They arrived in those gowns among 1,600 attendees2 for dinner at the Biltmore Hotel at 7:45 on the evening of February 26. Noted absentees included Bette Davis (understandably), Greer Garson, Robert Montgomery, and Walter Huston. Barbara Stanwyck stayed home, convinced she was out of the running, but producer David O. Selznick called her up and convinced her to come down.3 The featured speaker of the evening was Republican Wendell Willkie, who lost the 1940 presidential race to Roosevelt. It was in line with the theme of the night; the ballroom was filled with American flags and a golden eagle over the podium. At the 10:30 start of the CBS broadcast, Willkie commended the industry for “disclosing the vicious character of Nazi plotting and violence.” He was followed by Chinese ambassador Dr. Hu Shih. “The moving picture is one of the greatest inventions of mankind,” Shih said. “It makes mankind happy.”4
Bob Hope hosted for the third consecutive time, and came onstage wearing a “Willkie For President” button. “I haven’t give up yet,” he said to the politician. He made some topical jokes—in particular, he referenced the famed “Battle of Los Angeles” air raid, which took place the night before. “And how ‘bout that air raid Wednesday? That was no air raid, that was John Barrymore coming home from W.C. Fields’ house,” Hope joked, referring to the actor’s reputation as a loud drunk. Then, Hope suddenly gave out the first award of the night—a gag Oscar wearing a dress for comedian Jack Benny. Benny had starred in Charley’s Aunt in 1941, and spent most of the film in drag. Hope called him “the best cigar-smoking sweater girl,” and Benny happily came to the stage to accept. “I’ve waited so long for an Oscar that I’m ready to accept anything from anybody,” Benny said.5 With Benny receiving his fake statue, it was time for the real awards to begin.
The night’s main awards narrative was that of the nomination rivalry between Citizen Kane and How Green Was My Valley, with Sergeant York as the populist pick poised to sneak past them both. Orson Welles’ debut film obviously has the longer lasting legacy, as many today consider it the greatest film ever made, but at the time it was the underdog. His takedown of William Randolph Hearst drew the ire of the newspaper tycoon, and as a result, everyone who worked for him. Hearst launched an all-out assault on RKO and all of Hollywood, to the point that other studios were offering to buy the print from RKO just to destroy it, placating Hearst. RKO president George Schaefer refused, and the film went out, ultimately losing money for the struggling studio. Yet the few who saw it—including those in the industry—were in awe. But Hearst continued to campaign against the film, especially through gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who wrote for Hearst’s papers. Parsons supposedly organized a group poised to boo at the ceremony if Citizen Kane won anything.6
Twenty-six-year-old first-time filmmaker Welles went up against forty-eight-year-old John Ford, a legendary director who began working during the silent era. Ford’s How Green Was My Valley was a slow film lacking the technical showiness of Welles’ film, but told an emotional story of simple Welsh mining folk that won the hearts of voters. Also released in December, as opposed to the May release of Kane, the film was fresher in the minds of voters. Meanwhile, Howard Hawks’ true story of a World War I hero, Sergeant York, was the highest grossing film of the year7, but was far less artistically compelling than the other frontrunners. Today the film is somewhat forgotten. However, it did have a compelling lead performance from Gary Cooper, a guaranteed lock for Best Actor by all prognosticators, and could be argued as the true film of the moment—a title the two other frontrunners can’t honestly claim. William Wyler’s The Little Foxes had nine nominations, and Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan had seven, suggesting both had shots at taking home some awards.
The New York Film Critics had split, giving Kane picture but handing director to Ford and actor to Cooper (as well as actress to Joan Fontaine for Suspicion, spurring RKO to play the film in Los Angeles in time to qualify for the Oscars). In the award predictions released on February 17, a writer for Variety explained, “Welles’ fate, however, is pretty much in the hands of 6,000 extras who hold the balance of power. If he gets a substantial block of extra votes, he may make a clean sweep of the field.” As a result of that, the writer related, “It’s generally believed to be a race between 20th-Fox’s ‘How Green Was My Valley’ and Warners’ ‘Sergeant York,’ with smart money going on ‘Valley’ to finish first.”8
The first award of the night, Best Editing, suggested the smart money might be wrong. Darryl Zanuck, Fox chief and producer on How Green Was My Valley, had to present the first trophy to William Holmes’ work on Sergeant York over James B. Clark’s nominated work on the Fox film or future director Robert Wise’s on Citizen Kane. Zanuck stayed onstage to present Sound Recording, another missed opportunity to hand an award to his own film. Alexander Korda’s historical romance, That Hamilton Woman, took it for sound engineer Jack Whitney’s work over ten other nominees including the three aforementioned big-hitters. Zanuck also presented the award for Best Special Effects, though this, at least, was a category lacking the three big titles. Mitchell Leisen’s I Wanted Wings took the prize here, over other war films like Dive Bomber, and period pieces like The Sea Wolf.
Noted architect William L. Pereira gave Zanuck a break when he took the stage to present the awards for Best Art Direction. Pereira had spent the past year as an art director and visual effect artist at Paramount for films including Reap the Wild Wind and This Gun For Hire. He presented How Green Was My Valley with its first statue of the night for the black and white category, beating out twelve other nominees. Blossoms in the Dust took the far less competitive category, color, beating just two other nominees.
Having missed out on presenting the first award to his film, Zanuck returned to the stage to present the Scientific and Technical Awards, a series of awards for advancements in the past year that were “outstanding and of great benefit to the industry.” These awards were arranged into three levels of class; with no awards for class one, class two awards were bestowed upon a uni-directional microphone and a “precision integrating sphere densitometer,” a device used to measure light. Class three was given to a variety of advancements, including fine grain film stocks and an “automatic scene slating device.”
George Barnes, who took black and white cinematography the previous year for Rebecca, next presented both cinematography categories. Like in art direction How Green Was My Valley again took black and white, while Blood and Sand beat out Blossoms in the Dust, and several others, for color. Valley’s win here felt like quite an upset, as this category should have been a lock for Citizen Kane. While Arthur C. Miller’s work on Valley is exquisitely gorgeous, Gregg Toland took his deep-focus look to new heights, and his work is almost as key to Kane’s reputation as Welles is. Toland had already won in 1940 for Wuthering Heights, while Miller had never won—but a decade later, Miller had three Oscars, and Toland was dead. Kane was his last nomination.
Bob Hope returned to the stage to present the short awards. MGM took the two live action categories with Of Pups and Puzzles and Main Street on the March!, and Disney took animated with Lend a Paw. It was the first year in which a documentary short was awarded, with the honor going to Canadian propaganda short Churchill’s Island. Songwriter and Paramount producer B.G. DeSylva presented the music awards, giving Best Musical Score to Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace for Dumbo, and Best Dramatic Score to Bernard Herrmann for The Devil and Daniel Webster—an interesting choice over Herrmann’s score for Citizen Kane, also nominated. Controversially, Best Original Song went to “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” from Lady Be Good. The choice was controversial because the song was not original, but had, in fact, been published in 1940. Even the song’s composer, Jerome Kern, found the nomination and its subsequent win to be odd—he voted for the title song from Blues in the Night.
Preston Sturges won an Oscar the previous year for the screenplay of his directorial debut The Great McGinty, so he presented the three writing awards, two of which Here Comes Mr. Jordan won. Writers Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller received Best Adapted Screenplay, beating out Philip Dunne’s screenplay for Valley; John Huston’s whip-smart script of The Maltese Falcon; Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s Hold Back the Dawn (altered during filming, to their displeasure); and Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of her own play The Little Foxes. Jordan also took story for Harry Segall, who wrote the play the film was based on.
Best Original Screenplay finally brought Citizen Kane an award, but it might have been simply because of the weak competition. The other nominees were minor films like Norman Krasna for The Devil and Miss Jones, Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware for Tall, Dark and Handsome, Paul Jarrico for Tom, Dick and Harry, and then—perhaps the only competition Kane had—John Huston, Howard Koch, Abem Finkel and Harry Chandlee for Sergeant York. However, York’s asset was certainly not its screenplay, evidenced by all the different writers who cobbled it together. But when Sturges announced that Kane won, there was no one to accept. Louella Parsons’ group began to boo at stage but for the presenter, as Welles was in Brazil, and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz had stayed home. His wife, Sara Aaronson, explained that “He did not want to be humiliated. He thought he’d get mad and do something drastic when he didn’t win.”9 Still, some in the audience were yelling “Mank! Mank! Where’s Mank?” over the booing. RKO’s George Schaefer accepted the award on their behalf, saying, “Mr. Herman Mankiewicz called me today and asked if I would be good enough to step up here tonight and receive this in his behalf. I’m flattered, of course. I’d be happier if he were here personally to receive it. Thank you very much.”10 Screenplay ultimately feels like a strange category to honor Kane—though the writing is excellent, Welles’ film is cited far more for its visuals or performances. However, often discussed is the film’s radically non-linear structure, which could perhaps be what pushed voters toward this pick.
Blossoms in the Dust director Mervyn LeRoy came to the stage to present three special awards. Disney received one for Fantasia, and then two documentaries were awarded: Kukan, about China’s resistance against Japan, and Target for Tonight, about the British Royal Air Force. They prompted the Academy to start nominating documentary features as well as shorts in the following years.
Then, the legendary Cecil B. DeMille took the stage to present Best Director. Aside from Welles and Ford, the nominees were Wyler for The Little Foxes, Hawks for Sergeant York, and Hall for Mr. Jordan; Ford took the prize, and Zanuck came to accept on his behalf. “Commander Ford is missed greatly at 20th Century-Fox,” he said. “But 20th Century-Fox is indeed proud of Commander Ford who is tonight on a ship somewhere in the Far East. And I’m sure that were he here he would congratulate all of the other nominees, and I am certain that he would feel that, again, he was very lucky. Thank you.”11
David O. Selznick presented Best Picture, the acting awards still to come. There were ten nominees—starting with the obvious contenders, Kane, Valley, York, Mr. Jordan, and Foxes. Others included Alfred Hitchcock’s underwhelming paranoia thriller, Suspicion, John Huston’s fantastic The Maltese Falcon, Mervyn LeRoy’s maudlin Blossoms in the Dust, Mitchell Leisen’s butchering of the Brackett and Wilder script for Hold Back the Dawn, and lastly, Irving Rapper’s dreary true story of a minister, One Foot in Heaven. Much like in contemporary Best Picture lineups, there were a few terrible films, but also more genre-focused work like The Maltese Falcon to diversify the nominations. Valley beat Kane again here, solidifying Kane as almost completely shut-out, with Zanuck returning to the stage to collect the statue.
Selznick also presented the Irving G. Thalberg Award, named after the MGM powerhouse producer, who died in 1936. The bust of Thalberg was presented to a producer “for the most consistent high quality production achievement by an individual producer,”12 and in 1942, Walt Disney was deemed such a talent for Fantasia. The film had been the studio’s first box office bomb, and Disney began to cry as he accepted the award. “Fantasia, in a way I feel like I should have a medal for bravery or something,” Disney said. “We all make our mistakes, I know, but it was an honest mistake. But this, this is too much. I’m well aware of the high ideals that this award symbolizes, and I sort of feel like I should rededicate myself to those ideals. I’ve been through a very trying year, the toughest year. I hope there’s never another one like it. And coming after that year, I sort of feel, I’d like to feel that it’s more than an award for past conscientious efforts, honest mistakes. I like to feel that it’s sort of a vote of a confidence for the future. And I want to thank the members of the Academy, my friends, everybody. Thank you.”13
James Stewart won the previous year for his work in The Philadelphia Story, so he came to the stage to present the first two acting awards. Supporting Actor was one of the more fun categories, full of older character actors, most of whom were recognized for the first time. The one exception was Sergeant York’s reigning champ, Walter Brennan, nominated three times prior with a win each time. Attempting to break his streak were Charles Coburn (a curmudgeonly CEO who grows a heart in The Devil and Miss Jones), Sydney Greenstreet (the only performance nominated from The Maltese Falcon, but a delightful one nonetheless), James Gleason (comic relief of Here Comes Mr. Jordan), and Donald Crisp (conflicted father in How Green Was My Valley). The British Crisp unseated Brennan, and took the stage to deliver a lovely speech.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s almost impossible to speak. You haven’t been through this. It’s alright up to that moment. What I want to do is, say thank you to Darryl Zanuck, to John Ford, to Philip Dunne for the wonderful script, and for the opportunity to play such a wonderful part. I think there’s quite a lot of the old timers knocking around that could do justice to some of that and some of you wonderful producers will look at some of these old timers and give ‘em a chance. There’s a lot of good blood there.” That last remark was greeted with a big round of applause. “I’m very thrilled, ladies and gentlemen, very honored, very grateful for this. And I do want to say that my little friend Barbara Stanwyck [who Crisp was filming with in The Gay Sisters] has been rehearsing me all week; she’s handed me every lamp and statue on the set. So it was alright. Thank you again very, very much.”14
Perhaps the safest bet of the night came next; as suspected, Stewart handed Gary Cooper Best Actor for starring in Sergeant York. He was such a sure bet that most of his competition—Robert Montgomery for Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Walter Huston for The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Welles, of course—didn’t even show. Only Cary Grant, nominated for a rare dramatic performance in George Stevens’ hackneyed melodrama Penny Serenade, showed to face Cooper. “It was Alvin York who won this Award,” Cooper said as he accepted, paying tribute to the man he portrayed in the film. “Shucks, I’ve been in the business sixteen years and sometimes dreamed I might get one of these things. That’s all I can say . . . Funny, when I was dreaming I always made a good speech.”15
Now it was the women’s turn. 1941’s Best Actress winner, Ginger Rogers, took the stage to first present Best Supporting Actress. The wonderful Sara Allgood was nominated for her work in How Green Was My Valley, and with Margaret Wycherly, Sergeant York had a player in the race as well. There were two nominees from The Little Foxes—a pleasant performance from Teresa Wright and a stunningly tragic one from Patricia Collinge—but its nine nominations led to no wins. Instead, Mary Astor took home the prize. Astor was nominated for her respectable work in a rightly forgotten melodrama featuring Bette Davis and George Brent, The Great Lie. An extremely talented actor, Astor was more than deserving for her work in 1941—but for The Maltese Falcon, not this film. She played one of the most deceptive, calculating femme fatale characters in one of the most iconic noir films. Yet for Astor, whose career was a never-ending struggle of scandals and alcoholism, it couldn’t have mattered which film she won for. “Ladies and gentlemen, twenty-two years ago this coming June I first faced a motion picture camera,” she said onstage accepting the award. “I hasten to add I was very young. I’m going to let you write the rest of the script and just say thank you very, very much.”16 They’re brief, but those few words contain a dual sense of regretfulness and immense gratitude to her peers.
Rogers then presented the final award of the night, one that perhaps had been hyped up even more than the duel between the two prestigious films. As with Best Actor, nominees Greer Garson for Blossoms in the Dust and Bette Davis for The Little Foxes were no-shows, and Barbara Stanwyck, nominated for Ball of Fire, showed only minutes before the award was given out. Though both sisters began acting in films in 1935, De Havilland broke out much earlier with that year’s roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Captain Blood. Landing a part in Gone with the Wind brought her first Oscar nomination, but her co-star Hattie McDaniel won. She was deeply upset by the loss, and later commented, “I found I couldn’t stay at the table another minute. I had to be alone; so I wandered out to the kitchens and cried.” But eventually, she became “very proud . . . that I belonged to a profession which honored a black woman who merited this, in a time when other groups had neither the honesty nor courage to do the same sort of thing” 17. This year was her second nomination, for her work in Hold Back the Dawn.
Fontaine, on the other hand, struggled to get much recognition until the previous year, when she starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Picture–winning Rebecca. She received her first nomination for the film, but lost to Rogers. Partnered with Hitchcock anew with Suspicion, she gave a very similar performance, and therefore was nominated again. Some felt she deserved 1941’s award more than Rogers, and so felt awarding her this time would make up for that.
For the most part, the sister rivalry seems to have been invented by the press with little basis in reality. Fontaine didn’t even want to come to the ceremony at first; producer Walter Wanger called her the morning before, asking, “Surely you’re attending the banquet?” Fontaine was busy filming This Above All at Fox, and complained, “I don’t want to stay up late and then rise at 6:30 AM to drive from Beverly Hills to the studio in Burbank,” she responded. Moments later, de Havilland called. “Your absence will look odd,” she told her. Fontaine implored that she didn’t even have something to wear. “Within an hour, Olivia arrived with our usual sales lady from I. Magnin.”
“I voted for her in Rebecca and I will probably vote for her again this year,” de Havilland told Louella Parsons. Parsons asked if they ever had disagreements, to which de Havilland responded, “Of course we fight. What two sisters don’t battle?”18
When Fontaine’s name was called, she froze. “I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting directly opposite me. ‘Get up there, get up there,’ she whispered commandingly. Now what had I done! All the animus we’d felt towards each other as children, the hair-pulling, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total. I felt that Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. I felt aged four, being confronted by my older sister. Damn, I’d incurred her wrath again.” However, “Olivia took the situation very gracefully.”19
“I want to thank the ladies and gentlemen that voted me this award,” Fontaine said to the crowd. “And I want to say thank you, David Selznick. And if Alfred Hitchcock were here tonight I’d like to say to him, thank you, Hitch, with all my heart.”20 Ultimately, she felt that “It was a bittersweet moment. I was appalled that I’d won over my sister.”21 De Havilland would go on to win two Oscars in later years, and in the end, was left with the far more notable career.
One can endlessly debate who didn’t deserve what award, and who was snubbed—it all comes down to opinions, really. The better question is if the awards reflect the times accurately. Was Joan Fontaine really better in Suspicion than Bette Davis in The Little Foxes? No. But this was Fontaine’s moment—Davis had already won two Oscars, with her most iconic roles still to come. Gary Cooper captured the war-anxious climate as Sergeant York, turning in a performance that is key in defining his appeal as an actor. And yes, the best film didn’t win Best Picture—but were audiences truly ready for Citizen Kane in 1941? Apparently not, as it was a box office bomb that didn’t begin to take on its now legendary status until the 1950s. To call Citizen Kane the defining film of 1941 would be false. Was How Green Was My Valley really the defining film of the year? Not necessarily; in fact, Variety attributed its win much to the fact that it “was a late release and fresher in the minds of the ballot markers.”22 Sergeant York may have been more of the year’s zeitgeist, but it lacked the right blend of artistry and traditionalism which put How Green Was My Valley perfectly in the middle ground Best Picture winners through the ages have fallen into. Frankly, Citizen Kane has survived the years just fine without winning all the Oscars it deserved. If Welles’ loss means that a few more people today decide to seek out How Green Was My Valley, and maybe even more of Ford’s filmography, then the votes did their job, and the 14th Academy Awards was a success.
For More on The 14th Annual Academy Awards
Watch a Newsreel From the Awards
References [ + ]
|1.||^||Damien Bona and Mason Wiley, Inside Oscar (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 117|
|2.||^||Anthony Holden, Behind the Oscar (New York: Plume, 1994), 152|
|3.||^||Bona and Wiley 1996, 118|
|4, 5, 6, 9.||^||Bona and Wiley 1996, 119|
|7.||^||Mark H. Glancy, “Warner Bros Film Grosses, 1921–51: the William Schaefer Ledger.” Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television 15, no. 1 (1995): 55-73.|
|8.||^||“Welles and ‘Kane’ Doped to Win Flock Of Oscars Next Week, but ‘Valley And ‘York’ (Cooper) Hot Faves Also,” Variety, February 17, 1942.|
|10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 20.||^||Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database, accessed May 15, 2016|
|12.||^||“Orson Welles’ Near-Washout Rated Biggest Upset in Academy Stakes; ‘Valley,’ Cooper, Fontaine, Ford Cop,” Variety, March 3, 1942.|
|15.||^||Bona and Wiley 1996, 120|
|17.||^||Holden 1994, 153|
|18.||^||Bona and Wiley 1996, 117|
|19, 21.||^||Holden, Behind the Oscar, 154|
|22.||^||“Orson Welles’ Near-Washout Rated Biggest Upset in Academy Stakes; ‘Valley,’ Cooper, Fontaine, Ford Cop,” Variety, March 3, 1942.|