If my recent viewing of fantastic Netflix documentary series Five Came Back taught me anything, it was that in 1942-43, Hollywood had war on its mind. With Europe fully in the throes of World War II, film studios and artists were all contemplating the effects of war on the everyday citizen—after the Pearl Harbor attacks and the United States’ entry in the war, this only intensified, leading to an all-time level of patriotic fervor at home. That idea was definitely fortified by the films represented at the 15th Academy Awards, held on March 4, 1943.

William Wyler’s British WWI drama Mrs. Miniver led the way with 12 nominations, winning on 6 including Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture. Famously, after production of the film, Wyler served in the U.S. Air Force where he produced two wartime documentaries. The year’s other high profile film on the themes of war, Yankee Doodle Dandy, was the only other film to win multiple awards, cashing in on three of its 8 nominations.

Our usual “Re-thinking the Oscars” rules apply: I will run back the eight award categories where our film of the week was nominated; when deciding what film or individual should have one, I will only consider what was nominated [though I’m happy to point out when something was obviously snubbed]. Unfortunately, many of the films highlighted at the ceremony aren’t easily available today, though I was able to see all of the winners [Johnny Eager was subject to a terrible YouTube transfer] and most of the major nominees. Without further ado...

Best Supporting Actor

The Nominees:
William Bendix, Wake Island
Van Heflin, Johnny Eager
Walter Huston, Yankee Doodle Dandy
Frank Morgan, Tortilla Flat
Henry Travers, Mrs. Miniver

Who won: Van Heflin, Johnny Eager
Who should have won: Walter Huston, Yankee Doodle Dandy

Henry Travers is best known for his performance as Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, but his role in Mrs. Miniver accounted for his only Oscar nomination. As the train station manager who dotes on the title character, he is the heart of the film when it is away from the wartime main plot. As a sweet old man, he’s fun to watch, and the character’s conclusion provides for a nice moment.

Another well-known character actor, Van Heflin was best known for his performances in Westerns Shane and 3:10 to Yuma, but his only Oscar nomination came in gangster romance Johnny Eager. As the title character’s right hand man, Heflin is the sensitive sidekick to the charismatic gangster. Jeff’s main character trait is as a drunk and Heflin keeps on the difficult line of playing up that fact without getting cartoonish, staying within the realm of the sad drunk. Strangely enough, the character is mostly there to give the gangster a bit of balance and heart, but whenever he is on screen he’s definitely magnetic.

That said, I love Walter Huston. He is one of my all-time favorite actors [mostly for his performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre] and he is good enough as George Cohan’s father for an excuse to praise him here. Most of Huston’s performance happens in the film’s first act, before Jimmy Cagney takes over the film by force, which gives Huston more a limited leading role before he almost completely disappears. He also has the benefit of being a song-and-dance vaudeville man, allowing him to jig and jive [which is also one of my favorite things about his performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre].

Best Musical Score

The Nominees:
Flying with Music
For Me and My Gal
Holiday Inn
It Started With Eve
Johnny Doughboy
My Gal Sal
Yankee Doodle Dandy
You Were Never Lovelier

What won: Yankee Doodle Dandy
What should have won: Yankee Doodle Dandy

I’ll admit that I haven’t gone through and listened to all of these musical scores, but given what has survived history, I’ll concede that this is a race between Yankee Doodle Dandy and Bing Crosby & Fred Astaire classic musical Holiday Inn. Both films have some classic tunes, but I like the more consistent overall scope of Yankee Doodle Dandy, with “You're a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There” as the highlights. It doesn’t hurt that Yankee Doodle Dandy shoots and edits its musical segments more cinematically than Holiday Inn, too.

Best Sound Recording

The Nominees:
Arabian Nights
Flying Tigers
Friendly Enemies
The Gold Rush
Mrs. Miniver
Once Upon a Honeymoon
The Pride of the Yankees
Road to Morocco
This Above All
Yankee Doodle Dandy
You Were Never Lovelier

What won: Yankee Doodle Dandy
What should have won: Yankee Doodle Dandy

I should also note that The Gold Rush’s inclusion here is quite interesting. For those who don’t know the history, the beloved Chaplin comedy was originally released in 1925 as the silent classic we most recognize. It was re-released in 1942 with Chaplin providing narration of the scenes, which apparently was enough for the Academy to consider it for a Best Sound Recording award. Yeah, this is baffling. I suppose I can concede that they would honor the film for exactly what was updated upon its re-release, but if it was eligible, why wouldn’t it be nominated for Best Picture or Actor or Director? I’m sure there is a story behind this but it is very strange.

The climactic scene of Mrs. Miniver, with the family in their bomb shelter as London is being attacked, is notable for its sound design—the sound of the sirens and bombs are basically all we have to make the characters’ fear believable and it works well enough.

As for Yankee Doodle Dandy’s win, it is a big musical with a lot of Sound Recording to offer. I don’t know if there is anything as particularly sharp as Mrs. Miniver’s bunker sequence, but the song presentations are all pretty fantastic. It isn’t really a fair fight.

Best Story

The Nominees:
49th Parallel
Holiday Inn
Yankee Doodle Dandy
The Pride of the Yankees
The Talk of the Town

What won: 49th Parallel
What should have won: 49th Parallel

At the 1943 Academy Awards there were three different writing awards instead of the current two. While Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay awards existed, there was also a category for “Best Story.” Where the difference lies, I’m not sure, but I’ll try to interpret the award not as the intricacies of dialogue or character development and instead literally what is the best story. That makes the award much more of a gut feeling than cinematic analysis.

The Pride of the Yankees and Yankee Doodle Dandy are basically the blueprint for the standard biopic: take a notable person and shape the narrative of what made them notable through the entire course of their life. I’m not sure if these films helped create the genre from a historical perspective—if they did, I suppose they deserves some credit for that—but it sure does run smoothly and captures Gehrig and Cohan’s lives [however sanitized and simplified] into entertaining packages.

An all-time beloved musical classic, Holiday Inn is certainly a wonderful showcase for stars Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Marjorie Reynolds. It is full or great singing and dancing and the story isn’t bad either, even if it inevitably takes a backseat to “White Christmas” or Astaire’s tap sequences. It wouldn’t have been my choice for the award anyway, but I have to disqualify Holiday Inn for the controversial Abraham Lincoln sequence regaled with cringe-worthy blackface.

The Talk of the Town is an intriguing mix of slapstick comedy, romance, drama, and a few elements of a crime. The film involves a love triangle between a school teacher [Jean Arthur], a law professor [Ronald Colman, who was nominated for another performance this year], and an escaped convict who was accused of burning down the town’s mill [Cary Grant]. It is a pretty wonderful set up and creates plenty of comical intrigue. The Talk of the Town is actually a really fun film, perhaps only because I love its stars so much, and I wanted to give it this award. Alas, though, I cowardly went with the status quo, a deeper and more dramatic story.

Eventual winner 49th Parallel [released as The Invaders in the U.S.] tells the fictitious story of a Nazi U-Boat that enters Canada on a secret mission before its soldiers become trapped and try to make their way to the then-neutral United States for safety. They come to a German settlement where they can hope to appeal to their enemies’ heritage. This is a pretty fantastic set-up and a unique take on WWII and the Nazis still today. Director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger tell the story without presenting it as fiction or fantasy, giving real dramatic stakes and philosophical conflict to the characters.

Best Film Editing

The Nominees:
Mrs. Miniver
The Pride of the Yankees
The Talk of the Town
This Above All
Yankee Doodle Dandy

What won: The Pride of the Yankees
What should have won: Yankee Doodle Dandy

The only Oscar win for its 11 nominations, Best Editing for The Pride of the Yankees is an interesting pick. From an “editing as narrative construction” perspective, the film is very well edited, moving through its subject’s life quickly. In this classic Hollywood era, editing was more functional than stylistic, so I can see why The Pride of the Yankees may have stood out in this way.

Honestly, none of these films particularly stick out for their editing—again, this is probably just because of the Hollywood standard of function over style at the time. I want to do my best to recognize this isn’t a value judgement. I think Mrs. Miniver is an astounding film. This Above All is a very solid romance set during WWII. The Talk of the Town is a really fun romantic comedy. Did I come away from any of them thinking the editing was particularly notable?

That said, as the only musical of the bunch, Yankee Doodle Dandy is set apart for its construction of musical numbers. It uses a pretty tired narrative device to set up its story, but it effectively runs through the life of its subject in a compact and entertaining way. The production, design, choreography, and editing of the musical numbers may not even be particularly noteworthy compared to the bigger and bolder musicals through the ‘50s up to today, but it stands out among its competitors.

Best Actor

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

Who won: James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy
Who should have won: James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy

Walter Pidgeon gets nominated for his association with the Academy’s most preferred film, though he is absolutely suitable in the role as the family patriarch. In all honesty, though, he’s more of a supporting role with much less screen time and importance than his counterpart Greer Garson. His affable performance is nice, though—he’s not comedic relief, but he is involved with most of the film’s sweeter elements.

Random Harvest also got lots of Academy love with its 7 nominations, and Ronald Colman’s performance is one of the more worthy. Though it is his romantic co-star that steals the movie, Colman provides a stable presence in something of a dual role—his character is a WWI veteran who has suffered injuries that have caused amnesia. Through the first half of the film, he is a man without an identity, and thus more reserved and enigmatic. As he regains his self, the performance employs subtle changes that register in the character. I don’t know a lot about Ronald Colman, but the performance in Random Harvest shows a classic dramatic actor [strangely enough, he was also a co-lead of The Talk of the Town, another recognized film from this year, one that I liked better but this is the stronger performance from Colman].

Cooper is fairly iconic as Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. It has become one of the all-time great actor’s most notable roles even as the film isn’t as highly regarded today as High Noon or Sergeant York. Cooper had the physicality to play the Hall of Famer and looks remarkably like his subject [Gehrig wasn’t quite as gruff looking, perhaps because Cooper was 40 when the film was released]. For this version of Gehrig, Cooper was also perfect for his sincerity and slight awkwardness that nails the character’s wholesomeness. At the end of the day, though, Cooper won the award the previous year [for Sergeant York] and so it was Cagney’s turn.

We’ve given plenty of praise to James Cagney throughout this week, so I don’t think I need to spend too much more digital ink to say that he was absolutely deserving of the award. As George M. Cohan, Cagney is a wonderful ball of energy and perfect showman for the patriotic material.

Best Director

The Nominees:
Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy
John Farrow, Wake Island
Mervyn LeRoy, Random Harvest
Sam Wood, Kings Row
William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver

Who won: William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver
Who should have won: William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver

You can’t argue that William Wyler wasn’t an important figure in American cinema but the Academy particularly loved him. He won three statues for his directing work and was nominated another eight [!!!] times. Mrs. Miniver was his first win after coming up short the previous three years—given that, I can’t strongly argue that he wasn’t due. For his work, the film is classically made, a strong drama that stays in its lane. Perhaps another filmmaker would have overdone the war elements or the interpersonal character drama, but Wyler balances them all perfectly, keeping the film from becoming excessive.

Sam Wood was nominated for an Oscar three times, though he may be best known by cinephiles today as the director behind Marx Brothers’ classic A Night at the Opera. Strangely enough, Wood directed another film that got plenty of love at the Oscars this year, including a best picture nomination, The Pride of the Yankees. The Academy chose to recognize Wood for Kings Row, however, which is a strange choice in my mind. I’ll get into the film a bit more in the next section but I’ll say that the strength of the film is in the writing, not necessarily the directing. Wood is able to handle the sharp emotional turns in the film but I don’t see him raising the level of film through its parts.

Of all the categories, this was probably the most difficult choice, even after tossing Farrow [unfortunately, Wake Island isn’t an easy film to find] and LeRoy and Wood for middle-of-the-road dramas. Not surprisingly, it comes down to Wyler and Curtiz. My decision balanced on the film I liked more [Mrs. Miniver] vs. the film that was the bigger “achievement” from an overall directing standpoint [Yankee Doodle Dandy]. From a historical perspective, neither of these films were their respective directors’ best film—hell, with filmographies that include the likes of The Best Years of Our Lives, Casablanca, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Ben-Hur, these films probably aren’t the second best, either. Both filmmakers won Oscars, too. Ultimately, Mrs. Miniver is enough of a technical achievement and the thoroughly stronger film in other ways that I’m fine with giving Wyler his first of many Oscars again.

Outstanding Motion Picture

The Nominees:
49th Parallel
Kings Row
The Magnificent Ambersons
Mrs. Miniver
The Pied Piper
The Pride of the Yankees
Random Harvest
The Talk of the Town
Wake Island
Yankee Doodle Dandy

What won: Mrs. Miniver
What should have won: The Magnificent Ambersons

There are a lot of nominees here, so let’s get to it!

I don’t know if Mrs. Miniver has lived on as a great cinematic classic. There is no doubt, however, that it was incredibly important in 1942. With America fully invested in World War II by the film’s release, this delicate look at how war affects regular folks was certainly vital at the time. The formatting of this look at the awards doesn’t consider the Best Actress race, so this is as good a space as any to champion the performance of Greer Garson [who inevitably won the Oscar]. She is fantastic as the title character, a strong and comforting presence amidst trying times. If there was an award for 2nd place, Mrs. Miniver would get it.

Random Harvest is a peculiar film—a melodrama about an amnesiac that seems kind of cliche but actually works. A lot of the credit can again go to Greer Garson, who is wonderful as the romantic lead in a heartbreaking performance. I’ve also touched on the fine performance of her co-star Ronald Colman, who was a runner-up for Best Actor. Simply, though, in a group of 10 nominees, Random Harvest is a fine inclusion, but it doesn’t stand out in the crowd.

As I mentioned before, director Sam Wood made two of these nominees: Kings Row and The Pride of the Yankees. First, Kings Row is a very strange film, a melodrama about an all-American small town and the citizens that go through multiple traumas. It is based on a popular novel and it feels every bit of an epic that is cut down to two hours—there are important plots that come out of nowhere to dominate the third act when this had seemed to be a fairly simple romantic drama. I don’t think Kings Row is considered especially audacious today, but I could see it being quite edgy in 1942, with all the murder and suicide and simple evils it portrays. The biggest thrill of the film by far, though, is the presence of a young Ronald Reagan in a major supporting role. He gives a fine, if a bit too earnest, performance as the best friend of star Robert Cummings and eventual tragic figure.

Wood’s other film, The Pride of the Yankees, is more entertaining and consistent in tone. It also takes basically zero risk in its portrayal of Lou Gehrig. As I’ve touched upon throughout these awards, Gary Cooper is excellent in the starring role and the story is the epitome of the classic Hollywood biopic, for better or worse. It is absolutely worthy of a Best Picture nominations, especially in a crowd of 10 nominees, though it is difficult to call it the best picture outside of a purely entertainment argument—and even still, it has competition in that regard.

The inclusion of The Magnificent Ambersons is interesting given the history of the film. The follow-up to Citizen Kane, the film is famously known for being stolen from director Orson Welles and chopped up by the studio before release—unlike other Welles films, to this day we haven’t seen his complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons and probably never will. And still the Academy decided to honor the film. Stranger still, the film is considered a masterpiece to this day, by far the most highly regarded among this batch of nominees. But it will always be saddled with that important caveat. As the arbiter of this award, do I judge the films as we see them, recognizing that The Magnificent Ambersons remains the best among them, or penalize it out of spite?

Based on the excellent Booth Tarkington novel, the film that remains is a sharp drama about the rise and fall of a wealthy American family in the early 20th century. It is full of compelling characters, an important and purely American narrative, and enough of Welles’s signature style bursting through the studio’s intervention. It is brilliantly edited [how it wasn’t nominated for Best Editing given what I said about the nominees is shocking], expertly shot and designed. And it was the best film released in 1942.

While I definitely considered Yankee Doodle Dandy as one of the better films in the slate, it doesn’t compete with the more dramatically resonant Mrs. Miniver and The Magnificent Ambersons. Still, the film was perhaps a little underrepresented at the Oscars at large. Overall, I went along with a majority of the Academy’s picks this year, though there were some difficult choices. In any case, I think the Academy didn’t give awards to anything completely undeserving, which we can’t always say. I don’t know if Yankee Doodle Dandy totally deserves my pick of Best Supporting Actor, but Editing was definitely deserved [given the nominees, anyway] and it holds court over the rest of its honors. Given the historical theme of Hollywood in 1942, this is extra appropriate.