Friday, August 4, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1941

The Contenders:

Citizen Kane (winner)
The Devil and Miss Jones
Sergeant York
Tall, Dark and Handsome
Tom, Dick and Harry

What’s Missing

1941 is one of those years where, when I looked for possible snubs or potential nominations, virtually everything I looked at belonged in the Adapted Screenplay category. That’s a little sad because there’s a lot of fluff in the Original Screenplay category for this year. Admittedly, films like The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire are also fluff, but they’re better fluff than some of what we get in this category. The Wolf Man isn’t the sort of film that got a nomination in 1941, but the screenplay is actually quite good. The biggest miss, though, is Sullivan’s Travels, which almost certainly belongs in the mix.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Tall, Dark and Handsome is dumb. It’s not entertaining dumb, either. It’s just really dumb. This is a film that requires so much suspension of disbelief that it ends up simply not working in terms of its plot in virtually every aspect of that plot that exists. I get that Original Screenplay offers up some possibility for flights of fancy, but when those flights of fancy don’t really work in any world ever (a criminal who keeps his “murdered” victims in a private jail, for instance), I wonder what the hell the Academy was thinking when it nominated this.

4. Tom, Dick and Harry is kind of dumb, too, but it’s sweet and entertaining fluff. There’s nothing here that is potentially difficult or strange or embarrassing, and it takes some good flights of fancy that are clearly dream sequences and work because of it. It’s nothing more than the story of a woman dealing with three proposals from three very different men and it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than that. I enjoyed watching it, but it’s certainly not a screenplay that got me very excited.

3. This brings us to The Devil and Miss Jones, which is once again a piece of entertaining fluff. It’s better fluff, though, bolstered by the twin talents of Jean Arthur and the amazing Charles Coburn, who steals the entire film. This is another film that’s not going to change anyone’s life or is going to rewrite ideas of narrative, but it’s fun to watch and cleverly written. I like that it was nominated because it is so nicely done is purely entertaining from opening to close. It’s not good enough to actually win, but I’m very pleased I got to watch it.

2. Sergeant York is the first of these movies that really feels like it belongs completely, or feels like it is serious enough to be in contention. It’s heavy-handed in a lot of places despite how much it appears to follow the actual story of the eponymous Sergeant York. This isn’t a movie that I ended up loving that much, but I think it’s well-made and the screenplay is a very good one. I could probably make a case for it in a different year. Sadly for Sergeant York, it was released in a year with a juggernaut

My Choice

1. Is there a choice apart from Citizen Kane? I don’t think there legitimately could be. I know in the modern age there is a certain trendiness in finding Kane overrated and boring, but I don’t know anyone who honestly feels that way. This is a powerhouse of a movie from its opening moment to the final scene in the furnace, and while we can pull out just about every aspect of the film to show why it is considered an objectively great film, all of that starts with an intelligent screenplay that tells its story just about perfectly. Had Oscar gone anywhere else, I’d be so disgusted I’d probably stop doing this feature.

Final Analysis


  1. Oscar got it right in a big way! Both of Sturges' screenplays belonged in the mix but there was only one correct winner in this year.

    1. Yeah, this is really a case where I can't imagine another winner.

  2. I agree about Tall, Dark and Handsome which was just a stupid movie.

    I love Tom, Dick and Harry but I'd have to say that the idea of a woman being torn between three different suitors isn't very original especially in Golden Age Hollywood and relies more on the charm of its players especially Ginger Rogers for its charm.

    I'd place The Devil and Miss Jones which is full of subtext masked by the facileness of its cast lead by an irresistible Coburn over Sgt. York which I thought leaned a trifle too heavily on trying to be an inspirational. But yeah it has to be Citizen Kane for the win. I'm not an ardent fan of the film, I appreciate the talent, artistry and skill in it and certainly don't think its overrated but I'm just not that fond of it.

    Sullivan's Travels, Lady Eve and Ball of Fire should definitely be here instead, though with Ball of Fire it's sort of questionable since it's such an obvious take-off on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The only other film that comes to mind that might belong is Meet John Doe. But none would ever seriously challenge Kane.

    1. It may be my own bias that puts Sergeant York ahead of The Devil and Miss Jones, especially when I greatly prefer the latter film. I think a part of that for me is that I like The Devil and Miss Jones because of the cast and the performances more than anything else. The screenplay is fine, but it's the actors who kill it.

      Still, it has to be Kane. There's simply no other way to go.

  3. It is hard to imagine a screenplay, original or adapted, better than Citizen Kane in 1941. I cannot think of one.

    1. The Maltese Falcon might compete, but I'm partial to that movie, so I'm hardly unbiased.

  4. I honestly feel Kane is overrated and a bit boring, and that's actually largely due to the screenplay. Best movie ever made for its time? Sure. Best movie ever made now? Not even close. Hell, best movie ever made even 10-20 years after it was made? Nah. There's also the glaring plot hole of nobody having actually been in the room when he says "Rosebud." The plot shouldn't even exist.

    I can get behind you with Sullivan's Travels, though.

    1. Tons of movies have plot holes like that. It doesn't bother me in the watching.

      I like Kane as a character study of a powerful and profoundly flawed man and I think it's an objectively great film. That said, it's not in my top-10 favorites.