Category Archives: 1941

Bette Davis (The Little Foxes) – Best Actress of 1941

Other Noteworthy Performances: Joan Crawford (A Woman’s Face), Greta Garbo (Two-Faced Woman), Olivia de Haviland (Hold Back the Dawn), Olivia de Haviland (The Strawberry Blonde), Irene Dunne (Penny Serenade), Joan Fontaine (Suspicion), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), Wendy Hiller (Major Barbara), Deborah Kerr (Love on the Dole), Vivien Leigh (That Hamilton Woman), Margaret Lockwood (Quiet Wedding), Ida Lupino (High Sierra), Ida Lupino (Ladies in Retirement), Michèle Morgan (Remorques), Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire), Barbara Stanwyck (The Lady Eve), Margaret Sullavan (Back Street), Diana Wynyard (Kipps)

Bette Davis as Regina Giddens in "The Little Foxes"

Bette Davis made a career out of playing women not only discontent with traditional female roles, but actively contemptuous of them, shredding them to pieces with only a withering glance. Her characters were often strong (though not always – Now, Voyager and The Old Maid come to mind) and sometimes vicious. Few of the parts she played, however, were as vicious as Regina Hubbard Giddens, the icy schemer in The Little Foxes. Sure Mildred in Of Human Bondage was nasty, but she isn’t nearly as smart, not remotely capable of thinking through the long term consequences of her misdeeds the way Regina is. Mildred hurt men for petty and immediate gain; Regina would sacrifice her family for long term riches.

Director William Wyler wanted Davis to interpret the role differently from Tallulah Bankhead who originated it on stage, so he had her, against her will, watch Bankhead play the part. Bankhead’s Regina isn’t the master manipulator, but a victim of her brothers’ contempt. She is a fighter because she’s been treated so rotten that she can’t get anything any other way. In her autobiography Davis claims that Bankhead delivered the definitive interpretation of Regina Giddens. In fact, according to Davis, Lillian Hellman clearly contoured Regina as a victim in her play and there was no other way to do it. But Wyler insisted. There had to be another way.

Davis managed to discard Bankhead’s definitive interpretation and craft a new definitive interpretation. Her Regina is no victim; she’s a primal force of avarice. She has had less opportunity to enter into business shenanigans than her brothers, but that doesn’t stop her from grabbing what she wants, even if it means stabbing a family member (or several family members) in the back. Davis’ Regina could never be a victim; she just has more obstacles to overcome because of her sex, but she doesn’t let social restrictions limit her made grab for money. If her dopey brothers can succeed in the con games that they pretend is legitimate business, so can she. She’s smarter, brasher, more determined. She has everything anyone would need to succeed – except a penis and she isn’t about to let that stop her.

But she isn’t a total monster. I love how she plays the scene where her husband, who is standing in the way of entering into a lucrative deal, has a heart attack. All she has to do is get his medicine and he will be fine, but she freezes, letting the weak man struggle his way to the stairs. The tension on her face is amazing. She can kill him by doing nothing, but she is terrified as well. You could read it as being terrified of being caught – after all he could recover and rat her out – but I prefer to interpret it as the terror of realizing she is crossing a moral line that she has not crossed yet. There would be no going back once she lets her husband for whom, not incidentally, she does have some affection die. It’s an expertly played scene. Watch it below. I love her reaction to his dropping and breaking his medicine bottle. She immediately sees her opportunity:

I hesitated with this choice since this is the third time I have chosen Davis for best actress (Of Human Bondage in 1934 and Jezebel in 1938). After all, shouldn’t someone else be honored with my imaginary, meaningless, and as of yet nameless awards?  Barbara Stanwyck tears it up in Ball of Fire. Greta Garbo charms in the otherwise terrible Two-Faced Woman. And Wendy Hiller is superb as a woman’s whose faith is shaken in Major Barbara. But I had to relent to my first instinct. I always hate when awards are given because it’s someone’s turn, or given to honor their entire body of work (unless, it should go without saying, it’s a lifetime achievement award). This is supposed to be about the best performance, regardless of what came before and what came after. I can’t pick someone just because they haven’t been chosen before and aren’t going to have a chance again like Garbo. It has to be about who gave my favorite performance of the year.

I’m picking Davis both for what she did on the screen in The Little Foxes and the challenge of working against what was written on the page to mold a strong, smart, and devious woman. What she pulled off is like asking someone to play Scarlet O’Hara, but come up with something completely different from the text and, more importantly, Vivien Leigh’s iconic performance. I can’t even think of an example of how to pull that off, but to do so would be revolutionary. The challenge of Regina Giddens illustrates that Bette Davis didn’t just have iconic eyes or a trademarkable voice, but serious acting skills.

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Humphrey Bogart (High Sierra) – Best Actor of 1941

Other Noteworthy Performances: Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon), Charles Boyer (Hold Back the Dawn), James Cagney (The Strawberry Blonde), Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones), Gary Cooper (Ball of Fire), Gary Cooper (Sergeant York), Jean Gabin (Remorques), Cary Grant (Penny Serenade), Cary Grant (Suspicion), Will Hay (The Ghost of St. Michael’s), Chojuro Kawarasaki (The 47 Ronin), Laurence Olivier (That Hamilton Woman), Walter Pigeon (Man Hunt), Michael Redgrave (Kipps), Edward G. Robinson (The Sea Wolf), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), Robert Young (H.M. Pulham, Esq.)

Humphrey Bogart goes on the run as Roy Earle (with Ida Lupino) in "High Sierra"

Humphrey Bogart played the tough guy better than anyone (with the possible exception of James Cagney). He had played a series of mostly supporting roles throughout the second half of the 1930s at Warner Bros., usually as a mindless goon mucking up the elegant plans of Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. Nineteen forty one was the year Bogart finally broke through with two roles that established the manly Bogie persona and him as a bona fide star: The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra.

The Maltese Falcon is the movie more popularly remembered, and rightly so. It’s a better film, but Bogart’s performance in High Sierra is layered and nuanced in a way that his Sam Spade isn’t. Roy “Mad Dog” Earle has vague memories of the ferocious tough guy he once was, but years in prison have smoothed him out. He uses violence, brutality, and intimidation, not because he is so irredeemably vicious, but because he doesn’t know how else to get what he needs. Bogart translates the moral conflict that rages inside Earle in a way that we are able identify with. We want him to get what he wants – not the jewels, but the quiet, decent life he longs for but has no ideas how to make a reality.

That is what distinguishes Earle from other tough guys we’ve seen, even those who want out. The kindness and sensitivity are close to the surface and when Earle does use violence, we understand it isn’t because he’s a monster, but because it’s what people expect and it’s all he knows. Earle’s connection with the young girl with the club foot and her folksy Midwestern family kindles his burgeoning decency, but his prior instincts usurp them. He steals jewels so she can get an operation. A bad deed followed by a fine outcome. But how else was he supposed to help her? Even if someone would hire the notorious ex-con at a legitimate job, it would take years to save enough to help her. He is a man essentially consigned to a life of crime by a society that will never trust him, no matter how badly he wants to change.

It’s a truly masterful piece of acting by a man often dismissed for playing the same roles over and over. Of course he didn’t play the same roles (though even if he did, he still played them better than most so-called actors). He may have specialized in the tough guy with a streak of compassion, but he had a range that his filmography shows was much broader than that. I still say, despite arguments to the contrary, that he gave one of his best performances late in his career as the paranoid Navy commander in The Caine Mutiny (1954). But High Sierra was the first truly great performance he committed to film with many more to come over the next fifteen years or so.

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Laird Cregar (I Wake Up Screaming) – Best Supporting Actor of 1941

Laird Cregar as Ed Cornell watching his prey sleep.

Other Noteworthy Performances: Yoshizaburo Arashi (The 47 Ronin), Edward Arnold (Meet John Doe), Walter Brennan (Sergeant York), Joseph Cotton (Citizen Kane), Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley), Charles Dingle (The Little Foxes), Charles Coburn (The Lady Eve), James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Charles Hawtrey (The Ghost of St. Michael’s), Walter Huston (All That Money Can Buy), Walter Huston (The Shanghai Gesture), Gene Lockhart (The Sea Wolf), Robert Morley (Major Barbara), Tatsuo Saito (Ornamental Hairpin), George Sanders (Man Hunt)

 

Laird Cregar oozes menace in his role as the obsessive police detective Ed Cornell in I Wake Up Screaming. I’ve already talked about this early film noir gem so I won’t get into specifics of the plot. It is, however, important to note that Cregar steals the film from its two leads, Victor Mature and Betty Grable. Mature and Grable weren’t spectacular actors, but Cregar’s ability to conjure such a convincingly creepy character opposite the limited ability of these two is a testament to his skill.

Cornell’s contempt for the pair of young lovers is written for Cregar, but maybe he used his own personal jealousy for the two stars to focus his character’s contempt. After all, he could act circles around those two, yet they were stars.

This is all irresponsible conjecture of course. Cregar had just broken into pictures that year when Twentieth Century Fox plucked him from the stage and signed him to a contract. I Wake Up Screaming was one of his first assignments and he proved he had an impressive range after playing a sycophantic bull fighting critic (they exist?) in the Tyrone Power vehicle Blood and Sand. He just beginning to establish himself, but it is romantic to think of him being frustrated by the success of lesser actors and using that to fuel his approach to a rotten character like Ed Cornell.

Cregar faces off against Mature in "I Wake Up Screaming"

In I Wake Up Screaming, Cregar sheds the frivolity and superficiality of the bull fighting critic from Blood and Sand in favor of the cold relentlessness of Cornell, a man consumed by his obsession for pinning the murder of a young nightclub singer on promoter Frankie Christopher (Mature). Like I wrote in my original essay on this movie, initially it isn’t clear if Cornell actually believes Christopher is guilty, or if he doesn’t care one way or the other. All we know is he is after Christopher for the crime. He sadistically harasses his suspect with a deathly calm. He isn’t outraged by the murder, but by Christopher, who he is and what he stands for.

Why is he so certain? Because he isn’t above manufacturing evidence. Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil also planted evidence against suspects, but we knew he actually thought they were guilty. We aren’t so sure about Cornell.

Laird Cregar plays Cornell as a quiet and determined man. He doesn’t have to threaten with words; the menace is in his eyes and body language. I love the way he delivers casual, throw-away lines so deliberately but with a hint of playfulness, that they could only contain a threatening subtext. It’s a contained, economical performance. Cregar rightfully eliminated any theatrical flourishes, understanding that quiet and persistent evil is scarier than cheap tricks.

It’s safe to say that Cregar would be better remembered today if he hadn’t died of a heart attack only a few years after this movie was released. He left behind an impressive resume of fine work in the few years he made films. He was assigned mostly supporting roles in his short career, but had broken into a couple of leading roles at the end. I’m sure he will be mentioned at least as a noteworthy in future years that I will consider. As it is he gave the best supporting performance by an actor in 1941.

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Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) – Best Supporting Actress of 1941

Other Noteworthy Performances: Peggy Ashcroft (Quiet Wedding), Mary Astor (The Great Lie), Edith Barrett (Ladies in Retirement), Spring Byington (The Devil and Miss Jones), Dorothy Comingore (Citizen Kane), Paulette Godard (Hold Back the Dawn), Jessica Grayson (The Little Foxes), Ruth Hussey (H.M. Pulham, Esq.), Elsa Lanchester (Ladies in Retirement), Maureen O’Hara (How Green Was My Valley), Teresa Wright (The Little Foxes), Margaret Wycherly (Sergeant York)

I hesitated choosing Mary Astor as the best supporting actress of 1941 because her part is so hefty that she feels like a lead. But, in the end, The Maltese Falcon is really only Humphrey Bogart’s film and everyone else is supporting him. Astor, however, does such a great job of creating a fully formed character that she manages to stand up well opposite Bogart’s near domination of the film.

Mary Astor brings a wonderfully compulsive liar to life without reducing her to her sociopathic tendencies. She turns those big innocent eyes toward Bogart’s Same Spade and for a while her explanations sound so sincere that even we believe her while we know she’s lying.

Mary Astor spins another tale in "The Maltese Falcon"

But there are hints that Astor’s Bridget O’Shaughnessy would love to rise above her sociopathic nature, to stop running, lying, and living a life of crime. She exhibits a vulnerability that lesser actresses would have used as a cheap ploy Bridget uses to ensnare Spade and highlight her perfidiousness. Astor recognizes that Bridget is vulnerable and she is constantly struggling between her two natures: brash selfishness and an intense need to be loved and valued.

Sam taps into her softer side and her walls crumble a little under his gaze. She manipulates him, but doesn’t enjoy it the way she must have with Thursby or Gutman. She is manipulating Sam because she believes she has to. The obsession for the Maltese Falcon is just too far along, gripping her weak soul and demolishing any of those dormant positive instincts that Sam had awakened.

 

Mary Astor had been a solid supporting actor for years, turning in good dramatic performances in Red Dust (1932), Dodsworth (1936), and The Hurricane (1937). She even showed off her comedic ability in Midnight (1939), something she would try again with even greater success in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942), showing her great range.

Astor won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1941 for her role in the Bette Davis vehicle The Great Lie, but her work in The Maltese Falcon is clearly more accomplished. It has been reported that Astor wished she had won for Huston’s film, rather than this uninspired melodrama. I’m happy that the Academy honored Astor with an Oscar, but I agree that they should have given it to her for a better performance in a better film.

 

 

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