THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘How Green Was My Valley’ (1941)

In 1942, the 14th Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1941 and December 31, 1941 the awards were held on February 26. With the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 essentially signalling the start of World War II, many in Hollywood called for the Oscar ceremony to be cancelled. Academy president Bette Davis suggested holding the awards in a large auditorium, inviting the public to purchase tickets, and donating proceeds to the Red Cross. She was overruled, and the event went ahead, under modified conditions. Formal attired was officially banned for the first time, and there were no searchlights outside the Biltmore Hotel, which, at the time, were infamously customary at all major Hollywood events.

The Academy introduced the category of Best Documentary, which was won by Churchill’s Island, a documentary chronicling the events of the Battle of Britain. This category would naturally be dominated by war documentaries for the next few years. This year would mark the first time a pair of siblings would compete in an acting category, with sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland both up for Best Actress, with Fontaine winning for Suspicion.

A new (and rather unfortunate) Oscar record was set by The Little Foxes. It received a total of nine nominations, and went home empty-handed. This record would stand until 1957 when Peyton Place matched it, and then finally exceeded in 1978 by The Turning Point and in 1986 by The Color Purple, which both received 11 nominations and zero wins. John Ford took home his third award for Best Director for How Green Was My Valley, equally Frank Capra’s record and also becoming the first director to win consecutive awards – a feat only repeated another two times over the years.

The nominees:
Blossoms in the Dust
Citizen Kane
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
How Green Was My Valley
The Little Foxes
The Maltese Falcon
One Foot in Heaven
Sergeant York

The winner:
How Green Was My Valley

Based on the 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn, How Green Was My Valley is the sweeping drama of the Morgan family. Taking place in a small coal-mining town in the South Wales Valleys, the story takes the perspective of narrator Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall), as he recalls his sometimes difficult childhood with his hard-working Welsh family. Huw’s father, Gwilym, and his older brothers, Ianto (John Loder), Ivor (Patric Knowles), Davy (Richard Fraser), Gwilym Jr. (Evan S. Evans), and Owen (James Monks), all work in the coal mines, while their sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) and mother, Beth (Sara Allgood), tend to their home. As we follow the Morgan family, tragedies will occur, love will flourish, and when work becomes scarce at the mine, the family will be tested like never before.

Why did it win?
Looking at its competition, it’s hard to determine why How Green Was My Valley was Hollywood’s chosen film for Best Picture in 1941. It’s an Oscar year that still lives in infamy today, due to this confounding choice. But we’ll get to that a little later. In terms of why it won, there are a few trains of thought.

Despite its rather bleak themes and storyline (this is not a happy film), it was beloved by audiences, raking in almost $3 million at the box-office. It seems people were captivated by its nostalgic storyline and setting, harking back to a time becoming a distant memory. Critics were also overwhelmingly positive of the film, with The Daily News calling it “one of the most outstanding film productions of the year.” When an audience and critics become enamoured with a film, the Academy often follow suit. They gave it ten nominations, and five wins. It was a resounding success, and a clear message from the voters which film they preferred. But they were being led down that path by an Oscar campaign that would make any publicist proud.

A vicious campaign was mounted against Citizen Kane by none other than William Randolph Hearst himself. While not a direct depiction of his life, the character of Charles Foster Kane was heavily based on the newspaper magnate (think Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada). Hearst was so enraged by the film, he banned all advertising, reviews, or even any mention of it in every single one of his newspapers and radio stations. He even attempted to purchase the rights to the film from RKO, with the purpose of permanently destroying the negative of the film. When this failed, he successfully convinced many movie theatres not to screen the film, and this became a key factor in the film ultimately failing at the box-office. He tarnished the film’s name at every possible turn, and threw his mighty weight behind ensuring it would not succeed at the Academy Awards. As we can see, his epic campaign of revenge was successful. Citizen Kane received nine nominations, and only one single victory for Best Original Screenplay.

Thus, the dirty business of mudslinging and smear campaigns was born, which has now (thanks to Harvey Weinstein) unfortunately become synonymous with the Oscars. This ugly campaign delivered the biggest upset in the history of the Academy Awards. We have seen similar shocks in recent years, but nothing perhaps compares to this one.

Did it deserve to win?
In short, no. It did not. While we can see an unscrupulous campaign was perhaps the ultimate reason Citizen Kane failed at the Academy Awards, it’s hard to accept a film now widely considered to be the greatest-of-all-time failed to win Best Picture. It’s a black mark on the history of the Oscars that stands out like a sore thumb. It’s one of their most bizarre and baffling decisions that still makes people scratch their head. A decision that really does make a lot of people question the validity of Best Picture, and was perhaps the first genuine example of the Academy getting it dead wrong.

Look, there’s nothing technically wrong with How Green Was My Valley. It’s a perfectly fine film. It’s well made and features some lovely performances. It’s nostalgic and quaint, and delivers a great moral message of the importance of family and the agony of the loss of what once was. And had it won any other year, and not in the year it would ultimately defeat such classics as Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, perhaps it wouldn’t be so unfortunately saddled with so much disappointment, confusion, and genuine dislike. It’s really not the film’s fault it won. It’s also not the film’s fault it ultimately benefited from one of the most powerful people in the media launching a ridiculous campaign against one of its rivals. And it’s far from the worst film to ever win Best Picture.

But in terms of being a deserving winner in this particular year, you can’t help but resoundingly argue against that notion of it being called the Best Picture. No one in their right mind today would dare call it so. It’s nowhere near as groundbreaking and unique as Citizen Kane or as gripping and thrilling as The Maltese Falcon. It lacks anything truly special, and is ultimately a good film but far from great. The film is terribly dated, and does not hold up well decades later. Unfortunately, it will forever stand as one of the least deserving winners of Best Picture.