1941 Oscars: Best Actor

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Today, I'm taking an in-depth look at the 1941 best actor Academy Awards race. Here's winner Gary Cooper celebrating with best actress recipient Joan Fontaine.

This article is part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon hosted by Paula's Cinema Club, Outspoken & Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen.

The 1941 best actor Academy Awards featured iconic performances from five of old Hollywood's best leading men. Gary Cooper, who won the Oscar, played a Tennessee backwoodsman turned World War I hero in Sergeant York. The category was rounded out by Orson Welles as a ruthless newspaper magnate in Citizen Kane; Robert Montgomery as a boxer who returns from the grave in Here Comes Mr. Jordan; Walter Huston as a New England version of old Slewfoot in The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Cary Grant as a poor, but devoted father in Penny Serenade. The clip below shows several stars on Oscar night, including Cooper showing off his newly minted trophy.

Gary Cooper as Sgt. Alvin York

Cooper's performance in Sergeant York is a perfect pairing of actor and role. The film tells the true story of Sgt. Alvin York who received a Medal of Honor for leading a successful attack against the German army during the Battle of Argonne that captured 32 machine guns and 132 enemy soldiers. York became a huge celebrity after his war record was widely publicized, but he always refused to exploit his heroic actions for financial gain. 

However, after Europe descended into chaos in 1939, York finally relented and allowed director Howard Hawks to make a film based on his personal diaries under the condition that Cooper play the lead. Cooper's slow drawl and taciturn demeanor were perfect for the role of the shy sergeant, and Cooper actually gives a quietly moving performance that highlights York's inner turmoil as a devout Christian who struggles with the moral necessity of killing his fellow man. Cooper probably would have taken home the Oscar anyway, but the U.S. entry into World War II in December 1941 made his win almost inevitable. Sergeant York is available on DVD and video on demand.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane

Citizen Kane is widely considered to be the greatest American movie ever made, and, as such, it has inspired a virtual avalanche of film writing. While oceans of ink have been spilled analyzing the meaning of  "rosebud" or marveling at the deep focus cinematography, relatively little attention has been paid to Welles' brilliant performance as ruthless newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane. Welles co-wrote and directed Citizen Kane, but it is his masterful performance as the lonely billionaire that propels the film into greatness. 

Welles, who was only 25 years old when he made the film, plays Kane as a middle-aged and old man throughout most of the film, and while he was greatly aided by the groundbreaking work of makeup artist Maurice Seiderman, his performance is an internal portrait of a man who was profoundly unhappy despite his massive wealth. Despite his brilliance, Welles had absolutely zero chance of winning the Oscar. Citizen Kane was widely seen as a roman a clef of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and, as such, it was highly controversial in 1941. In fact, Hearst has banned all mention of Citizen Kane in his newspapers. TCM will air Citizen Kane at 5 a.m. March 2 (Tuesday night/Wednesday morning). It is also available on DVD, Blu ray, and video on demand.

Robert Montgomery as Joe Pendleton

Montgomery was one of MGM's leading matinee idols throughout the 1930's, but he had developed into a superb comic actor by 1941. He gives an excellent performance in another 1941 comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but he received his second Oscar nomination for playing a New Jersey boxer with a heart of gold in Here Comes Mr. Jordan. This afterlife comedy follows Joe after he is mistakenly killed in an airplane crash and brought to heaven by a befuddled angel (Edward Everett Horton). Instead of heading through the pearly gates, Joe is sent back to earth where he inhabits different bodies until a divine messenger (Claude Rains) can find a permanent solution. 

The role of Joe requires that Montgomery pull off the difficult trick of playing one person -- actually, if you count the final scene, it's two people -- who inhabits different bodies. Montgomery does this brilliantly without any makeup or special effects; he just subtly changes his performance with body language and speech patterns. Unfortunately, the Academy often fails to honor comic roles, and Montgomery's brilliant performance was overlooked. Here Comes Mr. Jordan is available on DVD and video on demand.

Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch

While Here Comes Mr. Jordan concerns itself with the heavenly realm, The Devil and Daniel Webster (also known as All That Money Can Buy) centers around the underworld. Huston plays a  New England version of satan, who bargains for the soul of a dirt-poor farmer (James Craig) in exchange for a large fortune. When Mr. Scratch tries to collect on his end of the bargain, legendary Massachusetts  Senator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) agrees to plead the farmer's case in a supernatural court of the damned. 

Huston, who was one of the best actors of the 20th century, plays Mr. Scratch as a constant troublemaker with a sly grin and hearty laugh. He's out to get whatever he can whether it's your eternal soul or a heaping helping of peach pie. Although the devil has first billing in this movie, Mr. Scratch is really more of a supporting part (Craig is the movie's true lead), which meant that Huston didn't have much chance of winning the Oscar. The Devil and Daniel Webster is available for streaming on Hulu. It is also available on DVD and video on demand.

Cary Grant as Roger Adams

Grant is the epitome of sophistication and elegance to millions of moviegoers around the world, but his favorite role was as an ordinary husband and father in Penny Serenade. This gentle drama from director George Stevens stars Grant and Irene Dunne as a middle-class couple who are struggling to run a small business and raise their adopted daughter. 

Grant was very apprehensive about taking on the part, according to Dunne -- he was much more comfortable playing in screwball comedies and action-adventure movies -- but he gives a heartfelt performance in this movie that is deeply moving. He is especially good in a scene where he tearfully pleads with a judge (Wallis Clark), who is planning to take away the couple's adopted daughter because they don't have enough income.  Grant was justly proud of his performance in Penny Serenade, and its unfortunate that he didn't win an Oscar for this, or any other, role, although he was given an honorary Academy Award in 1970. Penny Serenade is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and at the Internet Archive. It is also available on DVD.


  1. WONDERFUL!! That year in Hollywood is particularly close to my heart and you offer a terrific tribute to it. Thanks so much for this offering to our blogathon! Love it!

    Once Upon a Screen

    1. Thanks for hosting. It was a great pleasure to review all these movies again.

  2. Is it blasphemous for me to say I like Sgt. York least of all these performances? (Though I still haven't seen Huston's performance.) I love your post. Thanks for throwing a spotlight on this fascinating year.

    1. Personally, I much prefer Cooper's performance in his other 1941 movie Meet John Doe.

  3. You're so right about Welles. The movie wouldn't be what it is with any other actor. I can never look away when he's on the screen. I haven't seen Sgt. York, but have always found Cooper overrated. He can be good, but I don't find him as compelling as the others.

    1. It's so amazing that Welles was only 25, but was so believable and compelling as a much older person.


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