How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: nobody actually thinks this was the best movie made in 1941. Nobody thought it back then either. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Citizen Kane is better than How Green Was My Valley, but that William Randolph Hearst was a vindictive sonofabitch who owned half the newspapers in the country and had Louella Parsons on permanent payroll. It simply wasn’t safe for voting members of the Academy to support Kane, so they went with a safety.
Knowing all that going in, I expected to be more disappointed in How Green Was My Valley than I actually was. It’s what we’d call Oscar bait these days; a big melodrama about the struggles of a Welsh coal-mining family. It’s got some great performances, some very effective scenes, and some lovely shots, because John Ford knows what to do with his camera. It’s cheesy in the way melodramas about the working class usually are: these characters are so aggressively salt-of-the-earth, you could use them to kill snails. It’s also based on a novel, so it does that thing where there’s a rueful and nostalgic voiceover telling us what’s happening onscreen, because they couldn’t quite bear to let go of the poetic and oh-so-charmingly-Welsh-English language of the book.
In short, yes, it’s straight-up Oscar bait. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s what you get when everyone involved decides they want to make a movie that will be considered for Best Picture, meaning they’re all trying really hard to make a good picture. If it hadn’t beaten out Citizen Kane, it would likely be remembered today as a good movie, but not one that anyone except John Ford or Roddy McDowall completists needs to seek out.
What did this beat?
Blossoms in the Dust, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the Dawn, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, One Foot in Heaven, Sergeant York, Suspicion, and, of course, Citizen goddamned Kane. Wow. That’s actually a pretty good year. Take Kane out of the math, and it would be hard to pick a favorite. Put Kane back into the math, and it’s easy. Put Hearst into the math, and it gets hard again; best go with a safety.