The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1940

I like 1940 a lot, but I can’t help but feel they made the wrong choice. Rebecca is a fine film, and it winning Best Picture normally would be okay. But The Grapes of Wrath is an American classic. I’m not particularly sure why it didn’t win. Especially when John Ford won Best Director for the film. But, since I love both films, I don’t mind it so much.

Jane Darwell also won Best Supporting Actress for The Grapes of Wrath, which, as I said here, is a very acceptable decision, even if I think Judith Anderson gave a better performance than she did. Best Actor this year was Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story (talked about here), which is the most blatant makeup Oscar in the history of the Academy. Based on performance alone, it was a terrible decision (Henry Fonda and Charlie Chaplin were much better choices), but, in terms of Jimmy Stewart having an Oscar, it’s totally acceptable. And Best Actress this year was Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle, which I really like as a decision, since it was really her only chance to win one, and Joan Fontaine would get her Oscar the year after this for Suspicion. So it all worked out.

As for this category — this is actually the one of the three Walter Brennan Supporting Actor Oscars that I think is the strongest performance. And it’s the last one, so it’s the one where I’m most looking for someone else to vote for. So that should tell you something abut the category, when Brennan is a clear-cut winner.


And the nominees were…

Albert Bassermann, Foreign Correspondent

Walter Brennan, The Westerner

William Gargan, They Knew What They Wanted

Jack Oakie, The Great Dictator

James Stephensen, The Letter

Bassermann — Foreign Correspondent is a great little Hitchcock film. One of his more overlooked ones, I feel, just because, were it not for this Quest, I might not have seen it (at least, until I went and watched all the Hitchcock movies like I knew I’d do someday).

The film is about a reporter sent to cover whether or not there will be war in Europe (they’re worried about that Adolf Hitler fellow). He goes to a big party for a foreign diplomat (played by Bassermann), and tries talking to him. But the dude disappears from the party and everyone is told he’s going to a peace conference in Amsterdam. So the reporter (played by Joel McCrea) goes to the conference, and watches the diplomat get gunned down on the steps. And he gets in a car and follows the assassin all the way into the country, to a windmill. He goes to the windmill and finds the diplomat, alive. The kidnappers quickly find out someone is there and get away with the diplomat being held hostage. Then the reporter has to be on the run from the people, since they know who he is. And a plan is concocted whereby they find where the diplomat is being held, and they get him back, albeit in a coma. And then they catch the dude behind it in a trap, and there’s a nice ending to the whole thing. Basically it’s about Germany trying to kill people in order to start the war.

It’s a good film, actually. I quite enjoyed it. It’s not amazing, but it’s good. Bassermann does a good job as the diplomat, but he doesn’t really have that much to do. To me, he’s maybe like a third or fourth choice. No chance of winning.

Brennan — The Westerner is a great film. Gary Cooper plays a drifter who shows up in the town run by Judge Roy Bean (played by Brennan). And Brennan runs the town with an iron fist. He’s a self-appointed judge who is constantly ordering men to hang. And he’s got this huge obsession with Lily Langtry (a famous actress of the day, kind of like Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles, only British and not German). And Cooper saves himself from hanging by claiming to know her, and even have a lock of her hair.

And then Cooper and Brennan become friends, sort of, since Brennan loves Langtry and wants to know all about her. But Brennan’s iron fist causes tensions, since Cooper believes in fairness, and comes to the aid of people Brennan is trying to drive out of town. And Cooper ends up getting appointed sheriff by those people, and plans a showdown with Brennan. And when he hears Lily Langtry will be performing nearby, he decides to do it there. Brennan buys up every ticket to the show, determined to meet her. And Cooper and he have a big gunfight, and Cooper wins, and just as he dies, Cooper, in a moment of compassion, takes Brennan to meet Langtry.

It’s a really sweet little film. I really liked the poignancy of Brennan’s performance. Of course, the real Bean was nothing like the way Brennan portrays him (at least, not totally). They made him out to be the antagonist of sorts of the film. He’s painted a bit more objectively in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, also a really good film.

Anyway, Brennan is great here, and, given the weakness of the category, I think I just might have to vote for him. This was the best of his nominated performances, and I really don’t know if I see anyone else who can beat him (for my money). So he just might get my vote.

Gargan — They Knew What They Wanted is such a — what is this movie? I guess there’s a reason it’s barely been seen since it came out. I watched a really shitty copy of this one, which clearly means no one took time to salvage the print. When you watch the film, it’ll make sense why.

The film is about Charles Laughton as an ugly, but rich, farmer. He’s dying to have a wife, so he tries to have correspondence with her. He’s illiterate too, so he has his ranch hand (played by Gargan) send letters from him to the woman (played by Carole Lombard), which he dictates. But then, when the woman wants to see a photo of him, he sends the ranch hand’s photo, because he’s worried she’ll find him too ugly. So what happens is, she falls in love with him, and, believing him to look like Gargan, shows up to marry him. And she falls in love with Gargan, believing him to be the one who had been writing the letters. But then he admits that it’s him, and, at first she’s repulsed but then is charmed by him. Though, after they get married, he gets crippled trying to impress her, and while she’s caring for him, she actually does fall for Gargan instead, and they sleep together, but he doesn’t want anything to do with her, so he runs off like an asshole, but Laughton takes Lombard back, because he loves her. That’s the film.

Wow, this wasn’t that great at all. Gargan is — well, he’s there. He has a pulse. He says all his lines, hits his marks — he definitely does what his character is supposed to do in the film. This is my way of saying, I don’t know why he was nominated and there is no way I’d ever vote for this performance.

Oakie — The Great Dictator is a  wonderful, hilarious, classic film by the great Charlie Chaplin, and the first film in which he spoke on-screen.

The film is about a Jewish barber who fought in World War I (for a fictional country called Tomainia). During the war, he received an injury and was in a coma for twenty years. He wakes up and finds out that a ruthless dictator called Adenoid Hynkel (also played by Chaplin) has taken over. And Chaplin plays both men, and of course the film is about the barber trying to escape the persecution, and identities being confused because they look so similar. Just watch the film. It’s absolutely brilliant. There are such classic moments, from the opening “Tramp” scenes, to the shaving scene, to the globe scene, to the big speech at the end. Here are some clips:

What a great, great film this is.

Jack Oakie plays Benzino Napaloni (for those keeping score, that’s Mussolini, Napoleon, and benzene), the Mussolini to Chaplin’s Hitler. Due to the wonder of the internet, you can see all of Oakie’s scenes right here:

He’s very funny in the film. Normally I’d vote for a performance like this, but for some reason, even after seeing this, I still want to vote for Walter Brennan. I don’t know why. The heart wants what it wants, I guess.

Stephensen — The Letter is another one of those Bette Davis melodramas. This one is a remake of the 1929 film that Jeanne Eagels was Oscar-nominated for. The difference is, here, Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese lady (that will never get old for me).

Bette plays a woman who shoots a dude and says it was because he tried to rape her. She says it was in self-defense, but a letter that she wrote to the dude might put that all in jeopardy. See, turns out, she was in love with this dude and wanted to leave her husband for him, and he said no and she shot him. And then she gets off and is shanked by a jealous Chinese lady (who was the dude’s wife).

Shank shank shank.

Stephenson plays Davis’s lawyer, who is the only one who suspects she might be lying. But he allows himself to be manipulated by Davis, and illegally buys back the letter so she won’t be convicted. He’s okay here, but not worth a win. That’s pretty much it. He is at least the conscience of the film, so I’ll give him that much. Otherwise, Oakie and Brennan were much better.

My Thoughts: Oh, this is a really weak category. It has to be, if I’m gonna do what I’m about to, which is vote to give Walter Brennan his third Oscar in five years. But, really, the only two worth voting for here are Brennan and Oakie, and Oakie’s not really in the film all that much, so I can’t really vote for him. Brennan is the emotional crux of his film, and goes from a stern hard ass to a man in love. It’s really nice. So I vote him.

My Vote: Brennan

Should Have Won: Brennan

Is the result acceptable?: Honestly, Walter Brennan could have won a fourth one of these and it would have been okay. He never really managed to beat anyone who should have won (kind of the way Kate Hepburn won her four Oscars), and he’s awesome. So I’m absolutely cool with it. The only one of his Oscars I might say was a big — much — was the second one. But this one — absolutely a great choice.

Performances I suggest you see: The Great Dictator is the essential film of this category. It’s such a classic, and honestly, if you haven’t seen it, you don’t really love movies.

The Westerner is a really great film. Cooper and Brennan are really strong against one another, and Brennan’s performance is really great. I recommend this one pretty highly. It’s a good one.

Foreign Correspondent is a very strong Hitchcock film. Not one of his classics, but definitely a good one. Definitely worth checking out. Highly recommended. It’s Hitchcock, so you should already be on seeing this.


5) Gargan

4) Stephensen

3) Bassermann

2) Oakie

1) Brennan

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