The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1940
1940 is a year that I always say is good, but possibly not as good as it could have been (yet, it still ranks as a solid year). Rebecca wins Best Picture, beating The Grapes of Wrath. Maybe not the best decision, historically, but it’s still a solid film. Plus, there was this category to even it out. So it actually kind of works.
Jimmy Stewart won Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story (talked about here), which is the most blatant makeup Oscar of all time. They were clearly giving it to him for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington the year before. Henry Fonda or Charlie Chaplin really should have won that one. Best Actress was Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle, which I love, since it was the only time they could really reward her, and Joan Fontaine, who probably should have won, won the year after this, so it worked out. Best Supporting Actor was Walter Brennan for The Westerner (talked about here), which, despite it being his third, I feel actually was a good decision. And Best Supporting Actress was Jane Darwell for The Grapes of Wrath (talked about here), which makes perfect sense, because she’s “Ma.”
And then there’s this category, which, aside from the fact that Hitchcock never won an Oscar (not this category’s fault, really), is a fantastic decision.
BEST DIRECTOR – 1940
And the nominees were…
George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story
John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath
Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca
Sam Wood, Kitty Foyle
William Wyler, The Letter
Cukor — The Philadelphia Story is about a divorced couple — Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, who come together again the weekend Hepburn is to be remarried. Grant shows up, intending to fuck up the proceedings, and two reporters (Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey) show up, intending to get the scoop on the patriarch of the family, who is seeming out on the town with a mistress. And the family tries to perform damage control, and all these things come to a comedic head, and Hepburn ends up remarrying Grant, and Stewart marries Hussey. It’s quite an enjoyable film.
Cukor’s direction is fine, but he had no shot at winning above Ford and Hitchcock. None. The end.
Ford — It’s The Grapes of Wrath. Get on your film watching if you don’t know what this is.
The direction here is flawless, and is an easy winner in this category. Sorry, Hitch.
Hitchcock — Rebecca is a great film. A young, naive girl, Joan Fontaine, while on vacation, meets and falls in love with Laurence Olivier. He’s on vacation to try to get over the death of his wife, Rebecca. And he falls in love with Fontaine, and they marry and go back to his house. The thing is, the house is filled with memories of Rebecca. Especially with the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who is staunchly loyal to Rebecca’s memory. And Fontaine has to find a way to get out from under Rebecca’s shadow, while also figuring out what the mysterious circumstances where concerning her death. It’s a really great film. And a Best Picture winner. So you should probably get on seeing it.
Hitchcock’s direction is great, and it won Best Picture, so logic says he should probably have won this category too (though I feel Grapes of Wrath should have won Best Picture, hence my vote), plus Ford won four times — a lot of things point to Hitch winning here. But, for me, this isn’t as good as his later work. And I personally blame the Academy for not awarding him a statue for his later work. That has nothing to do with this category, though, and for me, he was only second best.
Wood — Kitty Foyle is a film about a shopgirl. That was the famous Katharine Hepburn quote about it, saying she lost Best Actress this year to “a little drama about a shopgirl.”
Basically, to keep it simple — this film is best just seen without really knowing an whole plot — Kitty Foyle (played by Ginger Rogers) is a girl who works in a department store and is struggling with marrying the man she’s been in love with for years and years, a doctor, or a playboy who she also likes a lot. One is the steady husband, and the other is the sexual one who is after her. She struggles with what to do and the film flashes back between her making a final decision (getting on the train or not getting on the train) and how she got there. It’s a really great film. I like it a lot.
Wood’s direction is pretty standard. Nothing to make it really stand out here. Which means he has no shot at beating Hitchcock or Ford.
Wyler — The Letter is the film where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman.
I seriously just want to make this a thing. Because you know what? Most people wouldn’t even know this movie existed. Even most hardcore film people don’t really care about this film. Of course, if you like it, then you like it. But, for the regular filmgoing population, I’d rather them think of this as ‘that movie where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman’ than not at all.
The film is about Davis shooting a man and claiming it was in self-defense. But then a letter appears that hints that it might not have been the case. And the film is about her trying to make the letter disappear. And then she gets shanked by a Chinese woman.
Wyler does a good job with the material, but — he won this award three times, for films of vastly superior quality than this one, I personally don’t like the film all that much, and — would you really rather this beat Ford or Hitchcock here? Really?
I rest my case.
My Thoughts: To me this is John Ford all the way. Hitchcock did better work later on in his career (like Psycho, Rear Window and even Lifeboat, all of which he was nominated for), and this is The Grapes of Wrath. I say Ford. you may say otherwise, but this ain’t your blog.
(Also, where the hell is Chaplin here? Cukor? Really? Even Wyler, over Chaplin?)
My Vote: Ford
Should Have Won: Ford, Hitchcock
Is the result acceptable?: It’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen The Grapes of Wrath, you’re dead to the world.
You should also probably see Rebecca and The Philadelphia Story, you might be watching movies wrong. These are both classic and brilliant films, and should be seen by all. Not essential, but they’re great, so that should make them essential. Get on these.
Kitty Foyle is a film I like very much. I love Ginger Rogers, and will watch anything she does. And this, to me, was a really strong film. Not essential, but very, very good. Highly recommended.
The Letter — Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman. That, to me, is really the only thing I ever remember from this movie. Didn’t like the movie at all, but she gets shanked by a Chinese lady. So that’s something.