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The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1940

 It’s hard to follow up 1939. But 1940 makes a real go of it. This is, while not in 1939 territory, an exceptionally strong Best Picture list. And the decisions they made this year were really strong too. Which is a bit of a shame, since it’s sandwiched between the strongest year in film history and the biggest Best Picture screw job in Academy history.

Rebecca wins Best Picture, which isn’t a great decision based on the category, but is lessened by the fact that the film that should have won Best Picture, The Grapes of Wrath, won Best Director for John Ford (talked about here). If John Ford didn’t win Best Director, then we’d be talking about how weak a choice Rebecca is (if some people don’t already do that). It’s a great film (and a Hitchcock, which is what leads people to defend it so vehemently), but it’s just not on the level The Grapes of Wrath is. And the split does help alleviate some of that tension (kind of the way the Shakespeare in Love/Saving Private Ryan split does), because at least then you can say, “Well, at least they recognized one was superior, but they just preferred the other.” So I can accept it. Jane Darwell also won Best Supporting Actress for The Grapes of Wrath (talked about here), which is awesome, since she is the “Ma” of cinema. Best Actor this year was Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story (talked about here), which is the most blatant makeup Oscar perhaps in the history of cinema. It’s terrible. He should have won the year before this. But, it gave him an Oscar, and for that, it’s okay. Even though he did beat both Charlie Chaplin and Henry Fonda, depriving Chaplin of an Oscar and delaying Fonda’s win for 41 years. Best Actress was Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle (talked about here), which I love as a decision. Joan Fontaine, to me, gave the best performance, but Rogers was likely to never have another shot at winning, so I support the win (plus Fontaine got her makeup Oscar the year after this anyway. For a Hitchcock again, no less). And Best Supporting Actor was (surprise, surprise), Walter Brennan, for the third time in five years, for The Westerner (talked about here). This was actually the strongest of the three performances he won for (in a terribly weak category too), so he deserved it.

Overall, 1940 is a strong year, and anything weak about it is actually alleviated in context. Jimmy Stewart shouldn’t have won, but he should have won the year before this, so it’s understandable. Ginger Rogers never had another shot at an Oscar, so the win makes sense. And Rebecca isn’t as good as The Grapes of Wrath, but Grapes of Wrath won Best Director. So, to me, 1940, while not being a standout year, is still a damn good one.

BEST PICTURE – 1940

And the nominees were…

All This, and Heaven Too (Warner Bros.)

Foreign Correspondent (Wanger, United Artists)

The Grapes of Wrath (20th Century Fox)

The Great Dictator (Chaplin, United Artists)

Kitty Foyle (RKO Radio)

The Letter (Warner Bros.)

The Long Voyage Home (Argosy, Wanger, United Artists)

Our Town (Lesser, United Artists)

The Philadelphia Story (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Rebecca (Selznick, United Artists)

All This, and Heaven Too — This is actually a Bette Davis melodrama that I like. There aren’t many. It’s like, this and Now, Voyager. I can’t really think of many others.

This film is a frame story melodrama. Bette Davis is working as a teacher and all her students make fun of her behind her back because they heard she has a crazy past. And one day they call her our on it, so naturally she tells them the entire story (because that’s what you do). And the story involves her working as a governess for Charles Boyer and Barbara O’Neil and their children. And the gist of it is, O’Neil is slightly crazy and not a very good mother. And Davis is a very good mother figure for the kids, so they fall in love with her. And Boyer, seeing how good of a mother Davis is, starts to fall for her too (since O’Neil is pretty cold toward him most of the time). And then O’Neil, upset that Davis is so close to the rest of the family (especially Boyer) fires her, but refuses to give her a letter of recommendation so she can work elsewhere. And Boyer is furious about this, so he kills her. And then during the trial, Davis is suspected in being a part of it. And Boyer refuses to say he did it or say he loves Davis, to protect her. And eventually Boyer poisons himself.

That’s the film. It’s good. I liked it. I really liked Barbara O’Neil’s performance. It’s a solid film. I was surprised how much I liked it, specifically given the sample size of Bette Davis movies that I just don’t like at all (or am completely indifferent toward). Though, in terms of this category, it shouldn’t have won at all. Not at all. There are American classics on this list.

Foreign Correspondent — Hitchcock had two films nominated for Best Picture this year. That’s gotta be a pretty exclusive list, huh? This is definitely the lesser of his two nominees, but it’s still a really good film.

Joel McCrea is an American correspondent covering whether or not there will be a world war. And there’s a big delegate event being held, and McCrea goes to cover it. And while he’s there, one of the diplomats is assassinated very suddenly. But McCrea follows the assassin’s getaway car and follows him to a secluded windmill in the country, where the real diplomat (who is not dead), is being held. And the rest of the film is basically them figuring out a plot to start the war and whose behind it, and — it’s Hitchcock, it’s great. Just watch it.

It’s a really solid film, and that windmill scene is awesome. Though, Rebecca is better, so that right there eliminates this as a choice.

The Grapes of Wrath — It’s The Grapes of Wrath. You need to have seen this.

The Great Dictator — Again, another film you need to have seen.

Kitty Foyle — This is the film that won Ginger Rogers her Oscar.

The film is, as Katharine Hepburn put it, “a drama about a shopgirl.” The film is about Ginger, as a shopgirl, who is forced to make a decision, marry a doctor, or run away with a married man she’s been in love with for years. And we sit with her as she has to decide between these two, and we flash back to how she got there. And in the flashback, we see that the doctor is the more stable choice, and will be the better husband, and that the married man is not a particularly great guy, but she’s really got a thing for him, and jumps at him pretty much whenever he looks her way.

There’s really not much to say here — it’s a good film. I really liked it. I’m sure some won’t, but I really did. I love Ginger Rogers. I’ll see pretty much anything she does. Though it’s clear that this was never going to win. It’s good, but not that good. Not up against the classics on this list.

The Letter — This is the movie where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman. This blog might have been leading up to this moment from post #1.

The film is a remake of the 1929 version starring Jeanne Eagels (who was unofficially nominated for Best Actress that year for it, since there were no official nominees). It’s about a woman who shoots a man and claims it’s in self-defense. That’s Bette Davis. And everyone believes her, until a letter surfaces that implies that she was in love with him (which would make the killing murder rather than self-defense), and she works to suppress the letter, which leads to her getting shanked by a Chinese woman (the man’s wife).

It’s not a film I liked. But she does actually get shanked by a Chinese woman. Still, not winning amongst these other nominees. Not happening.

The Long Voyage Home — Oh hey, look at that. John Ford has two films nominated for Best Picture this year too.

This film is actually kind of like a John Ford version of In Which We Serve. That film was about the boat, and the history of the boat. This one is about the men on the boat. Ford is all about the community.

The film is self-explanatory from its title. The men are traveling home from the West Indies to England (it’s actually one of the triangle trade routes, though slavery isn’t involved). And basically we just hang out on the ship with the men. That’s actually pretty much the entire film. It’s just showing the men on this voyage. Not much actually does happen. In fact it was kinda boring for me. I don’t know why. Maybe because John Wayne was playing a Swede.

This is no Grapes of Wrath. It had no shot.

Our Town — Ah, Our Town.

I really loved this one. I guess because it’s largely plotless. The first two-thirds of this film is basically just life in a small town, floating from event to event. And then the final third is this weird dreamlike state where one of the characters dies and then floats around, watching everyone else go about their lives after her death. It’s a very unique film. I really, really liked it.

Wouldn’t vote for it though, since, again — Grapes of Wrath. (I love when there’s an obvious winner. It makes it so much easier to be like, “Yup, not winning.” I don’t have to explain why I’m not voting for it.)

The Philadelphia Story — This is a classic comedy. I don’t love it as much as some other ones like some people do (for instance, I don’t think this is anywhere near Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday (anywhere being the key word), even though it is a really great romantic comedy), but it is a terrific, terrific film.

The film begins with the divorce of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. And we fast forward to the weekend where she’s gonna be remarried. And a couple of reporters (Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey) show up to cover the wedding, mostly because Hepburn’s father has pretty much left her mother and is with another woman in the city, and since they’re a big socialite family, they want the scoop. So Hepburn and the family try to cover for him by passing off their uncle as their father, and then Grant shows up to mess with them (and also get Hepburn back, in a way), and there’s a whole series of incidents, and eventually Hepburn leaves her fiancé and remarries Grant, and Jimmy Stewart marries Hussey. It’s a great movie. I should have just said you need to see it, but, I gave a synopsis. So, there.

It’s good, but, not The Grapes of Wrath. It’s just not.

Rebecca — This film is about Joan Fontaine, a young naive girl, who meets and falls in love with Laurence Olivier. After a whirlwind courtship, she goes to live at his estate, where the memory of his dead ex-wife lingers over the entire grounds. And at first she’s overwhelmed by it, but soon she takes ownership of it and becomes lady of the house. But then she starts looking into how the wife died, since it’s this big secret, and then she finds out, and — well, just see it. It’s Hitchcock and it’s pretty classic. I don’t want to ruin it if you haven’t seen it. (If I haven’t already in one of the other articles.)

It’s a great film. It really is. Though again, this shouldn’t have beaten The Grapes of Wrath. I’m actually amazed that it did. But it’s not so bad, given that Ford won Best Director, but still — I can’t vote for this no matter how much I like it. Grapes of Wrath is an unquestioned classic. You can’t not vote for those.

My Thoughts: Rebecca is a great film (so is Great Dictator), but The Grapes of Wrath is an American classic. That’s the only choice here.

My Vote: The Grapes of Wrath

Should Have Won: The Grapes of Wrath

Is the result acceptable?: This is hard to say, but no. I love Rebecca, but The Grapes of Wrath is such a better movie. It’s close. It’s one of those, “I don’t like the choice, but I can live with it.” I think Ford winning Best Director is what saves it. I can understand it because of that.

Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen The Grapes of Wrath or The Great Dictator, you don’t really love movies and you’re dead to me.

Rebecca is a film you really need to see. It’s a Best Picture winner, a Hitchcock film and is incredible. That makes it essential. See it.

The Philadelphia Story is also essential, given its stature. You need to see that too.

I love Our Town so much. It’s so laid back, and the structure is so unlike anything else, Oscar-wise. And I love that. I really liked this and highly, highly recommend it.

Kitty Foyle is a really great movie. Ginger Rogers. And her movies are pretty much all worth watching. This is the movie she won an Oscar for. It’s really good. Highly recommended.

All This, and Heaven Too — I actually really liked this one. I don’t typically like the Bette Davis melodrama, but I liked this one. I can’t explain it, but, the fact that I don’t do these types of movies and liked this one should be enough. Highly recommended.

Foreign Correspondent — another Hitchcock. All of his films should just be essential. So I’m declaring this essential. Not one of his absolute best, but even Hitchcock at simply very good is better than most. So see this.

The Long Voyage Home — John Ford and John Wayne. I don’t love it, but it is considered a classic, and the Wayne/Ford films are all essential in their own way. It’s one of the most famous collaborations of all time. You should probably see it.

The Letter is the film in which Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman. I rest my case.

Rankings:

10) The Letter

9) The Long Voyage Home

8) Foreign Correspondent

7) All This, and Heaven Too

6) The Philadelphia Story

5) Kitty Foyle

4) Our Town

3) The Great Dictator

2) Rebecca

1) The Grapes of Wrath

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