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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1939-1940)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1939

Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Victor Fleming, Gone with the Wind

John Ford, Stagecoach

Sam Wood, Goodbye, Mr. Chips

William Wyler, Wuthering Heights

Analysis:

Ah, the golden year. It’s crazy to have such heavy hitters and yet have such a clear cut winner.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is my favorite Capra film. This would be a film I’d want to vote for in almost any other year. To me, it’s a perfect entity. A senator dies right before a big vote for a bill. Hidden in it is a provision that will allow the crooked “boss” of the state to evict a bunch of people from land and build a dam. They decide to elect some unassuming yokel who will do what they say and not make waves. They nominate Jimmy Stewart, boy scout leader and naive idealist. He’s Mr. Smith. Guess where he goes? So he shows up, all nice, and the town quickly makes a fool of him. And the film is about him wising up and proving he does stand for something and will fight for what he believes in, culminating in an absolutely spellbinding filibuster sequence that lasts about the last 40 or so minutes of the film.

This is a perfect movie. The direction is fine, but if we’re being honest, it’s really not strong enough to win on its own. Not in this category. The only reason I vote for this is because of sentimental reasons. And I love this film. This is top 25 all-time for me. Yet still, I’d say at best this is a third choice in the category.

Gone With the Wind — maybe you’ve heard of it. This is an all-time film. A real benchmark for Hollywood. I’m not gonna get into what it’s about, because if you’re into movies, then either you’ve seen this or you know you need to see it. Ignoring the fact that it’s a top five favorite film for me, this is one of those movies that just doesn’t lose in this category. This was such a huge achievement for Hollywood that it’s pretty much impossible not to accept it as a winner.

Stagecoach is a film that might actually win this category if not for Gone With the Wind. It’s a very simple film. A bunch of characters get on a (insert title here), we meet them, they are your western archetypes, they travel across Monument Valley, we see them play off of one another, and they also get attacked by Indians. It’s such a perfect movie. You got the timid salesman, the drunk doctor, the whore with a heart of gold, the southern gambler, the pregnant lieutenant’s wife, the escaped convict. Really terrific film. The directing here was so influential and so well done that this was the film Orson Welles watched every night while shooting Citizen Kane. This is a situation where you can vote for this on merit and effort alone. I could understand that. Gone With the Wind is still your winner, but I understand a vote for this one.

Goodbye Mr. Chips is a great film. We follow a teacher throughout his entire career at the school. It’s like Mr. Holland’s Opus, except not as sentimental. (I was being nice by saying sentimental. But I also love that movie.) The beauty is that Robert Donat plays him the entire time, from something 25 to 83. It’s a movie where we follow the trajectory of this man’s life through vignettes. Trust me when I say it’s near perfect. It’s not as well-remembered as the other films of this year, but this is one of the ten best movies of the year that’s considered one of, if not the best year in Hollywood history.

The direction is pretty standard. Nothing too outstanding. This is bottom two in the category, owing to nothing other than the fact that the category is so strong.

Wuthering Heights is a pretty famous story. Kathy and Heathcliff. Soulmates who just never got to end up together like they were supposed to. This was Olivier’s big US debut. It’s big and classy and melodramatic. William Wyler directs, which means you’re getting really solid direction. I remember watching this for the Quest and thinking, “Shit, this direction is great.” The film looked good and Wyler directed the hell out of it. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I’m not sure if my opinion would change upon further viewing. Either way, at best you can only consider him third for a vote, and even that’s tough, simply because of how much I love Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Either way, not making much of a play for a vote. There’s a behemoth in the room.

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The Reconsideration: This is one of the easiest categories of all time. Victor Fleming and Gone With the Wind is your easy winner. Doesn’t have to be your vote, but you should be able to understand and accept why it is the vote. My vote is Fleming all the way, and I imagine that would be the case for most people. If Fleming isn’t the vote, I imagine it’s because you think that Gone With the Wind is a big, epic movie and all, but Ford’s direction is much more artistic and is a better fit for the category. I can accept that. I can accept a Ford vote as long as you can accept that Gone With the Wind was a deserving winner. I can also accept a Capra vote if you know that it’s really not the best effort in the category and are doing so because of your love for the film. It’s slightly pushing it (because then we get into deeper discussions of — so you’re giving him four, huh? and things of that sort), but if you sound reasonable enough, I can go along. I’d be pretty shocked if anyone voted for Sam Wood here, and slightly surprised at a Wyler vote, just because it seems weird to give someone Best Director for a story that everyone knows that’s been told over and over.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Victor Fleming, Gone With the Wind
  2. John Ford, Stagecoach
  3. Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  4. William Wyler, Wuthering Heights
  5. Sam Wood, Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Rankings (films):

  1. Gone With the Wind
  2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  3. Stagecoach
  4. Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  5. Wuthering Heights

My Vote: Victor Fleming, Gone With the Wind

Recommendations:

This one’s easy: if you like movies, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach are essential viewing. I’m not talking about if you’re deep into movies, I mean — if you consider yourself a movie buff, these are entry level movies that you must see. Film student 101. Not even 101, this is on the reading list before you even get into 101.

And then, Goodbye, Mr. Chips isn’t quite essential, but it’s really good. This is, relative to 1939, a forgotten movie of the golden year. It should be seen, because it’s terrific. Most people will love this movie when they see it.

Wuthering Heights is the weakest film on this list, simply because like most of these adaptations, they made it a bunch of times. Like Little Women. You’ve seen it told before. I can’t really make you watch one version over another (though this is the one to watch, of all of them). If you’ve seen it, then you’ve seen it. If you haven’t, see this one. It’s solid, well-directed, Olivier, Merle Oberon — no reason not to see it if you love old movies.

The Last Word: It’s Fleming all the way. Ford is deserving, and I do love Mr. Smith, but it’s clearly Fleming. For what that movie meant to Hollywood and to film history, there’s really no way you can’t consider that the clear cut choice here.

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1940

George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story

John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath

Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca

Sam Wood, Kitty Foyle

William Wyler, The Letter

Analysis:

The Philadelphia Story is an iconic comedy, featuring three of the biggest stars Hollywood has ever had. Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart.

It’s a comedy of remarriage, ultimately. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn divorce. She’s about to get remarried to a womanizing playboy. Enter Jimmy Stewart as a tabloid reporter looking for a scoop. And Grant, who decides to have fun with the proceedings and cause hell for her the entire weekend. And you get great comedy and great romance throughout. It’s a perfect film. A real classic.

Direction-wise — nothing special. Well-made, really solid, all that. But no way does this go above #3 on effort alone. The only reason people would want to vote for this is because of their affinity for the film. But if we’re being totally honest, as much as I love the film, you can’t put this up against the next two films and seriously consider it for a vote.

The Grapes of Wrath is an American classic in both literature and film. The Joad family losing their home and becoming migrant workers in the Dust Bowl. One of those movies you will likely come across in school. That’s how much of a classic it is.

Hands down, this is the class of the category. I understand Hitchcock coming on strong for consideration, but it’s hard for me to think that anyone wouldn’t have this right there at #1 or #2 at worst.

Rebecca is Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film. And really is only remembered as much as it is because it won Best Picture. If this didn’t win Best Picture, I feel like this would be relegated to the ranks of “forgotten classics” of his. Then again, what of his can really be considered “forgotten”? They’re only forgotten because he made like 30 great movies and you just didn’t think of that particular one ahead of 15 others. But I digress.

This movie is more of a gothic romance than anything. Different from the tone of a lot of his other films. Then again, he’s a guy who made films in a lot of genres, and people don’t always realize that.

Joan Fontaine is a plain woman who meets a rich and charismatic Laurence Olivier while on vacation. She falls in love with him and marries him shortly thereafter. They return to his home. Very quickly, she realizes that he had previously been married, that his wife died, and there were some shady circumstances surrounding it, and that he is having a really hard time dealing with it. She realizes the shadow of his previous wife hangs over every room in the house. So she works to come into her own and become the lady of the house. And then over the course of the film, we get to the point where we find out what happened to the wife.

It’s a really good film. Great performances by Fontaine, Olivier and Judith Anderson. It’s surprising that this won Best Picture. Just doesn’t feel like it would be entirely the Academy’s cup of tea. Especially over The Grapes of Wrath.

But either way, the directing is really solid. Hitchcock knows his way around a great movie. It’s clearly one of the top two choices in the category. Though, up against what is definitively an American classic, it’s gonna be hard to say this is the choice.

Kitty Foyle is actually subtitled “The Natural History of a Woman,” which is hilarious. I was also going to say it should be called “First World Problems.” But a more appropriate title is probable “Hot Girl Problems.” It’s about Ginger, about to decide which of two men to marry. One is a stable doctor, and the other is a guy she’s been in love with for many years, who is already married. As she makes this decision, we flash back to how she got there. Meet cutes, unrequited, then requited, then forbidden love. Divorce, pregnancies — the whole deal.

I remember really liking this movie when I saw it, but I wonder how much of that was me loving Ginger Rogers and wanting to love it because it won her an Oscar. Either way, I think everyone can agree that this is, at best, a fourth choice in the category. But even though I prefer it to the next film, I still say the effort is the #5. There’s nothing here. It’s standard direction. Glad he was nominated, but I’d be really shocked if anyone actually wanted to vote for this.

The Letter is the movie where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman. I’m sorry to ruin it for you, but at this point, that’s basically what this movie is known for around these parts.

Bette plays a woman who kills a guy and claims it was self-defense. Only there’s a letter that exists that may prove otherwise. (You know, because they were fucking.) And she schemes and does everything she can to make sure that letter doesn’t see the light of day.

And then she gets shanked by a Chinese woman.

It’s William Wyler, so it’s quality. It’s also melodrama. Bette Davis made a career playing strong-willed (and, in many cases, bitchy) women. I was not overly fond of this movie when I saw it for the Quest, and haven’t gone back to see it since. I’m sure it’s fine.

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The Reconsideration: There’s really not much deliberation necessary in this category. No one is voting for Kitty Foyle here. And The Letter is nice, but also — not happening in this category. The Philadelphia Story will get votes based on the people who love it, but in terms of the actual effort — no. It’s clearly between Hitchcock and Ford. And, if you really look at the efforts — ehh, it’s close. I was gonna say Hitchcock’s is more of a simple melodrama, but it’s not. I remember many instances where his effort is more than just a simple genre film. You can easily make a case for him winning here. I would caution two things: first — don’t just vote for him because he never won and you want to get him an Oscar. That’s not how this exercise works. You’re not changing history. You’re just saying what you would have done if you had a ballot at the time. You have no idea what’s going to happen after this if you’re doing the exercise correctly. And two (which relates to the first in a lot of ways), if you are voting for him, make a logical case for it so it doesn’t come off as voting for Hitchcock for the sake of it, or because Ford already had an Oscar.

Either way, I can see either Rebecca or The Grapes of Wrath being the vote, and quite honestly, with The Grapes of Wrath being what it is — I have to vote for that. I think it’s such a staggering piece of work that it easily becomes the choice here. I’m sticking with the effort. Hitchcock is a solid second choice, and I’m not gonna let him never winning an Oscar cloud my judgment on this.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath
  2. Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca
  3. George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story
  4. William Wyler, The Letter
  5. Sam Wood, Kitty Foyle

Rankings (film):

  1. The Grapes of Wrath
  2. The Philadelphia Story
  3. Rebecca
  4. Kitty Foyle
  5. The Letter

My Vote: John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath

Recommendations: The Grapes of Wrath is an American classic and is required viewing for all. This should be shown in schools. You owe it to yourself as a human to see this story.

The Philadelphia Story is a comedy classic and is required viewing for film buffs.

Rebecca is required viewing for film buffs because you find out very quickly that Hitchcock is a cinema god and you can never get enough of his films. At least 60% of his filmography is full on essential viewing for even casual film fans.

Kitty Foyle is good. If you like Ginger Rogers, you’ll see this. If you like romantic melodramas of the 40s, you’ll see this. If you like 40s movies in general, you should see this. It won Best Actress, so that’s another reason to see it. If you care about that sort of thing. Otherwise, casual film buffs likely won’t get to this very quickly, or at all.

The Letter is worth it because Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman. (Technically it’s Gale Sondergaard, who was not Asian, but was constantly playing Asians. But it’s 1940 Hollywood — did you really think that a Chinese woman was actually going to be played by a Chinese woman?) (P.S. You can replace 1940 with any other year and, sadly, the statement still applies.) Oh, but yeah, it’s Bette Davis, William Wyler. It has reasons to see it. Once you get into movies, you learn pretty quickly that you can rarely go wrong with certain directors. Wyler is one of those.

The Last Word: Look, it’s either Ford or Hitchcock here. Ford holds up. Hitchcock would have been a decent choice. Also, one thing to take into account, not that it matters for the sake of the exercise, but is something to think about — what if Rebecca was the only Oscar Hitchcock ever won, over all of his other movies? That aside, to me, it’s one or the other, and I’m taking Ford without a moment’s hesitation.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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