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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Picture, 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

Dark Victory

Gone With the Wind

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Love Affair

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Ninotchka

Of Mice and Men

Stagecoach

The Wizard of Oz

Wuthering Heights

Analysis:

Dark Victory is a Bette Davis melodrama. These were all the rage from 1935 to 1945.

Bette plays a socialite who lives life to the fullest… until she’s diagnosed with a brain tumor. And the film is about her deciding whether or not she’s gonna be in denial and continue partying and hasten her impending death, or meet it with a sense of dignity.

I actually like this quite a bit. Though Humphrey Bogart being a love interest is a bit of a weird move. In terms of the category, it’s bottom two. It’s one of the strongest years of all time, and this is a very good film, but it’s not gonna get anywhere near the top of the category, vote-wise. Even people who love this movie wouldn’t have it higher than fourth. If that. There are four of the 100 most important American movies ever made on this list. This just does not rate next to those.

Gone With the Wind is only one of the most famous films ever made.

There are about four or five films that, when you look at them, they pretty much automatically win Best Picture without an argument. This is one of them.

I’m not giving you a synopsis because either one of two things is true. Either a) you’ve seen the movie and don’t need it, or b) you know you need to see it and haven’t. In which case you don’t need a synopsis, because you understand what a monumental achievement this was for American cinema.

This is one of the biggest no-brainers in Oscar history. You may have a preference for another film, but it’s impossible to say this wasn’t deserving. Because put in the context of 1939, this was the crowning achievement of Hollywood. This was the pinnacle of moviemaking and everything this awards show was about. It’s an automatic winner, and is one of my five favorite films of all time, so this one’s pretty clear cut for me all around.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a really great film. Really great. The biggest knock against it is that it shouldn’t have won Best Actor, and even then you could still argue for it in that case.

It’s about a teacher. He starts teaching at a school at 20, and we watch him throughout the decades, finding love, losing love, and going from inexperiences newbie to beloved mascot of the school into his 80s. It’s wonderful. It really is.

The big conceit of the film is that Robert Donat plays the character over the course of fifty-to-sixty years, giving it a nice novelty that it otherwise might have lacked had multiple actors played the character. Still, it’s a very strong movie and a very good movie. It unfortunately had the luck of winding up in a year with Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz. No matter how much you love it, it’s not gonna end up any better than fifth in the category.

Love Affair is one of those famous love stories in film history. They remade it as An Affair to Remember twenty years later.

It’s about two people who meet on an ocean liner and fall in love. Both are engaged to other people. Upon departing the ship, they agree to meet six months later on top of the Empire State Building. I will leave it at that for now.

It’s a classic romance film. Great performances, great story. In a weaker year, it would be top three, maybe. Here, at best you’re looking at a fifth choice. It’s just too strong a category to even consider this over the other films.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of the best American films ever made, and, to me, Frank Capra’s best film. I know It’s A Wonderful Life is out there, but this, to me, is the best.

A senator dies and a replacement is needed. The political boss that essentially runs the state conspires with the other senator to pick someone completely innocuous, who is so naive that they’ll allow all their underhanded dealings to happen without issue. They pick Jimmy Stewart, the leader of a boys camp. He’s innocent and wholesome, which is exactly what they want. They distract him for a while with all the sights and use his excitement at simply being in the senate to keep him in the dark. Eventually he decides to propose his own bill, about creating a national boys camp on state land. Which is directly opposed to another bill the political boss is trying to push through, which would build a dam on those lands and earn him a lot of money. So he does everything he can to bury Stewart and the bill and keep him muzzled on the floor, disgrace him among the senators and make him look like a lunatic. Which culminates in Stewart giving a filibuster on the floor of the senate in one of the most famous sequences in film history.

This movie is perfect. It’s a masterpiece, and were this in almost any other year around this, it would have won Best Picture, and rightfully so. But this year… at best it’s a second choice after Gone With the Wind. It’s easily something you could take, but it’s like To Kill a Mockingbird over Lawrence of Arabia. One of them is clearly the choice, but you couldn’t argue with the other one. They’re both great.

Ninotchka is one of the great all-time comedies. A wonderful story. Very much of a product of its era, but still — it works even now.

Three Soviets are in Paris to sell stolen jewelry, but they quickly become enamored by Parisian lifestyle and decide they don’t want to go back. So they send an envoy — Ninotchka. She’s the perfect Soviet — dedicated beyond a fault and only interested in her mission. The three men get to Paris and want to enjoy the lifestyle — she gets to Paris and is interested in the infrastructure of the city and what elements can be stolen to improve the Soviet lifestyle. She’s shown around by Melvyn Douglas, a count, whose early attempts to seduce her are met with hilarious failure. The deadpan comedy here is great. Though eventually she warms up and loses her rigid exterior.

People used to know this movie as “Garbo laughs!” Since she was known for heavy, melodramatic work before this, and this was her first comedy. It’s really funny. Though it’s in the wrong category. Maybe 1938 I could push it to top four. Here — sixth choice, maybe? It’s in a year that’s too strong. It wouldn’t hold up as a winner, and definitely isn’t the choice over at least four of the films in this category. So we’re simply left with it being one of the greatest comedies ever made. Nice consolation prize.

Of Mice and Men is a literary classic. Somehow they’ve never made a definitive film version of it. There’s pretty much just this one and the Gary Sinise version from the 90s.

It’s about two migrant workers during the Depression, George, the smaller, smarter one, and Lenny, the the larger, mentally disabled one. Both need one another to get by, and it’s about their friendship despite all the hardships.

It’s a very good film, but most years it would end up bottom three. Here, it’s 10 of 10. And that’s before I take into account my aversion to voting for these literary classics for Best Picture. It’s just the weakest film in the category. Even if I loved it, I couldn’t make an argument past ninth for this.

Stagecoach is one of the all-time best westerns. Top ten for the genre.

A group of passengers are traveling west on the stage. That’s pretty much it. We follow them and their stories and their interactions. There’s the doctor (who is also the drunk), the salesman, the pregnant woman, the hooker, the gambler, the fugitive — all the tropes. The main “story” is that of John Wayne, who has just escaped from prison after hearing his father and brother were killed by an outlaw. He’s traveling to kill the outlaw in retribution.

It’s a perfect film. It could have won this easily, but it wouldn’t have held up as a great winner simply because of what it beat. It feels perfectly suited as a nominee and a great western. I love it, but I wouldn’t take it over three other films in the category.

The Wizard of Oz.

I think this one’s pretty self-explanatory.

It’s a perfect film, one we all love, one we all grew up with. But that still doesn’t make it a better choice over Gone With the Wind. Sometimes there’s just an automatic winner. It’s so famous it becomes a second choice, but

Wuthering Heights is one of the most famous novels ever written. It’s about the tragic romance between Cathy and Heathcliff.

It’s a solid film. Well directed. I remember being really impressed with the direction and cinematography of it. But it’s no more than a classy literary adaptation. By now, you guys know my aversion to these as Best Picture winners. I like it quite a bit, but in this category particularly, I can’t make a case for this above eighth choice. It would have been a bad choice had it won. So let’s leave it as a classy film that’s very well made and perfectly suited as a Best Picture nominee.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is very cut and dry. Gone With the Wind should have won this. And, being a top five film of mine, it’s my automatic vote.

The Wizard of Oz is perfect. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is perfect. Stagecoach is perfect. You could vote for any of those and I wouldn’t question it. (Well… I may question Stagecoach, just because the other three are so strong, but even then, not so much.) The rest — they just don’t feel like good choices given the competition. Though everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Still — this is Gone With the Wind all the way and it’s not even close for me, despite two of the other films also being two of my absolute favorite films as well.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Gone With the Wind
  2. The Wizard of Oz
  3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  4. Stagecoach
  5. Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  6. Love Affair
  7. Ninotchka
  8. Wuthering Heights
  9. Dark Victory
  10. Of Mice and Men

Rankings (films):

  1. Gone With the Wind
  2. The Wizard of Oz
  3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  4. Stagecoach
  5. Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  6. Ninotchka
  7. Love Affair
  8. Dark Victory
  9. Wuthering Heights
  10. Of Mice and Men

My Vote: Gone With the Wind

Recommendations:

Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach. If you consider yourself a film fan and haven’t seen any of these… what are you doing? These are like, top fifty all time essential movies. Some of them… if you’ve made it to like, high school, without seeing The Wizard of Oz — what?

Ninotchka is an all-time comedy. Completely essential film. It’s great. (They turned it into a musical with Fred Astaire, Silk Stockings, which is not as good but is interesting. This is the version you need to see.)

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is essential for Oscar buffs and a high recommend for all else. It’s a classic, and it’s wonderful. You should see it because you’ll probably really like it.

Love Affair is one of the classics of the 30s. You can probably get away with just seeing An Affair to Remember, but I don’t see why you wouldn’t see this one too. It’s essential for the 30s, and a high recommend for all else.

Wuthering Heights is probably the best version of the book put on screen. Though I’m not particularly well versed in them. It’s a solid recommend all around. High recommend for the 30s, worthwhile because it’s William Wyler and Laurence Olivier. It looks great and is a good film.

Dark Victory is a Bette Davis melodrama that I actually like. It’s a very solid movie all around, and you get Bogart for good measure. Solid recommend, high recommend if you’re focusing on the 30s as a decade.

Of Mice and Men is a solid movie. The book is essential. The movie is just good. Moderate recommend for all, but if you’re focusing on 30s movies, then I give it a solid to high recommend.

The Last Word: This is one of the five best choices of all time. When placed in context, this is one of the greatest films to win Best Picture. I don’t think that part can be argued. I can see someone voting for Oz or Mr. Smith out of preference, but the best choice in this category is, and remains, Gone With the Wind.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1940

All This, and Heaven Too

Foreign Correspondent

The Grapes of Wrath

The Great Dictator

Kitty Foyle

The Letter

The Long Voyage Home

Our Town

The Philadelphia Story

Rebecca

Analysis:

All This, and Heaven Too. Another Bette Davis melodrama! One of two this year.

In this one, she plays a woman who gets a job as a tutor to a child of a rich family. The father is Charles Boyer, a nice man. The mother is Barbra O’Neil, who is crazy. One minute she’s hot and one minute she’s cold. The marriage between the two is all but gone, and they’re only together because of the children. Davis, meanwhile, proves to be a great tutor. The kids love her. And Boyer starts to feel affection for her as well. Though this only serves to make O’Neil jealous of Davis. And you can guess where things go from there.

I actually like this movie, surprisingly enough. I didn’t think I would, but I did quite a bit. Though even so, this is one of those films that feels a year or two too late to really be considered for any sort of vote. And even then, the other films of this sort didn’t quite do it for me in this category in their respective years. So I assume this will end up bottom three.

Foreign Correspondent is the first of two Hitchcock films in this category. We have two Bette Davis and two Hitchcock.

This is a straight thriller. Joel McCrea is a war correspondent in Europe to cover the increasing Nazi threat. While there, a diplomat he befriends ends up assassinated in front of his eyes. And he ends up chasing down the killers, leading him into a giant international conspiracy. It’s fun stuff.

Great movie, but not the Hitchcock film to vote for. (Though I will understand if this is the one of the two some people like best.) I like it a lot, but at best this is middle of the pack. It just wouldn’t have been a good winner at all. And if you think it might be, just take a look at the next two films.

The Grapes of Wrath is an American classic. Based on a literary classic. Which we’ll deal with later on.

It’s about Tom Joad, an ex-con, and his family, traveling across the Depression-era landscape in search of work. It is a perfect film.

If ever there was a movie that overcomes my aversion to voting for literary classics turned into films, this is it. But on the other hand, perhaps that’s why this didn’t win? I don’t know. But what I do know is that this is undoubtedly one of the greatest American movies ever made, and this category could not be properly discussed without this film being heavily in the conversation. It’s top two for me no matter how you slice it, and it will take a lot for this not to be my vote in the end.

The Great Dictator is Charlie Chaplin. His last great film. He made three other really good films after this, but this was his last great one. (Possibly owing to both the changing of the times and his eventual exile status from the US.)

Chaplin plays both a Jewish barber and fascist dictator. This is due to the odd similarities between his “Tramp” character and Adolf Hitler. It’s a great comedy — one of the best ever made — with a very important political message at the end.

It’s an incredible film. I love it a lot. It might be enough for me to take over The Grapes of Wrath. We’ll see. Top two for sure. It’s pretty much gonna be one or the other at this point.

Kitty Foyle is one of those movies I really liked when I first saw it, but over time… well… here’s the thing. It’s subtitled “The Natural History of a Woman.” Which… not the best subtitle from a 2017 perspective.

Ginger Rogers plays a sales clerk who has to decide between marrying a rich man or marrying a doctor. (You know, like all women.) The idea is, she’s been in love with the rich man, who is married, for years and has the chance to run away with him. Or she could marry the doctor, who is much less of a ‘sexy’ choice but the better choice overall. Honestly, throw in a diary…

I do like this movie. Though I think a lot of that is because I love Ginger Rogers, and really wanted to see her get an Oscar. So perhaps my opinion of the film is inflated because of that. I don’t think it’s a particularly strong nominee, despite my liking of it. It doesn’t really make it past eighth choice. Maybe seventh. It would have been one of the weakest winners of all time, had it won.

The Letter is the movie where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman. (I am physically incapable of referring to it any other way.)

Bette shoots a man on her porch and claims it was self defense. She’s gonna be put on trial as a formality, but everyone assumes she’s telling the truth. However… there is the presence of a letter, which may point to something more going on. Specifically a liaison between the two that was in danger of being found out. Which would change it from self-defense to murder. We watch as she does everything in her power to make (insert title here) disappear.

It’s thought of as a great drama. I’ve never loved it. And the fact that I keep calling it “the movie where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman” means I can’t even take it seriously. It’s a remake of the 1929 movie that got Jeanne Eagels a Best Actress nomination. It’s not a bad movie. I just don’t love it and can’t take it seriously enough to even consider it for a vote. Objectively it can be as high as a sixth or even fifth choice. But for me, tenth. I just can’t. Some films you just can’t vote for. This is one of mine.

Look at this:

Shanks the woman and straight up walks away. Cold blooded.

The Long Voyage Home is a John Ford movie based on a Eugene O’Neill play. Not a bad place to start.

It’s about the crew of a ship that is embarking on (insert title here). We follow each of the characters, and we follow them as they travel back home. That’s pretty much it. They drink a bunch, travel through dangerous territory, think one of their guys is a spy, and dream of getting back home to their families.

It’s John Ford, so even if there isn’t a specific plot, it’s very much watchable because he builds a sense of community. So even watching nothing happen is captivating.

In terms of the category — lower middle of the pack. Good film, but wouldn’t have been a great choice. No one particularly remembers it, and there are some heavy hitters in this category. Solid film, but not something I’d take.

Our Town is famously a play that has no scenery in it. The film, aside from having scenery, is pretty faithful all around. Though they do deviate from the third act (and not in a way I like).

The film is largely plotless for much of it. It’s life in a small town. We move from event to event, skit to skit, story to story, the whole thing. The third act turns into this weird bit where one of the main characters dies. And she’s floating around in this dreamlike sort of existence where she watches life go on without her. The play actually has her die. Here, they reveal it was all a dream and have her wake up and have a happy ending.

It’s a really good film. I like films that deviate from what would normally be a standard three-act kind of structure (like State Fair from 1933). This was a standout for me. I wouldn’t vote for it at all. Objectively it’s probably a seventh choice at best. I like it more than that, but in terms of how it would have held up, this wouldn’t be particularly high for me. Maybe in like, 1931. But not 1940. This is mostly a forgotten nominee but a solid film.

The Philadelphia Story is one of the great comedies of all time.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant divorce. That’s the beginning of the film. I’ve always remembered this film, because it’s kinda violent. Grant storms out of the house with his golf clubs and Hepburn follows him out. And after a nasty exchange of glances, he full on face palms her and slams her backward onto the ground. And I’ve always gone, “Shit, man, that’s violent.” Anyway, cut to like a year later and Hepburn is about to remarry another guy. It’s a big story, so a tabloid sends two reporters to cover the wedding. The family is aware they’re tabloid, so they’re about to kick them out. Only enter Cary Grant, who shows up, looking to sabotage the whole thing, and says the reporters are with him. The family, not looking for scandal (since their uncle has been living in some… sordid circumstances), let them stay. And we watch as the weekend plays out in hilarious fashion, naturally culminating in a marriage, but of course not the one we’d expect (although totally the one we’d expect).

I love this movie, and it’s a masterpiece of comedy. Do I think it needed to win Best Picture? No. Would it have been a good winner? Sure. Would it have been the best choice? Not sure. Would I take it? Probably not, but let’s not rule anything out. I do really like this movie.

Rebecca is the 188th most popular female name for babies in the U.S. And also the Best Picture winner from 1940 directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I guess that’s the one we’re talking about now.

Rebecca is a young woman who, while on vacation, meets Laurence Olivier (I forget what his character name is, it doesn’t matter) and falls in love with him. After a whirlwind courtship, they marry and return to his home, Manderlay. As soon as she gets there, everything feels weird. The staff is very cold and distant, specifically the main housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. The entire house has a weird air about it. The ghost of Olivier’s dead ex-wife hangs over the premises. Rebecca has to at first overcome this intimidation and eventually make herself the woman of the house. Though she finds that even her husband can’t get over this dead ex-wife. And the more she looks into it, the more she realizes the woman may have died under… less than natural circumstances.

It’s a really great film. A gothic romance and a bit of a thriller. Not the first thing you expect to see from Hitchcock, and yet the perfect vehicle for him as his first American film. Though his trademark visual style is very subdued here. No doubt due to the influence of David O. Selznick.

I like this film a lot, but in a category with The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator and The Philadelphia Story, it’s gonna be hard to see this as anything higher than a fourth choice for me. This is one of those choices where you can’t disagree with it, but also can’t help but think there were better ones to be had. (You know what felt like one of those choices? Spotlight.) I can look at this category a hundred times and probably never take this one. Yet, it’s still a great movie. Just… never gonna be my choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This one parses pretty quickly. No to The Letter, no to All This and Heaven Too, no to Kitty Foyle, no to The Long Voyage Home, no to Our Town. I wouldn’t take Foreign Correspondent either. So that’s six right off the top.

The four films this category would most commonly come down to are the Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, The Philadelphia Story and Rebecca. And Rebecca, as I said, just feels like a fourth choice that I would never end up taking no matter how many times you gave me this category. The Philadelphia Story, while I love it, also doesn’t quite feel like the right choice, historically. I might end up taking it one or two times, going through this, but honestly, the best choice for this seems to be either The Grapes of Wrath or The Great Dictator. Fortunately, those are my two favorite films in the category, so that’s nice.

And, despite my dislike of usually taking films based on classic pieces of literature… two things about The Grapes of Wrath — the book came out a year before the movie did. So it was new and not well established like most of them are. And two — this is legitimately so great that it’s not like I’m voting for one of many versions of Great Expectations. This is the only version of the film that’s been made. They haven’t been able to top it. So to me, it’s perfectly fine to take and doesn’t go at all against the stuff I’m against voting for. And with that said… that’s gonna be the choice. Despite the highly tempting notion of taking The Great Dictator and its prescience to the current political climate, I’m gonna stick with what I consider the best film in the category and the one I like the most. And that’s The Grapes of Wrath.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. The Grapes of Wrath
  2. The Great Dictator
  3. Rebecca
  4. The Philadelphia Story
  5. Foreign Correspondent
  6. The Letter
  7. The Long Voyage Home
  8. Our Town
  9. Kitty Foyle
  10. All This, and Heaven Too

Rankings (films):

  1. The Grapes of Wrath
  2. The Philadelphia Story
  3. The Great Dictator
  4. Rebecca
  5. Our Town
  6. Foreign Correspondent
  7. The Long Voyage Home
  8. Kitty Foyle
  9. All This, and Heaven Too
  10. The Letter

My Vote: The Grapes of Wrath

Recommendations:

The Grapes of Wrath, The Philadelphia Story, The Great Dictator. These are three of the most essential movies ever made. They must be seen.

Rebecca is essential. Best Picture winner, Hitchcock, and it’s great. Must see.

Our Town is a movie I really like because it’s essentially plotless and has that weird third act which is essentially Enter the Void sixty years early. Overall, it’s just a pretty good movie. Not particularly essential. I recommend it highly though.

Foreign Correspondent is also Hitchcock. Essential as far as his films go. All around it’s just a high recommend. Very solid, though not on par with his most famous works.

Kitty Foyle is a solid enough movie. Some people might not like it. Essential for Oscar buffs because it won Ginger her Oscar, but otherwise just a moderate recommend. It’s not for everyone, but those who love her will like it.

All This, and Heaven Too is a Bette Davis melodrama that’s solid all around. Definite recommend, though not particularly essential unless you’re focusing on her or the genre.

The Long Voyage Home is John Ford and his usual cast of characters, and a very solid film. Solid recommend. Some might consider it essential. I just consider it worth seeing.

The Letter is the movie where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman. I can only do so much with this. As a film, it’s fine. I don’t love it, but she does get straight up shanked and it’s considered somewhat of a classic. So there’s both of those things. Otherwise — shank shank shank.

The Last Word: Rebecca is a great film, but I think time has shown it to not be the best choice that could have been made in the category. It’s about 50/50 with The Philadelphia Story as to which is the better choice there. But The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator — those are American classics. Those are the films that would have held up better as choices. I’m partial to The Grapes of Wrath, but either one would have been a better winner. Still, on its own, Rebecca isn’t a bad choice. Though it’s about below average, historically.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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