Thursday, May 23, 2024

Oscar 1940: Best Actress

My goodness, back in 1940, Best Actress and Best Picture were really linked! This was and is a rarity - let's not forget, the Best Actress race for 2021 had zero women in Best Picture nominees, so 5/5 is insane. Unheard of. Even 1939 and 1941 were both just shy at 4/5, but for this one year, what made five of the Best Pictures of the Year work were the lead female performances at the center.

Those performances? Two veterans (Davis & Hepburn). Two reprising their Broadway hits (Hepburn & Scott). One getting the Selznick ingenue treatment (Fontaine). But only one winner. Yes, even though it wasn't for the movies that made her famous (and still remain her best-known), Ginger Rogers, star of Top Hat and Swing Time, would forever be an Oscar winner.

These were those performances:

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Oscar 1940: Best Supporting Actor

What makes a performance a supporting one? The answer may seem obvious - a supporting performer is not the lead - but as longtime Oscare observers know, such is not really the case. Back then the categories were specifically made to honor character actors, and while some could grow into stars, often a character actor was a character actor was a character actor. We've talked about it before with both of Edmund Gwenn's nominations and we'll talk about it again next month for 1941 for Charles Coburn in The Devil and Miss Jones. But here is a lineup where fully 3/5 could be argued as Leading Men. 

One of those was Walter Brennan, the only nominee here who'd been here before and the only one who would return. Brennan's two previous nominations resulted in wins. So did this, the first actor to win three.

It was figured this was due to the Extras Guild, who had voting power in the Academy at the time and who counted Brennan as one of their own, a man who went from extra to featured extra to bit player and on and on until...well, here he is! Anyway, they were stripped of voting privileges after this.

But Extras Guild or not, was that win deserved? Let's talk: 

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Oscar 1940: Best Original Song

Nine nominees for Best Original Song? From 1940-1945, the idea of five nominees per category was anathema to the Academy. Best Picture sometimes had twelve contenders, Original Score had seventeen nominees in 1940 alone; only Directing, Acting, and Writing categories had no more than five consistently. Still, nine is a weird number, particularly when the lineup doesn't even include hits by Cole Porter and only one song from Pinocchio. Perhaps that was better for Disney's odds: "When You Wish Upon a Star" triumphed, becoming the first of eleven Disney films to win in this category. The other eight nominees represent a time when a musical was as common as an action blockbuster is today. The stars of the screen are the sa

Let's have a listening party, ranking the songs from my personal #9 to my personal #1:

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Oscar 1940: Best Actor

Continuing the journey through the 13th Academy Awards with the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. At the original ceremony, this was the final award of the night - indeed, the four acting awards capped the evening, after Best Picture (which we already covered). In that spirit, we're doing things completely out of order.

So here we are, with five leading men. Charles Chaplin makes his return to the screen after a four-year absence. Henry Fonda, unnominated the previous year for Young Mr. Lincoln, reunites with that film's director John Ford and gets his first nomination. Raymond Massey recreates his Broadway hit. And Laurence Olivier and James Stewart return for the second year in a row, having both lost the previous year to Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (they would face each other again in 1946, losing to Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives).

The nominees:

Friday, May 17, 2024

Oscar 1940: Best Picture of the Year

1940 begins with the biggest film of 1939, Gone with the Wind. The Civil War epic was already much-hyped and written about during its year-long production (pre- to post-). When it finally premiered in December, it did not disappoint: lauded by critics, a massive box-office success (for 25 years after its release, the highest-grossing film of all time), and a neat clean-up at the Oscars in February 1940 - 13 nominations, eight wins, plus two Special/Honorary/Technical Awards, non-competitive. It is only natural that the lesson learned from studios would be: WE NEED OUR GONE WITH THE WIND! Thus films like Brigham Young (historical epic!) or Pride and Prejudice (literature! period piece!) or the nominated All This, and Heaven Too (historical romance! lavish sets and costumes!) were whipped into production, damn the expense.

Meanwhile, just two months after picking up the Best Picture trophy, producer David O. Selznick had another literary adaptation in cinemas - and, like before, he ensured plenty of press beforehand with his Big Search for the female protagonist: Rebecca, the thriller from Daphne du Maurier. Director Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood to work for Selznick in April 1939, just five months before his native England declared war on Germany. 

Rebecca did very well indeed - like Gone with the Wind, it led in nominations (11!) and won Best Picture (as well as Best Cinematography - Black-and-White). 

But Hitchcock felt uneasy about living the Hollywood life while friends and family back home went to War. As the year progressed, the growing unease and feeling of inevitability for the US became more prominent in the movies. For Hitchcock, it was the vague international intrigue of Foreign Correspondent; for Charles Chaplin, it was a direct attack via parody of Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator; and for John Ford, it was looking at the civilian sailors caught up in it all in The Long Voyage Home.

Ford also focused on the struggle at home, with his own big controversial literary adaptation, The Grapes of Wrath. The Depression was still on, you know, and the source novel caused plenty of ire from the bankers, farm owners, and other capitalists taken to task for their deliberate impoverishing and exploitation of the agricultural class. The film was a success, no doubt due to its ability to speak to its audience about the bullshit of the times. Not that audiences were turning away from society broads: Kitty Foyle offered a kind of wish fulfillment as a doctor and an heir both wooed a woman who worked her way up from blue-collar living to Big City floorwalking. And the upper crust and their shortcomings were endearingly satirized in The Philadelphia Story, based on the Broadway hit - and starring the stage originator, Katharine Hepburn.

As you can see, the play is usually the thing, especially in this era. In addition to The Long Voyage Home and The Philadelphia Story, Hollywood offered adaptations of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner Our Town, which sought to appeal to all Americans with its all-American-ness, and a remake of a 1929 hit, The Letter.

Well, that's where we were in 1940. And those were your Best Picture nominees. Now, here's what I think of all of them, in ascending order, culminating in my #1 pick of the lineup and beginning with:

Thursday, May 16, 2024