Sunday, May 26, 2024

Pin It


Oscar 1940: Best Director

The thread through this month's retrospective, next month's, and July's is: The Winner Is John Ford. 

February 1st marked the 130th birthday of the director whose work inspired and influenced Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Satoshi Kon, and countless others. His body of work encompasses over 140 films across a span of about sixty years, comprised of documentaries, westerns, war films, romances, coming-of-age dramas, biopics, a disaster film, and even a Shirley Temple vehicle. He immortalized Arizona's Monument Valley. He has been, over the years, embraced and rejected by progressives and conservatives alike. 

And he won four Academy Awards for Best Director, the most by any filmmaker, ever. His first was for 1935's The Informer; the second came in 1940, for his adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Both novel and film courted controversy with their frank depictions of the effect the Great Depression had on the population, the callous repossession of long-held family farms by banks, the exploitation of desperate workers by greedy employers, and the need for the people to organize. Both novel and film were also huge successes. Contemporary, artful, and a moneymaker? You better believe they gave that man an Oscar.

I imagine his biggest competitors were the directors behind the three bigger moneymakers: Alfred Hitchcock, whose adaptation of Rebecca landed #3 at the box office and won Best Picture and Best Cinematography (Black-and-White); George Cukor, whose adaptation of The Philadelphia Story landed #4 at the box office and won Best Actor and Best Screenplay; and Sam Wood, whose adaptation of Kitty Foyle landed #10 at the box office and won Best Actress. William Wyler - historically, the most-nominated Best Director with twelve (and three wins, all for Best Picture winners!) - was also up, for his adaptation of The Letter.

The men:

George Cukor for The Philadelphia Story

Cukor's gift is mainly in the performances he gets and everyone here is perfect. Cukor shows great control over modulating the performances and, therefore, the overall flow: slowing down at just the perfect moment to capture magic in the moonlight, revving up the eccentricities just enough to make us laugh without being annoyed or alienated, effortlessly going back and forth to heighten romance and clothed eroticism. The way he films God, you couldn't expect better from a lover!

John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath
past winner, third of five nominations in this category; NYFCC Awards winner

A serious-minded would-be downer that moves, trusting in the writing, the performances, the cutting, the images to keep us watching, keep us hopeful, keep us moved. Visually breathtaking, Ford giving us indelible images like Tom Joad silhouetted as he leaves the family behind, shadows stretched across tractor tracks, even just a sympathetic look from a stranger: he sees those "little" moments and doesn't let us look away. Is every actor here the best they've ever been? You could argue it! Every element hits.

Alfred Hitchcock for Rebecca

Does a wonderful job of making Manderlay seem alien and endless: even in boudoirs, the second Mrs. de Winter is dwarfed by the size of this place, diminishing her and overwhelming us, a beautiful house filmed like a nightmare. Droll humor, as always: he seems to find Maxim's veddy manor-born Englishness as funny as Mrs. Van Hopper's vulgar Americanness. Seems to lose interest near the end, when it all becomes very chatty, but comes roaring back with that finale - what an ending!

Sam Wood for Kitty Foyle
second of three nominations

If he is my least favorite of the nominees, it is not because of any lack of skill on his part, but because it is such a formidable lineup. He juggles tone magnificently, gets wonderful performances from his cast, lets you see what makes Kitty attracted to the men she's involved with, even allows you to go, "Kitty, no!" without completely hating these men (you can't, not if we're to like her, otherwise we're just watching a fool). Solid work.

William Wyler for The Letter
third of twelve nominations in this category; NYFCC Awards runner-up

Atmospheric is the word: you can feel the heat, whether we're on the rubber plantation, amidst the trees and houses with their slats and open windows and cool drinks on the porch, or in town with the light suits and airy courtrooms and the way everyone walks (I'm from Florida, I know that walk). And it gets more oppressive as the shadows fall. That hallucinatory sequence when we meet Gale Sondergaard's Eurasian widow...the exorcism in Bette Davis's whole being as she tells the truth...James Stephenson's watchful eye over drinks...God, the tension and release and shock, Wyler's so good at it all!


Friends, the Academy had it right, the winner is:


Now I've ruled on Oscar's picks, it's time for my own. Tomorrow: my Top Ten of 1940.

You May Also Enjoy:
Like us on Facebook

No comments: