Friday, May 17, 2024

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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:

10. Our Town
Sol Lesser

This was a puzzling movie to watch. The source play, the Pulitzer Prize winner, has no sets, few props, has its ensemble taking on multiple roles, is as much about how the creation of the myth of the traditional American small town in culture as it is about those small significant moments that make life worth living, about how every individual, no matter how insignificant they may think themselves, "exist[s] in the context of all in which [they] live and all that came before [them]." The movie has too many sets, too little intimacy, a Big Hollywood Production that exposes the limitations of the screen: it's too literal! The sets feel too fake, the Stage Manager becomes superfluous, the tacked-on happy ending undercuts the impact of the third act, and even though it's a who's who of reliable Hollywood talent, the actors look at a loss. A terrible movie!

9. All This, and Heaven Too
Warner Bros.

"Gowns, beautiful gowns." Well, and sets, too. Taking place as it does on the eve of major shakeups in the French government, I suppose one could argue that it's an allegory, representative of the New France of the common people (Bette Davis' governess), the Old France of the connected who weathered the first Revolution (Margaret O'Brien's harpy wife), and the people torn between tradition and a need for something refreshing (Charles Boyer's master of the house). That's neat to think about. Certainly more entertaining than watching Bette Davis look confused while trying out three noncommittal accents. More so than a weird apologia for ... nothing? ... directed at schoolgirls (you know at least one of those girls was quiet, not in love with that teacher, and said as an adult, "She told us the weirdest story on her first day, I was twelve!). It looks beautiful, which gives it the edge over Our Town; otherwise, hoo boy.

8. Kitty Foyle
RKO Radio

From here on, there are no bad movies, just movies I like more than others. Of the 82 movies I watched for this, Kitty Foyle was the last one released, after Christmas. It's not much better and not much worse than any of the other studio dramas from this era. Ginger Rogers gets to play romance, comedy, and tragedy, it's a great supporting cast; this is solid entertainment, harder to pull off than you think (I said not much better, it's definitely better than a few others), taking seriously and, might I add, without judgment, the trials and tribulations of a modern, working, sexually active woman.

7. Foreign Correspondent
Walter Wanger

Hitchcock's international spy thriller: when I think of it, I think of four scenes, each of them demonstrating the Master's talent in different tones. I think of the assassination on the steps, a bullet fired through a camera, a genuinely shocking rat-a-tat of images that convey chaos and panic. The windmill scene, of course, is marvelous for its sound design, set construction, and suspense: there are not many places to hide, yet our hero Joel McCrea must evade discovery. There is the wonderful scene where McCrea and leading lady Laraine Day must hide him in a hotel room while preserving her dignity and reputation, a great balancing act of sex and suspense. And there is the climactic plane crash with its effects and noise and character work. It does not have a lot of staying power for me, but it's very entertaining.

6. Rebecca
Selznick International Pictures

The winner. It's a great movie until the end. For the most part, we're there with the Second Mrs. De Winter every step of the way, Joan Fontaine's performance a guileless one without being too maiden-sweet, Hitchcock giving the mansion Manderley a dreamlike quality. But at some point in that final third, the narrative is delivered entirely to Laurence Olivier's Maxim de Winter, abandoning our heroine entirely so that the men can sort things out and leave audiences assured that the more scandalous elements of Du Maurier's source novel will not, thank goodness, plague their consciences in this adaptation. Here is where the film loses me: it has woken from the dream to take a walk that feels necessary but not pleasurable. Talking, talking, talking - and no climactic fire can save it.
5. The Long Voyage Home

A great ensemble film, a moving depiction of men at sea: convinced they want to go home soon, compelled to wander the Earth, at the mercy of Nature and Her storms, or else the human threat of The Enemy - while a merchant ship, their cargo includes explosives for the Allies, a very dangerous thing to be carrying anyway, much less in U-boat-riddled waters. Artfully photographed by Gregg Toland, this is a saga that is right up Ford's alley: men being men, sometimes with beautiful reflections on the past or the pretend promises of the future, sometimes with broad and bawdy jokes and too much laughter - though, of course, that could be the months of tension being released all at once. Claustrophobic, yes (the sets, the lighting, the composition of frames); intimate, too (the performances, the writing, the music).

4. The Great Dictator
Charles Chaplin Productions

Chaplin's classic comedy satirizing the Third Reich and extending sympathy for the Jewish People, underlining their specific victimization under Hitler and his government (just one year before the film's release, the plight of the Jews was "someone else's problem" - the United States refused to accept a liner of refugees, which was later forced to return to Europe; many of the passengers wound up killed in the camps). The "and his government" is very important, too, as Chaplin makes his Adenoid Hynkel a hot-tempered buffoon whose confidence in whatever he says and does is key, while the masterminding of any alliances or policies is undertaken by the Minister of Propaganda, Garbitsch. Best known for its score and its final, inspiring speech, where Chaplin breaks character (surely he must - what Jewish barber can quote the Gospels chapter and verse?) to rally the world for peace and human connection. How can you be unmoved?

3. The Letter
Warner Bros.

Now, I suppose on some level this isn't as "important" as, say, recognizing the sacrifice, humanity, and loneliness of our men at sea, or as, say, recognizing the horrifying authoritarian system currently scourging the world while still recognizing the ability of people to be better. But hear me out: The Letter rules. It opens with Bette Davis shooting someone to death on a rubber plantation in Malaya, and from there on, exposes the colonial apparatus that protects its own no matter who gets hurt...all while the Asians slowly tighten the noose in their own brand of justice against someone they know will never be held accountable. It's a study of a woman who gives herself over to passions and emotions that "civilized" people aren't supposed to possess - lust, rage, all that - hiding behind the cloak of respectability. Moody is a good word to describe this - the score, the shadows and sounds of the tropical environs, the sets, all evoke exoticism and eroticism - sweat, heaaaaat. Great performances, great movie.
2. The Philadelphia Story

When I first watched this delightful rom-com, I thought, "Oh, who could hate this?" Then I saw some people point out that the arc of the movie is Katharine Hepburn learning she's an awful person for being too...perfect? So perfect that she drives her ex-husband to alcoholism and her father (!) to philandering (!!???). Maybe it's clumsily done, but somehow that doesn't ring true to me. Those men definitely say those things, and she is shaken and changed by those statements, but Hepburn's Tracy Lord despises how worshipped and adored she is, is frustrated that the smallest glimmer of imperfection in her turns men mad. I guess I have trouble believing that any work with this ensemble of awesome women would be so myopic. But to be fair, I'm too busy laughing at everything the movie has its cast say and do to think twice about it. James Stewart won the Oscar, which seems bizarre until you've watched the whole movie - a perfectly calibrated comic performance in step with Hepburn and Cary Grant. And it doesn't just rest on being a comedy, there's attention paid to meaningful photography and sets that are as evocative of character as any paragraph about their family wealth would be!

1. The Grapes of Wrath
20th Century-Fox

Feels as relevant and electric today as I'm sure it did then. It is an angry movie, depicting the hardships of modern times, the starvation of our own people, the disintegration of the family unit, all to keep banks and big business interests afloat. A man impotently begs to be told who he can shoot to keep his land, expectant fathers abandon their family without a second thought, labor camps keep their migrant workers imprisoned and working at starvation wages, children are forced to scramble for anything that'll hld food to share in a stranger's already strained dinner spread - this is the American dream? Yet at the same time, there is...not a celebration of human triumph, but a recognition that The People don't just work hard to bring themselves out of hardship, they work together to raise the Nation. The most obvious example of this, of course, is Ma Joad's final speech outlining all of that, but I'd say the roadside diner's workers deliberately undercharging the Joads so they can have some feeling of normalcy, the government camp's determination to host a dance so that the migrants can actually stop thinking about food and money for one night, and Jim Casy and Tom Joad hitting the road to fight for others: those all show the indomitable spirit of The People. They save if you want to send a message, use Western Union, but The Grapes of Wrath delivers in a film that is galvanizing and entertaining. 

Sunday, we take a look at the nominees for Best Actor: Charles Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Laurence Olivier (Rebecca), and James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story).

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