Armchair Oscars – 1940

Best Picture

Rebecca (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The Nominees: 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

The Grapes of Wrath (Directed by John Ford)
My Nominees:
Abe Lincoln in Illinois (John Cromwell), All This and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak), Fantasia (James Alger and Samual Armstrong), Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson), The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin), His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks), The Long Voyage Home (John Ford), The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor), Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen), The Sea Hawk (Michael Curtiz), The Thief of Baghdad (Lugwig Berger and Michael Powell), Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy)


For the second year in a row the film selected as Best Picture came from the studio of David O. Selznick. Rebecca, like Gone With the Wind, is about the mysterious and connective power of home. While Scarlett O’Hara found herself drawn back to her plantation home of Tara, Joan Fontaine’s Mrs. DeWinter finds that Manderley (the house once occupied by her new husband’s late wife) is still haunted by the presence of a woman who once occupied it.  It is occupied, not by her ghost but by the absence of a woman whose presence brought a lot of painful baggage that her death would leave behind.

What Alfred Hitchcock achieves in Rebecca is mood and tone and the somber atmosphere of a house in the weeks after the funeral has ended and the mourners have gone home.  Yet it is also effected by the damaging legacy that Rebecca left behind, a scandalous legacy that in the wake of her death left a complex of devastation and emotional turmoil for those who should be mourning her death.  For most of the film Hitch establishes that he is the master of his canvas, making us feel the tone of the story without having to express everything in words, and in giving us a title character who seems to live and breathe and walk and talk even though no actor appears on the screen.  Rebecca is created entirely out sets and dialogue and out of the performances by Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine.  We feel her even though we never see her.

My problems with Rebecca come in the third act when Hitch goes for copious amounts of expository dialogue after Mr. DeWinter reveals the secrets of Rebecca’s death. The events that transpire after that feel forced, as if you can see the screenwriter writing it rather than feeling the events flowing naturally out of the story.  I realize that Daphne du Maurier’s book (which I have not read) ends in much the same way, with housekeeper Mrs Danvers going insane as Manderley burns around her, but as a movie, the ending feels forced.  It is a let-down and so is the fact that this is the only Hitchcock film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

The struggles of home and of letting go of the past were certainly a concern for the characters in my choice for Best Picture, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, a movie that extols the power of the cinema as social commentary.

Based on the book by John Steinbeck (which I have read), The Grapes of Wrath follows the misfortunes of The Joad Family, proud farmers from Oklahoma who find themselves victims of foreclosure in the blistering maelstrom of The Great Depression. Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), the eldest son returns home from prison just as the family is packing up to leave their ancestral land due to foreclosure. Their only hope is the promised land of California. From out west, handbills bring a glimmer of hope, of field work for anyone who wants it. So they pile all their belongings on the back of their truck and head out across the American west.

The Joad family (there are at least a dozen huddled together) are the very backbone of American ideals. They believe that the only true rewards in life are brought through hard work. They are proud people who want no charity but to earn their way. Driving into the dust bowl of the American west, they are strangers in a strange land, travelers who have wandered into the forbidding desert looking to regain something that was taken from them back home. Their journey is fraught with tragedy as two – the grandmother and the grandfather – die along the way, and they struggle to keep the children fed, even though their meager savings are wearing thin.

The Promised Land of California turns out to have less promise than they had hoped.  In an age when the struggle for labor unions was resulting in murder, they find that the small refugee camp is flooded with others who have come west looking for a second chance.  We find our emotional center in Tom who, as the movie opens, is returning home from prison after having killed a man who was about to kill him. We know right away that Tom is not above breaking the law to fight an injustice.  It is in his blood to right the wrong even if murder is involved. But he doesn’t have a hard heart, he is a gentle soul full of philosophy, with a soft voice and the kind of slow, pondering walk that we imagine Mr. Lincoln might have had.

The greatest achievement of The Grapes of Wrath is that John Ford never make us sit through large amounts of set-ups and establishments.  We know the situations, we know the circumstances and he is a very direct storyteller.  Steinbeck presented the raw wounds of the depression in the same way that most people experienced it.  There weren’t a lot of questions of why it had happened but more a struggle to find out what to do about it.  That’s why this story resonates even today, because it plays out more or less as it really happened.  What no one could possibly have known in 1940 was that out of this depression would come the second World War in which the victims of the depression threw their backs into the cause of fighting a menace that they knew could do them even more harm than any economic crisis.  From that, their grandchildren would forge the era of the 50s and early 60s, of prosperity that began with the end of the war and ended with the heartbreak and distrust that infected their children after that terrible November day in 1963.

When Tom Joad proclaims, at the end of the movie, that “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.” We sense that he stands for the resilience that would change over the next generation, of the American spirit that would flourish to vanquish injustice not just in the war but in civil rights, in protesting the war in Vietnam. Listen closely to his words and consider the events over the next three decades. They are more prophetic than even he could have known.

Best Actor

Jimmy Stewart (
The Philadelphia Story)
The Nominees: Charles Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Laurence Olivier (Rebecca)

W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick)
My Nominees:
Charles Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Gary Cooper (Northwest Mounted Police),Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Joel McRea (Foreign Correspondent), James Stewart (The Shop Around the Corner), Spencer Tracy (Edison, The Man)


I realize that I am committing some sort of sacrilege by suggesting that W.C. Fields should have won an Oscar instead of Henry Fonda for his performance in The Grapes of Wrath.  All due respect to Mr. Fonda and his magnificent performance but I have to be honest and admit that there is no single performance from 1940 that I enjoy more than that of Field in The Bank Dick.  In another year, the academy voters may have chosen Fonda for his performance but there is no way on God’s green earth that they would have ever considered Field’s drunk act to be worthy of their award.

With very few exceptions, the academy voters do not feel comfortable rewarding hard slapstick which is why there were no competitive Oscars given to Charlie Chaplin Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Mae West, Laurel and Hardy or The Marx Brothers.  When the academy does honor a comedy, it has to be a more sober, sophisticated kind of romantic comedy with a lot of dialogue and usually a love story at its center.  Take for example their Best Actor for 1940, Jimmy Stewart who gave a likable but not extraordinary performance in The Philadelphia Story.

Stewart’s Oscar for The Philadelphia Story came mostly as a consolation prize from the academy for having overlooked him a year earlier for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  This would be Stewart’s only Oscar (by rights, he should have ended up with at least five) but The Philadelphia Story in which he plays Macaulay Conner, a tabloid reporter hired to dish up some dirt on the upcoming wedding of a wealthy socialite only to end up falling in love with her, isn’t his best work.  Stewart does an okay job, but the movie really belongs to Hepburn, who shines in her first great role.

Out of a great year for actors in leading roles, I choose Fields because he is such an enigma, because this is his best work and also because this is the last chance I’ll have to reward him – he died six years later. What makes Fields invaluable as a comedian (and the reason he was never given Oscar consideration) is that he just doesn’t fit. Like Groucho or The Tramp or Mae West or Buster Keaton’s stone face, Fields was such a strong personality that any situation or plot was simply an excuse to let him loose and see what kind of damage he could do.

The first time that I saw Fields was in a bizarre 1933 short called The Fatal Glass of Beer. That was the one where he goes to the door of his snowbound cabin and proclaims “And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” Then is rewarded with a face-full of fake snow. That’s also the one where he utters the immortal words “I think I’ll go milk an Elk.”  From there, I set out to see everything of Fields that I could get my hands on. I have noticed an interesting thing: In nearly every film, in nearly every short film, he always plays the same character, the same irascible, mean-spirited little man who hates children and dogs and whose entire existence is the endless pursuit of the drink and the misadventure therein. The experience is something akin to hanging out with the bad kids at school, you can see them getting away with doing bad stuff but it is a fun journey even if you only sit on the sidelines.

Of his features, The Bank Dick is my favorite.  He wrote the screenplay himself but the credit went under his pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves (say that name out loud slowly).  Like most of the great comedians of the time, he was given control over his own project but still had to battle the Hays office over content.  For instance, the Black Pussy Cat Cafe was written in the original script as The Black Pussy Cafe and Snack Bar. Joe Breen and the Hays office changed the name even though somehow the film’s title remained.

He plays henpecked Egbert Sousé, his usual lecherous drunk who accidentally foils a bank robbery and is offered a job as the bank’s guard.  A light bulb goes off in his brain to employ his good-for-nothing future son-in-law in an embezzlement scheme to siphon bank funds into a fly-by-night mining enterprise.  From there, it is just one damn thing after another. The movie has no real structure and in any other comedy that would be a problem but for Fields it’s just a series of set ups and comic pay-offs that have no real connection.  Like The Marx Brothers, the plot is more or less an afterthought.  The problem in describing Fields is that he can’t really be described in words, he’s an experience, not an explanation.

The persona that Fields created has, today, fallen out of favor. After a brief revival in the 70s, the generation that followed has yet to discover him and I don’t think they ever will. Today, in these politically correct times, Fields drunk act doesn’t fit.  We take alcoholism seriously and a man whose happy pursuit of the sauce frames his very existence doesn’t seem in step with the times. But for me, I am bound to see comedy for what it is. If is makes me laugh, it’s not my business whether it’s politically correct or not.  That’s why Hollywood had such a problem with Fields, he didn’t fit the good-natured mold they wanted to fashion for him.

Best Actress

Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman)
The Nominees: Betty Davis (The Letter), Joan Fontaine (Rebecca), Katharine Hepburn (The Philadephia Story) , Martha Scott (Our Town)

Katharine Hepburn(The Philadelphia Story)
The Nominees: Bette Davis (All This and Heaven Too)


I think that it is criminal that Ginger Rogers only Oscar came for a movie in which she didn’t dance.

She gives a good performance in the title role of Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman, the story of a woman who wants to marry her fiancé but finds resistance from his upper-crust family, but I think that her performance is far better than the film itself.  She’s good but the overcooked melodrama is not exactly fun to watch especially when you know how much of the book’s more scandalous elements were excised by The Hays Office.  To see Rogers in the films that best display her talents see Top Hat, Swing Time and Shall We Dance.

My choice for Best Actress turned down the role of Kitty Foyle.  Katharine Hepburn had won an Oscar a decade before and would go on to win three more but none were worthy of her talent.  In fact, her best work was in films for which she received few if no honors at all.  Yet, in selecting her for my Best Actress of 1940, I find myself battling a conundrum because I have the same problem with Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle that I had with Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, but in the case of The Great Kate, I can at least enjoy the movie even though I would classify it as “good but not great.”

Although I find the movie flawed, I love her in The Philadelphia Story, she is strong, intelligent and easily touched in the heart.  I am surprised the academy didn’t reward her for this performance, this was her comeback after a series of flops that had labeled her as “box office poison” but she had guided her own comeback, buying the rights to the play so that she could have control over how it turned out. She even had her choice of leading men and wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.  They weren’t available and so she got Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart (not a bad substitution, really).

She plays Tracy Samantha Lord, an arrogant wealthy socialite who is just about to take a second trip down the aisle. Her family is big news as the hungry dogs of the press are always sniffing around for a bite. In the midst of her wedding plans, a scandal is brewing involving her father Seth (John Halliday) and a chorus girl. Added to this, she is trying to keep on a good face for husband #2 George Kittridge (John Howard) while still trying to rid herself of husband #1 C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant).

Haven was thrown out by Tracy two years ago and is now in league with a pair of undercover tabloid reporters Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) and Macaulay Conner (Jimmy Stewart), who claim to be old friends of her brother.  Tracy is shocked when Dexter shows up but she knows it’s not just a social call. She can tell when something is amiss, and it isn’t long before she gets him to spill the beans: the tabloid editor will stall the scandal involving her father and the chorus girl if she will grant access to her wedding. Macaulay doesn’t like this whole undercover business and goes in with Haven in a plot to put an end to their boss’ blackmailing scheme.

Meanwhile, Dexter becomes a thorn in Tracy’s side once again, informing upon their marriage problems to the arriving guests.  She is frustrated but she notices that she is running into Macaulay on a regular basis. They strike up a conversation that is lubricated with champagne and the next morning she wakes up with a tremendous headache and a blurred memory.  The evidence seems to indicate that she might have suddenly boarded the same scandalous boat as her father.  Her fiancé George finds out that something is amiss but forgives her on the condition that there be no repeat performance.  But something has awakened in Tracy, a fun side that she never experienced.  She realizes that she isn’t perfect, that things aren’t always as they seem and decides to follow her heart.

What is amazing about The Philadelphia Story is that it is an ensemble piece that employs great actors and great characters but Hepburn always stands out.  We see a transformation from a woman who is closely guarded (she has a reason to be) to opening herself up to new possibilities.  She doesn’t flower in the obvious way but in a more subtle manner – a Hepburn specialty.

Hepburn never looked more beautiful nor had a character change through a film as she did in this one. She begins as a snob, arrogant but not off-putting.  Dexter calls her “The Bronze Goddess” and in one amazing scene dismantles her outer persona, believing her to be self-centering and uncaring. We see in her face the reality that seems cruel but through a look that crosses her face because we can see that she knows he’s right.

What is most amazing about Tracy is her transformation.  As the film opens we see that he is reserved, cold, indifferent but she finds that she is marrying George, a man she finds that she doesn’t really know.  She is marrying him for all the wrong reasons. There is something about Mike, however, that seems real, something that is unsheltered, unguarded and she realizes that freewheeling love is much more satisfying that love the is conditional.

The turnaround in Tracy’s heart is displayed on her face.  Hepburn is not only a great actor but a great re-actor as well. Watch her eyes in the scene where Dexter lays it all out for her, her expression melts and her eyes water up under the realization that this is the truth she refuses to face.  It is that kind of moment that brings her full circle, to the realization that following her heart is the best thing for her, The Bronze Goddess is cracked and her eyes, and her heart, are wide open.

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