Friday, January 1, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1940

The Contenders:

John Ford: The Grapes of Wrath (winner)
Sam Wood: Kitty Foyle
William Wyler: The Letter
George Cukor: The Philadelphia Story
Alfred Hitchcock: Rebecca

What’s Missing

We have a good collection of films for 1940’s Best Director award, but as is usually the case, I can think of a few more I’d like to add. Howard Hawks for His Girl Friday springs to mind if only because of how beautifully he makes the rapid-fire dialogue work. In retrospect, the at-the-time critical and commercial failure of Fantasia probably kept it from contention. Well, that and the number of people given director credit for the film. Oh, and that it was animated and animation wasn’t treated as seriously 75 years ago.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I feel like Sam Wood was nominated for Kitty Foyle not specifically because of anything he did with the film but because the film itself dips into potentially daring territory for 1940. It’s not a bad film by any stretch, but it’s Ginger Rogers who makes the film at all worthwhile. I’d rather see Howard Hawks here even if I still wouldn’t give the win to him, either. Wood’s nomination just doesn’t feel earned enough to me.

4: I tend to like the work of William Wyler. With The Letter, we’re again in a place I find myself so many times with this category. Wyler’s genius here was to get out of the way of the story and let Bette Davis be Bette Davis. It was the right decision for the film, but is that really worthy of serious contention for an Oscar? I don’t think so. If I need to sell the nomination, it’s the opening of the film that does it. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to those first few moments.

3: Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar despite being nominated for five or six. But third place? Yes, if only because this isn’t even close to his best work. Rebecca is a fine piece of film and Hitchcock’s work is good on it, but I’m not prepared to call it exceptional. He hadn’t really found his groove yet--Rebecca is at least 20 minutes too long and the tension isn’t as tight as it could have been (or would have been had Hitchcock made this 10 years later).

My Choices

2: It comes down to a choice of a very good drama or a nearly-perfect comedy. It’s not a huge surprise that in this case the Academy came down on the side of The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a hell of a good film and beautifully acted. Far be it from me to take an Oscar out of the hands of John Ford, but this is not where I would go. I won’t say it was a bad choice or even a wrong choice. It’s just not my choice.

1: Comedy is hard and The Philadelphia Story plays it just about perfectly. George Cukor had abundant riches here with Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, but he manages to get all three of them to work together perfectly to create one of the great films of its decade. I wouldn’t change a frame of the film, and for that, Cukor gets the trophy in my world, if only for creating a film in which three legends manage to work together without their egos or screen personas attempting to eclipse each other.

Final Analysis


  1. I'd probably go with Ford but basically am with you all the way on your analysis. The only disagreement I have is your comment that all Wyler had to do was let Davis be Davis. I've seen enough of her work with lesser directors to believe that Davis really does benefit from the restraining hand of a good director.

    1. You're probably right, but Davis tended to be good with good material. The Letter has one of the greatest opening few minutes in all of film noir. I credit Wyler with that, but if I do that, it's at least partly his fault the rest of the film doesn't live up to that opening.

  2. This is a tough one. I really like multiple nominees. I'd probably edge toward Ford for The Grapes of Wrath over The Philadelphia Story. And I'd probably drop Rebecca to the the bottom. It would be in the bottom half of the list if I ever sat down and ranked the Best Picture winners.

    1. It was a tough one. I wrote 5-3 this morning and spent a couple of hours thinking off an one about which one I'd put at the top. I always reserve the right to have more than one potential winner for exactly this sort of situation--I have no issue with someone voting for The Grapes of Wrath here.

  3. Interesting placement but mine would differ somewhat, however Kitty Foyle and Sam Wood would be in exactly the same place.

    I love Hitchcock but not Rebecca. It's got some great elements, Judith Anderson chief among them, but as you commented it goes on to long and parts of it seem very flat. He'd be my fourth place finalist.

    Then would come John Ford, Grapes of Wrath is a fine film, perhaps it's partly that it's based on the only Steinbeck book I didn't like, but neither the film nor Ford's direction are favorites of mine.

    I love Bette Davis being Bette Davis and I wouldn't say she couldn't modulate her talents when she had good material but she she seemed to respond best when she had a strong director like Wyler. The Letter's opening sequence is impossible to top but the meeting with Gale Sondergaard's widow is an expertly laid out tension filled scene as well as the various quiet moments with just Leslie and her fascination with the moon. Much of that impact can be laid at cinematographer Tony Gaudio's feet but Wyler was a director that always called the shots so their effectiveness is to his credit too. But he still wouldn't be my winner.

    So I guess that would make The Philadelphia Story the winner by default since the two directors that would be my personal top two, Ernst Lubitsch for The Shop Around the Corner and my choice for the prize Howard Hawks weren't nominated. By calling it a default winner it sounds like I don't think Philadelphia Story is deserving but I do. It's slick and breezy I just think the other two films are better.

    1. I obviously agree with you on Hawks deserving a nomination at the very least. The Shop Around the Corner is an embarrassing hole in my viewing, but it doesn't surprise me that it would be worth of a mention. Lubitsch usually is.

      I agree that there are parts of The Letter that are excellent, but it almost suffers from having that opening. I realize that there was no real way that any film could live up to that opening...but man, did I hope it could.

  4. I know I'm in a minority, but I am not a big fan of The Philadelphia Story. I find it dated, the story ridiculous, and the execution quite stagey. I like Rebecca more, and my choice would be a toss-up between Hitchcock and Ford, with Ford likely edging it.

    Other good candidates to consider from 1940 include Robert Z. Leonard for an excellent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and William Wyler (again) for helping to further legitimize the western as a serious genre with The Westerner.

    1. The Philadelphia Story might well be dated, but I didn't notice. There are times when I can accurately watch something as a product of its time and times when I simply can't. This was obviously a place where I could.

  5. I would go with anyone in your top three, they are all worthy movies. Put a gun to my head I would take Grapes of Wrath as the winner. I agree that Cukor did amazing in controlling all those egos, but Ford took on a big story that could have crushed him (Green was my valley...) and made it work.

    1. I don't disagree, which is why I put Ford as a potential winner for me. Like I said, I won't take his Oscar away, but I'd have given it to Cukor by a nose.