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