Monday, April 16, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1940

The Contenders:

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
Rebecca (winner)

What’s Missing

In a year with 10 nominations, it seems strange to suggest that there might be some films missing. This is why I prefer to think of this as substitution rather than addition, and there are places where substitutions can be made. Fantasia is probably the most sentimental choice for a film that isn’t here. Truthfully, I’m not a huge fan of the film as a film, but I mention it here mostly to forestall suggestions in the comments. They Drive by Night isn’t the sort of film that earns nominations, but I like it more than some of those listed above. The same can be said of Dance, Girl, Dance. In terms of serious drama, The Mortal Storm is one that is at least as good as some of the dramas here. On the comedy side, both His Girl Friday and The Shop around the Corner feel like viable players compared with some of the actual nominees.

Weeding through the Nominees

10. I like most of the nominations at least marginally. The lone exception is The Long Voyage Home, which tries desperately to be interesting and just can’t come up with the goods. It doesn’t help that this is also the film where John Wayne of all people attempts an accent. John Wayne trying to sound Swedish is exactly as ridiculous in reality as it sounds in your head. The screenplay was cobbled together from a bunch of short stories and it very much feels like that was the case. It’s not terrible; it’s just not that good.

9. All This, and Heaven, Too is a terribly melodramatic film that is saved specifically by the brute force talent of Bette Davis. As a film, I’m not a fan and I probably won’t ever watch this a second time, but as a Bette Davis fan, it deserves to be seen for her. And it’s not even her best performance from this year. Regardless, this is a drippy story filled with the sort of melodrama that evidently put butts in seats in 1940. While I can say that I liked the film, my liking of it is very marginal, and there are a lot of movies I’d rather see nominated.

8. A lot of what I just said about All This, and Heaven, Too could be said about Kitty Foyle. Replace Bette Davis with Ginger Rogers, and it holds up as my opinion pretty well. What doesn’t hold up that well is the film itself. This is a story that no doubt played with audiences in 1940 but wouldn’t have a hope of anyone caring about today. Kitty Foyle tries in earnest to be a good film about a real issue, and it perhaps was those things 80 years ago. But today? This is a film that has aged very badly because society has changed in so many ways.

7. The winner of this Oscar was Rebecca, and while I’m a bit loathe to remove the only Hitchcock film to win Best Picture from its statue, that has to be the case. Rebecca is a fine movie and a good story, but it’s far too long for the story it wants to tell. The film runs a good 130 minutes and really doesn’t need to be longer than 100, making it feel bloated and unnecessarily weighty. Trimmed down to something that moves at the pace it needs, it would rise to a better position. As it stands, though, that problem keeps it out of anything like real contention.

6. The Grapes of Wrath was a running joke around my house when I was a kid. It was my dad’s idea of Great Literature and none of his kids ever read it no matter how hard he pushed us toward it. The movie version is good and perhaps even great, but I’m not entirely convinced of its greatness in retrospect. It’s well cast and well-acted and has what I tend to look for in a film of this vintage, but there’s something about it that prevents me from loving it. Might that be bias from my youth? It might. I can’t say that’s fair, but it’s likely true.

5. I tend to be someone who takes a stand against melodrama in all of its syrupy forms, which makes the placement of Our Town in the top half of this list almost a win for the film. This is a very slow film, especially for one as short as it is, coming in at a spare 90 minutes. It’s the third act that sells the whole thing, though. Those slower first two acts melt away into something that is interesting and deep and rich. No one was more surprised by this than I was, but here we are—it’s in the top half.

4. If we want to give a Hitchcock film Best Picture and we want that film to have been released specifically in 1940, Foreign Correspondent was the better choice. The wartime thriller part of the film works completely. Where the film falls flat is in the romance, something it has in common with many a film of this era. Our two leads fall for each other immediately and completely, and are talking marriage right away. I know it’s not possible for a film from 1940, but Foreign Correspondent minus the tepid romance might well contend for the top position.

3. The Letter has one of the single-best openings of any film in history. That’s both to the movie’s benefit and also works against it. It’s such a good opening that the rest of the film can’t help but be a little bit of a letdown. Nothing could equal those opening few minutes of watching Bette Davis unload a revolver into someone. This is a hell of a good film noir, though, one that deserves study and helped create the idea of the femme fatale. I like it probably a little more than it deserves, but I stand by putting it this high.

My Choices

2. At the top, we’ve got a pair of films that I could probably flip on a different day. For today, The Philadelphia Story is going in second, but that I would accept as the winner. So many romantic comedies fail by being not romantic and not comedies. The Philadelphia Story is a rom-com in the sense that it hits both genres, but it’s also a film I wouldn’t put in that category. There’s a bite here that makes it so much better than what that genre has become over the last decade and a half or so. It still holds up, even if the ending is a bit too pat.

1. This puts The Great Dictator in as the winner, and it’s a choice I’ll stand by. When it comes to the great silent comedians, Chaplin falls between Keaton and Lloyd for me, but he’s the only one who made a clear transition into talkies. While Chaplin had some truly great films in his career, The Great Dictator could be argued as, if not his best film, the most powerful and important film of his career. That it stands up today is remarkable. That his final speech could be delivered right now shows just how good it really is.

Final Analysis


  1. Yes to substitutions!! So many films and yet half seem that they shouldn’t be here. To start with the movies that actually made the cut our placements are somewhat similar and dead on with The Long Voyage Home (how aptly titled). The Grapes of Wrath was the one Steinbeck book that I had to slog my way through (East of Eden and Of Mice and Men are infinitely better) but I found the film a big improvement, good enough to finish in the top five but not to win.

    Our top three are the same but Letter edges out Philadelphia Story because of the mood it creates. But of these ten it has to be Great Dictator though quite frankly while a very fine film is no Modern Times. This is how the ten would line up for me.

    1 The Great Dictator
    2 The Letter
    3 The Philadelphia Story
    4 The Grapes of Wrath
    5 Foreign Correspondent
    6 Rebecca
    7 Our Town
    8 All This, and Heaven Too
    9 Kitty Foyle
    10 The Long Voyage Home

    Now to what’s not here and should be. I agree with all of your suggestions except Dance, Girl, Dance. I liked the film overall but it didn’t move me or impress me enough to take it into award territory except maybe to consider Lucy for Supporting Actress but even there she’d make a long list but not the final five.

    I love They Drive by Night but that tonal shift at the half way point much as I enjoyed it knocks it down a peg or two. But no nomination for Ida Lupino in it is just nuts-she’s completely riveting.

    The Mortal Storm might have been just too despairing to get a place since Grapes of Wrath had already checked that box. Speaking of boxes checked perhaps that explains the fate of His Girl Friday (an unbelievable omission) since Philadelphia Story got there first and it had Cary Grant as well.

    Others that I’d say are worthier of consideration than several that received nominations: Remember the Night, The Stars Look Down, The Mark of Zorro and Strange Cargo.

    But beating my old drum the one I’ll never understand is the complete shutout of The Shop Around the Corner. I don’t know if it was considered too small, too ethereal, if it specialness wasn’t understood at the time or if someone at Metro didn’t like the film and decided to throw the studio’s clout behind other pictures but there had to be something afoot for it to miss in all the major categories. It’s just too good a film for that to happen without cause. Anyway in an open field it would be my easy winner followed by Girl Friday then Great Dictator.

    1. I don't understand the absence of The Shop Around the Corner here, and I don't understand its absence from the 1001 Movies books. It is in many ways the perfect distillation of what a romantic comedy should be in that it's both legitimately romantic and legitimately comedic.

      Our rankings are surprisingly similar in a lot of ways--there's sort of a low group where we have the same three movies in some order, a middle group where we have the same four in some order, and the top where again we have the same three in some order. That is sort of how I looked at this--a bottom, middle, and top grouping.

  2. I only ever saw the first 10 minutes of The Dictator. I know I should remedy that flaw and it is really too bad that I am now way beyond 1940. Still, I should.
    As it is Philiadelphia Story is my Best Picture winner. It has everything you want in a romantic comedy and as you say, goes above and beyond the standards of the genre. It also has a stellar cast and an excellent script. What is there not to love?
    I probably like Grapes of Wrath more than you do, but I can relate to that sort of "trauma".

    1. It's worth tracking down, even if you don't put up a review. I'd be surprised if it didn't give The Philadelphia Story at least a little bit of competition for you.