Friday, October 19, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1940

The Contenders:

Angels Over Broadway
Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet
Foreign Correspondent
The Great Dictator
The Great McGinty (winner)

What’s Missing

Best Original Screenplay for 1940 is one of those odd awards where I don’t have a great deal to say about missed nominations. Part of this is that my personal history with 1940 isn’t incredibly deep. A bigger part is that just about every movie I could think of that wasn’t nominated here was actually an adapted screenplay. Assuming eligibility, All This, and Heaven Too might merit some consideration. The only other one I’d be willing to consider adding in is Dance, Girl, Dance.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. There are a lot of reasons to like or dislike a movie, and a problem in one area doesn’t necessarily mean a detraction in another. However, when it comes to these recaps of Oscar awards, I am forced to look at what specifically works and doesn’t work in a movie. For me, the biggest problem with Angels over Broadway lies in the nominated screenplay. This is a film that has no idea what it wants to be. Is it noir? Comedy? Redemptive drama? It wants to be all of them and because of that is ultimately none of them.

4. This pursuit of Oscar movies has led me to some very unusual places, few of them more off the beaten path than Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. Don’t get your hopes up too much if you think this is a classic Edward G. Robinson crime film. It’s not. It’s about Edward G. Robinson developing vaccines. One of the highlights of the film is watching the eponymous Ehrlich injecting diphtheria into a horse in an effort to make a serum. It’s not a bad movie; it’s just really slow and the opposite of exciting.

3. I like Foreign Correspondent more than the movie that comes next on this countdown, but in terms of the screenplay, I’m putting it third. The reason for that is pretty simple. This works very well as a spy thriller and the beginnings of something like a propaganda/war film. Where it fails is in the cobbled and forced romance plot that seems to have been necessary in just about every movie from this era. The story didn’t need a romance and didn’t want a romance, but nonetheless there’s one pushed in. Without that, this moves up.

2. I understand exactly why The Great McGinty won this award. Preston Sturges was a very good screenwriter. A lot of his screenplays have a common thread of sardonic humor and taking a swing at some of the hallowed institutions of American life. The Great McGinty swings for the fences by essentially taking on the entire American political system. It’s a fine screenplay, and the screenplay is the best thing about the film. In a year without a more obvious winner, I wouldn’t have a serious issue with this taking home the trophy.

My Choice

1. There are moments when I slap my forehead and wonder what the hell anyone was thinking. No matter the quality of the other screenplays for this year, how the hell did The Great Dictator not walk away with an Oscar? Actually, I do know—American sympathies at the time were very much isolationist in many ways, and a movie that more or less exposes the hell going on elsewhere played against many sympathies. In retrospect, though, this may be not just the best screenplay from this year but the most important commentary from 1940. How this lost, I’ll never understand.

Final Analysis


  1. While I have a few suggestions for films that would have made better nominees than several that are here the end result would be the same as yours. The Great Dictator should have won this hands down.

    As to what else could have qualified there's Remember the Night which is another Preston Sturges script and one I prefer to The Great McGinty, a film I've never warmed to. There's also Stranger on the Third Floor which was probably knocked out being considered too much of a horror movie. And finally The Bank Dick which W.C. Fields wrote under a pseudonym, I'm not the biggest Fields fan but it's a well written script.

    1. I suppose I missed The Bank Dick as a 1940 movie, but as much as I enjoyed it, I'm not sure I would put it up for this Oscar. The screenplay isn't that great in my opinion--it's all about Fields.

  2. I feel so alone! I hate Chaplin when he talks and he writes his own dialogue. Though I suppose the story is good and I love all the "silent" comedy bits and the parts with Jack Oakie. I would have gone with Great McGinty but you already know about me and Preston Sturges.

    1. Fair enough, but those comedy bits with Jack Oakie are a part of the screenplay, too.