Monday, September 23, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1940

The Contenders:

The Grapes of Wrath
Kitty Foyle
The Long Voyage Home
The Philadelphia Story (winner)

What’s Missing

This is a year where I think a lot of the actual nominees fall squarely in the middle of my opinion; I like them well enough without liking them a lot. 1940 was far too early for anyone in Hollywood to consider a movie like Pinocchio for any sort of Oscar, but it’s a dandy animated film. The Mortal Storm may have been too politically charged for much consideration, but I like it better than most of the actual nominees. They Drive By Night was probably not “serious” enough for actual consideration. I’m surprised at the misses on Our Town and the Shop Around the Corner, both of which seem like they are naturals for this award. His Girl Friday seems like the same sort of film, and is perhaps the biggest miss along with The Letter.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Of the five nominees, The Long Voyage Home is the film that I didn’t really like that much. The screenplay is a big part of that. This is a movie that plays as more of a series of short films with the same cast—there’s not much of a full story here as there are simply a series of episodes that feature the same characters. Additionally, it’s one of those movies that has very specific beats throughout. If you’ve seen a few movies before, you’ll be able to pick up plot points long before they happen. You’ll be able, for instance, to determine who is going to die with surprising accuracy. That’s a problem when we’re looking to award one of the best screenplays.

4. Kitty Foyle is a fine enough film, but I’d be hard-pressed to call it a great one, or even a really good one. The plot that we’re given almost certainly played better in 1940 than it does today, in part because of the massive melodrama and in part because of the significantly reduced stigma of having a child outside of marriage. It’s a movie that hasn’t really aged that well, and because of that, it’s hard to rank higher than this. It might well have ranked higher for me had I seen it 80 years ago. For today, though, it’s not one I’d even nominate.

3. I like Rebecca well enough, but it’s a story that is far smaller than the movie that tells it. Hitchcock didn’t often do films that needed a serious trim, but Rebecca is one of those films. Its 130-minute running time is at least half an hour too long for the story it wants to tell, and possible more than that. There’s a Victorian feel to the affair, and perhaps that lends a little bit of permission to be slower and statelier, but this takes that license far further than it should or needed to, and it hurts the movie because of it. For a screenplay, being bloated is a problem.

2. There is a comic history of The Grapes of Wrath in my family. Evidently, my father likes Steinbeck a lot more than everyone else in my family, and this was a book that he wanted everyone to read…and I’m not sure any of his kids ever did. It’s a fine movie, though, and from what I understand a good adaptation of the book. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the story, which is what gets it all the way to second place, but it’s still a case where I’m not sure it even earns the nomination. It’s fine. It’s good. But that’s not enough for a win, and it shouldn’t be enough for a nomination.

My Choice

1. The Philadelphia Story won this Oscar, and it was the right pick. With a different cast of nominations, we could talk about any number of possibilities for the other places, but even with movies I really like--The Shop Around the Corner or His Girl Friday--I’m probably going in this direction. Why? Because it does everything the other movies do and more. It’s very funny in places, but also gets very serious. There are lessons here mixed in with the laughter and real emotions. It’s a comedy that takes itself very seriously in places, and because it does this seamlessly, it’s my clear choice. Oscar picked this one correctly.

Final Analysis


  1. Out of these choices my preferences would line up exactly with yours. I can't say that The Philadelphia Story is a bad winner since having seen the stage play the adaptation sharpened and improved it but in an open field it wouldn't be mine.

    I love Steinbeck but The Grapes of Wrath is the one book of his that I struggled to get through, the movie is a tough watch but it's certainly an improvement on the book.

    There really was a slew of worthy possibilities that certainly deserved to make the cut instead of at least the last three that did make it in.

    I wasn't crazy about Our Town but agree about The Mortal Storm, They Drive by Night and The Letter plus His Girl Friday to be among the missing is just nuts. To those I'd add Escape, Strange Cargo and the very fine Waterloo Bridge as far superior to those last three.

    But my winner would be the bafflingly ignored The Shop Around the Corner (zero nominations!!), which is a beautiful delicate piece of cinema. The actors and Lubitsch do wonders with it but it has a terrific screenplay for them to springboard off of.

    1. I don't think that's a wrong pick. The Shop Around the Corner would be one of my choices as well in terms of nomination. It's a sweet story, if a bit fluffy for the actual win in my book.

  2. Once I learned about the absence of The Shop Around the Corner my vote was cast! Of the nominees, it would have been hard for me to pick between Philadelphia Story and Grapes of Wrath.

  3. I haven't seen any of these films though The Grapes of Wrath has been on my watchlist for a very long time given my interest towards the films of John Ford.

    1. The Philadelphia Story comes highly recommended by me and just about everyone else. Rebecca is worth it if you feel the need to see every Best Picture winner. That's true of Kitty Foyle and Best Actress.

  4. I liked The Letter quite a bit, but The Philadelphia Story,would be my pick too.

    1. This version of The Letter is vastly superior to the one from the late 1920s.