Note: The ‘What Should Have Won’ section has always been rather redundant, and as a result has morphed into a recounting of nominees that should’ve made it or otherwise missed the ballot; hence, it has been renamed ‘What Should’ve Been Here’.
-Year in Summary/What Did Win-
The press room, where the names of the Oscar winners were given to the papers for publication the next day, suddenly became a thing of the past; to stop agents and producers from sneaking into the press room and getting leaks, the Academy hired accounting firm Price Waterhouse to count ballots and seal the winners in envelopes, only to be opened on the night of the ceremony (leading to the now-famous Oscar decree, “May I have the envelope, please?”). The newly-forged suspense of opening the envelopes meant many races were considered open going into the ceremony to honor the films of 1940, but that wouldn’t stop David O. Selznick from trying to become the first producer to helm consecutive Best Picture winners, which he would succeed in doing by putting his weight behind Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, to date the last film to win Best Picture without any additional awards in acting, directing, or writing (claiming only one other award for its black-and-white cinematography).
-Ranking the Nominees-
-Its interesting to see the field from 1939, realizing there’s really not a poor film among the bunch, and then jumping to the following year, which had several films that, while not poor per se, were absolutely filler for the Best Picture category. Chief among these is Our Town, which despite being a mere 90 minutes or so, isn’t really worth the watch; it’s far too disjointed, and as I said in my review, seemed to make all the wrong decisions as to how to go about presenting the film/story it wanted to present. Some pretty work with how the film goes about its ending and a somewhat-choice turn from a nominated Martha Scott don’t do nearly enough to save this film from how many times it tries to swing its bat for the fences and ends up clocking itself in its own head.
–The Long Voyage Home, being one of two films John Ford put up this year for Best Picture, has much in common with the films Ford has had up for this award in the past: some pretty stellar production work, that unfortunately overshadows what should be the film’s real strengths like plot and script and dialogue and performances. While Ford was up to this point certainly capable of overcoming such pitfalls (see the other film he has in this field, as well as Stagecoach the year before), this one opts to just exist, and to serve as a testing ground for cinematographer Gregg Toland and his later work on Citizen Kane. Best Picture could’ve done without this one in the fold.
-This one too. All This, and Heaven Too opted to go for the Gone With the Wind strategy of trying for this award; only problem is, this is no Gone With the Wind, in like any way. It’s only two hours and twenty minutes, and it feels even longer; the black-and-white cinematography was too muddled and samey to stand out, and aside from Bette Davis, the performances are too easily forgettable. It might’ve served as a very slightly better nominee for this award than the previous two films, but it’s probably the less rewarding and entertaining picture among them.
–Kitty Foyle differs from the previous nominees in that it’s actually a fairly passable film, just entertaining enough to justify a run-through should one want to see it. That, and Ginger Rogers is pretty good, though I don’t know if I’d argue she deserved her win for Best Actress. Other than that, though, this ends up as more filler for the category than anything else.
-I liked Foreign Correspondent, as I tend to generally like Hitchcock’s films. Problem is, I don’t think I’d ever have the need or desire to see this a second time, and if I did, I don’t know how much I would get out of a second viewing. A film that one need only see once and never get anything more from it does not a Best Picture winner make to me, and really, that it got as high as it did in this ranking speaks more about the films that ended up below it than anything else.
-I may have actually pained myself trying to figure out which of the next two films to put above the other; it was that close in my reckoning. Ultimately, I’m placing The Letter below the next film for a couple of reasons: namely, while what it does is definitely well done, it just doesn’t do enough to really win this award. The other reason is that this film’s chances for Best Picture are staked almost entirely on Bette Davis, and when you have a film that ultimately holds itself aloft on a single performance, here’s what you do: remove said performance from the film in your mind, and then go over what you have left – is it still a good film, or possibly a great one? With The Letter, the answer is unfortunately no, though it does come a lot closer than other films that try to bank on single performances, so I’ll give it a little more leeway for that.
-I first saw The Philadelphia Story pretty early for this blog, and after a number of screwball comedies that I really didn’t care for; both things combined were probably a mistake, as I ended up not taking much of a shine to this film, or at least not nearly as much as generally everyone else seemed to. My rewatch for this segment did much to improve this film’s standing in my eyes, though it might also have been my having seen more than a few lesser films up for Best Picture over the years as well, but it didn’t overcome all my apprehensions about the picture. Here’s my thing with The Philadelphia Story; the screenplay is gold, and deservedly won its Oscar, and though James Stewart’s Best Actor win was almost certainly compensatory for his not winning the previous year, I guess I can’t fault the Academy for wanting to do what it did. Other than these two aspects, this is a fairly average comedy of remarriage; take away the screenplay and the charms of the three main actors, and this film would’ve been completely forgotten in a decade or two. While I’ll happily back the Best Screenplay win this managed, I can’t say this is the Best Picture of its year.
-John Ford won Best Director for The Grapes of Wrath, and it’s easy to see why, especially with how good a picture it is. It’s depressing, I will say that, but it’s supposed to be and needs to be, given the source material and the point of it. While it may not necessarily make for a pleasurable watch, it is still an excellent one, and it is absolutely one of the rare films that manages to overcome the normal traps that literary adaptations tend to have that are up for this award. I could see this potentially being a Best Picture winner in some other years, but here, there’s a couple other films that have a better impact than this one does.
-Man, did I want to give this to Charlie Chaplin. I technically have in the past, in the What I Would’ve Picked section, but this time, he actually had a film legitimately in the running, and it’s a damn fine one to boot. The Great Dictator is regarded by many as one of Chaplin’s best and most beloved, and with scenes like the closing speech, the globe dance, and the wonderful interplay between Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel and Jack Oakie’s Napoloni, it makes a strong case for itself. Unfortunately, it’s not perfect, but that hasn’t stopped other less-than-perfect films from being the best picture of their year before, so why now? Well…
-This is why. Selznick may have wanted back-to-back Best Picture winners a little too badly, but he threw his weight behind a hell of a film to get it. Alfred Hitchcock had his first real masterpiece with Rebecca, and that’s saying something; even among his later classics that weren’t up for this award, Rebecca is extremely memorable, and my rewatch of it confirmed the power and effectiveness of the film over all the other nominees this year. Sure, Hitch would go on to make better films, but this is the first real indicator of the heights that he could achieve when he was on, and he was really on with this one.
-What Should’ve Been Here-
1940 had plenty of winners, both those on the ballot and those that somehow missed a spot. I spoke back in 1931 about Best Picture nominee The Front Page and how it was unfortunate that the remake was better, so it’s a little surprising not to see His Girl Friday among the nominees here. Same with The Shop Around the Corner, a film I haven’t seen but have heard mention of quite a bit. The 1001 list is pretty sparse this year for potential nominees, but it does have two animated films that could’ve seen some love in Pinocchio and Fantasia, if the Academy considered animated films at this point. It also has James Stewart vehicle The Mortal Storm, which could’ve replaced a nominee fairly easily. Off-list, the star power and box office returns of Boom Town are impressive to see, but it may not have been well-received enough to get a nom for this award. I am a little surprised to see films like The Sea Hawk and The Thief of Bagdad ignored, given how much love they did get from the Academy outside Best Picture.
-What I Would’ve Picked-
It’s a closer call than last year, but I would’ve voted for Rebecca, even if Selznick never asked me to. And he probably would’ve.
-How Did Oscar Do?-
It’s hard to look at this year without comparing it to the year before, which is unfair, but inevitable. Still, the field from this year isn’t as soul-crushing as some years have been, even if it took me an inordinately long time to get through it for reasons outside the films themselves, so I won’t hold this year against the Academy too much.