– Auschwitz opens
– Hitler invades France, Denmark, Netherlands & Luxembourg
– FDR elected president for 3rd time
– Battle of Britain
– Evacuation of Dunkirk
Director: George Cuckor
Starring: Carey Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey
Wins (2): Actor (Stewart), Adapted SP
Nominations (6): Picture, Director, Actress (Hepburn), S Actress (Hussey)
The wedding of a young socialite, Tracy, is to take place at her estate in Philadelphia. This is big news because the father of the bride is drenched in scandal and a Philadelphia newspaper sends two of its journalists to the estate for the weekend pretending to be friends of the family. They’re resentful and unimpressed at the upper class and their aim is to expose her father and air out his dirty laundry. Tracy sees through their disguise, but let’s them stay anyway; gaining the upper hand since the spies don’t know that Tracy knows they’re actually journalists out to expose her father. In fact, Tracy and her little sister put on quite an exaggerated performance of how a cliche aristocratic family might behave. So, what we get is a really enjoyable sparring between the characters and in some cases the sparring turns to romance and by the end of the whole thing, nothing seems to be what it started out as initially. This is a really fun movie with great dialogue, acting and a wonderful script. There’s quip, there’s humor, the characters are witty, sharp and manipulative and the story rarely slows down at all. Just because a cast is loaded doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have a good film, but that’s certainly not the case here. The chemistry among the cast and between its members is strong and there’s an element of synergy and cohesion that really works. “The Philadelphia Story” is based on the 1939 broadway play and such a quick adaptation turnaround is evidence of its initial success.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Albert Bassermann
Nominations (6): Picture, S Actor (Bassermann), Original SP, Art Direction B&W, Cinematography B&W, Special Effects
This has to be one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films possibly due to the fact that it was released in the same year as the Best Picture winner, “Rebecca”, which he also directed. Whatever the case may be, this film holds up I think as one of Hitchock’s best. A foreign correspondent becomes a spy for the government as Hitler and the Nazi regime are growing in power in Europe. As you can imagine, being directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Foreign Correspondent” is a tense, gritty and nail-biting spy noir with wonderful set pieces and art direction. In particular, there’s a chase scene that takes place in a field of windmills, which is a suspenseful moment shrouded in a stunningly constructed set. And surely, those iconic scenes from several other movies that take place in the rain and usually at a cemetery where everyone has a black umbrella has to be inspired by this movie. There’s also a really great aerial shot where the camera goes through the plane window, glass and all, and into the airplane itself; reminiscent of a Cuaron shot. Though the plane model feels dated some 75 years later, it’s obvious that its construction, at the time, was something to be marvelled at. And certainly the shot itself had to blow the minds of everyone watching. It’s really great that Hitchcock can make an entertaining, suspenseful and technical film that so relevantly, but subtly, references the political climate at the time. “Foreign Correspondent” is based on the political memoir of Vincent Sheean, called Personal History.
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson
Nominations (7): Picture, Director, Actress (Davis), S Actor (Stephenson), Original Score, Cinematography B&W, Film Editing
“The Letter” is an intriguing murder mystery; unique in its telling. We know who the killer is from the very start, but it’s the hidden nuances made clear not by the letter itself, but a confession. It’s of a noir style, but instead of being set in the rainy streets of some metropolitan city, it takes place in tropical location. The film opens with Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) shooting a man inside her own house. She tells her husband when he returns that the man she killed was trying to rape her. Leslie is arrested and is acquitted due to the circumstances of the situation. However, the wife of Leslie’s victim produces a letter with which to blackmail her. This letter was written by Leslie and addressed to the victim inviting him to come over because her husband wouldn’t be home. Still, Leslie maintains that, though she did write the letter, she still shot him in self defense. Leslie and her lawyer, Howard, played by James Stephenson (nominated for Supporting), agree to succomb to the blackmail, buy the letter and thus silencing the widow. However, this completely drains Leslie’s husband’s bank account. Heartbroken, Leslie’s husband vows to forgive her as long as she still loves him. Leslie cannot even lie to save her own neck, for she breaks down and admits that she loved the man she killed. The film ends tragically and with harsh and undramatic comeuppance. I love Bette Davis the more I see of her. She’s stern, smart and calculated in this film. “The Letter” was originally a play written by W. Somerset Maugham from 1927 and was actually filmed in 1929.
Director: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne
Nominations (6): Picture, Adapted SP, Score, Cinematography B&W, Film Editing, Special Effects
This is a very dark and depressing story of a crew on a British cargo ship during WWII. These particular men have spent years out at sea with no break or extended leave to go home. This particular ship they are on is carrying explosives. The loneliness and horrid tension that comes from war as well as living near explosives takes its toll on these individuals. There’s tension among the crew individually, too. Paranoia, injury and cabin fever surely boil to infuriate and unnerve each other over time. These are men who can’t catch a break and keep getting sucked back out at sea. When they finally have a chance to get home, they’re pulled back into signing up for another year’s long stint due to insufficient funds or perhaps because they have no place else to go. After a German plane attack, the crew decide to take a break from sea life and not sign on for another voyage. They go ashore, determined to help their fellow seaman, Ole (John Wayne) return to his Swedish home from which he’s been away for a decade. We really want this character to make it home because we are made to sympathize with and, in a way, pity this character. They spend the night drinking at a pub run by corrupt con-men where Ole is drugged and then kidnapped and put aboard another ship that is notoriously sinister in its running. Ole is rescued, but another older crew member gets stuck there accidently. The next day, the crew learn that this ship was torpedoed and there were no survivors. It’s a very sad and tragic ending, but one that ties the whole package up into a nice, depressing, existential gift. This film is based on a couple of Eugene O’Neill plays: “The Moon of the Caribees in the Zone” and “The Long Voyage Home”.
Director: John Ford
Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine,
Wins (2): Director, S Actress (Darwell)
Nominations (7): Picture, Actor (Fonda), Adapted SP, Film Editing, Sound Recording
I don’t know what to say except that I just don’t really enjoy this movie. It does an excellent job of communicating what an unfair and terrible time the depression and, in particular, the dust bowl was. The poverty, hopelessness, despair and cruelty are not lost on me. It got its point across and the film is spot on in that regard. However, I don’t dig the monologues. The pining on the part of some of the characters as if they exist in a Shakespearean play muddles with the harsh realism through which it is attempting to exist. Perhaps that’s the point. I don’t care. Don’t present me with poetically proclaiming sufferers when the rest of the film is as bare and stark and grim and dirty as the time period in which it represents. There’s no time to stop and wax poetic, there’s only time to survive; if that. I have little doubt that Jane Darwell, a chief monologist, won the Oscar for Supporting Actress due to her participation in these overlong speeches. However, I found her performance one of the most overdone of the film. “The Grapes of Wrath” is based on the critically acclaimed and classic 1939 John Steinbeck novel of the same name. John Ford was one of three directors to direct two Best Picture nominees (see Sam Wood & Alfred Hitchcock). I certainly appreciate this film for its technical achievements, but I struggle to connect with it.
Director: Sam Wood
Starring: Ginger Rogers
Wins (1): Actress (Rogers)
Nominations (5): Picture, Director, Sound Recording, Adapted SP,
I suppose I could begin to explain to myself why the film was nominated for Best Picture, if I had to. The story is told with the help of flashbacks and flashforwards, which is, especially at the time, thinking a bit outside the box. And I guess I could begin to explain to myself why Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle) won Best Actress; It’s the story of a young woman in the late 1930’s who is successful and independent enough to make her own decisions in life, including which man she will marry. But Rogers is no better than Hepburn, Davis or Fontaine and it may be because her character is a successful woman in this era who is able to make her own decisions about her future and is in complete control of it, that the Academy latched on to this role and awarded Rogers, who certainly isn’t bad. Kitty, a young woman has to decide between marrying a doctor and a man with whom she was previously married who also is the father of her unborn child. She ponders this weighty decision while we, the viewer, are told much of the story via flashbacks and forwards. Kitty Foyle is based on Christopher Morley’s 1939 novel by the same name.
Director: Sam Wood
Starring: William Holden, Martha Scott
Nominations (6): Picture, Actress (Scott), Sound Recording, Score, Original Score, Art Direction B&W
It’s challenging work overcoming an annoying narrator to enjoy a film; especially when that film isn’t very good. The narrator enlightens us on the history, inhabitants and inner-workings of this town, moves us from scene to scene as they transition and does it all with a self-loving, matter-of-fact smirk on his face. I didn’t find the town, nor the sorry saps that lived in it very interesting at all and thus couldn’t get myself to a point to where I could enjoy or appreciate the film. “Our Town” makes an effort to establish the essence, nuance and personality of this particular town and its townsfolk and it doesn’t completely fail, but I found myself really struggling at the end during a most bizarre and surreal funeral scene that could’ve come straight from a Lynch film…or inspired one, at least. “Our Town” too was based on a play. Sam Wood made two films that were nominated for Best Picture this year (see Hitchcock & Ford); the other being “Kitty Foyle”.
Director: Anatole Litvak
Starring: Bette Davis, Charles Boyer, Barbara O’Neil
Nominations (3): Picture, S Actress (O’Neil), Cinematography B&W
I had little exposure to Bette Davis before embarking on the 1940’s Best Picture nominees (“All About Eve” being my only foray into her catalogue), but she was so incredibly talented, versatile and certainly beautiful with her own unique look. “All This, and Heaven Too” takes place in the mid 1800’s. Bette Davis is Mademoiselle Henriette Deluzy-Desportes, a French woman that has moved to the United States to become a teacher. Her reputation precedes her, however, and Henriette resorts to telling her story to her young, rude and gossiping pupils. Henriette’s story unfolds in the form of a flashback to Paris years earlier when she served as the governess to an aristocratic Parisian family. The Duc, played by Charles Boyer, is unhappily married with 4 children. The mother is bedridden and jealous of the young mistress that has come to stay and has seemingly taken over the motherly duties. The father and children of the house very much take to Henriette, though the mother does not and manipulates the situation, fires Henriette without a letter of recommendation and drives her husband to murder her. Henriette is a suspect and the Duc refuses to confess or even mention his feelings for the governess and, most cowardly, poisons himself. However, he does not breathe his last until he confesses the truth. Henriette’s story is over and her pupils see her in a different, more respectful light. I personally questioned parts of the storyline, like the idea that the husband even mentioning his feelings for Henriette would suddenly mean guilt for him. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, but it seems an awfully convenient hinge to lean on. The film assumes that an admission of love is, for all intents and purposes an admission of guilt. For a film that is positively Dickensian, one would think that the Duc would confess simply to save Henriette. One of the Parisian kids, played by Richard Nichols has an incredible southern accent. This is interesting because he was in several movies in the early 1940’s including, “Kitty Foyle” and “Blossoms in the Dust”. I should also mention that the score is really good and one that rarely stops. The film is based on the Rachel Field novel by the same name.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson
Wins (2): Picture, Cinematography B&W
Nominations (11): Director, Actress (Fontaine), Actor (Olivier), S Actress (Anderson), Adapted SP, Original Score, Art Direction B&W, Film Editing, Special Effects
“Rebecca” is a haunting, moody and gothic film starring the lovely Joan Fontaine, who does not have a name of her own that we know of and who has married a very rich widower, Maxim de Winter. They live in his enormous estate where Fontaine roams throughout the gothic mansion. Lonely and bored, Fontaine is forbidden to enter a particular wing that had been inhabited by the now dead, Rebecca; the original Mrs. de Winter. Maxim speaks little about her and the staff, especially the rude housemaid, remain incredibly loyal to her. “Rebecca” might seem quite unlike many of Hitchcock’s other films, but his elements are here: mystery, suspense, dopplegangers, duplicity, locked doors (“Notorious”), etc. Rebecca, the woman, her life and death are completely shrouded in mystery. A tense tail that forces the audience to dwell on what is not known turns into a murder mystery at its end and Hitchcock keeps the audience in the dark until then. We don’t know who we should like and dislike, because those we like might be guilty or those we dislike could be innocent. “Rebecca” is based on the novel written by Daphne du Maurier. It’s the only Best Picture winner that did not also win for Actor, Directing or Screenplay. This was Alfred Hitchcock’s 2nd film in this year’s group of Best Picture noms. (see Sam Wood & John Ford)
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jack Oakie
Nominations (5): Picture, Actor (Chaplin), S Actor (Oakie), Original SP, Original Score
“The Great Dictator” is an amazing film. It’s a comedy-satire that’s laden with truth and is in and of itself proof that anyone who says that, in 1940, nobody knew what was going on in Europe, is a liar. It’s a true comedy, though. It’s not until the finale, that momentous and magnificent scene, that Chaplin breaks the mold of the film and gets serious. Chaplin writes and directs the only original screenplay in this group of 10 Best Picture nominees. Chaplin also plays both the character so obviously meant to be a caricature of Hitler as well as a persecuted Jew. The country of Germany is a caricature as well, along with it’s flag and the completely made up language. We know exactly who this movie is about. The two become mistaken and swap roles and the humor is at full speed at this point. “The Great Dictator” is humorous even during the more shameful moments of Jewish persecution. It’s amazing that a film that was so informed of what was actually going on at the time could have been made, much less one as sarcastic and satirical as this. Everything seems to poke fun at Nazi Germany and its treatment of the Jews, but the ending speech by the mistaken Jew as Hitler, brings it home. The message of the film becomes incredibly poignant, but without losing any of its luster.