Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 11
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 11: 1941
The Grapes of Wrath
The Philadelphia Story
All This, and Heaven Too
The Great Dictator
The Long Voyage Home
Rebecca: Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a name synonymous with psychological suspense and mystery. But before he shocked us with Psycho and Rear Window, before Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, To Catch a Thief and The Birds, he brought to life a story of abuse and dominance – a murder mystery where the characters are not only haunted by the ghosts of their past, but by their inability to control them.
Based on the Daphne de Maurier novel of the same name, Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film. Though it doesn’t tote the same suspenseful thrills of his later works, this movie still features the themes and plot devices that would come to make him one of Hollywood’s best directors.
This romantic thriller begins as any great love story begins – boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy and girl get married. Our boy in this case is one Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a brooding, Aristocratic widower who is in need of a new wife. On a vacation in Monte Carlo, he meets a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who becomes utterly captivated by his charm and fantastic mustache (or maybe that was just me). The two fall madly in love and are hastily married before returning to Maxim’s ancestral estate, Manderley.
The Second Mrs. de Winter, as she comes to be called, is introduced to the Manderley staff, all of whom exhibit hostility towards her. After all, they all adored Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, whose death is shrouded in mystery and whose spirit still haunts the mansion grounds. The second wife comes to rely on the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) for help in the day-to-day running of things at Manderley, but fails to realize Mrs. Danvers may not have her best interests at heart, either.
As the servants become more hostile, the Second Mrs. de Winter grows more fearful. It doesn’t take long before she feels she is in competition with her predecessor for her husband’s affections and she’s losing to something she can never defeat – that is until she eventually learns the secret of what REALLY happened to Rebecca.
Just as in the novel, the Second Mrs. de Winter is never given a name, emphasizing her inferiority to Rebecca. Though we never see Rebecca in the flesh (or in a photo for that matter), her presence feels more real to us than that of Maxim’s second wife, who can never compare to Rebecca’s charm or beauty.
The inferiority given to Maxim’s second wife is really what makes Rebecca so unnerving. We can all see ourselves in this role, plunged into unfamiliar territory, plagued with the uncertainty that we are the wrong person, in the wrong place. As the heroine of the film, she fails to leave an impression of what she is called anywhere, while Rebecca’s initials appear on everything from stationary to the pillowcases.
Though a young, naïve woman brought into the life and home of a dashing bizillionare might make Rebecca feel like a romance, it’s completely free of it. If anything, it’s a film about abusive relationships and the way power shifts within them. There’s no love between Maxim and his second wife, she’s merely brought in to act as stand-in for the woman he lost. The opening line of the film (and the novel), “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” immediately leads us into a world of make-believe. Everyone is just playing a part in this twisted romance between ego and assumption.
Ironically this would be Hitchcock’s only film to win a Best Picture Academy Award. It was nominated for 10 others, including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Best Art Direction, Best Special Effects and Best Cinematography, which it also won.
The finale of Rebecca boasts a great reveal (slightly different from the novel) and everyone’s true nature comes to light. It’s a great Hitchcockian ending that would help define him, filled with powerful imagery, psychological suspense and plenty of twists and turns along the way.
The Grapes of Wrath: The opening scene of The Grapes of Wrath is anything but inviting. It’s eerily flat and desolate, windblown and empty. The grey Oklahoma sky melts into the earth, creating a sad, almost depressed landscape. In the distance we see a gaunt man making his way through this depraved land, heading back to his family farm after serving a four-year prison sentence for manslaughter. It’s man vs. wild during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is about to embark on a life-changing journey towards the promise of opportunity, prosperity and success.
When I first read The Grapes of Wrath, I hated it. I must have been in 6th or 7th grade and found it so depressing that I just blocked it from my memory. All I remembered was the breast-feeding scene, which apparently scared me for life. So, when it came time to watch this film, let’s just say I was less than excited.
Foot, meet my mouth.
Here’s the problem with reading books like this in freaking middle school – there’s no way I could have appreciated this story when I was 13 years old. But now, after adulthood has tarnished my very soul, this story speaks to me on a very different, very personal, level.
In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl brought severe drought to farms throughout agricultural America. Families who resided in parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska were forced to abandon their homes and head west to California, chasing the hope of a better future. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad’s are one such family, leaving their Oklahoma farm to the wind and traveling in an over-laden jalopy to the land of plenty.
However, what awaits them on the road to California is anything but. Hundreds of other Dust Bowl refugees are frantically searching for work as well, and the shocking visual imagery brought to life by director John Ford speaks to the situation in the American heartland. The land is barren. Children rummage through piles of garbage looking for food. Simple dialogues cut to the very heart of what it means to say goodbye to the land you know and love.
Now, the Joad family are not all saints – faithful brother Tom is a killer, after all – but they come to act as a representation of those displaced by circumstance, while the policemen tasked with running the hostiles and unemployment camps, represent corruption, cruelty and greed. These two “characters” are our main players, the displaced and the displacers…the haves and have-nots. And the fight, seemingly, never ends. Even in Tom’s Marlon Brando-esque farewell speech to Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), he proclaims, “Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there…”. They may be physically displaced, but their spirits remain undefeated, and the Joad’s come to embody the strength of the American people.
Readers of John Steinbeck’s novel may also remember the infamous ending to the book, where Rose, having lost her baby, offers her milk-filled breast to a starving man in a railroad car. Clearly, this scene was not allowed in 1940s Hollywood. I mean, they barely let Clark Gable utter “damn” the year before in Gone with the Wind. The film ends in a much more hopeful way, with Tom heading off to fight the good fight and Ma and the rest of the Joad family embarking on their own Exodus towards redemption.
The Grapes of Wrath was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Fonda), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording and Best Adapted Screenplay. It would win two, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Darwell). In 1989 it was named one of the first 25 movies to be included in the National Film Registry and is considered by some to be one of the best films ever made.
Though it takes place during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath still speaks to today’s concerns: Mexican families seeking a promised land across the border, banks foreclosing people’s homes, police abusing their power. This story is built on a foundation of fear and for those of us who have felt that fear, who have gone hungry or been homeless, this story will always be relevant. In fact, The Grapes of Wrath will most likely go down in history as one of the only stories to truly capture the fantasy most commonly known as ‘The American Dream’.
Foreign Correspondent: Alfred Hitchcock was a busy man in 1940. Just four months after releasing Rebecca, Hitchcock wowed audiences with another film, this time an espionage thriller titled Foreign Correspondent.
Both movies were nominated for Best Picture in 1940 with Rebecca prevailing; however, Foreign Correspondent was arguably the more quintessential choice. Combining humor and suspense, Foreign Correspondent all but predicted where Hitchcock would head in both style and scale, paving the way for movies that would define him as a director, including The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest and The 39 Steps.
Boldly set in 1940 (Hitchcock actually had 10 writers on staff to update and edit the script as the world literally changed during filming), Foreign Correspondent begins in the newsroom of The New York Globe, where reporter John Jones (Joel McCrea) is being given the opportunity of a lifetime – to travel to Europe and report back on foreign affairs.
After his editor rechristens him “Huntley Haverstock” – a name befitting of an international crime reporter – Jones heads over to Europe and finds himself smack-dab in the middle of an international spy ring, filled with assassins and double-crossing doppelgangers.
Along the way, Haverstock makes the acquaintance of activist Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) and fellow reporter Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), who guillotined the first letter of his last name as a testament to his family’s connection to Henry VIII. Together, these three players run, dash, and fly through a variety of amazing Hitchcock set-pieces, all in an effort to break down and expose the ring of spies.
In researching this film, I came to realize that most people either thought it was the greatest spy thriller ever made or a shameless exercise in propaganda…generally, I’m finding myself agreeing with the latter. Josef Goebbels himself even called the film, “…a masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries.”
These opinions mostly stem from the ending of the film. The final scene shows Haverstock reciting a nationalistic speech as “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays in the background…and it suddenly becomes very clear what this film’s intent is – inspire American audiences to get involved. As Haverstock yells, “Keep those lights on, America. They’re the last lights left on in the world.”, the swell of the national anthem increases as the bombs begin to fall around London and the screen cuts to black. It’s that kind of naked, bleeding patriotism that’s only possible during times of war and, not four months after the film’s release, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America was forced to joined in the fight.
That being said, Foreign Correspondent is also remembered for a number of memorable scenes that delivered in size and scope, including a car chase through the small European streets, a large, winding windmill, and a climatic plane crash, all of which were ground-breaking and thrilling for the time.
Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay and Best Special Effects, Foreign Correspondent did not win any; however, it did give birth to the Hitchcock we all know and love – a man who started off as a foreign correspondent himself and would grow to become one of the most well-loved directors in the country that immediately adopted him without a second thought. While this wasn’t one of my favorite Hitchcock films, it’s no doubt an essential addition to his repertoire. It set the stage for better movies to come and created a character Hitchcock would bring to life again and again: an average joe getting caught up in extreme perils in the course of just doing his job.
The Philadelphia Story: About halfway through The Philadelphia Story, an adorably drunk and hopelessly lustful Jimmy Stewart proclaims, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” And therein lies the simple, yet beautiful plot of this enduring and fabulous film.
The absolute charm of The Philadelphia Story lies in its casting. Starring the three deities of the Hollywood Golden Age, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles in this comical romantic farse about love, marriage, and re-marriage.
After divorcing her first husband and childhood sweetheart, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is planning to get remarried. Her new fiancée, George (John Howard) is everything Dexter isn’t…he’s soft, humble, adoring, and perhaps most importantly, safe.
When scandal rag, Spy Magazine gets wind of a new socialite wedding, reporter Mike Connor (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) are assigned to the case. Fearful they won’t be accepted into the Lord’s home willingly, Mike and Liz are introduced to Tracy as friends of her brother by one Dexter Haven, who also works for Spy. Though the rest of the Lord’s are easily duped, Tracy sees right through the ruse, but is persuaded to go along with it when Dexter tells her it’s a trade-off to keep a scandalous story about her father out of the tabloids.
As the ceremony looms, a love triangle, nay – square? – begins to form. Tracy becomes taken with Mike, Dexter is still nursing feelings for Tracy, Tracy is still set on marrying George and Liz is repressing her love for Mike. A LOT OF HORMONES ARE FLYING AROUND PHILLY, MY FRIENDS.
With fast-paced dialogue and smart humor, The Philadelphia Story is easily one of Hepburn’s best films…and Grant’s…and Stewart’s. Designed to resurrect Hepburn after she had been labeled “box office poison”, this film shot her back into the spotlight.
Fans of Jimmy Stewart no doubt already know about this movie and adore him in it. His performance as Mike Connor was so enduring that he ended up taking home the Oscar for Best Actor in 1940 (even though Stewart himself thought it should have gone to Henry Fonda for Grapes of Wrath). Effortlessly charming and sweet, this movie proves what a peerless entertainer Stewart was.
But the real credit here goes to Cary Grant. With fewer lines of dialogue, fewer dramatic scenes and fewer moments of comic intervention than anyone else, Dexter Haven must still remain the center of this romantic plot. He has to be wrong for Tracy at the beginning of the film, but still right for her as she changes throughout the storyline. He’s the solid pillar, the steadfast lover. When Tracy proclaims in a moment of weakness that she wants to be loved, not worshipped, it needs to be understood that the man for her is not George, who puts her on a pedestal, but Dexter, who loves her for her brilliant mind and strong spirit.
The Philadelphia Story was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Stewart), Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Supporting Actress (Hussey), and Best Adapted Screenplay (which it won). It was also given the musical treatment in 1956 in a film called High Society (one of my absolute favorites!), which stars Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Grace Kelly in her final film.
It’s movies like this that make it hard to love today’s rom-coms. With wit, sarcasm and sophistication, The Philadelphia Story teaches us that love isn’t a sacrifice, but a partnership. It’s not about some great romantic gesture or reinventing yourself to fit some stereotype…it’s about finding someone who inspires you, challenges you, accepts you. For Tracy, and a good portion of the rest of us, that love was found, then lost, then found again. It may take patience, it may take time – but when you find it, it’s almost always worth the wait.
The Letter: Hell hath no fury like a Bette Davis scorned.
All is quiet on this Singapore rubber plantation. The moon illuminates the ground below as tired workers listen to soft music and relax in their hammocks. In the background, one gunshot is heard from inside a large bungalow. A well-dressed man staggers onto the veranda, holding what appears to be a gunshot wound. A woman, holding a smoking gun, follows her victim and shoots him again. As he falls from the stairs to the ground, she shoots him four more times, emptying the gun into his lifeless body.
The camera tracks up and lingers on her face. There’s no remorse. A cold-blooded, unemotional, expressionless woman looks down at the deed she’s done before summoning a servant boy to inform her husband (who works on the plantation) that Geoffrey Hammond is dead.
Our femme fatale, Leslie Crosby (Bette Davis) has just enough time to put on a mournful face before her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall) and a couple police offers burst through the door. All are charmed by her poise, graciousness and stoicism as she recounts her harrowing attempt at defending her honor against a man who supposedly took advantage of her good graces.
Though Robert and the officers present want to believe her, an investigation is still required by law. Robert hires a friend, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to act as Leslie’s attorney, but Howard is having trouble believing Leslie’s story. Furthermore, he becomes aware of new evidence, namely a letter, that may prove that Leslie isn’t so innocent after all.
In less experienced hands, the role of Leslie could come across as shrill, even malevolent. But Davis is masterful at showing us the woman behind the monster. I don’t know if it’s her striking stance or her saucer plate eyes, but Bette Davis was alluring, almost mystifying. I don’t quite trust her, but I’m scared not to trust her. I mean, how can a dainty woman who spends her time crocheting lace murder a man in cold blood?
In the end, The Letter was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Davis) and Best Cinematography, but didn’t take home any awards that night. However, it’s still beloved by fans of Davis and is a great, classical example of film noir at its best.
I won’t spoil the ending of this movie for you but, let’s just say, we reap what we sow. Karma comes for us all. When we weave a web of lies, each intertwining into a tangled ball of deceit, it only takes one hiccup, one mistake, one little, innocent letter, to unravel the entire thing.
Our Town: Ugh, nothing like a good, old-fashioned, 1940s black and white slow-burn.
Having gone to high school in America, I’m no stranger to Our Town. I feel like every high school lucky enough to have a theater department has staged it at least once. Though the ending is heartbreaking, the story is one of the most well-loved examples of idyllic Americana – and the no-frills set design makes this an easy option for even the most frugal of theater departments.
That being said, the same cannot be said for the film version.
Our Town opens much like the play, with the stage manager (Frank Craven) walking us through the streets of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Filmed to feel like a theater production, the stage manager addresses the camera directly, asking questions, polling the “audience” and giving us background information on some of the people we meet. He narrates what they’re thinking, tells us who ends up living and who dies in the coming wars. There are no secrets in this little town!
Made up of just over 2,000 souls, Grover’s Corners is simplistic to a fault. It’s a town where supposedly “nothing happens”, where life is routine and everyone knows everyone. Many of the events we see happen here are the sort of minutiae which gets left out of most films, such as the milkman going on his rounds or mothers cooking breakfast day after day before their children leave for school. The only interesting thing that happens is a blooming romance between Emily Webb (Martha Scott) and George Gibbs (William Holden), which ultimately becomes the center of our story.
Much like the lifestyle it mirrors, Our Town is broken up into 3 ‘acts’: romance, marriage and death. Each takes place in a different year – 1901, 1904 and 1913, respectively – and Emily and George are our constant throughout the storyline.
For the first two acts, the movie is pretty loyal to the play; however, the third act is personally where I felt the film fell apart.
Fair warning, spoilers to follow.
You have been warned.
OK, I’m gonna tell you how it ends.
OK, let’s go!
So if you haven’t seen the play, Our Town has a beautifully bittersweet ending. Our dear Emily dies in childbirth and, after her funeral, is allowed to spend one ‘typical’ day back on Earth. She decides on her 12th birthday, returning to her family home as a ghost. She sees her mom cooking breakfast, her father coming home with gifts, basically visions of a life she may have taken for granted. It’s a powerful scene, one that ends with a heartbreaking monologue by Emily’s spirit:
“I can't bear it. They're so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old?...I cant look at everything hard enough. Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me...Let's look at one another!...I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed...Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?...That's all human beings are! Just blind people.”
In its totality, it’s a gut-wrenching speech about the fleeting joys of day-to-day life – how, like my soul sister Anne Shirley once said, “...the nicest and sweetest of days are not those which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens, but just those that bring simple little pleasures...". As I’ve grown older, it’s become a sentiment that hits home for me on a very personal level, as it does for most, I’m sure.
The film version, however, ended things on a lighter note.
The production company was worried the traditional ending would be too bleak. To have audiences leaving with a smile rather than a handful of tissues, they decided to turn Emily’s final scene into a dream, with Emily eventually waking up to see her new baby and her beaming husband.
Ending the film this way took away the poetry of the final act, which is a real shame. I mean, I get it…no one wants the main character to die, but for her speech to mean anything, her death is imperative.
In a movie about a town where nothing happens, it shouldn’t surprise you that things move kinda slow. Wilder was clearly interested in exploring those universal elements of everyday life – how one random day would look in a small town of about 2,000 people. Our Town is not exciting or earth-shattering. It’s in fact quite plain – the stage production often doesn’t even have a set so as to make the ‘town’ experience unique for each viewer. However, there’s no denying that it’s rich in its homely philosophy: treasure every moment, especially the simple ones.
All This and Heaven Too: Someone once described this movie as The Sound of Music meets Fatal Attraction. It’s a bold description, albeit and accurate one.
All This and Heaven Too is an old-fashioned melodrama based on the book by Rachel Lyman Field. It tells the real-life story of Field’s great-aunt who became involved in a scandal that shook France to the core.
The “flibbertijibbet” in this story is not a nun, but a governess named Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (Bette Davis). Young and hopeful, Henriette takes a job in Paris working for the household of the Duc de Praslin. The Duc (Charles Boyer) and his wife (Barbara O’Neil) are in a loveless marriage, but stay together for the sake of their four adorable children.
As Henriette grows closer with her charges, she comes to learn that they’ve all been emotionally abused and neglected by their mother, and she becomes hell-bent on establishing an atmosphere of warmth and love that the children have never known.
Even the Duc can’t help but be swept up by Henriette’s charm and a lovely friendship blossoms between them. Complete with serious unresolved sexual tension, their relationship remains firmly friend-zoned, though rumors soon begin to swirl that the Duc has found a new lady-love and is stepping out on his wife.
Meanwhile the Mrs. de Praslin falling into madness. In a performance that’s almost hilariously overacted, the Duchesse becomes insanely jealous of Henriette’s relationship with her family and fires her. She refuses to write Henriette a letter of reference, without which she cannot find a job, and Henriette is forced into poverty. Bitches be cray in 1800s Paris.
When the Duc discovers what his wife has done, he ragefully murders her, causing political turmoil amongst his wealthy peers. Henriette is wrongfully arrested for the crime, but in a final act of chivalry (or cowardice, depending on how you look at it), the Duc helps exonerate her…and Henriette leaves Paris for America, where she takes a job as a French teacher.
Clocking in at 143 minutes, this movie is incredibly long, but never dull. Even with the slow pace, I greatly enjoyed the story and was completely taken with the Praslin children, the youngest of which (Richard Nichols) is a complete joy to watch.
This is only the third Bette Davis movie I’ve seen and, I gotta say, she’s growing on me. Though she wasn’t a bombshell in comparison to some of her other peers, her acting chops and over-expressive eyeballs easily put her at the top of her class – especially when paired here with the debonair Charles Boyer. In each other they find something they’ve both been searching for – companionship – highlighted by Henriette’s words to the Duc: “In your unhappiness you reached out your hand for help and, in my loneliness, I took it.”
All This and Heaven Too was nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (O’Neil) and Best Cinematography. In the end, it came up empty-handed, but the film is still a wonder to behold – filled with amazing set designs and elegant costumes. It ends as all good melodramas should – with a hint of sadness and a glimmer of hope. Like a forlorn Austen heroine, Henriette may not get the guy but the lesson she learns is far more valuable.
The Great Dictator: Nowadays, making fun of the Fuhrer isn’t anything new. The Three Stooges did it, The Marx Brothers did it, even Family Guy and The Simpsons have thrown shade at the Nazi party. But before Mel Brooks wrote about “…the kraut who’s out to change our history” and before Taika Waititi had him frolicking through the German countryside in Jojo Rabbit, Charlie Chaplin brought Hitler to the big screen in his first-ever talking picture, The Great Dictator.
With years of hard work and dedication, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed and starred in what would become the highest-grossing film of his career. Acting as both a Jewish barber and a Hitler-like dictator named Anenoid Hynkel, Chaplin devised a hilarious satire that was so powerful in its message that it indirectly led to his exile from the United States in the 1950s.
This pinnacle film begins during World War I, where the Jewish barber, modeled after Chaplin’s Tramp character, is an aloof soldier. During a battle, he saves the life of a German pilot named Schultz in a comical airplane scene straight out of The Three Stooges. After flying Schultz to safety, the plane makes a crash landing, resulting in the barber having amnesia for 20 years.
After he recovers and returns home, the barber comes to learn that a dictator named Hynkel has come to power. The German ‘storm troopers’ march through the Jewish ghetto where the barber lives, smashing windows and painting “JEW” on buildings. However, the barber’s shop is spared by the intervention of Schultz, now a German officer, who recognizes the man who saved his life.
As the farce continues, an instance of mistaken identity has the barber being mistaken for the dictator as the real Hynkel sits imprisoned in one of his own concentration camps. Disguised as Hynkel, the barber (or Chaplin himself, depending on how you interpret it) ends the film with an empowering speech that left audiences torn, but more on that later.
Naturally, the most powerful weapon one has against an insecure man like Adolf Hitler is laughter – to ridicule him like a clown – and Chaplin succeeded in turning the Nazi party into a laughingstock. Distinct characteristics became punchlines, like the swastika being replaced with two crosses (doubled-crossed!) and Goebbels portrayed by a man named Garbitsch (pronounced ‘garbage’). Even the fact that Chaplin plays both a Jewish barber and a ruthless dictator calls out the rumors that Hitler himself came from Jewish decent.
And the fun doesn’t stop there. In classic Chaplin style, The Great Dictator is rich in its gags and comic pantomime, including a shave set to Braham’s Hungarian Dance and a beautiful ballet Hynkel performs with a globe-shaped balloon – essentially making the world his plaything.
Audiences reacted strongly to the film’s humor…but viewers at the time, and ever since, have felt that the film comes to an abrupt dead end when the barber, impersonating Hynkel, delivers a monologue which represents Chaplin’s own political views.
In a passionate speech, nay, plea, for peace, tolerance and humanity, Chaplin breaks the 4th wall and addresses the camera directly, speaking in his own voice, with no comic touches. Granted what he says is true enough, but it so abruptly changes the tone of the film that it almost deflates it. Perhaps Chaplin should have taken a lesson from the silent film culture he helped define and shown us there’s more in what you don’t say than what you do.
Still, audiences were charmed. The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Chaplin) and Best Writing; however, it would not win any.
At the time of the film’s release, the US was still formally at peace with Nazi Germany. Hitler was not yet recognized in all quarters of the globe as the embodiment of evil and not much, if anything, was known about what really happened in the concentration camps. Later in his life, Chaplin said that if he had known the full extent of the Nazi horrors, he wouldn’t have even made the film.
Though Chaplin portrays Hitler as a bumbling, coughing hot-tempered buffoon, he still hit the man where it hurts – his pride. Not only does The Great Dictator bear its teeth to smile, but also to bite.
The Long Voyage Home: If I’ve learned anything from watching all these Oscar-nominated films set at sea, it’s that the open ocean changes a man. Sometimes it’s psychological – when behavior changes under conditions of pressure and isolation – and sometimes it’s by choice – the sea offering an escape from the land and its troubles.
In The Long Voyage Home, a varied lot of sailors, from a middle-aged Irishman named Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell) to a young Swede named Olsen (John Wayne), take to the waters on a cargo ship during World War II. Throughout the movie, the crew deals with all kinds of dangers, including violet storms, attacks by Nazi planes and possible German spies on board the ship.
Stressed out by the transatlantic journey the ship is making through dangerous German-infested waters, the crew must deal with everything from losing fellow friends and sailors to combating loneliness in the open ocean. Not everyone is cut out for life at sea – and not everyone makes it home alive.
Based on four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neil, The Long Voyage Home is not plot-driven, but more episodic in nature. It’s not the most focused and sustained movie, but this storytelling technique works to the film’s advantage, almost creating vignettes that speak to the aching loneliness of the sailors, and the ever-present longing for home.
This movie is probably best known for the amazing cinematography by Gregg Toland. Shot in black and white, Toland’s use of shadows and light set a precedent for other crime/noir films to come. In fact, Orson Welles was so impressed by the look of The Long Voyage Home that he hired Toland to work on his next project, Citizen Kane.
John Wayne stands as this movie’s other claim to fame, though he maybe has 10 lines of dialogue throughout the whole thing. He’s mostly submerged among the other sailor characters and boasts such a terrible Swedish accent that many critics consider him miscast in this role; however, Wane himself thought it to be one of his finest performances.
Honestly, I liked John Wayne in this movie, though I think they could have easily removed the Swedish storyline without any problem. His lack of screen time was a bummer, though. I actually found him quite enjoyable to watch. He was given top-billing in this picture (after his breakthrough the year before in Stagecoach), but was in the margins of his own movie.
The Long Voyage Home received a slew of technical Oscar nominations, including Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, and Best Film Editing. It didn’t take home any awards, but remains a favorite of fans, including Eugene O’Neil himself.
As the movie ends, this group of rag-tag sailors will come to learn that there’s no complete escape from the world and its troubles. The freedom of the sea is but an illusion. Though life on a cargo ship may not be glamorous, it’s consistent. Even after given the opportunity to make a new life on land, many of the men find themselves returning to the ship, nomadic, alone and yearning for the life they’ve all come to know.
Kitty Foyle: Do we marry for love or money? In today’s world, it’s a notion that’s laughed at and mocked on reality TV, but in the 1930s, it was a heartfelt decision made by women the world over.
In the years before the Great Depression, women held a very different place in society. The didn’t work, they were often uneducated, and they were still deemed the “weaker” or “fairer” sex, who’s place was at home. If a woman wanted a place in society, she had to marry into it (or come from it). Marriage was not for pleasure as much as it was for survival.
In Kitty Foyle, Ginger Rogers plays a woman torn between these two worlds – what she wants and what she needs. Told in a flashback on the eve of her life’s greatest decision, whether to marry the respectable Dr. Mark Eisen (James Craig) or run away with her rich boy-toy, Wynnewood “Wyn” Strafford VI (Dennis Morgan), Kitty literally confronts herself in the mirror (in homage to her divided nature). As she discusses her decision with herself, the movie flashes back to Kitty’s childhood in Philadelphia, where we watch her romances with the two men unfold.
With a powerhouse like Ginger Rogers in the lead here, I had high hopes for this movie – and indeed, it started off promising. Kitty enters a whirlwind romance with Wyn Strafford, and the two agree to get married and move to New York. After their shotgun wedding, Wyn takes Kitty home to meet the parents, where he basically throws her to the Strafford wolves.
Wyn’s mother declares right off the bat that Kitty is unfit for this lifestyle. She’s uneducated, unpolished and unfit for life as a wealthy aristocrat. Kitty begs Wyn to stand up for her and their decisions, but he just sits there like a wet noodle, forcing Thoroughly Modern Kitty to take it upon herself to defend her honor:
“Let's get a few things straight here! I didn't ask to marry a Strafford, a Strafford asked to marry me. I married a man, not an institution or a trust fund or a bank. Oh, I've got a fine picture of your family conference here. All the Strafford’s trying to figure out how to take the curse off of Kitty Foyle. Buy the girl a phony education, polish off the rough edges, and make a Mainline doll out of her! Aww, you oughta know better than that! It takes six generations to make a bunch of people like you. And, by Judas Priest, I haven't got that much time!”
She then storms out of the house and files for divorce from Wyn. YOU GO GIRL.
But things are on the up and up again when a mishap at work causes a meet-cute with one Dr. Mark Eisen and Kitty and Mark settle into a comfortable romance. Mark eventually proposes and Kitty, almost begrudgingly, accepts…but when Wyn comes back to sweep her off her feet, she must finally choose between the two, bringing the end of the movie back to the beginning.
Normally in the movies, the woman would choose the man she loves – in this case, Wyn. However, life with Wyn would be disreputable. She’d essentially be Wyn’s mistress (as he refuses to divorce his wife). Mark, on the other hand, is respectable. She may not love him, but she’s safe with him. For her survival, Mark is her better choice.
Honestly, I would have had more respect for the gal if she told them both to frigg off because neither one was really a great option. It was kinda sad to see this sassy heroine settle for a stereotypical ending, but if this film preaches anything, it’s that women should know their place.
In a controversial win, Ginger Rogers beat out Bette Davis (The Letter), Joan Fontaine (Rebecca), and Katherine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story) for Best Actress at the 1940s Academy Awards. Kitty Foyle helped establish her as a “serious actress” and showed off her great acting chops that often got subdued in her other films.
Many critics today call Kitty Foyle anti-feminist – but really is it any different than Bridget Jones’s Diary or any of the other fluffy chick flicks of today when the newest Kate Hudson-style actress has to choose between two men, or a man and her career, or a man and her family? I’d argue no. In Hollywood, women can’t have it all. They must know their place…and those that do become the lucky ones. As the old poem goes, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” and, unfortunately, Kitty Foyle just reinforces that outdated adage.
Filled with political satire, class warfare and the common struggles of the human condition, the movies of 1940 did not shy away from the issues at hand at the time.
The Grapes of Wrath showed the constant struggle between the halves and have-nots and how powerless most of us are against the powers that be. Even The Long Voyage Home was a harrowing reminder that sometimes our work and stance in life binds us to certain fates.
Yet other more topical films, like Foreign Correspondent and The Great Dictator, tried to inspire American audiences to actually get up and do something.
Of course, movies were also used as a method of escaping the current situation, as the rest of the films in this collection proved. The Letter and Rebecca gave audiences thrills and chills that had nothing to do with impending war, while The Philadelphia Story (my hidden gem!) cast the Holy Trinity of Hollywood in a feel-good rom-com that still shines to this day. Our Town brought back memories of ‘the good ol’ days’, reminding us to cherish all those simple memories we hold dear, while All This and Heaven Too and Kitty Foyle showed women specifically that happiness can sometimes be found in the strangest of places.
Did Rebecca deserve to win? In a year fought with fear and uncertainty, it seems like a weird choice to give the award to a movie about fear and uncertainty. Personally I feel The Grapes of Wrath may have been the better choice, as it boasts a message of hope and prosperity, along with amazing acting, directing and cinematography.
If there’s one thing each one of these films offered though, it was the promise of peace. Each in their own way, these movies showed audiences that life gets better, no matter what struggle you may be facing now. Whether or not that's actually true is irrelevant - sometimes just the idea of a better life is enough.
Onto the next pull!