Category Archives: 1940

Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath) – Best Actor of 1940

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath"

Other Noteworthy Performances: James Cagney (City for Conquest), Charles Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Brian Donlevy (The Great McGinty), W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick), Cary Grant (His Girl Friday), Cary Grant (The Philadelphia Story), Dean Jagger (Brigham Young), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois),  Laurence Olivier (Rebecca), Stanley Ridges (Black Friday), Edward G. Robinson (Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet), James Stewart (The Shop Around the Corner), Anton Walbrook (Gaslight)

There were few actors in 1940 who could have done justice to the character of Tom Joad. Perhaps James Stewart could have played the part well; he embodied many of the Steinbeck character’s all-American qualities. Gary Cooper could have also done the part justice, though by 1940 he was probably too old to play the part. It is also interesting to think about what a young John Wayne could have brought to the table, a man whose acting ability is often overshadowed by the persona he created.

Despite these conjectures, Henry Fonda is now the quintessential Tom Joad. Fonda has a natural all-American persona: good hearted, hard working, an innate sense of fair play, but naïve, a naivety that will gradually be challenged as Tom and his family get a crash course in the effects of capitalism without regulation. Fonda’s realization of this transformation makes his subtle but powerful performance superior to all the others of 1940.

Tom Joad begins as a man returning to his Oklahoma family farm after several years in prison. He expects to find his family poor but intact. Instead he is stunned by the devastation of the Dust Bowl, crop failures, and bank foreclosures. Families that were once just getting by are now faced with the very real possibilities of destitution and starvation. Though it all feels wrong Tom silently accepts the situation and helps his family pack for their move to California even though it means breaking his parole.

Over the course of his travels, seeing the way his family is treated just for being poor and how employers exploit them, Tom realizes that their poverty has nothing to do with poor decisions his family made, nor is it an accident. He recognizes that powerful forces have conspired to keep people like him poor, to keep them desperate and afraid so they will be grateful for whatever meager wages are offered. He realizes that there are some people profiting handsomely while his little brother and sister go hungry. By the end of the film, when he delivers his now iconic farewell speech to his mother, Tom is as committed to working for social justice as his mentor, the ex-preacher Casey, was.

I’m sure modern day Right Wingers hate the book, but they probably hate the movie even more, partly because Fonda’s performance puts a relatable and unimpeachably American (no hint of dreaded socialism) face on the battle against unregulated capitalism. Fonda’s deft handling of the material illustrates how a common, previously non-political man can become energized into action after years of abuse. He never gives us a phony moment, even when he delivers that admittedly writery farewell speech at the end of the picture. (See the clip above.) That Fonda could make those poetic words feel organic and true speaks to the mastery of Fonda’s craft.

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Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday) – Best Actress of 1940

Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson in "His Girl Friday"

Other Noteworthy Performances: Bette Davis (All This and Heaven Too), Bette Davis (The Letter), Joan Fontaine (Rebecca), Greer Garson (Pride and Prejudice), Katherine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story), Vivien Leigh (Waterloo Bridge), Margaret Lockwood (Night Train to Munich), Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle), Ginger Rogers (Primrose Path), Ann Sheridan (City for Conquest), Ann Sheridan (The Torrid Zone), Margaret Sullavan (The Shop Around the Corner), Diana Wynyard (Gaslight)

Sometimes a performance is so strong, so overwhelmingly good that I have to wonder if I might not be giving some other fine performances their rightful recognition. I would love to be writing an essay about the fragile performance of Diana Wynyard in Gaslight, but every time I stopped to think about it, my memories of the genius of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday overshadows Wynyard’s work – so much so that it becomes almost embarrassingly obvious that Russell should be considered the best actress of 1940.

Russell specialized in playing strong women usually unconstrained by the paternalistic bounds of society. She managed, however, to retain her femininity while going toe to toe with some of the most masculine leading men of her day. So it’s no wonder that Howard Hawks chose her to play hard nosed newspaper woman Hildy Johnson in his comedic revamp of the 1931 drama The Front Page.

Hildy is a woman who claims she wants out of the newspaper game and to get away from her ex-husband and former editor Walter Burns. We suspect her plans to get marred to bland Bruce Baldwin and retire to connubial bliss in Albany are not as genuine as she rather emphatically declares they are. Does she just want to stick it to Walter one more time? If not, why would she bring Bruce to Walter’s office if she didn’t want to kindle some jealousy?

 

Russell matches wits with Cary Grant

Our suspicions are confirmed after Walter manages to hook Hildy for one last story. She begins reluctantly, but once she gets a whiff of the big break her old instincts kick in and bulldoze over all of those unrealistic domestic fantasies. She is addicted to the adrenaline rushes of deadlines and scoops that Bruce Baldwin and his promises of a quiet country life could never satisfy.

She is also addicted to Walter, no matter how rocky their relationship may have been. She is a strong working woman (in an era when women weren’t encouraged in the workforce), but her hoydenishness doesn’t preclude traditional romantic entanglements. She has a connection with Walter that by the end of the film she can’t deny any longer – a connection that is intimately intertwined with their work. Neither Walter nor her work are more important for Hildy – they are equal components that can not be untangled from one another. They are one in the same and she will not be happy without either of them.

 

Rosalind Russell grabs this role by the throat and owns it. She delivers Charles Lederer’s rapid fire dialogue with astonishing ease (a talent she showed off in George Cukor’s The Women only the year before). Her chemistry with Cary Grant (as Walter) is dynamic; it turns out to be one of his best pairings, along with Irene Dunne and Katherine Hepburn. She is tough and vulnerable, a dichotomy believably brought to life by Russell’s remarkable characterization.

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Frank Morgan (The Shop Around the Corner) – Best Supporting Actor of 1940

Other Noteworthy Performances: Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday), Humphrey Bogart (They Drive By Night), Walter Brennan (The Westerner), John Carradine (The Grapes of Wrath), Ian Hunter (Strange Cargo), Paul Lukas (Night Train to Munich), Herbert Marshall (Foreign Correspondent), Thomas Mitchell (Angels over Broadway), Thomas Mitchell (The Long Voyage Home), Frank Morgan (The Mortal Storm), Jack Oakie (The Great Dictator), Sabu (The Thief of Baghdad), Akim Tamiroff (The Great McGinty), Conrad Veidt (The Thief of Baghdad), Raymond Walburn (Christmas in July)

Frank Morgan in "The Shop Around the Corner"

I was inclined to choose Frank Morgan’s performance in The Mortal Storm as the best supporting performance by an actor of 1940. I was impressed by his job in the dramatic role of a Jewish professor who endures persecuting under the Nazi regime in Germany. It shows off his true range, proving he was more than a comedic supporting actor as his resume might suggest. But what I initially missed is that his role in The Shop Around the Corner shows off the best of his dramatic and comedic abilities in the same film, making it a much more rounded and nuanced performance much more deserving of recognition.

Morgan plays Hugo Matuschek, the owner of a medium sized gift shop in (carefully established pre-war) Budapest. Just like any businessman, he is plagued by business problems: mediocre sales, escalating demands from employees, merchandising fiascos. His initial clashes with his chief salesperson, Alfred (James Stewart) are funny and endearing; there is a bond between the two deeper than most employee-employer relationships. It is more like a father-son relationship, replete with all the common ups and downs.

Like other classic comedic roles he’s played (like in The Good Fairy and The Wizard of Oz) Morgan is bumbling and indecisive. Here he uses his trademark mumbling and strategic yelping to great effect but without overdoing it, careful not to disrupt the deliberate tone of the film, which teeters precariously (though successfully) between comedy and tragedy. He is genuinely funny as he tries to assert his authority over employees who are largely more competent or thoughtful than he is, like when Alfred suggest he pass on investing in dozens of shoddily made music boxes. Rather than admit Alfred might be right, Hugo rashly agrees to buy the boxes and display them prominently in the store, as though he were just waiting for Alfred’s decision so he could do the opposite. (If, however, he hoped to prove his business proficiency he fails; the boxes spend the rest of the film untouched.)

It is in the later scenes we realize Matuschek’s moodiness is rooted in deeper personal problems, which he takes out mercilessly on Alfred. These scenes are uncomfortable for us to watch because Morgan has already established his character as an essentially good hearted man paternally bound to Alfred. Where is this hostility coming from? I won’t give away too much for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, but this story line gives Morgan the opportunity to show off his dramatic chops and he does not disappoint. Matuschek may have appeared to be a clownish bungler before, but we realize that those traits stem from deeper insecurities and darker conflicts within himself.

The closing scene, one of my favorite moments in movie history.

Morgan proves that he was one of the most versatile and talented supporting actors of the 1930s and 1940s with his diligently observed characterization of Hugo Matuschek. He proved that he wasn’t a one-trick pony, that he was able to dig deep and access darker emotions than some of his comedic work would suggest. He fluctuates between light comedy and dark drama seamlessly and bring to life a character that set the tone for the entire picture. My favorite scene in the entire film (maybe one of my favorites in all of film history) comes at the end on Christmas Eve. Hugo has bid farewell and merry Christmas to all his employees. He had a vague hope that someone would invite him to their Christmas Eve celebration, but they all walk off into the snowy night without doing so. Expecting to spend the holiday alone, he runs into the young stock boy Rudy and discovers that the boy, someone he never paid much attention to before, has no friends or family in the city. Hugo invites the boy to spend Christmas with him, joyfully and excitedly describing the menu as Rudy almost literally licks his lips. It’s a touching moment pulled off with skill by the great Frank Morgan.

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Jane Darwell (The Grapes of Wrath) – Best Supporting Actress of 1940

Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath"

Other Noteworthy Performances: Judith Anderson (Rebecca), Mary Astor (Brigham Young), Fay Bainter (Our Town), Lucille Ball (Dance, Girl, Dance), Mary Boland (Pride and Prejudice), Beulah Bondi (Our Town), Mildred Natwick (The Long Voyage Home), Marjorie Rambeau (Primrose Path), Flora Robson (The Sea Hawk)

The list above highlights the best supporting actresses of 1940 but, as good as they all are, the choice really came down to Jane Darwell as the resilient matriarch of the Joad clan in The Grapes of Wrath and Judith Anderson as the exacting but deranged housekeeper in Rebecca. Both own their roles, confidently executing their characters’ crucial but very different tasks in the their respective films: Darwell’s Ma Joad is the glue of the troubled family, trying her best to hold her loved ones together through all the vicissitudes of the Great Depression’s anemic agricultural economy. But if Ma Joad is the glue of her film’s story, Mrs. Danvers serves as her story’s acetone as she fiendishly devises new ways to demean her new mistress and keep her beloved former mistress’ memory alive.

Anderson certainly tallies up several points for effectively conveying the lesbian subtext without also implying her sexuality is the reason she has bats in the belfry. (Though the movie doesn’t suggest otherwise either. For all of my admiration for Hitchcock, he did love to make his villains homosexuals, a tactless ploy to make them creepier and, at the same time, understandable to average audiences who probably had little to no experience with sinister homosexuals.) Anderson didn’t let the Sapphic element dominate her interpretation of the role.

Still I settled on Jane Darwell, that sturdy supporting actress of the 1930s and 1940s who brought Ma Joad to life. One reason I chose her over Judith Anderson is because her part he meatier and requires more range. Ma Joad is a woman who feels quietly; she doesn’t bemoan her pain, nor does she trumpet her joy. She does not exhibit love with hugs and kisses. Darwell, then, has to almost exclusively use her eyes. Only by watching her eyes can we truly know what she is feeling.

Jane Darwell (with Henry Fonda) shows off her wonderfully expressive face and eyes.

Another tribute to Darwell’s effectiveness is a simple test for those who’ve read the book: can we imagine anyone else playing this part? For me the answer is a resounding no. Who else in Hollywood had both Darwell’s strong physique and weather-beaten face, suggesting a lifetime of hard work, while still successfully expressing the depth of pathos Darwell squeezes out of every one of Ford’s loving close ups? Darwell skillfully subverts the initial impression of her sturdy physique and the sparsity of her dialogue by rendering her the most empathetic and subtly emotional of the whole family (with the exception of Rose of Sharon).

Considering the Academy’s tendency to hand Oscars to the most popular but least deserving (I’m thinking, of course, of Sandra Bullock), it’s something of a miracle that they managed to honor Ms. Darwell for a rich and moving performance that also happens to be the best of 1940. I guess she lucked out, being both popular and deserving.

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