Category Archives: 1940

His Girl Friday – Best Pictures of 1940 (#1)

Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, and Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday"

Well Sam and Jon predicted my next move accurately in the Grapes of Wrath comments thread. His Girl Friday stands as one of the only truly perfect Hollywood era comedies, along with The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). (Is it a coincidence that Cary Grant was in all three?) Every element is in perfect sync, so much so that watching His Girl Friday makes us resent the mediocre movies that take up the majority of theater space and air time. (Though we can forgive most of the bad ones. At least they can still be entertaining in a perverse way. I’d rather watch Linda Blair in Roller Boogie than just about any Katherine Heigl “comedy.”)

This movie is another gem from Howard Hawks. He took a slightly better than average 1931 newspaper drama, The Front Page, and by tweeking the characters and the story a bit, turned it into a first rate comedy. What we appreciate is how much care Hawks spent with the script: the dialogue crackles with wit, puns, and innuendos that elevate the script to some of the best movie writing – comedy or otherwise – ever. Consider the scene in which a hapless messenger tries to deliver a stay of execution for a prisoner to a befuddled sheriff and his exacerbated mayor. The mayor, overly conscious of public opinion against the prisoner, doesn’t want the stay, the sheriff takes orders from his city hall boss, and the messenger just wants to get rid of the message. The three talk in circles as each tries to pass the message off on the other, misunderstanding and misinterpreting each other along the way. Their dialogue overlaps and intertwines; double meanings and playful puns pile up into one of the funniest scenes of all time, which is amazing considering neither Cary Grant nor Rosalind Russell, the brilliant leads of the movie, don’t appear in it.

That’s how we know the movie is special. When supporting players are allowed to briefly overshadow their leads (and they rise to the opportunity). Here it would not have been easy to do with Grant and Russell. They transform already great material into something divine. Grant plays Walter Burns, the hard-nosed editor of a major metropolitan newspaper always looking out for the scoop (even if it comes a little dishonestly) or the fresh angle on a tired story. The story of the moment is the impending execution of a convicted murderer, a man who stubbornly refuses to give interviews. All seems lost until Hildy Johnson (Russell) walks into his office to flaunt her new fiancé (Ralph Bellamy). Not only was Hildy Walter’s top reporter but she was also his wife. Walter realizes he needs the best for this story and the best just walked into his office. Even though she is determined to retire and get married, Walter is equally determined to snare Hildy back into the newspaper game. Through cunning, flattery, treachery, even kidnapping, Walter gets Hildy for just this one last story, confident he can remind her that the newspaper game is in her blood and that one last adrenaline rush of getting the story in just under the deadline will disabuse her of any goofy retirement ideas and, just possibly, win her back as a wife.

Of course we’re never sure if Walter is consciously trying to win her back; maybe he considers winning her back the easiest way to keep her working for him – or vice versa. Or, the more likely third option, that for Walter there is no distinction for their relationship. Whichever is the case Walter’s schemes, Hildy’s reactions, and her poor fiancé’s desperate attempt to collect her and catch a train all culminate into one of the greatest movie comedies. Hawks’ measured insanity never feels out of control or over the top, but it’s always funny and, even seventy years later, still feels fresh. How could this movie, one of my favorite of all time, not be the best of 1940?

What are your favorite movies of 1940? What do you think I missed? Or got right? Next up will be the best performances of 1940.

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The Grapes of Wrath – Best Pictures of 1940 (#2)

The Joads at the beginning of their ill-fated journey

John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath comes in at number two rather than number one only because the movie is more timid than the book. We feel the watchful eyes of the Hayes Office preventing the movie from becoming a truly great masterpiece. As a result we often don’t connect the lingering sting of poverty with the heartless economic system that requires poverty to keep wages low the way we did in the book.

Still, Ford managed to make a great movie that may not indict capitalism run amok as strongly as Steinbeck did, but it is still a powerful testament to unchecked capitalism’s dehumanization of the poor.

The movie is guided by Ford at the top of his game; his direction is confident and determined. How easy it would have been for the material to descend into eye-rolling sentimentality or preachy vitriol. But the story of the Joad family – evicted from their family farm in Oklahoma and making their way to California to the promise of work – never crosses those lines. These are proud, simple people (and not simple as in stupid, but simple as in uncomplicated by the complexities of our postmodern world) who would never think to question the system. They wouldn’t even think of trying to change it; all they can do is wade through it as best they can, no matter how unjust. When the ex-preacher Casey explains the importance of organizing agricultural workers into a union, he is mostly met with suspicion. Unions don’t gel with their conception of a traditional employer/employee relationship, but they will also learn, over time, that those traditional work ethics don’t apply. Exploitation is institutionalized here.

Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell

Even when the troubled ex-con, Tom Joad gives his farewell speech to his mother (now a classic moment in film history), it is heartfelt rather than sermonizing, despite the obvious ring of a writer’s hand in the words. Henry Fonda’s sensitive performance is, after Ford’s direction, the second anchor of the film. Like James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Fonda’s Tom is the embodiment of the ideal American: hard working, fair, respectful. But this does not mean he is without his flaws. His anger often gets the better of him and as he navigates the turbulent world of transient workers. Who’s anger wouldn’t flare at seeing already poor people cheated and taken advantage of?

The Grapes of Wrath is a classic of American cinema that marks a shameful series of episodes of the Great Depression. Our journey with the Joads into deeper and more unshakable poverty is heartbreaking and unforgettable. Unfortunately the movie is still a relevant invective against the triumph of avarice over brotherhood, selfishness over empathy.

So this leaves one last slot. Can you guess what my choice for the best of the year is? And let me know what your favorite is.

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The Shop Around the Corner – Best Pictures of 1940 (#3)

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart try to ignore each other in "The Shop Around the Corner"

To describe the plot of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner invites readers unfamiliar with the movie to conclude that it is a trite, inconsequential piece of fluff. Lubitsch utilizes all the devices of the worst examples of these types of movies (mistaken identity, physical comedy, miraculous coincidences, etc.), but it never comes off as manufactured or manipulative like its lesser counterparts. Lubitsch understood the importance of populating his pictures with well-developed characters. Here he took that a step further by carefully balancing them and his comedy with a pathos that elevates the material to classic status.

Alfred and Klara (James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) are co-workers at a Budapest gift shop and, though they are both young, attractive, and would appear to be a perfect romantic match, they despise each other. What they don’t know is they are in love. This isn’t a love that develops in spite of their initial hatred of one another, but a love that grows from an anonymous correspondence. Both have answered a personal ad and, unbeknownst to them, Alfred and Klara have been writing each other. They are enamored with their epistolary partners completely ignorant of the fact that they work with their fantasy loves every day.

Lubitsch sets this story in Matuschek’s Store and populates it with a diverse cast of characters, from the nervous owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) to the dapper suck-up (Joseph Schildkraut) to the ambitious delivery boy Pepi. Lubitsch takes the time to explore the little dramas of these characters’ lives, especially Matuschek’s mysteriously metastasizing depression. We never see any of these characters at home or interact with their own families. For the purposes of this film their lives are contained by the physical and social limits of their jobs. Though it is taken to an extreme here, this is true for most people who spend more of their waking hours with their co-workers than with their friends and families.

The workplace community

The constitution of this strange, almost random kind of family is at the heart of Lubitsch’s film. At any job we are thrown in with complete strangers and in no time we get involved in their personal and professional trials – and they in ours. Matuschek’s Store shows us how work life can have all the same dynamics as an extended family. We see the women dote on Pepi and everyone’s concern for Matuschek’s increasingly erratic behavior and the way they all celebrate together on Christmas Eve. There is something touching –and true to life – about life in this store.

Of course it takes several reels for Alfred and Klara to realize they aren’t just feuding co-workers, because, like any extended family, personal jealousies and competitions can strain relationships. Once they realize the true identity of their love-by-mail partner, they recognize all the fantasies they created for their phantom lovers were walking by unidentified every day at work. They finally come to terms with the fact that our closest connections often come with our co-workers and once we put aside the cloud of professional competition, we can build true and lasting relationships.

They tried a remake with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the 1990s called You’ve Got Mail, substituting those antiquated letters with email messages. I have somehow avoided seeing it all these years so, if some of you have seen both, I would be curious to know how they stack up.

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Rebecca – Best Pictures of 1940 (#4)

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in "Rebecca"

Rebecca is the only picture directed by Alfred Hitchcock to be awarded the Oscar for best picture, though they failed to also honor the director, an oversight the Academy would never correct despite his direction of some of the best films of the 1940s and 1950s (Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest). Perhaps, though, they were right to snub Hitchcock this time. Rebecca was as much producer David O. Selznick’s picture as it was Hitchcock’s; they both battled to assert their own visions and Selznick shaped much of the look, style, and narrative of the film with his usual rigorous oversight.

Rebecca turned out to be a fine movie, though I don’t agree that it’s the best picture of the year. Based on a book by Daphne Du Marier, Rebecca is something of a twentieth century gothic mishmash of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. A meek, unnamed woman (Joan Fontaine) who is traveling in the south of France acting as a companion for a domineering snob. She is whisked off her feet in a whirlwind romance by Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a mysterious and moody widower. In a flash they are married and he takes her to his ancestral home Manderley (castle more like it). Once in England, the new Mrs. De Winter confronts the figurative ghost of Max’ dead wife Rebecca.

Her oppressive presence is felt everywhere, kept alive by Manderley’s unbalanced housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Danvers resents the new Mrs. De Winter, not because she isn’t fine or sophisticated (which she isn’t really), but because her frustrated love for her former mistress bursts out in jealous rages at the thought of this little mouse trying to replace the grand Rebecca de Winter. Danvers isn’t outright hostile. It is a subtle, passive aggressive hostility that bubbles just below the each question or comment made to the new Mrs. De Winter. A critique is always implied with a pursed lip or a raised eyebrow, never voiced.

Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) makes life hell for Mrs. de Winter

Mrs. De Winter is tested further when evidence is uncovered that suggests Rebecca may have been murdered. Could her beloved Max have killed his first wife? Hitchcock had to change the end of the book to conform to Hayes Office standards and just about any objective observation  will deem the change silly. It may weaken the end of the film, but it doesn’t destroy the impact of the entire picture. I think that is a testament of the genius of Hitchcock; he handles everything expertly, so much so that we (mostly) accept a logically tortured twist in the plot.

Rebecca is a fine work of suspense, though certainly not Hitchcock’s best. We can sometimes feel the conflicting visions of Hitchcock and Selznick at work. The movie is more fluid, less regimented than most of Hitchcock’s other films. This clash of styles could have been disastrous, but they managed to craft a moody psychological thriller out of the best of both.

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Pride and Prejudice – Best Pictures of 1940 (#5)

I’m going to come right out and say it: I love this movie. Yes, there are better versions of the book and I know this one has its detractors, especially among Jane Austen purists, but this Hollywood adaptation still captures its humor and wit and turns out to be a wonderful time at the movies. Greer Garson, a little old for the part but good nonetheless, plays Elizabeth, the intelligent, level-headed oldest sister of the Bennett clan. She, along with her four sisters, weather the choppy waters of romance and the unpredictable currents of courtship in early nineteenth century England.

Austen’s novel (incidentally one of my favorites) is a classic satire of relations between the classes and the sexes. Like another high profile literary adaptation of 1940 (which will appear higher up on the list) Robert Z. Leonard’s film excises some of the source material’s most biting social observations. Much of the pointed critiques of class have been removed in favor of a Hollywoodized ending, played for laughs instead of thoughtfulness. The snobbery of the rich and the sycophancy of their hanger-ons are presented as sources of good natured ribbing, not critical commentart. Even Lady Catherine’s final meeting with Elizabeth, during which the aristocrat tells the common born young woman to stay away from Darcy, loses its original intention. In the book the meeting was meant to sternly warn Elizabeth away from the romantic attentions of Darcy in favor of Lady Catherine’s daughter. The movie transforms Lady Catherine’s motivations into a harsh, but ultimately warm hearted, test of Elizabeth’s love. We could see that coming though. Could Edna May Oliver ever play a true snob?

Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson flirt in "Pride and Prejudice"

The movie works in spite of its timidity. We get wrapped up in the characters and their often converging storylines that only the most ardent Jane Austen fanatics are bothered by the changes. It is a joyful, energetic film that leaves us grinning. It is played largely as a romantic comedy and, so long as we don’t turn our noses up at it, we can accept this interpretation.

Joining Garson is Laurence Olivier, perfectly cast as the brooding, mysterious Darcy. He’s able to tone down the darkness of his portrayals of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Max de Winter from Rebecca to deliver a sharp but personable interpretation of the classic character. The Bennett family is alternately pulled between the frenetic scatterbrainedness of Marly Boland’s Mrs. Bennett, the sort of frivolous, mouth-moves-faster-than-the-brain characters she was born to play. And Edmund Gwenn is effective as the staid, ever-suffering Mr. Bennett. The Bennett sisters are made up of many up-and-coming young Hollywood actresses like Anne Rutherford and Margaret O’Sullivan. It really is an ideal Hollywood cast for these characters. (OK, maybe it would have been fun to see Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Bennett.)

There have been many versions of this book, some of which were produced with more fidelity to Austen’s intention. Some have been richer and more layered cinematic experiences. I’m not privileging this film over the book; I would always recommend the book over any movie. But despite the departures from the novel, there are few movies I have enjoyed so completely.

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Night Train to Munich – Best Pictures of 1940 (#6)

At first look this British film about the intrigues of British and German spies looks to be either a blatant rip-off or an unimaginative rehash of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes. Night Train retains Margaret Lockwood in the lead with Rex Harrison replacing Michael Redgrave and recasts several supporting actors from Hitchcock’s film, most notably Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott. On top of the duplicate casting choices, Carol Reed’s story, at least partly, also plays out on a train.

Rex Harrison and Margaret Lockwood caught in the morass of a Nazi espionage plot

Happily these similarities turn out to be superficial and Reed is able to use the broad strokes of Hitchcock’s film still giving it its own life and vitality independent of its predecessor. It’s a white-knuckle thriller set against the backdrops of occupied Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany. Lockwood plays Anna Bomasch, the daughter of a Czech scientist who is working on a hush-hush super strength armor plating. Both the Germans and British consider Dr. Bomasch’s work crucial to giving them a leg up on their respective enemies. He is smuggled out of the country as Germany invades, but they capture Anna and she is forced to enjoy to dubious hospitality of a concentration camp. The Nazis hold her as a pawn to compel her father to return to the country and share his work with them. At the camp she meets Karl (Paul Henreid), a courageous political prisoner who impresses her with his daring confrontations with the guards, rewarded with severe beatings. Together they escape from the camp and make their way to Great Britain to rejoin her father in hiding.

What Anna doesn’t know is her actions lead Nazi spies directly to her father who kidnap the scientist and his daughter and whisk them off to Berlin. British agent Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison) had been in charge of their safety and, rather than accept defeat, formulates a rescue plan, going undercover as a German officer to spring his charges from Nazi detention. Gus’ charade provides him access to high levels of German government allowing him to locate the Bromasches. And, as the title suggests, his last opportunity to rescue them comes on a night train to Munich.

Though the film is structured as a fairly standard espionage thriller, there are enough twists and turns with cleverly drawn characters to make it a first rate entertainment. Admittedly it isn’t as crafty as The Lady Vanishes, but Reed does effectively balance the action with humor. Charters and Caldicott are two British travelers eternally disconcerted and depressed over the shoddy service on German trains; Reed uses them to poke a good natured but satirical finger into the eyes of British entitlement abroad. They played a similar role in Hitchcock’s film, but here Reed makes them integral elements of the escape plot once Gus recruits their help, suggesting that, through all the bluster and arrogance, even the most snotty of the British will come through for country in a pinch.

Gus (Harrison) recruits Caldicott and Charters

That Reed chose to make this film in 1940, as Germany threatened not only Great Britain, but all of Europe, the film could be written off as crass exploitation of current crisis – cashing in on the fears of war. But it seems that Reed wanted to entertain (not a worthless goal) as well as buck up and energize the country. Hitler and his goons are not invincible, he says, and with our ingenuity and commitment we can and will prevail. Not a bad message in a time of anxiety and in a remarkably good action movie.

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The Mortal Storm – Best Pictures of 1940 (#7)

Hollywood was reluctant to tackle Nazism, even though – or maybe because – the major studios were run almost exclusively by Jews. Perhaps they feared their very Jewishness would be used against whatever anti-Nazi message they wanted to convey by fascist partisans, eager to latch onto any “proof” of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. It isn’t as if Germany – or Europe for that matter – had a monopoly on anti-Semitism. Fascists and their sympathizers could have very well argued that it was natural for Jack Warner and Adolph Zukor to make anti-Nazi films because they were part of a immense Jewish conspiracy (Elders of Zion-esque) bent on controlling the world. As the decades have progressed Hollywood’s prolonged silence has become less and less defendable, some going so far as to suggest that the timidity of the studio heads makes them almost complicit in the Holocaust.

However, Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 loosened some of the Hollywood honchos’ inhibitions about criticizing Germany even though the U.S. was technically neutral until the attack on Pearl Harbor. Warner Bros. released a tepid expose of Nazi spies and saboteurs in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), but the movie ignored conditions in Germany in favor of condemning their subversive hostilities against neutral nations. The first direct attack on the racism and repression of Hitler’s Reich (that I know of) was MGM’s The Mortal Storm, a full-throated condemnation of Nazism based on the novel by Phyllis Bottome who lived in Germany in the late 1930s.

Martin and Freya consider what to do as their world goes crazy around them.

Starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan with Frank Morgan in a supporting role we might expect lighter fare, a sort of follow up to the trio’s earlier comedic hit The Shop Around the Corner. But there is nothing light in this bleak tale of Prof. Viktor Roth, a beloved university biology professor at the dawn of Hitler’s rise to power and the fractures within his own family caused by hysterical politics. Because Roth is Jewish he quickly falls from respected intellectual to venomous traitor, eventually ending up in a concentration camp.

Roth’s plight is complicated by ideological rifts in his own household. His stepson’s Otto and Erich have bought into the Nazi ideology with the same fervent conviction as newly converted cult members, apparently never connecting Hitler’s anti-Semitism this their own stepfather. They, along with their childhood friend Fritz, believe Hitler will bring glory back to Germany. Even their sweet grandmotherly maid cheers when Hitler is appointed chancellor. On the other side of the ideological coin are Roth’s daughter Freya (Sullavan), his wife, and another lifelong friend of his children, Martin (Stewart, who masterfully combines the right amounts of befuddlement and heroism as an ordinary but principled man caught up in extraordinary times); they are quietly cautious – fearful even – of the future. They don’t expect national greatness and freedom, but fear, paranoia, betrayal, and repression.

Freya pleads for information about her father from Fritz, one time friend and lover, now ideological automaton.

Fritz (Robert Young**) along with Otto and Erich urge Martin to join the Nazi Party, to declare his allegiance, to say whether he is with them or against them. Martin refuses to join, being more than ambivalent about joining any organization that depends on violence and intimidation for its strength. He’d rather rescue the local school teacher from a band of Nazi thugs than join them. He’s right when he points out the unseemliness of a group of young men ganging up on a single old man. No one with any strong sense of right or wrong could actively join a group like that. Martin’s stand also brings him closer to Freya who, not incidentally, had been engaged to Fritz. This inserts a personal component into the rift between Martin and Fritz which will climax in tragedy.

The Mortal Storm directed by Frank Borzage (Seventh Heaven, A Farewell to Arms, Three Comrades) is a sobering film even after decades of anti-fascist films. In 1940 though this would have been the first cinematic depiction for many Americans of what life in Nazi Germany looked like. The movie may not be as strong as it could have been because Roth is scrupulously never referred to as Jewish, only “non-Aryan.” And things may be exaggerated for dramatic effect, but not by much. (I don’t think Roth would have been embraced by his students and colleagues one day and shunned the very next just because of Hitler’s appointment. I suspect it would have been a more gradual process, but it takes a master to depict subtlety in film and, let’s face it, Borzage may have been a competent director, but he was no master.) The scene that stands out, that confirms this movie’s place as a sincere and effective, if not masterful, film is when young Nazi party members overwhelm Roth’s class and challenge his insistence that there is no biological basis to determine any difference between the races. He refuses to back down from his position and is immediately and vehemently branded a traitor by some of the very students who had feted him days before. They file out of the room as he uselessly cries, “But it’s science. It’s science.” There’s no reasoning with blind ideology.

Hitler ended up banning not just The Mortal Storm, but all MGM movies from Germany. The movie illuminated one too many truths that Hitler would have preferred kept in the dark: Essentially that Nazism is a corrosive political system that sustains itself on fear and ignorance. That doesn’t have any modern day corollaries, does it?

** Thanks to reader Helene for pointing out that I gave Robert Taylor rather than Robert Young the credit for the role of Fritz. Yikes, what a bone-headed error.

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