1940: Year Thirteen

The Academy and I are still holding steady at our mutual ignorance. They’re still ignoring me completely, and I’m trying to stop ignoring them for the same four categories: Best Live Action Short Film (One-Reel, Two-Reel), Best Editing, and Best Sound Recording.

I can live with that. I hope you can too.

Just as long as you don’t ignore me too, I’m happy!

Best Live Action Short Film (One-Reel):

MGM and Pete Smith grabbed another Oscar in this category for Quicker’n a Wink, beating out the Warner Bros. doing their best to drum up support for Great Britain’s fight against the Nazis with London Can Take It!, MGM’s More About Nostradamus, and RKO’s Siege.

Quicker’n a Wink is an often fascinating look at stroboscopic photography, which allows for studies in slow-motion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen stroboscopic photos used over my lifetime, but they used to be extremely popular. Here the focus is on MIT’s Dr. Harold Edgerton, who helped invent the process. We get to see a bullet shatter a light bulb, a kicker’s foot when it hits the football, and a hummingbird’s wings in flight. That, and lots of shots of milk, including a cat lapping up milk (proving the tongue curls downward). Quicker’n a Wink can be found on the DVD of the Marx Brothers’ Go West and The Big Store, but here is the whole thing:

London Can Take It! shows the Blitz at its height — as well as the people of London going on about their stiff upper lip business. Somber and surprisingly restrained, London Can Take It! remains sobering today, especially in the images, as well as the quiet of the narration of American journalist Quentin Reynolds. Here is one of the most effective pieces of history and propaganda ever released:

More About Nostradamus is a sequel to 1938’s Nostradamus. In this one, Hans Conreid has an unbilled part as the Pope. These shorts (there were several) are a major reason why Nostradamus has been so well known over the past seventy years. While I personally don’t believe in such things — astrology has too little science, and our willingness to read volumes of meaning into extremely obscure verse always disturbs me– the concept is endlessly fascinating to many. The short can be found on the DVD box set, The Joan Crawford Collection, V. 2.

The last of the nominees, Siege, shows the Nazi attack on Warsaw. Along with London Can Take It!, these shorts were among America’s earliest wake-up calls to the horrors that were occurring in Europe. The footage focuses on the aftermath of the attacks, pushing emotional buttons by showing mothers and children suffering. The entire film can be viewed here:

http://www.dhm.de/ausstellungen/deutsche-polen/der_ueberfall.html#video

Of these, the one that retains the most impact and artistic integrity is London Can Take It!, which should have won the Oscar for this category.

Best Live Action Short Film (Two-Reel):

Warner Bros. continued their winning streak with yet another patriotic portrait, this time of Teddy, the Rough Rider. That’s Roosevelt, our president; this is not one of those movies you locked the door to watch when you were sixteen. Theodore Roosevelt was one of our most idiosyncratic and bellicose leaders, a perfect choice for a studio trying to wake up America’s martial spirit.  Sidney Blackmer plays TR; one of Universal’s Frankenstein Monsters, Glenn Strange, shows up in a bit part. We learn about TR’s rise to political power, with a high point being his military service in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, leading the rough riders up San Juan Hill (which was, in reality, Kettle Hill, much as the Battle of Bunker Hill was actually fought on Breed’s Hill. We have a problem with hills, apparently). The short can be found on the DVD box set, The Ronald Reagan Signature Collection. I’ve seen the short, but could find no copy to post here. Failing that, here is the real TR reunited with some of his former soldiers:

And here’s a rarity: the real voice of Teddy Roosevelt making a speech!

Eyes of the Navy is MGM jumping on the military preparedness bandwagon, with this recruiting poster for naval pilots. My favorite part of this is seeing the vintage planes, as well as the takeoffs and landings from the aircraft carrier. The entire short, with an unfortunate editing insert, can be seen here:

The last nominee, Service with the Colors, is another military recruiting poster, this time with Robert “King Kong” Armstrong as a drill sergeant training new army recruits. One of the recruits is a jerk who ponders desertion (care to guess what happens? You’re probably right). Fairly dull and predictable, actually, despite the color. The short can be found on The Tough Guys Collection, or if you’re brave enough, here:

Best Editing:

Anne Bauchens won in this category again, this time for North West Mounted Police, over Robert L. Simpson, The Grapes of Wrath; Warren Low, The Letter; Sherman Todd, The Long Voyage Home; and Hal C. Kern, Rebecca.

Unfortunately, North West Mounted Police is a completely undeserving win, over four brilliantly edited, directed, and acted films.  The only reason I can find for why it won is that it is the only movie in color.

So which one of the four nominees should have won? You might as well flip a coin; they all have top-notch editing, with famous sequences to recommend them, from the long uncut tracking shot of The Letter to the terror of Rebecca to the artistry of the two John Ford films. Were I to be forced to make a choice, I would suggest The Grapes of Wrath, but on another day, I might pick one of the others. Anything but what originally won, which is stilted at best.

Just to unsettle you, here is a classic shot of the creepiest house-keeper in the history of the movies, Mrs. Danvers, Judith Anderson, over the shoulder of the second Mrs. de Winter, Joan Fontaine (who passed away shortly before I wrote this blog entry):

Best Sound Recording:

I suspect the Academy got this one right: MGM and Douglas Shearer won for letting Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland run wild with Strike Up the Band.  Great poster too:

Strike-Up-the-Band-1940.jpg

Here’s the Mickster and Ms. Garland blowing the roof off the joint!

The only two nominees that come close to that level of quality are The Grapes of Wrath (E. H. Hansen, Fox), especially for the quiet moments between Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, and The Sea Hawk ((Nathan Levinson, Warner Bros.), for all the loud booms and swords clashing. Here’s a fun poster:

The Sea Hawk.JPG

The rest of the crop of nominees is mostly second- and third-rate stuff, and more proof the Academy was handing out nominations like lollipops in this category (as was happening in the music area as well): the I-don’t-know-if-it’s-awful Behind the News (Charles L. Lootens, Republic); the I-suspect-thie-movie-desperately-wants-to-be-better-than-awful Captain Caution (Elmer A. Raguse, Hal Roach Studio); the truly awful colonial costumed Cary Grant vehicle The Howards of Virginia (Jack Whitney, General Service Sound); the pretty awful Kitty Foyle (John Aalberg, RKO); the not-so-awful Our Town (Thomas T. Moulton, Samuel Goldwyn Studio); the sort-of-awful North West Mounted Police (Loren L. Ryder, Paramount); the Deanna Durbin color-eyeful of Spring Parade (Bernard B. Brown, Universal); and the male-eyeful version of My Favorite Wife, Too Many Husbands (John Livadary, Columbia).

Actually, both My Favorite Wife and Too Many Husbands are adaptations of Tennyson’s poem, Enoch Arden, but I’d rather watch Cary Grant and Randolph Scott compete for Irene Dunne than Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas chase Jean Arthur — but the two would make a nice double feature and discussion afterwards.

I had seen all but two of these before writing this blog.

Behind the News has Lloyd Nolan as a burned-out ace reporter assigned to mentor a cub reporter by editor Robert Armstrong, in the hopes of kickstarting Nolan’s engines again.  Completely unavailable, although UCLA has pieces.

Captain Caution has Victor Mature competing with Bruce Cabot for command of a ship and a woman’s heart during the War of 1812. Hal Roach was trying to go big with adapting a novel by Kenneth Roberts, the author of Northwest Passage.  I know the film still exists, and I think I may have actually seen this when I was a swashbuckling teenager, but I can’t confirm.

Actually, I was a teenager who loved swashbucklers, to the point of seeing The Adventures of Robin Hood more than a hundred times, but let 16-year-old inner me fantasize a bit, ok?

Spoilsport.

To close, here’s a pretty nifty Art Deco poster for the Academy Awards show that year:

13th Academy Awards poster.jpg

And my book: And my book: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OPEELH0

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