Thursday, October 16, 2008

The "Undeserved" Oscars of 1940

I've always loved this shot of Ginger Rogers & Jimmy Stewart taken at the 1941 Academy Awards. Ginger won for Kitty Foyle & Jimmy copped his for The Philadelphia Story. Ginger looked so good as a brunette, didn't she? Wow!!! And Jimmy was at his Philadelphia Story-looking best. He sure was a lucky man to have her swipe his "innocence." It's certainly better than having him go to the MGM Whorehouse (for more on that bit of hilarity, read Marc Eliot's Jimmy Stewart: A Biography or go Here). It amuses me no end that the ambitious, predatory Ginger got a hold of "boy next door" Jimmy. That these two Hollywood legends would come together (pun somewhat intended!) on Oscar night only enhances my amusement. I love it!

As for their respective Oscar wins, many believe that both were undeserving of their awards. The other nominees that year were:

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln of Illinois
Laurence Olivier, Rebecca

Stewart and Henry Fonda were the two leading contenders that year. The consensus in subsequent years is that Henry Fonda should have won that year for The Grapes of Wrath, but I disagree! It's easy to dismiss Stewart's win as compensation for not having won in 1939 for Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, but In The Philadelphia Story, Stewart was never more charming or witty, and unabashedly romantic. He displayed more characterization and nuance in his expressions as Macaulay "Mike" Connor than in virtually any role he's done--only his memorable turn in Anatomy of a Murder comes close-- and I'm betting that his drunk scene *alone* earned him his Oscar. Apparently, much of the scene was ad libbed and the results make for the best scene in the whole movie. I wish to heck Stewart had taken more roles like this, instead of the "aw, shucks" stuff he usually played. And while Henry Fonda's role in The Grapes of Wrath is a tremendous, dramatic role, comedy almost never wins the lead acting awards and the fact that Stewart's performance won indicates something special: brilliantly balanced light comedy with that "everyman" straightforwardness, plus a romantic side of the actor we seldom got to see. I can't help but grin appreciatively while watching his scenes with Hepburn. If Stewart hadn't gone to war during the peak of his career, who knows what he might have achieved Oscarwise. As for the "controversy" of his winning: Maybe Stewart beat out Fonda by one vote!

Defending Ginger Rogers' Oscar victory presents a tougher challenge. It was well known that she wanted to do dramatic roles and get away from the Fred Astaire association as a light comedy and dance specialist, so the first big chance Ginger got was Kitty Foyle. Ginger hadn't done anything quite like this and the role was "showy" and even controversial at the time. The fact that she beat out proven dramatic actresses that year proves what a change this was for her, and when one considers Oscar politics and Rogers' reputation circa 1940, it is understandable why she won. 1940's other Best Actress nominees were:

Bette Davis, The Letter
Joan Fontaine, Rebecca
Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story
Martha Scott, Our Town

I can see Rogers beating out newcomer Martha Scott, but those other actresses were in peak roles, and in virtually any other year those three tinseltown titans could have scored an Oscar. However, Hepburn, thanks to her role in The Philadelphia Story, was just emerging from her "Box Office Poison" tag so Academy voters weren't going to give her another award so soon. Davis had already won twice, (1935's Dangerous and Jezebel in 1938) and Fontaine only had seven films under her belt as a lead actress (Fontaine would win the very next year, for Suspicion). All of these factors open the door for Ginger's win. I suppose Rogers was "America's Sweetheart" at that time and her performance as a "real life" woman is what won her the Academy Award. However, if there was a best perfomance that year, it was Rosalind Russell in His Girl about a career-defining performance!

Now let's allow the winners to enjoy the spoils!


  1. A most interesting analysis of the 1940 acting Oscars. My own picks would have been Fonda and Hepburn. When I rewatched "Philadelphia Story" awhile ago I was surprised at how good Stewart was, easily holding his own with Hepburn and Grant. I've read that Hepburn wanted Spencer Tracy for this part but that he wasn't available. Somehow I don't see him doing as good a job in the drunk scenes as Stewart, and given his drinking problem, the effect might have been a bit creepy. My own favorite Stewart performance is "Anatomy of a Murder." I absolutely agree with your assessment of his job in that one. I noticed that "The Awful Truth" is on your list of favorite movies. Have you read my blog on it (9/1/2008)?

  2. Thanks for your comments! I did in fact read your "Awful Truth" blog while searching for material on the movie. It's one of the better-informed pieces I've read.

    My own personal pick for Best Actress is Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Talk about "career-defing performance"!

    As for Spencer Tracy, I think that he would have done a fine job in a drunk scene. Especially with that comedic touch, as he did in "Father of the Bride".

  3. Hi there. :)

    I've always liked those pictures too...Ginger and Jimmy made a good-looking couple! And it is funny, considering their relationship, that they won Oscars the same year. Similar, of course, to Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, for 1953.

    I've too thought of writing an article on this; about people who supposedly won their Oscar for a previous year's unrewarded film.

    I just watched THE GRAPES OF WRATH a few hours ago, and Henry Fonda haunts me...though Jimmy Stewart was damn good. It's a draw, really.

    And as for Ginger: I've yet to see KITTY FOYLE, but I hear it hasn't aged well.


    It's nice to meet you. :)

  4. Thanks for your comment, Ginger. It's always great to meet a classic movie fan. I'm looking forward to your Oscar blog, should you decide to write one, especially if you can unearth any more backstage Oscar photos!

    BTW, big Dana Andrews fan here, as well.


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