It is often said that 1938-1939 produced some of the best films in history. Obviously, two of the most well-known and well-loved films were released in 1939: Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz

Besides those two monuments, a great many other films were represented at the 12th Annual Academy awards, which took place at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles on February 29, 1940. And when I say a great many I mean it. This presented some difficulty as I wrote this piece. Normally, we cover each category in which our main film was nominated. However, Gone with the Wind was nominated 13 times in 12 different categories and many of the films in the technical categories did not overlap with the films in the other categories [e.g., directing, acting, writing]. So even after I watched all the movies nominated in what we tend to think of as the major categories I still had over twenty movies to watch in order to cover the rest of the categories. 

Therefore, while I will only be covering in detail seven categories,  I do want to give a brief rundown of the other categories and offer my quick opinion.

The only two movies I’ve seen in the Best Special Effects category are Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The film that won is The Rains Came which sounds like a great move but I unfortunately could not access it anywhere. It was nominated for 5 awards, but this category is the only one which it won. But given the two movies in the category I have seen, I think The Wizard of Oz beats out Gone with the Wind for special effects.

This was a good year for Color Cinematography but Gone with the Wind won this award handily. I have also seen The Wizard of Oz and Drums Along the Mohawk. Among those three films, there is no contest: Gone with the Wind is one of the most beautifully shot films in cinematic history. 

It can be difficult to distinguish Art Direction from cinematography. But, again, Gone with the Wind won. Among the other nominees, I have also watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Love Affair, and Stagecoach. The only two real contenders here I think are The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. I think Gone with the Wind rightfully won it, but I was so impressed with how visually Wuthering Heights matched the dreariness, isolation, and oppressive sense of doom one feels when reading the book.

I did not see the winning picture, When Tomorrow Comes, for Best Sound Recording. In that category I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Of Mice and Men, and Gone with the Wind. I think of those contenders I like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington best for this prize. 

Finally, Best Original Score. In the biggest “duh” moment of these Academy Awards, The Wizard of Oz took home the statue for that one. It was a year of sweeping, dramatic music and overall very well done scores. I think Of Mice and Men does a great job at using score sparingly which makes it particularly effective. But the score of The Wizard of Oz is enduring for a reason, and it deserved the award, no question.

OK, now let’s move on to the categories for which I can offer an informed opinion on all films.

Best Film Editing

The Nominees:
Gone with the Wind
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The Rains Came

What won: Gone with the Wind
What should have won: Gone with the Wind

I know it might seem a little odd to give a nearly 4-hour long movie this award, but of course film editing doesn’t necessarily mean making a movie short. A movie that is well-edited flows along so well a viewer is likely to not notice the length of the movie. Gone with the Wind rightfully won here because even today viewers will comment that it doesn’t feel like a 4-hour movie [editors of recent superhero movies should take note here]. The story moves along flawlessly, and nothing takes one out of the viewing experience. 

I lied a little bit before when I said I could offer an informed opinion on all of the films in these categories because, as I’ve mentioned, I could not see The Rains Came. I have seen the rest though and while they are all well-done, Gone with the Wind takes the cake as possibly one of the most well-edited pictures of all time. 

The only one I think doesn’t necessarily belong here is Goodbye Mr. Chips. I thought that movie did feel long. Granted, it is the story of one school teacher’s very long life, but it felt like a movie about someone’s very long life.

Best Screenplay

The Nominees:
Gone with the Wind
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Wuthering Heights

What won: Gone with the Wind
What should have won: Gone with the Wind

All of of these movies are very well-written. I was surprised at how deeply charming and funny Ninotchka was. Despite owning the DVD, I had never watched it before preparing to write this piece. And while pro-Western democracy and anti-Communism stuff can be a little ham-handed, it’s for the most part handled quite well.

I love James Stewart and I’m not ashamed to admit that I love Frank Capra. Therefore, I love Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and if Gone with the Wind were not a contender I’d give the prize to this movie. Like all Capra films, what is basically a sappy, cheesy, sentimental story is rendered infinitely watchable and genuinely touching [at least for me, but maybe I’m just a sucker]. 

Wuthering Heights was well done given the fact that the movie doesn’t even cover the first full half of the book. The particular kind of dark grace of Brontë’s writing is translated very well to the screen.

Goodbye Mr. Chips ... well, I just don’t get it. It wasn’t a bad movie, but given all the hard-hitters this year, I’m not exactly sure what it’s doing here. I thought the dialogue was a little stilted, and I didn’t feel the emotion that I know I was supposed to. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher and movies about teachers are frustratingly inaccurate and saccharine. This movie is no exception, and it just doesn’t do it for me.

Best Supporting Actress

The Nominees:
Olivia de Havilland, Gone with the Wind
Geraldine Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights
Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind
Edna May Oliver, Drums Along the Mohawk
Maria Ouspenskaya, Love Affair

Who won: Hattie McDaniel
Who should have won: Hattie McDaniel

The actress categories are, in my opinion, the categories that were most stuffed with talent in 1939.

Geraldine Fitzgerald plays Isabella in Wuthering Heights, who is duped into marrying the brooding, dangerous Heathcliff [Laurence Olivier] so that he can exact revenge on and maintain some control over the love of his life and Isabella’s sister-in-law, Catherine. What makes her striking in this role is the transformation she is able to portray. When we meet Isabella she is young, energetic, naive, and headstrong. By the end of the film she seems to have aged decades; this is less makeup artistry and mostly acting. She is beaten down; she loathes Heathcliff, herself, and the whole world. It’s heartbreaking and if Fitzgerald didn’t have the bad fortune of Gone with the Wind coming out that same year, I think she’d be a shoe-in. 

Edna May Oliver is pretty much the only bright spot in a surprisingly dull John Ford movie, especially one starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. She plays a strong-willed widow of the frontier and absolutely steals the show the second she’s on screen. This nomination is well-deserved.

Maria Ouspenskaya puzzles me a little bit. The most I think I can say is that hers is a memorable performance in a fairly forgettable film. She has very little screen time [about 10 minutes] for a nominated performance, but that’s not unheard of. In fact, that was kind of her thing. She was nominated in 1936 for a 4-minute performance in Dodsworth.

As a side rant, I don’t understand why Jean Arthur was not nominated for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Her performance in that film is one of my favorites of all time, and I think she deserved a nomination more than Edna May Oliver and Maria Ouspenskaya. 

For me, it comes down to Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel and in the end, I think the Academy made the right choice. What really gives McDaniel the leg up over de Havilland is that de Havilland’s Melanie doesn’t really show much change or subtlety. Sure, she’s a woman who is almost stubbornly, sometimes infuriatingly optimistic. De Havilland plays her very well, but in re-watching the movie and watching both actresses very closely, I think there are some more subtle, tender parts that de Havilland misses the mark on a little bit. She doesn’t always allow Melanie to be vulnerable when she should.

McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award, which is incredibly bittersweet. Critics, then and now, pointed out that she won the award playing a stereotype of black slave. A black woman who not only did not have her own family or dreams, she doesn’t even have a name. I have a strong suspicion that she would not have been awarded the Oscar if Mammy wasn’t quite so subservient to white folks.

Furthermore, McDaniel couldn’t even sit with her fellow castmates at the ceremony. The hotel in which the Coconut Grove was situated had a strict no-blacks policy, but allowed McDaniel to attend the ceremony provided she sit at a segregated table away from the rest of the white stars. 

She does give a great performance. Mammy undergoes a natural and heartbreaking aging throughout the movie. She is fiercely loyal to the O’Hara family, and does her best to make Scarlett behave like a lady while enduring her near constant verbal abuse. We see Mammy’s opinion change of Rhett into a complicated, mutual admiration. And finally we see Mammy get old and tired. Scarlett, of course, pays no mind to Mammy’s increasingly slow movements and back pains, but the viewer knows. McDaniel does an excellent job at making Mammy the heart of the film and adding complex layers to what could have otherwise been a flat character.

Best Actor

The Nominees:
Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Clark Gable, Gone with the Wind
Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights
Mickey Rooney, Babes in Arms
James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Who won: Robert Donat
Who should have won: James Stewart

I’ve already discussed my puzzlement with the love that the Academy gave to Goodbye, Mr. Chips. I think the reason Robert Donat won was because he did one of the Academy’s favorite things before portraying a crazy person became their favorite thing and then playing a gay and/or transgendered person became their favorite thing: he portrayed someone who literally aged decades within the span of the film. And he does a pretty good job at it, but I don’t think he deserved the Oscar. He was pretty much the same exact person throughout the movie, except he moved slower as an old guy and he told better stories.

Two of the other actors in this category, Laurence Olivier and Mickey Rooney, are among my least favorite actors of classic Hollywood. I try not to bring my bias in, but it’s hard. I don’t like these actors for the same reasons: 1) I think they’re mediocre, over-celebrated performers [especially Rooney], and 2) they were pretty mean to the women in their lives. Laurence Olivier was, apparently, something to behold on stage but famously struggled to bring that magic to the screen. He also was horrible to Marilyn Monroe during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl and left his wife, Vivien Leigh [who won this same year for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara ... more on that in a bit] when she was in a particularly low point of her mental illness after suffering yet another miscarriage. Mickey Rooney I just don’t get. He also has an additional strike because his portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi did it’s best to ruin Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He also bullied at least Judy Garland and his wife, Ava Gardner. 

I tried very hard not to think about all that as I watched the performances for which they were nominated.

Laurence Olivier, while I don’t think he’s a great actor, is very good in Wuthering Heights. I think this has something to do with how his particular acting style lined up with that particular role. Heathcliff is famously overwrought, dramatic, self-centered, and brooding. Olivier can pull that off and in any other role it would be irritating. It fits here, though.

I also begrudgingly have to admit that Mickey Rooney is surprisingly good in Babes in Arms. Not all the time. Most of the time he’s as snot-nosed as ever, but I guess that was part of his charm back then? I don’t think he deserved to be in a category with actors of this caliber, though.

I was really torn between Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart. Gable’s Rhett Butler, an arrogant, charming, and intelligent southerner who joins the war effort late, is now a classic Hollywood icon and he personifies the role so well. But after a lot of comparing and thinking, I think James Stewart pulls out ahead. 

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the Los Angeles Times not only reported before the ceremony who would be winning, they reported details like vote tallies. Apparently, Robert Donat only beat Jimmy Stewart by a small margin. Stewart portrays the role of Jefferson Smith, a sparkly-eyed small town patriot unexpectedly turned senator, extraordinarily well. Rather than saccharine and hokey, Stewart’s Smith is genuine and touching. And just like everyone else in the movie, you can’t help but be taken in by his earnestness and generosity. By his deep belief that the Constitution means something. Honestly, re-watching this movie provided a little bit of a salve on my spirit in light of today’s politics and I will fight anyone who tries to tell me that James Stewart didn’t actually believe every word he spoke during the famous filibuster scene.

Best Actress

The Nominees:
Bette Davis, Dark Victory
Irene Dunne, Love Affair
Greta Garbo, Ninotchka
Greer Garson, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind

Who won: Vivien Leigh
Who should have won: Vivien Leigh

Again with Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Greer Garson was fine, but forgettable. Her character is sweet and she plays her sweetly and I know we’re supposed to be very sad when [spoiler alert!] she dies. But I just wasn’t. I think Garson is a great actress, but this was a bland role.

Greta Garbo is so, so good in Ninotchka. I have seen plenty of Garbo films before and I have always thought she deserved her role as Hollywood royalty but she was really something special in this movie. I could hardly take my eyes from her. She was magnetic. The tagline of the movie is “Garbo Laughs!” which was a play on the catch phrase from her first talkie in 1930, Anna Christina. Ninotchka was her first comedy in a very long time, which is a shame because she was a great comic actress. 

I think Irene Dunne in Love Affair is the most forgettable here. I’ve already discussed how, compared to other movies released in 1938-1939, Love Affair is pretty mediocre and I don’t think Dunne’s performance is any different. She really didn’t stand a chance against the other actresses nominated.

I was absolutely blown away by Bette Davis in Dark Victory. The movie is a melodramatic thing about a woman [Davis] diagnosed with some kind of brain disease that will kill her within months of her diagnosis. Her doctor and her best friend [played fantastically by Geraldine Fitzgerald, nominated in another category for Wuthering Heights] decide to keep her prognosis from her. She, of course, finds out and along the way falls in love with her doctor.

Prior to seeing this film, I thought Vivien Leigh was the only person who could play Scarlett O’Hara properly, and any other casting would have been a mistake. After seeing Dark Victory, I long to see Bette Davis as Scarlett. Sure, Davis is not as beautiful as Leigh, but there is something about her. Something fiery, wild, and commanding that would have translated fantastically to Scarlett. We’ll never know what that looks like, but all I can say in conclusion is that if Vivien Leigh was not nominated for best actress, there’s no other logical choice for the award to go to except Davis. 

As I discussed in my opening piece, I have seen Gone with the Wind many, many times. So many times that at some point I took Vivien Leigh’s performance for granted. When I rewatched it in preparation for writing this piece, I was shocked at just how good she is. She flip-flops between a child-like charm, to red-hot anger, to grim determination in the span of a few breaths. You know when Scarlett is feeling something that she is not acting on--that’s an incredible skill for an actor. You also know when she is acting in a way to manipulate people. She doesn’t need to tell you this. You know Scarlett well enough within the first few minutes of the movie to figure that out. Some of this can surely be attributed to the writing, but a great deal of it is Leigh’s acting. She won the award and while I wouldn’t have been mad if Davis had won, I think Leigh deserved it.

Best Director

The Nominees:
Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Victor Fleming, Gone with the Wind
John Ford, Stagecoach
Sam Wood, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
William Wyler, Wuthering Heights

Who won: Victor Fleming
Who should have won: William Wyler

This is kind of an upset but hear me out!

I will start with Fleming. There is a somewhat complicated story involving George Cukor, Victor Fleming, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. I will be as concise as I can.

The Wizard of Oz originally began production with Richard Thorpe at the helm as director. However, it was decided that Thorpe wasn’t doing a great job and George Cukor was temporarily put in as replacement. He was more of a creative director than an actual director, but his input cannot be overvalued. He changed Dorothy’s look from a blond glamourpuss to a more homey, midwestern approach that we see in the completed film; he also changed the makeup of the Wicked Witch and overall set the film in the direction it would end up taking: as one of the most beloved movies of all time. Then, Cukor had to leave to begin filming Gone with the Wind and none other than Victor Fleming was put in his place. 

Over at Tara, the dailies under the direction of Cukor didn’t show the spark that O’Selznick was hoping for, O’Selznick [who was one of Cukor’s closest friends] fired him and replaced him with Victor Fleming. Therefore, Fleming had to quickly leave The Wizard of Oz in the hands of King Vidor and take over Gone with the Wind. However, if multiple sources are to be believed, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were dismayed at the loss of Cukor, who they trusted. They continued to go to him, in secret, for direction. So it happened that George Cukor did plenty of work for both of these incredible films, and got none of the credit. Therefore, I refuse to award Victor Fleming for Gone with the Wind

I have already discussed my love for Frank Capra films. He is the master at making sentimentality palatable, but he’s not the best in the category this particular year.

Stagecoach is certainly better directed than John Ford’s other film nominated in other categories this year, Drums Along the Mohawk. And in fact I think if I wasn’t pulling for Wyler here, I might give the Oscar to Ford. Stagecoach is consistent and strikes a particular, unique tone for a western. 

And here’s another nomination for Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The film does have a consistent tone, and it does seem that the actors are all directed in a way that meshes nicely with the script. I think of all the nominations this film got, it deserved this one most. 

But Wuthering Heights is an especially difficult story to get right. It is a story that is wholly dependent on a certain feeling in order to be successful, and Wyler got that feeling exactly right. He let Olivier do his overwrought male thing but he drew him in exactly when he needed to. I have seen [I believe] every other film and mini-series adaptations of Wuthering Heights and I still think this is the best one. It’s the one that gets it the most right, even while hacking off a great deal of the original story.

Outstanding Production

The Nominees:
Dark Victory
Gone with the Wind
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of Mice and Men
The Wizard of Oz
Wuthering Heights

What won: Gone with the Wind
What should have won: Gone with the Wind

You didn’t think I was going to pick different film, did you?

The only real good thing about Dark Victory is Bette Davis. Other than that it’s a well-written-but-not-great melodrama.

I don’t need to rehash how I feel about Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Or Love Affair, for that matter.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has a lot of really great elements which make up a really great movie. In a year that doesn’t have such amazing movies, it could easily have won.

Ninotchka is fantastic, and a surprise nomination since it is a comedy. But it is a well-deserved nomination. 

Of Mice and Men is fine. I don’t think it actually deserves a nomination. I teach 10th grade, and so I read chapters of this book multiple times a day for about a month every year. I am very familiar with this story. I was struck by how little was adjusted to adapt to the film. That doesn’t always make for the best adaptation, however. It seems like the actors were just given Steinbeck’s novel without much direction.

Stagecoach was quite good, for a western. I feel like I’ve said that more than once while writing for the site, so maybe I like westerns more than I thought. But this was an exceptionally good one.

The Wizard of Oz will always have a special place in my heart. It was one of my first favorite movies in my life and I wish two Outstanding Production Oscars were given out that year. Alas, there can only be one.

Wuthering Heights is a great adaptation of the first part of the book. I had not watched it before preparing for this piece, but I could certainly see myself watching it again and again. 

But nothing compares to Gone with the Wind. We have really hammered on the film this week for its depictions of race so I won’t get into it here. I’m only talking about it’s value as a film, and that value is considerable. As I have written about throughout this article, everything about the movie from technical aspects to music to performances make it engrossing, breathtaking, and infinitely memorable. In a year of really incredible Hollywood films, Gone With the Wind deserved to win Outstanding Production.

Overall, I did not disagree with the Academy much in 1939. I don’t really understand their love for Goodbye, Mr. Chips but judging by commentary and reviews on that movie, that’s probably a lack on my part. Gone with the Wind set a record for Academy Award nominations and wins, and it’s record for wins wasn’t beat until Gigi nearly 20 years later. It probably didn’t take much insight in 1939 to watch Gone with the Wind and to know you were looking at something truly special.