Academy Award History, Part Seven: 1938-1939

Academy Award History, Part Seven: 1938-1939

Can't Take it with the WindFollowing the back to back awards for biopics, the Academy moved to the world of adaptation. Hollywood, and the film industry in general, was no stranger to adaptation, but prior to 1937, the only adapted films to win Outstanding Production were based on little-known short stories or forgettable novels (e.g. It Happened One Night, Cavalcade). But with the next two winners, the Academy went with two Pulitzer Prize-winning works, one a long-running Broadway hit, the other a best-selling novel. Both films were popular with audiences and critics, both boasted star-studded casts and talented directors, but time has been far kinder to one of them than it has the other.

When Columbia purchased the rights to George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, it made complete sense. Under Kaufman’s direction, the play had enjoyed enormous success on Broadway on its way to winning the Pulitzer. Columbia bought the rights while the play was still running, cast Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, and Jimmy Stewart to star, and handed over directing duties to Frank Capra, who had won Best Director twice in four years. The film was quickly shot and actually released while the play was still in production on Broadway. It became a box office hit and earned critical acclaim, earning five Oscar nominations in addition to its wins for Outstanding Production and Best Director.

The film version wasn’t simply a filmed version of the play. In the play, all of the action takes place in the Vanderhof/Sycamore home, specifically in the living room. However, in the film, the audience accompanies Alice and Tony on their dates, sees Kirby at work in his office, and visits the cast in jail and in the courtroom. The screenplay also creates a new level of tension by adding a side-plot about Mr. Kirby buying up the block where the Vanderhof/Sycamore home is located. The desire to change the play is understandable. Many filmed plays appear to “stagey” and, because they don’t have the benefit of the energy of a live performance, become dull and static. The date scenes are fun and exciting and the additional scenes with Mr. Kirby allows the audience to see him as a fully-formed character rather than a simple caricature. However, the side-plot takes up so much screen time that much of the dinner meeting between the two families is cut down. The problem is that this scene is the source of most of the play’s humor. In fact, the clash between the two families is the point of the play. It’s why Tony told his parents the wrong night, on purpose. By cutting this scene down, the film loses the sense of what it is actually about. Other changes include cutting the characters of the Grand Duchess and Gay Wellington, both of whom provided additional comedic bits and some gender balance to the play, and the addition of another inventor, Mr. Poppins, who ends up taking away from some of the comedy provided by Mr. De Pinna. The additions and deletions don’t make the film stronger than the original material. In fact, I’ve seen local community theater productions that have more wit and energy than this Academy Award winner. All in all, the film hasn’t aged well. It seems poorly paced, especially for a Capra, who would win his third and final Oscar for the film.

Though time has not been kind to You Can’t Take It With You, the reverse is true for the 1939 winner, Gone with the Wind. Although it has been rightfully criticized for its racist depictions and overly romanticized view of the “old south,” the film still holds up as a testament to classical Hollywood filmmaking. Ten years after Wings and Sunrise won the first Academy Awards for Outstanding Picture and Unique and Artistic Production, Hollywood gave us its first truly great epic. The film was nominated for an unprecedented thirteen awards and went on to win in eight categories. In addition, it won special awards for its dramatic use of color and coordinated equipment. It was the first all-color film to win the top prize. It was also the first to win in the new Best Cinematography – Color category, with the award going to Ernest Haller and “Technicolor Associate” Ray Rennahan (future-Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland would take home the Black and White trophy for his work on Wuthering Heights). And, for all of its racist issues, it was the first film to cross the color line in Hollywood when Hattie McDaniel was named Best Supporting Actress. Though she was forced to sit in the back, in a corner, away from all of the other white nominees during the banquet, she strode with pride and elegance to the podium to accept her award.

Though Gone with the Wind has remained popular with audiences, critics have sometimes tried to downplay its artistic merit. To commemorate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the film’s release, The Atlantic Monthly dedicated an issue to it with articles covering its production and the casting of Scarlett. The magazine also asked several film critics to re-evaluate the film. It was 1973, and most of the critics were guilty of committing the “It’s popular, so it can’t be good” fallacy. Andrew Sarris says as much by claiming that “Highbrows have never been able to bring themselves to admit that they enjoyed all the wheezing windings of Wind…. Hence, this moviest of all movies almost never pops up on ‘serious’ all-time Ten Best lists.” He also says that “you’ll never find it booked as a required film assignment at any of the burgeoning film academies.” Why? Because it’s “much, much easier to analyze the antiseptic profundities of Potemkin and Persona than the infectious banalities of Gone With the Wind.” Sarris is actually one of the kinder critics in the issue. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. opens his article by stating that “Hollywood films tend to age well…. Like other artifacts, films acquire a patina. But time, alas, has treated GWTW cruelly. It seems even worse now than when I saw it in 1939.” Stanley Kauffmann agrees with Schlesinger by dismissing his second viewing of the film as “twice as much as any lifetime needs.” Richard Schickel, the only one of the critics who is still alive and well and writing, ravages the film from the first sentence of his review: “One measure of a movie’s quality is to ask yourself what you retain from it years after seeing it. The answer, for me, for Gone With the Wind is – ‘not much’.” He ends his opening salvo by claiming that “the things that make memorable less prestigious movies that I saw around the same time – unforgettable imagery, dialogue that forever implants itself in mind – are simply not present in GWTW.”

Really? “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” “After all, tomorrow is another day!” “Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies.” “No, I don’t think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.” “Sir, you are no gentleman. / And you, Miss, are no lady.” “That’s Rhett Butler. He’s from Charleston. He has the most terrible reputation.” “You can come to my hanging and I’ll remember you in my will. / The only thing I’m afraid of is they won’t hang you in time to pay the taxes on Tara!” “Fiddle-dee-dee.” These are just a few lines of dialogue that are “forever implanted” in my mind. As for memorable imagery, the crane shot of the wounded, the burning of Atlanta, Rhett stalking off into the fog, the staircase, Scarlett eating the turnips, and the kiss. Which kiss? Everyone knows which kiss. The film is epic, sweeping, and represents the height of the studio system. This fact is something that its detractors often point out, that the film was produced rather than directed, meaning that the studio was calling the shots and simply created a paint by numbers film, plugging in all of the parts that they knew would be successful. I take issue with this claim for two reasons. First, the same “produced” argument is often used to explain the overwhelming artistic success of Casablanca. Critics cite the latter film as proof that while current studios churn out multi-million dollar flops, early studio heads actually knew what they were doing when choosing material. The argument is that “old school” producers knew what worked and what didn’t and made decisions that led to great films. I agree with this argument, which is why I won’t somehow twist it to bash Gone with the Wind. In fact, I use the film as further proof of the argument. Second, the claim implies that Victor Fleming, the film’s final director after numerous changes over creative differences, had very little control over the picture. It should, rather, it must be noted that Fleming not only won Best Director that year over such heavy hitters as Frank Capra, John Ford, and William Wyler, he also directed The Wizard of Oz…the same year! One is a sweeping historical epic, and the other is a magical, musical adventure. But watch them back to back and it is easy to see the directorial flourishes that Fleming had over both films. They “feel” like they were made by the same person. Also, he directed five nominated performances that year. The three obvious, and most remembered ones are Clark Gable, who lost to Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and winners Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel. What many forget or don’t realize is that McDaniel beat Olivia De Havilland who played Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett’s friend and rival for Ashley Wilkes’s affection. Also, Judy Garland won a special award for “outstanding performance as a screen juvenile” for her turn as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Fleming’s Oscar came twenty years into his career and was well-deserved. Without him, Gone with the Wind (or The Wizard of Oz for that matter) wouldn’t be the film that it is. Judith Crist, the sole voice of praise in The Atlantic Monthly special issue summed it up best when she stated that for all of its “glorious excesses,” the film glows “because it’s the stuff our movie dreams were made on – and mighty durable stuff it proves to be.”


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