Rebecca (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The Nominees: All This and Heaven Too, Foreign Correspondent, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Kitty Foyle, The Letter, The Long Voyage Home, Our Town, The Philadephia Story
The Grapes of Wrath (Directed by John Ford)
My Nominees: Abe Lincoln in Illinois (John Cromwell), All This and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak), Fantasia (James Alger and Samual Armstrong), Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson), The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin), His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks), The Long Voyage Home (John Ford), The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor), Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen), The Sea Hawk (Michael Curtiz), The Thief of Baghdad (Lugwig Berger and Michael Powell), Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy)
For the second year in a row the film selected as Best Picture came from the studio of David O. Selznick. Rebecca, like Gone With the Wind, is about the mysterious and connective power of home. While Scarlett O’Hara found herself drawn back to her plantation home of Tara, Joan Fontaine’s Mrs. DeWinter finds that Manderley (the house once occupied by her new husband’s late wife) is still haunted by the presence of a woman who once occupied it. It is occupied, not by her ghost but by the absence of a woman who once brought energy and colour and life there.
What Alfred Hitchcock achieves in Rebecca is mood and tone and the somber atmosphere of a house in the weeks after the funeral has ended and the mourners have gone home. Manderley is still haunted by memories of Rebecca's youth and beauty and the sadness of her tragic death. For most of the film Hitch establishes that he is the master of his canvas, making us feel the tone of the story without having to express everything in words.
My problem with Rebecca is comes in the latter half of the film when Hitch goes for copious amounts of expository dialogue beginning with Laurence Olivier’s Mr. DeWinter revealing the secrets of Rebecca’s death. The events that transpire after that feel forced, as if you can see the screenwriter writing it rather than feeling the events flowing naturally out of the story. I realize that the book (which I have not read) ends in much the same way, with Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, going insane as Manderley burns around her, but as a movie, the ending feels phony. It is a let-down and so is the fact that this is the only Hitchcock film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
The struggles of home and of letting go of the past were certainly a concern for the characters in my choice for Best Picture, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, a movie that extols the power of the cinema as social commentary.
Based on the book by John Steinbeck (which I have read), The Grapes of Wrath follows the misfortunes of The Joad Family, proud farmers from Oklahoma, who find themselves victims of foreclosure in the blistering maelstrom of The Great Depression. Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), the eldest son returns home from prison just as the family is packing up to leave their ancestral land due to foreclosure. Their only hope is the promised land of California. From out west, handbills bring a glimmer of hope, of field work for anyone who wants it. So they pile all their belongings on the back of their truck and head out across the American west.
What we sense from The Joad family (there are at least a dozen family members piled onto that truck) is that they are people who are the very backbone of American ideals. They believe that the only true rewards in life are brought through hard work. They are proud people who want no charity but to earn their way. Driving into the dust bowl of the American west, they are strangers in a strange land, travelers who have wandered into the forbidding desert looking to regain something that was taken from them back home. Their journey is fraught with tragedy as two - the grandmother and the grandfather - die along the way, and they struggle to keep the children fed, even though their meager savings are wearing thin.
The Promised Land of California turns out to have less promise than they had hoped. In an age when the struggle for labor unions was resulting in murder, they find that the small refugee camp is flooded with others who have come west looking for a second chance. We find our emotional center in Tom who, as the movie opens, is returning home from prison after having killed a man who was about to kill him. We know right away that Tom is not above breaking the law to fight an injustice. It is in his blood to right the wrong even if murder is involved. But he doesn't have a hard heart, he is a gentle soul full of philosophy, with a soft voice and the kind of slow, pondering walk that we imagine Mr. Lincoln might have had.
The greatest achievement of The Grapes of Wrath is that he never make us sit through large amounts of set-ups and establishments. We know the situations, we know the circumstances and he is a very direct storyteller. Steinbeck presented the raw wounds of the depression in the same way that most people experienced it. There weren’t a lot of questions of why it had happened but more a struggle to find out what to do about it. That's why this story resonates even today, because it plays out more or less as it really happened. What no one could possibly have known in 1940 was that out of this depression would come the second World War in which the victims of the depression threw their backs into the cause of fighting a menace that they knew could do them even more harm than any economic crisis. From that, their grandchildren would forge the era the 50s and early 60s, of prosperity that began with the end of the war and ended with the heartbreak and distrust that infected their children after that day in November in 1963.
When Tom Joad proclaims, at the end of the movie, that "I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too." We sense that he stands for the resilience that would change over the next generation, of the American spirit that would flourish to vanquish injustice not just in the war but in civil rights, in protesting the war in Vietnam. Listen closely to his words and consider the events over the next three decades. They are more prophetic than even he could have known.