Big night for 1939
Much has been written about the Hollywood of 1939, generally considered the greatest year in filmmaking. Among just a few of the titles released: “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Stagecoach,” “Only Angels Have Wings” and “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”
The Oscar ceremony honoring those films also was pretty memorable. The 1940 award show at the Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove was Bob Hope’s debut as host. He would go on to host or co-host the event 18 more times. Some other things you might not have known about the proceedings that night:
-- Susan King
The Los Angeles Times put a damper on the ceremony. Though the paper agreed it wouldn’t publish the names of the winners until after the show had concluded, it spilled the beans in the 8:45 edition that night. Several nominees, including lead actor contender Clark Gable (“Gone With the Wind”) and lead actress hopeful Bette Davis (“Dark Victory”), arrived late at the ceremony knowing they would be going home without a statuette.
From then on, only the two representatives from the tabulating firm of Price, Waterhouse, have known the identities of the winners.
Hattie McDaniel may have broken the color barrier by being the first African American guest at the Academy Awards and the first black performer to win an acting Oscar -- supporting actress for “Gone With the Wind” -- but she and her escort were still seated in the back of the room near the kitchen.
Sidney Howard, the credited screenwriter for“Gone With the Wind,” was the first posthumous Oscar winner. He died in a freak accident on Aug. 23, 1939, at age 48 on his farm in Tyringham, Mass., where he was crushed to death by his 2 1/2 -ton tractor.
Several other writers worked on the project. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald was hired to work on the massive screenplay, but was on the job for only a few weeks. None of his contributions made it to the screen. Ben Hecht is credited with doing the most work on the script. He also wrote the opening prologue and several other narrative title cards used throughout the film. Howard wasn’t the only posthumous winner. Douglas Fairbanks, who died Dec. 13, 1939, received a commemorative award recognizing his unique and outstanding contribution as “first President of the Academy, to the international development of the motion picture.” His son Douglas Fairbanks Jr. accepted the award.
Victor Fleming won the Oscar for directing “Gone With the Wind,” though three reels shot by the first director, George Cukor, are still in the film. Fleming had left the production for 10 days because of exhaustion. Sam Wood was brought in to direct the principals. Other directors -- including production designer William Cameron Menzies -- helmed second unit and battle sequences. After Fleming returned to the production, the work was divided into five units. All told, Cukor worked on the film for 18 days, Fleming for 93 days and Wood for 24. The last shot on the film took place Nov. 11, just a month away from its big premiere in Atlanta on Dec. 15.
Judy Garland, who starred in best picture nominee “The Wizard of Oz,” received her only Oscar that evening -- a miniature statuette for best juvenile performance. Lead actor nominee Mickey Rooney (“Babes in Arms”) gave her the Oscar and Garland then sang “Over the Rainbow.”
Although Gable was considered the favorite to win lead actor for “Gone With the Wind,” British actor Robert Donat won for his role as the schoolmaster in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”