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Motion picture and film historians often rate 1939 as “the greatest year in the history of Hollywood.” Hollywood movies produced in Southern California are at the height of their Golden Age and during 1939 there are the premieres of an outstandingly large number of exceptional motion pictures, many of which become honored as all-time classic films.

  • March 31 – Release of the 20th Century Fox film version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, first of a Sherlock Holmes film series starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson.
  • June 10 – MGM’s first successful animated character, Barney Bear, makes his debut in The Bear That Couldn’t Sleep. 
  • August 15 – The Wizard of Oz premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.
  • October 17 – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premiered in Washington, D.C.
  • December 15 – Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta, Georgia, with a three-day-long festival.

This was one of the only years in which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated ten films for Best Picture. These films came from a wide variety of film genres and sources for their stories and settings, including: historical fiction (Gone with the Wind), contemporary affairs (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Of Mice and Men), love stories, classic novels (Wuthering Heights), fantasies/musicals, (The Wizard of Oz), tragic plays (Dark Victory), westerns (Stagecoach), and comedies (Ninotchka).

Each of the five nominees for Best Director of 1939 went on to become a legendary film director with multiple acclaimed films to his credit: Frank Capra, Victor Fleming, John Ford, Sam Wood, and William Wyler.

The 12th Academy Awards ceremony, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), honored the best in film for 1939. The ceremony was held on February 29, 1940, at a banquet in the Coconut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Prior to the announcement of nominations, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gone with the Wind were the two films most widely tipped to receive a significant number of nominations. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premiered in Washington with a premier party hosted by the National Press Club who found themselves portrayed unfavorably in the film; the film’s theme of political corruption was condemned and the film was denounced in the U.S. Senate. Joseph P. Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador to Britain urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the studio head Harry Cohn to cease showing the film overseas because “it will cause our allies to view us in an unfavorable light”. Among those who campaigned in favor of the film were Hedda Hopper who declared it “as great as Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech”, while Sheilah Graham called it the “best talking picture ever made”. Screen Book magazine stated that it “should win every Academy Award”. Frank Capra, the director, and James Stewart, the film’s star were considered front runners to win awards.

When Gone with the Wind premiered in December, a Gallup poll taken shortly before its release concluding that 56.5 million people intended to see the film. The New York Film Critics Award was given to Wuthering Heights after thirteen rounds of balloting had left the voters deadlocked between Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gone with the Wind. The press were divided in their support for the nominated actors. Time magazine favored Vivien Leigh and used her portrait for their Christmas 1939 edition, and The Hollywood Reporter predicted a possible win by Leigh and Laurence Olivier with the comment that they “are, for the moment, just about the most sacred of all Hollywood’s sacred cows”. West Coast newspapers, particularly in Los Angeles, predicted Bette Davis would win for Dark Victory. Observing that Davis had achieved four box office successes during the year, one paper wrote, “Hollywood will stick by its favorite home-town girl, Bette Davis“.

Capra was the incumbent President of the Academy, and in a first for Academy Awards ceremonies, sold the rights for the event to be filmed. Warner Bros. obtained the rights, for $30,000 to film the banquet and the presentation of the awards, to use as a short, and it was shot by the cinematographer Charles Rosher. Variety noted the stars in attendance were conscious of being filmed at the event for the first time and the event was marked by glamour with fashion-conscious actresses wearing the best of gowns, furs and jewellery.

The Los Angeles Times printed a substantially accurate list of winners, despite a promise to withhold the results of the voting, so many of the nominees learned before arriving at the ceremony who had won. Among these were Clark Gable and Bette Davis.

Following the banquet, Capra opened proceedings at 11pm with a short speech before introducing Bob Hope who made his first appearance as host of the awards (first of nineteen turns as host). Looking at a table laden with awards awaiting presentation, he quipped, “I feel like I’m in Bette Davis‘ living room”. Mickey Rooney presented an Academy Juvenile Award to Judy Garland, who then performed Over the Rainbow, a “Best Song” nominee from The Wizard of Oz.

Image from the movie "Gone with the Wind"

© 1939 Selznick International Pictures − All right reserved.

As the evening progressed, Gone with the Wind won the majority of awards, and Bob Hope remarked to David O. Selznick, “David, you should have brought roller skates”. Making a speech, Selznick paused to extend praise and gratitude to Olivia de Havilland, a “Best Supporting Actress” nominee, and made it clear in his speech he knew she had not won. Fay Bainter presented the awards for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, prefacing her presentation of the latter award with the knowing comment, “It is a tribute to a country where people are free to honor noteworthy achievements regardless of creed, race or color”. Hattie McDaniel became the first black performer to win an Academy Award and in expressing her gratitude promised to be “a credit to my race” before bursting into tears. De Havilland was among those to make their way to McDaniel’s table to offer congratulations, though it was reported de Havilland then fled to the kitchen, where she burst into tears. The press reported an irritated Irene Mayer Selznick followed her, and told her to return to their table and stop making a fool of herself.

Robert Donat, the winner for “Best Actor”, was one of three nominated actors not present (the others were Irene Dunne and Greta Garbo). Accepting the award for Donat, Spencer Tracy said he was sure Donat’s win was welcomed by “the entire motion-picture industry” before presenting the “Best Actress” award to Vivien Leigh. The press noted Bette Davis was among those waiting to congratulate Leigh as she returned to her table.

This was the first year in which an Academy Award was awarded in the category of special effects. (Previously, however, “special achievement” awards for effects had occasionally been conferred.) This was also the first time that two awards for cinematography were presented (one for a color film and another for a black-and-white film).

Further controversy erupted following the ceremony, with the Los Angeles Times reporting that Leigh had won over Davis by the smallest of margins and that Donat had likewise won over James Stewart by a small number of votes. This led Academy officials to examine ways that the voting process, and more importantly, the results, would remain secret in future years. They considered the Los Angeles Times publication of such details as a breach of faith.

Hattie McDaniel received considerable attention from the press with Daily Variety writing, “Not only was she the first of her race to receive an Award, but she was also the first Negro ever to sit at an Academy banquet”.

 

Nominees and Winners (Bold indicates winners)

ACTOR

Robert DonatGoodbye, Mr. Chips {“Mr. Chips”}

Clark GableGone with the Wind {“Rhett Butler”}

Laurence OlivierWuthering Heights {“Heathcliff”}

Mickey Rooney — Babes in Arms {“Mickey Moran”}

James StewartMr. Smith Goes to Washington {“Jefferson Smith”}

 

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Brian Aherne – Juarez {“Emperor Maximilian von Habsburg”}

Harry Carey — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington {“President of the Senate”}

Brian Donlevy — Beau Geste {“Sergeant Markoff”}

Thomas Mitchell – Stagecoach {“Dr. Josiah Boone”}

Claude RainsMr. Smith Goes to Washington {“Senator Joseph Paine”}

 

ACTRESS

Bette DavisDark Victory {“Judith Traherne”}

Irene DunneLove Affair {“Terry McKay”}

Greta GarboNinotchka {“Lena Yakushova (Ninotchka)”}

Greer GarsonGoodbye, Mr. Chips {“Katherine Chipping”}

Vivien LeighGone with the Wind {“Scarlett O’Hara”}

 

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Olivia de HavillandGone with the Wind {“Melanie Hamilton”}

Geraldine Fitzgerald — Wuthering Heights {“Isabella”}

Hattie McDanielGone with the Wind {“Mammy”}

Edna May Oliver — Drums along the Mohawk {“Sarah McKlennar”}

Maria Ouspenskaya — Love Affair {“Grandmother, Mme. Marnay”}

 

ART DIRECTION

Beau Geste — Hans Dreier, Robert Odell

Captain Fury — Charles D. Hall

First Love — Jack Otterson, Martin Obzina