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1940:  Walter Wanger
(February 27, 1941 - Hollywood Biltmore)


The Biltmore Hotel is the site of the 13th annual Academy Awards, for the sixth of seven times. 


Producer extraordinaire - Walter Wanger, the current president of the Academy takes on hosting duties, and uses the opportunity to bring an air of patriotism to the event.

At the beginning of 1941, news of the war in Europe was all over the newspapers and the radio, and Americans couldn't help but feel concern and uncertainty.  Since Winston Churchill had announced war with Germany in 1939, events seemed to only get worse.

Meanwhile, the Academy Awards were still considered part of an 'insider's club'.  Despite being broadcast on the radio for several years already, most movie goers weren't too concerned about who won and who lost.  With the aid of current events, the current president of the Academy was about to change all that.

Walter Wanger had been producing films in Hollywood for a number of years before he was elected President of the Motion Picture Academy (AMPAS).  By that time, his body of work included classics like Queen Christina and Stagecoach.  

By the late forties, his personal life would take some horrible twists.  A volatile marriage to actress Joan Bennett ended in the brutal shooting of her agent, Jennings Lang.  Wanger was convicted of the murder, and he reportedly did so after suspicions of extra marital affairs.  He would serve only a few weeks in jail for the crime.

In 1940, however, Wanger, a man of considerable clout at Paramount Studios, and was still one of Hollywood's golden boys. Elected as President of the Motion Picture Academy, primarily in light of his work in sorting out labor disputes that tainted the organization throughout much of the thirties, Wanger was a producer who seemed to do things on a grand scale.  

To produce the show, which was scheduled for February 27, 1941, Wanger took advantage of the current mood in America.  The world seemed to be at war, with most of Europe in turmoil.  America's closest ally, Britain, was being devastated by nightly bombing raids from the enemy, Germany, and the United States was doing everything it could to keep its hands clean. 

Among the events planned for the ceremony was a special Award for Bob Hope, who had made several appearances and numerous benefit performances, all in support of film charities.  Also, Colonel Nathan Levinson was presented with a special award in recognition of his cooperation with the United States Army Signal Corps in production of Army training films.

But Wanger didn't stop there.  In January of that year, he traveled to Washington to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  There he was able to entice the President to commit to an appearance on the show.  

While the President wouldn't actually attend the ceremony, he agreed to conduct a radio address as a prologue to the ceremony.  The President wasn't willing to leave the White House, in light of the current events.  





This coupe by Wanger impressed Hollywood, and suddenly gave the Awards show a brand new air of prestige.  As Thomas Brady of the New York Times wrote on February 23, 1941, "President Roosevelt's speech will be broadcast on all three radio networks on a Hollywood-and-Washington hook up, and will result in wider coverage for the banquet than it had before."  

Leading up to the events, many were accusing Wanger of playing politics, but he was quick to respond.  "Don't try to read anything political into this, because there isn't any such thing in it."

The actual radio address lasted six minutes, in which time Roosevelt gave praise to Hollywood for its fundraising efforts.  He also thanked the filmmakers for 'sanctifying "the American way of life."

The event served as a comfort to many Americans who may have needed the injection of pride during such uncertain times.  For the Academy Awards, the show was suddenly elevated to a new plateau of respectability.  The President's address at the start of the show increased the show's ratings, and suddenly opened the festivities up to people outside of the Hollywood community.




Best Actress, Ginger Rogers and Best Actor, James Stewart embrace for photographers after the show.

Jimmy Stewart was one of the most popular stars of the late thirties and early forties, having achieved considerable success in three Frank Capra Pictures.  He was a second choice of Katharine Hepburn's to play in The Philadelphia Story, a film that she had owned the film rights to. 

While the film was a huge success, Stewart's win was a bit of surprise, as experts were betting on Henry Fonda, for his performance in the very popular, The Grapes of Wrath.

Stewart was the only actor to show up to collect the prize, and his acceptance speech reflected even his dismay over winning.  "I voted for Henry Fonda," he said.  "but of course, I also voted for Alfred Landon and Wendell Wilkie." 

Katharine Hepburn was also indirectly responsible for Ginger Rogers winning the Best Actress Oscar.  Hepburn was the first choice to play the shopgirl, Kitty Foyle, in the film that played like a standard soap opera.  RKO finally gave the part to Rogers, who was better known as the studio's top dancer - not as a dramatic actress. 

Rogers' win proved that the Academy prefers drama over musicals or comedy, as it became her only nomination ever, and one of her least memorable roles.  "This is the happiest moment of my life," the teary-eyed actress proclaimed, when she took to the stage.

Rogers not only beat out Hepburn for the top prize, but she also beat the critics favorite, Bette Davis, who had recently won the Film Critics award for her work in The Letter.

The biggest contender in the Best Picture category that year was The Grapes of Wrath, and while it didn't win it, it did manage to snare Best Director for John Ford, and Best Supporting Actress for Jane Darwell. Darwell claimed her role as Ma Jode to be her favorite, and audiences over the years have agreed. 

Walter Brennan took his third Academy Award in the Supporting Actor category, all of which he won in the past five years.  

While David O Selznick's Rebecca, was hardly the success that his previous picture, Gone With the Wind, was, it was still a success in its own right.  The film defied all odds to win the Best Picture prize, making it two in a row for Selznick.

The film's director, Alfred Hitchcock, still a relative newcomer to the Hollywood community, did not win the Director prize.  He did not attend the ceremony, and the story goes that he was on pins and needles, as he sat by the radio listening to the ceremony.  His wife finally calmed him down with the comment, "Don't take it so seriously.  Remember that this is the group who gave an Oscar to Luise Rainer."