- Cavalcade, Frank Lloyd*
- 42nd Street, Lloyd Bacon
- A Farewell to Arms, Frank Borzage
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy
- Lady for a Day, Frank Capra
- Little Women, George Cukor
- The Private Life of Henry VIII, Alexander Korda
- She Done Him Wrong, Lowell Sherman
- Smilin’ Through, Sidney Franklin
- State Fair, Henry King
Before I begin the 6th Academy Awards, I’d like to take a moment to say farewell to Luise Rainer, who died yesterday about a week shy of her 105th birthday; we’ll be getting to her films in a couple of weeks. She was the oldest surviving Academy Award winner; now the mantle has passed to Olivia de Havilland, who lives on at a spry 98.
The Academy played it safe the sixth time around, serving up a crop of nominees that were resolutely and proudly just okay. Coming off some great films the previous year, and knowing I’m on the cusp of films like It Happened One Night (which I haven’t yet seen but of course know by reputation) and The Thin Man(the first film in this chronology that I have seen before and one of my favorites) at the 7th Awards, this year feels like it’s letting the side down. But if I step back for a moment and judge the year’s offerings solely on their own merits, without consideration for their place in the narrative of the Awards, then I find…they’re still pretty weak on the whole. There’s one classic, a couple okays, and a whole lot of forgettable fluff.
First up was A Farewell to Arms, and before talking about the film itself, allow me a quick rant on a single part of it. By this point in this little project I am getting pretty goddamn jaded about the cockeyed romantic tropes that these early films exhibit, at least in the hands of certain directors and actors. When Ernst Lubitsch and Maurice Chevalier do a story about a whirlwind romance, swift seduction, and an old-fashioned (read: sexist) view of men and women, they really sell it, mainly because they’re not taking it seriously and don’t expect the audience to, either. That tells me that even in those days it was an antiquated view, yet films like this one, Bad Girl, Arrowsmith, and others actually ask to be viewed without irony and accepted without question. Kind of bizarre, and more than any technological aspects of early filmmaking tends to date these movies. Of all the qualities of The Crowd to emulate, and there are many, the meet-and-fall-instantly-in-love angle was not one of them.
Hell, The Big House has had the best romantic relationship of any of the nominees I’ve watched so far, because the woman actually has a balanced view of both the negative and positive aspects of the man’s character before falling for him and even then she doesn’t promise him anything. Here, Helen Hayes thinks she must be in love with Gary Cooper or she wouldn’t have slept with him ten minutes after meeting him. This is an actual line of dialogue, and she says it with a straight face.
Anyway, this was sparked by the first sequence (film school jargon for “about fifteen minutes in standard-structure movies”…I knew that degree would pay off some day), and the film never recovers. Gary Cooper kind of phones it in, which surprises me considering he wasn’t really Gary Cooper yet, and when Helen Hayes dies of being a woman in a 1930s film drama, I felt no emotion other than giddy anticipation of the imminent arrival of the words “The End”.
While I am not a huge fan of the book, at least Hemingway instilled the protagonist with some degree of complexity by having him desert the Allies when it was going badly for them; in this adaptation, he skips out simultaneous with a decisive battle that presages the ultimate defeat of the Central Powers, so he didn’t really desert but merely discharged himself a bit early. Shameless. Not a good start, Academy.
My spirits were slightly buoyed by 42nd Street, a happy-go-lucky romp about a smalltown girl with bigtown dreams of hoofing it on Broadway (which you may recognize as the plot of roughly half of all musicals). For the majority of the film, it is exactly like any standard 30s musical, and I was feeling a bit let down by the reappearance of the “putting on a show” plotline after films like The Love Parade had paved the way for the far superior “characters just sing about their lives” musical (or the equally superior hybrid). It’s mostly an incoherent mess even by contemporary standards, but it’s saved by an extended, wonderfully bizarre finale and an oddly dark denouement that elevates it from its humble ambitions.
First, the incoherent mess bit. The narrative proceeds apace with a washed-up director screaming at dancers to be better while they try to maintain some semblance of their humanity, and towards the end the obligatory talentless-but-cute-and-connected prima donna lead sprains her ankle in a fit of histrionics and Our Heroine is called up to brilliantly fill in for her. Here’s where it gets bad. Some indication that Our Heroine can dance/sing/act better than others would be helpful here, especially if one of the other chorus girls, all of whom are looking for their own big break, recommends her at her own expense. You know? But nowhere in the film does O.H. show any reason why she, rather than any of the 39 other background performers, would be the clear choice to play the lead role. Now, I’m no fan of clichés and I’m not saying that everything has to follow A to B to C, but if you’re going to base your film around a girl getting her “big chance” and taking over for the star, a little bit of set-up would be nice.
There is an hilarious moment, though, when the director, who is on the verge of the nervous breakdown that movies have taught us all theatrical directors are on the verge of, is coaching O.H. for her new lead role, and is having difficulty getting passion out of her. “Have you ever been in love?”, he asks, whereupon he grabs her, kisses her like she’s a wooden plank, and says, “There, now you’re in the spirit of the thing!” Of course, now she’s found the passion. She’ll probably deliver those lines dripping with passion, and not at all like she was just accosted by a lunatic who smells strongly of cigarettes and shame.
Anyway, all this leads to the staging of the musical, and I was not expecting much. But I have to say, the production of the title song is amazing, in that it straight up and without warning turns into a fantasy sequence. It’s supposed to be performed on a theatre stage, yet it is obviously too huge, too elaborate to fit, and there are instant changes to the set that could not be done. It also contains an odd bit where a woman is cornered and nearly raped by a man, escapes out the window and starts dancing, only to be caught and stabbed to death in the back. The music doesn’t change at all during this violent vignette, which is also seen partially through a window that the audience in a theatre would never have a view of. It’s very bizarre. Then, when it’s all over, our leading lady and gentleman pull down a curtain that says, inexplicably, “ASBESTOS.” Why would it say that? I don’t know, but that scene is emblazoned on my mind forever and I was entertained throughout, and if that’s not a mark of a pretty okay film then I don’t know what is.
Next up was I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, a deeply depressing film about a man wrongfully sentenced to some kind of hard labor (the exact nature of which escapes me now), and his subsequent efforts to break—and remain—free. While watching these films, I’ve been taking notes as they play, the better to remember my impressions for these little entries. With this one, I didn’t take a single one, not because there was nothing to say but because I didn’t want to pause it and break the momentum. It’s the best nominee since All Quiet on the Western Front, very well written, directed, and acted. There are some obligatory melodramatic touches (such as the vampy blonde who discovers his secret and blackmails him for money and love), but for the most part it is stark and realistic right up to the downbeat climax, which finds our hero hunted and alone, forced to live like an animal for the rest of his pathetic days. The final moment is justly considered one of the finest in cinema, and I won’t spoil it here. Definitely one of the five best films of this project so far (should I be ranking them? That never occurred to me until this moment).
She Done Him Wrong is one of those forgettable Pre-Code affairs that must have been shocking in 1933 but doesn’t pack the same punch in 2014. At 63 minutes, it’s the shortest film ever to receive a Best Picture nomination, and seems to have done so on the sheer strength of its sexual innuendo and double entendre. But in spite of its faults, this was the film that introduced the world to “Come up sometime and see me” (not “Come up and see me sometime,” which was the version Mae West used in her next movie from the same year, I’m No Angel), and also, arguably, to Cary Grant, so it earned its place in cinematic history. It’s not Best Picture material but it’s good, stilted, pre-Golden Age of Hollywood awkward fun.
The Private Life of Henry VIII, while it made Charles Laughton’s beard a star, is another odd 30s-style film where they just cram thirty years of narrative time into an hour and a half, hand it to a team of schizophrenics to edit, call it an “historical epic,” and hope for the best. There are some wonderful moments thrown in (such as a scene where Henry is trounced at cards by his fourth wife, who understandably wants to do nothing else while alone with him), and Laughton certainly earned his Best Actor award (though Paul Muni was better), but the whole thing never comes together. It’s a common problem of the age, for sure, but films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang show that it was possible in those times to make a film that spans many years and remains coherent.
The film features very sloppy character development, even for the time. By way of example: for the entire film, Catherine Howard, wife number five, is portrayed as wanting nothing but the throne and all the power and fancy maids-in-waiting and pies that come with it. While this pining goes on, she repeatedly rebuffs the advances of Thomas Culpepper, a young buck in the king’s retinue, treating him with ill-disguised contempt while she tries to catch Henry’s eye by being strong willed—but not too strong willed, you understand (this was, after all,
1933 1535). All well and good so far, an ambitious character I can get behind.
The culmination of her scheming craziness is all she wanted: she marries Henry, and for all his faults he is portrayed as genuinely loving her. We cut to the next scene and she’s immediately in full-throttle “I made a huge mistake, I love Thomas, the King is a brute, etc.” mode. Not as abrupt as, say, Irene Dunn’s turn for the natives in Cimarron, but a little bit of an arc would be nice. I know she’s not the main character but this marriage is clearly what the film was building to, and her relationship to Culpepper just comes across ridiculous and solely plot-based. Also, the screen time between Henry’s discovery of their affair and their execution is about thirty seconds, and then we’re on to Henry in his dotage. Come on, Korda. That should have been a raging, intense climax, as he was forced by custom and his own fragile ego to execute the only woman he actually loved, but instead there is no climax and the film peters out with possibly the worst fourth-wall break I have ever seen.
(To be continued…immediately. Here.)