Trivial Matters #21

This is a favorite Oscar-related acting achievement of mine, which I am remiss for not including in Trivial Matters already: performers who have been nominated twice in the same year!

So far, no performer has been nominated twice in the same category in the same year (three directors have done it, though). Also, no one has ever won both Lead and Supporting in the same year.

There have been eleven so far:

  • Faye Bainter (1938)
    • Best Actress, White Banners (lost to Bette Davis, Jezebel)
    • Best Supporting Actress, Jezebel (won)
  • Teresa Wright (1942)
    • Best Actress, The Pride of the Yankees (lost to Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver)
    • Best Supporting Actress, Mrs. Miniver (won)
  • Barry Fitzgerald (1944)
    • Best Actor, Going my Way (lost to Bing Crosby, Going my Way)
    • Best Supporting Actor, Going my Way (won)
      • Yes, he was nominated twice for the same role in the same film. An immediate change to the rules prevented this from happening again.
  • Jessica Lange (1982)
    • Best Actress, Frances (lost to Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice)
    • Best Supporting Actress, Tootsie (won)
  • Signourney Weaver (1988)
    • Best Actress, Gorillas in the Mist (lost to Jodie Foster, The Accused)
    • Best Supporting Actress, Working Girl (lost to Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist)
  • Al Pacino (1992)
    • Best Actor, Scent of a Woman (won)
    • Best Supporting Actor, Glengarry Glen Ross (lost to Gene Hackman, Unforgiven)
  • Holly Hunter (1993)
    • Best Actress, The Piano (won)
    • Best Supporting Actress, The Firm (lost to Anna Paquin, The Piano)
  • Emma Thompson (1993)
    • Best Actress, The Remains of the Day (lost to Holly Hunter, The Piano)
    • Best Supporting Actress, In the Name of the Father (lost to Anna Paquin, The Piano)
  • Julianne Moore (2002)
    • Best Actress, Far From Heaven (lost to Nicole Kidman, The Hours)
    • Best Supporting Actress, The Hours (lost to Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago)
  • Jamie Foxx (2004)
    • Best Actor, Ray (won)
    • Best Supporting Actor, Collateral (lost to Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby)
  • Cate Blanchett (2007)
    • Best Actress, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (lost to Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose)
    • Best Supporting Actress, I’m Not There (lost to Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton)

Trivial Matters #20

Further directing-related trivia:

  • Only three directors have won Best Director more than twice:
    • John Ford (4) – The Informer (1935); The Grapes of Wrath (1940); How Green was my Valley* (1941); The Quiet Man (1952)
    • Frank Capra (3) – It Happened One Night* (1934); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); You Can’t Take it With You* (1938)
    • William Wyler (3) – Mrs. Miniver* (1942); The Best Years of Our Lives* (1946); Ben-Hur* (1959)
  • Clarence Brown holds the record for most Best Director nominations without a win–0 for 6–for Romance (1929/30), Anna Christie (1929/30), A Free Soul (1930/31), The Human Comedy (1943), National Velvet (1944), and The Yearling (1946).
    • King Vidor, Robert Altman, and Alfred Hitchcock all share second at 0 for 5.
    • Followed by Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, Frederico Fellini, and Peter Weir at 0 for 4.
  • In the five-nominee era, the nominees for Best Picture and Best Director exactly matched on five occasions:
    • 30th Academy Awards (1957)
      • The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean*); 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet); Peyton Place (Mark Robson); Sayonara (Joshua Logan); Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder)
    • 37th Academy Awards (1964)
      • My Fair Lady (George Cukor*); Becket (Peter Glenville); Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick); Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson); Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis)
    • 54th Academy Awards (1981)
      • Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson); Atlantic City (Louis Malle); On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell); Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg); Reds (Warren Beatty*)
    • 78th Academy Awards (2005)
      • Crash (Paul Haggis); Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee*); Capote (Bennett Miller); Good Night, and Good Luck. (George Clooney); Munich (Steven Spielberg)
    • 81st Academy Awards (2008)
      • Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle*); The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher); Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard); Milk (Gus van Sant); The Reader (Steven Daldry)

12th Academy Awards (1939) – Part I

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  • Gone with the Wind, Victor Fleming*
  • Dark Victory, Edmund Goulding
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Sam Wood
  • Love Affair, Leo McCarey
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra
  • Ninotchka, Ernst Lubitsch
  • Of Mice and Men, Lewis Milestone
  • Stagecoach, John Ford
  • The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming
  • Wuthering Heights, William Wyler

Well, this is the Big Year, widely acknowledged as the finest in American cinematic history. In addition to the nominees, all of which remain highly regarded (by many), this year also saw the release of The WomenMidnightGunga DinThe Hunchback of Notre DameThe Hound of the Baskervilles, and others.

Overall, it was a great year, with nothing that I’d consider to be a “bad” film. Of course, not everything rose above the strictures of the Hays Code entirely successfully, but the level of technical achievement in all ten nominees cannot be doubted. As the word count of this article attests, there’s a lot to say about them.

Love_Affair

First on the slate was Love Affair, because it is in the public domain so I could watch it at work on my lunch break. I’m glad it was first, because it is the lightest and most forgettable of the ten nominees–just a silly melodrama about a very flighty singer (Irene Dunne) and the dashing Frenchman (Charles Boyer) she meets on a boat to New York (RKO Studios). They’re engaged to others at this point but that doesn’t stop them–does it ever?–from making plans to dump their future spouses and meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months.

Up until this moment of reckoning, the film plants itself firmly in the romantic comedy genre, but with less screwballery than Capra and less singing than Lubitsch. (It also established the Empire State Building as a romantic rendezvous that has been disappointing estranged lovers ever since.) But then, tragedy strikes and nearly ruins everything, the kind of ruin that, in real life, could be saved by a single explanatory sentence but that leads to the third act in films. Here the film tries awfully hard to be dramatic and poignant, but the whole thing is hackneyed and the final payoff is something that was cliché in 1933, much less 1939.

As I said, it’s a forgettable experience. It was remade in 1954 as, ironically, An Affair to Remember, using the same script but starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.

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Next came Dark Victory, another film in which Bette Davis plays a selfish girl who learns her lesson–this time around, she’s a wealthy Long Island socialite who comes down with a brain tumor that ultimately takes her life. The dark victory referred to by the title is her discovery, towards the end, of happiness and love, and all it took to find it was a fatal disease and the steadfast help of a strong male lead (George Brent, as the doctor who is always right in matters of medicine and of life).

The film hits all the three-act plot points required by such a story. The acting is phenomenal and Edmund Goulding’s direction is serviceable, but on the whole I found the enterprise a bit patronizing and too reliant on musical cues to convey its message. The message, of course, being that one cannot find happiness in an urban setting, or without someone more mature and nurturing to tell you what to do and how to feel. The takeaway is supposed to be optimistic, that contentedness can be attained even in the face of mortality, but when you think about it, it’s actually pretty pessimistic. How many people are going to have George Brent at their side when they snuff it?

It is entirely worth it, however, simply to see Ronald Reagan as a slurring drunkard (but a swanky society drunkard) and Humphrey Bogart back when he was still billed after the title and had to attempt an Irish accent.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Town is the second in Frank Capra’s Mr. [Blank] Goes to [Blank] trilogy, which was never completed when production was halted on what would have been the third installment, Mr. Biddle Goes to Nuremberg. Here, Jimmy Stewart plays an idealistic, naive-but-not-stupid young senator who arrives in Washington and is confronted by the crushing, cynical realities of a political system based on graft, betrayal, and steadfast devotion to money. Although he initially solves all problems with his fists, he is repeatedly knocked down and nearly quits in disgust, but in the end the love of Jean Arthur spurs him to rise up and fight for what is right.

If it sounds exactly the same as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, that’s not coincidental: the original title was Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, and Gary Cooper was to reprise his role from the original film. Thankfully, this didn’t come to pass; Deeds would not have worked in this film, and what would they have done with Jean Arthur’s character? In the end they were able to just push “reset” on her “cynical snarkypants who rediscovers her ideals when confronted with the real thing” character, but had this been a direct sequel to Deeds I’m not sure what purpose she’d have served.

On the whole, too, this film is significantly darker and less optimistic than what I’ve come to expect from Capra. Deeds triumphs in Mr. Deeds; Ronald Colman returns to Shangri-La in Lost Horizon; and Lionel Barrymore’s family is poised to take over the world at the end of You Can’t Take it With You. Here, while Smith succeeds in defending his honor and the ideals of the Constitution, the film still ends with Washington under the control of political bosses, the press compromised and corrupt (or, at best, indifferent), and little hope that anything will get better. The senators who aren’t controlled by outside interests are impotent and disinterested.

Small wonder the film was condemned by the United States government, and it took some serious balls to release a film like this in 1939 on the eve of world war. Overall, while I think the moral of You Can’t Take it With You is a more mature and thoughtful one, I appreciated the contrast to Capra’s usual “everything’s going to work out fine” style and his willingness to present an image of America in serious trouble.

Wuthering_Heights_(1939_film)

Although the poster for Wuthering Heights promises a faithful adaptation of the brooding, vengeance-fueled Emily Brontë romp, the product itself left me with wildly contradictory feelings. On the one hand, it is brilliant: Laurence Olivier is mesmerizing as Heathcliff, commanding the screen from his first moment, and William Wyler’s steady and detail-oriented direction captures the melancholic spirit of the novel. Most impressive is Merle Oberon, who brings a passion and emotional maturity to the character of Catherine. When I read the novel I always side with Heathcliff and root for his soul-crushing revenge to be fulfilled, but here I couldn’t help but see Catherine’s side of things. She doesn’t come across as spoilt or materialistic, but genuinely confused and conflicted.

On the other hand, the film completely excises the second half of the novel, ending instead with Catherine’s death, and thus misses out on what made the novel so grand, imposing, and brilliant. Whereas in the novel Heathcliff’s long, methodical, sociopathic drive for vengeance not just against Catherine but the entire class that spurned him and enticed her away extends across generations, destroying the lives of those around him and their children as well, in the film his story ends with his happy reunion with Catherine in the afterlife. Thus his deviousness is shown to be worthwhile because they were always in love and meant for one another. This is, of course, completely absurd and, I would argue, insulting to the source material.

I surmised at first that the Production Code was to blame, imposing as it did the demand for a “happy ending,” but that really doesn’t hold water here. Had the writers finished reading the book, instead of stopping halfway through and saying, “Good enough, I think a martini, don’t you, old chap?” (because, entering into the spirit of the thing, the American screenwriters adopted British accents and attitudes), they’d have found that the end Heathcliff comes to is precisely the kind of moral the Hays Office was fond of. And most films had to find some way of shoehorning it into an otherwise fine narrative, while here it was actually written out for them, but they chose instead to shoehorn the opposite nonsense, the “love conquers all” ending.

However, this disappointment only arises from a familiarity with the original novel; as a standalone film, it is quite strong. The strong writing, directing, and particularly the performances give the film a feeling of completeness, and if I weren’t unfavorably comparing it to the novel I’d consider it just about a perfect film.

WIZARD_OF_OZ_ORIGINAL_POSTER_1939

Of course the film from this year that is most highly regarded today is The Wizard of Oz, and not just because it can be synced (sort of) to The Dark Side of the Moon…and, if you’ve got time and the grass holds out, Wish You Were Here immediately afterwards (seriously, try it…”If I Were King of the Forest” actually pairs really well with “Have a Cigar”).

It was quite interesting revisiting this film as an adult, and sober, after not seeing it for a great many years. Besides the silliness of it all, I was struck by how my loyalties never settled on one Witch or another throughout the whole story, and in the end I found myself wondering just how much better off Oz really is now that the “wicked” Witches of the East and West are gone. And of course I use “gone” as a euphemism for “assassinated.”

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The Angel of Death.

Basically, Dorothy is a pawn in the murderous political machinations of Oz, in which the powerful, magical witches engage in a struggle for supremacy overseen by the impotent figurehead, the “Great and Powerful” Oz. It’s actually much darker and more cynical than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but as Rod Serling discovered with The Twilight Zone, you can say pretty much whatever you want about society so long as it’s couched in science fiction, fantasy, and/or catchy musical numbers.

(Speaking of musical numbers, did it ever occur to anyone else that “We’re Off to See the Wizard” must be like a pop song in Oz? How else does everyone know the lyrics, from the munchkins to scarecrows without human contact, to isolated tin men rusting in the forest, to woodland predators? Dorothy merely listens to the song in Munchkinland, picking up the melody and the chorus, and from there on out she’s singing the lead. This thing was at the top of the charts in Oz, perhaps over the peak of its popularity but still on everyone’s lips. I wonder what a mint condition 45 of the original is worth in Oz dollars…)

Also, I’m pretty sure the Technicolor aspect of Oz is representative of Plato’s cave, and Dorothy’s reawakening in the sepia tones of Kansas is even sadder than Charlie Gordon’s descent in the latter half of Flowers for Algernon. I don’t buy that “there’s no place like home” palaver for a second…she’s going to fall into alcoholism faster than a Kansan who hasn’t experienced a magical Technicolor world.

Okay, wow, over 1,900 words and we’re only halfway through the slate…time to wrap it up for now. Here’s Part II!

Trivial Matters #19 – Directing milestones

I haven’t concentrated too much on directors in these entries, so here are a few bits of my favorite directing-related trivia:

  • In the first eleven Academy Awards ceremonies, 7 of the Best Director winners were named Frank:
    • Frank Borzage (1stSeventh Heaven; 5thBad Girl)
    • Frank Lloyd (2ndThe Divine Lady; 6thCavalcade*)
    • Frank Capra (7thIt Happened One Night*; 9thMr. Deeds Goes to Town; 11thYou Can’t Take it With You).
    • No one named Frank has won Best Director since (unless you count Franklin J. Schaffner).
  • William Wyler has the most nominations (12), and has directed the most Best Picture winners (3), the most Academy Award-nominated performances (36), and the most winning performances (14). All are unlikely to be broken:
    • The closest active directors in terms of nominations are Steven Spielberg (7) and Martin Scorsese (8).
    • The only active director who has directed two Best Picture winners is Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven [1992] and Million Dollar Baby [2004]).
    • To date, Martin Scorsese has directed 22 nominated performances; Woody Allen, 18.
    • Woody Allen has directed 7 Academy Award-winning performances; Scorsese and Clint Eastwood have 5 apiece.
  • Three directors have been nominated for Best Director twice in the same year:
    • Clarence Brown (1929/30): Anna Christie and Romance (lost to Lewis Milestone for All Quiet on the Western Front)
    • Michael Curtiz (1938): Four Daughters and Angels with Dirty Faces (lost to Frank Capra for You Can’t Take it With You)
    • Steven Soderbergh (2001): Erin Brockovich and Traffic (won for Traffic)
  • Two directors have twice been nominated for Best Actor and Best Director for the same film:
    • Warren Beatty (Heaven Can Wait [1978], lost both; Reds [1981], won Best Director)
    • Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven [1992], won Best Director; Million Dollar Baby [2004], won Best Director)

Trivial Matters #18 – 87th Academy Awards (live updates!)

20:12 – So it’s time for the Oscars! This first post comes as I pick up my libation for the show this evening, a fifth of Bulleit ten-years-aged bourbon. I recommend it for all occasions, but particularly for when you need to sit through watching Boyhood win Oscars.

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Bulleit: The drink for crushing disappointment.

(If Birdman does, in fact, win, Bulleit is also the drink for surprised celebration!)

I haven’t seen too many of the nominees yet, as I’ve been a) busy watching the classics and b) unwilling to pay New York prices for cinema tickets. Still, stay tuned for my thoughts on this year’s films in approximately 75 weeks!

I have seen Birdman (amazing!), Boyhood (massively overrated), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (pretty great). I’d like to see Birdman win the top prize but I fear Boyhood is such Oscar bait that it will steal the show.

But trivia? That I’ve got! I’ll be popping in and updating with observations, opinions, and oddities as the night progresses!

20:31 – To get through the first of what will likely be two hundred musical interludes, I’ll say that this is Neil Patrick Harris’ first stint as host and he’ll have to do it another 17 times to match the all time champ: Bob Hope.

This could be one of the unbreakable records at the Oscars; second place is Billy Crystal with nine.

20:42 – No surprise here, J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor. I’ve wanted to see him win an Oscar for years! Hopefully this will get him out of the Farmers commercials.

21:11 – First Best Foreign Language Film win for Poland! Yay! And I love that Pawlikowski does not give a toss about the music or the applause or anything.

21:17-21:49 – Okay, I can zone out for a bit and think about things:

  • Now that J.K. Simmons has won Best Supporting Actor, this will not be the third year in which three of the four acting winners are repeats. In fact, I think all four will be first-timers.
  • Selma and The Grand Budapest Hotel are the only Best Picture nominees without acting nominations. If by some fluke one of them wins, it will join only eleven other such winners.
  • This is the second consecutive year in which all five Best Actor nominees came from Best Picture-nominated films. Overall, this is the tenth Academy Awards to feature an acting category completely filled by Best Picture-nominated films (* = category featured a double nominee):
    • 12th (1939) – Best Actress*
    • 13th (1940) – Best Actress
    • 15th (1942) – Best Actor
    • 16th (1943) – Best Actor
    • 37th (1964) – Best Actor*
    • 39th (1966) – Best Actor
      • Notable for being the only such year in the five-nominee era to not have a double nomination.
    • 50th (1977) – Best Actress*
    • 61st (1988) – Best Sup. Actress*
    • 86th (2013) – Best Actor & Best Supporting Actor (the only time two categories have had this distinction)
    • 87th (2014) – Best Actor

22:38-22:50 – Dark, but still…trivia from the “In Memorium” segment:

  • Mike Nichols won Best Director for The Graduate in 1967, the last film to win Best Director and nothing else.
  • Luise Rainer was the first person to win two consecutive acting awards. Not the first to win two consecutive Oscars…that would be Douglas Shearer, the recording engineer and brother of the great Norma Shearer.
  • Richard Attenborough was a lovely man. That’s not trivia but I wanted to say it.
  • When Maximilian Schell died in 2014, it made the 51st Academy Awards (for 1978) the earliest Academy Awards in which all four acting winners are still alive.

23:06 – “Glory” wins Best Original Song, which means if Selma wins Best Pictureas I said above, it almost certainly won’t, but still–it will be the first since The Greatest Show on Earth (25th, 1952) to win just two Academy Awards.

23:31 – Birdman takes Best Original Screenplay. I hope this is the start of a strong end run.

23:41 – Ironic that Ben Affleck would present Best Director, seeing as Argo (85th) is one of only four films to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination. The other three are Wings (1st), Grand Hotel (5th), and Driving Miss Daisy (62nd).

23:42 – Oh my, it looks as though the Bulleit will be celebratory after all!

0:05 – Best Picture is Birdman! It becomes the 37th Best Picture winner without any acting Oscars. Incidentally, there was one run of three years in a row where this happened: the 58th-60th (1985-1987), inclusive. (This is, however, the third consecutive year in which the film that won Best Director received no acting awards.)

A Bulleit to celebrate the Academy getting it right! I’m so happy to have been proven wrong in my initial prediction.

This could have been the first time since the 8th-10th Awards to split Best Picture and Best Director three consecutive years, and honestly I thought this would happen. In the event, it was a two year run, the first since the 24th and 25th (1951 and ’52).

0:09 – And that’s the 87th Academy Awards. Like I said, I’ll be watching more of these films and offering my thoughts on them in about a year and a half. See you then! …And, hopefully, in all the weeks between now and then.

Trivial Matters #17

Last night I was considering the overlap I’ve been seeing between nominees for Best Picture and the winners for acting. This makes sense, of course; a film considered to be among the best of the year would certainly boast strong performances worthy of recognition. But just as often, films that are not up to Best Picture standards (whatever those are) produce performances that win Oscars…in fact, this might happen more often than not. I’ll check into that.

So I wondered, in how many years have none of the acting winners come from Best Picture nominees, and it turns out only three (two after the introduction of supporting awards):

  • 4th (1930/31)
    • Nominees: Cimarron; The Front PageSkippyEast LynneTrader Horn
    • Best Actor: Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul
    • Best Actress: Marie Dressler, Min and Bill
  • 42nd (1969)
    • Nominees: Midnight CowboyZHello, Dolly!; Anne of the Thousand DaysButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kind
    • Best Actor: John Wayne, True Grit
    • Best Actress: Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
    • Best Supporting Actor: Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
    • Best Supporting Actress: Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower
  • 68th (1995)
    • Nominees: BraveheartBabeSense and SensibilityApollo 13Il Postino
    • Best Actor: Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas
    • Best Actress: Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
    • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects
    • Best Supporting Actress: Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite

11th Academy Awards (1938) – Part II

(Part I.)

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Alexander’s Ragtime Band, the obligatory musical of the nominees, follows the ups and downs of a ragtime band as they try to take the form from the dive bars of San Francisco to Carnegie Hall (spoiler: they do). This reunion of Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche–who inexcusably waits until an hour into the film to grow a mustache–could be a great examination of the formative years of jazz, but instead the film makes it easy for the band as they rise further and further up the class ladder with little discernible trouble. All the drama comes from the central love story, and unfortunately it is manufactured almost exclusively through plotty contrivances.

The film is noteworthy for featuring possibly the shortest wartime sequence of any film in history, condensing the entire “battle” phase of the protagonist’s army life into twenty seconds before spitting him out on the other side of World War I with nary a scratch. He walks with a cane, but quickly reveals it to be an affectation to further class himself up.

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Test Pilot brought aviation back to the Academy Awards, and in terms of acting and directing it is the best film of the nominees by far. It’s a clear successor to Wings and a clear forerunner of films like The Right Stuff that examine the impact of dangerous professions on the practitioners and those who care for them. Victor Fleming, who we’ll see next year with The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, manages to seamlessly incorporate humor, plot, and action…unlike Wings, one never gets the sense that the story is just a prop on which to hang the aviation sequences.

Clark Gable as the eponymous test pilot and Myrna Loy as his troubled wife deliver typically stellar performances, but Spencer Tracy steals the show and he really should have won his Oscar for this film rather than Boys Town. He plays Gable’s mechanic and best friend, and over the course of the narrative undergoes a steady psychological unraveling–this could have come across badly, particularly with the conventions of narrative prevalent at the time, but by the combination of Fleming’s direction and Tracy’s impeccable acting, this development never seems forced or melodramatic. The character’s arc is the most interesting of the film, and although it does bow to convention at the end, it still works and doesn’t play as a plot device.

The only quarrel I have with this film is that it is too perfect in a late-1930s-Hollywood way, too beholden to the three act structure and the expectation that a drama must be light and quip-filled for the first half, then become “serious” in the second. The progression from one sequence to the next was so textbook that I was able to foresee every plot development and time it to within a minute of its occurrence. But that said, it’s still a great movie, and features one scene in particular about 75 minutes in that could serve as a master class in acting, directing, and screenwriting.

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The Citadel is a “protagonist loses his ideals then finds them again” film about a doctor (Robert Donat) who starts off poor and treating patients with compassion and being interested in the advancement of medical science, only to face ignorant opposition at every turn; eventually he becomes complacent and succumbs to the allure of treating hysterical society mavens for ill-gotten wealth and status. He even grows a complacent mustache so you know he’s really complacent.

Of course, he turns himself around at the last moment, needing only the senseless death of a close friend to do so, and saves a young girl from preventable death at the hands of the incompetent, status-driven doctors that plague the medical profession. Overall the film is a long meditation on the shortcomings of modern medical practice, although its moral–that the profession is plagued by lackluster quacks with ambition in all the wrong places–is severely undercut by its opening title card declaring that it is not the intention of the film to criticize the medical field as a whole…even though it absolutely is.

The film is a complete success, however, in terms of the acting, cinematography, and the sure directing of King Vidor. Other films I’ve seen for this project have a similar “ideals to greed to ideals” arc, notably Anthony Adverse, but unlike that film, Citadel actually relies on the skill of its director and actors rather than intertitles to convey character development. Both Donat and Rosalind Russell turn in stellar performances; Donat is particularly good at portraying a man slowly descending into amorality, and Russell as his voice of reason anchors the narrative (although I prefer her as an unreasonable provocateur, as in The Women).

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Even though the poster leads one to expect a film about a drunken department store mannequin possessed by demons, Jezebel is in fact the story of a manipulative, spoiled lady in antebellum New Orleans and the people whose lives she destroys.

The film finds Bette Davis’ character from Of Human Bondage relocated to a plantation–thus, her vitriol and life-threatening selfishness are coated in a thick layer of “Suh-thun”, and the reactions of others are slightly more polite and restrained, but the characters are otherwise identical. The difference is that in O.H.B. she was merely a supporter ruining the protagonist’s life, and thus able to be killed off with impunity when the plot demanded it; here, she is the protagonist, and thus gets her Obligatory Redemptive Moment at the end.

It’s set amidst the scarlet fever epidemic that swept New Orleans in 1852, and although I wouldn’t classify it as an amazing film it does effectively critique the mores of the plantation class. The second half of the film introduces Henry Fonda’s wife from the north, and her attempts to come to terms and understand the conventions of the South–up to and including a deadly duel over Bette Davis’ nefarious scheming–provide plenty of fodder for director William Wyler to examine the still-prevalent divide between the cultures of the two societies.

Still, the unsubtle title and the film’s first half, which contains an uncomfortable dose of nostalgia for the halcyon days when women couldn’t vote, dress themselves individually, or enter banks or public houses without causing a complete breakdown of society, definitely provide grounds for interpreting the film as a fond recollection for the pre-suffrage days when strong-willed women ended up dead of scarlet fever surrounded by lepers.

And finally there is the winner, Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You, which captured him his third Best Director award in five years. As I said at the top, it’s definitely my favorite of this project so far. It picks up where Mr. Deeds Goes to Town left off, examining the difference between “success” and “failure” in capitalist post-1929 America, and solidifies and expands upon the strengths of that film. In fact, the basic premise is very similar: eccentric, unmaterialistic protagonists going up against unfeeling, monolithic Industry. But what separates and elevates YCTIWY is that unlike Deeds’ individualistic triumph over their forces, here Lionel Barrymore’s adorably quirky and nonconformist family of merry pranksters manages an even more difficult and laudable coup: “curing” a family too civilized for their own good.

Mr. Deeds promises that the virtuous can fight and win against the world; You Can’t Take it With You promises something altogether more optimistic and, I think, more encouraging, that the virtuous can win over the world. The whole enterprise is a delight from beginning to end, never feels sentimental, and infuses even its most minor characters with personality, humanity, and humor. It champions the notion that everyone is capable of happiness in life if they can only figure out that that’s what it’s all about.

I would say that happiness, and what it means to be alive and human, is the theme of the 11th Academy Awards, and each film tackles it in its own way. For instance: Pygmalion examines the passion for creation and the discovery of value; Grand Illusion, the idea that humanity can be maintained even when subjected to its worst invention; Boys Town, that everyone no matter how “bad” has the capacity for redemption; The Citadel, that idealism and compassion can never truly be lost; Test Pilot, that love can simultaneously be a triumph and one’s greatest adversary–but in a realistic and hopeful way, not an Of Human Bondage abomination.

And so we move on to 1939, which is still ranked as the finest year in American cinematic history, and the longest Best Picture winner of them all, Gone with the Wind. The Golden Age of Hollywood was never more golden than this year…let’s see how the Academy did!