- Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock
- All This and Heaven Too, Anatole Litvak
- Foreign Correspondent, Alfred Hitchcock
- The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford*
- The Great Dictator, Charles Chaplin
- Kitty Foyle, Sam Wood
- The Letter, William Wyler
- The Long Voyage Home, John Ford
- Our Town, Sam Wood
- The Philadelphia Story, George Cukor
Amazing how trying to do something so simple as watch and review ten Best Picture-nominated movies a week can be derailed by other things most people call “life”–things like seeing other movies, visiting Boston, going to jazz shows and cocktail bars, and generally attempting to be a social person whose company others enjoy–but better late than never, so here are the first five nominated films I watched for the 13th Academy Awards.
The films this year are all steeped with social significance, addressing the changing world in various ways and with varying degrees of success. With World War II already underway in Europe and Asia, many of the films this year were at least tangentially related to it, and to the question of whether America would join the conflict. One thing is certain, that by 1940 the question of neutrality in Hollywood that had constrained filmmakers only a few years prior (remember the censorship of Emile Zola, for instance, to avoid upsetting the German market…that was 1937!) was gone. America may not have been (openly) fighting yet, but the country’s sympathies were now solidly Allied.
The year began with Foreign Correspondent, one of two Hitchcock films in the field (the other being this year’s winner, Rebecca). I’d not seen it until now but I am very familiar with Hitchcock’s style, and this film is full of his trademark touches–if not as developed as they would become in his later films–right down to his cameo (about ten minutes in, on the street).
The story is timely and prescient, anticipating America’s eventual entry into the war and heavy with themes of mistrust and misplaced ideals. Hitchcock’s protagonist is America itself in 1940, or at least the vast majority of Americans: uninformed and uninterested in the turmoil in Europe, initially only a spectator but inevitably drawn into the web to become a major contributor to its outcome. While there, he encounters a flaccid peace movement, a few seedy political characters, and a comically incompetent “professional” assassin.
(An assassin, I might add tangentially, whose actions only make sense if you imagine he is committing harakiri for his sins. If not, he’s just a buffoon, and I like to give characters the benefit of the doubt when it comes to buffoonery).
One of the things I love about Hitchcock (exemplified in such other of his films as Shadow of a Doubt) is his sense of pacing, his steady, unhurried march from the world of the common man to a tangled web of intrigue, and that talent is displayed prominently in this film. The protagonist progresses inexorably towards his extraordinary discovery, in an entirely realistic and believable way that never feels forced or “destined” (when it comes to films these concepts are one and the same, if you ask me). The backdrop of the prelude to world war is ideal for Hitchcock and he uses it to its fullest potential.
The film ends with this scene of almost uncanny foresight and relevance in August 1940:
Not only is it a powerful message, one that Britain sincerely hoped would resonate in America sooner rather than later, but the scene was shot, and the film released, before a single bomb fell on London. Hitchcock had returned to England and learned of the coming Blitz, and so wisely scraped his original ending (of the two main characters prosaically discussing the events of the film) and inserted this one. About ten days after the film’s premiere, the Blitz began, and Hitchcock was revered the world over as a wizard with the gift of clairvoyance (probably).
John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, and John Ford reunited for The Long Voyage Home, an episodic tale of life on a British merchant vessel during the early years of the Second World War; it’s worth it just to hear Wayne speak with a Swedish accent, but it’s also a very well-acted and well-paced slice-of-life kind of film.
For all its seeming celebration of life at sea, Voyage does not exactly paint an inviting portrait. The tagline you see in the poster above (“The Love of Women in Their Eyes…the Salt of the Sea in their Blood!”) is about as sensationalist and as far from the tone of the film as the copy could possibly get. None of the characters is particularly heroic (aside from Wayne, who had heroism in his contract), and the life is not particularly appealing…the men are there, by and large, because life has left them no other choice.
The film really stood out to me with its restrained approach to its subject. Despite the fact that the main story involves the ship passing through a war zone to bring ammunition to Britain, the film is refreshingly void of any large-scale set pieces or grand battles, instead emphasizing the humanity of the men on the ship…in the one encounter with an enemy airplane, the camera never leaves the deck and the plane itself is never seen, only the bullet holes it makes in the ship and the men. Aside from this encounter with the enemy, Ford instead focuses on how the men are their own enemy, whether from boredom as they float, blacked-out and helpless, through the hostile night, or from suspicion that one of their member is a Germany spy.
It was certainly better than the Thomas Mitchell film that immediately followed it on my screen (man, that guy was all over these two years. He’s the 1937 Adolphe Menjou of 1939 and 1940.)
Our Town, starring William Holden, is a boring film about (and for) boring people, narrated by the least-interesting character in the history of motion pictures and directed with the languidness normally associated with the comatose. The story is as basic as can be (small town boy and girl meet and get married), and since this concept amounts to roughly seventeen minutes of screen time, the rest of the film is padded out by self-righteous and self-congratulatory interjections by the narrator. These include weather reports, singularly uninteresting and unfunny “witticisms,” hamfisted morality lessons, and other unholy aberrations that I will actively try not to remember.
However, the film became much darker, and much more enjoyable, when about three-quarters of the way through I began watching it as an existential horror film. It didn’t take much mental wandering to get there, either, once I realized that the unlucky townsfolk are trapped in a nihilistic and malevolent universe created and directed by a pan-galactic Cthulhu for whom they dance. I mean, of course, the narrator, the terrifying presence in this community, able to impose his will on the thoughts and actions of the town whenever he wants in order to serve his storytelling. You can tell the citizens are at the mercy of a maniac because at one point his voiceover interrupts their conversation to move the action elsewhere, and they stop and look at the camera because they hear him say “That’s enough of that”. They live in a near-constant state of terror and confusion, as events occur without cause or consequence and he chuckles from his omnipresent perch at the ants he controls. They never suspect that the easygoing ice cream proprietor is in fact a demon.
FLASH forward several years, FLASH back a month or so, STOP the passage of time to interview a wall-eyed, jittery professor about the rocks that form the soil around the town because omnipresence. Casually he traipses through a graveyard and laments those buried there, never acknowledging that the only reason they’re dead is that he summoned them into existence solely for his story, and they were created dead. Their entire function in their world is to be corpses to serve his twisted whims, to teach a lesson that does not require their presence.
That is the final horror of Our Town: the people who are alive will never die, and the people who are dead were never alive to begin with.
John Ford’s second film in the field this year, and the one that won him his second Best Director award, was The Grapes of Wrath. In it, Henry Fonda and his family from Oklahoma try to escape the Great Depression, only to find that there are greater indignities than being out of work, and one of them is to find it. It’s depressing, but ends on a much more hopeful note than the novel, as the focus is shifted to the family unit rather than humanity in general (and the family, with a few subtractions, endures through the end of the film). Perhaps the “brotherhood of mankind” concept was a bit too pinko for the period, and the film wanted to emphasize American fortitude.
It’s a stirring, dark, but ultimately life-affirming morality tale of maintaining one’s pride and self-worth in the face of a system designed to take them away. Of course, the novel doesn’t end this way and the film’s interpretation is significantly toned down to appease both the Production Code and anti-Communism, but as a standalone work the film is extremely not bad (much like Wuthering Heights).
The Great Dictator was Charles Chaplin’s first talking picture (though it is full of silent film-esque gags and sequences). It is a brilliant, if slightly overlong and ultimately preachy, indictment of Nazism and fascism in general, made in the glorious tradition of attacking dictators and other self-important pricks through mockery and derision. Its production began when Hollywood was still neutral–and by “neutral” I mean “censoring anything that might offend the German market”, and Britain, still trying out appeasement, announced its intention to ban the film–but by 1940 the time was just right for an out-and-out satire like this.
Chaplin had resisted talkies for as long as anyone could, and although with The Great Dictator he finally made the jump to synchronized sound, the funniest and most memorable sequences of the film are grounded firmly in the silent film tradition. Witness:
The film’s most famous sequence masterfully combines this silent film sensibility with a gleefully irreverent skewering of Hitler, his cult of personality, and his megalomania, and perfectly encapsulates the ultimate futility and emptiness of the Nazi philosophy:
Chaplin said later that he wouldn’t have made the film had he known the full horrors of the Holocaust, but if anything I think the film’s treatment of Hitler became even more important when the truth emerged after the war (or, more accurately, when people started believing the truth after the war). Truffaut pointed out that Chaplin “reclaimed” his mustache from Hitler with this film, and the film made him (Hitler) an object of ridicule the likes of which had never been seen and have scarcely been seen since; this derision, this harsh spotlight on everything silly, ridiculous, and patently insane about totalitarianism, is what makes the film at once so funny and so enduringly relevant. It’s a master class in satire that everyone should enjoy and learn from.
Halfway through 1940, and it’s shaping up to be a great year, and a great decade. Hopefully it won’t take me two weeks to watch the next five…Part II is coming soon!