13th Academy Awards (1940) – Part I

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  • 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[citation needed], 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.

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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).

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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.)

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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.

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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).

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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!

Trivial Matters #25 – Retired Awards

Before I get to the trivia today, I want to take a moment to say “Happy birthday!”, or rather “z okazji urodzin!”, to a good friend of mine, who’s been with me for three years now through thick and thin. He’s well-traveled, always down for a pint, and, as you’ll see, very photogenic. He’s an owl, and his name is Mortimer:

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He also speaks Swahili, so furaha ya kuzaliwa, bundi rafiki yangu!

Mortimer’s retired (although he keeps up with mousing, he’s maintained his amateur status), so today I’d like to tell you about the various awards that have been retired by the Academy over the years.

The 1st Academy Awards, perhaps unsurprisingly, featured no less than four awards that were immediately discarded:

  • Unique and Artistic Quality of Production

Won by Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, this category was conceived on an equal footing with Outstanding Production. I think this category had legs, and the Academy should have tried it out a while longer. Perhaps they worried that the prestige of winning Best Picture would be weakened through the split. Still, I’d like to have seen what films would have been nominated here…most of the films up for Best Picture I’ve seen thus far would not have fit the criteria of being “unique” and/or “artistic” (with a few exceptions, such as Grand Illusion or even Lost Horizon).

Of course, had the Academy kept this category, my slate of films for this project would double and I’d never get through it (24 films each in 1934 and ’35…), so perhaps it’s just as well for my sake that they eliminated it early.

  • Title Writing

Won by Joseph Farnham for The Red Mill, the decline and fall of silents is the obvious reason this award was dropped. This was an award for writing such gems as “A trip over the door still would have been a vacation for Tina” (from the winner), or, for pathos, the flowery prose of a D.W. Griffith drama, where characters’ “youthful dreams come to wreck against the sordid realities of life” (Broken Blossoms, 1919).

  • Engineering Effects (eventually found an equivalent in Visual Effects)

Won by Roy Pomeroy for Wings (hardly surprising). Pomeroy would go on to be an important figure in bringing sound to film, although his strange ideas of how audiences would react to spoken dialogue made for some odd scenes in early talkies. He thought that without a noticeable gap between lines, audiences would get confused and fall into drink and vice (probably). In Old Arizona (1929) is the finest example of this dubious, and thankfully short-lived, technique.

  • Best Director, Comedy

Won by Lewis Milestone, Two Arabian Knights. With the relative dearth of comedy films represented by Best Picture and Best Director, this is a category that, had it survived, may have given some legitimacy to the genre within the Academy, but without splitting Best Picture into similar drama and comedy categories (which I am against), it probably wouldn’t have worked out in the long run.

Following that first cull, there have been four further categories that have come and gone over the years:

  • Best Assistant Director (1933-1937) and Best Dance Direction (1935-1937)

These two came and went pretty quickly due to pressure from the Director’s Guild of America, who felt that recognition for “direction” shouldn’t be split up or shared. The latter category, you may recall, represented the only Oscar win by a Marx Brothers film (A Day at the Races, 1937).

  • Best Original Story (1927/28-1956)

This category actually existed at the same time as Original and Adapted Screenplay for 16 years after the introduction of the former in 1940, until it was finally dropped as redundant. It was a confusing time and one of the reasons why my list of memorized Oscar categories does not include those for writing (yet).

  • Best Live-Action Short Film, or at least a few subcategories thereof: Comedy (1932-1935); Novelty (1932-1935); Color (1936-37); and One- and Two-Reel (1936-1956)

It says a lot about short films back then that the only two categories the Academy could think of were Comedy and Novelty. Surely twenty minutes isn’t enough time to tell a serious story.

Novelty is one I’d like to see brought back, to be honest, and I’d expand it to include features as well. With so many cookie-cutter films being released nowadays, an Oscar recognizing silliness would inject some much-needed life into both the awards and Hollywood at large.

  • There’s also the category of Best Original Musical, which hasn’t been awarded since 1984 but is still technically active. The Beatles won it in 1970 for Let It Be!

There you have it, the retired Academy Awards. For the most part they are things that were phased out as technology changed or the awards coalesced, but a few definitely got a raw deal.

Thanks for the inspiration, Mortimer! And, lest you think that he spends all his time since retirement just hanging out in luxury hotels, here he is taking in the National Air and Space Museum:

He’s a cultured owl.

Trivial Matters #24 – Peter O’Toole

As it’s Friday the 13th, I want to share with you the unlucky saga of Peter O’Toole and his eight unsuccessful nominations for Best Actor from 1962-2006.

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By 1968 he had already perfected his “crestfallen yet classy” face.

It’s the record for futility in the acting categories (Richard Burton is second with seven), and looking at the performances alone it seems astounding that he didn’t win at least two:

  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962); lost to Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Becket (1964); lost to Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
  • The Lion in Winter (1968); lost to Cliff Robertson, Charly
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969); lost to John Wayne, True Grit
  • The Ruling Class (1972); lost to Marlon Brando, The Godfather
  • The Stunt Man (1980); lost to Robert de Niro, Raging Bull
  • My Favorite Year (1982); lost to Ben Kingsley, Gandhi
  • Venus (2006); lost to Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

All very solid performances from one of the best actors of all time, and he struck out eight times. If that isn’t enough for you to conclude that existence is unfair and absurd–or at the very least, that the Academy Awards are–keep in mind that we live in a world where Peter O’Toole never won an Oscar but Nicolas Cage did.

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Yup.

However, when one takes a closer look at the actors on that list who won, it becomes clear that O’Toole was just cursed to almost always come up against a nominee who was just not going to lose. The precedent was set with his first nomination, for his career-making–and career-defining–portrayal of T.E. Lawrence. Almost any other year that’s a gimme, but in 1962 it was up against Gregory Peck’s equally defining role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and let’s face it, Peck was just about guaranteed the win for that one (deservedly).

The pattern continued for most of O’Toole’s career: John Wayne in 1969 (one of the Academy’s famous “oops, we forgot to give this performer an award” awards), Marlon Brando in 1972 (even though he refused to accept it), Robert de Niro in 1980, Ben Kingsley in 1982, and Forest Whitaker in 2006. Each of them locked down their Oscar roughly six seconds after their films were released.

There were only two years in which O’Toole wasn’t just one of four actors tossed in to create the illusion of competition: 1964 and 1968. In 1964, he was nominated alongside his Becket co-star and fellow Oscar snubbee Richard Burton, a situation that rarely bodes well for either party. Rex Harrison had won the Golden Globe, but his win this year was not a foregone conclusion as were the ones I mentioned above…still, O’Toole and Burton canceled each other out (Peter Sellers should have won, anyway).

1968 was an odd year…it was not a particularly strong slate for Best Actor, and Cliff Robertson’s win for Charly was unexpected and, for many, ridiculous. I’ve not seen The Lion in Winter (yet! Stay tuned for the 41st Academy Awards), but I’ve seen Charly and I can say that neither the film itself nor Robertson’s performance is anything special. This is the only one of O’Toole’s losses for which I cannot find a compelling reason.

Alas, O’Toole was only ever recognized by the Academy with a paltry Lifetime Achievement Award, and is now remembered for this dubious record–well, also for being an amazing actor, equally adept at drama and comedy, and a wonderfully eccentric character in real life.

But one can dream, and here are some trivia entries from alternate universes in which O’Toole won. (Not all the same universe, though, or the entries after his second win would become awfully repetitive.)

  • Peter O’Toole is the only actor to win Best Actor for his debut starring role, as T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
  • With his win for The Lion in Winter (1968), Peter O’Toole became the first performer to win for playing a character for which he had been previously nominated (King Henry II, whom he played in Becket [1964]).
  • Robert Donat and Peter O’Toole were the first performers to win Oscars for playing the same character in different films, for their roles as Arthur Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939 and 1969, respectively.
  • Peter O’Toole’s win for Venus (2006) set a new record for longest gap between a performer’s first nomination and first win: 44 years (since his nomination for Lawrence of Arabia [1962]). The previous record had been 41 years, set by Henry Fonda between The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and his win for On Golden Pond (1981).

12th Academy Awards (1939) – Part II

(Part I)

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My exposure to British boarding schools til now consisted solely of the memoirs of Stephen Fry and Lindsay Anderson’s if… (amazing film, go watch it please), so I was quite unprepared for the romantic, breezy depiction found in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. There was no caning, barely any sadistic abuse, and a distinct lack of murder at the climax. Despite these setbacks, it was a damned enjoyable, if somewhat predictable, yarn.

Robert Donat plays the titular Chips, a teacher at a boarding school straight out of a postcard, who over the course of the film goes from shy, generally unacknowledged neophyte to wisecracking, doddering, and eminently respected emeritus, touching the minds and hearts of, by his estimation, thousands of students. The film is book-ended by Chips in his dotage, as his mind wanders back over his career (a proper segue would have been nice but was not required in 1939).

Donat’s generation-spanning performance is spot-on, and the film as a whole unfolds in glorious Golden Age style, but I do have a major complaint that almost but does not entirely ruin it for me: Greer Garson is largely wasted in the role of his youthful, always-inspiring wife. Her acting consistently matches Robert Donat, and her character is the emotional center of the narrative, and yet the film manages to treat her with a distinct lack of respect. She is introduced about 40 minutes in, when Chips is prematurely necrotizing, and over the next few years manages to inject some life into his teaching style and thus wins him the admiration and respect he’d been sorely lacking from his students. They’re pretty damned adorable together…I mean, watch this clip of them traveling by boat after their first meeting, unaware of the other’s presence:

Completely damned adorable. So far, so good.

Now, he’s alone at the beginning of the film so we know tragedy must strike, but the film brushes aside this very important character disturbingly fast. Essentially, we fade from a happy Christmas scene to her death in childbirth…offscreen. We don’t even get a proper goodbye scene between her and Chips. After this, the film largely forgets she ever existed, as the product of her labors–a respected and admired version of the stammering woodlouse she met in Austria–goes on to guide the school through the turbulent years of World War I and beyond. And the final insult comes at the end: Chips’ final thoughts are of his thousands of (faceless and completely forgettable) pupils, instead of the love of his life to whom he owes his happy memories.

I, for one, could have done with less old-man-Chips and more of Garson’s fascinating character. But I understand why it happened, and clearly the filmmakers recognized that they had something special in Robert Donat’s performance and wanted it to remain the movie’s primary focus. While they were not incorrect, I think a better balance could have been achieved. Still, nice film.

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Of Mice and Men stars Burgess Meredith–whom it took me a while to recognize because he was not cutting Sylvester Stallone or breaking his glasses after the end of the world–and Lon Chaney Jr. as John Steinbeck’s favorite protagonists, down-on-their-luck workmen with dreams of making good. Unlike many literary adaptations of this time period (I’m thinking of David CopperfieldAnthony Adverse, and The Good Earth), this one takes on a story that can actually be told in an hour and a half, and the result is a nearly flawless rendition of the novel. The film really only drags in one sequence, wherein George relates how he came to travel with Lennie…it’s fairly unnecessary exposition and doesn’t do anything to enrich the relationship between the two protagonists, so I assume it’s there to edify the six or seven people in the English-speaking world who haven’t read the source material.

Aside from that, Meredith’s quietly resigned portrayal of George is fantastic and the direction by Lewis Milestone is typically steady, grounded, and character-driven. Overall I would say it’s the archetype to which other Golden Age literary films should have aspired.

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Ernst Lubitsch returned to the Best Picture nominees with Ninotchka, and while it already had a strike against it for not starring Maurice Chevalier it is a rather delightful film. Like other Lubitsch films, the A-plot is light and breezy, while everything that goes on around it is what really makes the movie shine. In this case, it’s the story of an extremely rigid Soviet attache (Greta Garbo) who arrives in capitalist interwar Paris to negotiate the selling of some jewelry seized from an aristocratic family during the Revolution. There, she meets Melvyn Douglas, who immediately falls in love with her, and gradually she begins to melt in the face of his persistent woo and the splendor of the city, and eventually she defects from Mother Russia to be with him and the West.

It’s the basic plot of thousands of films, but as I’ve said before I am prepared to give Lubitsch a pass on it that I am unwilling to give others because it is obvious that he is treating it with a liberal dose of irony and parody. What is really wonderful about Ninotchka is the trio of Soviet ambassadors who precede Garbo in Paris and are immediately seduced by the capitalist extravagance surrounding them–their comic adventure fuels the narrative and provides its best material.

They trade their drab suits and fur caps for top hats and tails, and move from the hovel their government had arranged for them into the Royal Suite of the most fashionable hotel in the city. After a brief return to the USSR they end up in equally-glamorous Constantinople, where they continue their capitalist bacchanal and effect their final defection by opening and operating a Russian restaurant.

For any other director this would have been enough for what are ostensibly supporting characters, but rather than end the film with the love story, Lubitsch treats us to the start of a new adventure for the trio: one of them is forced out of the enterprise by his partners, and the film ends with him morosely wandering outside the restaurant wearing a sandwich board adorned with Soviet slogans, striking for better treatment and hoping to foment Revolution. It’s a wonderful end to their transformation from communist to capitalist–in a way, it’s a comedic version of the pigs’ arc in Orwell’s Animal Farm–and of course a classic example of Lubitsch magic. The romantic storyline is humorous and fun to watch, but you can tell that Lubitsch’s energy was this supposed B-plot and it’s there–specifically, in that inspired final shot–that the film is elevated to classic.

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I’m fairly certain that Gilligan’s Island was a remake of John Ford’s Stagecoach, with the archetypes updated to the 1960s and the setting changed slightly. In both, the title aptly sums up the main set piece; there are, thrown together in a claustrophobic environment, representatives of various walks of life, a social tapestry if you will; and there are Apache (isn’t there an episode of Gilligan’s Island where they encounter American Indians? I feel there has to be).

Anyway, it’s the story of eight or nine people from various walks of life and with various motives, all packed onto a stagecoach bound from somewhere in the Old West to Lordsburg, New Mexico, across dangerous, untamed Monument Valley. John Wayne stars as the tough but lovable outlaw whose storyline ultimately provides the film’s climax despite being the least interesting, while Thomas Mitchell and Claire Trevor play the disgraced alcoholic doctor and the prostitute, respectively, run out of their hometown by that monolithic figure of oppression in the Western, the Temperance League (portrayed, as always, as uptight, humorless spinsters).

Orson Welles described Stagecoach as a “textbook” on filmmaking, and he’s right, but that could be why it left me strangely cold in the end. I mean, it’s a great film, a classic in all the positive ways, but also in some negative ones as well. It hits all the right notes at all the right times, its characters all say and do what the story requires of them–the story advances them, rather than vice versa–and on the whole offers little in the way of surprise. In other words, it doesn’t have the same impact in 2015 as it did in 1939–unlike, say, the film Welles made after reportedly watching this one over 40 times: Citizen Kane. So Stagecoach is damned important to the history of film, both in terms of its immediate impact and, indirectly, in terms of inspiring bigger and better things–it’s the Pet Sounds to Welles’ Sgt. Pepper.

And finally, finally, I saw Gone with the Wind, a rambling, bloated, technically-brilliant-but-artistically-stillborn twenty-hour ordeal (although through the magic of home media, I was able to skip the overture, intermission, and entrance and exit music, which brought the film down to a fairly reasonable sixteen hours).

As I said at the top, 1939 is considered the finest year in American cinema history, and the other nine nominees attested to this fact: they are all, in their own way, stellar examples of Hollywood at its best and have stood up as classics even to the present day. They are tightly-constructed, well-directed and -acted, and even in the case of large-scale films like The Wizard of Oz exhibit a degree of restraint and calculation. Unfortunately, as in 1936, style won out over substance and Best Picture was awarded to Gone with the Wind, which almost undid everything those other pictures worked to build.

The film tells the “story” of Scarlett O’Hara, a Southern belle who makes Bette Davis’ character in Jezebel look like Florence Nightingale, who incessantly narrates her own life as she sinks deeper and deeper into meaninglessness. Three husbands and a dead child later, she suffers a final psychotic break, mentally retreats once and for all into the bastion of her own solipsistic selfishness, and spends her days staring at a painting of her plantation and imagining a future wherein she doesn’t destroy her life and those of the people naive enough to associate with her.

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Or at least, I assume so, based on the film’s final shot. That’s clearly a painting.

The last line of the film is Scarlett’s teary-eyed, idiotic observation that “After all, tomorrow is another day.” Well that’s a brilliant insight, and it adds immeasurably to the collective wisdom of humanity. Totally worth the four hours it takes it get there.

If the film had had the sense to end at the intermission, when Scarlett returns to Tara after the Civil War devastates the South and vows to rise again, it might actually have been great. Then the film never loses literally all of its momentum when the War ends, and could have been about Scarlett’s maturation in the face of the epoch-shattering events she just barely managed to live through. Her development throughout the Civil War sequences is compelling and rich, and her actions are taken with requisite motivation beyond “it’s what’s in the book.” End it at the two-hour mark and everybody’s happy (including the producers, because it’s way under budget).

Instead, the second half of the film decides that character development is for pansies and throws out everything it had worked to build in the first half. Scarlett immediately reverts to “everything I do I do because I want to steal Leslie Howard away from Olivia de Havilland,” and I can think of few premises that are worse for sustaining a film of this length. It just gets worse and worse, and the script gets lazier and lazier, to the point where the characters literally say what is going to happen, and then it does. Long before it finally, mercifully ended, it had easily surpassed Cimarron as the worst Best Picture winner I’ve yet seen.

So, 1939 is finally behind me. I knew when I started this project that Gone with the Wind would be one of the major obstacles en route to completion, and it did not disappoint (in that regard, anyway…it disappointed in literally every other aspect). The next few years look pretty strong, and even though I will be writing angry again in 1941 when Citizen Kane loses, I anticipate a much happier road. To 1940!

Trivial Matters #23

Time for some writing trivia!

  • Francis Ford Coppola and Alan Jay Lerner hold the record for writing (or co-writing) the most Best Picture winners, with three apiece:
    • Coppola wrote Patton (1970), The Godfather (1972), and The Godfather Part II (1974). All three won Best Screenplay.
    • Lerner wrote An American in Paris (1951), Gigi (1958), and My Fair Lady (1964). The former two won Best Screenplay.
  • Billy Wilder wrote the most Best Picture nominees: Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945)*, Sunset Boulevard (1950), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and The Apartment (1960)*.
  • Only seven films have won Best Picture without a writing nomination: Wings (1927/28), The Broadway Melody (1928/29), Grand Hotel (1931/32), Cavalcade (1932/33), Hamlet (1948), The Sound of Music (1965), and Titanic (1997).
  • To date, eight individuals have won Oscars for directing, writing, and producing in the same year:
    • Leo McCarey, Going my Way (1944)
    • Billy Wilder, The Apartment (1960)
    • Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather Part II (1974)
    • James L. Brooks, Terms of Endearment (1983)
    • Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
    • Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men (2007)
    • Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Trivial Matters #22

As I continue to look for four hours of free time to watch Gone with the Wind to complete the 12th Academy Awards, here is some more trivia:

  • Three people have refused their Academy Awards. (Some, like Woody Allen, have simply never collected them, but did not outright renounce them.)
    • Dudley Nichols refused his Best Adapted Screenplay award for The Informer at the 8th Academy Awards due to a union boycott of the ceremony. Despite this labor action, Nichols was the only person to go all the way and officially turn down his award.
    • George C. Scott turned down his Best Actor award for Patton at the 43rd Awards because he thought of the Oscars as a “two-hour meat parade…a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.” Ah, the halcyon days when the ceremony was only two hours long…
    • Two years later Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor award for The Godfather in protest of Hollywood’s (and the country’s) treatment of American Indians. He sent a representative to the ceremony with a 15-page speech, but she ended up ad-libbing for about a minute before the Academy implemented a “no proxy” rule.
  • The record for longest time between a film’s release and winning an Academy Award is twenty years, for Charles Chaplin’s Limelight. It was originally released in 1952, but due to Chaplin’s low standing in America at the time was not shown in Los Angeles until 1972, at which time it became eligible for Oscar consideration and won Best Original Score (Chaplin’s only competitive win, after being given an Honorary award the year before).
  • Speaking of which, the Academy has on a few other occasions given an elderly, well-respected but overlooked person an Honorary award, then turned around and given them a competitive award the next year. I’m thinking off the top of my head of Henry Fonda (Honorary, 1980; Best Actor, 1981 for On Golden Pond) and Paul Newman (Honorary, 1985; Best Actor, 1986 for The Color of Money).
    • Then again, sometimes they think, incorrectly, that the Honorary one is enough, as was the case with Peter O’Toole, who was given one in 2002 after seven unsuccessful nominations (of an eventual eight, the record for futile acting nominations).