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.
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 Copperfield, Anthony 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.
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.
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.
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!