14th Academy Awards (1941) – Part I

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  • How Green was my Valley, John Ford*
  • Blossoms in the Dust, Mervyn LeRoy
  • Citizen Kane, Orson Welles
  • Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Alexander Hall
  • Hold Back the Dawn, Mitchell Leisen
  • The Little Foxes, William Wyler
  • The Maltese Falcon, John Huston
  • One Foot in Heaven, Irving Rapper
  • Sergeant York, Howard Hawks
  • Suspicion, Alfred Hitchcock

In a film that I will be watching (technically, re-watching) for this blog in approximately a year–that is, if I can get back on track to a post a week–the protagonist observes that to be really successful, there is one component, beyond the individual’s control, that must be present: war. Hollywood found that out in the early 1940s, when it found, to its everlasting delight and profit, the particular brand of filmmaking it had established throughout the 1930s fit like a glove into the story of a world at war, both literally and thematically.

The war not only affected Hollywood itself, but also the aspects of filmmaking it chose to emphasize at the Academy Awards. America’s recent entry into World War II had a definite impact on the choice of nominees (which, of course, were selected early in 1942); three of the five nominees I watched for this entry were about people rising up to effect change on a national scale, certainly something the public wanted to see as the country marched to war. The other two dealt with underdogs struggling to come to terms with–and succeed despite–obstacles they were dealt through no fault of their own, another situation with which, post-Pearl Harbor, most Americans could identify (even if it isn’t entirely analogous).

These approaches resulted in some amazing films, and some run-of-the-mill films that haven’t aged as well as they may have if they’d treated their subjects with a bit more subtlety.

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I kicked off 1941 with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which purports to be a lighthearted comedy/fantasy but is actually a sinister mindfuck even more terrifying than Our Town. It tells the story of boxer/saxophonist/pilot Joe Pendleton, who is “taken” too soon by overzealous angel Edward Everett Horton—wonderful to see him again, because unlike Ginger Rogers, he is still enjoyable when Fred Astaire isn’t around–and must find a way to return to life to have a shot at the title bout. Enter Mr. Jordan, played with an ever-present and ever-creepy grin by Claude Rains, who shepherds him back to Earth in search of a recently-expired body to inhabit.

It starts in good fun, and Pendleton manages to get the girl, save a fortune, and get another shot at the title, all in someone else’s body (the audience sees Pendleton, but everyone who looks at him sees the person whose body he occupies…which the audience never sees, which now that I think about it is rather horrifying). But then, tragedy strikes as his body is killed just before the fight, and he is subsequently put into the body of a guy named Murdoch, the man he was going to fight for the title.

This is really scary already, but in the end Jordan makes the unilateral decision to wipe out Pendleton’s consciousness entirely, and instead brings Murdoch back from the dead to reoccupy his Earthly body. This is badly, badly messed up, even more so when one considers the following:

At their first meeting, Jordan said that Pendleton had fifty years as himself, albeit in other bodies. Then without his consent, Jordan cuts him off and makes him Murdoch, and also erases in Murdoch’s mind any knowledge of what has happened. Despite the fact that, in Jordan’s own words, Murdoch was watching Pendleton use his (Murdoch’s) body and was pleased, so at that point Murdoch was aware that he had died and that Pendleton was occupying his body. Why would Jordan put Murdoch back in his body at Pendleton’s expense, right when Pendleton was in a position to “make good,” as it were?

Also, what happens to Pendleton after this? We never see, but I presume he’s gone forever. But…he still looks like Pendleton to the audience, even when he’s Murdoch, although, as before, people looking at him see Murdoch and not Pendleton. So now Murdoch is occupying Pendleton, who is in turn occupying Murdoch? A Russian doll situation where Murdoch gets everything Pendleton had been working for and the only loser is Pendleton, cut off in his moment of glory. It’s deceitful as hell and more than a little fascist.

The title takes on a very sinister connotation when all this goes down. Like the narrator in Our Town, characters in this world exist solely to satisfy the erratic whims of a sadistic maniac. This comes across as incredibly cynical and depressing, especially given the theme of this year that I pointed out at the top. It’s hard to make something of one’s life when at any moment your consciousness can be snuffed out and replaced with someone else’s–or, more pragmatically, when powers beyond your control can so quickly and efficiently shanghai your destiny.

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The Maltese Falcon is, as I think I can say without contradiction, an almost perfect film, one that has aged remarkably well–which cannot be said of many noirs that came before it. That, of course, is because it is the film that established noir as a legitimate genre, solidifying the elements–particularly the disinterested protagonist drawn into a web of intrigue that he must sort out for mostly unrelated personal reasons–that would define it during what became its most fruitful period over the next ten years.

While the other films I’m dealing with today tend, in varying degrees, to get a little caught up in their own grandiosity and philosophy, Falcon is a taut, well-acted, and unadorned story that gets the job done with no discernible fat, as was John Huston’s style. It features memorable yet completely realistic characters, a narrative that twists and turns enough to keep one interested but not so much that it gets lost in its own pretensions, and a refreshingly downbeat, low-key climax. The final line is the one time when it gets flowery and poetic, and damn it if it doesn’t work perfectly.

The film also features my favorite undermining of the Production Code. Elisha Cook, Jr. plays Wilmer, a petty underling who repeatedly tries (and repeatedly fails) to intimidate/impress Humphrey Bogart—Cook was at his best playing such “little guys trying to be big”…see The Killing, Stanley Kubrick’s first great film—and to whom Bogart refers as a “gunsel.” This odd word was taken (as was most of the film’s dialogue) from the original story, and author Dashiell Hammett sneaked it in by gambling that his editor would think the word just meant a gun for hire. In fact, it’s a Yiddish word for a young gay man—a catamite, to be precise, or a toyboy, to invoke the parlance of our time.

It’s so wonderfully cheeky, and when you watch the film it’s obvious that everyone involved knew the word’s meaning except the boys at the Hays Office. If only for this bit of subterfuge this film would rank amongst my favorites, but the fact that the rest of it is nearly flawless doesn’t hurt, either.

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Next came Blossoms in the Dust, a Greer Garson vehicle in which she plays real-life champion of orphans’ rights Edna Gladney, and Walter Pidgeon plays her supportive-but-doomed-for-plot-purposes husband. Remember when I complained that Goodbye, Mr. Chips, an otherwise great film, tossed aside Garson’s character with an abrupt and off-screen death? Well, this film is not nearly as good as Chips, but features the same kind of gratuitous death…this time, Garson survives, but nearly everyone who is close to her dies of Plot.

First there is her sister, who discovers that she was an orphan…she immediately kills herself. Edna marries her sweetheart Sam, and they have a child…who dies on his third Christmas. These deaths serve the noble purpose of advancing the protagonist’s story line (even though they didn’t exist in real life), and Edna begins extending help and dignity to illegitimate children. She is aided in her quest by her faithful and doting husband, Sam, who is in perfect health…until he isn’t and dies. Not one of these is adequately built to, portrayed, or remembered once the needs of the screenplay have been met, as is typical of films of this period.

Despite this annoying contrivance (not Hollywood’s most annoying contrivance, of course…hell, it doesn’t even crack the Top Five), or maybe even because of it, the film is a good and worthwhile one. Garson is, as usual, fantastic–the supporting cast is no slouch, either, particularly the inimitable Felix Bressart as a curmudgeonly doctor–and the film concludes with a genuinely moving sequence involving Edna’s favorite foundling and his imminent adoption. However, the laziness of its writing and directing (which is to be found in almost all biographical films of the epoch…see below) hobbles it significantly, and it’s the weakest of the five films I’m dealing with today.

This was the fourth color Best Picture nominee, though I’m at a loss as to why…it’s not an epic, like Gone with the Wind; not designed to show off the gaudiness of the Hollywood scene, like A Star is Born; and it’s not innovatively used for dramatic effect, as in The Wizard of Oz. No, this is just a low-key (if star-driven) character piece, perfect for black and white and yet colorized. Obviously, soon color would become the norm, and black and white became the interesting, thematic alternative, so perhaps this film was prescient precisely because it was in color for no reason…this was the wave of the future.

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Sergeant York is a film about how Gary Cooper scares the shit out of Germans, and also how pacifists shouldn’t let their beliefs get in the way when there’s a war on. More broadly, it’s about Alvin York, a Tennessee hick who finds religion in the film’s first half, then becomes a war hero in its second. As it’s Gary Goddamned Cooper there’s never any doubt that he will be anything but beloved and heroic—even when playing a rowdy, rudderless drunk, he projects an air of chisel-jawed—chiseled-jawed?—American determination.

As is the case with most films about a real-life protagonist, Sergeant York spends a lot of time on Our Hero’s backstory before getting to the main action, which unfolds over the film’s final thirty minutes. The result of this is that, in the first hour of screen time, we learn precisely three things: 1) York is a ne’er-do-well who drinks, 2) he can shoot really, really well…

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Just look at that kerning.

And 3) the town collectively hopes that one day he’ll straighten up and fly straight. Naturally he does, thanks to divine intervention, which infects him with pacifism at just the wrong time for World War I to reach America.

Reluctantly, he becomes a soldier, singlehandedly captures most of the German army, and returns home a national hero. There, true to his humble nature, he turns down the chance to get rich from his fame, on the grounds that he isn’t proud of what he did and that he only acted out of duty—very commendable, but then he goes back to Tennessee and without a second thought gladly accepts a plum piece of land and a wonderful house that the state has awarded him due to his battlefield heroics. I’m not entirely sure why this situation is different from those he refused, aside from being something he really, really wants. If he’d been true to his convictions, the film would have ended like this:

(Just to avoid confusion, yes, in my imagination he does become John Wayne.)

The film was timely as hell, of course, and was still in theatres on December 7, 1941, which gave it a box office boost and gave the U.S. a wonderful piece of recruitment propaganda. Yes, it’s considered a classic; yes, it’s been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation—but honestly, the film really does boil down to “Americans good, Germans bad”. After the nuanced, mature portrayal of war presented in Grand Illusion (and of conflict in general in Lost Horizon), films like this come across as cheap stunts, products of the time. It’s well-acted (particularly by Cooper, Walter Brennan, and Margaret Wycherly), and competently directed, but I don’t think it’s aged particularly well, even if it will never go out of style so long as war continues to exist.

But that, for me, is not the worst part of this film…the worst part for me is the fact that at one point we see a calendar of August 1916, and it shows the month as beginning on a Wednesday. Being a nerd I saw the flaw in this immediately, but for those of you who have better things to do with your life, I’ll tell you: August 1916 actually started on a Tuesday, not a Wednesday.

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For some reason no one has captured and put online an image of this pivotal moment, so please imagine it. Super aggravating, right?

Subsequent calendars in the film display the correct alignment of date and day, leaving me with the agonizing conundrum of why August 1916 was inaccurately depicted. WHY?! There’s no earthly reason for it, it distracts from the story in the most annoying way possible, and dwelling on it is actually making me angry, so if you don’t mind I’ll move on now.

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It’s Citizen fucking Kane.

Part II!

13th Academy Awards (1940) – Part II

(Part I.)

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Two Bette Davis melodramas followed this stellar opening, the first being All This, and Heaven Too, a mindnumbingly lethargic and predictable story of a woman trying to teach French to a bunch of bratty English schoolgirls who can’t forgive her for causing the downfall of the French monarchy. The bloated, rambling film actually doesn’t make this consequence entirely clear–although TCM insists that it’s true, but then they also insist that this is a good movie–instead choosing to focus on an altogether less interesting subplot, that of her non-affair with a nobleman whose only redeeming feature is being Charles Boyer.

Essentially, the film is two hours of watching Davis and Boyer pretend not to be smoldering with wild, untamed passion for one another, while Boyer’s wife (played by Barbara O’Neill, who for some reason was nominated for an Oscar for her histrionic, one-note performance) becomes increasingly jealous of Davis’ closeness to her husband and her children. Then Boyer kills his wife, Davis gets blamed, and tragedy ensues.

It’s over-the-top at best, but if there’s one thing bad movies teach us it’s that if love is not an instantly reciprocated eternal revelation that solves all your problems by the third act, then it will destroy your life, festering in your gut until it kills you and, likely, at least one or two members of the supporting cast.

The film may have worked if it weren’t so goddamned long…if it didn’t repeat the same basic scene fifty times…and if it weren’t for that off-hand remark about how, oh yeah, this seemingly insignificant abortive romance contributed directly to the final demise of the House of Orleans. It never pays to flippantly reference something that would have made a much better film than the one presented. I suppose Davis and Boyer deliver credible performances, but on the heels of such well-paced and far more interesting fare like Foreign Correspondent and The Great Dictator, this film definitely killed the momentum of the 13th Awards.

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Fortunately, William Wyler stepped in with The Letter, a taut and well-acted tale of an adulteress attempting to get away with the murder of her lover. Compared to Heaven, which ran an inexcusable 145 minutes, The Letter starts with a bang (literally, a gunshot) and keeps itself to a tight 95 minutes with no noticeable fat. Unfortunately, I only enjoyed it while watching it, coming as it did right after Heaven, and immediately afterwards its numerous peccadilloes became apparent. It was also adversely affected by the Production Code, and as a result the ending is unearned and disappointing (even if Wyler does his best to save it through playful light and shadow).

The film opens with Bette Davis coldbloodedly murdering a man, then staring at his corpse with dead eyes–black eyes, like a doll’s eyes–for about twenty minutes before law enforcement arrives. So, not much doubt exists (in the audience) about her guilt, or her premeditation, and the rest of the film is basically about watching her beat the rap by suppressing a letter that proves she was having an affair with the dead man–a letter she wrote the day she killed him.

At this point, one has to do some pretty heavy suspension of disbelief to buy that she would do such an idiotic thing, or that she would subsequently not work it into her story somehow before its inevitable discovery–and to be honest, I don’t buy it for a second, but plots must move forward I guess.

The-Letter-05“You don’t search a murdered man’s possessions, do you?”
“Um, yes, we do.”
“Goddamn it.”

In the end, she convinces her lawyer to lie for her and she is found not guilty, only to ruin her marriage anyway by insisting on her everlasting love for the man she killed (it’s actually right there on the DVD box: “WIth all my heart I still love the man I killed!” This is not a film that tries hard for suspense). If it weren’t for the damned Hayes office it may have ended here, in a slightly realistic way, but alas the dictates of that evil overseer demanded that murder be revenged by something more permanent than a ruined life. So, she either had to go to prison or die herself, and they opted for the latter, in the silliest way possible.

Also, one more thing: Wyler was a great director, but even he is not immune from the Trader Horn school of directing non-whites. His direction to Davis’ lawyer’s Chinese apprentice, who orchestrates much of the plot, must have been little more than to say, “Just be a sneaky fuck and grin a lot. You know, like you do.” Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.

220px-The-Philadelphia-Story-(1940)The Philadelphia Story continues along the trajectory of The Women and The Awful Truth, films which turned The Divorcee into comedies, telling the story of a couple–of which half is usually Cary Grant (see also: His Girl Friday)–who divorce and then reconcile after having Code-approved dalliances with others. The three lead actors–Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart–all play parts that adhere fairly rigidly to their established personas, and the result is a film that is a delightful combination of the best aspects of the screwball comedy tradition.

By the end of the film, of course, the lady is back with the man she was meant to be with all along, loose ends have been tied up, and a wedding occurs. All very nice, and as screwball comedies go it has aged better than the ones I mentioned above mainly on the strength of the performances–although James Stewart’s win for Best Actor was probably a consolation prize for losing for Mr. Smith the previous year, which then meant the Academy went into a similar debt to Laurence Olivier and Henry Fonda (which it eventually got around to in 1948 and 1981, respectively).

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Kitty Foyle is, by almost every possible definition, a horrible film with no redeeming qualities whatsoever (and after Our Town earlier this year, I’ve no choice but to think the same of Sam Wood as a director). It’s the story of a woman who for some reason is in love with two men who for some reason are also in love with her. The back of the DVD case sings the praises of Ginger Rogers’ Oscar-winning performance as a strong woman who does something and et cetera, but I didn’t see any evidence of that in this tired, contrived, predictable nonsense.

The film starts off awful and gets worse from there, with a five-minute pantomime tribute to how much better women had it in America before suffrage and “equality”. This idiocy permeates the rest of the film, which explicitly pines for the days when women were happy being baby factories who had only to receive a stolen kiss from a bashful gentleman to reach nirvana (i.e., marriage and crochet). According to this movie, with the vote comes all the troubles that eponymous Kitty Foyle faces, such as having to stand on the subway, and TWO suitors, and…actually, other than that she doesn’t have much in the way of trouble in her life.

Which is fine, because she is an utterly negligible creature devoid of personality, and her two suitors are her equals in every way. Hell, I derided Barbara O’Neill’s performance in All This and Heaven Too but at least she had the decency to play a character about whom one can recall at least one trait…here, Kitty just drifts from one man to the next without reason or agency, and to the surprise of absolutely no one ends up with the respectable, humanitarian doctor instead of the flaky Main Line rich bastard she pines for for the film’s first 100 minutes, because the screenplay says to.

In a Best Picture nominee I try really, really hard to find something positive to say, but with this film I just can’t. There’s nothing good about it. The acting is wooden, the characters are bland, the direction is flaccid, the story is trite and saccharine…and entitled couples who insist on staying past closing time and expect working people–waiters, musicians, etc.–to stay and provide the background for their romantic bullshit are scum.

Fortunately I bookended the year with Hitchcock, and that’s enough to forever wash the tepid bilge of Sam Wood away forever. The winner this year was Rebecca, and although it’s an amazing film it owes its Best Picture to the dogged (read: irritating) persistence (read: marketing budget) of producer David O. Selznick. It only won one other award (Cinematography, Black & White), the last Best Picture to date to fail to win an award for acting, directing, or screenwriting. Still, it should easily have won for Best Director, as Hitchcock’s sure and relentlessly innovative hand was much, much better than John Ford’s clearly begrudgingly-accepted work on The Grapes of Wrath.

As is Hitchcock’s wont, the first half of the film is very, very slow, depicting a neurotic young woman’s attempts to adjust to her new husband’s opulent lifestyle and not feel awkward around the help, and try to rid the estate of the presence of his seemingly-beloved first wife. Knowing nothing of the film going in, I confess I was somewhat concerned that the whole film would be this “can’t handle being rich” narrative, but then it turns out that Olivier in fact hated the eponymous Rebecca, who orchestrated her own death with the express purpose of eventually framing him for murder, and the film never looks back. This scene in the boathouse, in which this revelation comes, is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen:

The most impressive part of the film is Joan Fontaine; her character grows from a naive girl to a confident, strong woman, and her chemistry with Laurence Olivier is just perfect. In Wuthering Heights, and indeed in most of his films, Olivier commands the screen at all times and his supporting cast is just that…here, Fontaine matches him in every scene–their performances feed off one another and, combined with Hitchcock’s direction and George Barnes’ beautiful cinematography, consistently elevate and drive one another and the film. She should have won Best Actress, by quite a long way.

Like The LetterRebecca had a major change foisted upon it by the Production Code–unlike The Letter, however, these changes not only improve the film but actually make it work. In the original novel, Laurence Olivier’s character murders his wife, while in the film she dies accidentally (while trying to instigate her own murder). This was due to the Code mandate that murderers could not escape justice, either earthly or divine, but even as a result of this interference I think it was the right choice for the story. Had Olivier killed her outright her victory would have been assured even if he did manage to get away with it, as the deed would tie her to him for the rest of his life no matter where or how desperately he ran; instead, her hubris gets the best of her and she lets down her guard at the last, and therefore instead of trapping him her death allows him the opportunity to finally escape. I’d have to read the novel to see how it plays out there, but I don’t think it would be as convincing as in the film without that vital piece.

Whew! So that was 1940; a new chronological decade has begun, the war is about to draw America in, and with Our Town and Kitty Foyle behind me I think everything will get better (of course, I thought the same thing after Trader HornHere Comes the NavyLady for a Day…). Although retrospect allows me to say with confidence that Best Picture should have been awarded to The Great Dictator or Foreign Correspondent, I guess even in 1940 Hollywood wasn’t quite ready to fully declare itself Allied, and so it was given to an undeniably brilliant but also very safe literary adaptation. And in just three years they’d be giving it to Casablanca.

I really hope to get back to the one-post-a-week pace I originally set for myself, because two Awards per month just won’t cut it. Ahead to 1941, or as I like to call it, the Great Disappointment.