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.

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