- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
It’s Citizen fucking Kane.