Leslie Howard

This is a break from our (semi-)regularly scheduled blog. Rest assured, I am diligently watching the films for the 15th Academy Awards and preparing my commentary on each, but I just finished with the very fine British propaganda film 49th Parallel, starring, amongst others, my absolute favorite discovery of this Oscar journey, Leslie Howard.

MV5BMTM1NjM2MTE3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjY4NjQ2._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_Just take a moment. I’ll wait.

My review of that film was going to center on Laurence Olivier’s hilarious French-Canadian accent, and maybe when I post the regular entry it still will, but then I was Skyping with my sister tonight and found out that Leslie Howard died. I knew right away that I could not brush this aside–he has fast become one of my favorite actors, and the news was particularly devastating to me.

Granted, he died in 1943, but that doesn’t make it any less distressing.

The need to pay tribute to this great man was immediately apparent. Ashamed as I am to say it, I had not even heard of Leslie Howard before embarking on this blog, and if I forgot everything else I’ve seen and learned along the way except him, I’d come out far, far ahead.

It has been an unrivaled pleasure to watch him in…

Smilin’ Through (1932/33), my first Howard experience…I was so naive then that I initially mistook him for Fredric March. Was I ever so young? His character, as I mentioned way back when, is one of the most tragic I have ever seen. He carries it with such panache, such restrained tumult, that my heart breaks just remembering it.

Romeo and Juliet (1936). He brought a maturity and, damn it, a sensuality to the title role. Coming off the heels of the debacle that was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, seeing Howard and Norma Shearer do Shakespeare right was even more pleasurable than getting to watch two Powell-Loy vehicles in a single year.

Pygmalion (1938), which he also co-directed. It’s the role for which I will remember him always, because his Professor Henry Higgins embodies everything I love and believe about language and about the human experience. I liked him before but this film made me love him, and you can bet that when I get to My Fair Lady in 1964 his performance will be constantly set against everything that film can offer. It better be damned good.

And that pinnacle of Technicolor indulgence, Gone with the Wind (1939). His all-too-brief moments onscreen made an otherwise insufferable film something approaching tolerable.

And finally he lends his inimitable presence to the third act of 49th Parallel, bringing his unique class to the wilds of British Columbia, his austere dedication to art and culture a passionate and unassailable bulwark against the Nazis.

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How we won the war.

I’ve also recently seen him in Berkeley Square (1933), one of the first time-travel films and for which he received his first Oscar nomination, and Of Human Bondage (1934), in which he desperately tried to escape Bette Davis’ clutches for an hour and a half. I think that’s an experience to which we can all relate.

It would be difficult to overstate the regard I have for him, as an actor and as a human being. Leslie Howard would be the Hollywood star that I would most readily choose to share a martini or twenty with, whiling away the wee hours of the morning with our talk of everything and nothing. And although I would certainly like to, I don’t think we’d even have to discuss his films…all he’d have to do is quote Macbeth and I’d be happy.

I look forward to discovering and watching more of his extensive career–his 1937 film It’s Love I’m After, co-starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, looks particularly intriguing–but I know that it will be a sad day when I have seen them all, the day when there will be no new Leslie Howard films left. I therefore have made it a point to refuse to view a complete list of his films, so that I might never experience that assuredly empty feeling of knowing that I will never again see one of his performances for the first time.

And I have a feeling that, no matter what new and exciting surprises and cinematic adventures await me as I continue this project–and there will be more, of that I am sure–he will be the high watermark against which the rest will be measured. In conclusion, here he is smoking a cigarette and patting a dog:

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14th Academy Awards (1941) – Part II

Well, I apologize again. Normally, these two-week gaps between posts are due to procrastination and/or evenings spent doing something other than watching movies…both shameful excuses, I know, and admittedly it’s still mostly that, but this week it’s something far more prosaic: I have had a hell of a time finding two of the films I needed to watch to complete the 14th Academy Awards.

One Foot in Heaven and Hold Back the Dawn have proven to be exceptionally rare commodities, odd for two films that were nominated for Best Picture as late as 1941. While I have managed to get a hold of One Foot in Heaven, Hold Back the Dawn has continued to elude me. If anyone has any leads on how to find this film (or has a copy and is willing to giveloan…no, be honest, give it to me), I’d surely appreciate it. I thought I’d left this sort of thing behind when I emerged from the primordial soup of the 1930s, but c’est la vie.

Anyway, on to the films!

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The Little Foxes stars Bette Davis playing against-type as a conniving, bitter, manipulative harridan trying to out-screw everyone around her. After seeing her play nothing but sickeningly sweet romantic leads for the past few years this came as a welcome change and was easily the acting surprise of the year for me.

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 7.32.38 PMIn essence, it’s the story of three siblings, all of whom are horrible, trying throughout the film to do horrible things to one another and to everyone else in the film, none of whom are horrible. It was the Code distilled to its most simplistic promise: that bad characters would be evil, and good characters would be angelic. The one character who isn’t one extreme or the other is only so because he has no brain and simply does the last thing he’s been told…if one of the good characters spoken to him first he likely would have been an ally, but hindsight’s 20/20 and all that.

The film fits the theme I identified in Part I, in that it presents characters struggling to do the right thing in the wicked face of reality, but offers a fresh perspective by making their enemies the film’s protagonists and the more interesting characters. The supporting cast is almost annoyingly pure, constantly surprised by the actions of Davis and her brothers despite, you know, living with them for most of their lives. In the end, Davis achieves complete victory, with the loss thrown in for the sake of the Hays censors completely negligible.

One of the Code’s major tenets was that evil deeds, and the evildoers of evil deeds, be punished in the end, whether spiritually or legislatively (preferably both, so audiences would really understand that evil is bad). But here, Davis pretty much has everything she ever wanted: her husband, the source of her wealth but also an irritating moral voice, is dead, she has secured a coveted if corrupt place at the head of a very fruitful industrial venture, and she is rich beyond her imagination.

Her daughter leaves her to go marry her sweetheart, and we’re expected to consider this to be Davis’ retribution…which may have landed for me if she had shown even an ounce of affection towards her during the film. Since she doesn’t, I can’t be expected to buy that she would give a damn about losing her. Basically, Wyler found a way to show evil triumphant by appealing to the censors’ dim perception of “family” or some similar nonsense.

Although it’s a very, very good film (William Wyler as usual directs with restraint and panache, although his usual stereotyping of minorities continues unabated), I’m not surprised that it set an Oscar record by winning none of its nine nominations* for the same reason the even-more-cynical Citizen Kane was nearly shut out as well: the world of 1941 was dark enough already and the Oscars wanted to promote hope and wish fulfillment.

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[Finally made it to California! My review of this film is here.]

220px-Suspicion_film_posterSuspicion earned Joan Fontaine the award for Best Actress, and while I think her work in Rebecca the year before was much better (certainly compared to Ginger Rogers’ Kitty Foyle dreck), she certainly delivered again here. Like Rebecca, she plays a young, naïve bride of a man with a dark and hidden past, and must quickly grow up to deal with the malevolent consequences. Here, she suspects her husband of something far worse than still being in love with his dead wife: murder (or maybe that’s better, depending on your point of view).

The original novel, though I haven’t read it, sounds like a pretty straightforward story of murder, told from the victim’s perspective as she gets mired deeper and deeper but is unable to free herself. Hitchcock, of course, found this terribly boring and instead turned it into an examination of paranoia, misapprehension, and the destructive nature of blind suspicion (hey, I just got that). Of course, in retrospect not having a twist would seem more Hitchcockian, but it still works, and watching Fontaine’s character spiral deeper into the rabbit hole of her own design, constantly analyzing everything for significance in the world she’s created, is far more interesting than watching someone suspect she is about to be murdered, and then she is.

Though not as strong, to my mind, as Foreign Correspondent or RebeccaSuspicion is still a solid Hitchcock film, featuring his signature slow-build pacing, wonderful use of music–different portions of the same work, Wiener Blut, play depending on the mood of the scene–and twisting, subjective plot. My main complaint is that these twists, involving Fontaine’s character’s descent into paranoia and subsequent revelation of her husband’s true nature, are handled less deftly than in Rebecca–the ending in particularly comes across rather rushed. Still, I think Hitchcock made the right decision in altering the source material the way he did, even if it is a matter of controversy whether it was his doing or the studio’s.

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In order to write this review, I had to buy One Foot in Heaven, and it continued the tradition by being the worst film of the year (remember Here Comes the Navy?). The poster above leads one to expect a very austere motion picture, while the DVD art looked like this:

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The copy reads “Folks, meet a grand father! He’s the affable, laffable [sic] head of the most delightful family that ever stepped out of America’s screens…into America’s hearts!” So now I didn’t know what to expect, except that this film would be fucking embarrassing.

And I was not disappointed. It’s the story of a man (Fredric March) who, just before his wedding, abruptly decides to abandon his training as a doctor and, on the strength of feeling good at a Methodist revival meeting, become an itinerant minister. The moral of the film seems to be that putting some rich, spoiled churchgoers in their place is more rewarding than, I don’t know, administering medicine to the sick or advancing civilization through the eradication of illness. And he drags his poor wife along for the ride, even though she is deeply unsatisfied throughout and only stays with him because Production Code, raising their brood of bland children while constantly redefining “happiness” in her mind.

It’s definitely the worst film of the year, not just in terms of quality but also in terms of the theme I thought the other films addressed so compellingly (even when they failed). The stakes of the film are never raised higher than “my parishioners aren’t very nice”, and perhaps if March had not begun the film as a promising medical student, or if the film didn’t take itself so damned seriously, this wouldn’t be so bad. But in light of these points I spent the majority of the film either in a state of dismay, shaking my head and wondering why I was being asked to care about any of this, or outright depressed by what I was witnessing.

To give just one example of the latter: There is a meta moment about an hour in when March confronts the evil of motion pictures, forbidden by whatever sect he’s affiliated with, and decides that they’re not so bad. He then gives a sermon in which he enthusiastically endorses them as valuable tools for teaching Christian values. Such simpering, cringing pandering does not belong in a film nominated for Best Picture, particularly in an otherwise very strong field.

And finally there was the winner, How Green was my Valley, a safe and heartwarming tale of a young boy growing up in a Welsh coalmining town as the traditions of his childhood fall away one by one. The young boy is played by Roddy McDowell, pictured here as an adult:

imgresMost of the budget on Valley went towards razor blades and flea powder.

The film opens in some long-ago time when coalminers sang like a choir on their way home from another stress-free day working seconds from death, when towns were little more than postcards, and families of seven could afford roasts for dinner every day on colliery wages. But then the idea of unions arrives and subsequently leads to the collapse of his family and all that once made the village great…weirdly, it’s only after this moment that the coal dust actually begins to pollute the landscape (damn Socialism). In the end, our young hero stays on as a miner until both his parents have died, pining to the last for the village he knew as a boy, but proud that he’s carried on the values instilled in him by his parents.

Like many films of the age (or indeed, any age), it is formulaic and features all the plot points/characters expected of it, including the stern but loving father, the deceptively meek mother, two colliery deaths, the arranged marriage of the family’s daughter, and a comedic schooldays interlude. With such a standard-issue script, John Ford really doesn’t do much as a director, yet still won his third Best Director award. While Orson Welles clearly should have won for Citizen Kane, William Wyler’s work on The Little Foxes was also far superior to this. Valley is the kind of straight-forward Hollywood film that would have been very similar if it had been helmed by someone else…Foxes and, in particular, Kane are great films primarily because of the vision of their respective directors, and in the hands of another they would have been vastly inferior.

In a year with Citizen KaneThe Maltese FalconSuspicion, and The Little Foxes (hell, even Blossoms in the Dust) in the field, awarding Best Picture to Valley seems a colossal and unforgivable misstep in retrospect. However, given the overall theme of the nominees, this film is the most pure exemplification of the “holding onto one’s values in the face of a changing world” motif that this year’s Oscars, and Hollywood in general, sought to impress upon the moviegoing public. While it’s a fine movie, one that can be watched and appreciated as a solid piece of filmmaking (as most of John Ford’s can), in a year as strong as 1941 it’s definitely bottom half.

Okay, I know I say this every time lately but I’m going to work damned hard at getting 1942 out at a better pace than I’ve had recently. Onward!


* A record that would stand, tied by Peyton Place in 1957, until The Turning Point in 1977, and later The Color Purple in 1985, went 0 for 11. And if you’re a nerd like me—and if you’re reading this blog I assume you are—you’ll also want to know that three films have gone 0 for 10: Gangs of New York (2002), True Grit (2010), and American Hustle (2012).