15th Academy Awards (1942) – Part I

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  • Mrs. Miniver, William Wyler*
  • 49th Parallel, Michael Powell
  • Kings Row, Sam Wood
  • The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles
  • The Pied Piper, Irving Pichel
  • The Pride of the Yankees, Sam Wood
  • Random Harvest, Mervyn LeRoy
  • The Talk of the Town, George Stevens
  • Wake Island, John Farrow
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy, Michael Curtiz

Since 1933, allusions to the inevitable outbreak of the Second World War have inundated the nominated films. As the specter of global conflict grew ever darker, films like La Grande Illusion and Lost Horizon became ever more explicit in their condemnation of war in all its forms, while maintaining a focus on World War I. Then in 1938, Germany annexed Austria and Hollywood responded with films like Foreign Correspondent and The Great Dictator (itself in development much earlier than that), set in the present and dealing with a world order very much in the balance.

This was all academic until 1941, when the United States, and by extension Hollywood, was finally forced to confront the war directly. It’s come as no surprise to me that the nominees for 1942 were all World War II-focused, whether explicitly or implicitly (one, Random Harvest, still clung to the old “World War I as analogy” metaphor). Diving into this year was quite entertaining and illuminating, as I watched each film try to come to terms with a world at war while maintaining the unwritten promise of cinema to present compelling art even when the goal is propaganda.

Some succeeded, and hold up to this day as great films. Others…well, keep reading.

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I suppose after that introduction you’d expect me to dive right into Wake Island or 49th Parallel, films that are actually set during World War II. Well, that’ll teach you to assume (as my malapropistic cousin would say, “When you assume, you make an idiot out of you and me”).

No, the first film I watched for 1942 was another puff piece by my favorite directorial punching bag, Sam Wood, the W.S. Van Dyke of the 1940s who bravely disregarded the advancements of Hitchcock, Wyler, Capra et al. by refusing to establish any kind of unique narrative voice. Both Wood and Van Dyke have made some of my favorite films–A Day at the Races and The Thin Man, respectively–as well as some of the worst shit ever committed to celluloid–Kitty Foyle and Trader Horn–and that’s unforgivable. Have a vision, for meow’s sake.

Anyway, this is another year in which Sam Wood had two nominees in the running. Kings Row was the first one, and the one for which he was nominated for Best Director, the story of a small town even worse than the one presented in Our Town two years ago. While this one is, at least, not under the control of a maniacal demigod who narrates the characters’ lives to suit his totalitarian whims, it’s still dominated by incest, murder, schizophrenia, mutilation, and psychological torment the likes of which are rarely seen outside of German New Wave.

That is, of course, what I’d write if the film was made by someone other than Wood and in an era not straitjacketed by the Hays Office. Actually the film kills off its one good actor (Charles Rains) in the first half, after which we’re basically just watching Ronald Reagan’s haircut ham its way through a series of melodramas that would make Douglas Sirk scoff in disbelief. Viz:

I haven’t touched much on the story or the characters because they’re not worth the time, so I’ll just sum up the very inspiring morals of Kings Row: psychology wins the day and the girl, mental illness is a capital crime, and once you lock into a winning hair style you must never alter it.

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Next up, 49th Parallel (if you go on Wikipedia to check that I’m not just making up which films were nominated each year, you’ll find this listed as The Invaders, its release title in the United States). This film was Michael Powell’s answer to Joseph Goebbels’ reputation as a master propagandist–essentially, Britain’s Sgt. Pepper to Germany’s Pet Sounds, or if I’m feeling less hyperbolic, their Pet Sounds to Germany’s Rubber Soul. Or it could be Revolver, and the Beach Boys aren’t even involved. I feel like this analogy is on the verge of breaking down. It’s a great movie, is my point.

Two things set 49th Parallel apart from most other propaganda films, whether Nazi or Allied. First, the villains–a Nazi U-Boat crew stranded in northern Ontario after their submarine is destroyed–are the protagonists. This allows Powell (and his screenwriting partner, Emeric Pressburger) to explore the philosophical underpinnings of Naziism from a first-person perspective. Second, while I wouldn’t say the Nazis are portrayed in a sympathetic light–indeed, the ultimate message of the film is that their worldview is so utterly flawed that it cannot even keep a small group of them together for the time it takes to survive–they are still nuanced, three-dimensional human beings who firmly believe their ideology, even as the film systematically dismantles it.

The film is episodic in nature: the U-Boat crew dwindles, through death, capture, or other means, until only one of them is left to try and cross the border into the then-neutral United States. Along the way from Hudson Bay to Vancouver and then back to Niagara Falls (because reasons), they meet various A-List film stars who each offer a different counterpoint to different aspects of Naziism, from its delusions of pan-Germanic allegiance…

…to its rejection of art and culture, which they foolishly try to foist upon the great Leslie Howard. I won’t post a link to that scene…watch the film. It’s a real treat.

The whole thing is wonderfully paced, flawlessly acted, and never sinks to the demonization of its enemies that so many propaganda films do. Sure, the Nazis are shown to be wrong at every turn and with every fiber of their being, but the film takes its time to show and tell just why they are wrong, rather than simply portraying them as monsters. This makes the end result all the more satisfying, and more complete as a work of cinema and not simply a product of the period.

Of course, a review of this film would not be complete without a tribute to Laurence Olivier’s amazing French-Canadian accent. I mean, try watching this without a sense of awe:

Simply incredible.

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I followed this up with a decidedly less successful, but certainly more timely, depiction of World War II, portraying the fall of Wake Island to the Japanese in the weeks immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. As the tagline in the poster above makes clear, this film was made with the specific intention of rallying Americans to support the war against imperialist aggression in the Pacific.

To that end, the film is one of the more shallow WWII films I have come across, featuring every stereotype of badly-made war films–mainly in the form of characters, both civilian and military, who begin the film as rough-hewn, divisive scamps but then rise to honor and camaraderie in the face of adversity–and coming across as little more than a recruitment film for the U.S. armed forces. Certainly not a film worthy of consideration as the best of its year.

And to that end, I have little more to say about it, honestly. This entry is already getting long and I want to move on to two films much more worthy of your bandwidth (is that a thing I’m using correctly in this context? Do Internets use bandwidth?).

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Another film about a real-life subject less than a year old, The Pride of the Yankees is a biopic which tells the story of New York Yankees first basemen and all-around swell guy Lou Gehrig, played by Gary Cooper in his most all-American role. It’s a Sam Wood film and a great one, yet another testament to the fact that this guy had nothing inside his head but the word “Action!” and a vague sense of what to point the camera at (though even that was probably his cinematographers).

Despite being about the life of one of the greatest baseball players of all time, baseball itself has little to do with the film. Sure, it’s present, and Gehrig’s then-unbreakable record of 2,130 consecutive games is prominently featured, but for the most part the film focuses on Gehrig as a human being, as a family-oriented individual who dedicates himself to being the best he can be both on and off the diamond. As a result of this general lack conflict, his untimely retirement as a result of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, of which he died at age 37 just one year before the film’s release, acts as the film’s dramatic fulcrum and dominates the third act.

Prior to the denouement, which climaxes with a reworking of Gehrig’s famous “Luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech of which no recording survives…

…the film is lighthearted and comedic, as most of Wood’s films tend to be. There are pratfalls, witty exchanges, and the inevitable pathos as Gehrig’s squeaky-clean persona gradually wins over even his most caricatured detractors.

Interestingly, the most intriguing character is not Lou Gehrig, Mrs. Gehrig, or even his immigrant parents–his mother is a standout, thanks to a wonderful performance by Elsa Janssen–but Babe Ruth, in no small part because it is played by the man himself. (Not the first time Ruth has appeared in a film! Useful for players of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon…) Ruth plays himself with humor and self-deprecation, joyfully contrasting himself as the media-driven superstar against Lou Gehrig’s simple and straightforward man of principle.

Of course, the film would not be complete if it weren’t tied into the War, and does so via the opening title crawl explaining that Gehrig’s courage in the face of his untimely death should serve as an inspiration to the many, many people suffering untimely deaths at that moment in Europe and the Pacific. It’s more than a little ham-fisted, but at least it gets it out of the way quickly and moves on to Gehrig himself.

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Next up was The Pied Piper, another film that I at first thought had vanished into the ether, but fortunately I was able to find a French-subtitled copy lurking in the depths of the Internet. Like Wake Island and 49th Parallel, it’s set in the midst of the early days of World War II; in this case, a quite proper Englishman (Monty Woolley) is on a fishing holiday in France at just the worst possible time, June 1940, and soon finds himself struggling through enemy territory trying to return to Britain. Along the way he begins accumulating children, and to the surprise of no one overcomes his curmudgeonly nature and becomes father/savior to them all.

As a film, it operates within the bounds of the three-act structure and portrays the English as stiff-upper-lipped, stoic survivors, not exactly uncommon prior to the war but absolutely essential for morale in 1942. It’s an enjoyable movie, but it’s odd that a film set during the German invasion of France, centering around the attempt to rescue a horde of children from the Nazis, should be described as “enjoyable.” There’s never any suspense, no sense of danger or that possibly they won’t escape, even when they are captured and imprisoned as spies.

This may have to do with the fact that the story is entirely fantasy, concocted as a moralistic fable. The resolution in particular plays out with sledgehammer subtlety: the Nazi commandant, convinced that Woolley and his merry band are on the level, suddenly allows them to escape on the condition that they also take to England the commandant’s young niece, who is Jewish. The message, of course, being that even high-ranking officers of the Nazi party were actually good people underneath it all, if you just knew how to access it. However, since it’s not even slightly based on a true story, it comes across as saccharine, easy, and a bit patronizing. I’m not saying that morality did not lurk underneath the surface of many German soldiers, even amongst the commanders, but the convenience of it in the service of the plot was not handled well.

However, the film is worth a watch for the last scene, which brings it full circle and perfectly encapsulates the image of the British standing firm with the words of Churchill always playing through their minds. Might not have been true of everyone, but it’s a stirring ideal nonetheless. I won’t spoil it for you, mainly because I can’t find it online.

Okay, three weeks is definitely too long between posts. I will endeavor to do better as I wrap up 1942 next time!

(Part II!)