15th Academy Awards (1942) – Part II

Man, that must have been a weird two months. I apologize for the hiatus but it was unavoidable.

First I suffered a traumatic experience that completely wiped out my memory…and I mean completely. I had no idea who I was, where I lived, or what bloggarial obligations I had. It was terrifying, but I gamely attempted to build a life from scratch, meeting (apparently) new people and discovering talents and aptitudes I didn’t know I had. It was coming along nicely until two months later, when I was hit by a car outside a magazine office downtown. This fortunately restored the memory of my life but, in an odd twist, completely eradicated that of the past two months, leaving me bewildered, unsettled, and wondering how I could possibly have gone so long without updating this blog.

As horrifying as this experience has been, what with its illustration of the fragility of reality and all, I did think it was quite cinematic as well. I, for one, had no idea that amnesia could be so linear and three-act friendly, and upon consideration I found it odd that Hollywood had never adapted the premise into a major motion picture.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I resumed my regular blog-related activities and discovered that they already did.

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Yes, it turns out my entire amnesiac episode was anticipated by Random Harvest, a wonderfully silly film starring Greer Garson and Ronald Colman. Although I’m disappointed at being scooped (and I have to remember to cancel that appointment with Scott Rudin on Monday), I have to say it came at a good time in my journey through 1942. After Part I, dealing with war, ALS, amputation, and watching an unsuspecting Englishman get caught in the horror of children, this film was a refreshing reminder of the kind of lovely absurdity Hollywood was capable of back in the day. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it…in fact I’d rank it fifth in a pretty strong year.

Colman plays a World War I soldier, freshly back from the trenches with no memory whatsoever, who is lucky enough to meet Greer Garson on the night of the armistice. She takes him in and they fall in love, only to have an auto accident erase his memory of their time together, but restore everything that happened before that. Turns out he’s a rich businessman, so Garson gets a job as his secretary to try and win him again, but she’s such a pro she facilitates his engagement to his pseudo-niece. What I’m trying to say is that screenwriters get all the best drugs.

It only gets more bizarre from there, as he breaks of his engagement and marries Garson instead, but only because he is going into politics and needs a wife for appearances. She goes along gamely, because nothing stops Greer Garson, and she continues to try and jog his memory without success. They’re married for fucking seven years, during which time they’re both quietly miserable. FINALLY, he ends up back in the town they lived in when they were together, and it all comes flooding back. They embrace, and, his mind finally whole again, live happily ever after.

…Until the boating accident.

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The Colman absurdity continued with The Talk of the Town, about an escaped convict (Cary Grant) who holes up in Jean Arthur’s very convenient cottage, which she has very conveniently just rented out to the most prominent judicial scholar in the country (Ronald Colman). Just why it’s called The Talk of the Town is never made clear, as the subject matter is literally never discussed in the town–except briefly by two people in private, hardly tabloid headlines–but after Random Harvest portrayed no harvests nor randomness, I overlooked it.

The film opens very expressionistically, with a mostly-silent montage of a factory burning down, a man’s arrest and trial, and his (rather trite) escape from prison after being sentenced to death. Of course we know this person is falsely accused and not the antagonist, because it’s Cary Goddamn Grant, but otherwise it’s a (mostly) credible film about the meaning of justice (though I didn’t recognize Jean Arthur at first since she wasn’t sass-talking Jimmy Stewart).

Colman is a respected but stodgy jurist who rents out Jean Arthur’s country cottage for some peace and quiet. Unfortunately for him but fortunately for screwball comedy, an escaped, wrongfully-accused arsonist arrives at the exact same moment, and together they must decide what is more important, justice or the judicial process.

This leads to some great banter and a genuinely compelling narrative atypical of the genre, so naturally the film goes off the rails hard in the third act. Suddenly our uptight scholar shaves his beard and becomes a lady’s man to seduce the truth out of the true culprit’s mistress, starts knocking out policemen, makes moves on Jean Arthur, and delivers a disappointedly flat speech about the need for the courts to uphold the rights of the common man.

I held off talking about Random Harvest because I think these two films should be discussed together, in the sense that they are both very, very ridiculous and contrived, and devolve into some of the silliest scenarios I have seen in this project so far (and that’s saying something), yet my reaction to each was very different. For all the keyboard-mashing I did while watching Random Harvest, I loved it. It was camp and bizarre from the get-go, from its opening scene in a hospital straight out of F.W. Murnau’s nightmares, and still managed some very strong moments. Garson and Colman deliver perfectly credible performances in a completely incredulous story, which grounds the film and makes the whole thing a very pleasurable, worthwhile experience.

Random Harvest worked because the whole premise was ridiculous. With The Talk of the Town, it was very disappointing after the first 80 minutes were so promising. As I said above, the subject matter and general tone of the film were unusual for a screwball comedy, even though it was very clearly of that genre, and I see no reason why they couldn’t have maintained it throughout the film. They could have had Ronald Colman do an Emile Zola and it would have been stirring and memorable, instead of cringeworthy.

Remember Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? It ended with the protagonist’s principles, with Smith bravely fighting to his last bit of strength for his convictions. That should have been the focus of this, not the silly romantic-comedy ending they went with. Focus on Colman’s character, and on Grant as bringing out his crusading side…the romance is unimportant and, perhaps more unforgivably, just unbelievably forced. In all it had the potential to be one of the best films of these actors’ careers and ended up being a paycheck for Ronald Colman while he waited for Random Harvest, and a come-down for Cary Grant after Suspicion.

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The train of Hollywood fluff continued with Yankee Doodle Dandy, a shamelessly exploitative film about song-and-dance extraordinaire George M. Cohan. Like six of this year’s nominees–including the winner, Mrs. Miniver–this film was commissioned and produced solely as wartime propaganda, a way to rally America to the cause through lovely dance and an inspiring story of fortitude and success. Consequently, there is absolutely no hint of conflict or dramatic tension for the entire 130-minute runtime, unless you count “Now he only has six shows running at once instead of eight” as high stakes drama. Basically Cohan starts with nothing and rises, rises, rises until he gets the opportunity to inflict his life story upon a clearly uncomfortable and bored FDR.

But, while it may be overlong and devoid of any narrative suspense, it’s an enjoyable film full of funny moments (such as when Cohan and Sam Harris con their way into their first Broadway production opportunity, a classic bit of banterism that unfortunately never happens in real life), and strong acting from James Cagney (who won Best Actor), Walter Huston as Cohan’s show-biz father Jerry, and Joan Leslie as Cohan’s ever-supportive wife Mary. No surprise at its being nominated for Best Picture…which I can’t say about the next film, though it was easily the best of the year despite its troubled history.

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I often think about what Orson Welles’ career and legacy might have been if The Magnificent Ambersons had been left alone by RKO, if they’d given him the freedom he enjoyed with Citizen Kane. Following the film and his unsuccessful fight for its preservation and original vision–which he considered superior to Kane–he never really made a masterpiece again (with the possible exception of Touch of Evil). Sure, he continued to be interesting and make interesting films, but he definitely got a bit odd towards the end and never came close to the mastery of Citizen Kane, a mastery still visible in the studio’s hatchet job on The Magnificent Ambersons. Maybe if Hollywood hadn’t decided to muzzle his creative genius, he would have died with a whole catalog of works that defined and changed cinema, instead of as a punchline for every conversation about frozen peas.

Ambersons tells the story of two families at the turn of the century, one on the ascent while the other’s glory fades. It is dark, brooding, and expressionistic–perhaps even more so than Citizen Kane–and features one of Joseph Cotten’s finest performances. The theme of “the old order changes” is also present in this year’s winner Mrs. Miniver, but Welles’ decision to focus on it from the other side, that of the defeated, captures it so much better; we’re not pleased to see the inevitable, even though we know it has to happen.

The studio got hold of the while Welles was in South America and had their way with it. Among their most egregious offenses were: cutting the middle out of what would probably have been the crowning tracking shot of Welles’ career and possibly of the entire decade; Isabel’s death scene is altered from Welles’ original intention to tone down the spiteful behavior of the characters; and the ending was completely reshot in his absence, with the dialogue mostly unchanged but its meaning completely reversed. And while it doesn’t ruin the film, the assertion by the producers that they improved it with their cuts is arrogant at best. Unfortunately, the cut footage was destroyed, so we will never get to see The Magnificent Ambersons in the way Orson Welles intended, as we have been lucky enough to in the case of Touch of Evil.

So for all the interference and the ridiculous new ending the studio foisted upon the film, The Magnificent Ambersons is still…pretty magnificent. But it’s the odd film out this year–no hint of propagandistic purpose is present, nothing to date the film as a deliberate attempt to use war to gain box office receipts. If I were feeling cynical, I would say the Academy only included it as a snub on Orson Welles, to vindicate the mishandling of what could have been his greatest achievement. It was nominated for a scant four awards and won none, and Welles never had a film up for Best Picture again.

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And finally the winner, Mrs. Miniver, Walter Pidgeon’s second consecutive appearance in a Best Picture and his reunion with Blossoms in the Dust star Greer Garson. In fact their relationship in the two films is very similar: she is the protagonist of the film, he her dutiful husband who provides her with love, loyalty, and plot points. At least in this one, he survives.

It’s a fine film, hitting all the right notes and balancing tragedy and comedy in the standard 1942 way, and Garson is as always amazing in it. However, it wouldn’t have won Best Picture if it were just a fine film, since one could say the same for just about all the nominees this year. No, it won Best Picture because it was designed specifically to win.

Mrs. Miniver was adapted from a series of newspaper articles written under a pen name in a British newspaper in the 1930s, which is just as ridiculous as it sounds. The columns began as lighthearted depictions of British suburban life in the interwar period, but once 1939 rolled around they became increasingly dark, turning into important propaganda pieces focusing on the stiff upper lip of the citizenry in the face of war. When the United States needed similar prodding in 1942, the film version of Mrs. Miniver was carefully tailored to its particular predilections and rushed to theaters on orders from Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The adaptation of the Mrs. Miniver columns had begun in 1941, before Pearl Harbor, and continued after the U.S. entered the war. Consequently, the first draft of the script was very careful not to be too anti-German; by the end, caution was thrown to the wind. Still, while it’s got some jingoistic moments and some of its scenes are rather forced, it’s closer to 49th Parallel than Yankee Doodle Dandy…even if the one scene depicting a German solider is wasted by presenting him as little more than an extra in a Riefenstahl film.

However, the primary purpose of the film was rather more subtle than simply rousing the U.S. to join Britain in fighting the Nazis–it was also out to change America’s attitude towards Great Britain. Nine years before, you may recall, the Academy Award for Best Picture was given to Cavalcade, a ridiculous film that nonetheless encapsulated everything America thought of Britain at the time–or at least, what Hollywood believed America thought of Britain. It was the story of an upper-class family, detached from the common folk, in fact contrasted with them in such a way that class barriers were depicted as eternal and even desirable. It was a contrast that people wanted to see in 1933.

But in 1942, things were very different. There was something called the Office of War Information, which sought to downplay these depictions of the British as entitled and classist. Mrs. Miniver, then, focused its attention on the crumbling of class barriers and the admirable camaraderie of the British populous in the face of the Blitz, the better that Americans could identify with their allies and fight for democracy together. The moral of the old ways fading into justified anachronism is one we’ve seen before–notably in La Grande Illusion, and The Magnificent Ambersons–and this iteration doesn’t bring anything new to it…except being set in contemporary times, so that its lessons could be more easily grasped.

As I said above, Roosevelt himself ordered the film rushed to theaters, and the Academy did its bit for the boys by giving it Best Picture, and giving William Wyler a long overdue award for Best Director for one of his weaker films (he was his generation’s Martin Scorsese). True, Garson and Teresa Wright both won for their performances, and that was correct–although I’d rather have seen Agnes Moorehead win for Ambersons–but still this was the second straight year in which something other than merit determined the Best Picture winner.

Fortunately, propaganda and cinematic art finally merged properly the following year, and before diving into it I anticipate saying the best film won for the first time since 1934. Still, I’m sure surprises await. We’ll get to that very soon!

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