The year got a whole lot better with Watch on the Rhine, one of only three this year that directly features World War II (compared to five in 1942). It’s a tense story of an anti-Nazi activist, Kurt Muller, who arrives incognito in the U.S. with his wife and children, only to be recognized and threatened with exposure by an amoral Czech informant–when his presence is urgently required in Europe he must resort to desperate measures to escape. There are plenty of parallels between this film and Casablanca, which preceded it by about nine months and which features the German patriotic song from which this film takes its title.
Although it’s a competently-made drama, the direction of the film is not outstanding…despite directing the stage play, Herman Shumlin had never directed a film before, and the results speak for themselves. However, he was lucky enough to have a good cast, and so he didn’t have a lot to do. Bette Davis is stellar in one of her few outings as a virtuous person, but Paul Lukas steals the show as Kurt Muller, perfectly embodying the quiet courage of a resistance leader (he was on the shortlist to play Victor Laszlo in Casablanca as well, though I’m happy with Paul Henreid). He deservedly won the Best Actor award for the film.
The backstory of the film’s denouement is perhaps the best example of the utter absurdity of the Hays Production Code. The Code mandated, amongst other ridiculous things, that crime can never be shown to “pay” and that perpetrators of said crimes must always receive some form of punishment, whether through the law or by dying themselves. Here, Kurt Muller kills the informant to avoid being exposed to the Nazis, allowing him to continue fighting against them in Europe; the Hays Office objected to this, as a murderer got off “scot free,” and recommended that, at the film’s end, it be made clear that Muller was subsequently killed by the Nazis to show that he “paid for his crime.”
Obviously the author of the original play objected, and the studio agreed that “murdered by Nazis” did not constitute “justice” and the Hays Office was told what it could do with its recommendation. It was an early defiance of the Code that presaged its ultimate demise, which unfortunately took another twenty years. Ah well…at least they may have saved the ending of Casablanca with their misplaced morality.
The Ox-Bow Incident is, at 75 minutes, one of the shortest films ever nominated for Best Picture and is, as of 2015, the last film to be nominated solely in that category. It’s not surprising to me that it only got the Best Picture nod–although it is, on the whole, a taut and well-crafted morality tale about the dangers of groupthink, I’d be hard pressed to single out any one aspect of this production that warrants special recognition (of course, I could say the same thing about Grand Hotel, which was similarly single-nominated and won way back in 1931/32).
Basically, Henry Fonda and Colonel Sherman Potter arrive in a small Old West town just as word comes in that a rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen–they join the posse to avoid suspicion, and soon the bloodthirsty townsfolk come upon three men who they immediately assume are guilty. The majority of the film takes place at the suspects’ camp, as the posse deliberates whether or not to lynch them on the spot. The end, which I won’t spoil because it really is worth a watch, is about as dark and cynical as was allowed in a non-noir film in the 1940s.
As I said above, it was nominated for Best Picture and nothing else, an oddity for the time and making The Ox-Bow Incident a sort of throwback to the primitive years of the Oscars, to the time when the Best Picture category was more distinct than it is today. When Grand Hotel won, Best Picture was considered a category almost unto itself, and accordingly the winner rarely coincided with the Best Director, and rarer did a Best Picture take home any acting awards. By 1943 this had changed–a Best Picture was now viewed as the sum of individual parts rather than some mystical “outstanding production.” The Ox-Bow Incident, then, solid as a whole but unremarkable in its parts, stood little chance in this new era.
Madame Curie is another Greer Garson-Walter Pidgeon vehicle, this time casting them as Poland’s best know (nuclear) power couple, the Curies. Together they turn the scientific world upside-down with their (really, her) discovery of radium, and since they are, as the above poster reminds us, Mr. and Mrs. Miniver in real life, they also fall madly in love. The film is a solid 1940s romance, and the real life story of Pierre and Marie Curie is expertly tailored to fit the personas of Pidgeon and Garson (though one wonders what the film might have been if they’d gone with the original script written by Aldous Huxley).
It’s a good film, definitely top half this year and worthy of Garson’s third consecutive nomination for Best Actress, but it’s not a particularly noteworthy one despite the poster’s unsubtle angling for another Best Picture Oscar. While I am, as you may have gathered already, a massive Garson fan, and Pidgeon is no slouch either, this film is essentially Blossoms in the Dust with radioactivity instead of orphans. And just like in that film, Walter Pidgeon is struck down in the third act, although to be fair his sudden demise works because it is how Pierre Curie actually died.
I will say, though, that the film is beautifully shot and choreographed, much of it recreating photographs of the Curies at work to lend it authenticity, and I enjoyed it very much for that. Also for its general adherence to reality, at least a far greater adherence than I’ve come to expect from biopics of any era.
I hadn’t seen Casablanca in a couple of years before watching it just now for this entry. Naturally I’ve seen it more than a few times, but one of the consequences of this project has been to give all these classic films a bit of context, and, having a more complete picture of Hollywood in 1942, and the assembly-line production of wartime flicks that had become the norm by then, of which Casablanca was only one of dozens, I wondered if upon this latest viewing I might not find it as perfect as I once did.
And after watching it, I have to say…I do. It is still, in my mind (and in the minds of most people), one of the greatest movies ever made–the acting, writing, cinematography, direction, pacing, and mise-en-scene are all impeccable. Like no other film except perhaps Citizen Kane it transcends its time and place, while remaining very much of its era, a pure propaganda film but with the talent, heart, and production values that films like In Which We Serve lacked.
Production began without a complete script, which was not wholly unusual for films at the time–Mrs. Miniver, you may remember, underwent many rewrites as developments in the European theater changed. In this case, the film wrapped production and was set for release in early 1943, but this changed when the Allies successfully invaded North Africa and recaptured Casablanca and other cities in November 1942. This prompted the studio to release the film that month, and we nearly got a hastily tacked-on epilogue regarding the recent successful invasion.
Obviously in hindsight this was a terrible idea that definitely would have harmed its broader appeal after Germany surrendered in 1945, but remember that Casablanca was viewed no differently than any other wartime movie, and there was no reason for the studio not to capitalize on the recent success in North Africa. After all, everybody was doing it…pretty much every war film at the time ended with a rousing narration or title card or something to really rally the forces (see Wake Island and In Which We Serve, for instance). Had Claude Rains been available, this is probably the ending we would have gotten, but fortunately he was busy and David O. Selznick thought it was a stupid idea, and so the film became a classic.
Just a quick note: On this viewing, I noticed for the first time that the film is set before the U.S. entered the war–just before, in fact…a receipt Rick signs towards the beginning of the film is dated December 2, 1941. This was probably done to keep audiences sympathizing with Rick even in the first half when he is amoral and thoroughly unpatriotic…such an attitude wouldn’t have been allowed of the protagonist had the film taken place after Pearl Harbor. But it was also the right move from a filmmaking perspective, I think, since Rick’s arc coincides with the narrative of the U.S. “awakening” to the wider conflict (as Sidney Greenstreet reminds him early in the film, “isolationism is no longer a practical policy”).
Like The Godfather, Casablanca won only three Academy Awards (Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay), and like Citizen Kane it took a while for its reputation to catch up with its brilliance, but at least I can say, for only the third time in this blog so far, that Best Picture was correctly awarded this year. And with that, the ten-nominee era is closed until 2009, which will hopefully help with the timeliness of future entries. Onward to 1944!
 Although at last year’s 87th Academy Awards, Selma nearly did it, being nominated only for Best Picture and Best Original Song, which it won. Had it won Best Picture, it would have been the first to win just two Oscars since The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952. Just thought I’d mention it.
 Casablanca was first shown in New York on November 26, 1942, but received its wide release in January 1943. Since it did not appear in Los Angeles until then, it was eligible for the 1943 Academy Awards.