Thursday, December 23, 2010

Top 3 -- Best Picture Oscar Winning Movies from the 1940s

With the exception of the movie that was always going to be ranked in first place, I found it very difficult to choose from what was a great decade of film. Here is my pick of the litter from the 1940s:

3rd place
1945 The Lost Weekend
Watching Don Bingham and the lives of his loved ones decimated by alcoholism is not exactly a fun filled experience. Alcoholism is a lonely and melancholy disease and this film about it is best watched when you are in a lonely and melancholy mood. It was far more brutal than I expected it to be, relentless in both its disturbing imagery and dialog. And with a truly outstanding performance from Ray Milland, this is a film that transcends time and may be as relevant to some today as it was to others over 60 years ago. 

2nd place
1940 Rebecca
What a fantastic film to start the decade of Best Picture Oscar Winners with! The fact remains that since seeing Rebecca I have felt somewhat obsessed or haunted by the film. It is no coincidence that obsession and the supernatural form two strong themes in Hitchcock’s masterpiece. There are some simple pleasures to be found in this psychological thriller/mystery: I enjoyed the fact that we never learned our heroines name throughout, I enjoyed how we never see the person who gives the film its name and yet she is very much a presence on screen, and I enjoyed how both Manderley house and its inhabitants intimidated me as much as they did our heroine. This is a film that has aged beautifully and I can imagine that the impressions I garnered are exactly the same as those taken away by film goers in the 1940’s. 

1st Place
1943 Casablanca
As fantastic as the other contenders were there is simply no beating what may be the greatest film ever made in my opinion. As a film Casablanca oozes as much confidence as Humphrey Bogart’s Rick does (that is before his cool demeanor is beaten upon by the return of his lost love). I spoke about The Lost Weekend transcending time and Rebecca aging beautifully but “as time goes by” I doubt there will be another film so ingrained in the fabric of our culture. How often have you found yourself quoting this film without realizing it? I know that I was doing so before I had ever seen the movie which is a fact that speaks for itself.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

All The King's Men (1949)

Director: Robert Rossen
Cast: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: Battleground, The Heiress, A Letter to Three Wives, Twelve O’Clock High

Is it possible to corrupt even the most honest and decent of people? All the King’s Men takes a hard stance on the subject showing us a very decent and loving family man attain a position of power and then proceed to delve into corruption. The fall from grace is so drastic that this man passes beyond being just corrupt and by the end trends towards becoming truly evil. This is a hero to villain story that blatantly warns us of how frail the condition of being a good person is. While the message may come across as overzealous at times, there is no doubt that the movie sets out to scare you into believing that we are all corruptible and that nobody can be trusted.

At the beginning of the film we meet a witness to these events, Jack Burden (John Ireland). Jack is a newspaper columnist assigned to travel to a small southern town and investigate the political rumblings caused by a then small time, uneducated politician by the name of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford). It seems that the corrupt officials of the town are making some questionable deals that focus on lining their own pockets rather than on the good of the people. When Jack asks his editor what is so special about Willie the editor replies in all seriousness that “they say he’s an honest man.”

Willie Stark’s first dalliance with politics occurs when he learns that the building of a local school has been done cheaply to profit those in charge and publically expresses his outrage. He is eventually arrested for his outspoken actions. Soon after the school tragically collapses, and as people look to point the finger of blame, Willie Stark finds himself promoted to a highly trusted member of the community and people begin to flock to him for help with problems. With the purest of intentions Willie puts himself through law school and opens up a firm to help take on these problems, and becomes a local champion against injustice and corruption.

In this early segment of the film great pains are given to show how good a person Willie is. We learn that he and his wife adopted their son from the neighboring farm when both of the boys’ parents passed away. In these early scenes we see a man with absolute adoration for his wife and son, a man completely content with his own family life while being equally focused on helping others reach the same level of contentment. In short Willie appears to be very much the “honest man” that he was described as.

However, born from the frustration that comes from losing his first political race we begin to see the seeds of the monster that Willie will become. Determined to win the next time he runs, Willie begins to loosen his moral sense. At first he makes statements like “the ends justify the means” as he begins to make the same bad deals that he fought so hard against. In his defense at this time there does appear to be a focus on the “ends” with aggressive plans for a new hospital and free health care for all and a focus on education for every child in the state. But as more and more lucrative deals are brokered and as roads, bridges, hospitals, and churches get built across the state, we begin to see the focus shift towards the gaining of wealth and power.  

It was interesting to watch Willie make no attempt to hide his increasingly immoral transgressions and begin preaching that “good cannot exist alone, that it can only be born from bad.” At this time we are dealing with a man who is habitually a part of bad dealings and whose sense of purpose has been lost. But like most villains who remain in power he has a way with words and a charming demeanor that allows him to delay any repercussions. 

In contrast to the earlier scene of familial bliss the Willie Stark we see in the latter half of the film lives away from his wife and son. He begins to have multiple affairs and the love that existed in those early scenes is utterly destroyed. When the family gathers for a portrait on the front porch of their rural home it is for purely political reasons and his wife’s earlier warm embraces are replaced by a cold and distant peck on the cheek. This demolition of the family is where we see just how much Willie Stark loses sight of himself as the movie progresses. Finally he reaches a state of pure corruption and his mantra changes to “man is conceived in sin and born in corruption”, a statement that both takes away any responsibility he has for his actions and frees him of any remorse.

We see this rise and fall of Willie Stark mostly through Jack Burden’s eyes, the reporter who was sent to investigate the honest politician. The admiration that Jack feels for Willie and for the work he is doing, coupled with the feeling that he himself is not accomplishing anything with his own life, causes Jack to gamble all of his worth, his career, his family and his friends on being associated with Willie. I use the word gamble because I get the sense that, out of a sort of desperation, Jack is betting it all on Willie coming good on his word. And when Willie begins to fall into corruption Jack cannot simply walk away nor can he even accept what is really happening, having invested so much. I struggled throughout the film to understand why Jack remained a supporter of Willie even when his methods turned extremely sinister. But it is quite clear that Jack is a man with little self worth and when a “sure bet” like Willie came along he jumped at the opportunity to be part of something important, and in the end he simply refuses to see when things turn horribly wrong.

I do find the aforementioned “man is conceived in sin and born in corruption” quote interesting for another reason. One of the big themes in this film is the idea that anyone can be corrupted no matter how pure they are. While Willie begins this story as nothing short of perfect, at the risk of sounding dramatic, his rallying speeches to the crowd or to “his militia” found at the end of the film remind me of footage of Adolf Hitler rallying his troops. Willie is full of pride, emotion and enthusiasm but his words hint at an aggression that will mow down innocent people before it and at a man that will do anything to get ahead.
Remember, it is not I who have won, but you. Your will is my strength, and your need is my justice, and I shall live in your right and your will. And if any man tries to stop me…  I'll break him. I'll break him with my bare hands, for I have the strength of many.
John Wayne was offered a role in this film and flatly turned it down, calling the film “unpatriotic”. I am assuming he was referring to the hostile representation of the political system shown in All the King’s Men. I was a little taken aback by how this film does nothing to dull the blows it takes at politics. The shocked remarks about there being such a thing as an honest politician scrape the surface of the political stance the film takes. It outright suggests that, not only is our society under a fragile sense of control, but that it inevitably breeds corruption. The movie gives no vision of the it being capable of producing anything but corruption and it was a little surprising to see such distaste in the American political system, especially at a time when America was emerging as the land of freedom.

Up Next: All About Eve

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948)

Director: Laurence Olivier
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, John Laurie
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: Johnny Belinda, The Red Shoes, The Snake Pit, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Milton Shulman said in his review of the 1948 adaption of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that to some it will be considered one of the greatest films ever made and to others it will disappoint deeply. After giving the film some thought I could understand how people could feel either way.

Before I get to my take on why it could be one of the greatest films ever made or why it could disappoint deeply, here is a brief summary of events: On the island of Elsinore we find the Danish prince Hamlet who is in a deep depression. His father had died only a few short months before and Hamlet is furious at his mother’s decision to remarry his uncle Claudius. The queen Gertrude and her new king seem content to forget Hamlet’s father and move on with their ruling of the state while poor Hamlet is clearly still in mourning and very upset. It is while in this frustrated and angry state of mind that Hamlet hears news of an apparition that is appearing nightly on the castle walls. Upon investigating he discovers the ghost of his father who reveals to him a shocking secret, one that demands swift action. The story centers on Hamlet’s response to this information and the disastrous events that play out. Since first appearing on stage the character of Hamlet has become the epitome of procrastination. This film is a study of the impact his inaction has on both his own mental state and on everyone around him.  

Why it could be one of the greatest films ever made…

For me there are two reasons why people would consider this adaption great. First, you have those who rightly recognize the performance from Laurence Olivier as Hamlet as being probably the best incarnation of the Danish prince to date. I have seen Mel Gibson and Kenneth Brannagh’s versions of Hamlet, but Olivier stands above time in terms of sheer passion. In the earlier parts of the film Olivier is brilliantly depressed as the suffering Hamlet and dispels for the audience any notion that this is simply a phase of sadness and grief, as Gertrude attempts to persuade him. Olivier shows us a deep anguish and the thoughts of suicide that are spoken are legitimately disturbing as a result of it. Olivier’s prince is not simply suffering with teenage melodrama but instead is deeply unsettled when he sighs “how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, seem to me all the uses of this world!”

That same deep anguish is partly responsible for leading young Hamlet to fake madness, or to put on an “antic disposition”. One of the aspects of the play that I always enjoyed was the blurring of the lines between Hamlets pretending to be mad and being overwhelmed by an actual insanity as disasters unfold. By the second time the ghost of his murdered father appears to Hamlet the nature of his apparent instability is brought into serious question. Other characters were able to witness the first appearance of the wretched spirit wandering the battlements but this second appearance is seen by Hamlet only while his equally emotionally disturbed mother sees nothing. Here Olivier shifts his performance and the morose Hamlet is replaced with a frantic and uncontrollable Hamlet. Without the powerful performance of depression up front this frenetic performance would fall flat but Olivier shows us a very believable man whose sanity is on the verge of collapsing. Of the adaptions I’ve seen this version best displays the interpretation that we are witnessing a very real descent into madness and as the King Claudius puts it “madness in great ones should not unwatched go.”

Another aspect of the movie I considered to be brilliantly performed and directed was the voiceover work for some of Hamlets famous speeches.  For these soliloquies in stage productions, the actor playing Hamlet would oftentimes physically separate himself from the other characters and speak directly to the audience. This separation, sometimes as simple as a step away from the main body of action, was a deliberate means to inform the audience that what they were hearing were Hamlets thoughts and not his spoken word. For this film version I thought the mixing of voiceover and spoken word was a great way to let us into the tortured mind of the prince while making us aware that the other players were not hearing these words. It is a risky approach that could have ended up feeling very kitschy but Olivier brings a professionalism that makes it work well. It can be seen most effectively in his famous soliloquy that begins “to be or not to be that is the question…”  

The second reason why this film deserves massive praise is the cinematography used to bring Elsinore to the screen. In the first act we meet the murdered ghost of King Hamlet, lost among the battlements of his castle. The ghost appears as a rotting corpse in armor and looks fantastic on screen. It seems to tower over the terrified guards while being perpetually lost in a thick and swirling fog. When it finally speaks to Hamlet and tells of how it met its end the effect is satisfyingly horrific. I always loved the sheer drama found in the line “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown” and thoroughly enjoyed how it manifested itself here.

The sets are stunning with the interior of the castle being an absolute maze where all rooms are connected by twisting stairways and multiple exits. It appears that no matter which exit you take from one room you will inevitably end up where the action is next unfolding and the camera takes liberties in exploring the different paths available to you as it moves from scene to scene. Throughout the play characters are required to hide behind curtains and listen around corners and this castle is an endless source of secret hiding places. The whole structure brings to mind M.C Escher’s Relativity pictured below and the labyrinthine nature of the castle begins to act more and more as a reflection of Hamlets suffering psyche as the movie progresses.

Why it could deeply disappoint…

I can present two reasons that were cause for film can been criticized. Both have the common theme of deviating from the sacred to some source material.

When performed in its entirety Hamlet runs at about 4.5 hours and yet Olivier’s adaption comes in at just over 2.5 hours. This is the first and greatest cause for concern for some people. The argument is simple… a lot of people feel that Olivier simply cut too much from the play. The omissions from the original material are considered unnecessary by many with lines of dialog cut, altered and even allocated to different characters. The latter decisions to have different characters speak lines were mostly made as a result of the original character being cut from this version altogether. Most notably absent from this version are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are hired by the king to investigate Hamlets apparent madness. Also missing is the prince Fortinbras and an entire political subplot that shows us more insight into the kings character. These two cuts alone account for most of the missing action but throughout the film dialog and scenes are consistently shortened. In the end these decisions were bound to upset the purists but I have to admit that even I am a little concerned about the simplification of the story.

The film opens with an excerpt from a speech that is repeated later but then adds a simple statement that is not from the original text (you may have guessed as much when I said it was a simple statement). Olivier appears to sum up the play as being “a tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”. Personally I think that if the film is to be considered offensive this is where the rankest offense lies and I would agree with the argument that the story is so much more layered than this simple summation. While I have always thought the movie is an extreme warning against procrastination I do think it is somewhat disrespectful to sum it up as being about just that. I can understand how even those who are not purists may be led to question the decisions to cut material after hearing this line at the beginning.

The second reason for criticism, and a reason why this film sits uncomfortably with some people, revolves around the relationship between mother and son, Gertrude and Hamlet. The theme of incest is repeated throughout the play but restricted mostly to Hamlets thoughts on his mother marrying his uncle. He speaks many times on the matter describing his uncle as “that incestuous, that adulterate beast” and describing Denmark as “a couch for luxury and damned incest.” Olivier however clearly interprets the relationship between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude as being incestuous in nature and that notion is played up in this adaptation with some intense physical encounters between the two. I can understand the argument for the interpretation being true but I can certainly understand people being upset, not so much at the interpretation itself, but at the inclusion of it in the film when its existence in the original play is one of those still hotly debated topics.   

Ultimately what you make of Laurence Olivier’s film all depends on what side of this argument you fall on…

You may feel that, with such a magnificent performance and a visually stunning experience, any deviations from or interpretations of the original material are justified. After all you could argue that the worst that can happen is that this film inspires people to investigate that original material. And you could further point out that there is no written rule that a movie adaptation need stick so closely to its source material, something that we have seen countless examples of since this films release.

"He would drown the stage with tears,
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty, and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze, indeed,
The very faculties of eyes and ears."
Hamlet Scene 2 Act 2

On the other hand you may consider the works of William Shakespeare to be as close to perfection as they are going to get and in no need of altering. I can respect and tolerate the purists out there when you are dealing with these works. It may also be of concern to you when films attempt to make such works with a preconceived notion of what the audience will be capable of understanding. The “dumbing down” of material in film is also something we have seen countless examples of since this films release..

"This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."
Hamlet Scene 1 Act 3

Up Next: All the Kings Men

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Gregory Peck, Dorothy Mcguire, John Garfield, Anne Revere, Celeste Holm
Genre: Drama, Romance
Other Nominees: The Bishop’s Wife, Crossfire, Great Expectations, Miracle on 34th Street

It is not surprising to learn that the three Best Picture Oscar winning films post WWII all dealt with socially conscious themes. We had already seen alcoholism dealt with in The Lost Weekend in 1945 and veteran rehabilitation the subject in The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946. Completing this “trilogy” the 1947 winner turned its attention to racial bigotry and anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement. With the details of the Holocaust and all its atrocities emerging, I imagine it was hard not to find the subject of bigotry prevalent everywhere in life. In fact Gentleman’s Agreement shared the theme of tackling anti-Semitism with another nominee for Best Picture in 1947, Crossfire. With the evil of Nazism gone from the world perhaps it was only right to look around and attempt to purge any similarities to the regime at home and it appears that anti-Semitism was very much present in American culture. While it goes without saying that it never reached the lunatic levels of Nazism the same seeds of hatred existed and I understand that they demanded exposure.

In Gentleman’s Agreement Gregory Peck plays Phillip Green who had recently moved his family, his son and his mother, to New York City. Upon meeting with the editor of the liberal magazine he writes for Phillip is tasked with exposing anti-Semitism in the city. Initially he struggles to come up with the “right angle” and feels that the facts and figures lack any real insight into how it must feel to be at the receiving end of any injustice he perceives. Then in a moment of clarity, Phillip decides to take on a Jewish persona to personally discover the actual attitudes of people in a town where very few people know him. From there the film proceeds to display example after example of an underlying bigotry and hatred that seems to be everywhere.

The examples come thick and fast. While experimenting with his new identity, Phillip finds that applications sent regarding open job positions are rejected when the name implies the person is Jewish, while the same application with a non-Jewish sounding name is accepted for an interview. He discovers that landlords similarly reject rental applications and strive to keep their buildings free of Jewish people. In one scene a doctor discourages seeing a Jewish specialist on the grounds that the patient will be cheated. He quickly makes excuses and leaves when Phillip discloses his “religion”. When Phillip attempts to make reservations at a swanky hotel his request is rejected as management strive to restrict customers to non-Jewish guests.

While these examples very successfully demonstrate the anti-Semitism in society, the more impactful demonstrations seen in the film are also the more subtle. There is enormous strain put on the blossoming relationship that Phil has with his editor’s daughter Kathy. While their relationship has few problems and they seem a perfect match for each other we see in Kathy an acceptance of the bigotry as being a part of life. When she first learns of the scheme she reacts poorly before attempting to save face:
Phil Green: I'm going to let everybody know I'm Jewish.
Kathy Lacey: Jewish? But you're not! Are you? Not that it would make any difference to me. But you said, "Let everybody know," as if you hadn't before and would now. So I just wondered. Not that it would make any difference to me… … Phil, you're annoyed.
Phil Green: No, I'm just thinking.
Kathy Lacey: Well, don't look serious about it. Surely you must know where I stand.
Phil Green: Oh, I do.
Kathy Lacey: You just caught me off-guard.
As the film progresses it becomes clearer to Phil that he had not simply caught Kathy off guard and that even bigger than the problem of outright discrimination was the subtle acceptance that “nice people” had for anti-Semitism. It is a lesson that Kathy learns before the films end but it also becomes the key theme of the film. Just as Phillip could not get his point of view across with pure facts and needed an emotional angle to tell the story the film too cannot get the problems of anti-Semitism across by simply giving examples and needed to explore the emotional impact the divide had on relationships. This demonstration of bigotry being accepted and of the impact it has on Phillip’s relationship with Kathy is where the true power of the film lies.
Phil Green: I've come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew! People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That's the biggest discovery I've made. The good people! The nice people!
A second relationship impact is shown between Phil and his young son Tommy. When Tommy learns that they are playing a game of pretending to be Jewish he begins to ask questions of breakfast one morning. I really enjoyed this simple scene where Phil struggles to explain bigotry and why it exists to an innocent child. It reminded me of the sad fact that one day I will have to explain similar things to my own child.
Tommy Green: What's anti-Semitism?
Phil Green: Well, uh, that's when some people don't like other people just because they're Jews.
Tommy Green: Why not? Are Jews bad?
Phil Green: Well, some are and some aren't, just like with everyone else.
Tommy Green: What are Jews, anyway?
Phil Green: Well, uh, it's like this. Remember last week when you asked me about that big church, and I told you there are all different kinds of churches? Well, the people who go to that particular church are called Catholics, and there are people who go to different churches and they're called Protestants, and there are people who go to different churches and they're called Jews, only they call their churches temples or synagogues.
Tommy Green: Why don't some people like them?
Phil Green: Well, I can't really explain it, Tommy.
Tommy plays along with the game of pretending but the pain that Phil feels when his child begins to be bullied is more powerful than any of the examples mentioned earlier. What at first is just a game to Tommy becomes much worse when the local kids begin to ostracize him. After being bullied one afternoon Tommy arrives home with tears in his eyes. A Jewish friend of Phillips tells him that now that his children have felt the sting of bigotry, he has a complete understanding of what it feels like to be Jewish. This friend goes on to describe comforting his own child who does not understand why he cannot play with other kids or why they are rejected from attending camp.

That moment where Tommy arrives home also becomes the pivotal moment between Phillip and Kathy. Upon seeing him upset Kathy embraces the crying Tommy and soothingly tells him that “it’s not true. You're no more Jewish than I am. It's just some horrible mistake.” This proves to be the final straw for Phillip who is enraged that rather than explaining to his son that the bullying of Jews is unjust and cruel, she chose to comfort him with the knowledge that he was above being Jewish. Not only does Phillip realize the jeopardy that he has placed his son in, and the injustice of that jeopardy, but this moment also solidifies that idea that good people are propagating anti-Semitism as much as any bully or bigot is. This indifference to injustice becomes the films key message.

As I watched Gentleman’s Agreement I could not help but think about Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, a character who shares a lot in common with Phillip Green. Both are fathers attempting to raise children who see beyond the labels placed on people by the color of their skin or by their religion. Both fathers are forced to explain bigotry to children whose innocence cannot comprehend the complicated reasons of why such hatred manifests itself between different people. Both fathers attempt to stand up against society and show their children that they can behave differently than those around them. In particular I thought about To Kill a Mockingbird and the continued struggle to treat all people equally when I listened to the words of Phillips mother as she looked to the future:
I suddenly want to live to be very old… Very. I want to be around to see what happens. The world is stirring in very strange ways. Maybe this is the century for it. Maybe that's why it's so troubled. Other centuries had their driving forces. What will ours have been when men look back? Maybe it won't be the American century after all... or the Russian century or the atomic century. Wouldn't it be wonderful... if it turned out to be everybody's century... when people all over the world - free people - found a way to live together? I'd like to be around to see some of that... even the beginning. I may stick around for quite a while.
It has been over 50 years since Mrs. Green first said those words to her son and although we have not reached the utopian vision she had of all people finding a way to live together I’d like to think that we are still moving in the right direction. That however is a debate for another day.

Up Next: Hamlet

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

Director: William Wyler
Cast: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Harold Russell
Genre: Drama, Romance
Other Nominees: Henry V, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Razor’s Edge, The Yearling

The Best Years of our Lives deals with three World War II veterans who return to America to begin the road to rehabilitation, Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Fred Darry (Dana Andrews), and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). All three soldiers bare either physical or emotional scars from their wartime experience and struggle to adjust to normal life. We see psychological problems manifest themselves in all three, most notably in the night terrors that Fred suffers through and in Al’s struggle with alcoholism. And we see the physical devastation war can leave behind in young Homer Parrish who is missing both hands below the elbows. While all three suffer different agonies they each have women in their lives who attempt to help them through it. The Best Years of Our Lives is a film that tests the love that these women have for their men to see if it can survive the difficulties that the veterans struggle with.

There are three very different love stories in this film and each displays a different test for love to endure. First there is the love between the now disabled Homer and his high school sweetheart Wilma. Homer is a Navy officer who lost both his hands in battle and is played by Harold Russell, an actual war veteran afflicted with said disability. Despite having little acting experience Harold excels in his role, perhaps because the pain and confusion he portrays is less pretend for him than it would have been for other actors. Incidentally, Harold won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role and was commemorated during the ceremony for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”.

When we first meet Homer Parrish it appears that he has accepted his disability and even overcome it. Rather than suffering with what would have been an understandable depression he is jovial and lively while he speaks with his fellow veterans. But when his disability meets his old life, his family and his girlfriend, it surfaces as a painful problem and it is in the awkward embrace of his girlfriend that we first glimpse his suffering.

Fred Derry: You gotta hand it to the Navy; they sure trained that kid how to use those hooks.
Al Stephenson: They couldn't train him to put his arms around his girl, or to stroke her hair.

We learn that Homer is simply unable to accept the notion that Wilma can see beyond his missing hands. He does not want her to settle for him, for something less than she deserves. As he puts it: I want you to be free, Wilma, to live your own life. I don't want you tied down forever just because you've got a kind heart.” The love that Wilma has for Homer is tested to see if it can be blind to Homer’s physical disability.   

The second love story is between the older soldier Al and his wife of a few decades. When Al returns home he bears no physical disabilities and is even welcomed back at work with a promotion. But he has returned to find his children have grown into young adults and finds a wife who is distant and unfamiliar to him. Overwhelmed by his old life suddenly returning to him and by his inability to relate to his family Al turns to alcohol to help him through it.

Mrs. Stephenson has a great line in which she explains to her daughter that love is not always easy and alludes to the fact that she and her husband need to rebuild their relationship. This comes after the daughter exclaims that they have "never had any trouble." Speaking to her husband she says:

How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me; that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?

The love between Al and his wife is tested as they struggle to reconnect. Both have to be patient enough, kind enough and understanding enough in order for that to happen.

The third love story is a story of new love that has to overcome an enormous social taboo. Fred returns home but is unable to find his wife. It turns out she has taken up work at a nightclub and, using the money Fred has been sending back home, she has been living the life of a socialite. There is clearly little love between the two and the bitterness that lives in their marriage becomes all the more apparent when Fred is unable to find work and his wife has to face the prospect of a great lifestyle change.

Fred Derry: Thirty-two fifty. I used to make over four hundred dollars a month in the Air Force.
Mr. Thorpe: The war is over, Derry.

When this film was screened to audiences it is said that there were many audible gasps when Marie Darry uttered the word “divorce” to her husband. At the time divorce was severely frowned upon and considered to be socially unacceptable. By today’s standards the big moment has less of an impact and comes across as melodramatic but I think it is important to understand how unheard of this word was in film. Personally, considering that Fred suffered great psychological distress I found the disregard for his experience more shocking than the mention of the D word!

Marie Darry: I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done? You flopped! Couldn't even hold that job at the drugstore. So I'm going back to work for myself and that means I'm gonna live for myself too. And in case you don't understand English, I'm gonna get a divorce.

The final test for love does not exist within this marriage but outside it. As he and his wife separate Fred meets Al’s daughter and they begin a romance together. But it is a timid and frightened affair that may not survive in the society it finds itself in. Of the three love stories this is perhaps the one most at risk of survival simply because of its environment. The ultimate test for both lovers is to see if their love is worth the sacrifice of being labeled a social outcast.  

The Best Years of Our Lives challenges love to conquer these tests. The test for love to be blind to physical or monetary problems, the test for love to be patient and understanding, the test for love to defy social conventions when necessary, and the test for love to endure ridicule. The men face enormous problems when they return to a life that no longer makes sense to any of them. In all three examples it is love that helps the men through their problems and in the end perhaps the movie argues that it's only love that could help them through it.

Up Next: Gentleman’s Agreement

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Howard Da Silva, Frank Faylen
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: Anchors Aweigh, The Bells of St. Mary's, Mildred Pierce, Spellbound

In the previous year director Billy Wilder directed the classic Double Indemnity, a film that was nominated for seven Oscar categories but failed to win a single one. It has been suggested that the success of The Lost Weekend owes a little something to its director’s snubbing by the Academy a year earlier. However, after viewing it and based on the heavy impact it had on me, I strongly feel that The Lost Weekend is a movie that, even today, stands on its own merits and deserved all the accolades it received.

Alcoholism is the subject matter dealt with in The Lost Weekend, a subject matter that is as important and prevalent today as it was in the 1940’s. The victim in this film is Don Bingham who is brilliantly portrayed by Ray Milland. Don refers to himself as being two people, Don the writer and Don the drunk. In one scene he explains to his girlfriend how these two Dons interact, and of how the writer’s lack of self esteem leaves him vulnerable to the drunk. Whenever he attempts to write, a panic seeps in and the drunk whispers in his ear, telling him that one drink will help. But as Nat, the local bartender explains “One’s too many and a hundred’s not enough!” In this way Don has never finished anything he has started writing and his self loathing keeps him stuck in a dangerous routine. “Don’t wipe it away, Nat. Let me have my vicious little cycle” he tells Nat who attempts to wipe away the condensation mark left behind by his last drink.

But as with all alcoholics no matter how disturbing their suffering is, it is the people who love them who suffer the most. In this movie we see two people suffer through Dons disease. Don has been living with his brother Wick free of charge for years and there is his girlfriend Helen St. James, who tells him “I know you’re trying Don. We’re both trying. You’re trying not to drink and I’m trying not to love you.” Both are just as much a victim as Don is. But while Helen, played by Jane Wyman, appears to be endlessly compassionate and forgiving, Wick Bingham has had enough of his brother and is seemingly beyond the point of being compassionate. When faced with the possibility that Don may harm himself over the upcoming weekend he lashes out and says:
If it happens, it happens and I hope it does. I've had six years of this. I've had my bellyful ... How often have you cried? How often have I beaten him up? Scrape him out of a gutter and pump some kind of self-respect into him and back he falls, back in every time.
The score to this film sounds as if it’s straight out of a classic sci-fi film. It is unrelenting and while it may turn some viewers off I thought it did a great job at helping to depict alcohol as a very real onscreen monster. In sci-fi/horror films the appearance of a villain is marked by a dramatic change in music, so too here is a glass or bottle of rye whiskey identified. In The Lost Weekend you are acutely aware when the villain appears to torment and destroy Don, as acutely as if an inhuman creature had just shambled onscreen and started towards him. The music confirms for us that for Don Bingham alcohol is a brutal enemy, a nemesis capable of destroying him completely.

As the weekend in question progresses and Don’s condition deteriorates some truly horrific scenes occur. After awaking to find him in an alcoholic’s ward of a hospital Don is warned of the effects of delirium tremens, or the DTs, a condition which the nurse predicts is imminent for Don given his blood alcohol levels. Don proceeds to escape the ward and return home where horrific hallucinations begin and culminate in the gruesome image of a bat biting the head off a mouse. This scene sees Don at his lowest point in the weekend, when his very sanity is threatened by his drinking.

My only argument against the greatness of this film comes with the ending. Until the final scene this film had been utterly uncompromising and as such had a profound effect on me. The notion of Don committing suicide had been foreshadowed throughout the film and, as disturbing as it is for me to say this, perhaps this film would have better sent the message it intended to send had it had a more negative ending. I will leave it for you to judge the final scene but for me, after being beaten mercilessly until then, I felt like the film pulled a punch.

Up Next: The Best Years of our Lives. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Going My Way (1944)

Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Gene Lockhart, Frank McHugh
Genre: Musical/Drama
Other Nominees: Double Indemnity, Gaslight, Since You Went Away, Wilson
“Would you like to swing on a star
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather be a mule…”
There are some songs that will last forever. While I am hazy on the lyrics to Swinging on a Star the song is immediately recognizable from my own past. I’m sure it was on one of the many compilation records I had as a kid, right next to High Hopes and Puff the Magic Dragon. I still remember the kid friendly, and by that I mean utterly indestructible, record player that I used to play these records on. So imagine my surprise when, while I sat through Going My Way, Bing Crosby’s singing priest and his youth choir perform this song that comes right out of my childhood.

The singing priest in question, Father Chuck O’Malley, is not your typical priest. He’s the problem solver of the New York City Catholic Church, a cunning thinker with a heart of gold. Even at his young age he has displayed a knack for turning “problem churches” into successful outfits and in Going My Way the young priest is assigned as a curate to an aging Irish priest at Saint Dominic’s, an inner city New York church that’s at risk of being closed down.

Barry Fitzgerald is excellent as the elderly priest, an aging Irish immigrant who build the church from the ground up, and whose pride is perhaps blinding him from the problems that grow around him. The mortgage payments are overdue and building up, church attendance is low, while the local youth appear to already be well practiced criminals. Enter Bing Crosby to set things right.

The inspirational thing about Father Chuck O’Malley is how he goes about setting things right. Throughout his efforts he displays an unceasing kindness to others. Chuck is excellent at manipulating people but it is always done with the best of intentions towards those being manipulated. His cunning only result in people doing what is best for them and never in him profiting. When confronted with a person of malicious intent he reacts with kindness. In one early scene he deals with an irate and self proclaimed atheist by lending him his rosary beads to cover an expense owed. Throughout the movie he displays only humility in his accomplishments and a constant desire to make others happy. In short, he makes for the perfect priest, one that is made all the more perfect as Bing Crosby adds his good natured smirk along with some great songs.

While Going My Way is classified as a musical I was surprised at how little music was involved. It is more a comedy/drama punctuated here and there with songs. In total there are only three original songs here: “Going My Way”, “The Day After Tomorrow”, and the aforementioned “Swinging on a Star”. Add to that a short scene from the opera Carmen, a spattering of catholic hymns, and the repeated singing/humming of an Irish lullaby, and you will find that music takes a backseat in this “musical”. It is the characters that take center stage in this film and in my opinion Father O’Malley may be one of the better examples of a human being portrayed on screen.

Up Next: The Lost Weekend

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Casablanca (1943)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lore, Conrad Veidt
Genre: Romance/Drama
Other Nominees: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, In Which We Serve, Madame Curie, The More the Merrier, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette, Watch on the Rhine

And so chronologically we come to the first Best Picture Oscar Winning film that I had seen before taking on this challenge to watch the entire list. This movie had an honored spot in my DVD collection beforehand and in a way my love for the film has made it more of a challenge to write a synopsis. After all I am arguably writing about the most popular Best Picture Winner of all time. I can say that, although I know that this thought is premature, I personally am not sure I will find another movie on the list that betters Casablanca.

As the name suggests Casablanca is set in the desert city of Morocco after the Germans had occupied France during World War II. The city was bustling at the time, filled with refugees of all status who were attempting to flee Europe and their Nazi oppressors. These refugees all had one destination in mind: America. As the opening narration explains most of them were on a roundabout journey to get there. This journey took them from the port city of Marseilles, France across the Mediterranean by boat to Oran, Algiers. And from there they trekked to Casablanca, Morocco hoping to continue on to Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon was a rare European city from which ships still sailed the Atlantic to America.

But as we learn most refugees never reach Lisbon and find themselves permanently stalled in Casablana. For corrupt officials controlled the necessary exit visas required to leave and these were only exchanged for large amounts of money or even for sexual favors. Crooked gambling houses sprang up and preyed on the hopeless. In an early scene a pickpocket whispers a warning to his victim telling him to be careful, that“this place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere”!

Whether you agree with the accolades bestowed on Casablanca or not you cannot argue with its “quotability”. I have listed here the better known quotes but in my view you could take the script and have a successful social life recycling almost all of it. While some have argued that the writing comes across as corny I feel that this may be the one film that can get away with such cliched speech, which is a credit to the actors involved.
“Play it once, Sam. For old times sake..”
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
“Round up the usual suspects.”
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
“We’ll always have Paris”
“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
While the above quotes reflect the drama and romance found in the film it is the comedy that makes this film easy to watch. Particularly funny are the conversations between Humphrey Bogart’s character and Louis Renault, the captain of the local police played with guile by Claude Rains.
Louis: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Louis: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert!
Rick: I was misinformed.
Major Strasser: What’s your nationality?
Rick: I’m a drunkard.
Louis: That makes Rick a citizen of the world.
In another great moment the prefect of police is asked to find a reason to close Ricks and he announces that he is shocked to find that gambling is going on there. Right as he says this a cashier is bringing him his winnings from his nights gambling which he stuffs into his pocket. This wit and humor hardly ever lets up and helps tremendously with the films pace.

In Casablanca, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is a cold hearted debonair whose staunch neutrality to both the war effort and to people around him is shattered when his past comes back to haunt him. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is his past and a woman torn between love and commitment, between what she wants and what is right. Ingrid Bergman may also be one of the most beautiful women ever captured on screen. In this film she is no less than stunning. Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is a revolutionary, escaped from a German concentration camp and propagating resistance to the Nazi Party wherever he goes while Captain Renault is the corrupt local official profiting from the refugees plight as they flee across the globe. I should also mention Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), the kingpin of all local criminal activities, and Rick’s main rival. It is a combination of these five characters that give the comedy, the drama, and the romance real life in this film. But while all of these characters are essential to the success of Casablanca there can be no doubt that the story rests heavily on the shoulders of the two reunited lovers, Rick and Ilsa.

The first we see of Rick is his confident signature of authority on paperwork, an ode to his “all business” demeanor. As the camera pans wide we see the owner and proprietor of Ricks Americain Café, smoking and drinking scotch by himself. He is isolated from those around him but has a magnetic swagger of coolness about him. Early on we see him reject a woman and cruelly eject her from his bar, a woman who was clearly in love with him and perhaps was led on by him. He is indifferent to her or to anyone’s feelings and his life is full with profit and loneliness. Rick is a man who “never drinks with customers” and who “sticks his neck out for no man”, two quotes that sufficiently sum him up as the film begins.

Despite his isolationism or perhaps because of it, Rick still manages to be the most sought after social companion in Casablanca and when a local thief comes into possession of “letters of transit”, letters which would allow the bearer to travel freely and unquestioned across German territory, he entrusts them to Rick before being captured and killed. As if Rick was not powerful enough to begin with he is now granted the ultimate position of power in the community, the ability to grant escape from the Nazis to anyone he wishes.

But here and there we get small hints that suggest to us that Rick was not always this greedy and self-involved. For one, he refuses to allow German bankers to gamble in his casino no matter how high they rank in society, while we also see his refusal to take German money when he tears up a check left by a German soldier. If he is not outspoken about his political beliefs it is clear that he hides some conviction on the matter. We also hear rumors that he ran guns to the resistance in Ethiopia and fought the fascists in Spain. So like the refugees that run from Europe Rick too is running from something and soon after obtaining the letters his past walks into his bar to meet him.

Victor Laszlo, a famous Czech resistance leader who had escaped a Nazi concentration camp and further evades Nazi forces across Europe, had arrived in Casablanca and seeks passage to America so that he can continue his important political work. On his arm is Ilsa and it is Ingrid Bergman’s character that comes right out of Ricks past. The impact she has sees his cool façade crumble into anger and sees him show weakness, but ultimately her arrival provides for Rick the chance for redemption.

Sacrifice is a huge theme of this film and Rick and Isla are asked to sacrifice much for the greater cause. The film has been described as an allegory to the United States own personal journey and this sacrifice, along with the changes we see in Rick, mirror the journey that the United States had just gone on. For the country had changed from the cynical and isolationist mind frame that followed the first World War to the renewal of patriotism and commitment to a greater good experienced during World War II. You may find it interesting to know that this film premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York City on the same date that the Allied invasion of North Africa began and the city of Casablanca was captured. This was November 26th, 1942.*

I will leave you with a description of a great scene from Casablanca. While it is not the famous final scene, the one that is littered with many of the quotes I have mentioned above, it is absolutely my favorite.

The German soldiers are gathered around a piano in one corner of the bar and as the beer flows they begin to sing nationalist songs. Their voices are loud and prideful and practically beat on the rest of the bar. The people are sullen and withdrawn as they listen to the Nazi songs. They are beaten. Rick, hearing German songs being played in his bar, steps out onto the balcony but does nothing to stop the singing. He simply watches as Victor Laszlo strides to the house band and asks them to play “La Merseillaise”, the French national anthem. Rick nods his approval. At first Laszlo sings alone and is barely heard above the Germans but within seconds the patrons are stirred from their stupor and with their own patriotism rekindled they drown out the Germans with a rousing chorus. The German soldiers retreat sulkily to their beers.

The excitement in this scene is infectious and as impactful as any battle scene could be. It is both uplifting and inspiring, and summarizes what this film is about. For while the love between Rick and Isla takes center stage there is a cause far more important all around them and this cause has the potential to drown out any tears that result from whatever sacrifice is asked of them, and from whatever sacrifice they choose to make.

Up Next: Going My Way

* It officially released on January 23rd, 1943.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Director: William Wyler
Cast: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Travers, Teresa Wright, Richard Ney
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: The Invaders, Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Pied Piper, The Pride of the Yankees, Random Harvest, The Talk of the Town, Wake Island, Yankee Doodle Dandy

In my commentary on the 1941 Oscar winning movie, How Green Was My Valley, I suggested that there may have been present in that film an underlying theme of the deconstruction of the family unit. I suggested that the film may have reflected fears that lived in Americans minds as they struggled with whether or not to get involved in the war in Europe, and with whether or not to risk the lives of their sons in battle. It is amazing how much had changed in a single year as there is absolutely no subtlety surrounding the themes of Mrs. Miniver. This is a film whose clear purpose was to foster an emotional bond between the middle classes of America and the suffering middle class of England. The director, William Wyler, commented quite candidly on the matter when he said:

"I was a warmonger. I was concerned about Americans being isolationists. Mrs. Miniver was obviously a propaganda film."

Mrs. Miniver follows a middle class family who live an absolute idyllic life before the bombs start falling and tear it apart. At the beginning of the film there is a very entertaining interaction between husband and wife as both anxiously fret over their overspending that day. This scene really was a joy to watch as both try to manipulate the conversation and their spouse into unknowingly justifying their purchase. The genius here is that this scene is completely recognizable as an ordinary middle class problem and I imagine many American viewers had no difficulty relating their lives to the lives of the Minivers.

I have to stress that I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction between Mrs. Miniver and her husband, played by Walter Pidgeon. There existed a genuine spark of romance and fun between the two and a real sense of joy emanated from watching them together. This film would not have been so impactful, and any suffering or sadness would not have been as hard hitting, had both Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon not had such great chemistry on screen.

In steep contrast to the everyday stresses we witness early on, towards the end of the film both husband and wife experience anxiety of a very different nature. As London is Blitzed they spend night after night in a cramped bomb shelter listening to the destruction rain down outside. The films main character, Mrs. Miniver, shows immense hidden strength as she is forced to watch both her eldest son and husband take part in the war effort. Meanwhile her two young children struggle to come to terms with that is happening around them. Much like the rose that features prominently in the plot, Mrs. Miniver stands tall and proud throughout the extreme pressure she is placed under. Having set the stage for audiences to relate to the happy couple the film shifts focus to showing the bravery of the characters involved. Interestingly though, the focus on bravery centers not on the heroes of war. In fact, we see not a single battle scene in this film. Instead focus is placed on the mother of a family who is given the staggering task of keeping a semblance of normalcy as life is thrown into chaos around her.

Winston Churchill suggested that Mrs. Miniver was "more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions." As I stated the motive of the film is crystal clear. This was a piece made to incite patriotism in the American people but more importantly it was to help the American people understand that this fight was not just England's fight, that the battle was for civilization itself! Nowhere is that message more clearly heard than in the village vicar’s sermon towards the end of the movie (note that I have removed certain statements for risk that they spoil plot developments):

“We, in this quiet corner of England, have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us

Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people… Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?

I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is a war of the people, of all the people, and it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home, and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom! Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves and those who come after us from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down.

This is the people's war! It is our war! We are the fighters! Fight it then! Fight it with all that is in us, and may God defend the right.”

I cannot help but wonder how it must have felt as an American audience member to suddenly realize that the vicar was not talking just to his parish. That he was in fact speaking out to all Americans, urging them to rise up and come to Britain’s aid. One of the reasons I was interested in seeing all these Oscar winning films was to look at how they were influenced by history and to ponder if they played a part in changing that history. While it would be ludicrous to suggest that all these movies changed the world I truly believe that they represent the times that people lived in, and like all art, had the power to change their audiences perspective.

Next Up: Casablanca

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Director: John Ford
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Roddy McDowall
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: Blossoms in the Dust, Citizen Kane, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the Dawn, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, One Foot in Heaven, Suspicion

At the time that I write this review the world has been suffering from an economic recession and it is fair to say that times have gotten harder for a lot of folk. So I found it fitting that this film deals with financially hard times and the impact those times can have on a family. The family in question is the Morgan family, whose entire life is built around a Welsh rural village and its coalmine. The father and his five sons all work in the coalmine along with all the men of the Welsh village, while the mother runs the household with the aid of her daughter. The youngest son Hew narrates the story and it is his memories of family life that we are seeing.

In the opening scenes we see a well functioning family unit. When the men return from work they pool their wages, the household expenses are taken care of, and the remainder divided for money was “made to be spent”. After the eldest son marries the celebrations are joyous, carefree and long.

But with differences in attitudes towards the coalmine management decisions and on the need to strike, and with lay-offs and wage cuts bruising morale, the family is splintered into groups. I could not help but think of the many families affected by similar financial woes over the past few years, perhaps not to the same extent but the causes of stress are the same. One by one the Morgan sons leave the valley as their futures there become unclear. Young Hew is forced to see his brothers scattered across the globe in search of work and to watch his parent’s life become more and more lonely and unpleasant. The carefree family life we see at the beginning suffers and dies little by little as the movie goes on and as you can imagine it makes for a dreary viewing.

As we witness the disintegration of this tight knit Welsh family we continually see a direct correlation being made by Hew between the natural health of the valley and the emotional health of his family. We also continually are made aware of the strong connection between the sense of community in the village and the land that the village occupies. It is clear that in this rural Welsh village all life is tied directly to the land and as the land suffers at the hands of industrial revolution both the community and Hew’s family suffer also.

I can close my eyes on my valley as it is today, and it is gone, and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the Earth…. In those days, the black slag, the waste of the coal pits, had only begun to cover the sides of our hill. Not yet enough to mar the countryside, nor blacken the beauty of our village, for the colliery had only begun to poke its skinny black fingers through the green.

For all these reasons this movie is a sad and morose film to watch. In the beginning seeing the men singing together each morning as they marched to work was uplifting. But as the more experienced miners are let go in place of outsiders the same dysfunctional symptoms within the Morgan family household are seen within the village. People turn on each other and even attempt to publically shame and judge each other. Any sense of togetherness is lost and the community itself dies.

The film culminates in a mining accident and an opportunity for the community to collectively act. I mention it because again it felt relevant to the news today. I could not help but think of the recent accident in West Virginia that killed 29 miners and of the fact that the mining profession continues to be dangerous to this day. This film is set at the turn of the century and yet over a hundred years later the families of 29 coal miners were made suffer a similar tragedy that we see the characters suffer on screen.(

On a final note this movie beat out what is regarding by some to be the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane. I was intrigued by this decision. I understand that Citizen Kane was not well received when it was first released and that it grew in stature over time. While researching this film I did come across a theory posted on Remember that the second World War was well underway at this time (in fact John Ford wanted to film the movie in Wales but the situation in Europe prevented him from doing so) and the poster of this theory suggests that perhaps the audience could relate to the theme of the dissolving of the family unit. At the time the neutrality argument being made suggested that if America were to get involved in the war thousands of young men would die and thousands of family units would be destroyed. Is it possible that this fear was captured in How Green Was My Valley and that it resonated with the fearful public? (

Next Up: Mrs. Miniver

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rebecca (1940)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson
Genre: Drama, Romance, Thriller, Mystery
Other Nominees: All This and Heaven Too, Foreign Correspondent, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Kitty Foyle, The Letter, The Long Voyage Home, Our Town, The Philadelphia Story

“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again. I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me..”

What a great opening to a film! I defy anyone to watch this opening scene and not be hooked. The narrator who speaks these lines is the second Mrs. de Winter, lady of this house, and as she tells us of her dream we see it with out own eyes on screen. The camera takes us through the iron gate and down a twisting driveway overgrown with brush and weeds. The fog thickens for some time increasing the eeriness and when it clears standing before us are the ghostly ruins of Manderley, a great estate house in Southern England. In her dream the moon plays tricks on Mrs. de Winter and various rooms appear to be lit up and inhabited. But then the moon passes behind a cloud and the house returns to its dead, lifeless state.

There is a strong element of the supernatural that plays throughout this film and it is born in this opening scene. The vision of the decayed house at the beginning fills us with a sense of foreboding. Rebecca is a film that cannot easily be classified as any one genre. It is at its heart a romance, and yet prominently a psychological thriller, and even at times an outright horror film, and with a dash of mystery thrown in for good measure. Starting right from this opening scene there is a very real undercurrent of dread that runs throughout and I spent the movie anxiously waiting for the big reveal, for the twist or the shock to come. I was not disappointed.

So who is Rebecca? What is fascinating about this film is that we never meet it’s namesake in person or otherwise. The original lady of the house never makes her appearance on screen, nor do we meet her in anyone’s dreams or memories. There are also no photos or portraits of her to be found hanging on the walls of Maderley. And yet despite this there is no question that Rebecca de Winter is the main character of this film. She is a ghost in the lives of the characters who remain at the house and she haunts them in a very real sense. It is an amazing experience to watch a film whose main character is off screen and whose influence is felt in every scene you watch and in every characters’ actions and words.

The first act of the film takes place in Monte Carlo, Southern France. An obnoxious wealthy lady is staying at a plush hotel with her mild mannered handmaid, brilliantly played by Joan Fontaine, when she spots the dashing Maxim de Winter, played by the equally excellent Laurence Olivier. Through conversations that ensue we learn that Maxim is a widower and that his late wife, Rebecca de Winter, died when her boat capsized near her home. Early on we are made aware of two things. One, that Rebecca was loved by everyone and regarded by most as the perfect wife and lady. Two, we are made aware of the brooding nature of Maxim and continually reminded of his outbursts and proneness to anger. Indeed Maxim is not the most debonair of men and his meeting of, courtship of, and proposal to the handmaid is as unnatural and strange as his behavior.

Maxim de Winter: I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool.

As I watched the credits roll I was shocked with the realization that we never learn the name of our heroine. She goes from being a timid and unimportant handmaid to being the Second Mrs. De Winter and despite all of her time spent on screen we never learn her name. I loved this about the film and it is right up Hitchcock’s alley! The fact is that the former Rebecca de Winters’ name is very prominent throughout the movie, everyone talks about her constantly, and her initials are embroidered or emblazoned everywhere. Indeed the final shot of the film is a close-up of her embroidered initials on a pillowcase. Our heroine is not only considered a poor substitute for the late, great Rebecca in appearance and character, but she is apparently not important enough to warrant being named and instead must bare the symbolically derogatory title of the Second Mrs. De Winter.

When the Second Mrs. De Winter arrives with her husband at Manderley she finds a staff whose loyalty to Rebecca is cemented in their actions. They are not very welcoming of their new mistress to say the least. The running of the house is ordered by a Mrs. Danvers, chillingly portrayed by Judith Anderson. Mrs. Danvers is the extreme example of someone who is devoted to Rebecca and who cannot accept the new Mrs. de Winters. In a way as she orders the running of the house she keeps her former employer very much alive, as things are always done and kept how Rebecca wanted them. “Danny” is cold and hostile towards her new mistress from the moment she enters the house and the relationship only deteriorates as the movie progresses.

Mrs. Danvers: You thought you could be Mrs. de Winter, live in her house, walk in her steps, take the things that were hers! But she's too strong for you.

The character of Mrs. Danvers is also interesting as she represents one of the major changes made between the novel and its screen adaption. In the novel she was an older woman and a mother figure to Rebecca. In the movie Hitchcock made her a younger woman whose infatuation with her employee is passionate and emotional. It has been commented on that in a time when homosexuality was a social taboo here is clearly a lesbian character in a successful major Hollywood production. And while there is no outright comment made there are also questions raised as to the sexual orientation of Rebecca and their relationship together. The censors at the time left these insinuations intact probably because they could not prove that these women were lesbians.

The house itself plays a huge role in this film. Manderley is impressive, intimidating, gloomy, and beautiful. The film does a great job of remaining grounded in reality, and while never completely crossing over into supernatural territory, the intimidating and gloomy atmosphere found in the house makes for some creepy and frightening scenes. As the new Mrs. de Winter explores the house she is accompanied by a building crescendo of a soundtrack and I cannot help but think of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining. I imagine this film could have easily been a strong inspiration for Kubrick as it shares similar themes. Both have a heroine who finds herself in an enormous and unfriendly environment that she does not comprehend but is forced to stand up to.

I will leave the rest of the movie shrouded in mystery just as the motives of the house staff and the natures of both the late Mrs. de Winter and Maxim de Winter are mysterious. There are revelations to be revealed at Manderley and hidden secrets to be discovered and I do not want to spoil the experience of this haunting film for you. If this has not convinced you to see Rebecca then note that this film is Alfred Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner. I think this fact should be reason enough for you to see it.

Next up: How Green Was My Valley

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard
Genre: Drama, Romance
Other Nominees: Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights

This is the most intimidating synopsis I have had to write so far because what more is there to say that has not already been said about Gone With the Wind? If you search the internet you will find an endless sea of praise for this amazing film and in the end I fear that I have very little to add to it. So I will simply do what I can and talk about some of the surprises I found within this brilliant film.

This is an epic film with a run time of almost four hours and in this time we follow the story of one Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). When we first meet Scarlett it is 1861 and she is the daughter of a wealthy southern plantation owner. We quickly learn that Scarlett is the center of her own universe, manipulating everyone around her to get her way, and content in the knowledge that every man she meets worships her. But her world comes to an abrupt end when war comes to the South and the Yankee army invades. We watch as she falls into desperate poverty, and then uses her honed powers of manipulation to claw her way out again. As a viewer you build a love/hate relationship with Scarlett, veering from loathing her wicked ways, towards pitying and admiring her resolve and then back to loathing again, and this tug of war on your heart carries throughout the entire film.

After multiple cases of her preying on men, including her obsession with a married man and her continued efforts to steal him away from his wife, you begin to wonder if she is capable of true love at all. When her first husband dies while away at war she laments that her “life is over” because “nothing will ever happen to me again”, clearly being more upset about her status as a widow than about the death of her husband. But beneath her selfish nature we slowly begin to learn that she is capable of loving a man even though her stubbornness leads to her fighting the feeling for almost the entire film.

We meet her true love interest early in the story in the form of the swaggering debonair Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable. We have seen Clark before on this blog in It Happened One Night and Mutiny on the Bounty but this was clearly the role he was born to play. The single greatest thing about Rhett Butler is that, like Scarlett, he makes no apologizes for what he is. He fraternizes with prostitutes, drinks, smokes, gambles, and is content to do so. He is attracted to Scarlett from the moment he meets her but not for the same reason the other men fawn all over her. He loves Scarlett because he knows her, because in her he sees a female version of himself, and he seems to be the only man who understands what he is up against with her. His immunity to her ways makes for very entertaining interactions. He constantly pokes fun at her and calls her out when she tries to play her mind games and it really is hard not to start enjoying seeing it as much as he enjoys doing it.
Scarlett: Sir, you are no gentleman.
Rhett Butler: And you, Miss, are no lady.

The romance between the two is the central storyline of the film but it is set to an incredibly rich background. After the war starts there are some truly amazing special effects as the city of Atlanta gets bombarded by Sherman and the Yankee army. One scene recalls to my mind as Rhett leads a panicked horse and the ladies through an ammunition dump as explosions happen all around. A many storied building crashes down in flames in front of the party as they desperately try to escape the city. This is a film that cost a staggering 3.7 million dollars to make and in 1939 that was a lot of money! But the investment can be seen throughout as this film really does reach a standard of excellence that is rare in Hollywood.

Gone With the Wind is the first Oscar winning film to be shot in Technicolor, a technique that came with tremendous cost and ate up most of the aforementioned budget. While being the first color Oscar Winning film I was surprised to learn that shooting films in color was a technology that was a around since 1908 but was rarely used because of the expense involved. Hollywood made the first color feature film almost twenty years earlier in 1922 (The Toll of the Sea). This surprised me because most people I know consider The Wizard of Oz to be the first example of color being used in film.

Speaking of Oz it should be said that the nominations list for Best Picture in 1940 was very impressive and the fact that Gone With The Wind came out on top just emphasizes the magnitude of the film. Not only did it beat out Frank Capra directing his usual suspects of Jean Arthur and James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, John Ford directing John Wayne in the classic Stagecoach, but it also beat out The Wizard of Oz itself! Add to that list Goodbye Mr. Chips and Of Mice and Men and to me you have what could be the most hotly contended Best Picture nominations list of all time.

I will leave you with another link to American Film Institutes top 100 movie quotes of all time. I reference the list because Gone With the Wind gets three mentions which again highlights how significant a film this is. Below are the three quotes that made the list and their positions in parenthesis but frankly I think the quote that has the honor of calling itself the greatest movie quote of all time (at least according to AFI) needs no introduction:

As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again (59)
After all, tomorrow is another day! (31)
Frankly My Dear, I don’t give a damn. (1)

Full list:

Next Up: Rebecca

Monday, March 8, 2010

2010 Oscars Wrap Up

This year the Oscars was always billed as the epic clash between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. In a way this was the wrong year for the Academy to decide to increase the number of Best Picture nominees to 10. If the goal of this initiative was to widen the scope and give other films a chance at glory it failed because the reality was that Bigelow and Cameron's films were all people talked about.

Personally I was delighted with The Hurt Locker winning the little gold guy. In IMAX 3D, Avatar was an amazing experience, one that left me bewildered and stunned. After watching it I spent days pleading with people to see it as soon as possible. I convinced my colleagues and even my father to go experience it. Whereas on my 40" tv screen at home, and with no surround sound system, The Hurt Locker proved a different visual experience but ultimately a more rewarding one. The dread established in the opening scene stayed with me throughout and when the credits rolled at the end I found myself to be wholly satisfied.

And perhaps that is why The Hurt Locker deserved the glory, because it managed to be just as engrossing a film without relying on CGI, IMAX cameras, or the use of 3D! While Avatar was complete fantasy Hurt Locker was reality and when the dust settles I feel that last night both films got what they deserved. In celebration for the beautiful world that Avatar created it won Cinematography, Art Direction, and Visual Effects. In celebration for the beautiful characters and story that Hurt Locker created it won the crown.

Asides from the center stage fight I thought the categories were very predictable this year. Waltz and Mo'Nique were absolute shoe ins for their supporting roles. In the weeks leading up to the Oscars all I kept hearing was Bridges in Crazy Heart for Best Leading Actor. All three of these examples simply overshadowed their competitors and made for easy guesses.

And while I was left confused at Bullock getting the award for Best Actress (to be honest I was left confused by The Blind Side featuring in the awards period) I can see that she was the popular choice.

Add to these some other obvious picks like the aforementioned artistic awards going to Avatar, Up for Best Animated Feature, and Precious for Best Adapted Screenplay, and you have a gamblers dream! Although I enjoyed this years show to no end I would like to see a closer race in 2011.

Notable Moments:

I have no idea what the story behind this "Kanye" moment was but while a pleasant speaking chap accepted the award for Best Documentary Short a rather obnoxious lady bulldozed her way onto the stage! The link below has details of the childish squabble..

I thought it was a nice moment when Jim Cameron immediately stood and clapped after his ex-wife's film won Best Picture. All is fair in love and war.

Ben Stiller as a N'avi! The comedy moment of the night came not from Martin or Baldwin but from Ben Stiller and a fishing rod!

All Winners:
Best Picture -- The Hurt Locker

Actor in a Leading Role -- Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)

Actor in a Supporting Role -- Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)

Actress in a Leading Role -- Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)

Actress in a Supporting Role -- Mo'Nique (Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire)

Animated Feature Film -- Up

Art Direction -- Avatar

Cinematography -- Avatar

Costume Design -- The Young Victoria

Directing -- Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)

Documentary Feature -- The Cove

Documentary Short -- Music by Prudence

Film Editing -- The Hurt Locker

Foreign Language Film -- The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)(Argentina)

Makeup -- Star Trek

Music (Original Score) -- Up

Music (Original Song) -- "The Weary Kind" (Crazy Heart)

Short Film (Animated) -- Logorama

Short Film (Live Action) -- The New Tenants

Sound Editing -- The Hurt Locker

Sound Mixing -- The Hurt Locker

Visual Effects -- Avatar

Writing (Adapted Screenplay) -- Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Writing (Original Screenplay) -- The Hurt Locker