Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Year in Review: 1937

1937 was a great year for Hollywood – even if the Oscar winners from that year were for a large part disappointing. As is often the case, the Academy went with movies that seemed “important” while ignoring the ones that would actually stand the test of time. My number one choice will probably surprise some people – forgoing perhaps the most well known film from one of cinema’s acknowledged masters (who happens to be one of my absolute favorite directors), for a film that until very recently had been largely forgotten. But I am happy with my choice, and I think once more people see my number 1, they’ll know where I’m coming from.

10. You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang)
Very loosely based on the Bonnie & Clyde story, You Only Live Once stars Henry Fonda as a three time loser, out of prison and trying to rebuild his life with his new wife Sylvia Sidney. He gets a job, but loses it rather quickly, because the boss doesn’t trust an ex-con. Struggling to find another job, he contemplates going back to a life of crime. When an armored car robbery goes wrong, and 7 people die, Fonda is arrested, tried and sentenced to death for it, even though he proclaims his innocence. On the day he is supposed to die, he escapes and he and Sidney go on the run. Sidney was rather annoying in the film – crying a lot – which mars an otherwise excellent film with a great performance by Fonda, and stylish direction by Lang (the escape sequence, shrouded in fog, is particularly great). I don’t know if I agree with the film’s point of view – in fact I know I don’t – but this is an excellent little crime film nonetheless.

9. The Edge of the World (Michael Powell)
Before Powell teamed up with his partner, Emeric Pressburger, and would make any number of masterpieces, he made this – his first great film – in 1937. The story takes place on a island off the coast of Scotland, which is gradually seeing its population dwindle as more and more young men leave the island for steady work on the mainland, or on any of the ships that fish in the area. The residents try to hold onto their community, but it really is of no use – modern times have encroached upon them, and they just cannot compete. The film is a beautiful made film, with striking vistas shot by Powell in an area that would draw him in again and again in his career (think of I Know Where I’m Going!). While this is the masterwork that some of Powell’s films are, it is a fascinating movie.

8. Young and Innocent (Alfred Hitchcock)
Young and Innocent is one of the most delightful films in Hitchcock’s British period. It isn’t the masterwork that his films like The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes or Sabotage from that time were, but it is an expertly crafted little thriller, with comedic overtones. The film is a spin on Hitchcock’s favorite subject – the innocent man wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit. This time, Derrick De Marney fills that role, and he goes on the run with Nova Pilbeam when is charged with a murder he didn’t commit. The film is lightweight compared to Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but still expertly filmed (the sequence in the nightclub, when the true murderer is revealed is masterfully shot by Hitchcock), and the chemistry between the two leads is wonderful. No, Young and Innocent is not a Hitchcock masterpiece – but it is extremely entertaining.

7. Night Must Fall (Richard Thorpe)
Richard Thorpe’s Night Must Fall is a suspenseful little film about a young man (Robert Montgomery in an excellent performance) who becomes an employee and surrogate son to an rich, aging woman (Dame May Whitty) immediately following a murder that no one except Whitty’s niece (Rosalind Russell) suspects Montgomery for. Russell’s feelings become even more confused when she is inexplicably drawn to Montgomery – the kind of dangerous young man who is the antithesis of the upright lawyer who is pursuing her. The main reason to watch the film is the acting – the three leads all give excellent performances, and the slow burn of the plot that has you going back and forth on Montgomery’s guilt. Yes, the movie does show its stage roots at times, and I doubt that the psychology of a serial killer on display in this movie bares any resemblance to reality (oh, what they would say on Criminal Minds!), but this is a supremely entertaining little movie.

6. A Day at the Races (Sam Wood)
Just thinking about the Marx brothers is enough to make me laugh. A Day at the Races is one of their best films, an hilarious movie that takes place at the race track where Groucho plays Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (god, I love the names they come up with), a Vet posing as a real doctor at a mental hospital. As with all of the Brothers movies, the plot is a thin excuse to hang jokes off of, and this one has a number of wonderful comic set pieces – the most famous of which is probably the Tutti Frutti Ice Cream scam. Free from the dead weight that was Zeppo (sorry buddy, but you have nothing on the other three), A Day at the Races is just out and out hilarious comedy at its finest.

5. Pepe Le Moko (Julien Duvivier)
Pepe Le Moko, directed by Julien Duvivier and starring the great Jean Gabin, is one of the key films that inspired the film noir movement in America in the 1940s. Gabin plays the infamous title character, a gangster trying to avoid capture by the police by hiding in the casbah of the city of Algiers – which is so jammed packed with people in the small streets, that most police don’t know their way around. The film combines elements of gritty realism in its plot, with the occasional cinematic flourish, which raises the entire stylistic intrigue of the film. The film is fast paced and exciting from beginning to end – one of the great French films of the 1930s.

4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a landmark motion picture in so many ways. It was the first feature length cel animated film in history, the first feature length animated film made in America, the first film to be entirely in color and the first feature of Walt Disney’s career. All that alone would make Snow White one of the most important films in cinema history. But the film is more than just “important” – it is utterly great. All these years later, the animation still never fails to cast its spell over audiences – both adult and children – as we are drawn to the lovable Snow White, and of course all those wonderful dwarfs who are utterly unqiue creations in their own right. The film is a little dark – trusting children, the way so many movies aimed at them do not. Yes, Snow White is a landmark motion picture, but that’s not why its beloved to this day – or why it ranks so highly on this list.

3. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey)
With The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey made what is undoubtedly the funniest film of the year, and one of the great comedies of the 1930s. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are perfectly matched as a married couple whose divorce will be finalized in a few days – but cannot seem to let each other go. They go to tremendous lengths to ruin each other’s new relationships, before realizing that, of course, they still love each other. The Awful Truth is a perfect example of the comedy of “remarriage”, which Grant did several times in his career (His Girl Friday and The Philidelphia Story come to mind), and Grant is at his charming, hilarious best. Dunne is his equal in every way, and the supporting cast is excellent. McCarey is one of the great directors of comedy in American movie history, with so many hilarious comedies on his resume – and The Awful Truth is one of his absolute best.

2. Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir)
I know most people would rank Jean Renoir’s undisputed masterpiece as the best film of 1937 – an assessment I have no problem with, as it is one of the all time great war movies – a beautiful, emotionally powerful film that never fails to draw me in whenever I see it. The film is about two French officers being held prisoner by the Germans in WWI. Pierre Fresnay portrays a man from an upper class family, while Jean Gabin is working class. As with all of Renoir’s films of the period, this one is very concerned with class – the Grand Illusion not just being that war in Europe is futile, because their economic interests are so intertwined (which was the argument of the book that Renoir borrowed the title from), but also that the upper class would not be exempt from the horrors of war. The great director Erich von Stroheim gives a remarkable performance as the German in charge of the camp. Grand Illusion is one of the most important films in cinema history – inspiring great directors the world over. While I think The Rules of the Game is Renoir’s true masterpiece, it is impossible to argue that Grand Illusion isn’t also deserving of that label.

1. Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey)
Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow was a critical hit in 1937, but a box office failure. Among its many devoted followers at the time were Orson Welles (who said “It could make a stone cry”), Jean Renoir and Yashijiro Ozu, who would be inspired by this film to make his masterpiece – Tokyo Story. But the film pretty much disappeared for years, never getting a home video release until earlier this year, when Criterion released it and allowed this generation to see one of the great films of the 1930s. The story is about two aging parents – Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi – who are about to lose their house after years living there and raising their five kids – now all grown with families of their own. With nowhere to go, and the none of their five children willing to take both of them in, they are split up and live hundreds of miles apart. The amazing thing about the movie is how well observed it is. Fay Bainter gives an excellent performance as their daughter in law, stuck with Bondi and becomes increasingly annoyed by her – and we can understand why she is. But in the final act, when the old couple is reunited for one final day together before Moore has to go to California to live with the daughter we never see, they share a wonderful day together – and find strangers the opposite of their children – kind and thoughtful. The finale is one of the best in cinema history, and as Welles said, it really could make a stone cry. McCarey, best known for his comedies, has made one of the all time great tear jerkers here – and did it without being overly manipulative. A masterpiece in every sense of the word.

Just Missed the Top 10: The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle), The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin), Black Legion (Archie Mayo), Captains Courgeous (Victor Flemming)

Notable Films Not Seen: Angel (Ernst Lubitsch), Dead End (William Wyler), In Old Chicago (Henry King), Lost Horizon (Frank Capra), One Hundred Men and a Girl (Henry Koster), A Star is Born (William A. Wellman).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: The Life of Emile Zola.
William Dieterle’s The Life of Emile Zola set a precedent that the Academy Awards continue to honor to this day – historical biopics win Oscars. This film, starring Paul Muni as the famed French author, is a fine, by the numbers example of the genre, with nothing being too great, but nothing being bad either – and a fine performance by Muni. I do find it odd that a biopic about a writer mainly focuses on a court case he was involved in, but I guess writing isn’t cinematic enough. Not a great film, but a good one.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth
When McCarey won this Oscar, he apparently said “You gave to me for the wrong film”, which lets you know how much he loved his other movie from that year – Make Way for Tomorrow. Out of the nominees however, McCarey was clearly the best, and I do love how the Academy gave it to a comedy movie, so no complaints about this one.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Spencer Tracy, Captains Courgeous.
Out of the two performances that Tracey won his Oscars for (the other being Boys Town), this is far and away the better performance. Playing a veteran Portgeuse fisherman who takes a spoiled brat under his wing, Tracy is charming, funny and touching. The film is a little too by the numbers for my taste, but it is still quite good, and Tracey is good in it. I would have preferred Cary Grant for The Awful Truth, but the Academy never did get Grant.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Luise Rainer, The Good Earth
Rainer won her second straight Oscar for her performance in this movie about pesant Chinese farmers. She is quite good in the film, which is also fine once you get past the racism involved in casting the white Rainer and Paul Muni in the lead roles as Chinese people – complete with “Yellow Face”, although since the film itself is in black and white, it isn’t as noticeable. Wouldn’t have been my choice (that would Bondi for Make Way for Tomorrow, or Dunne if we limit ourselves to the nominees), but a okay choice.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Joseph Schlidkraut, The Life of Emile Zola
In only the second year this award was given out, Schlidkraut won this award for his portrayal of the prisoner that Zola tries to free. It is a small role – his wife factors into the film a whole lot more – and in my mind slightly marred by his thick accent. He’s okay in the role, but an Oscar? No.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Alice Brady, In Old Chicago
I have yet to see In Old Chicago, which is about the Chicago fire, where Alice Brady plays the woman who owned the cow who kicked over the lamp that started the fire, so I cannot comment on whether or not this award was warranted. What I will say is that Fay Bainter was robbed of a nomination for Make Way for Tomorrow, and I do love Dame May Whitty in her nominated turn in Night Must Fall.

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