Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Year in Review: 1940

1940 was a significant year for a number of reasons. First, Hitchcock came to America, and made two great films. Second, Disney put out their two follow-up films to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which were also great. It also marked Chaplin’s first foray into sound – and that is just the tip of the iceberg for this great year in film.

10. Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock)
The second American film by Alfred Hitchcock is this top notch, intense spy thriller. Joel McCrea stars as an American crime reporter sent to London to try and get some answers about what is really going on over there in terms of the war that is about to break out. His first lead is about a Dutch diplomat (Albert Basserman), who he briefly meets but then appears to be assassinated – although things are not as they appear, and the powerful Fisher (Herbert Marshall) may be up to no good. The film is intricately plotted by Hitchcock, and contains a number of intense sequences – the most famous of which is on top of the Westminster Cathedral. McCrea, Basserman, Marshall and the rest of the cast – including George Sanders and Larraine Day – are also wonderful. The climax to the movie is great. My only problem with the film is the closing scene – a radio broadcast that is too much like propaganda for my tastes (although, since this was 1940, perhaps we can forgive the film this flaw).

9. Contraband (Michael Powell)
Michael Powell’s Contraband (written by Emeric Pressburger, but the two had not yet starting sharing director credits), much like Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, is about a British spy ring. But Contraband is a lighter, more fun version of events. Conrad Veidt gives an excellent performance as a Danish sea captain carrying important supplies back to his country in the early days of WWII, along with some passengers. When they are detained at customs in England overnight, two of his passengers (including the beautiful, insolent Valerie Hobson) disappear in London – and when Veidt goes to try and get them back, he gets himself involved with their schemes, and the Nazis who want to catch them. The film is stylish in the extreme – making full use of a London under a blackout, and the plot constantly twists and turns. The film calls to mind the Hitchcock films of the 1930s – and it’s high praise to say that Powell’s film matches that of the master. An underrated gem.

8. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor)
The Philadelphia Story is one of the great “comedies of remarriage” – a genre popular in the 1930s and 40s, when you were not allowed to show married couples having an affair, so instead they got divorced, had their dalliances, and then got back together. The movie stars Katherine Hepburn in one of her greatest roles as a socialite about to get married to John Howard. The weekend of the wedding, her ex-husband, Cary Grant, shows up with reporter Jimmy Stewart in tow. Hepburn flirts with both Grant and Stewart, much to the chagrin of Howard, before everything ends happily – and just as we expect it to. The performances are all top notch, and the writing, based on the famed Broadway play that revived Hepburn’s then ailing career is full of terrific one liners (my favorite being Grant’s “A little? And you a writer? Tsk, tsk, tsk. I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer.”). This is the kind of comedy that Hollywood has forgotten how to make.

7. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch was best known for his comedies, and while The Shop Around the Corner is not one of his funniest films, it is one of his best. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan play two employees at a small store in Budapest, who constantly get on each other’s nerves working side by side. What they do not know is that they are each other’s pen pals as well, and they have fallen in love with the other person through those letters. The film is one of the few Hollywood films of the era that I can remember that actually shows people working – and not in glamorous, or exciting jobs – but in the mundane workaday world. Stewart and Sullivan have excellent chemistry together, battling each other early on, and eventually falling for each – like we knew they would all along. This is a charming little film.

6. Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock)
Hitchcock’s first American film, and the only one of his career ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, is this stylish, classy film about the new wife (Joan Fontaine) of a rich man (Laurence Olivier), who believes that her husband is still in love with his dead wife, Rebecca – when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Judith Anderson gives a chilling performance as Mrs. Danvers, the maid who worshipped Rebecca, and keeps her room as a shrine to the late woman. There is an undercurrent of homosexuality in her obsession with the dead woman, as she fondles her underwear and negligee. George Sanders appears as one of Rebecca’s “cousins” (actually lover), and his appearance upsets Fontaine even more. This is not a typical Hitchcock film – it doesn’t really qualify as a thriller at all – but shows the master’s eye for detail and stunning cinematography. The climax, with the house ablaze, is a thrilling set piece, and an appropriate ending to the film. A great Hitchcock film.

5. Fantasia (Various)
Fantasia was groundbreaking in 1940, and even now 70 years later it seems like perhaps the most daring animated film that Disney ever made. It has no narrative drive throughout the movie, and no dialogue. Rather it is a collection of dazzling short films set to classical music. Of course, everyone remembers the infamous The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, set to Paul Dukas’ wonderful music as Mickey plays a young apprentice trying to use magic before he can fully control it – leading to all hell breaking loose. This segment is the most famous – and best – of the sequences, but that’s not to take anything away from the other segments. The Nutcracker Suite segment is magical, with various fairies, animals and plants dancing their ballets. The Rite of Spring was hugely ambitious showing the formation of the planet right up until the extinction of the dinosaurs. The Dance of the Hours (featuring the famous dancing hippo) is just plain fun. My favorite sequence, other than The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the incredibly dark Night on Bald Avenue/Ave Maria featuring the black demon Chernabog. Yes, I will admit that The Pastoral Symphony segment is oddly racist, and for some inexplicable reason contains nudity, but hey, one of the segments was bound to not live up the standards of the rest. In the years since Fantasia, we have rarely seen an animated film this magical, this ambitious – and certainly not from Disney – although I will admit, I do prefer at least one other Disney animated film to this one (see number 4).

4. Pinocchio (Ben Sharpsteen & Hamilton Luske)
Pinocchio is my favorite Disney animated film of all time. It’s story is so simple, and yet so touching. The carpenter Geppetto is a lonely, kind old man who makes a wooden puppet he names Pinocchio, then wishes that he could be a real boy, not just a puppet. The Blue Fairy comes and grants his wish – to an extent – he is now “alive”, but still a puppet, and to become a real boy, he must prove himself worthy, and listen to his conscience – a role assigned o Jiminy Cricket. Yet still Pinocchio is continually led astray by others – first to a puppet show, and then to “Pleasure Island”, before finally being able to prove himself by rescuing Geppetto. I don’t think you could make a film like this today – it is much darker than the kids movies today, with scary sequences in the puppet show, Pinocchio’s friend being turned into a donkey and sold into slavery, and of course the climatic whale sequence. But the darkness of the movie adds to its charm, and also to its message to kids. I think we “protect” kids too much these days, coddling them beyond all reasonable measures. Pinocchio is a classic Disney movie – and one of the great kid’s movies ever made, not in spite of its darkness, but in part because of it.

3. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)
I’m not sure that any film in history has dialogue fires off as rapidly as in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. Cary Grant is great as a newspaper editor trying to entice his ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) into staying with his paper, instead of marrying the boring Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). The action takes place on a chaotic night as a prisoner is supposed to be executed, and Grant gets Russell to agree to cover one last story – all the while trying to sabotage her upcoming marriage, by having Bruce repeatedly arrested on false charges, and even kidnapper his mother. Things get even more complicated when the prisoner escapes, and ends up with Russell. Hawks was a master of screwball comedy – and this is one of the greatest example that the genre ever producer. Grant and Russell have magical chemistry together, and they handle the rapid fire dialogue by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and Charles McArthur (based on the play The Front Page, with a gender switch for Russell) with ease. Comedy doesn’t get any better than this.

2. The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin)
Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is an important historical film for several reasons. One, it was the first sound film of Chaplin’s career – and in my mind his best. For another, it was the first American film to openly mock Hitler, and what was going on in Europe – daring for at the time America was still neutral in the conflict. Chaplin plays a duel role here – one as a Jewish WWI hero for “Tomainia”. Flash forward 20 years, and the brutal Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again, doing a ruthless Hitler impression) is now the dictator of Tomainia and is persecuting the Jews. The Jewish war hero is shocked to what has happened to his country – he spent the last 20 years in a hospital with amnesia. The film has many great set pieces – the infamous one of Hynkel playing with a giant globe, and of course his fiery speech that is hilarious translated by a matter of fact Englishman (the best one being after a rant that lasts a full minute, accompanied by furious hand movements the translator simply states “The furor has just referred to the Jewish people”). Chaplin showed daring in making the film – courage not only to openly mock Hitler and hold him up for ridicule, but also in its sympathetic portrayal of Jews. Oh yeah, and it’s also absolutely hilarious.

1. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford)
John Ford was an odd choice to direct the film version of John Steinbeck’s infamous Great Depression novel – as Ford was a well known conservative, and Steinbeck’s novel had been accused of being pro-communist. Yet, despite the ending of the film which is happier than the novel (something you cannot blame on Ford – almost anyone would have had to make the ending happier – and no one in 1940 was going to have a woman giving birth to a stillborn baby and offering her breast milk to a starving man) Ford does a great job at turning the book into a movie. Henry Fonda gives perhaps his finest performance as Tom Joad, an ex-convict who along with his family leave Oklahoma after losing the family farm, and making their way west – to California where they endure horrible conditions as migrant workers. Steinbeck’s focus on the land and man together (something easier to do in a novel) is replaced by showing the Joads as a more cohesive family unit, boldly trying to keep their heads above water. Jane Darwell, in her Oscar winning role, is also wonderful as the matriarch of the family – the driving force behind their optimism at the end of the film. If you want to criticize the movie for softening Steinbeck’s novel, then go ahead, but I really do not think that it does. It still contains Joad fighting for union wages, and having to go on the run to fight for his idealized world. The film is expertly crafted by Ford, contains some of the best screen performances of all time and although softened, is still an unmistakable indictment on the rich landowners who take advantage of the working man. Somehow this odd collection of talent has produced an American classic .

Just Missed The Top 10: The Bank Dick (Eddie Cline), Kitty Foyle (Sam Wood), The Letter (William Wyler), The Long Voyage Home (John Ford), The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell & Ludwig Berger & Tom Whelan).

Notable Films Missed: All This, and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak), Our Town (Sam Wood), The Westerner (William Wyler).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Rebecca
It seemed like The Grapes of Wrath was going to be unstoppable at the Oscars this year, as it was the most acclaimed film of the year, and a sizable box office hit. However, some in power in the Academy didn’t want to see the film win – after all, the film was openly critical of wealthy California landowners, and the bigwigs in the Academy certainly qualified as that, so Rebecca was a compromise choice I believe. That’s not to say that the film isn’t wonderful – that it isn’t worthy of winning the award, just that I think we all know what film the Academy would have given the award to if it had been critical of any other group.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath
I have always thought that when the Academy splits the Picture and Director Oscar, more often than not the Director winner made the better film (other examples – The Great Ziegfield vs. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Life of Emile Zola vs. The Awful Truth, Hamlet vs. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man, Around the World in 80 Days vs. Giant, Chariots of Fire vs. Reds, Driving Miss Daisy vs. Born on the Fourth of July, Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator vs. Traffic, Chicago vs. The Pianist, Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain – the obvious exception being The Godfather vs. Caberet), and that is what happened here. The Academy knew The Grapes of Wrath was the better film, but couldn’t bring themselves to quite vote for it for Best Picture.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story
I find it somewhat strange that the only Oscar Stewart ever won was for this film. Not only is his role in the film a supporting one, he doesn’t even outshine the male lead – Cary Grant – who I thought had the better role and the better performance. This was a makeup Oscar for Stewart losing the year before for Mr. Smith to Robert Donat for Goodbye Mr. Chips, which itself was a makeup award for not giving him an Oscar for The Citadel in 1938. And the cycle continued, with Henry Fonda as the victim – but in his case he would have to wait over 40 years before the Academy made it up to him.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle
I’m not going to say that I didn’t enjoy Ginger Rogers performance in Kitty Foyle, or the movie itself for that matter. It is a charming little romantic drama/comedy about a woman having to choose between her two lovers. And I do dearly love Ginger Rogers in her great movies with Fred Astaire in the 1930s. But considering the Academy nominated Hepburn for The Philadelphia Story and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, and could have nominated Rosalind Russell for His Girl Friday, I have to say that Rogers didn’t really deserve her Oscar for this film.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Walter Brennan, The Westerner
I have yet to see this movie. Walter Brennan was a favorite with the Academy – being one of only three actors in history to win 3 or more Oscars – but that was mainly because in the early days, the scores of movie extras were allowed to vote for the Oscars, and Brennan was once one of them, and they rewarded him handsomely because of it. I enjoy Brennan, and will get around to this film one day, but I would have loved to have seen Jack Oakie’s hilarious Mussolini stand-in in The Great Dictator win this one.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
I have no complaints about Darwell’s win for her performance in this movie. She is the heart of the film, the emotional core, and she delivers her great final speech with passion and conviction. Personally however, I think I would have gone with Judith Anderson’s marvelous work in Rebecca, as one of the first in a long line of crazy lesbian killers. And for that matter, Ruth Hussey was delightful in The Philadelphia Story.

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