Friday, August 13, 2010

Year in Review: 1939

1939 is often referred to Hollywood’s greatest year - and it is easy to see why. There are so many films from this year that would go on to become among the most well remembered and beloved of all Hollywood films. So of course, I had to select a French film as the year’s best. C’est la vie!

10. Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
While I cannot say that I agree with those who think that Only Angels Have Wings is Howard Hawks’ greatest achievement – I do have to say that the film is a delight to watch. Cary Grant is as charming as ever a pilot in South America who runs the mail service flying over the Andes to get the mail to where it needs to go. Over the course of a few days his entire life changes – first, a pretty American (Jean Arthur) arrives and becomes immediately infatuated with Grant and decides to stay. The two talk and flirt, but Grant doesn’t want to be tied down – he is a cynic and a fatalist. Things only get worse when they new pilot they hired arrives – bringing with him his wife (Rita Hayworth), who was once engaged to Grant. Hawks creates the wonderful atmosphere of Columbia in his idealized view of these professional flyers – and also does a great job with the flying sequences themselves. I may prefer Hawks either in his Western or screwball comedy modes, but Only Angels Have Wings is certainly an entertaining movie.

9. Wuthering Heights (William Wyler)
Although this film version of Wuthering Heights leaves out almost half the novel, and tacks on an ending with the ghosts of the two leads walking hand in hand, which pretty much goes against what the novel was about in the first place, this remains the best version of the novel for the screen that we are likely ever to see. Laurence Olivier was given his breakthrough role as Heathcliff, the orphan who is brought to the wealthy estate of Wuthering Heights and raised by a rich man alongside his two other children – including Catherine (Merle Oberon) and Hindley (Hugh Williams). The children have different reactions to Heathcliff – Catherine falling in love with him, and Hindley becoming his sworn enemy. But when Catherine decides to marry the wealthy Edgar (David Niven) instead of Heathcliff – he flees the estate, only to return a few years later – now wealthy himself, and hell bent on revenge. Although the second generation of characters has been eliminated from the movie (thus Heathcliff doesn’t fall as mightily as he does in the novel), the story retains its fascinating and its power. It is a film about destructive, passionate love – and how it can bring both joy and pain. I tend not to think that Heathcliff and Catherine were meant for each other – and that after her death, Catherine wouldn’t want to walk hand in hand with him anymore – but that’s just my own feelings, and doesn’t diminish this film in the least.

8. Stagecoach (John Ford)
Personally, I have always preferred Ford Westerns that were darker than this film – The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, etc. Having said that, you cannot argue against the filmmaking, the storytelling or the acting in the film – and it is certainly among the most influential films ever made (Orson Welles was said to have watched the film 40 times while making Citizen Kane). The film is about a loose knit set of strangers who head out on a stagecoach through Apache territory. Claire Trevor is a prostitute being driven from town, Thomas Mitchell an alcoholic doctor and Louise Platt is a pregnant woman travelling to see her Calvary officer husband – and these are just a few of the people on board. On their journey, they run into the outlaw the Ringo Kid (John Wayne, in his breakthrough role) who has vowed vengeance against the men who killed his brother and father, and is a wanted fugitive. The film moves along at a wicked pace but always remains focused on the storytelling and the characters. Yes, I do find the film a little too simplistic in terms of its treatment of the Apaches, and yet Stagecoach remains today a entertaining Western – a prototype for much of the genre that would follow.

7. Le Jour Se Leve (Marcel Carne)
Marcel Carne’s Le Jour Se Leve is a marvelous film about sexual obsession and murder. Jean Gabin gives one of the most iconic performances of his career as a blue collar worker who falls in love with the young and innocent Jacqueline Laurent. He wants to marry Laurent, but while he is dating her, he is also sleeping with the more experienced Arletty. Laurent it appears is under the thumb of a magician – Jules Berry – who lies constantly to Gabin to try and get under his skin. Gabin is ever so slowly driven further and further by Berry – finally snapping and murdering him (although we see this in the first scene, we do not understand why until much later) – when Berry has implied that he may have corrupted Laurent before Gabin got there. The film is a dark depiction of Gabin, who is not able to get over the fact that his beloved Laurent may not be a virgin. This is a fascinating film – a precursor to film noir to be sure as it has the innocent girl and the femme fatale, and also a film that has probably inspired the work of Martin Scorsese. Carne was a great director – and he would go on to make the masterpiece Children of Paradise that touched on some similar ground – but Le Jour Se Leve stands as one of his best achievements.

6. Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford)
I don’t think that John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln has much to do with the real Abraham Lincoln or historical fact, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a wonderful film in its own right. Henry Fonda, who looks nothing like Lincoln by the way, does capture the nobility and small town folksiness associated with him however. He is a young lawyer in Springfield, who stops the lynching of two men accused of murder by telling the townsfolk that he needs them as his first clients. But Lincoln believes they are innocent and fights hard for them – eventually climaxing in a kind of Perry Mason like confession at the last minute. What I love about the movie though is that it is never quite as simple as its surface appears – Fonda’s Lincoln is more complex than he appears – a great man before he became great – a man with the ability still to be happy, before history will come crashing down on him and make the depressive he was in later life. The movie really isn’t about the court case at all – that simply provides a plot for Ford to allow him to explore Lincoln in more depth than we usually see people like him portrayed. John Ford made three films in 1939 – Drums Along the Mohawk, Stagecoach and this one – and while the other two are probably more famous, Young Mr. Lincoln is his masterpiece of the year. And it is a film that belongs near the top of any list of Ford’s best films.

5. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch)
Ninotchka is one of the greatest comedies of the 1930s – a film directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who could always be counted on to deliver great comedies, and written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who of course would continue to make great comedies for decades to come. The film stars Greta Garbo is her greatest role as the title character – a super serious Soviet government worker sent to Paris after three of her colleagues, who went there to sell some jewels from the previous empire to support the Soviet state got sucked into the decadence of the West. Melvyn Douglas plays a Count, who has been hired by a former Russian Duchess to try and stop the sale of her jewels. At first, he is just playing her, but gradually the two fall in love. The film is a grand romance, but more than anything it is a comedy that pokes fun of Stalinist Russian mercilessly. The one liners run fast and furious (my favorite: “The last mass trials were a great success. There will be fewer, but better, Russians”). The film works because both Douglas and Garbo are at the top of their games – they play off each other brilliantly, Garbo showing a flair for comedy that few thought she had. One of my favorite comedies of all time.

4. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming)
There are some movies that imprint themselves on your mind as a child and then never let go. The Wizard of Oz is a movie like that. It is a film that taps into some deeper seeded insecurity inside all children – the fear of getting lost, stranded away from home, with your parents unable to find you. It is about growing up and realizing that sooner or later, you’re on your own. It is, of course, also a glorious fantasy with wonderful musical numbers, great costumes, make-up, art direction and bold, bright colors that still look amazing today. The film is darker, scarier than most children’s movies today would even dare to attempt, let alone succeed at. And in Judy Garland it has the perfect heroine for the story – not because she is bold and brassy – but because she was exactly the opposite – vulnerable and scared. It is a film in which at least four different directors had a hand in shooting (among them George Cukor and King Vidor), but it feels like a solid, unified work. The film remains a classic not just because of its story and characters – although they have become as iconic as any screen characters in history – but because it taps into something deeper, darker and scarier – and yes more serious – than almost any other “kids” movie in history. That it retains that power over 70 years later is remarkable.

3. Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming)
Gone with the Wind is one of the most popular films in movie history – beloved my pretty much every woman (including my mom) that has ever seen it. It is not a perfect film – you can tell that there were two different directors on the film, and that the first half directed by George Cukor is a little better, a little more intimate than the epic finale. But really, who I am to complain? Vivien Leigh gives one of the greatest of all screen performances as Scarlett O’Hara, the spunky heroine of the film who doesn’t quite realize that she should not be in love with the wussy Leslie Howard when she has the ultimate man’s man in Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler (Gable was never more charming by the way). The film still has the ability to sweep you up in its grand, epic Civil War romance – even if it has become dated it some of its attitudes (that Hattie McDaniel was able to create such a three dimensional character out of Mammy is perhaps one of the films greatest achievements. Gone with the Wind is beloved for a reason – it really is as good as everyone says it is.

2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra)
In our cynical times, especially when it comes to politics, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a movie shares at least a little of that cynicism, even if it gives a happy ending to the proceedings. James Stewart gives one of the best performances of his career as a Boy Scout leader who is picked by the governor of his state to fill their vacant Senate seat. The governor thinks of Smith as little more than a country bumpkin who will be easy to manipulate – and sure enough when he gets to town, he is immediately taken under the wing of another Senator – Claude Rains – who seems so nice, but is actually corrupt (although, he at least still has a conscience). But Mr. Smith surprises everyone – he is smarter, and more honest, than people in Washington are used to seeing. When Rains and his minions try and discredit him, he takes to the floor of the Senate for a filibuster – one of the most famous scenes in screen history. Politics may not actually work like this, but wouldn’t we all like to believe that it could?

1. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)
Yes, in a year that has been referred to as the greatest in Hollywood history, I had to choose a French movie as the best. That shouldn’t be all that surprising since I am a huge fan of Jean Renoir, and The Rules of the Game is undoubtedly his masterpiece. The film was reviled upon its initial release in France, and banned when the Nazis invaded, but has gone on to become one of the most critically acclaimed films in history – in many polls it ranks second to only Citizen Kane. Renoir’s film is about the upper class, who spends all of their timing playing at being joyful, and the lower class that tries to do the same thing. It takes place at a country home over a long weekend – when many people play at having affairs, but don’t actually have them. They seem to take more joy in chasing the objects of their affection than actually getting them – more joy in sneaking off for secret rendezvous’ than what they may actually do when they do get away. The cast is massive, the subplots nearly countless, and it is all captured by Renoir’s seemingly weightless camera. The film is shot almost entirely in deep focus, and we can often see the subplots playing out in the background, and more important things are happening up front. Only a few of the people in the movie actually play by the rules – the rest seemingly ignore them, and that will lead to tragic consequences. It is easy to see why many French critics on the eve of war didn’t like the film – it portrayed its citizens as idiots who are ignoring the outside world as it comes crumbling down around them. The Rules of the Game belongs near the top of any list of the greatest films ever made.

Just Missed The Top 10: Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford), Goodbye Mr. Chips (Sam Wood), The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh).

Notable Films Missed: Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding), Love Affair (Leo McCarey), Midnight (Mitchell Liesen), My Apprenticeship (Mark Donskoi), Of Mice and Men (Lewis Milestone), The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Gone with the Wind (Victor Flemming)
It is nearly impossible to argue against Gone with the Wind winning the best picture Oscar – it is arguably the most popular film in history, and the best film of the year – The Rules of the Game – wasn’t released in America during the course of the year (not that it would have been nominated anyway, but that’s beside the point). It is perhaps the grandest American epic in history – a film that romanticizes the South sure, but also captures your heart. The win for Flemming as director is much less defensible however – not because the film isn’t well directed (it is), but because by most accounts George Cukor directed roughly half the damn film, and Flemming was little more than David O. Selznick’s lackey (that is why, even though he is the credited director of this and The Wizard of Oz, two of the most popular films in history, he is never mentioned amongst the best directors ever). But whatever – Gone with the Wind is a great movie, and it really did deserve the Oscars it won – even if I would have chosen something else.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Robert Donat, Goodbye Mr. Chips
Robert Donat was a wonderful actor, and he really is quite good in Goodbye Mr. Chips. But when you consider he beat out James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind – two of the most iconic of all screen performances – you really have to wonder if he really deserved to win. Donat’s win in part came because the previous year they decided to give Spencer Tracy his second Oscar for his sympathetic priest in Boys Town, instead of to Donat for The Citadel, so they decided to make up for that snub this year (much like they did the following year, giving Stewart the Oscar for The Philadelphia Story, ignoring the fact that Cary Grant was the real male lead in that film). As far as the movie itself goes, I have always preferred the darker visions of English boarding school life – The Browning Version or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for example – the Mr. Chips’ sentimentality. That isn’t to say the film, or the performance, isn’t good – but neither are great.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind
It really is impossible to argue against this award. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most infamous of all screen performances – defiant, sexy, sensitive, strong, Leigh played them all over the course of the 4 hour epic. The story is hers, and we rarely leave her side for the entire running time of the film – and she captivates us in every scene. I know that some women idolize O’Hara – but I’ve always seen her as a bit of a bitch – but in a good way (I certainly am not one of those people who believe that she’ll get back together with Rhett when the movie ends – he has finally stood up to her and walked out, and I don’t think he’s looking back). Leigh would go onto to play an even greater Southern belle in Blanche DuBois (at least in my opinion), and it’s these two performances that guarantee her immortality. As long as people watch movies, they’ll watch Leigh’s Scarlett.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach
I for one am glad that Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar – and for a Ford western at that. Mitchell was part of Ford’s stock company of actors, making God knows how many films with him over the years. His performance as the drunken doctor in Stagecoach is hilarious, and at times more than that, but I don’t think it really constitutes his best work. Hell, considering he also played Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone with the Wind, and a pilot in Only Angels Have Wings, I’m not even sure if this was the best performance he gave this year! But Mitchell was a wonderful character actor at a time when they really were important, and yet too often overlooked. So I’m happy he won this one.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind
Hattie McDaniel’s win for Gone with the Win was historic because she became the first African American to ever win an Oscar. But her win is more than just political – her Mamie is a life force in the movie – perhaps the only person who is not intimidated by Scarlett, and unafraid to tell her how she really feels. I will admit that I do find it a little strange that McDaniel is so damn happy to be a slave, but she played the part she was given, and did a wonderful job with it. More often than not, McDaniel was relegated to the background in her movies – you rarely take notice of her because she’s always playing “the help”. She has 96 credits listed on IMDB, and I bet you half of them she was billed as “Maid” or some other nameless servant. She built a solid resume during the 1930s, but after Gone with the Wind she rarely got any decent roles anymore. She left her Oscar to Howard University when she died in 1952 – but the Oscar went missing during the race riots of the 1960s, and has never been found. She was wonderful in Gone with the Wind, and I wish she had been given more a chance to act in her life. She truly did deserve this Oscar.

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