Friday, August 13, 2010

Year in Review: 1942

There is a little bit of everything in 1942 from big Hollywood films to animation to foreign films. But as strong as 1942 was, I don’t think it was quite as good as many other years from the 1940s - after all a bastardized film is the best of the year.

10. Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz)
To this day, most people think of James Cagney as a gangster. It’s easy to see why considering how many gangster movies he made – and how good he was in the best of them like The Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat. But Cagney could do more than simply play a gangster – as his Oscar winning performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy shows. Yes, the film was constructed and made to try and raise patriotism during the war, but that does not diminish its impact, or the great good cheer Cagney brings to his performance as song and dance man George M. Cohan – the man who owned Broadway. Cohan didn’t get much respect from critics for his musicals, or his highly patriotic, yet cheesy songs, but the public ate them up. Cagney gives it his all in the lead role, and delivers one of his most dynamic and memorable performances ever. He sings, he dances, he acts and does it all without missing a beat. If you’re ever feeling down, just pop this movie into the DVD player and instantly a smile will come to your face.

9. Bambi (David Hand)
You’d have to be pretty cold hearted not to love Bambi. The story of a young deer who is left an orphan when the cruel hunter guns down her mother (still a moment that brings a tear to my eye). He befriends Thumper, a playful rabbit, and Flower, a skunk, and finds a mate in Faline. But throughout the film man is an ever lurking, evil presence looking to take down the deer for sport. The film is heartwarming, especially the finale, but like many of the early Disney movies there is a dark side to Bambi – a side that could scare many kids. Most animated films today would not dare go there, but Bambi does and pulls it off. Out of their traditional narrative driven films, Bambi ranks right behind Pinocchio as my all time favorite – a timeless classic that will be watched by children forever.

8. The Talk of the Town (George Stevens)
With The Talk of the Town, you start to see the old George Stevens – director of comedies and musicals – transforming with the Stevens of later years – who made much darker films. There are elements of both comedy and drama in this film. Cary Grant gives an excellent performance as an activist accused of burning down a mill and killing the foreman – and is put on trial for his life. He escapes, and ends up at the home of his old school friend, who he has been in love with for years, Jean Arthur, just as a man renting the house, Ronald Colman, shows up at the same time. She passes Grant off as her gardener, and the two men become good friends, discussing the law from differing viewpoints, before Colman discovers the truth. All three actors are excellent in the film, but particularly Colman who gives the best performance in the film. The Talk of the Town is a film about small town morality, and the difference between the law as an academic pursuit, and how it is really practiced. Stevens is stretching himself a little here – and I think he pulls it off. The Talk of the Town is one of his best films.

7. Now Voyager (Irving Rapper)
Now, Voyager is a terrific soap opera of a movie. Bette Davis gives one of her best performances as an aging spinster who has spent her entire life under the thumb of her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper) and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown when she is sent to a sanitarium run by the benevolent Claude Rains. There she learns to be her own woman, and on a solo cruise, she meets and falls in love with Paul Henrid. But they cannot be together – he is also under the thumb of a domineering woman, his wife, and he stays because of his beloved children – especially his youngest daughter that his wife treats cruelly. Yet even after they part ways, they find a way to be a part of each other’s lives. Yes, Now Voyager is a soap opera – one hard to take seriously – but it is such a glorious soap opera that I didn’t care. The performances, especially by Davis, are spot on and I was surprised by how much I was moved by the film. Sometimes, even a soap opera can be great.

6. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges)
Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story is an utterly delightful, hilarious screwball comedy. Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert are excellent as a married couple on hard economic times because his inventions never seem to go anywhere. She decides to divorce him, because she wants money, and heads to Palm Beach where divorces are quick, easy and cheap. He follows her down there to try and convince her to stay with him. On the way, she meets the impossibly rich Rudy Vallee, who is instantly taken with her, and when he arrives, he has to pretend to be her brother, and Vallee’s sister – Mary Astor (for once, not miscast) falls for him. The four principle actors are all great, the movie moves with a wicked velocity throughout, with whip smart dialogue, and Sturges keeping things humming. If I have one complaint about the movie, it’s the too fast conclusion, which is just silly, but other than that, The Palm Beach Story is one of the best comedies of its time.

5. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)
The great Jacques Tourneur may have directed Cat People, but I think producer Val Lewton has to get much of the credit for its success. This was his first production, and perhaps his best. Like many of his productions, the movies surface makes it look like a low rent horror film – a story of a woman, Simone Simon, who becomes jealous of her husband and his affection for another woman, and literally transforms into a wild jungle cat and kills. We never see the actual cat – but this only makes it all the more scary, as the movie uses shadows and sounds to suggest a lot more than we actually see. What Cat People is really about though is sexual repression. Simon is disgusted by the lust she feels in herself, and cannot control it – thus turning her into a wild animal. Simon is given a nearly impossible role, and plays it to perfection – she is sympathetic, mysterious and creepy all at the same time. So many horror films try to scare us with what the show the audience, and as such, they lose all suspense. Cat People shows us next to nothing, but gets under your skin and stays there. It is a marvelous film.

4. Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges)
Sullivan’s Travels is one of Preston Sturges’ best films. It stars Joel McCrea as a Hollywood director tired of making shallow comedies that he feels are beneath him. He wants to make a serious movie about the plight of the poor. To research this, he plans on living like a hobo, but somehow he always ends up back in Hollywood. On the road, he meets the beautiful Veronica Lake, a failed actress on the verge of quitting the business – and the two fall in love, but are held apart by circumstances beyond their control – like him getting beat up, thrown on a train, losing his memory and ending up in jail! The movie is slightly more serious than many of Sturges’ films – and can be read as a defense of himself always making comedies instead of serious dramas (the movie argues that escapism does more good to the downtrodden then being confronted by their everyday reality on the screen). Sturges was a master at making comedies – and while I think The Lady Eve is clearly his best film, Sullivan’s Travels is a masterwork in its own right.

3. To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be was a daring comedy in its day. Set in Warsaw just before and during the Nazi occupation of the city, the movie is about an acting trope who gets involved with the resistance. Jack Benny is the famed leading man, and his wife is played by Carole Lombard. Both are famed for their work on stage, but their marriage is faltering, as Lombard has begun an affair with a young Polish officer – Robert Stack. When Stack is shipped out to war, he becomes aware that one of the people he meets is really a Nazi spy – he comes back to Poland, and Lombard and Benny agree to help kill him. All of this could have been a serious war era drama – something like Fritz Lang’s Hangman Also Die – but Lubitsch and his cast turn it into a glorious, hilarious farce. Many people thought that the film was disrespectful, and the critics initially hated the film. But Lubitsch created a true masterpiece with this film – merging satire with the reality of the Nazis in Poland. The film takes lots of shots at the Nazis throughout, but it is also a film about acting. Sometimes a film reviled in its own time takes years to be able to see properly – that is certainly the case here, as To Be or Not to Be is one of the best films made by one of the cinema’s best directors.

2. Ossessione (Luchino Visconti)
Luchino Visconti’s debut film is often referred to as the first Italian neo-realist movie – which is a little odd considering that the film is a noir story. Visconti couldn’t get the rights to the book The Postman Always Rings Twice, so taking a page of F.W. Murnau’s book, he just decided to go ahead and make the film anyway. The story follows the James Cain pretty closely, with its tale of a wandering drifter who has an affair with the wife of a restaurant owner. The two lovers then decide to kill her boorish husband, and try to live happily ever after – but of course, this being a noir film, that cannot happen. The only real difference is in Visconti’s style – and how he made the film more realistic, and used it to comment on the everyday realities in Italy, rather than just be an escapist movie. The performances help a great deal – with excellent work done by Massimo Grotti as the drifter and Clara Calamari as his lover, and femme fatale. Visconti would go on to make a lot of great films in his career – the best probably being The Leopard – but I have a soft spot for Ossessione, because it brilliantly combines neo-realism and noir, something that is difficult to achieve. A stunning achievement by one of the greats of the cinema.

1. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
It is one of the great tragedies in cinema history that we will never get to see The Magnificent Ambersons the way Orson Welles intended it to be seen. After a rough couple of preview screenings, the studio took the film away from Welles, cut out nearly an hour of the running time and tacked on a happy ending. Apparently the excised scenes were destroyed, and a fabled print that was sent to Welles in Brazil, where he was working on another film, has never been found. Having said all of that, what remains of Ambersons is a masterpiece in its own right – and surely one of Welles’ great achievements. The film is about three generations of the wealthy Amberson family, and how they slowly fall apart. The main thrust of the story concerns George (Tim Holt), the youngest generation, who is horrified to discover that his mother (Dolores Costello) was once in love with a man he despises (Joseph Cotton), even as George is courting his daughter (Anne Baxter). The relationship between George and his mother is close – too close, and incest is certainly hinted at as the movie progresses. George is a spoiled child, who treats others cruelly, and grows up to be a rich kid who wants to do nothing but spend his family’s money. Everyone seems to be waiting for him to get his “comeuppance”. The film is wonderfully directed by Welles – his camera moving effortlessly, the cool tone of the film, highlighted by Welles’ detached narration. The studio sanctioned ending does indeed feel tacked on, and contrary to what came before. Having said that though, The Magnificent Ambersons still stands head and shoulders above anything else released this year. It is still a masterpiece, and it’s a shame we will never get to see it as Welles intended.

Just Missed The Top 10: Across the Pacific (John Huston), The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler), Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler), Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock), This Gun for Hire (Frank Tuttle).

Notable Films Missed: Johnny Eager (Mervyn LeRoy), Kings Row (Sam Wood), The Pied Piper (Irving Pichell), The Pride of the Yankees (Sam Wood), Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy), Wake Island (John Farrow).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler)
Mrs. Miniver is one of those patriotic films made during the war that the Academy felt they had to give the Oscar to. True, America wasn’t in the war at this point, but this film, about an English family affected by the war, seemed like a good way to give their allies support during their effort. William Wyler certainly made much better films in his career than this one – at times; the film is rather clunky and feels a little too false, too phony to really be believed. But it is a decent film from the era, and it is anchored by a great performance by Greer Garson. The Magnificent Ambersons should have won – but given what the studio did to that film it is a minor miracle that they even nominated it in the first place, so I guess we should just count our blessings.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy
Obviously I felt there were 9 better movies this year than Yankee Doodle Dandy, but no matter how great they were, I don’t think there was a lead actor performance better than Cagney’s this year (although the two by McCrea in the Sturges movies and Jack Benny in To Be or Not to Be come close). Cagney carries this entire movie based on his charisma alone, and he really is called upon to do practically everything over the course of the movie. Without Cagney, I think the film would have long since been forgotten – with him, it is considered a classic, so no complaints from me.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver
Greer Garson doesn’t really get her due anymore. She is mainly forgotten by most people, despite her beauty and her talent, I think because she really didn’t make as many truly great films as her more famous contemporaries. That really is too bad, because Garson was a wonderful actress. In Mrs. Miniver she plays the title character – the brave housewife who stays home as her husband and son go off to war and helps to keep the home front going. Yes, the movie is a cheesy in places, and phony in others, but Garson somehow keeps the whole thing moving along nicely. Out of the nominees, I do think that Bette Davis was better in Now, Voyager – but the best performances of the year were overlooked – Carole Lombarde in To Be or Not to Be (she couldn’t even get nominated for her role and she died tragically before the film came out!) and Claudette Colbert in The Palm Beach Story.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Van Heflin, Johnny Eager
I haven’t seen Johnny Eager, so I really cannot comment on Van Heflin’s performance in the movie – but I at least have to say it sounds interesting. Robert Taylor is a hood who falls for Lana Turner, and tries to use her to get the permit he needs to open a race track. Heflin is Taylor’s best friend – a drunk, philosopher who acts as his conscience, and apparently he gives the role some gay overtones in his feelings towards Taylor. Not sure why I never caught this one – perhaps because it’s only been available on DVD for less than a year.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver
Teresa Wright was a great actress, who delivered any number of Oscar worthy performances – think of her in Shadow of a Doubt, Pursued, The Best Years of Our Lives and the Little Foxes. With those performances on her resume, it is a little disappointing that she won her Oscar for this one. It isn’t that Wright is bad in Mrs. Miniver – far from it – she has perhaps never been more beautiful than she is here. But she is playing the kind of idealized woman during wartime that only ever existed in the movies – right down to her beautiful death scene. It’s fine work – but with Agnes Moorehead (who criminally never won an Oscar) delivering perhaps her career best work in The Magnificent Ambersons, it is hard to justify Wright winning this award.

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