Friday, September 24, 2010

Year in Review: 1944

1944 was not the greatest year for movie of the 1940s – for some reason I think there was many more propaganda films released this year than any of the other wartime years. Many of the films on this list also fall into that category, although there are at least two (by one director no less) that flew in the face of that propaganda, and some that didn’t even bother being about the war at all. While I wouldn’t say 1944 is a great year for movies, it is good one.

10. Henry V (Laurence Olivier)
While I have never been one of those people who believe that Laurence Olivier is the greatest actor of all time, I have to admit that normally when the man takes on Shakespeare, he can deliver a performance that few, if any, can equal. Henry V was Olivier first film as a director, and in my mind, is infinitely better than his Oscar winning Hamlet a few years later (which is strange, because Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play). Olivier, the director, makes the daring and brilliant decision to stage the movie (at least at the beginning and end) as a play at the famous Globe theater. From there, Olivier expands the action outwards. Made at the height of WWII, Henry V was meant to be a patriotic rabal rouser in England – and it is (as it omits to mention who England lost France a short time later) – Olivier’s direction of this movie is colorful and superb from beginning to end. His performance as the larger than life Henry is also one of his best screen performances ever. While I do think that there are several Shakespeare movies better than this one, it has to stand as a landmark film.

9. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
A Canterbury Tale is a strange little film from the greatest of filmmaking teams, Powell and Pressburger. It a strange movie for several reasons – among them that almost none of it actually takes place in Canterbury, but instead in the fictional small town of Kent right outside of it. It is here that an American Sergeant (John Sweet) mistakenly gets off the train, and ends up spending almost his entire leave in the town with the beautiful Sheila Sim, a British girl sent to the town to work on a farm. She is barely off the train when she has glue poured on her hair by a mysterious assailant. So the two of them, who discover that there have been a rash of glue attacks in recent months, team up to try and track down the glue guy. But that’s really just an excuse to spend time in this small town, get to know its people, and develop the relationship between the characters. The film was meant to bring Americans and the British closer together during the war years, and is a sweet, sentimental little movie. Powell and Pressburger have no doubt made greater films together in their career, but there is something about A Canterbury Tale that works just about perfectly for the type of movie it is.

8. Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra)
Frank Capra was mainly known for his inspirational dramas like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, but with Arsenic and Old Lace he made a wicked black, screwball comedy. Cary Grant is excellent as a man who marries the woman of his dreams, and returns home to his family. His two aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) have taken to murdering eldery, lonely bachelors out of kindness. One of his brothers (John Alexander) thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt, and helps to bury the victims in the basement. Then his other brother (Raymond Massey), another serial killer, who had plastic surgery done to him by a drunk doctor (Peter Lorre) so that he looks like Boris Karloff shows up. Like all great screwball comedies, the jokes come fast and furuious – and Grant is a master at them, and makes his character, who is essentially the straight man in a family of nuts – into a sympathetic guy, even while running around half crazed trying to sort everything out. The entire supporting cast is excellent as well. Capra will always be remembered for those inspiring movies, but Arsenic and Old Lace proves he could do more.

7. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang)
Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window is one of the directors best film noirs. It stars a mild mannered Edward G. Robinson as a Professor who sees a portrait of the beautiful Joan Bennett and becomes instantly enamored with her. When he meets her in real life, he is helpless to resist her charms – and eventually becomes a murderer because of them. Enter the great Dan Dureya as he tries to blackmail Robinson, and things get worse from there. The performances by the three leads (who would be even better the following year in Lang’s Scarlett Street) are wonderful, and the film is one of the original film noirs (at least one of the ones originally listed when the term was coined by the French). The twisty, bendy plot is a pleasure to watch unfold, and there are several sequences – most notably one with Robinson driving with the dead body in his car – that are masterfully handled by Lang. This film would have easily been higher on this list had it not been for one thing – the absolute cheat of an ending. I’m not sure if it was such a cliché in 1944 to end a movie like this one does, but it sure is now, and I felt cheated out what should have been a masterpiece.

6. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges)
The comedies of Preston Sturges were always a little more daring than most comedies to come out of the studio era in the 1940s – and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek could be his most daring. It stars Betty Hutton as a small town girl with a soft spot for soldiers. After a long, drunken party for a group of men heading off to war, she wakes up the next day to discover that she married one of the soldiers, whose name she doesn’t quite remember, and is now pregnant. Mild mannered Eddie Bracken, who couldn’t get into the army and has always loved Hutton, steps into help, and somehow ends up a wanted criminal, before the inevitable happy ending. I have no idea how the hell this movie slipped passed the censors – its depiction of soldiers, of drunkenness and pregnancy with someone who don’t even remembered was scandalous at the time. But even now that the scandal has faded, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek remains one of the best comedies of its time – an hilarious, daring satire from one of the best comedic directors in history.

5. Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges)
Hail the Conquering Hero is an interesting and hilarious comedy from Preston Sturges. It stars Eddie Bracken, in probably his best role, as a man who finds it impossible to live up to the legacy of his father, who died a hero in WWI. Bracken joined the Marines at the start of WWII, but was quickly discharged because of his hay fever. Not wanting to come back to his small town a failure, he pretends to be overseas fighting in the war, when really he is just working in a shipyard. He meets some Marines in a bar, and they decide to help him – they call his mother and tell her that her son is a hero, has gotten a medical discharge and will be home soon. By the time Bracken does get home, the Marines in tow, this lie has blossomed and the entire town thinks he is a hero and rushes to greet him. He keeps up the charade for as long as he possibly can. Hail the Conquering Hero is a wonderful screwball comedy, with all of the Sturges trademarks working at top speed, but it is more than that too. It is actually a daring, clever satire on Americans hero uncritical hero worship – the way they attach themselves to people to make themselves seem better. To be made at all is quite an accomplishment, but to be made during WWII is almost unthinkable. Yet somehow, Sturges pulled it off brilliantly.

4. To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks)
The story goes that Ernest Hemingway made a drunken bet with director Howard Hawks that Hawks could turn Hemingway’s worst novel into a great movie. Even though Hawks had to alter the story significantly, I still feel safe in saying that he won the bet. Humphrey Bogart plays a role similar to the one he played in Casablanca. This time, he is an American Fishing boat Captain in the Caribbean under the Vichy regime in 1940, shortly after France’s fall to Germany. He is trying to remain neutral, but broke, he agrees to help smuggle some French resistence members – and thinks spiral from there. The joy of the movie to watch Bogart, once again the cynic just trying to survive, and Lauren Bacall, in her first screen role and their instant on screen chemistry (this is the one where she teaches Bogie how to whistle). The film also boasts an impressive supporting cast – I especially liked an over the top Walter Brennan and Bogart’s drunk friend. The film wasn’t much of a critical hit at the time, but for me, it shows Hawks at his very best – a great little film that is more than just Bogie and Bacall.

3. Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock)
Sometimes I think Alfred Hitchcock made some of his films just to prove that he could pull it off. Lifeboat is a movie like that. It is a film that has one location, a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with American and British citizens aboard after their ship, and a German U-boat, sink each other during WWII. Things become heated when a German survivor (Walter Slezak) is pulled aboard. Some want to throw him over and let him drown, but it is decided that he is a prisoner of war, and thus, is allowed to stay. How Hitchcock made a movie with one location as stunning cinematically as he did is beyond me (he even gets himself his usual cameo appearance), but he succeeds wonderfully well. Things start off well between the passengers, as they work together, but the longer they are out there, they more frustrated they become, and the more their lives before being stranded become an issue for them to deal with. And in the end, they end up right back where they started from. Lifeboat does not quite rank among Hitchcock’s best films – it contains a little too much wartime propaganda for that perhaps – but it is still a stunning achievement by one of the best directors in history.

2. Laura (Otto Preminger)
Otto Preminger’s Laura, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo more than a decade later, is a thriller about a man who falls in love with a dead woman. If Hitchcock’s film is the better of the two, it’s because I think he followed that dark obsession deeper than Preminger did. That’s not to take away from this great film. It stars Dana Andrews as a cop investigating the murder of the title character (Gene Tierney). After taking to her friends, including her mentor (Clifton Webb), her fiancée (Vincent Price), her aunt (Judith Anderson) and her housekeeper (Dorothy Adams), and piecing her life before her death together via flashbacks, and looking longingly at her picture, Andrews finds himself inexcplicably in love with the girl – and that’s only the setup, not the payoff to the movie. Preminger’s movie twists and turns itself inside out, and although the plot is intricate, he never falters in building the mood and suspense of the movie as well. The performances, especially by Webb, are all great and the movie has a great climax. Preminger directed several great movies, but I think Laura is probably his best.

1. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
Double Indemnity is one of the most famous of all film noirs, and in many ways is sort of the protypical example of the genre. Poor Fred MacMurray is too dumb to realize that Barabara Stanwyck is playing him until it is far too late. He narrates his tale, about how he was taken in by her charms and seductions into murdering her husband. But instead of making it easy, she wants to make the death appear like an accident – that way the double indemnity clause on his insurance will kick in and she’ll get twice as much money. She lays it on thick, telling MacMurray what an awful man her husband is, and how happy they can be together once he is dead. But, of course, when the deed is done it only makes things more complicated – especially when Edward G. Robinson, who works for the insurance company, starts investigating the death. Billy Wilder, making one of his only forays into the genre, was crafted an impeccable, dark film that ends the only way it possibly could (which is odd since the original novel had a different ending, as did the film itself). While I do think that several film noirs are better than Double Indemnity, it certainly does stand as one of the best films the genre ever produced – and an easy choice for the best film of the year.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Children Are Watching Us (Vittorio De Sica), Gaslight (George Cukor), Going My Way (Leo McCarey), Ivan the Terrible Part I (Sergei Eistenstein), Jane Eyre (Robert Stevenson).

Notable Films Missed: Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minelli), None But the Lonely Heart (Clifford Odets), Since You Went Away (John Cromwell), Under the Bridges (Helmut Kautner), Wilson (Henry King).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Going My Way (Leo McCarey)
Going My Way is shameless, sentimental schmaltz. But it is entertaining shameless, sentimental schmaltz, and I for one prefer it over its much more famous sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s the following year. Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald are in fine form as two priests for the same church – Crosby is brought into to liven up a congregation sleepy under the aging Fitzgerald. Director Leo McCarey keeps things moving along nicely, and makes the most of Crosby’s singing as well. I don’t necessarily think it is a great film, but it is one that I enjoyed watching. Yes, Double Indemnity should have won, but considering how infrequently the Academy recognized film noir, is it any wonder it didn’t? A safe, unimaginative choice to be sure, but I’ve seen much worse.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Bing Crosby, Going My Way
Bing Crosby was one of the biggest stars in the world at the time that Going My Way came out. Most often teamed with Bob Hope, in a series of comic misadventures where Hope told all the jokes, and Crosby did all the singing, he wanted to prove he could actually act as well, so he jumped at this role. It isn’t a great role, but it is perfect for Crosby, who does it as well as I think it could have been done. Given the other nominees were not terrific either, I can’t complain too much about this.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
Ingrid Bergman is one of my all time favorite actresses, so I am happy that over the course of her career she won three Oscars. But why the Academy picked the three performances she won for (this along with Anatasia and Murder on the Orient Express), I’ll never know. None of her Oscar wins represent Bergman at her best. Oh well. Bergman is still wonderful as a woman whose husband (Charles Boyer) is trying to make her think she is going crazy, but I would have rather she won for something else. After all, I think a young Angela Lansbury is actually the best thing about this movie. Poor Barbara Stanwyck, who never won an Oscar despite any number of great performances, should have taken this one easily.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way
I love Barry Fitzgerald in any number of movies – The Naked City and The Quiet Man come to mind – and he plays his role as the crotchety older priest in this movie about as well as you could expect him to. I wouldn’t have voted for him, especially with Clifton Webb’s performance in Laura nominated alongside him, but I don’t think the Academy had much of a choice. After all, Fitzgerald’s work in Going My Way set Oscar history – he is the only actor ever to be nominated for Both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor FOR THE SAME PERFORMANCE. There was no rule saying you couldn’t be at the time, but they quickly changed that after this year. I have no idea what the hell they do know if someone gets enough votes in both categories, but they don’t allow to happen anymore.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart
I have not seen None But the Lonely Heart, despite the fact that I like Barrymore and love Cary Grant – who received one of only his two Oscar nominations for his work in the film. I have never heard anyone – including my mother who is the biggest Cary Grant fan I know – refer to this movie very positively, and it seems to have been mostly forgotten. I’ll try to catch up with one day when it plays on TCM – until then, whether or not Barrymore actually deserved to win remains a mystery to me.

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