Monday, August 15, 2022

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1936: Double Features

Now that we've looked at the 1936 Best Picture nominees, let's discuss some non-nominated films. Here are ten that I think would make great double features with those nominees:

As You Like It

One of those Shakespearan drag king scenarios. Rosalind is the daughter of an exiled Duke, who is then herself driven into hiding by that Duke's nefarious brother. She disguises herself as a boy and, alongside her cousin, escapes into Arden Forest, where her father and his loyal followers also hide, as does a young man Orlando who met pre-disguise Rosalind at court and fell in love. Things happen. Elisabeth Bergner stars, her follow-up to her Academy Award-nominated work in Escape Me Never. Laurence Olivier is here, too, in his first Shakespeare for cinema. Bergner's really good! Olivier's really hot! Pair it with Romeo and Juliet, 1936's other Shakespeare offering.

The Green Pastures

In a Black town, a preacher regales the local children with tales from the Bible, from Creation all the way through to King Balthasar of Babylon and beyond into a vague war. Written and co-directed by the White author Marc Connelly, the film claims to be a representation of the Bible as translated through the folklore of the Black community. The limitations of Connelly's imagination regarding Black culture reveal themselves in various ways: the stilted dialogue White authors insisted on writing for "authentic" Black characters, for instance, or the catfish cookout in Heaven, or Heaven itself depicted as a sort of headquarters with Da Lawd as master and Gabriel as overseer, or sinners never being far from a game of dice and flickknife. He just cannot think of the Black man as being more than three steps away from the Plantation. But then there are genuinely intriguing interpretations of Old Testament tales and of Da Lawd Himself that suggest something far more complex. I quite liked the idea of God beginning mankind as a sort of curiosity, then growing frustrated and tuning out for quite some time; it's only the relentless faith of mortals in the film's climax that turns His doubts into faith for mankind's future. There's also an effective depiction of Cain, himself horrified at what he has done, what it means for himself and the world that he is capable of such a thing. And, of course, there are the effects and the sets and costumes, imaginatively executed all. More than a curiosity, a thought-provoking take on theology and White ideas of race. Pair it with Anthony Adverse for another sprawling tale with an imperfect protagonist who gives up on life before a Man of Faith brings him around.

Mary of Scotland

What is it about this story that has so captivated filmmakers? So many treat her as naive, disliked (though they insist by a small but powerful minority, they decline to actually portray that), overly romantic, generally ineffective. What's the appeal? I ask that of myself, for I don't think I've completely disliked a single film about her, being a big fan of both the 1971 film overall and the 2018 film's score. In this case, I admire the performances delivered by Katharine Hepburn (waving away any attempt at French-Scots in favor of Katharine Hepburn) and John Carradine as a trusted courtier, with a special tip o' the cap to Florence Eldridge's paranoid Elizabeth I. Most of all, though, I want to praise the cinematography by Joseph H. August, every frame makes you go, "Oh!" Pair it with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, another story of principles and conspiracy.

Modern Times

It took some years, but Chaplin finally made a sound film. Modern Times sees his Little Tramp character working in a factory that's becoming increasingly automatized (he's literally caught in the gears at one point; at another, the test subject for a machine that will reduce lunch breaks). After a nervous breakdown, he meets The Gamine (Paulette Goddard), a young woman whose father is dead and whose siblings have been taken to the orphanage, never to be seen again. One of the great Depression comedies (Gold Diggers of 1933 is another one), its inventive sense of humor and dreamlike interludes are constantly commenting on the desperate straits of the working-class. Think of that sequence where the two lovers spend the night in a department store: plenty of room, stock full of necessities, a charming interlude with roller skates - only accessible through work connections and sneakthievery. Yet that roller skates interlude is there, and it ends with a message of hope - there's always beauty to be found (or forced!). Pair it with A Tale of Two Cities, another romance commenting on class tension. 


Charles Laughton soulfully plays the celebrated painter from widowerhood through to the sunset of his own life. His work is commissioned, then derided. He knows the Old Testament and hobnobs with the Jewish community. He hires a homeless man (Roger Livesey, great in this) to pose for him. He keeps a common-law wife so as not to lose the money from his late wife's estate. He's complex, thoughtful, carnal, hard-drinking. At times I felt like I was watching Mr. Turner again - a compliment! It's a beautiful movie. Pair it with The Story of Louis Pasteur, another bio about a misunderstood genius.

Rose Marie

Opera star Marie de Flor has a secret brother who's escaped from prison. She goes to look for and help him and winds up falling in love with a Canadian Mountie also in search of her brother. The second teaming of Naughty Marietta's Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy is just as good as the first. Eddy is more comfortable and confident in front of the camera, and if MacDonald was a revelation in the first, she shows herself to be a true Thespian here, capped by a third-act breakdown. Should've been a Dance Direction nominee for "Totem Tom-Tom." Rushed third act and a horror-show hammy Reginald Owen are my only complaints. Pair it with San Francisco for the full range of Jeanette MacDonald's talents.

Show Boat

A young woman gets her big break when the star performer of her dad's showboat is exposed as being mixed race; we then follow the young woman's career. Listen, they're working with the story they have, and that story happens to be about a white woman finding stardom in her parents' theatre company thanks to racism and a Black woman's constant self-sacrifice. You see the "subplots" around her and wonder how hers is the story worth telling, rather than, say, Joe's or Julie's. If - and it's a big if, I grant ye - if you can get past that...what a movie! Not a single bad performance, every song a hit, such detail in the sets and costumes! If you're not moved to tears by Paul Robeson's "Ol' Man River," what kind of stone are you made of? Pair it with The Great Ziegfeld to see the man behind the musical.

Song of China

The first Chinese film with a sound track - though there's no dialogue, just a score with a song sung at the end. Also the first Chinese film to have major domestic distribution in the United States. The current available cut runs just about 46 minutes; the original, 65. That 19-minute difference may explain the superficial qualities of the narrative. It opens with a patriarch on his deathbed drumming filial piety into his son; the next act sees the son trying to raise his children right, but they embrace the fast-and-loose liberalism of City Life; now in middle age, husband and wife open up an orphanage; and it ends with the now aged patriarch giving the same advice his father did to his coterie of orphans. It happens just like that, click click click, very little complexity. Not a good movie, in my opinion. Pair it with Dodsworth for another (better) look at the changing face of the typical family/marriage.

Too Many Parents

The movie opens with three boys, for various reasons, being sent to military school. It then focuses on none of them. Instead, our lead is a nice boy, the head of the class, whose archaeologist father is so absent he refuses to even write to the boy. Frances Farmer is a receptionist who takes motherly care of the boy. It's nice! Pair it with Three Smart Girls for more light-hearted tension between parents and offspring.

Wife vs. Secretary

Clark Gable runs an ad agency, just as devoted to his job as he is to his wife, Myrna Loy. Jean Harlow is his secretary, equally devoted to her job, and their mutual dedication to work sends tongues wagging, straining his marriage. Reasonable misunderstandings, as opposed to unreasonable ones, with one exception: why can't he tell his wife about his business? I guess that's one of those cultural morĂ©s you had to be there for. Anyway, loved this one, Loy and Harlow play beautifully off each other. Pair it with Libeled Lady for more Myrna Loy-Jean Harlow love spats.

Tomorrow, a look at the thrillers and chillers of 1936!

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