Tuesday, October 4, 2022

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1946: Winter Into Spring

Isn't this something? Yesterday, we talked about 1945 films that somehow qualified for the 1946 Oscars; today, we talk about the first three months of 1946 cinema. And I say "isn't this something" because, between the two, they give us nine of the 36 nominees eventually up for Academy Awards, a full 1/4 of the whole lineup. With few exceptions, these days we rarely discuss films released before October!

January through mid-March, here are a baker's dozen of 1946 flicks:

Tomorrow is Forever
release date: January

How to explain this one? Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert are married, he goes off to war (WWI), bomb explodes, he thinks he's too mutilated to make her happy and allows himself to be declared KIA; twenty later he returns, an Austrian refugee in the employ of George Brent whose wife is, of course, Colbert. A fine melodrama. Welles breaks your heart as the man trying to keep his lie going, trying to do the right thing even as he finally finally meets the son he didn't know he had. Lot of discussion about the balance of duty to one's country, one's principles, and one's family. Brent's pretty good, Colbert's always great, makeup and cinematography effective. I loved it.

The Harvey Girls
release date: January 18
winner: Best Original Song ("On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe")
nominee: Best Musical Score (Lennie Hayton)

Judy joins up with the Harvey Girls, the ladies who serve in the railroad-adjacent Harvey House Restaurants in the West, at a remote stop - and not all the locals like it! "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe" is one of those musical numbers whose perfect execution - the music, the lyrics, the camera work, the ensemble's commitment - left me in tears, overwhelmed by the musical majesty on screen; let us also, note, though, Virginia O'Brien's showcase "The Wild, Wild West" and the trio "It's a Great Big World." Judy Garland does this quiver with her lower lip in one scene with John Hodiak that communicates so much sexual excitement and nervousness, it feels too intimate, too voyeuristic, to keep watching...so of course, one must! Such use of color and texture in the costumes and sets! Maybe the best Angela Lansbury performance on film? Just terrific!

release date: January 25
nominee: Best Art Direction - Black-and-White

A Pygmalion riff where a street thief catches the eye of an impoverished nobleman who teaches her how to be a lady so he can pass her off as one and she can use her wiles to further his career. A comedy about selfish people with some unexpectedly dark twists, though those never compromise the tone; cleverly, the writers and director Mitchell Leisen sardonically chuckle their way through. Constance Collier the standout as the nobleman's equally corrupt and lovable aunt.

My Reputation
release date: January 26

Widowed mother-of-two Barbara Stanwyck scandalizes the locals when she is so openly courted by a mysterious major, played wolfishly by George Brent. The script's repetitive in some areas, Brent's too leering to root for, and Stanwyck's final moment with mom Lucile Watson feels unearned. But Stanwyck's great as a woman who refuses to allow her life to end just because that's what's expected. She makes the whole thing worthwhile: her breakdown necessitating a trip with Eve Arden (can we all go skiing with Eve Arden, please?), her constant switching between reticence and desire for this new love, her playfulness.
And there are some scenes with her sons that are really effective - unstated, you see where the older boy is trying to take on the role of Man of the House, taking Authoritative Stances, even awkwardly cupping his mother's chin (imitating a gesture of his father's?). Those dynamics ring true. I think recasting Brent would have gone a long way to pushing this film to near-perfect.

release date: February 1

A woman goes into catatonic shock when she witnesses a murder from her hotel room - and her doctor is the killer, now determined to keep her crazy! Vincent Price stars in an unusually sympathetic role - unusual because, well, he is an adulterer, a murderer, a gaslighter, and a quack, and yet he is able to communicate that it is the confluence of circumstances that has brought him so low. Lynn Bari is his nurse and lover, Anabel Shaw their patient: terrific!

Terror by Night
release date: February 1

Sherlock Holmes has a mystery to solve on a train! Various elements of different Conan Doyle stories are brought together in one narrative. Once again, I am in awe of what one can do in 60 minutes: opening and closing credits, two harrowing action sequences, limitless suspects, clever and fair solution, and Nigel Bruce wandering about in his mustache. Sophisticated, suspenseful, great fun.

The Red Dragon
release date: February 2

Charlie Chan has a mystery to solve in Mexico City! I'm a fan of the Warner Oland movies; this Sidney Toler interpretation from Monogram Pictures...yeesh. His rigid, monotonous performance makes every twist and turn a "who cares?" affair. And if he seems bored, why wouldn't I be? Every performance - save Fortunio Bonanova as the local police - seems completely detached from what's happening, what's being said. And the howdunnit, oh brother. Skippable.

The Spiral Staircase
release date: February 7
nominee: Best Supporting Actress (Ethel Barrymore)

A mute woman is stalked by a mysterious killer targeting the disabled. Unexpectedly becomes one of those "we're all trapped in this big, spooky house!" thrillers with characters whose relationships are as indistinct as their performances are robotic, except for Dorothy McGuire as our heroine and Ethel Barrymore as the invalid mistress of the house. But dammit, it works! The sets, cinematography, editing, score, all come together for maximum chills. It's nonsense, but it's genuinely frightening nonsense.
The Seventh Veil
release date: February 15
winner: Best Original Screenplay (Murial Box / Sydney Box)

Girl becomes ward to an unfeeling man who pushes her to become a pianist; as her fame rises through the years, she soon becomes the object of affection for - and must choose between - three men. She's great, as is Herbert Lom as the psychologist who gets Todd to reveal these things - apparently, the seventh veil of the title is that final wall that people put up between them and their subconscious or something like that. James Mason is the brooding rich man, more Heathcliff than Rochester or Maxim de Winter, but cut from the same cloth as all three - just a pure, unlikable asshole. I hate the story and the screenplay - we'll get into that next week - and the movie's an overall bore for me, but clearly there are those for whom this works.

Little Giant
release date: February 22

Costello is a bumpkin whose uncle gets him a job as a vacuum cleaner salesman; Abbott has dual roles as a corrupt big-city district manager and his kinder, gentler cousin. Even by Costello's standards, his buffoon is naive past the point of credibility. Also one of those films whose twists and misunderstandings depend on unfounded jealousies, the "If you don't get in there right this moment, it'll ruin your life - but first, tell me why you know that other woman's first name?!" variety of story-telling. A happy ending is guaranteed, of course, but how it comes about is all off-screen. Pourquoi? Still, when it's funny, it's dynamite, as in an inventive multiplication lesson, a brief altercation with a woman who hates salesmen, and a revealing job interview.

Rome, Open City
release date: February 25
nominee: Best Screenplay (Sergio Amidei / Federico Fellini)

The fight between the underground in Rome and the Nazi occupiers. How can you not be moved by the performances from Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, and, especially, Aldo Fabrizi as the priest who uses his clerical robes as a cloak behind which he can serve his fellow men and women beyond a blessing, a wafer, and a prayer. Oh, what a tribute to the courage of the occupied, the strength of Community; what a document of the horror of the Nazis, the brutality of the occupier, the insanity of their mission. A jaw-dropping crowd scene at the halfway point, a moving final sequence with spare sound design: these I recall and am again awed by their power, the you-are-there naturalism of the camera and actors. 

To Each His Own
release date: March 12
winner: Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland)
nominee: Best Original Story (Charles Brackett)

The pending arrival of a young soldier reminds an older woman in London of her past, one that includes a hero killed in the Great War, a child born out of wedlock and given up, unexpected success in cosmetics, and tough decisions. The story? Humane, empathic. The sets? Detailed, lived-in, small-town America and London nightlife captured without caricature. The actors? Across the board stellar, from Griff Barnett as the old pharmacist father to Roland Culver as a kindly English lord to Victoria Horne as a street-wise nurse. De Havilland? Oh, we'll discuss that soon enough. The makeup? Subtle, convincing. The title? Dumb - it's her movie, who's this his, and what does it have to do with this story? See it!

The Kid from Brooklyn
release date: March 21

Remake of The Milky Way, this time with Danny Kaye and a few musical numbers, including the requisite sung monologue where Kaye does an accent. Kaye's fine, but pales in comparison to Harold Lloyd, though his scene with Fay Bainter is a keeper. Steve Cochran much better in his role than William Gargan. So-so songs.

Tomorrow: a good bit of crime - more Charlie Chan, more Sherlock Holmes, plus Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Blue Dahlia!

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