Sunday, July 2, 2023

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1948: Shakespeare, Writers, and the Year Before

This month we focus on the films of 1948. 

Why the films of 1948? If you've been reading for a while, you may recall that last year, I wanted to watch all the Best Picture nominees adapted from William Shakespeare. 1948 is an exceptional year in that regard - not only was a Shakespeare film nominated, but it was also the winner.

Further research and current events convinced me this was a good time to bring back 1948: this was the inaugural year of the Writers Guild Awards. Nowadays, it's a fairly standard Oscar precursor, awarding Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Documentary Screenplay. In its first year, however, the WGA Awards sought to honor every major genre and its unique position as an American Union with five categories: Drama, Comedy, Western, Musical, and the Robert Meltzer Award for Screenplay Dealing Most Ably With Problems of the American Scene. Television honors would be added later.

The Meltzer Award, by the way, is named for a screenwriter who died fighting the Nazis in 1944 only to be posthumously censured by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. In between, the WGA established an award in his honor, as a hat-tip to those writers whose work addresses what's happening in America now. When he was named by HUAC, the award was suspended.

So, there we are: Shakespeare and Writers Guild Awards. Let's hop right to it, shall we?

The journey begins before 1948. Back then, as now, a film qualified for the Oscars when it played Los Angeles for a week. I've tried to go by LA release dates where available, but sometimes all I can find is a general US release date. The following five films had their releases before 1948, but did not play Los Angeles until the next year (or, in one case, two years later). Still, they qualify for our purposes, and so here they are.

Girl of the Canal (aka Painted Boats)
release date: January 12, 1946
(recommended by Juan Carlos Ojano)

See, here's a perfect example: Released in the UK in 1945, it received its "general" release in the United States on October 6, 1947; more than a year previously, however, it made its debut Stateside in January 1946...on New York television. TV was still new-ish, so there weren't yet rules in place regarding a strictly theatrical exhibition in order to qualify for the Academy Awards. 

At just 48 minutes, it is a coming-of-age romance; a family drama; a documentary about a disappearing way of life. We've two families of canal workers - one with a motor, one being pulled by a horse on the shore - I question the efficiency of the latter but, then, so much of this film is about chipping away at the old ways of doing things in favor of modernity...and literacy. There's an intelligent son in the former, an intelligent daughter in the latter, they're attracted to each other, they've hopes and dreams, one kind of hankers for a life beyond, the other can't imagine a better way of life. It's just an interesting flick to watch unfold, especially since one gets to learn so much about a bygone way of life. Why canals? How did this become a way of life? Watch the film and find out for yourself!

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome
release date: September 26, 1947

The final of four Dick Tracy films first hit US cinemas in 1947. I love this series of films: while they don't consistently maintain the wink at German Expressionism in their sets and costumes, they sustain a straight-faced camp in their dialogue and storylines. Dick's almost a non-entity, but they know that. The draw is Boris Karloff as a villain using special nerve gas to rob banks, a villain so terrifying, even the cops are comparing him to...Boris Karloff. The man never phoned a performance in, and here he demonstrates a gift for deadpan comedy that makes one wonder what he could have done with the Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker contingent. A good time.

release date: November 26, 1947
(recommended by Juan Carlos Ojano)

Adapted from a story by Georges Simenon, the creator of Inspector Maigret. In the aftermath of a woman's murder, suspicion falls on a loner who is largely disliked socially but, otherwise, has nothing against him. No matter, the fact that people don't like him is enough to hang him in the court of public opinion. The film follows that tightening noose, even as the doomed man himself discovers the identity of the true killer, which he hides for the sake of the woman he loves. An allegory for the collaboration of French citizens during the Vichy period, it's a damning portrayal of mob mentality. Brilliant flick.

The Chinese Ring
release date: December 6, 1947

Our first Charlie Chan of the year! At this point, the barely-passable Sidney Toler had died, the reigns going to the not-even-trying Roland Winters, in his first of six appearances as the great detective. Here, a beautiful Chinese princess comes to Chan for help but, before he can even meet her, she is assassinated while waiting for him in his own study. The titular ring refers to the one she wears on her hand, announcing her status. The solution seems divined out of thin air. Ends with a horrifying misogynist joke that feels very out of character for Charlie Chan. Apparently a word-for-word remake of the Boris Karloff flick Mr. Wong in Chinatown. DIRE.

Beauty and the Beast
release date: December 23, 1947
(recommended by Juan Carlos Ojano and Joe Leydon)

You know the old story of the beauty who frees her father from an enchanted palace by taking his place; this version includes Belle's jealous siblings. Clever production design, jaw-dropping makeup effects, ingenious casting/role-doubling, sparkling cinematography: this is a masterpiece, magic to behold.

Tomorrow, the first 13 films released in 1948 - plus a look at the first Best Picture nominee of the year.

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