Monday, May 13, 2024

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1940: The #1 Film of the Year (and others)

OK, a day late, so we're gonna make up for it by having ten capsules today. Today's offerings include yet another Charlie Chan picture, a musical adaptation of Shakespeare, and the #1 moneymaker of 1940...

They Drive By Night
release: August 3
dir: Raoul Walsh
pr: Hal B. Wallis / Jack L. Warner
scr: Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay, from the novel The Long Haul by A.I. Bezzerides
cin: Arthur Edeson

The lives of truckers, focused on a man and his brother who still owe money on the truck, want to strike out on their own, and find themselves butting up against many obstacles - including a married femme fatale. George Raft stars with Humphrey Bogart as his brother, Ann Sheridan as the diner waitress he falls for, and Ida Lupino as the aforementioned femme. I love the first half of the movie, a drama about life behind the big wheel: falling asleep at the wheel, hustling to get a fair price for your shipment, navigating narrow roads and opportunists, at the mercy of the shipping bosses who chisel you every which way they can, the camaraderie among the drivers, the home-away-from-home that is a roadside diner. I also really like the second half of the movie, a thriller about an obsessed woman who'd kill for love - and even frame the guy she did it for out of spite. I don't think one transitions easily into the other and once it becomes a courtroom drama, the momentum suffers.

The Boys from Syracuse
release: August 9
nominations: Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (Jack Otterson), Best Special Effects (John P. Fulton, photographic; Bernard R. Brown / Joe Lapis, sound)
dir: A. Edward Sutherland
pr: Jules Levey
scr: Charles Grayson / Paul Gerard Smith / Leonard Spigelgass, from the play by George Abbott
cin: Joseph A. Valentine

A Rodgers and Hart musical adapted from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. Playing two sets of identical twins are Allan Jones (the noblemen) and Joe Penner (the slaves). A showcase for funnymen of the time: the aforementioned Penner, Charles Butterworth as a bored Duke of Ephesus, Alan Mowbray and Eric Blore play a pair of bitchy tailors. No one can hold a candle to Martha Raye, stealing the show with "The Greeks Had No Word For It" and "Sing For Your Supper." Ends with a great chariot chase.

Captain Caution
release: August 9
nominations: Best Sound Recording (Elmer Raguse, Hal Roach SSD)
dir: Richard Wallace
pr: Grover Jones / Richard Wallace
scr: Grover Jones, from the novel by Kenneth Roberts
cin: Norbert Brodine

A young woman and a trusted sailor take command of a vessel after the captain (her father) is killed by the British during the War of 1812. I guess Captain Caution is supposed to refer to Victor Mature's sailor, who is derided for his hesitation to enact swift vengeance, but if there's one thing I like about the movie, it's how immediately Louise Platt is accepted as the new captain. Not that her judgment is always sound, of course. Four original songs, the best being a French tune from Vivienne Osborne and a "ah, this woman,"-type song called "Hilda" performed by the sailors. Passable stuff.

Foreign Correspondent
release: August 16
nominations: Best Picture of the Year, Best Supporting Actor (Albert Bassermann), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (Alexander Golitzen), Best Special Effects (Paul Eagler, photographic; Thomas T. Moulton, sound)
dir: Alfred Hitchcock
pr: Walter Wanger
scr: Charles Bennett & Joan Harrison, dialogue by James Hilton & Robert Benchley, suggested by the book Personal History by Vincent Sheean
cin: Rudolph Maté

A bored reporter is reluctantly assigned to work abroad as a foreign correspondent...and stumbles on an international spy ring. Great sequences and fun performances. We'll talk more about it on Friday.

The Great McGinty
release: August 23
wins: Best Original Screenplay
dir/scr: Preston Sturges
pr: Buddy G. DeSylva / Paul Jones
cin: William C. Mellor

A bartender south of the border regales a customer with his journey from crook to politician to, finally, an honest man. An amusing political satire, a rare leading part for Brian Donlevy, a great turn from Akim Tamiroff as a crime boss using Donlevy for his own purposes. Give someone else the same material and the temptation for preachy sentimentality could be too much. This is Preston Sturges, though - indeed, it's his directorial debut - so even though there are principles to protect and outrage against how easily manipulated The System is, there is also a sardonic smirk to go with it. Wraps up neatly. Sturges would make stronger films almost immediately, but this is not to be dismissed.

Boom Town
release: August 30
nominations: Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Special Effects (A. Arnold Gillespie, photographic; Douglas Shearer, sound)
dir: Jack Conway
pr: Sam Zimbalist
scr: John Lee Mahin, from the story "A Lady Comes to Burkburnett" by James Edward Grant
cin: Harold Rosson

Two Texas oilmen experience the ups and downs of business, friendship, and their love for the same woman. The #1 movie of 1940 is a sweeping epic that goes from the rough-and-tumble oil fields to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. It's another Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy team-up - remember them in San Francisco? - and wow, they're great as buddies-turned-rivals-turned-buddies-turned-rivals-turned... An incredible oil fire sequence, men wearing full suits, hosed down, running into blazing infernos, the kind that curl and spiral - the danger is palpable. Also palpably dangerous: Hedy Lamarr as a calculating, seductive secretary, so bad she's goooood.

The Sea Hawk
release: August 31
nominations: Best Original Score (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (Anton Grot), Best Sound Recording (Nathan Levinson, Warner Bros. SSD), Best Special Effects (Byron Haskin, photographic; Nathan Levinson, sound)
dir: Michael Curtiz
pr: Hal B. Wallis / Jack L. Warner
scr: Howard Koch and Seton I. Miller
cin: Sol Polito

Swashbuckler with Errol Flynn as a pirate in the service of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I, fighting on England's behalf against Philip of Spain and his armada! Thrilling action scenes, people hopping from ship to ship, swords ready, cannons firing, yahoo! So why does the movie as a whole feel so, I don't know, phoned in? All that's missing are Olivia de Havilland and Basil Rathbone, otherwise it's your typical Flynn-Curtiz-Korngold. Flora Robson gives an interestingly unregal performance as Elizabeth. She delivers a speech at the end about how all free men must rise against a single tyrant bent on world domination, a clear call to arms against Hitler. Just odd that it's Elizabeth I. This one just didn't work for me.

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum
release: September 6
dir: Lynn Shores
scr: John Francis Larkin, from characters created by Earl Derr Biggers
cin: Virgil Miller

Charlie Chan solves a cold case at a wax museum that plays host to a true crime radio series. Uh-huh, uh-huh, ok, why not? Truly, the best Charlie Chan of the year, a single set full of plenty of opportunities for mistaken identity, creative hiding, skullduggery, and murder. Even 84 years ago, true crime was king! Charlie Chan gets to be especially condescending to everyone around him, which is my favorite Charlie Chan. Number Two son Victor Sen Yung has a good time. Atmospheric and fun.

Rhythm on the River
release: September 6
nominations: Best Original Song ("Only Forever" - music by James V. Monaco, lyrics by Johnny Burke)
dir: Victor Schertzinger
pr: William LeBaron
scr: Dwight Taylor, story by Jacques Théry / Billy Wilder
cin: Ted Tetzlaff

The ghosts for a popular and prolific songwriter (who hasn't written his own stuff in years) meet and fall in love - and want to strike out on their own! Bing Crosby and Mary Martin are the ghosts, music and lyrics respectively, they're good together. Really like Basil Rathbone playing the songwriter, not the wicked villains he's used to, but a deeply flawed, frightened man who must play antagonist because, after all, he has a career and lifestyle to maintain. I don't much remember the songs, which seems a shame for a movie like this.

The Howards of Virginia
release: September 19
nominations: Best Original Score (Richard Hageman), Best Sound Recording (Jack Whitney, General Service SSD)
dir/pr: Frank Lloyd
scr: Sidney Buchman, from the novel by Elizabeth Page
cin: Bert Glennon

Tensions between a rustic farmer and his aristocratic wife in the years leading up to the American Revolution. A slog. Cary Grant looks lost, so much so, he's upstaged by Richard Carlson, of all people, playing a very mild-mannered Thomas Jefferson. A shame.

Tomorrow, a Best Picture nominee and a movie I can't stop thinking about.

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