Wednesday, May 15, 2024

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1940: Enter Zorro

Continuing the journey through 1940 with two Best Picture nominees, two Oscar winners, Zorro, and more: 

They Knew What They Wanted
release: October 19
nominations: Best Supporting Actor (William Gargan)
dir: Garson Kanin
pr: Erich Pommer
scr: Robert Ardrey, from the play by Sidney Howard
cin: Harry Stradling, Sr.

One of those "you think it's about this, but it's about this" movies. Immigrant vineyard owner Tony Patucci falls in love during a business trip with a younger San Francisco waitress he's never even spoken to, wooing her by letter enough so that she takes him up on the offer of marriage. Problem is, the snapshot he included in the letters is of his younger foreman, a guy who goes where the wind takes him. You think it's going to be a romantic-comedy, it certainly begins amusingly enough, but it becomes more of a tragedy about two young people, brought together by an unselfish man for once indulging in romanticism, unable to resist each other but unwilling to be honest about it to themselves or to him. Very good movie, I thought, but how could it lose with that cast: Charles Laughton, Carole Lombard (especially terrific here, gosh), Harry Carey?

North West Mounted Police
release: October 22
wins: Best Film Editing (Anne Bauchens)
nominations: Best Original Score (Victor Young), Best Cinematography - Color, Best Art Direction - Color (Hans Dreier / Roland Anderson), Best Sound Recording (Loren L. Ryder, Paramount SSD)
dir/pr: Cecil B. DeMille
scr: Alan Le May & Jesse Lasky, Jr. and C. Gardner Sullivan, from the novel The Royal Canadian Mounted Police by R.C. Fetherstonhaugh
cin: W. Howard Greene / Victor Milner

A Texas Ranger follows the trail of a murderer to Canada; the Ranger teams up with the Mounties to catch the man, especially since he's arming and encouraging an uprising of Métis against the colonial government. Gorgeous Technicolor, detailed sets and costumes, a large ensemble perfectly playing every part, wild accents - it's a Cecil B. de Mille picture, all right! Gary Cooper leads, very ably, of course, though the supporting cast is really top drawer: Robert Preston as a young Mountie in love with a Métis woman; Paulette Goddard as that Métis woman, who may love Preston but despises the whites and what they've done to her people; Lynne Overman as the Scotsman fighting alongside the Mounted Police; Akim Tamiroff as the French Métis, a friendly rival of the Scotsman; Madeleine Carroll as a white nurse torn between the communities; and George Bancroft as the merciless, furious Jacques Corbeau. Loved the action, the writing...well, yes, the movie!

Christmas in July
release: October 24
dir/scr: Preston Sturges
pr: Buddy G. DeSylva / Paul Jones
cin: Victor Milner

I wish I could summarize this movie as quickly as it runs. Basically, a small-time clerk enters a slogan contest - he enters contests constantly - and his co-workers pull a prank, fooling him into thinking he's finally won one. And then he starts spending the money... Swift at 67 minutes, and packs a lot of heart in. The opening with Dick Powell and Ellen Drew, wistfully daydreaming (nightdreaming?) about what they could do with more money...or couldn't they be happy as they are? Has the funniest moment of the year, where Powell's boss, who'd never even heard of him before his good fortune, suddenly changes tune: "I've had my eye on him for some time." And after a perfect pause of 1, 2, 3 - from off-screen: "Huh?" The Great McGinty has the Oscar, but this is the year's best Sturges film.

Arise, My Love
release: November 8
wins: Best Original Story
nominations: Best Score (Victor Young), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (Hans Dreier / Robert Usher)
dir: Mitchell Leisen
pr: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
scr: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, adaptation by Jacques Théry, original story by Benjamin Glazer and Hans Székely
cin: Charles Lang

An American pilot who volunteers his services for anti-Fascist groups overseas and a lady reporter find love as the world erupts into war. Blending romantic-comedy and wartime drama, allowing both our protagonists to flourish as they try to decide whether their love can survive not just the war, but their individual callings. Raymond Massey and Claudette Colbert star, their chemistry obvious as soon as they start exchanging dialogue. Scene where war breaks out as they "honeymoon" with other Europeans is poignant. 

Bitter Sweet
release: November 8
nominations: Best Cinematography - Color, Best Art Direction - Color (Cedric Gibbons / John S. Detlie)
dir: W.S. Van Dyke
pr: Victor Saville
scr: Lesser Samuels, from a play by Noel Coward
cin: Oliver T. Marsh / Allen M. Davey

An heiress elopes with her music teacher, but life back in his hometown proves challenging. Lovely to see Jeanette MacDonald in color; she seems best able to really nail the tone and rhythm of Noel Coward. Nelson Eddy seems especially wooden this time around, and I don't usually mind him. Ends on a downer, very odd.

The Mark of Zorro
release: November 8
nominations: Best Original Score (Alfred Newman)
dir: Rouben Mamoulian
pr: Darryl F. Zanuck
scr: John Taintor Foote, adaptation by Garrett Fort and Bess Meredyth, from the story "The Curse of Capistrano" by Johnston McCulley
cin: Arthur C. Miller

A hot Spanish dandy aristocrat is secretly Zorro, who fights against the establishment to benefit the poor people of California kept under the thumb of the occupiers. Sexy, funny, thrilling. Tyrone Power plays Zorro; I like Power, but this might have been the perfect role for him: his charisma is in full force, he plays the fop side of Zorro hilariously, and his expressions are perfect, relishing the fight, seducing with expertise, and always with the sense of justice in those eyes. Basil Rathbone and J. Edward Bromberg play their villains comically, which weirdly might be Rathbone's strength. Everything about this movie works. Music, cinematography (oh my gosh, that final fight!), editing, sets, costumes, actors... Any Zorro movie following this one has its work cut out for it.

The Long Voyage Home
release: November 22
nominations: Best Picture of the Year, Best Screenplay, Best Original Score (Richard Hageman), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Film Editing (Sherman Todd), Best Special Effects (R.T. Layton / Ray Binger, photographic; Thomas T. Moulton, sound)
dir: John Ford
pr: John Ford / Walter Wanger
scr: Dudleu Nichols, from the plays The Moon of the Caribees, In the Zone, Bound East for Cardiff, and The Long Voyage Home by Eugene O'Neill
cin: Gregg Toland

The crew of a merchant ship on the eve of War. Worth more discussion on Friday.

You'll Find Out
release: November 22
nominations: Best Original Song ("I'd Know You Anywhere" - music by Jimmy McHugh, lyrics by Johnny Mercer)
dir/pr: David Butler
scr: James V. Kern, story by David Butler and James V. Kern, special material by Monte Brice & Andrew Bennison & R.T.M. Scott
cin: Frank Redman

Bandleader/radio host Kay Kyser (as himself) accepts an invitation to play an heiress's birthday party...held at a possibly haunted castle where murder is afoot. Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre are all here, which is just swell. Eerie sound work credited to Sonovox, and I dare say such tech was used to voice Casey Jones in 1941's Dumbo. I found Kay Kyser's North Carolina accent a tonic, frankly, his comic timing perfect, his instincts for how to play a scene expert. It's a fun movie and the songs that are shoehorned in are actually good!

The Letter
release: November 23
nominations: Best Picture of the Year, Best Director, Best Actress (Bette Davis), Best Supporting Actor (James Stephenson), Best Original Score (Max Steiner), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Film Editing (Warren Low)
dir/pr: William Wyler
scr: Howard Koch, from the play by W. Somerset Maugham
cin: Tony Gaudio

Opens with a woman shooting a man to death, she says it was self-defense. But was that all there was to it? We'll talk more about it Friday and next week.

Tomorrow's our final round of capsules before digging into the individual Oscar categories!

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