Tuesday, May 7, 2024

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1940: Marching On

Sunday we began the journey through 1940. Yesterday, we discussed the year's first Oscar winner. And today, we have the first Best Picture nominee!

The Fight for Life
release: March 7
nominations: Best Original Score (Louis Gruenberg)
dir/pr/scr: Pare Lorentz, from work by Paul De Kruif
cin: Floyd Crosby

A docudrama about doctors of a Chicago maternity clinic trying to better conditions and odds of survival for the women in their care. Mostly plays as a straightforward educational film, with our young intern "hero" learning all about the daily activity of a maternity clinic - the record-keeping, the dispatch worker, the patients - as well as hot tips for hygiene in various situations. Newspaper for an at-home birth helps prevent spread of contagion? Ok! Grabs you from the beginning, the score simultaneously providing the sound effects for both heartbeat and heart rate monitor, a metallic thrum as one mother loses her fight for life. Naturally, by the end, you're left in awe of humanity's determination to survive, realizing how much of life depends on our ability to live among and help each other. Takes its time looking at the "slums," too, connecting the dots between quality medical care and economic security. Most harrowing moment? The doctors wash their hands in a sink a roach crawls out of. Considered a documentary, but I think it's a blend.

The Grapes of Wrath
release: March 15
wins: Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell)
nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Henry Fonda), Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing (Robert L. Simpson), Best Sound Recording (Edmund H. Hansen, 20th Century-Fox SSD)
dir: John Ford
pr: Darryl F. Zanuck
scr: Nunnally Johnson, from the novel by John Steinbeck
cin: Gregg Toland

Here it is, the first of the Best Picture nominees, an adaptation of John Steinbeck's intimate epic about Oklahoma tenant farmers kicked off their land, forced to ride the dusty trail to California for work, exploited by bad bosses, squeezed into Hoovervilles, faced with indignities and injustice...but still, there's that strength of the common man. Hadn't seen it since eighth grade. Feels relevant and vital even now. We'll discuss more when we get to Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director in the weeks to come. But let me just say John Carradine didn't get nominated?!?

My Little Chickadee
release: March 15
dir: Edward F. Cline
pr: Lester Cowan / Jack J. Gross
scr: Mae West & W.C. Fields
cin: Joseph A. Valentine

Western comedy starring Mae West and W.C. Fields. Some fun lines and exchanges, though sometimes it feels like they're not acting with each other so much as alongside each other (they apparently did not get along off-camera). They do their best work apart. West, actually, seems to be sleepwalking through all but one scene: a very Mae West school lesson, with lines like "Two and two is four, and five will get you ten if you know how to work it." Rolls eyes, smirks, hips bounce, you know how she does it.

Too Many Husbands
release: March 21
nominations: Best Sound Recording (John P. Livadary, Columbia SSD)
dir/pr: Wesley Ruggles
scr: Claude Binyon, from the play by W. Somerset Maugham
cin: Joseph Walker

A remarried widow and her second husband are stunned when the first husband, who was also the business partner and best friend of the second husband, shows up very much alive...and wanting his wife back! Oddly, the first of two films this year with this plot. What was going on in 1940? Jean Arthur is the wife caught between two husbands, giving an eccentric portrayal of a woman titillated by the idea of having these men prove themselves worthy of being her Mister (and, it;'s vaguely hinted it, a little thrilled at how naughty she's been able to be!). Other than her, what is there? It's a movie whose very premise begs you to go, "Oh my gosh, then what happens?" and proceeds to stall on answering for 80 minutes. And why are all these male best friends in this era after their buddies' wives? Unimaginative, childish, not very funny.
My Son, My Son!
release: March 22
nominations: Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (John DuCasse Schulze, art director)
dir: Charles Vidor
pr: Edward Small
scr: Lenore J. Coffee, from the novel by Howard Spring
cin: Harry Stradling, Sr.

A successful author's spoiled son grows up to be a bit of a rake, something his father is blind to until a woman comes between them! Quite liked this melodrama, anchored by an appealing Brian Aherne as the father. I don't know that it quite reaches David and Absalom levels of tragedy (the title is derived from 2 Samuel 18:33). Solid work.

Primrose Path
release: March 22
nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Marjorie Rambeau)
dir/pr: Gregory La Cava
scr: Allan Scott and Gregory La Cava, from the play by Robert L. Buckner and Walter Hart, from the novel by Victoria Lincoln
cin: Joseph H. August

Ginger Rogers plays the daughter and granddaughter of prostitutes, yet to enter the family profession; she falls for a hard-working man at the pier who doesn't know about her family. I loved this movie. Rogers is sweet in her genuine adoration for leading man Joel McCrea; understandably nervous about her family without overplaying; and it's her wit that makes her an instant hit with the townies - you know Rogers is a natural with a one-liner. I'm pretty sure she's supposed to be playing about a decade younger than she is, but who cares? She's terrific in the part. Everyone is: McCrea, of course; Marjorie Rambeau as the mother who's made a desperate decision to provide for her family - and seems to enjoy the work - but wants better for a daughter who can do better; Queenie Vassar as the bitter, foul-mouthed grandmother; Vivienne Osborne in a small part as mama's best friend, who at one point attempts to show Ginger Rogers "the ropes"; Miles Mander as the alcoholic father who once had such promise. The ramshackle home on Primrose Path, the homey but modest coffee shop on the pier, the very local cantina: these are places that feel authentic, from the sets to the people. Big fan.

Road to Singapore
release: March 22
dir: Victor Schertzinger
pr: Harlan Thompson
scr: Don Hartman and Frank Butler, from a story by Harry Hervey
cin: William C. Mellor

The first Road movie starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. Crosby's a rich playboy, Hope's his best friend, and Lamour is a native girl (hoo boy) they both have the hots for when they arrive in...are they in Singapore or just off the coast? Culturally, confusing. Musically, perfect. More straightforward and traditionally plotted than subsequent entries in the series.

The Human Monster
release: March 24
dir: Walter Summers
pr: John Argyle
scr: Patrick Kirwan & Walter Summers & John F. Argyle, additional dialogue by Jan Van Lusil, from the novel The Dark Eyes of London by Edgar Wallace
cin: Bryan Langley

Bela Lugosi has old men take out life insurance policies benefiting his company then gets them killed. How? Somehow, a home for the blind is connected. Creaky British thriller, not much to write home about. This took five writers?

Tomorrow, our first glimpse at the year's Best Picture winner.

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