Tuesday, May 14, 2024

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1940: Mummies and Mormons

Below, I go extra-long on a movie that...well, I don't know if it's in my Top Ten of this year, but it is the movie I've thought about the most. That and eight other films, as we continue through the cinema of 1940...

The Mummy's Hand
release: September 20
dir: Christy Cabanne
pr: Ben Pivar
scr: Griffin Jay & Maxwell Shane, story by Griffin Jay, suggested by the 1932 screenplay by John L. Balderston / Nina Wilcox Putnam / Richard Schayer
cin: Elwood Bredell

Universal rebooted their 1932 hit The Mummy as a franchise with this entry, in which promising archaeologists and bumbling treasure seekers stumble on the tomb of Kharis, a cursed mummy kept hidden by a secret society of priests through the centuries. Honestly made me even more impressed with the 1999 The Mummy, since it blends the Imhotep and Kharis legends together seamlessly, even repeating this film's climactic showdown in an underground temple. Very budget-conscious, borrowing scenes from The Mummy (as in, if you look closely, you'll see Boris Karloff in the longshots) and redressing sets from Green Hell (though it's just as impressive). A trifle.

The Westerner
release: September 20
wins: Best Supporting Actor (Walter Brennan)
nominations: Best Original Story (Stuart N. Lake), Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (James Basevi)
dir: William Wyler
pr: Samuel Goldwyn
scr: Jo Swerling and Niven Busch,story by Stuart N. Lake
cin: Gregg Toland

Who is the Westerner of the title? Is it Gary Cooper's saddle tramp, a man with no place of origin, no current address, no future plans, a free spirit roaming the plains, never looking for trouble but knowing how to get out of it, fighting for the rights of homesteaders to make of the country what they will? Or is it Walter Brennan's Judge Roy Bean, for whom the new frontier is an opportunity to invent his own brand of justice, his own society, even, one shaped according to his whims and fancies, original settlers only, homesteaders and newcomers and others all be damned? It sure is something, seeing that tension between the two play out, back and forth between friends and enemies. Great writing!

Brigham Young
release: September 27
dir: Henry Hathaway
pr: Darryl F, Zanuck
scr: by Louis Bromfield, screenplay by Lamar Trotti
cin: Arthur C. Miller

The story of how the Mormons came to Salt Lake City, UT, having been chased out of every other state and community they tried to settle in. This is a curious film, and it's the one I've probably thought the most about. The subject matter is unusual: I don't think I've ever seen a major motion picture from a major studio give this kind of treatment to a specific denomination, but here's hunky Vincent Price as Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and here's Dean Jagger as the titular Brigham Young, and here's 20th Century Fox telling the tale of these two men and their Divine visions guiding a people to their own Promised Land, a place where they can live as the American Dream dictated they could live, free to worship and practice their faith without intervention, without compulsion to change to a more "accepted" belief system (hmmm, wonder why such a story would appeal to Fox's Jewish studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, especially in the late 1930s/early 1940s). Watching this film, one gets the feeling that Mormonism is the quintessential American religion, something that could only happen here. And it's huge: they set an entire township on fire, compelling the Mormons to flee en masse with their wagons and cattle across a frozen lake; their new settlement is overrun by a plague of crop-eating crickets, a horrifying how'd-they-do-that setpiece whose sound and visuals get your skin crawling; there's a massacre and a trial and a lynching, and all the while our favorite stars (Tyrone Power! Linda Darnell! Brian Donlevy! Mary Astor!) keep the Faith and soldier ahead with that pioneer spirit. The only thing standing in the way is Henry Hathaway...and maybe editor Robert Bischoff, too. It's too straightforward in the final edit, with little cinematic awe given over to these events. I keep thinking about that scene where they cross the lake, their homes blazing behind them: it should be as glorious as the Red Sea 16 years later, instead it lumbers like the cattle hoofing it across the ice. Was there no one else available?

Spring Parade
release: September 27
nominations: Best Score (Charles Previn), Best Original Song ("Waltzing in the Clouds" - music by Robert Stolz, lyrics by Gus Kahn), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Sound Recording (Bernard B. Brown, Universal SSD)
dir: Henry Koster
pr: Joe Pasternak
scr: Bruce Manning & Felix Jackson, from the 1934 film Frühjahrsparade
cin: Joseph A. Valentine

A farmgirl arrives in Vienna, apprentices with a baker favored by Emperor Franz Joseph, and falls for an army drummer who wants to be a composer. Deanna Durbin stars, she's a real charmer. A lot of musicals this year, but this is the one whose songs I actually remember, especially the playful "It's Foolish But It's Fun," sung by Durbin in the film's opening and reprised a couple of times throughout. Delightful.

Strike Up the Band
release: September 27
wins: Best Sound Recording (Douglas Shearer, MGM SSD)
nominations: Best Score (George Stoll / Roger Edens), Best Original Song ("Our Love Affair" - music and lyrics by Roger Edens and George Stoll)
dir: Busby Berkeley
pr: Arthur Freed
scr: John Monks, Jr. and Fred F. Finklehoffe
cin: Ray June

Time for those kids to put on a show again! Mickey Rooney wants to be a bandleader, Judy Garland wants Mickey Rooney, and Paul Whiteman appears as himself. Great showcase for the young talent at MGM: Rooney and Garland, yeah, but also June Preisser, Albert Drake, and Larry Nunn are worth mentioning. Especially Preisser, who makes an impression as a girl they don't quite know what to do with besides be vaguely prettier than Garland. Highlights include the "La Conga" number and the serial-inspired "Nell of New Rochelle," where Garland's talent as a comedienne really gets to shine.

The Great Dictator
release: October
nominations: Best Picture of the Year, Best Actor (Charles Chaplin), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Oakie), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score (Meredith Willson)
dir/pr/scr: Charles Chaplin
cin: Karl Struss / Roland Totheroh

A Jewish barber finally returns home after a long hospital day after the War; he is surprised to learn his country's new leader is dictator Adenoid Hynkel, who seeks world domination and eradication of the Jewish people. Everyone else is gingerly dipping their toes in to support for England; only Chaplin has the balls to take on Hitler head-on. We'll discuss further on Friday.

Angels Over Broadway
release: October 2
nominations: Best Original Screenplay
dir: Ben Hecht, co-directed by Lee Garmes
pr/scr: Ben Hecht
cin: Lee Garmes

Love when Ben Hecht takes on directing duties, a weird and engaging time is guaranteed. Here, two con artists and an alky playwright team up to help a suicidal cuckold make back money he embezzled for a woman who wasn't worth it. Street poetry, every word. Worth watching for film lovers, definitely worth watching for writers.

Down Argentine Way
release: October 11
nominations: Best Original Song ("Down Argentine Way" - music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Mack Gordon), Best Cinematography - Color, Best Art Direction - Color (Richard Day / Joseph C. Wright)
dir: Irving Cummings
pr: Darryl F. Zanuck
scr: Darrell Ware and Karl Tunberg, story by Rian James and Ralph Spence
cin: Ray Rennahan / Leon Shamroy

An American girl and an Argentinean racehorse owner fall in love, not knowing there are old grudges between their families. Fun movie, worth it for Charlotte Greenwood alone, wooing a much-younger gigolo while demanding "Sing to Your Señorita." Everyone would go on to better musicals, but that's not to say this is bad; more like a pilot. Betty Grable's gowns are gorgeous.

Hit Parade of 1941
release: October 15
nominations: Best Score (Cy Feuer), Best Original Song ("Who Am I?" - music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Walter Bullock)
dir: John H. Auer
pr: Sol C. Siegel
scr: Bradford Ropes and F. Hugh Herbert and Maurice Leo, additional comedy sequences by Sid Kuller and Ray Golden
cin: Jack A. Marta

An eccentric antiques dealer spends a fortune to buy a radio station just so he can continue hearing his favorite show; then he purchases a TV station to continue. Hugh Herbert, you don't know whether to laugh or strangle him, he's such an absent-minded buffoon. The leading man is a fella named Kenny Baker, as exciting a screen presence as a glass of milk in a beige room. See it for a pre-nose job Ann Miller as a tone-deaf socialite whose mother wants her to have a singing career, leading our heroes to plot an overdubbing behind her back (yes, Singin' in the Rain would borrow this twelve years later - and improve on it!). The problem is, Miller so immediately and decidedly wipes the floor with her co-stars, and that's before she even gets to dance. Hated this movie.

Tomorrow, America (kind of) enters the War!

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