Wednesday, May 8, 2024

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1940: One Winner Was...

It is Day Four of our journey through the cinema of 1940. Today, many a thrill with fantasy, sci-fi, and noir all represented, and that's not even talking the romantic thriller that wound up winning Best Picture! Here:

One Million B.C.
release: April 5
nominations: Best Original Score (Werner R. Heymann), Best Special Effects (Roy Seawright, photographic; Elmer Raguse, sound)
dir: Hal Roach / Hal Roach, Jr.
pr: Hal Roach / D.W. Griffith
scr: Mickell Novack & George Baker & Joseph Frickert, narration by Grover Jones
cin: Norbert Brodine

Cavemen vs. dinosaurs and each other. Has a bizarre opening, where mountain climbers in lederhosen seek refuge from a storm in a cave where Some Random Guy is "translating" ancient cave paintings; this film is that story. You don't really need that intro or the narrator, never mind everyone speaking in some made-up ancient language. One can follow the story as clearly as a silent picture: trust the actors to indicate relationships. Trust, too, the makeup, visual effects, and sound department, which don't just bring to life post-Neanderthals, volcanoes, and rock-and-shell violence, but dinosaurs. Yes, they're obviously alligators and iguanas other reptiles with fins and stuff strapped or glued on, but the sound of their heaving breaths and deep growls are spine-tingling. Besides, when those animals are fighting, you know it's the real thing -  and it's harrowing! A pure entertainment.

Black Friday
release: April 12
dir: Arthur Lubin
scr: Curt Siodmak & Eric Taylor
cin: Elwood Bredell

A mild-mannered professor and a gangster are both hospitalized after an accident and to save the professor's life, the surgeon (his best friend) transplants the gangster's brain into his body; naturally, this means the professor goes back and forth between the two personalities, with all the memories and venality of the gangster. Sold as a Lugosi-Karloff flick, it's actually Stanley Ridges who takes the lead as the professor-gangster. He's tremendous in the part: terrifying as the ruthless criminal with a thirst for blood and hunger for revenge, tragic as the innocent family man fighting to keep his mind his own and his soul unblemished. Karloff is the surgeon, a guy who suddenly sees an opportunity to get hold of the gangster's cache as a means to help others - but both writer Siodmak and Karloff also, more subtly, hint at the thrill of a man who has made a discovery, a secret all his own...and an opportunity to "handle" someone. Lugosi has a smaller part as a mob boss; popular opinion is that he's miscast, but that's incorrect, he's great against type as a common thug reinventing himself as The Boss and pursuing his own version of the American Dream. This peacocking and conniving and killing, and for what? For a little bit of money. Disturbing, too, not just for the premise, but for the violence. A brutal flick, real bleak. Anyway, I loved it.

Dr. Cyclops
release: April 12
nominations: Best Special Effects (Farciot Edouart / Gordon Jennings, photographic)
dir: Ernest B. Schoedsack
pr: Dale Van Every / Merian C. Cooper
scr: Tom Kilpatrick
cin: Henry Sharp

A group of specialists are summoned to a remote outpost in South America where an eccentric genius shrinks them. Not quite a comedy, not quite a thriller, but somehow works as both. After a prologue featuring the above GIF, the scientists enticed out by our Dr. Cyclops are shrunk and, while you'd think he might terrorize them or set them against each other or sic his pets on them - and, sure, some of that winds up happening anyway, the movie opens with the above GIF - he is a genuine scientist who spends much of the time recording his observations and going, "Oh, hm, most interesting!" That makes the proceedings a little dull but not unpleasant. It's silly, they all seem to be having fun. Inconsistent with scale, too, something that becomes very apparent (if understandable!) when one of the minis is shot and killed - no, he would not just clutch his back and collapse, he would be decimated, everyone should be drenched in blood! But listen, I don't mean to dog this movie, it's an extremely weird and weirdly fun. Exquisite use of Technicolor, I think, among the best I've ever seen.

The House of the Seven Gables
release: April 12
nominations: Best Original Score (Frank Skinner)
dir: Joe May
scr: Lester Cole, adaptation by Harold Greene, from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
cin: Milton R. Krasner

There's a curse on this House and its family and one son (dastardly George Sanders!) frames the other (dashing Vincent Price!) for the murder of their father and that's just Act One, the rest of the film takes place twenty years later. I won't spoil it, it's too fun to experience for the first time. You know, when I was young, I'd tell people Vincent Price was my favorite actor and many older relatives would smile patiently and say, "Well, sure, he's great in those cheesy horror flicks but he's a big ham," but this film really shows his full range: great voicework that doesn't just age his character, but reflects two decades in quiet confinement, contrasted with the clear, heroic baritone of his youth - we even get to hear him sing the film's original song, "The Colour of Eyes." He's ably matched by leading lady Margaret Lindsay, just terrific as a romantic young woman who winds up hardened by twenty years of injustice. The house of the title is beautifully detailed through its many changes - now a family manse, now a boarding house, now a shop - and we must tip our hats to art director Jack Otterson and set decorator Russell A. Gausman for that.

release: April 12
wins: Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Cinematography - Black-and-White
nominations: Best Director, Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Best Actress (Joan Fontaine), Best Supporting Actress (Judith Anderson), Best Screenplay, Best Original Score (Franz Waxman), Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (Lyle R. Wheeler), Best Film Editing (Hal C. Kern), Best Special Effects (Jack Cosgrove, photographic; Arthur Johns, sound)
dir: Alfred Hitchcock
pr: David O. Selznick
scr: Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison, adaptation by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan, from the novel by Daphne du Maurier
cin: George Barnes

A quiet young woman winds up married to an Old Money millionaire (billionaire?) whose dead wife still casts a controlling, disturbing aura on the household. Further discussion when I cover Best Picture a week from Friday, but I was surprised to find out this was an April release. I always assumed part of its win had to be because it was later in the year (not because it's bad, but, I mean, look at the competition!) but, it was among the year's top three moneymakers.

Dark Command
release: April 15
nominations: Best Original Score (Victor Young), Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (John Victor Mackay)
dir: Raoul Walsh
pr: Herbert J. Yates
scr: Grover Jones & Lionel Houser & F. Hugh Herbert, adaptation by Jan Fortune, from the novel by W.R. Burnett
cin: Jack A. Marta

A lot happens that can't be summed up in a sentence (even the film's Wikipedia entry starts in the middle of Act Two to simplify things) but, suffice to say: Kansas is the promised land, John Wayne arrives with Gabby Hayes, befriends Walter Pidgeon, falls for Claire Trevor; Pidgeon's a schoolmaster engaged to Trevor and no one knows his illiterate landlady Marjorie Main is actually his mother. Civil War happens, everyone loses their mind, nice guys become villains, there's shooting and speechifying and a real gut-punch. Has a similar ending, as I recall to Gentleman's Agreement, wherein the leading man seems all too willing to forgive the reprehensible moral compass of the leading lady because we need a love story, dammit! Walter Pidgeon and Marjorie Main are great!

Abe Lincoln in Illinois
release: April 19
nominations: Best Actor (Raymond Massey), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White
dir: John Cromwell
pr: Max Gordon
scr: Robert E. Sherwood, adaptation by Grover Jones, from the play by Massey
cin: James Wong Howe

The life of Lincoln from the time he leaves his parents' log cabin to the day he leaves Illinois for his presidential inauguration. Raymond Massey repeats his stage success with an alarming intensity. Ruth Gordon as Mary Todd is, for me, the whole show, unobtrusive and always right with every choice of expression, line reading, movement. Episodic and dull.

Johnny Apollo
release: April 19
dir: Henry Hathaway
pr: Darryl F. Zanuck
scr: Philip Dunne and Rowland Brown, original story by Samuel G. Engel and Hal Long
cin: Arthur C. Miller

My cup of tea. The son of a disgraced stockbroker, stripped of his family's wealth, falls in with some gangsters led by Lloyd Nolan. Tyrone Power is our hero, always a pleasure to watch. Nolan is charming, sexy, and scary. Dorothy Lamour is the bad girl with the capacity for good; thanks to her performance and the excellent writing, you believe it. Aw hell, everyone's good in this movie, every scene's good, every twist (even the ones that should have you rolling your eyes) is good.  Never heard of this movie before watching it and now I think it's one of the best gangster flicks I've ever seen.

Tomorrow, two of my least-liked movies from this year! Yahoo!

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