Sunday, May 5, 2024

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1940: One Year Ends, Another Begins

The Academy Awards of 1940 are...dense. I'm talking seventeen nominees in a single category dense. So, apologies to those who have been following for a while (I've been around since 2008, doing retrospectives since 2011), but I'm changing things up, narrowing the focus a bit.

Today through the 16th, I review all the 1940 films I saw in the order of their release. On Friday the 17th, I look at Oscar's ten nominees for Best Picture of the Year. The 19th-24th will be focused on only six more categories: Best Original Song, the Acting Prizes, and culminating in Best Director - this is, after all, a series inspired by John Ford's directing wins, so it is only right that we end the Oscars on that note (it also gives me more time to read Searching for John Ford).

Naturally, that's not the final word on the matter, as I'll be going on and on about my picks for the best of the year the 26th-31st, culminating in my pick for Best Director of 1940. This is how we shall proceed throughout the next three months.

And so we begin our journey through 1939. December 1939, to be specific, though the Academy considered at least two of those releases aspart of the 1940 film year...

release date: December 21, 1939
dir: Maurice Schwartz
pr: Maurice Schwartz / Henry Ziskin
scr: Maurice Schwartz, adaptation by Marcy Klauber, from the play by Sholom Aleichem
cin: Larry Williams

Is anyone here not familiar with Tevya the dairyman from Fiddler on the Roof? This first screen adaptation of Aleichem's famous character focuses on the titular milkman and how his daughter Chava's marriage to non-Jewish Ukrainian boy disturbs the balance of their lives and their faith. Beautiful outdoor photography (shot in Long Island!), smart production design - Tevya's home is modest to say the least, but it looks like a home; Chava's in-laws' home feels claustrophobic, at times almost prison-like - and wonderful performances. Perhaps there is, from time to time, some histrionic playing that reveals the stage roots of the material (and of its star-director, who first played the role for Yiddish theatre 20 years before), but some situations call for keening: isn't losing your family, your identity, and your home one of them?

Destry Rides Again
release date: December 29, 1939
dir: George Marshall
pr: Joe Pasternak
scr: Felix Jackson & Gertrude Purcell & Henry Myers, original story by Felix Jackson, suggested by the novel by Max Brand
cin: Hal Mohr

How does an out-of-towner who refuses to even carry a gun restore order to the frontier town of Bottleneck, that great bastion for lyin', cheatin', stealin', and varmintin'? Well, friends, that's the story this here Western-comedy aims to tell. Every step it takes, it lands. James Stewart is so low-key and soft-spoken, he commands your attention, a performance of perfect physicality and voice control. Marlene Dietrich is, dare I say, incredible? She's hilarious, she's hot, she's ferocious (her fight with Una Merkel is brutal), her music performances showcase all three - and she's believable in her turning-over-a-new-leaf arc. So, yes, great leads centering a film that is, I think, brilliant at every level, script to cinematography, opening credits to final fight. No notes.

And now we leave 1939 behind and welcome the new year: 1940! The World is at war but the USA isn't...yet. What's our January look like?

Music in My Heart
release date: January 10
nominations: Best Original Song ("It's a Blue World", music and lyrics by Chet Forrest / Bob Wright)
dir: Joseph Santley
pr: Irving Starr
scr: James Edward Grant
cin: John Stumar

Singer Tony Martin plays a singer whose visa is up and must go back to wherever it is he's supposed to have come from; Rita Hayworth is a golddigger. An accident brings them together and now they find themselves falling in love among New York's immigrant community. I vaguely remember it being a generally nice, charming movie. The sets are good, there are a few of those "hey, everybody, let's sing in the street!" crowd numbers. But I can't remember much beyond that. I don't even remember the songs.

The Invisible Man Returns
release date: January 12
nominations: Best Special Effects (John P. Fulton, photographic; Bernard R. Brown / William Hedgcock, sound)
dir: Joe May
pr: Ken Goldsmith
scr: Lester Cole & Curt Siodmak, story by Joe May and Curt Siodmak, from The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
cin: Milton R. Krasner

Now, this is more like it! A prisoner framed for murder is given a serum to make him invisible so that he may escape and bring the real killer to justice - ah, but this is the original serum Dr. Griffin made in the 1933 film (and original novel), which means side effects include homicidal mania! The effects still stand up - the shot of hollowed eye sockets wrapped in linen is always a killer (haha!). Was struck by Cedric Hardwicke's and Alan Napier's performances: both find themselves on the wrong end of the Invisible Man's rage, the fear they display is contagious. They may be wrong 'uns, but the desperation and fear on their faces, their screams...oh, it's horrid, in a good way! Vincent Price is our Invisible Man, exactly the man to cast for a role that's more heard than seen. 

The Shop Around the Corner
release date: January 12
dir/pr: Ernst Lubitsch
scr: Samson Raphaelson, from the play Parfumerie by Miklós Laszló
cin: William H. Daniels

Later remade as You've Got Mail! Here, the action takes place at a shop in Budapest. James Stewart is a stict salesman, Margaret Sullavan a new and more unorthodox saleswoman; they constantly clash, though unbeknownst to them, each is the other's anonymous pen pal they're falling for. Frank Morgan gets to be fun and moving as the easily walked-over boss who suspects his wife is running around with one of his own employees. Very much a play adaptation, done right: what a set! What lighting! What a cast!

The Blue Bird
release date: January 15
nominations: Best Cinematography - Color (Arthur C. Miller / Ray Rennahan), Best Special Effects (Fred Sersen, photographic; Edmund H. Hansen, sound)
dir: Walter Lang
pr: Darryl F. Zanuck
scr: Ernest Pascal, additional dialogue by Walter Bullock, from the play by Maurice Maeterlinck
cin: Arthur C. Miller

Shirley Temple plays a brat who goes on a magical quest to find the blue bird of happiness, assisted by her little brother and their magically humanized dog (Eddie Collins is great, the gold standard for dog-turned-into-a-man acting) and cat (Gale Sondergaard's having a blast). I must assume this was a Wizard of Oz cash-in: the main body of the story is a fantasy shot in color, bookended by black-and-white "reality." Episodic as it is, it's quite winning for the most part; poignant, too. There's a bit where they are reunited with their dead grandparents and must choose whether to stay in their comfort and memory or move on with their lives; there's a bit where they meet yet-to-be-born children, some of whom know all too well the fate that awaits their earthly forms; there's a bit where their wicked cat (this anti-feline propaganda!) convinces the tree spirits to set the forest on fire to burn the children alive. Often weird. Loses steam.

His Girl Friday
release date: January 18
dir/pr: Howard Hawks
scr: Charles Lederer, from the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
cin: Joseph Walker

Adaptation of The Front Page repeats the story of an editor trying to prevent his star reporter's wedding so their paper can get the story on a wrongful execution and its connection to government corruption - but this time, the star reporter is a woman...and the editor's ex-wife!!! A lot clicks into place with that simple rewrite. Now Hildy Johnson leaving newspaper life for conventional married life has higher stakes: she's a woman in a man's job and considered by her peers to be the best of them, the top of her field, someone respected and admired by all - she's going to give up being Hildy Johnson so she can be Mrs. Bruce Baldwin, just another little woman waiting for hubby to come home? And oh, oh the sacrifices women must make - not just Hildy for her upcoming marriage, but Mollie Malloy, too, whether she wants to or not, sacrificing reputation, security, and her own health just to provide a doomed man some empathy. I wish we could see more of their conversation together, but the shamed silence of the menfolk is effective. That they can inject these moments of reflection within a rat-a-tat comedy that's usually flying 100 miles an hour speaks to the confidence and skill of all involved.

Remember the Night
release date: January 19
dir: Mitchell Leisen
pr: Mitchell Leisen / Albert Lewis
scr: Preston Sturges
cin: Ted Tetzlaff

Barbara Stanwyck is a thief, Fred MacMurray is a prosecutor, through some plot machinations, she winds up coming home with him for the make sure she doesn't go anywhere while awaiting arraignment in the New Year. It's wonderful when it finally gets to his home and Stanwyck meets his family, led by the caring, cautious matriarch Beulah Bondi. Before that, it kind of meanders, with bits that are fine on their own but within the context of the film, have one tapping their watch (does that whole bit with the small-town justice of the peace go anywhere? what was that about?). A reliably phenomenal performance from Stanwyck; MacMurray I've always been kind of on the fence about. Full of the tender melancholy that makes the holiday season so magical and wistful.

Green Hell
release date: January 26
dir: James Whale
pr: Harry E. Edington / James Whale
scr: Frances Marion
cin: Karl Freund

Adventurer-explorers go a-digging for some ancient temple in the green hell of the South American jungle. Surely the start of an action picture, or an "ancient curse"-style horror, or perhaps even a fable about human greed! Why, yes, look at that cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., George Sanders, Vincent Price! But no - it's a romantic melodrama that "gets going" when one of the men dies and his wife joins the party, tempting his living cohorts. Astonishing sets, but otherwise, not much to write home about. Price, a good sport, had nothing good to say about this movie.

Tomorrow: Charlie Chan, Cole Porter, and Pinocchio...

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