Monday, May 6, 2024

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1940: The Rest of Winter

Yesterday, we began our look into the cinema of 1940 with nine films released at the end of 1939 and January of 1940. Today we have six films, four of which came out in February. Here you will see, among others: one of the best musicals of the year (but with no Oscar nominations), a mystery, a couple histories, and the earliest release to end up an Oscar winner. Shall we?:

Swiss Family Robinson
release: February 8
nominations: Best Special Effects (Vernon L. Walker, photographic; John Aalberg, sound)
dir: Edward Ludwig
pr: C. Graham Baker / Gene Towne
scr: C. Graham Baker / Walter Ferris / Gene Towne, from the novel by Johann David Wyss
cin: Nicholas Musuraca

In which the patriarch of a well-to-do family decides his kids are too spoiled (though his main objection to his youngest son is that he's...literate?) so they must leave the city for more rural living in Australia...and they wind up shipwrecked on an island, having to rebuild from scratch. A rare capital-l Lead for Thomas Mitchell, though it's 15-year-old Freddie Bartholomew as the foppish second son who walks away with the show. Two harrowing storms brought to exciting life through the special effects, plus an impressive tree house whose acoustical limitations and intimate living arrangements fluctuate depending on the needs of the scene. A good intro to the genre of family-friendly adventure.

Broadway Melody of 1940
release: February 9
dir: Norman Taurog
pr: Jack Cummings
scr: Leon Gordon and George Oppenheimer, original story by Jack MacGowran and Dore Schary
cin: Oliver T. Marsh / Joseph Ruttenberg

The fourth and final of the Broadway Melody series of films and, of the three I've seen, possibly the best. Fred Astaire plays one-half of a buddy duo working in a dance hall; through a case of mistaken identity, his partner is offered a Broadway role opposite star Eleanor Powell. As buddy boy gets in over his head (and deeper into the bottle), Powell and Astaire get closer romantically...and creatively! Despite what should be a lot of nonsense plot machinations, the characters' reactions, and subsequent actions, to each turn are lent some credibility by the performances. That is to say: I bought it. Helps that Astaire and Powell are such charmers. Original (and some non-original) songs by Cole Porter, the new ones being "I've Got My Eyes on You" (beautiful, iconic) and "I Concentrate on You" (later used as the theme to 1982's Evil Under the Sun). The other classic, "Begin the Beguine", already debuted in the Broadway show Jubilee, but its showcase here is exquisite. Oh, where's Best Dance Direction when you need it? 

Northwest Passage
release: February 23
nominations: Best Cinematography - Color
dir: King Vidor
pr: Hunt Stromberg
scr: Laurence Stallings and Talbot Jennings, from the novel by Kenneth Roberts
cin: William V. Skall / Sidney Wagner

Pre-Revolutionary War, a ragtag group led by Spencer Tracy embarks on a heroic quest: to locate and eradicate an Indigenous tribe standing in the way of the white man's rightful domination of the land. There is a nail-biting sequence where the men cross a raging river slowly by forming a human chain from one bank to the other. But this was a sour one to watch - and dull.

release: February 23
wins: Best Original Score (Leigh Harline / Paul J. Smith / Ned Washington), Best Original Song ("When You Wish Upon a Star", music by Leigh Harline, lyrics by Ned Washington)
dir: Hamilton Luske / Ben Sharpsteen, supervising directors
pr: Walt Disney
scr: Ted Sears & Otto Englander & Webb Smith & William Cottrell & Joseph Sabo & Erdman Penner & Aurelius Battaglia, from the novel by Carlo Collodi

A lonely toymaker makes a wooden boy puppet, who comes to life and must go through several trials before becoming a Real Boy. An animation (and sound design) showcase, taking time to let the audience appreciate the detail and wit that goes into animating comic cuckoo clocks, manipulated marionettes, and the grotesquerie of Pleasure Island - not to mention the gutting hopelessness of those jackasses, my word! And if you know Disney, you already know the music is brilliant, unforgettable.

Charlie Chan in Panama
release: March 1
dir: Norman Foster
pr: Sol M. Wurtzel
scr: John Francis Larkin and Lester Ziffren, based on characters created by Earl Derr Biggers
cin: Virgil Miller

A spy threatens to blow up the Panama Canal - and only Charlie Chan can stop them! Great denouement, though I'm never as into the international intrigue entries as I am the straight whodunnits.

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet
release: March 2
nominations: Best Original Screenplay
dir: William Dieterle
pr: Hal B. Wallis
scr: John Huston & Heinz Herald & Norman Burnstine, from an idea by Norman Burnstine
cin: James Wong Howe

The true story of a progressive doctor searching for a cure for syphilis - and making other discoveries and completely changing immunology and inventing chemotherapy. Best bit, for me, was his integrated team of scientists of all races and specialties: the Establishment is aghast but Ehrlich just wants the best of the best. A subdued, lovely performance by Edward G. Robinson. Admirably emphasizes science over melodrama. Must confess, I admire it more than I like it. Would I watch it again? Maybe. Maybe.

Tomorrow, the first of the popular Crosby and Hope Road movies PLUS: a brief glimpse of The Grapes of Wrath.

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