Tuesday, June 4, 2024

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1941: Cream Of The Crop?

There are five films here that are among my favorites of the year. Read on:

Back Street
release: February 7
nominations: Best Score (Frank Skinner)
dir: Robert Stevenson
pr: Bruce Manning
scr: Bruce Manning & Felix Jackson, from the novel by Fannie Hurst
cin: William H. Daniels

Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer are paired for this umpteenth version of Fannie Hurst's novel about a woman who falls in love with a man, loses him, meets him again years later, and becomes his mistress. Romance! Tragedy! Period costumes! The apartment where the two spend their assignations - the landlady thinks they're a married couple and he works a lot - is a terrific set, a perfect home for ... someone. Sullavan and Boyer do have great chemistry! Sullavan's character, a saleswoman, is liked and admired by men who consider her their peer (Frank McHugh and Richard Carlson especially effective as friend and one-time possibility, respectively). One of my favorite confession scenes happens when Boyer tells his son all about this unusual romance. I've seen the Hayward version and don't rate it, but this one really got to me!

The Strawberry Blonde
release: February 12
nominations: Best Musical Score (Heinz Roemheld)
dir: Raoul Walsh
scr: Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, from a play by James Hagan
cin: James Wong Howe

Aged James Cagney reflects on how his old "friend" Jack Carson cheated him out of the girl (Rita Hayworth) and the dough and left him with a wife he loves (Olivia de Havilland) and a modestly successful business. The actors are fine (how can they not be?), but the costumes and sets - recreations of a changing NYC from the 1880s onward - are what really stick in one's memory. Apparently very successful!

Cheers for Miss Bishop
release: February 21
nominations: Best Score (Edward Ward)
dir: Tay Garnett
pr: Richard A. Rowland
scr: Adelaide Heilbron and Sheridan Gibney, screen adaptation by Stephen Vincent Benet, from the novel by Bess Streeter Aldrich
cin: Hal Mohr

Martha Scott plays a schoolteacher reflecting on past loves and how she ended up a spinster, I guess. I guess. I don't know. Why did they keep putting her in movies? William Gargan is also in this.

Pépé le Moko
release: March 3
dir: Julien Duvivier
pr: Raymond Hakim / Robert Hakim
scr: scenario by Henri La Barthe & Julien Duvivier, dialogue by Jacques Constant, adaptation by Henri Jeanson, from the novel by Henry La Barthe (as Ashelbé)
cin: Marc Fossard / Jules Kruger

Released in France in 1937, American producer Walter Wanger bought the rights for his 1938 remake Algiers - it is alleged that he tried destroying most prints, too, but thankfully, some survived, and voila, a 1941 US release on my birthday! The titular character is a charming master criminal hiding in plain sight in the mostly native Casbah neighborhood of Algiers, the capital of French-occupied Algeria. Inspector Slimane has a trap planned, but in the meantime, he and Pépé have a sort of frenemy relationship. I've not seen Algiers, but I have seen the musical remake Casbah and quite enjoyed it; still, it can't hold a candle to the original, with its sardonic sense of humor, vivid ensemble of crooks and cops, brutal violence, devastating climax, evocative score, and incredible sets - one's jaw drops upon learning this was no location shoot! 

Tobacco Road
release: March 7
dir: John Ford
pr: Darryl F. Zanuck
scr: Nunnally Johnson, from the play by Jack Kirkland and the novel by Erskine Caldwell
cin: Arthur C. Miller

An adaptation of Broadway's longest-running non-musical play about the residents of a poverty-stricken area of a small country Georgia town. Charley Grapewin in a rare lead role as the patriarch of a hillbilly clan, a character who goes back and forth between "coulda been something!" tragedy and "eh, who wants to work" farce. Broad humor, especially via William Tracy as his youngest son, hollering every line of dialogue. Caricatures abound, from the big dumb lug who wonders why his 13-year-old wife keeps trying to run away to a silent, hip-rolling, short-skirted, perpetually in-heat backwoods beauty. Considered an anomaly in Ford's filmography, particularly since its characters are such a stark departure from the honest hard workers of The Grapes of Wrath (for which he had just won the Oscar...one week prior!). Searching for John Ford devotes but a page to it, J.A. Place has a single paragraph surrounded by stills for his Non-Westerns of John Ford, everyone seems to think it's a schizophrenic movie with overly artful cinematography and a moving climax undercut by the ending (not to mention all that came before). It's a curiosity, for sure. I think I might love it. It is crude, but people can be, can't they? And I don't think it's making any big sweeping statement about people in general, anyway, just depicting the truth of these people. Though I guess if one were to make a generalization, one would say this: people should be able to live and die with at least some dignity, whether they "deserve" to or not - it is enough that they are people. Hell, the Man on the Cross didn't get up there for the already-saved, now did He?

Meet John Doe
release: March 12
nominations: Best Original Story
dir: Frank Capra
pr: Frank Capra / Robert Riskin
scr: Robert Riskin, story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, Sr.
cin: George Barnes

Capra's up to his usual antics, there's nothing this man loves more than vague gestures towards The Common Man mixed in with some Big Statement about The Way Things Are Now. Barbara Stanwyck is a journalist who makes up a common man character, out of work minor leaguer Gary Cooper is recruited to play the common man, for some reason, a new political party and cult of personality starts up? I just never get the feeling that this movie has more than a general idea of, well, anything. I'm much more insulted by simpleton "statements" like this than I am by the self-aware bad taste of Tobacco Road, I can tell you. Great sound work, though.

That Hamilton Woman
release: March 19
wins: Best Sound Recording (Jack Whitney, General Service SSD)
nominations: Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (Vincent Korda / Julia Heron), Best Special Effects (Lawrence W. Butler, photographic; William A. Wilmarth, sound)
dir/pr: Alexander Korda
scr: Walter Reisch and R.C. Sherriff
cin: Rudolph Maté

What a picture! Vivien Leigh is the titular woman, a real historical personality, Emma Hamilton. She wed England's ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton, but her true love was Admiral Lord Nelson, whom she met after her wedding. Leigh's real-life husband Laurence Olivier plays Nelson, while her on-screen husband is played by Alan Mowbray, most used in Hollywood for bit comic parts but proves here that he has talents the studios weren't even beginning to exploit. Gladys Cooper is Nelson's wife, Sara Allgood is Emma's shamelessly scheming mother, they're terrific. Sets are grand, Navy scenes exciting, romantic interludes pulse-pounding, score magical: how had I never heard of this movie before? It's so good - great!

The Lady Eve
release: March 21
nominations: Best Original Story
dir: Preston Sturges
pr: Buddy G. DeSylva / Paul Jones
scr: Preston Sturges, story by Monckton Hoffe
cin: Victor Milner

Another great flick (March is full of greatness!). Barbara Stanwyck is a con artist who falls for a mark, Henry Fonda. When she's spurned for her trickster past, she gets back at him in the dumbest-funniest way possible. The most famous image has Stanwyck on a day bed, all legs, cradling and caressing Fonda's head as he squats on the floor in his dinner jacket: in motion, with their delivery of that dialogue, one of the steamiest, sexiest exchanges in rom-coms...in Hollywood history, even! Brings out the big guns for its supporting cast: among the con artists, there's Charles Coburn as Stany's dad, Melville Cooper as their partner in crime, and Eric Blore as a contact who can get them a score; among the marks, we've Eugene Pallette as Fonda's breakfast-focused dad, William Demarest as Fonda's minder, and Robert Greig as the butler. There are unpredictable pratfalls and a disguise that is just...I mean, does it get better than this?

The Sea Wolf
release: March 21
nominations: Best Special Effects (Byron Haskin, photographic; Nathan Levinson, sound)
dir: Michael Curtiz
pr: Hal B. Wallis
scr: Robert Rossen, from the novel by Jack London
cin: Sol Polito

It may not get better than The Lady Eve, but it can definitely get just as good in a completely different direction. Film gathers an ensemble of miscreants plus one intellectual to crew a derelict vessel run by Edward G. Robinson, the nastiest, evilest sea captain I've ever seen in a movie. Called The Ghost, the ship seems to drift in endless fog, always at sea, never to make land, an endless hellscape of misery and sadism. This is a 1940s studio film? It feels like the sort of thing Andy Milligan would cherish, it's so mean-spirited. Naturally, I loved it. It's committed to the misery, dipping its toe into grand guignol.

Topper Returns
release: March 21
nominations: Best Sound Recording (Elmer Raguse, Hal Roach SSD), Best Special Effects (Roy Seawright, photographic; Elmer Raguse, sound)
dir: Roy Del Ruth
pr: Hal Roach
scr: Jonathan Latimer & Gordon Douglas, additional dialogue by Paul Gerard Smith, from characters created by Thorne Smith
cin: Norbert Brodine

Never seen the original, but here, wealthy Topper is a man who can see ghosts, contacted by a flapper (or something) who was murdered in place of her best friend - and it's up to Topper to solve the mystery! Ah, it's a hoot. And a surprise ending! George Zucco's in it, but you can't have everything.

Las Vegas Nights
release: March 28
nominations: Best Original Song ("Dolores")
dir: Ralph Murphy
pr: William LeBaron
scr: Ernest Pagano and Harry Clork, additional dialogue by Eddie Welch
cin: William C. Mellor

Showbiz hopefuls try to start their own nightclub in Vegas, fending off amoral deceivers. A showcase for the city and its featured acts, including one skinny crooner making his film debut - his voice is unmistakable, as are those "ol' blue eyes" - even in black-and-white! 

Tomorrow, we talk about the rarest kind of Academy Award nominee: a movie that had its nods rescinded! We'll discuss....

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