Thursday, June 6, 2024

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1941: The Legend Arrives

Ah, now we come to it, the first of the year's Best Picture nominees. It also happens to be, quite possibly, the most famous Best Picture loser of all time: Citizen Kane.

Dubbed the greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute, inspiration for two award-winning films (HBO's RKO 291 and Netflix's Mank), Citizen Kane was the film debut of theatre and radio wünderkind Orson Welles: at 20, he had directed the famous Voodoo Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project; at 23, he rocketed to fame thanks to his infamous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. He started Citizen Kane when he was 24, filmed at 25, and released the very week of his 26th birthday. Its depiction of a newspaper magnate with political ambitions who tosses his wife aside for a showbiz starlet and becomes increasingly tyrannical hit a nerve with William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate with political ambition who maintained a long affair with showbiz starlet Marion Davies, and he used his power to knock down the film's reputation and release before it was even finished. 

Still, it went on to be declared Best Film by that year's National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics' Circle and garnered nine Oscar nominations. And, of course, won out in the end, historically. But it did not just show up all by itself one May morning. Here's what surrounded it:

Major Barbara
release: May 6
dir/pr: Gabriel Pascal
scr: George Bernard Shaw, from his play
cin: Ronald Neame

Major Barbara is devoted to her work with the Salvation Army, she's engaged to a Greek scholar, and her estranged father, a munitions manufacturer who has no politics, only customers, is back in her life. Barbara is a great help to those in need, I think, one can only see her patience and understanding in her interactions with the needy of West Ham (even a physically violent one) to see what a tonic she is. Yet her brand of untainted, uncompromising morality is the sort of thing only a person of privilege can 
but her brand of untainted, uncompromising morality is the sort of thing only a slightly impoverished noble can afford to be; the final epiphany she comes to is very on brand, too. But then, too, there is nothing any more noble or honest about her munitions manufacturer father trying to buy her respect, nor in her fiance Cusins' detached amusement at it all. Great sets (a miracle, considering they were filming during the Blitz), great cast. Gabriel Pascal also gave us another Shaw adaptation, my beloved Caesar and Cleopatra

Citizen Kane
release: May 8
wins: Best Original Screenplay
nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Orson Welles), Best Score (Bernard Herrmann), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (Perry Ferguson / Van Nest Polglase / A. Roland Fields / Darrell Silvera), Best Film Editing (Robert Wise), Best Sound Recording (John Aalberg, RKO Radio SSD)
dir/pr: Orson Welles
scr: Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles
cin: Gregg Toland

The story of a man who became a titan, and what he lost by gaining the whole world... We'll discuss more when I rank the Best Picture nominees next Friday.

King of the Zombies
release: May 14
nominations: Best Score (Edward J. Kay)
dir: Jean Yarbrough
pr: Lindsley Parsons
scr: Edmond Kelso
cin: Mack Stengler

A plane crashes onto a tropical island ruled by a mad scientist and his zombie slaves. Obviously, the villain was meant for Bela Lugosi, but he was unavailable; instead, the German actor Henry Victor (he played Hercules the Strongman in Freaks) fills in, stiff as a board. Despite the billing and standard story structure, it's manservant Mantan Moreland who is probably the closest thing this movie has to a protagonist, a reluctant hero who learns all the secrets and sees firsthand the evil handiwork of the doctor. Stereotypes abound, yes, but Moreland's a great comedian and his scenes with Marguerite Whitten and Madame Sul-Te-Wan are a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of the film. Score nomination seems generous.

I Wanted Wings
release: May 15
wins: Best Special Effects (Farciot Edouart / Gordon Jennings, photographic; Louis Mesenkop, sound)
dir: Mitchell Leisen
pr: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
scr: Richard Maibum & Lieutenant Beirne Lay, Jr. & Sig Herzig, story by Eleanore Girffin and Frank Wead, from the book by Lieutenant Beirne Lay, Jr.
cin: Leo Tover

Weird movie that's one part "wow wow our men in uniform" and one part romance noir about Nice Guys who get involved with Bad Girls. Opens with a mock air raid, excitingly filmed; ends with a "wow" gaze at our military aircraft taking off, reassuring us of the might of the country and the humanity of the boys in those cockpits. In between, of course, nightclub singer Veronica Lake, a selfish broad with her own entanglements with certain gangsters, pits the boys against each other and somehow they wind up court-martialed and also someone gets murdered. At least they got their wings?

Billy the Kid
release: May 30
nominations: Best Cinematography - Color
dir: David Miller
pr: Irving Asher
scr: Gene Fowler, story by Howard Emmett Rogers and Bradbury Foote, from the book The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns
cin: William V. Skall / Leonard Smith

Robert Taylor plays the titular outlaw as he tries to be less cynical and live without violence, but corrupt ranchers like Gene Lockhart's Hickey and too-true-blue lawmen like Brian Donlevy's not-Pat-Garrett challenge that. Loved the color cinematography in this one, also a big fan of Taylor's performance and his costume - no wonder he could pull Ms. Stanwyck! I don't have a lot to say, but I enjoyed it.

Blood and Sand
release: May 30
wins: Best Cinematography - Color
nominations: Best Art Direction - Color (Richard Day / Joseph C. Wright / Thomas Little)
dir: Rouben Mamoulian
pr: Darryl Zanuck
scr: Jo Swerling, from the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez
cin: Ernest Palmer / Ray Rennahan

Tyrone Power is a matador. That's the plot, what more do you need? Love the ensemble in this one: Antthony Quinn as a friend who becomes a rival, John Carradine as a friend who remains a conscience, Linda Darnell as the good girl Tyrone Power loves, Rita Hayworth as the bad girl he wants (she is so good in this part!), Nazimova as his glass-half-empty mother - and, above all, Laird Cregar as a two-faced sports writer who switches between praise and insults with too much ease and a lot of bluster. Filmed in glorious Technicolor, indeed, every stitch of gold in the matador uniform, every blue tile in the matador's home, every deep shadow that hides his visage coming out in the most beautiful shades they could possibly be. Music by Spanish guitarist Vicente Gomez, my Heavens, what music! 

release: May 30
nominations: Best Musical Score (Anthony Collins)
dir/pr: Herbert Wilcox
scr: Sig Herzig, from the play by Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto A. Harbach
cin: Russell Metty

A millionaire playboy has a Mardi Gras fling with a circus performer - can their love overcome their class differences and biases? Dreamlike opening act, almost 30 minutes of Mardi Gras shenanigans, promises thrills, spontaneity, genuine feeling. If it had all been set in one night, it'd be a great movie. As it is, everything gets dragged out too long. Good Ray Bolger dance scenes.

Tomorrow, the Marx Brothers sing while they sell.

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