Thursday, June 13, 2024

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1941: Men and Monsters

What was it about How Green Was My Valley that spoke to Oscar voters? The genuine quality of the film itself? Was it that it was the last of the Best Picture nominees to come out, recency bias doing its thing again? Maybe both - maybe, too, its story of a boy growing up in a close-knit family in a close-knit town learning that the world can be cruel and home was being wrecked in a way that wouldn't make it home ever again struck a chord with a country that just found itself thrust into the war they'd all been watching.

One watches all the movies from this year and last and figures America was gearing up anyway. All the films about our heroic Navy men, our pilots, the comedies about registering for the draft or being enlisted, the brave pseudo-comedies about rebels who went overseas, the imports about our British cousins fighting the good fight. But it is one thing to make movies about how we'll enter the War on our terms, to watch movies about other people's war; it is quite another thing altogether to wake up to an attack - one that, even at the time, people spoke of being preventable, had the government actually paid attention and acted on its suspicions and intelligence.

And so this December, the cinema is full of meditations on the end of innocence, alienation, government nincompoopery...there's even a ball of fire, though that one's a much more fun one to consider than the infernos that were to come:

How Green Was My Valley
release: December
wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Donald Crisp), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (Richard Day / Nathan Juran / Thomas Little)
nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Sara Allgood), Best Screenplay, Best Score (Alfred Newman), Best Film Editing (James B. Clark), Best Sound Recording (Edmund H. Hansen, 20th Century Fox SSD)
dir: John Ford
pr: Darryl F. Zanuck
scr: Philip Dunne, from the novel by Richard Llewellyn
cin: Arthur C. Miller

The memories of a boy's youth spent in a Welsh mining town. More tomorrow.

The Wolf Man
release: December 9
dir/pr: George Waggner
scr: Curt Siodmak
cin: Joseph A. Valentine

A man returns to the family home in Wales after a long absence and is bitten by a werewolf. This movie invented werewolf tropes, there were no full moons or silver bullets or folk poems about the "wolfsbane bloom" in lore before this movie (even the full moon stuff doesn't come in 'til the following year's sequel). I had hoped to have either finished or at least gotten to the Wolf Man portion of Curt Siodmak's memoir Wolf Man's Maker by the time I got here, but alas... I have read the chapters from his conception all the way to his flight to Switzerland ahead of the Nazis, and from everything he says about his father - Master of the House, his word is law, not outwardly affectionate, almost competitive with his children - there is a lot of personal stuff he's working out in the screenplay for this film: on their first meeting after years away from each other, Laurence Talbot and his father Sir John do not embrace, they shake hands, and even hesitate before doing so. There's tension in their relationship before Larry's even entered the house: this is his first visit home since he was sent to America following the death of his mother, an event so long ago in the past his only memories of the local police captain is how they "used to snitch apples together." An outsider in his own "native land", he tries (and fails) to save a young woman from being mauled to death by a wolf; for his efforts, he is suspected by all the villagers of murder, defilement, dishonorable intentions towards the local ladies - oh, and he is bitten and becomes a werewold, cursing him to a life of torment. This feeling of alienation in one's own home is also reflected in Siodmak's writing about the rise of the Nazis and the casual anti-Semitism even before that. There is more to this film than a simple monster movie: no one who dies is obnoxious or deserving, they are random, heartbreaking; the beasts in their human forms are unhappy, weary; the score, after the suspenseful opening theme, becomes increasingly mournful; the soundtrack is full of slight raindrops, the "sound" of constant dew and mist, I suppose - fitting, since there is a perpetual fog in every exterior scene. The entertainment comes from the strength of the performances (Lon Chaney, Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, Bela Lugosi), the seriousness with which the filmmakers approach this story, the novelty. This is a tragedy, and ultimately, while there is a romance, the love story here is about the one not felt between father and son. This is a masterpiece.

Ball of Fire
release: December 30
nominations: Best Actress (Barbara Stanwyck), Best Original Story, Best Score (Alfred Newman), Best Sound Recording (Thomas T. Moulton, Samuel Goldwyn SSD)
dir: Howard Hawks
pr: Samuel Goldwyn
scr: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, story by Billy Wilder and Thomas Monroe
cin: Gregg Toland

A group of professors compiling a massive encyclopedia of all human knowledge have a new tenant in their house: Sugarpuss O'Shea, a nightclub singer hiding from the cops, who's going to help them with the slang and modern culture portions. As we established with The Lady Eve (and as you should know anyway), Barbara Stanwyck is insanely sexy, and while few things will ever be as steamy as the daybed scene in the aforementioned Sturges film, Sugarpuss's nightclub act, performing "Drum Boogie" with Gene Krupa while wearing a shimmering dress that really shows off her legs, reminds one of the days when one discovered Women. This is also one of the very good Gary Cooper performances, reuniting him with his Sergeant York director; he is overly serious, he is dull, he is attractive! A strong ensemble of professors, but Richard Haydn especially shines as the only one to have ever been married before, with Sugarpuss's presence reminding him of his youth and the days before widowerhood. And then, hello, gangsters! Guns! Fist fights! Library action! Talk about a title delivering on its promise!

Louisiana Purchase
release: December 31
nominations: Best Cinematography - Color, Best Art Direction - Color (Raoul Pene Du Bois / Stephen Seymour)
dir: Irving Cummings
scr: Jerome Chodorov / Joseph Fields, from the play by Morrie Ryskind and the short story by Buddy G. DeSylva
cin: Harry Hallenberger / Ray Rennahan

When Washington sends a senator to investigate the misappropriation of Federal funds, corrupt local bigwigs blackmail a Louisiana State Representative into luring the senator into a honey trap. A satire of Louisiana politics and the Huey Long hangover, the film opens with a very long musical sequence that is basically the ol' "The events of this photoplay are entirely fictitious and any similarity, etc." disclaimer, but set to music. Cheeky. Bob Hope is the hero who must do villainous work; he's very funny. Between this, Sunny, and The Toast of New Orleans, Hollywood had Mardi Gras on the mind in 1941, good news for those of us who love lavish costumes and big-crowd musical numbers. Songs by Irving Berlin. The #3 biggest hit of the year - I'd say American needed the laughs following Pearl Harbor, but it is interesting that they're coming from a film as critical of government, politicians, and Democrats as this one is.

Tomorrow, Oscar's nominees for Best Picture of 1941: Blossoms in the Dust, Citizen Kane, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the DawnHow Green Was My Valley, The Little FoxesThe Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, and Suspicion.

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