Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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1941: One is Enough

Will we ever again get a lone Best Picture nominee? In the first 16 years of the Academy Awards, it happened all the time, starting with the 1928 gangster pic The Racket at the very first ceremony, when there were only three official nominees in the category. Grand Hotel even won Best Picture without being nominated in any other category, one of four Best Picture nominees that year up for the big prize and nothing else.

And it happened in 1941, with One Foot in Heaven. Based on a memoir by journalist Hartzell Spence about his Methodist minister father, it follows a family from the parents' marriage through the arrival of children and the attempt to build a community in several places, what with ministers being bounced from place to place as needed by The Church. They deal with the changing world and their own struggle to navigate their own human frailties with the added pressure of elevated status in their community. Why this film for Best Picture, I do not know. I can't readily find information on its box office and the reviews appear to me to be positive but not overly enthusiastic. Of course, I've also seen the movie, did so before knowing it was a lone Best Picture nominee but - God as my witness, this is the truth - thought, "Well, this is the kind of movie I can see getting Best Picture and nothing else." An increasingly rare feat, even at the time: the previous two ceremonies' Best Picture nominees had other nods to boost their profiles; two years after this, The Ox-Bow Incident became the last lone Best Picture nominee.

More common, especially with a lineup of ten, is the film with one or two other nominations. That happens even today: Past Lives was only nominated for Picture and Original Screenplay, Women Talking for Picture and Adapted Screenplay (which it won!), Triangle of Sadness for Picture, Director and Original name but a few. In 1941, this seemed to be the go-to for handling successful crime films, such as The Maltese Falcon or Suspicion. The latter was the follow-up to the previous year's Best Picture winner Rebecca, with the same director Alfred Hitchcock, the same star Joan Fontaine, even a similar plot with the spinster who falls for a man with secrets, though this time it's Cary Grant instead of Laurence Olivier. A commercial hit and winner of critics' prizes before the nominations, it's not entirely surprising that it found its way here, though it may be surprising that its only other nominations were for Best Actress (which it won!) and Best Score.

Funny, to think that they're the only Best Picture nominees among the nine November releases below, yet they share the same number of nominations as five of them. Here they are:

The Chocolate Soldier
release: November
nominations: Best Musical Score (Herbert Stothart / Bronislau Kaper), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Sound Recording (Douglas Shearer, MGM SSD)
dir: Roy Del Ruth
pr: Victor Saville
scr: Leonard Lee and Keith Winter, from the play The Guardsman by Ferenc Molnár
cin: Karl Freund

A remake of the Lunts' The Guardsman, in which a jealous husband disguises himself as another man to test his wife's fidelity. Tweaked to allow for musical numbers from The Chocolate Soldier - apparently, they had rights to the title and songs but not the actual show? - and as a showcase for talented tenor Nelson Eddy and the Metropolitan Opera's Risë Stevens. Eddy proves himself an able comic performer without Jeanette MacDonald; Stevens proves herself...definitely not MacDonald. Not as fun as its predecessor, the songs really mess with the flow.

Shadow of the Thin Man
release: November
dir: W.S. Van Dyke
pr: Hunt Stromberg
scr: Irvin Brecher and Harry Kurnitz, story by Harry Kurnitz, from characters created by Dashiell Hammett
cin: William H. Daniels

A jockey is found shot dead in the gym showers - but Nick and Nora are on the scene!  A lot of Nora in this one, as she insists at being on the scene and actually doing some sleuthing - good for her! She goes to a wrestling match - every hood, lush, and roundheel there seems to know Nick. Stella Adler herself makes a rare film appearance to play a suspect. The mystery itself is a little convoluted, the solution Not my favorite mystery, but a great Myrna Loy showcase.

One Foot in Heaven
release: November 1
nominations: Best Picture
dir/pr: Irving Rapper
scr: Casey Robinson, from the book by Hartzell Spence
cin: Charles Rosher

The trials of a Methodist minister and his family. We'll talk about it more on Friday.

Birth of the Blues
release: November 7
nominations: Best Musical Score (Robert Emmett Dolan)
dir: Victor Schertzinger
pr: Monta Hell / Buddy G. DeSylva
scr: Harry Tugend / Walter DeLeon, story by Harry Tugend
cin: William C. Mellor

Bing Crosby and friends try to spread the gospel of jazz. Loosely based on the exploits of the Original Dixieland Jass Band. Mary Martin and Crosby are terrific together, Brian Donlevy great fun, J. Carrol Naish a genuine threat as a gangster nightclub owner who insists on his acts' loyalty. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson is really solid here, gets a lot more to do than just react and play manservant. Not the best blues film to come out this month, but the sub-subgenre was on a roll.

The Devil Pays Off
release: November 10
nominations: Best Sound Recording (Charles L. Lootens, Republic SSD)
dir: John H. Auer
scr: Lawrence Kimble and Malcolm Stuart Boylan, story by George Worthing Yates and Julian Zimet
cin: John Alton

Spies, I think? I remember there's this gag where a guy is romancing a gal on a cruise ship and complains of the same man's portrait watching their every move - it's the ship's owner, the gal's husband. Otherwise, very little recollection of this.

release: November 14
wins: Best Actress (Joan Fontaine)
nominations: Best Picture, Best Score (Franz Waxman)
dir: Alfred Hitchcock
pr: Harry E. Edington
scr: Samson Raphaelson & Joan Harrison & Alma Reville, from the novel Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley (as Francis Iles)
cin: Harry Stradling, Sr.

A woman begins to suspect that her whirlwind marriage is to a man who wants to killer her. More Friday.

Blues in the Night
release: November 15
nominations: Best Original Song ("Blues in the Night")
dir: Anatole Litvak
scr: Robert Rossen, adaptation by Elia Kazan, from a play by Edwin Gilbert
cin: Ernest Haller

"My momma done told me..." A jazz band on the rise finds themselves trapped in business with a gangster club owner. Depends a lot on believing that our honest, independent hero would risk it all for a clearly No Good Dame like the femme fatale at the center of this picture, but what do you want? That's the way life is sometimes, and besides, he's in love with a good, honest, married woman - the band's singer, Character. Not a dishonest performance in the bunch. Ratty dives, tough-talking toughs, and the kind of music you want to hear with a cigarette handy. A noir, a semi-musical, a good flick. And Elia Kazan is in it!

Swamp Water
release: November 16
dir: Jean Renoir
pr: Irving Pichel
scr: Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Vereen Bell
cin: J. Peverell Marley

In Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp (isn't that where Pogo Poss'm lives?), a young man discovers a fugitive hiding out - but could the man be innocent of the crime he was convicted for? A film about mob justice (bad) and small-town prejudices (also bad). Feels like it's missing a scene or at least a line of dialogue that would better establish certain relationships. And yet, it's so stylish, shot in the Okefenokee Swamp itself, capturing the wilderness of the Florida-Georgia border - with gators and quicksand and god-knows-what under the water, there's genuine danger in every frame. Love Dana Andrews in this; also love Anne Baxter with her birds' nest mane playing innocent hillbilly; Walter Huston is Andrews' tough dad, and guess what, he's great, too. 

release: November 21
nominations: Best Sound Recording (Loren L. Ryder, Paramount SSD)
dir/pr: Mark Sandrich
scr: Allan Scott, adaptation by Zion Myers, from the play Skylark and the novel Streamline Heart by Samson Raphaelson
cin: Charles Lang

Realizing on their anniversary that she's being taken for granted, a wife entertains the attentions of a ladykiller lawyer and starts divorce proceedings; can hubby fix it? Ray Milland and Claudette Colbert (and Walter Abel) are back together following the previous year's triumph in Arise, My Love, this time with Brian Aherne (charming!) and Binnie Barnes (an absolutely delicious bitch) are in on the fun. And it is fun, though I don't remember the husband really learning anything other than, "OK, OK, I'll placate this broad." Has a great sequence where Colbert tries to make coffee on a yacht in the middle of a tempest.

Tomorrow, one of the most famous movie monsters of all time.

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