Tuesday, June 11, 2024

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1941: So Nice, They Told It Thrice

The other day - well, at least once a week - I heard someone complain, either on social media or actually in person, that Hollywood has no new ideas. This has always been an odd complaint to me since so many acknowledged classics are either biopics or adaptations of novels or plays - can't exactly call it a new idea when it's already been a New York Times bestseller or a Pulitzer Prize winner for drama - or, and I confess this is rarely the case, remakes. Among the Top Ten of the American Film Institute's all-time American films: Citizen Kane, a roman á clef of William Randolph Hearst; The Godfather, an adaptation of a lurid pulp novel; Casablanca, an adaptation of an unpublished play that also borrows a hint of setting from Algiers and Pépé le Moko; Raging Bull, a biopic based on a memoir; Singin' in the Rain, with a central plot point borrowed from Hit Parade of 1941; Gone with the Wind, adapted from a bestselling novel; Lawrence of Arabia, a biopic based on biographies; Schindler's List, based on a historical novel; and The Wizard of Oz, the fourth film to bear that title (or some variant thereof) adapted from a series of popular children's books and plays. I've still never seen Vertigo, so I can't speak to its origins.

And at #31 on the AFI Top 100 is The Maltese Falcon, nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, which earned almost five times its budget and continues to make money. I've discussed this movie with teens and twenty-somethings, with elders and sixty-whatsits. This most legendary of film noirs, with its dynamic supporting cast and iconic Bogart performance, is not only adapted from a 1930 novel (eleven years previously!), it is the third film adaptation of the novel! The first appeared in 1930, but I haven't seen it; the second was a comic send-up of the premise, 1936's Satan Met a Lady, which I have seen, regrettably. Wasn't it Michael Caine who said we should stop remaking good movies and remake the bad ones with good premises? Guess he was right...though surely The Thing and The Fly can count as exceptions to the first?

This third Falcon came out on October 18th. In this grouping, it's squarely in the middle, surrounded on either side by figures perfect for the Halloween season: the ghost of Smilin' Through, the devil of All That Money Can Buy (directed by Satan Met a Lady's William Dieterle), and the costumed alter egos of All-American Co-Ed and Dumbo...

Smilin' Through
release: October
dir: Frank Borzage
pr: Frank Borzage / Victor Saville
scr: Donald Ogden Stewart and John L. Balderston, from the play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin
cin: Leonard Smith

An Irish girl falls in love with an American, but her guardian objects, remembering his own doomed romance with the girl's aunt long ago... Jeanette MacDonald plays the girl and her aunt (in very extended flashback) - she doesn't have to sing, her performance in both roles is good enough without and the songs aren't entirely motivated. It's always a pleasure to hear that voice, of course, but it's the first Jeanette MacDonald film where it feels like you can take a popcorn break during the numbers although she does do a beautiful job with Gene Raymond of building their romance with one piano duet. Raymond was MacDonald's husband in real life, this was their only film together, he's a much livelier, sexier presence than Nelson Eddy. It is an uneasy premise, and I'm not sure why there are so many plays from the early 20th century about men falling in love with, or at least projecting past romantic feelings onto, their wards. Good acting, lovely cinematography. A remake, by the way, indeed a third adaptation of a stage play.

Mercy Island
release: October 10
nominations: Best Score (Cy Feuer / Walter Scharf)
dir: William Morgan
scr: Malcolm Stuart Boylan
cin: Reggie Lanning

In the Florida Keys, a group finds themselves marooned on a remote island with a mysterious doctor. At the very least, has some insight about the mini-nation of expats that made up the population of the country's Southernmost Point.

release: October 16
nominations: Best Score (Miklós Rózsa), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Art Direction - Black-and-White (Alexander Golitzen / Richard Irvine)
dir: Henry Hathaway
pr: Walter Wanger
scr: Barré Lyndon, adaptation by Charles G. Booth, story by Barré Lyndon
cin: Charles Lang

The war, black market arms, and a mysterious woman come to an otherwise laidback British outpost in East Africa. The setting really does inspire the set dressers, costumers and cinematographers of Hollywood - this movie is a beauty to behold. If the actual plot strains credulity, the dialogue and performers are enough to make it go down easy. 

All That Money Can Buy (aka The Devil and Daniel Webster)
release: October 16
wins: Best Score (Bernard Herrmann)
nominations: Best Actor (Walter Huston)
dir/pr: William Dieterle
scr: Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benet, from the play The Devil and Daniel Webster and the short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet
cin: Joseph H. August

In 1840, a struggling farmer makes a desperate deal with the mysterious Mr. Scratch. A movie so good I immediately recommended it to my mother, my best friend, and whoever else would listen. Neither alternate title character is the lead, but they are integral to the plot, as each argues for our hero's salvation or damnation in a third-act trial scene that was later spoofed in The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror IV. Daniel Webster for the defense is a real person, played nobly and thoughtfully by Edward Arnold - the man believes in the innate goodness of this farmer, nay, in the innate goodness of America, an impossible Land of Liberty that stands as a country of honesty and righteousness. The Devil is Ol' Scratch, of course, leeringly played by Walter Huston, who emphasizes that he is as much a part of this nation's origins as any Puritan, here "when the first wrong was done to the first Indian [and] when the first slaver put out for the Congo." It is no surprise that Dieterle is a German director, the sets, cinematography, and editing (I watched the original cut that features negative inserts of Scratch before he meets the farmer) are reminiscent of that nation's great 1920s output - which he was part of, having appeared in Murnau's Faust. In his vision, he is matched by composer Bernard Herrmann and soundmen Hugh Dowell, Jr., and James G. Stewart, who rise to the challenge to create something that is a morality play, yes, philosophical and meditative about America's personality - but also genuinely frightening, an eerie tale of the supernatural. 

The Maltese Falcon
release: October 18
nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sydney Greenstreet), Best Screenplay
dir/scr: John Huston, from the novel by Dashiell Hammett
cin: Arthur Edeson

Sam Spade investigates his partner's murder. More when we discuss Best Picture this Friday.

The Men in Her Life
release: October 30
nominations: Best Sound Recording (John P. Livadary, Columbia SSD)
dir/pr: Gregory Ratoff
scr: Frederick Kohner and Michael Wilson and Paul Trivers, from the novel by Lady Eleanor Smith
cin: Arthur C. Miller / Harry Stradling, Sr.

The story of a prima ballerina in three acts, each marked by a new man in her life. Act One, where she is trained and shaped into the talent that she is by the older mentor who saw her possibilities watching her at the circus. Conrad Veidt and Eugenie Leontovich (as his...housekeeper? secretary?) are terrific here, perfect foils for Loretta Young's starry-eyed but often regretful ingenue. After that, we get the standard melodrama, but with an emphasis on the carved bit of wood that is Dean Jagger.

All-American Co-Ed
release: October 31
nominations: Best Score (Edward Ward), Best Original Song ("Out of the Silence")
dir/pr: LeRoy Prinz
scr: Cortland Fitzsimmons, adaptation by Kenneth Higgins, story by LeRoy Prinz / Hal Roach, Jr.
cin: Robert Pittack

A girls' school writes an editorial shading an all-men university, so a frat boy infiltrates in drag. Absolutely stupid. Opens with a good enough number and handsome young men in pretty good drag. One guy does a Gary Cooper impression that I found pretty damning. 

Appointment for Love
release: October 31
nominations: Best Sound Recording (Bernard B. Brown, Universal SSD)
dir: William A. Seiter
pr: Bruce Manning
scr: Felix Jackson & Bruce Manning, from the story "Heartbreak" by Leslie Bush-Fekete
cin: Joseph A. Valentine

Margaret Sullavan is a doctor, Charles Boyer is a playwright, they fall in love, get married, but because of their different lifestyles, maintain separate apartments in the same building - and it's beginning to irk him! Fun, funny movie about the modern world that allows Sullavan to not to be too punished for being a professional, working woman. And acknowledges Boyer's being a baby. But allows that in any marriage, there must be some compromise. No objections.

release: October 31
wins: Best Musical Score (Frank Churchill / Oliver Wallace)
nominations: Best Original Song ("Baby Mine")
dir: Ben Sharpsteen, supervising director
pr: Walt Disney
scr: Joe Grant & Dick Huemer, from the book by Helen Aberson / Harold Pearl

A circus elephant is shunned for his overlarge ears. Very brief, even by the standards of the day, but I think there is a weirdly overwhelming beauty in its simplicity. It's not as detailed as Pinocchio, not as ambitious as Fantasia, yet it captures a youngling's fresh-faced fear of the world in honest terms: silhouettes make unusual shapes, clowns are faceless demons, the older generation appears larger and all-consuming as their criticism and cruelty increases. I adore the crows who set our Dumbo free. I love the songs. 

Tomorrow, a movie nominated for Best Picture...and nothing else.

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