Thursday, July 19, 2018

1935 - Broadway Melody of 1936

From the chill of Sydney's winter back to the oppressive heat of another Los Angeles summer, I've returned to my adopted home without blogging about the last film I watched before leaving L.A. in the first place. The three weeks in Australia was a nice holiday, but now it's time to get back to business.

Next up, we take a look at another musical entry into 1935's Best Picture contest...

Broadway Melody of 1936
Roy Del Ruth
Jack McGowan, Sid Silvers, Moss Hart, Harry W. Conn
Jack Benny, Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers, Buddy Ebsen, June Knight, Vilma Ebsen
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
1 win, for Best Dance Direction

After his boss orders him to make his column more sensational, Broadway gossip columnist Bert Keeler (Benny) stumbles upon a potentially sleazy relationship between producer Bob Gordon (Taylor) and wealthy widow Lillian Brent (Knight). She is investing in his show on the condition that, if Gordon can't find a star within two weeks, she'll take the role. Enter Irene Foster (Powell), Gordon's estranged high-school sweetheart, herself a budding stage actress with her own desire to headline Gordon's show.

From that plot, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is just another run-of-the-mill musical comedy from old Hollywood. They certainly churned those out in those days, but if this is run-of-the-mill, then it's a pretty entertaining mill. I never considered myself a big fan of the extravagant dance musical but something really tickled my fancy with this one. With its exciting showbiz story and its truly toe-tapping musical numbers, this is escapism at its purest.

In the lead role, Jack Benny, already a radio star at the time, is drily hilarious and can already be seen utilizing his trademark exasperated expression with one hand gently perched on his lower jaw. Also enjoyable is Una Merkel's sly and humorous turn as the sassy secretary. Perhaps the standout, though, is Buddy Ebsen, who is immensely charming and quirky and, if you're only familiar with him as Jed Clampett, you'll be surprised at what an accomplished song-and-dance man he is. Plus, that's his real-life sister Vilma playing his on-screen sister. The two of them (pictured with Eleanor Powell) perform an absolutely mind-blowing tap dance routine.

In fact, all the dancing talent is spectacular, particularly that one guy in the opening number who literally jumps over all the chorus girls, lined up in a row. It's a confusingly random feat, but impressive nonetheless. And that's just one example of the unique choreography on display. It's no wonder the film's only Oscar came for Best Dance Direction (a now defunct category). It also nabbed a nomination for Best Writing (Original Story), though, in my opinion, the script's greatest feature is its witty dialogue. And, of course, there was the Best Picture nod, which, it could be argued, makes it the first sequel to ever be nominated for the top prize, despite the fact that the story and characters are entirely unrelated to 1928/29's Best Picture winner, The Broadway Melody.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

1935 - Naughty Marietta

Greetings from wintry Sydney, Australia. I'm back in my home town for a few weeks visiting family and friends, so I may not get much of a chance to watch more of the current crop of nominees, but I had already watched two more of them before I left L.A., so I hope to at least find a little time to blog about them while I'm here.

And indeed, here are my thoughts on one of those films, another Best Picture nominee from 1935...

Naughty Marietta
Robert Z. Leonard, W.S. Van Dyke
Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, John Lee Mahin
(based on the operetta by Victor Herbert [music] and Rida Johnson Young [book & lyrics])
Jeanette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy, Frank Morgan, Elsa Lanchester, Douglas Dumbrille, Joseph Cawthorne, Cecilia Parker, Walter Kingsford, Greta Meyer, Akim Tamiroff
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
1 win, for Best Sound

In order to escape an arranged marriage, a French princess (MacDonald) adopts the identity of a lowly servant named Marietta and sails to New Orleans with dozens of other girls who are hoping to marry the colonists there. However, Marietta has no intention of marrying anyone. Before they arrive in New Orleans, the ship is overtaken by pirates and their plans look dashed until mercenaries come to the rescue. The leader of the mercenaries, Captain Warrington (Eddy), takes a liking to Marietta, though he, too, is stubbornly against marriage.

Of all the different genres of film, musicals arguably contain the least naturalistic conceit. Even fantasy films don't feature people randomly breaking into song (unless they're fantasy musicals, I guess). Not that I'm criticising, mind you. I love a good musical. It's just that, if you're going to ask the audience to suspend disbelief about the spontaneous singing, you might want to make the lyrics at least somewhat relevant to the action. Maybe I'm exaggerating since most of the songs do indeed make sense, but there were still a few that seemed to bear little relation to the story. Of course, it didn't help that unfamiliar characters would often join in the musical numbers for only one or two verses (and sometimes even start the song), even though we hadn't been introduced to them yet nor would we ever see them again. Just some random guy in a crowd belting passionately about something or other. Ironically, the songs are probably the least entertaining part of this whole affair but that may just be a modern viewer's perspective of a very old-fashioned style.

Despite all that and a somewhat formulaic plot, the picture is still very watchable. The visual gags, in particular, may be subtle and sparse, but they often had me laughing out loud. In opposition to the sometimes odd lyrics, the spoken dialogue is sharp and entertaining. Not to mention the old-timey slang. Who knew that "hollow in his pork basket" meant he was hungry?

Frank Morgan is the standout among a very capable cast. His amiable bumbling makes for a fantastically comedic performance. The chemistry between the two leads, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy (pictured), works very well, and they both have superb classical singing voices, if you like that sort of thing. As for its Oscars record, Naughty Marietta only received one other nomination besides its Best Picture nod, but it took home that prize, which was for Best Sound Recording.

Friday, June 15, 2018

1935 - Alice Adams

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an Academy event which, for this Oscars freak, was a giddy experience, despite it being a fairly low-key affair, open to the public. In any case, I'm grateful to be living in a city that affords me the opportunity to attend such things.

As you can see from the program (pictured to the right), this was a George Stevens Lecture, the Academy's long-running series of screenings/lectures celebrating the cinematic arts (and, if I'm not mistaken, I believe the point is that it's always a George Stevens film). While waiting for the event to begin, the audience was treated to some archival footage of interviews with legendary director George Stevens and producer Pandro S. Berman, discussing some behind-the-scenes tidbits about the movie we were about to see. Then, after a brief introduction by Academy President John Bailey, we heard from the director's own son, George Stevens Jr., also a filmmaker and an important figure in the film industry himself (he founded the AFI), who gave us a general overview of his father's life and career, as well as some more stories about the evening's film. He then handed the floor to the main lecturer of the evening, writer and director Robin Swicord, a member of the Academy's Board of Governors, representing the writers branch. (Swicord was Oscar-nominated for her adaptation of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which will be covered on this blog at some point in the future.)

Swicord's speech offered an in-depth look at the themes that Stevens was exploring in his film and how relevant they remain to this day. It was a genuinely fascinating talk, full of humour and insight, despite some spoilers. Though, it's hard to complain about spoilers of a film that was released 83 years ago. Finally, Swicord introduced the film itself and we all sat back to watch one of the Best Picture contenders from 1935...

Alice Adams
George Stevens
Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner, Jane Murfin
(based on the novel by Booth Tarkington)
Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray, Fred Stone, Evelyn Venable, Frank Albertson, Ann Shoemaker, Charles Grapewin, Hattie McDaniel
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

The Adams family (not the creepy, kooky one) are a lower middle class family who have hit upon rough times. Mr. Adams (Stone) is lucky to still be paid for a factory job he's been unable to perform in years, due to illness. His daughter Alice (Hepburn) desperately wants to be upper class, often forced to fake it as she attends fancy society soirees. But she struggles to keep up the facade when she falls for wealthy Arthur Russell (MacMurray), who seems to remain interested in her even after becoming aware of her compromised social status.

Alice Adams is an engaging, if slightly superficial, tale of class differences in Depression-era America. Despite the desperation subtly seeping from every scene, there's a surprising amount of humour. It's a mix that works wonderfully well, making for a cinematic experience that is both moving and enjoyable. Perhaps my only complaint is the abrupt ending. While that's clearly not unusual for early Hollywood, here it seems particularly unconvincing. The implausibly hasty resolution between Mr. Adams and his boss is perhaps bad enough, but then our two protagonists suddenly set aside their differences with only a few words and a sweeping kiss, followed by The End. Interestingly, the book on which this film is based did not end the same way and instead saw Alice and Arthur go their separate ways. Hepburn and Stevens pushed hard to retain the book's more realistic ending, including a final scene showing Alice heading off to business school, but in the end, producer Pandro S. Berman got his way, making sure the lovers united for a traditional, and box-office friendly, happy ending.

That's a relatively minor quibble, though, because the film is indeed captivating, in great part due to Katharine Hepburn's tour-de-force performance. She's charmingly natural in a role that paradoxically requires a near constant tone of insincerity. I must admit, though, that the pretension was a bit grating at times, almost jeopardising our desire to see her succeed, but I suppose it only added to the character's flawed desperation. Also noteworthy is a pre-Gone With the Wind Hattie McDaniel in a drily comic turn as an incompetent maid, delivering the film's funniest performance. But it was Hepburn that claimed the film's only acting nomination. In fact, it was the film's only nomination in any other category aside from Best Picture.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Best Picture of 1946

It's always a little difficult writing a verdict when I've left so long in between the first and last film viewings of a review year because I barely remember the first film any more. Thankfully, though, this is a blog, so I can just read my posted thoughts on each film to refresh my memory. Funny how that works.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1946 are:
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Henry V
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • The Razor's Edge
  • The Yearling
This shortlist is heavy on classics and, with a diverse range of subject matter, no two are particularly alike, either. From a Shakespeare adaptation to a coming-of-age drama to the ultimate feelgood Christmas flick, it's quite a mixed bag.

The Yearling was probably my least favourite, though certainly not unworthy of its recognition as a Best Picture nominee. The Razor's Edge, too, is fine but the melodrama prevents it from being at the top of my list. Third to go is Henry V. I thoroughly enjoyed the cleverness of Olivier's adaptation but there's sometimes an unfortunate language barrier to Shakespearean works that makes it difficult to remain constantly absorbed.

That leaves two and it's a close call. The Best Years of Our Lives was the Academy's pick and I enjoyed it immensely - a nice mix of drama and comedy. But ultimately, I'm siding with the picture that has justifiably become a mainstay of Christmas season. Therefore, my favourite nominee from the Best Picture race of 1946 is the utterly charming It's a Wonderful Life. 
Best Picture of 1946
Academy's choice:

The Best Years of Our Lives

Matt's choice:

It's a Wonderful Life

Your choice:

I'm interested to find out what your favourite was, too. Cast your vote above. As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, the trend of me starting a new year of review due to a local screening continues. Last week, I caught an event hosted by the Academy itself, which I'll discuss in my next post. Due to said screening, we'll now be shifting to a rare 12-nominee year and discussing the films of 1935.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1935 are:
  • Alice Adams
  • Broadway Melody of 1936
  • Captain Blood
  • David Copperfield
  • The Informer
  • Les Misérables
  • The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Mutiny on the Bounty
  • Naughty Marietta
  • Ruggles of Red Gap
  • Top Hat
Another mixed bag. Maybe even mixier. Stay tuned...

Thursday, June 7, 2018

1946 - Henry V

Well, I've got a verdict post to write, as well as the first post of the next year of review, so let's move this right along.

Our final film in the race for 1944's Best Picture is...

Henry V
Laurence Olivier
Laurence Olivier, Dallas Bower, Alan Dent
(based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Laurence Olivier, Renée Asherson, Robert Newton, Leslie Banks, Felix Aylmer, Esmond Knight, Leo Genn
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins, plus 1 Honorary Award

Young King Henry V of England (Olivier) believes that France is rightfully part of his domain, and after being teased by the French, he begins a military campaign to claim their throne. His troops successfully take Harfleur, but at Agincourt, they are vastly outnumbered. Victory will be hard won here, testing Henry's skills as a strategist, a leader, and even an orator.

Henry V begins with the clever conceit that we are actually watching a filmed version of the play being performed in Shakespeare's time. There's a rowdy audience; the actors bow after each scene; we even see what goes on backstage on occasion. The on-stage narrator (or the Chorus, as Shakespeare named him) often apologises for the inadequacy of a stage production in being able to truly represent the grandness required of the story, asking us instead to use our imaginations to see the sweeping fields of France or the extravagant court of the English King.

And here's where Olivier gets really clever. About half an hour into the film, gone are the small stage sets, along with the theatrical entrances and exits, and we suddenly find ourselves watching the same characters on location instead. No longer do we need to imagine the scenery because we can actually see it in all its Technicolor splendour. In addition, the Chorus now addresses the camera and the soliloquys are presented in voice over as if they are true internal monologues. Shakespeare knew his medium didn't entirely have sufficient means to tell this story and, in a truly masterful stroke, Olivier appropriately adapted it to a medium that did.

At the end of the film, we return to Shakespeare's stage to hear the audience applaud as the actors take their bows. This perhaps suggests an additional metaphor at play. By bookending the film with scenes from a theatrical production, Olivier is maybe offering his take on the theatre's ability to transport its audience. All the scenes in between those bookends represent how we can truly get lost in our imagination as we watch the players on stage.

And there are indeed some spectacular sequences, in particular the Battle of Agincourt. The action is dramatically staged on wide open fields with seemingly hundreds of medieval soldiers in a breathtaking melee of swords and arrows. Perhaps the only detraction from this powerful sequence is the somewhat fake-looking matte paintings in the background.

The film boasts a stellar cast of experienced Shakespearean actors, led by one of the theatre world's greatest knights, Laurence Olivier (pictured). Olivier garnered himself a Best Actor nomination from the Academy as well as one for producing a Best Picture contender. He didn't win either of those (nor did the film win its other two nominations), but the Academy bestowed a Special Award on him anyway for his "outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen".