Wednesday, September 30, 2009

1976 - All the President's Men

After over a month of inspiration from the films taking part in this project, last night the torch was passed over to the theatre world. I had the pleasure of seeing God of Carnage on Broadway. A wonderful experience and I highly recommend it. It stars Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden - what a cast, right? And not that I want to ruin it for anyone, but I feel compelled to mention that the play includes a very realistic vomiting scene. But don't let that put you off. It's not all about vomit.

Today, the torch was passed back to filmdom when I watched the next 1976 Best Picture nominee...


All the President's Men
Director:
Alan J. Pakula
Screenplay:
William Goldman
(based on the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein)
Starring:
Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
4 wins, including Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay

More a detective story than a journalist's tale, All the President's Men follows what may well be the most famous account of investigative journalism in history. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are reporters for the Washington Post who all but beg to be assigned to cover the aftermath of the break-in at the Watergate hotel. They follow the intricate trail wherever it leads with the assistance of Woodward's secret source on the inside, unkindly nicknamed Deep Throat. The determined pair wind up uncovering a massive conspiracy of political sabotage that reaches higher than even they imagined.

I imagine that, since this film was released so soon after the actual events occurred, audiences of that time must have felt a closer affinity to the subject matter. However, even watching it more than thirty years on and having seen it several times before, it still remains as riveting as ever. And what's most fascinating is that it achieves this in such a subtle manner. There are no action scenes or special effects, just good old fashioned drama. Granted, if you know all the details of the Watergate scandal, you may find the mystery a little less ... well, mysterious. But you would have to know all the details, because the trail that Woodward and Bernstein follow in the course of the story is pretty darn complex. So much so that you really can't afford to let your mind wander for a second or you might get lost.

The pace of the film is a little difficult to describe. Since there are no car chases or fight sequences, you could be forgiven for thinking it slow, but the story is constantly zooming forward as our heroes go from lead to lead that it's almost akin to an action movie. It's as if the film is slow and fast at the same time. Quite a sensation. All the while, it keeps a strong hold of your attention. Similar to Taxi Driver, All the President's Men includes some can't-look-away moments, but for completely different reasons. Rather than being mesmerised by a fascinating character, here we are drawn to the incredible story unravelling in front of us. One scene presents Woodward on the phone attempting to get a source to confirm some incriminating information. Sounds basic enough, but the camera remains on him for several minutes throughout the tense call, never cutting away.

That intensity is heightened by the cleverly sparing use of music throughout the film. In certain scenes, the score gives way to the natural sounds of the environment, which most often is the tapping of typewriter keys, a noise that just sounds like something important is going on. And when the score is heard, it is so magnificently ominous.

As if William Goldman's script wasn't wonderfully subtle enough, the general performance style of the cast in this film is divine. Every single actor, from the two leads right down to the bit parts, produces an amazingly natural and improvisational tone. Jason Robards as the Post's executive editor Ben Bradlee is particularly impressive and I guess Academy members thought so, too, because they gave him the first of his back-to-back Oscars for it.

There is also an array of not-yet-known celebrities in tiny roles - F. Murray Abraham as one of the cops who was first on the scene of the break-in, 7th Heaven's Stephen Collins as the only seemingly honest man caught up in the fiasco, Family Ties' Meredith Baxter as the wife of that honest man. And Junior Soprano himself, Dominic Chianese, shows up at the beginning of the film as one of the Watergate burglars.

So, just one more to go in the 1976 contest...

Monday, September 28, 2009

1976 - Taxi Driver

As promised, dear readers, I have now added voting polls to each of the verdict posts. So, now you can chime in with your own opinion on the best films of each year. Looking ahead, each poll will begin when I post the verdict for that year, but you can go back to the verdicts that have already been delivered in the project to vote on them, as well. There won't be any closing date for any poll. Currently, you can vote on 1939, 1966 and 1992.

I have started off each poll with two votes - one to represent my favourite and one to represent the Academy's choice for Best Picture. Let's see how much agreement there is amongst my readership. And don't feel like you can't vote if you haven't seen all the nominees. As I mentioned previously, Academy members have no such restriction on their voting rights, so there's certainly no reason to feel that these polls should be any different. Vote away!

To completely digress for a second, I used to own the project's next film on VHS many years ago. Before I got around to watching it, I loaned it to a friend who was writing some kind of university paper on film. I promptly forgot all about it and, years later, I lost touch with the friend. Fortunately, a new technological age began, so I purchased the film again, this time on DVD. Once again, before I managed to sit down to watch it, I loaned it to a different friend, and the whole scenario repeated itself. I was beginning to think I was fated to never see this film again. I estimate it's probably been at least fifteen years since I last saw it and, thanks to Netflix, I managed to view it this morning.

The film in question is, of course, the modern classic from the 1976 Best Picture race...


Taxi Driver
Director:
Martin Scorsese
Screenplay:
Paul Schrader
Starring:
Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

Travis Bickle is one of those iconic cinematic characters that only comes around once in a generation. He's a lonely cab driver working the night shift in New York City, disgusted by the low-life scum that troll the streets during those dark hours. Upon spying the beautiful Betsy, a campaign volunteer for a Presidential hopeful, Bickle becomes a little obsessed. Somehow, he manages to keep his creepiness at bay just long enough to convince Betsy to grab a coffee with him and, surprisingly, he's at least charming enough for her to agree to go on a second date. Unfortunately, Bickle's cluelessness leads to him taking her to an X-rated movie, during which she storms out. After all his attempts at reconciliation are rejected, his depressed thoughts deteriorate into violent thoughts and, after illegally purchasing several firearms, he transfers his attention to saving a pre-teen prostitute named Iris from her dead-beat pimp with severely violent consequences.

There is so much atmosphere in Taxi Driver. All the elements of film making come together to create such a deliciously seedy mood and it really draws you in. At first, I was a little distracted by some of Scorsese's strange choices. He definitely likes to be interesting with his shot selection. But there's just something so hypnotic about the result that it's almost like a dream. There are several sequences in which my eyes were glued to the screen not because of any conventional suspense, just because it was indescribably fascinating. Bickle is watching a soap opera on his television set that sits atop a small rickety table. He puts his foot up against the screen and slowly pushes the television back. The camera stays with him for several moments as he deliberately rocks the set back and forth ever so gently. Nothing particularly suspenseful about that but, for some reason, I was transfixed. Only when the television eventually succumbs to gravity and crashes to the floor, exploding in an electrical mess, was I jolted out of my spell.

Bernard Hermann's terrifically sinister score is a perfect addition to the film. The composer, probably most famous for his frequent collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, including the famous violin shrieks from Psycho, highlights the sleaziness of 1970s New York at night, and, in particular, Bickle's creepiness. Coupled with the softly spoken narration, it cements this film as a brilliant example of modern film noir.

And what can you say about Robert De Niro that would do this performance justice? The consummate professional, De Niro spent time working as a night cabbie to get into his role. And whether you agree with that kind of Method acting preparation or not, it's hard to deny that De Niro's portrayal is extraordinary. He begins the film creepy, but he just gets creepier and creepier as the story progresses, furthering himself from society before mentally unravelling completely. It's such a well structured performance with all the nuances of character you would expect from someone with his reputation. You see, underneath it all, Travis Bickle is really just an innocent guy who wants to help people. He just doesn't understand how. And in De Niro's hands, you almost pity him, because you begin to comprehend that he genuinely doesn't realise that taking a date to a porn movie is a bad idea.

Scorsese himself shows up in a cameo as a bitter and threatening cab passenger who spies on his wife's affair. There is a fantastic naturalism to Scorsese's performance. He really should get in front of the camera more often. Also worthy of a mention is Harvey Keitel as the pimp, showing us why he has become such a legendary player of gritty and seedy characters.

So, I think there's no doubt in my mind that Taxi Driver is leading the 1976 race at the moment with just two movies to go. But my mind shall remain open, for the next two films are certainly nothing to shake a stick at.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

1976 - Rocky

I have recently begun work as an usher for an off-Broadway theatre that happens to be in the same building as the rehearsal studios used by some of Broadway's major shows, so it's now time for the second instalment of "Famous People Matt Has Bumped Into". Although, this will certainly be briefer than the previous episode.

The elevator is the main location of action. I have shared it once with Bebe Neuwirth (in New York rehearsing the new musical adaptation of The Addams Family) and a second time with Julia Stiles (rehearsing David Mamet's Oleanna). I also spied Nathan Lane entering the building, complete with Gomez Addams moustache.

On the one hand, all these celebrity encounters are a little disheartening, certainly humbling. There's a definite impatience in watching actors going to work as I show theatre-goers to their seats. But on the other hand, it is fun to rub shoulders with the rich and famous. However misguided, it still makes me feel closer to the action.

As does this absurd project I'm working on. Absurd but inspiring. And yesterday, I watched one of the more inspiring entries, a nominee from 1976...


Rocky
Director:
John G. Avildsen
Screenplay:
Sylvester Stallone
Starring:
Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
3 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

The film that spawned a thousand sequels, Rocky just exudes inspiration. From the moment, the opening credits begin - no, from the moment the DVD menu begins - Bill Conti's familiar theme song sets the mood perfectly. In fact, you should listen to it while you read this. Trust me, it'll make you feel good.

Rocky Balboa is a no-name boxer from Philadelphia, earning extra cash by attempting to be a thug for a loan shark. But since he doesn't want to break people's thumbs, he has about as much success as a heavy as he does as a boxer, which is to say not a lot. His only friend is Paulie, a meat packer with some serious anger management issues. And he's sweet on Paulie's sister, Adrian, an extremely shy assistant at a pet shop store. Meanwhile, the current and undefeated heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed, is left without an opponent for his next big fight, so he decides to give an unknown a shot at the title. Lo and behold, Rocky is the chosen one and he now has a chance to prove that he's not the bum he and everyone else thinks he is.

Without a doubt, this movie is best described as an inspirational story. It's feel-good at its feel-best. And that famous music you're listening to (you are listening to it, right?) is a big part of that, even if it slips into some cheesy disco territory at times. It is the 1970s, after all. The film becomes a tad melodramatic on occasion, but for the most part, it's very gritty in its naturalism, depicting the hard times of its characters' lives.

One thing that becomes very clear when watching Rocky is just how ridiculous a sport boxing really is, especially during the final fight scene. It literally just boils down to two men trying their best to cause as much pain as possible in each other. I understand there's probably some strategy involved, but nonetheless, when you get punched in the face, it hurts. Anyway, in spite of this, the film's concluding moments are actually very emotional. We've invested so much in Rocky's transformation by this point, we've watched him train, we've seen him drink raw eggs, that it's hard not to get behind the underdog. And it's not even about winning. He just wants to be a respectable opponent. And we want it for him.

I should also acknowledge the similarities between Rocky's story and Sylvester Stallone's own story in getting the film made. Sly wrote the script as well as starring as the Italian Stallion, but that may not have been the case. Had he not refused to sell his script without being assured the lead, we may have seen Robert Redford or James Caan in the title role. He stuck to his guns, though. and found the producers who would buy the story with him as Rocky and the rest is history.

And Stallone is very good as the mumbling yet talkative pugilist. As are the rest of the main cast. Burt Young is explosive as Paulie, who surely breaks a few health department rules by allowing Rocky to use the cow carcasses in the freezer for sparring practice. Talia Shire is touching as the meek love interest. And Burgess Meredith, appearing again in my project after the last round's Of Mice and Men from 1939, is great as Rocky's grouchy trainer. All four garnered Oscar nominations for their performances.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

1976 - Bound for Glory

It's September and that means it's the beginning of the new TV season here in the States, which makes me very excited. Not that I need any more things to add to my viewing queue, but there definitely seems to have been somewhat of a renaissance as far as television shows are concerned. Television is the new film, as some pundits say. And I can certainly see why they say that. The new crop of cable shows (and even some network shows) that have popped up in the last few years leave some of those mind-numbing formulaic shows of previous decades in the dust. I'm not really sure when it began. It may have been The Sopranos, which is over ten years ago. But now, you have similar gritty fare, like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Dexter, Damages. Or no-holds-barred satires, like Weeds, Californication, Entourage. Even some of the traditionally formulaic ones are becoming more intelligent, like House and The Mentalist.

Hmm, not much more to add to that, really. Maybe that was just an excuse to list my favourite TV shows, all of them worth a peek if you haven't already seen them.

Today, I sat down to watch the first of the nominees from 1976...


Bound for Glory
Director:
Hal Ashby
Screenplay:
Robert Getchell
(based on the autobiography by Woody Guthrie)
Starring:
David Carradine, Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Gail Strickland, Randy Quaid
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins

If you're as ill-informed about country folk singer Woody Guthrie as I was, Bound for Glory is a pretty good introduction. You've probably heard of "This Land Is Your Land". That's one of his. And although that song isn't quite the definitive representation of his music, it does give you a decent indication of his social activist bent.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie lives in the heart of the Dust Bowl in Depression-era Texas. Not able to make enough money painting signs, he makes the trek to California, where, rumour has it, anyone can find a job. It's a long and arduous journey, but once he gets there, he's disillusioned to find it's slim pickings, worse even than back home. Scores of out-of-work men scramble for a few poorly-paid positions harvesting crops, a situation that just don't seem right to his idealistic mind. In spite of the tough times, Woody always has a song to sing. Literally. Wherever there's a guitar or a piano, he'll entertain those folk who'll listen. Eventually, a friend introduces him to a radio producer who puts him on the air, beginning his music career. However, he never stops trying to promote the cause of the struggling working class, defying his sponsor-placating producers. He also makes trouble on work sites by performing free for the workers, inciting them to unionise.

As biopics go, Bound for Glory is a fairly successful one. It certainly paints a clear picture of its subject, a complicated man despite his country bumpkin demeanour. But perhaps it's too successful at depicting the slow and tedious atmosphere of the Depression. Pampa, Texas, where the film begins, is a slow town and director Hal Ashby does a wonderful job of making the audience feel that, for the film itself begins very slowly. The journey to California is the most interesting part of the story, in my opinion. Full of fascinating characters in a string of vignettes, this section of the film combines adventure and suspense beautifully. However, when he finally arrives in California, the whole thing slows down again.

I'm sure it's all symbolic of Guthrie's own penchant for taking his time, but there's a fine line between presenting a metaphor of tedium and presenting tedium itself. That said, there is a great deal of atmospheric mood throughout the film, so there's always something by which to be entertained. If nothing else, the volume of country folk music should keep lovers of that style humming along happily. And it appears all the actors are doing their own singing and instrument-playing live, rather than lip-synching to an audio track, creating a very approachable tone to the film. Plus, the Oscar-winning cinematography is spectacular. There are some amazingly beautiful images atop trains.

The political overtones (or are they undertones, I'm never quite sure of the difference) resist any heavy-handedness and, in fact, the message of the film probably has more to do with Guthrie's moral stance rather than the union concept as a whole. Woody is destitute for the vast majority of the film, but never asks for a free meal. He's constantly standing up for what he believes and, on several occasions, refuses money if it means he has to sacrifice his integrity. It's all about dignity.

I was going to write that David Carradine personifies the role of Woody Guthrie, but having had absolutely no exposure to anything related to the folk singer, I really can't back that up, other than to say that Carradine's portrayal is very natural. And I can totally see why he was cast in Kung Fu - for a white man, he sure does look Asian. I was also very impressed with Melinda Dillon's performance as Guthrie's wife. Confusingly, she also plays a brief second role as Guthrie's singing partner on the radio. Weird. A youngish Randy Quaid appears as another jobless hopeful that Guthrie befriends. And, to satisfy my love of spotting actors better known for other works, appearing in cameo roles are M. Emmet Walsh, Mary Kay Place, Brion James and, for the second time in this project, James Hong of Seinfeld's The Chinese Restaurant fame. (He was also in 1966 Best Picture nominee The Sand Pebbles.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Best Picture of 1939

After ten more viewings, it is time again to make the difficult decision of which is my favourite. And considering that 1939 is often cited as old Hollywood's finest year, it is indeed difficult once more.


The nominees for Best Picture of 1939 are:

Dark Victory
Gone With the Wind
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Ninotchka
Of Mice and Men
Stagecoach
The Wizard of Oz
Wuthering Heights

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the most interesting things about this awards year is the volume of adaptations that were nominated; six from novels, one from an unpublished story, and one from a play, leaving just two films not based on previous material. Of those adaptations, I discovered that a number of them suffered slightly from a somewhat hurried narrative. So, despite their other brilliant qualities, I will set aside Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, Stagecoach and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. In all of these, excepting Wuthering Heights, it is the love story within them that I feel is affected the most. People just seem to fall in love so quickly. Romantic, I suppose, but a little implausible in most cases. Ninotchka, although a charmingly sweet comedy, suffers the same fate, so I shall stick that on the discard pile, as well.

The exception to this rule, in my mind, is Love Affair. Despite its characters' courtship transpiring rather swiftly, it feels natural and unforced. However, for other reasons, I'm not going to name this my favourite, either. Similarly, as much as I love The Wizard of Oz, and as much as it holds a very special place in my heart, it is at its core a children's movie. Not that children's movies should be automatically ineligible for the big prize, but there is simply a larger emotional scope available to other genres. This leaves me with three films, any of which could have taken my top spot. Yet, I must be conclusive, or perhaps just nit-picky, so I will now drop the very moving and captivating Mr. Smith Goes to Washington by the wayside.

The final two, which happen to be adaptations, are Gone With the Wind and Of Mice and Men. Both of these films managed to adapt their respective stories without it feeling rushed, the former due to its almost four-hour running time, the latter due to its relatively short source material. A mighty difficult decision, but in spite of its achievement of sending a chill down my spine, I will also say goodbye to Of Mice and Men. The fullness of Gone With the Wind's story, and at four hours, you'd better hope it would be complete, is going to take the honours this time.

Best Picture of 1939
Academy's choice:

Gone With the Wind

Matt's choice:

Gone With the Wind


Your choice:



So, another match with the Academy's choice. Interesting. I've been toying with the idea of adding a poll to each of these verdict posts, so that you lovely readers out there can voice your own opinion. I'll see if I can set that up for the next one. In the meantime, however, please feel free to leave a comment here with your favourite of 1939. Even if you haven't seen all the films. It doesn't matter. Academy members aren't required to have seen them all when they vote, either. And no need to give any reasons. You can merely write the name of the film and a smiley face, if you wish.

Next up for examination, I have chosen my birth year, 1976. Another spectacular one.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1976 are:

All the President's Men
Bound for Glory
Network
Rocky
Taxi Driver

Yet another impressive selection of cinema. Stay tuned...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

1939 - Love Affair

Covering an entire city block, Macy's is a gigantic department store here in New York City. And I mean gigantic. (In fact, it was the largest department store in the world until just a couple of months ago when a South Korean company opened an even more ridiculously sized one.) Whilst wandering around Macy's yesterday, I was mystified upon reaching the top of an escalator to find myself on Floor 1½. How do you get to this floor by elevator, I wondered. I imagined having to stop the elevator in between floors 1 and 2 and squeeze the doors open in order to exit, à la Being John Malkovich (pictured). But alas, the elevator's panel does indeed include a button for Floor 1½ and shoppers are able to simply step out without the need to crouch.

Still, how on earth did this happen? Once construction was complete, did some ambitious executive demand an extra floor in between the first and second? It appears not. On one side of the enormous building, the first floor does seem to have a mezzanine, so I suspect that this balcony-like floor was simply not numbered until the other side of the store was built. The question remains, though. Why 1½? Why not M for mezzanine? Or B for balcony? Even EF for extra floor would have been less absurd. I suppose 1½ is the simple option.

Last night, I reached the final contender in 1939's Best Picture competition...


Love Affair
Director:
Leo McCarey
Screenplay:
Delmer Daves, Donald Ogden Stewart, Leo McCarey and Mildred Cram
Starring:
Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer, Maria Ouspenskaya
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

Don't be confused by the lead characters' names in this hopelessly romantic boy-meets-girl love story. The boy's name sounds like Michelle, but it's actually Michel. He's French, you see. And the girl's name is Terry, a common man's name. Got it? Good. So, Michel is a famous playboy finally settling down to get married. Terry is a frustrated singer somewhat involved with her supportive but boring boss. Michel and Terry meet on a cruise ship and, despite their attempts to suppress their affections, they secretly fall in love. They arrange to meet six months later on top of the Empire State Building, hoping by then to have reasonably dealt with the obstacles in their way, thereby making it possible for them to marry.

The film up to this point is simply beautiful. There's something sad but exciting about a love that cannot be and the obvious will-they-or-won't-they suspense that goes along with that. The secret flirtations. The no-we-mustn't looks. The but-I-can't-help-it touches. The to-hell-with-it kisses. It's genuinely beguiling to witness.

Inevitably, though, these kinds of stories suffer from the Ross and Rachel syndrome. As an audience, we begin to care a little less once they actually agree to be together. However, there are still plenty of obstacles in the way for Terry and Michel even after they declare their love for each other. But unfortunately, the main reason is a little hard to swallow. You see, when Terry is on her way to meet Michel at the Empire State Building, (spoiler alert) disaster strikes and she is knocked down by a car, ending up in hospital with a serious possibility of losing her ability to walk. But Terry doesn't inform Michel about any of this, reasoning that he would prefer not to be burdened with the task of taking care of a cripple. More months pass and even when they meet by chance at the theatre, she still insists on keeping the truth from him.

It all just seemed so unnecessary. Sure, the intention is there. She doesn't want him to sacrifice anything for her. But the reality is that it's kind of cruel. Michel waited until midnight for her and left devastated, remaining so for months.

Hmm, now that I'm writing this out, it actually is becoming quite a fascinating character study. Perhaps Terry's own self-doubt is the real culprit. Maybe she feared that Michel would reject her because of her condition and that's why she chose to keep him in the dark. She retains the control that way.

In any case, the final scene between the two of them recaptures that will-they-or-won't-they tension, and despite another abrupt ending (like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), it is indeed satisfying.

Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer are superb in their roles. There's a great chemistry between them and some of those early scenes have a surprising improvised feel about them. Very natural, indeed, considering the era. Leo McCarey has a deft directing style, sharing those clandestine moments on the ship with the audience as if it really is a secret. Their first kiss, for instance, is partially hidden behind a door (pictured). A special mention also to Ferike Boros, who appears in a cameo performance as Terry's landlady. She is downright hilarious.

So, that concludes the beast that is the 1939 Best Picture race. The next post will contain my musings on which of these ten fine films deserves the accolade of being my favourite. Plus, find out which year is next...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

1939 - Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

I'm back! Although I enjoyed an immensely fun time performing in an improv show every night and meeting some fantastic new people, my fondest memory of the last few days in Atlanta is my discovery of Whirlyball. Half sport, half amusement park ride, Whirlyball is like lacrosse in bumper cars. Yes, bumper cars. I defy you to play this game and not enjoy yourself.

An unfortunate consequence of my time in Georgia is the considerable delay in viewing the next Best Picture nominee, a delay that disrupts the six-movies-per-week viewing rate that is required for this project to be completed by its arbitrary deadline. Rather than suffer the humiliation of admitting defeat less than a month into the project, I will simply continue at a slightly more leisurely pace and worry about it later. Besides, with things becoming a tad busier for me, less frequent posts may have been an inevitable byproduct anyway. But fear not. I am still as passionately determined to see this project through to the end. It just might be an end with a later date than originally planned. Then again, you never know, I might just have a big movie marathon weekend at some point and find myself back on track without the need to extend the deadline.

Last night was time for the ninth of the nominees from 1939...



Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
Director:
Frank Capra
Screenplay:
Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster
Starring:
James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Arnold
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Story

The ultimate underdog story, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington pits a fresh-faced Senator against the corruptible political machine. Jefferson Smith is unexpectedly appointed as the Senator for an unnamed state, a move which has political boss Jim Taylor furious. Taylor essentially runs the state, controlling the Governor and the senior Senator, Joseph Paine, a man who Mr. Smith admires greatly... Until he learns of Paine's complicity in Taylor's corrupt political scheming. When Mr. Smith tries to pass a bill that inadvertently conflicts with a Taylor-supported bill, he finds himself beaten down, trodden on, chewed up and spat out. Despite his newfound disillusionment in the system, he remains standing, refusing to back down.

Delightfully droll and thoughtfully sincere, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington delivers an interesting message. On the one hand, it could be argued that the film is passionately critical of a corrupt system of government, and I imagine, at the time of the film's release, Senators must have been beside themselves. How dare Hollywood accuse them all of crookedness. And Nixon wasn't around for at least another 30 years. On the other hand (and clearly the more correct hand), the film's intention may be to illustrate the inspiring results that can be achieved by one man's dedication to stand up for what he believes in. For all its bashing of the political machine, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is a most patriotic film, evidenced by its use of every single patriotic song known to man.


It is also a film in which punching journalists in the face is not only acceptable but encouraged. After all, the press is just as corrupt as the government. They need a good smack in the mouth. And Jefferson Smith is just the man to do it. He may be idealistic and naive, but he can still pack a punch ... or seven. In fact, that's what's so adorable about him (and James Stewart's portrayal). Despite being so innocent, he still has the courage to stand up to the bullies, even playing them at their own political game. There's nothing like being the little guy to garner the audience's empathy. And providing us with that opportunity to empathise are some simply captivating scenes on the Senate floor in which Mr. Smith braves his Goliath.

Director Frank Capra assembled a fabulous cast. An on-the-rise James Stewart cemented his screen persona as Mr. Smith. Claude Rains is superb as the corrupt senior Senator. As is Jean Arthur as Mr. Smith's aide and love interest (a political sex scandal sub-plot never arises, however). And the prolific Thomas Mitchell appears in yet another 1939 Best Picture nominee as the one decent press man.

Apparently, there were scenes that were shot, intended for the end, but not included in the final film. I feel as though they may have added to a more satisfying resolution. As it stands, the ending is rather abrupt and a little disconcerting.

Only one more to go in the mighty juggernaut that is 1939...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

1939 - Ninotchka

Today's entry may be a little shorter than usual on account of the plane I need to catch in a few hours, a plane not bound for Brazil, where my friends Jon and Aline are getting married today. Sadly, due to financial and other constraints, it was necessary for Kat and I to tick the "I/We regretfully decline" box on the invitation, so no trip to Brazil, unfortunately. Subsequently, I was offered a spot on the Australian team in an international improv tournament in Atlanta, Georgia. And since the organisers are paying for my airfare and accommodation, I was more than happy to oblige. So, I still get to fly somewhere this week, although, it is without my beautiful wife.

My absence may also result in a steep deceleration in film viewing, so I may not be able to update this blog over the next five days. I'll be taking the last two 1939 Best Picture nominees with me to Atlanta in the event of some free time, but I'm not even certain I'll have internet access, so it still may be next week before you read the next post. We'll see...

In the meantime, this morning I watched the eighth nominee from 1939...


Ninotchka
Director:
Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay:
Melchior Lengyel, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch
Starring:
Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

It is a wonderful thing not knowing anything about a film when you sit down to watch it. Apart from the knowledge that it starred Greta Garbo, I really hadn't the first clue as to what Ninotchka was about. As it turns out, it is a very pleasant romantic comedy with a load of political satire thrown in. Three Soviet delegates arrive in Paris with instructions to sell some confiscated jewellery for the government, but the allure of French capitalism sidetracks their mission, so the uncompromising and unsentimental special envoy Ninotchka is sent to move things along. Into the mix comes Count Leon, initially representing the original owner of the jewellery, the aristocratic Grand Duchess Swana. But Leon begins to fall for Ninotchka, and Ninotchka's eyes are opened to the glorious wonder of laughter and love ... and material objects.

Billed as Greta Garbo's first comedy, Ninotchka is a charmingly romantic and witty film. The scriptwriters, including the brilliant team of Brackett and Wilder, create a world of goofy characters and situations with some clever wordplay to boot. I found myself chuckling many times, a feat not easily achieved by such a dated picture.

There is a great deal of political discussion in the film as it pits capitalism and communism against each other. But it pokes fun at both sides of the coin, so it never really comes across as too politically motivated. To demonstrate his newfound freedom in a capitalist society, one Russian yells out his room, "The service in this hotel is terrible," and is pleased to discover he is totally ignored. See, capitalism is certainly not without its faults.

For her first comedy, Greta Garbo delivers a brilliantly funny performance as the stuffy and no-nonsense Ninotchka, who confesses her romanctic feelings in a deadpan and almost robotic tone, "Chemically, we're already quite sympathetic." As a movie star, though, she must have been disappointed at all the drab clothes in which she was attired, including a downright ridiculous hat (pictured). Melvyn Douglas, who would go on to win two Oscars in the next 40 years, also delivers a finely dry portrayal as Ninotchka's love interest. And the three hapless Soviet delegates are a joy to watch, as well. You can also spot classic horror star Bela Lugosi as the Commissar.

With all its political commentary, Ninotchka is essentially about love conquering all barriers, and its romance is sure to leave a warm fuzzy feeling in the hardest of hearts, communist or otherwise.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

1939 - The Wizard of Oz

The next film in Matt vs. the Academy is one with which I have a close relationship. Not because of a particularly large number of viewings (before today, it had been almost fifteen years since I last watched it), but because it served as the basis for my debut stage performance. At the age of eleven, I stepped into the suffocating costume of the Cowardly Lion in a community production of The Wizard of Oz, lovingly adapted (or plagiarised, if you prefer) from the script of the 1939 Best Picture nominee. I credit that one-night-only production with the genesis of my love of performing. It is where I first caught the acting bug. I remember fondly the first rehearsal when, after weeks of listening intently to the film's dialogue, I delivered my lines in a perfect imitation of Bert Lahr's thick New York accent, only to elicit laughter from the cast and crew. I consequently dropped the impersonation. However, laughter could still be heard on show night, but this time, it was from the audience and at appropriately comic occasions. And that was it. I never went back. Once you've received the love of an audience, you just want more. Thus, I now find myself in a city famed for its theatre industry, still pursuing that glorious feeling.

Plus, as I am rather fond of pointing out, Robert De Niro was similarly eleven years old when he first trod the boards to play the Cowardly Lion in a community production of The Wizard of Oz. Good company, indeed. I'm still waiting for my Travis Bickle.

In the meantime, here are my thoughts on...


The Wizard of Oz
Director:
Victor Fleming
Screenplay:
Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf
(based on the novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum)
Starring:
Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, including Best Song ("Over the Rainbow")

I doubt I have any readers who are not at least slightly familiar with The Wizard of Oz, the classic musical about Dorothy Gale and her fantastical adventures. The film begins on the sepia-toned Kansas farm on which Dorothy lives with her aunt, her uncle, three quirky farmhands and her dog, Toto. She has brief encounters with her unpleasant neighbour as well as an amiable fortune teller. After being caught in a fierce tornado, Dorothy is rendered unconscious, awakening to see the house spinning out of control in mid-air. The house lands in a strange and colourful place, a land known as Oz. Greeted by dozens of Munchkins and a good witch by the name of Glinda, Dorothy is told that, in order to return home, she must seek the assistance of the Wizard. On her journey, she teams up with a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and a Lion, all remarkably similar to those quirky farmhands back in Kansas, yet Dorothy simply can't make the connection, try as she might. She is also pursued by the Wicked Witch of the West, angry at Dorothy's careless murder of the Witch's sister, who was crushed by Dorothy's descending house.

When you need to put a smile on your face, just sit back and relax with a viewing of The Wizard of Oz, still charming seventy years on. It is replete with spectacular sets and costumes and make-up, plus some impressive special effects, considering the year it was produced. Add to that some familiar tunes with witty lyrics and you have yourself the perfect cure for any kind of blues. Be aware, however, that this is unmistakably a children's movie. But it's that innocent charm, perhaps, that makes it so enjoyable, allowing you that brief moment to feel like a child again. Still, The Wizard of Oz is also the height of pantomime. The production has an air of a stage performance about it, no doubt a consequence of the vaudeville background of a number of the cast. Everything is as hammy is it can possibly be.

Despite its junior demographic, there are some strangely morbid themes. The first scene in Munchkinland could be somewhat unsettling to some, with its celebration of death. Sure, the Wicked Witch of the East was a nasty old hag, but to dance about and sing, "Ding dong, the Witch is dead," before she's even cold seems a tad insensitive. No wonder the Wicked Witch of the West is so miffed.

The design elements in the film are nothing short of magnificent. A sweeping field of poppies, a sea of flying monkeys, a colour-changing horse. Even the painted backdrops that create the illusion of a larger landscape can be forgiven their conspicuousness because they are still so beautifully extravagant. Although, the frequent sight of the cast skipping along the yellow brick road into the distance made me almost expect to see them wander too far and simultaneously slam their noses into the backdrop.

One of the most impressive effects occurs when the Wicked Witch disappears behind a puff of coloured smoke. Yes, you can see the trapdoor if you look close enough, but the impressive part is the huge ball of fire that spews itself out almost immediately after the Witch has descended. A little less impressive, perhaps, after I discovered that Margaret Hamilton was off work for weeks with second-degree burns because of that stunt. Or maybe more impressive, I'm not sure.

The pre-fantasy sequence demonstrates the cleverness of the script, made all the more fascinating with the knowledge of the subsequent storyline. We all know that Dorothy's dream contains characters inspired by those in her real life, but the farmhands also give hints to their fantasy counterparts' respective desires. The whole concept is rather Freudian, when you think about it.

Which brings me to the film's conclusion. Quite the cliché, but I guess The Wizard of Oz was really the pioneer of the it-was-all-a-dream plot. Besides, the central character still learnt a lesson even if her entire journey is made redundant. And hey, what happened to Miss Gulch's plans to destroy Toto?

1939 - Gone With the Wind

After a pleasant weekend in New Jersey, eating good food and playing Trivial Pursuit with good friends, and leisurely strolling through Princeton and eating more good food with more good friends, I sat down to watch the epic Gone With the Wind. Kat watched with me and gallantly made it to the intermission before heading off to bed, but I persevered and saw it through to the end. And I have to admit, I'm very glad that I did.

The next nominee from 1939, and the eventual winner of the Best Picture award, is none other than...


Gone With the Wind
Director:
Victor Fleming
Screenplay:
Sidney Howard
(based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell)
Starring:
Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas Mitchell, Hattie McDaniel
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
8 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress

I've written and rewritten this opening sentence at least a dozen times in the vain hope I might be able to introduce this film by conveying something that is remotely unique. Discussing arguably the most famous movie in cinematic history is a somewhat daunting task, if only because of the knowledge that almost every other film critic, film historian and film buff in the last seventy years has already weighed in on the topic. Hence, I shall simply be content that my views are merely my views, interesting or otherwise.

Scarlett O'Hara is a Southern belle living on her family's farm, Tara, with her ma and pa and two sisters, during the American Civil War. Her passionate crush on neighbour Ashley Wilkes is technically not unrequited, but in practical terms, it might as well be, because Ashley marries Melanie Hamilton instead. Nevertheless, Scarlett pursues him consistently, while rejecting the advances of the charming Rhett Butler, who seems to be the only person unwilling to succumb to Scarlett's every whim. She marries a lot, for spite and for money, inconsiderate to the feelings of those around her. She is, without doubt, a spoilt brat. And even after she endures humbling hardships, she remains a brat. So much so, that the local madam is a more likable character. Yet, in the end, Scarlett learns her lesson and vows to change her selfish ways. After all, tomorrow is another day.

Gone With the Wind is most definitely an epic and majestic film. And considering its costly budget (the largest of its era), you would certainly expect the production values to be extravagant. Lavish costumes, grandiose sets, vivid colour cinematography, spectacular special effects, beautiful music, exciting stunts, huge crowd scenes. A feast for the eyes and the ears. It almost seems unfair to its competition. There is simply no doubt money can be a great boon to a production's quality. Can be. Not always. It still has to captivate its audience with its story. Luckily, Gone With the Wind succeeds there, as well.

The entire film is very much akin to a play. It has an overture (and an entr'acte and exit music). It begins by displaying a cast of characters. It even has an intermission. The structure of the story is exceptionally well paced. As I have frequently mentioned, many films adapted from novels, including several other nominees of 1939, have suffered from too short a script. The narrative feels rushed and distant. No such issue with Gone With the Wind. At close to four hours long, it definitely takes its time. And for the better, in my opinion. Despite being an epic tale, it is never complicated. The breathing time allows us to follow Scarlett's journey in a simple yet comprehensive way.

Having an Australian education, I'm not too familiar with the American Civil War. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to recognise the Southern bias that Gone With the Wind emits. Considering the Southern origins of the novel's author, that is perhaps unsurprising. However, the film is also, at times, blatantly racist without an obvious sense of satire. But perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps the film was simply intended to be completely faithful to its source. And perhaps Margaret Mitchell, the novel's author, also intended to be completely faithful to her sources. Still, one wonders whether that excuse would be enough to pass muster in today's cinema.

This discussion of the appropriateness of certain material becomes all the more interesting when you consider the restrictions that were placed on films of that time. Racism and violence may have been acceptable, but heaven forbid anyone mention sex. Quite often, however, this constraint only made for a cleverer script, as it did in this instance. There is no sign of any improper displays of bare flesh, nor any blatant reference to anything remotely sexual, and yet the subject of sex pervades this film in several sequences. The scriptwriters (and despite Sidney Howard's exclusive credit, there were several scriptwriters) were forced to be ingenious about how they broached the topic and it creates a fantastically subtle intensity.

Vivien Leigh could not have asked for a more spectacular debut. She is exceptional as the spoilt Scarlett. Classic movie star Clark Gable is perfect as Rhett, exuding charm when he delivers lines like, "You should be kissed and often. And by someone who knows how." You can just hear the women in the audience swooning. Other standouts are Olivia de Havilland as Melanie and Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, the latter becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar.

Gone With the Wind has clearly stood the test of time. Accounting for inflation, it is the most financially successful film in history. People flocked to the cinema in 1939 to see it, and it remains a consistently popular home viewing choice today. When I first saw this film as a teenager, I wasn't particularly interested, but it honestly grabbed me this time, and to a large extent. I found it to be a full and satisfying film, most worthy of its place in cinema lore.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

1939 - Of Mice and Men

It's the Labor Day weekend here in the United States and last night, my darling wife Kat and I attended a party with some friends. To make a long story short, I got a little intoxicated. Don't panic, I didn't embarrass myself (at least, I don't think I did) but I did suffer from some crazy dreams last night, no doubt induced by that hazy dehydration the human brain experiences when its owner has consumed too much alcohol and not enough water. I don't remember the details exactly, but I'm sure it had something to do with the films of 1939. A sign that I'm too obsessed with this project? No, probably just a sign that I shouldn't drink so much.

Yesterday, before the imbibing began, I reached the halfway point of the 1939 Best Picture competition when I watched...


Of Mice and Men
Director:
Lewis Milestone
Screenplay:
Eugene Solow
(based on the novel by John Steinbeck)
Starring:
Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney, Jr., Charles Bickford, Roman Bohnen, Bob Steele
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

Adapted from the classic John Steinbeck novella, Of Mice and Men follows two freelance ranch workers, George and Lennie, as they begin work on a ranch near Soledad, California, during the Great Depression. Lennie is intellectually challenged and George takes care of him, perhaps out of selfless pity or perhaps out of selfish opportunity. They both have the grand old dream of owning their own ranch one day, and Lennie constantly badgers George to tell him stories of what those liberated days will be like, living off the fat of the land. In particular, Lennie enjoys the part where he gets to tend to soft, cuddly bunny rabbits. And these plans (best laid ones, you might say) are very close to becoming reality. An old, one-handed ranch worker named Candy has offered to throw his savings into the pile, so the trio would only need one month's more wages to be able to purchase their dream property.

When I view movies for this project, I keep a small notepad by my side to jot down a few ideas, in order to assist the writing of the blog. By the time the words "The End" appeared for Of Mice and Men, I glanced down at my pad to discover a mostly white page. Not very beneficial for my blog, but it clearly means I was engrossed. And I think I know why. Irresepective of the captivating story, this film possesses some very modern filmmaking conventions, considering the year it was produced. It's subtle, but Academy Award winning director Lewis Milestone uses techniques that modern audiences may recognise, setting Of Mice and Men slightly apart from other films of its era. This film may not be considered the most pioneering of its time, but I simply felt a little less distant from it as compared to its contemporaries. It contains one of the first pre-credits sequences in cinema history, an especially common practice today, and Milestone intelligently sprinkles several slow crane or dolly shots throughout as well.

As it has a number of times for 1939's Best Picture race, the discussion once again turns to the adaptation of novels into films. Not surprising since eight of the ten nominees are based on written works of prose and one more on a play. The difference with Of Mice and Men may be due to its source material being a novella rather than a full length novel. As a consequence, it doesn't seem to encounter the same issues plaguing some of the other films. (Although, Gone With the Wind's almost four-hour running time perhaps sets that film apart, as well, for an entirely different reason.) Of Mice and Men is a perfectly paced drama, with the right amount of action and tension.

Finally, the main reason Of Mice and Men works so well is its genuinely compelling story. The characters draw us in with their identifiable foibles. Even Lennie, to whom we may not immediately relate, has a dream that is universal, that of a better life. In fact, all the characters share similar passions and hopes, and they all seek comfort in others to reassure them that their dreams are not complete fantasies, that they can plausibly be obtained. And then there's the chilling finale, but rather than reveal too much, I'll merely encourage those who have yet to see Of Mice and Men to discover the ending for themselves.

To return to my fondness for pop culture, the two main stars in Of Mice and Men, who, incidentally, both deliver fine performances, are both far better known for other projects. As George, you will probably recognise Burgess Meredith as either Rocky's trainer or The Penguin in the campy 1960s TV version of Batman. Playing Lennie is Lon Chaney, Jr., who, despite having several dramatic roles, became most famous for his portrayals of monsters, in particular the Wolf Man, in the horror movies of the 40s, 50s and 60s.

Friday, September 4, 2009

1939 - Stagecoach

A brief and inconsequential anecdote from today's journeys in the Big Apple:

I was on the 5th floor of a building on 42nd Street, heading to the elevator to go back down to the lobby. There was already a woman waiting, and as I approached, the elevator doors opened, so I naturally just hopped in after her. She asked me, "What floor?" and I told her the lobby, simultaneously noticing that she had already pressed number "9". Oops. I hadn't bothered to check to see that the elevator I was stepping into was actually going down. And obviously it wasn't. She graciously pressed "1" for me as I uttered the clichéd joke about going along for the ride. But when we got to the 9th floor, she took half a step out, realised she'd forgotten something, stepped back in, pressed "5" and giggled with embarrassment. So, back we went to the 5th floor, she got out and I continued my ride down to the lobby. Going along for the ride, indeed.

Nothing meaningful about that story. I just thought it was mildly amusing.

After my mostly redundant elevator ride, I made it home to watch another 1939 Best Picture nominee...


Stagecoach
Director:
John Ford
Screenplay:
Dudley Nichols
(based on the short story "The Stage to Lordsburg" by Ernest Haycox)
Starring:
Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, including Best Supporting Actor

A classic Western, Stagecoach follows a diverse group of strangers as they travel from the town of Tonto, Arizona bound for Lordsburg, New Mexico. There's an alcoholic doctor, an exiled prostitute, an embezzling banker, a pregnant cavalry officer's wife, a gentleman gambler, a whiskey salesman and an honourable outlaw. All crammed together in a six-horse stagecoach, helmed by an excitable driver and supervised by the marshal that has brought the outlaw into custody. The doctor drinks the salesman's whiskey. The gambler is protective of the cavalry officer's wife. The outlaw flirts with the prostitute. And the banker just gets on everyone's nerves. All the while, they ride under fear of attack by the local Apache tribe.

Stagecoach is big adventure, that's for sure. There are plenty of chases and shootouts and guys falling off horses. It's the ultimate game of Cowboys and Indians. Despite the repeated use of the rear projection effect, which, although common in 1939, looks excessively fake by today's standards, there is a great deal of genuinely wide open spaces. The picturesque Monument Valley serves as the landscape for most of the outdoor scenes, a location the great John Ford became fond of shooting. And I can see why. It is stunning, even in black-and-white.

Rounding out the film is a fair chunk of humour, too. The diversity of the stagecoach's passengers makes room for assorted light-hearted moments, thanks to a very entertaining cast. Not to mention the incredible stunts. Real eye-popping stuff. Although, the technique used to make the horses stumble to the ground was, apparently, rather inhumane. Nonetheless, there is at least one shot in which a horse face plants the dirt only to immediately rise and stand motionless, almost in defiance, as if to say, "I'm NOT doing that again!"

John Wayne, as the Ringo Kid, made his breakout performance in this film, shifting away from his B-movie roots and it's no wonder. He has a very strong and impressive presence, that of a very likable leading man. Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar for his role as the very alcoholic Doc Boone. Also of note, in wonderfully comic roles, are Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver and the appropriately named Donald Meek as the meek whiskey salesman. I didn't make that up. His name is actually Meek.

Stagecoach is a very well crafted Western. John Ford, with his clever selection of shots and the sequence in which they are presented, turns those crucial scenes into a fine lesson in filmmaking. This film has definitely earned its reputation for being a benchmark to which all other Westerns are compared.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

1939 - Goodbye, Mr. Chips

This marks the first time in the project that I have watched two films (and, therefore, made two posts) in the same day, something that may need to occur more often. As mentioned in my first post, to successfully meet my arbitrary deadline, I need to keep up a steady pace of at least six movies per week. A little over two weeks into the project and I'm already behind! I'm somewhat restricted by how quickly Netflix can send me my next DVD, but also by other circumstances, including a brief trip to Atlanta next week, where I may not have any access to DVD-playing devices, let alone the time. Thus, now I attempt to catch up, before I fall even further behind, by increasing the movie to day ratio. It's a hard life.

Tonight, Kat and I watched another nominee from the 1939 Best Picture race...


Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Director:
Sam Wood
Screenplay:
R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West and Eric Maschwitz
(based on the novel by James Hilton)
Starring:
Robert Donat, Greer Garson, Paul Henreid, Terry Kilburn, John Mills and dozens of schoolkids
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor

Spanning over sixty years, the tale of Mr. Charles Chipping is indeed an epic one. He's a bashful yet amiable man who begins a teaching career at an English boys school. On his first day, the students get the better of him and, as time goes on, he suffers from a lack of popularity amongst the students and staff. Still shy, he reluctantly tags along with a colleague on a walking tour of Austria, where he meets and falls in love with Katherine, a modern woman who helps to break him out of his shell and who also bestows on him the nickname "Chips". Upon return to the school, his newfound confidence translates into a newfound teaching style, one to which the students really respond. Years come and years go, and he teaches sons and grandsons of past students, ultimately becoming a much-loved and integral part of the institution.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a charming and often funny film that, like Wuthering Heights, sometimes suffers from its attempt to cram everything from the book into the movie. However, due to its more limited focus on one character, it doesn't feel quite as rushed as the Brontë adaptation. Most of the haste occurs in the latter half of the film. It's almost like a series of vignettes. One 30-second scene, and then we skip five years. Another 60 seconds, and we move forward ten years. But the first half is very well-paced, especially the Austria sequence. And despite its later briskness, by the end, there is a sense of fond familiarity with this man's life.

The script is genuinely funny at times, but perhaps Latin puns aren't everyone's cup of tea. Still, there are several April Fool's jokes that are sure to elicit a chuckle, as will the scene in which Mr. Chips proposes to Katherine while running alongside the accelerating train in which she is sitting.

Robert Donat won a much-earned Oscar for playing Mr. Chips, a role which required him to portray the character at several stages in his life. Donat's measured performance renders each stage in a starkly distinct manner, even if he relies slightly on a caricature for the old man version (pictured). There is a clever consistency to his portrayal even as Mr. Chips evolves, so he manages to elicit pity at the character's initial timidity, without making his later camaraderie with the students seem contrived. I'm a big fan of Greer Garson as well. A very natural actress for her time. She plays Katherine with such charm and intelligence, it's hard not to fall in love with her yourself. Child actor Terry Kilburn is refreshingly versatile as at least four generations of children from the same family.

It was not lost on me that this is now the third of three 1939 nominees that ends with the main character's death. But, at least in this film, there is less of a tragic sentiment. As Mr. Chips passes away, one is left with the feeling that his was a life well lived. I almost had the urge to whisper to the screen, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." ... Almost.

1939 - Dark Victory

Since I have an international audience (if I have an audience ... are you out there?), let me briefly ponder the differences in spelling between Australian English and American English. As an Australian, I correspondingly spell words using Australian English, which, presumably, is directly derivative of English English, so no further explanation needed. But now that I live in the United States, I am introduced to what is almost an entirely different language. Having been exposed to so much American culture as a child, I have been fully aware of most differences in spelling for quite some time, but I still wonder how things got changed in the first place. I mean, who on earth decided that Americans didn't require the use of the letter 'U' in certain words? And who first did the presto chango of the 'R' and the 'E' at the ends of other words? And why, oh why, does 'aluminium' lose an entire syllable? Was it all a result of the first Americans' hostility towards all things British that they felt compelled to massacre their language? Or did they just want to make things easier to spell? (Is 'jewellery' really that difficult?)

On that note, let me analyse the next in 1939's line of nominees...


Dark Victory
Director:
Edmund Goulding
Screenplay:
Casey Robinson
(based on the play by George Brewer and Bertram Bloch)
Starring:
Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Long Island socialite Judith Traherne is a party girl. She drives fast, drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney. But when she begins to experience headaches and double vision, she is persuaded to see a doctor, who subsquently refers her to a brain specialist, the handsome and charming Dr. Steele. After a brief consultation, the good doctor insists that Judy have more tests, and despite her dismissiveness of her symptoms, she reluctantly agrees. The news is bad, of course. She has a nasty old brain tumour, on which Dr. Steele attempts to operate. Unfortunately, the prognosis after the operation is even worse. She'll be dead within a year, but for some inexplicable reason, he managed to cure her of her symptoms and is confident her demise will be relatively painless, aside from the blindness she will experience just before she expires. But in a move with which the AMA would most certainly disapprove, he decides the best course of action is to not inform his patient of her fatal condition. Instead, he asserts that the operation was a success. It all becomes more complicated, of course, when the doctor and patient fall in love and plan to wed. The AMA would have a field day with this guy.

Dark Victory sometimes feels a tad manipulative in its emotional content, but as I have hinted at in the past, that was more or less standard fare for this time period. Sure, a modern version might be more subtle and less sentimental, but the story is still a moving one, especially in its final scenes. And I got a real sense of the glamour and excitement that must have pervaded the making of films in the golden era of Hollywood. I mean, movie-making has always seemed like magic to me, but back then... well, maybe it's just the nostalgia that exudes from those films. Bette Davis photographed through a soft-focus lens, parading around in spectacular gowns, sincerely declaring her undying love. Pure classic Hollywood. And where else do you hear men describe a fist fight by saying he "socked" him? Makes me wish I was born in a different time.

Bette Davis, and her Bette Davis eyes (pictured), are the backbone of Dark Victory. She carries the film with her versatility, moving from snobbishly care-free to heartbreakingly brave. Emerging from her second Best Actress win the previous year, she was nominated again for this film, this time losing out to Vivien Leigh. Davis is joined on screen by George Brent as the doctor. Humphrey Bogart, just before he made the switch to leading man, gives a valiant attempt at an Irish brogue in his role as the lovesick stableboy. Future leader of the free world, Ronald Reagan, is very charismatic as one of Judy's fellow party animals. And Geraldine Fitzgerald, who I enjoyed just yesterday in Wuthering Heights, is again delightful as Judy's best friend Ann.

I was a little concerned, though, with the lack of medical professionalism in the film. I'd like to think real doctors in the 1930s didn't allow smoking in hospitals and indeed told their patients when they were going to die. The medical explanations in Dark Victory definitely seemed implausible. Would a person with a brain tumour really just go blind and then suffer an otherwise painless death in a matter of minutes? Then again, I'm not a doctor, and I'm probably just comparing it to medical explanations in more modern movies. Which are clearly more sound. I mean, obviously it's much more believable that you can cure people with laughter.

So, that's only the second of 1939's Best Picture nominees that I've watched and it's already shaping up to be another tough decision... Only eight more to go.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

1939 - Wuthering Heights

As I launch into the Best Picture nominees of 1939, I am reminded of the stark differences between films from that era and films of today. There has been a great evolution in the art of cinema over the last seven decades. Acting has developed, directing has matured, but one of the most obvious transitions in my mind is that of the film score. It must have been an innovative composer, indeed, who first discovered that his orchestration did not need to consist entirely of instruments from the strings family. I mean, seriously, had composers in the golden years of Hollywood not heard of the flute or the oboe or the trombone? Or were violin manufacturers offering some kind of pay-per-use scheme? It seems almost every score in classic cinema is an oozing mishmash of stringsy drones and sighs. How on earth did people survive before rock and roll?

Pardon the rant. Obviously, I'll need to wear my respectful film connoisseur hat when I watch these movies and accept that there were different standards back then. And I'll never need to compare films from different years anyway, so it matters very little. Still, a little rhythm guitar isn't too much to ask, is it?

Late last night, I watched the first nominated film from 1939...


Wuthering Heights
Director:
William Wyler
Screenplay:
Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht
(based on the novel by Emily Brontë)
Starring:
Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Geraldine Fitzgerald
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
1 win, for Best Black-and-White Cinematography

Despite the fact that I had studied Emily Brontë's novel in high school, I had never seen any filmed version of Wuthering Heights. Unusual, since I was not opposed to substituting the reading of books with the watching of movies. A mostly successful technique until my graduating year, when the class was assigned Peter Carey's novel Oscar and Lucinda. The Ralph Fiennes/Cate Blanchett film was still a few years from completion... But, I digress.

Wuthering Heights is the tale of Heathcliff, a poor young boy taken in by a wealthy family. He quickly bonds with the daughter of the house, Cathy, and, as they grow up, their friendship blossoms into a deeply passionate love. Heathcliff's love is certainly intense, almost stalker-like, and Cathy is seemingly fickle. He runs away a couple of times. She marries another man. And every time he returns, they seem to just get angry with each other. The story spans a great many years, told almost entirely in flashback, as the housekeeper relates it to a new neighbour.

The one main drawback of this film is that age-old problem that arises when lengthy novels are adapted for the screen. Even leaving aside the fact that the film essentially omits a great portion of the latter stages of the book, it sometimes feels too rushed and simplified, especially the first half. Once Heathcliff returns from America as a wealthy man, we breathe a little, but until that point, we are speeding through the years with great haste. There's not much chance to allow everything to sink in. The love between the two main characters is established rather briefly and so, when they constantly bicker throughout the rest of the film, one can't help but think they'd better off without each other.

The opening scenes are particularly eerie (perhaps enhanced by the fact that I watched this late at night), although I remember the novel containing a lot more ghostly apparitions, a by-product of the abridged script, no doubt. Nonetheless, when Cathy's ghost first cries out, I had the equally eerie Kate Bush song running in my head for the next half an hour.

Another slight deficiency, presumably due to the budget, was that the sweeping moors of the novel were reduced to one small hill, shot from the same angle in each scene. Although the black-and-white cinematography was superb, it definitely could have benefited from panoramic landscapes.

Acting styles have progressed over the years and melodrama has given way to naturalism, but, that said, Wuthering Heights contains a great deal of impressive work from its cast. Merle Oberon is striking as Cathy. David Niven is perfect as Linton, the man Cathy marries. And the great Laurence Olivier delivers a brilliant performance, as well. Although, for a man with a reputation for being one of the greatest actors of all time, he sure does overact a lot. Granted, the script calls for him to slap Cathy twice, immediately wince in remorse, and then pronounce, "It doesn't help to strike you," so I suppose he's not all to blame. The child actors who portray the younger incarnations of the two main characters carry their scenes very well, despite the young Heathcliff having the floppiest fringe I've ever seen. (For my North American readers, a 'fringe' is the Australian equivalent of what you refer to as 'bangs'.)

My favourite line in the film comes when the doctor, after seeing to a sickly Cathy, proclaims to her carers, "Keep her in the sun and give her plenty of cream and butter." If doctors today maintained the curative effect of fatty dairy products, I'd get sick more often.

It also occurred to me how similar Timothy Dalton is to Olivier without realising that the James Bond star had indeed played Heathcliff in a 1971 version of the story. In fact, watching this classic version of the film compels me to view later versions as well in the hope that they might be more thorough. Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche starred in a 1992 version that might be worth a look. But with my current viewing schedule, it may be some time before I get around to that. I'll have to be content with watching Monty Python's semaphore adaptation instead.