Wednesday, March 31, 2010

1937 - The Awful Truth

As an actor, it is helpful to understand where the industry sees you. As much as we don't like to be typecast, it is a necessary evil in order for casting directors and agents to know which roles to call you in for. But sometimes, it still comes as a surprise when you see the other actors in the waiting room who are up for the same role. Yesterday, as I waited to audition for a national yogurt ad, I sat across the room from Joey Slotnick (pictured). It's becoming clearer now exactly what my type is.

Next on the 1937 review list is Best Picture nominee...

The Awful Truth
Leo McCarey
Viña Delmar
(based on the play by Arthur Richman)
Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D'Arcy, Cecil Cunningham, Molly Lamont
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
1 win, for Best Director

A classic screwball comedy, The Awful Truth pits husband and wife, Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Grant & Dunne), against each other. It's that age-old battle that is fought between two people who are clearly meant for each other despite the fact they can't stand being in the same room together. The mistrust begins when Lucy spends an allegedly innocent night with her music teacher (D'Arcy), while Jerry is caught in a lie about where he spent his vacation. And that's all it takes for the two to begin divorce proceedings. But before the divorce is finalised, Lucy sparks up a romance with an oil tycoon (Bellamy), while Jerry hobnobs around with an heiress (Lamont). Each does all they can to sabotage the other's relationship with suitably screwball consequences.

The interesting thing about this genre is that rapid-fire humorous dialogue is only one of many comic devices that is utilised. Good screwball comedies will also contain a smattering of physical comedy and a whole host of situational comedy. The Awful Truth certainly delivers on all these fronts. The repartee is snappy, the pratfalls are silly and the situations are wacky. Top it all off with a heartwarming love story and it's understandable why this picture is often held up as a classic example of its genre.

There's one other class of comedy which, despite being a current trend in TV comedies, was perhaps not that prevalent back in the 1930s. Yet, The Awful Truth embraces the wonders that can manifest from awkward humour. Almost ahead of its time, this film treats us to the subtle embarrassed glances of eyes that don't know where to look during a nightclub singer's shockingly ridiculous act.

Another important element is the chemistry between its stars and, once again, The Awful Truth is not left wanting. For all intents and purposes, Cary Grant's charismatic on-screen persona began with his appearance in this film and it's no wonder he was so successful with it. He's charming, debonair and just cheeky enough to make you forgive him his flaws. Irene Dunne's infectiously cute laugh and playful intelligence are a delightful complement. Together, they bicker with such obvious jealousy that it just made me want to scream at them à la Kramer yelling at Jerry and Elaine (you'll need to scroll through to 3:15 to see the part I'm referencing).

The story is relatively simple and effective. It's a romantic comedy, after all - there's only really one way it can end. There are two main scenarios that play themselves out and they are clearly separated by the linear narrative. First, Jerry thwarts Lucy's plans of marrying again, and then Lucy retaliates in kind. It's almost like two distinct episodes of a sitcom. Not really a flaw, just a fascinating observation.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

1937 - A Star Is Born

There is an odd phenomenon that occurs in the vast expanse that is the Times Square subway station. Inside, there is a small electronics store. If that weren't inexplicable enough, the store has a few television displays in its window, one of which appears to be stuck on a channel that only plays footage of boxing matches. But wait, I'm still not at the odd part yet. Every time, and I mean every time, that I walk past this store, there are a handful of men simply standing motionless, eyes transfixed on the bout. Sometimes, it's about half a dozen onlookers. Sometimes, it's more. I can't figure it out. What is the fascination? Do they know the sports schedule so well that they time their commute to be at Times Square at the opportune moment? Or are they merely not in any kind of rush to get to their destination that they are easily distracted by sweaty men pounding the crap out of each other?

Whatever it is, they all seem completely hypnotised. Just like the man gazing at the freeway sign that Steve Martin drives by at the beginning of L.A. Story. Which worries me. Because by the end of that film, Steve Martin was doing exactly the same thing...

Today, I continued the review of the Best Picture contenders of 1937 by watching...

A Star Is Born
William A. Wellman
Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell & Robert Carson
(based on a story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson)
Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, May Robson, Andy Devine, Lionel Stander
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Story, plus a Special Award for colour cinematography

Remade in 1954 with Judy Garland and then again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand, the original 1937 version of A Star Is Born is the only one to receive a Best Picture nomination. The story follows the plight of wannabe starlet Esther Blodgett (Gaynor) as she arrives in Hollywood with big dreams and no plans. The work is tough. Or at least it would be if she could get any. With no prospects, she takes a job as a waitress for Hollywood parties, where she catches the eye of silver screen sensation Norman Maine (March). The two quickly begin a love affair and Norman uses his connections to shoot Esther to the top. But as her star rises, Norman's string of flops and struggle with alcoholism see his career fade into oblivion.

It seems unlikely that this is a realistic account of how the movie business actually operated in the thirties. While there must have been a few ingénues plucked from obscurity to star in major studio films, Esther's rise to fame is just a tad too fairy tale. Then again, perhaps I just have a case of sour grapes. I mean, I've travelled a lot further than she has. Where's my Norman Maine? (Relax, Matt, she's a fictional character...)

In any case, the Hollywood star system is really just a backdrop to the real drama of A Star Is Born, which is the fascinating marital dynamic created when one spouse is the talk of the town and the other is a has-been. In fact, the most interesting aspect of the protagonists' relationship here is that they rarely discuss the issue. Esther and Norman are not at each other's throats at all. They have a genuine love and respect for each other. Sure, Norman pulls a Kanye, interrupting Esther's Academy Award acceptance speech in a drunken tirade, but he doesn't denigrate his wife. Instead, his rant is just a stinking bowl of self pity. And rather than hold a grudge, Esther is profoundly concerned for him. Which is understandable. He's an alcoholic, after all. Norman's struggle is heartbreaking, and while his tragic end is probably an act of cowardice, it could also be interpreted as the ultimate sacrifice to ensure Esther lives out her dream.

The petite Janet Gaynor, Oscar's very first Best Actress, received her second nomination for this role, which includes a spate of brief but accurate impressions of Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West. The talented Fredric March is exceptional as the fading movie star, delivering a touchingly subtle performance. Andy Devine succeeds again as the quirky sidekick, appearing in his second nominee from 1937 along with In Old Chicago. He is topped, however, by Adolphe Menjou, appearing in his third, a trio of showbiz-related pictures. His meatier roles in Stage Door and One Hundred Men and a Girl leave a greater impression, though.

And as if this film hadn't been remade enough already, there is yet another remake in the works, this time starring Beyonce and, potentially, Russell Crowe.

Monday, March 22, 2010

1937 - In Old Chicago

The poll to decide the next awards year to explore in Matt vs. the Academy is our closest one yet. Still a little time to have your say, so shift your eyes to the right and down a little bit and get clicking.

Meanwhile, let's take a look at another fine piece of cinema from 1937's list of Best Picture nominees...

In Old Chicago
Henry King
Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien
(based on a story by Niven Busch)
Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Alice Brady, Andy Devine
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, including Best Supporting Actress (Brady)

Iron-willed matriarch Mrs. O'Leary (Brady) has raised three boys after her husband was tragically killed on their way to settle in Chicago. Now, the two eldest sons have taken starkly different career paths. Jack (Ameche) is an overly honest lawyer, poised to be the next Mayor. Dion (Power), on the other hand, has used his entrepreneurial skills to make a name for himself in Chicago's sordid club scene. Understandably, this causes much friction in the family, but when Chicago is consumed by the Great Fire of 1871, they will need to forget their differences in order to survive.

A title card at the beginning of In Old Chicago expresses the film makers' gratitude towards the Chicago Historical Society for their assistance in the picture's historical accuracy. An odd sentiment considering the majority of the story is complete fiction. Minor details remain, but the much maligned Mrs. O'Leary - long stigmatised as being responsible for the devastating blaze, thanks to her dairy cow knocking a lantern over in the barn - most likely had nothing to do with it. Further, her real life counterpart's first name was Catherine, not Molly. And her husband was still alive. And she never ran a laundry business. And she only had two children, a son and a daughter, neither of which were Mayor. But she did live on De Koven Street - that much is true.

Of course, none of that really matters. For this film is less about the Great Fire than it is about the relationship between two brothers, one an upstanding moral citizen, the other a scheming rogue. The character of Dion, in particular, is a fascinating study. His brilliantly devious plans are presented with a fine sense of deliciousness and intrigue, portrayed with persuasive charm by Tyrone Power.

This compelling drama eventually gives way to a spectacularly riveting finale. The final twenty minutes of the film, in which the catastrophic conflagration occurs, has all the elements of a gripping disaster movie: action, panic, incidental characters succumbing to untimely and uniquely tragic deaths. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission (or cost of Netflix, as the case may be). However, the relatively abrupt ending, no doubt intended to be inspirational, is confusingly upbeat.

Almost fifty years before his Oscar win (and only nomination) for Cocoon, Don Ameche delivers a strong performance here as the principled Jack. Also of note is Alice Faye as the bad girl who is really a softie at heart. And one can't go past Andy Devine's distinctive voice as one of Dion's cronies. Alice Brady deservedly won Best Supporting Actress for playing the O'Leary matriarch, but due to an illness, she wasn't present at the ceremony to collect her award. No matter. An anonymous man jumped to the podium to collect it on her behalf and neither he nor the golden statuette has ever been seen since.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

1937 - Dead End

The sun is out in New York City as it has been for the last couple of days. The chill in the air seems to have subsided and our old friend warmth has returned. One suspects this is the coming of spring and I speak on behalf of most Australians who live in colder climes when I say, "About bloody time!" While I am looking forward to not needing a heavy coat, scarf and gloves every time I walk outside, for some reason, all I can think of is this.

Today, instead of enjoying the sun, I continued my hermit ways by watching another nominee from the Best Picture contest of 1937...

Dead End
William Wyler
Lillian Hellman
(based on the play by Sidney Kingsley)
Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, Claire Trevor
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

The dead end of the title literally refers to the cul-de-sac on the East Side of New York City where all of the film's action takes place. Metaphorically, the dead end is representative of the lack of opportunity provided to the poor inhabitants of this neighbourhood, especially in the wake of the high-rise apartment block built over their tenements. As the upper-class residents host their upper-class dinner parties with their upper-class friends, the slums below are rife with crime. Two of the poverty-stricken locals, Drina (Sidney) and Dave (McCrea) try their best to forge a way out of their hopeless futures, while a gang of good-for-nothing kids, led by Drina's younger brother Tommy, constantly cause trouble. Meanwhile, big-time gangster Baby Face Martin (Bogart), a former Dead End kid himself, returns to his old neighbourhood with disappointing results.

As a crime drama, Dead End is relatively bland, shadowed by plenty of finer entries in the genre. But this may be due to its self-imposed restrictions. The entire story takes place over the course of just one day and evening, in and around the small dead end street. While this approach has the potential for great suspense and excitement - remember Die Hard? - it only succeeds occasionally. I imagine, however, that it must have seemed a lot more effective in the stage version.

The message behind the film is fairly clear, yet the conclusion seems a tad confused. Obviously, the picture addresses the issue of social inequality, in particular, the way in which the oppressed stand little chance of avoiding a life of crime. Somehow, though, I felt little sympathy for the juvenile delinquents. They were just cruel and nasty bullies with few signs of remorse. It didn't help, of course, that they were a bunch of the most overacting, stereotypical thirties thugs you can imagine. And considering that the child actors who played them were troublemakers themselves, causing all sorts of mayhem around the studio, you'd think they'd be able to be more genuine.

There is still a lot to like in Dead End, though. William Wyler is a fine director, to say the least, with 3 Best Director Oscars ahead of him after this film. His inspired decision to eliminate any use of a score helps to create several captivating moments. In fact, the film picks up considerably about halfway through when the situation in the street becomes more serious. The shoot-out sequence is particularly exciting, despite the fact that none of the gun wounds appear to draw blood.

A lot of the performances border on melodrama, but the lead cast manage to avoid that pitfall. Sylvia Sidney and Joel McCrea find the understated sides to their characters and Humphrey Bogart as the troubled gangster is the picture of intensity. The most interesting relationship in the film is found during Bogie's character's interaction with his ex-girlfriend of many years ago, now an ailing prostitute. The Hays Code once again forces this script to be riddled with subtext, but hats off to Claire Trevor for her fascinatingly touching performance as the disease-ridden Francey, earning a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

1937 - One Hundred Men and a Girl

Don't forget to vote (in the poll on the right) for the next year to be covered in Matt vs. the Academy. Still plenty of time as we reach the halfway point of the 1937 review. Speaking of which, the film at the centre of discussion today has proven to be a hard find. Despite being available on DVD in most overseas markets, it has never had a DVD release in the United States. Fortunately, though, the New York Public Library boasts two copies on VHS, according to their online database. I'd need to purchase a VCR, but at least I'd be able to watch it. After putting one of those copies on hold, I waited to be notified of its availability. Two weeks later, I contacted the library to ask of its whereabouts, only to be told that it was last seen well over a month ago and there appears to be no sign of it. What about the second copy? Oh, that one was lost a long time ago and it shouldn't even be in the system at all. Fantastic. A quick Google search and eBay comes to the rescue. Someone in California is selling a DVD import brand new. Problem solved. And I don't even need to buy a VCR. I probably should have started there.

So, after that adventure, yesterday Kat and I spent a rainy day inside watching this 1937 Best Picture nominee...

One Hundred Men and a Girl
Henry Koster
Bruce Manning, Charles Kenyon & James Mulhauser
(based on an idea by Hanns Kräly)
Deanna Durbin, Leopold Stokowski, Adolphe Menjou, Alice Brady
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Score

Despite its porn-sounding title, One Hundred Men and a Girl is not the least bit filthy. In fact, it is a charmingly innocent comedy-musical about Patsy (Durbin), a girl whose trombonist father (Menjou) is desperately unemployed. With a stroke of luck, Patsy stumbles upon a rich woman (Brady) who promises to sponsor the formation of a new orchestra. Patsy assembles one hundred out-of-work musicians, including her father, but the sponsorship deal will fall through unless she can get famous conductor Leopold Stokowski to join the team.

This pleasant and winsome picture is thoroughly enjoyable and it is difficult to understand why it has been all but forgotten. It sports a wonderfully chipper attitude, evident in such songs as "It's Raining Sunbeams", which may sound sickly sweet, and ... well, quite frankly, it is, but somehow it's not too nauseating. Probably due to Deanna Durbin's exquisite singing voice, made all the more impressive considering she was only sixteen when the film was made.

Not only does the story revolve around a symphony orchestra, but it also heavily features Stokowski, an actual conductor of notoriety. Hence, there are inevitably several scenes in which we are treated to orchestral performances of classical music. At times, it may seem like overkill, but these sequences are cleverly staged and edited to avoid tedium. In fact, there is invariably something else going on while the orchestra is playing, so the story is always moving forward. Besides, it is remarkably elegant music, after all.

The heart of the picture's entertainment, though, is the humour. The cast of genuinely funny characters create a comedy of errors that retains its humour even today. Seemingly, naiveté never goes out of comedy style. There's a singing cabbie, a happy-go-lucky flautist, an easily excited upper-class lady. My favourite, however, is the slow-witted but insistent garage owner, who utters such gems as, "You call me a shutup? You can't call me a shutup?" and "I don't know nothing from arismesticks."

Adolphe Menjou provides the heart as the down-and-out musician, a starkly different persona from the arrogant producer he plays in fellow 1937 nominee Stage Door. It is clear that acting is not Leopold Stokowski's first talent, but he manages to hold his own. And for a sixteen-year-old, Deanna Durbin displays a great deal of maturity in her performance. All in all, One Hundred Men and a Girl is a wonderfully entertaining way to spend an hour and a half on a rainy day.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

1937 - Stage Door

As is probably evident, I love the Oscars. Unwaveringly. Unconditionally. In an utterly pig-headed defensive sort of way. I'm not even sure what it is exactly that I love so much. It's not the glitz or glamour (although I'm sure that's part of it). Perhaps it is the prestige. Or maybe it's just that it combines two of my favourite things: movies and statistics. In any case, I love the Oscars.

However, if you are so inclined, you'll always be able to find something to complain about ... The awards were given to all the wrong people ... They snubbed my favourite movie ... The ceremony was too long ... too boring ... too gaudy ... too fake. Not me, though. Try as they might, the Academy will never lose favour with me. They can give an American Idol contestant an Oscar. They can allow late-night personalities to host the ceremony. They can omit Farrah Fawcett from the In Memoriam montage. They can turn Norbit into an Oscar-nominated film. No matter what, I love the Oscars. I accept the subjectivity of the winners. I accept the artistic intentions of the show's producers. They'll never please all of the people all of the time. But they can please me all of the time. The Oscars are like my Disneyland. I'll say it again. I love the Oscars.

On Oscar Day this year, I had the girlishly exciting experience of holding one of the golden statuettes at a public exhibit presented by the Academy and Kodak here in New York. Quite a thrill, I assure you.

Then, for the telecast, Kat and I hosted a few friends at our annual Oscars party, at which we served dishes inspired by this year's nominees. For your amusement, I present to you the menu.

In Oscar's aftermath, I travelled back to 1937 to watch another Best Picture nominee from that year....

Stage Door
Gregory La Cava
Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller
(based on the play by Edna Ferber & George S. Kaufman)
Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

Terry Randall (Hepburn) arrives in New York City with dreams of being a Broadway actress. She finds accommodation at the Footlights Club, a boarding house for theatre types, mostly young women, where she rooms with Jean Maitland (Rogers). The two are not the happiest of roommates, especially when Terry muscles in on Jean's relationship with big shot Broadway manager/producer Anthony Powell (Menjou).

Snappy is an understatement when describing Stage Door's dialogue. The rapid fire repartee is thick - and I mean thick - with sarcasm. From the first scene, it barrels along like the announcer of a horse race. Each young wannabe actress is more caustic than the last and they always have a biting one-liner ready to go at a moment's notice. There's very little time to breathe at all for a good part of the movie, it moves that fast. Quite a feat, considering physical action is a rare occurrence throughout the film's 90-minute running time. It truly is all due to the script's fast-paced dialogue.

The cast must be acknowledged for their aptitude in delivering this lingual roller coaster. They talk over each other constantly yet there is a precision to it. To make it more difficult, many scenes involve at least a half dozen girls. Still, they manage to keep the pace at a steady gallop. Colour me impressed.

After a while, though, this constant lexical energy begins to feel a tad one-dimensional. As remarkable as it is, it retains the same level for ninety percent of the film. Towards the end, the story takes a serious turn, but rather than being a refreshing change, it's just slightly too tragic. And it happens so late in the film that there's no real time to recover the humour, so there's a tiny depressing taste left in one's mouth. Although, Andrea Leeds euphorically ascending the stairs hearing echoes of her memories is a very effective shot indeed.

Katharine Hepburn takes part in her second Matt vs. the Academy year in a row (from the previous 1981 to the current 1937 - not many performers will achieve a feat of that longevity). She and Ginger Rogers display such intelligence in these roles. Neither allow their characters to become stereotypically naive young girls. A young Lucille Ball is especially delightful to watch, delivering the sharpest wit of the group. And two other future showbiz stars, Eve Arden and Ann Miller, take on small roles as well.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

1937 - The Life of Emile Zola

One more sleep until the Oscars. While Kat and I get ready for our Academy Awards dinner party (featuring such items as Avatado and The Hurt Liquor), here are my 2009 Oscar predictions, including my wacky Avatar-Bigelow combination for Picture-Director.

As Avatar and The Hurt Locker battle it out for the 82nd Best Picture award, yesterday I watched the winner of the 10th Best Picture award...

The Life of Emile Zola
William Dieterle
Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg
(based on the book "Zola and His Time" by Matthew Josephson)
Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
3 wins, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Schildkraut)

Contrary to its title, The Life of Emile Zola is less a biography of the famed French writer as it is an exploration of the Dreyfus affair. While it does deal with Zola's life, especially his rise to fame, the central focus of the film is his involvement in the the political scandal that rocked France in the late 19th century.

Struggling as a writer in his early days, Emile Zola later finds success due to several politically charged books critical of the establishment. Meanwhile, French Jewish soldier Alfred Dreyfus is wrongly accused and subsequently convicted of treason. When evidence comes to light that would prove his innocence, ranking officials seek to sweep it under the rug. But our intrepid hero Mr. Zola steps in to speak up for Dreyfus only to find himself on trial for libel.

The picture begins at a cracking pace, covering Emile Zola's early life and career relatively quickly. Nonetheless, it never glosses over anything. Instead, we are clearly presented with the portrait of a man who loves his country and will passionately speak his mind on any perceived injustice. Clearly a strong believer in free speech, Zola is not fazed by authority, authoring several tomes that rock the proverbial boat.

When the story switches to the events leading up to Dreyfus' arrest and imprisonment, there is a slightly odd feeling of displacement, probably due to one's expectation of the story based on the film's title. All of a sudden, the Life of Emile Zola becomes the Corruption of the French Military. Not that I'm complaining. It's a gripping, well-told story of weighty themes. Zola takes the backseat for a while and he never quite manages to leave it for the rest of the film. Yes, he's the one who got people talking about Dreyfus again after the world had all but forgotten him, but once his famous "J'accuse!" article is written, his role from that point on is mostly a passive one, save for the powerful closing statement he delivers at his own trial (pictured). But, in the end, despite the film's intention of portraying Zola as a heroic man of action, he dies an entirely unheroic and horribly anti-climactic death. (Oops, spoiler alert...)

Paul Muni's French accent is only slightly better than his Chinese accent, but his performance in this film far outshines his work in The Good Earth. His portrayal lends Zola a certain moral heroism even if the story doesn't. Taking home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Joseph Schildkraut is heartbreaking as Alfred Dreyfus. A particularly poignant moment occurs when Dreyfus is finally released. He walks out of the prison cell once, stops, walks back in and repeats his exit twice more, clearly enjoying his freedom.

In spite of my criticism, The Life of Emile Zola is a very engaging film. Its only real flaw, then, is that it need not have bothered covering anything but the Dreyfus affair. And since that is the majority of the film anyway, perhaps a title change is all it would have taken.

Monday, March 1, 2010

1937 - Lost Horizon

Less than a week now until the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony, so allow me these musings on how things may turn out.

The four acting awards, as in most previous years, are relatively easy to predict, the supporting categories especially. Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique are all but locks for Inglourious Basterds and Precious respectively. Jeff Bridges is definitely leading the game for Best Actor. And Sandra Bullock currently holds the favourite spot for Best Actress, but don't be surprised if that goes a different way. If there's going to be an upset, this is where it will be.

The screenplay awards are also fairly clear. Up In The Air seems to have Adapted Screenplay in the bag, and I suspect The Hurt Locker will edge out Inglourious Basterds for the Original Screenplay gong.

Best Director and Best Picture are perhaps a little trickier. The media is certainly touting the competition between ex-spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow for the director's award, and their respective films, Avatar and The Hurt Locker, also seem pitted against each other for Best Picture. The Academy's long history certainly indicates that one film is likely to win both these awards, but recently (over the last decade and a half, say) there has been a proportionally significant number of years in which that has not been the case - 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005. So, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Kathryn Bigelow will become the first female Best Director winner, while Avatar will take home the Best Picture prize. Brave prediction, I know. Let's see how it pans out.

Today, I watched another 1937 Best Picture nominee. I was going to comment that, with this viewing, I have culled the list down to 400 films remaining, but that doesn't take into account the current crop of contenders. Once this year's Oscars are in the past, I shall update the tally and the nominee list. For now, though, here are my thoughts on...

Lost Horizon
Frank Capra
Robert Riskin
(based on the novel by James Hilton)
Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, John Howard, Thomas Mitchell, H.B. Warner, Sam Jaffe
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, including Best Art Direction

After its initial release in 1937, Lost Horizon went through some changes, losing several minutes of its running time by the time of its re-release some years later. Fortunately, some film restoration do-gooders set themselves the task of restoring the film to its original length. Unfortunately, there were seven minutes of footage that eluded them, although they did manage to find the film's entire audio track. Thus, in the current DVD release that I viewed, there are a couple of scenes which have been uniquely recreated using the original sound which is played over still images that were made for the film's publicity. The result is surprisingly not as unusual as you might imagine. Not completely seamless, obviously, but neither is it too distracting.

The story begins with British diplomat Robert Conway (Colman) attempting to evacuate several Westerners from war-torn China. Unfortunately, he and four others find themselves on a hijacked plane, which eventually crash lands somewhere in the icy Himalayas, killing their kidnapper/pilot. Fearing for their survival, they are fortuitously met by a mysterious man named Chang (Warner), who leads them to an idyllic village that is somehow immune to the surrounding meteorology. Shangri-La, as it is known by its inhabitants, is eternally warm and pleasant, and nobody there grows old. While Conway settles in, his four companions have a bit more trouble acclimating, especially Conway's brother (Howard), who suspects that all is not what it seems.

Lost Horizon's first twenty minutes or so are utterly captivating. From the urgency of the opening scene at the Chinese airport, through the suspenseful flight and ensuing crash, we are treated to some brilliant story-telling. The ending, too, is full of intrigue and mystery. And while the in-between is not dreary, per se, there is a definite saggy feeling to the film's middle act. The suspense and mystery are replaced by a kind of fantasy - men can live to 200 years old, it never snows despite the geography and everybody is "more than moderately happy." It's the utopian existence that we all wish for but know can never really be. A self-sufficient society in which there is no crime or sadness or dissatisfaction. A Shangri-La, if you will.

While I have no problem at all with imaginatively far-fetched stories (I'm a big fan of the science fiction genre, for instance), I've always been slightly put off by the idea that blind faith is a virtue. And Lost Horizon seems to send the message that, when you have no proof, but it feels right, then you should go ahead and accept it. One character in the world outside of Shangri-La sums it up by commenting, "I believe it because I want to believe it." Really? Is that a healthy way to decide what's real? I recognise, of course, that being rational and scientific is simply not as romantic and, therefore, not as interesting to watch, but there's no need to make belief in magic seem virtuous. If this makes me sound like a crotchety old grumpy-boots, so be it.

Despite those themes, I actually did enjoy Lost Horizon a great deal, mostly due to the aforementioned suspense. Ronald Colman delivers a fine performance, although he perhaps makes Conway too calm - nothing seems to bother him very much at all. Jane Wyatt is adorable as Conway's love interest, Sondra. While effective as the 200-year-old High Lama, Sam Jaffe's missing teeth and wide-eyed gaze occasionally make him seem horror-movie crazy. And reliable supporting actor Thomas Mitchell rolls out another first-class portrayal as embezzler Barnard.