Wednesday, August 25, 2010

1940 - Our Town

Happy Anniversary! Last week marked one year since the inception of Matt vs. the Academy. Hurrah! I want to thank you all for reading thus far, especially during this slower period of recent weeks. You'll be glad to know (or maybe you won't care) that Mid-Life: The Crisis Musical opened last week and so I am finally free of rehearsals and therefore experiencing some free time.

I have taken advantage of said free time by continuing with my review of the 1940 Best Picture contest. Next up is...

Our Town
Sam Wood
Thornton Wilder, Frank Craven, Harry Chandlee
(based on the play by Thornton Wilder)
William Holden, Martha Scott, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee, Frank Craven
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

Grover's Corners is a typical small town in early 20th century New Hampshire. Quiet, simple living is the order of the day. Our narrator introduces us to several of the town's residents and their daily routines, paying particular attention to the ambitious George Gibbs (Holden) and the smart Emily Webb (Scott). As teenagers, Emily innocently helps George with his homework but, as they grow up, their relationship develops and soon, marriage is on the cards.

This picture is the first screen adaptation of the classic American play that appears on many school curricula, but being educated outside the United States and never having seen a stage production of it, I was not overly familiar with its story. Paradoxically, however, my initial reaction after watching the film was that it just wasn't as good as the stage version.

From the outset, there's a definite theatricality to the picture. Although there is something comfortably soothing about the opening narration from a fourth-wall-breaking character, the regular interruptions set you apart from the action. While this device is perfectly appropriate for the stage, it isn't always effective on film.

In addition, there is the age-old issue with which a lot of films adapted from the stage have trouble tackling - that of loquacious dialogue. In Our Town, there are many slow and languid conversations. Indeed, the script and performances lean toward the superficial and sentimental, and not just due to the film's old-fashioned temperament.

Having said all that, I experienced somewhat of a moment of clarity an hour into the story during the wedding scene when a series of inner monologues by several characters served to illustrate that their cheery dispositions were merely facades to cover up the misery and self-doubt they all feel. Suddenly, the theatricality made sense. The townsfolk were all putting on a show. Nonetheless, this moment of clarity soon gave way to more sentimentality as the film concluded with its sentimental message of "appreciate life while you're living it". Interestingly, I discovered that the final resolution differs quite markedly from the stage play, which contains a much bleaker ending. You can always count on early Hollywood to make the ending cheerful. (Although, in all honesty, I actually appreciated the pick-me-up after the downer that is the final act.)

The other major difference is that the stage version is intended to be performed with the use of only a minimal set, chairs and tables representing entire houses. Playwright Thornton Wilder expressed his desire to allow the emotion of the characters to be highlighted without relying on scenery for enhancement. This film adaptation, however, makes full use of its production designer with complete set pieces in every scene - odd, considering Wilder is credited as one of the screenwriters. Plus, the knowledge of the playwright's original intentions seems to fly in the face of my epiphany about the theatricality of the film. It would seem that Wilder specifically wanted to avoid theatricality. So, either the filmmakers missed the mark on this one or I completely misunderstood the whole thing. Now, I'm confused...

Monday, August 9, 2010

1940 - The Letter

I'm back! Yes, I realise there has been a rather elongated pause leading up to this post. It has been a very hectic time for me recently. While I have been performing My Fair Lady, I have also been rehearsing Midlife: The Crisis Musical, the next show to be staged at the Allenberry Playhouse. Consequently, I have essentially been without a day off for two weeks. The only free day I had was last Monday, and that was spent in New York City with my darling wife as well as some family who were visiting from Australia. Plus, some good friends from home, Steve, Susie and Amanda, were also in town for an improv festival, allowing for a long overdue catch-up. It was an enjoyable break from the hustle of rehearsals, but it left me with no time for this project.

Thus, today was a relaxing day off in which I finally found some time to watch another nominee from the 1940 Best Picture contest...

The Letter
William Wyler
Howard Koch
(based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham)
Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Gale Sondergaard
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

The Letter begins dramatically with Leslie Crosbie (Davis) firing bullets into an unarmed man named Hammond. When her husband Robert (Marshall) arrives with their lawyer Howard Joyce (Stephenson), her story is that Hammond, known as a friend of the Crosbies, tried to make love to her, so she defended herself by unloading the pistol into him. She is put into custody in Singapore, awaiting trial, despite her seeming innocence.

Soon, however, Howard becomes privy to a damning letter that Leslie sent to the deceased on the day of the murder which seems to indicate a more intimate relationship between the two. The original letter is in the possession of Hammond's widow (Sondergaard), who threatens to deliver it to the prosecution unless her demands are met.

With such a breathtaking opening scene, The Letter grabs you by the throat very early. What follows is a gripping suspense drama that had me wondering why it hasn't become a bigger classic. Although there are a few wordy sequences (it is based on a play, after all), director William Wyler cleverly infuses the picture with symoblic imagery, mostly involving shadows and moonlight. Apparently, the ending needed to be altered from its original version thanks to the censors, and the resulting bleakness of the denouement probably explains the film's failure in the test of time. (Anyone with a decent understanding of the Hays Code will know that murderers were not allowed to remain unpunished.)

Bette Davis' eyes are at their glassy best as she portrays a woman desperate to hide the truth. But Gale Sondergaard as the bitter widow gives Davis a run for her money in the "staring daggers" department. Herbert Marshall as the unsuspecting husband appears in his second 1940 nominee after Foreign Correspondent. My favourite performance from the film comes from James Stephenson, superbly detailed as the attorney with a guilty conscience.