Saturday, March 30, 2013

Best Picture of 1942

Choosing which Best Picture nominee I would have voted for is always challenging, but when there are ten contenders, as is the case for 1942, the difficulty obviously increases. As such, the possibility exists that my decision will be inadvertently influenced by a film's longevity and position in cinematic history. There's a good chance that subconscious phenomenon has occurred for this verdict, but so be it.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1942 are:
  • Kings Row
  • The Invaders
  • The Magnificent Ambersons
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • The Pied Piper
  • The Pride of the Yankees
  • Random Harvest
  • The Talk of the Town
  • Wake Island
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy
Since 1942 was the first full year in which the U.S. participated in World War II, there were understandably a great deal of pictures that dealt with war themes. Four of the Best Picture nominees use the war as a main focus, while Yankee Doodle Dandy's unabashedly patriotic style features the war towards the end of the film.

Separating these films is certainly no easy task, but I managed to at least divide them into two groups, thereby leaving half of them out of the running. In no particular order, the bottom five are Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Pride of the Yankees, Wake Island and Yankee Doodle Dandy. A lot of quality cinema right there. Indeed, many of those films are considered classics, yet for whatever reason, I found myself more fascinated by The Invaders, The Pied Piper, The Talk of the Town, Random Harvest and Mrs. Miniver.

In the end, however, and perhaps partly due to the Academy's influence, my choice for Best Picture of 1942 is the same as theirs, Mrs. Miniver.

Best Picture of 1942
Academy's choice:

Mrs. Miniver

Matt's choice:

Mrs. Miniver

Your choice:

What's your pick? Vote in the poll above for your favourite of 1942. You may have noticed that, during my review of 1942, I did not have the usual poll to allow for my readers to select the next year of review. That was mostly absent-mindedness, but towards the end of the review, I had hoped to be wrapped up in time to go see most of 1932/33's nominees at the Film Forum, an independent cinema here in New York which recently held a month-long retrospective of pre-Code films from 1933. Alas, I didn't come close to finishing this review, so instead, due to one of its nominees having a screening soon nearby, we'll now take a look at the 1961 race.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1961 are:
  • Fanny
  • The Guns of Navarone
  • The Hustler
  • Judgment at Nuremberg
  • West Side Story
Stay tuned...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

1942 - Random Harvest

In all the post-Oscars excitement, I forgot to link to this in my last post, so here it is now: the menu from my annual Oscars party.

The final nominee in the Best Picture contest of 1942 is...

Random Harvest
Mervyn LeRoy
Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, Claudine West
(based on the novel by James Hilton)
Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, Philip Dorn, Susan Peters, Henry Travers, Reginald Owen, Bramwell Fletcher
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

Due to shell-shock from World War I, a British soldier (Colman) is now a patient in an asylum without any memory of his past life. Known now as John Smith, he escapes the asylum and befriends Paula (Garson), who immediately takes a liking to the amnesiac, taking him under her wing. After nursing him back to mental health and encouraging him to pursue his talent for writing, the two fall in love and get married. The fairy tale is destroyed, however, when Smithy is hit by a car in Liverpool and gets his memory back. Well, almost all of it. He now draws a blank as to what he's been doing with the past three years of life since the shell-shock. No memory of the asylum, no memory of his new-found writing skills and, sadly, no memory of Paula. Nonetheless, Paula tracks him down, becomes his secretary and patiently waits for him to regain his memory of her and their happy life. You know, what any girl in love would do.

With all its twists and turns, Random Harvest is certainly an engrossing story. Admittedly, to enjoy the tale, you must first accept the conceit that Paula would drop everything so immediately, including her career, to care for a stranger. Then, of course, there's the conceit that Paula's tender loving care would transform Smithy from a stuttering simpleton into an intelligent suave gentleman. While the transformation takes place over several months, the movie-going audience experiences the change in a split second. Still, that's not the most challenging conceit. We are then asked to concede that a second bump on the head would inexplicably reverse Smithy's memory, returning the memories of his life before the initial accident, while leaving him with no recollection whatsoever of the intervening three years. And I haven't even mentioned the conceit that Paula would reinsert herself into her lost love's life without even mentioning who she is.

The most fascinating part of this concoction of absurd unlikelihoods is that it is truly captivating. No matter how far-fetched the plot, it is always treated seriously and the result is engaging drama. With the love story at the forefront, I challenge you to watch this film without feeling an irresistible need for the two leads to end up together.

That need is undoubtedly fueled by the immense amiability of both stars. Colman is superb in the film's opening sequences as the simpleton version of his character, earning him a Best Actor Oscar nod. Garson is likewise charming and powerful, the Academy choosing instead to give her a Best Actress nomination (and win) for Mrs. Miniver this year. (Academy rules disallow a performer to receive two nominations in the same category.) Speaking of Mrs. Miniver, Garson is not the only connection between these two films. Both MGM films, Random Harvest and Mrs. Miniver share the same writing team (including James Hilton, who co-wrote Miniver and wrote the source novel here), as well as the same producer (Sidney Franklin), and many key crew members. Along with Greer Garson, character actors Henry Travers and Reginald Owen also appear in both pictures, as do several bit players. Mrs. Miniver was the darling come Oscar time, though, winning six awards from 12 nominations, while Random Harvest didn't manage to secure one from its seven nods.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

1942 - Mrs. Miniver

Another Oscars ceremony over and I managed to predict 18 of the 24 categories correctly, which equals my previous best, so I'll take it. No major surprises this year. In the end, it seems Argo comfortably took the Best Picture award after all. So since I love statistics, why don't I just list my favourite Oscar stats from this year's awards...

  • Argo became only the fourth film to win the big prize without achieving a Best Director nomination (after Wings, Grand Hotel and Driving Miss Daisy).
  • Ang Lee's directing win is notable for the fact that he now has two Best Director Oscars for films that did not win Best Picture (previously winning for Brokeback Mountain, which lost to Crash), a rare feat.
  • Daniel Day-Lewis is now only the sixth performer to have three Oscar statuettes, all three of his wins for lead roles (second only to Katharine Hepburn with four Best Actress awards).
  • Christoph Waltz achieved his second acting win from only his second nomination. And since both his wins came for Quentin Tarantino films, he is now only the third person to win two acting Oscars for films by the same director (Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest both won twice for Woody Allen films). [edit: Turns out this stat isn't quite accurate. See the comments below the post.]
  • The tie for Best Sound Editing is only the sixth such occurrence since the Oscars began, the first in this category. (Perhaps the most famous of the ties was in 1968 when Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand shared the Best Actress award for The Lion in Winter and Funny Girl, respectively.)
  • Pixar Animation Studios continued their domination of the Best Animated Feature award, winning for Brave, their seventh award (plus two more nominations) since the category was introduced 12 years ago.
  • As one of the producers of Best Picture winner Argo, George Clooney won his second Oscar, his first for Best Supporting Actor for Syriana. This makes him only the second person to have won an acting Oscar and a Best Picture, along with Michael Douglas, who won Best Picture for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Best Actor for Wall Street.

And now to the eventual Best Picture winner from 1942...

Mrs. Miniver
William Wyler
Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West
(based on the novel by Jan Struther)
Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen, Henry Travers, Richard Ney, Henry Wilcoxon
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
6 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Garson), Best Supporting Actress (Wright)

Another 1942 nominee dealing with World War II, Mrs. Miniver shows us the effects the war has on a small village in England. The Minivers are a happy and well-to-do family whose lives get caught up in the war in numerous ways. Mrs. Miniver (Garson) looks after the house and her two youngest children while her husband Clem (Pidgeon) lends his assistance and his boat to the British Navy's Dunkirk evacuation, and her eldest son Vin (Ney) does his part as a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force. The war creeps ever closer to home, however, as Germany invades London, forcing those in the village, including Mrs. Miniver and Vin's fiancee Carol (Wright), to experience it firsthand. It even comes right into the Minivers' home when a wounded German pilot holds Mrs. Miniver at gunpoint for some food and milk.

Not your typical war film, Mrs. Miniver is low on battle sequences, choosing instead to tell the story from the perspective of the civilians. We focus on life back in the village while the war rages on across the continent. Nonetheless, as the war makes its way into the village itself, we're treated to a fair share of tense and gripping scenes, just as tense and gripping as if we were following the combatants themselves. We watch on with our hearts in our mouths as the family hides in an air raid bunker as the bombs explode around them. We're on the edge of our seats as Mrs. Miniver deals with an enemy intruder in her home. And we can't look away as the aerial assault takes place directly above the town, stranding Mrs. Miniver and Carol as they attempt to drive back to the house.

Some of the cast struggle a tad with the English accents, particularly Walter Pidgeon and Richard Ney. But with a handful of British actors filling in the supporting roles, the damage is more than alleviated. Greer Garson, a Brit herself, is excellent in the title role, touching and real, earning her a Best Actress Oscar. Meanwhile, the adorable Teresa Wright garnered the Best Supporting Actress award for her strong portrayal of Carol. Almost stealing the film is Dame May Whitty (pictured), brilliantly acerbic as the upper-class Lady Beldon. The similarities to Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey are amusing, made all the more apparent when considering an almost identical storyline involving a flower show seems to have made its way into an episode of the British drama.