Thursday, December 19, 2013

1934 - Imitation of Life

Awards season is heating up, which means I have a lot of movies to catch up on. I've only seen two of the major contenders so far - Gravity and Blue Jasmine. The former seems certain, at this stage, to garner multiple Oscar nominations, if only for the mere fact that it covers all its bases. It has the potential to be cited in both the creative and technical categories, along with Best Picture and perhaps even a Best Actress nod for Sandra Bullock. Perennial screenplay nominee Woody Allen may add another notch to that belt with Blue Jasmine. In addition, the film may give Cate Blanchett her second Oscar. At the very least, a nomination is almost certain.

While the 2013 contenders shuffle for position, we continue our look at the 1934 Best Picture nominees...

Imitation of Life
John M. Stahl
William Hurlbut
(based on the novel by Fannie Hurst)
Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Widowed mother Bea Pullman (Colbert) struggles to hold on to her late husband's maple syrup business while raising her daughter Jessie. When African-American housekeeper Delilah (Beavers) shows up looking for a job, Bea reluctantly accepts the help in exchange for room and board for Delilah and her mixed-race daughter Peola. Soon, Delilah's delicious pancakes give Bea the idea to open a pancake shop, which eventually grows into a lucrative pancake flour business thanks to the business savvy of Elmer Smith (Sparks) and a giant neon sign (pictured below). But the two mothers have their hands full with their respective daughters as they grow into young women. Jessie (Hudson) falls for Bea's dapper boyfriend Stephen (Wililam), while Peola (Washington) pushes her own mother away, embarrassed by her skin colour.

It may seem odd to say, but as a whole, I found Imitation of Life to be a relatively simple tale. Granted, it includes some complex themes, but the story itself is rather straight-forward, and for some reason, it just didn't grab me. As is often the case with stories that span so many years, the story is inevitably a little rushed, preventing the audience from truly investing in any of the subplots. In a way, even though plenty of important events occur, we only really see snippets from each event, resulting in a feeling that nothing much is happening at all.

All of this is not to say that the film is boring. In fact, being as uncomplicated as it is, the story is pleasantly easy to follow. It's just that perhaps the drama could have been furthered. Despite some genuinely fascinating subplots - particularly Peola's resistance to her own heritage - they mostly felt somewhat unexplored.

Gladly, the cast are all capable in their roles. Claudette Colbert - in one of three starring roles in Best Picture nominees this awards year - is almost overly affable, laughing at everyone and everything, bordering on patronizing at times. Still, her charm lets her get away with it. Playing opposite her is the dashing Warren William, who delivers a delightfully elegant portrayal, making me wonder why he never rose to the heights of Gable or Grant. Unusually fascinating is Ned Sparks as the matter-of-fact business manager. His delivery is often motionless, in both body and face, yet his distinct vocal quality produces quite a captivating lilt, repetitive though it may be.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

1934 - The White Parade

Finally back in New York now, just in time for the snow. Sure, it's pretty, but after spending a few weeks in Australia and then Southern California, I'll take warmth over pretty any day. While in Los Angeles, I got the chance to visit the UCLA Film Archive again. Almost three years after my first visit there to watch Skippy and East Lynne, I went back to view another title exclusively held on this campus.

Hence, the first nominee to be reviewed in the behemoth Best Picture contest of 1934 is...

The White Parade
Irving Cummings
Rian James, Jesse L. Lasky, Sonya Levien, Ernest Pascal
(based on the novel by Rian James)
Loretta Young, John Boles, Dorothy Wilson, Muriel Kirkland, Astrid Allwyn, Frank Conroy, Jane Darwell, Sara Haden
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

The copy of The White Parade that is available for general viewing at the UCLA Film Archive, while in DVD format, is not exactly in pristine condition. The DVD has been created directly from the surviving film reels, so in addition to the expected film artefacts and glitches caused by missing frames, there is a somewhat distracting fuzzy image throughout. Humorously, the DVD contains the entire footage from each reel, including some frames with the words "End of Reel" emblazoned in large text.

Despite a title that sounds like the sequel to The Birth of a Nation, The White Parade actually refers to the nursing profession (even though none of my nurse friends had ever heard that expression before). A group of young women converge on a teaching hospital to spend three years in training to be nurses. The story mainly focuses on June Arden (Young), who in an attempt to fit in with the popular girls, pretends to be the fiancee of the wealthy Ronald Hall III (Boles) after seeing his picture in the society pages. When one of the other girls questions her, she agrees to meet with Hall to prove it. Luckily for her, the two actually fall for each other, and so the deception morphs into reality. But as June approaches the end of her training, she has to decide whether she wants to pursue a life of caring for sick people or a life with a family. (Apparently, in the 1930s, it was impossible to have both. Again, my nurse friends might have something to say about that.)

Initially, it's a little tough to keep track of all the characters. The opening scenes introduce us to a number of nursing students all at once - including a largish woman who everyone casually refers to as "Pudgy" with seemingly no awareness of any potential offense - so it's difficult to retain interest without a singular story to follow. Fortunately, it doesn't take too long for June to clearly emerge as our heroine and the story finds its feet and becomes rather involving.

The script is witty in only that way that 1930s films can be, bolstered by elements of screwball comedy. And speaking of elements common to the 1930s, you won't be surprised to hear sexist attitudes from the men, as when Ronald attempts to persuade June to give up nursing to be his wife, explaining that it's just as honorable to serve one as it is to serve many. Surprisingly, though, the conclusion defies the stereotype and June sacrifices married life for her career.

One further criticism is the lack of music scoring in the film. I hesitate to bring that up in case it's just a matter of the score never being included on the surviving print. Perhaps the original theatrical release contained more music. If not, it seems like a missed opportunity. Several scenes felt awkwardly silent.

Loretta Young (pictured, with John Boles) as the strong-willed June delivers a brilliant performance, charming and passionate. You won't find a lot of other well-known faces (which may explain why it's never received a commercial home video release). Perhaps the most recognisable performer after Young is Jane Darwell (the matriarch from The Grapes of Wrath) as the nurses' guardian inexplicably nicknamed Sailor.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Best Picture of 1961

This year of review has certainly taken its time to complete, but despite that, the verdict was a relatively quick decision to make. Most likely, that's due to one of the films lining up almost perfectly with my taste in genre. Still, here's my explanation.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1961 are:
  • Fanny
  • The Guns of Navarone
  • The Hustler
  • Judgment at Nuremberg
  • West Side Story
Selecting my least favourite of the 1961 Best Picture contenders was even easier than choosing my winner. Fanny is artificial and, though it has its charms, it is clearly overshadowed by its four competitors.

Each of the remaining films would be a worthy victor. The iconic musical West Side Story is thoroughly entertaining, enough to win over the Academy and be chosen as their Best Picture. The Guns of Navarone excites with its masterful action and adventure. And Judgment at Nuremberg engages its audience by laying bare some heavy philosophical issues.

But it's the gritty and absorbing drama The Hustler that wins my vote for the best of the year. With its electrifying performances and a story full of both tension and humour, this classic hits all the right notes. Thus, I now officially proclaim The Hustler as my favourite 1961 Best Picture nominee.

Best Picture of 1961
Academy's choice:

West Side Story

Matt's choice:

The Hustler

Your choice:

Don't agree with me? Then let me know by voting in the poll above for your favourite of 1961. We now move back to 1934 for reasons that will be explained in the next post. The most notable thing about this awards year is the record 12 films that were nominated for Best Picture. So, it looks like we're in for the long haul.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1934 are:
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street
  • Cleopatra
  • Flirtation Walk
  • The Gay Divorcee
  • Here Comes the Navy
  • The House of Rothschild
  • Imitation of Life
  • It Happened One Night
  • One Night of Love
  • The Thin Man
  • The White Parade
  • Viva Villa!
Stay tuned...

Sunday, December 1, 2013

1961 - Judgement at Nuremberg

With our Australian visit behind us, Kat and I are now relaxing in Los Angeles for a few days before heading back to New York. Almost immediately after arriving back in the States, America's penchant for large food portions became obvious. That's what you get for eating at The Cheesecake Factory, I guess.

And now, the final movie to review from 1961's Best Picture race...

Judgment at Nuremberg
Stanley Kramer
Abby Mann
Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, William Shatner, Werner Klemperer
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
2 wins, for Best Actor (Schell) and Best Adapted Screenplay

Soon after the end of World War II, a down-to-earth judge from Maine, Dan Haywood (Tracy), arrives in Germany to fill his post as the chief judge in a military tribunal. Accused of crimes against humanity, the defendants are four German judges, including the internationally renowned Ernst Janning (Lancaster). The jurists are all represented by German attorney Hans Rolfe (Schell), while leading the prosecution is Colonel Tad Lawson (Widmark). Along with the testimony in court, Haywood converses with Germans outside of the courtroom, including Frau Bertholt (Dietrich), the widow of a German general, in order to gain a deeper understanding of how such blatant atrocities could have occurred in a seemingly civilized country.

This one's definitely a courtroom drama, folks. It's over three hours long and most of that takes place inside the courtroom. Director Stanley Kramer keeps things from getting dull, however, with some creative camera tricks, including sudden zooms and long circular pans. But even if these gimmicks were absent, the subject matter alone is certainly enough to keep you invested. It's deep and often unsettling stuff, particularly when the prosecution shows disturbing real-life footage from the concentration camps.

It may sound odd to liken this film to fellow nominee The Guns of Navarone, but despite the lack of action sequences in Judgment at Nuremberg, both films wax philosophical about sensitive moral issues. In this case, the focus is drawn towards how much responsibility should be held by those who enforce immoral laws. Were the defendants at the centre of the story justified in carrying out their government's orders to save their own skin? Or should they be considered complicit in all that followed? That theme is further explored by asking questions of ordinary civilians. Were average Germans aware of the atrocities their government was committing? And if so, how should they have dealt with that information?

Representing the two sides of this debate are the prosecution and defense lawyers in the trial. It may just have been due to the respective actors' performances, but during the opening statements, I felt as though the film was guiding my moral pendulum towards the defense. Richard Widmark's portrayal of prosecuting attorney Colonel Lawson struck me as unreasonable and self-righteous, whereas Maximilian Schell's defense attorney Hans Rolfe takes the persona of the sincere underdog. My sympathies didn't remain there for long, however, since Rolfe almost immediately becomes a little smarmy. Nonetheless, Lawson's brattishness prevented me from ever fully siding with him either. The posturing from both sides makes things slightly muddy, but the final act leaves no doubt as to which conclusion the film makers would like us to draw. It's most likely the right conclusion to draw, of course, but it is hindered somewhat by Widmark being overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Schell's passionate and ultimately Oscar-winning performance.

Along with the two lawyers, Judgment at Nuremberg boasts a star-studded cast. As the judge at the head of it all, the always calm and amiable Spencer Tracy represents the audience, trying to make sense of everything he hears. He is supported by strong performances from Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift and particularly Judy Garland, who delivers an incredibly heartbreaking turn on the witness stand. Also look out for two soon-to-be television stars. That's Star Trek's William Shatner (pictured, with Tracy) as Judge Haywood's charming aide Captain Byers, and despite Werner Klemperer's steely portrayal of defendant Emil Hahn, I couldn't help imagining him as Colonel Klink bellowing, "Ho-o-ogan!"