Tuesday, April 14, 2015

1943 - In Which We Serve

For as long as I can remember, I've loved hearing behind-the-scenes stories about movie production, whether in books or documentaries or actual behind-the-scenes tours. So with delight, Kat and I joined a visiting friend recently to take the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour in nearby Burbank. The Warner Bros. lot has a lot of history and I always enjoy visiting backlots. There's just something about the fake buildings that fills me with a sense of awe and wonder. The tour also included a stop at the Warner Bros. Museum, which housed special exhibits of the Batman and Harry Potter franchises. But it was the tiny corner dedicated to Warner's past Best Picture winners that had me fascinated. Hint: this blog's current year of review resulted in a win for Warner Bros. so I have a little treat for you when I get to reviewing that picture.

For now, let's have a look at a British entry in 1943's Best Picture race...

In Which We Serve
Noël Coward and David Lean
Noël Coward
Noël Coward, John Mills, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, Bernard Miles
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

As the opening narration informs us, this is the story of a ship. Specifically, it's the story of the HMS Torrin, a British destroyer during World War II that is attacked and sunk by German aircraft bombers. As the survivors, including Captain Kinross (Coward), stay afloat in a lifeboat enduring further aerial gunfire, they share tales of their own experiences during the war and reminisce about the history of the Torrin.

The overt patriotism of In Which We Serve is a little off-putting, perhaps only because it's something one would expect from an American military film, not a British one. It's a propaganda film, no question. The sailors love their ship more than their wives, and the wives are pretty much okay with that. It's all for king and country. And the enemy is nothing short of pure evil. Granted, the enemy are the Nazis in this case, so it's hard to argue that point, but from a purely narrative standpoint, it's a detriment to have no single personification of the enemy. We see Nazi planes and Nazi ships, but we almost never see an actual Nazi, which I understand is part of the propaganda to dehumanise the enemy, but all good screenwriting how-to books will tell you that you have to include an antagonist. Even if your hero's main enemy is a corporation or organisation, it's far more effective to have an identifiable character to serve as its representative, rather than leave your hero to fight a nebulous enemy.

I also have to admit that I had some trouble following the action. The plot is somewhat episodic and it is sometimes difficult to figure out who's who, partly because there are so many sailors to keep track of, but also because they're all wearing the same thing! Stupid sailor's uniforms. So, during a flashback, when we see someone in civilian clothes, it takes a little time to recognise exactly who it is. And speaking of the myriad flashbacks, is this perhaps the genesis of the cliched wavy flashback transition? To a modern audience, the watery effect may seem cheesy, but in this instance, I suppose it couldn't be more appropriate.

Not only did Noël Coward (pictured) write, co-direct and star in the movie, but like Chaplin before him and Eastwood after him, he also composed the film's score. So there's no denying this is Coward's baby. As the captain of the ship, his is not your average melodramatic performance of the 1940s. In fact, it could be argued that he goes too far in the opposite direction, making Captain Kinross oddly understated. Playing his wife, Celia Johnson stands out with a charmingly natural portrayal of a woman with bittersweet feelings about her husband's job. And look out for a young Richard Attenborough in his film debut.

In Which We Serve also has a rare distinction in Oscar history, receiving recognition in two separate awards years. It received a non-competitive Honorary Achievement award at the 1942 Oscars, since that was the year it was released in its native UK. Then, one year later, it was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, after having its qualifying US theatrical release.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

1943 - Madame Curie

Well, I mentioned the possibility of having to change the next year of review and, indeed, circumstances now require that I do just that. My plan to see The Apartment at the TCM Classic Film Festival was thwarted. It seems too many festival pass holders had the same idea so there was no room for any extras. Fortunately, the festival screens several movies at once, so Kat and I hopped over to one of the smaller venues instead to catch another Best Picture nominee from a different year.

So, we'll come back to 1960 another time, but for now, we begin our review of the Academy's nominated films of 1943...

Madame Curie
Mervyn LeRoy
Paul Osborn and Paul H. Rameau
(based on the book by Eve Curie)
Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Travers, Albert Bassermann, Robert Walker, C. Aubrey Smith, Dame May Whitty, Victor Francen, Elsa Bassermann, Reginald Owen, Van Johnson, Margaret O'Brien
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

In late 19th century Paris, Marie Sklodowska (Garson) is completing her doctorate at the Sorbonne and is in need of some lab space. When she is introduced to physicist Pierre Curie (Pidgeon), he agrees for her to work alongside him. The two share a love of science, which soon turns into a love of each other. Together, they run experiments in order to discover what Marie theorises is a new previously unknown radioactive element.

As a science enthusiast, I'm not deterred by films set in academia but I imagine that such scientific themes could be uninteresting for some. Madame Curie, however, cleverly borrows from other less boring genres to create an engaging story in which science is really just the backdrop. First, the picture is a somewhat traditional boy-meets-girl romance with fleeting glances and bashful repartee. Then, it's a suspense drama as the two lovebird scientists attempt to discover a new mysterious element.

As such, the science is occasionally portrayed in a simple manner, which I suppose is a necessity given the rather complex principles involved. But by incorporating those aforementioned genres, it's always compelling. So when Pierre and Marie have their first in-depth scientific discourse, the concepts they discuss may be difficult for a lay audience to comprehend, but the mutual fondness they both have for chemistry is clear and we watch as the sparks fly. Or when Marie demonstrates her investigation of pitchblende to Pierre by testing its composition in an electrometer, it's a struggle to understand what's actually going on in scientific terms, but the suspense permeating the scene as the experiment unfolds is truly captivating.

Then again, perhaps this method of pushing the science into the background goes a little too far when, on occasion, the renowned scientists appear to miss the absolute obvious. They spend years breaking down the same eight tons of pitchblende in the hopes of extracting the elusive element that they've now named radium. But in a fit of incompetence, they dismiss the stain that remains in their mortar after all the other elements have been removed. Um, maybe the stain is the radium? To be fair, later that night, they return to the lab and stare excitedly at the glowing radiation (pictured), but it took them long enough to figure it out. (By the way, I think I now know what's in that briefcase in Pulp Fiction.)

This is the 1940s so there is definitely some melodramatic acting on display - probably a result of the melodramatic dialogue - but it isn't constant and it nonetheless remains fun and engaging. Greer Garson is fantastic in the title role, which earned her a Best Actress nomination from the Academy. In opposition to the out-dated stereotypes during her era, Marie Curie is portrayed as supremely intelligent and confident, a genuinely strong role model. As her husband and collaborator, Walter Pidgeon - who, incidentally, also played Garson's husband in the previous year's Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver - also received recognition in the Best Actor category for a droll performance of a neurotic but affable man. Also of note is Robert Walker in a funny and bright role as Pierre's lab assistant. And Henry Travers and Dame May Whitty both deliver memorably witty turns as Pierre's parents. Interestingly, Travers and Whitty, along with Reginald Owen, also appeared in Mrs. Miniver. That's no less than five principal actors in common with Madame Curie. Quite the repertory company.