Thursday, June 22, 2017

1943 - The Song of Bernadette

Well, despite having three more viewings in the can, I'm apparently still taking my time to blog about them. So let's get straight to it.

Here are my thoughts on another 1943 Best Picture nominee...

The Song of Bernadette
Henry King
George Seaton
(based on the novel by Franz Werfel)
Jennifer Jones, William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, Gladys Cooper, Anne Revere, Roman Bohnen
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
4 wins, including Best Actress (Jones)

In a rural French village in the mid-19th century, a timid teenager named Bernadette (Jones) tags along with her sister and a friend to collect firewood for their families. When Bernadette is separated from the other two, she waits at a cave where she sees a clear vision of a saintly woman. The apparition asks Bernadette to return to the same spot every day for the next couple of weeks, and as Bernadette complies, she attracts the attention of the nation. Despite not being visible to anyone else, many believe Bernadette is communicating with the Virgin Mary and flock to the site in hopes of being healed by the miraculous spring water now flowing from the ground. Many others, including her own parents (Bohnen and Revere) doubt her story. Even the Catholic Church takes their time to come around, subjecting Bernadette to many years of investigation before proclaiming the visions as an official miracle.

The Song of Bernadette initially unravels a lot like a mystery. Did Bernadette really see the Virgin Mary? Or is it a hoax? Or is she just delusional? The well-structured script creates some tight conflict around this mystery with barely anyone believing her at first. Slowly, though, more and more people become believers and her detractors are portrayed in such a way that they are clearly the antagonists. And since the film's verisimilitude makes plenty of room for the miraculous, it's fairly obvious which conclusion the audience is supposed to reach: yes, the visions are real. In fact, anyone with a modicum of familiarity with religious-themed films, especially of the classic era, could probably have guessed that from the outset.

The anti-intellectual trope is a common cinematic theme that has always rubbed me the wrong way. Scientists are often painted as stubborn and closed-minded. Which is ironic, really. In reality, science is self-correcting, always incorporating new evidence as it comes to light, whereas religion is rigid and inflexible. I suppose, though, that Hollywood is only reflecting the culture. I guess I just don't quite understand how society decided that simply believing should be considered a virtue, but thinking critically about extraordinary claims is arrogant and dismissive? Surely, dispassionately weighing all the evidence before jumping to conclusions will produce more reasonable outcomes than blind acceptance of dogma. Okay, this is getting way too philosophical. Back to the movie...

Since the characters are essentially divided between believers and doubters, the cast often slips into heavy caricatures, either the kind-hearted supporter or the obstinate foe. Nonetheless, the film garnered four acting nominations, but only Jennifer Jones took home an Oscar for what amounts to a relatively simple portrayal of a softly-spoken and innocent girl. To my mind, though, Vincent Price (pictured) as the Imperial Prosecutor and Lee J. Cobb as the local doctor gave the most captivating and natural performances despite the lack of recognition from the Academy.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

1943 - The More the Merrier

Whew, it has been a year and a half since my last review, which was just after my daughter was born. Emily is now 19 months old and Charlie is almost 3½. I can't really explain how I found the time to come back to this blog, but let's just ride the wave, shall we? And I'm back with a bang, too. I've watched four movies in the last three days. Yep, you read that right. Four movies in three days. (I'll explain why when I get to the fourth one.) Of course, now I have to write about them, so the delays may still continue, but one step at a time.

So, after a loooong hiatus, we now continue our review of the 1943 Best Picture nominees by taking a look at...

The More the Merrier
George Stevens
Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy, Lewis R. Foster
Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn, Richard Gaines, Stanley Clements
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Supporting Actor (Coburn)

Thanks to the war, Washington, D.C. is experiencing a housing shortage so Connie (Arthur) decides to do the patriotic thing and offer half her apartment for rent. Benjamin Dingle (Coburn) weasels his way into the lease, despite Connie not being too keen on having a male roommate. The next day, without Connie's knowledge or permission, Dingle rents half of his half of the apartment to Joe Carter (McCrea), a young soldier preparing to be shipped overseas next week. In record time, Connie and Joe fall in love, but Connie's long-term engagement to the boring but stable Charles Pendergast (Gaines) prevents anything but fleeting romantic moments between Connie and Joe ... at least for a while.

It's somehow fitting that one of the themes in The More the Merrier is one's patriotic duty to help the war effort in any small way one can. After directing the film, George Stevens did just that by joining the US Army Signal Corps as a documentarian, gathering harrowing footage from the D-Day landings and Dachau concentration camp, among other things. The experience clearly shifted his outlook because The More the Merrier was the last of the mostly light-hearted films he was known for during the 30s and early 40s. The second half of his career is filled with much more dramatic fare.

And perhaps that was for the best. Stevens certainly is more deft at drama than comedy. Not that The More the Merrier is unfunny. On the contrary, the witty dialogue and slapstick pratfalls definitely put a smile on your face, but there are certain moments in which the director's comic timing leaves a bit to be desired. Maybe it's just a result of the time period and we're now just too used to cutting away from a punchline immediately, but Stevens holds way, way too long on Coburn when he can't find his pants. Both times. Watch the movie and you'll know what I mean.

There are definitely some contrived moments and characters behaving in somehow unmotivated ways, but all in all, it's a nice bit of fluff. They certainly don't nominate these kinds of romantic comedies very often anymore.

Charles Coburn (pictured, looking for his pants) won the film's only Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and it's not entirely undeserved. He is indeed very entertaining in this role. But while I'm now at peace with Bogart and Bergman not receiving Oscars for Casablanca, I can't say the same for Claude Rains' loss. As entertaining as Coburn is, Rains would have been my pick. Leading couple Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea also deliver amiable performances - she was nominated, he wasn't - though like the film itself, they're not amazingly memorable but enjoyable nonetheless.