Sunday, January 23, 2011



After picking  propaganda films for two straight years, the Academy decided to award much lighter fare with director Leo McCarey's  genial GOING MY WAY (although the war is mentioned in the film, it is only in the lightest way possible.)  Along with best picture, the film was also given six other Oscars, and it was the number box office hit of that year. Interestingly, Paramount studios originally had misgivings about the film, and forced McCarey to take a cut of the profits instead of a director's salary; the result was he had the highest reported income ($1,113,035) in the US that year!

Despite the glory heaped on it 1945, I personally feel that GOING MY WAY has dated badly: although it has a pleasant, breezy charm and some good songs, it's so lightweight and episodic that it often feels pointless, and downright silly.  It is, in many ways, an odd film, in that it's a comedy-drama-musical without many laughs, but with a featherweight tone that  kills any attempts at serious drama; even its musical numbers are woodenly directed, without a single dance step or interesting camera movement.  The drop in quality from the previous year's winner CASABLANCA is shocking.

Leo McCarey's career began at the Hal Roach comedy studios in the silent era, where he is generally considered to be the man who teamed up Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy.  He eventually moved into comedy features, such as RUGGLES OF RED GAP in 1935 and DUCK SOUP (1933), the best Marx Brothers movie.  He also showed that he could do drama with the excellent MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW in 1937.  In 1942, he had an idea to make a buddy film about two priests, basing the characters on people he actually knew.  After Spencer Tracy and James Cagney were considered, Mc Carey suggested Bing Crosby to play the lead role of the young priest.  At first the studio balked at Crosby playing a more serious role than audiences had seen him in before, but McCarey persevered, and he was cast. 
It is hard to believe today what a huge, multimedia star Crosby was in the 1940's; after first emerging as a singer in the early 30's he racked up hit after hit, culminating in his 1941 recording of "White Christmas", which was the number one single of all time until Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" in 1997.  Along with hit records, Crosby appeared in a number of popular films, like the ROAD TO movies he made with Bob Hope.

Bing Crosby and the choir

I find it a bit stunning that Crosby was awarded a best actor award for GOING MY WAY; it may be a more serious film than those ROAD TO movies, but he plays it in much the same manner: his character just floats, nonchalantly though the film, never raising his voice or looking particularly concerned (even when the church burns down!).  The only thing different about this performance when compared to his previous ones, is that, being a Catholic Priest,  he doesn't get any romantic interest.  While he is likable enough (I did enjoy the scene where he tells a young couple that he was almost a song writer instead of a priest while tinkling at a piano), he does very little serious dramatic acting, and surely did not give the best male performance of the year.

The film's plot involves Crosby's Father O'Malley being sent in to help a financially desperate church, run for forty five years by Father Fitzgibbon(Barry Fitzgerald).  Inevitably, the two men butt heads, but eventually O'Malley's more good natured manner wins over the older man and saves the church.   Now, according to Crosby himself, McCarey threw out the script on the first day and came up with new scenes to shoot daily, while he encouraged his actors to improvise.  Apparently, this lackadaisical manner was nothing new for McCarey, but, what worked so well with the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, does not turn out so well here; the film's story has no thrust, and there are too many predictable subplots.  And what story there is is often ridiculous.  Consider this chain of events: Father O'Malley decides that the church needs a new choir, and he recruits a bunch of street kids, who go from small time robbers to angelic choirboys in about ten seconds, and who, wouldn't you know,  just happen to turn out to have beautiful voices.   Then Father O'Malley chances to run into Genevive (Rise Stevens), an old  friend of his who has become a professional opera singer.  Eventually, she agrees to record an original song he has written, backed by the church choir, naturally.  And, in another lucky break, Father O'Malley's old pal, Father Timothy (Frank McHugh) has a relative in the music business who agrees to give them an audition!  I'm all for suspension of disbelief, but that is one amazing run of coincidences; if the film were more of  a comedy, I might be more forgiving, but in a relatively serious film it is just too much for me to swallow.
Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald

In contrast to Crosby's low key charm, many of the actors in the film give broad, silly performances, and I don't think encouraging them to improvise was such a great idea, as it leads to some annoying mugging for the camera.  And as Genevive, Rise Stevens, who certainly had a lovey operatic voice, is quite simply, hopeless as a believable actress.  On the other hand, I do think that Barry Fitzgerald is very good as the aging Father Fitzgibbon; in perhaps the film's best scene, he tries to send Father O'Malley away, saying things aren't working out between the two of them.  Then he discovers that Father O'Malley is actually the one in charge of the church now (Father O'Malley hadn't told him to protect his feelings), and the old man is broken, wandering the streets in the rain.  Although we know that he will eventually snap out of it, Fitzgerald really does let us see the sadness and pain his character is in, finding a level of seriousness that the rest of the film could use more of.  Fitzgerald also gets the film's comic highlight when Father O'Malley and Father Timothy convince him to join them in a game of golf, his first ever, and he proceeds to annoy them with his constant questions and badgering.  The strength of Fitzgerald's performance makes me wish the film had focused more on his and Crosby's character and less on the pointless subplots (like when Father O'Malley plays cupid for a young couple).

Finally, I should say a few words about the music; this film gave us the debut of the classic "Swinging on a Star", written by James Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, and the rest of the songs are all well performed by the cast too.  Still, I wish McCarey would have come up with a more cinematic way to present them than having his characters stand stock still while singing.  Sure, the songs sound good, but the visuals are a dud.


I think I made it pretty clear that I'm not a big fan of this film, and I would argue that the film's relatively rare appearance at revival houses these days bears me out.  Amazingly, two outright classics that are often revived today were also released that year: Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY and Vincent Minnelli's MEET ME  IN ST. LOUIS (now there's a movie with well directed musical numbers!).  Also very good are Otto Preminger's LAURA and George Cukor's GASLIGHT, and I would have taken any one of those films over the uneven GOING MY WAY.

Monday, January 17, 2011



In 1943, with the war still in full swing, it was no surprise that for the second year in a row the Academy gave an unabashed propaganda film the best picture award.  But, unlike the previous year's MRS. MINIVER, which is rarely revived or remembered today, Micheal Curtiz's CASABLANCA has endured far beyond its intent as war time propaganda to become an absolute classic that still has a strong cult following today.  I would argue that it is quoted and parodied more than any other Hollywood film, except for maybe THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Unlike, say, GONE WITH THE WIND, nobody involved with the film realized just how special the film they were working on was going to be.  Its origins stretch back to 1938, when Murray Burnett visited Nazi occupied Vienna and observed an African American pianist playing jazz at a nightclub for an audience of French people, Nazis and refugees.  He later turned his diary of this trip into a play titled EVERYBODY GOES TO RICK'S, which he cowrote with Joan Alison.  The play was never produced, but it was sold to the Warner Brothers studio, where it bounced around for a while (Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan were once considered for the roles of Rick and Ilsa) before it fell into the hands of director Micheal Curtiz and his perfect cast.  After screenwriters (and brothers) Julius and Philip Epstein left the project, Howard Koch rewrote their script, which emphasized comedy, to be more melodramatic.  (Thankfully, he left in a lot of the great funny lines that have really added to the film's reputation).  Reportedly, Koch's rewrites were going on during shooting, which meant that the actors didn't know just how their characters were going to end up in the story; one big example of this is that Claude Rain's Louis Renault character, who is mostly a villain throughout the film, becomes a hero at the end, in what is probably the film's most famous scene.(It should be mentioned that there are some reports that the script of CASABLANCA is really not that different than Burnett and Alison's play; I've never had a chance to read the play myself, and its only major run was in 1991 in London.  I'd love to get a chance to see it sometime!).
The film had an initial run in 1942, but then was rereleased in 1943, when, in a felicitous bit of timing, president Franklin Roosevelt and prime minister Winston Churchill were having a summit in Casablanca itself, which Dwight Eisenhower's troops had secured for the Allies.  This bit of free publicity vaulted this modestly budgeted (about one million dollars) film into a huge success.
Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson

There is a painfully dated  moment in this film in which Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) refers to the fully grown African American pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson)  as a "boy".  There is also a flashback to Paris that opens with a unconvincing (even by 1942 standards) rear screen projection behind Ilsa and Rick (Humphrey Bogart), and Bogart's expression in this shot looks pained and oddly forced.  And I find the opening, before we get to Rick's cafe, a little slow.  OK, now that I've covered the only possible flaws I can find in this film, let me go on to praise what I love about the film: Everything else!  Yes, while it may not be as innovative as CITIZEN KANE, or have the eye popping technicolor and great songs of THE WIZARD OF OZ, nor have the epic sweep of the first two GODFATHER films, when it comes down to the fundamentals of great film making, that is, an excellent story, well acted, with good characters delivering terrific, memorable dialogue, CASABLANCA just may be the best Hollywood has ever had to offer.  It works on many levels: the romance between Ilsa and Rick is moving, and the jovial relationship between Rick and Louie is just as interesting, there's lots of humor, and many moments of tension and excitement during the story (although there is little on screen action in the film, there is a constant sense of danger running through it).  Even the music is wonderful, from Max Steiner's excellent, dramatic score, to Dooley Wilson's classic rendition of "As Time Goes By", a song originally written in 1931 by Herman Hupfeld.  And, of course, there are rousing moments of anti Nazi propaganda, my personal favorite being when French resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) has Rick's band play "La Marseillaise" to drown out the singing of the Nazis.

At first glance, Curitz may have not seemed the right director for this material, given that before this he was mostly known as an action film director (apart from this film, his most famous movie is 1938's highly enjoyable THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, with Errol Flynn), but he deftly manages to juggle the film's complicated plot(with many sub plots) and numerous characters so that the audience is never confused, even when a lot is happening.  Indeed, I think the complexities of the plot are a big part of the film's cult following; you need to see it more than once to catch everything!

I think another part of the continuing interest in this film is because of its location, specifically Rick's Cafe Americain; who wouldn't want to hang out at such an exotic place, full of romance and excitement,  (the first time we go into the cafe, Curtiz quickly gives us moments of mysterious deals being made at different tables, as if the whole place were alive with intrigue), not to mention the great music (along with "As Time Goes By", Wilson also terrifically sings "Shine" and "Knock on Wood"). 

The film is wonderfully cast down the line: Bogart as Rick was never better, as he goes from bitter cynic who "sticks his neck out for nobody" to a freedom fighter who bravely sends away the woman he loves for the good of the cause.  There a real rawness to the moment where he drunkenly curses his luck at seeing Ilsa again; he is truly hurt and vulnerable here, and Bogart brings an authenticity to this moment (and other such moments in the film)that few of his contemporaries could. (Imagine Reagan in this role!)  Love has kicked this man in the teeth, and we can feel it.   I also enjoy the fact that the first time we see Rick, he is playing chess; a nice way to foreshadow the chess like maneuvers he will make at the end of the film.   Equally wonderful in the film is Claude Rains as Louie Renault, the bribe taking ("I'm only a poor, corrupt official") captain of the guards, who subtly but significantly pushes Rick into doing the right thing before joining him in the end.  And lovely Ingrid Bergman is great as a woman torn between two men, even if the actress complained that she didn't know whom she would wind up with until the final days of shooting (who knows, that ambiguity may have even added to her performance).  In the thankless role of Victor Laszlo, Paul Heinried is suitably noble, and manages to find human shadings to his character  even as he represents the bravery of the French resistance.  (I greatly enjoy the way that he and Rick can calmly discuss the fact that they are both in love with Ilsa).  Even the minor parts are well played: Peter Lorre's Ugarte, Sydney Greenstreet's Signor Ferrari, SZ Sakall's Carl and Leonid Kinsky's Sasha are all only in a few scenes, but they are vivid and interesting characters.  And there are many other minor but striking people that liven the film.

Conrad Veidt as Maj. Strasser

And, while so much has been written about this film over the years, I don't think enough credit is given to the often unmentioned performance of Conrad Veidt as the evil Nazi, Major Strasser.  With his cold, piercing, gaze, pencil thin mustache and clipped German accent, he is a truly formidable presence and one of the great movie villains; even when sitting at a table talking calmly he seems threatening.  His every movement and word drips with the sense of infallibility that the Nazis had, and it is that sense that proves to be his downfall: even with a gun trained on him, he cannot believe that a "blundering American" like Rick would actually shoot him.  Interestingly,  the German born Veidt fled his homeland in 1933 to avoid the Nazis, and perhaps his chance to portray one of them as so evil is why he's so terrific here (he would also play Nazi villains in 1941's ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT and 1942's NAZI AGENT).


Not since 1930's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT had the Academy picked a film that stood head and shoulders above the rest; although 1942 gave us such fine films as THE MORE THE MERRIER and THE OX BOW INCIDENT, there really was no competition with CASABLANCA.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011



The Academy's choice for best picture of 1942 was as much a political one as it was an aesthetic one; with America now fully engaged in the war, Hollywood studios saw themselves as part of the War Department propaganda office, with scripts being sent to the Pentagon for approval.  So, it's no surprise that the Academy showered glory (six Oscars in all) on an unabashed propaganda film like William Wyler's MRS. MINIVER.  Indeed, president Franklin Roosevelt urged Metro Goldwyn Mayor to rush its release, and no less an authority than Winston Churchill would describe its source novel by Jan Struther as more important to the allies' than "six divisions of war effort." While, like most propaganda of any kind, it hasn't dated so well, it still is a well made and well acted effort, with striking, Oscar winning cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg(already displaying the excellent use of light and shadow that he would later use in noir films like SIDE STREET).  Propaganda or not, it proved to be an enormous box office hit in both England and the US.

Jan Struther first created the Mrs Miniver character in a series of columns that she wrote for the British newspaper The Times in 1937; they were based in part on her family and their experiences, and they were originally lighthearted in nature, but they changed as war became inevitable.  The columns were published in book form in 1939, which was very popular in America as well as in England, so a movie version was a natural choice.

The film opens with Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) making her way through the busy streets of London, a look of great concern on her face.  She gets on a bus, and then suddenly jumps off and runs back towards where she came from.  And what is the cause of her great concern?  She has decided to purchase an expensive hat that she originally passed up as too extravagant!  Yes, life is good for her at first: Clem, her husband (Walter Pigeon) is a successful architect and loving mate, she has two cute young children,  another son, Vincent(Richard Ney) at Oxford, and she lives in a nice little house in a small town near London.   But the onset of war will change everything for her, and by the film's end she will have seen her eldest son go off to fight while her own house is partially bombed out.

Considering the subject matter, I think director Wyler shows admirable restraint in this film: yes, it has many big, dramatic moments, but he never lets the film sink into overt sentiment.  He uses the soundtrack sparingly, avoids closeups, and gives many of the scenes a stark, realistic quality.  There is a wonderful shot of Kay and Vincent's fiancee Carol (Virginia Merril) watching as Vincent leaves on an air force mission; there are no tears, no soaring strings on the soundtrack, it's just a moment of quiet concern and sadness, in which the bravery of the young soldier is matched by the women who love him.

Virgina Merril and Greer Garson

Wyler's stark style is also displayed in the film's best scene in which Kay is confronted by a German fighter pilot(Helmut Dantine) who's plane was shot down.  At first, she sees his apparently unconscious body lying on the ground, she approaches and attempts to snatch his gun away, but he revives and threatens her.  It's an extremely tense scene, one made even more frightening when the armed pilot enters the Miniver household.  Although it ends with the pilot delivering a heavy handed (but frightening!) speech about how "thousands more like me are coming",  it still is well handled and effective.  Another excellent moment comes later when Kay, Clem and their two small children are hiding in a bomb shelter during a raid; with just the sounds of the screaming bombs getting louder and louder, Wyler  shows not only their fear , but also the sense of hopelessness they have at being unable to protect their children from the approaching danger.
Wyler also finds some nice moments of humor and romance in the film; I particularly enjoy the character of Lady Belton (Dame May Witney) a pompous woman who represents British royalty, and who is aghast at the thought that a bombing raid means that she will have to spend time in the cellar!  The romance between Vincent and Carol is also well done, although the American born Virginia Merril's lack of an English accent is distracting.
The film's main strength is Garson's excellent  performance as Kay; she is completely believable in her transformation from spoiled housewife to brave woman who represents the heart and soul of England.  She has fine romantic chemistry with Pigeon (we always see their love for each other, even when they're in the bomb shelter ), and she is clever and brave in her confrontation with the German pilot; I love the way that, instead of being scared or upset by his threats about the oncoming German invasion, she gives him a sharp slap to the face.   Garson even gets to be funny when she casually tells her shocked husband about how she handled the pilot.  One dramatic choice in her performance is that, throughout the film, despite all the trauma and danger she encounters, she never cries, until the very end; I think this is the right choice, because it shows her desire to keep a brave face, no matter what  happens, (remember that she is supposed to represent the bravery of England as a whole)and, when she finally does break down, (with good reason)it is all the more moving.
Although I've mentioned Wyler's restraint with the material, this is still a propaganda film that often inevitably falls into heavy handedness: sometimes its depiction of England's resoluteness is unbelievable (the Minivers hardly seemed phased when a large section of their house is bombed!), and changes were made from the source novel to Americanize the English setting to help sell the film to US audiences.  In one scene, towards the film's end, during the town's large garden party, we see Lady Beldon graciously (and secretly) refuse a first prize award for her prize rose, allowing a lowly station master to win instead; this is clearly meant to show that during war time, normal class distinctions and tradition (Lady Beldon had been winning the award for years) are ignored.  While this is a nice scene, I'm not entirely sure I buy that Lady Beldon would be so goodhearted, since she has been portrayed as so full of herself and her position until that moment.

The big speech ending

Not surprisingly, the film's ending drives home its point with a complete lack of subtlety: in a bombed out church, the local Vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) gives an uplifting speech about the righteousness of the English cause, followed by the congregation singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" as English planes streak by above.  This speech was considered strong enough that it was translated into different languages and turned into pamphlets that were dropped on occupied European countries to help buck up their spirits.  Although the speech has not dated well, Wilcoxon delivers it with energy, and it makes its point without going on for too long.  (Unlike, say, Charlie Chaplin's speech at the end of his THE GREAT DICTATOR in 1940).  That was one of Wyler's strengths as a director: pacing, even when its being obvious, this film never gets boring.


While it certainly is clear why the Academy chose this film, and it really is quite good, I don't think it was the year's best, not when Ernst Lubitsch"s TO BE OR NOT BE (a funny propaganda film),  and my personal favorite, Preston Sturges's SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, were also released.

Sunday, January 2, 2011



In 1941 the Academy gave the best picture award to director John Ford's sentimental film HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, adapted from the Richard Llewellyn novel of the same name; it would be the only Ford film to win best picture, yet it is one of his lesser known films, and it is much less remembered today than his Western pictures are, although Ford himself saw it as his best film.
The novel was published in 1939 and it tells the tale, in flashback, of life in a Welsh mining town around the turn of  the century.  Surprisingly, Llewellyn himself was born in England, and based the story on conversations he had with people who grew up in such towns.  The book was a huge success in both England and America, and 20th. Century Fox studio executive Darryl F Zanuck paid a then record $300,000 for the rights.  He originally viewed it as a four hour color epic like GONE WITH THE WIND, with the very popular William Wyler set to direct.  But, much to his dismay, the studio had misgivings about the project at first, given the fact that there is a subplot about some of the miners joining a union.  Also, the war in Europe killed the possibility of location shooting, and, because the flowers of the Southern California locations did not watch the colors of the flowers in Wales, the film was shot in black and white; finally its length was trimmed to around two hours.  Eventually, preproduction took so long that Wyler bowed out and Ford stepped in.  He made the film quickly, in around two months, at a budget of around a million and a quarter dollars; it would go on to gross around six million.
HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is narrated by Huw Morgan, an old man looking back fifty years to his boyhood days when he grew up as the youngest of a large family in a small Welsh town where most of the men worked in the local mine.  The role of the boy was played by thirteen year English born newcomer Roddy McDowell.

Young Roddy McDowell

It may not have been a Western, but it is easy to see what appealed to Ford here; his Westerns are usually about the strength and endurance of the early American settlers, so it makes sense that he would also admire their European forebearers (and indeed, in the film two brothers from the Morgan family leave to settle in America).  The film also contains his usual themes of the importance of family bonds, tradition and religion both within a family itself and the community that it resides in. Unfortunately, it also often lapses into the overdone sentiment that he often indulged in; while I'm fully aware that it is human nature to romanticize one's childhood memories, hearing Huw narrate about the wonders of watching his older brothers wash up after working in the mines, or about the splendor of a trip to the candy store,  seems awfully heavy handed.   The picture is also marred by Ford's tendency to have larger than life, one note characters, such as a nobel, wisdom spouting priest and a feisty,  determined mother. As for our main character, Huw, his wide eyed innocence is often tiresome.

This is an episodic film, without a central storyline, and it often seems to be meandering and slow, with some of its little divergent stories unnecessary, while some of its more interesting ideas are glossed over.  For example: when the mine threatens to cut wages, most of the miners want to start a union, but Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp), the patriarchal head of the Morgan family, bristles at the idea; his own sons all rebel(except for Huw who is too young to work in the mine yet) and move out of the family home.  An entire movie could have been made about this dramatic conflict, but it is resolved quickly, with the boys moving back home after a brief mining strike, and it goes unmentioned for the rest of the film; the studio heads may have been worried about the film's pro union leanings, but I imagine few people even remembered that aspect of the film by the end. Much time is wasted on little Huw's first few days of school, where he runs afoul of a sadistic teacher (played as a ridiculous villain by Morton Lowry).  This sequence ends with a completely unbelievable scene in which a former boxer(Rhys Williams) and his trainer (Arthur Shields), having heard about the teacher from Huw, storm into the classroom and thrash the teacher in front of the students.  Oddly, this really quite brutal scene is played for laughs; its the same kind of roughneck physical humor that turns up in many Ford films, and I myself don't really care for it.

On the plus side, the Oscar winning Cinematography by  Arthur C. Miller is gorgeous; the studio built sets are completely convincing,  and while it may have been a compromise to shoot the film in black and white, the results are often stunning, with the stark image of the miner's skin being turned black with coal dust working better in black and white than it would have in color.

And, as cloying and simplistic as it may be, it is virtually impossible to remain unmoved by a film that tries so hard to pluck the heartstrings: one storyline that does work involves Huw's lovely older sister, Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) falling in love with the local priest, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pigeon), who feels that he does not make enough money to marry her.  This leads her to marry the wealthy son of the mine owner instead, and,  in perhaps the film's most memorable scene, in one masterful continuous shot, we see her, poker faced, leaving the church after her wedding, the wind billowing her wedding veil above her head in a cockeyed manner.  As she sullenly rides off with her new husband in a carriage, we see the despondent Gruffydd, off in the distance, hang his head in sadness. 

Maureen O' Hara's memorable wedding scene

This unrequited love story is the most interesting part of the film, and I wish it had dwelt more on it, instead of going off on tangents like Huw's school days; in fact I wish the film were not told from Huw's point of view, as I find the grownups far more interesting. (I also think they should have gotten another, slightly older actor to play Huw in the later scenes, since quite a bit of time passes, and he doesn't appear to age a day.) I think its a shame that William Wyler had to drop out of directing the picture, since I'm a bigger fan of his than Ford's, and I imagine that the film would not have wallowed so much in sentiment with Wyler at the helm.  Wyler, who's excellent but eclectic career as a filmmaker makes him hard to pigeonhole, also had a faster sense of  pacing than the often stentorian Ford, which surely would have improved my enjoyment of the film.


Well, it's easy to see why the Academy fell for such a popular, heartfelt movie, but there was another film released that year that, while not a financial success, is remembered with far more respect: Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE.  Yes, the landmark, groundbreaking picture that is perenially remembered as the best ever, did not even win best picture.  Thankfully, KANE's greatness has been affirmed by history,  while HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY has mostly been forgotten, which is how I think it should be.