Looking Back at Oscar, #12

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1939:

Babes in Arms
Beau Geste
Dark Victory
Drums Along the Mohawk
Gone With the Wind
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Juarez
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Ninotchka
Of Mice and Men
Stagecoach
Wizard of Oz
Wuthering Heights

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
Dark Victory
Gone With the Wind
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Ninotchka
Of Mice and Men
Stagecoach
Wizard of Oz
Wuthering Heights

Now for the rest!

Babes in Arms
I presume I do not need to sell anyone on the talents of Judy Garland, but I suspect complaining about Mickey Rooney is a slightly less popular proposition. I appreciate what they did for each other’s careers, I suppose, but we all know that she did much more heavy lifting in pretty much all the respects you could get from that word. The really unfortunate moment in Babes in Arms, which more or less fits right into the “the definitive films of history are racist” theory (and this movie is without a doubt THE Let’s Put on a Show work), is a blackface number, starring sweet little Dorothy Gale. Have fun explaining that one to the kids, and while you’re at it, please tell me how on Earth you could justify Rooney’s Oscar nomination. Yes, he can sing and dance well, but his acting is almost as hammy as it was in Boys Town and Midsummer Night’s Dream (two soul crushing performances that were enormous holes in the quality of the works). Luckily, outside of the racist part, the second worst moment is gotten out of the way early when we get meta discussion of how the talkies are arriving and some overviewing of…The Broadway Melody. Yes, I know. AAAAAH! At least some songs from Singin’ in the Rain make an appearance, and justify this movie’s box office success in their own right since they are the ones that earn the most enthusiasm from Mickey and Judy as he plays the piano and she dances and they both sing Good Morning in a version that comes fairly close to beating out Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds…mostly because of guess who. Betty Jaynes then does Lucky Star operatically and makes the dogs in the neighborhood howl along if you play this out the windows with her shrieking vibrato designed to kill birds and make people shit their pants when she hits that final high note. Cliches proceed to abound, and they are of the 30s crowd pleasing variety, which means they are disconcertingly sugar sweet and everything is aimed at escapism. With a war totally acknowledged to be on the horizon at this point and plenty of other classics coming out in a year that was hailed as the best ever (it’s…certainly up there if not number one), surely a little bit of cynicism was capable have leaked in?

Beau Geste
Beau Geste had the potential to be something fairly special thanks to having William Wellman at the helm of a story about three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion to escape their past, which fits right into his wheelhouse of grim, pulpy tales and has Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston in the roles of the siblings which is fairly promising. You even have an Oscar nominated turn from Brian Donlevy as their Sergeant, a brutal sadist who adds a certain sickness to the proceedings since he is only in it for his own gain. Alas, the movie as a whole falls victim to its own lack of subtlety, with Donlevy’s performance being hammy and just pure Evil from beginning to end. It is a choice, yes, but one that makes the events that unfold much more predictable. Everything is told rather than shown, and I have to wonder if the silent version that this was reportedly based on did a better or worse job than this in depicting the basic arc of the men as they make their way through their family drama centered around a pretty blue jewel that was taken from their family estate (a MacGuffin if I have ever seen one). It all looks gorgeous, with men on horses trudging through the wilderness in the opening sequence, and some sets that I refuse to believe were not inspirations for George Lucas’ vision of certain planets that get showcased in a lovely tracking shot, but the core is ultimately hollow, filled with plenty of interchangeable males, all dressed the same, making their way across the world while we randomly cut away to random flashbacks to the brothers as children that add nothing but grinding Beau Geste’s momentum to a grinding, tedious halt, focused on a boring childhood romance that adds precisely nothing but unnecessary context to the world this film takes place in. I suppose this was mostly meant to be propaganda for the upcoming war, but I find children playing at being soldiers, then getting it as a career promoted to them by a real lieutenant who is portrayed solely as a bland hero to those he comes to visit, to be a completely depressing act sprinkled with bad acting typical to the child actors of the age, rather than a mix of cutesy and sad foreshadowing with endearing youngsters of the late 1930s.

Drums Along the Mohawk
John Ford’s filmography is the sort that inspires many a varied opinion on what was the best and what was the worst even with The Searchers emerging as the consensus pick, mostly because of how enormous it was (I’m pretty ignorant with regards to his consensus favorites). Still, Drums Along the Mohawk seems to be pretty unanimously held in low regard even among the people who love left of field picks like Judge Priest (which is deeply racist as it tries to make amends, in the grand tradition of all his works). Most of the liking for it comes from the fact that it was his first work in color, and it is absolutely gorgeous on the Blu-ray copy (the knit style opening credits pop like they were sewn together yesterday, and look about as realistic as it gets to boot, while the opening wedding is a marvel of pastels that contrasts with the unusual greens of the wilderness), but unlike some of the “let’s grapple with my racism” films, this one just shows a whole lot of drunken Native Americans and scared black people in scenes of broad comedy stirred into loud battle scenes in a way that feels schizophrenic. Most notable is a scene where Edna May Oliver’s nominated performance as a mean old lady with a vinegar tongue gets her house raided by Indians carrying fire and she goes around establishing the tone as the silliest thing possible with everything just getting played for laughs as she flaps her skirt and squawks at them. She probably got the nomination for getting the narrative on track once she showed up, as everything up to that is Henry Fonda in full prestige mode (good thing he worked with Ford again in a better work) and Claudette Colbert giving one of her few performances that I would call bland, with her natural smarts being unable to latch onto such an Everywoman role. Once she shows up, you can tell what the tenor of a scene is going to be, but I would argue this is a negative considering how squawky she is. Where I really did enjoy Drums is in the depiction of the new frontier town as a portrait of a community united against a threat. Sure, said threat is rooted in unpleasant racial imagery, but the broad strokes are appealing and enough to make me maybe re-examine this in a few years.

Juarez
The 12th Academy Awards, on the whole, rewarded great movies thanks to the notorious strength of 1939 as a year in film. The Best Picture lineup is widely considered one of the best ever, and the bulk of the acting nominees gave strong performances in films that deserved them. Unfortunately, the male acting categories were, as per usual, worse than the female category, and Supporting Actor threw a nomination in the direction of prestige drama Juarez, starring Paul Muni (ugh) and Bette Davis (yay), and directed by notorious Muni lover William Dieterle, who had also done Life of Emile Zola and Story of Louis Pasteur. He was not without talent and made some decent stuff once Hollywood entered the 40s and the studio system cracked just a little, but his habit of working with such a ham reflected poorly on him, and Juarez’s two hours are an obscenity. The nomination went to Brian Aherne (who? Also he is a co-lead but let us be grateful he did not knock off a leading man…unless it was going to be Mickey Rooney, in which case go right ahead), playing the puppet ruler of Mexico who has been installed by Muni’s Benito Juarez (oh for fuck’s sake, racist casting and obscene loads of makeup again from Paul). Davis gets stuck in the nearly thankless role of Aherne’s wife, but she gets to go mad when she becomes mentally ill (and boy does she tear into it, no one can call Baby Jane campy again if they have seen this) and spent several days messing with the crew because of personal problems, so I appreciate her casting. Aherne’s performance is probably the strongest thing about this, but I still cannot say I like this at all, as he has to deliver the typical History Is So Important dialogue and he falls for the trap of emphasizing the shit out of it even if he is the least guilty party compared to the stars billed on the poster and some of the supporting players/extras. All the color in this dry story of the past comes from Hollywood’s most vicious leading lady just as she getting into her groove, so I suppose there is that reason to watch it, but otherwise you should watch something from the director retrospective project instead with the two hours. Highlight comes early and is a line about vultures being legally protected.

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