For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1941:
Ball of Fire
Blossoms in the Dust
The Devil and Daniel Webster, AKA All That Money Can Buy
Devil and Miss Jones
The Great Lie
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Hold Back the Dawn
One Foot in Heaven
For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
Ball of Fire
The Devil and Daniel Webster
I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1941 Year in Review post.
Blossoms in the Dust
Blossoms in the Dust’s reputation can be summed up with the last three words of that title, with a plot that features a lot of things that do not age well. Greer Garson’s bland matriarch roles are a tough sit for a whole film, even if Edna Gladney is an inherently worthy subject for a biopic, but where things falter is in how it is generally accepted that yes, some people are terrified for some reason by illegitimate children. Those people do not deserve to be respected, but the sentimentality is outright aggressive here, all 99 minutes spent with stiff upper lips and noble attitudes, including Mrs. Gladney’s hatred of the words “orphans” and “illegitimate children.” I suppose I can understand the sentiment behind that attitude, but they’re simply descriptors that are necessary in the foster care system, so make them into something positive. Garson’s performance, meanwhile, continued what would be a very long run of Best Actress nominations, and her work is the sort that is fine for this but really does not inspire loyalty since she is so determined to sand off all the edges, with Mervyn LeRoy helping her along. She sells the script even when it’s rancid, but at the cost of seeming realistic, which could have worked considering the Technicolor photography feels a bit unreal if it were not such a pointless piece of social do right drama. Does one reward her for doing what the filmmakers wanted or is that something to be punished in this case? I did like the opening credits and the way certain scenes are lit (although the film kind of needs a restoration in the sense of “the quality is kind of bad” rather than “this is a great piece of art”), but that score gets awfully heavy, and it starts to feel very long in how it completely avoids anything resembling art for the sake of being interesting. One thing that legitimately does work is Felix Bressart as a wise ass pediatrician, inspiring a sense of characterization that was sorely lacking everywhere else. I feel reluctant to praise anyone involved with this production just because the script is so unbearable, but I suppose that is what happens when the entire country’s history is rooted in bigotry and you need individuals to help make changes, with the low hanging fruit seemingly gone nowadays but growing back thanks to politicians exactly like the villains here.
The Devil and Miss Jones
My Brief Year in Review piece for The Devil and Miss Jones: Dumb plot, good jokes. Poor Coburn getting category frauded and nominated for the wrong part to boot.
The Devil and Miss Jones is notable for being one of the earlier examples of category fraud in the Academy Awards’ history, with Charles Coburn getting pushed into Supporting simply because he was known for being a character actor. His part as the head of a department store who goes undercover as an employee to uncover any potential union activity when they hang him in effigy (he’s Bill Gates/Warren Buffet levels of wealthy) is essentially the crux of the story, and while I like him enough as an actor to be grateful he got a nomination, he joins Barbara Stanwyck in the “this is a perfectly acceptable nomination, but why was he nominated for this rather than The Lady Eve?” club. Anyway, guess what genre this turns into after some truly hilarious opening credits and a dedication card of sorts that I will not spoil? That’s right, another Hollywood romance! And you get two for the price of one since he befriends Spring Byington (age appropriate), along with Jean Arthur as the titular Miss Jones and her boyfriend Robert Cummings, who was recently fired. Some of the jokes are genuinely great, with the department store only kept despite him selling everything below 38th Street years ago…because it was right on 38th St. Numbers related specificity is always funny, I swear! (There’s also a truly revolting sounding tuna fish popover, which might be the worst food I’ve ever heard of from watching too many movies, and that includes the How to Eat Fried Worms movie that I watched growing up. I was a dumb child.) Unfortunately, beyond that, Sam Wood is directing, and his taste has always been suited for the more maudlin material to come out of Hollywood, even with occasional successes in the shape of his emotional manipulations. Meanwhile, poor underrated Harry Stradling Sr., who shot Streetcar Named Desire and Johnny Guitar but gets no credit (and the deeply underrated Carnival in Flanders), makes good use of focus and depth in the opening scenes to show the vastness of the desk (you have to wonder if Citizen Kane’s revolutionary work was merely the best example in a new trend that was cropping up) and the size of the shopping mall, but sadly, the script is not up to snuff even if it has surprisingly good, if basic, jokes to keep the creaky plot going. The ultimate sign of professionalism is knowing when to make the best qualities of your silliness shinier.
The Great Lie
My Brief Year in Review piece for The Great Lie: I’m perfectly fine with an excuse for Davis/Astor showdowns even if the plot’s silly.
Mary Astor, who never got used as much as she deserved despite being fairly strong in pretty much everything, had a very productive 1941, with a performance in one of the all time great film noirs and an Oscar win in the same year. Sadly, they were not for the same work (although she’s a lead in Maltese and Stanwyck probably did do better), but The Great Lie is a plenty enjoyable confection in its own right (even if the opening credits music implies we are going to get something heavy and ponderous), a straightforward piece of melodrama that gains some kick from having her and Bette Davis in the leads, and taking their roles to a place of delightful frenemyship, with Davis surprisingly playing the nicer one (I suppose the director being Edmund Goulding of Dark Victory fame played into that a little). George Brent, as the love interest they feud over, is a total nothing, but seeing the bigger star play a homeowner and Astor’s character be a concert pianist is a nice change of pace, sort of a better version of the enormous behemoth of Big Emotions and Victimized Starlets and Epic Romance that was All This and Heaven Too in how it changed the angles up. Not exactly stuff that is designed to linger, with standard boring infidelities driving things forward as an excuse for some catfighting, but are we really supposed to have an issue with that? Astor’s Oscar was no doubt a case of “holy shit, she played the piano!” and “The Maltese Falcon is amazing” propelling her ahead of a lineup featuring two actresses that would split votes anyway (plus Wycherly’s incredibly bizarre performance in Sergeant York), but it’s a fun part that I am glad got her just desserts for parts in Dodsworth, Midnight, and Falcon (she absolutely should have won for the former). The most delightful part is that the two ladies reportedly collaborated to improve the script, which was reportedly a crappy soap opera by their accounts, and production was already a hellhole of dropped infants (not a joke) and Astor having to play a dummy piano until the notes were properly synchronized, with Davis going hell for leather to get the picture completed before Christmas holidays so she could enjoy herself. (Guess which actress claimed that her role was the only time she essentially portrayed herself off screen in a film? Such a compulsive liar, I love it and I worship her for saying so.)
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
My Brief Year in Review piece for Here Comes Mr. Jordan: With a better director, a script that gets what’s funny about this a little better, and some more care for the secondary cast, this could have been genuinely great.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan has an awfully inflated reputation nowadays, mostly because it is a case of Hollywood taking a good idea and thus running with it a little too far even when the execution begs for a better director than Alexander Hall (who never again made another picture of note outside of giving Rosalind Russell a rather bad Best Actress nomination for My Sister Eileen). This movie, however, got plenty of attention come the Oscars, with Robert Montgomery and James Gleason each nominated on the male side of the acting categories. Montgomery is cheerfully game to play as many different roles as the script throws at him (one person in different bodies…that all look alike…and then there’s a second person?), and that happy go lucky attitude carries the film through nicely, but Gleason’s nomination is totally befuddling, especially when Claude Rains is, as per usual, so much better as the titular angel…thing in charge of the whole ridiculous situation, perpetually annoyed and befuddled by the sheer incompetence of the entire operation that is also totally necessary to keep the world running. You can’t help but wonder if they could not have given this material to a director who does more interesting things with the script, with the shooting style being done in very safe, predictable fashions, a story that brushes over most of the supporting cast so that they are merely vessels for Pendleton’s journey through all the bodies he inhabits. He is also someone who is a little too willing to fully embrace the stupider parts, like the main character dying because of a plane crash caused by him playing the saxophone in the drivers’ seat, a decision that makes me wonder if this whole story is a hallucination caused by a more run of the mill plane crash and a scene that goes on too long. (Why does the damn instrument travel with him? Even the cast seems plenty shifty around that.) Wouldn’t you rather see an extended take of Joe’s trip around the ridiculous bureaucratic process that is the afterlife? Just cremate the body and put him on a waiting list so he can spend some time learning about this movie’s theological process, and screw the religious people who want to squawk over the sacrilege, the rules of this are already pretty stupid. Not sure why this got canonized, but it’s a clever premise well executed.
Hold Back the Dawn
My Brief Year in Review piece for Hold Back the Dawn: Goddard great. De Havilland and Boyer fine. Wilder and Brackett and Leisen all rather slack, and long.
Leisen, Wilder, and Brackett seem like a team that cannot miss on paper (especially with that meta opening featuring Veronica Lake in the same year that Sullivan’s Travels made her an icon), but Hold Back the Dawn is not really a high point for anyone involved with the production, with the cynicism and wit feeling a little lighter than usual. A warmup before Wilder got to direct his own works, perhaps? This is not necessarily a bad thing, but Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland being the leads is not the boost this picture needs. They were ultimately supporting players who shot to the top, and while both could be quite excellent when given a more passive role, having them play off each other was probably not the best idea, although I am making it sound far worse than it actually is. In terms of the critical eye turned towards the way that nations and their borders operate, I deeply prefer Arise My Love even with the slightly silly action packed final act, with Colbert and Milland being better suited to the smarts of the script than two thirds of the leads, even with de Havilland getting to play a naive schoolteacher in the same vein as the Disney princesses who wants to marry a man within one day of meeting him, and that part fitting neatly into her wheelhouse gets her to come off much better than her sister in their infamous showdown for the biggest trophy possible to lord over the other (if only the winner had been one of the B girls). It’s sort of Melanie all over again, but without the visible thought. Maybe she just likes the broader emotions? It’d certainly explain Errol Flynn. The real standout is Paulette Goddard, somehow not nominated for Supporting Actress despite giving a deliciously tart partner to Boyer’s con artist who is none too happy about the way things are turning out when he genuinely does start to fall in love. As per usual in frustrating but good movies like this, something truly great could have been formed by focusing on the best side character. Jealousy is such an under explored emotion in this era. Otherwise, some of the commentary about immigration is not exactly relevant, but still interesting in this modern hellhole of Republicans getting to run the entire country into the ground, and that is all that’s left to discuss.
One Foot in Heaven
One Foot in Heaven is a movie title that I sort of hate for trying very hard to be sincere and charming while mostly making me think of the Woman in the Radiator from Eraserhead, and the movie being about the life of a minister really does not improve its standing in my eyes, complete with a garbage opening involving a bunch of creepy little dolls and some blandly nice lady playing a boring tune on the piano. Fredric March was a great actor who unfortunately got stuck in a whole lot of crap thanks to Hollywood keeping him perpetually working and sadly not enough wheat in what felt like a long field of chaff, but Martha Scott’s style of acting was completely wrong for film at this point (I can see how it would have worked better in the theater), and the fact that Our Town’s utterly broken style of adaptation was well received enough to get her brought back to Hollywood and star in countless crappy prestige films gives me a deep seated sense of irritation. (We also have Beulah Bondi, although she gets nothing to do.) Still, at least the Academy was slowly falling out of love with this brand of faith propaganda nonsense, with simply a Best Picture nomination tossed its way and literally nothing else. Hard to give greater rewards to things like the script, which features the minister and his wife making their way from parish to parish as they go about their lives where not much of consequence happens beyond inspiring other human beings to be happy and not do sinful things. That is literally the entire moral: learn from other people. I mean…don’t human beings just sort of do that naturally already since it’s in their nature? If they really wanted to make something that lasted, they should have had the March character descend into insanity while his wife feels increasingly neglected by his development into a cult, but I can safely say the studio system would never write that in the 40s, or give that material to a director along the lines of Irving Rapper, a pretty unmemorable director outside of next year’s Now Voyager. I guess everyone has a masterpiece of sorts in them, but it is certainly not this one, which seems to be considered his worst even in a career nobody cares for. Lastly, this script has the expression “quicker than a jiffy.” Ugh.
My Brief Year in Review piece for Penny Serenade: A mix of the stupid and the unexpected for a standard plot. Grant/Dunne/Bondi and Stevens do a lot to make the fortune cookies/earthquake miscarriage not too ridiculous.
We come to a particularly exciting moment for this fan of a certain star. In 1941, it finally happened! After so many years of delivering wonderful performances for Howard Hawks and other directors of, well, less talent…Cary Grant finally received one of…only two!?…Oscar nominations for a barely remembered film called Penny Serenade, with the very underrated George Stevens behind the camera as the director. It also stars Irene Dunne in what was meant to be a reunion of the admittedly much better McCarey romantic comedy The Awful Truth, which makes it sound like the sort of thing that is right up my alley since it’s hard not to have a soft spot for all the players, but, well, the whole production is merely a fine, competent one from the days of romantic comedies having a lot of thought put into them, a case of a bunch of talented people working with a good chunk of money and using it to render some rather silly material that they had been assigned into a better piece of work for the sake of killing time. The problems are mostly concentrated in the early parts, thankfully, with some very stupidly specific fortune cookies as the foreshadowing (even if they were vague that would not help), and the early marriage of the primary pair of characters having to endure a cheap ploy for our affection for the ages in the form of an earthquake that causes a miscarriage. I wish I was making that up, but thankfully, our leads know how the other operates, and when things look to be shaping up like a standard weepie, we instead get a neat about face into a certain…practicality? Not attempting to wring out the bad kind of sentiment, anyway, and the script being so weirdly dumb also means that a good enough number of the plot points are genuinely unexpected and take us into unexpected directions, thus making up for shit such as a climax of Grant’s character yelling his feelings via exposition in a lawyer’s office. It is ultimately all a nice enough sorbet that is a little weightier than it should be (why is this two hours in length?), but the simplest pleasures help when we are working our way through the heaviest stuff in the canon, and this is a nice distraction if you have a little more time to kill for your simple delights.
My Brief Year in Review piece for Sergeant York: “Christian man realizes killing is okay” is a pretty grim message.
Howard Hawks was sadly not at the top of the film industry by 1941 even with one of the best three film streaks ever in the form of Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, and His Girl Friday. Luckily, he still got to work on movies, and was thus commissioned to do one of the many propaganda films that Hollywood was putting out at the time the 40s began, fully driving us into World War II. Luckily, as a man who ranked among the most quintessentially American directors, he was perfectly suited for Sergeant York, specifically designed to uphold the wonderful values of this formerly great nation and make people enthusiastic about being drafted, and so on, with Gary Cooper leading the way to get an Oscar out of it even though the two would collaborate on a much better 1941 work that avoided all the Heavy Prestige Drama associated with this in the shape of the much more enthusiastically fun Ball of Fire, which had good reason to avoid the occasionally heavy nature of this. Sergeant York is still a plenty enjoyable watch in its own right, but it feels a little like an artist (who was already plenty accessible) lowering himself to be more commercial and succeeding admirably at it anyway, although the running time of 134 minutes is deeply stupid and unearned, with a whole lot of bad comedy in the early acts in particular. (Accents are not inherently funny, although Walter Brennan is pretty good here compared to the many other hams and bland nothings that are cluttering this up, with the final nominee in the form of Margaret Wycherly as York’s mother having the mannerisms of the Wicked Queen from Snow White despite supposedly being a maternal figure.) The plot definitely has a lurching sense of rhythm as it spends a long duration at a certain part of the man’s life before making its way through the various portions of the military. Religion’s factor as such a major motivator is also not something that benefits considering the rather Hollywood approach to Christianity we get in the shape of a preacher played by Brennan after he has already gotten three Oscars for a specific character type. In some ways, this feels like a modern and urban director in Hawks trying to ape the poetic rural manliness of John Ford. Unfortunately, he was always a cynic, and thus propaganda is not his forte.
My Brief Year in Review piece for Suspicion: Hitchcock’s weirdest movie. Grant well-directed, but Fontaine is a mess, and the plot has major pacing issues.
Suspicion has to rank as one of the weirdest movies that Alfred Hitchcock ever made, particularly in the context of being the only film of his to walk away with an acting Oscar for Joan Fontaine despite delivering a performance that is frankly kind of a mess due to her character being one of the most incoherent in the canon of this director, while Cary Grant seems to rely a lot on what he always had even for a character that is pretty relentlessly nasty. Hitchcock’s direction has some brilliantly inspired bits, like Grant’s emotionally abusive creep never getting shown walking into a shot, but he also had to contend with the original ending of the source material getting hacked apart by the studios and making it both happy and a spiel against gambling (which he rightfully bitched about until his dying day, and which even my younger sister, who saw this when she was in the single digits, complaining about how dumb it was without any knowledge of how it was forced on). The sibling battle at that year’s Oscars feels awfully slight when you see the pictures themselves, from the first shot of Fontaine in glasses and reading a book on child psychology on a train with an expression that cannot possibly be read as “introvert interested in a handsome man who is sitting across from her.” She has to give rationalizing monologues that are like the psychiatrist in Hitchcock rendered more extreme (never had a problem with that moment anyway), and they are still somehow played rather badly, perpetually shifty and looking ready to run away, just off the screen, ready to leave the rest of the ensemble behind to construct their own story in the manors and locations that have been constructed for this very purpose. She delivers innuendo in a way that kills the humor, which works in its own way for the abusive relationship, but the blandest leads of Hitch’s at least had a bit more kick to them (look at his 1940 works, for goodness’ sake). This is a case of great direction saving something that otherwise flounders, with Grant’s unreadable face and certain shots having the panache to justify certain parts of the production, and a score that is pretty good in its swooniness. Otherwise, a very minor entry in the great’s canon, a curio rendered bigger thanks to a silly trophy.