Top 20 of 1941
20. 47 Ronin
Kenji Mizoguchi was really making nothing other than a good old fashioned piece of morale boosting propaganda when he directed the most famous adaptation of The 47 Ronin, an epic two part four hour adaptation of an epic from the days of feudal Japan, where just that many leaderless samurai avenged their fallen master with swift and brutal force before committing suicide themselves. Sound like a World War II allegory? Yep. (Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons from a few years before the nightmare actually started is the greater masterpiece for precisely dismantling this type of attitude as harmful-you can read this as subversive if you force it, but it is still a square peg in a round hole.) The primary way that this defies the cliches is in the action sequences that are kept to a minimum here, no matter if the inevitable oversimplification of a deep plot places the primary emphasis on it, saved for the climax where many a belly is sliced open with a sword, with an incredibly large chunk of the running time consisting of deep focus and men speaking on their knees. No matter how much is rooted in the characters talking ceaselessly for hours on end, the compositions are stunning, as per usual, and even when the cast of characters consists of a bunch of vaguely indistinguishable men arguing politics, there is something so wearying in the ever present sadness that looms over the lives of these fighters in a society that demands they either take up the sword or be branded a coward (and the women suffer too, even in a story that was decidedly less female oriented than the standard for the most feminist director of his time). As per usual, the social codes outweigh the passions, and all the people involved in the opening fight must die for having the nerve to be born into a politically fraught situation. History is the bloodiest affair of all, it just only comes in great, protracted, violent bursts. Japan may have been winning the war as this was going on, and that is not exactly something to celebrate, but pretty much everyone was a terrible person back in those days by modern standards and the least you could hope for is a great artist like this one to rise to the top with his form of morale boosting, and have it be excellently made to boot.
Favorite Moment: Final shot.
19. Blind Venus
Most of Abel Gance’s career revolves around his silents in the form of Napoleon, La Roue, and J’Accuse. Napoleon is incredible no matter which version you see, and the other two have their merits even with the exhausting runtimes making themselves feel even more present, but the sound films of Abel Gance sadly never got their due, with his Blind Venus being a particularly underrated gem that is one cleaned up print away from being something special, a tale of love at its most complicated and yet with the emotions that we associate with the pure love stories out of Vigo or Borzage. A beautiful woman is going blind and decides to break up with her boyfriend because…well, the reasons are never quite clear, but does it matter? Gance clearly fears the loss of his own vision that allows him to capture the misty seaside and the face of Vivian Romance (yes, that is the actress’ name), and yet this decision to self-sacrifice what matters in order to take care of one’s family is L’Atalante with a pragmatic side. Poor Clarisse is using her vision to construct what she wants to see rather than what she needs, but as an allegory for France’s present state in the war, it could hardly be more subdued in how it makes its points about the horrors the country is stuck in. It is all total hokum in certain aspects of its emotional logic that caters to its conclusion emphasizing collectivism and faith in society as a whole to overcome evils as lightning crashes and the water roars (make sure you watch the full version and not the censored edition so that it all makes a hair of sense), but maybe this whole metaphor stuck with me because we need a little hope in a time where it seems like the entire planet will be going to shit in the next four years, or maybe the unabashed embrace of silent film craft with the dialogue plastered in to keep it current works anyway thanks to Romance’s stunning performance, fully embracing the moment when she goes completely sightless in a moment of intense power. The wind howls and the ship shakes, but the compositions get to be filled with sound as opposed to title cards of the feuds between the lovers and the siblings. Every image is composed within an inch of the film’s life. This is good.
Favorite Moment: Going blind.
18. Stormy Waters
Stormy Waters was made right under the noses of the Nazis when France was being occupied, and has a truly astounding shot right near the beginning involving the camera going through a window, just like in Citizen Kane. Everything else is transparent, too, with Jean Gabin as the captain of a tugboat who winds up cheating on his ill wife (she claims she stops living when he’s away in the opening wedding scene for a different couple with a groom that works alongside him) with another woman who he has rescued from a sinking ship, after an opening toast where another man swears that the sea is the best mistress since she is ultimately loyal. Since it’s Gabin in the leading role, we ultimately have a good idea where things are going to go, but it is still a great formula to vary upon, with the waters and rains of the ports and seas adding a misty atmosphere, Jean Gremillon once again taking inspiration from the same source as his old boss and primary instructor in the form of Renoir. It is all mostly strong melodrama in the classical Gremillon style featuring all the work you would expect from a man who once directed a bad Supporting Actress nominee about waltzes that looked the part, with the boat rollicking along with the uncontrollable feelings of the cast members, but it has a few technical aspects that really push it over into glory for me. The rescue sequence features the camera doing things that still feel fairly shocking for the day and age, with the ship and the angle of the shot tilting every which way that you can imagine (foam can be seen on such a small level thanks to using models). The stylistic differences between the land and the sea, even though both are lit to be black as pitch during the nighttime, probably due to the war related difficulties that resulted in production being stopped for a little while. Most importantly, the toys that are meant to resemble seagoing vessels are supposed to be sunk in order to collect the insurance money, a stealthy little allegory for the Nazis that were about to tear Europe apart at the seams just so they could get what they wanted. Does the love story neatly fit into that? Maybe not, but it’s fun to think on how you can make it so.
Favorite Moment: Ship goes through a storm.
17. Sullivan’s Travels
When it comes to Sullivan’s Travels, which has become the consensus favorite among the Preston Sturges works, I find myself a little torn. It has some of the highest highs of American comedy thanks to Veronica Lake’s weird mix of acerbic and tender, Joel McCrea’s good old fashioned charms, and the script itself getting just what makes us laugh…somewhat. (I do wish I could get that much amusement out of a stupid looking Pluto cartoon.) The opening scene is an all-timer, with that train jump really working hilariously as an allegory even out of context, followed immediately by the self righteousness of the three parties regarding the nature of privilege post screening being volleyed back and forth like a beach ball until we don’t know whose side to take and we barely notice that it was, in its own way, a parade of exposition thanks to the hilarious Pittsburgh jokes and genuine agonizing over moral values and everyone wanting to be a Capra in that day and age, the messages and the entertainment together. The butler’s screed is also great, and Lake’s introduction is also a glorious parade of a stealthy joke at the expense of Hold Back the Dawn and her own cameo in it before bitching about how hideous the Hollywood industry…a note undone or reinforced, your choice, by not getting a character name. Unfortunately, the teeth slowly retract rather than come out sharper, even if the ultimate message is a good one in a certain, less preferable, ever so slightly medicinal way once we are reminded that it’s okay to laugh and not be so self serious. Unfortunately, this is slightly undone by that stupid laughing montage at the end, but the slapstick portions involving the media and a poor chef being thrown around in the vehicle really are incredibly well timed in the editing room, so I’ll give that a pass. I cannot help but feel that this is a story that needed to be a damning satire of the entertainment industry’s different brands of sanctimony rather than something so neat, but then again, my favorite film has long been Sunset Blvd, so perhaps I need to gain a sense of originality. (The stuff involving the cheating wife is pretty brilliant until she gets completely wrung out to dry…why not make her three dimensional? Wouldn’t be hard, he could easily be turned into a self-serious dickhead.)
Favorite Moment: Opening.
16. The Shanghai Gesture
One cannot help but be disappointed that when Josef von Sternberg entered 40s Hollywood, he was not able to have Marlene Dietrich by his side even if he had already made a few films without her, and his career was about to dry up in Hollywood. Still, he got one last blast of glory to send himself off in the form of The Shanghai Gesture, a pulp piece that once again focused on his low key love of international relations and how delightfully horrible they are. A zone designed to be international can of course be nothing but a purgatory for wayward lost souls. Shanghai Express is replaced, a train that turns into a gambling joint where Ona Munson is the queen (the good news is that she gets glamorous Medusa outfits and is having the biggest blast of anyone with getting to do a stylized, exaggerated performance, the bad news is she performs in yellowface, because the world is horrible and likes to ruin greatness with racism even if the rest of the film has a relatively complicated attitude towards race thanks to the diversity of the area). Smoke floats around in the background as the characters crack wise in a hellish place where a showgirl is punished for running out of money and she can only be rescued by a bribe. The most extreme decadence was likely censored in some ways, what with a clearly bisexual character and Gene Tierney playing someone totally insane once she is corrupted by the lack of moral values in the realm of clinking coins and desperate men. We could use a restoration of this, but the dialogue is a pleasure in its own right as it all starts to hurtle towards the territory of Murder on the Orient Express in how it turns into a bunch of vicious stereotypes sniping at each other and provoking the Code’s wrath with miscegenation and something that still feels a little taboo in the form of an Arab man seducing two white women. Dante’s Inferno inspired the design of the area we spend nearly the entire movie in, and the steam coming from people’s mouths and bodies scalds anyone who gets too close. Minor Von Sternberg, yes, but a total pleasure in the way it embraces the madness of humanity and the nitty gritty of political relations affecting the lives of the broadest swaths of humanity.
Favorite Moment: Final confrontation.
15. Flame of New Orleans
In a year with Josef von Sternberg sadly not making a picture with Marlene Dietrich while he took his aesthetic to a new place for the millionth time, someone had to pick up the slack, and that someone was Rene Clair, fully immersed in America after fleeing France due to the war. He would go on to make several pictures for the studios, and Flame of New Orleans was a quick jolt of nonsense, barely over an hour long in how it covered all sorts of genres in one quick, strange package, starting with a dress found in the Mississippi River, which even the narrator points out is unusual, but thankfully we don’t get the joke of how strange it is that the music is so upbeat while the people who find the dress are solemn, thinking it was a suicide, when it was all the culmination of a conjob at the opera that leads into pure farce territory as Dietrich’s character, trying to con a rich banker into marrying her, fakes a whole bunch of identities when both the man with money and a handsome sea captain vie for her attentions. No trick is too dirty or ridiculous, and the upper class, always a target for Clair, gets neatly skewered. She faints at the show and becomes more attention grabbing than the performance, with even the orchestra no longer pretending to be interested in their art as they stop playing out of concern. The skewering is so damn stealthy, with the black characters (Theresa Harris is way too good here to perpetually get stuck in a maid role), who would normally have been slaves, getting to play relatively well rounded characters who fit in among the rich and make the whole picture feel like the Karma Chameleon music video. Are they the real smart ones for getting themselves in with a sympathetic white lady who helps them out? Really, though, it comes down to Dietrich, where the claims that she was a terrible actress have never seemed so baseless as she drolly works her way in and out of love. Empty calories for everybody, as we guzzle ourselves on pure silly pleasure and performances that weaves its way around the nonsense of life with the randomness it deserves. In its own small way, a perfect little gem, one whose value is sadly easy to diminish just because it is always pitched high and fun.
Favorite Moment: Opening.
14. Devil and Daniel Webster
Despite being mostly remembered for his dreadfully dull Best Picture winner Life of Emile Zola, and having another piece of Oscar bait in the form of The Story of Louis Pasteur, William Dieterle managed to apply his talents to better directions once he got his prestige work out of his system, with The Devil and Daniel Webster (also known as All That Money Can Buy, a weaker title) getting a Best Actor nomination for Walter Huston (in an arguably supporting role, but whatever) in a part that actually deserved it, playing the devil himself with all the malevolent fun that role entails, and being surrounded with a score that actually won the prize and deserved it. The director’s experience on the set of Murnau’s Faust indirectly results in production design that feels oddly mythic, a poor town genuinely on the edge thanks to a hard winter that is turning into spring not quickly enough for their liking even when the ice starts to crack up, and a mother (Jane Darwell, quite a few degrees removed from Ma Joad) who wields the scripture gently but ever so firmly to keep her family in line no matter the occasion. Poverty is everywhere, but this isn’t The Grapes of Wrath, the supernatural does play its obvious part, and wish fulfillment has arrived in both the form of Satan and Daniel Webster himself, both fictionalized to caricatures that are glorified and trashed beyond belief, yet one seems much more fun than the other, and you can see Dieterle relishing the florid world that he has designed up, Americana that owes a debt to German Expressionism in a way that hadn’t quite been popular in that precise style for a few years (possibly The Informer was the last success there, but I cannot be sure). Just look at that misty entrance when Huston enters the barn for the first time, with a smile that reaches his eyes but too much so considering what he discusses? You would never see a performance like that get nominated nowadays, as it feels awfully stylized as opposed to a natural characterization of Scratch himself, but that is why it works. Shame about how Thomas Mitchell got retired from most of the scenes because of his accident, however, but perhaps what really could have pushed this over the finish line in the front of the pack would be James Craig getting booted.
Favorite Moment: The ball goes badly.
13. High Sierra
High Sierra feels like the 30s gangster movie on its way out the door even though it thankfully still had a few more years left in it, Raoul Walsh’s style of yarn giving Humphrey Bogart one of his first few great roles even with Maltese Falcon coming along that same year. He does not fuck around in terms of getting things started: a pardon for a bank robber, who promptly returns to his coworkers and loses his way pronto. Nicholas Ray was clearly a big fan of this picture when he was making On Dangerous Ground, with Ida Lupino once again being the woman who causes a man to retreat from his more savage ways, although the veneer of civilization is stronger in this one thanks to the times and the differences in star persona, and she is less innocent and blind. We get another girl with a club foot instead, Joan Leslie giving arguably the best performance in the whole film, a perfect manifestation of the gentle yet firm nature that surrounds us at all times in the gorgeous exterior photography, the sense of shame that our protagonist feels polluting the landscape, all as he finds himself on a lonely mountain peak. Prison may be designed to break a man, but it ultimately just seemed to soften our lead up a bit so that he just wants to quietly escape the life of a criminal and a convict. It’s an unusual noir in how the locations and shooting isn’t particularly dark and the story is not that grim no matter how doomed our antihero is, but the aesthetic is windswept and frigid, immediately conjuring up an autumn that quickly turned into a winter without anyone noticing. The mood is not an outright horror, think something melancholy that quietly builds up some sad little themes before knocking them down. But there is beauty, too, with a sequence involving a fish being caught ranking up there with John Ford’s location shooting in terms of loving the great poetry of the wilderness that we no longer have. Also, there is an adorable dog named Pard to liven the mood no matter the amount of talk about committing suicide by jumping onto the concrete in the jail that is as traumatic as anything else you could imagine thanks to the grim, nonchalant delivery. Self destruction is scarier when it moves both slowly and quickly (what an odd pace this has).
Favorite Moment: Joan Leslie destroys Bogart.
12. Unfinished Business
Gregory La Cava’s complete lack of reputation nowadays does not feel right. How could the man who gave the still beloved comedy My Man Godrey, the comedy that you should damn well like more in Stage Door, and surprisingly adult dramedy about hookers in Primrose Path be so forgotten? Worst of all is that he made another great movie with Irene Dunne in 1941, Unfinished Business, which continued his increasingly adult sensibilities and, to be perfectly frank, is not all that funny because it’s so damn depressing. Such a shame it has not been reclaimed, mostly since Dunne’s speaking style that she chooses to put on for just the opening scene and nowhere else is…hard to get over as what is presumably supposed to be mild drunkenness. Still, once we arrive on the train, and witness Preston Foster playing a creep with a friend (Dick Foran) who decides to make a bet on their ability to seduce a prettier girl than the other on a train, things briefly turn into a horror movie when the latter is shown essentially dismissing a whole lot of women until he sees Dunne, the male gaze finally critiqued as he kisses her in what is initially against her will. Alcoholism also comes home to roost in the late going, with both the drunken lover and the father in Primrose Path foreshadowing the poor director’s own ruin at the hands of the bottle, and while there is joy to be found, it is mostly due to Eugene Pallette as the butler when she finally gets to visit their home in the big city. Foster’s character essentially abandons her, and thus she turns to his brother in Robert Montgomery, the one with the real problems in the bottle once Foster’s abandoned her to fuck whoever he wants on his birthday. Montgomery is pleading with her to change her mind about him, but the wedding organs are playing in her head as she cries over her heartbreak, and they get married anyway because…well, Hollywood, but they move on anyway. Merrily We Go to Hell fully embraces the fantasy and melodrama of a broken marriage while Dodsworth takes the grim, mature approach, but this is somewhere in the middle. It’s not quite as good as those, but that is not the reason why, and the ending is way ahead of its time and seems to foreshadow a whole lot of future problems.
Favorite Moment: The train carriage bet.
11. Strawberry Blonde
“Women are always singing! No woman can sing!” complains James Cagney in an early scene from Strawberry Blonde, and it’s not an unfair complaint considering the song itself is one of the silliest sounding covers of Meet Me in St. Louis out there, but considering his co-star is taller than him, Cagney himself looks pretty short and ridiculous himself. Raoul Walsh, who had just finished the gloomier High Sierra, had a successful year thanks to also showing off his lighter side with this, and despite a production that was rather messy on certain ends, he would wind up calling it his favorite. The romance is pretty straightforward, with Jack Carson getting the titular character in a dyed Rita Hayworth, straight out of the song The Band Played On, to love him and pissing off Cagney’s dentist in the process, who is “settling” for Olivia de Havilland (ah, Hollywood problems). Everything about the whole picture is proudly old fashioned, a vaudeville romance and musical comedy from the good old days. Patience is a virtue, and the social manners of that time both reward that trait and take away from it. Still, all this analysis is irrelevant when you get to see a good fight followed by a sing-a-long between everyone in what is supposedly New York City but feels like a small town where everyone knows each other because of how insular the neighborhood is and the fact that a nice walk is the primary mode of entertainment, if not music sung live. It is a fun place even when people are letting their worst traits dominate. Even De Havilland, who usually got stuck trying to make something out of a blandly nice girl, gets to play someone with a self-possessed streak and who is viewed as second best by her husband anyway, selling out just a tiny bit in the end. The men are always at odds with the women in both this and High Sierra, but they cannot function without each other, and they naturally progress as a result of their attitudes poking at the parties they must negotiate with. Most enjoyable of all is the final fight, but you can tell that the primary strength of the writing is that it is by the same team that brought us Casablanca, with that movie’s odd brand of optimism and pragmatism starting to be born here. Also, we get karaoke!
Favorite Moment: First date at the zoo.
10. A Woman’s Face
When you hear of a movie called A Woman’s Face starring Joan Crawford and Conrad Veidt, you expect the latter to be the one with the facial deformity, but that is not the case (the latter plays her murder victim in the courtroom trial that frames the story). Crawford, who by all accounts was very happy with this film for pulling her out of what was shaping up to be a career slump and gives one hell of a performance to boot, a femme fatale who wandered out of The Maltese Falcon and into another plot entirely, where everyone gets a chance to shine thanks to the structuring. The story’s idea is a very interesting theme: can someone’s appearance affect whether or not they are a decent human being? Veidt’s character is incredibly handsome and cruel outside of when he helps her get something out of her in their first encounter, where we finally see the feature in question, but Crawford’s Anna Holm is more complicated. After some opening shots designed to hide just what the deformity is, resulting in a small shock after we see it, we learn that she is a decent person deep down who nevertheless is in a weird spot due to her disfigurement and her belief that nobody will ever love her for it. This results in a whole lot of lashing out at the world (not too unjust since the walls are up from the start on both sides) and committing extortion on a woman who she blatantly envies at all times, complete with stealing her husband and immediately regretting it, his heel turn beautifully choreographed thanks to the smile that does not meet his eyes as she turns to face him for the first time. But a plastic surgeon comes along, and she is slowly restored to the wire hanger hating star we know and worship today, and her fundamental goodness, in what seems like a paradox, comes back, and she cannot carry off the plan to off the man’s nephew that stands in the way of him inheriting a tremendous fortune. As a result of the script, everyone gets a chance to shine, but our leading lady is the center, and Crawford’s return to the spotlight is a glorious star turn, her prosthetic being ugly but not obscuring and bringing out the best in the rest of the cast, particularly Veidt. The power of framing compels her.
Favorite Moment: Sleigh ride.
9. Ornamental Hairpin
Hiroshi Shimizu’s tales of people going on vacation and traveling to strange new places touched something profound in his day, and his stories are fairly universal, so your guess is as good as mine as to why his reputation is sagging nowadays despite his contemporaries exalting him as a genius and his appeal still being modern. Ornamental Hairpin is by far his best work (I really only cared for this and Mr. Thank You of what I’ve seen, but everything else is at least good), compressing the entire world of illusions and self deception into about an hour and ten minutes where not a whole lot really happens. A man on vacation steps on the titular object and the lady who owned it returns to claim it. They strike up a friendship, and everyone repeatedly refers to what has happened as poetic. Sounds annoyingly self-aware, but the camera moves around the walls of the inn so cleverly that you barely notice how often the eight or so character staying and hanging around together bring it up so often, or how annoying the little boys who try and help the injured soldier with his walking exercises are with their insistence on focusing very loudly on the volume of the snoring of the grandfather. It is true to life, and the stakes of the man walking across a river or up the stairs all feel very high. Kinuyo Tanaka as the owner of the pin is clearly best in show, playing a woman who unreservedly wants to escape her life back home in Tokyo with her wealthy family and spread her wings, but still feels a bit…off when compared to the rest of the group that has an easy banter with one another, and nevertheless wishes this summer would never end. (We’ve all been there.) The ending itself is both happy and sad when the pain of separation hits us in a way that is both endearing and painful, but there is always the hope of a free lunch in the future. You cannot choose your family, but you can put up plenty of obstacles to keep them out of your way, and just try to live on anyway. Communities are what matters the most, and you should always understand the differences of others as long as they are not insurmountable. Grumpiness is forgivable, outright cruelty is not, and the latter never appears.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
8. Ball of Fire
My first experience watching Ball of Fire was one recent Christmas when my family went to a showing of it at Film Forum, which was a nice experience that was unfortunately slightly marred by the print quality, which got very fucked up both visually and in the audio department once a reel came to an end, to the point where it felt like the plot had skipped a few scenes. Distracting, and not the best way to see a Hawks film-so much dialogue missing! The Forum’s low point. Happily, in the comfort of one’s own home, Ball of Fire cannot be contained and features Barbara Stanwyck delivering a performance from her best year ever, and the one that got Oscar nominated (should have been the perfection that is The Lady Eve but that’s neither here nor there since she was the clear winner even with just this on the slate). She fit right into Hawks’ universe and somehow worked with him just the once, a fast talking tough broad ready to do whatever she needs to get into Gary Cooper’s nebbish professor’s good graces via the power of slang and becoming good friends with the seven dwarfs (sic) that make up his company of professors studying for the world’s most thorough encyclopedia (not so much Miss Bragg, their elderly Snow White substitute until Sugarpuss O’Shea comes along with a peppier song). She might seem miscast if you’ve only seen Stella Dallas, but this was what set the stage for the triumph of Double Indemnity, awful wig and all, via the power of a fairly convincing lipsync if you don’t look at it too hard. When the professors are playing it subtly despite playing various nerd stereotypes with a few silly accents mixed in, she goes a little broad, and it pays off beautifully thanks to the dialogue she gets to wrap that erotic voice around. She is stranded, but she is more than willing to carve out her own territory, and hooray for her, as the script is a little looser and meandering than Only Angels Have Wings’ sheer perfection where every strand pays off correctly. Certainly a more fun film, though, with lines that practically beg to be quoted. Should I spoil the strongest bits? Nah. Highlight occurs as the romance moves in and she mutters her way through the forced romance to her gangster boyfriend that she’s running away from.
Favorite Moment: Drum Boogie.
7. The Little Foxes
William Wyler’s career may have been safe and constrained a little by Hollywood, but make no mistake, he had incredible talent for making his material (which was always some of the best in the industry during his glory days) pop thanks to his incredible marriage of performance style to all the other tricks of the trade that could be utilized. Despite not hitting the heights of Dodsworth or The Letter, The Little Foxes is fairly wonderful, featuring Bette Davis once again tearing it all up for Wyler in a performance that would end their working relationship due to disagreements over what direction to take Regina, the best manipulator in her clan except when she is not. The characters are not exactly as complex as the poor Dodsworth clan or even Leslie and her racism, but we get a whole lot drawn out of these Tennessee Williams foreshadowers thanks to the details of the photography, with deep focus making even a touch on the shoulder seem awfully far away. While Davis naturally sucks up the attention, her sickly husband played by Herbert Marshall, who she is trying to manipulate in order to get a larger share of the mill her brothers are trying to construct, also stands out and was unfairly snubbed. Nominations came along instead for Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge. The former, playing Regina’s daughter, mostly got attention because she was an up and comer, and does not seem to connect with Bette’s work (which I put just as much on Bette’s take, as she is great but rather unusually broad). Collinge, however, is fairly casually astounding, a drunkard who draws our gaze just by how she quietly wrecks herself for good and bad reasons in her rambling asides, but has enough sanity left to give out a much needed warning at a crucial moment. It culminates in a scene that Yasujiro Ozu was a big fan of, with tea being made quietly with merely the clicking of the china providing the sounds. Everyone is playing their role at every possible time as a result of the framing showing everyone, but the angles make it clear that this family is not right and will poison everything around them in their sins. The mansion itself is another character, an astonishing feat of Southern Gothic that feels like a haunted house, and it definitely is in its own way. Wish prestige was generally this good.
Favorite Moment: Birdie’s frantic plea to Xandra.
6. How Green Was My Valley
Poor How Green Was My Valley. Its reception has been tarred and feathered as Citizen Kane’s has grown like a bubble, unpopped until Vertigo beat it in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll for the first time in forever. Yet the cinematography is just as revolutionary as Citizen Kane’s in its own way. The snow storm sequence with Sara Allgood telling off the union (let’s just…ignore this movie’s politics, which are at least fairly complicated) before nearly drowning in an icy lake is unforgettable, and so is the mood of the opening, that main street lovingly constructed and always occupied by so many miners. The plot and structure are deliberately incoherent, an excavation of a young man’s memories as he remembers the nostalgia of a better time where the landscape was beautiful and unpolluted by coal smog (truly astounding how badly we have regressed on an environmental level from a film that acknowledges that it is bad for the lungs and the air in 1941, good grief). Two hours of gorgeous compositions that the director would arguably never top are what lies ahead, and Orson Welles himself watched Ford religiously, with performances that are out of a silent film even if we hear that spooky vocal from the sister Angharad, played by Maureen O’Hara. Things slowly and sadly slide downhill, for the wheel of progress loves nothing more than to grind people underfoot, even when the regression that comes along otherwise is worse. I cannot claim anyone here gives a truly great performance thanks to an aesthetic that is straight out of the silents with dialogue getting discarded in favor of a quietly moving score, but in their own primal way, everyone makes an impression simply by having faces full of emotion when the mines quietly turn into the shittiest place in the land, only livened up by the beauty of the Irish songs and the landscape in some ways being undestroyable. Hard to imagine what this would have become under William Wyler, but we essentially got the best picture imaginable for the era. The world is so much happier if you are a child, but nostalgia is unhealthy to stick with for such a long duration of years, especially if it comes at the cost of a scholarship that could have helped everyone out a little bit more, preventing the insanity of exploitation by the people at the top of the food chain.
Favorite Moment: Sara Allgood in the snow.
Of the first five films Disney made, one of the best streaks of artistry any company has ever maintained, Dumbo is easily the one that falls the most neatly into the traditions of later Disney films in how it feels more childlike, with Pinocchio/Fantasia being deeply artsy and Snow White being a slightly more adult fairy tale. Dumbo’s animation style is just as sophisticated, with Pink Elephants on Parade as a pinnacle of abstract animation making its way into the company’s commercial products that were a desperate attempt to keep the business afloat during a time of great stress, but everything else is very easy to swallow (well…the crows are racist, but frankly, I find Peter Pan to be far worse). It is, after all, a circus, and those are supposed to be comforting in their way even if I’m sure the conditions circa 1941 were appalling and consisted of much worse than children bullying an elephant with big ears with verbal taunts. The point I am trying to make is that the heavily abstract stylings of something like Fantasia were stripped back-not quite removed entirely just yet, with the package products of the war doing the most to kill that off for good, but very much on the verge of creating something apace with the childlike appeals of all the 3D productions that they do nowadays. This sounds insulting even though everything about Dumbo is top notch, the best of their commercial works simply because it was not that profit driven as an organization yet, and it was only an hour of a simple little fairy tale encouraging people to embrace their differences, a flying elephant who lets a mouse do the talking for him as a stand in for bullied children and working perfectly at his job because he’s so soft, round, cute and appealing, as opposed to the anonymity of the gossipy matriarchs he is surrounded by. Tropes regarding the treatment of parental figures would begin to become established in their own way, but isn’t having Mrs. Jumbo jailed rather than murdered harsher in its own way? There is no finality, and bad things will continue to happen to this poor defenseless baby animal. Yes, the story is childish and simple, but it does it in exactly the right way, the kind of picture book you would love to read aloud and admire every night as you repeat the experience over and over.
Favorite Moment: Pink Elephants on Parade.
Hellzapoppin’ vaguely resembles the thing that we call cinema, I suppose, but it really is an artistic endeavor like nothing else out there (and it smashes auteur theory based on the rest of H.C. Potter’s output, with the writers being the true show-runners in this case), probably the least theatrical play adaptation of them all as we get a series of…whatever you want to call thems…that are so fucking manic that you have to wonder why anyone else even bothered. Just light every other film on fire to join the already lost works of art! And then the story gets into “let’s destroy cinema altogether” territory with its gags that it just skates right past after quick setups for the purposes of meta madness, with studio mandated romances and similar momentum killers that are acknowledged to be stupid additions by producers who do not understand what the people are here for by the cast members as they participate in the onion layers of this, and so on and so forth. Mel Brooks and the Monty Python gang clearly loved the shit out of this, it’s as if the Duck Soup got heavily concentrated in how damn nonsensical it was. If this was made nowadays, the possibilities of the medium would be even more exhausted than they are now, with plenty of the tools of the trade getting abused until they feel like the rake joke from The Simpsons. We then get the dance sequence from the Lindy Hoppers, a beautiful dance that would belong in a real musical but helps to elevate this to some weird plane of its own, the highbrow prestige and the lowbrow trashy comedy intersection we deserved. Everything that happens in this is a tool designed to help make the meta madder and the world anarchic, a vision of the imagined hell and the real hell that is our lives colliding at maximum speed, cackling as it does so, shattering the fourth wall into smithereens and hoping that the rest of the movies we know will follow it along. No way to describe the plot here since it merely involves spoiling the jokes, so I will say that the opening credits lead-in involving a slide made my jaw drop and hang slack once I realized this was going to be, somehow, more nuts than I had heard about in advance. Best piece of art ever, perhaps?
Favorite Moment: Opening.
3. The Maltese Falcon
When it comes to the genre known as film noir, potentially my favorite of the mainstays, the peak of everything you could ask for in the genre came in 1944, with the strict rule writer of Double Indemnity’s clockwork structure and the dream character logic of Laura’s hallucinatory comedy of manners giving us all the sexed up rules, femme fatales, and some of the most iconic parts in the style arguably best suited for the medium of black and white narrative cinema (with neo noirs bringing it to the colorful world). The holy trinity’s original member had been reached three years earlier with the double barreled Maltese Falcon, John Huston’s first major moment as a director and a great book by Dashiell Hammett as is (I did a book report on it), turning into a movie for the ages (I even own a cheap little version of the falcon of my own, although it chips and breaks like crazy so I never touch it). Never seen the original picture from the 30s, and probably will not be doing so because why spoil my happy memories of this? Humphrey Bogart’s performance is one of his arguable peaks, his most casually cruel even as he tries to allow himself to give in to Mary Astor, seemingly hysterical at first before we realize that she is playing a woman who is a bad actress, rather than being a bad actress herself, a vicious well that reveals itself to be arguably the definitively venal character in what would turn out to be Sydney Greenstreet’s debut. He astounds too, along with Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr. as his cronies, total creeps who brought gunsel into the vocabulary for different reasons, topping it all off with Lee Patrick as the weary secretary who probably deserved the film to revolve around her too. Watch the hotel confrontation on a loop, appreciating the layers and twists the power dynamic that the script throws at us until we do not know who is going to wind up with the ultimate MacGuffin, and while it may be the stuff that dreams are made of, they turn into nightmares once we learn just what Astor has been plotting this entire time. Funny how once the private detective turns her over to the police, everything looks much shittier towards the law enforcement, and what we had a grip on turns into sand.
Favorite Moment: Hotel confrontation.
2. The Lady Eve
The Lady Eve begins with cheeky attitude towards everything suggested by that title for anyone who knows about the Bible and the myths in it, with that snake wriggling around the opening credits and clearly having a damned good time even if it is trapped in the words, and that is precisely what Preston Sturges does best throughout the running time of this deliciously perfect farcical romance, his finest hour on all levels but especially in scripting, featuring Barbara Stanwyck’s arguable finest hour (the other contender is Double Indemnity and that is it…how she lost the Oscar this year, even for Ball of Fire, is beyond me) and Henry Fonda, Eugene Pallette, and Charles Coburn in peak form as the men who surround her and are no match for her skills as a con artist, first at cards and then at love, both echoing each other along with the many dick jokes to come thanks to poor Hopsy being a rich boy and aspiring herpetologist. Not a single joke is flat, and they only escalate, with the numerous pratfalls landing in substances of increasing nastiness for our leading man as Stanwyck’s various tricks and cheats get more convoluted. Is the snake a necessary animal? Not when the fall of man is going to happen on its own anyway. The Bible never looked so delicious, but our original lady is no rib, she defies the stereotypes during the romance and gives into them during the tricks to humiliate the heir, and has been banging Jesus and the serpent on the side to boot when they go through the train tunnels. In a year where the great writer-director supposedly hit his peak with Sullivan’s Travels, this is the real winner, structurally echoing in ways that are perfect and awe inspiring. The only all-seeing person in this is the woman herself, ready to go toe to toe with any fool who tries to get in her way of what she wants and seducing with just a few strokes of the hair, both for the audience and our baffled leading male. Saying anything else would involve spoiling the jokes, so let us just take a moment to appreciate the perfectly comedic voices of the cast, right down to that horse that ruins the love. And the final scene is the best of its kind, somehow making One Way Passage’s sublime final boat moment feel irrelevant and tawdry.
Favorite Moment: Stroking Henry’s hair.
1. Citizen Kane
No, it is probably not the greatest film ever, but the fact that it is as good as it is when the entire structure of the film is the sort of story that does not usually work in cinema is a pretty damn great accomplishment in its own right. There is a lot to admire here, but enough ink has been spilled thanks to its permanent status as the greatest of all time unless Vertigo’s reign has truly begun. From the beautiful simplicity of the arc related to Rosebud the sleigh, destined to burn, and that final whisper as the snow globe cracks on the steps, to the weird little details related to the jigsaw puzzles and newspaper reels, to the box of tricks in the cinematography and makeup that caused everyone over the next several years to begin a long smear campaign against How Green Was My Valley. We all know about these things because they have been quoted in abundance, but at the time, this really was the culmination of everything we were capable of doing even if my preferences may ultimately lay with…a few other films, let’s just say that. Sure, it’s overrated beyond belief because the number of people who say it really is the best ever tend to be a little worrisome, but this is the pinnacle of formalism in many departments, and you can watch it constantly for new details. Dinosaurs, the celebration, the opera singing…stuff that gets montaged and compressed and decompressed to an inch of the picture’s life, it damn near falls apart thanks to that big error right at the start with no one technically being able to hear the final words at Xanadu. This is already the strongest debut in cinema, though, and the big exception to the rule that the novelist approach of covering so many years of a man’s life is not a practice that works on a cinematic level. Even the title card, stark and unforgiving rather than surrounded by the orchestral pieces, is perfect. Get lost in it yet again, it’s well worth the trip (but it needs about a century off from being #1). Quick, name the best performance in the lot between Welles, Moorehead, Cotten, Comingore, Warrick…actually, it’s probably the technical crew, but whatever. Long live the cliches no matter how much I wish they would die, too. Black and white never looked so colorful.
Favorite Moment: Susan at the opera.