Looking Back at Oscar, #15

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1942:

49th Parallel
Johnny Eager
Kings Row
Magnificent Ambersons
Mrs. Miniver
My Sister Eileen
Now Voyager
The Pied Piper
The Pride of the Yankees
Random Harvest
The Talk of the Town
Tortilla Flat
Wake Island
Woman of the Year
Yankee Doodle Dandy

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
49th Parallel
Johnny Eager
Magnificent Ambersons
Now Voyager
Pride of the Yankees
Random Harvest
Yankee Doodle Dandy

I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1942 Year in Review post.

Kings Row
Sam Wood, never the most interesting director to work for the studios, turned in another fairly dull soap opera in 1942 and was rewarded with token Best Picture/Director nominations, with the only other attention for Kings Row (which might be an improperly punctuated title) going to James Wong Howe’s cinematography. It’s admittedly quite pretty and features some lovely tracking shots that fit right into the “passing time in a small town” mood conjured up, with an opening shot of a horse and carriage that reminds me a little bit of Night of the Hunter’s famous shot of Mitchum coming over the horizon, and the titular town has so many white picket fences that gleam in the light while the houses look rather gloomy and dark that I wonder if the Pleasantville people saw this, but the racy nature of the original prestigious novel has been toned down to fit the Hays Code, and thus we get blandly sterile scenes involving children, and then adults (the Academy sure liked reading books about generations of people at that time). The score starts off with a musical cue that I think Disney may have sampled for Peter Pan’s soundtrack, but everything else is both bland and abusively loud in how it tells us how to feel while the characters overact (a particularly awful part is when it swells like the hero’s triumph when the main character…becomes older and is played by a different actor). Ann Sheridan and Robert Cummings, but Ronald Reagan is a nothing as per usual, and it is both totally unsurprising and very much expected that someone so bland would wind up becoming the President arguably most responsible for modern societal evils. You could easily cut this down by several minutes and not lose a thing except an atmosphere that grows inches more unbearable for every weeping string we have to put up with on the soundtrack as our tedious lead agonizes for two long hours over becoming a doctor and, to be way too blunt, wanting to stick his dick into a girl who he shouldn’t, yadda yadda, this is a dull piece of prestige that I wish I hadn’t watched outside of completion. I suppose this was considered escapism from the war back in the early 40s, but I just felt like I was living in an alternate reality related to the world that Republicans fantasize about.

Mrs. Miniver
My Brief Year in Review piece for Mrs. Miniver: Too long, but has plenty of inspired moments and Garson/Pidgeon are much more interesting than usual.

Mrs. Miniver is an odd one, and is correctly viewed as not being the strongest film William Wyler made even if you narrow it down to the Best Picture winners in his filmography. The movie is unfortunately over two hours long and pure propaganda of deeply inconsistent quality. It has passages of deep feeling and emotion during the riskier parts, but we also waste plenty of time with a flower contest subplot that adds nothing but some dreary “life as it is lived in the war” textures and a cheap heartwarming moment when a rose named after the title character wins via another character being selfless. The film was a big hit that was nominated for an obscene amount of awards (FIVE acting nominees), but it really just feels like the standard Greer Garson melodrama with a bit more spine and prestige packed into it. To briefly tackle the acting nominees: Greer finally got her win for a performance that’s better than some of her worst nominations but can’t really be called her best. Teresa Wright’s entire act of the innocent one can wear thin, especially since we’ve got plenty of stereotypes here, and she did not deserve to beat Moorehead, but I still found her win fine enough. Dame May Whitty’s nomination for what is the type of role Maggie Smith has made an entire career off of is a much sillier choice, and for that matter Henry Travers is also playing something dumb and broad in the role of a nice, quiet old man. Walter Pidgeon, as per usual, is playing a boring supportive husband, but thankfully the second adjective is emphasized here. He could have easily gone into Supporting Actor and nobody would have kicked up much of a fuss. The bombing shelter scene is a marvel of tension and probably turned it into a blockbuster in its own right, but I think in order for this to appeal more to my sensibilities, it would have to go into the same territory as the Dolce section of Suite Francaise, specifically the part gently mocking the upper middle class family and their descent into poverty. It would have been too ahead of its time for AMPAS, but if that leads to Now Voyager scraping a nomination, we would be living in a slightly better world just for having that nice little statistic as validation of quality Hollywood trash and melodrama.

My Sister Eileen
My Sister Eileen is a harmless enough romp, but one has to wonder what happened to Rosalind Russell within just two years time. His Girl Friday featured her giving as good as she got, but here, she does the same thing with a partner in the nowadays little known Janet Blair, who is actually playing it pretty smart and doing arguably better things with a trickier role but still getting overshadowed because of what feels like a few shades of mugging on the side of the bigger star. The girls have moved from Ohio to New York, with Russell’s Ruth wanting to be a writer (her best scenes echo the ones in the Hawks masterpiece, particularly early on when she reacts appropriately to someone who is doing a supposedly amusing voice far more ridiculous than anything she ever does) and Blair’s titular character wanting to become an actress, but they run into the typical nonsense and shenanigans along the way that make things difficult, with a bunch of wacky characters in a shitty hole of an apartment and a newspaper editor played by Brian Aherne who tries to help them out with their careers before it all turns into a bunch of “which one is he going to go for, this isn’t Design for Living?” Sounds harmless, and it starts off that way, but this is actually a vaguely gross screwball comedy. For every conga line scene because hey, wacky dances have always been around in screen comedy, there is a whole lot of rapist men hanging around that part of the town, with all the lecherous men providing a very dated set of laughs even if you ignore just how hammy everyone is in more scenes than not. Blair’s runny mascara at the start when she loses a big role, the voices, the bug eyes…Alexander Hall’s direction needs to be taken down to a two from a ten in terms of performance encouragement, and brought up in terms of simply pointing his camera at the actors screeching at each other. Maybe this was better on the stage, and certainly the acting style fits the theater rather than the cinema, but everyone here is a pro so there’s no excuse for this brand of nonsense, a studio product that has been waxed until it doesn’t resemble a movie and is handed off to you with a leering smile, begging you to bite it.

The Pied Piper
The Pied Piper has an inherently interesting conflict in its later stages once the titular character, played by Monty Woolley, has amassed enough children who are trying to flee from the Germans invading France. They must then begin avoiding speaking English or else risk being caught by the Nazis occupying Northern France. So much for that vacation, I suppose, but everything else that happens is just…nice (although Otto Preminger gets a cameo). Things could be interesting if Mr. Howard was more misanthropic, but he simply gets mildly irritated with a know it all child that he has to lug along eventually, much like any sane person would be, and he makes a few dry remarks in the direction of some of the vacationers. Even his reaction to being asked to take the children with him is incredibly mild, saying that the child seems like a good person (in development standards) but he is not enthusiastic about the idea, and worried about clothing and toilet training for the traveling portion. Low stakes indeed. Irving Pichel directs everything competently enough (I particularly liked one shot involving light shining through a gate as Mr. Howard holds up a lantern as they are trying to find a place to sleep), and things look nice, but you basically get a standard heartwarming tale with a little more suspense than usual mixed into it (although that sequence where they all sing a song is the sort of thing that had me desiring to run away very far from the entire movie altogether). Certain sequences call to mind the “we are taking a trip/journey and facing various obstacles along the way” sequences in later Disneys to come, which I do not really mean as a compliment, especially when the group adds a French girl who adds nothing but a warm body and a few random “merde!” pronouncements when they got shot at or they encounter dead people (yes, okay, she does not actually say that, but I can’t exactly blame her if she did and it’d improve the film anyway). In a lineup where a truly enormous percentage of the nominees were designed to boost morale on the topic of entering the war, this strikes me as the least essential of the batch (I enjoy it to a greater degree than Wake Island), with Woolley’s performance as a very minor asset, not truly deserving of Oscar attention.

The Talk of the Town
My Brief Year in Review piece for Talk of the Town: Nothing groundbreaking, but pleasant.

See here for the 333 Great Directors post.

Tortilla Flat
Frank Morgan is best remembered nowadays for his role as the titular character in The Wizard of Oz, and for good reason, but he also turned in another wonderful performance in The Shop Around the Corner the very next year. However, his two Oscar nominations were for much more questionable parts, with his second nomination being for Tortilla Flat, an utterly dreadful movie that I find utterly bizarre due to the fact that it was Victor Fleming who took it on, suggesting that this was meant to be a fairly big deal as another Steinbeck adaptation following last year’s Grapes of Wrath despite landing just the single nomination for Morgan’s performance as Pirate (yes, that’s his name), who…likes dogs. That is essentially his whole character, and the movie is unfortunately bigoted as hell thanks to focusing on a bunch of Mexican Americans from California who basically wind up abusing the house of the man who inherits it. Spencer Tracy is the lead, and considering my thoughts on Captains Courageous, I think you can guess how my thoughts on this particular role where he acts with a truly horrible attempt at a Mexican accent go. If you’re going to be racist, at least do what Wyler did with Gale Sondergaard in The Letter and have her speak minimally, rather than throwing the whole story on him and the beautifully bland Hedy Lamarr, who the film legitimately seems to despise for the crime of being a woman. It’s a deeply gross piece of work that is ever so slightly redeemed by Morgan, but even then, his casting is a racist one and his Pirate is a two dimensional bit of comic relief that does not demonstrate what he could do with a fully three dimensional part. I would actually watch a short film about the man saving up money to buy a candle for his dog’s memory like he wants to, but when the rest of the picture is devoted to Tracy and John Garfield giving deeply obnoxious and heavy handed performances, while Lamarr just flits around and looks pretty, it is pretty impossible to justify watching this for an hour and forty minutes as the creators intended. I spent the entire time wanting to bail out before I caught racism, and Fleming’s direction, which can be incredibly heavy handed, goes for the hammer approach here, with no subtext and all text.

Wake Island
Wake Island is total propaganda in the same vein as a lot of war films that got Academy attention in 1942, with the goal of the filmmakers and cast to convey the sensation of genuinely being in the thick of the fighting in ways that were otherwise impossible for the citizens who were at home while the battles were ongoing. A noble enough goal only slightly undone by the fact that most of the cast does not consist of household names at all, and there’s certain limitations on the fact that everything that will happen in this is guaranteed to have an ending true to history, and even in that day and age, the story was heavily confused, with the real Japanese capture of the island resulting in torture and slow deaths rather than some heroic last stand (and the movie’s opening titles heroize Custer’s Last Stand, a sure sign that we are in a different time and aiming for a less educated audience). We get the typical opening of several soldiers saying goodbye to their families at Pearl Harbor, which…I don’t think I will ever know if this was something that was more or less subtle at the period of time that was the making of this picture, but the narration makes me think it was not artistic quality that was the aim here and they just wanted to give us cheap manipulation. Most of the first half involves the typical “let’s make the soldiers more disciplined” plot that Stanley Kubrick would tear to shreds in Full Metal Jacket, with the men in this either being comic relief who will be leaving at a conveniently designated date for the purposes of the plot, or the bossy boots commander in charge of whipping them into shape, albeit with nothing too traumatic for the psyche. Then we get some good old fashioned racism in the form of a Japanese diplomat that leads into the Pearl Harbor attacks, and finally the action sequences, easily the high point even if they fall right into the Truffaut War Film Trap of making it all seem exciting and thus not an anti-war production. William Bendix got a Supporting Actor nomination, and I am fine with it in that he is the only one who has a personality and he frankly deserved better career rewards for his work as a very reliable character actor. Otherwise, pass.

Woman of the Year
My Brief Year in Review piece for Woman of the Year: I think I could have possibly loved this if it wasn’t for one of the worst endings ever. Before that, it’s sexy and fun and Hepburn gets a lot to do.

For about the first two thirds, Woman of the Year is shaping up to be the sort of film that is unfairly forgotten, with Spencer Tracy giving a performance that is better than usual (albeit still not good and pretty hammy), while Katharine Hepburn is doing winning work with the sort of deliciously cartoony, yet dimensional character that any actor would have fun tearing into. Bossy world-famous reporter? Practically the role she was born to play, and all the actors build her up so much over the first few minutes that it’s a miracle she makes her entrance live up to expectations. She gets to be a sex symbol, which is unbelievable if you’re only familiar with her spinster roles, and a clothes horse thanks to her glamorous striped outfit with an enormous, view blocking hat when she goes to a ball game and angers some dumb disrespectful male pig who she eventually gets to give her peanuts. You go, girl! And then the romance starts up, and it’s a fun enough battle of the sexes comedy. She acts like a stereotypical man and he acts like a stereotypical woman in certain parts, all that nonsense, good enough way to kill some time as she owns his sexist ways and he loosens her up a bit. But then, the final scene happens, and it is seriously one of the worst endings to a movie ever. Watching Hepburn’s character struggle to make a dinner when she is clearly portrayed as an independent lady who is no doubt capable of cooking her own meals is deeply embarrassing, especially since it feels that he wins the final victory in their battle of the gender relationships of the 1940s by showing that women, as a matter of fact, cannot do everything. Even worse is a gay-coded secretary getting thrown down the stairs right before the reconciliation that closes things off. Why? Did the writers go completely insane? They clearly had a decent idea of what they were doing even if they couldn’t make Tracy’s reporter interesting, while she can speak Chinese and has intelligent political opinions. What a horribly mean spirited humiliation to end things off with, and it is only redeemed by the fact that Katharine obviously hates it and makes her way through it as if she does not give a single fuck about ruining that waffle iron. Shame there wasn’t some editing from Stevens’ side of things.

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