Top 20 of 1942
20. Pride of the Yankees
Pride of the Yankees falls into the same category as fellow Sam Wood film Goodbye Mr. Chips, in that I don’t mind it even though I feel like I should, but it just works very well for me, even if the opening dedication comparing Lou Gehrig to the men fighting in the war makes me wince a little. I am a little shocked that this film about a bland baseball player is more exciting than the nothing that is Sergeant York, but something about the insanity of the Americana that we get worked into this makes this straddle the line for me between the legitimately heartwarming and a damn parody of all the attitudes we have towards athletes. I mean, the character gives his pledge pin to his mother, and says they need to go steady in a gloriously incestuous scene that I’m sad wasn’t taken advantage of in a parody, complete with all the traumas that come when he decides he does not want to be an engineer any more. Where Goodbye Mr. Chips seemed to be sneaking its middlebrow but sincere attitudes towards the decline of the British Empire that was coming in World War II in a way that was both obvious and subtle, this is some demented excess of love for one’s country, and it causes me feel the same way the Germans who had a complicated relationship with their country did when things like Triumph of the Will or Olympia, which I simply cannot relate to despite seeing their power, came out. The most ridiculous moment is Teresa Wright (who did NOT deserve an Oscar nomination) clutching a damn doll as she is rooting for her husband on the radio, before he wins and begins celebrating with the doll while people begin dancing the conga and yelling his name. Your mileage may vary, of course, but as I watched this I found it both totally campy and legitimately sad. No, I don’t think Hollywood or Wood’s direction was intended to be subversive, but it plays that way, so I say embrace the silliness of Gehrig’s love for wallpaper and his creepy child bride, until his speech on this being the happiest day of his life turns out to pack a very quiet punch. Baseballers are good for nothing, indeed, but they are not loafers in short pants. Norman Bates’ mother predecessor does not know anything regarding sports.
Favorite Moment: The famous speech.
19. Road to Morocco
I have not seen any of the other films in the Road To… franchise, but Morocco’s stunts and gags begin solidly with a boat exploding, followed by Bob Hope immediately milking a gag for all it’s worth while Bing Crosby is annoyed by his upstaging. All the gags are carried off by Hope, and while I cannot imagine a whole franchise with these two, this is plenty fine as the franchise’s peak, with Aunt Lucy the Republican being rightfully condemned as a zombie who will probably return from the dead someday in some new form. Best part is in the fourth wall breaking title song, which gets in a joke about how yes, the men will definitely be meeting Dorothy Lamour, had to write this script around the constraints of the censors, and they have five years left on their contracts, so you’re stuck with them even if you don’t like them! Despite the many stereotypes that are not excusable even under the excuse of “they are making fun of how stereotype filled these types of movies are,” with Middle Easterners basically depicted as obnoxious and sacrilegious salesmen and some seriously horrible mocking of Arabic culture in the form of white slavery, the joy of two friends traveling together and smashing the fourth wall along the way in a sense of giddy fun is what really carries this along, no matter that we are meant to believe that Crosby is the one who is irresistible to women because of his perfectly pleasant voice. Besides, compared to a certain musical that rhymes with Burrowedly Sodom Silly, this is genuinely hard to take seriously when you have the general nature of 1942 norms looming everywhere, with Bob Hope’s admittedly “cis men think trans people are funny” drag getting taken to the silliest levels, complete with a Here Comes Mr. Jordan reference, before one of the very few Bing solo songs that I genuinely enjoyed in Ain’t Got a Dime to My Name. By that point, the momentum is high enough that anything reasonably funny would have sufficed, and we get that. The highs of We’re Off on the Road to Morocco are never equaled, but at least the ending is plenty pleasurable, and I like to pretend that Hope’s character wound up winning the girl over anyway. He’s so much better looking and funnier, so hopefully he enjoyed the pleasures of being an awful, filthy tourist.
Favorite Moment: Titular song.
18. Aniki Bobo
Favorite Moment: Opening 15 seconds.
17. Random Harvest
Random Harvest falls squarely into “wait, I liked this?” territory. Greer Garson has been a decent actress stuck in some deeply stupid and boring movies from my many experiences with her Oscar nominations, but this one was easily her most well-liked role, so my anticipation was a little higher than it usually was, especially with Mervyn LeRoy immediately starting things off right with a lovely tracking shot to a door, before it’s revealed that we are actually involved with an asylum, and one that is super pretty and clean looking to boot. Colman’s character is a soldier with amnesia, which is incredibly hokey but manages to give way to something fundamentally sweet and sad about memory, with Garson’s music hall star becoming the anchor in his life before getting ripped out again when he gains his old memories and loses the new ones. It is all totally contrived, yes, but who cares? Colman’s face is productively empty and confused rather than just blandly heroic, while Garson’s warmth feels a bit more worn down, something she has to exercise in the hard war days rather than a trait she naturally radiates like her plaster saint women from the likes of Mrs. Parkington and Mrs. Miniver (why oh why couldn’t this be the picture that broke through in 1942 with the Academy). She even angrily points out he’s ruining her makeup when she cries about his story, which feels like the most evil thing she has ever done in a story. Susan Peters got a slightly ridiculous Academy nomination for playing a blank slate who exists solely so Colman does not have to marry her, but she gets a good scene that singlehandedly sticks her above the Miniver Supporting ladies, so I can let it slide, especially since the rest of her life was so depressing as to trigger immense guilt for being mean. Watching a believable couple in unbelievable circumstances is ultimately what the movies are for, and this is just very sad, with all the joy of the war being over evaporating once people realize they have to get their lives back in order and cope with the aftermath. Happy things are unsaid except in songs at the music hall, even as memories return and marriages are planned. Hollywood loves to spoon feed the audience, but this does it properly via nothing but some noir lighting that does not match the goings on.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
16. People of the Mountains
What if Hungary had its own version of John Ford or Aleksandr Dovzhenko, but he was censored by the government later on in his career and thus was only able to complete a few films that are much harder to find than they should be? Istvan Szots’ award winning debut film People of the Mountains is an exciting debut, a long trudge through the rough days of life as a peasant that is filled with incredibly beautiful shots of the wilderness that the people who live in it clearly love and respect even when it keeps them down. They must adjust to life in the Transylvanian mountains instead. After a birth that leads to a child claiming his own tree as a sort of special friend, that token of appreciation for the outside world is eventually chopped down by a tinder company that buys out the land from underneath the family. He becomes older and is stuck under the influence of a religion that makes it so that only a belief in a higher power can cure his mother from her mysterious Allie McBeal’s disease. Dignity is impossible to hold onto under such circumstances when your parents are working in a mill, so all the parents can do is endure in the face of a society that never wanted them and that they did not want to be a part of in the first place, precisely because it is so unpleasantly cold and clinical. Still, there is a lot of joy to be found in raising the child no matter how awful it all is. This may just recycle the formula that The Crowd perfected and nothing could ever improve upon, but it looks amazing, with a layer of fog circling everything (with one train scene that utilizes smoke and craggy nonprofessional faces in a way that is just a knockout of deep focus and darkness turning into the harsh light of the sun rising against a hill, very slightly marred by the limited quality since this is an old Hungarian film), and a delightful sense of pessimism that comes purely by seeing how transcendentally gorgeous some of the earlier images can be. Familiarity is a thing worth appreciating at times, particularly if you choose to return to a place you once loved. Even a miserable sit by the fire is appreciable if you are in a location that you care deeply about.
Favorite Moment: Meeting the tree.
15. 49th Parallel
Favorite Moment: The awkward speech.
Saboteur is definitely compromised and not a major Hitchcock, but it has several assets going for it even if they are in the shape of things he would go on to perfect when his aesthetic was fully formed later on in his career. He was not happy with the casting of the leads, and while Priscilla Lane sort of manages to overcome her second tier status since her character was meant to be played by Stanwyck and she thus winds up being a bargain bin version of the sort of forceful, cunning minx that we all know and love (she looks it, too), but Robert Cummings is kind of awful even for the deliberately bland leading men that Hitch favored as his wrongly accused men, causing a gasoline fire via a trick from the titular villain and barely reacting to it all. That said, if you re-edited this one so that the leads were to talk as little as possible and merely reacted to the supporting cast of character actors or participated in the setpieces, you might have a masterpiece, an alternate universe take on The 39 Steps that is more voided out and American in its imagery and little bits of commentary that you cannot quite pin down. Murray Alper as a hilariously annoying wiseguy truck driver sells what basically amounts to hidden exposition, Otto Kruger is deliciously unctuous as a ranch owner who is faking everything and whose own infant daughter uncovers the sins of the father that feel totally generational to the nature of the world thanks to a corny speech on Cummings’ end, and Alma Kruger is having a lot of fun with her grand society dame. For the visual side, the opening act of sabotage is cleverly choreographed, and the big show stoppers at a movie theater and the Statue of Liberty are pure action, a descent that recalls the final fall in Vertigo and the ultimate act of watching the silver screen that grows a bit freakier in the context of that Dark Knight Rises mass shooting. Also very much enjoyed the jump from the bridge in handcuffs, which causes plenty of awkwardness when dealing with a blind man in the vein of Bride of Frankenstein. Still, what I like about this is rooted in the big propagandist nature of some of the speeches. What does it say about me that I’m finding comfort in that?
Favorite Moment: Movie theater.
13. The Devil’s Envoys
Favorite Moment: Finale.
12. We Make Music
We Make Music is pure escapism that gains some interesting layers it doesn’t necessarily earn when you consider it was made under the reign of the Third Reich in Germany. The plot is boilerplate in every respect of the word, taking the form of narration by a man right before an air raid warning goes off and the opera composer Paul begins telling the story of himself and his wife, with all the good hearted bickering and professional successes and failures that implies. They start off hating each other, he messes with her when she tries to perform at the club, and so on. Think something along the lines of La La Land, except not boring, black and white, and with genuine fun behind it. Where else could you see a man conduct a series of empty chairs while the music in his head rings out triumphantly? Kautner seems to have a bit of the Lubitsch touch about him, but the shooting style is showy in a fun way. Look at how perfectly everyone gets framed between doors and musical instruments and so on! Even the standard bit where the woman plays a dreary love ballad on the piano to her lover feels livelier here, an exercise in funereal romance that gives way to something more epic after her husband takes over the piece. And then she plays the trumpet outside in the rain under an umbrella, which makes you wonder just how multi-talented the two leads were or if they were just good at memorizing their notes. Kautner’s direction is clearly fond of the poetic realism movement, which makes the separation of Germany and France even sadder during a time of great trauma. Hopefully this made things a little easier for some, especially with such a happy spirit behind it, a work where everyone is fundamentally happy. Unrealistic, but that’s okay, better than the strained seriousness of pretending everything is such a great tragedy. Happiness isn’t really in the home, in my opinion, but that musical number showing the little things from after you get married (beds, toothbrushes, etc) is magical, complete with honest to goodness whistling used to round it out. If A Star is Born ended with Judy Garland or Janet Gaynor rescuing James Mason or Fredric March, perhaps this is what could have resulted? Either way, this deserves a revival in reputation, and I hope it gets it. (Also, the ending! Holy shit.)
Favorite Moment: Final joke.
11. The Fantastic Night
The Fantastic Night is a very unique sort of pure fantasy that would never be utilized nowadays, featuring a man who is sleeping his way through his life and his job and killing his relationships with that problem before we finally get to see what he is so happily dreaming about: a woman in white who dances. Such a primal image, yet such a conventional one, and Marcel L’Herbier’s knack for grand outre production design results in even the hospital where the man has his daydreams looking like some sterile Cuckoo’s Nest hellhole from the 40s when some people are doing nothing more than walking down a hall. The nature of imagination is constantly being interrogated, with someone who is blind having to do just as much imagining if not more than our protagonist when it comes to his relationships with women, while the lack of definition as to who exactly this dream lady is serves us well as she dances around in his head and leads him to a proto-Lynch situation where people are sitting at a table and having a backwards conversation. Is there a logic to this in the same way that other dream movies do? It’s awfully straightforward, considering it’s a 1942 film that underwent cuts in the duration that I’m not sure were rectified. Everything is so strangely atmospheric, though, with smoke and tables in a restaurant set very far away from each other while the white wearing lady, Irene, points out how awful it is to marry someone based on their appearance. Everyone is socializing as they fall asleep, and they fall in love as they do that as well. You have to wonder if the centerpiece dinner scene had an influence on Eraserhead, with the fundamental elegance of that being turned into working class chicken nightmares, swallowed up by the urban universe that devoured Henry and his family unit whole. Instead, we live in a place that is magical and where the divide between what we know and what we want is semi-permeable if you give into it a bit. L’Herbier really knocks how to block his subjects so that we feel the appropriate responses to all the stuff that doesn’t quite feel like it belongs, totally shiny and surreal and causing the blacks to be oddly reflected and drip into all the frames, smothering the faces as they close their eyes and sleep.
Favorite Moment: Our first vision.
10. Johnny Eager
No one really talks about the film noir Johnny Eager anymore despite the fact that it won the Supporting Actor Oscar. This is a real shame, as it is one of the most deliciously mean film noirs of them all. Robert Taylor seduces Lana Turner purely for the purposes of revenge and to keep his illegal business operations (that got him over thirty indictments) going along as usual. She’s the D.A.’s daughter to boot. He’s not so much a mobster as he is a con artist who never stops moving to perpetrate a new hustle on some unsuspecting woman that makes the mistake of getting in his way. Taylor and Turner’s performances are solid, mostly serving to keep the pace quick and fill out some stereotypical gangster/moll parts in a “crime doesn’t pay” morality play, but the beating heart comes in the form of the year’s Oscar winner in Van Heflin. His character Jeff is the best friend of the lead, but he is not really involved with the crime business that he perpetrates, and more importantly, he is suffering from a drinking problem and is very much in love with Mr. Eager, constantly watching and commenting on his actions. Sure, the role of a drunkard who is constantly reciting poetry and big words that parodies of intellectuals use is the sort of thing that AMPAS falls all over themselves to reward, but Heflin’s just so damn good at gripping onto his glass for dear life as he plays pet to the man he wants to bottom for, bringing this into a bizarre hybrid territory, a mix of the overrated Little Caesar (also by Mervyn LeRoy) and an Edward Everett Horton musical number from the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance musicals. The role of confidante is a terrible thing to force upon a person, and a whole unspoken history looms in his scenes. The homoeroticism that he just dumps out as if he were a dump truck is frankly bold as hell and it’s not like the rest of the picture is bad, either, a weirdly old fashioned piece of melodrama during an oddly paced opening act that leaves us talking about stuff like these gangsters are in a Richard Linklater work and the fact that Taylor isn’t as handsome as you would expect, a rough piece of trade who is openly accused of being a wife beater before the flirting begins again anyway.
Favorite Moment: Our intro to Van Heflin.
9. There Was a Father
Discussed for 333 Great Directors.
Favorite Moment: The final meeting.
8. Yankee Doodle Dandy
More than arguably any other film out there, I have no fucking clue why I like Yankee Doodle Dandy as much as I do. Patriotism this deeply rooted in someone’s inherent being has skeeved me out for a long time, and this has frankly only gotten worse as I get older. Blackface is vile and the number in this ranks only slightly above the one in Swing Time in terms of reasonability for its inclusion (with Holiday Inn, from the same year, being the clear loser in terms of how awful it is). The songs are horrible and hokey stuff that I nevertheless find deeply catchy in the same vein as Sound of Music. Biopics are inherently bland and uninteresting and the conflict in Cohan’s life does not exist outside of a brief money troubles subplot early on that ends within five minutes. And yet, there is a lot of spectacle and nonsense, and that is all that you really need when it comes to the 1940s Hollywood productions of the day. Bonus points for James Cagney’s finest hour in one of his musical roles, full of life and energy at every turn even when the history is much more questionable (hard to complain about that since the real Cohan was a Republican who hated FDR and supposedly said after the premiere: “It was a good movie. Who was it about?”). The appeal of this, ultimately, is not the patriotism but the rhythms of the quick showbiz dialogue, with genuinely funny wisecracks that would not be out of place in something that would be written by…the guys who wrote Casablanca? Well, that explains it, right down to Michael Curtiz doing the direction yet again. Cagney’s the star, but Walter Huston as the father gives arguably his best performance since 1936, and everyone else is doing good work (including James’ sister Jeanne in her single major work). Douglas Croft is pretty unbearable as young George (and he sucked in Kings Row too), but that somehow works for his brief number of scenes. Really, the appeal of Yankee Doodle Dandy is in how it blasts through all the ridiculousness with momentum and montages, a tribute to old fashioned American silliness in the vein that Strawberry Blonde captured in a way that appeals to me to a higher level just in the strangeness of certain gags and plot points, which this has sanded over.
Favorite Moment: Titular song.
7. I Married a Witch
Rene Clair was a talented man who got way too much shit from the Cahiers crowd and deserves a reputation rehabilitation, but most of his best jokes were of the deeply silly kind, ranging from the bearded ballerina of Entr’acte to the entire silly plots of A Nous La Liberte and Le Million that took the piss out of the very nature of money and capitalism. Veronica Lake, hot off of Sullivan’s Travels and looking ten times better even when portraying a cloud of vapor or lounging around in pajamas to sing a terrible song, was ideally suited for his mockery of the world, with a voice and diction that are as cinematic as they get. She even steals the show when she is pretending to be a bottle of alcohol in voice over with her sorcerer father. During the course of a movie that is just barely over 75 minutes, we get a companion to Cat People from the same year in how marriage is depicted as something really genuinely terrifying in how you can never know another woman. Or it’s just a lightweight bit of nonsense that gives Fredric March an excuse to play the same sort of befuddled loser who is desperately trying not to fall in love with one of the sexiest women in Hollywood. Whichever, it is perfect for the lightly likable Clair temperament, with jokes ranging from people getting baseball type snacks while watching the ancient burnings to the fact that marriage is treated as one long round of politicking with both witches and wives. Screwball as a genre is turned into something much more mundane and dry, worthy of pissing off Truffaut since it’s so dry and contrived in the right ways, with all the plot contrivances not happening organically but by good old fashioned witchcraft. Isn’t all of this what we go to the movies for? Right down to the power of star presence, the untamed kind that does not make her seem like a real actress. (Although I will say that the picture needed someone sexier and dumber than March in the male governor lead part, who seemed smart and a touch visibly older by this point. Joel McCrea again would be nice, but that would’ve never worked out thanks to his Sullivan’s Travels experience. Errol Flynn, maybe? I could totally see him as a governor nowadays, because hey, look at our President.)
Favorite Moment: The vote count reveal.
6. Now Voyager
Irving Rapper was more or less a competent hack whose skills relied on whatever material he was handed. The Corn is Green is a tediously stupid film that doesn’t even have a fun Bette Davis performance in it, One Foot in Heaven is pretty damn awful unless you really like Christianity, and most of his other works have basically been forgotten. Luckily, the writers of this picture are Casey Robinson (who wrote Dark Victory and Captain Blood) and Olive Higgins Prouty (who wrote Stella Dallas), and they put their talents together to create one of the most beloved Hollywood melodramas of all time, starring Bette Davis in a role that could be called among her best performances, with material that may be slightly implausible but would be perfectly suited for anyone who made a film in the classical Hollywood style with enough good performances. This has three great ones, with the others being Gladys Cooper as a tyrannical mother who looks like a bone or a cane to be used for striking, poised and ready to wreck her daughter Charlotte’s life whenever she can, including calling her an ugly duckling in a way that suggests she does not much care who hears it. The other is Bonita Granville, casually nasty in the same way as These Three yet much more well meaning with how she uses her rather acidic tendencies. (Rains and Henreid are good too.) She dresses as if she were a parody of an unwanted daughter, but the exaggerated sensibilities and casual support of mental health treatment are lovely to behold, with the real auteur here, beyond the writers, being the star of the show, controlling Rapper into accepting her will as she smashes her way through the manipulations of the writing. She dodges every minute of potential cliche and drags up some real deep wells of emotion, beliefs that you cannot imagine the woman could conjure up regarding herself (she considers herself fat?) and which she sells the shit out of. Couple that with moments that scream “iconic” with the two cigarettes and the final speech about the moon and the stars. Maybe it’s ultimately a shame that she never got to direct her own picture, as she certainly utilizes her creative control here brilliantly, in a way that should have netted her the Oscar. It’s arguably her best performance, only topped by Margo Channing in All About Eve.
Favorite Moment: Double cigarette.
5. Cat People
Cat People, like all of Torneur’s works, could have just as well been called Out of the Past and it would be a damningly accurate title of people’s fears and desires towards their heritage. The lighting here, as per usual, is sublime and really pops on the new Blu Ray, with Val Lewton’s love of brevity resulting in a quick little study of sexual frustrations that is lithe and muscular, just like the panther itself that poor Serbian immigrant Simone Simon transforms into so frequently when dealing with the unintentionally hilariously named Oliver Reed. Consummation is the scariest thing on the planet, but really, why would you get married in the first place? For drama, of course, and the sublime nature of Simon’s stalking of the other woman in their relationship when the clicking of their heels suddenly turns singular is the reason for film in miniature. Everyone is being haunted by the ghost of a long gone dead affair, but the fear and the fascination are intertwined in ways that cannot be separated no matter how much Oliver desperately wishes for it. First half is nothing but psychological games, but those take a turn for the supernatural at the pool freakout, where the purring and the sound of splashing water sound awfully similar, and we cannot pinpoint why she would choose to not turn on the lights, nor do we care. Darkness is everywhere, from the nights where these people wander to the black fur of the panther itself. Even the ending, which clarifies matters that were previously left ambiguous, is so shot with care and detail that it feels much better than certain other studio surgeries that marred the releases of 1942, particularly as it is totally subjective and as surreal as everything else that we’ve been put through. Fittingly, a staircase used in that film’s sets makes an appearance here, with the grandeur fitting both very appropriately. The Lewton Horror Unit would go on to make many more pictures after this point, but this was the pinnacle, and it still remains one of the high points of the genre. Shame about that Schrader remake that turned everything orange and gave us a truly awful Malcolm McDowell performance. He clearly missed the point and did not appreciate the nature of the deeply mannered yet affecting acting on Simon’s end, a performance that dominates even if it reaches greatness weirdly.
Favorite Moment: Swimming pool.
4. To Be Or Not To Be
Discussed for 333 Great Directors.
Favorite Moment: The Shylock moment.
Bambi concluded Walt Disney’s string of total masterpieces that made up their first five films, but it did so in a return to the more adult style that we’d partially departed from with Dumbo, a masterpiece of forest backgrounds that nevertheless look totally different from the German Expressionist nightmare that is Snow White’s woods chase. It is all the more impressive considering Disney was undergoing massive financial strain at the time due to the war and a strike by underpaid animators. The internal problems cannot be spotted, but they do make the accomplishment vaguely miraculous. The animal kingdom was always a fascinating subject, and shades of crap like Zootopia can be spotted here in the anthropomorphism that really starts to take flight, but the original novel’s storyline of “two years in the life of a deer” got sanded down yet still traumatized a generation thanks to the death of a mother. Everything is about realism, for the first time ever in the company’s history, and thus we get a portrait of the woods that lives and breathes, an ecosystem to be celebrated. How fitting that even the Prince of the Forest gets to be visited by everyone and treated as a friend…and he is a deer to boot. Legs like stilts, feet that make noise, predators that do not bother the prey (the owl’s characterization is nonsense). The studio was practically turned into a zoo just to capture this sort of sensation of being in the wilds, with astounding detail in the muscles and movements of a creature as awkward as the youngest of fawns in a truly photo-realistic space of the forests, with complete reverence for the way things can echo and move in such a wild place, just naturally interesting by virtue of space and and existence. No wonder the small number of deaths among this ensemble affect us anyway, no matter how much that Godzilla sketch turned animal death into a hilarious joke. It is all because so much of this hour long series of paintings is the viewer getting acquainted with a place that we should wish was real. Little April Showers is a touch too modern to truly work in something along these lines, but the accompanying scene with the raindrops is some of the most astounding animation the company ever did, an appreciation of something as lovely and quick as a rainstorm in spring.
Favorite Moment: Little April Showers.
2. The Magnificent Ambersons
To be discussed for 333 Great Directors.
Favorite Moment: The eating of cake.
1. The Palm Beach Story
Favorite Moment: The train ride.