Looking Back at Oscar, #16

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1943:

Casablanca
The Constant Nymph
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Heaven Can Wait
The Human Comedy
In Which We Serve
Madame Curie
The More the Merrier
The Ox-Bow Incident
Sahara
So Proudly We Hail
The Song of Bernadette
Watch on the Rhine

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
Casablanca
Heaven Can Wait
The More the Merrier
The Ox-Bow Incident
So Proudly We Hail

I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1943 Year in Review post.

The Constant Nymph
The Constant Nymph is in some ways a perfect fusion of talents. The director is Edmund Goulding, who was clearly talented enough to give us Grand Hotel and Dark Victory but still doesn’t feel like much of a director in the same vein as some of the other studio names that have endured better. Joan Fontaine, meanwhile, was incredibly fond of playing a certain blandly meek innocent that makes it easy to dismiss her even when she’s great at it, but she clearly liked to challenge herself if she was willing to seek out Hitchcock and Ophuls for her most remembered parts (among others; Joan really doesn’t get enough credit for working with so many auteurs thanks to her rivalry with sister Olivia de Havilland drowning it all out a bit). You also have Charles Boyer as the romantic leading male, who is the sort of star that has simultaneously aged a whole lot and not at all in how he always played a certain type of role where he shouldn’t have needed to do any heavy lifting. These notes on the crew and cast serve to distract from the simple problem: this is a two hour long romantic melodrama that really did not need to be that long, and feels like a rough draft for her arguable career peak in the masterful Letter From an Unknown Woman, with a bit more bounciness behind it in a way that she pulls off even if it’s not the choice I would have made for this kind of material, but then you get something totally Hollywood, a scene where she dramatically proclaims a desire to die, and it starts to make a little more sense why she is making these choices, so good for her. Her accent work is pretty shaky, though, and the film itself has the rather creepy plot relating to her legal guardian falling in love with her, shades of Woody Allen to come, and everything about the script starts to feel as if this was a silent love story with sound, with the character of Tessa being renamed The Constant Nymph in order to fit into the mad, racist universe of D.W. Griffith. Fontaine’s heavy lifting becomes increasingly impressive as the nonsense surrounding her heart troubles that will definitely never come back to trouble her takes on prominence, and one roots for her no matter what kind of banal turns the story takes.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
For Whom The Bell Tolls is a headache to parse, with a Greek actress in Katina Paxinou getting stuck in what I think would be called brownface (it’s hideously inconsistent) to pass for a Spanish resistance fighter, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman coming off their major star moments in Casablanca and Pride of the Yankees to play the bland, sleepily cheerful leads in a script that was absolutely gutted of Hemingway’s political message (he hated the movie and was probably right to, although I don’t know why he handpicked Cooper and Bergman as the actors for the primary roles beyond A Farewell to Arms turning out to be a great adaptation) and was staged by director Sam Wood at his most creakily sincere, with the entire plot just ultimately being a boy meets girl story in an exotic locale and time period. It’s also endless at two hours and forty five minutes, and feels weirdly amorphous as a result of things like the gorgeous, luridly colorful photography being punctuated with very poor blocking that undoes itself (I cannot top Nick Davis’ description of Maria “delivering an apostrophe into the side of a horse” into his Paxinou review). The supporting players are all playing it pretty broadly, with Akim Tamiroff going for the loudest, craziest route in his second and thankfully final nomination. Paxinou’s win, meanwhile, is a weird one, a mix of taking it much too broad for a role that demands something even bigger anyway, and she gets sidelined quite a bit for reasons that are both a relief (something about the line deliveries in this movie is unbearable in how they don’t seem to coalesce) and rather depressing. The hokeyness is unceasing and fits way too neatly into the Academy’s preferred style of epic from those days, which I’m rather glad has gone out of style even if the Technicolor in this results in some absolutely gorgeous night scenes, where the glow of the colors feels like a surreal and scary war picture, as opposed to the bland prestige that is all devouring and sucking the script to hell, with emphasis on the love of two people bonding over the lady’s new haircut as opposed to saying ideas about fascism of substance. I have not read the book, but Hemingway’s prose is lean and muscular, so why is this so overblown and devouring of any interest that could arise?

The Human Comedy
There is a lot of singing in The Human Comedy, which is exactly what you expect from Mickey Rooney in the starring role as a boy at home with his widowed mother and younger brother while his older brother goes off to Europe to fight in the war. (His dead father does the narration, no comment, especially in that terrifying shot of his terrifying face superimposed over a shot of the town.) The whole point is to keep everything low key, but that doesn’t stop everyone from having a bunch of happy low-key episodes to keep the audience pacified for two hours that frankly feel neverending, as Rooney’s star persona has aged pretty badly and the only characterization who gets some weight is his mother, played by Fay Bainter in a role I’d like to imagine she spent her time thinking “just need to endure a few more weeks of this child…I won a damn Oscar” while delivering sympathetic lines with a worried look on her face in her standard agony aunt part. Much more notable nowadays is the fact that the screenplay writer, after being fired by MGM, quickly managed to get a book version that is supposedly better out before the film did, and made it so that there was much heavier criticism of the way the small town works and operates under a crisis. No way this would have gotten nominated if it wasn’t propaganda designed to uplift the citizens during the war times, however, so we get people singing songs on a train, or whistling as they skip down the sunny streets (barf), or learning about life from random working folks whose entire purpose seems to be the education of Mickey Rooney and his creepy younger sibling. (Their names are Homer and Ulysses, and the mother’s name is credited as Mrs. Macauley even though her first name is clearly Subtext.) I’m all for movies without a plot, but this slice of life has absolutely nothing else going for it other than a certain cheery disposition and Clarence Brown’s standard competent direction. I’ll confess to having my heartstrings…not yanked at, exactly, but there were a few tugs that quickly retreated before it did any permanent emotional damage or made me feel anything for keeps. It’s harmless, but blandness comes about as a result of that, and you need a certain signature stamp to help make this material interesting in a movie form.

In Which We Serve
My Brief Year in Review piece for In Which We Serve: Discussed on 333 Great Directors.

Madame Curie
Greer Garson is a pleasant enough actress to watch, but the roles she usually took on were some of the blandest matriarchs ever devised for the studio system, and Madame Curie being a two hour biopic about Guess Who as she nobly discovers radium and then dies from it, while falling in love to a man who promptly dies in a car accident, is the sort of thing that makes me want to break out in hives just because you know exactly what is going to happen just from the title (why not call it Marie Curie? She’s a human being) and the leading lady, with Mervyn LeRoy in prestige mode rather than “sleaze disguised as standard entertainment” mode. To make matters even more tiresome, Garson was at the point in her career thanks to Mrs. Miniver where she could have been nominated for anything she did, and thus, she was. A pity, made even more annoying by how goddamn bland her acting is, which is usually not quite the case no matter how bad her role was. She was typically cast as some amiable and capable of getting things done, here she is bookish and muted and thus struggles. LeRoy’s primary interest, thanks to the dire script, is to show us that the Curies were wonderfully humble over the course of two hours that feel very long. It’s low key propaganda in the worst way, with a message encouraging people to keep their heads up no matter the level of squalidity of the conditions, the perfect ideal to aspire to in the context of rationing and with The Great Depression not too far away. For all my complaints about the script and Garson’s performance, however, I should note that there are a few inspired moments in the direction, with offscreen sounds and space getting properly utilized occasionally, and the worst performance has to be Walter Pidgeon as her husband, an actively terrible portrayal of a man who is French but has no accent, has no chemistry with his wife but makes it feel like that is on him, and lacks in passion when defending what is supposedly his life’s work. Hard to consider this nomination anything other than “oh what the hell, he’s handsome” before they threw it his way, and this was not a particularly talented actor to begin with, so why bother with all of this for Oscars?

Sahara
Sahara came along right when Bogart was hitting his peak and was the perfect piece of wartime propaganda to supplement the harsher charms of Casablanca, but the Oscar nomination went to J. Carrol Naish, playing an Italian soldier who had been captured by the Americans, for reasons I cannot quite parse since the role is so simple and limited outside of an accent that is thankfully not too unbearable. He gets nothing to do until a big speech at the end that he sells as hard as possible, so there’s the clip if they had those back then. Most of the story is otherwise concerned with the logistics of the Americans trekking across several miles of desert in Libya in order to reach the Allied forces, with water and gasoline beginning to run low as the various one note characters begin to conflict with each other as they run to stop the Germans, and have to put up a fight. Not a particularly interesting piece of work, frankly, but Zoltan Korda was a competent enough director who knew what he was doing even under the conditions of having to transport a lot of sand and the California desert locations they shot on that was meant to resemble Africa’s most desolate place. The sound and cinematography do not break new ground, but they are pretty enough, and you can understand its purpose…although after a certain point of watching a lot of Oscar bait, one has to yell “another goddamn work of propaganda designed to encourage recruitment that was perceived as having something considered among the year’s best?” The decision that stands out is the group eventually turning into a diverse group of various countries and races represented, but it’s still flat and mostly just there as a way of saying “all races should hate the Nazis,” but everything feels pretty didactic and designed to cater to the audiences in the same way as Eisenstein, with the craft being significantly less creative, and the jokes falling flat all around (particularly with the shrieking joke aimed for the lowest of low brows early on involving the men mishearing each other as they are traveling along in a loud vehicle). By this point in history, the need for such obvious material opposing the Nazis strikes me as rather unnecessary, but I suppose the anti-racism worked in is adequately scathing thanks to the cast’s makeup.

The Song of Bernadette
My Brief Year in Review piece for Song of Bernadette: Much too long but it looks good and the cast performs well.

The 1943 Best Picture lineup generally was much too long on the whole, with a significant chunk of the nominees hovering around two hours or going over it, with all the misery that could potentially imply for Oscar bait. Song of Bernadette, at two and a half hours, is much too long, but has plenty more going for it than the similarly length For Whom the Bell Tolls as an earnest, if not altogether successful, attempt at reckoning with faith, and an ensemble of performances that really did earn their Oscar attention. Jennifer Jones, as the titular character, gives what seems very likely to be the best performance of her career (Since You Went Away and Love Letters were pretty terrible). Her earnestness and rather blank slate vibes work perfectly here, as if Maria Falconetti’s face was less interesting via the ability to hear her words. She’s stuck playing a saint, but she sells it pretty well, and I never doubted her which is exactly what you need for something like this. Henry King, a prestigious bore with way too many nominees in the BP category, finally gets a cinematographer of value with Arthur Miller, who rewards him by composing images in the same vein as How Green Was My Valley minus the poetic insanity of John Ford hitting full throttle with the elements and compositions. Once Bernadette sees the beautiful woman who may or may not be the Virgin Mary at a dump, however, we get to see the supporting cast, all giving some real heavy lifting performances. Charles Bickford as the reverend, Anne Revere as Bernadette’s mother, and especially Gladys Cooper as a confused nun who goes from spite to servitude in her final revelation turn in work that defies caricature and lends layers to the edges. Cooper’s performance alone could’ve justified a movie centering around her. Despite the fact that the audience for this film is far too oriented to those who actually believe in God (complete with an opening basically scolding any atheists), and the fact that it is never in doubt that our heroine really did see that mysterious beautiful lady (who cares), the ideas this confronts are surprisingly interesting, and I can give it credit for that. Not one of the great works about faith, but a worthwhile little side project if you can handle the length and the stretches of nothing but bland heroism.

Watch on the Rhine
My Brief Year in Review piece for Watch on the Rhine: The Victor Laszlo movie.

Watch on the Rhine’s reputation is a weird one, with the director only going on to make one more movie after this and its reputation hinging on Paul Lukas winning the Best Actor Oscar over Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. The film seems to be a pretty blatant attempt at copying the appeal of Mrs. Miniver, but the length here is even more patently absurd due to how solemn and stiff the statements of antifascist resistance are. Despite Dashiell Hammett taking on the screenplay, there’s not much to be wrung from this, with Lukas’ character basically being Victor Laszlo: The Movie. Does anyone watch Casablanca for that? (He’s still the second choice of that pack of nominees.) You could certainly make the Curtiz film plenty interesting in its own right if you substituted Bette Davis for Ingrid Bergman, but perhaps not in the way that would be productive, and she is sidelined to shit in this anyway (not unfairly, as she is not in a position to play resistance fighter). Lucile Watson, who was also in the original stage production, got an Oscar nomination in Supporting Actress for basically playing a snarky old lady, a role that most stage actresses could play in their sleep. Her choices feel obvious throughout, but nevertheless, that fits the mood of this, a piece of propaganda that gains some reassuring qualities as a result of its relevance to our world today. Otherwise, you get something generic, with a truly annoying series of child performances and a full hour devoted to setting up a very basic plot. Perhaps this was the sort of thing that was considered high entertainment back then, in the days of Gone With the Wind setting the roadwork for prestige, but this desperately needed at least half an hour hacked out as quickly as possible, and a charismatic series of performers that also get something to do (poor Davis). I still sort of enjoyed myself in a perverse way thanks to the unusually good quality of the production design, and the Nazis being shown as thugs rather than the alternate portrayal of them as brainwashed eugenicists, but way too much of this is devoted to Lucile Watson’s squawking away as an irritating older lady rather than a substantial character. I suppose they were opposed to making the pretty great ending scene land as hard as it should have, but it certainly deserved it.

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