[1937.10] A Star Is Born

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.  

In the late 1930s, there existed a colorless film standard: the technology was too expensive and not reliable enough for the majority of films to translate from sets or locations to film, then to playback across screens across the country. The infrastructure was still in its infancy. Naturally, with time and adaptation, the technology became commonplace – now when a filmmaker chooses black-and-white, the director chooses it as a style to possibly reflect a specific mood or callback to a past time. Schindler’s List is mostly in black-and-white, whose color palate reflects bleakness and starkness, dotted with some color for dramatic effect. Director Michel Hazanavicius, chose for Best Picture winner from 2011, The Artist, to film in black-and-white and remove sound, too. But there was a time when, in 1937, A Star Is Born, broke the color barrier (if you will), as the first Best Picture nominee to have been filmed in color.

The Artist won as homage to film’s past, so if we anchor A Star Is Born as homage to film’s future, we might expect a win, too, for its production quality alone. But like In Old Chicago and San Francisco before it, A Star Is Born could not win “Outstanding Production” on gimmick alone. The color adds extra depth to the story, but does not replace the qualities that make great story – especially those that reflect the mood and gestalt for 1937. But: this story is good, if not a little convenient, but could have been made five years earlier (maybe not in color) or five years later, and would have had the same effect. Janet Gaynor, film’s first Best Actress winner, plays a convincing, if reluctant leading lady. Once again, Adolphe Menjou lends his talents once again as a talent manager, and Frederic March rounds out the leading cast as the most interesting character. The color adds depth to his emotional journey, allowing for a full range of emotion from love on high to the end on low. There was no “switch,” though. Just deep blues and reds and greens and indigos. The man was a mess, but the late 30s were more of a recovery period than a messy one, and pushes this film out from Best Picture consideration. Continue reading

[1937.9] Stage Door

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.  

If the Academy were allowed a mulligan – a do-over in retrospect, but a few years later – Stage Door would have offered The Life of Emile Zola almost unbearable competition. For the past eight reviews, all focused on films nominated in 1937, this blog’s format attempted to justify the Best Picture winner using static data that Emile Zola won (it did) and why the other films weren’t better suited (they weren’t), until this one. Stage Door is a superlatively powerful challenger, based squarely on Katharine Hepburn’s broad shoulders, so much so, that given a Mulligan, this film would have taken Best Picture at the 10th Academy Awards of 1945.

The two films are essentially incomparable, aside from their temporal and basic technical aspects. The mood in each film taps a completely different nerve, the structural elements of each’s story assumes wildly different story arc depths and each tackles a different synapse of the American Interwar psyche. On one hand, The Life of Emile Zola tackles xenophobia, political resistance and preaches acceptance in response to European democratic devolution and revolt. Stage Door, on the other hand, dives inward into the interplay among varying levels of “together,” in the stifling world of top-level Theater. With dozens of girls and women at different stages of their careers, relationships form from happenstance and from necessity. The only common thread that ties these two films together is that both films concentrate on the actions of people in the face of an uncertain and variable living conditions. Even so, nineteenth century France and twentieth century New York do not seem to intersect culturally or politically until the advent of rapid communication technology via the Internet. Continue reading

[1937.8] One Hundred Men and a Girl

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.  

The simplest movie out of the eight (so far) from 1937, One Hundred Men and a Girl, also proves one of the most successful. This film is logically self-contained, and though it possesses only fragments of human endeavor, its ends justify its means. One Hundred Men and a Girl is meant to show off breakout star Deanna Durbin’s vocal and acting chops and needed a truly simple plot to maneuver from point A to point B. In 80 minutes, we learn just enough about each character so that we (the audience) can discern a character’s motivations for action, even if the environment will not allow for it or, more often, over-corrects to an illogical extreme. What makes One Hundred Men and a Girl different from a film like In Old Chicago is the complete unabashed focus on real-life career-making at the expense of a comprehensive or even believable story or character development.

For example, in no way do I believe that 100 people are ready at a moment’s notice, fully practiced and tuned, to jump at the chance to perform “in three days,” for a famed maestro [the actual Leopold Stokowski], who has no idea of any of it. I do not believe young Patsy has the wherewithal to move so deftly through a city and catch people unaware and ready to chat – or the opposite, to “just miss” the loopy (and perhaps drunk) benefactress for this orchestra of unemployed urchins. I do not believe the supportive taxi man would give up his day job to shuttle this rambunctious, if not well-meaning, teenager, around the city for hours and days at a time as an “investment in her voice.” BUT: because I am aware of all these plot holes and nonsense coincidences, and I am also aware of this film’s purpose, I cast aside the doubt in exchange for a simple and fun 80-minute tale of validated dreams. It is inspiring.  Continue reading

[1937.7] Lost Horizon

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.  

We mythologize utopia as some lost dream from past society or some future to work toward. We can be certain that no such society exists where moderation is maxim and utility is perfectly cached: the desires of men are too disparate. And yet some faction of Utopian flag bearers, somewhere, still pushes the cause for a form of direct democracy where every member of a perfect society lives in harmony, balancing free will and freedom with equality and efficiency. This equilibrium, if ever achieved, is bound to be ephemeral if the conditions upon which it is tenuously based change in any way. In a society of more than one actor (by definition), these conditions can be near infinite. Yet we yearn for perfection, for redistribution, at the expense of neoliberalism, upon which our real, capitalist society is based. Why?

Lost Horizon is a shallow dive into this question. In this (the first, and most successful, of many), legendary director Frank Capra supposedly shot over one million feet of film to capture the balance between the visual and the aural cues behind societal and physical perfection of mind and place. Often what makes for good tonal and internal conflict within a two-hour film is severe realism versus capricious mysticism. Searching for voice, a director will sometimes (perhaps more often than not) film with hopes of reflecting points onto which an audience can latch. This is why we often see a story through the point-of-view of a protagonist instead of an antagonist, in the grand hope that Good can overcome Evil, or that the down-on-his-luck insurance salesman can push through adversity to escape into someone – or something – else. The trick with Lost Horizon is that neither option – Utopia nor status quo – is particularly good or evil. Whose voice we follow, Robert Conway, canonizes the mood of Perfection; of non-linear, human life and desire. Conversely, Conway’s brother, George, idealizes the need to break out from what seems a trap; the linear, skeptical, human life and desire. With whom are we supposed to identify? Is it fair to assume Robert just because Capra decides as such? Why is George, a “realist,” derided?  Continue reading

[1937.6] In Old Chicago

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.  

Nearly eighty years later, In Old Chicago reads as representative of the film industry working many kinks out. For one, movies strove (and maybe still strive) to find the very difference between stage and screen, mostly with obvious differences to do with scale, scope and budget. For another, cinematographers, directors, producers and actors needed to work within technology available: gel film, mechanical cameras, low-light projectors, etc, etc.

The fact that any film existed before a majority of modern technology was commercially feasible is incredible, and we should watch older movies with such-colored glasses. In Old Chicago followed San Francisco as a quasi-blockbuster to feature a miniaturized disaster as precursor to modern computer generated images. To compare, performing in front of a live audience a stage troupe would never be able to convince an audience that a 1:100 scale of anything was supposed to represent “real,” and the choice of medium should be clear. Yet in the case of older film, predating digital film (surely), but also larger and more specific budgets, the cast and crew usually could muster perhaps two chances for the expensive, but visually stunning scenery and subsequent destruction. Make fun of the primitive at will and watch a modern post-produced action film with awe, but respect the vision and execution of the original action sequence for its vision. Continue reading

[1937.5] The Good Earth

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.  

The most obvious anachronism in the film adaptation of The Good Earth is the whitewashing. Paul Muni (Chicago by-way of Ukraine) and Luise Rainer (Düsseldorf) are not Chinese, whereas the characters, Wang Lung and O-Lan, are Chinese.  Yes whitewashing is inauthentic and detracts from the overall believability of the film. Because I know Muni and Rainer are White playing Chinese, the hyper-sensitive culture within which I have watched this movie forces my brain to identify this fact and constantly reminds me of it. In 1937 the industry might have had many reasons to hire white actors: budget (no), racism (maybe), lack of qualified, famous and available Chinese actors (probably). This point is uninteresting.

What about the ‘Earth’ is ‘Good?’ The title is an non-exhaustive metaphor for a noun/metaphor combination that could mean any number of things, but in this film adaptation of Nobel Prize for Literature Winner Pearl Buck’s stunning The Good Earth, which follows the story of human sadness (Good) as the dirt bites back (Earth) and is probably allegory for the tides of Chinese statehood at the turn of the 20th Century. Our characters are metaphors, say, of the competing forces that shaped China during the shift from the final years of Mandated Qing through the sapling stages of the Republic. Throughout the course of Wang Lung’s life, things happen, and The Good Earth follows his quintessentially human story (Good) as he reacts to the different hardships, mostly poverty. His and his wife’s, and eventually his children’s, lives rely on the fickle arid passively dramatic land (Earth) for sustenance and for well-being. Goodness is necessarily of the Earth and wonderfully abstract and confusing. The Good Earth is a story of human suffering, and that it is of Chinese substance is a function of Pearl Bucks’ own formative experience. The Good Earth novel won the Nobel Prize not because it peeled back the curtain, per se, to a wider audience, but because it globalized Occidental and Oriental in a manner theretofore unknown. It is our Earth. Continue reading

[1937.4] Dead End

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.

Dead End, a 1937 slice-of-life, riches-and-urchins film is a masterful adaptation of stage-to-screen because the theme works with light hands. In an attempt to backdrop ostentatious wealth against abject poverty, Dead End neither attempts to comment on income inequality nor class politics. Instead, the film, basically confined to a single stage (with a few side rooms, as physical asides) tells the story of a couple of chipped kids with no discernible past and, as the story would lead a reader to believe, no future either. Yet we, presumably not destitute, can connect with these kids because for every “stage” in our own lives, there exists at least one kid who has been beaten down by his milieu. Dead End works in that mysterious middle ground of unintentional brilliance, of unassuming aloofness.

The viewing object – the screen – held enormous weight in early Hollywood; no home video existed and the audience needed to see perspective projected onto it. That said, a screen by itself is not perspectival, so in order to create depth, a cinematographer will use different lens widths and size through distance. This technique is not new and not unique to film. Some artists intentionally bastardize perspective to trick the mind, others unintentionally misuse equipment and shift perspective from the normal human eye’s perspective and either ruin a scene or create some modernist brilliance – cohesive and contentious. Dead End exists somewhere in the middle of intentional because of its adaptation from a play written for the stage and unintentional because the available film equipment in the 1930s limited a director/cinematographer’s options. Continue reading

[1937.3] Captains Courageous

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

Captains Courageous is well-paced, well-acted and holds up over the 80 or so years since its premier in 1937. Rudyard Kipling, of Jungle Book fame, wrote a story that translates well to the screen; humans have a fascination with the unruly sea, that which can giveth life but also taketh. The ocean is often the setting for panacea, spreading hope like miasma, even to the darkest corners and especially for the darkest souls. Kipling’s story extends its reach to that of a child, young Harvey Cheyne, for whom wealth has clouded an imagination and turned a typically joyful time in a person’s life spoiled, spiteful and shrewd. As a character study, Captains Courageous provides a wealth of archetypes that interact: young Cheyne and his wealthy but distant father, Spencer Tracy’s slightly-overacted-but-nevertheless-earnest Manuel, seaworthy Captain Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore), et cetera. But the movie still feels told-before in a way, and as a consequence, dull.

Why?

Perhaps through jaded-colored glasses, this story has been told many times since and can no longer be differentiated from the countless iterations in the 80 or so years since. This is, of course, quite a subjective response dependent on the fact that The Academy Nominees Project exists with a close circle of friends almost guaranteeing we’ve seen everything (not literally). So while this pieces change, the story remains and those versed in storytelling notice a rehashing of tropes as a “teaching” moment, a resolution somewhat guaranteed, that’s incomparable to real life situations. It’s escapism at it’s finest because Captains Courageous is well-made and well-meaning. But escapism is unsustainable. Its counterfactual is weariness, to be surfeit with time and life experience.  Continue reading

[1937.2] The Awful Truth

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

Cary Grant could have had chemistry with a dead plant. Nineteen thirty-seven’s The Awful Truth showcases the man’s ability to play deadpan earnest while playing aloof goofball. The balance is impeccable and its allows all the characters involved to shine in their respective roles. This combination of traits works well for romantic comedy; it plays foil for a lover spurned and a more straight-edge love interest. The combo is pliable, too. It allows this character to jump from alpha to beta depending on the direction plot dictates. Because the traits are so pervasive, flexible, non-conformist, what does it matter that Irene Dunne wasn’t simply a fern stuck to the wall?

Because the last and most precarious variable is the combination of time and place. Grant afforded himself a niche that continues to cut across time. His accent placed him from San Francisco through Gary down to Raleigh and up to New York. The virtue of black-and-white photography is that it allows only for a limited range of saturation and hue, while brightness is relatively fixed between the binary of zero (black) to one (bright); this is what adds a layer of complementary guffaw to the opening scene, wherein Grant, as innocuous but conveniently wealthy Jerry Warriner is asked about his “suntanning.” In order to show this effect, perhaps his skin-tone did deepen – but it is almost impossible to tell. Could Grant, as Jerry, have conveyed aloofness in another manner and in another time? Probably, but it makes its more conducive to a 90 minute slice to have all the parts functioning at a high level, with a clear start and end to the thought process. The Awful Truth is the 1937 equivalent of the points in film form. Cary Grant is the catalyst that makes this movie tick.  Continue reading

[1937.1] The Life of Emile Zola

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

J’accuse… the nonsense self-interest of the economical man; the quibbling political machinations of the machine; the political, militaristic, duplicitous charge – forward from childishness and backward from sophistication.

J’accuse… the difference between the man who acts is the man who is and the individual who collects ideas can conspire to decimate those of another tout simplement parce que.

J’accuse… Over a century later and nothing has changed and it feels as though as we get “smarter,” we can shift the conversation; there’s anger here; and the anger is, in hindsight, directed at the whole complex that General Eisenhower warned us of fifty years after the Dreyfus Affair, but fifty before the age of the militarized police. The timing of The Life of Emile Zola, 1937’s Best Picture Winner, is curious and prescient in hindsight, striking a modern nerve only compounded by technology and perpetuated by an endless and self-referential news cycle. Zola’s writ polemic, only in print in 1898, is a classic example of public momentum realpolitik to expand coverage for what many consider to be a landmark in writ opine. The Dreyfus Affair, they call it, is a century-old singularity; a case-in-point. Today, for every j’accuse…there’s plural others.  It continues to be curious, however, that the the words that rang from Paris to South America at the turn of the 20th century mean less and less. What does it all mean? Continue reading