[1941] Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Pinpointing where a trope starts is a core concept in film history; tracing the origins of story tells a story itself. For example, think about the first time movie showed a natural disaster on screen. Can you remember which movie showed a tornado? Flood? Huge earthquake? It’s a challenge because this process is multi-dimensional, multi-cultural and aspiring filmmakers dabbled extremely wide and deep in the first few decades of making movies. They grasped onto new technology and technique, they experimented in color and sound design and sought to move the medium forward, whether consciously or not. The very fact of making a movie in the 1930s and 1940s changed the game for every other filmmaker.

(Here’s a quick side note: because of how slowly information moved pre-Internet, multiple studios and directors created new all at once, often separately, often across the world. But here’s a fun thought experiment: two studios could have worked on the same idea across Tinseltown, and both could have made huge strides simultaneously. The industry-wide gains may have been realized, and later interacted with each other months or years later. The collective derivation swelled the world with so many new ideas for a long time.)

Deep in the morass of the early 1940s there’s hundreds of films buried, but for the Academy Awards. The landmark year 1939 (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) bookends 1944, when the Academy shed its all-for-one mentality. For the next 64 years, only five of the best films would earn a Best Picture nomination. Where 1939 introduced Technicolor, 1940 didn’t introduce a thing. There’s absolutely talented, famous works here: The Great Dictator, The Philadelphia Story, winner, Rebecca, but this time in history is muddy, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan often gets, well, lost.

Like we’ve talked about, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is the spiritual successor to the guardian angel trope (even Heaven Can Wait, two years later. It’s modern flagpole is popularized by Christmas favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life (which definitely contributes to it’s lasting popularity.) What if you’d never been born? What if you die too early? Would everyone be better off? The trope is old news now; it’s fossilized. The answer is always “everyone’s worse off, because your individual life touches so many others.” It’s not an interesting premise, so why do studios keep making these movies? Likely, because it’s tried and true, and it’s a Universal Human Theme, of which there are only so many. Perhaps in the 2020s we’ll see more of this, but for members of marginalized groups–LGBTQ+, perhaps, or women and men of color.

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[1941] Sergeant York

sergeant-york-belgian-movie-posterHyperreal violence plays a role in postmodern American culture. It continues to be the defining moment in each day chronicled and it is glorified in stone in film and television. Fast, clear, and present danger is always under the next shag rug; the grass will kill you; and we better be ready for the imminent, always imminent, rise of the autonomy of things. First our cars will drive us, and then they will drive us off a cliff.

But ocean red, the hue that resonates the blood-shot reflection of a dead solider, will always be the cornerstone of American fascination with War. The Patriotic film demonstrates the hellish torment of battle, with corporeal guts and bones the ultimate sacrifice. This message is simple and meaningful and, when overdone, can be visually stunning and worthwhile as a statement, or just a way for a production studio to run the world a little dryer of #ff0000. But before color ubiquity in media, directors needed to dig a little deeper to represent the horrifics of war and death. Before it becomes unfashionable, the ultimate sacrifice is and was for of Our Lord the Christian God. Gary Cooper as Alvin York, in the titular Sergeant York, answers the call to demonstrate the harsh brutality of what it means to die in the arms of the ethereal. Continue reading

[1941] The Little Foxes

21355-the-little-foxes-0-230-0-345-cropIn formal probability theory, mathematicians and armchair enthusiasts sometimes describe a technique called “coupling.”

This technique allows for seemingly random variables, x and y, to interact with one another in otherwise random way. Suppose walks that way and this – how can we measure how likely it is that they meet? Or that they never will? Probablists introduce a measure of their own creation to force an interaction, then measure success or failure. This technique allows for the creation of path dependence and bias determination that otherwise could not have been measured.

This is a phenomenal approach to a problem of no consequence. Sure, we care what should happen, but we really only measure what does happen and try to predict, with some accuracy what could happen, given xy, and the medium. Sometimes, with enough certainty, our best guess is correct, and we begin to understand the difference between a graphite prediction and a graphic realization. The Little Foxes, whose production brought Bette Davis and William Wyler together again in 1941, is a film-proximate take on coupling.

The actress and the director make magic; theorists can couple together as much evidence as they want, but there is no measurement for spark and collaborative creativity that can outperform expected results. The Little Foxes proved this in the early 1940s. By way of a proud story, the film pairs together an actress at the height of her career with a director at the height of his. The story had been scene-tested on stage and was destined for imprint on film, with interpretive authority to be canonized as one of the five best of the year. Given this footstool of facts, mathematics aside, a critic from a reel away could have predicted this film’s success from the onset.

And it was almost derailed. Continue reading