It’s just a hunch, but I’m gonna go ahead and guess that he doesn’t give a damn.

The 12th Academy Awards, for the film year 1939.  The nominees were announced on February 11, 1940 and the awards were held on February 29, 1940.

Best Picture:  Gone with the Wind

  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Stagecoach
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Ninotchka
  • Goodbye Mr. Chips
  • Dark Victory
  • Love Affair

Most Surprising Omission:  Young Mr. Lincoln

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Lady Vanishes

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #47

The Race: There was no race.  All of the other films were just place-holders for the film that everyone knew was going to come in and wipe up: Gone with the Wind.  There was Frank Capra’s brilliant Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  There were stars at play in Goodbye Mr. Chips and Dark Victory.  There were star-making turns in Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights.  There was the magical world of The Wizard of Oz.  And there was Garbo laughing in Ninotchka.  But nothing had a chance against David O. Selznick’s behemoth.

The awards groups tried to stem the flow.  The National Board of Review voted before Gone with the Wind was released and gave their top award to Confessions of a Nazi Spy.  There was a deadlock at the New York Film Critics between Wind and Mr. Smith and finally, on a late ballot, Wuthering Heights broke the stalemate.

The Results: It was all for naught.  Gone with the Wind was in with a record 13 nominations.  In the end, it took home 8 of the awards, more than all the other Best Picture nominees put together.  All of its Oscar records would fall in the 1950′s, but only after the categories had expanded.

Such amazing acting! Such a stupid script! Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind

  • Director:  Victor Fleming
  • Writer:  Sidney Howard  (from the novel by Margaret Mitchell)  (Howard is the credited writer but Selznick actually wrote most of what was filmed)
  • Producer:  David O. Selznick
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Butterfly McQueen
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Gable), Actress (Leigh), Supporting Actress (McDaniel), Supporting Actress (de Havilland), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Original Score, Sound, Interior Decoration, Special Effects
  • Oscar Records:  Most Oscars  (8) – broken in 1958;  Most Nominations  (13) – broken in 1950;  Most Points  (670) – broken in 1953
  • Length:  238 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Epic Romance)
  • Box Office Gross:  $189.52 mil
  • Release Date:  15 December 1939
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #210  (nominees)  /  #51  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Gable), Actress (Leigh), Supporting Actress (de Havilland), Supporting Actress (McDaniel), Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design

The Film:  “The movie comes from a world with values and assumptions fundamentally different from our own–and yet, of course, so does all great classic fiction, starting with Homer and Shakespeare.  A politically correct “GWTW” would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.” – Roger Ebert

I will come back around to the Ebert quote, so there’s no need to start with it.  Let’s instead start with everything that is right about this film.  For there are many things which are right, there are reasons why it won Best Picture, why it out-sold any film on-screen, past or present, why it continues to be beloved by fans everywhere.

If you want to view a film as a production and view the Best Picture award as an award to best produced film of the year (which is certainly one viewpoint – it’s why a lot of films win and certainly can be argued for as the producer is the one who actually ends up with the Oscar), then there is absolutely a case to be made for Gone with the Wind in 1939 or any other year.  It succeeded entirely because of the will of David O. Selznick, the uber-producer, who heralded it from page to Oscar night.  A considerable chunk of the book Memo from David O. Selznick deals with the making of this film and it’s a fascinating read, as you can follow the journey across several years.  Selznick put together the talent, was willing to split financial proceeds with MGM in order to get Clark Gable (and their money), wrote a considerable amount of the script and even did some of the directing, no matter what any of the official credits might say.  He went through screenwriters, went through directors, but through it all, he was there.  He brought the novel beautifully to screen, cast almost all of the roles perfectly, achieved some of the most realistic war scenes ever put on film and filled the screen with romance, pain, misery, war, love, lust and fire.

He was mostly responsible for the look of the film and he made sure that the technical people involved did their job properly.  And did they ever.  It has one of the most recognizable scores in film history (and like two others on that list – Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark – failed to win the Oscar).  It has beautiful costumes that show the splendor of the antebellum South.  It has amazing art direction that covers the 1860′s and 70′s.  It has fabulous cinematography, with shots that are long remembered, most notably the crane shot that rises away from Scarlett as she wanders through the dead and wounded in Atlanta before Sherman arrives.  It was nominated for 13 Oscars and while the Editing nomination (and actual Oscar) is a ridiculous choice, the categories of Costume Design and Sound Editing, both of which it might easily have won, didn’t exist back then.  Had they existed, it would almost certainly be tied with All About Eve and Titanic if not sitting on top of the nomination record.

Then there is the direction.  If there are any two films that argue against the auteur theory they are Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, both credited to Victor Fleming, whose career wasn’t memorable aside from those two films.  And he was hardly the only director on either film.  Oz was a triumph of the studio, working as a whole to produce an amazing film.  Wind was the triumph of its producer.

And the producer provided the cast.  Sadly, Leslie Howard was miscast, completely wrong for the role of Ashley, making the film a bit of a mystery along the lines of Romeo and Juliet (with Mercutio such an appealing character why would Juliet ever fall for Romeo?).  But we’ll put Howard aside with the other problems for a minute.  Let’s concentrate on the others.  And damn did Selznick get them right.

Warner Bros. offered Selznick a combination of Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, but that wouldn’t have worked.  Would fans of Flynn have wanted to watch him not end up with de Havilland?  Would Flynn, who so easily could have provided the charm, have been enough of a rake, provided enough of an actual acting performance?  And Davis, though a magnificent actress, did not have the sensuality and beauty that Leigh would bring to the role.  Selznick made the right choice.  Vivien Leigh gives one of the all-time great screen performances.  She perfectly bring Scarlett to life, complete with bitchiness, weakness, strength, sensuality, bright blue eyes, red cheeks (pinched to make them so).  She is believable as the woman who would chase after a man eternally, who would never realize what she wanted, but would have the strength to shoot a man through the head.  And Gable gives the best performance of his career.  He hits every line perfectly, bringing Rhett to life on-screen even more memorably than he was in the book.  Then there is de Havilland, stuck in the more thankless role of the strong, yet kind Melanie.  Hattie McDaniel is also very good, so perfectly bringing to life the kind of woman that Mammie would have been – the real glue holding the house and the family together.

So with all of that said, all of the magnificent pieces of this film, why doesn’t it hold together?  Why is it that I’ve moved it up, just into the four star range, but near the bottom of the four star films?  Why is it that I don’t buy into the myth the way that millions upon millions have?

It all comes down to one thing — the writing.  First of all, the book is ridiculously over-rated.  Mitchell’s novel is far too long, packed to the gills with melodrama and romantic embellishments of an era better left behind us.  It is an appeal, during the darkest days of the depression, for an era when people had large mansions and beautiful dresses and slaves to do their work for them.  It is filled with ridiculous cliches, not only in the plot, but also in the dialogue.  Yes, there are lines well worth remembering, most notably Rhett’s final line as he walks away, but there is also a lot of complete crap.  Bear in mind that most of Scarlett’s lines would be laughably bad if they were spoken by anyone other than Vivien Leigh.  Only her performance lends them any air of authenticity.

So let’s get to authenticity and to the Ebert quote.  He is quite correct.  Who would want a politically correct Gone with the Wind?  Who would want to suddenly see characters acting in a manner unlike what the South was like at the time for the sake of not offending anybody.  The goal of making a film is not to try to avoid creating offense.  The South was full of people like Scarlett, spoiled brats who didn’t realize how lucky they had it, there were horrible men from the North who headed south after the war for profit and, essentially,to gloat.  There were many former slaves who were happy enough to stay where they were, especially those who had been house slaves and had usually received better treatment.

But does that mean we have to glorify this society?  Or try to show how wonderful it was before the war and the Yankees came?  Hell, even North and South, for all its melodrama, did a better job of accurately portraying the complexities of Southern society in those days before the war.  This film simply fits into a larger cultural view of the glorification of the Antebellum South and the Civil War.  It is the Bible for those who wish we could go back to the days of big plantations and nullification and a larger separate Southern society that had its own laws and barely existed as part of a larger whole.  It even had its premiere in Atlanta at a time when blacks weren’t allowed in the same theater (Clark Gable was going to boycott the premiere for that reason until Hattie McDaniel talked him into going).  It was a look back at a time that was widely perceived as a better time in history for the South.  Too bad that the world only spins forward.

So what do we have overall?  A film that barely achieves greatness, that really has had greatness thrust upon it, that was a magnificent triumph for its producer of hard work, talent and acting.  It’s simply too bad that it’s wasted on such a ridiculous story with such thinly written characters set in a period that is better left in the past.

my new dentist has this same Wizard of Oz poster in his office

The Wizard of Oz

  • Director:  Victor Fleming
  • Writer:  Noel Langley  /  Florence Ryerson  /  Edgar Allan Woolf  (from the novel by L. Frank Baum)
  • Producer:  Mervyn LeRoy
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Cinematography (Color), Original Score, Interior Decoration, Special Effects, Song (“Over the Rainbow”)
  • Length:  101 min
  • Genre:  Kids  (Musical)
  • Box Office Gross:  $3.00 mil
  • Release Date:  25 August 1939
  • My Rating:   ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #2  (nominees)  /  #2  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Garland), Supporting Actor (Bolger), Supporting Actor (Morgan), Supporting Actress (Hamilton), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup, Song (“Over the Rainbow), Song (“We’re Off to See the Wizard), Song (“If I Only Had a Brain), Song (“If I Only Had a Heart”), Song (“If I Only Had the Nerve”)

The Film:  Would you fall in love with her like I do?  Come on, you know you would.  Don’t think of her in her later years, when she became an icon and a fading talent.  Think of her here.  You don’t even have to wait for her to be in color and to realize how lovely she is.  Because it’s not about her looks (well, it’s mostly not about her looks).  It’s about that fire within, that longing to find something over the rainbow, and even she is there in the Kansas farmyard, in sepia, leaning back against the haystack, when she begins to sing, you find yourself falling in love with her.

Some of that credit, of course, goes to the music.  Is there any film like this in the history of cinema?  Think about it.  Even films such as Mary Poppins which have a lot of beloved songs or A Hard Day’s Night, with some of the greatest songs in the history of rock and roll don’t seem to compare.  Not only is this quite possibly the film that has been seen by more people than any other in film history, but even if you are one of those minute few who have never seen it, you would know the songs.  Kids seem to spring straight from the womb knowing songs like “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”  And those are the little minute long songs, the transition numbers to move the action along.  None of them even compare to “Over the Rainbow,” THE film song of all-time, the one that so magically reminds us of what film is about, the one that can be sung in so many different ways (look here or here or here for examples).  In two categories where the Oscars usually pass over all-time classics (Score and Song), it made the right choice by giving The Wizard of Oz the Oscar in both categories.  It recognized how brilliant the music was, how much it added to the film, how much it made the film.  And that song works because they cast Judy Garland.  If they had cast Shirley Temple like they were originally thinking, that song never could have been used.  Temple, who was closer to the age of Dorothy in the book, is too young.  Garland, almost 17, was the perfect age to have that kind of longing, to want to find someplace away from where she is.

Oh, and find it she does.  Oz is the most magical place you can imagine.  Yes, it’s got matte paintings around the edges and strange angles and doesn’t seem to make any sense, but somehow that only adds to the magic.  Who wouldn’t want to walk down that yellow brick road, no matter where it might lead.  The art direction in this film is unlike anything else on film.  Avatar might have created an entirely new planet, but Oz created a whole new world without digital technology.  Even if it weren’t for that magical moment where the sepia fades into color (now that the DVD’s have corrected that from black-and-white and put it back to the original sepia, that magical shot works even better), this film would still stand up as the single best use of Technicolor.  The crew at MGM did an absolutely amazing job with the sets, the costumes, the makeup, the effects, all of them combined to create a magical world that can enchant or even frighten any child.  Wouldn’t braving winged monkeys and wicked witches be worth it to travel to a land where lions and trees can talk, a world where color is so vibrant and alive?

And then there are the small moments.  Back before 1985, television stations use to cut parts of the film to get it into a two hour time slot with enough commercials and I remember that one of the scenes that used to get cut was the scene where the Wizard frightens the Lion too much and the Lion flees, eventually leaping through a window.  It was always one of my favorite scenes, a nice little scene that shows how cowardly and foolish he is at that point and I used to get mad when it was cut.  Or there is the moment where the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow hide in the rocks above the Witch’s castle, trying to figure out how to get inside before they are jumped by the Witch’s guards.  That shot is an iconic one now and I can guarantee it was on Peter Jackson’s mind when Frodo, Sam and Gollum sit staring out at the orcs leaving Minas Morgul.  Such references are what film is all about.  And there are few films that get more reference shots than The Wizard of Oz.

There is so much more I could say, but I don’t want to repeat myself.  I already wrote a long review here for the Year in Film: 1939.  So I’ll just finish with this.  It is not only one of the greatest films ever made, currently now sitting at #2 just behind Sunset Blvd. on my all-time list, but it is also one of my favorite films of all-time, perhaps the one I have seen the second most times behind Star Wars.  It is one of the very few films that earns the praise of being a national treasure.  It holds the record for Nighthawk Nominations (21) and is tied for second in awards with 13.  It is a film that crosses pretty much every genre and seems to keep coming out on top.  It is as magical an experience you will ever have watching a movie.  See it in a theater if you ever get a chance.

How on earth did Jimmy Stewart lose to Robert Donat?

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

  • Director:  Frank Capra
  • Writer:  Sidney Buchman  /  Lewis R. Foster
  • Producer:  Frank Capra
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Harry Carey, Thomas Mitchell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Original Story, Actor (Stewart), Supporting Actor (Rains), Supporting Actor (Carey), Editing, Score, Sound, Interior Decoration
  • Length:  129 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social)
  • Release Date:  19 October 1939
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #56  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Stewart), Actress (Arthur), Supporting Actor (Rains), Supporting Actor (Mitchell), Supporting Actor (Carey), Editing, Cinematography

The Film:  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a fascinating film, both in how it works in the present and how well it worked when it came out.  It is simultaneously naive and cynical, corny and sincere, simple and smart.  It is a film that both believes in government and decries the politicians that are the core of the government.  It contains, in Jimmy Stewart and Claude Rains, two of the great performances in film history.  It has Jean Arthur in one of those roles that only she can do properly, of the cynic who fails and becomes the romantic.  It has Thomas Mitchell, in the same year he won the Oscar, giving a better performance than he won the Oscar for.

What did we have in 1939?  We had a world about to go to war and a United States that desperately wanted to be left alone in the world.  But we had a President who had seen us through the Depression, one who fervently believed in the saving power of the government.  But it hadn’t been that long since such things as the Teapot Dome Scandal and Huey Long had only been dead for a few years.  It was easy to see corruption in the government and to depict men like Taylor and how he would control a governor and a senator.  And hell, machine politics were absolutely a thing of the present.  It wouldn’t be that long before we would have a Vice President (who would soon after be President) who owed his career entirely to a political machine not unlike the one depicted here.  And look at the press.  The Washington reporters may have been angry at the way they were depicted, but this was the thirties, and the press weren’t exactly seen as the exposers of corruption, but rather peddlers of tabloid trash.

In short, a lot of things are still the same.  Look at the way Roland Burris ended up in the Senate.  Look at the rampant corruption with people like Tom DeLay.  Look at the disgusting politics of personal destruction played by the press.  None of this is inaccurate.  It is a grim depiction of a world that is very much alive.

So what is different?  Well, Jefferson Smith is different.  He fervently believes in the power of the government to change lives.  He desperately wants that camp.  He travels to all of those monuments because he believes in these ideas.  As Senator Paine says, “He’s honest, not stupid.”  And we can believe in Jefferson Smith, not just because he’s played by Jimmy Stewart and Stewart is someone that we always feel that we can trust, but because his performance is so amazing, so in earnest, so honest, through charm, anger, dignity, desperation, he wins our trust.  As he so perfectly says “I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a — a little looking out for the other fella, too.”  And he’s right to believe.  Because the government can change lives.  Roosevelt believed it then and proved it all through the Depression.  Obama believes it now and protecting 40 million people who haven’t had health care is just the start.  There’s that little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness.  The kind that Jeff Smith believed in.  The kind that Joseph Paine might have once believed in.  The kind that we can all believe in.

The film that made Laurence Olivier a film actor: Wuthering Heights (1939)

Wuthering Heights

  • Director:  William Wyler
  • Writer:  Ben Hecht  /  Charles MacArthur  (from the novel by Emily Bronte)
  • Producer:  Samuel Goldwyn
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Flora Robson, Geraldine Fitzgerald
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Olivier), Supporting Actress (Fitzgerald), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Original Score, Interior Decoration
  • Length:  104 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Literary Adaptation)
  • Box Office Gross:  $.59 mil
  • Release Date:  7 April 1939
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #163  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Olivier), Supporting Actress (Robson), Supporting Actress (Fitzgerald), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  “What if I were Romeo in black jeans  /  What if I were Heathcliff, it’s no myth” – Michael Penn.  There it is, the great romantic interpretation of Heathcliff.  But is he really romantic?  He bounds about on the wide open moors, he bends his adoptive brother to his will, pushing him into the oblivion of alcohol, he beats down everyone around him, he treats every man like the lowest form of life.  Why a romantic figure?  Ah, but we have Olivier to thank for that.

Olivier was away from his love (Vivian Leigh, who was off shooting her Southern film), he was in Hollywood and he was miserable.  It was under these circumstances, where he said, William Wyler taught him how to act on film.  He had already been in films for several years, had even already done Shakespeare on film, yet had not become a star and hadn’t really done any performances worth remembering.  But suddenly, after 1939, he was a major star and he was a major force at the Oscars.  Wyler pushed him in this film, pushed him to abuse those other cast members, pushed him to step away from stage and Shakespearean acting, to embrace the brute within and somehow turn him into a tragic romantic figure.  Because that romanticism isn’t really there in the novel.  In the novel, everyone seems to hate Heathcliff, and certainly the narrator, in spite of the story he has learned, seems only to fear and despise him.  But here are the results on-screen.

This film was an instant classic.  It earned its nominations, and while it doesn’t win any of my major awards, it was more deserving of all the major awards than the actual winners.  It’s a great film, from start to finish, held together at the core by the masterful, intense Olivier performance and with good supporting performances surrounding him.  It was, until this point, easily the best film that William Wyler had made and only the second time he was actually nominated, kicking off a string of four straight nominations that would culminate in his first Oscar.  The Cinematography is phenomenal, the script is great and does a magnificent job of pairing away the story to make a film at less than two hours (even with the forced “happy” ending).

Stagecoach: the 1939 John Ford film that made John Wayne a star

Stagecoach

  • Director:  John Ford
  • Writer:  Ernest Haycox  /  Dudley Nichols
  • Producer:  Walter Wanger
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Mitchell), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Score, Interior Decoration
  • Length:  96 min
  • Genre:  Western
  • Release Date:  15 February 1939
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #185  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Mitchell), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing

The Film:  It almost seems like it should be his debut.  Or that he already was a star.  Because that’s the way it seems to work.  There is the long camera shot, starting from far away, and finally coming to a close up as the hat falls off and we are introduced to the Ringo Kid, a character that already seems to be larger than life given the descriptions we have been hearing since the start of the film.  So it seems like with that kind of build-up, with that kind of shot to bring him into focus, it would either be someone who had never been on screen getting an amazing debut, or a star that we are building up to.

But the fact of the matter is that the shot works better now than it would have in the theater.  Because now we know who John Wayne is.  It works so perfectly, sweeping along, then, hey there’s John Wayne.  Except Wayne wasn’t a star at the time.  It was Ford who made him a star.  It was this film that made him a star.  It was that shot that made him a star.  And he never stopped being one, for the next 40 years, until the Big C took him.

I am not a John Wayne fan.  I never much liked him, never was a big fan of Westerns, never thought he was a particularly great actor (yes, there are exceptions like The Searchers and Red River) and sure as hell didn’t like his politics and thought his Oscar was one of the worst choices the Academy ever made.  But there’s no denying that he was a star, that he was worshiped up on that screen and it was because he was made to be a star, he had that larger than life persona and that charisma and that seemed to be all he needed and he just needed Ford to pull it out of him in this film.  It worked to have him so talked about before he actually appears.  Now we know to look for the star, and hey, there he is.

The odd thing is that it’s really an ensemble.  Claire Trevor is really the big star; she certainly got paid the big bucks for this film.  Thomas Mitchell won the Oscar.  Andy Devine was there for the laughs.  John Carradine was there to appear dastardly (isn’t that the word that always seems to spring to mind whenever you see Carradine?).  But it didn’t quite work that way.  It made Wayne a star and when you look back on it now, you can see it from the first minute.  Even Ford seems to take a back seat to Wayne, even all the great technical aspects, even the story.  In the end, this was all about the star.

the original film version of Of Mice and Men (1939)

Of Mice and Men

  • Director:  Lewis Milestone
  • Writer:  Eugene Solow  (from the novel by John Steinbeck)
  • Producer:  Lewis Milestone
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., Charles Bickford
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Score, Score, Sound
  • Length:  106 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Tragedy)
  • Release Date:  30 December 1939
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #11  (year)  /  #301  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  I wonder if the novel would hold up for me now.  The film definitely doesn’t quite hold up.  There’s a bit too much sentimentality.  It’s a bit too thin (of course, given the size of the book that argument could definitely be made about the novel).  There’s some good performances, not great, but good.  It’s a solid film, it works both as a form of entertainment and as a film.  It’s well made, well written, well acted.  It contains one of the better performances of Burgess Meredith’s career, one of the few times he was asked to carry a significant film.  And certainly Lon Chaney Jr. is fairly well cast as Lenny, the gentle giant who causes more trouble than any one person should have to be able to deal with.  And Charles Bickford, always dependable, always good, is, of course, good.

So what is it about the film that doesn’t grab me?  Perhaps the lack of any subtlety.  It seems like it wants to take its message about how hard it is for farm workers, especially two lugs like George and Lenny, to be able to make a living.  Or how hard it is for someone like Lenny to make it in society.  Or maybe because Curley and his wife, the two problematic characters that set the plot in motion seem drawn in such broad colors, that there is no depth to either character.  Or that we can see, from early on, exactly what kind of ending we are headed for.  There’s really nothing much that can be done in this story.  Lenny can only head towards tragedy and the only question is of how long George will allow himself to be pulled along before he decides that he has to cut his losses.

Garbo Laughs: the famous tagline for Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka

  • Director:  Ernst Lubitsch
  • Writer:  Billy Wilder  /  Charles Brackett  /  Walter Reisch  /  Melchior Lengyel
  • Producer:  Sidney Franklin
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay, Original Story, Actress (Garbo)
  • Length:  110 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • Box Office Gross:  $1.18 mil
  • Release Date:  6 October 1939
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #16  (year)  /  #331  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Actress (Garbo)

The Film:  To all those who speak of the Lubitsch touch, of the magical romance and comedy that seemed to go along with all of Ernst Lubitsch’s films, I humbly submit Ninotchka.  It is a charming film, with a nice performance by Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in that Melvyn Douglas type of role.  It has some nice banter, some nice witty moments (the best of which is early on when the Russians go to the train station to find their comrade, think they’ve figured out who it is, only to have him give the Nazi salute to someone else), that nice foreign touch that Lubitsch so loved (in spite of coming to America, he never seemed at ease with the idea of America – he was always, at heart, a European).  It is considered, for the most part, a minor romantic comedy classic, part of the Class of 1939, but not one of the top films of the class, a smart, funny, charming film.

Now consider that one of the writers involved was Billy Wilder.  And then look at the list of films that Billy Wilder would later direct.  It wouldn’t make the top 10.  Wouldn’t even come close.  Now look at the performances from Garbo and Douglas.  Then think of how Wilder pretty much taught William Holden how to act on film, how he mined great performances from people like Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, how the Romantic Comedy into a high art form.  How well does Ninotchka hold up then?  How well does the Lubitsch touch hold up when laid on the same page as the Wilder oeuvre?  Yes, it’s an enjoyable film.  Yes, Garbo laughs.  Yes, it has the nice romantic Paris setting.  But a classic?  No, not really.  Just a nice enjoyable comedy with some nice laughs.

Robert Donat won the Oscar for Goodbye Mr Chips (1939), but why?

Goodbye Mr. Chips

  • Director:  Sam Wood
  • Writer:  R.C. Sherriff  /  Claudine West  /  Eric Maschwitz  (from the novel by James Hilton)
  • Producer:  Victor Saville
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Robert Donat, Greer Garson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Donat), Actress (Garson), Editing, Sound
  • Length:  114 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  28 July 1939
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #18  (year)  /  #337  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Donat)

The Film:  Given that Ronald Colman so perfectly played the James Hilton stalwarts of the British Empire in both Lost Horizon and Random Harvest, it’s strange not to see him here.  But perhaps Colman is a bit too cynical, a bit too much of an actual actor to play this role.  This, like The Citadel the year before, is the kind of role that really only Robert Donat can play (Peter O’Toole would play this role later and get Oscar nominated, but he doesn’t ever feel genuine – only Donat can feel genuine in this kind of role and not come off as completely condescending).  Donat seems almost tailor made to order when it comes to a role that requires a person to be morally upright, smart, but not intelligent in the ways of the world, yet completely devoted.  The kind of man that the Greer Garson character would of course fall so perfectly in love with without either of them fully realizing it that their friends could plan the wedding before the two even seem to share their first kiss.

But the Oscar?  In 1939?  The year of Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable and Laurence Olivier?  Really?  You have to got to be fucking kidding me.  Do you think there are Academy members who were ever possibly vote that way again given another chance?  Don’t get me wrong, Donat is good, quite good.  But he’s good in a very specific range, without any emotion, without any real acting, nothing like the three great performances of the year.  In fact, the whole film is kind of like that.  It’s the kind of film that can be shown in a classroom about how the students were so dedicated to him without giving any idea of what kind of man he really was.  There’s no inspiration, either in the performance or in the film itself.  It’s all just so very British.

since it didn’t win any Oscars, not sure why “Academy Award winner” is on the poster for Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory

  • Director:  Edmund Goulding
  • Writer:  Casey Robinson  (from the play by George Emerson Brewer, Jr. and Bertram Bloch)
  • Producer:  David Lewis
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan, Geraldine Fitzgerald
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Davis), Original Score
  • Length:  104 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  22 April 1939
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #36  (year)  /  #413  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Davis)

The Film:  When they talk about the great films of 1939, can they possibly mean this?  Does this really get included because it was nominated for Best Picture?  For that matter, why was Dark Victory nominated for Best Picture?  I suppose because it was the biggest Warners release of the year.  I suppose because it starred Bette Davis and was much better than her other 1939 films: Juarez, The Old Maid and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.  Which isn’t saying much, if you’ve seen those films.  1939 wasn’t exactly the high spot of artistic success for Warner Bros. (the studio earned 10 feature film Oscar nominations, all for Davis films).

So what do we have here?  A little melodrama about a woman who is going blind and whose blindness will lead to death.  She falls in love with her doctor, but then doesn’t want him to know when she actually does start to die.  It has a very good performance from Bette Davis, reportedly her favorite, though not nearly as good as the performances that would soon follow in The Letter and The Little Foxes.  Nothing like a classic, just another over-rated film from an over-rated year.

the original, the best, but not that great: Love Affair (1939)

Love Affair

  • Director:  Leo McCarey
  • Writer:  Delmer Daves  /  Donald Ogden Stewart  /  Leo McCarey  /  Mildred Cram
  • Producer:  Leo McCarey
  • Studio:  RKO Radio
  • Stars:  Charles Boyer, Irene Dunne, Maria Ouspenskaya
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Story, Actress (Dunne), Supporting Actress (Ouspenskaya), Interior Decoration, Song (“Wishing”)
  • Length:  88 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance)
  • Release Date:  7 April 1939
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #38  (year)  /  #415  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  On the one hand, my mother is a big fan of An Affair to Remember, the remake of this film.  That remake is an inferior film to this one, wasting the talents of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, one of those mediocre romantic weepies that sentimentalists love but really isn’t very good.  On the other hand, Love Affair, the original version of the story, clearly superior to either that remake or the horrid 1994 version, really isn’t all that great either.  I’ll say this.  It is what it is.  It’s a melodramatic romance, one that isn’t realistic in the slightest, about characters who aren’t particularly interesting and who you probably wouldn’t like if you met them in real life.

I suppose I could focus on the more positive aspects of the film.  Charles Boyer is pretty good in a role that so reeks of Boyer; he is the international charmer whom woman continue to follow around.  If McCarey didn’t come up with the idea with Boyer in mind then he should have.  Then there is Irene Dunne, always so good at playing the rich girl who you actually find yourself liking, when, if you thought about it for just a second, you would find her insufferable.  Then there is Maria Ouspenskaya, stealing her small little scenes in the exact same way that she stole her scene in Dodsworth and earning an Oscar nomination for very little screen time yet again.

So what do we have in the end?  Some solid acting.  A sentimental weeper.  Not all that much there, definitely not worthy of its Oscar nominations.  If your goal is to watch really good movies, you can skip it.

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