All This, and Heaven Too (1940)

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Starring: Bette Davis, Charles Boyer, Barbara O’Neil

Director: Anatole Litvak

Summary: A French nobleman falls in love with his children’s governess

Other Nominations: Supporting Actress (O’Neil), B&W Cinematography

Positives

-Very slick presentation-the camerawork, score and costumes are all great and did a lot to elevate the movie

-All the performances are very good, with O’Neil getting a deserved Oscar nomination. Bette Davis is good as always even if I wouldn’t call this a great performance and she goes in and out of her French accent all the time, and Boyer shows he can be a solid dramatic actor (and the voice helps a lot)

-The characters are reasonably interesting and the entire movie centers around the tense dynamic between a Duke (Boyer), a Duchess (O’Neil) and the governess they hire (Davis)

Negatives

-For a fairly simple story, there is absolutely no reason this should have been 2 hours and 23 minutes. The plot moves very, very slowly for close to 2 hours until it finally reaches its climax when it finally stops feeling so bloated.

-The four children of the Duke and Duchess in the movie get a decent amount of screentime, but while they are necessary to the story, I couldn’t tell you anything about them as people beyond their role in the story. For as long as the movie is, they could have spent more time doing even a little bit of character building for them.

Other Stuff

-This story is actually based on a true story of a scandal that was a contributing factor to the French Revolution of 1848. It’s mostly true to the events, although it clearly takes one of the possible sides in the issue, when it is unknown to this day what really happened behind closed doors.

Overall

With a much tighter script, this probably could have been really good; instead, in spite of having a lot going for it, it does get tedious at points

Rating: C+

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

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Starring: Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Bassermann

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Summary: An American reporter covering WWII in Europe gets mixed up in the assassination of a Dutch diplomat

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Bassermann), B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography, Special Effects

Positives

-The things Hitchcock movies did better than pretty much anyone else were building tension in a scene and keeping the audience guessing about what’s coming next. Both of those are on full display here, with a number of good twists and turns, along with a really great scene inside a windmill that’s full of tension

-This is the first time I get to talk about one of my favorite actors ever, George Sanders. He’s best when he’s playing a cad or outright villain, and he had one of the best voices ever, up there with guys like Vincent Price and Morgan Freeman. This wasn’t one of his best performances or anything, but I don’t know if I have seen a movie where I haven’t enjoyed him before.

-Joel McCrea was better than I expected, considering my point of reference for him was the meh-tacular Dead End. The role was first offered to Gary Cooper (who later regretted turning it down), but considering my feelings on Cooper, it was probably for the best.

Negatives

-While it was pretty consistently engaging after the plot started in earnest, it didn’t rise to the level of one of the truly great Hitchcock movies for me. It lacked any really memorable characters, there’s only one great scene, and the cinematography and score are just fine.

Other Stuff

-This is the first movie I’ve watched for this that explicitly takes place and during and has a plot related to WWII; it will certainly not be the last.

Overall

While not incredibly memorable, Foreign Correspondent is a very enjoyable and entertaining thriller that’s worth watching if you haven’t seen it

Rating: B

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

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Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Russell Simpson, Shirley Mills, Charley Grapewin, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, Zeffie Tilbury

Director: John Ford

Summary: Oklahoma farmers dispossessed during the depression fight for better lives in California

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Fonda), Supporting Actress (Darwell)*, Adapted Screenplay, Sound Recording, Film Editing

Positives

-This is an absolutely beautiful looking film. The cinematography is what you would expect from the same guy who a year later would shoot Citizen Kane and the production design is uneven but is mostly great, from the shanty towns for migrant workers to the wide open plains of the West. That this film didn’t receive Oscar nominations for either B&W Art Direction or especially B&W Cinematography is completely baffling to me, especially since there were 10 nominees in each category. I get that the cinematographer was also nominated for another film that year (that we will get to), but this still feels like an egregious error.

-Lots of great themes that are presented in a clear but not obnoxious way (i.e. bad Frank Capra)

-I think the sparse score works really well for a movie about the great depression that has a really good sound design.

-The cast is wonderful all around, but the person who I thought didn’t get enough credit for his performance was John Carradine who seems almost ghostly as Jim Casy. It’s sad that this was close to the end of the line for him as an actor in serious roles, as starting in 1943, he mostly did schlock sci-fi and horror movies through the end of the 1980’s. Some titles from his later filmography: Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967), The Astro-Zombies (1969) and Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977).

Negatives

-I said the production design is mostly great: this is because there are a handful of scenes that were clearly done on a soundstage and you can even hear the actor’s voices echo off the ceiling (maybe the blu-ray I saw of it was too high of quality). This was kind of baffling since these were all outdoor scenes; my guess is that they needed some extra footage after principal photography and they no longer had access to the locations they needed. Still comes off badly though.

Overall

Great movie with great themes about family, the common brotherhood shared between men, and how the true character of people and institutions are reflected in the toughest of times. One of the best movies so far

Rating: A

The Great Dictator (1940)

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Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Maurice Moscovitch, Reginald Gardiner

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Summary: A Jewish barber takes the place of a war-hungry dictator

Other Nominations: Actor (Chaplin), Supporting Actor (Oakie), Original Screenplay, Original Score

Positives

-The thing Chaplin always did better than anyone else, and I think the reason why his movies have aged so well, is combining humor with pathos or genuine emotional moments. Even though this isn’t my favorite Chaplin film, there is a lot of great humor combined with some scenes in the ghetto and at the end that mostly work.

-It was incredibly ballsy for Chaplin to have even done this project. When he started it in 1937, most people dismissed the idea that the Nazis were some major threat to all of Europe and his homeland of Great Britain was still trying to appease Hitler. Even when the movie was released in 1940, this country wasn’t at war yet and the vast majority of the public had no interest in becoming involved, or were even pro-Axis because of their heritage or their ideology.

-There are a lot of great touches to the movie that make it really effective as satire. First, it hits on some of the finer points of the Nazi regime that a lot of people of the time probably would have missed-their obsession with research and development (often to their own detriment), their laser focus on image and outward appearance, and their pragmatism when it came to their own ideology. I also like how they have the Jewish barber wake up from a coma after missing the entire period between WWI and WWII, because it makes the underlying point of how impossible something like the Nazis coming into power happening all of a sudden is and how these kind of things happen only because of a slow march in a direction marked by a lot of little things that people get used to all the time.

Negatives

-I still don’t like the ending because it goes against what was so good about the rest of the movie. There are a number of ways you could have done it, either with a different ending entirely with the same message, or even the exact same thing, but filmed differently (like with reaction shots, back shots, etc.). Instead, a movie that previously got its message across through entertaining the audience starts directly telling the audience the message in the most heavy handed way possible.

Other Stuff

-A number of things inspired Chaplin to undertake this project besides him being against fascism and racism. He was first interested after viewing Triumph of the Will at the MOMA in New York-while many in attendance were horrified by the power of the movie, Chaplin thought it was hilarious because of how transparently propagandistic it was. Chaplin also was intrigued by the physical resemblance between him and Hitler, the fact that they were born just 4 days apart, their similar poverty to the top nature of each of their lives and that the Nazi’s mistook him for a Jew.

Overall

Even if the Nazis are long gone, the message and themes are still relevant to contemporary audiences. Although it was a movie that was made to address a then-contemporary political issue, The Great Dictator has also aged well because it still works as a comedy first and foremost and isn’t just a message movie. Great movie for almost any audience

Rating: A

Kitty Foyle (1940)

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Starring: Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan, James Craig, Eduardo Ciannelli, Ernest Cossart, Gladys Cooper

Director: Sam Wood

Summary: A girl from the wrong side of the tracks endures heartbreak when she falls for a high-society boy

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Rogers)*, Adapted Screenplay, Sound Recording

Positives

-Ginger Rogers is good in her Oscar winning performance, as is Craig playing a low-rent Cary Grant-type character who still has a lot of likeable charm. The romance between those two character works well in spite of this movie’s other problems

Negatives

-This story has a lot of problems. First, Kitty Foyle is supposed to be our protagonist, but to me she’s not very sympathetic. She strings along two men who are madly in love with her for years, but her indecisiveness and inability to accept compromise make it so that both are left with an emptiness in their lives up until the very end when she eventually makes the right choice. Why are we supposed to like her at all? Second, the movie is told via a framing story, and what she tells one of her love interests in the beginning of the movie makes no sense given what we see with their relationship when we go back in time to see how it unfolded. She basically comes off as an immature jerk.

-While I like the relationship between Rogers and Craig’s characters, her relationship with Morgan’s character is a dud in terms of being an interesting romance story.

Other Stuff

-This is the first of two Best Picture nominees with screenplays written by Dalton Trumbo, although this was the only one he received credit for initially as he was blacklisted starting in 1947 due to being a member of the Communist Party.

-The “Kitty Foyle Dress” the main character wears (which looks like this-https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/64/Ironing.jpg) became an extremely popular dress design after this film came out and for the rest of the decade.

Overall

Badly flawed romance movie that is only partially saved by some good performances

Rating: D+

The Letter (1940)

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Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Gale Sondergaard

Director: William Wyler

Summary: A woman claims to have killed in self-defense, until a blackmailer turns up with a letter in her own writing

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Davis), Supporting Actor (Stephenson), Original Score, B&W Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-Even if the rest of the movie never lives up to it,the opening scene of this movie is awesome. It looks great and it rockets you into the movie instantly.

-Both the cinematography and the score by Max Steiner are really good and do a lot to keep the film interesting when there are lulls in the story, or make the good scenes great

-Stephenson is good as Davis’ lawyer and Davis herself is alright, although I think she was a little hammy at times.

Negatives

-This is probably a source material problem, but everything story-wise feels like it’s being told in the wrong way. At the start of the film, we the audience already know (or would with any ability to perceive people at all) a critical fact, and the film plods along at the beginning ignoring that. Then when our suspicions are confirmed to both us and the characters, all that’s left is the question of why it happened-and the movie ignores that for a different and much less interesting story up until the very end when we get that question answered. The basic story elements work, but the way they are configured didn’t work for me.

-Herbert Marshall is a nothing actor, or at least he is based on the two movies I’ve seen him in so far.

Other Stuff

-The Hays Code Office required the producers to tack on a new ending of the movie from what it was in the W. Somerset Maugham play and the original 1929 movie version (which interestingly enough also had Herbert Marshall in it, just in a different role). I think the original ending point would have been better, but this version isn’t that bad either.

Overall

William Wyler has been a great disappointment to me so far. He has the record with 13 films of his nominated for Best Picture, and the first of them was really good (Dodsworth); after that, he;s done Dead End, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights and now this, none of which I would call better than above average. It picks up somewhat towards the end and the audio/visual presentation is great, but I didn’t get a ton out of it on the whole

Rating: C+

The Long Voyage Home (1940)

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Starring: John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Ian Hunter, Barry Fitzgerald, Wilfrid Lawson, Ward Bond

Director: John Ford

Summary: A merchant ship’s crew tries to survive the loneliness of the sea and the coming of war

Other Nominations: Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, B&W Cinematography, Film Editing, Special Effects

Positives

-More great and stylish cinematography from Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath) who was one of the most influential of all-time in his craft. I thought Grapes of Wrath was slightly better, but this was the one that was nominated for 1940 (but still lost to Rebecca). Easily the best thing this movie has going for it

-I like Thomas Mitchell as the Irish ship captain a lot, he’s a pretty consistently good character actor when he’s given a role he can have fun with (like in Stagecoach)

Negatives

-This movie takes four Eugene O’Neill plays and tries to make a single cohesive narrative out of them. While the effort is admirable, it still feels episodic and disjointed with some “segments” being pretty good and others being very boring. As a result, the movie is really uneven in quality

-Anytime you have a movie that’s supposed to take place on a boat at sea, it hurts a lot when the movie is clearly filmed on a soundstage with obvious rear projection and no wider shots of the boat. Mutiny on the Bounty cost a lot of money and it must have sucked making it, but it looks much, much better because they took the effort to film the movie in an authentic location.

-Not a big negative, but I was surprised that John Wayne does almost nothing for most of the movie (and that he has a Swedish accent). Must be the result of only one of the four plays being about his character.

Overall

Uneven movie that tries but doesn’t gel into a fully cohesive narrative, but is memorable for its great cinematography. That alone though isn’t enough to make up for its more fundamental problems.

Rating: C-