Blossoms in the Dust (1941)

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Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Felix Bressart, Marsha Hunt

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Summary: The story of Edna Gladney, who fought for orphans’ rights in Texas

Other Nominations: Actress (Garson), Color Art Direction*, Color Cinematography

Positives

-Garson’s performance is what kept me interested in the movie, giving the role sweetness and likability in general, while also being tough or even selfish when she needs to. This is the first time I’ve seen her in a role where she can really shine and she ends up making an otherwise not very good movie to being pretty watchable. This was the first of five consecutive Best Actress nominations for Garson, a feat only matched by Bette Davis; she won the award once, for a movie we’ll cover next year and had 7 total nominations in her career.

-The second half of the film is mostly good and is much more focused, doing a good job of sufficiently covering only a couple of important things and gives Garson a chance to show off her range.

Negatives

-The first half of the movie is a mess. The movie tries to cram in a ton of story points into a short period of time and the result is it devolves into “Cavalcade Storytelling”: it goes from significant event to a couple of years in the future to another significant event, then skips again, wash, rinse and repeat. The big problem with this is that the impact of those events are severely marginalized and we get emotional whiplash: more than once we see a horrible tragedy that would have a dramatic effect on a person, then immediately we transition to 2 years in the future and everybody is happy and the previous event isn’t mentioned. This is a really bad way of telling a story and is happens when you have a bunch of things you need to cover but don’t allocate enough to time to do it the right way. Furthermore, a lot of these points didn’t even need to be there, as they didn’t actually happen (as far as I can tell) and are only there because the movie things the main character needs very specific and obvious motivations for why she takes up her cause.

-There are a number of black servant characters in the movie and they’re all represented in a very stereotypical way for the time period which gets grating and distractingly bad everytime they show up.

-The villains in this movie are all really on the nose and over the top in a movie that doesn’t need anything quite so cartoonish

Overall

This is about a woman whose story deserved to be told, and Garson was a great choice to play her. The problem is that they should have told the story with a script that flows better and doesn’t resort to cheap (and fictitious) heart-string pulling moments for a story that’s compelling enough without them.

Rating: C-

Citizen Kane (1941)

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Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, William Alland

Director: Orson Welles

Summary: The investigation of a publishing tycoon’s dying words reveals conflicting stories about his scandalous life

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Welles), Original Screenplay*, Dramatic Score, Sound Recording, B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-On a technical level, this is one of the best black and white films ever made. The cinematography is legendary, and is the result of Gregg Toland taking what he learned from The Grapes of Wrath & The Long Voyage Home and going even further with it to make everything as stylized as possible, while also imparting a lot of meaning to key moments. The editing makes really effective use of montage and dissolve cuts to indicate the passage of time

-The screenplay is excellent for a number of reasons. First, consider the level of difficulty: it must tell an effective story of a man’s life over the course of 60 years, and it is nonlinear with multiple narrators telling Kane’s story from their perspective. This was (and still mostly is) a very unusual way of telling a story, but it works really well because it fits with the central theme of figuring out who Kane really was as a person. Second, it’s difficult for a modern viewer to fully appreciate how good the ending is because everybody knows what Rosebud is by now; nevertheless, it still brings everything we’ve into a clear focus. Finally, it’s story about the rise and fall of a man who loses sight of what he actually wants in life is both complex and simple, which is why it has such broad acclaim and is worth re-watching periodically, as you get something new out of it each time.

-Considering how important it is, the makeup could broken this movie; instead, the aging and de-aging makeup on Kane is still effective and looks better than even some modern movies (looking at you Promethius)

-This was the first film score for Bernard Hermann, who would later go on to score most of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies starting in the 1950’s. While I didn’t like it as much as most people seem to, it was still very good.

Negatives

This film completely succeeds on a technical level in cinematography and script writing, but I didn’t love this film the first time I saw it in high school and while I like it better now, I still don’t love it. Among other things, the idea of examining the life of a character when we already know his whole arc is intellectually interesting, but removes some of the intrigue for me. It’s a great movie but will never be one of my favorites.

Overall

Citizen Kane is one of the most acclaimed films of all-time by critics and it’s easy to see why, considering how strong it is on a pure technical and screenwriting level. If you somehow have never seen it, you should, but don’t go in with super-inflated expectations.

Rating: A-

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

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Starring: Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, James Gleason

Director: Alexander Hall

Summary: A prizefighter who died before his time is reincarnated as a corrupt tycoon

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Montgomery), Supporting Actor (Gleason), Adapted Screenplay*, Story*, B&W Cinematography

Positives

-This is (well, was before it was remade twice) a really original and creative story that’s a lot of fun. The three male lead characters are all distinctive and entertaining with strong performances. Montgomery was perfectly cast and comes off as a simple guy with a big heart who’s extremely likeable, Claude Rains continues to be good in almost everything and Gleason deserved his nomination for his goofy and haggard performance as Montgomery’s trainer. Finally, the movie successfully tows the thin line between sweet and saccharine really well.

-I liked the fog machine effect in heaven, really low tech solution but the results are surprisingly effective

Negatives

-Bruce Farnsworth’s wife and secretary aren’t very interesting characters (they’re there because the story wouldn’t make sense without them being there) and Ms. Logan (Keyes) is mostly a bland, attractive love interest who doesn’t have a lot of personality. These are things that ultimately aren’t THAT important in the movie, but keep it from being a really great movie.

Other Stuff

-The 1978 Best Picture nominee Heaven Can Wait was not a remake of the 1943 Best Picture nominee Heaven Can Wait, but of this movie. What apparently happened was that Here Comes Mr. Jordan was based off a play that was called Heaven Can Wait, so the remake went with the play’s title. Still confusing to the unassuming viewer: you would expect a remake movie that is called Heaven Can Wait would be a remake of Heaven Can Wait.

Overall

Fun, entertaining movie with a creative story and some very good performances. It has less than 4300 IMDB votes as of this writing, so more people should watch it

Rating: B+

Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

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Starring: Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard, Walter Abel

Director: Mitchell Leisen

Summary: A man trying to flee to America to escape from the Nazi occupation of France and sets his sights on a shy schoolteacher who happens to be a U.S. citizen

Other Nominations: Actress (de Havilland), Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic Score, B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography

Positives

-Charles Boyer’s voice makes him a great narrator (which he does as the main character semi-frequently) and even with his receding hairline, he’s still charming and entertaining. Love his eyebrows too.

-Interesting to see a movie from this time period deal with the topic of immigration (it’s very much pro) in a time when there were strict quotas and a ton of people trying to flee from the invading Axis powers in Europe.

-The romance story here isn’t anything special, but it’s above average and picks up towards the end when everything comes to a head.

Negatives

-Slow moving and the story isn’t presented in an effective way way. A lot of the time the movie just kind of dithers about, and even though the movie is about Boyer’s quest to get into America, I didn’t get a sense of any pressure-why it was so dire that he get across, as he seemed to be doing just fine in Mexico.

-Not a negative really, but despite getting an Oscar nomination, Olivia de Havilland is again just fine here (although she has a nice scene towards the end). She has a strong reputation, but she continues to play mostly uninteresting roles, and I don’t think I’ve especially like her in anything. One interesting note: despite growing up in Britain, de Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine both went to Los Gatos High School near San Jose, CA (and I live about 20 minutes from there).

Other Stuff

-This was legendary costume designer Edith Head’s first screen credit in a Best Picture nominated movie (she had done uncredited work on Wings and She Done Him Wrong); over her incredible career, she had 8 Oscar wins and 35 nominations. She was later referenced as the basis for the character Edna Mode from The Incredibles (http://nerdipop.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/edith-edna.jpg).

Overall

Nothing especially interesting here, but nothing that pissed me off either. Watch this if you really like Charles Boyer (who is good), but otherwise this is an unmemorable romance movie.

Rating: C-

*How Green Was My Valley (1941)*

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Starring: Roddy McDowall, Donald Crisp, Walter Pidgeon, Sara Allgood, Maureen O’Hara, Anna Lee

Director: John Ford

Summary: A welsh mining family faces the struggles of life together

Other Nominations: Director*, Supporting Actor (Crisp)*, Supporting Actress (Allgood), Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic Score, Sound Recording, B&W Art Direction*, B&W Cinematography*, Film Editing

Positives

-I loved the score by Alfred Newman, which apparently makes uses of traditional Welsh songs

-The movie looks great-the movie is shot well and production design of the Welsh village feels very authentic

-The performances are are solid, with McDowall probably doing the best considering he has to play the lead and does a great job despite only being 12 years old at the time. I can also see why Crisp won an Oscar playing the patriarch of the family, as another actor might have tried to chew the scenery, where he instead plays a believable gruff, sturdy, old-fashioned man in changing times.

Negatives

-This is a well-made and well-acted movie, but I just didn’t find it to be terribly interesting. This movie feels like a companion piece to Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, but everything this movie does well that movie did better, especially when it comes to memorable characters, acting, cinematography and sound design. Additionally, I think as an American, I’m more interested in the depression than the plight of Welsh miners, but I also think TGOW was more focused on its themes and presented them more effectively. I can appreciate this movie, but it didn’t grab me.

Overall

This movie is mostly remembered now as the film that stole Best Picture from Citizen Kane. I don’t think it deserves that reputation as it is a good film in its own right, but I agree that it’s the weakest Best Picture winner in a while.

Rating: B-

The Little Foxes (1941)

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Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge, Richard Carlson, Dan Duryea, Charles Dingle

Director: William Wyler

Summary: An ambitious woman takes on her corrupt brothers and honest husband in her drive for wealth in the 1900’s South

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Davis), Supporting Actress (Wright), Supporting Actress (Collinge), Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic Score, B&W Art Direction, Film Editing

Positives

-The great cast of scumbag characters with excellent performances behind them makes this an entertaining movie, from Davis chewing the scenery (in a good way) as a completely ruthless, ice cold woman, to Dingle’s constant shiteating grin, to Durea as a cowardly slimeball. Watching the power struggle between these horrible but fun people is what makes the whole movie tick

-There’s one scene towards the end of the film involving Davis and Marshall that’s as good as anything you’ll ever see and is perfectly shot and acted; if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

-I liked Davis’ white makeup that completely cakes her face, as it looks visually striking and fits into the theme of power and aging: that whatever power struggles you can win, the one against age isn’t one of them, which makes your legacy the most lasting influence (through your acts and through your children) you can have.

Negatives

-The movie’s central theme of the wicked getting away with plundering the earth as long as good people are afraid to act is good, but it would have been more effective if the good people in the movie were more developed. Wright’s character is central to this theme, but I don’t think she had enough character development to elevate her from anything more than simply being a good person who finally has had enough. Fundamentally, it’s hard to root for the good guys when the bad guys are so much more entertaining and colorful.

Overall

This is a very good movie with plenty of entertaining characters and a strong central theme, although some of those themes are hard to invest in because as awful as the villains are, they are the best characters.

Rating: B+

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick, Gladys George

Director: John Huston

Summary: Hard-boiled detective Sam Spade gets caught up in the murderous search for a priceless statue

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Greenstreet), Adapted Screenplay

Positives

-The story speeds along at a breakneck pace while still conveying all the information it needs to through its great dialogue. Underlying the whole movie is just how fun and exciting it is-we’re sent on this dizzying journey with a fantastic cast of characters where everybody is lying about everything and we have no idea what is coming next. Easily one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve watched so far.

-The whole cast is great, and I’ll highlight two of them. The character of Sam Spade is a total badass and Humphrey Bogart seems like he was born to play him (even though this is actually the third time this story was filmed). This and the film High Sierra put Bogart on the map as one of the top leading men in Hollywood. The other is Sydney Greenstreet (in his first film role), who has an extremely memorable turn as Kasper Gutman due to his size and his cadence and would play a number of similar roles over the next few years.

-The film looks wonderful-a lot of it is shot over Bogart’s shoulder so you see everything from his perspective which works really well because most of the time he’s trying to figure out everything at the same time the audience is. There’s also a great scene from a first person perspective between Bogart and Greenstreet that’s pretty inventive for the time

Negatives

-The movie does slow up towards the end, but it kind of needs to do that to build tension and then wrap everything up effectively. I don’t have any real complaints about this movie

Overall

I’m amazed this was John Huston’s directorial debut, even if he was a long-time screenwriter and the son of Walter Huston. This movie pretty much defines film noir and what people like about it. This was the first film I really debated giving an A+ to and down the line, I might re-evaluate and give it that, but for now I give it an A and just say watch this movie if you haven’t seen it.

Rating: A

One Foot in Heaven (1941)

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Starring: Fredric March, Martha Scott, Beulah Bondi, Gene Lockhart, Elizabeth Fraser

Director: Irving Rapper

Summary: A Methodist minister and his wife cope with the problems of church life in the 20th century

Other Nominations: None

Positives

-I like March’s character as a minister, or at least his philosophy. He’s not overbearing or judgmental-at one point, he tells a non-believer “All I ask is that you respect Christ as a teacher, and I’ll respect him as the son of God.” He’s willing to be flexible in his thinking to adapt with the changing times so that he can continue to reach out to young people with the core messages of Christianity. He also does not look down upon other (Christian) denominations.

-There’s a fairly lengthy Western movie-within-a-movie that’s quite entertaining in and of itself; it’s actually a real silent short: The Silent Man (1917) with William S. Hart.

-March is very solid in the lead

Negatives

-While I like him as a minister, the main character as a person isn’t as likeable. First, he doesn’t really seem to care about what his wife thinks at all and often makes life hard for her (and she pretty much just grins and bears it). Second, regardless of whether the people deserved it or not, I don’t think a minister should extort money out of people to help build a church (and a new house for him). Finally, the church he does try to build feels needlessly opulent which seems really out of character for him.

Other Stuff

-Norman Vincent Peale was an advisor for this movie. At the time he was a well-known pastor at a church in NYC, but in the 1950’s he would later be known for his bestselling book “The Power of Positive Thinking”, which has been denounced as psychiatric quackery and incredibly problematic.

Overall

The story is fine, the lead performance is good, but the main character is a mixed bag. Not a bad movie by any means, but nothing particularly noteworthy either

Rating: C

Sergeant York (1941)

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Starring: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, Margaret Wycherly, George Tobias, Stanley Ridges, Ward Bond

Director: Howard Hawks

Summary: True story of the farm boy who made the transition from reckless youth to WWI hero

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Cooper)*, Supporting Actor (Brennan), Supporting Actress (Wycherly), Original Screenplay, Dramatic Score, Sound Recording, B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography, Film Editing*

Positives

-Gary Cooper has improved considerably as an actor since his early days, although a lot of it I think is that he’s also choosing parts that fit him better (i.e. where his character wouldn’t emote a lot). He’s also finally able to show a bit of personality and warmth as well.

-The action scenes in the movie are very good, even if they feel very sanitized

-The score was solid

Negatives

-This is a personal preference, but “rah-rah go patriotism in the time of war” kind of movies don’t interest me very much. While this is a film about WWI, it’s obviously intended to be pro-interventionist for WWII; this is all well and good, but they aren’t the type of film that I get anything out of.

-While the action from the battle scenes was exciting, it all feels very scrubbed. It feels like the movie doesn’t want to show how brutal combat is and just how much of a grind the day to day life as a soldier really is because it would conflict with what they want to do. Pretty much the only combat we see is glorious and heroic.

-While the story structure itself is fine, it’s way too long and drawn out-it takes us over an hour for him to get to basic training and over an hour and a half before he gets to France. There’s quite a bit of filler in the earlier parts of the movie.

-Cooper at 40 is way too old to be playing an enlisted man; however, this is forgivable because Alvin York would only sell the rights if Cooper played him

Other Stuff

-This was Howard Hawks’ only Academy Award nomination is his entire career-one with 8 films in the National Film Registry. His other films include Bringing Up Baby, Scarface, His Girl Friday, Red River, Rio Bravo, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Big Sleep. He was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1975.

Overall

This movie was a massive financial success because it was at the box office when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened and there was a massive stir in patriotism at the time. If that’s the kind of movie you like, then you’ll probably like Sergeant York. However, that kind of film doesn’t do a whole lot for me, so I thought it was just okay

Rating: C

Suspicion (1941)

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Starring: Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant, Nigel Bruce, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Dame May Whitty

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Summary: A wealthy wallflower suspects her husband of criminal intentions

Other Nominations: Actress (Fontaine)*, Dramatic Score

Positives

-Grant is the scene-stealer as the worthless lowlife Johnnie Aysgarth. This is the first time I’ve really liked Grant a lot in a movie-he’s able to balance outwardly charming with sinister and pathetic all at the same time. I’m surprised he didn’t get a nomination; Fontaine was nominated and won, but for me anyway, it’s a makeup Oscar for Rebecca where she was better.

-Structurally, this movie feels similar to Rebecca in a good way. Both start out feeling like normal romance movies, then eventually you start getting needled with more and more events that slowly raise the tension until resolution. This is a great way to tell a thriller story and Hitchcock obviously knows suspense better than anybody.

-I thought the movie explored the topic of emotional dependency in a relationship well, especially considering I haven’t seen anything quite like it covered in a movie from this time period

Negatives

-There were three ways the movie could have ended and the one they chose is my least favorite. The way the novel ends is the most interesting and most faithful to Fontaine’s character, but there’s no way the Production Code or audiences would have accepted it; the ending they thought of but didn’t go with wouldn’t have been accepted by audiences but still feels organic; the one they went with radically changes the perception of everything that preceded it and is interesting, but feels hastily tacked on. I understand why they did it, but I still wish they kept the original ending

Other Stuff

-Joan Fontaine’s performance here is the only Oscar-winning one Alfred Hitchcock ever directed. Only 8 others were nominated: Fontaine and Laurence Olivier (Rebecca) for Best Actress/Actor and Judith Anderson (Rebecca), Albert Bassermann (Foreign Correspondent), Michael Chekhov (Spellbound), Claude Rains (Notorious), Ethel Barrymore (The Paradine Case), and Janet Leigh (Psycho) for Supporting Actor/Actress

Overall

Very good thriller from Hitchcock, although less memorable than his previous one Rebecca. Watch it for Cary Grant’s performance as the husband.

Rating: B+