49th Parallel (UK)/The Invaders (USA) (1942)

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Starring: Eric Portman, Niall MacGinnis, Peter Moore, John Chandos, Raymond Lovell, Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook

Director: Michael Powell

Summary: The crew of a stranded German U-boat tries to evade capture in Canada during WWII

Other Nominations: Adapted Screenplay, Story*

Positives

-For a war time propaganda film, there is at least a little nuance when it comes to the Nazis: one of them is only a soldier because he was conscripted and is a fundamentally decent guy who isn’t invested in the ideology, and a couple of others aren’t especially evil and just act like soldiers.

-The scenes at the Hutterite community are easily the highlight of the movie and are probably the most effective contrast between the peacefulness and freedom of Canada vs. the brutal fascism of Nazi Germany. The movie also has a lot of themes about condemning the Nazis from a Christian morals standpoint which is unusual and somewhat interesting

Negatives

-Very much a heavy-handed propaganda film which isn’t particularly my cup of tea. It served its purpose well and wasn’t all that bad, most of it is moralizing and getting the points the filmmakers want to get across vs. being entertaining. Based on the plot summary and the first 10 minutes or so, I was expecting either a tense thriller or an action movie; instead, this is pretty much a straight drama that is almost entirely from the perspective of the Nazis on the run and we rarely see anybody actively chasing them or anything.

-The 3 top-billed actors are Howard, Olivier and Massey who appear in the movie for 20, 20 and 10 minutes each respectively. Olivier is actually a low-light playing a cartoony French-Canadian with a terrible accent.

Other Stuff

-This movie was release in the UK in 1941, and was released in the US in 1942 under the title of The Invaders, hence why it was nominated for this year and not under it’s most well-known name.

-Leslie Howard was killed in when a commercial airliner he was on was shot down in June of 1943 by a German fighter plane. A long-standing hypothesis is that the Germans believed Winston Churchill was on the plane and that’s why it was shot down; another is that they knew Howard was on board and went after him to demoralize the British and because he was (allegedly) involved with British intelligence.

Overall

It’s a well made and more nuanced than you would expect propaganda film, but it’s still a propaganda film. The performances are fine but it hasn’t aged especially well

Rating: C-

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Kings Row (1942)

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Starring: Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan, Betty Field, Charles Coburn, Claude Rains, Judith Anderson, Maria Ouspenskaya, Nancy Colman

Director: Sam Wood

Summary: Small town scandals inspire an idealistic young man to take up psychiatry

Other Nominations: Director, B&W Cinematography

Positives

-Really great score, mostly based around rearrangements of its grand and influential theme song. The theme to Kings Row likely was an inspiration for John Williams, as both the Star Wars and Superman themes have some strong similarities (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V47enEvsafQ).

-Reagan is actually really good in this and is by far the best of the three leads, especially considering his part is easily the most challenging. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t capitalize on it due to being drafted for WWII-he might have been cast as Rick Blaine in Casablanca if he hadn’t. Obviously, everything ended up well in the end for him however.

-This is an extremely dark and lurid melodrama for the code era that I honestly don’t know how they got away with even when they scrubbed out the incest, mercy killing, and the loose sex from the original novel. Beyond that though, it is a good story about the dark underbelly of small-town life and how corrupt people can maintain power through fear of retribution there.

Negatives

-Almost all the movies’ problems come down to Cummings who sucks and the character he plays being really uninteresting. Most everybody else is good or has something going on with their character that makes them compelling, but he’s basically a dead fish that drags the movie down with him.

Overall

This is an entertaining and surprisingly grim film for its era and is worth a watch

Rating: B

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

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Starring: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins

Director: Orson Welles

Summary: A possessive son’s efforts to keep his mother from remarrying threaten to destroy his family

Other Nominations: Supporting Actress (Moorehead), B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography

Positives

-I actually think this movie is on par with Citizen Kane when it comes to cinematography, which is an incredible accomplishment. It makes great use of high-contrast lighting, and has some of the best long-takes and fluid camera work I’ve ever seen, especially when it follows characters through multiple rooms, backing through doors, etc.

-This is a remarkably dark and moody film for 1941 (which is probably why it did poorly at the box office). While that in itself is not a positive per se, the story of a crumbling family that can’t adjust to changing times was bold and unusual for the time and allows the movie to explore some deep themes. The main storyline involving Holt’s character was executed extremely well with a very memorable arc-I had never heard of Holt before and thought he gave a good performance.

-Moorehead’s was given the showiest part and her performance is great, she definitely deserved to get a Supporting Actress nomination

Negatives

-While I thought the main storyline involving George (Holt) was really good, there’s a lot of story around it that could have been much better. A huge theme of the film is how the automobile changed society completely and not necessarily for the better (this being wrapped in the main theme of change passing people by)-the problem is that I didn’t see anything indicating that the advent of the automobile actually had a negative impact on the Amberson family fortunes. Also, we get a really good scene towards the end with the grandfather, Major Amberson, but his story feels woefully undertold-I want to know a lot more about his character and see his arc.

-This movie was cut to pieces and it feels like it, with some sudden jumps that feels like it’s moving from point A to point C. More on the story behind this later, but I think the movie probably flowed a lot better originally

-Much has been talked about it, but the ending does feel tonally off from the rest of the movie and I think I would have liked Welles’ original ending better. What’s funny is that the re-shot ending is actually closer to how the ending was in the novel, so you could argue that Welles’ was the artistic heathen here and not the studio.

Other Stuff

-The story about the post-production of movie is probably even more famous than the movie itself. Welles shot the movie and delivered a rough cut of 135 minutes, which after mixed test audience reactions he shortened to about 128 minutes. After this, he had to go to Brazil to work on a film in Brazil to support the U.S.’ “Good Neighbor” policy with Latin America; since Welles was out of the country and he didn’t have a right to the final cut, he was pretty much powerless to stop RKO from cutting 40 minutes off the running time and filming a new ending, bringing the final version to 88 minutes. The cut footage was later destroyed by RKO to conserve film vault space, and there are no existing copies of this footage believed to exist and is considered to be one of the holy grails of film preservation

-This is the first time I’ve seen credits come after the film-back then, they always lead off the movie because they were much shorter back then. Here, they are actually entirely spoken by Orson Welles over footage of the actors and props representing the crew with no text at all.

Overall

This is an incredible movie to look at and I thought the story at its core was very good The problem is that a lot of things that would have made the story even better weren’t sufficiently developed and there are some problems with scenes that feel like they were skipped over. Still a good movie though

Rating: B+

*Mrs. Miniver (1942)*

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Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Richard Ney, Henry Travers, Teresa Wright, Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen

Director: William Wyler

Summary: A British family struggles to survive the first days of World War II

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Pidgeon), Actress (Garson)*, Supporting Actor (Travers), Supporting Actress (Wright)*, Supporting Actress (Whitty), Adapted Screenplay*, Sound Recording, B&W Cinematography*, Film Editing, Special Effects

Positives

-Greer Garson is wonderful again, where she does a great job of playing a strong but human and approachable character with one of the loveliest voice ever. The movie really picks up quite a bit in the second half and a huge part of that is because Garson becomes more of the focus. Besides Garson, Dame May Whitty is easily the best of the three supporting actors nominated and has a lot of fun playing a wealthy snob and Walter Pidgeon continues to be solid in movies, but I don’t think I’ve seen him in a really interesting part yet (well, except for Forbidden Planet which is a lot of fun but that’s much later).

-There aren’t enough movies about the home front in wartime, especially where the war is an unavoidable part of daily life like it was for Brits during WWII, living in fear of bombing raids. There’s some excellent scenes that do a good job showing just how nerve-racking life was during this time and feel reasonably authentic.

Negatives

-The whole first half of the film drags because it focuses mainly on a bunch of subplots I didn’t care about in the least; they also crop up in the second half, but not quite as much. It also talks a lot about class differences in pre-war Britain, but only on a superficial level and the payoff is very predictable.

-There’s a scene that I really didn’t like at all because it sex’s up what should be a movie showing an average or unexceptional experience: this is a movie made to get us behind the Brits in WWII, and I really think that’s the best way to get the audience to sympathize with the Brits as a whole vs. just these characters. While the scene is plausible, this is something that would have happened to a couple of people in all of Britain over the course of the whole war.

Other Stuff

-After shooting was completed, Garson married Ney who played his son in the movie, which to me is kind of creepy. In real life he was 24 and she was 38, which is still a bit better, but still.

-Garson’s Oscar speech went a record 5 and a half minutes, which is why a 45 second play ‘em off time limit has been imposed ever since

Overall

There’s some great stuff here with an outstanding lead performance, but whenever the movie moves its focus away from Garson’s character I usually lost interest.

Rating: B

The Pied Piper (1942)

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Starring: Monty Woolley, Roddy McDowall, Anne Baxter, Otto Preminger, J. Carrol Naish

Director: Irving Pichel

Summary: While traveling to France during the Nazi invasion of 1940, an Englishman is entrusted with the care of a group of refugee children

Other Nominations: Actor (Woolley), B&W Cinematography

Positives

-This is a very focused and effective story that works really well not only because of its compelling and original narrative, but because of its tone. The movie is serious, but it doesn’t dwell too heavily on the grimness of the situation and is punctuated by occasional moments of levity

-Monty Woolley is excellent and the movie works as well as it does because of his great performance as the hard and reluctant on the outside, warm and kind-hearted on the inside character. His beard is also fantastic (http://www.latimes.com/includes/projects/hollywood/portraits/monty_wooley.jpg). Preminger is also really good as a Nazi major in his first film role; while he acted in a handful of other roles in his career, after his success directing Laura, he mainly stayed behind the camera and directed such films as Anatomy of a Murder, The Man with the Golden Arm and Exodus.

Negatives

You should know what to expect in terms of nuance considering the timing of the film and who made it, but it’s not anything you haven’t seen before in this regard. Nothing else comes to mind, I just wouldn’t call it a great movie.

Overall

This is a really good movie that is unfortunately very difficult to find-there’s a reason it only has 300 IMDB votes. There’s never been a Blu-ray, DVD or even VHS release, and you can’t watch it through iTunes, Amazon, Youtube, Vudu, etc. The only way to find it is either get lucky and record it off of TCM if they ever get around to playing it, or do some digging and find it through other means. If you do get the chance, I give it a hearty recommendation.

Rating: B+

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

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Starring: Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Walter Brennan, Elsa Janssen, Ludwig Stossel, Babe Ruth

Director: Sam Wood

Summary: The life of Baseball hero Lou Gehrig, who ends up facing a crippling disease at the height of his success

Other Nominations: Actor (Cooper), Actress (Wright), Adapted Screenplay, Story, Dramatic Score, Sound Recording, B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography, Film Editing*, Special Effects

Positives

-The ending is still wonderful, even if the speech is just an edited version of something that already happened in real life that we have footage of

-It was really cool seeing Babe Ruth, who was not just a great athlete, but was always very charismatic and it comes across here even later in his life. The movie also features former baseball greats Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel and Max Koenig playing themselves.

Negatives

-This movie has tons of filler to pad out the running time (at over two hours, it didn’t need it), with a lot of dramatic licenses taken. The worst is an extended scene in the middle where Gehrig and his wife just watch two dancers at a club, and then we see somebody sing a song, none of which has anything to do with anything. There are also major subplots that have no basis in reality (not stretching the truth, they just factually did not happen). Glossy, super-sentimental, mostly made up biopics like this are one of my least favorite types of movie.

-This is really a romance movie with a little bit of baseball in it vs. being a sports movie. As someone who is much more of a sports fan than a romance fan, this was disappointing.

Other Stuff

-Teresa Wright completes a hat-trick with this movie that I cannot imagine will ever be equaled: she received an Oscar nomination for each of her first three films she was ever in: The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver and Pride of the Yankees, winning Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver. It also made her one of the only people to have two Oscar nominations in the same year (for the last two listed, both of which were from 1942). The others: Fay Bainter (1938), Barry Fitzgerald (1944, Actor and Supporting Actor for the same role and movie strangely enough), Jessica Lange (1982), Sigourney Weaver (1988), Al Pacino (1992), Holly Hunter (1993), Emma Thompson (1993), Julianne Moore (2002), Jamie Foxx (2004) and Cate Blanchett (2007).

Overall

Skip the movie and just watch the ending, which is pretty much what everybody remembers it for anyway.

Rating: D+

Random Harvest (1942)

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Starring: Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, Philip Dorn, Susan Peters, Henry Travers, Reginald Owen

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Summary: An amnesiac escapes from an asylum and finds love until disaster strikes again

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Colman), Supporting Actress (Peters), Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic Score, B&W Art Direction

Positives

-The romance plot is clearly a cut above most, with the first half being absolutely amazing. What makes it so good is because of the excellent performances, the unique premise and because it feels like it has stakes-that there is a good reason to care about both these characters

-Greer Garson should be way more acclaimed of an actress these days than she is-I would put on her on the same level as Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn, at least in terms of me looking forward to seeing them in a movie. She just brings so much charm, warmth and heart to her performances to go along with her wonderful voice-watch the “She’s Ma Daisy” scene and tell me she’s not great. Her problem is that unlike Davis and Hepburn, her time at the top was quick-from 1939 to 1945 she was arguably the biggest female star in Hollywood, earning 6 Oscar nominations in seven years with a win and a Best Picture in there too; after that though, she didn’t do a whole lot. The other thing is that she tended to play the same type of character in all her movies, or at least she has so far. Nevertheless, that she wasn’t named to the AFI Top 25 female actresses of classic cinema is ridiculous to me.

-Colman is reliably good as usual in the male lead, especially towards the beginning when he gives a restrained and sympathetic performance. Him and Garson set the benchmark for best voices of two leads in any movie I can think of.

-The movie is very well shot and well edited all around

Negatives

-While the first half is one of the best romance movies I’ve ever seen, the second half feels contrived and predictable a lot of the time. I was expecting something similar to what did happen at the halfway point to happen, but the direction they went really strained believability for me for multiple reasons. Furthermore, while there were a couple of surprises, most of the time I felt like I was about 5-10 minutes ahead of the movie, just waiting for the thing that I know will happen to happen.

Overall

Really good romance movie that sadly tails off in the second half, although the ending is great

Rating: B+