1001 Movies: 2021 Update

This year’s edition of the 1001 List is out now in paperback form in the U.K. (though the hardcover version, for some reason, is delayed here in the States until December, according to Amazon), so we’ve got a small block of new films to get through! Someone had revealed these as the new additions about a week or so ago, and I’d wanted to wait for confirmation from at least one other person that these are indeed correct, but nobody else has come forward saying they’re wrong, and a few others have gotten impatient, so I’m adding them as well:

The Vast of Night (2019)
The Assistant (2019)
Rocks (2019)
Saint Maud (2019)
Tenet (2020)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Soul (2020)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
Lovers Rock (2020)
Nomadland (2020)

It’s only ten films this year; still, who knows how long it might take me to get through them. This year’s additions are far more indie-oriented than previous years have been (which might be a good thing), and the editors have all but entirely ignored the Best Picture slate, save for Nomadland (though someone also pointed out that many of last year’s Best Picture films were actually early 2021 films due to the extension, which might explain it). Hopefully these are worth the relative obscurity; Tenet is the only one I’ve already seen, and I’d actually had minor inklings of wanting to watch it again, even with the issues it does have, so there’s no problem there. As usual, Best Picture will be on hold until these are done, which is also why I’d spaced out 1950 to give myself a good stopping point.

Here we go!

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1950

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

1950 for the Academy would seem to be a down year, if the nominees for Best Picture were an indication; and indeed, not too much of note occurred this year. At the Oscars themselves, fashion would start the decade off with a roar, courtesy of notable dresses worn by presenters Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe; this being Monroe’s one and only appearance at the Awards. It might’ve seemed a shorter night than most given the attendance, as many of the nominees were actually in New York celebrating with Gloria Swanson at her 52nd birthday bash; the Oscar nominees listening in on radio. Indeed, the race seemed all about the crowded Best Actress field, with Holliday receiving congrats from Swanson as she heard her name over the speakers. As for Best Director and Screenplay, those were all about Joseph L. Mankiewicz for the second consecutive year, the only time in history one person would win both awards two years running; and, unlike the previous year, he and producer Darryl F. Zanuck would be pleased that Best Picture turned out to be all about All About Eve.

-Ranking the Nominees-

King Solomon's Mines

-As I said in my review of it, King Solomon’s Mines makes the same mistakes Trader Horn did a couple decades prior; it’s an exhibition of footage shot of the wilds of Africa, not an actual film, and yet it somehow managed a nomination here. Evidently it was really something for the audiences of 1950, ending up as the second-highest grossing film of the year and the biggest profit margin for its studio, MGM, so perhaps the Academy felt pressured to bow to public opinion. Either way, they were wrong; there were several films that got a lot of Oscar love this year and had more nominations to them than this, and yet this managed it? Come on.

Father of the Bride

-Sadly, Father of the Bride fails at this nomination for similar reasons, though it’s actually trying to be a decent film (and a comedy at that) and as such makes me not want to be particularly mean toward it. Whether or not you’re a father with a daughter seems to be the deciding factor as to who will enjoy this film, as it hammers on that one note it has so hard that it starts to ring in your ears even when the piano isn’t playing. If that note is one you kinda like, Father of the Bride will be a knowing bundle of chuckles for you; unfortunately, I’m traipsing through this odyssey looking for films that actually are fully realized and could stand a chance at this award, and this is definitely not one of them.

Born Yesterday

-In terms of comedies that are up for this award, at least this year, the Academy seemed to at least have one decent shot with Born Yesterday. Even with my lukewarm reception to it when I watched it, I had to admit that I did laugh aloud a few times, mostly at Judy Holliday and her absolutely razor-sharp comedic timing and characterization that won her Best Actress over the likes of Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson in career-best performances. Deciding that race is a task for another day (perhaps); as for this race, I’m still ambivalent on whether or not this really should be here. Considering the other two films below it, definitely, but 1950 has quite a lot of quality to it that this field wouldn’t otherwise indicate, and at five nominees, I could see this ending up below the marker with some of the other potentials in the mix.

Sunset Blvd

-Really, when it comes down to ranking this field of five, it was always going to come down to ranking a field of two. Deciding between this particular pairing was never going to be easy, or definitive (if indeed one could possibly settle such a debate), and truly, the major factor separating these two is basically mood; if you like straight dramas, you’ll prefer one, and if you prefer a noir that drips off the screen, you’ll prefer the other. For me, I can take either one, so my putting Sunset Boulevard second in this list should on no account be an indicator that it is really second in almost any way. This is a film for anyone who loves classic cinema, both because it is an example of it itself and because it does so much with the concept of looking back on that era under a more modern eye. And, of course, it’s got that noir feel in spades, diamonds, and every suit you can think of.

All About Eve

-So why, then, am I putting All About Eve first? Subjectively, there’s no way to decide; as I said in the previous paragraph, it basically comes down to personal preference. Objectively, both are well-written, superbly-acted, and tied together as best as each film can tie everything it has together; it seems to me, though, that All About Eve is tied just that much tighter, to where the film is such a perfectly blended mixture that picking it apart for individual aspects seems almost impossible – if you find one thing to laud, you’ll find three other related things to also laud about it. With Sunset Blvd, the excellent aspects stick out, like noticeable bumps or seams on an otherwise spherical ball; with All About Eve, every potential bump or seam is matched by something else, to where the texture becomes simultaneously featureless and full of variation. This metaphor isn’t exactly the best in working theory, but it’s the best way I can try to put into words why I’m putting this film atop this field of five, and in particular this field of two.

-What Should’ve Been Here-

Of course, had the Academy taken a better look at the year as a whole, they could’ve possibly made the race much more than a one-to-one bout. Sunset Blvd had the noir slot wrapped up, which unfortunately knocked In a Lonely Place out of the running. A similar fate, I suspect, kept The Asphalt Jungle out as well, especially with MGM apparently throwing all its weight behind a film that really didn’t deserve it. Films like Annie Get Your Gun, Broken Arrow, The Magnificent Yankee, and Harvey got Oscar love in a few categories, but not here; a huge miss in this regard was probably Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, which also topped King Solomon’s Mines for the highest-grossing picture of the year. The foreign field, if released in the States, gives us Los Olvidados, which might not have seen a nomination through, and Rashomon, which absolutely would’ve deserved it. The Academy also saw fit to bestow a special prize to The Walls of Malapaga for foreign films, but were still averse to the actual category itself, it seems (Rashomon would go on to win this consolation the following year). For all of the above reasons, I suspect, is also what kept one other film out of the running, which is even sadder when you notice the film managed a nomination for Carol Reed in Best Director, and a win for Best Black-and-White Cinematography, but yeah, seriously; where in the freaking hell is The Third Man?

-What I Would’ve Picked-

Deciding the race between the top two of the nominees was never going to be easy; throw in The Third Man as well, and you’ve got an almost impossible dilemma. The Third Man is a personal favorite, and makes me feel all sort of subjective emotions about it; but, if I’m trying to be as objective as I can, which I am, I’m probably forced to go with All About Eve. It pains me inside to do so, but it is, for me, the fair decision.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Your top two and winner, Oscar, are good picks, but the rest of the field is definitely not what it should’ve been. 1950 is no 1939, but it’s not a bad year for film, despite what this category may have some people believe. C’mon, Oscar; you can do better.

King Solomon’s Mines

King Solomon's Mines

It has a sort of majesty… a feeling of forever.

So, King Solomon’s Mines is starting off with a couple strikes against it, principally that the film is advertised on the poster as having been filmed “entirely in the wilds of Africa”, which to me elicits recollections of 1931’s Trader Horn, which wrangled a Best Picture nom for basically identical reasons despite the fact that it was a piss poor film in its bones. Top it off with a wild elephant getting shot and killed in the opening minutes, and you’ve got enough to send away a good half of the meager audience that would probably be giving this a shot for any reason. Frankly, I’m not blaming any of those people in the slightest; as an exhibition of Africa, King Solomon’s Mines might be sufficient, but as a film, it is little more than that, and it seems to not care about it.

Allan Quatermain has just returned from leading a safari in the wilds of Kenya circa the turn of the 20th century, and he’s just about fed up with doing such. Of course, he is then approached with an offer for one final expedition: the wife of a missing explorer named Henry Curtis wants to set out and find him, courtesy of a hand-drawn map she says her husband used to go into a large, uncharted territory nearby. Managing to entice the wannabe retiree with an exorbitant sum of money, Mrs. Curtis, her brother, and Quatermain set off with a small group of local tribesmen to go where none have ever been and lived to return… to follow the missing Mr. Curtis’ fantasy of finding the diamond mines of the lost King Solomon. Really, the background is only the barest pretense of narrative enough to prop up what the film really wants to be, and that is a whole bunch of nice Technicolor footage shot of the wilds of Africa, both human and otherwise. To say that this is little more than a theme park ride on the silver screen is to be patently blunt about it; the film itself is seemingly put together by the directors (two of them) shooting whatever wild footage of animals and scenery they could get, and then finding ways to incorporate as much of it into the final cut as they could via the excuse of the narrative. Even then, what narrative there is is simplistic and only there because the audience expects it; hell, even Deborah Kerr, the female lead, exists in the film only to provide a bunch of reaction shots to the actual footage of Africa. I’ll give props to Stewart Granger for looking very much his part as Quatermain, but the rest of the film wasn’t really worth the price of admission.

My opening jib at Trader Horn was far more on the mark than even I could’ve foreseen; this sort of thing should be nowhere near Best Picture. It’s not technically bad, I guess, but it absolutely pretends to be something it’s not to bring in more people than would’ve otherwise watched this. It’s kind of a shame, especially given how beloved and classic the original book and the character of Quatermain are in literature. I guess it’s no surprise that this won a couple Oscars for color cinematography and editing, but that this was also the second-highest grossing film of the year as well is a little sad to think about. And again, that this was also nominated for Best Picture is the biggest question mark one can have. If you want a bunch of footage of Africa circa 1950 or so, well, here you go; otherwise, there’s no reason to sit through this, even with the short running time that it’s cut down to.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Father of the Bride

Father of the Bride

…You fathers will understand.

I know a lot of people, both back in the Golden Age and today, bank a lot of goodwill on the charms of Spencer Tracy to sell movies (or make them interesting to watch), but it begs the question of just how far Tracy’s amiable demeanor on the screen can get a film that otherwise wouldn’t get very far without him. Father of the Bride is a prime example, even with Joan Bennett as Tracy’s wife and Elizabeth Taylor as his daughter, the bride of the title; it seems like the producers of the film knew they needed Tracy to make what they wanted to do with the film into a viable picture. Not that the film wouldn’t have done it without him, but rather that what the film is trying to do probably wouldn’t sell as well or come across as watchable as it is (which is only barely is) if they had a different leading man.

Spencer Tracy is Stanley Banks, who finds out almost innocuously along with his wife Ellie that his only daughter Kay is engaged to be married. Right off the bat, he is concerned with the man his daughter is marrying, knowing nothing about the lad, but soon his initial concerns seem dwarfed by just how much effort and planning and considerations go into the upcoming nuptials, and seeing as the film is principally a comedy, of course everything soon unravels into an absolute tornado of circumstances that seemingly no marriage, current or upcoming, could possibly survive. That plot summary might seem thin on actual details, and that’s because the plot of the film is thin on actual details itself; namely, it satirizes the hectic nature of wedding planning and hammers on that one single note for basically the entire second half of the film. The name of the game is chaos, in every shape, form, and aspect of the wedding-to-be; indeed, I should’ve been more prepared for this, given the film’s opening scene finds Spencer Tracy sitting in the destruction and ruins of his house post-reception and waxing philosophical about weddings and what they mean to the daughters and the daughter’s fathers, with the quote under the poster up there summing the whole thing up quite succinctly. I guess, if anything, I wanted the film to be a little less one-note and smarter with its comedy than simply playing off all the stereotypes of wedding planning and all the different concerns of the bride-to-be’s paternal guardian and exaggerating them for elbow-ribbing effect, as if the film wants every father in the audience to nudge the one next to them in the theater and go “Oh, boy, ain’t THAT the truth!” At least Tracy is Tracy, and his charming personality and delivery haven’t waned, so that helped me get through the film where I otherwise would’ve checked out completely.

For a mere hour and a half, this really didn’t feel like it had enough meat on its bones to justify the running time it did contain. That the meat on its bones was the only dish being served at this particular dinner also didn’t help my palette very much. Who knows, maybe it’s because I’m not a father myself, let alone one with a daughter, but I couldn’t help but feel that this film was trading far too much on that feeling akin to nostalgia, and it was only my first time seeing the film. Even with that said, I also felt like I couldn’t really take it out on the film itself, hence the rating I’m giving it; it’s got a crowd and an audience squarely in mind with this, and I just wasn’t remotely anywhere in it. Perhaps my mind will change if I have kids, but I’m not totally sold on the merit of the film itself if that would indeed turn out to be the case.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Born Yesterday

Born Yesterday

He thinks I’m stupid, huh… He’s right; I’m stupid, and I like it!

So, with all the dramas in last year’s field, I guess it’s a good thing I’m starting off the 50’s with a light comedy; or, at least, a film with light-hearted and comedic undertones. I’ll admit, it took me several attempts to get through this one; it was only afterwards that I found out it was a stage play directed for the screen by George Cukor, which both things individually in hindsight would’ve made it tough for me to get through the film. Still, if I’m being as objective as I can be, it’s really not a knock on Born Yesterday that I had to try a few times to get through all of it, because the film really does do a good job at what it wants to be; it’s just what it wants to be that I personally found not as engaging as I tend to look for in films like these.

Broderick Crawford is Harry Brock, a junkyard tycoon who takes a trip to Washington, D.C. to try and use some of his vast wealth to… ‘influence’ a Congressman or two; why he wants to do this is intentionally vague, and may indeed just come around to “for funsies”. In order to sweeten his image in D.C., he’s brought along his current mistress, Billie Dawn, played by Judy Holliday, whose blond hair is as light and shiny as her voice is shrill and cartoonish. Billie has basically not known life outside of Harry’s shadow, being rather uneducated and generally not for lack of anything she needs as Harry’s girl, but Brock is still concerned her brashness and rough edges will turn away potential business, so he ropes in a D.C. reporter played by William Holden to smooth her out and teach her how to be proper enough in the city. Of course, reporter Paul Verrall takes it upon himself to educate Billie even further, and Billie soon is able to understand how much smarter and better she is as a person over Harry, as well as how she can be treated decently by a man like Paul; and if you’re hearing romantic undertones, you’re completely not off the mark at all. Being a stage play made for the silver screen, a lot of what we’ll be seeing in terms of action and driving narrative is the dialogue and characters themselves, and it’s this that I think made it such a tough watch for me to get into both at the start and when I kept trying to pick the film back up. There’s really nothing about Born Yesterday that grabs you as a picture, or would be a true selling point to people who wouldn’t basically be sold on it already; really, if you don’t have to watch it as an obligation to yourself for whatever reason (like going through a list of films it happens to be on, for instance), there’s no real reason to watch it at all. Still, if you do have to see it, it does manage its job fairly well, and I did find myself laughing a few times at the dialogue and comedic timing of the main trio. I did find it personally amusing that I’d end up seeing Broderick Crawford again so soon after his one-for-one Best Actor win the previous year, and his character here is pretty much a caricature of the character he played prior, amusingly enough. Crawford’s Harry Brock is intentionally the bombastic, screen-filling personality at the center of the film, but it’s amazing how Judy Holliday ends up stealing every scene she’s in with him so completely effortlessly that it becomes comic in and of itself. When Holliday first opens her mouth, her character’s voice threatens to turn you off the entire picture immediately, and it’s thanks to Holliday’s impeccable timing and effortless characterization that makes Billie something so much more than just an annoying voice. It may suck that she beat both Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson this year to Best Actress, but I can actually see how and why the Academy went the way it did, even if I’m not completely sure I’d go that way myself.

Honestly, even with how many times it took me to sit down and get through the entire running time (which was under two hours, mind you), I’m kinda glad I watched this. Really, if for no other reason, than to see the performance that did actually beat the leading ladies of All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. to the top acting honors at the Oscars. Again, I’m still not in a position to say for myself decisively if I would’ve voted for Holliday over the other two (or three, actually, with Anne Baxter included), but I can definitely say that the decision at least wasn’t a massive fluke. I’m still going to be a little annoyed going forward every time I have to sit through a George Cukor film, and I’m definitely not 100% on how this got nominated for the big one, but it’s actually not a disappointing watch, so it’s got that going for it, at least.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1949

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

After the studios’ show of non-faith and frustration the previous year, Academy head Jean Hersholt lobbied to hell and back to get the Awards a permanent home at last, after getting bounced around from theater to theater the past few years. Finally, he pulled it off; with the studios back on board, the Oscars set its flag at the corner of Hollywood and Vine at the Pantages Theater, the very heart of Hollywood, and would remain there for the next decade. The Academy would honor its outgoing President for his efforts with an Honorary Award, two others of which also went to Cecil B. DeMille and Fred Astaire; the Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves would also get an honorary award, as foreign films still had a few years before they’d get a category proper. It seems the voting body wanted to pass honors around a wide arc indeed, as each one of the five films nominated for Best Picture took home multiple awards that night, the first time this had happened (as well as this year being the final year every Best Picture nominee was a black-and-white film). And despite producer/director/writer Robert Rossen missing out on Best Director and Best Screenplay to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, he would happily get the big one when All the King’s Men took home the award for Best Picture.

-Ranking the Nominees-

Battleground

-It’s honestly a little strange, looking from the outside in, that Battleground is ending up at the bottom of my ranking, what with it being the second highest grossing film of the year. Of course, stepping into the door and taking a look-see at my review, the picture becomes clearer; while plenty of people enjoyed what Battleground had to offer, I found all that these people were touting as selling points to be eye-rolling features at best and cringe-inducing at worst, to the point that I almost had an existential crisis trying to figure out why everything everyone else loved about this was exactly why I ended up disliking it. Oh well, to each their own; that’s about all I can say, I guess.

Twelve O'Clock High

Twelve O’Clock High is the other war film in the field, and I was honestly expecting this to end up last when I watched it, with how boilerplate and unremarkable it was in just about every way. It opts for strict authenticity in its attempt to honor this part of the war effort, but it ends up shooting holes in its own wings in doing so, as the resulting picture feels less like a soaring experience than a plane slowly sliding down through the air to a landing strip as it coughs puffs of smoke from one or two engines. It may have been given a stamp of approval from the boys who really went through the fiction of the film’s plotline, but it’s not getting one from me.

All the King's Men

-It definitely feels like Oscar wanted to award the big one to importance and timeliness in giving the award to All the King’s Men. In this effort, they probably succeeded; this film more than any of the other four has a lot to say about the country and the state of politics both then and even now some 70 years after it came out. It’s a solid picture, with a solid amount of things going for it, but I still struggle in mustering up enough enthusiasm to say that this should have won this award. Given that there are other films in this field that, while I might not be able to muster myself in that way, I at least did get more personal enjoyment out of, this is ending up right in the middle instead.

A Letter to Three Wives

-I still feel pretty strongly that Joseph L. Mankiewicz won the right two Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives; it also so happens that I liked the hell out of this film right after my first watch. A Letter to Three Wives is that rare sort of film that really doesn’t make a misstep; you may not love the film all over or in individual pieces (and indeed, I carefully chose the word ‘like’ in my previous sentence), but you really can’t say that it does anything wrong or incorrectly. It’s got a great premise, and it makes of that premise exactly what it should, and I appreciated that a bunch. However, it doesn’t make more of what it has, only just enough, and it’s that that is keeping this film below the one left in this field.

The Heiress

The Heiress is very unassuming at first glance, and even right there is the film’s first ingeniously deliberate decision. You can have plenty of films up for this award that are here for importance or to make a statement, and then you can have certain films that just hit you over the head in ways you had forgotten a film really could do, and The Heiress accomplishes that with panache. It’s got Olivia de Havilland in possibly her best performance, a supporting cast each up to the same level in their roles, a production second to none, and most importantly, more emotional wallops than quite possibly the rest of the field combined. Really, it comes down to picking either the most ‘important’ film of the year, or the film that one has overall gotten more out of than any of the others while still being a strong film as well. For me, this year, that film is The Heiress.

-What Should’ve Been Here-

It’s getting harder each year that passes to discern what could’ve (or should’ve) gotten a nom here instead of some of the actual field, with more films being released and thus more and more possibilities that I likely don’t know enough about slipping through the cracks. The Academy, for instance, seemed to avoid box office totals almost entirely for Best Picture consideration, with Battleground being the sole exception of the top-grossers to get in; perhaps they didn’t want to seem too indebted to popular opinion, but it does leave out a lot of high-grossing films from this field. Some of these did get other Oscar nods, like Jolson Sings Again, Pinky, Little Women, and Sands of Iwo Jima. Two other Oscar heavy-hitters that year, Champion and Come to the Stable, somehow missed out here. With all the seriousness in the nominees, the Academy might’ve been apt to throw another light-hearted comedy in there like Whiskey Galore or Kind Hearts and Coronets; the latter could’ve also seen a potential acting nom for the eight-fold duty Alec Guinness pulls. Some might stump for On the Town just to get a musical in here, but I won’t. The Third Man would’ve absolutely been among my picks, if it didn’t qualify for the following year’s Oscars instead.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

With nothing outside the field sticking its head in too visibly this year, it seems my Oscar vote would’ve defaulted to The Heiress. Not to say that that tepid confirmation is indicative of that film not being a really good one; it’s just not quite the clear-cut winner I’m usually looking for each year.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

This definitely feels like a weaker field overall than I’m starting to expect from Oscar. There’s one or two solid choices, maybe three if I stretch, but it’s hard to look at these five and say unquestionably that these are the best of the year. With color films now guaranteed to intrude upon this category, though, I’m hoping that will help mitigate this feeling somewhat going forward. As long as Oscar doesn’t muff it up because of it.

Battleground

Battleground

Don’t ever let anybody tell you you were a sucker to fight in the war against fascism.

Seeing as this is still the very-near post-WWII years, war films are certainly not going away anytime soon. I’d previously had to sit through Twelve O’Clock High for this year, and I’d lamented how realistic it was at the expense of things like entertainment. Well, it looks like I’m eating my words a little sooner than I’d have cared for. Battleground is the other war film in the nominees this year, and while Twelve O’Clock High got by with being a much more documentary-style telling of a portion of the war effort, Battleground swings wholly in the other direction with a war tale told as campy as it possibly can be.

In terms of true events, Battleground is the story of the weary survivors of the siege of Bastogne in Belgium, part of the overarching Battle of the Bulge; specifically, how the men at Bastogne held out in a war of attrition against all German opposing efforts to make sure the Krauts didn’t lock up the coast at Antwerp to deny the Allies the offensive they wanted. In movie-form, Battleground is the story of the 101st Airborne Division members who wind up as infantry at Bastogne, and how they specifically get by during the siege. This would seem to be a harrowing and fraught tale ripe for cinematic adaptation (and only half a decade after the real events took place to boot), but this is Hollywood, and it seems even they can’t resist making this into a smarmy, slap-happy show piece to fit in with all the other such films it produces each year. The opening few minutes, for instance, features a regiment of men not so much marching drills as choreographed march-dances while a handful of them and others watching play off dialogue like they are very much actors very much playing instead of men at war. Literally every aspect of this film is a caricature of what it should be; all the dialogue and staging has so much of that fake, sing-songy, stagey quality to it that it became impossible to suspend disbelief to care about anything that was happening or might happen. Every character is either identical to all the others or only distinguishable by a single notable characteristic; the one constantly clicking his dentures, the one mixing his eggs in his helmet while they patrol, the one with a Southern dialect and accent so strong no reasonable moviegoer in any timeframe could plausibly believe he was an actual real person and not a song-and-dance man. Admittedly, the musical high-and-flighty mood does eventually grow more dour as the film goes on and the boys’ situation gets worse and worse, but by then the film is so committed to its snarky, wisecrack dialogue that it doesn’t feel like the film’s intention with this change of mood comes across in any way. At least the production itself is actually pretty thorough, and it’s rare to see a war film of this type spend so much time in the dead of winter, with the weather directly having a toll on the characters as well, so I appreciated that at least.

I’m actually a little disgruntled thinking about this film. If this is actually the style and type of Hollywood film I’ve been watching up to now, and I’ve been enjoying it this whole time… what changed about this, then? Or is this the aberration, the mainstream Hollywood-style flick that Best Picture has thankfully been largely free of until this year? I’m hoping it’s the latter, because I really don’t know what would have been different today during my watch of Battleground if it is indeed the former. If this is also an indicator of how potential future nominees like this are going to worm their way into this field, I’m not looking forward to it. In fairness, I’m probably making this film seem worse than it really is, but there were just so many moments during this that I actually cringed or rolled my eyes that it became a chore to make it through to the end instead of a surprise find or enjoyable experience. Battleground will probably strike a chord with a good number of moviegoers; it did somehow end up the year’s second-highest-grossing film, after all. I just can’t count myself among that particular crowd.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

A Letter to Three Wives

A Letter to Three Wives

Addie Ross never saw the day she could spoil my day.

Many Oscar stats geeks like myself know of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s back-to-back Best Director wins; what I didn’t know until now was that he also won back-to-back Screenplay awards for the same two films as well, and that he is the only one to ever do this. Of course, film fans are well aware of what a classic All About Eve is, but considering the uniqueness of his accomplishment, one should not discount the other film in this back-to-back double-whammy. I had to admit that I did not think too much of A Letter to Three Wives before I saw it, knowing it only as the other film in Mankiewicz’s Director sweep. Having seen it now, I can see why it won the awards it did, and I was more than surprised with how entertaining the film was overall.

The premise is one of those ingenious elevator-pitch premises that’s so self-contained and instantly intriguing that it’s a wonder it hadn’t been thought of and made into a film before this one. Three young wives (Deborah, Rita, and Lora Mae) are good friends with each other in a small suburban town, as are their husbands, and all frequently go out together as a group to various functions and parties. One function the ladies are doing alone is as chaperones to a group of children as they take a boat ride and riverside picnic. Moments before the boat leaves, a messenger arrives with a letter to the three, from local socialite and golden girl Addie Ross, who says that she is not only moving away from the town, but that she is also running away with one of the husbands of the three wives as well. Now stuck on their chaperone trip until the evening, the three each reflect and reminisce on their marriages and the various rocky aspects they’ve each had up to now, all in wondering which of the three will arrive home that night without a husband to greet them. I had previously bemoaned the framing device used in Twelve O’Clock High as unnecessary and gratuitous, so I’d like to start here by applauding how Letter’s use of its own framing story makes the flashbacks to each of the married lives of the three ladies that much more intriguing and thus engaging as a result. Basically, with the way the film is constructed, with its premise and the use of narrative devices, I can’t imagine any moviegoer who sits down to watch this one won’t be hooked into the film the whole way through on that alone. Thankfully, Mankiewicz is a smart enough writer to not lean entirely on the devices themselves, but also flesh out the film with natural, dry-witty dialogue and a believable set of circumstances for each marriage as to why it might have gone awry and how each of the three husbands may indeed be ‘the one’, so to speak. Incidentally, the story the film is adapted from originally featured five wives, but some trimming was done by Mankiewicz and 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck to keep the film from getting too discombobulated. The acting is also good, more believable than stand-out, though the optimism glowing from Kirk Douglas’ character does get infectious at times. Additional special shoutout to Thelma Ritter as Rita’s housemaid and friend of Lora Mae’s mother, who was a consistent scene-stealer.

Really, the only problem I had with the film was a small hang-up on one aspect of the ending; other than that, this film really didn’t do anything wrong, from the excellent casting (including the decision to make the character of Addie a more mythical figure by not having her appear on screen, instead only through voiceover) to the production design (special kudos to the set dressers and designers of Lora Mae’s family home, which sits so close to a set of railroad tracks that trains passing by rattle the whole house for almost a minute on end). Again, I can definitely see why Mankiewicz won the two Oscars he did here, and that it is only the overshadowing of the following year’s film that he’d do the same with that prevents more people appreciating this one, I think. For what is ultimately the shortest of the nominees this year (with my only having one more to get to), I feel like I got more actual enjoyment out of this than any of the others so far. It’s light, amusing, and has a dynamite premise; you can’t get much more crowd-pleasing than that, and A Letter to Three Wives still manages it.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Twelve O’Clock High

Twelve O'Clock High

How much can a man take?

Okay, now let’s see if I can keep the snowball rolling. It’s 1949, so now’s about the time we’re bound to get a handful of nominated war films about the glory of the Allies’ victory and the brave sacrifices those young boys made to ensure evil did not prevail and so on and blah blah etc. We’re not in the war anymore, so now instead of straight propaganda films, we’re going to get a trickle of nostalgic patriotism instead. Twelve O’Clock High, featuring Gregory Peck in one of his Oscar-nominated roles, somehow manages to be a quintessential nostalgic war film with only four years having passed since the end of the war itself. I can appreciate a film like this, and I can even appreciate that the Academy appreciated it, but the selection of this film for Best Picture doesn’t exactly age well with the nostalgic war films that would follow in the years to come.

It’s WWII, and the Allies are desperately trying to figure out a reliable and efficient way to undertake daylight bombing raids against Germany without their fleets getting ripped apart, and the brave men of the 918th air squadron are the primary subjects of the military’s endeavors. Well, brave may be a bit generous; the 918th is known as a “hard luck” squad, and they’re so broken down and demoralized from flying daily missions that nearly all of them have put in for sick leave. Their commanding officer, Colonel Davenport, can’t bear to see his men in their state, and one of his higher-ups and a personal friend, Brig. Gen. Frank Savage, thinks the men have such so-called hard luck because Davenport is so lenient and identifies with them too much. When Savage shows his commanding officer his theory is correct, Davenport is relieved of command, and Savage himself is given the position. It’s now up to Savage, in a deliberate attempt to not make Davenport’s mistakes, to act hard and whip the men into proper shape, so they can withstand the rigors of the job up to and past the point where Savage will be looking over them. First off, for a war film, there is decidedly little fighting or war action here; most of the film is the upkeep and training that takes place at the base in prep for the actual flying missions. I will add that the film does do well to lead up to the one actual aerial dogfighting scene near the end of the film; special mention is made in the film’s opening titles that the combat footage used is actual combat footage filmed by the Air Force and the German Luftwaffe, which is an interesting tidbit. Slight tangent aside, I bring up the lack of action to shine a light on this film’s pointed lack of what most people might come to this film looking for; so, what does this film have to bring people in to watch it? Honestly, not that much. The storytelling is rather stretched, and not very elaborate, making the film seem like one that could have a good half hour chopped from its running time to make it a little easier to get through; it’s a good 20 minutes into the film before Gregory Peck even appears on-screen, and up to then it’s difficult to know who’s who or even who we should be aware of with the film’s lack of proper character introductions. It even opens with a framing device that, by the end of the film, is rather easy to tell is extraneous and unnecessary (and not even affecting, either). The acting is okay, with Peck’s natural stern charisma providing much of his ‘character’, and the supporting players blending in so much that you can’t really tell anyone apart if they’re not directly named in whatever scene they’re in. All this, along with the total lack of a score, makes the film seem like one of those “smear of grey” films that is annoying to have to sit through and is so prevalent across Best Picture’s early years.

So, what I think the problem with Twelve O’Clock High is, is that it has its intentions not exactly in the right place. If I were to guess, I’d pose the theory that the film wants to inspire, or at the very least pay tribute to the men who actually did what the film depicts, and so the director and producers opted for a strong sense of realism in how they depicted life on these air bases. True enough, this is likely how living and working on these bases ultimately shaped up to be (for WWII), but the problem with this is that it is ultimately not that entertaining to watch. Past propaganda films knew they had to inflict emotions onto the audience to get them to support the war effort, and future war films would largely do the same to get people to feel how they needed to feel about the effort and sacrifice that went into winning the war. With Twelve O’Clock High, there is no emotion, and even a hastily contrived breakdown of one of the characters that serves as the film’s climax just doesn’t make us feel anything; this is a record of life in this job, instead of the pro-war-effort remembrance it should have been. I don’t know how many war films were released in 1949, but aside from the stark realism and production effort involved in this one, I’d be surprised if I couldn’t find at least one other war film from 1949 that wasn’t more worth the nomination, and certainly more entertaining, than this.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

All the King’s Men

All the King's Men

“…I learned somethin’.” “What?” “How to win.”

Aaaaallllright, let’s see if I can get back in this. Despite the rough past few months or so, a small part of me is still hoping that this won’t be particularly difficult to do… so let’s start with another literary adaptation! Cause those have gone so well before! Woooo! Ok, humor aside, at least the book that All the King’s Men is adapted from and shares its title with won a Pulitzer Prize, and the film won Best Picture to boot, so I’m hoping that the standard will be considerably raised enough with this that it won’t be torturous to sit through. Now, I said all that before actually getting to what All the King’s Men deals with in story and topic, that of a charismatic but moderately naive politician who rises in power as he simultaneously sheds his innocence to become just as ruthless and corrupt as those he used to fight against; truly, in today’s day and age, this film will and should likely be particularly timely and prescient, even with it being a good 70 years old. Of course, after the past decade or so, what this film hopes to impart as a worldly moral lesson comes across as rather meek and obvious in comparison, but it’s still a pretty good film regardless.

The film is told from the eyes of Jack Burden, who starts off as a reporter in a big city tasked with doing a piece on a small-town man running for a small-town treasury position named Willie Stark. Stark is said to be an honest man making a run in politics, so of course Burden is intrigued to see if this is the case, and comes back wholeheartedly believing Willie Stark is the real deal. Willie, however, loses his race after running up against the corrupt nature of politics, even at the local level, but he is proven right in the end when the concerns he was running his platform against come to pass, and in a roundabout way, he ends up as a candidate for governor (in reality, in order to split the vote and get another candidate into the office instead). Once Willie realizes the truth, and the real nature of the political machine, he throws up his hands, gets drunk, goes to one of his rallies… and delivers a blistering sermon about the truth of who he is, who his opponents are, and what they think of the people voting for them. Soon enough, he’s in office, and he has quickly learned from his unexpected success how to play the political game, and the once-stalwart advocate for truth and the everyman has become a back-dealing, dirt-smearing megalomaniac… and it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to stop him. For what I’m essentially hoping is my foray back into this odyssey, it seems I’ve opted for yet another of that type of film that blends so well together that it becomes difficult to talk about at any length. This is actually really amusing, since apparently the director and editor were having such a problem cutting this film down to a reasonable length that they gave it to an editing consultant with the instructions to take each scene, roll the footage a hundred feet from the middle in both directions, and chop off the rest, which got the film down to its release length. Such an editing hail-mary would not seem to lead to a film that is well blended together, and indeed I’m refusing to believe that further touch-ups were not done after the 110-minute cut was given back to the director, because the resulting film is cut to such detail that it hardly seems like there is any extraneous footage at all. The rest of the film is pretty standard, but good quality and entertaining; the cinematography is nothing to shout about, and the directing and performances are all solid. Even Broderick Crawford, who I was expecting to be impressed by since he won Best Actor for this, simply played a solid character, and indeed I suspect (without knowing too much of the other nominated performances) that he won for the character and not for his actual performance.

I knew that I’d wanted to come back to this with this film for 1949, even if I didn’t know when I’d actually manage to get back to this. That might’ve been a bit of a double-edged sword, though; while this is pretty good, and probably much more timely for its era than it would seem for us in today’s time, that this won Best Picture may be a poor indicator of the rest of the field, of which I’ve only seen one other previously. Then again, I should really remember that there’s been plenty of hidden gems in the past years of Oscar, and that my assumption that the quality of the overall nominations for this award will hopefully go up, albeit slowly, as the years go by, will likely hold true. Still, despite this paragraph up to this point, don’t take this as a non-recommendation for All the King’s Men; this is still a very solid picture all around, and really the only reason one might be let down by it is going into it with the expectation of being wowed by a Best Picture winner, and merely getting a pretty good film instead. This is probably what happened to me, so hopefully this review, if anything, will at least clear the tint off your glasses should you decide to try this one as well.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10