Pygmalion

Pygmalion

She’s so deliciously low… so horribly dirty.

Even despite his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, I don’t know much about Leslie Howard. Apparently, he was rather well regarded in the 30s, even fielding two Oscar nominations for Best Actor before his conspiracy-laden death in the mid 40s during WWII. The second of those nominations came for this, Pygmalion, which he also co-directed, so he would certainly seem to be a man capable of wearing many hats. Now, theater and film aficionados will be quite familiar with the title of Pygmalion, a George Bernard Shaw theatrical play that went on to become the basis for the musical (and later 1964 film adaptation) My Fair Lady. Countless people have doubtlessly seen the later version starring Audrey Hepburn, but I’d imagine much fewer have taken the time to see the original. Really, though, that’s quite a shame; this version is actually pretty good, especially if one is able to take to the British style of writing and humor used to an almost dizzying effect here.

Leslie Howard is Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor who finds a young flower-seller, dirt poor and dirt covered, and through a fortuitous series of verbal repartee with a friend, decides to take her in and teach her everything he knows in order to transform her into a proper English lady. There’s little more to the plot than that; the film is really about verbal wit and the characters that employ it to and against each other, namely in Higgins and the flowergirl Eliza Doolittle. The script, adapted by Shaw himself from his own play, knows its characters like the back of the author’s hands, and it’s thanks to Shaw’s writing skill that the film and the characters come across so well-rounded on the screen. The film, in addition to being smartly written, has a sense of humor to it that’s, for lack of a better word, cracking; this is a British comedy in every sense of the burgeoning genre, and considering I hadn’t thought much of the film before I started it, I was quite pleasantly surprised to find myself snickering rather often during the film’s short running time. The rest of the film’s production was also quite skilled, from the capable and often inventive direction and camerawork to the acting by Howard and especially Wendy Hiller as Eliza.

What I think makes Pygmalion ultimately work as a whole, as opposed to being too much of something or too smug for its own good, is that it knows exactly what kind of film it needs to be, and makes the effort to be exactly that, and not any more or any less. It’s smart, and smart enough to know how to not be too smart, and although the film does have an ambiguously pseudo-happy ending tacked on against the wishes of Shaw, the film is still skilled enough to get the story it wants told across, which is more than a lot of other films of the era can say that they’ve done. This impressed me, and again, that’s more than I can say about a lot of other Best Picture nominees in the same fold, so I was especially thankful for this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Test Pilot

Test Pilot

It was a thrill to see you come out of the sky. It’ll be a greater one to see you disappear in it.

After my rewatch of Captains Courageous turned out as well as it did, I got a little excited when I found out that Test Pilot was also directed by Victor Fleming, just one short year before he’d go on to have one of the best directorial years in Hollywood history. It also stars Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy, so goddang by golly does this one have some heavy hitters in all aspects of it. In my usual bit of research, I got the impression that this one would have some of the best aerial sequences put to film since Wings, which I was looking forward to even without Test Pilot being set in a war (which, to mention, was something to be thankful for). While the flying sequences were certainly well done, if a little transparent with how they managed to film most of them, where the film really succeeds is by taking its own high-flying premise and seeing what happens when you look at it with your feet planted squarely on the ground.

Clark Gable is Jim Lane, a renowned test pilot for plane prototypes, where his job is to push the planes he flies as far as they can reasonably be handled, and then further than that. In one instance, he is poised to set a new coast-to-coast flying record, but his plane begins to dump oil and he’s forced to land it somewhere in Kansas. Here lives Myrna Loy, who houses Gable until his crew, chiefly his main mechanic and devoted best friend Spencer Tracy, can make it there to fix the plane, and as things are wont to happen, the two fall in love over the course of a single day. However, Loy’s young farmgirl soon comes to realize: the only thing that may be more stressful and harrowing than being a test pilot, pushing yourself and the high-flying machines you operate to and past their limits, is being married to a test pilot. After the film got going, a lot of things surprised me about it. For one, for a film called Test Pilot, I was surprised at how much of the film didn’t deal with planes and flying, opting to give us the aerial sequences in sustained bursts spaced quite a bit apart instead of all together or throughout the two-hour running time. I was also surprised at how much of the script consisted of the main trio cracking wise at each other (which they did as well as any other), which made me feel that films like His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep, both done by Test Pilot screenwriter Howard Hawks, were absolutely only a few years away. What surprised me the most, however, was somewhere in the middle, during one scene with Loy and Tracy talking to each other about Gable, when the film dropped the cracks and got pretty damned serious, and alarmingly affecting as a result. This film isn’t about the dangers of being a test pilot, or the thrill of adventure that calls to pilots like Gable’s Jim Lane; it is about how the dangers of being a pilot and the call to adventure that Lane answers to an almost reckless degree affect the people who truly care about him – best friend Tracy and partner Loy. All three stars have rarely been better in a script that really knows how each character affects the others, in both good ways and very negative ways, and by the end, I was impressed as hell with the overall film.

You might think you know where the film is headed only twenty or thirty minutes into it. You would be right; the film does end up pretty much how you’d expect a film like this to end up. What you absolutely will not expect is how the film manages to get to the end, and for a film made near the end of the 1930s, I was amazed at how mature and forward-thinking the screenwriting was, and equally amazed that it all came across the screen so well, thanks to the main stars. This picture will wallop you, mostly because a picture like this, for when it was made and released, really comes out of nowhere with how effective, and affecting, it actually is. Kudos to Victor Fleming, writer Howard Hawks, and the stars of the film; I was expecting this to be particularly thrilling and with maybe half as much backbone in-between the flying sequences, but man was I not expecting what I actually got with this.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Citadel

The Citadel

Thank God… I’m a doctor!

So, I was a bit hesitant to dive into The Citadel, to say the least; it’s based on another supposed classic novel, and proudly announces this by having the film’s title represented on the cover of a large book on several of the film’s posters, and seeing how well “classic” literary adaptations have gone over with me so far on this Best Picture odyssey, it really shouldn’t surprise me too much that I’ve been putting this one off as much as I have. Well, having finished it now, it wasn’t necessarily worth me putting it off the way I did, but neither is it really worth going out of your way to see. All in all, it has its positive qualities, but unfortunately it shares a few negative ones with prior literary Best Picture nominees, and even with King Vidor as director, it doesn’t manage to escape from under these influences.

The Citadel is the story of Andrew Manson, a newly minted doctor who is granted a position as an apprentice to a doctor in a Welsh mining town, where he quickly becomes interested in the recurring cough plaguing the miners for years and tries to use his idealism to solve the problem. The miners, however, take offense to Manson’s refusal to capitulate to them by not giving them the near-placebo medicines they want, and end up trashing the lab Manson had set up to try and figure out how to combat the illness. His idealism shattered, he moves to London and falls in with the crowd of doctors he had been trying his whole career not to be, until a tragedy comes to affect him and hopefully set him back on the proper course. I think the best way to look at The Citadel is to see what the film’s selling points are, and how well they hold up. First off is the star Robert Donat, who was nominated for this role (and, largely, I suspect solely for the closing speech his character gives at the end of the film), and who does an admirable job of, well, being admirable and charming, but it works, especially given the British setting of the film. Second is King Vidor and his steady hand at much of the proceedings of the film, and though I’ve definitely seen better work from Vidor, I still appreciated his managing to take another semi-obscure (for the modern era) literary source and make something salvageable from it. So, why does it seem that I’m so tepid in regards to trying to come up with things to praise about the film? Well, because I am; this film, even though it wasn’t technically bad, still managed to fall under the class of “nothing films” that plague the nomination fields of Best Picture from this era. There was no point to sit down and watch this for, other than it got nominated for Best Picture, and again, while it wasn’t really poor, there was nothing at all to make it stand out and get one to say ‘Wow, am I glad I saw that movie’.

It’s the literary source, I suspect, that is where most of the problems with this film really lie. The Citadel comes across as some kind of strange mix of parts of Anthony Adverse, with the literary sources and focus on the main character as he tries to live his life, and Arrowsmith, with the film’s narrative focusing on the medical field and the main character’s desire to right the wrongs he finds present in the field as such. It’s thus a bit of a surprise that The Citadel manages to be better than both of those two films, if only slightly, but still, the weight of the source material’s shortcomings seemed, to me, to be too much for Donat, Vidor, and the film itself to overcome, try as they might. This is unfortunately just another box to be checked off the checklist, and it saddens me to put it that way, for all the film’s effort to actually be fairly good. Oh well; moving on, then.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Alexander’s Ragtime Band

Alexander's Ragtime Band

I know what they like down here, and that’s more than you’ll ever know!

Needless to say, when I got my first glimpse of that poster up there and saw the tagline “An American Cavalcade!”, I was hesitantly put on my guard; a film needing to bill itself as an American version of the tepid previous Best Picture winner would, to me, seem to be needing to cover up some self-perceived shortcomings. Well, thankfully this turned out to not be an American historical biopic, but a musical set in the theater and the world of performing bands. Now, there’s plenty of people who will hear the word musical and tense up inadvertently, and I wouldn’t blame them if they did; musicals are both a dime a dozen as well as very pick-and-choose in terms of quality and enjoyment. Where Alexander’s Ragtime Band ends up being a pretty decent piece of entertainment is both in the music – how it’s written and how it’s presented – and in the story surrounding it, which considering musicals of the time was quite the unexpected surprise.

The titular Alexander is actually Roger, a young violinist who winds up orchestrating a band in an effort to make a name for them, and for himself. Thanks to some misplaced music, they end up performing the ragtime swing brought in by a young singer, Stella Kirby, who’s been gunning for the same gig. An immediate hit, Roger takes the name of the titular tune, combines efforts with Stella, and they become Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and their fortunes are on the way. That is, unless an unexpected romance, with two potential suitors for Ms. Kirby, threatens to ruin the happiness of all involved. I’d go more into it than that, but one of the things I liked about this film was how it went about moving the plot through each of the turns that was required of it, though I will definitely say that the third act seemed to be far too extended in apparently an attempt to lengthen the running time and get in as many musical numbers as they can before the film closes proper. Speaking of which, the musical numbers themselves are thankfully pretty decent for the time period, especially thanks to the decision to base the story around a band performing them, and thus the numbers fit within the universe and the film doesn’t break the flow by having people spontaneously break out into song in a jarring manner. All the numbers, both classic tunes and newly written material for the film, are by Irving Berlin, and are actually a highlight for once, toe-tapping at one time and serenely melodious the next.

I went into this expecting it to be a grind-and-a-half, and was frankly shocked to find how enjoyable this was. Now, I won’t say that it’s an absolute must-see, or even that it’s the best of the nominees for Best Picture. But, I can fairly say that it’s worth the time to watch it, at least, which is a heck of a lot more than I thought I’d be saying about a late 1930’s musical. The acting is pretty much par, and the plot exists only to hold together the numbers (and not to win any screenplay awards, for example), but the film’s selling points outweigh its detriments, at least in my opinion. It’s still a musical, though, so it won’t be for everyone, but I was surprised by it, so who knows; maybe a few others will be too.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1937

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

Several firsts occurred at this year’s Academy Awards, such as Zola becoming the first film to net ten nominations, and Luise Rainer becoming the first actor to win more than one acting award, as well as consecutively. This would also be the first year the official Screen Extras Guild got to vote on all the nominees, which they’d have the power to do for the next eight years. Best Picture, though, would go to Zola, becoming the second biopic in a row to win the award.

-Ranking the Nominees-

One Hundred Men and a Girl

One Hundred Men and a Girl ends up in last place pretty much for being the most ‘nothing’ film of the myriad of nothing films that have been graciously chosen to fill out the still-expanded roster of Best Picture nominees, especially this year. It’s films like this one that I think have contributed significantly to my much slower pace as of late; I’m just tired of sitting through films like this, that are supposedly Best Picture material, when they are very clearly not, and not even getting anything whatsoever out of it on the other end. Films that are a complete slog to get through shouldn’t be anywhere near Best Picture, this included.

In Old Chicago

In Old Chicago falls into the category of Best Picture nominees that are clearly riding the coattails of previous Best Picture nominees. In this case, 1936’s San Francisco, the success of which sparked this film’s conception, creation, and commercialization. To say that this film wouldn’t have existed at all had San Francisco not been the success it had been is an absolutely massive understatement; the film doesn’t even really try and hide it, and films that exist entirely to be derivative are absolutely not what the best picture of the year should be.

Dead End

Dead End has a lot of soul to it, and by that I mean that the production value of the set/location, added to the pace of the script and the performances by the names of the picture, combine together to make a pervasive mood that the film keeps consistent through the whole running time. That, I think is the primary selling point of this one, and may even be why it got this nomination at all, considering there really isn’t any other reasons or selling points to this. While I liked it for its mood, there was no real story told here, and it’s very difficult to have a chance at winning Best Picture (i.e. being nominated) when your film doesn’t actually tell a story. There are exceptions, of course, but this is certainly not one of them.

Stage Door

-I’m actually a little surprised Stage Door ended up as low as it did, considering how I’d appreciated it when I watched it. But, re-reading my review, there’s really not a whole lot to this one aside from the rapid-fire pace of the dialogue and a couple of turns from supporting players. That, coupled with the feeling that the film’s shift in genre partway through, while effective for me at least, wasn’t part of the film’s intention, means that this is about as high in the rankings as this one is going to get.

Lost Horizon

-I feel I can legitimately say that Lost Horizon is Frank Capra’s first real misstep in his career. The man imbues such a heart and soul to his pictures, and such a warm feeling of such, that it’s really no wonder he won three Best Director awards in the span of five years, especially considering the 1930’s. This, however, was simultaneously too much and not enough of a film to be a well-rounded picture, which as I said in my review was something I absolutely did not expect from Capra. I placed it in the middle of my ratings scale pretty much out of necessity, and that it ended up just below the fold of the expanded field in my rankings here is not too much of a surprise for me.

The Good Earth

-Now we’re getting into pictures that at the very least stand a decent chance at this award, and can do so without hunching down in their seats or looking around the room in embarrassment. The Good Earth has everything Best Picture would want to fill out the fold of its roster… on paper, that is. On the screen, I was actually a little taken aback at what a different kind of film it was compared to what Hollywood was known for making at the time. That it still got the nomination even with this was quite a pleasant surprise, but I’d imagine it ended up not winning this award for that same reason; it’s just too different a film to be an altogether and overtly entertaining one, and I’d have to agree with that particular line of reasoning.

The Life of Emile Zola

The Life of Emile Zola won this award, and I suppose I can understand why it did for late-1930’s standards. But, that would basically be what I’d be doing: supposing. While this was enjoyable, and effective, for several reasons, I wouldn’t place it on any higher pantheon than that. Simply put, I liked this, but there are better and more deserving films up for this award, so let’s keep this in the fold but look at those other films instead.

Captains Courageous

-I do try and rewatch films I’ve seen previously for each year of this segment, but man was I surprised again at my rewatch of Captains Courageous; this is a really good film. Maybe it’s the charms of Spencer Tracy, or the skills of director Victor Fleming, or the script, or the maritime setting; I really don’t know what it is about this film that makes me like it so much. I’ve heard plenty about what a snot Freddie Bartholomew is in this role, but for me, that’s his character, and that people dislike him so much in this is a testament to how well he pulls it off as an actor, not to mention that he comes away at the end of the story very much changed, which is the mark of a good story well told. That’s what this is, principally: a good story well told, and had it not been for two other films, I could’ve seen this dark-horsing this award.

A Star is Born

A Star is Born has the distinction of being the first all-color film up for the big one, and I think that casts a bit of an unfair shadow over this film. Even if this had been shot and released in black-and-white (instead of merely having the color taken out of it, for example), it’s still a really solid picture, and echoing similar feelings towards films like Grand Hotel, this just feels like a Best Picture winner to me. So why’s it second? Well, keep reading, and I’ll get to that.

The Awful Truth

-I try to be as objective as I can be in these rankings, which (as should go without saying) is a lot harder than it seems. Case in point: this year. I’ve tried to keep these ten films in order of what I can realistically figure is the overall best picture of the year, but sometimes, something happens; you watch a film, or rewatch a film, and it’s just so enjoyable that you’re overcome with subjective emotions as to how and where to actually place it in a rankings such as this. The Awful Truth may not be the best story told this year, or the most even or solid, but, considering its intentions as a comedy, what it isn’t it more than makes up for with what it is: absolutely, genuinely hilarious. In this case, this year, screw objectivity; this picture right here is getting my vote, mainly for being the most fun I had with any of the ten nominees even despite my already having seen it. That’s a winner right there.

-What Should Have Won-

Looking through 1937, there’s not a whole lot that jumps out at someone, but there’s enough to potentially replace some of the lesser fare that got a nomination this year. A big miss for me, and famously for its director Leo McCarey as well, is Make Way for Tomorrow, though given how misunderstood it was when it was released I can see why it didn’t actually get in. Grand Illusion was released this year, but not in the States until next year, when it was nominated, so that one can wait till then. I could see a case being made for Stella Dallas as well, especially over some of the actual nominees. Undoubtedly the biggest miss, however, is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, though the Academy would partially rectify this mistake the following year with an honorary award for Walt Disney for the film, but its omission this year is still pretty glaring.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

As I said, at least for this year, screw objectivity; The Awful Truth is getting my vote.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

There’s some winners and some losers here, Oscar, both this year as a whole and in what you nominated, which is something I get the distinct impression I’m going to end up saying about almost every year up through when the category is finally shrunken down. C’mon now, let’s see you wow me.

A Star is Born

A Star is Born

I’m going out and have a real life! I’m gonna be somebody!

It’s a little disorienting to look at groundbreaking films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind and realize that they aren’t as much the groundbreakers you thought they were. Two years before those two films changed the canvas and introduced color to the public, it had already been done by 1937’s A Star is Born, which incidentally was also produced by David O. Selznick, and which became the first all-color film to be nominated for Best Picture, even winning a special Oscar essentially for being so. Now, you’d be forgiven if you heard the title A Star is Born and thought immediately of the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason, since I’d absolutely be one of the people who would do just that, but I gotta say; this original screen version, with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, does have a lot going for it.

Esther Blodgett moves to Hollywood to chase her dream of becoming an actress, despite discouragements from her family (save for her appreciative grandmother). Starting with nothing, Esther winds up serving at a party and meets Norman Maine, one of her favorite actors, who’s entering a downslope in his career thanks to his persistent drinking. Immediately taken with the young wannabe, Norman wrangles her a screen test, and later persuades his producer friend to give Esther the lead opposite him in a picture, which (after some rebranding of her farmgirl roots and a new stage name: Vicki Lester) catapults her to stardom. Of course, with every shining star comes a cloud to darken its light, and after she and Norman are married, that cloud threatens to be Norman himself, who can’t kick his drinking habit, nor his indignation at his own career coming up in shambles in comparison to Esther’s. Then again, if you know Hollywood and Hollywood pictures, you know this story already, either from this one or one of the remakes. So, what does this have that the other versions of this story don’t? To be honest, not all that much, but for once, it really didn’t matter; this was not only enjoyable, but it was a damn sight better than most of the riff-raff that’s been nominated for Best Picture in the past few years of my odyssey or so. Both Janet Gaynor and Fredric March earned nominations for this film, and they are both well deserved; March in particular was overall better and more grounded than I’ve seen him in a few films of his, which considering he’s made his name for being pretty good and grounded as an actor, is saying something about this film and his work in it. Of course, the film is in color, and the color photography is very nice, but it doesn’t punch you in the face with the fact that it’s in color, which I was even more appreciative of.

Now, just because this film does have a lot going for it, as I said in the opener, doesn’t mean that it’s better than the ’54 remake, and in my opinion, I don’t think it is. But, thankfully (given the lesser Best Picture fare thus far), it’s not by much. This is a really solid picture, and the fact that it was in color just made the overall solidity of its quality even easier to admire and appreciate. This isn’t a fine picture because it’s in color; it’s a fine picture first, and the color merely adds to it. That’s some damn fine praise from me for an early color picture, outside of the absolute pinnacles of the genre like the two supposed groundbreakers I mentioned in the first line of this review. This isn’t one of those, an absolute pinnacle of the genre, but it’s still pretty darn good, and I was thankful as hell for that, and just as entertained by this.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Good Earth

The Good Earth

The land is our life.

It’s nice to see that Paul Muni would eventually get the recognition I always felt he deserved, even if it did come a few years later than I would’ve liked. He won Best Actor for Louis Pasteur the previous year, and was nominated again for Best Picture winner Emile Zola in ’37. Not only that, he also starred in this, The Good Earth, another Best Picture nominee that year. I haven’t rewatched Zola yet (though I probably should fairly soon), so I can’t compare Muni’s performances between the two films all that much. But, for what it’s worth, I was fairly pleased that The Good Earth managed a nomination for the big one, even if it’s not too much of a surprise when you look at its credentials for the era it was made in.

Muni is Wang Lung, a farmer in the northern farmlands of China, sometime just before the Chinese Revolution. Scraping by enough on his own, he is thrilled when he is selected to be married to one of the servant girls of the Great House, the rich people’s abode in the nearby village. He and his new wife O-Lan soon make a family for themselves, and the film details their trials and hardships as they try and survive whatever life happens to throw at them. There’s really not much more to the narrative than that, though plenty does happen in the film for Wang and O-Lan to persevere through, or try to in some cases. What the film lacks in a standardized narrative, it more than makes up for in sheer production value, as well as the performances of the leads, and a few of the supporting players as well. Being a 1930s historical epic, so to say, the rustic and thorough production value is the main draw, used to fully realize the setting and era the film takes place in, and indeed the production value is very well utilized; cinematographer Karl Freund even won an Oscar for his work capturing it all. Even with the film using Western actors to play the lead roles of Chinese characters, Muni and Luise Rainer (who plays O-Lan) do exceptional work, especially for it being as reserved as it is. Rainer, indeed, would win her second Best Actress Oscar for this, becoming the first actor to win consecutive Oscars, which might be a bit much considering how low-key her performance is here, but as I said earlier, it’s still very good and certainly memorable.

This isn’t a typical Hollywood film, of the times or otherwise, and that I think is what makes this as easy to appreciate as it is. The stars underact instead of over, there’s no real formula or strict adherence to customary narrative, and there isn’t even really a bad guy or villain of the piece (though the uncle character is pushed close to this territory a few times); this is merely a simple tale about people trying to survive in the wake of a hard life that never lets up, both in human obstacles and natural ones. Normally, I’d probably appreciate the shift in difference between a film like this and a typical Hollywood picture of the 1930s, but with The Good Earth, I only felt a little bit of gratification at both the difference and the film’s inherent value. I definitely did not come out of this singing its praises, as should be evident, and for all that it does do well, I just couldn’t get all that invested in it. It’s a solid picture, but it’s not an altogether entertaining one, and it’s really a shame that it almost has to be this way for the picture to even work as well as it does manage to do. Still, while this wasn’t exactly one for the win column, it absolutely wasn’t a loss, and given the lesser fare of these Best Picture noms that I seem to be trudging through, I’ll take whatever I can get in terms of pictures like these.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10