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

Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon

I think I’m going to like it here.

Every director in Hollywood has that big, epic movie production they’ve always wanted to do, and in many cases eventually get the chance to do, and it seems not even hometown, quintessential Americana director Frank Capra is excluded from this conjecture. Capra evidently wanted Lost Horizon to be his grandest picture yet, and no expense was spared him, even when the production went over-budget and he turned in an initial cut of the film that was six hours long. Apparently, his producers finally said enough and cut the film down themselves, to its release running time of just over two hours, which is the version I watched, though some small sequences of film have been lost to time and replaced by still images to the still-existing audio. Even watching this version, though, I could not surmise to any extent why Capra had such a hard time cutting the film down; even at two hours, it feels like it doesn’t get enough done during the running time to justify its own length.

Ronald Colman stars as Robert Conway, a novelist and important British diplomat who is fighting to get a series of planes into China to export a group of Westerners in the midst of an armed conflict. Succeeding, he boards the last plane out, but unbeknownst to him, the plane is hijacked by an unknown pilot, and the plane ends up crashing in the mountains when it runs out of fuel. Facing certain death, the crash survivors are amazed when a small group of sherpas meet them and take them to their refuge, Shangri-La, a remote and isolated paradise secluded by mountains on all sides. Faced with a thriving, idyllic community the likes of which he’d always dreamed of, Conway and the others must now uncover the mysteries of the utopia that has taken them in, and figure out when, or indeed if, they’re going to be able to leave. For an epic, or at least a purported one, this had a surprisingly smaller, hometown mindset to most of it, though considering it’s Capra that is probably more to be expected than I initially thought. There’s no excessive production value to this one that is so typical of Hollywood epics, and indeed the scope of the story itself is rather confined, hopping from the plane to Shangri-La and then pretty much staying there for most of the rest of the picture. There are a few times, mostly during the beginning and ending sections, where the music swells up to seemingly offer a heightened sense of danger or conflict, but never when this happened did it feel genuine or accurate, instead feeling manufactured by the film to cover up the fact that there wasn’t as much to the plot as there could’ve been. Added to this is the actual ending of the film, which if you don’t mind some mild spoilers, opts to not dramatize what likely should’ve been the third act of the film and instead have a chance character regale what happens to a group of people, instead of actually showing us what happens. It felt particularly lazy of the film to do this, and spoiled a lot of what good will I’d had with the film up to then, but I didn’t take it too harshly, as if all of what this chance character describes had actually made it into the film, the picture likely would’ve indeed run six hours, and been justified in doing so.

There were some things to like about this picture, but there were just as many things to not like about it. The major one for me was that it didn’t feel like a complete picture, instead feeling like the released print is, say, parts one and three of a six part story smushed together, with the description at the end of the film filling in whatever blanks the film has by not actually having the plot in the film itself. This, more than anything, is why I felt, as I said in the opener, that the film hadn’t done enough to justify the length it was; oddly enough, it was because the film had too much material, didn’t film enough of it, and then tried to stretch what it had done out to 3 or 4 hours before the producers finally pulled it away from Capra’s hands and tried to make do with what Capra had done up to that point. It was extremely disjointed, and I absolutely was not expecting that from a Frank Capra film. Maybe he did let this one get away from him a little too much. Still, aside from once again not being taken by the supposed charms of Ronald Colman, there’s enough of Capra in here to make it a somewhat decent watch, though it definitely isn’t one you absolutely have to see, so for that, I’ll be nice and put it right in the middle of my ratings scale. It could’ve been worse, and it could’ve been better, but really, what it actually is is just… incomplete. That’s all.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

In Old Chicago

In Old Chicago

We O’Learys are a strange tribe…

It seems a running theme among these early Best Picture nominees is films that pretty much try and copy the critical or commercial success of an earlier nominee by very nearly ripping off from the earlier nominee, if only in idea at the least. Case in point: In Old Chicago, a fictional account of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and a film that almost surely wouldn’t exist were it not for the success of the prior year’s nominee San Francisco, of which this tries to be the newer version of. Not only that, this pretty much tries everything it can to be the quintessential picture, including just about everything a film of this era seemed to think it either needs or wants in order to be successful and popular. If that’s all it takes to automatically win accolades, then I guess I can’t blame the producers and filmmakers for doing so. But I can still call the film out for what it is; derivative and pandering in almost every way.

For those who don’t know about the Great Fire, it was allegedly started by a cow, owned by a Mrs. O’Leary, knocking over a lantern. I bring this up as probably the only historically accurate thing in the film, which is otherwise entirely fictional. In the film, the O’Learys arrive in Chicago without the father, who was killed during the trip, but they quickly recover and become a notable family in the city’s rougher area, known as the Patch. In particular, the two eldest O’Leary sons, Dion and Jack, respectively come to operate a saloon in the Patch and become a reform lawyer for the city. When Jack goes on to run for mayor, this brings him in conflict with Dion, when Jack wishes to reform the city by wiping out the crime-ridden Patch, including Dion’s power-hold in the area, and everything comes to a head, of course, when the fire breaks out and more pressing matters arise. I’ll say this first off; this tries to cash in on the success of San Francisco, and while the fire segment of the film is certainly a spectacle (like San Francisco’s earthquake sequence), everything else the film tries to copy its predecessor for, it does in much lesser quality, mostly because the film knows that it’s following up a previous film, and doesn’t even try to be a better film because of it. I really wish there was more to say about the film than that, but that basically sums up the entire thing: it’s like San Francisco, but not as well done, and it is so because it intentionally tries to do everything that previous film did and no more than that.

There’s some other weirdness in this one, especially with how Dion O’Leary is shown to woo his love interest in the first section of the film, which I had some problems with, but really, this is an unnecessary and redundant film made even more so by the film not being better than its spiritual predecessor in any way. I’ll give it a point for matching San Fran in its disaster sequence, if only barely, but that’d be it. I imagine this won’t get too high on my nominee ranking, and it really shouldn’t, unless the remaining films from this year are absolutely god-awful, and at this point, I can only hope that they’re not. Anyway, moving on.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Dead End

Dead End

You never brought nothin’ but trouble.

For a while now, I’ve been wondering how to frame my review of Dead End, a William Wyler picture starring the eponymous ‘Dead End Kids’, as well as the first appearance of Humphrey Bogart in this Best Picture odyssey for me. I didn’t have a lot to go on; the film itself is very unassuming, even as it does have quite a bit of selling points to it. I was mainly bugged by one main thing about the film, however, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that I’d ultimately focus on this as my framing device; the inevitability of it making an impact with me. That framing device is this: the difference, at least in film, between plot and narrative. I bring this up here because Dead End is only the latest example of a film that, while having plot, is rather short on narrative, and what kind of a film it ultimately amounts to as a result of this filmmaking decision.

The film focuses on the end of a dead end street (get it?) in a slummy block of New York City, where a high-rise apartment building towers literally and figuratively over the poor and destitute residents of the rest of the street, which ends at a dock on a river. Here, several stories take place; a small group of kids who live on the block cause rows and make trouble, aspiring to be greater than the block they grew up on, while a former such punk turned gangster named Baby Face Martin returns to seek out his mother and old flame, and one of Martin’s old friends (who still lives on the block doing odd jobs) tries to get out his own way with one of the girls from the high-rise he’s having an affair with. So, what’s the actual story being told here; the point of it all? Well, therein lies the main issue with Dead End; there really isn’t one. Things happen, characters do stuff, dialogue is said; that’s plot, what actually happens in a film, but Dead End has no real narrative, no overarching storyline that the plot serves to advance to a conclusion. In Dead End, things just happen; it’s slice-of-life, but under the pretense of having a story to tell, so a percentage of viewers (like myself) end up a little flummoxed that at the end of it all there wasn’t anything substantive to it. I suppose some could make an argument that the whole point is to tell the story of the people on the block, as a sort of cautionary tale to not be like the punk kids or the gangster in the film. Indeed, this might’ve even been the intention of the filmmakers. But, when it’s a point like this that almost doesn’t need to be made at all, then where’s the real narrative then?

I think I expanded a little too much on my original point, since I didn’t really get to the technicals of the film itself; things like the very well utilized production design, and reserved but effective performances from the likes of Bogart and Joel McCrea, as well as some of the negatives, like the kids themselves, who seemed to have gotten all their acting skill by watching James Cagney and Edward Robinson and doing their most caricatured impressions of them. Still, though, this had more to it than it had detracting from it, in my eyes, so for me, it ends up in the win column, if only just. Not sure how it’ll end up falling in the ranking, though; while this was above the average for me, I can still see plenty of other films that stand a better chance at the big award than this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Stage Door

Stage Door

Maybe if you tried to do something for the theater, the theater would do something for you.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Stage Door, especially given how tepid the title of the film was. It stars Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, among a generally-sized cast of women, and doesn’t have all that much in terms of plot and the development of it. Still, it seemed to be relatively well-regarded, from what I was able to find, and it was short, so I started it hoping it wouldn’t be too troublesome. Well, it definitely wasn’t, that’s for sure. In fact, I was surprised at what this did have to offer, which started out one way and ended entirely differently. All told, the film was just about the opposite of tepid that a film like this could’ve gotten.

Stage Door is ostensibly the story of the Footlights Club, a boarding house in New York City for aspiring stage actresses. Katharine Hepburn’s character shows up at the beginning, looking for accommodations, and she is boarded with Ginger Rogers; the two don’t get along at their first meeting, because this is a Hollywood film, after all. The film basically tells the story of the young actresses living under the Footlights roof, focusing mainly on the two leads, but featuring a few other of the boarders as well, one in particular who is responsible for the film’s dramatic shift of genre in the third act. The first thing that jumped out at me during my viewing of Stage Door was the dialogue, and how inordinarily improvisational it all seemed. The opening scene, for example, has a bunch of the tenants arguing and talking over each other in the main gathering room, a squabble of women gabbing and cavorting and generally not caring who else is talking or who they have to out-volume, which seemed to be exactly the opposite of the precise and controlled screenwriting typical of the era. As the film went on, though, I got the distinct impression that not only was the improv-style script the film’s main selling point, but that the film sure as hell knew it, perhaps a little too well. That the film’s script was written improvisationally was impressive and novel at the beginning; that the film kept such a script dialed up to eleven through almost the entire running time grew rather annoying as it went on, even with the film being only an hour and a half long. Thankfully, for me at least, the film seemed to know that it couldn’t remain one-note literally the whole time, and something happens to shift the film’s center of gravity away from snarky comedy and into more dramatic territory, where the film seemed to really come into its own, thanks to all the world-building that had taken place up to then.

This was a surprise, absolutely, but it wasn’t as much of one as I really felt it could’ve been. For one, with the film’s script being what it was, it thus didn’t have all that much in terms of actual narrative, especially with the short running time; the film feels like 15-20 minutes worth of plot carried by a full hour and half of snarky, sarcastic, improvisational dialogue in between. Then the third act happens, and suddenly the film wants to be more than what it had been up to that point. I just so happened to welcome the change, mostly because the constant non-stop speed of the dialogue was getting tiresome, but the film is fairly uneven as a result of the decision to do things the way the film does them. Ginger Rogers was a definite surprise, considering I didn’t think much of her at all in prior films, as was supporting player Andrea Leeds, but aside from them, I’m not sure how to recommend this one; it seems like two films inordinately sewn together, and thus everything I could point to on one side to recommend it to someone would be offset by something else in the other portion of the film. Still, this was pretty enjoyable for me, so I won’t consider this one as a loss or fault, at least too much.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

One Hundred Men and a Girl

One Hundred Men and a Girl

Fairy tales never come true, darling.

Oh boy, another Deanna Durbin film; color me excited. Not that Three Smart Girls was bad, but it definitely wasn’t what I would call Best Picture material, so to see another Durbin vehicle nominated for the big one left me at an impasse as to how I should try and get through it. I guess I ended up putting it off more than I really would’ve preferred, since I’m only getting to it now. One Hundred Men and a Girl, despite the rather balky title, is a flighty film, coming in at just over 80 minutes of screentime, and again, seems to exist merely as another Deanna Durbin film to increase her star power and recognizability. That’s all well and good, and even with the film ending in a particularly positive way, it’s hard to dislike what the film tries to aspire to. But, and here’s the thing, it runs aground when one really takes a look at what the film is trying to accomplish in its own right; not in terms of story, but in terms of the producers and studio heads who said yes to the production.

Durbin is Patsy, who lives with her father, an unemployed musician behind on his rent payments. After trying unsuccessfully to get a contract playing for famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, he finds a woman’s purse dropped in the street, and quickly makes up a story to Patsy and his landlord about getting the job to explain where the money came from. After Patsy finds out the truth, she goes to return the purse and apologize, and through a surreptitious set of misunderstandings with its owner, a Mrs. Frost, she believes her father, and a group of 100 of his unemployed musician friends, are to be sponsored by Mr. Frost on a radio show, conducted by Stokowski himself. Now Patsy has quite the run-around to do to actually make it all happen, both for her father and all the other unemployed players she knows. Even with that plot summary, I was still left a little stymied as to what the point of this film was, even with the ending being what it is. It’s a heartwarming story, absolutely, but aside from providing another film vehicle for Deanna Durbin, I didn’t see any real reason for this film being needed to be made. I’d put it above Three Smart Girls, again pretty much solely for the ending of this one, but not by all that much. This would also be an interesting trivia tidbit in that Leopold Stokowski, a real-life famous conductor, played himself in a supporting role, in one of the very few films that he would ever do this. Stokowski, who may be better known for being the conductor in Fantasia, isn’t much of an actor, but thankfully, most of his role consists of him being himself and doing what he does best, and Durbin is more than capable of handling the rest of the heavy lifting in the film.

I can only hope we don’t have more Deanna-Durbin-starring ‘nothing’ films in the Best Picture pantheon from here on out, or this is going to get old even quicker than it already is getting. This was decent, and even likable in the ending act of the film, but I couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that if it weren’t for Durbin, as well as the additional novelty of getting Stokowski to star in the picture, this film wouldn’t have been made at all. Of course, the history of cinema is filled with films, both good and bad, that were made pretty much for the sake of themselves and nothing more, so I guess I shouldn’t hold it against this one too much. But, with the lack of other selling points to this one, it does come across as slightly irksome that the film, or rather the filmmakers, seems to insist to the audience that it be seen, as if it really were worth the effort put forth to make it. In my opinion, it’s not, and it’s largely this that is why I’m giving it the rating I’m giving it, but it didn’t end poorly, so I won’t look back on it with too much contempt.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10