Watch on the Rhine

Watch on the Rhine

I must make my stand. I can do nothing else.

It had admittedly been a few days since I’d made the time to sit down for one of these, but I had some time today to knock something out, and I figured there would be no better way to start up 1943 proper than with a Bette Davis film. As such, I went into Watch on the Rhine somewhat assured, knowing only the synopsis and that Paul Lukas won Best Actor for this film, and not much else. I’m not really sure why I felt so okay about diving into this one; it seemed like I had the notion that, now that 1942’s field was done with, that war propaganda films would basically be a thing of the past. Of course, the war didn’t end until 1945, and I really should’ve known better; still, I was not prepared for what kind of war propaganda film this would end up being. By that, I don’t mean that Watch on the Rhine is unique or different from other films of its kind; what I mean is that it was made as a war propaganda film, and absolutely no further thought or consideration was made towards the making of this picture.

Davis and Lukas are Sara and Kurt Muller, a married couple who make their way back to the States at the start of the film to meet back up with Sara’s American family after traveling across Europe for several years. It becomes known that Sara is not just married to a German man, but that Kurt is actively involved in anti-Fascist work that has necessitated his travels across the continent, work that has put him at odds with the Nazis and their sympathizers. Unfortunately, the Mullers arrive at Sara’s house at the same time that her mother is also housing another couple, Teck and Marthe de Brancovis; Teck being a Romanian aristocrat on the outs from his country, and frustrated with his marriage to Marthe, especially as she and Sara’s brother David get along a little too comfortably. Teck, who spends his time gambling with the members down at the German Embassy, finally sees a way to get back to his country once he finds out about Kurt’s work and sympathies, and the two men’s struggles, along with the rest of the family, will come to a head once something happens that convinces Kurt that he needs to return to Europe… with no one the wiser that he is returning. I was a little ambivalent toward the plot of this one when I started it, mostly because when I started it I was immediately taken aback by the acting in the opening scenes, particularly by the young actors playing Kurt and Sara’s three children. It’s often an issue in films, especially back then, when child actors need to actually be good, or at least believable, but good god was the acting from these three stilted; though the dialogue written for them that they deliver word-for-word with no omissions didn’t do them any favors. Neither did it help the adult actors either, though they at least did a better job of making it seem natural; even so, the scriptwriter must have been very proud of their ability to fit in a hundred words on the page when only ten would’ve sufficed, though I merely found it extraneous and mildly annoying to have to sit through. It was after the film was over that I looked into it and found the film was based on a stage play, which in hindsight makes complete sense, and unfortunately makes this yet another example of how not to adapt a stageplay for the screen. The pomposity of the writing is only matched by the overblown grandeur of the acting from everyone involved, which is seemingly compounded by the fact that the entire second half of the film takes place over a single night basically in real-time, so there’s no break for the audience to digest anything or come to terms with what is actually going on, making everything up to and including the film’s faults lumped on top of each other and made bigger for all to see. The presentation of the film came across so bluntly, like a make-up artist that opts rather than using a small applicator to finely apply layers of foundation and color to instead whap the subject on the face with a pillow covered in powder and consider their job done and over with. Such a style of film can and has been done well, but only if it’s right for the material and kind of film the material needs to be, and this was far and away the wrong approach to whatever this film tried to do.

Here’s how I guess my thoughts on Watch on the Rhine can be summed up: There can be two ways the phrase “on the nose” can be taken, either in a good way in that it doesn’t put on airs of falsity but instead opts for straightforwardness and brevity, or in a bad way, in that whatever is being described as thus is so blocky and rigid in its construction and presentation that it reaches uncanny valley territory; almost like a young child stepping on each individual brick as they walk along a sidewalk instead of walking in a normal, natural manner. Watch on the Rhine is the perfect cinematic representation of the bad way of being on-the-nose; every single thing involved in putting this film together is on complete display, in perfect stepping order, with no sense of presentation or blending of the seams to make anything in the film flow in a realistic manner, and it unfortunately was made worse by the bombastic delivery of the actual meat of the film. Not even Bette Davis emoting in every scene she’s in can save this from collapsing under its own weight, and I became rather miffed by the end of it all that this had somehow managed nominations not just for Best Picture, but for Best Screenplay as well. Propaganda films can work, if they have a good sense about them to be better or more than just being a film pumped out of the machine to fit a quota for the war effort, and unfortunately, Watch on the Rhine is very much a propaganda film that doesn’t want to bother with doing that at all.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1942

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

For the first full year that America was in the second World War, it should come as no surprise that a majority of the nominees for Best Picture this year are war propaganda films, or otherwise have war-time settings or plot devices in them. Fitting, then, that the race for the big one would basically come down to “Which war film is the most ‘war-film-iest’ of them all?” That race and title would ultimately be claimed by Mrs. Miniver, which was also the highest grossing release of the year, along with winning the most Oscars, so I guess MGM came away pleased. Some who weren’t pleased had to have been the audience at the Oscars that year, who had to sit through Greer Garson’s nearly-six-minute-long acceptance speech; a now-legendary anecdote that would prompt time limits on Oscar speeches from then on. In addition, documentary features were awarded for the first time, combined with documentary shorts in one category that awarded four awards from a list of 25 combined nominees; the shorts and features would have their own categories the following year onward.

-Ranking the Nominees-

Wake Island

-That Wake Island ended up at the bottom of my ranking really doesn’t surprise me; even with how much I did manage to enjoy it, it was almost entirely thanks to the production value in the bombing scenes that I was able to. Otherwise, this was poorly written, poorly acted, and poorly managed overall. I’d be fine with replacing this one with other, worthier films.

Kings Row

Kings Row sells itself as a melodrama, and holy hell on a stick in a handbasket in January in the dead of night does it ever earn that label. It ends up one slot higher than the other film basically because it’s slightly better made, especially with the light and camerawork; other than that, this was hammier than even Orson Welles’ legendary voice could make a ham sandwich seem hammy. I can enjoy ham every now and then, but with this, I’ll go for the turkey instead.

The Pied Piper

The Pied Piper is the first of these nominees that I did kinda legitimately enjoy to a degree, though that is mostly thanks to the nominated Monty Woolley and the fact that the film was comparatively short against the rest of the field. I said in my review that a Best Picture nominee needs a degree of weight to it to really earn that label, dramatic or comedic, and The Pied Piper unfortunately doesn’t have that. It might satisfy if one does sit down and watch it, but it certainly doesn’t belong in this field.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy has two things going for it: the songs by subject of the film George M. Cohan, and Cohan’s portrayal by a never-more-energetic James Cagney, who won Best Actor for this. The rest of the film, however, is fairly by-the-numbers, and tended to focus on the musical aspects over the story and narrative of Cohan’s life, which makes the plot of the film feel very glossed over. It was for that reason that I could only barely recommend the film, and it’s for that reason that this is getting no higher in the rankings than this.

Random Harvest

-It is only by the barest of margins that Random Harvest is ending up above the previous film. It really suffers from many of the same faults as the Cohan biopic, though some may be in slightly different forms; really, the only reason I’m putting this one slot higher is because this has a little more semblance of a film, rather than a song-and-dance showcase with a plot holding it up. Even so, the film that this has a mere semblance of is really only a handful of plot points strung together by a lot of waiting and needless narrative, and it really isn’t going to matter much which of these two films is above or below the other; they’re both ultimately ending up below the fold for me.

The Pride of the Yankees

-The films up to this point might’ve had a couple good points, but generally didn’t work overall. The Pride of the Yankees, despite being technically very basic, really works at what it tries to be, and for that, it’s ended up this high. But, if I’m looking at it as objectively as I can, I can’t put it any higher; the remaining films are just better made, and also work at what they try to do as well. I can probably see this remaining a nominee in an expanded field with some switching out of the nominated films, but I wouldn’t say this is at the top.

49th Parallel

49th Parallel, released in America as The Invaders, was the film that surprised me more than any other in this field, though I really shouldn’t have been with this being a Powell & Pressburger film. Despite not being in color like their later work, this is handled with the same expert touches that the duo are known for, and has an added degree of intelligence with how it goes about being a propaganda film. Even with these aspects, there are some shortcomings that are still present; the duo of P&P are good here, but they definitely have room to grow even better, which they absolutely will do. This is a good film, but it’s a little too empty with the production value to be the best of the year.

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver has some things in common with 49th Parallel; I appreciated that it’s one of the films on this list that actually tries to be a film, instead of being a platform or showcase. Granted, as a propaganda piece, it basically is a platform by nature, one to hold up an attempt to get people invested in the war effort, but Mrs. Miniver at least has a bit more to show for itself than just the circumstances for its creation. It does, however, unfortunately fall into the trap of being far too exactly the film that it was needed to be as opposed to the film it could’ve been; said a better way, the film settles for being by-the-book, instead of taking a risk or two to potentially make the film better. While this is a good flick, and definitely a great propaganda piece for WWII, I can’t justifiably put it at the top of this ranking, and I’m not going to.

The Talk of the Town

-Here’s another film that kinda blindsided me with how I expected to merely get through it, and ended up enjoying the hell out of it. With The Talk of the Town, you have a film that purports to be essentially a romantic comedy involving the extended resolution of a love triangle, and ends up taking that premise and putting a heck of a lot of effort around it to make itself more than “just a romantic comedy”. I seriously appreciate the types of films that not only try to be a lot more than the standard kind of film it could settle for being, but that succeed at doing just that. That’s The Talk of the Town all over, and that it ended up as high in my rankings as it did is testament to that.

The Magnificent Ambersons

-Still, for all that the other nominees did in being good Hollywood films (and propaganda films for most), there’s just nothing in Hollywood like what Orson Welles was doing. Even in its fragmented form, The Magnificent Ambersons stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field; it’s not just that it’s made different, but that the choices it makes that make it so different make the film so much better as a result. It’s a win-win, and that it still remains as entertaining and attention-grabbing as it does is a win-win-win. I have no qualms about this topping my ranking, and if I were an Academy member in 1942, I probably would’ve voted for it as well.

-What Should’ve Been Here-

Even with all the war films taking up most of the slots (and also despite most of them being fairly good), this field of nominees could’ve seen some improvement, especially on the lower end. In terms of just box office gross, most of the top from this year are here already, with the notable exception of Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind. For critical acclaim, Bette Davis had a heck of a year with both Now, Voyager and The Man Who Came to Dinner, getting her fifth consecutive Best Actress nom for the former; both films could’ve easily been on the docket. 49th Parallel is here, though Powell & Pressburger’s follow-up (and the first film they did proper as the duo Powell & Pressburger and the production company The Archers), One of Our Aircraft is Missing is, well, missing. Preston Sturges would once again be ignored by the Academy, this time for The Palm Beach Story. By far the biggest miss, however, is Ernst Lubitsch’s biting satire, To Be or Not To Be, though it was generally misunderstood when it was released, and indeed only registers as a miss by the Academy due to the benefit of hindsight.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

While Lubitsch’s Nazi-lampooning comedy was definitely ahead of its time (and thus largely why it’s not on the actual ballot), and for me would probably be a close second, I gotta give it to Orson Welles yet again. For this period in cinema, there’s just no one better.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Sure, this field is largely part of the war effort, but it manages to get the job done. I have to remember not to expect the best of the best out of Oscar every single time, and here, with what 1942 had to offer, they did okay in my book.

Random Harvest

Random Harvest

My life began with you.

Even with my fairly-arbitrary order of watching each year’s nominees, I always sort of hope that the final one each year turns out to be a good one. Just going by the titles of the films, I usually end up getting lucky with this more often than not, but sometimes it ends up being a bit of misfortune. For 1942, I ended up with Random Harvest as my final nominee, and I’d heard quite a bit of good about it, so I went in with slightly raised expectations. I guess I should be fair in saying that the film didn’t entirely let me down, and that it isn’t technically altogether a poor film. What it ended up being, though, was schmaltzy; pure, uncut, unfiltered sappiness, so much so that the film seemed to have been constructed with nothing else in mind.

Ronald Colman opens the film as an amnesiac patient in a mental asylum, going by the apropos alias of John Smith; he remembers nothing of his previous life, and his caretakers only know his accident happened during the war. Despite this, he does seem to want to have a life of sorts, and after managing to wander out of the asylum one day after the guards go celebrating the end of the war, runs into a singer/dancer named Paula, played by Greer Garson. The two end up spending quite a bit of time together, with Paula getting “Smithy” to come out of his shell, and the two soon marry and have a child, and Smithy is on his way to getting a life of his own… until he goes on a trip and is struck by a taxi, which brings back all of his memories as wealthy heir-apparent Charles Rainier, but wipes out his memories of his life as Smithy. There’s more to it after this reversal occurs, principally involving Paula trying to find her Smithy again and regain his memories of their time together, but you could probably infer everything that happens and all the so-called tension and conflict in this film right from the elevator pitch. Really, that this film is so easily see-through barely even registers as spoiler territory, but there was simultaneously more and less to Random Harvest than that: the more being the bunches of running time added to the three-sentence plot to make it feature-length, and the less being that basically all of this padding was entirely unnecessary, making the film largely so as a result. The film’s construction is essentially three plot points, set in order, and the entire rest of the film is just sitting there, waiting for the film to get to the next plot point, and then waiting to get to the resolution we all know is coming; the film is like this right from the get-go. The first almost-hour of the film made me a little frustrated with how little plot there was and how basically nothing was happening, to the point that I began to wonder what the point of the film was and, more importantly, when the film was gonna get to it. Then the memory reversal happened, and I understood what the film was getting at; but, it still spent more than an hour getting us to the end, which was more than a little grating. Another random anecdote: the weird infatuation the character of Charles’ step-niece Kitty has with Charles in the middle portion seemed really off as well; the very first scene where Charles reintroduces himself to his family, the 15-year-old Kitty immediately begins doing everything she can to throw herself at him, including mentioning several times that he is technically not really her uncle, and despite knowing it wasn’t going to be the ultimate resolution, it still weirded me out something fierce.

I couldn’t get past a lot of what this film has to offer. The immediate warmth and taking-in of Smithy by Garson’s character, despite his not being able to say more than two words together; the also-immediate infatuation from Kitty to a man ostensibly her uncle and a couple decades her elder; the entire second half of the film going on and on despite us knowing the ending we’re going to eventually get to… Basically, I had more problems than compliments towards this film, specifically the structure of it. I will say, to the film’s benefit, that it is well made and at the very least decently acted, though I again felt (as I usually do) that Ronald Colman doesn’t quite fit as the character he’s playing, but I don’t want to split hairs any further. I’m sure there’s some stuff here for those who like a good melodrama from the 40s, but I can’t see any reason for anyone else to really sit through this one; especially since, thanks to how the film is written, sitting through it is going to be a majority of what the audience will be resolved to doing.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Pied Piper

The Pied Piper

Come one, come all, eh?

I have to admit, whenever I scanned the list of Best Picture nominees for 1942, I couldn’t take too many of the titles on there seriously; they seemed too flighty and whimsical. None of these was more so than a little film called The Pied Piper, and indeed I had to struggle to not chuckle a little bit every time I saw that a film called The Pied Piper actually got nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Well, then I did some looking up on it, and found out it was a film about a man trying to shepherd a bunch of kids out of Nazi-controlled France during WWII; needless to say, that plot does not sound flighty or whimsical. Well, color me surprised after I started the film and, fairly soon into the short running time, realized that my unconscious assertion of the film had indeed been correct; despite the subject matter, this was a whimsical and flighty film, all right.

Monty Woolley stars as Mr. Howard, an Englishman on holiday in the east of France on the eve of Germany’s invasion. When news comes in on the radio of the Dunkirk evacuation and Britain’s response, Howard resolves to return to England as soon as possible. The owners of the hotel he is staying at, however, are soon to return to Geneva, and implore Mr. Howard to take their two children with him to the safety of England; a request he begrudgingly accepts. During his travels with the children and through the various troubles he encounters, the children he is in charge of seem to increase in number, mostly through fortuitous circumstance or the intervention of the children already with him, and it’s only after a while that he takes it in stride and begins to see the reality of his mission, especially after it involves a young French acquaintance of his son (played by Anne Baxter) and definitely after certain German troops become suspicious of him and his motley gang of travelers. Truthfully, at under an hour and a half, this film doesn’t have very much time to waste with frivolities like production value and a multitude of extraneous scenes, and the film is actually the better for it; this does, however, mean that this has substantially less weight than most films up for the big one, and this also feels that a little too much as well. What does work well for the film, in addition to its thriftiness, is two things: the leading character played by Monty Woolley, and the cinematography, which even with how thin the film was on story and running time, held up its own weight and then some. I won’t argue that Woolley deserved to win the Best Actor Oscar he was nominated for, as much of his characterization in the film is basically him being hard-headed and stern to all who cross his path (save most of the children as well as Baxter), but without him the film would’ve completely sunk in the water, so I was appreciative of his efforts to keep it afloat at least.

There’s a strange dichotomy I’m feeling when it comes to summing up my thoughts on this film. On one hand, it was enjoyable, short but not detrimentally so, and has a pretty decently heartwarming resolution in the third act; on the other hand, it was very light on content and impact, and also due to its shortness, it makes it hard to really recommend that one should go out of their way to see it, even if it probably won’t end up being a timesink if they do. I’ve mentioned in the past (and likely will again) that what comes with the term ‘Best Picture nominee/winner’ is a sense of dramatic weight, and that films that are light on that weight, dramatic or otherwise, are hard to justify a nomination for Best Picture for. The Pied Piper is a good example of that critical dilemma; it’s good, and perhaps just barely over the line of worth your time, but it’s hard to make a solid argument that this is one of the best pictures of its year. What this ends up being is a middle-of-the-pack picture, in almost every way I can figure a picture can be; and again, while that may not really be a good thing, it is also not a bad thing either.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Talk of the Town

The Talk of the Town

“In love? With who?” “You. And I know just how he feels.”

After the glurge-fest that was the last film, it seemed I was much more in the mood for a light romantic comedy to clear out the pipes, so to speak. The Talk of the Town, directed by George Stevens in what is very much not a picture you’d imagine George Stevens would be directing, stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Ronald Colman, and being a light romantic comedy, it pits the two men basically against each other for Arthur’s affections through setting up a narrative device and letting the characters exploit it for pseudo-comedic romantic intentions… or so it would seem. What I liked a heck of a lot about The Talk of the Town was that, despite that description being pretty much applicable to the film, the film itself goes about fulfilling that narrative structure in a very thorough and unexpected way, so much so that I was actually getting lost in the film itself with nary a care in the world as to which man Arthur would end up with.

Arthur plays Nora Shelley, who at the pre-beginning of the film has just rented her summer house to a Professor Michael Lightcap, which he intends to use to stay for the summer and write a book. Concurrent with Lightcap’s imminent arrival is the town’s fervor over an arson-murder case against the local ne’er-do-well Leopold Dilg, charged with burning down the mill he works at (the mill foreman perishing in the fire) despite his consistent claims of corruption against the mill’s owner, Andrew Holmes. Feeling Holmes’ hold over the town officials will railroad him into jail, he escapes custody and manages to make it to the summer home of Nora (whom he’s known and also crushed on since school), where he implores her to shelter him, arriving minutes before Lightcap himself arrives to take up residence there. A somewhat madcap string of events ensues, during which Dilg is passed off to Lightcap as Nora’s gardener, and during which the two men become good friends, when each man finds himself developing affections toward Nora in turn; of course, the police are still looking for Dilg, and all these plot points are going to have to be resolved eventually if we’re to get to our happily-ever-after, per se. After the last film I watched for this blog, I was really uncertain how to approach this one, especially after I started it and quickly surmised the film would not be playing to any sort of expectations I might’ve had. The film opens, for instance, with a rapid montage of Dilg’s past and the events that lead him into the film proper, which I found very unorthodox for the time period, and also took quite a bit of time to get the characters into place to make use out of the scenario it was setting up. But, in an even more strange way, the film almost seemed to not care about any of the expectations it might’ve garnered being a light comedy-drama involving a romantic love triangle; it seemed to be more interested in laying out its plot in a very relaxed and believable manner, and this “playing against expectations” extended to almost everything the picture did. I mean, how weird is it to learn at the beginning one of the main characters is suspected of arson and tried successfully for murder, only for the camera to pan over and show that the man is Cary Grant? If that doesn’t throw your expectations into the air, I don’t really know how you planned to approach this film at all. This was also an exceedingly rare time where I not only liked, but appreciated the presence and efforts of Ronald Colman; his casting as Michael Lightcap was spot on, so much so the role seemed made for him, and he did a particularly good job with it. There’s also a bit of physical comedy in the middle where Colman is chased by a group of dogs who’ve mistaken him for Dilg, a sequence that felt out of place and that I wasn’t much a fan of, especially with the moderately sped-up footage that felt to me like it was only missing Yakety Sax playing behind it to be a bonafide Benny Hill sketch, and which I felt I had to make note of.

What was most interesting to me was that despite most of the commentary and selling points I’ve seen regarding this film making it out as all about the love triangle, I was much more taken in by the actual backdrop that set up the shenanigans between the three leads than the supposed romantic tensions the two men have over Arthur’s character. The actual mystery of the truth behind Leopold Dilg’s case and how the characters go about resolving it took up most of my attention, to the point that I hadn’t even realized that Colman’s character had feelings for Nora Shelley until basically Shelley herself did. Who she ends up with at the end of the film is, of course, what the film is trying to sell itself with, but there was a lot more here than a mere resolution of a love triangle, and I was exceptionally appreciative of that, as well as how well all the extra stuff was handled by the film and director Stevens. In short, I went into this not expecting much, and came out of it a little stymied at how much I’d ended up enjoying it. I doubt this will top my rankings of the Best Picture nominees of ’42, but I’m actually kinda pleased this managed to make it there.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Kings Row

Kings Row

My troubles are almost over, and his are just beginning.

As weird as it is to say, I think this might be the first film I’ve seen that features Ronald Reagan. I haven’t had the inclination nor the opportunity to actually ignore basically his entire filmography, I should point out; it’s just circumstance that I’ve never seen one of his films until now. Apparently Reagan garnered a lot of star power from his supporting role in Kings Row, and was more than a little dismayed when he had to pretty much give it up upon being drafted for WWII; and, to be honest, I can see why he got the boost in popularity for this, because he was actually kinda good, especially for the material. That last part, though, is what sticks out the most to me about director Sam Wood’s glurge of a feature here; the material itself.

Parris Mitchell is a young boy living with his small group of friends in the little town of Kings Row, somewhere in the midwest (it’s never explicitly said which state) circa the turn of the century. His best friend is Drake McHugh, who’s known to hang around various girls in town, including daughter of the town doctor Louise Gordon and tomboy from the other side of the tracks Randy Monaghan; Parris, however, has only had his eyes for Cassandra Tower, which rubs everyone else the wrong way as the Towers are regarded by the rest of the town as weird. Indeed, it’s soon after the film starts that Cassandra’s father Alexander takes her out of school and sequesters Cassie in their house, away from everyone including Parris. Jump forward a decade or so, and Parris has decided to become a doctor, coincidentally opting to apprentice under the Tower patriarch, who soon takes to him and ignites his interest in the newly burgeoning field of psychiatry. If you think this is going down the route of Dr. Tower eventually giving in at the climax to Parris’ still-present affections for his daughter and consenting to their marriage, you are in for a rude awakening, and what happens at the midpoint of the film (along with what’s implied has been happening) send the characters spiraling down to the film’s actual conclusions, which also ties into the now-adult Drake McHugh (played by Reagan) and the consequences of his juggling the affections of the two girls from his past. If that plot synopsis doesn’t clue you in at least a little bit as to the kind of film Kings Row turns out to be, let me put it another way: think of the term melodrama, and especially how it can apply to a film. Now, with that definition in your head, try and exaggerate it to an almost comical degree, where the characters of a melodrama physically flail themselves into the arms of others upon each emotional moment, where every plot point and twist is accompanied by a bombastic swelling of the musical score, where every action and reaction of a character is either put forward or met in turn by blunt-faced, rapid-fire spewing of dialogue or horrified denial usually accompanied by a sense of manic repression. Well, that’s Kings Row almost down to every single frame. It’d be kinda hard to talk about further without going into spoiler territory, even despite my almost wanting to to spite just how melodramatic Kings Row really is, but I’ll be fair to anyone who may actually want to see this. Even outside the plot, though, there was a palpable and overblown sense of exaggeration to the film, and it extended to just about every aspect of the filmmaking. As the film started and we were introduced to the main players when they were kids, I was a little put-off by the stilted and poor acting from the child actors, and fairly soon wished for the film to move on to when they were grown up, which it did about fifteen minutes in; much to my chagrin, however, the ham-fisted acting continued even from the adult actors, and somehow managed to bleed into the scriptwriting and the direction and even down to the presentation of the film itself. That director Sam Wood was nominated for Best Director for this is almost a little laughable, especially when the Academy, if they really wanted to nominate him, could’ve chosen The Pride of the Yankees instead, even if there aren’t a lot of directorial flourishes to that one. I will give a slight tip of my hat to the black-and-white cinematography in Kings Row, though, which was also nominated that year.

Boy, oh boy, was this sappy. And, what’s more, it was so because every single turn of the plot was a crushing blow to one or several characters, making the sappiness in service to the incredibly depressing nature of the narrative. That, right there, is melodrama, as succinct a definition as I might possibly be able to give, and in that, Kings Row succeeds at being melodramatic as all hell. Imagine my surprise when, after watching it, I looked into the film a little more, and found its reception was largely very good, especially in the years since its release. Apparently, it’s regarded as one of the pre-eminent melodramas of its era; an opinion that I can only agree with due to the sheer amount of melodrama packed into this picture, and not because of any particularly developed tastes for the actual genre, of which I have always found rather sour, personally. If this is indeed one of the best melodramas of the 1940s, I guess it turns out not to matter too much to me; if it does to you, however, Kings Row might end up being right up your alley. I, on the other hand, seem to be “on the wrong side of the tracks” with this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Wake Island

Wake Island

I take back that toast I made to His Imperial Majesty.

For whatever reason, Wake Island was another film that I dived into with almost no preparation beforehand; I really wasn’t sure why I did this, given that I hadn’t heard of director John Farrow (who got a nom for Best Director for this), nor had I heard of anyone billed as the film’s stars, and not being too much of a history buff, I had no knowledge of exactly what the Wake Island attack during WWII had been. While I don’t know if the events in the film are any indication of the truth, it seems that most of what transpires in Wake Island the film is at the very least close to what happened, thanks to military communications and intel that made it off the island. Even with that, though, almost as soon as the film started, I was able to discern that this was going to be a propaganda film of the most propaganda-y kind (and not really in the good way), and I was absolutely right.

Wake Island is a small atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Midway Island and Guam, which in 1941 housed a garrison of U.S. Marines who spend most of their time doing (to them) rudimentary tasks and needless drills. Of course, this all changes when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and it’s almost immediately after that Wake Island is besieged by the Japanese air and naval forces. As supplies and hopes run thin, it becomes increasingly apparent to the military leadership on the island, run by Major Geoffrey Caton, that it’s only a matter of time before the Japanese overrun their position, and so their mission becomes one to stall and delay the Japanese for as long as every single man on Wake Island can personally hold out. As the film started, I was introduced to most of the main characters, who with the exception of Caton and a civilian contractor named McClosky, all presented themselves as buffoons of the highest Hollywood order; even the “serious” military characters were Hollywood caricatures at best, and I was really struggling to even get through the opening sections of the film with how poor and put-on the script and the acting was. Once the Japanese attack starts up, the film gets somewhat better, though that’s admittedly mostly because a lot of the remaining running time is taken up with war action and explosions, leaving no room for the script to water things down with bad dialogue and general buffoonery; the film is also thankfully under an hour and a half long, which made the thriftiness of the film’s war action all the more agreeable. Still, that’s basically all I can say about Wake Island; there’s two different halves of the film, one which has the bad scriptwriting and barely-passable acting, and the other which has the admittedly good quality war scenes, and the film was only decent when it focused on the latter, and ended up downright cringeworthy when it flipped back to the former.

I know that America was in dire need of a good propaganda boost for the war effort in 1942, but that doesn’t mean that films that cater to that need like Wake Island need to be in automatic consideration for Best Picture. I can think of no other reason than that as to how this actually got nominated; aside from the extensive practical effects and some excellent aerial dogfighting footage, this was nothing more than a slapped-together effort to get people into the war effort, which apparently ended up working, as this was one of the highest box-office draws of 1942. This is getting an extra point from me for the aforementioned battle scenes, and that the rest of the film is as piddling in quality as it was necessitated my pointing that extra point out, almost as if I needed to explain myself. Even if you can enjoy the battle footage (which I did), and somehow manage to stomach the rest of the film (which I didn’t), I can’t imagine any universe where people could and would successfully argue that this deserves to be among the Best Picture field. If this is one of the ten best films of the year, then that does not bode well for the remainder of this field that I have yet to get to.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10