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

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1936

All right, let’s see if I remember how to do one of these.

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

Evidently, the Academy felt that twelve nominees for Best Picture was a tad too much; the field was trimmed back down to ten this year, and would remain so for several years going forth. In what many assume was a direct response to Mutiny on the Bounty’s triplicate Best Actor nominations the year before, 1936 saw the introduction of the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories, with Walter Brennan’s good standing with the extras union and their ability to vote for the category netting him his first of three wins in the category. Ultimately, the big one went to The Great Ziegfeld, which became the longest film to win the award up to that point.

-Ranking the Nominees-

Anthony Adverse

Anthony Adverse ended up getting the most awards come Oscar night, as well as being one of the films with the most nominations. For the life of me, I cannot understand why; this film, adapted from a 1,200 page novel, was a slog to get through. No entertainment value, and almost no redeeming features, and this gets nominated for Best Picture? Please.

Romeo and Juliet

-This one too. William Shakespeare will go on to have a pretty decent reputation with the Academy in terms of film adaptations of his work, but this Romeo and Juliet version should definitely not be one of them. George Cukor has himself a reputation as one of the most consistent directors of old Hollywood, but for me, I can amend that statement to include the word “poor” after the key word there; his films are well put together enough, but they’re just not entertaining, and I’m still having a hard time trying to figure out exactly why.

Three Smart Girls

-Now we start to run into nominees that weren’t necessarily bad, but definitely shouldn’t have been nominated for this regardless. Three Smart Girls has some things going for it; unfortunately, if pressed for further explanation as to what the film really does have as selling points, I’d probably stutter and look slightly dumbfounded as a response. I didn’t dislike the film, but neither did I find it all that great, and that’s not one of the best pictures of the year for me, in any year.

The Story of Louis Pasteur

The Story of Louis Pasteur ends up as low as it does because of its similarities in faults to other prior Best Picture nominees, such as Disraeli and She Done Him Wrong; aside from the lead performance, this would not, and should not have, been nominated for Best Picture. Muni makes this worth watching, and if you remove him from the picture, you absolutely have no reason to bother sitting through it. Biopics come and go in this category, and I have a feeling many more future nominees will end up making the same mistakes that this one did.

A Tale of Two Cities

-I described A Tale of Two Cities as a “smear of grey” type of film in my review, and I stand by that; it’s decent, but if you’re pressed for elaboration on what makes it decent, your brain will more than likely come up blank. Ronald Colman wasn’t insufferable to watch, though, so there’s one for the win category.

Libeled Lady

Libeled Lady is ending up in this spot simply by virtue of my ranking the other films either above or below it. I liked it, but it was thanks to the charms of the stars in the picture that I did, and not really because of the film itself, and I can’t really place it any higher because of that reasoning. Still, for this to just manage to make it into the fold if the field were reduced to five, that’s probably enough of a win for it anyway.

The Great Ziegfeld

The Great Ziegfeld has a long-ass running time, a middle section with production value out the wazoo, and enough star recognition to certainly fill the seats at every theater it can. Should that mean that this should’ve won Best Picture? Evidently, according to the Academy that year, but not according to me; ignore all that the film wants to tout as selling points, and you have a rudimentary biopic with some solid performances from the cast; that’s it. As I said in my review of this, as well as plenty of other long-ass films; just because it has more of something, doesn’t automatically mean it’s better because of it.

San Francisco

-Now we’re getting into at the least potentially viable nominees. San Francisco surprised the heck out of me, both with how it subverted my expectations, and for the actual production value of the eponymous 1906 earthquake. I sincerely believe this got nominated for this award solely because of the earthquake sequence and everything that came after, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t ultimately successful at what it tries to do, and in that the film is better than any of the other nominees up to this point in my ranking. It just so happens that there are other, better films that also manage to succeed at their established goals.

Dodsworth

-If I were to allow it to be so, this might be the first year of my doing this that I’d end up with a tie for first place. However, since this is just me ranking the nominees, for me, I have to come down on one side or the other, just for the sake of keeping everything in an order. To that end, I’m placing Dodsworth second just for the virtue of the other film I’m placing above it. If it hadn’t been for the other film, this should have won this award, as well as potentially a few others; it’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill nominee, and the only other thing I’m left to say about it is that this is one that is certainly worth seeing.

Mr. Deeda Goes to Town

-But, so is this one. Frank Capra ended up winning his second Best Director Oscar for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and if it had been up to me, from the nominees, he would’ve gotten Best Picture too. Like I said, though, I’m really torn between this and Dodsworth for who should really come out on top, and I’m only picking this one because I think it has a better and more accessible message. Don’t get me wrong, both films are very good at what they’re trying to do, but to me, Deeds is a more likable film for what it’s trying to do, and that’s pretty much why I’m placing it on top, and for little other reason. You can disagree with me if you want, and I wouldn’t fault you for it, but gun to my head, I’m picking this one.

-What Should Have Won-

Well, aside from that Ziegfeld shouldn’t have won it, there’s a few potential nominee (and award) misses here. My Man Godfrey springs up immediately; it became the first film nominated for all four acting categories, as well as the only such film not to be nominated for Best Picture, so there’s a huge miss right there. Greta Garbo’s work still would avoid this category for the time being, given Camille wasn’t nominated. Given the category’s general liking of Astaire-Rogers, I’m surprised Swing Time didn’t make it in, but I wouldn’t argue for it. But all of these pale in comparison to the Academy’s narrow-minded dismissal, I can only assume, of the silent nature of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, which despite being silent was absolutely the best film I’ve seen out of 1936.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

Among the nominees, I would’ve voted for Deeds; otherwise, Modern Times all the way.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Once again, aside from the very tip top of the field, this was a largely forgettable field of nominees, Academy. I can only hope that we’ll get to a point where things will be a little less so in the future.

The Story of Louis Pasteur

The Story of Louis Pasteur

Benefits of science are not for scientists, Marie… They’re for humanity.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Paul Muni film; or, at least, one that I hadn’t seen before. I like Paul Muni, and the man, despite a few nominations, only won one Oscar in his career; for this, The Story of Louis Pasteur. While this won’t be fuel for a potential run of mine through the Best Actor nominees, I have seen all five of the nominees for that award for 1936, and while I don’t know outright whether I think Muni should’ve won over the others, I’m glad that he did; even with the still-short history of the Academy, Muni was overdue for actual recognition, and I’m okay with him getting it for this when he didn’t get it otherwise. That said, while Muni is far and away the biggest and best selling point this film has got, I do feel a little disappointed that he was honored for what ultimately amounts to a sub-par and far too on-the-nose biopic, and the flaws in this film seem to have only grown larger and more noticeable with age.

Muni is the titular Pasteur, who many know for the process of pasteurization, which is incidentally not covered in this film. Here, instead, we follow Pasteur’s attempts to combat diseases caused by what he calls microbes, in particular anthrax in sheep and rabies (or hydrophobia) in dogs and men. Since Pasteur is such a forward-thinking individual, his efforts at finding the causes of disease and fighting them, as well as his efforts to change how doctors and surgeons operate, are met with derision from the established medical community, and this is the prime conflict found in the film itself. First off, fans of Muni will no doubt recognize his face under that thick facial hair, even as he is particularly metamorphosed into the role of Pasteur, hence why I indicated in the opener that I was fine with him winning for this role; it’s certainly not an undeserved award, with what Muni accomplishes here. My problem with this film, and I guess with biopics of the era in general it would seem, is the deification of the subject that they feel they need to do in order to seemingly justify making a biopic of the person in question. Here, Louis Pasteur is not only a man who did great things and should be looked up to, but the film pushes it way beyond this and makes it so Pasteur is always right and everyone around him is hideously, ignorantly wrong; all of the time. There were more than enough scenes in this of Pasteur’s so-called foes in the academic world scoffing to his face and blindly refusing to open their minds even the slightest bit to his claims, or groups of these people literally laughing at the personally-absent Pasteur and how ‘impossible’ the things he’s been saying seem to be. I don’t know how historically accurate this film is, but having everyone against Pasteur literally getting together and laughing at the man and anyone who supports him seems… overdone, to put it nicely, and the film as a result has not aged all that well.

There was one thing to like about this film, and everything else was either par for the course, or had aged very poorly. This is pretty much why I’m ending up on the particular side, rating-wise, that I am. To add to that, aside from Muni’s performance, this was nowhere near what a Best Picture nominee ought to be; of course, that one or two exemplary features alone should net a film a Best Picture nomination is not an uncommon occurrence in the history of the Oscars, but the continued happening of it doesn’t mean that it’s justified or not incorrect for doing so. The Story of Louis Pasteur is but one of these many films; watch it for Muni, and pretty much for no other reason.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

So after some technical snafus, which delayed my watching films on my computer at all, I’m sorted out now (finally), so with that, let’s continue:

So, classical Hollywood; what’s the deal with Ronald Colman? I’d never heard of him before Arrowsmith, which bored me nearly to tears, but apparently, he was a big thing in the early-to-mid 30s, and his name is trumpeted at the start of this film like it’s the film’s biggest selling point. Never mind that this is a film adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel; no, this is all about Ronald Colman and his amazing star power, apparently. Well, as someone who’s never read Dickens’ original A Tale of Two Cities, but who’s had experience with Ronald Colman in the past, my expectations for this one were none too stellar, especially considering how high-falutin’ literary adaptations have been in the 30s so far. So, in that, A Tale of Two Cities (the film) exceeded my expectations; it was better than I thought it was going to be. But not by too much, though.

The story is quite complicated, but basically, this is a story of two gentlemen who are both in love with the same woman, all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. There’s a hell of a lot more to it than that, but I’d run the risk of this plot summary being as long as Wikipedia’s. Still, the film’s story is complicated enough that Ronald Colman, despite being billed as the star, doesn’t show up until a good twenty minutes or so into the film, and from then on he’s on screen for probably only half the remaining running time. Even so, Colman actually does a good job with what he’s given here, even if he isn’t given a whole lot; likely because this was a passion project of Colman’s, and he had a lot of personal investment in it. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that he impressed me, but he was one of the better parts of the film, so I’ll give him a check in the win column for that. All told, however, I didn’t find myself too invested in this film, probably because I hadn’t read the original Dickens novel; I definitely feel that I would’ve gotten a lot more out of this if I’d had history with the source material, but I didn’t, so that’s that.

This was fine, but never once during my watch of it did I feel that this was Best Picture material, which is mostly why I ended up where I ended up with it, just for lack of any other opinion being able to form. This, for me, ended up being another smear-of-grey type of film, the type to be fairly decent in production value and possibly even entertainment, but once it’s over, it quickly vanishes from one’s memory, with no lingering intent to ever watch it again, even if I had the opportunity to. That, I say once again, does not for me the best picture of the year make. If for whatever reason you are a fan of Ronald Colman, and haven’t seen this yet, I feel pretty confident that he’ll impress you with this one. Otherwise, unless you’re a fan of the original novel, there’s not much reason to watch this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10