Blossoms in the Dust

Blossoms in the Dust

You’re trying to mend a broken heart by hitting it with a hammer.

Blossoms in the Dust, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, was the only film among the nominees of 1941 that was in Technicolor, so I had some expectations going into my viewing of it. To the film’s credit, those expectations were largely ignored as the film went on, but more because the film itself had a few problems that became looming and hard to ignore the longer the film went on. Many other reviews of this one that I’ve read have made lots of mentions of how affecting this story is, mostly because it’s a true story of a real-life woman. That it is a true story, however, shouldn’t earn the film any undue favors, especially because the actual film doesn’t do nearly enough justice to the real-life story it presents, thanks to the numerous faults in the storytelling.

Greer Garson stars as Edna Gladney, who starts off the film as a well-to-do fiancee dreaming of a double wedding with her adopted sister Charlotte. Of course, things don’t turn out as planned; for one, she is almost irresponsibly swept off her feet by wheat farmer Sam Gladney, breaking off her engagement and marrying him instead, and for another, her sister’s engagement is called off when her future in-laws discover she was adopted and thus an illegitimate child, and she kills herself out of shame. Both of these events, coupled with an eventual accident that takes the life of her own young son, have a profound effect on Edna, and lead her to take in other foundlings and illegitimate children, forming her own adoption center to find them good homes, which eventually evolves into a legislative battle she wages to have illegitimate children not forever marked as such by their birth certificates. I can say a handful of good things about Blossoms in the Dust; the Technicolor cinematography was sumptuous, and Greer Garson does a good job being sentimental and an easy character to root for. Unfortunately, these are overshadowed by the more than numerous things I could say about the film that were not so good. For instance, the film had a very odd structure about it, which seemed exacerbated by the short running time; the story almost lurched along, meandering for a short while until punctuated by bursts of plot development, which are then largely ignored as the film moves along to the next bit of meandering. I caught on to this structuring of the story a little too early into the film, and it became a nagging persistence as the film went on, as more tragic happenings and downturns in the plot kept happening and then were just as swiftly swept along and not allowed to have the impact they needed to make them worthwhile. Add to it the decisions of the plot developments themselves, which seemed to have bad thing after bad thing happen to Edna Gladney solely to make her more sympathetic as a character and to get us to weep and say ‘you pull through this, girl!’, and I was almost to the level of being insulted by the manipulation the film takes part in. As I said, Greer Garson was good, but the acting from everyone else, from Walter Pidgeon as her husband to the children and black houseworkers, was caricatured at best, and not even the saving grace of the cinematography could stop me from wondering what the hell Mervyn LeRoy and the screenwriters were doing with this picture.

Films like this one make me more than a little disconcerted, for several reasons. The main one I alluded to in the opener, that the film has so many problems with it that it doesn’t do nearly enough justice to the true story as it and many reviewers think it does. Just because the true story of the film is a rosy one and one worthy of sentiment and praise does not automatically mean the film should receive similar sentiment and accolades, because the truth of it is that this isn’t a very well put together film at all. It’s maudlin, and tugs at the heartstrings to an unnecessary and manufactured degree, and what’s most upsetting to me is that the actual true story behind the film would’ve been more than adequate at doing that on its own, without the ‘helping hand’ of Hollywood going overboard with it and thus screwing it all up. Even with it being the sole color film among the nominees, I can’t say that this really deserved its spot in the Best Picture roster, and that a film a mere hour-and-a-half long could have so many elementary issues with it made me more than a little frustrated.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

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Suspicion

Suspicion

If you’re going to kill someone, do it simply.

I have to admit, I was a bit nervous about seeing Hitchcock’s followup film to the previous year’s Best Picture winner; Rebecca set such a high and new standard for Hitch that I was quite afraid of Suspicion not being nearly up to the same level, even despite Hitch reusing his lead actress Joan Fontaine and adding in the ever-charming Cary Grant to boot. Truthfully, Suspicion is no Rebecca, but it’s still got enough of the classic Hitch charm to the filmmaking to be more than serviceable. Of course, we then run into the question of; to what degree is a film just serviceable enough to be considered one of the best pictures of the year, and while Suspicion doesn’t do enough to answer that question in regards to itself, it’s still fully entertaining enough for a watch if one is inclined to do so.

Joan Fontaine is Lina, the young daughter of the well-to-do McLaidlaws, who ends up meeting Cary Grant’s Johnnie Aysgarth on a train, then at a ranch, and again at a party, finding herself being swept off her feet by Johnnie at a rate even quicker than the film’s scant running time would necessitate. The two are married before Lina’s parents are even aware, and after a swift honeymoon, they arrive at an extravagant home Johnnie has acquired for her, seemingly out of nowhere. Over the next few weeks, it becomes apparent to Lina that Johnnie has no real income and a gambling streak, seemingly borrowing and switching around money so he can lavish both Lina and himself with various things. Of course, this lifestyle catches up to Johnnie faster than he would’ve hoped, and it’s through several odd occurrences, some involving a friend of the two known as Beaky, that Lina begins to suspect Johnnie may be trying to cash in on an insurance policy by killing her. This one seemed to be more typical of earlier Hitchcock films than the previous year’s Rebecca, in that the film was not only thrifty but saved most of its substance in the narrative for the later half or third of the picture. Really, though, I can’t stress the first point enough; man oh man, was this film quick. Barely over an hour and a half, the film spends no time at all setting itself up and barreling forward to the meat of the picture, to the point that I was concerned that the film wouldn’t be able to adequately wrap itself up with some fifteen minutes left in the running time. The film did well enough in this regard, though to the credit of my concerns, the film (an adapted screenplay) apparently has a way different ending than the book it’s based on, so the mileage may vary as to whether certain people get enough out of the ending as Hitchcock has intended.

Joan Fontaine won Best Actress at the Oscars for this role, the only such acting performance to win in a Hitchcock film. Aside from acting nervous and demure most of the time, I’m not convinced she really did enough to earn it… and to be frank, I don’t think this film did enough to earn a Best Picture nomination either. It’s not the type of picture that really goes out of its way to wow you, and it really doesn’t need to be; it works well enough on its own as a piece of entertainment, and another brick in Hitch’s building of his filmography. That it got nominated for Best Picture, to me, speaks more about the field of available pictures from 1941 than anything poor I could say about this one, and I really wouldn’t have too many poor things to say. While it’s not Best Picture material in my opinion, this is still a good film to sit down and give a spin through; it is Hitchcock, after all, and it’s hard for a Hitch film to let down a good movie fan.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Hold Back the Dawn

Hold Back the Dawn

What do they call it, the ‘pursuit of happiness’?

With as hard as Hold Back the Dawn was for me to find (there wasn’t even a copy in my local library system; I feared I was gonna be stymied until I found a full copy on an obscure Russian video hosting site), I guess I should’ve been a little more concerned about the quality of the film itself. Here’s where I go down the same road that I’ve spoken of countless times before: this isn’t to say that Hold Back the Dawn is a bad film, but what it is is not engaging enough, especially for the story it tells. Truthfully, once I was able to track down a copy, I thought this was going to be a fairly easy watch; the charms of Charles Boyer and the demure innocence of Olivia de Havilland in a plot with just enough of a narrative hook to draw me in pretty easily seemed to be a safe enough bet. In reality, this film doesn’t fail, but neither does it do just about anything more than enough to succeed, and that seemed to bother me more in this particular case than if I had merely watched a poor film instead.

Charles Boyer, telling his story in flashback in one of the most clever and self-referential framing devices I’ve seen in classic Hollywood, is Georges Iscovescu, a European expatriate in a town on the Mexican border, struggling to find a way to enter the United States. After exhausting all the legal routes he can come up with, he spontaneously runs into an old flame who managed to succeed where he has failed; explaining how she did it, Georges learns the legal routes that have wrapped him up in red tape all unravel if a wannabe immigrant is married to an American citizen already – Georges’ former flame doing just that to get into the country, and divorcing right after. Georges, out of options, decides to do the same, and finds a potential mark in an American schoolteacher leading a field trip across the border, played by de Havilland. Of course, this being a Hollywood picture, Georges’ plan to marry the schoolteacher and divorce her after he’s in the country so he and his old flame can get together is threatened when he begins to fall for the woman, and if you know classic Hollywood and especially the Hays code, you know how this is going to turn out. Seeing the potential the premise had, I was actually looking forward to this one, and once I found a copy, I didn’t think it would be too much trouble to get through it. Honestly, it really wasn’t, but I was surprised at how lackadaisical the film was with its own story, to the point that halfway through the film I had started to lose quite a bit of interest. Most of it, I was able to identify, was the film’s conspicuous lack of a score, which when coupled with the judicious use of Boyer’s voiceover to describe his internal thoughts, made the film a touch too droll during far too much of the running time. There were also a few subplots involving the other hopeful immigrants living in the same hotel as Boyer that seemed superfluous and unnecessary at best, and indeed the film could’ve been a mite better if these had been trimmed to save the film a bit of length.

Even with the film’s framing device, Hold Back the Dawn seemed content to just meander along, barely telling the story of the central romance until it arrives at the end, calls it a day, and starts rolling the credits. This, needless to say, was not an altogether uplifting and engaging way to present a Hollywood romance, and it’s this that is the biggest problem I had with this film. Boyer is decent enough, and de Havilland does well with being pretty and demure and not much more than that, but I’d be very surprised if this managed to get into the top half of the year’s nominees for Best Picture in my regards; it’s far too blase with its presentation style to really have enough of an impact to be called one of the best pictures of the year.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Little Foxes

The Little Foxes

The world’s open for people like you and me.

Evidently, the Academy saw this film coming their way, with its impressive rap sheet headed by the name of Bette Davis (as well as director William Wyler), and figured it was going to get nominated for Best Picture whether it wanted to be or not. Not to discount The Little Foxes too much, because by the end of it it actually manages to be quite the affective drama, but I couldn’t help but feel that this film had itself guaranteed a slot among the ten nominees even before it was actually made. Hence, the film only just puts itself together, and really at the start of it one doesn’t really get the picture that it has anywhere to go or a final image it is leading towards at all, at least for me. Still, while I was prepared to write this off in the beginning of the running time, I have to say that it managed to succeed in its endeavor by the end. One just has to get through some of the film’s more languid patches and get to the end themselves to judge whether it ends up being worth it.

Bette Davis is Regina, the wife of successful banker Horace Giddens and sister to Ben and Oscar Hubbard, who are each wealthy enough in their own right, but both desire for more and also look down on their sister simply by the virtue of them being male inheritors and her having to marry into wealth to get it. Nevertheless, the three Hubbards scheme to increase their individual wealth by building a cotton mill in town; in order to do it, however, they need Regina to convince Horace to lend some of his money as well. When Horace, who’s been away receiving treatment for a severe heart condition, refuses to chip in, the three Hubbards each make their own schemes to get the money invested and to make their fortunes with the impending mill, some through less than legal means of doing so, and the entire family and everyone involved must come to terms with all that ends up happening in the Hubbards’ schemes to get rich. I was ready to dismiss this film completely after my first attempt to watch it; I started the film one day, and was so bored with it a mere fifteen minutes in that I had to stop and put it aside for another day. The thing with The Little Foxes is, it is absolutely one of those films that assumes before the opening credits have even started rolling that you already know everything about all the characters and their relationships and the setting everything takes place in, a type of film I’ve decried numerous times in the past whenever I encountered it on the 1001 list. There are no introductions or setting up of characters or plot points in the opening minutes of this film; it just dives right in, and unfortunately given the setting and social status of the characters, it meant that I couldn’t have given a flying arse about anybody or what was happening, which meant that the film had a largely uphill battle with me to get me to care about it over the next couple hours or so. Thankfully, it did manage to succeed, mostly because I just let the film run for a while without trying to make sense of who was what and what was why, but also because the acting from all involved was pretty damn good, and the direction and camerawork helped them along ably when things threatened to get a midge too stagnant. Davis is Davis of course, but Patricia Collinge, who plays Oscar’s wife Birdie, has a scene in the middle of the film that she absolutely steals, and Teresa Wright also does a good, if a little doe-eyed, job as Regina’s daughter Alexandra.

As good as the individual parts of this ended up being, I’m still not sold on the product they end up making as a whole. This is a shrewd little drama, and an effective one in the end, but I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling I had when it was over and I was typing up this review. I’ll put it this way: if this film had been virtually identical, but made with different people; different actors and a different director, and maybe even a different cinematographer… I don’t think it would have managed the nominations that it did. The Little Foxes secured nine noms at the Academy Awards that year, and I couldn’t help but think that a good half of them at least were from reputation rather than the people who were in charge of the nominations actually seeing this film. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be someone who passes this up, but neither is this really one to make the effort to seek out; it’s a little too superfluous in the Best Picture field, and as I said, it seems to get by on reputation rather than being a must see film that one needs to go and check out for themselves.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

One Foot in Heaven

One Foot in Heaven

For whither thou goest, I will go; for where thou lodgest I will lodge…

After my viewing today of One Foot in Heaven, a film that managed a nomination for Best Picture for 1941 and no other nominations at all, I’m left in a considerable quandary. I’ve stood on my soapbox about ‘nothing films’ nominated for Best Picture numerous times over the course of this blog, and One Foot in Heaven isn’t going to change anything I’ve said in the past or will likely say again in the future. It is absolutely yet another nothing film up for the award, but that’s really not why I’m particularly bothered after my seeing it. I guess I’m bothered because here I am, sitting in front of a blank, electronic piece of paper, expected to write some three paragraphs worth of stuff about One Foot in Heaven, and I really, genuinely have nothing to say about it.

Fredric March is William Spence, a young up-and-coming medical student who one day, just before his graduation and upcoming marriage to an affluent daughter named Hope, passes a Methodist church and is seized by a calling to take up a profession in the faith. Supported by his new bride, he becomes a pastor and is stationed in a small dingy town in Iowa at the turn of the century, and from there proceeds to hop between parsonages across the country, he and Hope always scrounging their way through life and raising their family, until Will finally sees a chance to provide the splendid church and maintained home that Hope has always yearned for him to have; if he can manage to get by the old guard in his current church, that is. As much as it seems that I’m waffling with that plot summary, the film seems to be even more so; in a similar vein to films like Goodbye, Mr. Chips or Our Town, this is a film where things happen, and then other things happen, and then more things happen, and then the film ends. A narrative thread or point to the whole affair is nary to be found here, and that seems to be my biggest rub with One Foot in Heaven: there’s just no point to the film at all, in making it or in viewing it. It’s even more disgruntling in that the film is actually fairly passable; March is decent, as is Martha Scott as Hope, and all the technicals of the film are… there, I guess. But I just can’t seem to scrounge up anything to actually say about the film, because it itself doesn’t have anything to say, and when it comes close to having a feature or saying something, the film episodically moves on to the next event in the lives of the Spence family, and nothing is ever said or done about anything prior. I guess the only other thing of note is that the film is actually an adaptation of an autobiography written by the eldest Spence son, Hartzell; a fact that provided a moment of surprise when I learned it and little else, but I felt it was worth mentioning.

As I said in the opener, I’ve said things like this in the past and will likely say it again in the future, but here the question I’m asking isn’t just narrowed to Best Picture worthiness: With One Foot in Heaven, it’s not just where a film needs to be at to be good enough for a Best Picture nomination, but at what point does a film really need to be good (or faceted, rather) enough to even warrant being made at all? That this managed a nom for Best Picture and no other noms, to me, basically meant it was one nomination away from being nothing more than one of the countless footnote films I scroll through when I look at the Wikipedia articles for each year in film for my What Should’ve Been Here section; if this hadn’t been nominated for the big one, it would’ve been just another 1941 film in that list that I would’ve passed through without seeing. And, with what One Foot in Heaven manages as a film, I probably would have been okay in doing so. It’s not bad, and it’s not really good; it’s just not anything. Make of that what you will.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

“I’m afraid you are.” “Are what?” “Dead.”

When I first read the synopsis of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, I couldn’t help but feel that the film’s plot seemed familiar. Then, I remembered an early review I posted for this blog of a Powell and Pressburger film called A Matter of Life and Death, and when I reread the review, it clicked; this film and that film have almost exactly the opposite plot to them. Here Comes Mr. Jordan was nominated for quite a few Oscars that year, which surprised me before I sat down to view it, as it seemed fairly thin to be a real awards contender. Watching it, my assessment of the film being ‘thin’ in terms of substance and effort was right on the money, so how it ended up with as many noms as it did is still a bit of a mystery to me. Still, I liked the film, especially the premise of it, even if I felt that the film ultimately didn’t do enough to really flesh out its premise to make a worthwhile and substantial story.

Joe Pendleton is a boxer with the in-ring name of “The Flying Pug”, known for the fact that he is also a pilot and personally flies his own aircraft to each of his bouts. On one flight, a cable snaps on his plane, sending him crashing to the earth. Before he knows it, he is in the afterlife, ushered along to an ultimate destination in Heaven by an angel who collected his soul before the agony of his death. Upon meeting the angel’s superior, the titular Mr. Jordan, a truth is uncovered; the angel who collected Joe made a mistake in doing so, as the heavenly records show Joe was supposed to have not only survived the crash but lived for another 50 years, and in a cosmic bit of hilarity that could only occur in Hollywood, Joe cannot simply be returned to his body, as his boxing manager had him cremated after the crash. Nothing else for Joe and Mr. Jordan to do, then, but simply have Joe step into a recently deceased body and take over the man’s life. Of course, complications in this plan are bound to arise, and it’s how Joe tries to resolve all these new conflicts while still trying to continue his boxing career amid interference from the heavenly crew that form the backbone of the film’s narrative. I’ve gone in particular depth with the plot because the film itself is very heavy on its premise, making it intricate and involved in order to give the characters plenty of room to make the film as fully fleshed out as it can, I presume. Here’s the thing with the film, though: the premise turns out to be a little too intricate for the film’s own good; every time things are finally squared away and the characters given room to develop in their own way, the plot comes along and throws a left hook into the picture in order to get to the next plot point, and the next, until the conclusion is reached. This, more than anything, makes the film feel as thin as it does, as the characters are made to strictly adhere to the narrative, and are thus given no room to be characters. Add to this that the film is barely over 90 minutes long, and the film seemed to know this, pushing the narrative developments along to get everything done that the scriptwriters wanted to get done in the time alloted, and I’m frankly a little surprised that the film managed to win the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay or what was the equivalent back in those days. I guess an interesting and thoroughly-developed premise was enough for the Academy to overlook the film’s faults, even for the early 1940s.

I’ve read a number of screenwriting books in my day, and one thing most (if not all) of them share is the notion that when one is writing a script, or developing characters, and the characters themselves seem to grab a hold of the narrative and go and do something on their own, to let the script develop in this new direction, if only to see what happens, as it is what the characters themselves do that makes them well-developed and thought-out characters. Here Comes Mr. Jordan takes this thought toward screenwriting, and deftly tosses it out the window, saying instead that the script ought to determine every single move the characters make, and if the characters have any notion of independence or of doing their own thing in the face of what the narrative of the film is supposed to be, to instead force the narrative above all else, even potentially the betterment of the picture. This was the thought left in my mind after my viewing of this film, and it was a thought I couldn’t get out of my head in relation to how I thought about the picture itself. Don’t get me too wrong; Here Comes Mr. Jordan generally works as a film, and it has some stuff going for it, including the charm of Claude Rains as the titular angel that I didn’t get the chance to mention until now. But, if one were to go through a screenwriting course and try and objectively assess the screenplay for this film, I can’t imagine too many people would come out of it too impressed with what they find here.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator

In the name of democracy, let us all unite!

Well, here it is; probably the largest gap in my film viewing history – until now, I had never seen Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Of course I knew well enough about the film, but had never had the cause to seek it out; my days of watching Chaplin seeming to be largely behind me. When I saw that it was a part of the Best Picture field, I was pretty pleased to be given a reason to watch it and fill that particular hole in my viewing, and indeed when I’d gotten to the field of 1940 I knew it would be the final film I would check off from that list. Really, though, it was that it had been so long since my last Chaplin that was of chief worry for me; would I still be able to appreciate and enjoy him and his work, or had the slew of nonstop dramas that I’d seen for the Best Picture odyssey mellowed me too considerably? During my watch, it threatened to at first, but leave it to Chaplin to come through when it matters the most.

Here, Chaplin pulls double-duty in two roles; one, as the dictator of fictional spoof on Nazi Germany known as Tomainia, Adenoid Hynkel, and the other as an unnamed Jewish barber, who happens to bear more than a passing resemblance to Hynkel (go figure) but who couldn’t be more different in personality and character. While Hynkel tries to conquer the world and encounters a myriad of troubles in his quest to do so, the barber is just trying to get by in the ghetto created by Hynkel’s policies. Really, there’s not a whole lot of narrative to this one, being the type of film it is; it stumbles from gag to gag and coincidence to coincidence rather than craft a throughline for events to happen, but that’s what it’s supposed to be doing. I had to admit, when the film started I didn’t think very much of it; the sound design in particular threw me off, the film opting for odd batches of silence where I’d been taught to expect background noise or soundtrack at the very least, and indeed the film’s abrupt jump straight into the war-time gags initially made them unable to land for me. It was a little bit into the film, though, that I’d noticed it was starting to grow on me; by the time of the scene where Hynkel is swayed into world conquest and dances with an inflatable globe, I knew I was watching something particularly special. What finally sunk in about The Great Dictator seems silly enough to say, given that this is a comedy first and foremost and most all are aware of that going into it, but it was that this is supposed to be a satire that escaped me at first glance; when it finally got into my head, the film made a whole lot of sense, especially as it got into the later portions of the picture. Satire is supposed to not just be funny, but a parody of real life, and not just to be a parody for humor’s sake, but to use that parody to say something about the world and/or the state of it, a definition The Great Dictator perfectly captures with Chaplin’s closing monologue, dictated directly to the camera in a blunt reveal that Chaplin is not speaking to the crowds of Tomainia, but to us the viewers. In being a parody, and in being a satire, using comedy to make us understand the world a little better, The Great Dictator succeeds effortlessly.

I guess the best advice I could give to someone looking to fill the same hole in their moviewatching history that I did with this picture is: don’t go into it expecting it to be a great drama, or perfectly made, or for it to wow with incredible production value. This is a picture of importance, not of soul-crushing proselytizing but of lampooning to take the edge off a serious issue to get us to look at it with a clearer head. In short, don’t go into The Great Dictator expecting it to be what it very clearly isn’t, or especially what it’s not supposed to be. Going into this with the right mindset, one will find the magic of Chaplin is still very much alive and well here, even with this being his first ever talking picture. Chaplin, with this, would become the first ever person to be nominated for producing (Best Picture), acting, and writing for a single film at the Academy Awards. Needless to say, he hasn’t lost a step.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10