All This, and Heaven Too

All This and Heaven Too

I live in fear of the day where I shall be driven to do something desperate.

Man, you really can’t go wrong with Bette Davis; the you, in this case, being myself. I’ve been a Bette Davis fan ever since I first saw one of the pictures she starred in, and she hasn’t disappointed whenever I’ve seen her on screen. That being said, that’s not to say that every film that Davis has starred in is altogether a worthwhile one. Here, we have All This and Heaven Too, which was apparently the Warner Studio’s answer to Gone With the Wind, a lengthy melodrama set in a bygone era, although much of the production value of the previous year’s Best Picture winner is absent here, so the comparison is somewhat limited in that regard. Still, while Warner might have failed in his regard to bring another GWTW to the screen and to his company, there are some things to like about this, his effort, even if that list ends up being a smidge shorter than one would’ve likely wanted.

Here, Davis is Henriette Deluzy-Desportes, now a schoolteacher in the framing device of the film, where she finds out the students she has been assigned to have no respect or liking to her because of her odious past, printed in scandalous newspaper articles the students are all familiar with. Resolving to clear the air, she enters the film into flashback to tell her story: how she was once a governess to the children of the Duke de Praslin, a French nobleman, and how his wife, the Duchess, and her erratic and paranoid behavior regarding the Duke and Henriette eventually leads the family to heartbreak and scandal. I do find it a little amusing that the film can be so succinctly summarized in the way that I have, considering that the film is basically all story and very little else. We follow Davis as she comes to the household, gradually wins over the affections of the children over their domineering and possibly insane mother, and how the Duke himself comes to regard her as the ‘lost soul’ he’d been waiting to find. Here’s the thing, though; the studio, or the producers, or perhaps the director (or a combination of these), were all so consumed with making this as grand a picture as they could’ve, that it failed to cross their minds whether or not the picture itself would’ve been better off had some decisions been made in other ways. Case in point: the film is two hours and twenty minutes long, and it feels as long as its running time, which suggests to me that the film could’ve done with some trimming to make it more accessible and not such a timesink. The film also gets a touch into the melodramatic in the second act, as it is basically required to, and this melodrama is revisited slightly in the climax of the film, and though it was probably a decision of the times to make it as melodramatic as it ends up being, it unfortunately means the film has not aged all that well, save for the performance of Davis, who barely holds the film together (Charles Boyer, who plays the Duke, is also deserving of some commendation as well).

All This and Heaven Too is a decent enough film, but therein lies the trap that it fails to avoid: it, like so many other Best Picture nominees in the years prior, is only good enough. It ends up being a film that I appreciate more than I actually like or was entertained by, which could be enough to be nominated for this award or, in some years, even win, but not in the still-early years of the Academy such as this. It also unfortunately left me with too little to say about it, which is always something that rubs me the wrong way when it comes to trying to review a film like that. The Warner Bros. studio might’ve aimed for a grand, award-winning picture with this, but what they ended up with sadly amounts to filler, and little else.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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The Long Voyage Home

The Long Voyage Home

I’m through with the land, and the land’s through with me.

Alright, so after my work schedule exploded, plus some time taken in-between to do various things (including a script rewrite that I haven’t finished yet), I decided randomly today that it was time to get back into this. It’s been a while, though, so I’ll have to get used to it again, and I dunno how easily that’ll happen, so bear with me. 🙂

After the Best Picture nomination for Stagecoach, director John Ford and star John Wayne got together again to make another great western… except this isn’t actually a western, but a seafaring film instead. The abrupt switch in genre from these two collaborators took me by surprise, to say the least, not to mention the strange shift in pacing that said genre switch ended up causing in this film, which I was probably expecting even less. Here’s where my familiar mild-backpedal kicks in: this isn’t to say that The Long Voyage Home is a poor film, but what it is is not what a John Ford/John Wayne picture is expected to be, and this took quite a bit of getting used to before I was able to ascertain what merit the film actually does have.

The film recounts several stories of the men aboard the SS Glencairn, a British vessel making a long voyage from the West Indies to an eventual port home in Britain circa early-WWII. Their destination home, however, is quite a long ways away, and until then, we follow the men as they try and brave the challenges and tribulations at sea, especially so when their voyage crosses into war-ravaged territory. It’s a snippet of a synopsis indeed, made so as this is technically adapted from four stage plays by Eugene O’Neill, and as such is a bit of a mishmash of plot threads tied together through a common setting more than anything, but to be honest, this isn’t really a film to see for the narrative, or somewhat lack thereof. Rather, the production side of the film is the real selling point here; Ford in the director’s chair, the maritime setting and production value, cinematographer Gregg Toland’s work with light and shadow, and the commitment to the production by some of the name actors attached, including Wayne and Thomas Mitchell. Sure, Wayne’s faux-Swedish accent leaves something to be desired, especially when one is so used to the drawling tone he employs in his Western persona, but he only has around twenty lines in this anyway, so it’s not as negatively distracting as it otherwise would be. What the stars put on the back-burner, however, is overshadowed quite literally by Toland, who would experiment with a lot of the cinematography techniques he would later employ to groundbreaking effect in the following year with Citizen Kane. I’d say the cinematography, as well as the production value of the maritime setting, is what to really see this film for and take away from it.

Now, here’s where I either double down or play Devil’s Advocate with everything I’ve said up to now. I ended the previous paragraph saying that the cinematography and production value are why to see this film; it will probably go without saying at this point that such selling points are not unique to The Long Voyage Home, so why go out of one’s way to see this over other, better, potentially more entertaining films? Honestly, I can’t say, because there really isn’t much to sell this over other such films. Even its nomination for Best Picture seems a combination of premature (for Toland) and riding a small bit of coattails (for Ford and Wayne’s work in Stagecoach the year prior). It’s really not a poor film, but it does get slow at times, and when it does, it becomes a little too clear that the film’s selling points aren’t really enough to, well, to sell the film as a whole. There’s some nice work put in here, no doubt, but this ends up being another film one needn’t really seek out unless they are going through a list of films this happens to be on, as I am.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Our Town

Our Town

It’s a nice town… Know what I mean?

I knew almost nothing about Our Town when I went into it, even after my usual bit of research, which is almost always a red flag for me; even the film’s Wikipedia page was devoid of the usual summary and production sections, opting for a few opening lines with a cast list and tiny Awards section, and nothing else. What I was able to find out was that this was a film adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning stage play, and so I made a mental note to be cognitive of the film’s dialogue and staging, which I expected to be above average. It was about a half hour into the film’s short running time that I began to wonder what the film was really doing, in just about every aspect of storytelling and filmmaking, as it seemed to be shirking every convention that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time, which would’ve been fine and perhaps even encouraging if the film really had anything to show for doing so. Instead, I ended the film truly wondering why one should even spend the scant hour-and-a-half with this film at all.

The film doesn’t have a traditional straight narrative, but is instead a picturesque view of life in Grover’s Corners, a small town in New England at the turn of the century. Where other films would take a premise like that and frame it as a slice-of-life spanning the years in the lives of several characters, Our Town takes it a step further, opting to make the film itself a cultural study of the town in question. The film even opens with what might as well have been a museum tour guide or curator giving a rundown of various facts about “our town”, as if this were a newsreel instead of a fictional film made for entertainment. The narrator-slash-tour-guide even stops the film at one point to bring in a historical professor to rattle off facts about the town’s past and demographics, which was more than an unusual move to see. I could see what the filmmakers were going for with why they opted to do the film this way, but the nagging thought in my head behind it all was: why should we really care that much about this town? It’s not important in the slightest; the narrator and historical guests even make that readily apparent at several points, which pretty much kills the angle they’re trying to achieve with why they made the film the way they did. Even so, the mood of the film was, to put it in a single word, swell, even if the technicals were a little off-putting in a few peculiar ways. The framing of some of the shots was odd, sorta like some of the shots were choosing to focus on something innocuous or unimportant instead of the person or people talking, and not in the Chekhov’s Gun kind of way. Not to mention the film’s strange framing of the actors, which outright broke several of the standard rules of framing shots without gaining anything in return for doing so, which bugged me a little more than often. I will say, though, the way the ending was handled does make up for a lot of the oddness the film had done up to then, even if it was changed from the original stage play and still feels like it was changed unnecessarily.

I’m really at a loss when it comes to trying to find nice things to say about this one; not because it was bad, but because it was weird, and there wasn’t any real reason for it to be. In film school, for instance, during one of the earlier classes on cinematography and camerawork, we had an exercise where we had to break down and figure out how to shoot a scene or two, and every time one of the students would try and do something in the shot without having a purpose behind it or because they “thought it would be cool or neat”, we had to stop and come up with something else, something more substantial. It taught us the lesson that doing things on the screen willy-nilly or for no actual reason other than self-indulgence was, well, self-indulgent, and didn’t actually serve the story being told or the film being made, which should always be priority number one. Our Town completely fails in this regard; I couldn’t ascertain why it did almost all of the things it did, or if I could, I could figure or reason out that it could have been done better if done differently, so then why indeed was it done the way it was? This was one of two films director Sam Wood helmed that ended up nominated for Best Picture for 1940, and thankfully, Wood got a nom for Best Director for the other film he put up instead of this one; if he had been nominated for this, I would’ve cried foul immediately. This isn’t really a bad picture, but it just flouts reasoning so much that I honestly can’t allow myself to call it a good one.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent

I don’t want correspondence; I want news!

Man, it’s been a while since my last Hitchcock; I was unsure if I’d remember what one of his films was like since it had been so long. Foreign Correspondent would be one of Hitch’s first American productions, as well as one of his first nominations for Best Picture, along with eventual winner Rebecca. While this one may not have had the particular might of David O. Selznick behind it, it still managed a nom for the big one, which now that I’ve seen the picture I guess I won’t argue with. I will say, though, that while this was a decent watch, I can’t see myself ever going out of my way to see it again, and seeing how rewatchability is a very big thing for me with films, Foreign Correspondent ends up only barely getting a passing grade from me.

Joel McCrea is Johnny Jones, a reporter with the New York Globe, who gets appointed as a foreign correspondent with the peculiar pen name of Huntley Haverstock and is shipped off to London to get a fresh take on the burgeoning war in Europe. Jones/Haverstock is directed to a shindig thrown for the Universal Peace Party, headed by Stephen Fisher, in honor of a foreign diplomat named Van Meer. At the party, after schmoozing with Fisher’s daughter Carol, Jones discovers Van Meer is missing, and ends up on the trail of a conspiracy to undermine a secret peace treaty Van Meer was a part of; not to mention a potential romance with Carol, if he manages to survive the events that are unfolding all around him. After the first half hour or so, I was a little unenthused with how by-the-numbers the film had been up to then. It was roughly around that point that the film tried to up my interest by throwing a few of the standard Hitch curveballs into the plot, which succeeded if only mildly; I was interested in how the film would end up at its conclusion, but I still wasn’t able to skirt past the notion that the film was tossing its pitches at me for lack of anything else to do or say. It was a mystery with plenty of twists and turns before we get to the ending we get to, but as is often the case with mysteries, once the actual truth behind the twists and turns is made apparent and resolved, there’s no reason to ever take this particular ride a second time. Everything else about the film was serviceable enough, and the production value takes a noticeable upswing near the end with a plane crash sequence, but with everything being merely serviceable, the focus is put even more on the actual twists and turns of the mystery, which (again) only hold up on a first viewing, when we’re not aware of the actual truth behind everything that’s transpiring.

I said in the opener that it was due to the complete lack of rewatchability that this was barely getting a passing grade from me. I might have misspoken slightly; this is a good enough picture in its own right, but it’s unfortunately the kind of picture that, while plenty of effort and value were put into the film (and it shows), doesn’t warrant more than a single viewing. Viewed and judged as a stand-alone experience though, this was pretty good, and that’s at least more than I can say about a lot of the Best Picture filler of years past. I don’t know if I’d nominate this in an open field, or with a reduced category, but it was a nice little piece of entertainment to sit through. Ask me to sit through it a few more times, however, and I might have something less nice to say about it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

A pity I never had any children… But you’re wrong; I have! Thousands of them!

If what readers I do have will allow me the slight plug for one of my contemporaries, Steve of 1001 Plus has a certain type of film that he’s experienced countless times through his movie-watching endeavors that he has grown to loathe; a type of film, almost a genre, that he has coined the ‘misery parfait’, where the film is essentially absolutely nothing but bad situations and horrible events thrown at a main character who tries to endure it all. The resulting films, of which there are more than a few on the 1001 list, are often miserable to sit through, and perhaps just as pointless to try and find real worth in, especially when one sees more than one such film. Well, here we have a film that might very well lie on the exact opposite side of the spectrum from those films; a film that is basically nothing but good things and joyous mood regarding the main character. Here’s the thing, though; Goodbye, Mr. Chips may be the opposite of a misery parfait for its main character, played by Robert Donat (though that’s not to say that a bad thing or two doesn’t happen in the film), but it ends up being very nearly as pointless a film to sit through as if it had been one, for oddly similar reasons.

Mr. Chipping is a retired English schoolteacher from Brookfield School, who thanks to a cold is forced to miss opening day for the first time at the school where he still keeps up with the students. As he relaxes by the fireside, he reminisces back on his nearly-60-year teaching career, meaning of course the actual film is told in flashback, from his inauspicious arrival at Brookfield to his marriage to Katherine Ellis, played by Greer Garson, to the many years he spends becoming an integral aspect of the school, often teaching several generations of young lads in the same families. There’s really nothing more to it than that; the film recounts how Chipping, who garners the nickname Chips from his wife, starts out having little to no respect from the boys, who play practical jokes on him, but who slowly grows into a much-beloved teacher, all the way through the turn of the century and into the rough years of World War I London. For those looking for a bit more substance or depth to their films, you might want to give Goodbye, Mr. Chips a pass; aside from one or two events that can fairly clearly be placed in the negative column, this is all about how swell a guy Mr. Chips is and how everyone likes him, which while I wouldn’t normally have a problem with given how many of the other kind of film I’ve had to sit through, essentially means that this film has zero conflict, and as any screenwriting (or, presumably, writing) book will tell you, conflict is what makes drama, and with no drama, you have no narrative, and with no narrative, you have no story. As for Donat, who won Best Actor over the likes of Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind and James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I can kinda see why the Academy picked Donat, even if I don’t personally agree; the makeup and styling alone that cover Donat’s Chipping in all his adult ages probably would’ve won it for him, but it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if Donat weren’t able to sell the character no matter what age he is on the screen, and Donat does that with room to spare.

I can see why people like this film; it’s all about how likable the main character is, and how because he’s a good a guy as he is, people will stand up for him even through what might be construed as the rougher patches of his life. Basically, it’s a wish fulfillment, especially in today’s day and age where such people are nigh-impossible to come by, and even less so when the people we’re looking at that we wish were up to that standard are ourselves. But, the thing is; it doesn’t make for a film that is all that honestly worth watching. Even if we take an expanded definition of conflict, to not mean two opposing forces butting heads but instead to merely be the struggles the protagonist must overcome to achieve a goal of some sort, Goodbye, Mr. Chips fails in that regard as well; Mr. Chipping doesn’t have any goals to achieve in this, aside from the persistence of being a good teacher, and if there were goals for him to achieve, which I won’t spoil for whatever reason, there are points in the film where his character even deliberately says that such goals are flights of fancy for him at best, and even if they weren’t, they basically just happen to him anyways instead of being achieved through the overcoming of obstacles. In short, this is a film that, because it flies in the face of basic storytelling constructs and conventions, should not work at all, and it’s only thanks to actors like Donat and the production itself that this is even worth sitting through in any way. It is a feel-good of the utmost feel-goodiest kind, though, so there is that at least.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Dark Victory

Dark Victory

The great thing, Anne, is for her never to know.

Oscar has a storied history, especially in Best Picture, with films that are largely a vehicle for a single performance, especially it seems in these still-early years. To the credit of today’s film, Dark Victory, the decision was made to center it around Bette Davis, which is a decision that few of the time or even perhaps today would find too much fault with. Davis, one of my now favorite classic actresses, had just come off a Best Actress win for Jezebel, and evidently she was hungry for more, given how much she puts into her role in Dark Victory. Thankfully, everybody else involved with the film seemed to pick up on this, as they also put everything they have into making this not just a star vehicle for Davis, but a damn fine film in its own right.

Davis is Judith Traherne, a young socialite concerned with little more than living life at the absolute maximum, through parties and adventures and especially horseback riding, though her own body seems to be starting to break down from her hedonistic lifestyle, with intermittent headaches beginning to plague her. It’s when she suffers a spout of double vision and takes a tumble off her horse that her friends, especially her closest friend Ann, are convinced there’s something more wrong with her, even as Judith refuses to see it for herself. The family doctor brings in Dr. Frederick Steele, a specialist in the brain, who breaks through Judith’s hardened facade and manages a diagnosis. It’s only after surgery that things become even more complicated, both romantically between Judith and Dr. Steele, as well as medically when the prognosis of Judith’s condition post-operation becomes known. It was quite the pleasant surprise to find that the film, especially with Davis doing her thing, was up to the challenge of matching her skill level; while Davis is still by and large the best thing Dark Victory has going for it, the film is elevated through everyone else trying and largely succeeding at matching her. The plot is rather simple, when one stops to think about it, but that the film manages to make as much of it that it does without overstepping into melodrama or cramming in needless side narratives is to be congratulated. That’s not to say that the film isn’t a little melodramatic, given the story of course, but it works, mostly thanks to the cast really managing to sell it instead of cranking it up to eleven. The narrative itself is also perfectly structured, making the most of whatever shortness the story inherently has; there’s an excellent section in the middle of the film, for instance, where Judith has been told her surgery was a success, despite Dr. Steele admitting to Ann that the reality is almost precisely the opposite, and Judith goes about living her life anew while the people around her, namely Ann and Dr. Steele, are forced to wear a smile and act as if nothing is wrong. The one aspect of the story I unfortunately wasn’t too much a fan of was Humphrey Bogart’s role; while I saw what the film was trying to do with including him, I also saw that the film was basically married to the idea of including him despite the fact that he isn’t given much to do in the narrative, which given that it’s Humphrey Bogart playing him makes it that much more saddening.

Even with everything that this gets right, and it gets quite a bit right, I still couldn’t help but feel that if it weren’t for the presence of Bette Davis, this wouldn’t have gotten the nom for Best Picture. It is clearly her star power that got this noticed, and I suspect that it is almost entirely because of her star power that this managed a nom for the big one. And really, if that’s the case, that’s a shame, because there’s a sophistication about this one and how it discloses its narrative that frankly a lot of other films that wrangled a Best Picture nom in the past (and future) could look toward and learn from. I got distinct vibes of 1931’s Bad Girl; this doesn’t have much in terms of story, but what it does have is delivered beautifully, with nary a semblance of camp or putting on airs because Hollywood movies were expected to do that. In short, this impressed the hell out of me, and it wasn’t just because of Bette Davis that it did (though it goes without saying that she is excellent in the role regardless). If it was released in another year, I could see this making a heck of a push for a potential win for Best Picture, but given when it was released, it’ll have to settle for being a part of the best year in Hollywood history, and seeing how good a film it actually is, that’s not a bad thing to settle for.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men

Go on, George. Tell how it’s gonna be.

Everybody and anybody who’s gone through the American school system knows Of Mice and Men, the novella by John Steinbeck. A staple of the literature curriculum, as well as one of the most challenged and censored books of the same, you pretty much couldn’t get through middle or high school without having read it. For me, that was some time ago, so when it came time to sit down and watch the original film adaptation of the book, I went into it pretty much with a clear head and few expectations. Directed by Lewis Milestone, and starring a young Burgess Meredith alongside Lon Chaney, Jr., this finally managed to snap the streak of extremely poor literary adaptations that have plagued me since I started the Best Picture odyssey; not only was this watchable, it was pretty damn effective to boot.

Burgess Meredith is George Milton, the ‘straight guy’ to Lon Chaney, Jr’s mentally-challenged lug of a man, Lennie Small. Making their way around the landscape and hopping from job to job, the two look out for each other, though this mostly takes the form of George looking out for Lennie, as Lennie has an unfortunate habit of unintentionally getting into serious trouble where and when the men find work. Eventually, they wind up on a ranch in California, overseen by the sadistically cranky Curley, who buts heads with anyone who so much as looks at his neglected wife Mae, and who immediately takes a disliking to the much-larger-than-him Lennie. Now its only a matter of time before one of two things happens; George can manage to keep Lennie sedate and reeled in enough to where the two men can finally save enough money to fulfill their dream of owning their own ranch, or George cannot, and Lennie can somehow manage to get them run off yet another place of work, or perhaps something even worse. The print I saw of this one was unfortunately quite weathered, so I can’t say too much about the production aspects of this one, which seemed fairly standard either way. What I can talk about, or at least mention, are the creative aspects, which much to my surprise were quite exceptional, from the musical score to the writing. Especially so are the two leads; Burgess Meredith knows enough about the character he’s playing to keep George on the level enough to get the audience behind him, and Lon Chaney, Jr. is absolutely a consistent scene-stealer as the simple-minded Lennie. That the two men are as good as they are is probably why the film, and especially the ending, is as effective as it is.

This took me longer than I would’ve liked to get to, and admittedly it is likely because the film is based on literature and thus I was very nervous that I’d be extremely bored through it, especially because it has been well over a decade since I’ve even thought about let alone read the original novella in school. Thankfully, this managed to assuage most if not all of my doubts and hesitations; this is absolutely one of the better literary adaptations I’ve had to watch for this Best Picture odyssey so far. I don’t know if I would say it was good enough to get me fully back on the wagon of moviewatching that I seem to be fighting to stay on, but it was definitely a nice refresher of a picture, and a reminder that even among the non-1001 movies scattered across Best Picture, there can still be some pretty worthwhile viewings to be had.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10