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

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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

Love Affair

Love Affair

We’re heading into a rough sea, Michel.

So, after my excursion back into modern cinema for some time, I was hesitant to delve back into classic cinema, to say the least; mostly, I was afraid that I would be bored by the different sensibility and style of moviemaking once I had become accustomed to films of the modern era once more. What didn’t help was that I technically had only four films from 1939’s Best Pictures to see for the first time, and I was also nervous that they would end up being the four lesser of the flock, fit only to survive a viewing through and little more, and thus I wasn’t sure which of the four would be a good point to get back into the classical style of films at all. Pretty much at random, I ended up on Love Affair, a Leo McCarey film that would be known more for its being remade into An Affair to Remember by McCarey himself. I can’t be certain whether or not this was a good jumping-back-into point, not without having seen the other three films I still need to see from this category, but for what it’s worth, I feel pretty good about starting my Best Picture odyssey back up with how this one went down with me.

Michel Marnet is a Frenchman on a cruise liner set for America; a well-known figure, he is currently engaged to an heiress and enjoys a lot of popularity on the ship. Through happenstance, he has a number of encounters with an American woman, Terry McKay, who is also engaged and on her way to New York to meet with her husband-to-be. Despite his notoriety and both of their engagements, they find themselves drawn to one another, and when the ship finally docks in New York, they make a promise: in six months, if they both want their brief affair to continue, they will meet at the top of the Empire State building and be together forever. Naturally, the path to the top of the tower is not as simple as they both might secretly wish it was, or there wouldn’t be a film or narrative otherwise. It seems a simple concoction for a good and complex enough Hollywood film of the era, and it seems McCarey knows this, and especially how to make good of the material; the film, especially in the beginning section aboard the cruise ship, swims with emotion, so much that it almost makes it impossible for the two leads not to be drawn together. Really, there’s almost too much that’s done very well with this film; the humor, always in the right spots, is effective, as is the writing, the performances, and heck, even the few musical numbers that do appear seem just as fit for the picture as everything else.

Remakes and their earlier versions can be a tricky tightrope to cross, especially when one tries to consider the value of each film in its own right. An Affair to Remember, for instance, in addition to making the 1001 list, is regarded as one of the most romantic films ever made; this did not make the list, and indeed I had not given it much consideration aside from its being nominated for Best Picture in the greatest year of Hollywood. Well, after seeing this one now, I definitely can say that, even with its much more well-known and regarded remake, this is absolutely still worth the watch, should one be inclined to see it. There’s not all that much to the film, which is probably why it’s not getting a higher rating from me, but for what it does do, it does wonderfully, and indeed it’s rare for me to finish a film and not be able to think of much of anything that would make it better or that I would do differently. That’s not to say that this is a perfect film, but it’s absolutely a very good one, and one that’s worth the brief hour-and-a-half it takes to see it.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Boys Town

Boys Town

There’s no such thing as a bad boy, I’m sure of that.

Director Norman Taurog seems to have an affinity for working with young casts in his films; first he wins Best Director and is up for Best Picture with Skippy, and now he’s up for both awards once again with Boys Town, a film headed by Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney in as best a manner as they can. Now, knowing what Taurog had to accomplish to get the performances he needed in Skippy, I hesitate to give him too much credit for what does work in Boys Town, since I’m unaware of what he had to do to make it work. Most of it, I suspect, is due to Tracy and Rooney basically being Tracy and Rooney, especially since the rest of the film seemed to be so manipulative in getting you to feel just what it wants you to feel, but, like I implied, Boys Town does ultimately work. If only just.

Spencer Tracy is Father Flanagan, who finds a new life purpose call to him after he receives a confession from an inmate on death row. Troubled by the poor state of the reformatory in town for young delinquents, he elects to start his own, founded on proper principles and the notion that no boy is a bad boy if given the chance. His idea quickly expands to become Boys Town, a small autonomous town built, run, and governed by the formerly-delinquent boys who come to live in it. Enter Whitey Marsh, who is sent to Boys Town by his convict brother Joe so Whitey will hopefully not end up like him, despite Whitey’s general purpose seeming to be exactly like his brother. Now it’s up to Father Flanagan and the boys of Boys Town to make sure Whitey ends up on the straight path, especially in the face of Joe’s escape from custody. I do kinda wish I had more to say about Boys Town other than ‘it’s fairly good, if you’re interested in seeing it’, but that pretty much sums up Boys Town. The only other comments I had towards the film were for the music, which was particularly on-the-nose 100% of the time (which grew kinda annoying as the film went on), and for Rooney, whose acting style consisted of mugging as much as possible for the other players, but it added the necessary amount of energy to the film where it otherwise would’ve stagnated, so I guess I can look past it. I’d also echo the sentiments of others in wondering exactly how Spencer Tracy ended up winning Best Actor for this, when all the role called from him was to have a warm heart, demeanor, and voice, which was something Tracy could’ve managed if he were missing all four of his limbs, but I haven’t seen all the nominees for Best Actor for 1938, so I can’t say whether or not Tracy really deserved it or if it was just a particularly weak year in the category.

Is this film really as good as to warrant five Oscar noms, of which two were wins, including Tracy, who became the first to win consecutive Best Actor Oscars? No, not really. Is it still worth a watch if you think you’d like to see it? Yeah, probably. That’s pretty much the mindset that Boys Town left me with; yeah, it’s okay, but I can’t really get myself into a twist over the film enough to really recommend it. I can’t speak for the entirety of Norman Taurog’s filmography, but that the man has no films on the 1001 list seemed to be the right call, as far as the two films of his I’ve seen have gotten me. Boys Town might be one of the good films of the 1930’s, but one of the best of the year? I’m not particularly sold on that.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Four Daughters

Four Daughters

What have I done to deserve such daughters?

Four Daughters would seem to be a part of one heck of a year for director Michael Curtiz; he wrapped up two of the five nominations for Best Director for this and Angels with Dirty Faces (and, amazingly, not for The Adventures of Robin Hood), in a feat that would cause the Academy to alter the rules for Best Director nominations for years to come (indeed, the only director to manage the same feat since the Academy’s rules were lessened in the category is Steven Soderbergh in 2000). It would seem indeed that Curtiz has the skills and the knack for presenting them to warrant his double nomination… until one actually sits down to watch Four Daughters – then it appears to be just that: seeming. This, as it has in the past, comes with one of my more common caveats: it’s not that Four Daughters is a bad film, because it technically isn’t. But, that’s the thing; the film knows that it is technically a good film, and instead of rolling with it and letting it flow a natural course, decides to take charge and show off exactly how good a film it’s been trying to be.

The titular four daughters are the Lemp sisters; Emma, Thea, Kay, and Ann, each a part of a musical family led by their father, and each with their own talent to bring to the group. Each, it would seem, also has a potential suitor in the mix, and it’s the inter-mingling of potential suitors and the potential wives that are the four daughters that forms what amounts to the plot of this film. If that doesn’t sound very interesting, I wouldn’t blame you, but for what it’s worth, Four Daughters does do an admirable job of trying to make it interesting, even for those who would otherwise not be interested. Four Daughters the film ends up being what would happen when you take a decent director, Curtiz, give him a script that could be best described as “yet another ‘blank'”, not bother to fill in that blank, and then Curtiz goes and gives you 110% into the resulting film… resulting in this film. Granted, the third act goes to some surprisingly affecting areas, mostly due to how unexpected it was compared to the first two-thirds of the film, but even with this, everything involved with the production of the film comes off as being better than what the film itself really deserved, from Curtiz to the titular four-some, and even some of the supporting players, from John Garfield to May Robson. The interplay involved in the dialogue was also another highlight, having the characters bounce off each other to a ridiculous degree, as if the script couldn’t help itself and decided to go all out with it for lack of a better way to show off its own talents.

Here’s the thing that bothered me the most about Four Daughters; it was clever, sure, but not only did it know how clever it was (or was supposed to be), it felt inclined to show off how clever it was every five seconds or so, if not through the script or dialogue then through the incessant camera moves and framing setups (I assume to show off what a skilled director Curtiz is), or certain actions of the characters, which I assumed was to fill in the spaces where the film felt that another instance of clever dialogue might be a bit too much or improperly placed. There’s a very fine line between being genuinely smart, fresh, and innovative, and trying to manufacture the concept of being smart, fresh, and innovative, and Four Daughters is so far beyond that line that it has lost sight of the line entirely. It reminded me a lot of Stage Door; way too self-indulgent in the first parts, and then inserting some darker material that is very nearly undeserved given the lead-up to it, all to get the film to the climax it ultimately wanted the whole time. I don’t know if I’d give this a recommendation, even with the general consensus of this one ending up a slight bit higher than what I ended up with, but I will say at least that it’s not an entirely unworthwhile endeavor to sit through the scant hour-and-a-half of this one, mostly thanks to everyone bringing their best to a film and a story that otherwise wouldn’t have merited the effort. I don’t know if that would count as a win, but it’s certainly not a loss.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

You Can’t Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You

That family of yours… Boy, they knock me for a loop!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a thorough history with theater. Even with this, though, I’d never seen You Can’t Take It With You, either in the theater or on the screen. It seemed to be quite popular, seeing as I found multiple high school productions of this one on YouTube, so I was expecting a smart comedy-esque picture, thick with dialogue and feel-good sensibilities, especially since this film version would be helmed by Frank Capra, the current king of feel-good sensibilities in this chronological era of Hollywood. I dunno; maybe it was because I’ve been through several Capra pictures in a row, and thus the film’s charms ended up being somewhat diluted; maybe it was because of the theatrical background of the script, that the film appeared to hit every note exactly as it should’ve, almost too exactly; or maybe it was just because the film seemed to try a little too hard, but this film… well, it was just a tad too much of whatever it was trying to do at any given time.

Tony Kirby, son of the illustrious banker Anthony Kirby, finds himself in love with one of his father’s company’s secretaries, Alice Sycamore, who unknown to Tony has quite the extensive and multifaceted family, full of quirks and eccentric talents. Also unbeknown to Tony is the fact that Alice’s family lives on the last unsold property in a 12-property block that his father needs to isolate a competing company and put them out of business. Naturally, when Tony wants to marry Alice, she insists their families should meet, and if you’ve seen any sort of comedies from basically any era of Hollywood, you know how well that’s going to end up going down. I will say, after the aimlessness of Lost Horizon, it was certainly nice to see Frank Capra back to form, though it might’ve been thanks to the theatrically-sourced screenplay. All the Capra touches of wholesomeness and Americana are here, with plenty of oddball moments with the Sycamores to make you chuckle and smile and gee-willikers aren’t they just a hoot of a family to watch. Comedy can be a really fickle beast if it isn’t handled right; what can make something genuine and funny can also, if the line is toed a little too far, end up being mildly insufferable for directly trying to be genuine and funny. You Can’t Take It With You, if it doesn’t cross that line fully, does have plenty of moments that absolutely toe that line, which means the film has unfortunately not aged as well as some of Capra’s other pictures. That being said, viewed from the perspective of an audience from 1938, it’s certainly enjoyable, probably and especially because of its theatrical background, and Capra does do a good job of translating the dialogue and event-based action of the theater to the screen. That, and the ensemble cast is excellent all around, I suspect thanks to their commitment to the material and making it work as well as they can.

This has its moments, the ones that work, but this also has plenty of those other kind of moments, the ones that make you wish they’d held off a little bit so the moment could’ve worked instead of being a tad too far. Most of the former kind comes in the resolution act of the film, as well it should, and most of the latter comes in the middle section, which means that most people will have to suffer through the middle section to get to the better portions of the ending, which is pretty much a foregone conclusion for a typical Hollywood film of this time. That You Can’t Take It With You falls into this category instead of avoiding it or transcending it, to me, doesn’t make it a Best Picture winner, or rather it shouldn’t, seeing as this did win the top prize as well as Best Director for Capra, his third in five years. This was fine, as almost all Capra pictures are, but “fine”, even a Capra fine, shouldn’t be enough to take home the big one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10