Battleground

Battleground

Don’t ever let anybody tell you you were a sucker to fight in the war against fascism.

Seeing as this is still the very-near post-WWII years, war films are certainly not going away anytime soon. I’d previously had to sit through Twelve O’Clock High for this year, and I’d lamented how realistic it was at the expense of things like entertainment. Well, it looks like I’m eating my words a little sooner than I’d have cared for. Battleground is the other war film in the nominees this year, and while Twelve O’Clock High got by with being a much more documentary-style telling of a portion of the war effort, Battleground swings wholly in the other direction with a war tale told as campy as it possibly can be.

In terms of true events, Battleground is the story of the weary survivors of the siege of Bastogne in Belgium, part of the overarching Battle of the Bulge; specifically, how the men at Bastogne held out in a war of attrition against all German opposing efforts to make sure the Krauts didn’t lock up the coast at Antwerp to deny the Allies the offensive they wanted. In movie-form, Battleground is the story of the 101st Airborne Division members who wind up as infantry at Bastogne, and how they specifically get by during the siege. This would seem to be a harrowing and fraught tale ripe for cinematic adaptation (and only half a decade after the real events took place to boot), but this is Hollywood, and it seems even they can’t resist making this into a smarmy, slap-happy show piece to fit in with all the other such films it produces each year. The opening few minutes, for instance, features a regiment of men not so much marching drills as choreographed march-dances while a handful of them and others watching play off dialogue like they are very much actors very much playing instead of men at war. Literally every aspect of this film is a caricature of what it should be; all the dialogue and staging has so much of that fake, sing-songy, stagey quality to it that it became impossible to suspend disbelief to care about anything that was happening or might happen. Every character is either identical to all the others or only distinguishable by a single notable characteristic; the one constantly clicking his dentures, the one mixing his eggs in his helmet while they patrol, the one with a Southern dialect and accent so strong no reasonable moviegoer in any timeframe could plausibly believe he was an actual real person and not a song-and-dance man. Admittedly, the musical high-and-flighty mood does eventually grow more dour as the film goes on and the boys’ situation gets worse and worse, but by then the film is so committed to its snarky, wisecrack dialogue that it doesn’t feel like the film’s intention with this change of mood comes across in any way. At least the production itself is actually pretty thorough, and it’s rare to see a war film of this type spend so much time in the dead of winter, with the weather directly having a toll on the characters as well, so I appreciated that at least.

I’m actually a little disgruntled thinking about this film. If this is actually the style and type of Hollywood film I’ve been watching up to now, and I’ve been enjoying it this whole time… what changed about this, then? Or is this the aberration, the mainstream Hollywood-style flick that Best Picture has thankfully been largely free of until this year? I’m hoping it’s the latter, because I really don’t know what would have been different today during my watch of Battleground if it is indeed the former. If this is also an indicator of how potential future nominees like this are going to worm their way into this field, I’m not looking forward to it. In fairness, I’m probably making this film seem worse than it really is, but there were just so many moments during this that I actually cringed or rolled my eyes that it became a chore to make it through to the end instead of a surprise find or enjoyable experience. Battleground will probably strike a chord with a good number of moviegoers; it did somehow end up the year’s second-highest-grossing film, after all. I just can’t count myself among that particular crowd.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

A Letter to Three Wives

A Letter to Three Wives

Addie Ross never saw the day she could spoil my day.

Many Oscar stats geeks like myself know of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s back-to-back Best Director wins; what I didn’t know until now was that he also won back-to-back Screenplay awards for the same two films as well, and that he is the only one to ever do this. Of course, film fans are well aware of what a classic All About Eve is, but considering the uniqueness of his accomplishment, one should not discount the other film in this back-to-back double-whammy. I had to admit that I did not think too much of A Letter to Three Wives before I saw it, knowing it only as the other film in Mankiewicz’s Director sweep. Having seen it now, I can see why it won the awards it did, and I was more than surprised with how entertaining the film was overall.

The premise is one of those ingenious elevator-pitch premises that’s so self-contained and instantly intriguing that it’s a wonder it hadn’t been thought of and made into a film before this one. Three young wives (Deborah, Rita, and Lora Mae) are good friends with each other in a small suburban town, as are their husbands, and all frequently go out together as a group to various functions and parties. One function the ladies are doing alone is as chaperones to a group of children as they take a boat ride and riverside picnic. Moments before the boat leaves, a messenger arrives with a letter to the three, from local socialite and golden girl Addie Ross, who says that she is not only moving away from the town, but that she is also running away with one of the husbands of the three wives as well. Now stuck on their chaperone trip until the evening, the three each reflect and reminisce on their marriages and the various rocky aspects they’ve each had up to now, all in wondering which of the three will arrive home that night without a husband to greet them. I had previously bemoaned the framing device used in Twelve O’Clock High as unnecessary and gratuitous, so I’d like to start here by applauding how Letter’s use of its own framing story makes the flashbacks to each of the married lives of the three ladies that much more intriguing and thus engaging as a result. Basically, with the way the film is constructed, with its premise and the use of narrative devices, I can’t imagine any moviegoer who sits down to watch this one won’t be hooked into the film the whole way through on that alone. Thankfully, Mankiewicz is a smart enough writer to not lean entirely on the devices themselves, but also flesh out the film with natural, dry-witty dialogue and a believable set of circumstances for each marriage as to why it might have gone awry and how each of the three husbands may indeed be ‘the one’, so to speak. Incidentally, the story the film is adapted from originally featured five wives, but some trimming was done by Mankiewicz and 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck to keep the film from getting too discombobulated. The acting is also good, more believable than stand-out, though the optimism glowing from Kirk Douglas’ character does get infectious at times. Additional special shoutout to Thelma Ritter as Rita’s housemaid and friend of Lora Mae’s mother, who was a consistent scene-stealer.

Really, the only problem I had with the film was a small hang-up on one aspect of the ending; other than that, this film really didn’t do anything wrong, from the excellent casting (including the decision to make the character of Addie a more mythical figure by not having her appear on screen, instead only through voiceover) to the production design (special kudos to the set dressers and designers of Lora Mae’s family home, which sits so close to a set of railroad tracks that trains passing by rattle the whole house for almost a minute on end). Again, I can definitely see why Mankiewicz won the two Oscars he did here, and that it is only the overshadowing of the following year’s film that he’d do the same with that prevents more people appreciating this one, I think. For what is ultimately the shortest of the nominees this year (with my only having one more to get to), I feel like I got more actual enjoyment out of this than any of the others so far. It’s light, amusing, and has a dynamite premise; you can’t get much more crowd-pleasing than that, and A Letter to Three Wives still manages it.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Twelve O’Clock High

Twelve O'Clock High

How much can a man take?

Okay, now let’s see if I can keep the snowball rolling. It’s 1949, so now’s about the time we’re bound to get a handful of nominated war films about the glory of the Allies’ victory and the brave sacrifices those young boys made to ensure evil did not prevail and so on and blah blah etc. We’re not in the war anymore, so now instead of straight propaganda films, we’re going to get a trickle of nostalgic patriotism instead. Twelve O’Clock High, featuring Gregory Peck in one of his Oscar-nominated roles, somehow manages to be a quintessential nostalgic war film with only four years having passed since the end of the war itself. I can appreciate a film like this, and I can even appreciate that the Academy appreciated it, but the selection of this film for Best Picture doesn’t exactly age well with the nostalgic war films that would follow in the years to come.

It’s WWII, and the Allies are desperately trying to figure out a reliable and efficient way to undertake daylight bombing raids against Germany without their fleets getting ripped apart, and the brave men of the 918th air squadron are the primary subjects of the military’s endeavors. Well, brave may be a bit generous; the 918th is known as a “hard luck” squad, and they’re so broken down and demoralized from flying daily missions that nearly all of them have put in for sick leave. Their commanding officer, Colonel Davenport, can’t bear to see his men in their state, and one of his higher-ups and a personal friend, Brig. Gen. Frank Savage, thinks the men have such so-called hard luck because Davenport is so lenient and identifies with them too much. When Savage shows his commanding officer his theory is correct, Davenport is relieved of command, and Savage himself is given the position. It’s now up to Savage, in a deliberate attempt to not make Davenport’s mistakes, to act hard and whip the men into proper shape, so they can withstand the rigors of the job up to and past the point where Savage will be looking over them. First off, for a war film, there is decidedly little fighting or war action here; most of the film is the upkeep and training that takes place at the base in prep for the actual flying missions. I will add that the film does do well to lead up to the one actual aerial dogfighting scene near the end of the film; special mention is made in the film’s opening titles that the combat footage used is actual combat footage filmed by the Air Force and the German Luftwaffe, which is an interesting tidbit. Slight tangent aside, I bring up the lack of action to shine a light on this film’s pointed lack of what most people might come to this film looking for; so, what does this film have to bring people in to watch it? Honestly, not that much. The storytelling is rather stretched, and not very elaborate, making the film seem like one that could have a good half hour chopped from its running time to make it a little easier to get through; it’s a good 20 minutes into the film before Gregory Peck even appears on-screen, and up to then it’s difficult to know who’s who or even who we should be aware of with the film’s lack of proper character introductions. It even opens with a framing device that, by the end of the film, is rather easy to tell is extraneous and unnecessary (and not even affecting, either). The acting is okay, with Peck’s natural stern charisma providing much of his ‘character’, and the supporting players blending in so much that you can’t really tell anyone apart if they’re not directly named in whatever scene they’re in. All this, along with the total lack of a score, makes the film seem like one of those “smear of grey” films that is annoying to have to sit through and is so prevalent across Best Picture’s early years.

So, what I think the problem with Twelve O’Clock High is, is that it has its intentions not exactly in the right place. If I were to guess, I’d pose the theory that the film wants to inspire, or at the very least pay tribute to the men who actually did what the film depicts, and so the director and producers opted for a strong sense of realism in how they depicted life on these air bases. True enough, this is likely how living and working on these bases ultimately shaped up to be (for WWII), but the problem with this is that it is ultimately not that entertaining to watch. Past propaganda films knew they had to inflict emotions onto the audience to get them to support the war effort, and future war films would largely do the same to get people to feel how they needed to feel about the effort and sacrifice that went into winning the war. With Twelve O’Clock High, there is no emotion, and even a hastily contrived breakdown of one of the characters that serves as the film’s climax just doesn’t make us feel anything; this is a record of life in this job, instead of the pro-war-effort remembrance it should have been. I don’t know how many war films were released in 1949, but aside from the stark realism and production effort involved in this one, I’d be surprised if I couldn’t find at least one other war film from 1949 that wasn’t more worth the nomination, and certainly more entertaining, than this.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

All the King’s Men

All the King's Men

“…I learned somethin’.” “What?” “How to win.”

Aaaaallllright, let’s see if I can get back in this. Despite the rough past few months or so, a small part of me is still hoping that this won’t be particularly difficult to do… so let’s start with another literary adaptation! Cause those have gone so well before! Woooo! Ok, humor aside, at least the book that All the King’s Men is adapted from and shares its title with won a Pulitzer Prize, and the film won Best Picture to boot, so I’m hoping that the standard will be considerably raised enough with this that it won’t be torturous to sit through. Now, I said all that before actually getting to what All the King’s Men deals with in story and topic, that of a charismatic but moderately naive politician who rises in power as he simultaneously sheds his innocence to become just as ruthless and corrupt as those he used to fight against; truly, in today’s day and age, this film will and should likely be particularly timely and prescient, even with it being a good 70 years old. Of course, after the past decade or so, what this film hopes to impart as a worldly moral lesson comes across as rather meek and obvious in comparison, but it’s still a pretty good film regardless.

The film is told from the eyes of Jack Burden, who starts off as a reporter in a big city tasked with doing a piece on a small-town man running for a small-town treasury position named Willie Stark. Stark is said to be an honest man making a run in politics, so of course Burden is intrigued to see if this is the case, and comes back wholeheartedly believing Willie Stark is the real deal. Willie, however, loses his race after running up against the corrupt nature of politics, even at the local level, but he is proven right in the end when the concerns he was running his platform against come to pass, and in a roundabout way, he ends up as a candidate for governor (in reality, in order to split the vote and get another candidate into the office instead). Once Willie realizes the truth, and the real nature of the political machine, he throws up his hands, gets drunk, goes to one of his rallies… and delivers a blistering sermon about the truth of who he is, who his opponents are, and what they think of the people voting for them. Soon enough, he’s in office, and he has quickly learned from his unexpected success how to play the political game, and the once-stalwart advocate for truth and the everyman has become a back-dealing, dirt-smearing megalomaniac… and it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to stop him. For what I’m essentially hoping is my foray back into this odyssey, it seems I’ve opted for yet another of that type of film that blends so well together that it becomes difficult to talk about at any length. This is actually really amusing, since apparently the director and editor were having such a problem cutting this film down to a reasonable length that they gave it to an editing consultant with the instructions to take each scene, roll the footage a hundred feet from the middle in both directions, and chop off the rest, which got the film down to its release length. Such an editing hail-mary would not seem to lead to a film that is well blended together, and indeed I’m refusing to believe that further touch-ups were not done after the 110-minute cut was given back to the director, because the resulting film is cut to such detail that it hardly seems like there is any extraneous footage at all. The rest of the film is pretty standard, but good quality and entertaining; the cinematography is nothing to shout about, and the directing and performances are all solid. Even Broderick Crawford, who I was expecting to be impressed by since he won Best Actor for this, simply played a solid character, and indeed I suspect (without knowing too much of the other nominated performances) that he won for the character and not for his actual performance.

I knew that I’d wanted to come back to this with this film for 1949, even if I didn’t know when I’d actually manage to get back to this. That might’ve been a bit of a double-edged sword, though; while this is pretty good, and probably much more timely for its era than it would seem for us in today’s time, that this won Best Picture may be a poor indicator of the rest of the field, of which I’ve only seen one other previously. Then again, I should really remember that there’s been plenty of hidden gems in the past years of Oscar, and that my assumption that the quality of the overall nominations for this award will hopefully go up, albeit slowly, as the years go by, will likely hold true. Still, despite this paragraph up to this point, don’t take this as a non-recommendation for All the King’s Men; this is still a very solid picture all around, and really the only reason one might be let down by it is going into it with the expectation of being wowed by a Best Picture winner, and merely getting a pretty good film instead. This is probably what happened to me, so hopefully this review, if anything, will at least clear the tint off your glasses should you decide to try this one as well.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

There’s only one shame: failing a human being that needs you.

I should probably start this off with an admission: though it’s been quite a while since my last review, I actually watched Johnny Belinda a couple weeks ago. Normally, I try and get down a review for a film basically right after I’ve watched it, usually using notes I’ve written during my watching of it, but after I watched Johnny Belinda, I found myself with very little to actually say about it. Now, that alone isn’t the entirety of why it took me so long to get to this, but it did make the prospect of carving out some time to write down a review a rather daunting one, and I probably ended up making it much harder in my head than it really would be going at it. Timeliness aside, my statement that I had basically nothing to say about Johnny Belinda comes with its usual one of two possible disclaimers: just because I had no notes about it after I watched it does not mean that it is a bad film. Actually, I quite enjoyed it, and really the reason why my note-taking ended up empty is because the film blends all its components so well together that there’s basically no features that stand out enough to make note of. It’s just a very good film, and I should probably remind myself that that in and of itself is really all that some films need to be.

Robert Richardson, a doctor, moves to a small fishing town in eastern Canada with his secretary Stella, who is sweet on the doctor. He makes friends with most of the townsfolk, including Black MacDonald, the local flour miller, who gets most of his work accomplished with the help of his daughter Belinda, who Black has found to be deaf, mute, and dumb. Richardson, however, after interacting with Belinda a little, realizes that while she is indeed deaf, she is far from dumb, and offers to begin teaching Belinda sign language as well as other subjects. Belinda takes to her learning with zeal, impressing both Black and his housekeeping sister Aggie, who begin to treat Belinda more like a regular person, dressing her up for town visits and taking her to church. Of course, with new attention her way comes new dangers, including catching the eye of local rabble-rouser Locky McCormick, and Locky ends up forcing himself on her in a night of drunkenness, getting Belinda pregnant. The series of actions and consequences continues to build from there, as Locky marries Stella, Belinda gives birth to a boy she names Johnny, and Locky, who no one suspects is the actual father, eventually comes calling for his illegitimate child. This is apparently based on a stage play of the same name, and really, aside from the intricacies of the character-focused plot, I wouldn’t have noticed at all; it translates to the screen very well. This is also the first Hollywood film to tackle the subject of rape, which has usually been a no-go with the Hays Code, but an exception was made here, and the film handles its groundbreaking subject matter exactly the way it needs to. Almost all of the weight of the picture ends up on the shoulders of Jane Wyman, who plays Belinda, and who knocks it out of the park despite not speaking a single word. Everything else was pretty well done as well, but it was that kind of well done that never calls attention to itself, instead making way for the story and the film itself; while that means everyone on the crew has put in an excellent effort to make the film this seamless, it also leaves me with basically nothing to talk about. The story is well done and engaging, and Wyman absolutely deserved her Best Actress win, but nothing else really sticks out at me, which can make writing a review on this rather difficult (and it has).

I could try and go on to say more about Johnny Belinda, pretty much entirely in order to take up space, but there’s basically nothing more I can say. This is a very good film, with an excellent performance from Jane Wyman, and is certainly worth the watch should you decide to see it; ask me why it’s such a good film, though, and I’ll probably space out for a few seconds, before saying, “Just watch it; it’s good.” If anything, I can say that while I wouldn’t stump for this one to win Best Picture, especially against some of the films it’s up against, I’m more than pleased it’s in the field of nominees. Honestly, I kinda wish more people would actually see this, if for nothing else than to see how a classical film from Hollywood’s Golden Age can be a good, well-rounded film in spite of all the preconceptions those people might have about classical Hollywood films and the tropes and filmmaking devices they think of when they consider watching such films. Even in the 1940s, there were some films that just got it exactly right, and Johnny Belinda is a good example of just that.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Hamlet

Hamlet

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

It’s been quite a while since my last Shakespeare film. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I don’t normally take to Shakespeare very well; I’ve said it numerous times in the past, and I will likely have to say it again. One giant exception to this so far has been Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which was so engaging and brilliantly filmed that it became impossible for me to not both enjoy and appreciate it. As such, even though it would be in black-and-white as well as considerably longer in runtime, I was still looking forward to what Olivier would do with his version of Hamlet. Aside from the ubiquitous nature of the much-adapted Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet is quite possibly Shakespeare’s most venerated work, and I’ve seen it said many times over the years that Laurence Olivier is one of the best Shakespeare adaptors and actors of his generation. It puzzles me, then, to wonder why his version of Hamlet, in stark contrast to the life he breathed into his previous film, seems so cold and flat and bereft of any real depth to its facets.

The story of Hamlet, for those who don’t already know it, is a rather simple one, and falls squarely into his category of tragedies; Hamlet is the prince of Denmark, next in line to the throne after his father dies and his mother rather swiftly remarries his father’s brother Claudius. Hamlet is perturbed by his mother’s actions and his father’s death, and when some of the rooftop guardsmen come to him with claims they’ve seen the ghost of King Hamlet (the father) during their vigils, he stays the next watch with them to confirm it for himself. Sure enough, the ghost appears, and rather omnisciently tells Hamlet that he (the father) was murdered by the new king Claudius with poison, and to avenge his murder in turn. Hamlet is thus set up to first confirm that this vision of his dead father and the knowledge it has imparted are not just mere visions, and then to find a way to fulfill the task he is given; of course, the methods he uses to go about his mission have consequences of their own, which all in turn lead up to the climax of the narrative as everything is brought to light. Now, in regards to the original play, there’s a bit more to the narrative than I’ve disclosed, and I’ve done that specifically to keep to Olivier’s version of the play and to note that there are indeed differences between the two; differences that have since been argued over in the years since this film’s release, and which I basically have little stake in myself. Still, for the purists out there, this is not the unabridged Hamlet; Olivier takes a few whacks at the material with a cleaver (and a few are mighty big whacks at that) to, in his perception, get the film into a reasonable running time. He does so, sure enough, but what struck me the most about his Hamlet was how stark and lifeless everything was, which given the nature of the play as perhaps Shakespeare’s eminent tragedy, must’ve been his intention, but it seems he went a little too far with it. The black-and-white cinematography isn’t an issue itself, but the sets are all bare-stone with almost no dressing at all, and what musical score there is is often left aside in favor of the power of the speech and dialogue, which might be fine if the dialogue weren’t delivered with what I can only redundantly describe as Shakespearean flair. This is a film that plays to the balconies, both in the actors’ performances and the design of the film itself, and that Olivier as director decided to do it this way, rather than transcend the written theatrical word as Shakes put it down as he did with Henry V, seems incongruously backward and primitive.

This is a tricky one to assess overall, for one main reason (that itself has two different perceptions to it); it’s basically the perfect version of Hamlet in terms of the visual and the dialogue (excluding, of course, Olivier’s omissions). The two perceptions of that statement, though, are polar opposites: that might be exactly what certain fans of Shakespeare are looking for in film adaptations of his work, or it might be a huge letdown that the film doesn’t make more of the material than just being a theatrical play put to celluloid. In terms of how I ended up on Olivier’s Hamlet, I am squarely in the latter camp; I expected a lot out of this, and to just see Olivier and his players putting on a basic, by-the-numbers rendition of the play was a great disappointment. It’s not bad, but neither is it a stunner, and to look at the other films up for Best Picture for 1948 and realizing this managed to beat some of them for the award, I’m left more than a little perturbed. Perhaps they wanted a Shakespeare film to win Best Picture for once, perhaps they wanted to honor Olivier himself (and considering he did win Best Actor, becoming the first of only two directors to direct themselves to an acting Oscar win, they basically did anyway); whatever reason they had for picking this, it was the wrong one. I’m not sure how this holds up to other Hamlet adaptations, or even other Shakespeare films, but in terms of Best Picture, this really very much isn’t.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street

Christmas isn’t just a day… It’s a frame of mind.

Now, in terms of Christmas films, it’d be fairly difficult to find a more ubiquitous one in the Golden Age of Hollywood than this next film. Many people, myself included, know of Miracle on 34th Street as that charming little 90s film with the girl from Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda in it, but it is actually a remake; this, the original, was also a holiday classic in its day, and a multiple-Oscar-nominee to boot. Interestingly enough, despite the film set during the lead-up to Christmas and dealing with Santa Claus as an actual character, the producers insisted on releasing the film in May, as more people went to the theaters in the summer; hence why the poster up there has Edmund Gwenn’s Kringle character almost hidden in the background, since the release date meant the producers wanted to downplay the film’s holiday themes. Despite that, though, this is a holiday picture through and through, and has more than enough of the charm and magic the season is known for to warm the heart of any moviegoer.

Doris Walker, head planner of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is indignant to find the Santa Claus she hired for the parade is heavily drunk. In a fine coincidence, the matter is brought to her attention by a man who looks a lot like Santa himself, and he is switched into the parade at the last minute, doing so well he gets hired on as the Santa at Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street. After the man brings Macy’s a ton of great publicity and responses, including even sending customers to other stores for gifts, Doris becomes concerned the man might be mentally unstable, especially as he and the employee card he filled out make the insistence that he is actually the real Santa Claus. Soon enough, after an incident with the staff psychiatrist, it falls upon the court system of New York, and particularly Doris’ would-be paramour Fred Gailey (a lawyer), to prove that the man is in fact the one and only Santa Claus, lest he be found insane and committed to an asylum, against the wishes of all the people (and the children) the man has affected. First off, as iconic a Christmas film as this and its remake are, it’s easy to take for granted what a great premise this film comes up with, and thankfully, it knows how to tell the story it wants to tell, and doesn’t overstay its welcome in the process (the film being a smidge over an hour and a half). The technicals are fine enough, but this isn’t a film about the technicals; they are merely there to present the story in its most believable and engaging manner, and in that the film succeeds incredibly. It’s actually really rewarding to see a film from this era of moviemaking that’s at-once so unlike a regular film of this time and also manages to fit in with those other films as well, that Miracle comes off as pretty much exactly that; something uniquely special and magical. Much of this is the spirit the film cultivates, and that spirit is literally personified by Edmund Gwenn, who is absolutely perfect in every scene as Kris Kringle, and it’s actually an even greater joy to find that he actually won Best Supporting Actor for this; he has truly created one of the cinema’s best renditions of Santa, and that the Academy saw fit to stretch its reputation to award him for it is even more encouraging.

I might be able to see some of the criticisms some may have against this, that it can be rather hokey and perhaps unrealistic with how everything is resolved in the end… But really, such criticisms are against the point. The sentimentality and cheerful disposition with the film’s mood and especially its plot is itself exactly what Miracle on 34th Street aims for, and to hold it to standards attributed to other more “serious” pictures only shows how rigid and cold-hearted one might be themselves. This film does a heck of a lot more to embody the spirit of the holidays than so many other so-called Christmas films, and I couldn’t help but be appreciative of it for also succeeding at this endeavor. It may be a little humorous that it managed to get nominated for Best Picture, but I’m actually really thankful that it did, and it quite possibly fully deserved to be here.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Bishop’s Wife

The Bishop's Wife

What can I do for you?

It seems that themed movie pairs are the flavor of 1947’s Best Picture field; we’ve had two films about anti-Semitism, and now we have two films that both take place during and deal very much with Christmas-time. First up is The Bishop’s Wife, a cheery little film with Cary Grant front-and-center; so much so that when the box office for it ended up less than ideal, they added Grant’s name onto the title and the film’s business went up 25%. I mean, it is Cary Grant, so I can kinda understand how the film’s producers saw him as the obvious draw, but to be honest, this is still a fully capable film in its own right, almost like the powers-that-be behind it knew the film they wanted to make, and then Grant came along and got attached to the project as a bonus. One may even perhaps call it divine intervention… Well, not really, but I wanted to make a quip like that that was somewhat related to the film anyway.

Grant is the charming, affable, and ever-wise Dudley, an angel sent to Earth to answer the prayers of Bishop Henry Brougham, who wants to build a new cathedral. Dudley, however, knows what Henry really needs in his life, and begins to charm and win over basically everyone in town in order to help each of them, in ways that will hopefully come back around to help Henry, especially after Henry falls under the impression that Dudley is really there to steal his wife. I almost want to emphasize that last part a little more than I think the film intended; I was watching this for a while, having started it thinking it would be about Dudley being all-knowing in a semi-aloof sense so that Henry will eventually learn what he should really be valuing in life, and after a while I was starting to get a little confused… Was Cary Grant’s character really there just to win over Henry’s wife? A lot of time is spent with Dudley showing Henry’s wife Julia how to get more out of her life than she had been, like an inordinately large amount of time, to where I really began to wonder where the film was ultimately going with Dudley’s character. Of course, to say what happens in regards to that and the conclusion of his arc is to reveal the ending of the film, and I wouldn’t want to do that, because this is actually a pretty decent picture. What I especially liked about it was how well-crafted it was; a lot of films from the era would rather just chop a film together enough to get the story across and that be that, but The Bishop’s Wife actually cares enough to try and be more seamless with how it’s put together. It’s shot well (shout-out to Gregg Toland), it’s acted well, but more than anything, it’s incredibly endearing, to where after some time has passed, you forget you’re watching a film. I’ve said before how rare that is for a film to have that quality, and I liked this a lot more because of it.

This was one of the increasingly fewer instances of where I intend to write notes for a film while I’m watching it for this review, but after a while I’ve fallen under the spell of the picture to where when it’s over, I’ve basically written down almost nothing. If nothing else, I’m calling this a winner just because of that. I went into this kinda expecting it to not stack up as a Best Picture nominee just from the plot and how it was sold, but this was a surprising little find. Whether it really is one of the best pictures of 1947 remains to be decided upon, but if you’re a Cary Grant fan and haven’t seen this one yet for whatever reason, or if you’re looking for a nice Christmas film you may not have seen before, this is a great recommendation either way.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Crossfire

Crossfire

Hating is always the same… always senseless.

It’s kind of an amusing thought that I’d watch Crossfire right after Gentleman’s Agreement, since both deal with anti-Semitism to differing degrees. Where the latter wanted to impart a message to the audience through being a straight drama, with Crossfire we instead have basically a murder-mystery-slash-film-noir that’s using anti-Semitism as the motive behind the crime that’s been committed. Quite a bit has been said about Crossfire being technically the first ‘B-movie’ nominated for Best Picture (though the definition of the term is still kind of a hazy area), and indeed right from the get go you can tell that this is fairly distanced from the high-budget prestige pictures normally up for this award. As such, it became a little confusing both during my watch and after it when I tried to figure out why this had indeed been nominated for the big one; it’s certainly not bad, but it definitely feels like a ‘movie of the week’ instead of one of the best pictures of the year.

A man named Joseph Samuels is found beaten to death in his apartment, and police inspector Finlay quickly surmises the murderer is among a group of military officers on partial leave in the area. After informing one of their superiors, Sgt. Keeley, of his suspicions, and interviewing the men, he comes to suspect an officer named Mitchell, one of Keeley’s buddies. Both men then set out to figure out what really happened the night of the murder, from the perspective of all parties involved, until both Keeley and Finlay decide to set up a sting operation to unmask who really did it. I almost wish there were more to this than just that summary, and I embellished it a little more than I really could’ve just for that reason, but there basically isn’t; this is a whodunit that starts out with us not knowing who did it, then we find out who did it, and we watch as the police try and get their man, and the film ends. That’s that. Besides the plot, the production of the picture is actually pretty well done for a B movie; the cinematography is moody and deliberate, the acting from everyone is strong and believable, and director Edward Dmytryk knows enough to stand back and let the script and the actors do their thing, while also adding to the film through camerawork and a sense of brevity toward its length. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that, even with the level the crew brings to the film, it was in service to a picture that didn’t feel like it weighed anything; it’s absolutely a film that one can watch once and then never need to watch again. Truly, it’s a B movie, and that it is among this field of nominees, to me, says more about the potential field this year than anything else.

I can’t really say that there’s anything wrong with Crossfire, but neither is there anything to get in a stir over; this is that unassuming of a film, and it seems to know it. The dialogue is basic, there’s nothing showy about any of the technicals, there’s virtually no music until the climactic scene of the film; this knows that it’s not going to be among the A crowd, so it does its job and calls it a day. And again, that this did actually manage to get nominated for Best Picture (as well as a few other categories) seems to be just as much a surprise for the film as it is for us, and speaks a great deal toward what the Academy had to consider for 1947. I can’t really go on any further, except to repeat what I’ve already said; this isn’t a poor film, but it is absolutely one that, once you’ve seen it, you won’t ever have to see again.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Gentleman’s Agreement

Gentleman's Agreement

“What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said before?” “Maybe it hasn’t been said well enough.”

Most people, even those who are not just movie fans but Oscar fans as well, might be forgiven if they come up empty when asked what the Best Picture winner of 1947 was; it seems to be a very unremarkable year for film, and in truth, its Best Picture winner is on paper a very unremarkable film. Gentleman’s Agreement is basically a one-sentence premise that has plenty of room for exploration for a good two-hour running time, and most directors in Hollywood would have done just that and called it a day. But not Elia Kazan, and not producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck himself ran into so many problems just trying to get this picture made; other studio heads encouraged him not to so as to not “stir up trouble”, male lead Gregory Peck was told by his agent that doing the film would endanger his career, and the Hays Code enforcement was seen at the time to be very likely not to pass the film at all. Watching Gentleman’s Agreement, and knowing these facts about it, is an extremely sobering experience, one with a message that may amazingly be even more relevant today than it was back then, and that will hopefully stick in the minds of anyone who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to remember this as a Best Picture winner.

Peck stars as Phil Green, a journalist who’s just relocated to New York City to work for publisher John Minify, and Minify already has an assignment waiting for him: an expose on anti-Semitism. At first unsure of how to approach the topic, especially from a fresh perspective, Green hits upon the idea of pretending he himself is a Jew for an extended time, so as to write about the experience of anti-Semitism firsthand. It’s a novel notion at first, but the environment of 1940’s New York is not as simple a one to make such a notion easy to write about, and Green is forced to learn the hard truths about anti-Semitism he hadn’t considered when his social experiment begins to impose upon his family, and especially his burgeoning relationship with Minify’s niece, Kathy. I stated that the film is basically a one-sentence premise played with for two hours, but my expansion of the synopsis of the film should clue you in that there’s quite a bit more to this than just the bare-bones of the premise for the whole runtime. Even on the technical side, the thriftiness of regular Hollywood editing seemed to be largely absent here; the film meanders quite a bit, and I noticed more than a few shots and sequences that would’ve been left on the cutting room floor in many other films. As best I can figure, the film takes this approach to get you to be a lot more considerate with what it is discussing; the film wants you to think, instead of merely following along with the story and being entertained at a minimum. It knows it has something to say, and it knows that saying it has something to say about this is also something often said, and it knows how to say something even deeper than what’s normally said about it to make its point that much stronger. It’s demure at first, with Peck wandering streets and thinking aloud with family and coworkers before he even takes the assignment, but once the premise is started, it builds, not in a noticeable fashion; that would be far too simple. It builds and builds nonetheless, until we’re convinced we’ve gotten what Peck’s character is after, but no, the film says; you haven’t reeeeally gotten it, and by the time the final title card comes up, we’ve realized the film was right, and how well-portrayed the film is with how it gets this information and experience to us is to be as highly commended as can be. The decision to have no musical score aside from the very beginning and end helps this along greatly, making nothing impact us but what is being said and thought about, and in this I’m frankly a little stunned this didn’t win Best Adapted Screenplay with how well the film carries its dialogue (it was nominated though).

This is gonna be a hard one for me to place just right; I try to be as objective as I can be about films for my Judging Oscar segments, and as such I’ve said before that films with an important message along with just the bare bones of structure and production are very unlikely to be at the top of my ranking over films that are better made and more entertaining overall. My viewing of Gentleman’s Agreement today seems almost deliberately designed by fate to make me eat my words; this is a film all about the power of its message (though it is also well made as well), and just how strong that message is conveyed is something that’s going to be hard for me to ignore, even some 70 years after it was made. I’ll be rather frank about this, if I can; even though the film was made and released right after a world war that was basically all about exactly what this film wants us to face, Gentleman’s Agreement is a film that even the audiences of today almost need to see, perhaps even more than in 1947. It’s more than a little disheartening that that statement is as factual as it is, but that’s the world we live in; and, even after WWII and the Civil Rights movement and the anti-gay crusades and everything that’s been happening and is still happening, that this is still the world we live in just proves that films like Gentleman’s Agreement are still necessary, and still need to be made and watched. I’d like to applaud the makers of this film for doing just that and saying what they’ve said, but me just sitting back and applauding this, by itself, is not enough for someone of my privilege to do, and that that is the point of this film just makes it that much more powerful a reminder for me, and I’m hoping for others as well.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10