The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator

In the name of democracy, let us all unite!

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

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

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

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

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The Letter

The Letter

Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years… and not know the first thing about her.

I knew almost nothing about The Letter before I started it; all I knew was that it starred Bette Davis, and the genre meant it was likely to be a nice change of pace from all the straight melodramas I’d watched in the last few nominees. Well, I started it, eager to see another Bette Davis film… Then the opening happened, and if you’ll excuse the vernacular, it slapped me upside my fucking skull. From there, I was glued to the screen; I had to know what this whole thing was about. Well, from there, the film settled down a good deal, but it was still a damn good drama, and when you field a damn good drama from director William Wyler with an equally good performance from Bette Davis, you’re gonna get some plaudits from me.

There’s no sense going about a plot summary without talking about the opening, so let’s have at it. We open on a plantation in Malaysia, as the workers all set to go to sleep after a day’s work… when a shot rings out from the main house. And another. The workers all turn and get up, only to see a man stumble out of the front door, followed by Bette Davis, who holds a gun up to the man and fires again, emptying the revolver into his body as he flops to the ground. The man is Mr. Hammond, a well-regarded member of the British settlement nearby, and Davis is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of the plantation owner, and she soon admits to the man’s murder as self-defense when Hammond forced himself on her. Mr. Crosbie and defense attorney Howard Joyce seem ready to prove Mrs. Crosbie’s story in the inevitable trial to come, that is until it becomes known to Joyce that a portion of Leslie’s story of what occurred that night is not actually viable; a letter is discovered that not only proves Leslie’s assertion that Hammond and her had not seen or spoken to each other in some months is untrue, but threatens to paint the entire case in a much different light. Let’s start with the film’s elephant: This would seem to be a role that was written and embroidered for Bette Davis, and she handles such a gift as only she could. The only qualm I had with it was that it wasn’t an all-encompassing performance mostly due to the fact that Davis isn’t on the screen for virtually the entire running time; there are points where she is absent, and you notice that she is, but it would seem to be a necessity with how Wyler sets up all the characters as players, including James Stephenson as her lawyer as well as a very strange but effective turn from Gale Sondergaard as the Eurasian widow of the man Davis kills in the opener. I’ll give William Wyler some kudos as well, mostly for actually playing with light and shadow as well as some effective camera moves when he didn’t really have to, so there’s that as well.

I was surprised a heck of a lot by The Letter, and just as entertained by the whole ordeal to boot. The opening scene is iconic, and the rest of the film threatens to come down a little too far from where the film starts out at, but for me, it didn’t cross that particular line, mostly thanks to the good work with camera and production value from Wyler; plus, you have a killer performance from Bette Davis (ha; see what I did there?) to throw on the pile as well. Add to it that the film barely crosses the 90-minute mark, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome in the slightest, and you have a pretty good winner on your hands in my book. I’m not fully convinced it really did enough to see a Best Picture nomination through to a possible win, but that the Academy decided to put it there is more than a nice gesture, especially considering some of the other films the Oscars had to offer that year (and other years).

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Kitty Foyle

Kitty Foyle

We’ll always be alone… as long as we’re together.

The name Ginger Rogers strikes up a lot of feelings in a lot of classic movie lovers, myself included. For most, they think of the string of films she made with Fred Astaire, and how beloved a movie pairing the two were as they danced and fell in love over and over… For me, I remember them dancing of course, but that was about it; I’ve made no secret that the pairing of Astaire/Rogers didn’t have quite the magic feel to me that it did for a large chunk of moviegoers, past and present. 1937’s Stage Door did a little bit to improve the standing of Rogers in my head, but aside from a supporting turn in that film, I didn’t have any real experience with Rogers as a solo act. Now, there’s Kitty Foyle, which not only clearly starred Rogers, but had her front and center for virtually the entire film. Now, having seen it, I appreciate Rogers a lot more than I used to; I don’t know if I can say I’m a fan of her proper now, but there’s a lot more to her than just being the prime piece of arm candy that Fred Astaire toted around.

Rogers is the titular Kitty Foyle, a young to-do girl from Philadelphia looking to make her way in the world with the typical stars in her eyes while she does so. In this case, those stars happen to eventually land on Wyn Strafford, a well-off inheritor who just as quickly falls for Kitty as she does him. Only problem is that she, as they put it, lives on the wrong street from Wyn, meaning that Wyn would be marrying below his social status if he were to take Kitty as his bride, and the will-they-or-won’t-they of Wyn and Kitty is complicated further when she moves to New York and ends up roped into a date or two with Mark, a doctor and another would-be groom. As much as it would seem to lower the state of Kitty Foyle the film by saying there’s really not much more to it than the love triangle at its center, there really isn’t; that and the characterization of Kitty by Ginger Rogers are really the only two reasons to watch this, and seeing as how this was made after the Hays Code, there’s very little suspense as to how the love triangle will turn out, especially given some of the other aspects and turns of the plot I haven’t outlined. So, that leaves us with Rogers, who actually does quite a good job in making Kitty headstrong and willful, while still keeping her eyes filled with stars, so to speak. Besides Rogers, director Sam Wood got an Oscar nomination for Best Director for this film, and I can imagine he wrangled that nom for how he staged the recurring framing device of the film, which worked well enough even if it was a tad relentless with how recurring it was. Still, it seemed like Wood hadn’t really done enough to see his nomination through to a win, which he didn’t, and I agree with the Academy in this particular case.

Rogers ended up winning the Oscar for Best Actress for this film, and while I’m not ranking the acting nominations as of yet, I can see why they went with her (though I can’t say for certain until I’ve seen the other nominees for this year; Bette Davis is in this particular race, after all); she does a good enough job, and pretty much handles the entire film by herself, so the Academy felt it fitting to gift her some gold for it, and I won’t hang them up too high for doing so. This was also, however, nominated for Best Picture, and while I enjoyed the film even despite it having so few real selling points, I can’t really say that this Best Picture nomination came about for any reason other than the Academy couldn’t seem to find enough nominees to fill out the roster. Kitty Foyle works, largely because of Rogers, but it doesn’t do enough to be called the best picture of its year, though I will say that even despite my not getting to the film for a little while, I got through the viewing of it with very little problem or apprehension once I started it, so there’s a bit of a good note to end this on.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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

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