Blossoms in the Dust

Blossoms in the Dust

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

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

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

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

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

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One Foot in Heaven

One Foot in Heaven

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

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

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

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

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

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

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann

I just don’t know if you’re always doing as well as you say you are.

I dunno; maybe I’m just a touch too cynical a person. I looked at the poster up there, with all the quotes all over it proclaiming that this would be a laugh riot, hilarious and moving as well, and so I went into the film expecting it to be… a laugh riot, hilarious and moving as well. Again, this is the cynic in me talking, but: I guess I should be shamed for going into a film expecting it to be what it says on the tin. I believe I only laughed once during the nearly three hour running time of Toni Erdmann, and thanks to my ability to infer everything this film was going to try and do with its story and characters once I’d gotten used to them, which took about fifteen minutes, the film became a nearly-three-hour exercise in seeing a film perfectly play out exactly as I’d inferred it would. Add to it that the film was trying to derive basically all of its humor from awkwardness and uncomfortable situations, a la Bridesmaids, and I was none too pleased to be forced to sit through this one.

Winfried Conradi is a retired music teacher with little to do, as well as a humor streak within him the length of his arm, which he exercises by pulling pranks and jokes on basically everyone who comes into contact with him. This includes his businesswoman daughter, Ines, who takes her life as seriously as you’d expect a business contractor to a major oil company would do, and thus her father’s constant joking when he’s around her is an incessant source of discomfort. When he surprises her by showing up at one of her assignments in Bucharest, their natural butting-heads comes to a small breaking point, and he leaves her apartment to head home. A few nights later, with Ines at a bar with her friends, in enters Toni Erdmann, with scraggy black hair and the weirdest set of teeth the women have ever seen; they and the hair are fake, of course, because the man is clearly Winfried, who seems intent on interrupting his daughter’s life to inject a little spontaneity and humor in whatever way Ines would least prefer him to do so. It’s after a few meetings that Ines realizes her father isn’t going to stop, and so she begins to play along and challenge his authenticity to the pseudo-role. I kinda wish there was more to talk about with Toni Erdmann than just the story and characters, but there really isn’t, since most of what I would otherwise talk about was minimal and basic in every regard. So, with that said, the two main characters of the film are well fleshed out in their own right, and the film does reach a humane moment in the end that feels earned, if only because the film spends so much time getting there. But, with the film being marketed as quite possibly the funniest films of the year, I couldn’t help but feel let down at how little amusement I got from the film. I even use the word amusement instead of laughs to try and broaden the category a tad, since the film’s actual content consists largely of the uncomfortable tete-a-tete between Ines and Winfried (often in his Erdmann persona), but even then, there was little amusement for me, mostly because I was able to infer what the film wanted me to get before it even began trying to get me there, as I said in the opener. Maybe I was a little too struck down by films like Bridesmaids that I can’t even enjoy a modestly-awkward film like this one, I don’t know.

I pretty much feel like I have to apologize to basically the rest of the cinematic community for how I ended up on this one, which makes me feel more than a little indignant. Everyone who’s anyone in the critical community loved this to high heaven, and I’m sitting here after sitting through the film, going: yeah, it’s got a nice moment at the end, with a nice lesson to impart, but was it really worth it? Was it really worth everything the film puts on the screen and goes through? Really? The fact that I ended up with that opinion of the film at all suggests to me that; no, it really isn’t, and that I feel like it’s being required of me to love this more than I do makes me really, really frustrated. Again, maybe I’m just more cynical than the average person. I actually felt pretty solid about tackling the running time of this one when I went into it today, and that I’ve come out of it on the other end feeling the way I feel… I just really don’t want to feel this way. I tried with Toni Erdmann, and maybe it’s that I’m not ending up with everyone else about it that’s making me the most frustrated of all.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

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

The Citadel

The Citadel

Thank God… I’m a doctor!

So, I was a bit hesitant to dive into The Citadel, to say the least; it’s based on another supposed classic novel, and proudly announces this by having the film’s title represented on the cover of a large book on several of the film’s posters, and seeing how well “classic” literary adaptations have gone over with me so far on this Best Picture odyssey, it really shouldn’t surprise me too much that I’ve been putting this one off as much as I have. Well, having finished it now, it wasn’t necessarily worth me putting it off the way I did, but neither is it really worth going out of your way to see. All in all, it has its positive qualities, but unfortunately it shares a few negative ones with prior literary Best Picture nominees, and even with King Vidor as director, it doesn’t manage to escape from under these influences.

The Citadel is the story of Andrew Manson, a newly minted doctor who is granted a position as an apprentice to a doctor in a Welsh mining town, where he quickly becomes interested in the recurring cough plaguing the miners for years and tries to use his idealism to solve the problem. The miners, however, take offense to Manson’s refusal to capitulate to them by not giving them the near-placebo medicines they want, and end up trashing the lab Manson had set up to try and figure out how to combat the illness. His idealism shattered, he moves to London and falls in with the crowd of doctors he had been trying his whole career not to be, until a tragedy comes to affect him and hopefully set him back on the proper course. I think the best way to look at The Citadel is to see what the film’s selling points are, and how well they hold up. First off is the star Robert Donat, who was nominated for this role (and, largely, I suspect solely for the closing speech his character gives at the end of the film), and who does an admirable job of, well, being admirable and charming, but it works, especially given the British setting of the film. Second is King Vidor and his steady hand at much of the proceedings of the film, and though I’ve definitely seen better work from Vidor, I still appreciated his managing to take another semi-obscure (for the modern era) literary source and make something salvageable from it. So, why does it seem that I’m so tepid in regards to trying to come up with things to praise about the film? Well, because I am; this film, even though it wasn’t technically bad, still managed to fall under the class of “nothing films” that plague the nomination fields of Best Picture from this era. There was no point to sit down and watch this for, other than it got nominated for Best Picture, and again, while it wasn’t really poor, there was nothing at all to make it stand out and get one to say ‘Wow, am I glad I saw that movie’.

It’s the literary source, I suspect, that is where most of the problems with this film really lie. The Citadel comes across as some kind of strange mix of parts of Anthony Adverse, with the literary sources and focus on the main character as he tries to live his life, and Arrowsmith, with the film’s narrative focusing on the medical field and the main character’s desire to right the wrongs he finds present in the field as such. It’s thus a bit of a surprise that The Citadel manages to be better than both of those two films, if only slightly, but still, the weight of the source material’s shortcomings seemed, to me, to be too much for Donat, Vidor, and the film itself to overcome, try as they might. This is unfortunately just another box to be checked off the checklist, and it saddens me to put it that way, for all the film’s effort to actually be fairly good. Oh well; moving on, then.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

In Old Chicago

In Old Chicago

We O’Learys are a strange tribe…

It seems a running theme among these early Best Picture nominees is films that pretty much try and copy the critical or commercial success of an earlier nominee by very nearly ripping off from the earlier nominee, if only in idea at the least. Case in point: In Old Chicago, a fictional account of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and a film that almost surely wouldn’t exist were it not for the success of the prior year’s nominee San Francisco, of which this tries to be the newer version of. Not only that, this pretty much tries everything it can to be the quintessential picture, including just about everything a film of this era seemed to think it either needs or wants in order to be successful and popular. If that’s all it takes to automatically win accolades, then I guess I can’t blame the producers and filmmakers for doing so. But I can still call the film out for what it is; derivative and pandering in almost every way.

For those who don’t know about the Great Fire, it was allegedly started by a cow, owned by a Mrs. O’Leary, knocking over a lantern. I bring this up as probably the only historically accurate thing in the film, which is otherwise entirely fictional. In the film, the O’Learys arrive in Chicago without the father, who was killed during the trip, but they quickly recover and become a notable family in the city’s rougher area, known as the Patch. In particular, the two eldest O’Leary sons, Dion and Jack, respectively come to operate a saloon in the Patch and become a reform lawyer for the city. When Jack goes on to run for mayor, this brings him in conflict with Dion, when Jack wishes to reform the city by wiping out the crime-ridden Patch, including Dion’s power-hold in the area, and everything comes to a head, of course, when the fire breaks out and more pressing matters arise. I’ll say this first off; this tries to cash in on the success of San Francisco, and while the fire segment of the film is certainly a spectacle (like San Francisco’s earthquake sequence), everything else the film tries to copy its predecessor for, it does in much lesser quality, mostly because the film knows that it’s following up a previous film, and doesn’t even try to be a better film because of it. I really wish there was more to say about the film than that, but that basically sums up the entire thing: it’s like San Francisco, but not as well done, and it is so because it intentionally tries to do everything that previous film did and no more than that.

There’s some other weirdness in this one, especially with how Dion O’Leary is shown to woo his love interest in the first section of the film, which I had some problems with, but really, this is an unnecessary and redundant film made even more so by the film not being better than its spiritual predecessor in any way. I’ll give it a point for matching San Fran in its disaster sequence, if only barely, but that’d be it. I imagine this won’t get too high on my nominee ranking, and it really shouldn’t, unless the remaining films from this year are absolutely god-awful, and at this point, I can only hope that they’re not. Anyway, moving on.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10