Thursday, July 31, 2008

What's the Story (Morning Glory)?

While we've got our 1933 momentum going from yesterday, I'm offering a more conspicuous plug for my 1932-33 Best Actress page, where you can read about Katharine Hepburn's first, divisive Oscar win, for Morning Glory; May Robson's late-late career flowering into stardom; even more about poor Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade; and why I think this field adds up to even less than the sum of its parts. The nomination for Robson—the earliest-born woman ever nominated for this award, having joined the world in 1858—was inevitable, given the shape of the role and the scale of Lady for a Day's financial success, but the other two nods are disheartening even by the Academy's standards: Hepburn was so much better in Little Women, which scored lots of other major nods, and the unusually long 17-month eligibility window encompassed an unusual number of top-drawer female performances. So many, in fact, that I've already proposed what I think is a delicious alternate field, I already hate having to leave out my two runners-up, and I have a bevy of highly lauded performances, some of them outright legendary, that I haven't even caught up with... which is where you come in, to tell me whose work out of 10 luscious possibilities I simply must see next. (Link fixed! Thanks, Nathaniel.)

As for the Best Picture lineup for 1932-33, for me the clear choice is 42nd Street, a watershed in the history not just of musicals and on-screen choreography but of coordinated movement more generally and of the tension between conventional pathos and formal exactitude. I love that the movie demonstrates such affinity for the geometric aesthetics of experimental and late-silent cinema, even as it carries sound pictures into new territory, and I love how it draws out the ominous aspect of mass coordination, in the figure of Warner Baxter's autocratic director, alongside the exuberance of artistry and the gratifications of emotion and pleasure. Complicated and dazzling. Second choice for me is Mervyn LeRoy's tough and good-looking I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, whose narrative twists and visual motifs only get more interesting as it finishes, and the easy pick for third place is George Cukor's mostly lovely screen version of Little Women. My enthusiasm dips notably for my fourth and fifth choices, which have opposite virtues: She Done Him Wrong yields a doozy of a star persona in Mae West's "Lou," and I appreciate how the film (by the same director as Morning Glory!) opens up the screen as a space for new kinds of saucy escape and identification...but the story and the visuals could really use a hand. Frank Capra's Lady for a Day moves along very comfortably and pulls some smart moments from actors like Warren William and Glenda Farrell, but there's little sense of taking risks or pushing boundaries, and as I've said a few times, the film doesn't invest what it could or should in Robson's ostensible lead.

He Done Them Wrong, aka The Private Life of Henry VIII, doesn't break much new ground, either. The whole thing is bitty and skimmy, with a final scene that makes the whole seem even more inconsequential, but Laughton plumbs quite a lot from the role, at least or especially given these circumstances, and Binnie Barnes and Elsa Lanchester do some good work. Plus, a film that offs Merle Oberon this early can't be all bad. Nearing the bottom of this list, Smilin' Through is fanciful and has an engaging fairy-tale look, though I doubt even the filmmakers themselves thought they had made something very consequential. Same for State Fair, which has the well-judged production design one expects from Henry King, but aside from a memorable Best Pickles competition, I couldn't think of any reason to commemorate its remarkable refusal to say anything or amount to much. Cavalcade, the winner, brings up the rear of the list for reasons that have been well-covered, and if I'm skipping over Frank Borzage's A Farewell to Arms, it's because I haven't seen it in entirely too long. In my dim memory, it looked good enough and moved well, and Helen Hayes was affecting enough to land this somewhere at or above She Done Him Wrong/Lady for a Day territory, but I really don't trust myself to know. Any thoughts?

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Blogger Dame James said...

I actually prefer The Gold Diggers of 1933 to 42nd Street. They both have amazing, immaculately choreographed, but I think the story in Gold Diggers is 100 times more interesting and the cattiness between the women is always hilarious (then again, I'm always a sucker for bitchy women).

My 1932-33 Best Actress Picks:
Joan Blondell, The Gold Diggers of 1933
Greta Garbo, Queen Christina
Miriam Hopkins, Trouble in Paradise

11:18 PM, July 31, 2008  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I'm a firm Garbo fan, as you may or may not know.

So my obvious choice for the winner here is Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. Anybody who decides to play a Queen of any kind should take a look at this performance, please.

Otherwise; two of your personal ballot round out my own, Hepburn and Stanwyck is two damn great performances at the birth of their careers.

2:30 AM, August 01, 2008  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

I marvel at the sheer amount of films you've seen Nick, never mind your analysis. Lol.

It's difficult to get Morning Glory on DVD here so have yet to see that. If it's similar to her Bringing Up Baby turn, even if it's a younger, less-polished version as you suggest, it should be worth a watch.

Love 42nd Street! Every time that tune comes on I start tapping my feet. It's addictive! Interesting that you should prefer Daniels. I'd probably go for Ruby Keeler's growing, endearing performance as my favourite of the entire year -- without having seen that much admittedly. It impressed me that her performance, modest and cutesy within such a theatrical showcase, has the lasting impression that it does. Hepburn is good in Little Women and comes a close 2nd, although I do find every version of the story a bit of a chore to sit through.

Laughton is good in Henry VIII but I agree with you about the film. I can imagine it coming across better at the time though. It rather feels now as if someone's copied and pasted the main events of a history book and used it as a script. A very plain and by-the-by overview. Incredibly stagy too.

6:25 AM, August 01, 2008  

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