Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How Stupid Were My Chocolates

Head over to Mike's house for our latest three-way installment in the Best Pictures from the Outside In series, archived here and here. You won't be surprised that we get a little more into John Ford than Bubba Gump, but as always, we had a great time with our conversation, and the comment thread has already been rich and provocative.

As an extra Saturn-ring of cinephile context, Nathaniel returned to the hit factory of 1994 and put himself back in touch with his love for Pulp Fiction, Queen Margot, Heavenly Creatures, and two Nick's Flick Picks favorites, Bullets over Broadway and Vanya on 42nd Street. My 1994 retrospective page is here, but I mostly tipped to the other half of our BP dossier and got caught up on 1941. Best Picture-wise, I'd break things down this way:

1. Citizen Kane: Innovative in technique, articulate with form, juicy in narrative, acted like gangbusters, contentious among the power caste... what could be better? What more do I really need to say? A+

2. The Maltese Falcon: Never a favorite but it's grown on me tremendously, especially as the profound amorality of the narrative and the marked perversity of Sam Spade and Brigid O'Shaughnessy, to say nothing of the rogue's gallery surrounding them, have become clearer to me. The direction remains pretty cold and some plot turns can feel formulaic, but most others feel heroically unromantic and excitingly twisty, and Sydney Greenstreet is a dream of a villain. A–

3. How Green Was My Valley: Well, you know now what I think of this one. B+

4. The Little Foxes: Can be a bit overbearingly acted and staged, and Teresa Wright botches a pivotal role, but the muscle and ambition of the piece are fantastic. It's a bold thesis about what cinema can do for stage works, arranging characters along concrete sightlines and in complex formations of power and visibility, and Marshall and Collinge are superb. B+

5. Here Comes Mr. Jordan: Undistinguished in style but scripted, paced, acted, and shot with warmth, pizzazz, and improving notes of melancholy. The kind of movie you can share and enjoy with just about anybody, I'd guess. Goofy and endearing without being too screwball for some tastes. Full review here. B+

6. Sergeant York: More than a little hokum in the story and staging and in Gary Cooper's performance, but there's also plenty of meat in both, and Hawks injects enough humor and unexpected, inventive angles that the movie is less of a sell-out than I'd feared. B–

7. Hold Back the Dawn: Another Wilder-Brackett script characterized more by conceits and genre interrogations than by a truly layered or engaging story, and Mitchell Leisen struggles to get the story out from underneath the weight of the "moody" photography and the Boyer narration. But it's more interesting the second time around, and Paulette Goddard's quite good. C+

8. Blossoms in the Dust: Beautiful color photography and MGM frippery ornamenting this standard-issue biopic of a plucky and pretty moral crusader, this time Greer Garson serving the cause of American orphans and illegitimates. C+

9. One Foot in Heaven: How to be a narcissistic minister while imagining yourself to be a caretaker-provider in service of your family and the lord. Adequately acted by Fredric March and Martha Scott (she's better here than in Our Town), but a pretty gratuitous film. The opposite of memorable, and not the least bit advancing of the art or of the audience. C–

10. Suspicion: Hitchcock adrift, without a solid beginning or a coherent ending, and only indifferently managing the long bout of marital alienation in the middle. Props to the glass of milk and to the seriocomic approach to the idea that you never really know who your partner is. But Fontaine's even milkier than the drink that the oddly clunky Grant is serving her, and the whole thing is stranded between lazy executions and nervous bouts of ostentatious formalism. C–

And here's the cherry on top, even if it forces us to keep engaging with the frustrating Suspicion: if you're wondering what I think of the leading ladies of 1941, after such a long absence from this feature, here's your chance to find out... and here 's your chance to vote your own conscience!

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15 Comments:

Blogger Cal said...

I've only seen ten films from 1941 and it's a bit of a mixed bag. I detest Penny Serenade and dislike Supicion and Blossoms in the Dust, but the Stanwyck comedies are gold, and there's no beating Kane.

Looking back, it seems pretty ludicrous that Stanwyck didn't manage to win for either of her performances that year. It's obviously, as often happens, a case of making it up to Joan Fontaine for her performance in the incredibly popular BP winner from the year before. Plus it's a pretty sympathetic character.

Speaking of Fontaine: a fairly scathing write-up. Especially the goldfish remark, which I did chuckle at. It was all so blah, though I do think that the film's uncertain tone is partly to blame for her inability to extract much from the character. Garson manages to rise above the routineness of her production, and is as charming and graceful as ever, but I think her job is easier than Fontaine's because her film at least knows where it's going and fits pretty easily into the biopic/melodrama mould. That said, Fontaine isn't good, and I'd have preferred to see someone like Margaret Lockwood (who I love in The Lady Vanishes) in the role, even though Hitch had crossed the waters by that time.

12:40 PM, March 18, 2009  
Blogger Brooke Cloudbuster said...

I love your write-ups, especially of Barbara Stanwyck who is one of the truly underrated stars of the 1930's-40's.

I also love that shot of Winslet for the '08 roster. It's a pure Winslet shot, if that makes any sense. She's just gorgeous in it.

7:39 PM, March 18, 2009  
Blogger John T said...

Dorothy Comingore would be a lead in CK? I always considered her a supporting. And a terrific one-how Mary Astor won for The Great Lie when this was an option is beyond me.

And, if you know off the top of your head what yours would be, I'd be fascinated Nick, but I think Citizen Kane has the shortest performance I would have ever nominated for an Oscar. Moorehead's hard-boiled mother, barely there on-screen, I think I would have nominated in 1941. I can't think of a performance shorter than that which I would have honored as one of the five best of the year.

9:38 AM, March 19, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

so glad to see another Best Actress year covered. Agreed on Stanwyck as the best of '41 (for both performances) but I'm crazy about Bette Davis, too, that year.

also a treat to see all 10 BPs in capsule though I will admit surprise that you deem a Hitchcock the worst. That doesn't happen often (Hitchcock and the word "worst")

11:03 AM, March 19, 2009  
Blogger Dame James Henry said...

Hooray! I can't tell you how excited I was to see another Best Actress entry yesterday afternoon, especially a year as strong as 1941 (in my estimation anyways). I'm probably in the extreme minority here, but I think Greer is the best of the bunch. Not by a wide margin, mind you, but it's a clear distinction in my mind. It may seem like Garson has a simple role, but it's probably one of the most difficult of the bunch. Garson played these kind of saintly characters all throughout her career, but there was always something fresh about them. Add to that the fact that Garson got to play up the dark side of her persona in Blossoms in the Dust during those final scenes and it becomes one of the three pivotal roles of her career (along with Random Harvest and Pride & Prejudice).

Here are my picks for 1941:
Mary Astor, The Great Lie
Joan Crawford, A Woman's Face
Bette Davis, The Little Foxes
Greer Garson, Blossoms in the Dust
Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve

Mary Astor had quite the 1941, huh? She won the Best Supporting Actress for The Great Lie but she was really the co-lead with Bette Davis in that film. Together, they turn this standard issue weeper into a classic melodrama with a fantastic role reversal: Davis as the nice one and Astor as the uber bitch (Astor also would have won my Best Supporting Actress for The Maltese Falcon).

The winner, quite obviously, is Barbara Stanwyck for The Lady Eve. Now this is how you do screwball comedy.

3:26 PM, March 19, 2009  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Re the 1941 actresses, I didn't notice any mention of Jean Arthur's wonderful work in THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES. For me, that's the Oscar performance of '41. I'd say Rita Hayworth's turn in BLOOD AND SAND (like Dorothy Comingore's in KANE) is definitely supporting. Darnell's the female lead - and exceptionally good in a part that's far less showy. Rita definitely deserved some kind of award, though, for her jaw-dropping poise and beauty in YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH. Not to mention that to-die for dancing.
When Margaret Sullavan decides to take no prisoners as she does in BACK STREET, the lady's pretty hard to resist. And good as Ida Lupino is in the terrific HIGH SIERRA, she's actually outperformed by Bogart (his best acting ever) and (believe it or not) Joan Leslie also giving the performance of her life. If Ida deserved a nomination that year, I'd say it would be for her work in LADIES IN RETIREMENT.
Though neither of them did much to shout about later (acting-wise), I'd say Lana Turner and Betty Grable both showed tremendous promise with their committed and nicely modulated contributions to, respectively, ZIEGFELD GIRL and A YANK IN THE R.A.F.
And though Academy voters wouldn't have been caught dead nominating anyone from Poverty Row, check out Joan Woodbury's riveting work in PRC's PAPER BULLETS sometime. Ann Savage wasn't the only powerhouse in that neck of the woods.

11:44 PM, March 22, 2009  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

By the way, John T, I couldn't agree with you more about Agnes Moorehead in CITIZEN KANE. She's definitely be one of my five supporting nominees in '41.
Along with:
SARA ALLGOOD
-How Green Was My Valley
SPRING BYINGTON
-The Devil and Miss Jones
DOROTHY COMINGORE
-Citizen Kane
JOAN LESLIE
-High Sierra

12:22 AM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

Hooray! So great to see you back in the swing of this. As ever, I'm shamed by being such an Oscar dilettante -- I've only seen four of these Best Pic nominees so far, you already know my thoughts on Kane and The Little Foxes, and I haven't seen The Maltese Falcon for an absolute age.

I know we're all pretty down on Suspicion, and that dribbly Fontaine performance in it, but I do think the movie should be seen in the context of Hitch's somewhat tentative early Hollywood endeavours and his relationship with Selznick. He disowned that ending later, right? It was virtually foisted on him. I think we can essentially lop it off for all interpretative purposes, like the last shots of Ambersons and the original cut of Blade Runner (not that the rest of the movie, strenuous and botched as it often is, belongs in anything like that company, but still...)

7:37 AM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Cal: I agree that it's at least a big part of how Fontaine won, but it's still a milkier, worse performance than usually comes out tops even in these compensation games. And to rush so quickly, back when people made so many movies: one would have to have assumed that she'd have other chances. (Letter from an Unknown Woman would have been the ideal moment, but then, Oscar just didn't care for that movie for whatever reason.)

@Brooke: Thanks! I hope you'll also like the Winslet write-up that comes along with the Winslet photo; stay tuned...

@John: Fair enough that Comingore might belong in Supporting. I wouldn't have cried total foul of she'd been a lead, but to be honest, I think she's here as a remnant from when I first made the page, and I'd seen so few viable contenders that I was Hamburger Helper'ing the roster. As for my most-compressed viable nominee, I'm going to have to keep puzzling that one; no one comes to mind immediately except maybe Margarethe Krook's sharp dressing down of Bibi Andersson's naïve idealisms in her one early scene in Persona. Obviously a totally "Oscar" movie.

@Nathaniel: Admittedly, it's a bit dogmatic to put Suspicion below One Foot..., but the manifest and repeated botching of talent and potential in the Hitchcock actually is more galling to me than the standard-issue mediocrity of Foot. If you can believe it, my regard for Suspicion actually moved a little bit up with this recent revisitation.

More to follow...

10:47 AM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@DJH: We seem to have really similar taste. I agree with everything you say about Garson in Blossoms, just not as vehemently as you do. But, also re: what Cal says above, I agree that Garson does really humanizing, occasionally complicating work in what looks like an easy part. She didn't always manage this as well as she does here, but she did usually try.

I still haven't seen The Great Lie (saving it for later) and so can't comment on the performances or their category placements, but I do think Astor's in enough of Maltese Falcon and in such a crucial relationship to how it works that she's a Lead for me. And such a savory one!

@Canadian Ken: We have a rare failure to communicate here. I think Arthur's disappointingly dismal in ...Miss Jones. The astonishingly stolid direction and the terrible wig deserve heaps of the blame, but the performance does read to me like her spirit is broken: she sounds prematurely old and pitiable, she has loads of rote reaction shots to make it through, and (again conceding that there's not much to act, since the film is based on one revelation that's forever in coming) her line readings and interactions with other characters never go past the basic boilerplate for me. I also think Ida Lupino struggles pretty fruitlessly in High Sierra, though I'll concede that Joan Leslie is better than usual here (though I feel just as sanguine about her uncharacteristic spark in Sergeant York). Lana Turner does show promise in conviction in an unusual role for her in Ziegfeld Girl, so we aren't totally at odds. (As usual, you've mentioned some titles that are wholly new to me; I'll have to hunt down Paper Bullets and Ladies in Retirement, and as ever, I'm keeping my eyes out for Back Street.)

If you haven't clicked the link on my Movies of 41 page, my picks for Supporting that year are Ingrid Bergman in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Beulah Bondi in Penny Serenade, Patricia Collinge in The Little Foxes, Theresa Harris in The Flame of New Orleans, and Marjorie Rambeau in Tobacco Road (arguably a lead, which is how she's billed, but I demur).

@Tim: I'm sure all of those factors play heavily into why Suspicion feels so blighted. But however it got to the screen and under whatever pressures, it plainly doesn't seem to belong in this arena, and I'm surprised that the same voters who were so tentative about honoring so much of his work were willing to spring for a film that's this uneven and occasioned such tension between the director and producer. (Though Selznick quite possibly strong-armed the voter support himself.) And you've got it just right: I'm inclined to ignore the ending, but I'm already down on the picture about 90 minutes before that.

11:00 AM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Nick, it's always a pleasure to read your thoughtful responses to the various comments. You make even disagreeement seem cordial.
Arthur does charm me in "The Devil and Miss Jones". Though I'd have no trouble applying some of your objections to this performance to her work in the later (and Oscar-nominated) THE MORE THAN THE MERRIER. Glad you too found something at least a little special in the Joan Leslie and Lana Turner contributions from '41. Both of them seemed really invested in proving themselves at this atge of their careers. And, Nick, your supporting actress choices are fascinating. First one I plan to rewatch is Theresa Harris.

11:29 AM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@CK: Cordial comments make for cordial replies! I'm so happy about the kinds of readers and replies I enjoy at this site.

I like Arthur a lot in Merrier, so we even out; it's funny that the more I watch her, the more I think you can see the glints of her vulnerabilities as an actress even in her best work, and vice versa. I totally agree about Turner and Leslie wanting to prove themselves in their '41 work, though Turner doesn't get nearly as much help in this department in Jekyll.

I hope you enjoy Harris; she's spry, charming, sexy, and an appealing scene-stealer in a sort of commedia dell'arte version of the Hollywood black-servant role.

11:47 AM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

Even as I was watching The Flame of New Orleans a few months ago (it's in my Dietrich box set), I was thinking "I don't know who this Theresa Harris is, but she's my favourite thing in the movie, and Nick would flip for her", so it's gratifying to have the hunch confirmed! Check out her IMDb page and see how many times she played so-and-so's maid. Quite extraordinary...

1:47 PM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: Way to have me pegged!

1:56 PM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger John T said...

Nick, you can take heart in the fact that in this brilliant world that Mike has created where Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction have Best Picture trophies, Ingmar Bergman must have like four Oscars. What a wonderful place (like Disneyland, but for cinephiles!)

7:00 PM, March 27, 2009  

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