Saturday, December 25, 2010

The 1940s: Santa Jesuses, artificial limbs and motormouth reporters

And so we have arrived! The final month of my six-month Decades project, which began back in July.

I've been watching three movies per month from decades that were underrepresented in my collection of movies seen, concentrating on the decades from the 1920s to the 1970s, in a sequence determined by random drawing. Last (but not least) were the 1940s, watched in December. I have usually written these monthly reports at the end of the month, but am going a week early because of another convention I've been following: starting off each post with the poster art for the first movie I watched. I didn't think a Miracle on 34th Street poster topping the blog would be very timely a week from now, so I'm wrapping up early this month (so I can concentrate on a different kind of wrapping -- wrapping presents). Nothing like being a slave to the conditions you yourself have established on your own blog, right?

And because it's Christmas Eve, and I've still got plenty to do, I'll make it a quick one. Shall we get right into it?

Miracle on 34th Street (1947, George Seaton). Watched: Saturday, December 11th

No matter what decade I was going to be watching in December, I decided I'd probably watch a Christmas movie from that decade, just as I watched a scary movie from whatever decade I was on in time for Halloween. (Tod Browning's Dracula, from 1931). Miracle on 34th Street stood out as the most famous Christmas movie I had never seen. In fact, I didn't even know what it was about until we popped in the DVD two weeks ago, within an hour after decorating our tree.

As you already know, but I'll explain it if you don't, the "miracle" in the title of Miracle on 34th Street refers to making a non-believer believe in Santa Claus. (You could say that the miracle is that Santa Claus actually exists and is wandering around New York somewhat aimlessly, agreeing to take a job as a department store Santa even though things should really be ramping up at the North Pole right now -- but I don't think that's how they intended it.) Sure, there are plenty of non-believers around, but the ones the film concentrates on are a business-like Macy's employee (Maureen O'Hara) and the daughter she has taught to be equally skeptical and real-world-oriented (Natalie Wood). That's right -- that's the same Natalie Wood who would later appear in such films as Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story, later to die from drowning under suspicious circumstances off of Catalina, with a drunken Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner within shouting distance. Although I liked the movie on the whole very much -- the perfect post-tree-decorating activity -- it was Wood's performance that absolutely charmed my socks off. Rarely do you see a child actor (Wood would have been 8 or 9 during filming) with such spunk and natural ability, and she was also hilarious. Her character loves to chew gum and blow bubbles, and my favorite part of the film is when she speaks a line through the popped bubble on her face. Such a talent. The miracle is getting her to believe that Santa Claus is real, and my wife pointed out to me that this is basically the same thing that's at stake in a new Christmas classic, Elf.

Another thing I found noteworthy about the film is how intimately it's associated with Macy's. The movie starts with the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, and continues on as the real Santa Claus (subbing for a drunken Claus, and weren't they worried about child viewers learning that all those who dressed up like Santa were not actually Santa?) takes a job greeting kids inside the store. If the movie were being made today, they would probably use a made-up department store.

My experience of Miracle on 34th Street was tainted, slightly, after the fact, upon reading the review that's on the site I write for. The reviewer pointed out that this Santa story is actually a parable for the life of Jesus Christ. In both cases, there is a person who appears on the scene, claiming to be a person of particular importance. Some believe that he is this person, while others do not, and they persecute him. Both men must ultimately stand trial for their claims of "divinity." Spoiler alert: At least Miracle on 34th Street does not end with good old Saint Nick strung up on a cross. Why do they have to take a good old commercialized Christmas story and make it all religious? ;-)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler). Watched: Sunday, December 19th

The Decades series has been a good opportunity for me to zero in on some previously unseen best picture winners, and that's how I settled on The Best Years of Our Lives. Again, I knew nothing about this -- I thought it might be a literal title, steeped in nostalgia for some period of grand living for the characters involved. Instead, as you probably know, it's a drama about soldiers returning from World War II, one that would provide the template for numerous other films about veterans of foreign wars and their awkward readjustment to civilian life.

The most interesting thing to me was that of the three soldiers the film concentrates on, one (Harold Russell) has hooks for hands. I found this to be an uncommonly confronting detail for 1946, and was surprised to see it. However, I never would have imagined the actor himself actually had no hands. I took it to be an impressive costuming job for much of the movie, until a scene where he removes his artificial limbs leaves no doubt about the actor's physical condition. I later read that Russell was an actual World War II veteran who had actually lost his hands in combat, and that made everything about his performance all the more heartbreaking. In the film, Homer Parrish is sure his infirmity will lose him the love of his life (Cathy O'Donnell), who has been waiting for him throughout the war. But O'Donnell's Wilma is a saint, and she never experiences a moment of hesitation in her commitment to Homer. I just wonder if Russell's real-life experience was quite so rosy. I also learned that Russell was honored with two Oscars for his role -- best supporting actor, and a special Oscar designed to honor his courage, because the Academy did not predict the nominated actor would win based merely on his acting. I have to agree with that -- Russell is good but not great, but considering that he's not a professional actor, the performance itself becomes great.

However, probably because of his status as a non-professional, the story spends a lot more time with the two older soldiers, Fred (Dana Andrews) and Al (Fredric March). Each experiences another variation on what we (by now) have come to think of as the archetypal soldier's return -- Fred's wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) has moved on in a way he was not expecting, taking her own apartment and working at a night club (they continue they're relationship, but you can tell it's doomed), and Al tries to return to familiar routines only to find them foreign, succumbing to a desire to lose himself in the drink. I found the film to be unremittingly truthful, a good balance between the star-driven glamor audiences would have expected at the time, and a cold, hard look at the realities it deals with. I learned that audiences were rejecting World War II movies at that time the same way they generally reject films about the Iraq wars now, but The Best Years of Our Lives reversed that trend quite quickly, making it safe to reflect on the recently completed war once again. One thing that surprised me about it was that it was 2 hours and 50 minutes long, but didn't feel like it had a wasted moment, and actually passed rather quickly.

One aside about the film: It led me to the sad discovery that our BluRay player may not have the fault tolerance one would hope for. Try as I might, I could not get the BluRay player to play chapters 18 through 20 of this movie. That's quite a chunk of the film to miss, and I didn't know what I should do. So I shifted it over to my laptop, and voila -- problem solved. So I just left the disc in my laptop and finished watching it that way. I guess that's an unsurprising consequence of the price of BluRay players plummeting -- they are made much more cheaply now.

His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks). Watched: Thursday, December 23rd

Knowing I wanted to write this post today, I needed to squeeze in one more short movie from the 1940s before Christmas, and found the time yesterday morning (my first of five straight days off, representing two vacation days). I had targeted His Girl Friday the day before, taking a very systematic approach -- I went to the entry "1940 in film" on wikipedia (these "year in film" pieces are invaluable sources of information), found a movie that was on my radar, checked to see if it was available for streaming on Netflix, and checked to see if the running time was relatively brief. The 92-minute His Girl Friday removed any need to move on to "1941 in film."

I knew His Girl Friday was a screwball comedy featuring a battle of the sexes (is that redundant? Don't they all feature battles of the sexes?), but I didn't know it was about the world of newspaper reporting -- a world I'm familiar with, having been a newspaper reporter once myself. I'd thought the movie would be more about a boss-secretary relationship, given that a "girl Friday" essentially amounts to an errand girl -- a girl who would pick up the boss' dry cleaning, that kind of thing. Yes, Rosalind Russell is in some ways a "girl Friday" to Cary Grant in this film, because he sends her scurrying around in covering a breaking story. But their relationship is on much more equally footing: She's his ex-wife, and she actually holds the power because he wants to get back together and she doesn't -- in fact, she's marrying someone else the very next day. The title His Girl Friday seems to reflect the sexism inherent in Hollywood of the time, because even though Russell's character gives as good as she gets, her role in the title is that of an errand girl, suited for no better than picking up laundry. Also -- and I don't know if it qualifies as a spoiler to talk about the ending of a movie that's 70 years old -- she ends up falling back in love with Grant's conniving trickster by movie's end, with only a token gesture on Grant's part to show that he actually has a heart.

Hildy Johnson's return to Grant's Walter Burns is at the expense of her current fiance, Bruce Baldwin, played by Ralph Bellamy. A number of things about Bellamy's character interest me. For one, I immediately recognized Bellamy as one of the two rich men in Trading Places and later in Coming to America. Given that he seemed reasonably old in this film (he was 36), I was somewhat surprised that it could be the same actor, since those other movies were more than 40 years later -- though I guess the timing actually works out. Scanning his CV, I have not actually seen a single other movie he was in between His Girl Friday and Trading Places. However, the man clearly had a prolific career, because the His Girl Friday script actually contains a self-aware joke about Bellamy. When Burns is engaging one of his goons to frame Bruce -- one of a handful of times Bruce is arrested in Burns' attempt to sabotage Hildy's impending marriage -- Burns describes Bruce as "looking like that actor, Ralph Bellamy." I'm wondering if this was one of the first times that was done. Here I thought it was reasonably clever, which is not how I felt when watching Ocean's Twelve, where the character played by Julia Roberts is mistaken for the actual Julia Roberts. Lastly, I wondered if Bellamy was one of cinema's first "Baxters." If you don't know the film The Baxter, it tells a romantic comedy from the perspective of the guy who is left at the altar -- he's invariably a nice guy who just isn't right for the heroine, because the heroine truly loves the hero. Think Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle. Bellamy's Bruce is clearly a Baxter to Grant's Walter Burns, as Bruce instantly likes his rival and his always inclined to give the benefit of the doubt in any situation, whereas Burns' mind is constantly assessing every situation to turn it to his advantage. We would root for Hildy to end up with Bruce except that Bruce is so boring, whereas Burns is excitement personified.

And that's what Hildy is attracted to, having been a newspaperwoman until her divorce from Burns. And this is where the incredibly fast pace of His Girl Friday comes in. Each scene plays out at breakneck speed, as Grant and Russell jockey with lightning fast retorts and one-liners, each spat out so quickly that the next line almost threatens to eclipse the previous one. This is intentional, since the business they're in (reporting) is portrayed as an industry in which every second counts in trying to scoop the competition. And as I was watching Russell jump between conversations on three different phones, amazed at her agility as an actress and the character's agility as a journalist, I was reminded why I myself did not ultimately like the field of journalism. The film basically makes it seem like a journalist will stop at nothing short of murder to get a story, even manipulating the news events to make them better stories -- as the centerpiece example in this film, an escaped man accused of murder spends a large part of the third act hiding inside a desk, where Hildy and Burns have hidden him, all so that they can write a story in which their newspaper is credited with capturing the killer. It reminded me that I never had the type A personality necessary to step on the backs of others, and metaphorically stick microphones in people's faces at their worst moments. A key moment in my professional life was when I realized that I love writing, but I don't love reporting. Films like His Girl Friday, which cast journalism as a depraved rather than a noble profession, confirm for me that I made the right decision to withdraw from reporting and focus on criticism.

And I think that's a good place to end the Decades series. Thanks for reading.

I will be taking the month of January off to focus on watching films from 2010, before my deadline to finalize my year-end list arrives on January 25th. I'll return at the end of the month to announce a new monthly film-watching series, designed to ensure I continue watching movies from decades past on a regular basis.

Because if we don't remember our history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Wait, that doesn't make any sense in this context.

Anyway, happy holidays. I'll be returning with more new posts after I've opened my presents!

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