Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Very Long Movie Post Because It Concerns My Favorite Years (1945-46)

During my survey of the history of movies, I have identified a few especially favorite years, 1962 being one, and 1951, perhaps unexpectedly, has proven to be a year with a lot of things that I like. There are other years, such as 1949, 1966, 1971, that occasionally pop up and seem possibilities, with a couple of more hits, to join this exalted group. I think however that my all time favorite year in cinema history is 1945, with 1946 just behind it. The first year especially does not seen to usually be considered by experts as one of the all time great ones. As I have noted in other posts, the films from that year, particularly from Hollywood, have a somber, gentle, unfrenetic aspect about them that likely does not appeal to people who like their life and art to be as edgy and exciting as possible, but clearly I love them. There was a rather academic-sounding book written about these two years in film which makes an argument for them indeed being the best of all time. Here is a review of it. There are two sentences from the review that resonate for me, the first a quote from the actual book, the second a follow-up comment with regard to the quote:

"For many moviegoers the time coincided with their own 'best years'; for others who came later, the movies of this period mirror an extraordinary chapter in the nation's saga they regret having missed."

"Alluding to the nostalgia associated with the immediate postwar period, the Affrons colorfully suggest that generational memories of 1945-46 have sunk deeply into the U.S. subconscious, so much so that those of us born after the fact feel compelled to relive the best years vicariously through the film camera's misty-eyed lens."

There is certainly something in this that applies to me, even if I would not describe the effect these movies have on me in exactly these terms. I would also say that the people for whom the generational memory of 1945 has sunk deeply into their subconscious constitute a decided minority, even among the sensitive. Most people seem to be able to resist the nostalgia without too much of a struggle.

La Belle et La Bete (1946)

It is often referred to by its French title, not only because that title is so great, but also in later years to distinguish it from the Disney movie. Like Les Enfants du Paradis, this was made at the very end of World War II and remains beloved in France to this day. There were numerous special features that came with the film, many interviews or short documentaries taken from French television, in which an aged actor or makeup artist or cinematographer would be presented and a resume full of said person's involvement in classic movies by iconic directors would be recited; but always at the very end the announcer would say some variation of "but so-and-so will always be most remembered for his work in Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete." This period at the end of the war was probably the most emotional time in recent memory, in every country that was involved in it. This emotion was not of the hysterical, irrational quality that the word seems to have come to mean in recent years, but, when applied to the classic films of the era, that in which people express, in a controlled and even subdued, but very direct way, those things which they most deeply love and desire and feel.

Apart obviously from Germany and Japan (and Austria), no one receives less sympathy in this country for what they endured during World War II than the people of France. The Italians, despite actively being on the other side during the most tenuous part of the conflict, my sense is are thought of, if they are thought of at all in relation to that period, as having been poor and wretched and suffered considerably, while with the French the emphasis is forever on collaborators, defeatists, women who consorted with the Nazis, and a general sense that the mainstream population was comparatively living it up while everyone else on the continent was starving and being subjected to torture on a routine basis. I don't know how important the films which emerged from these two countries in the immediate aftermath of the war were in confirming these impressions, but I suspect they had some influence; the Italians of course producing the neo-realists, who in the beginning at least had a somewhat underground quality about them, and movies like The Bicycle Thief and Open City (the former of which at least I do think is still one of the greatest of all time, for the record) in which, however one wants to color it, the predominant attitude is "We are desperate. We are on our knees. May some fate or power or something have mercy on us."--while the French in contrast brought out numerous titans of their pre-war artistic establishment and produced a couple of films, also among the very greatest of all time, in which the message being conveyed, to themselves, the rest of the nation, and that portion of the greater world that cared about such things, was "Our self-esteem has been shaken, but we are still who and what we always have been, and we are still great." This is an example too of what I was referring to earlier by the depth of emotion that these movies carry, and which gives them a power that is doubtless hard to duplicate in ordinary instances. The insistent pride which undergirds them, in spite of the more complicated and interesting emotions which move the work, nonetheless will always I fear tend to work against a real understanding and feel for what these movies are about in some instances.

I have had the Georges Auric musical soundtrack for years, though I had not seen the movie before. I got it back in the 90s when I was a member of the Columbia Record Club. It was one of their monthly selections that you got sent if you forgot to mail in the card saying that you didn't want it. Of course you were supposed to pay for the CD or send it back, but...I used to listen to it fairly often for a time. All-instrumental movie soundtracks are probably an underappreciated genre, especially as background music. I don't like to move about in a silent house (of course this was more of an issue before I had a lot of children), especially if I am not writing, but opera and some of the more intense classical composers can be a bit much first thing in the morning, with one's eggs and toast....

My general thoughts about this movie, about which entire books have been written--I think it does what it sets out to do, which is roughly to connect a modern avant-garde sensibility with a specifically French classical story (this was something of a specialty of Cocteau's, who frequently used ancient stories and themes in all his arts); it uses what it has--its material, and the emotions and allusions suggested by this material--expertly. It feels classical, in the sense that the story feels elementally spare yet expansive and significant in all of its parts. The actors, as they always are in French movies of this time, are excellent, fully inhabit their roles, seem as if they completely understand what the movie is about, and so on...

The Lost Weekend (1945)

A 1945 movie directed by Billy Wilder that is about drinking would probably be impossible for me not to like. And I had never seen it before. I have known about it for a while, of course, but I was waiting for it to come up in my system, as something to look forward to. It does contain pretty much everything I like in movies. I suppose one could pick apart the script and the acting and find numerous flaws, but I found it moving and disturbing enough in about equal measure that the flaws don't concern me that much.

I like what Jane Wyman does here as the girlfriend--I suppose this is in keeping with my general love of women in movies in this era. People don't like the character because she won't drop the drunken loser, but it's good for the movie's emotional thrust that the protagonist has this normal, likable and yes, sad and deluded woman who loves him and feels such devotion to him. It may not matter to the alcoholic, but the idea of that degree of loyalty and affection in a woman even when one has hit bottom appeals strongly to the imagination of the audience. And it is not as if women don't love alcoholics, or at least enough of them do. They may not love the alcoholism itself, exactly, but there is in many instances some characteristic which is indicative of tendencies in that direction that appeals to them that is absent from the makeup of the computer genius. Though she will never admit it, I'm quite sure my wife liked me better when I drank more than she does now. I was more work, and more unpredictable, and much more interesting, and there was some drama, or the possibility of it, because I had more delusions about being alive and a real person than I do now, and women do like that, even if they don't always realize it.

I note a number of people in online reviews saying the ending was too Hollywood. I did not see it as being too Hollywood at all. If anything I thought it was ambiguous, and quite well played. There is absolutely nothing in the ending that indicates he won't be back at the bar begging for more rye by four o'clock that same afternoon. Sure, he puts the gun down and his girlfriend who looks pretty from being out in the rain hugs him in tears and he says he is going to stop and begin writing again...I go through this routine about three times a week, it means absolutely nothing. The ending is fine, I think it is quite good, actually.

I love the old 40s and 50s style alcoholics' bars, better even than the old nightclubs. The kind that are always uncrowded and a little melancholy, plenty of room at the bar, booths, wood or veneer-paneled walls. They're all just about gone now. I don't know of any still in operation that fit the type. When I was young there were still a few up in the Northeast Philadelphia area. My grandfather used to take me to them for lunch. The Little Campus in Annapolis was another, now gone. There is still a bar there, under a different name, but a recent travel book I have describes it as "the epitome of a power-broker bar". I'm pretty sure there was no power broking going on at the Little Campus.

This is one of those movies (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is another--I haven't seen The Days of Wine and Roses, which I guess is the third part of the trinity of drinking movies) where you have to stop the film somewhere in the middle, go and get a bottle of some real stuff--I always drink beer when I watch movies, but that doesn't cut it in these instances--and drink along with it. Like Don Birnum also, I was carfeul to hide my bottle and shotglass from my wife, who was floating around the house doing work, having opted out of seeing the movie due to the grim subject matter (and perhaps the subject matter hit too close to home?) I do identify too strongly with alcoholics. I once thought maybe I would become one--if you had told me twenty years ago what my life would be like now, I would have assumed I must become one to preserve any sense of self I might have--but as in most things, I didn't have it in to be that extreme, and upset and disturb people. But I do feel like I understand characters like this and their lives and why they have no great desire to change better than I do most other types of people.

I do worry that the world, or at least America, is being taken over more and more by people for whom the mentality on display would not even begin to make any sense. That is perhaps good for America but it is bad for me, who always found society and the environment all around me alien enough as it was. But it only seems to be getting worse.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

I thought this might finally be the 1945 movie I wasn't going to like. Described as "slick trash" even by people writing favorably about it, it is a technicolor melodrama with a lot of stilted acting and dialogue set in the kind of bland, sterile, expensive rooms that one forgets were fashionable around this time (indeed, my grandparents were still betraying signs of this influence into the 80s). Yet there was enough to interest me and keep me going. These points briefly were:

1. Jeanne Crain! I love Jeanne Crain. I wrote a little about her in Letter to Three Wives here. I will comment more on her in this movie below.

2. Though filmed entirely on sets and around the Lake Tahoe area and not having anything in particular that really reminds one of anything about Maine, most of the movie is set at Deer Lake or Bar Harbor. The glow of having gone to Bar Harbor for the first time this past summer is still fresh with me, and I found the thought of wandering around the village there and coming upon Jeanne Crain hoeing in the garden rather captured my fancy.

3.Vincent Price. In a supporting role, as Gene Tierney's jilted fiance. I had never seen him in a movie before. He is only really in two scenes, though the second one is long and crucial to the movie. He's an interesting figure. He seems to have been well-liked, and was widely regarded as a cultivated man. He had majored in art history at Yale. He famously lent his name and expertise to the Sears Roebuck company's line of fine art for home furnishings in the 60s, which apparently was a serious enterprise, and included work by people like Picasso and Salvador Dali. He came at his career from many different angles, and was at least adequate in all of them. He also was noted for his cooking and gourmet taste in food back when this was a less widespread interest than it is now, and he wrote several cookbooks.

4. The script must be better than it seems on a first impression, because somehow the thing held my interest, though apart from the courtroom scene where Price plays a rather manic lawyer, nothing in it much stands out.

5. Gene Tierney is the star. She is extremely beautiful. I don't think she is more beautiful than Jeanne Crain, but then I like the more wholesome types. Gene Tierney plays a psychopath who lures a cripple into the middle of the lake and looks on detachedly while he drowns because he is too weak to swim anymore, throws herself down a flight of stairs to self-induce an abortion, and arranges her own suicide in such a manner as to implicate her innocent half-sister (Crain) as having murdered her. According to the commentary she was not much more emotionally responsive in real life.

About that was weak. I endured it because I wanted to go through the movie again. The commentators were the veteran film critic Richard Schickel and the former child actor who had played the cripple who drowned. This is the third movie I've gotten where Richard Schickel has been the commentator. Along with the woman who did Lola Montes, his commentaries are the most useless I have come across. The first two I gave up after ten minutes, but as I said, I wanted to go through this one again and try to figure out what it was about it that worked. Schickel started off on the wrong foot for me when he quickly dismissed Jeanne Crain as a subject of any interest, observing that she was a beauty queen with limited acting abilities who 'lacked fire'. However true this ultimately may or may not be, I have to admit my immediate response at this instant was "is this guy gay?" I couldn't find a definite answer to my question, but my guess is "probably". If Richard Schickel's general knowledge and capacity for thought, his aesthetic sensibility, his sense of humor, were interesting and worthy of my admiration and emulation, I don't think the question of his possible gayness would have pressed itself upon me so crudely. However, since I already did not like his commentaries, or any of the directions where his perceptions lead him, and presumably would, or should, lead us, and he begins speaking flippantly of my favorite 1940s actresses, a situation arose where I reached a sort of breaking point. 

Speaking of all which, The Lost Weekend didn't have a commentary. I'll do one for it if no one else wants to, though I would have to get paid for it.

Other interesting Wikipedia tidbits about Jeanne Crain:

She achieved notoriety as an teenager for her ice skating.

She had seven children.

She was nicknamed "Hollywood's number one party girl" in the late 40s and early 50s, though this appears to refer to her rate of attendance rather than wildness of behavior.

She was married to her husband for 57 years, though they appeared to live apart for most of that time and they nearly divorced in the 50s, with each party claiming the other had been unfaithful. The details on this are not very satisfactory.

She was an active advocate for conservative Republican causes during the 1960s. Again, details are not forthcoming as to which causes she was especially fervent for. Another site notes merely that 'unlike the humanistic, progressive-thinking Margie (reference to one of her roles), Crain was a conservative Republican who supported Richard Nixon". Horrors! This page fills us in further that Crain's husband beat her brutally, that she never divorced him because she was Catholic, that she became a severe alcoholic, and two of her children predeceased her due to alcohol and drugs. Maybe I shouldn't do any more research...

Lady on a Train (1945)

In many ways a perfect 1945 movie--inveterately scruffy, pace very deliberate, at times scarcely discernable, plot simple and not especially the point of the movie in any case, good-spirited in a somber, muted way, has some wry humor mixed in with more telegraphed humor, a distillation, I think, of the national mood and general character at that particular time. It stars a very likeable Deanna Durbin who is fun, fun, fun and decidedly livens up what could otherwise be a dreary wartime atmosphere. Deanna Durbin was a four or five tool star: good-looking, could sing, was intelligent, was very funny in her own perky way. Not everybody liked her of course. She probably was not considered to have a lot of fire either, which quality seems to be especially treasured in women by my father's (early baby boomer) generation regardless of their sexual orientation. Earlier in her career she was famous for playing the Ideal Daughter (as that role was perceived at the time) in a series of teenybopper movies. I haven't seen any of these ideal daughter films (Three Smart Girls seems to be regarded as the most vital one of the group). Personally I think the ideal daughter is an aspirational ideal that society could embrace more widely that it does at present without overly sinister results, but perhaps I am showing my naivete again.

Deanna Durbin for some reason is always described as Canadian. It is true that she was born in Winnipeg but her parents moved to Los Angeles when she was a year old (that would be age 1). Even all of her singing instruction appears to have been done in this country. I don't mind the Canadians claiming her, but if, as we are often told, people who move here as full adults, especially if they have a work ethic and entrepreneurial or other high level career skills, are more fundamentally American that most of the people who happen to be here by mere accident of birth, then I am not sure why Deanna Durbin would not automatically be considered an American first.

Lady On a Train spoofs, albiet gently, a number of tropes of 1940s film--noir, Orson Welles, the outlandish kinds of nightclubs that are ubiquitous in movies of this era (and which I have often extolled myself in these pages), the entire murder-mystery genre of novels and movies, which was obviously flourishing at the time.


No comments: