Friday, December 27, 2013

Golden Age of Hollywood 1939-1942

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

I had seen this ten or fifteen years ago. It did not seem as good to me as I had remembered. It is very talky, and not in the way that moves the story along. It is also darker (as in shadowy), quieter--there is no music in large parts of it, if there is any at all-- and more claustrophobic than I had remembered. Also the circumstance that the film ends abruptly in the middle of the story, given that it does have a story, and that the story is not incidental to its execution, is a problem that I cannot seem to wave off as easily as I must have before. It still might have been one of the all time greats if it had been completed, though it would have been awfully long and ponderous. I am not as high on it as I used to be however.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Celebrated John Ford tearjerker that won the Best Picture Oscar over Citizen Kane but was so great in its own right that cinephiles do not complain much about this decision. I had never seen it before. I like it, it's very good, and several times it came close to causing the swell in my bosom and welling up in my eye that I had feared. As I often find to be the case with John Ford however, perhaps because the expectations for his films have been raised so high, I found myself thinking that as good and well laid out as the movie was, that it could have been still better, or at least could have gone for the full pathos or sentimental effect, and did not. The opening scene, for example, I felt would have made more of an impact incorporated into the ending. At other times he went for humor instead of pathos, which humor hasn't really aged well. This is my take as someone who was especially looking forward to seeing this and eager to like it. I do like it, but not as much as other people do.

It has been noted by most astute commentators that even though the characters are nominally Welsh, Ford essentially depicts them as if they are Irish, which he was by ancestry, and his parents by birth. The repressed love between Maureen O'Hara and the priest even when she was being courted by the son of the factory owner was a pleasing example of the Irish romantic sensibility. Marrying for wealth, or the potential of wealth, does not seem to be as developed an instinct among Irish girls, even pretty ones, as it is among women of other nationalities. The immortal quote "I'd rather cry in the back of a Mercedes than laugh on the back of a bicycle" that appeared in the New York Times report on the dating situation in China a few years back is not a sentiment that seems to be as widely held among Irish women. Even after marrying the wealthy man she did not love and moving into the mansion and having a taste of life with servants and other luxuries the beautiful Angharad (Maureen) is still pining for the priest, who is a good man, but is not exactly a fiery take-charge type, unless prompted heavily. Not to mention that he lives in the dingy rooms appropriate to his station. But for all that I didn't think it was an unrealistic portrayal.

How Green Was My Valley, like a lot of classic films from this time, was based upon a book that was a huge bestseller in its day that has been forgotten. This one even won the (U.S.) National Book Award in 1940. The author was Richard Llewellyn, whom I had never heard of before this. I suspect the book is not half bad, and probably better than the movie in some ways.

The Letter (1940)

William Wyler directed movie starring Bette Davis based on a story by Somerset Maugham and set in colonial era Singapore. These are all points in its favor. It's the most smoothly classical of the classic Hollywood films in this group, or at least it has the most sophisticated veneer. Murder, adultery, expat Brits, cynical, plotting natives, fairly crisp, literary dialogue, The plot is nothing spectacular but the Maughamian atmosphere is conveyed well enough to hold one's interest, the acting and direction are first-rate, and Bette Davis, who is still young here (she would have been 31 or 32) does have a kind of mesmerizing quality, especially when considering that she is playing a stone-cold murderess in this movie. She looks to have been rather small, as actresses. I had not known either that she was a New Englander (Massachusetts). She described herself as her first screen test, when fifteen men had to lie on top of her and give her a passionate kiss, as the 'most yankee-est, most modest virgin who ever walked the earth" (Wikipedia). It sounds like she was able to overcome this Yankee prudery as her career progressed however.

Take Me Back to Oklahoma (1940)

This is what I would assume is a B-movie, Saturday afternoon matinee, what have you. The production values are a shock after seeing the three above films. It is like being dragged back to the early silent period. I wanted to get into the spirit of this, which features the singing cowboy Tex Ritter, his sidekick Arkansas Slim, a singing group called the Texas Playboys who are not unversed in the use of firearms either, and some non-musical bad guys who want to take over, preferably by violent means, the only on the level coach line left in the west. It was just a little too goofy and raw for me however. It is only 60 minutes long.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Another odd western, starring Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, who is the current old star that is all of the sudden turning up all over the place on my list. It's got some entertaining parts to it, and I thought it was mildly interesting for a while, but it kind of lost me towards the end. I think I was tired, and maybe I should have tried to watch the ending a second time. Marlene Dietrich's character, I have to confess, was more trashy than I really have a taste for, especially at this point of my life, and while I like the idea of Jimmy Stewart as an even-keeled, law-revering, use the guns only as a last resort sheriff in the midst of a world wholly composed of morally corrosive hotheads, it doesn't strike me as very plausible. The lawlessness of the town at the beginning of the movie was one of the most extreme examples of what that would mean that I have seen in a film. That was one superlative thing about it.

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