Sunday, May 03, 2015

Movies 1945-1949, One From Each Year

All the Kings' Men (1949)

I had read the book recently. Here is my report on that from my other blog. The movie version won the Best Picture Oscar in its year. It isn't bad, though it is definitely one of the weaker Best Picture choices of the 40s. I haven't seen a ton of 1949 movies so I don't know how strong a year it was overall, but The Third Man came out that year at least (in England anyway) and seems to have been the movie of that year, though it got very little attention from the Academy other than an award for best black & white cinematography in 1950, which is when it was released in the United States.

Back to All the Kings' Men, it is pretty faithful I think to the general spirit of the book, but it is lacking something in the way of power or anything else that would make it compelling in the way the great classics of its era are. It doesn't have any iconic stars or otherwise interesting movie figures of the time among its cast. The director was Robert Rossen, with whose other work I am not familiar, though other than The Hustler, which came out twelve years afterwards, none of his other titles are widely referenced in the day-to-day discussion of the history of cinema. The noir-ish aspects of the film, in keeping with the fashion of the time, are noted in most of the literature on the movie, but I cannot say that I found that these affected me one way or the other. My opinion on the character of Willie Stark, which I hinted at in my report on the book and mostly refers to that, is that he is the only person in the story who seems to exert any agency of his own, who is even able to respond aggressively to and not be completely destroyed by the threat of shame, or disgrace. It is hard to judge him as someone who assumed more power than it was his right to do, because he seems to be surrounded by people who are largely incapable of effectively exercising basic personal freedom, let alone direct institutions and events. Maybe it is a flaw in the story, that there is no opposing power, and certainly no moral counterpart, anywhere in it to contrast with Stark.

I have seen it noted that All the Kings' Men is the last adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to win the Best Picture Oscar. Since the Oscars were only about twenty years old in 1949, I figured it couldn't have happened that often, and indeed, Gone With the Wind was the only other instance of this happening. I had thought The Grapes of Wrath was a third, but it did not win the Best Picture Oscar. As I have noted elsewhere on this blog the prestige of the Pulitzer was higher among the general public at least prior to about 1960 than it is today, and there have actually been a number of Oscar-quality adaptations made among its winners, though more so in the early days of the award. Just looking down the list of winners, notable films were made of The Magnificent Ambersons, The Age of Innocence (albeit decades later), Alice Adams, Tales of the South Pacific, The Caine Mutiny, and To Kill a Mockingbird. In more recent years The Color Purple and The Hours seem to have gotten some Oscar attention, and a few of the other winners were at least adapted into major movies or television serials. But not really that many.

The Search (1948)

A fairly difficult to find choice--it is available on DVD from Warner Brothers as part of a Classics series, but I had to buy it to get it--this stars Montgomery Clift in what I believe was his debut as an American soldier in postwar Germany who takes in a ragged, uncommunicative child, one of the legions of displaced and orphaned children who were all over Europe in those years and attempts to nurse him back to a state of some trust in humanity and ability to participate in civilization. At the same time the child's mother, a concentration camp survivor, is crisscrossing central Europe on foot in desperate hope of finding the boy alive. It is quite good, and I am surprised it is not better known and celebrated. It acknowledges the existence of what was a very serious issue at the time in the mass displacement of people in Europe. Granted, the Czechs and Hungarians and other eastern nationalities, assuming they returned to their countries of origin, which I think was still taken to be the ideal scenario in 1948, would be going right back to another politically repressive situation, though perhaps the extent and the permanent nature of this in some of the countries with more traditional ties to the West was not yet clearly discerned in the immediate aftermath of the war. Clift, whom I did not like all that much in the other two films I have seen him in, A Place in the Sun and Judgment at Nuremberg (also, oddly enough, set in a bombed out landscape in postwar Germany), is much better here. Apparently he had not imbibed the teachings and philosophical outlook of the Method so fully yet. The director was Fred Zinnemann, who would go on to direct a number of famous movies over the next thirty years, including A Man For All Seasons. Zinnemann, who was Jewish, was, like many of the golden age Hollywood directors, born in Austria-Hungary, in the part that is now Poland, and went to university in Vienna before leaving for Paris and eventually Hollywood. While this family of directors generally did not express a great deal of sentimental feeling for the country of their youths in their work, the European milieu depicted in this movie has a much more naturalistic feel about it, to the point of being unobtrusive, than Hollywood might have been thought capable of at this time. I  suspect this was in large part the work of Zinnemann.

I need to remind myself to take the time to see this again someday, since there is a good chance it will never come up of itself in the course of events, but it does have some qualities about it that are important to understanding the character of the era, in my view.

Life With Father (1947)

Based on the once famous New Yorker stories by Clarence Day, Jr about his childhood as the son of a Wall Street mover and shaker in 1880s and 90s New York. The book is on one of my reading lists--the most ancient and politically naive one--though I probably won't get to it for a long time, if ever. The movie is interesting as a nostalgia piece looking back from the 40s to the 1880s, a time that has now receded too far out of the living memory even of people our oldest acquaintances may have known for us to have nostalgia for. I believe the Days are supposed to have lived on either Park or Madison Avenue, and the street, at least as depicted in the film, was a wide, blissfully uncrowded boulevard along which trolley cars and orderly carriages passed leisurely, lined with handsome and spacious but comparatively low rising (three or four storeys, tops) mansions, though without much in the way of shady tree cover. Of course New York in the 1880s was never really so sedate or orderly as it is made to be in this movie, though if this idea of it came from the book I will grant that it probably gave some sensation of that kind to the memoirist in his youthful goings about, perhaps for reasons peculiar to himself, though the tone he hit on in his writings did resonate with many readers. I am willing to trust people's memories of their experiences rather than what I might think their memories of those experiences should have been.

Compared to what we read of families similarly situated in contemporary New York City, the Day children seem to lead an almost blissfully unharried and carefree existence. Day, Sr was certainly an energetic and hard-driving man, but he is not depicted as being manic or possessed nearly beyond the limits of recognizable human desire by the drive to succeed and make money and be number one and mold his sons into equally aggressive dominant men such as is the popular image of Wall Street brokers in our time. Of course this is almost certainly the nostalgia of 1947 seeping through the filmmaking.

The extremely prolific and apparently indefatigable Michael Curtiz directed this. William Powell and Irene Dunne were the attractive and substantial leads. The 15 year old Elizabeth Taylor appears at her most simpering as the teenage romantic interest of Day, Jr.

By the way, in case you couldn't tell, I did like this.

Peter and the Wolf (1946)

A fifteen or so minute cartoon, this one barely counts, but it did turn up on the list so I will put it in here. It didn't blow me away, but it is diverting for what it is. I am more favorably inclined to Disney's work in the 1940s and 50s than I am in other periods.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

I have written previously that 1945 is my personal favorite year for movies, and this moving film about family life, childhood, school, death, the past, the immigrant experience during the great wave of the last century, all against the hyper-somber backdrop of the stub end of World War II that characterizes all of the movies of that year that I like so much, fits in with the rest of these. I had recently read this book, too, which impressed me as having much merit, particularly with regard to our collective memory of the details of what things and experiences in our past were like. Like any movie, this one had to leave a lot of significant incidents and developments and characters out, but on the whole it is a good adaptation of the basic aspects of the story, and it is even better I think as a movie than it is as an adaptation. This was the directorial debut of Elia Kazan and the atmosphere and the development of the major characters and the way they inhabit the movie are its strong points. The ending is a much truncated version of what happened in the book, doubtless done to not be left with an ending in nothing is resolved or seems to be progressing for the better, but the movie really did not need to be tied up this way. In this it is similar to Life With Father, which operated on an even thinner plotline that was not all that essential to such interest as the film possessed.

The family at the center of this story is an Irish-German union, much like my own family, with both parents being the first generation born in America--and it was emphasized in the book that theirs was the only household Francie knew of in their neighborhood where both parents were actually American born. Despite their status as citizens and immersion in the culture and language of the United States since birth, Johnny and Katie Nolan had not gotten very far by 1912. Johnny of course was fairly hopeless, at least in economic terms, though a highly lovable guy. The circumstance of Katie's being German-descended does not play into my theory of the peculiarity of Irish romance, in which, comparative to more traditionally prosperous peoples, the long term career prospects of a potential husband do seem to be regularly taken into consideration. I feel myself to be in certain ways something of a modern day version of Johnny Nolan, only minus the charm. I suppose one could say minus the alcoholism also, but it is only the greater effectiveness of social control exerted on modern men that prevents me from following that mode of life, as I remain greatly attracted to it. The other characteristics--the inability to perceive the world and my place in it realistically, the endless empty promises to improve myself, the natural inclination toward squalor with regard to living arrangements--are there.

One of the other parts of this story that I relate to is the episode where Francie desires to transfer to a more beautiful and dignified-looking school without knowing much else more about it, since I did the same thing when I lived in Maine. I was not supposed to go to the school I went to, the one that was built in 1924 and had busts of famous white male giants of literature and history lining the hallways and a venerable history as perhaps the premier large public school in the state, but when I saw it I became consumed by a desire to go there as if it were owed me as the natural end of my development to that point to go to such a school, and it was arranged that I was able to go there, and I loved it dearly the whole time I was there, though it is hard to explain why, because in terms of the other students it was just a regular public school, I did not have any very close friends, and when I go back for my reunions most of the people don't remember who I am, and some of them act almost perturbed at my being there, as if I am crashing a party where I really don't belong. But at the time the atmosphere, not merely of the school but of the equally antique neighborhood and city around it, gave me something that I desperately needed to imbibe the air of, even if I was unable to make any very deep connection with it. I have not pushed for very much in my life, but I have a couple of times when it comes to schools. I was determined as well to go to a particular kind of college--residential, preferably somewhat old, average test scores above a certain level, an atmosphere of study that was acceptably masculine without being reactionary or arch-conservative, though this last I would not have been able to articulate in such terms at the time--and I was pretty dogged at not getting pushed into the community college, taking computer classes route that well-meaning people were trying to steer me towards and getting to go to the kind of place I wanted in the end, even though I guess most people would say, given my subsequent career, that the wisdom of those who advised community college has been vindicated.

Dorothy McGuire, who plays Katie, has a lovely voice, and is the easy choice for the honor of favorite 40s girl/woman for this set of reports from that era.

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