Monthly Archives: May 2011

Frank Morgan (The Shop Around the Corner) – Best Supporting Actor of 1940

Other Noteworthy Performances: Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday), Humphrey Bogart (They Drive By Night), Walter Brennan (The Westerner), John Carradine (The Grapes of Wrath), Ian Hunter (Strange Cargo), Paul Lukas (Night Train to Munich), Herbert Marshall (Foreign Correspondent), Thomas Mitchell (Angels over Broadway), Thomas Mitchell (The Long Voyage Home), Frank Morgan (The Mortal Storm), Jack Oakie (The Great Dictator), Sabu (The Thief of Baghdad), Akim Tamiroff (The Great McGinty), Conrad Veidt (The Thief of Baghdad), Raymond Walburn (Christmas in July)

Frank Morgan in "The Shop Around the Corner"

I was inclined to choose Frank Morgan’s performance in The Mortal Storm as the best supporting performance by an actor of 1940. I was impressed by his job in the dramatic role of a Jewish professor who endures persecuting under the Nazi regime in Germany. It shows off his true range, proving he was more than a comedic supporting actor as his resume might suggest. But what I initially missed is that his role in The Shop Around the Corner shows off the best of his dramatic and comedic abilities in the same film, making it a much more rounded and nuanced performance much more deserving of recognition.

Morgan plays Hugo Matuschek, the owner of a medium sized gift shop in (carefully established pre-war) Budapest. Just like any businessman, he is plagued by business problems: mediocre sales, escalating demands from employees, merchandising fiascos. His initial clashes with his chief salesperson, Alfred (James Stewart) are funny and endearing; there is a bond between the two deeper than most employee-employer relationships. It is more like a father-son relationship, replete with all the common ups and downs.

Like other classic comedic roles he’s played (like in The Good Fairy and The Wizard of Oz) Morgan is bumbling and indecisive. Here he uses his trademark mumbling and strategic yelping to great effect but without overdoing it, careful not to disrupt the deliberate tone of the film, which teeters precariously (though successfully) between comedy and tragedy. He is genuinely funny as he tries to assert his authority over employees who are largely more competent or thoughtful than he is, like when Alfred suggest he pass on investing in dozens of shoddily made music boxes. Rather than admit Alfred might be right, Hugo rashly agrees to buy the boxes and display them prominently in the store, as though he were just waiting for Alfred’s decision so he could do the opposite. (If, however, he hoped to prove his business proficiency he fails; the boxes spend the rest of the film untouched.)

It is in the later scenes we realize Matuschek’s moodiness is rooted in deeper personal problems, which he takes out mercilessly on Alfred. These scenes are uncomfortable for us to watch because Morgan has already established his character as an essentially good hearted man paternally bound to Alfred. Where is this hostility coming from? I won’t give away too much for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, but this story line gives Morgan the opportunity to show off his dramatic chops and he does not disappoint. Matuschek may have appeared to be a clownish bungler before, but we realize that those traits stem from deeper insecurities and darker conflicts within himself.

The closing scene, one of my favorite moments in movie history.

Morgan proves that he was one of the most versatile and talented supporting actors of the 1930s and 1940s with his diligently observed characterization of Hugo Matuschek. He proved that he wasn’t a one-trick pony, that he was able to dig deep and access darker emotions than some of his comedic work would suggest. He fluctuates between light comedy and dark drama seamlessly and bring to life a character that set the tone for the entire picture. My favorite scene in the entire film (maybe one of my favorites in all of film history) comes at the end on Christmas Eve. Hugo has bid farewell and merry Christmas to all his employees. He had a vague hope that someone would invite him to their Christmas Eve celebration, but they all walk off into the snowy night without doing so. Expecting to spend the holiday alone, he runs into the young stock boy Rudy and discovers that the boy, someone he never paid much attention to before, has no friends or family in the city. Hugo invites the boy to spend Christmas with him, joyfully and excitedly describing the menu as Rudy almost literally licks his lips. It’s a touching moment pulled off with skill by the great Frank Morgan.

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Jane Darwell (The Grapes of Wrath) – Best Supporting Actress of 1940

Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath"

Other Noteworthy Performances: Judith Anderson (Rebecca), Mary Astor (Brigham Young), Fay Bainter (Our Town), Lucille Ball (Dance, Girl, Dance), Mary Boland (Pride and Prejudice), Beulah Bondi (Our Town), Mildred Natwick (The Long Voyage Home), Marjorie Rambeau (Primrose Path), Flora Robson (The Sea Hawk)

The list above highlights the best supporting actresses of 1940 but, as good as they all are, the choice really came down to Jane Darwell as the resilient matriarch of the Joad clan in The Grapes of Wrath and Judith Anderson as the exacting but deranged housekeeper in Rebecca. Both own their roles, confidently executing their characters’ crucial but very different tasks in the their respective films: Darwell’s Ma Joad is the glue of the troubled family, trying her best to hold her loved ones together through all the vicissitudes of the Great Depression’s anemic agricultural economy. But if Ma Joad is the glue of her film’s story, Mrs. Danvers serves as her story’s acetone as she fiendishly devises new ways to demean her new mistress and keep her beloved former mistress’ memory alive.

Anderson certainly tallies up several points for effectively conveying the lesbian subtext without also implying her sexuality is the reason she has bats in the belfry. (Though the movie doesn’t suggest otherwise either. For all of my admiration for Hitchcock, he did love to make his villains homosexuals, a tactless ploy to make them creepier and, at the same time, understandable to average audiences who probably had little to no experience with sinister homosexuals.) Anderson didn’t let the Sapphic element dominate her interpretation of the role.

Still I settled on Jane Darwell, that sturdy supporting actress of the 1930s and 1940s who brought Ma Joad to life. One reason I chose her over Judith Anderson is because her part he meatier and requires more range. Ma Joad is a woman who feels quietly; she doesn’t bemoan her pain, nor does she trumpet her joy. She does not exhibit love with hugs and kisses. Darwell, then, has to almost exclusively use her eyes. Only by watching her eyes can we truly know what she is feeling.

Jane Darwell (with Henry Fonda) shows off her wonderfully expressive face and eyes.

Another tribute to Darwell’s effectiveness is a simple test for those who’ve read the book: can we imagine anyone else playing this part? For me the answer is a resounding no. Who else in Hollywood had both Darwell’s strong physique and weather-beaten face, suggesting a lifetime of hard work, while still successfully expressing the depth of pathos Darwell squeezes out of every one of Ford’s loving close ups? Darwell skillfully subverts the initial impression of her sturdy physique and the sparsity of her dialogue by rendering her the most empathetic and subtly emotional of the whole family (with the exception of Rose of Sharon).

Considering the Academy’s tendency to hand Oscars to the most popular but least deserving (I’m thinking, of course, of Sandra Bullock), it’s something of a miracle that they managed to honor Ms. Darwell for a rich and moving performance that also happens to be the best of 1940. I guess she lucked out, being both popular and deserving.

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His Girl Friday – Best Pictures of 1940 (#1)

Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, and Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday"

Well Sam and Jon predicted my next move accurately in the Grapes of Wrath comments thread. His Girl Friday stands as one of the only truly perfect Hollywood era comedies, along with The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). (Is it a coincidence that Cary Grant was in all three?) Every element is in perfect sync, so much so that watching His Girl Friday makes us resent the mediocre movies that take up the majority of theater space and air time. (Though we can forgive most of the bad ones. At least they can still be entertaining in a perverse way. I’d rather watch Linda Blair in Roller Boogie than just about any Katherine Heigl “comedy.”)

This movie is another gem from Howard Hawks. He took a slightly better than average 1931 newspaper drama, The Front Page, and by tweeking the characters and the story a bit, turned it into a first rate comedy. What we appreciate is how much care Hawks spent with the script: the dialogue crackles with wit, puns, and innuendos that elevate the script to some of the best movie writing – comedy or otherwise – ever. Consider the scene in which a hapless messenger tries to deliver a stay of execution for a prisoner to a befuddled sheriff and his exacerbated mayor. The mayor, overly conscious of public opinion against the prisoner, doesn’t want the stay, the sheriff takes orders from his city hall boss, and the messenger just wants to get rid of the message. The three talk in circles as each tries to pass the message off on the other, misunderstanding and misinterpreting each other along the way. Their dialogue overlaps and intertwines; double meanings and playful puns pile up into one of the funniest scenes of all time, which is amazing considering neither Cary Grant nor Rosalind Russell, the brilliant leads of the movie, don’t appear in it.

That’s how we know the movie is special. When supporting players are allowed to briefly overshadow their leads (and they rise to the opportunity). Here it would not have been easy to do with Grant and Russell. They transform already great material into something divine. Grant plays Walter Burns, the hard-nosed editor of a major metropolitan newspaper always looking out for the scoop (even if it comes a little dishonestly) or the fresh angle on a tired story. The story of the moment is the impending execution of a convicted murderer, a man who stubbornly refuses to give interviews. All seems lost until Hildy Johnson (Russell) walks into his office to flaunt her new fiancé (Ralph Bellamy). Not only was Hildy Walter’s top reporter but she was also his wife. Walter realizes he needs the best for this story and the best just walked into his office. Even though she is determined to retire and get married, Walter is equally determined to snare Hildy back into the newspaper game. Through cunning, flattery, treachery, even kidnapping, Walter gets Hildy for just this one last story, confident he can remind her that the newspaper game is in her blood and that one last adrenaline rush of getting the story in just under the deadline will disabuse her of any goofy retirement ideas and, just possibly, win her back as a wife.

Of course we’re never sure if Walter is consciously trying to win her back; maybe he considers winning her back the easiest way to keep her working for him – or vice versa. Or, the more likely third option, that for Walter there is no distinction for their relationship. Whichever is the case Walter’s schemes, Hildy’s reactions, and her poor fiancé’s desperate attempt to collect her and catch a train all culminate into one of the greatest movie comedies. Hawks’ measured insanity never feels out of control or over the top, but it’s always funny and, even seventy years later, still feels fresh. How could this movie, one of my favorite of all time, not be the best of 1940?

What are your favorite movies of 1940? What do you think I missed? Or got right? Next up will be the best performances of 1940.

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The Grapes of Wrath – Best Pictures of 1940 (#2)

The Joads at the beginning of their ill-fated journey

John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath comes in at number two rather than number one only because the movie is more timid than the book. We feel the watchful eyes of the Hayes Office preventing the movie from becoming a truly great masterpiece. As a result we often don’t connect the lingering sting of poverty with the heartless economic system that requires poverty to keep wages low the way we did in the book.

Still, Ford managed to make a great movie that may not indict capitalism run amok as strongly as Steinbeck did, but it is still a powerful testament to unchecked capitalism’s dehumanization of the poor.

The movie is guided by Ford at the top of his game; his direction is confident and determined. How easy it would have been for the material to descend into eye-rolling sentimentality or preachy vitriol. But the story of the Joad family – evicted from their family farm in Oklahoma and making their way to California to the promise of work – never crosses those lines. These are proud, simple people (and not simple as in stupid, but simple as in uncomplicated by the complexities of our postmodern world) who would never think to question the system. They wouldn’t even think of trying to change it; all they can do is wade through it as best they can, no matter how unjust. When the ex-preacher Casey explains the importance of organizing agricultural workers into a union, he is mostly met with suspicion. Unions don’t gel with their conception of a traditional employer/employee relationship, but they will also learn, over time, that those traditional work ethics don’t apply. Exploitation is institutionalized here.

Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell

Even when the troubled ex-con, Tom Joad gives his farewell speech to his mother (now a classic moment in film history), it is heartfelt rather than sermonizing, despite the obvious ring of a writer’s hand in the words. Henry Fonda’s sensitive performance is, after Ford’s direction, the second anchor of the film. Like James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Fonda’s Tom is the embodiment of the ideal American: hard working, fair, respectful. But this does not mean he is without his flaws. His anger often gets the better of him and as he navigates the turbulent world of transient workers. Who’s anger wouldn’t flare at seeing already poor people cheated and taken advantage of?

The Grapes of Wrath is a classic of American cinema that marks a shameful series of episodes of the Great Depression. Our journey with the Joads into deeper and more unshakable poverty is heartbreaking and unforgettable. Unfortunately the movie is still a relevant invective against the triumph of avarice over brotherhood, selfishness over empathy.

So this leaves one last slot. Can you guess what my choice for the best of the year is? And let me know what your favorite is.

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The Shop Around the Corner – Best Pictures of 1940 (#3)

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart try to ignore each other in "The Shop Around the Corner"

To describe the plot of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner invites readers unfamiliar with the movie to conclude that it is a trite, inconsequential piece of fluff. Lubitsch utilizes all the devices of the worst examples of these types of movies (mistaken identity, physical comedy, miraculous coincidences, etc.), but it never comes off as manufactured or manipulative like its lesser counterparts. Lubitsch understood the importance of populating his pictures with well-developed characters. Here he took that a step further by carefully balancing them and his comedy with a pathos that elevates the material to classic status.

Alfred and Klara (James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) are co-workers at a Budapest gift shop and, though they are both young, attractive, and would appear to be a perfect romantic match, they despise each other. What they don’t know is they are in love. This isn’t a love that develops in spite of their initial hatred of one another, but a love that grows from an anonymous correspondence. Both have answered a personal ad and, unbeknownst to them, Alfred and Klara have been writing each other. They are enamored with their epistolary partners completely ignorant of the fact that they work with their fantasy loves every day.

Lubitsch sets this story in Matuschek’s Store and populates it with a diverse cast of characters, from the nervous owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) to the dapper suck-up (Joseph Schildkraut) to the ambitious delivery boy Pepi. Lubitsch takes the time to explore the little dramas of these characters’ lives, especially Matuschek’s mysteriously metastasizing depression. We never see any of these characters at home or interact with their own families. For the purposes of this film their lives are contained by the physical and social limits of their jobs. Though it is taken to an extreme here, this is true for most people who spend more of their waking hours with their co-workers than with their friends and families.

The workplace community

The constitution of this strange, almost random kind of family is at the heart of Lubitsch’s film. At any job we are thrown in with complete strangers and in no time we get involved in their personal and professional trials – and they in ours. Matuschek’s Store shows us how work life can have all the same dynamics as an extended family. We see the women dote on Pepi and everyone’s concern for Matuschek’s increasingly erratic behavior and the way they all celebrate together on Christmas Eve. There is something touching –and true to life – about life in this store.

Of course it takes several reels for Alfred and Klara to realize they aren’t just feuding co-workers, because, like any extended family, personal jealousies and competitions can strain relationships. Once they realize the true identity of their love-by-mail partner, they recognize all the fantasies they created for their phantom lovers were walking by unidentified every day at work. They finally come to terms with the fact that our closest connections often come with our co-workers and once we put aside the cloud of professional competition, we can build true and lasting relationships.

They tried a remake with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the 1990s called You’ve Got Mail, substituting those antiquated letters with email messages. I have somehow avoided seeing it all these years so, if some of you have seen both, I would be curious to know how they stack up.

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Rebecca – Best Pictures of 1940 (#4)

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in "Rebecca"

Rebecca is the only picture directed by Alfred Hitchcock to be awarded the Oscar for best picture, though they failed to also honor the director, an oversight the Academy would never correct despite his direction of some of the best films of the 1940s and 1950s (Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest). Perhaps, though, they were right to snub Hitchcock this time. Rebecca was as much producer David O. Selznick’s picture as it was Hitchcock’s; they both battled to assert their own visions and Selznick shaped much of the look, style, and narrative of the film with his usual rigorous oversight.

Rebecca turned out to be a fine movie, though I don’t agree that it’s the best picture of the year. Based on a book by Daphne Du Marier, Rebecca is something of a twentieth century gothic mishmash of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. A meek, unnamed woman (Joan Fontaine) who is traveling in the south of France acting as a companion for a domineering snob. She is whisked off her feet in a whirlwind romance by Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a mysterious and moody widower. In a flash they are married and he takes her to his ancestral home Manderley (castle more like it). Once in England, the new Mrs. De Winter confronts the figurative ghost of Max’ dead wife Rebecca.

Her oppressive presence is felt everywhere, kept alive by Manderley’s unbalanced housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Danvers resents the new Mrs. De Winter, not because she isn’t fine or sophisticated (which she isn’t really), but because her frustrated love for her former mistress bursts out in jealous rages at the thought of this little mouse trying to replace the grand Rebecca de Winter. Danvers isn’t outright hostile. It is a subtle, passive aggressive hostility that bubbles just below the each question or comment made to the new Mrs. De Winter. A critique is always implied with a pursed lip or a raised eyebrow, never voiced.

Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) makes life hell for Mrs. de Winter

Mrs. De Winter is tested further when evidence is uncovered that suggests Rebecca may have been murdered. Could her beloved Max have killed his first wife? Hitchcock had to change the end of the book to conform to Hayes Office standards and just about any objective observation  will deem the change silly. It may weaken the end of the film, but it doesn’t destroy the impact of the entire picture. I think that is a testament of the genius of Hitchcock; he handles everything expertly, so much so that we (mostly) accept a logically tortured twist in the plot.

Rebecca is a fine work of suspense, though certainly not Hitchcock’s best. We can sometimes feel the conflicting visions of Hitchcock and Selznick at work. The movie is more fluid, less regimented than most of Hitchcock’s other films. This clash of styles could have been disastrous, but they managed to craft a moody psychological thriller out of the best of both.

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Pride and Prejudice – Best Pictures of 1940 (#5)

I’m going to come right out and say it: I love this movie. Yes, there are better versions of the book and I know this one has its detractors, especially among Jane Austen purists, but this Hollywood adaptation still captures its humor and wit and turns out to be a wonderful time at the movies. Greer Garson, a little old for the part but good nonetheless, plays Elizabeth, the intelligent, level-headed oldest sister of the Bennett clan. She, along with her four sisters, weather the choppy waters of romance and the unpredictable currents of courtship in early nineteenth century England.

Austen’s novel (incidentally one of my favorites) is a classic satire of relations between the classes and the sexes. Like another high profile literary adaptation of 1940 (which will appear higher up on the list) Robert Z. Leonard’s film excises some of the source material’s most biting social observations. Much of the pointed critiques of class have been removed in favor of a Hollywoodized ending, played for laughs instead of thoughtfulness. The snobbery of the rich and the sycophancy of their hanger-ons are presented as sources of good natured ribbing, not critical commentart. Even Lady Catherine’s final meeting with Elizabeth, during which the aristocrat tells the common born young woman to stay away from Darcy, loses its original intention. In the book the meeting was meant to sternly warn Elizabeth away from the romantic attentions of Darcy in favor of Lady Catherine’s daughter. The movie transforms Lady Catherine’s motivations into a harsh, but ultimately warm hearted, test of Elizabeth’s love. We could see that coming though. Could Edna May Oliver ever play a true snob?

Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson flirt in "Pride and Prejudice"

The movie works in spite of its timidity. We get wrapped up in the characters and their often converging storylines that only the most ardent Jane Austen fanatics are bothered by the changes. It is a joyful, energetic film that leaves us grinning. It is played largely as a romantic comedy and, so long as we don’t turn our noses up at it, we can accept this interpretation.

Joining Garson is Laurence Olivier, perfectly cast as the brooding, mysterious Darcy. He’s able to tone down the darkness of his portrayals of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Max de Winter from Rebecca to deliver a sharp but personable interpretation of the classic character. The Bennett family is alternately pulled between the frenetic scatterbrainedness of Marly Boland’s Mrs. Bennett, the sort of frivolous, mouth-moves-faster-than-the-brain characters she was born to play. And Edmund Gwenn is effective as the staid, ever-suffering Mr. Bennett. The Bennett sisters are made up of many up-and-coming young Hollywood actresses like Anne Rutherford and Margaret O’Sullivan. It really is an ideal Hollywood cast for these characters. (OK, maybe it would have been fun to see Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Bennett.)

There have been many versions of this book, some of which were produced with more fidelity to Austen’s intention. Some have been richer and more layered cinematic experiences. I’m not privileging this film over the book; I would always recommend the book over any movie. But despite the departures from the novel, there are few movies I have enjoyed so completely.

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