Monthly Archives: May 2012

“That’s the only bit of England they got.” — Went the Day Well? — Best Pictures of 1942 (#5)

The specter of a German invasion looms

There was no shortage of propaganda films from all sides during the Second World War, but the British knew how to make them better than anyone else. U.S.studios tried, but their efforts are sanitized and fluffy – goofy musical comedies and white-washed war dramas belie the terrors that were going on. Even supposed classics like Wake Island evoke a tinge of phoniness despite all its alleged gritty realism.

Of course the U.S wasn’t directly threatened by German invasion the way Great Britainwas so their movies lack the immediacy their British counterparts captured. The Japanese  did bomb Pearl Harborand while a Japanese invasion of the West Coast was theoretically possible, it never felt eminent. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle never had to contend with relentless blitzkrieg-style bombings the way London did.

For this reason, British propaganda films exude an urgent relevance that Hollywood couldn’t and probably didn’t want to match. Films like Contraband, The Spy in Black, and Next of Kin made effective cases against wartime issues like taking advantage of the black market and blabbing sensitive information in public places. Hollywood just sent Tyrone Power to fly for the RAF, populated stage and screen stars in Stage Door and Hollywood Canteens, and largely turned the battlefield into hackneyed action picture backdrops.

Meanwhile, the British were making movies with more substance. One of the best of these British cautionary tales is Went the Day Well, which recounts a fictional German invasion ofEngland. Here, however, German paratroopers don’t storm the beaches and bombs don’t come raining down. It is a secret, insidious invasion that depends on advance German agents and British stupidity. And, the movie warns, you can expect the coming invasion in the unlikeliest of places.

The unlikely place for the invasion in this film is the picturesque village of Bramley End. The villagers are pleased to learn that they will play host to a detachment of the British army doing communications work in the area. Initially they are proud to host these soldiers, many of them quartered in their own homes. They had been cut off from the war effort, unaffected by the Blitz or preparations on the coast for the feared invasion, and they see this as their opportunity to pitch in and do their parts for the war that, perhaps guiltily, they had been so disconnected.

 

The town is held hostage by the men they thought they could trust

But some villager begin to suspect that the soldiers aren’t what they seem. Why do some never speak or understand when they are spoken to? Why does one have a German bar of chocolate in his knapsack? Slowly it becomes clear that this isn’t a British military unit, but an advance German team, cutting communications and capturing vital buildings to make the coming German invasion invincible. The villagers, cut off from the outside world, realize it is up to them to band together and stop the invaders.

To make matters worse, there is a traitor in their ranks. Someone they have known and trusted for years is really an advance German agent, thwarting their efforts at every move. They don’t know who the traitor is (or, for much of the film, that there even is a traitor), but we do. And our hope is dashed again and again as the cleverest of plans fail with many deaths because they entrusted their plans with a traitor.

The movie doesn’t pull any punches and that is part of why it is so effective. Just when a Hollywood movie would go soft, this one toughens up. Some of the most sympathetic characters in the film fall in defense of their nation and instead of mourning, we cheer. There is an especially effective scene where someone juggles with a grenade to save a roomful of children. We’ve come to respect that character over the course of the picture, but her death is heroic, rather than gloomy.

 

Those who can fight on to the end

And all the gimmicks that would have brought the cavalry to save the day fail here. One plan after another falls apart. In one scene a woman visits the village, unaware of the German presence. Someone slips her a note. We spend several minutes with her on the road as she overlooks the notes and then loses it altogether.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is realistic imagining of a German fifth column invasion. This is an idealized reaction to an invasion – most everyone is remarkably heroic. And, while it might not be far off, it is still conjecture and fantasy. But it is conjecture and fantasy that is ever so satisfying, one of the best let’s-be-prepared-for-the-enemy films of the 1940s and maybe of all time.

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“You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything.” — The Palm Beach Story — Best Pictures of 1942 (#6)

It’s hard to find a movie as diametrically opposed to the last film I wrote about, the socially conscious Hungarian drama Emberek a havason. But, at the risk of sounding too weepy-eyed about the wonder of movies, that really is the joy of film. So many people have brought so many styles and perspectives, making their work truly their own and giving us a rich selection of film from all genres. Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story is one of the best comedies of the 1940s and an easy choice for the best of 1942.

We begin at “And they lived happily ever after…”

Preston Sturges makes his intentions clear with the opening sequence of The Palm Beach Story. We cut between Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea each dashing to the church for their wedding, racing to be on time. We see a woman tied up and locked in a closet and an hysterical maid, though we aren’t sure what it all means. We might not understand, but they do set the tone. We immediately know that there will be no high-minded philosophizing like we got in Sullivan’s Travels or denunciation of political machines like in The Great McGinty. This is going to be a pure, madcap, zany comedy and, if the first few minutes are any indication, we are in for an hour and a half of great screwball comedy.

If it seems like this movie ends where most begin, Sturges designed it that way. Colbert and McCrea get married at the beginning and Sturges spends the next hour and a half deconstructing the traditional Hollywood happy ending. We rejoin the couple five years later, down on their luck and on the rocks. Gerry (Colbert) decides to leave her inventor husband, Tom (McCrea).  She is, she reasons, a millstone around his neck, a burden, just an added expense and responsibility without giving him anything in return. She can’t even cook. And she believes she can do more for him out in the world, cooing and cajoling rich old men to invest in his harebrained plan to build a suspended airport over the city. Tom, of course, resents the idea of benefiting from Gerry’s sexuality and tries to stop her leaving, but her mind is made up.

Gerry endures the favors of admiring men to get to Florida — for free.

She jumps on a train forPalm Beachto get a divorce and meet rich men. On the way she meets one of the richest men in the country, J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). He falls for her hard and she sees her chance to live out her life on easy street and help Tom build his airport. Meanwhile, Tom flies toFloridato stop the divorce and win her back.

This brief outline of the plot misses the comedic richness of the film, like Tom’s and Gerry’s (haha) individual meeting with the Weenie King, a stone deaf old man who throws his money around, or Gerry’s encounter with a drunken hunting club, which spends more time shooting up the bar than game. These are the people that populate Sturges’ world, a world that is dictated by mostly unspoken gender politics and sexualized scuffles. Movies like this make me wonder why people think it used to be so much more wholesome back in grandpa’s day. It wasn’t. They just winked more.

Sturges’ characters crackle with his signature witty dialogue and brilliant double entendres, allowing the miscreants and misfits of the film the chance to say much more on the DL than censors would have allowed them to say outright and allowing Sturges a chance to say something about sexuality in a supposedly sexless society. The characters are deaf, drunk, snobby, horny, solicitous, but they are never boring and always find a way to say something true about how sexuality is alternately exploited and wielded in a country where married couples supposedly slept in twin beds.

It would be hard for any girl to say no to that rock, even with the man she loves (Joel McCrea) glowering on.

Sturges had something of a stock company of performers who could rattle off his rapid-fire dialogue with ease, including William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn, and they come through for him here. Robert Dudley plays the Wienie King and his deafness makes for some great wordplay. Also joining the cast is Mary Astor as Hackensacker’s horny sister who sets her eyes on Tom, who Gerry has convinced to pose as her brother. She has some great one-liners, some of which would have made Mae West proud.

Through all the screwball antics Sturges is making a point: sexual power games may be the way the world really operates, but they don’t have to define us. Sturges places Gerry smack dab in the middle of a love triangle that forces her to choose between money (and security) and love (and insecurity). It isn’t difficult to figure out she’ll sacrifice the practical for the sentimental, though Sturges gives us a final twist, however implausible, that allows everyone to have a happy ending, including Hackensacker and his sister. But do we care that it isn’t plausible? It was all goofy from the beginning, but we had a great time, one of the marks of a truly great comedy.

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Emberek a havason (People of the Mountains) — Best Pictures of 1942 (#7)

When you think of prolific moviemaking countries,Hungaryisn’t usually the first to pop in our minds. Cinematic powerhouses like theUnited States, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Japan, Italy, and Germany, sure, but Hungary? It’s a shame that Hungaryisn’t better recognized as a founding country of film art. Hungarian artists pioneered movies from their earliest days and recognized the artistic and intellectual possibilities of the medium well before the French or Americans (or at least concurrently). They may have been the first to translate their nations’ classic novels and plays into films.

It is from this tradition that István Szöts’ magnificent People of the Mountains came into being. Despite the Hungarian government’s alliance with Nazi Germany and strictures against anything but light, escapist fare, Szöts managed to get this anti-capitalist morality play produced and screened, even going on to win a prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Szöts introduces us to a quiet mountain community stuck in many ways in the nineteenth century, carrying all the burdens of life without modern conveniences but supported by a strong community. Life can be hard, but satisfying all the same until the destructive forces of unchecked capitalism encroach on their community, culture, and families. At first the promises of good jobs and high wages at a new lumber mill seems the answer to all their problems. Good wages will mean they won’t have to struggle so hard to survive, or so they think. Their once idyllic mountain community turns into an industrial nightmare. No one knows who among their once trusted neighbors they can turn to as everyone scrambles to get what they can, while they can. Eventually, the fractured community becomes vulnerable and its people are driven from their ancestral lands by the very forces they once looked on with such hope.

An Italian film journal later cited People of the Alps as an early model for post-war Italian Neorealism. Szöts shot the film in the mountains of Transylvania, using mostly non-professional actors and his narrative follows a non-traditional structure. The result is a grittily realistic foray into the lives of people filmmakers generally ignore: the rural poor. Szöts depicts these people with dignity and respect, something filmmakers, when they have turned their lenses on the rural poor, have had a bad track record with (just think of the recent independent darling Winter’s Bone, which is mind-bogglingly admired despite its clear disdain for most of its characters and their community).

This is a tough film to find. As far as I know there hasn’t been any U.S.video or DVD releases. It was once uploaded onto You Tube, but it has since been removed. If anyone has any hints on where I and others who haven’t had the chance to see People of the Mountains yet, please enlighten us. It is well worth seeking out, not just to rediscover this film, but as a step to begin exploring Hungary’s rich film history.

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