Category Archives: 1942

“I stick my neck out for nobody!” — Casablanca — Best Pictures of 1942 (#1)

Yes, Casablanca is, of course, my choice for the best picture of 1942. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. There are few classic movies that are as universally loved and rightly so. What might come as a surprise is my neglecting The Magnificent Ambersons, often considered one of the greatest U.S. movies. Though I think Orson Welles probably made a great movie, its mutilation by RKO has left us with only a disjoined skeleton of a narrative that I’ve never been able to connect with. There is beautiful photography, great sequences, and some fantastic performances, all of which simply make me angry about the movie we lost. While I love parts of it, I can’t say I love The Magnificent Ambersons or consider what we have among the best films of 1942. I do, however, consider Casablanca in that class.

Casablanca is about as close to a perfect movie as they come. There was every opportunity for it to descend into Hollywood phoniness, but it somehow manages to maintain an emotional authenticity that was rare from the celluloid sausage factories of Hollywood in the 1940s.

The artistic success of Casablanca is all the more surprising when one reads up on the history of its production. It was, simply put, chaotic. The script wasn’t finished when they started production, and cast and crew filmed early scenes unsure how the picture would end. Would Elsa stay with Rick or fly off with Laszlo? Internal memos from Warner Bros. shows a lot of hand wringing over how to resolve the story without tarnishing Bogart’s and Bergman’s star statuses and monkeying with public expectations. Of course they finally figured it out and created what I would call a sublime ending.

Of course the success of Casablanca would not have been possible without Bogart’s great performance, bringing the emotionally wounded Rick to the screen. Nor would it have been possible without Ingrid Bergman’s performance either. Elsa is a woman crippled by her desire to be with the man she loves and her duty to a higher cause. The performances anchor the film and are some of the best of each of their respective careers.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman smolder in Casablanca

But the movie is much richer, more complex than the Rick-Elsa-Laszlo triangle. The anxious ex-pat community of Casablanca, desperately fleeing the advancing Nazis, is masterfully realized. We watch characters from around the world, from all economic and social classes, caught in limbo as they wait for those elusive exit visas to get to the United States. Writers Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch didn’t ignore the importance of these subplots to the main story. These characters and their backstories help humanize Rick. We see how the endless stream of sob stories forces him to build an emotional wall, but that wall is illusory. He is constantly measuring his ability to help with as little risk to himself as possible.

Not that he’s a coward. He simply understands the importance of picking his fights and planning them out so he is available to help another day. What a powerful message that must have been at the height of the war. No matter how dark or cynical the times, one man, no matter how selfish he may be, can change things for the better.

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Aniki Bóbó — Best Pictures of 1942 (#2)

The children of Aniki Bobo

Aniki Bóbó is one of those movies unknown to most of the world because its director didn’t have the foresight to produce it in the U.S., France, Japan, or other country with a prolific film output. It was, instead, made in Portugal, a country not generally associated with great filmmaking, so it has languished in obscurity for decades. It seems only movie dorks and cultural snobs have given it any love. I supposed it’s lucky (?) that I fall into one or both of those categories, because it has given me the opportunity to know about, see, and fall in love with Aniki Bóbó, a classic film about childhood, innocence (or its loss), and the effects of guilt. Despite its technical roughness and non-professional child actors, it’s as close to a perfect movie as they come and just barely is edged out of the top spot of 1942.

Director Manuel de Oliveira doesn’t so much tell a story as create (or recreate) the hierarchical, high-stakes world of children in the Portuguese city of Porto. Carlito is a small but scrappy young boy hopelessly in love with Terezina, but, as is usually the case, the class bully Edouardo stands between them. If this sounds like the basic premise behind most Popeye cartoons, it is. But Oliveira skillfully maneuvers us past this initial conflict quickly, keenly aware that no relationship or power structure remains static in the fluid world of children for long. Relationships, conflicts, and alliances are remarkably elastic. At one point Carlito and Edouardo are trading blows, but by the evening they are playing cops and robbers together.

Eduardo and Carlitos square off

A major thread of the movie’s narrative involves Carlito’s guilt after pinching a doll from the local general store as a gift for Terezina. Carlito’s plight isn’t at the level of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, but it’s enough to cause the normally confident boy to second guess his impulsive action. Even this action doesn’t fuel the major drama of the film. Instead it comes when a tragic accident occurs and everyone believes Carlitos is responsible. From the way Carlitos deals with the unjustified accusations to how he resolves his theft of the doll, we witness the early development of what will become a good, decent man.

And, of course, Portugal and much of Europe was in need of more decent men in 1942. Portugal was well in the grip of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s fascist Estado Novo. Sure, Portuguese fascism might not have been as brutal as the fascism that conquered Germany and Italy, it still relied on intimidation and repression to keep the citizenry in line. We see the same dynamic play out in Aniki Bóbó as the children enforce their social code by ostracizing Carlitos after the accident. There’s no sense of doing justice, just ensuring that everyone maintains order without question. I am always fascinated by humanistic art like this created under fascist (or any totalitarian rule) and never tire of finding ways to find connections between the repressive government and artistic attempts to surreptitiously comment on them. This is one of the best and charming movies of this kind.

Horácio Silva as Carlitos

Another reason this movie shines for me is the way Oliveira masterfully negotiates the movie’s characters, almost all children. It’s tough to make good movie about children. I think there are two keys. One is the casting, which Oliveira completes nearly flawlessly here. He plucked the most charismatic and photogenic children from the Portuguese port city. Nearly all are perfect, but the real gem is Horácio Silva who plays Carlitos. He isn’t a professional actor, but the camera loves his face and his natural charisma helps him muscle past some of the rough patches of his performance.

The other key to making a great movie about children is a director having respect for his subjects and Oliveira treats the often petty squabbles with the same gravity as the children themselves do. He never looks down his nose at them or handles their conflicts or dramas with any hint of condescension or irony, much like Truffaut would later do in his brilliant 1976 film L’argent de poche.

Preemptive defense of upcoming controversy: Anyone who has been paying attention realizes there is only one spot left and two classic U.S. films that most would at least include on a list of the best of 1942, if not top it. I will admit without tipping my hand that one of these movies I actively loathe. I’m ready to take the slings and arrows of outraged film fans; I’ve done it before. So I’ll reveal the top choice and I’ll get all kinds of comments like, “How could you leave off…, you idiot!” I’m aware that I do not like a movie most of you claim to adore. Without giving too much away, I will defend my antipathy by saying I have seen it several times and each time I watch it I try to reset my past dislike and find the genius everyone claims to see. But each time I get more and more depressed as I lose interest in the narrative and its characters. So before I’m jumped on for being negligent, know I’ve watched and evaluated the movie you love and honestly find it to be grossly overrated.

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“I’ll decide with whom my wife is going to have dinner and whom she’s going to kill!” –To Be Or Not to Be – Best Pictures of 1942 (#3)

Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as the first couple of Warsaw theater pose with their supporting players.

When making a comedy about a serious, emotionally traumatic event, filmmakers usually have to gauge whether or not the public is ready for its cinematic treatment. Several U.S. filmmakers forayed into the Iraq War while it was at its height and the public responded with resounding indifference. It has to be immeasurably more difficult to time the public’s receptiveness to a comedy about such as event. Comedy is hard enough under the best of circumstances, but writers and directors usually want to avoid theaters not just devoid of laughter, but chalk full of indignation. “Too soon?” they might ask while shrugging.

With To Be Or Not to Be, director Ernst Lubitsch not only didn’t bother with considerations of the public’s delicate sensibilities, but openly flaunted them and, in the process, made one of the greatest comedies of all time about, of all things, the Nazi occupation of Poland. Most filmmakers shied away from making a comedy about the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1942, when the Nazis were still kicking up their boots in Warsaw. It would have be akin to making a madcap comedy about September 11 while rescue workers were still digging through the rubble in Manhattan. (OK, maybe it’s not exactly an equivalent example; people had several years to get accustomed to the horrors of Nazi occupation while the world was shocked by September 11 in a matter of hours. Still I think the spirit is the same.)

Lubitsch, from a script by Edwin Justus Mayer, finds the perfect tone, a careful balance between madcap comedy and a serious meditation on the nature of freedom and the responsibilities it entails. In the film, Joseph and Maria Tura are a pair of famous Polish actors who get caught up in the initial invasion in 1939 and later become embroiled with Nazi spies, the Polish underground, and Gestapo stooges, despite their own overwhelming vanity and egocentricity.

 

The Turas play the parts of their lives.

Carole Lombard shines (as always) as Maria Tura in her final role before a tragic plane crash took her life. Lombard’s Maria is flighty, flirty, and, at first glance, completely useless anywhere other than, maybe, a stage (though we never really see Maria at work and can’t judge her ability). She begins an innocent (?) flirtation with a handsome young flier (Robert Stack), arranging to meet him in her dressing room while her hammy actor husband Joseph is on stage reciting Hamlet’s To Be Or Not to Be soliloquy, when she knows they will have plenty of time and Joseph won’t be able to disturb them. It is during one of these meetings thatGermanyinvades and the life that Joseph and Maria once had, where critics and ticket sales were the only serious considerations, is turned on its head and they get involved in a Nazi plot to capture and kill all the key members of the Polish underground. They, along with the colorful characters they work with in the theater, vow to stop the Nazi plan and save the Underground.

To Be Or Not to Be is slick, thoughtful, and, above all, immensely funny. Even Jack Benny turns in a good performance. He may have been a great radio and television talent, but his film career was decidedly lackluster, though you wouldn’t know it judging from this film.

But Lubitsch’s film is more than a vehicle for Jack Benny or a mindless comedy. It suggests that even those who appear the most frivolous in society are capable of rising to the fight against foreign occupation and tyranny. Some of the most ill-informed and apolitical will be roused to action when they see their cities and homes occupied, their friends and neighbors arrested, freedom squashed, and national identity subsumed by violence. And this, the movie argues, is why fascism will fail. It needs violence, intimidation, and repression to succeed and these tools can provoke even the silliest, like the Turas, to work against it.

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“I thought perhaps we’d live together this year, but no.” — There Was a Father — Best Pictures of 1942 (#4)

Every time I put together one of these lists a movie by Yasujiro Ozu seems to slide in, usually somewhere high on the list, if not on the top. I always liked Ozu, but I never necessarily thought of him as one of my favorite filmmakers. However, the process of writing these lists has forced me to rediscover the quiet, but impactful stories Ozu filmed about everyday people struggling to live their lives in a world ill-suited for sentiment, nostalgia, or consideration for others. His movies chronicle everyday life without movie phoniness or gimmicky plot twists. For Ozu, the drama of day to day life was every bit as gripping as a Hitchcock thriller, Wellman war movie, or Muni biopic.

There Was a Father is only one of two movies Ozu managed to make during the tumultuous war years (the other being The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, an extraordinary picture that made my 1941 list). The Japanese military called Ozu up for service twice during the war and he spent the early years of the war in occupied China and the end of the war in Singapore. In the brief two years between those two periods of service, Ozu was in Japan and, despite the rigid demands of Japanese censorship and propaganda boards, he made Toda Family and There Was a Father.

Ostensibly the story of a stony-faced widowed father who sacrifices his relationship with his only son so he can get the education he needs, most viewers won’t be hard pressed to see this as a thinly veiled piece of propaganda arguing for shared sacrifice to ensure the continued safety and security of the nation, a particularly pressing subject as bombs began to rain down on Japanese cities. We don’t know if Ozu intended the story to be read along rigid propagandistic lines or if he inserted the nationalistic language to pacify Japanese authorities. While those authorities may have been pleased with the finished product, the movie can’t be written off as another parable for wartime sacrifice. Ozu carefully interrogates the effects of these sacrifices, sacrifices millions of people were making all over Japan. They may have been demanded, expected, and even to an extent appreciated, but that doesn’t mean Ozu had to celebrate them. He chose, instead, to probe the enormous toll those sacrifices were taking on the youth of Japan and how the emotional scars would linger for many years whether Japan emerged victorious or not.

The story is heartbreaking. In an effort to compensate for a past tragedy, schoolteacher, Shuhei Horikawa, leaves his job and devotes his life to sending his son Ryohei to the best schools, no matter what the cost. He does not flinch at sending his son to far away cities or moving even farther for better paying jobs. The movie covers the span of many years, rejoining Shuhei and Ryohei at their infrequent visits that always carry the faint hope that they can soon be together. But there is always a better school somewhere else. And those better schools cost more money, so  Shuhei needs to go to bigger cities to get a better job. Even as an adult, Shuhei rebuffs his eager son’s plans to quit his job and move closer to his father because, he argues, the nation needs us all to fulfill our roles without regard to personal feeling. (This is, undoubtedly, one scene Japanese censors adored.) Ryohei says he understands, but is still crushed.

The genius of There Was a Father is the way Ozu manages to acknowledge two opposing forces that operate in wartime societies without condemning or advocating either side. The movie can be read, as many have, as a propagandistic plea for personal sacrifice. At the same time, Ozu recognizes the inherent unfairness of these national demands and the deep psychological scars they will leave. Less accomplished filmmakers would have ignored those problems, instead contenting themselves with a feel good flag-waving film. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, they would have ignored the realities and made an impassioned diatribe against the perceived need of any emotional sacrifice. Ozu brilliantly balances between both and, in the end, manages to make a movie that touches on real human situations that transcends the lessons of wartime Japan.

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“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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