Chishu Ryu in There Was a Father (Best Actor of 1942)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca), James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy), Ronald Colman (Random Harvest), Gary Cooper (The Pride of the Yankees), Noel Coward (In Which We Serve), Brian Donlevy (The Glass Key), Errol Flynn (Gentleman Jim), Henry Fonda (The Male Animal), Jean Gabin (Moontide), Michael Redgrave (Thunder Rock), Sabu (The Jungle Book), George Sanders (The Moon and Sixpence), Monty Wooly (The Man Who Came to Dinner), Monty Wooly (The Pied Piper)

Chishu Ryu, a constant presence in Ozu films.

Many actors can thank a good director for enhancing a performance through insightful direction and creative editing, but few actors can trace the bulk of their good work and most of their career back to one director. Chishu Ryu, however, can. He wasn’t the best actor in Japan – both he and his long-time collaborator director Yoshujiro Ozu agreed on this – but his work in Ozu’s films verges on great. At first glance he appears to simply exist within Ozu’s intricately detailed compositions, but as we look closer we realize that his performances brim with subtle subterranean pathos. Over the years his characters moved and talked within those sparsely composed shots, but he also emerged as an essential part of them, no more or less important than a shot of closed umbrellas lined up along a wall or raindrops gently dripping off of a leaf. Ozu’s spare direction helped Ryu bring out emotional depths of his characters, emotions that Ryu admits he didn’t always understand or feel himself capable of until he was actually in the process of performing. Ozu would simply tell him to look at his hand and then look up and say his line. Or wait several seconds before turning. There was, it appears, little to no discussion of motivation or method and, under this system that would have terrified most actors, Chishu Ryu thrived.

His performance in There Was a Father, with an able assist from Ozu, is one of Ryu’s best, and it is certainly the best performance by a lead actor of 1942. I’ve already discussed the movie here, but I purposely avoided discussing Chishu Ryu because I knew I would be taking the time to talk about him here.

While there are other actors that pulled off extremely good performances (Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy come to mind), none affected me as completely as Ryu’s stoic father sacrificing his relationship with his beloved son to fulfill his duty to the boy. That he could have lived with his son at any time, that he could have taken a lesser paying job or had his son go to a less prestigious school is unthinkable to the man who can’t comprehend any other course, especially after a tragedy on a lake at the beginning of the film.

The film opens on Ryu’a Horikawa Shuhei working as a teacher. He is out with his class on a field trip to a quiet, idyllic country lake. As Shuhei sits with the other teachers inside, playing games and relaxing, one of his students drowns on the lake. Overwhelming guilt causes Shuhei to resign his post and concentrate his attentions on his son Ryohei, unwilling to let another failure of surveillance, another failure of probity to hurt his son. He accepts that he has to leave his son at a boarding school and take a better paying job in Tokyo because, well, that is what a father who wants better for his son does.

Ozu doesn’t give Ryu any showcase, emotional meltdown scenes, like Agnes Moorehead’s incredible moment at the end of The Magnificent Ambersons; that wouldn’t gel with the character or the tone of the film. But Ryu doesn’t need a scene like that to convey the emotional and mental core of his character. And while we see his commitment to duty, both to his son and, by extension his country, we always feel an overwhelming sense of loss, by what could have been and what could be now. He isn’t unfeeling, heartless, as his actions might suggest to Western observers. Even the scene when his now adult son suggests he leave his job and move closer to his father and Horikawa passionately lectures him for even thinking of shirking his responsibilities when his country needs him for something as frivolous as wanting to be closer to family is both rousing and heartbreaking.

Few actors could have managed to find the balance between their own talent (or lack thereof) and Ozu’s sparse, minimalistic designs. Many actors would rail against Ozu’s strict directions, eager to show off their range and ability. Perhaps Ozu chose Ryu because of his acting limitations, because he knew he would be able to mold Ryu’s characters in ways he wouldn’t with better and more accomplished actors. And maybe, when acknowledging Ryu as the best actor of 1942, it would also be appropriate to acknowledge Ozu as well because he had as much to do with the success of Ryu’s performance as Ryu himself.

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“Apparently you’re the only one in Casablanca with less scruples than I.” — Claude Rains — Best Supporting Actor of 1942

Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault

Best Supporting Actor Runners Up: Leslie Banks (Went the Day Well?), Joseph Calleia (The Glass Key), Laird Cregar (The Black Swan), Laird Cregar (Ten Gentlemen from West Point), Laird Cregar (This Gun for Hire), John Garfield (Tortilla Flat), Alan Hale (Gentleman Jim), Otto Kruger (Saboteur), Thomas Mitchell (Moontide), Frank Morgan (Tortilla Flat), Sig Ruman (To Be Or Not to Be), Suji Sano (There Was a Father), Rudy Vallee (The Palm Beach Story), Monty Wooly (The Man Who Came to Dinner)

I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say Casablanca wouldn’t be Casablanca without the contributions of Claude Rains. I suppose if someone else stepped into his role as the merrily corrupt Captain Louis Renault, the elements of the movie would have largely been the same, but it would have missed Rains’ jaunty insolence which allows him to expertly toe the line between villain and hero. Most actors, even the best supporting actors of the 1940s, would have struggled to make Renault credible, not to mention likeable, but Rains thrives as the corrupt, high spirited opportunist. He understands that Renault is neither good nor bad; Renault would consider these to be silly, moralistic considerations that are irrelevant to anyone who has to live in the real world. The only thing that matters to him to surviving and, hopefully, ending up ahead. That he ends up on the right side doesn’t say anything about him. He would just as soon have turned in Rick and handed over Laszlo and Ilsa if that would have made sense. Going along with Rick’s plan only saves him the hassle of loads of paperwork, not to mention stopping the added humiliation of being held at gunpoint and probably losing his position over it.

Renault is an opportunist, the kind of man who can thrive in perilous times and places. And Casablanca during the German occupation of France counts as a perilous time and place. Morocco’s murky status as a French colony while most of France was overrun with Germans invited instability and uncertainty. As the chief of police, Renault manages the city’s desperate refugees from the battlefields of Europe and its lecherous thieves looking to take advantage of them. Renault stands in the middle looking to keep a relative semblance of order, while still getting his cut. He is neither pro- nor anti-Nazi, pro- nor anti-France. When the Germans are in town, he plays the good collaborator. When they are kicked out, he will be the first to help track them down. At one point the German Major Strasser chides Renault for saying “Third Reich” as though he “expected there to be others.” Renault simply replies, “Well, personally Major, I will take what comes.” This line perfectly sums up Renault’s philosophy of life: to survive and prosper no matter what. He’s no idealist, like Laszlo; he won’t risk his neck for high minded principles.

Rains with Humphrey Bogart

On a philosophical level, Renault should be one of the greatest villains of the film. After all, collaborators are hardly celebrated after occupying forces are booted out. They are usually treated to tars, feathers, and other painful indignities. But Renault is a realist. He isn’t about to join the underground; they don’t pay and the immediate risks are greater than collaborating. He’ll worry about those risks later. In the meantime, he survives. Furthermore, he isn’t above using his position to line his pockets, accepting bribes and kickbacks. And if they don’t have the money, he doesn’t mind accepting the company of beautiful young women as compensation.

But Rains’ characterization lifts him above these base, not to mention criminal, activities, transforming a rogue into a lovable character. Even Hollywood’s stringent censorship board was fooled by Rains. Normally bad guys — or people who do bad things — had to be punished for their transgressions, no matter how they might redeem themselves. Rains plays Renault so expertly that the board didn’t even notice he was doing anything wrong and didn’t insist on some terrible retribution to even the mythical cosmic scoreboard of which they were normally hyper-aware. They allowed him to merrily walk away, to continue his illegal exploits, suggesting, as they usually insisted on not suggesting, often to absurd degrees, that crime can pay. It is only possible because Rains delivers an expert performance, cloaking his illegal exploits and collaboration with style and panache.

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Runners Up for Best Supporting Actress of 1942

Through gross oversight, I forgot to include my list of best supporting actress performance that I think deserve recognition behind Agnes Moorehead. Briefly, here they are:

Mary Astor (The Palm Beach Story), Billie Burke (In This Our Life), Gladys Cooper (Now, Voyager), Muriel George (Went the Day Well?), Hattie McDaniel (In This Our Life), Teresa Wright (Mrs. Miniver)

Does it seem like a short list? I agree, but I went through all the 1942 films I saw and this was all I came up with. I might be overlooking some, so if you think someone is blatantly absent, feel free to speak up.

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Fanny hasn’t got much in her life …. Really don’t know of anything much Fanny has got, except her feeling about Eugene.” — Agnes Moorehead (The Magnificent Ambersons) — Best Supporting Actress of 1942

Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny in The Magnificent Ambersons: better, pre-Endora days

It’s a shame that Agnes Moorehead is best remembered – or maybe only remembered by most – for her flamboyant portrayal of Endora on the hackneyed TV program Bewitched. It’s a testament to her talent that, somehow, she sparkled on that small screen debacle despite the wooden dialogue, groan-worthy and lusterless jokes, and paint-by-the-numbers sitcom plots. Kids who grew up watching Moorehead’s Endora in reruns (like myself) often don’t realize that she had a long and distinguished career as a supporting actor in movies, television, and radio.

Moorehead tried to make a break into Hollywood early in her career, but casting agents took one look at her unconventional, almost vulpine features and passed, opting to continue looking for the next Miriam Hopkins or Jean Harlow. It wasn’t until she hooked up with Orson Welles, whose greatest talent may have been identifying talent in unlikely places and knowing how to exploit that talent to fulfill his artistic vision, that she found her entrée into Hollywood. Following Welles from the Mercury Theater for Citizen Kane, she found a new success in film. Welles understood the depth of her talent and knew how to turn what others called physical disadvantages into advantages. She appeared in several of Welles’ early films and went on to become a fixture in Hollywood, appearing in dozens of features.

After her first role as Charles Foster Kane’s stoic mother, Welles cast her as Aunt Fanny in his ill-fated second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, a chronicle of a turn-of-the-century aristocratic family of the Midwest who struggle to adapt to an industrial modern world. Ambersons was another Hollywood horror story for Welles. Annoyed with the long run time and downbeat ending, RKO executives authorized an edit that clopped off close to an hour and added a re-shot ending. What we have left is a bare remnant of what was probably a masterful film, possibly the best American movie ever made.

Moorehead with Joseph Cotton

In the movie, Fanny is the spinster aunt of the Amberson family, at once content with her social position as a member of the family, yet bitter over her unmarried status. She is especially stung by the unreciprocated affections of local industrialist Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), who has instead nursed a love for her married sister-in-law (Dolores Costello).

Moorehead exhibits remarkable emotional range, some of which are hauntingly unforgettable – from a giggly coquette to a scheming woman scorned to a broken woman resigned to a new life of poverty. Her hysterical breakdown at the end of the movie is her most famous scene of the movie and, since the Academy eats up stuff like this, probably got her an Oscar nomination. But pay attention to her work in more restrained scenes, like when she serves her spoiled nephew George an impromptu meal in the kitchen. While she tries to casually pump George for information about Eugene, her motherly instincts kick in and she gently chides him for gobbling down his food too fast. The way she delivers her lines feels remarkably natural, especially for the sometimes stiff, formal acting style popular in Hollywood at the time. In this particular scene we feel like we’re actually watching a meal that Welles secretly filmed.

It’s scenes like these, along with the emotionally crushing (and flashier) scenes, that make Agnes Moorehead my choice for the best supporting actress of 1942. And if you don’t believe me, check out Moorehead’s most famous scene here . Tragically, Welles apparently claimed that Moorehead’s best scene ended up on the cutting room floor during RKO’s mutilation of the movie. Damn you RKO…

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“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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When an Incomprehensible Title Meets a Dopey Script: The Intouchables

Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy in The Intouchables

The Intouchables is a movie that’s so overly genial and perky that it’s easy to miss just how offensive it is – not to mention extraordinarily banal. This is another in a long line of movies in which we are introduced to a free-spirited minority who turns the world of an uptight, white household on its head. A wealthy quadriplegic hires Driss, a Senegalese immigrant, as his caregiver. Driss’ only qualification is that he doesn’t have any qualifications except for being, as our quadriplegic Philip says, merciless. Of course we don’t see much evidence of Driss being merciless or tough except we’re told he has a criminal record and we briefly see him living a bad neighborhood. He’s always good natured and non-threatening, never a man that feels dangerous in any way – except, naturally, that he’s black. Oh, and he’s willing to break rules to make Philip more comfortable or have more have fun. Never mind the lives that are being threatened as they speed down the road, away from the police – Philip wants to go fast!

This is another example of what Spike Lee has termed the Magical Negro character in U.S. fiction, now apparently not limited to U.S. movies. Driss’ irrepressible joie de vivre and exotic blackness are his “magical-ness” and they are enough to spark a new interest in life for Philip and his entire household, from his personal assistant to his housekeeper to his daughter, all of whom are stricken with problematic, but curable cases of uneasy whiteness.

While Omar Sy is wonderful as Driss (and is receiving just accolades and, thankfully, more work), his effort is wasted. We spend a couple hours watching Driss and Philip bond, share, laugh, and cry, but we don’t learn much of anything about what day to day life might be like for a quadriplegic. (Though I have heard from some handicapped friends that, unfortunately, the movie gets the horrid indifference of trained caregivers absolutely right.) And we end up knowing less than nothing about what life is like for Paris’ immigrants, the neighborhoods in which they live, and the issues they face.

Yeah…. this actually happens.

And I think this lack of substance is why the movie has been so successful, especially in France, a country that has had tenuous relationships with their African and Arab immigrant communities. It’s a feel good story that doesn’t challenge its audiences or stir up nasty memories of race riots that rocked Paris several years back. It’s saccharine and empty-headed with nothing relevant to say about race relations, class, friendship, or disability. No wonder it’s grossed over $200 million.

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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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