Sunday, August 12, 2018

1945 Alternate Oscars

My choices are noted with a ★. Historical Oscar winners are noted with a ✔.

I wrote this about To Have and Have Not some time ago:

At the heart of every Howard Hawks action movie is the concept of the professional doing his job, and doing it well, despite the imminent threat of death — an idealized code of conduct Hemingway called "grace under pressure." We're all going to die sooner or later, Hawks seems to be saying, can't we at least do it with a bit of dignity and honor and laughter and good company?

That, above all, I think, is at the core of what is known as "a Hawksian woman," one who can laugh and provide good company in the face of death.

Whatever else a Howard Hawks drama is about, usually a woman meets a man and grows up enough to prove worthy of him and his cadre of professional associates (what one might loosely think of his family).

His comedies, in contrast, are about a man proving worthy enough of a woman to start a family (through marriage).

To Have and Have Not, so far as I can remember, is the one Hawks movie that takes that comedy formulation — the man proving worthy of the woman — and applies it to a dramatic situation. Do you know To Have and Have Not? In it, Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) has retreated from the messy political world into a cocoon of isolationism so complete he's willing to ignore the fascists in charge of the local government even as they are shooting his clients and making his life and the lives of his friends miserable.

Into that mix comes Marie "Slim" Browning (Lauren Bacall in her first film role), teaching him how to whistle and forcing him to realize that no matter how much he thinks he's successfully avoided sticking his neck out, his neck is out there, on the block, along with the necks of his "family" (Eddie, Frenchy, Cricket and, finally, Slim herself).

Whether he likes it or not, the Cause is his and he can either fight for it or go down the tubes anyway. So he fights, and in so doing, becomes worthy of Lauren Bacall, the toughest of tough young broads ever to grace the screen.

And I once wrote this about Joan Crawford:

Joan Crawford was a complicated woman—which is to say that like all of us, she had her good points and her bad points. She was catty and cruel, she was uneducated and insecure about it, she had the morals of an alley cat and her failures as a mother are legendary. But she also had a tremendous work ethic, always tried to improve herself, and as far as I can tell, she never phoned in a performance, not even in the execrable sci-fi horror flick, Trog, which proved to be her last.

And she was always willing to take a shot at Norma Shearer, which is a plus all by itself.

A lot has been written over the years about Joan Crawford's private life, particularly with regard to her sexuality and her parenting skills, so much so that the scandals have completely obscured her work as an actress. But if I were handing out awards based on people's private lives, we'd wind up with a roster full of nice people and very few good movies. Only to the extent that I can discern a clear relationship between a person's off-screen life and their on-screen work will I tend to dwell on the former. Beyond that, celebrity gossip bores me. In fact, as far as I can tell, when they're not working, most celebrities are actually pretty dull people.

Besides, in his biography Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, Donald Spoto states flatly that the infamous "No wire hangers!" incident never happened. But then a lot of famous incidents never happened—J. Edgar Hoover didn't wear dresses, Walt Disney wasn't cryogenically frozen, and the military-industrial complex didn't assassinate John F. Kennedy.

Fans of the novel might be tempted to complain that Hollywood sanitized and simplified James M. Cain's original vision. But let's face it, no novel ending with the line "Let's get stinko" was going to make it to the big screen intact in 1945. Besides, the final product is plenty violent for all but the most bloodthirsty among us and as cynical about human behavior as the darkest film noir. Mildred Pierce isn't a perfect movie, just a great one and Crawford gave her best performance in it.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

1944 Alternate Oscars

Notes: Shirley Temple and the two Jackies (Coogan and Cooper) notwithstanding, Margaret O'Brien's performance in Meet Me in St. Louis is the best by a child in the history of Hollywood. From explaining to Chill Wills that her doll will likely die of four fatal diseases, to dancing the cakewalk with Judy Garland, the marvelous Halloween sequence, and the legendary "Have Youself a Merry Little Christmas" climax, O'Brien steals every scene she's in.

"If that child had been born in the Middle Ages," Lionel Barrymore once said, "she'd have been burned as a witch."

It's my favorite performance of 1944, bar none.

By the way, I may or may not have mentioned before that I'm nominating American movies by the date of their Oscar eligibility (so To Have and Have Not will show up in 1945 not 1944), but foreign-made movies, including British movies, by the date of release in their home country. Foreign films, even British ones, tend to show up here late, sometimes years late, so that from the perspective of using these alternate awards to reveal movie history, nominating a foreign film in terms of its Oscar eligibility is somewhat counterproductive to my purposes.

Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

And finally, I once wrote about Double Indemnity and film noir in general here. Check it out.

My choices are noted with a ★. Historical Oscar winners are noted with a ✔.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

1943 Alternate Oscars

My choices are noted with a ★. Historical Oscar winners are noted with a ✔.

Some previously-published thoughts about Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart and the ending of Casablanca.

Every now and then I see a complaint—or maybe just a plaintive wail—about the ending of Casablanca, along the lines of "But what about Sam?"

On an emotional level, I get it. Sam has followed Rick to hell and back, from at least Paris and probably before, all the way to this dead end job playing piano in the desert, and Rick just drops him like an unwieldy subplot, running off with Louie instead. What the fork, man?

But logically, it makes complete sense. I think Rick figures the trip to the airport is strictly a one way ticket. After he gets Lazlo and Ilsa on the plane, he is, at best, going to wind up in a concentration camp; more than likely, the Gestapo will stand him up against a wall and shoot him. That's not the sort of end you ask a good friend to share.

"Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of." Indeed.

That Rick gets away is wholly unexpected. You can't blame the man for that.

I like to think he and Louie went back and got Sam. It's the romantic in me. And Carl and Sasha, too, and the croupier and the doorman. And Yvonne. She was pretty hot even if she was no Ingrid Bergman, but then Ingrid Bergman is on her way to America with another man, so what the hell.

And then, because it's also a great movie, Rick busts the cast of The Maltese Falcon out of jail—and now we've got Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor along for the ride, too. Actually, we can have Greenstreet there twice since he also played Ferrari in Casablanca, and Lord knows he was fat enough to play two characters.

You've got a pretty good size army together by now.

Actually, this is just about what happened in Passage to Marseille, where Bogart, Rains, Lorre and Greenstreet reunited to fight the Nazis. They even brought in Michael Curtiz to direct it.

Now if they'd only brought in Howard Koch and the Epstein brothers to write it ...

Sunday, July 22, 2018

1942 Alternate Oscars

My choices are noted with a ★. Historical Oscar winners are noted with a ✔.

Another great year for actresses, with Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Veronica Lake and Carole Lombard all turning in the best performances of their careers (in my humble opinion). I made my choice, but the final choice, as always, is up to you.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

1941 Alternate Oscars

My choices are noted with a ★. Historical Oscar winners are noted with a ✔.

I previously wrote about Citizen Kane here. And I had a word or two to say about Mary Astor's surprisingly divisive performance in The Maltese Falcon here.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

1940 Alternate Oscars

The Three Stooges?! What the what?!

And yet the fact is, the Stooges are the best known comedy team in the history of film, still popular (or passionately unpopular) after all these years and I think they are long overdue for some critical recognition.

Did you know they once got an Oscar nomination? They did—or their work did anyway—for the 1934 two-reeler Men in Black. And in 2002, Punch Drunks was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry.

1940 represents the team at their peak, with arguably the two finest shorts of their career, You Nazty Spy!—a pointed satire of Hitler that beat Chaplin's The Great Dictator into theaters by ten months—and A Plumbing We Will Go, with Curly's attempts to fix a leaky shower serving as the funniest demonstration of the worthlessness of good intentions ever committed to film.

Anyway, my choices are noted with a ★. Historical Oscar winners are noted with a ✔. As always, your choices are your own.