Sunday, August 26, 2018

1947 Alternate Oscars

As you may have guessed, I've seen Miracle On 34th Street more than a couple of times — like every single Thanksgiving since the beginning of time. Katie-Bar-The-Door and I consider it the official kickoff to the Christmas season.

If you've never seen Jane Greer before, I'd recommend a double feature of Out of the Past and The Big Steal. She's the ultimate femme fatale in the first; a smart, wise-cracking, adventurous companion in the second.

Why didn't she make more good movies after her big break in 1947's Out of the Past? Easy. Studio head Howard Hughes set out to ruin her career at RKO. He demanded she sleep with him, she said she was married, he said if she didn't sleep with him he'd ruin her career, and she said fine, she'd go home and have babies instead.

Which she did (one of whom, Lawrence Lasker, went on to write War Games and produce Sneakers). But nobody should have to be a party to their own rape just to hang on to a job.

The sole reason she was in The Big Steal (her lone movie in a two-plus year stretch) is because she was the only actress willing to work with Mitchum after his marijuana bust — and RKO had checked with them all. They approached Greer on a Saturday, she said she'd work with Mitchum anytime, anywhere, which was good because location shooting in Mexico started two days later on Monday morning. She wound up wearing the clothes made for Lizabeth Scott.

(I wrote about The Big Steal here.)

Some more Jane Greer trivia: she finally got out of her contract at RKO in 1951, and slowly began to rebuild her career. But then while filming Run For The Sun (1956) with Richard Widmark in South America, she got a bacterial infection and wound up so sick she nearly died.

After that, it was mostly bit parts and cameos, most notably in Against All Odds with Jeff Bridges, a loose remake of Out of the Past, where she plays the treacherous mother of the character she played in that classic noir.

Ah, what might have been.

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

Sunday, August 19, 2018

1946 Alternate Oscars

A truncated version of my long-delayed essay on It's A Wonderful Life. Full of SPOILERS.

Those who think Frank Capra made only family-oriented treacle haven't been paying attention.

During the course of his career, Capra became increasingly concerned with the question "Can one man alone make a difference in this cockeyed world?" Following a progression starting with Mr. Deeds Goes To Town in 1936, moving through You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) and culminating with his postwar classic It's A Wonderful Life (1946), the answer increasingly was "no."

"No" is not where Capra planned to go — or even where he thought he was headed. His first great success, It Happened One Night, was actually part of the same theme — the individual fighting to remain an individual — and by the end of that movie, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert have shown us that as long as you're willing to literally jump overboard, turn your back on your family, lose your job and sleep in a field, staying true to yourself is a piece of cake.

As a wise man once said, you have to lose your life in order to save it — sell all your possessions and follow, well, love in this case.

It Happened One Night being a screwball comedy, it was a snap, really.

After that, things got complicated.

It's A Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a small-town banker who sacrifices his own dreams to keep the family business afloat. Along the way, he marries, makes friends and keeps the rapacious Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) at bay.

For his troubles, George is rewarded with the looming threat of bankruptcy, scandal and prison. At the raggedy end of his emotional rope, he opts for suicide only to meet his guardian angel (Henry Travers) who shows him what a crapsack the world would have been without him.

Happy ending.

Or is it? When George wakes up tomorrow, he'll still have sacrificed his dreams for the happiness of others, which may be worth it in a Judeo-Christian Buddhist sense, but Bedford Falls isn't and never will be Paris, France.

And sometimes nothing else will do except April in Paris.

Those who talk about the good ol' days have either forgotten them, never lived through them, or are selling you something. For Frank Capra's generation, the good ol' days included World War I, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and after that, the white-knuckle uncertainty of the atomic age, and hard-fought battles for racial and sexual equality.

During the years Capra was making his best movies (1934-1946), tens of millions died a violent death and hundreds of millions more lived on the hardscrabble edge of oblivion. For a while it looked like the fascists would win and extinguish the light of civilization forever. Even after fascism's defeat, some must have looked back and realized what a close-run thing it had really been.

Which makes me wonder whether the troubling end of It's A Wonderful Life — stranding George Bailey in a reality where none of his dreams will ever come true — was Capra selling himself on the notion that after the near-disaster of World War II, all our victories were likely to be tiny ones. We'd be lucky if we could hold a job, marry a spouse who wasn't ashamed of us, hold back the tide of crap for a little while and not hurt anybody else in the process.

As Ernest Hemingway concluded at the end of his novel To Have and Have Not (in the fevered words of Harry Morgan), "No matter how a man alone ain't got no bloody fucking chance."

Or as Zuzu put it, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

That's right, Zuzu, that's right.

It's a small-ball vision, but maybe a realistic one.

Capra later didn't see it — in his dotage, he wound up spouting a rather simplistic reading of his own movies — but I'm convinced that no artist who is working with honesty and conviction is ever as in control of his message as he thinks he is. If he has a clear eye and is committed to putting on film (or paper or canvas) what he actually sees as opposed to what he thinks he's supposed to see, he winds up telling truths that don't necessarily square with his own convictions.

And Capra, the conservative, rugged individualist, knew on some level that we either swim together or we sink alone.

Amen, brother.

Anyway, my choices are noted with a ★. Historical Oscar winners are noted with a ✔.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

1945 Alternate Oscars

My choices are noted with a ★. A tie is indicated 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 ★. A tie is indicated with a ✪. Historical Oscar winners are noted with a ✔.