Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 27
Updated: Feb 26
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 27: 1940
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The Wizard of Oz
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Of Mice and Men
Gone With the Wind (winner)
Love Affair: In Sleepless in Seattle, Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) claims that “…destiny is something we’ve invented because we can’t stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental.” It’s a film that lightheartedly makes fun of 1957’s, An Affair to Remember, which was actually a remake of the 1939 film, Love Affair.
Starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, Love Affair tells the timeless story of two people finding each other while literally drifting through life. With the surface appearance of a comedy and the inner strength of a sorrowful romance, Love Affair is the reason so many of us hopeless romantics believe in fortuitous love in the first place.
On an ocean liner set for America, French playboy Michel Marnay (Boyer) meets American singer Terry McKay (Dunne) and the two fall into a flirtatious friendship. Though both engaged to other people, Michel and Terry dine together, drink pink Champagne together, even stroll the deck hand in hand. I guess what happens on the ocean stays on the ocean.
Despite themselves, the two end up falling in love, even venturing off the boat together during a port call in Madeira. It’s here where Michel introduces Terry to his grandmother Janou (Maria Ouspenskaya), who takes an instant liking to Terry. After an afternoon of tea, talking and tickling piano keys, Michel and Terry make their way back to the boat, perhaps more in love now than before. Amazing what the wisdom of the elders will do…
It’s not until the boat makes ready to dock in New York City that the two see reality looming. After all, their little charade can’t go on when they’re both promised to other people. But if romances at sea have taught us anything, it’s that love will prevail! They agree to go home to their loved ones with a caveat: if in 6 months’ time they still harbor feelings for each other, they will call off their respective engagements and meet atop the Empire State Building. If one of them fails to show, they’ll know their affair wasn’t meant to be. However, as the appointed date arrives, destiny has a little surprise for this seemingly perfect couple.
What’s so sweet about Love Affair is that it doesn’t lose its luster with stereotypical plotlines. For example, when Michel and Terry go visit grandmother Janou, it’s her wisdom – the wisdom one can only gain in losing a partner – that convinces these two to really think about the potential damage of ignoring their feelings for one another. For Michel and Terry, love is not a first-sight phenomenon, nor is it “trumpets and fireworks” as they claim it is in Sleepless in Seattle. Rather, love is a feeling of appreciation and comfort. It’s knowing someone will be there for you no matter what and it’s learning how to cope, struggle, mourn and celebrate together.
For his part, Charles Boyer is “cosmopolitan”, a stunning specimen of breeding and sophistication. With social and artistic status, always able to rock a scarf and fedora combo, Boyer appears to be in his natural habitat here. It’s clear how his appearance and suave-ness (? Lol) would come to pave the way for the likes of Cary Grant and Rock Hudson.
With the wit of a young Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne is often coined the best actress who never won an Academy Award, though she was nominated for it 5 times, including for her role in Love Affair. With great comedic timing and a charm that is not only part of Terry’s character but part of Dunne’s as well, she easily steals every scene she’s in. Together, Boyer and Dunne are certainly a duo not to be messed with, and their chemistry is undeniable. In fact, both Boyer and Dunne would later claim that Love Affair was their favorite film to work on.
Using essentially the same script, director Leo McCarey would remake his film Love Affair in 1957, this time calling it An Affair to Remember, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. It would be remade again in 1994, starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, but, as in most cases, neither remake could really compare to the original. In this bittersweet story of two people changing cataclysmically while together and apart, Love Affair shows us that true love is nothing more than a series of experiences that help make you a better person. And while I certainly love Cary Grant, I think Boyer’s and Dunne’s romance is really the affair to remember.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: The struggle of the every-man against the inhuman mob was one of Capra’s favorite themes. Many of his movies feature men who must defend themselves against overwhelming odds. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Longfellow Deeds must prove that he’s not insane because he wants to donate his money to help local farmers. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Baily is so beaten down by corrupt capitalism that he’s ready to commit suicide.
In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) takes on the U.S. Senate, defending – to exhaustion – his bill to create a national camp for “The Boy Rangers” (aka The Boy Scouts) in his home state.
When a state senator dies, Governor Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) appoints Jefferson Smith, the naïve, hum-drum organizer of the Boy Rangers Club to take his place. A hero among the youngsters, Smith is a bit of a child himself. He has no political background whatsoever and his fellow senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), thinks he would be easy to control.
And, for a time, he is. Upon arriving to Washington DC, Smith is intimidated by his office, overshadowed by his senior partners and wooed into submission by senator Paine’s attractive daughter, Susan (Astrid Allwyn). Distracted by his pet project of creating a bill to build a national boys’ camp in his home state, Smith is also slow to realize that Paine is planning to build a dam on the land designated for his camp.
Together with his secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith tries to stand up for his beliefs in liberty, democracy and human kindness. With the odds stacked against him, Smith takes on the Senate with a 23-hour filibuster, fighting political corruption in this epic battle of man vs. government.
From the very first moment Jeff Smith steps foot in Washington DC, he’s a small fish in a very, very big pond. Despite Jimmy Stewart’s tall, 6’3 frame, Capra almost always shoots him from low angles, looking up at images of massive statues and monuments. From the very beginning, Smith becomes an insignificant speck amid the enormity of American history.
This not only reinforces Smith’s underdog status, it also speaks to his inferiority complex, which is crucial to his development in the movie. Although Paine plots against him, Smith’s ultimate battle is against himself and his belief that he’s in over his head.
Though Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has become a beloved classic overtime, it was not so well loved when it first came out. Alben W. Barkley, the Senate Majority Leader of the time, called the movie, “…silly and stupid.” He said it “…makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks.” I mean…if the shoe fits…
Frank Capra was also criticized for not engaging with the very real issues going on in the world at the time. Never once does anyone utter the words “Republican” or “Democrat”. There are no “right” or “wrong” parties. There were no references to the Great Depression or World War II. In fact, we don’t even know what state Jeff Smith is from. Capra argued that these conversations would only date the movie, but I feel like it hurt it in the long run. A man filibustering for 23 hours about a boys’ camp?! Really?! He could just as easily have been fighting for Black rights, equal pay, or protesting the war and the movie would have even more of an impact in my eyes. I’d even argue that It’s a Wonderful Life had bigger balls than this movie, bringing to life a man so brought down by his lot in life that he seriously considers suicide. THAT’S a power-punch.
But, Mr. Smith isn’t really about politics; it’s about morality. And Capra had no interest in teaching his audience anything – he wanted to inspire them. In casting Jimmy Stewart as the little man who takes on the big cheese, he tells a story more interested in ideals than ideas – which is fine, but I guess I just wanted more.
In the end, Smith’s filibuster didn’t really mean anything – after all, the movie ends literally seconds after he collapses on the floor. Whether or not Smith did enough to secure his spot in the Senate is arbitrary. What matters is the fact that Smith had the courage to stand up for his unpopular belief. For Capra, that was Smith’s most heroic act.
The Wizard of Oz: I think it would be safe to say that The Wizard of Oz is just as much a part of my childhood as it was my mom’s…and my grandma’s. According to the Library of Congress, it’s the most-watched movie of all time, and it’s not surprising. In so many ways, The Wizard of Oz fills such a large space in our hearts. Is it because the movie feels real and important in a way that others don’t? Or is it because so many of us are first introduced to it when we’re children? Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that it’s just a wonderful movie.
Besides the fact that it’s shot in stunning Technicolor, The Wizard of Oz is also just good old-fashioned storytelling. It’s filled with memorable tunes, spectacular set designs, unforgettable characters, a terrifying villain and, to top it all off, a super cute dog. And, in the end, we even get a moral: what we’re looking for can often be found within ourselves.
Even today, more than 80 years later, the funny parts are still funny, the scary parts are still scary and the innocence of longing for a trouble-free place far, far away is perfectly and beautifully pitched.
If you want a true barometer for its greatness, just count the ways it has entered pop culture. Even if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen the film, chances are you know popular lines like, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too!”, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”, or the pinnacle “There’s no place like home.” The ruby slippers are one of the most popular attractions at the Smithsonian. Its format has been used time and time again, from Disney’s The Little Mermaid to The Lord of the Rings. The story penetrates straight to the deepest insecurities of our childhood, then reassures us it will all be okay. As adults, we can watch it and be reminded of our own journeys into adulthood. Not many films, let alone stories, can lay claim to that.
The Wizard of Oz begins in a world of black and white…well, brown and white. Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is a young girl in Kansas who dreams of bigger worlds. When a tornado strikes the farm where she lives, she’s knocked unconscious. Upon waking, she finds herself in the magical land of Oz, where she must follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, where the all-powerful Wizard (Frank Morgan) resides. Only he has the power to send Dorothy back home…or so she’s told.
Along the way, Dorothy meets a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man (Jack Haley) and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), all of whom join her on her quest to Oz…and all of whom are hoping the Wizard can grant their wishes, too: a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man and courage for the Lion.
And, of course, no fairy tale would be complete without a villain. Along the way, Dorothy and her friends must also defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) and her gaggle of flying monkeys. And I thought life was hard at 12!
In the end, we come to learn that everything these characters wanted was with them the whole time. From the very start, the Scarecrow proves he’s got brains – he is the cleverest of the companions and is the default problem-solver in every confrontation. The Lion proves capable of valiant deeds even though he believes himself to be a coward – probably because he’s confusing courage with fearlessness. As for the Tin Man, he’s so far from being heartless that he may be the most sensitive character in the entire movie.
As for Dorothy, she too had the means of returning home all the time but didn’t know it. All it took was a simple click of her shoes. Her GROWNUP shoes…which is not insignificant.
When we’re young, home is everything. It’s the center of our world. What lies over the rainbow is so vast and fascinating that it can only exist in our dreams. For so many of us, The Wizard of Oz is a movie so dreamlike that it stays with us our entire lives. It’s one of a few shared experiences that unites Americans as a culture, transcending the barriers of age, location, politics or religion. Most of us can hardly imagine NOT knowing it, as it ranks among our earliest and most defining experiences of wonder and fear, of joy and terror, of the lure of the exotic and the comfort of home.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips: Hollywood is filled with classic inspirational stories about teachers and their students. Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dead Poet’s Society, Mona Lisa Smile…the list goes on and on. While most of these films are about the students, or the teacher in terms of their relationship with their students, rarely does a film explore a teacher and his career, both inside and outside of the classroom.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the original inspirational teacher story, a beloved valentine to classical education, tradition and the boarding schools of a bygone era. Starring Robert Donat at the peak of his career, this film brings to life a shy, warm-hearted man who gave everything to his beloved institution and, in doing so, became a bit of an institution himself.
Based on a novella by James Hilton, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is essentially a character study spanning sixty years of a man’s life. Charles Chipping (Donat) is bookish Latin professor who makes an inauspicious debut at the hollowed halls of the Brookfield School for Boys. On his first day, his class runs amuck and causes a commotion that brings the headmaster in to chastise the new teacher. This experience deeply affects Chipping, so much so that he becomes a strict disciplinarian, transitioning to one of the school’s most unpopular teachers.
Outside of the classroom, Chippings isn’t much different. Quiet and reserved, he doesn’t quite understand how to interact with the young people around him, nor the peers standing beside him. He passes a couple decades in obscurity until one of his co-workers, Max Staefel (Paul Henreid), drags him along on a walking trip of Austria.
It is here this seemingly forever-bachelor meets, and falls in love with, Katherine Ellis (Greer Garson), who loosens this stiff up a bit. She gets him out on the dance floor, gets him to settle down, even christens him with the beloved nickname, “Chips”, which sticks with him for the remainder of his life.
Katherine is also instrumental in teaching the teacher how to be a human being. She shows him how to befriend the young men in his care instead of ordering them about, a tactic that helps cement Chips in the hearts of all his charges. Even when Katherine dies in childbirth, along with their expected baby, the courage and kindness she exemplified remains a part of Chips long into the next century, where he’s revered as the school’s most memorable teacher.
Playing Mr. Chips from age 20 to age 80, Donat not only ages convincingly from young adulthood into old age, he encompasses the various stages of his character’s life, from humorless newcomer to absent-minded professor. Even after he retires, Mr. Chips lives close to the school, tutoring and nurturing his boys in warm and friendly ways.
He’s called back to Brookfield after retirement to become acting headmaster during World War II, then retires yet again, after committing 42 years to the school, and the boys, he loved so dearly.
Robert Donat won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Mr. Chips, becoming one of the few non-Gone with the Wind victors at the 1939 ceremony. He defeated some of the most nominated performances (from some of the best actors at the top of their game) in film history, including Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights. While his performance my not have been deserving above the likes of Gable and Stewart, at least in my opinion, there’s no question his portrayal of this beloved teacher struck a chord with voters and audience members alike.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips was a quiet, little movie that snuck up on me in the most charming way. It’s tender, heartwarming, and sentimental in the ways many films today are not. It’s also nostalgic. The lucky among us knew a Mr. Chips, and even if we didn’t, we should have. A man like that belongs in everyone’s past.
Ninotchka: “This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm – and if a Frenchman turned out the light, it was not on account of an air raid!”
From this title card alone, I knew I was going to adore this movie.
Complete with clever and witty writing and the magnificent presence of Greta Garbo, Ninotchka is a charming story about one woman’s transformation from a humorless, cold, seriously austere Russian envoy (most likely a parody of her own stiff onscreen image) into a woman softened by the love she finds in Paris. Charming and sweet, this is a true romantic tale – from Russia, with love.
The film begins when three Soviet emissaries, Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart) and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) arrive in Paris to sell a cache of extremely valuable (and stolen) jewels. Unluckily for them, Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), the once owner of these jewels, is also in Paris. Unluckier still, she’s onto their ploy to sell what’s rightfully hers.
She considers calling the police, but her aristocratic playboy friend, Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), convinces her otherwise. Instead, he subjects these three men to the charms of Parisian life, including oodles of Champagne, cigarettes and women, which allows him to take the jewels back once their backs are turned.
Seemingly, this was an easy plan – and one that went off surprisingly well, but things change when the Soviets send another emissary to take care of these three buffoons – a woman named Nina Yakushova “Ninotchka” Ivanoff (Garbo).
Shocked by the decadence of the West, Ninotchka is a no-frills, bare-bones, ice cold Russian Communist – the perfect victim for a charming, warm, sexually charged Frenchman. Though she is able to stave love off at first, she eventually, albeit reluctantly, unwinds – gradually falling in love not only with Leon, but Paris in general.
But the Grand Duchess Swana is not so ready to let her Leon go. In an ending that’s sure to elicit a tear-filled “aww!” from at least a couple people, Ninotchka shows us that love knows now bounds, be them physical or political.
And speaking of political bounds, Ninotchka certainly doesn’t shy away from the politics of the time. Arguably made by some of the most successful capitalists in the world (Hollywood executives), Ninotchka pits capitalism against communism in an era when many Americans didn’t like communism at all – but had to show appreciation for Russia if Hitler was to be defeated.
To that end, this movie does poke fun at Soviet Communism, but doesn’t ever come out and say that any of these things are bad. Even Leon himself picks up a little Marxist reading before bedtime after getting closer to Ninotchka. But it’s not until Ninotchka sheds that Communist glow that she’s finally able to fulfill herself sexually. There’s certainly some symbolism in that, too.
Ninotchka would mark Greta Garbo’s penultimate screen appearance. She made just one more film after this one, Two-Faced Woman in 1941, in which she also starred alongside Melvyn Douglas. The film was a bomb and Garbo retired from Hollywood.
She lived out the remainder of her years in leisure, retaining a chic residence in Manhattan until her death in 1990. Of all her films, Ninotchka may not have been stereotypical of the usual ill-fated, fallen women characters she normally played. Still, it seemed almost autobiographical in that it showed the joyful humanity behind this statuesque Hollywood beauty.
Stagecoach: Stagecoach may not be the greatest Western of all time, but it has been called the first great Western, playing a role in building this now classic American genre. It gave the genre its greatest director – John Ford – and its most iconic star – John Wayne. But is it a great film?
Though it does a beautiful job of showcasing Ford’s other favorite “character”, the majestic Monument Valley of the Southwest, and though it gave John Wayne his A-list star status, I can’t jump on board and claim this movie was life-changing for me. In fact, I found it a bit overrated.
Rather than the traditional good-guy, bad-guy fair, Stagecoach used characterization, social commentary and moral drama to craft its narrative.
The story throws together seven characters into a tiny stagecoach bound for Texas. This group of folks represent a cross-section of social classes and types, including a prostitute named Dallas (Claire Trevor), a crooked banker named Henry (Berton Churchill), a former Confederate-turned gambler named Hatfield (John Carradine), a whiskey salesman named Peacock (Donald Meek), an alcoholic surgeon named Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell in an Oscar-winning performance), a pregnant young bride named Lucy (Louise Platt), and a rugged, escaped outlaw who goes by Ringo the Kid (John Wayne).
But with the last outposts of civilization now miles behind them, social roles and status lose their meaning. Confined inside the stagecoach, this mixed bag of personalities creates a community as they gradually reveal their hidden reasons for making this trip. And with the coach barreling through dangerous Apache land, everyone must band together to make sure this overloaded wagon makes it out in one piece.
The social norms that are challenged in Stagecoach aren’t particularly groundbreaking. Dallas is a hooker with a heart of gold, virtuous Lucy is actually a bit of a snob, the boozy doctor turns out to be a stand-up guy, and Ringo the Kid is the vengeful outlaw who’s really a tender cupcake. None of this was new, even in 1939. But what makes Stagecoach special is that it also keeps one boot in the past, with thrilling stunts and chase scenes that have yet to be matched on screen.
Then, of course, there’s the film’s attitudes towards Native Americans. Granted the Apaches are seen simply as evil warriors…there’s never any suggestion that their anger is due to the white men invading their land – but does there need to be? Even in the 1950s, Ford was making Westerns that depicted the Natives as “evil savages”. Never can the aboriginal people and the white men exist in peace – at least not in the Wild West of Hollywood.
From a native standpoint (and an animal cruelty standpoint), Stagecoach remains sadly unenlightened. However, like Dallas the prostitute, it tries its best. Today’s audience might look at this film and think it old hat – but that’s mostly because so many films have used Stagecoach as a template. While the plot is a bit simplistic and the characters are woefully underdeveloped, Stagecoach was still a game-changer, giving rise to a new genre, a new film format, and a new star who would pave the way for so many other cowboys (pilgrims) to come.
Wuthering Heights: The tagline of this film perfectly describes my attitude towards it: “I am torn with desire – tortured by hate!”
Full disclosure – I have not yet read Wuthering Heights; therefore, this movie review is not going to compare the book to the movie. That being said, I also don’t know if my difficulties with this story stem from the book itself or this film adaptation – my guess is the latter.
At the Yorkshire moors in England, there stands a house as bleak and desolate as the people that inhabit it. Deemed Wuthering Heights, this house is home to a most unwelcoming group of people, all of whom don’t take kindly to strangers.
So when Mr. Lockwood (Miles Mander) wanders in from the cold, he’s greeted with contempt and annoyance. He’s begrudgingly offered a room by the owner, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), but Lockwood wakens in the middle of the night to the cries of a woman calling out on the moors. Heathcliff becomes enraged when Lockwood describes the ghostly voice and he promptly runs out into the cold to find it. This leads the housekeeper Ellen (Flora Robson) to chronicle the story of Heathcliff and his lost love, Cathy (Merle Oberon).
The rest of the film is constructed as a flashback, taking us to the days when Wuthering Heights was home to a very young Cathy, her brother Hindley (Hugh Williams) and their father Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway). Fresh off the boat from London, Mr. Earnshaw returns home with a young gypsy boy who he found starving in the streets. He raises the boy, whom he calls Heathcliff, as his own, and Heathcliff and Cathy form a loving bond. Hindley, however, resents Heathcliff and forces him to work in the stables when Mr. Earnshaw dies.
As the three children grow up together, Heathcliff must endure all sorts of ill treatment from Hindley…and unrequited love from Cathy. As Cathy grows and becomes more interested in fine clothes and money, her rich neighbor Edgar (David Niven) looks more and more appealing…and Heathcliff is left to grow angry, possessive and even physically violent towards the woman he loves.
However, they both confess how much they need each other…though not to each other. Since they’re both so freaking stubborn and can’t tell each other how they feel, Heathcliff goes off to find his fortune in America, leaving Cathy free to marry Edgar.
Time marches on. Cathy makes a life for herself with Edgar, Heathcliff comes back a wealthy man and buys Wuthering Heights from the now alcoholic and disintegrating Hindley. He still harbors feelings for Cathy, but she’s a married woman now. So, in the ultimate act of emo revenge, Heathcliff marries Cathy’s sister-in-law Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), though he clearly does not love her.
Isabella, however, adores Heathcliff and is so desperate for the man’s attention that she can’t help but rejoice when word arrives that Cathy is dying. Cathy’s death also forces Hindley into an early grave, leaving Heathcliff to wallow in his pity for the rest of his freaking, miserable life.
So here’s my question, literary friends. Is Heathcliff the romantic hero, the villain or a victim? In this movie, he’s treated like the romantic hero, but he’s so narcissistic, jealous and obsessive. I’ve heard he’s very much a villain in the book and that this interpretation wanted to portray him as a romantic lead, but he’s frankly unlovable in this movie. Even Cathy’s death scene was weird, with Heathcliff preaching poetic about his love for this woman as her HUSBAND knelt silent by the bed saying literally nothing.
For as much drama as there was in front of the camera, there was even more behind it. Olivier not only didn’t get along with his co-star, Merle Oberon, but he and director William Wyler were fighting almost constantly. There’s tale that Olivier once blew up at Wyler after filming a certain scene over and over. “How do you want it?”, Olivier yelled. “I’ve done it calm. I’ve shouted. I’ve done it angry. I’ve done it sad, standing up, sitting down, fast, slow – how do you want me to do it?!”
Wyler calmly replied, “Better.”
Frankly, I couldn’t agree more.
Dark Victory: Say what you will about the melodrama – yes, it’s over the top…it’s gaudy, emotional, schmaltzy and theatrical…but its founder was all those things, too.
Bette Davis. The woman didn’t even need to say anything. Here mere presence was powerful in and of itself. In Dark Victory, Davis harnesses her bad girl persona and gives an Oscar-nominated performance full of heart and soul, qualities her film characters almost never had. Though she lost the Academy Award to Vivian Leigh (Gone with the Wind), Davis always regarded this as her favorite role.
Is it torrid and dramatic? Yes. Did a lot of people think it was almost too much? Yes. But it’s films like this that give trash a good name.
Judy Traherne (Davis) is a young, carefree socialite with a passion for horses, fast cars, and too much smoking and drinking. She’s also plagued by headaches that obscure her vision. She mostly ignores them, she’s a young 23-year-old after all, but when she falls off her horse, then tumbles down a flight of stairs, her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) basically forces her to see a doctor.
A brain specialist, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent) performs a series of tests, which confirm his initial suspicion: Judy has a brain tumor. An operation removes most of it, but the tumor is malignant and will return.
After discussing the prognosis with Judy’s childhood doctor (and Ann because, you know, doctor-patient confidentially must not have been a thing yet), they all agree to keep Judy in the dark about her grim fate. Realizing she has less than a year to live, Dr. Steele allows Judy a few more months of happiness by telling her the surgery was successful.
But secrets have a will of their own…and as Judy and Dr. Steele become romantically involved, Judy stumbles upon her medical file, revealing the truth of her surgery: “prognosis NEGATIVE!”.
This causes Judy to spiral out of control, setting her back on the path of debauchery and breaking off her engagement to the doctor. In one of the most famous scenes in the film, Judy meets Dr. Steele and Ann for dinner, where she tells them she’s in on their little secret. She is wearing a magnificent fur coat and hat, both of which seem reminiscent of eyelashes. The outfit draws attention to Judy’s eyes, particularly her hat, which lies low on her forehead, casting a shadow over her large baby blues. Since blindness will be the first warning sign of her imminent death, this costume choice seems especially meaningful.
With a death sentence looming over her head, she resorts to indulging her vices. Finally her horse trainer, Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart), points out to her that she’s wasting her life in this manner, blowing the precious time she has acting like a brat. It’s the wakeup call she needed. Judy agrees to marry Dr. Steele and commits to facing her apparent death “beautifully and finely.”
And she does. Judy and the doctor marry and move to Vermont, where they enjoy a quiet, peaceful existence. But time is eminent. As Ann and Judy plant flowers in the garden, Judy’s vision begins to blur and darken. The end is neigh. Ann is an emotional wreck, but Judy stays calm. She sends her best friend away, wanting to face death on her own. Mum’s the word when it comes to telling Dr. Steele too, who is packing to leave for a trip to New York.
After quietly bidding farewell to everyone in her life, including her beloved dogs (!!! Okay, this part got me), Judy does what she promised to do – faces her death beautifully and finely.
Davis, who was going through a divorce at the time of shooting, found solace on and off-screen with her co-star, George Brent. Dark Victory would be the 8th of 11 films the two did together and this movie would mark the beginning of their year-long affair. Though they never married, the two remained dear friends after they parted. Davis said later that, “Of all the men I didn’t marry, the dearest was George Brent.”
Outside of Davis and Brent, the rest of the cast was wonderful. Geraldine Fitzgerald (in her film debut) was an absolute delight to watch and Humphrey Bogart, though underused, was good – even if his “Irish accent” wasn’t so consistent. The film also starred a very young Ronald Reagan as Judy’s almost-constantly drunk friend, Alec.
Though this melodramatic film is a classic “weepy” marketed towards women, it still promotes the notion that death doesn’t have to be tragic if your soul is at peace. If you live your life beautifully and finely, no matter what your age, death can be calm, serene and peaceful.
Of Mice and Men: John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel was only 2 years old when director Lewis Milestone adapted it for the screen. Starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr., Of Mice and Men tells the story of George and Lennie, two farm hands who dream of someday having a modest ranch of their own, complete with a garden, some pigs and, of course, lots of rabbits.
Set during the Great Depression, this film was a critical success, even admired by Steinbeck himself. Released during Hollywood’s greatest year, this little underdog had a lot of competition. Though several of its fellow nominees have become standard examples of classic Hollywood cinema at its best, Of Mice and Men still holds a place in the hearts of many, providing a timeless story of kindness, understanding and brotherhood.
The story begins with George (Meredith) and Lennie (Chaney) on the run. Chased by a mob on foot, train and bus, the unlikely pair end up spending their first night by a little river, about 10 miles out of town. It’s here we begin to see the bond between them. George is the leader of the pack, smart, sturdy and resourceful. Lennie is a gentle giant, with all the brawn but lacking the brains.
The pair finally find work at a ranch, where they make fast friends with the mule skinner, Slim (Charles Bickford). They prove themselves valuable workers, but trouble ensues when the ranch owner’s son, Curley (Bob Steele), enters the scene. A tiny man with an overblown Napoleon complex, Curley takes an immediate dislike to Lennie, mostly because he can’t stand guys who are bigger than him. And, in case you didn’t love the guy enough, he’s also verbally and (most likely) physically abusive to his wife, Mae (Betty Field).
But no man, big or small, is gonna stop George and Lennie from starting their own farm. They eventually agree to bring on a fellow partner, Candy (Roman Bohnen), who contributes a large chunk of change to get their homestead up and running. However, circumstances change when Curley attacks Lenny, resulting in Lenny crushing Curley’s hand. Things get more complicated when an accident results in Lenny killing Mae, too.
Knowing enough to know he made a mistake, Lenny goes on the run – with a mob quick on his heels. George, who knows the fate that awaits Lenny if he’s caught, decides to shoot him rather than have him spend his life in jail. As he recounts the story of them gardening, farming and raising rabbits together for what must be the 4,000 time, George pulls out a pistol and shoots Lenny in the back of the head.
While this is clearly a story of friendship and respecting those who are different from you, Of Mice and Men is also a tale of humanity. It’s pretty obvious, for example, that Lenny represents our inner child, the innocent, harmless being who is pure of thought but capable of lashing out at those who hurt him. Lon Chaney Jr., who spent most of his career up to this point as The Wolf Man and other B-movie monsters, made Lenny an iconic character whose speech and mannerisms would influence generations of portrayals on stage and screen.
George, Lenny’s watcher and protector, is the common man who longs for a better life. He is sick of working for a boss and dreams of building something for himself. As portrayed by Burgess Meredith, who would go on to star as The Penguin in Batman and Mickey Goldmill in the Rocky franchise, George is resolute, clever and wise. So much of me wants George to achieve his dreams, if only because the guy deserves a freaking win.
But maybe the most interesting character here is Slim, who is the final word on the ranch. He has the respect of everyone and he takes an instant liking to George and Lenny. Slim is the only one who understands that George killed Lenny out of love and pity and offers his support to George once the deed is done.
For me, Slim represents reason and rationality. He has a similar encounter with Candy when a crusty old worker named Carlson (Grandville Bates) tries to convince Candy to put his dog down. Candy, who is deeply attached to his pet, looks to Slim to defend him, but Slim agrees that it’s probably for the best, noting the dog’s ill health and bad smell. Brokenhearted, Candy then allows Carlson to shoot his pup in the back of the head – similar to how George would later kill Lenny, and for much the same reasons.
When asked to provide a blurb in support of the film, Steinbeck wrote: “The English language is very strange and, every once in a while, we lose a word that used to be very popular in usage. I wonder, whatever happened to the word ‘good’? Everything is sensational, stupendous, tremendous, and whatnot, but whatever happened to the word ‘good’? So, all I have to say about the picture is that it is good.”
Steinbeck was right – it is good. Not merely because of the acting and directing, but because it preserves Steinbeck’s voice for humanity, compassion and brotherhood.
Gone with the Wind: The first time I saw Gone with the Wind, I was 15 years old. My mom and I went to the midnight showing (remember those?) at the AMC Theater near our house. They had re-released it in theaters for its 60th anniversary and I was completely and utterly blown away. As I sat there, noshing on Twizzlers and diet coke at freaking 12:30 am, I knew, even at 15, I was watching something epic.
After re-watching it again, I can see how the film can be called problematic, especially in today’s day and age…but it still remains a towering landmark, quite simply because it tells a good story, and tells it well.
Gone with the Wind is not a war movie. It’s not a slavery movie. It’s not even a romance, though war, slavery and romance all factor into it at various times. No, Gone with the Wind is a story about the fall of a civilization, as told through the life of one individual: Scarlett O’Hara.
Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) was not a product of the 1860s but of the 1930s: a free-spirited, modern woman. She was a woman who wanted to control her own sexual adventures and her own economic destiny. She was the very symbol the nation needed as it braced for World War II…a Rosie the Riveter in a corset.
The Scarlett of the 1860s would never have gotten away with the stuff 1930s Scarlett did. Marrying three times, lusting after someone else’s husband, shooting a Yankee in the face and banning her third husband from the marital bed as a birth control defense probably wouldn’t have gone over well in the Old South. It surely intrigued audiences back then (it still does today) to see Scarlett make something of herself in a male chauvinist world. But, bad behavior must be punished, and she gets her punishment with the most famous line in movie history. If this film had ended any other way, it may not have been nearly as successful.
Of course, what Scarlett really needed was sex – and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) was just the man for the job. As he tells Scarlett in a key early scene, “You need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.” Of course 1930s Hollywood couldn’t get away with saying anything too naughty, but you get the idea. Dialogue like this is all about stirring up our primal longings, about being brought to sexual pleasure despite ourselves. Scarlett’s inner civil war is between her sentimental fixation on the boring “Southern gentleman” Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and the unladylike lust for Rhett. This is the struggle of Gone with the Wind – not North vs. the South, but Scarlett’s lust vs. her vanity.
Clocking in at almost 4 hours, Gone with the Wind shows the South before, during and after the war, all seen through Scarlett’s eyes. When we first meet her, she’s pining for her childhood crush, Ashley, though he’s engaged to marry the gentle Melanie Hamilton (Olivia De Haviland). She confesses her love to him, but he friend-zones her.
Immediately after that, she has her first encounter with the irrepressible Rhett Butler, who can’t seem to take his eyes off her. Rhett represents the New South, post-slavery, post-Civil War, though it’s never made explicit. He considers war “a waste of life” and knows the South is ill-equipped to deal with what’s coming to them.
But the bulk of the film follows a romantic quadrangle between Rhett, Scarlett, Ashley and Melanie, told against the backdrop of war. Rhett and Scarlett are two headstrong bulls who fight and canoodle their way through the entire movie, all while Scarlett nurses her love for Ashley and Ashley keeps shutting her down. Melanie tries to form a relationship with Scarlett but Scarlett finds it difficult to like someone so boring, plus she’s sleeping with the man she loves. It’s all very dramatic.
For Scarlett, the first half of the film is a much more important story. It’s here where she grows from a vain, spoiled brat into a determined young woman. She works to help the war effort and is humbled by poverty and humanity. She even starts up her own lumber business to make money. The second half is where a lot of the drama comes in, which seems a lot like filler after a killer first half.
Though Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable are perfectly cast in their roles, there are a number of other noteworthy supporting players. Hattie McDaniel, for example, who plays the housekeeper Mammy, steals every scene she’s in. McDaniel brought Mammy to life and, while she’s not as dimensional as Scarlett, she’s still real. McDaniel would become the first African American to win an Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actress), beating out her co-star, Olivia De Havilland. However, racism was still very real in 1930s America, and McDaniel (along with her fellow black actors) was not allowed to attend the premier of the film in Atlanta. She was also seated in a separate area at the Oscars ceremony.
And, in a film about the Old South, it’s impossible not to at least discuss how the film handles slavery and the black experience. The movie begins with this preamble: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”
One does not have to ask if the African American population saw it the same way. The film conveniently sidesteps the violence that movies like 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained highlighted. Instead it grants a great deal of humanity and complexity to its major African-American characters, though parts of the film are still hard to understand with a modern view.
So, yes sometimes Gone with the Wind is difficult to watch, but remember this movie comes from a world with values and assumptions fundamentally different from our own, just as the great stories of Homer and Shakespeare do. A politically correct version wouldn’t be worth making and would largely be a lie.
Unsurprisingly, Gone with the Wind was a massive success when it was released, sweeping the Oscars that year with 13 nominations and 8 wins, including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (McDaniel), and Best Cinematography. It also won two Honorary Awards, one for its use of color and one for its technical achievements. When adjusted for inflation, it also stands as the highest-grossing film of all time.
Even today, Gone with the Wind is a landmark picture that continues to incite discussions about race, sexual politics and technical showmanship. Like its heroine, this film is both majestic and problematic, surviving as an unapologetic time capsule that must be admired for her resilience. And, like it or not, it stands as a romantic monument to the Old South – a homage to an era that is, thankfully, gone with the wind.
The year of 1939 is widely considered to be Hollywood’s greatest year, and it’s no wonder. Not only did it see the release of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, two films that would forever change cinema as we know it, but it also saw the release of Stagecoach, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, three other movies directors STILL reference when making films today.
But 1939 was a good year for smaller productions, too. Love Affair and Ninotchka were sweet rom-coms with amazing casting. Even my hidden gem this year, Dark Victory, would probably have been more of an Oscar contender in any other year.
Anyone who wants to see Hollywood at its best need only line up this collection of films. With amazing production design, storytelling and casting, the movies of 1939 brought us a Hollywood we’ll likely never see again, with stories we’ve come to cherish for generations.
Onto the next pull!