Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 60
Part 60: 1942
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Blossoms in the Dust
Hold Back the Dawn
One Foot in Heaven
The Maltese Falcon
The Little Foxes (hidden gem)
How Green Was My Valley (winner)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Dame May Whitty, Isabel Jeans, Heather Angel, Auriol Lee, Reginald Sheffield, Leo G. Carroll
Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Joan Fontaine)
Other Nominations: Best Musical Score, Best Picture
Two strangers on a train. Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) has her nose stuck in a book. John Aysgarth (Cary Grant), sits across from her, a charming smile on his face. In his pocket is a third-class ticket, but his butt is currently sitting in a first-class seat. The conductor is happy to let him stay if he can cover the difference; but he seems to be short on change. Lina helps cover the cost. By the time the train stops in Hazledene, she’s smitten with this debonair playboy.
After a whirlwind romance, the two get married, despite Lina’s father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) disapproving of their union. They honeymoon all over Europe, then return to an extravagant house – arranged at John’s behest. It’s even equipped with a maid, Ethel (Heather Angel).
However, something seems weird to Lina. Although John gave her the impression that their expensive travels to Venice, Nice, Monte Carlo and Paris were funded by his personal wealth, he’s apparently broke. Furthermore, the job he was supposedly offered by his cousin, George Melbeck (Leo G. Carroll), doesn’t exist. The only way John makes money is to borrow it or gamble at the racetrack. “The secret to success,” he says, “is to start at the top.”
John’s lies continue to escalate until Lina is convinced she doesn’t know the man she married – a man who could be capable of anything – even murder! Dun, dun, DUUNN!!!
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Suspicion can best be called a psychological thriller, though there’s much more emphasis on the psychological than the thriller. Like Gaslight and Rebecca (which Hitchcock directed the year before), Suspicion is a case study of the woman’s mind, as affected by extraneous and undermining influences.
Since the film is told from Lina’s point of view, we’re enraptured with John from the start. He’s smart, charming and handsome as hell. He blesses Lina with a “cute” nickname (well, you can determine for yourself whether you’d like your lover to call you “Monkeyface”), he showers her with gifts and fancy dinners. In comparison to her own mom and dad, who hardly ever talk and spend their nights engaged in separate hobbies, Lina has fun with John. She fears turning into her mother, lonely and depressed, and her desire for excitement is obviously what draws her to this ne’er-do-well Englishman. But, as is often the case, her imagination clouds sense, facts and rationality. Of course John couldn’t do anything terrible, right? There’s no way he has murder in his heart!
As John, Cary Grant oozes charisma. RKO was initially skeptical of casting Grant in a villainous role, thinking it might affect his rom-com image; however, his charm is exactly what made him so perfect for this part. He was a pillar of the community, some might say. A similar statement often given to the likes of Charles Manson, Jeffery Dahmer, and the king of them all, Ted Bundy.
Like most Hitchcock films, the ending of Suspicion is greatly contested and one you either love or hate. Hitchcock was not a fan of the ending RKO forced upon his film, as it went against the book the movie was based upon. It also leaves much of the movie up for debate, which is one of the reasons I personally liked the ending (well, most of it). Without resorting to spoilers, if it would have ended the way Hitchcock intended, I don’t think it would pack quite as much of a punch once the credits rolled.
We always like to think we know our partner inside and out – what makes them tick, what makes them happy, what fills them with fear. Most of us tend to see the good in people, try to excuse any wrongdoing when someone we love does something questionable. But where do you draw the line? Can you really promise to love someone no matter what, regardless of their actions? Can you really trust that your partner has your best interests at heart? And when suspicion starts to build, can you keep it together without losing yourself or your sanity…especially with that devilish grin looking back at you?
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Director: Alexander Hall
Starring: Robert Montgomery, Evelyn Keyes, Claude Rains, Rita Johnson, Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason, John Emery, Donald MacBride, Don Costello, Halliwell Hobbes, Benny Rubin, Lloyd Bridges, Eddie Bruce, John Ince, Bert Young, Warren Ashe, Ken Christy, Chester Conklin, Joseph Crehan, Mary Currier, Edmund Elton, Tom Hanlon, Bobby Larson, Heinie Conklin
Oscar Wins: Best Original Story, Best Screenplay
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Robert Montgomery), Best Supporting Actor (James Gleason), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Director, Best Picture
Death is a many splendored thing in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, a film that treats the afterlife not with somber religious symbolism, but realism. It seems even the most high-ranked celestial guardians can make an occasional mistake.
Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) is an up-and-coming boxer on his way to winning a championship title. He might be big on brawn, but he’s not so big on brains. While flying a plane to his next bout, he takes a moment to play a little music on his lucky saxophone, which he carries around with him like a rabbit’s foot, and crashes mid-journey.
Courier angel #7013 (Edward Everett Horton) preemptively takes Joe up to Heaven, only to discover that he wasn’t supposed to die for another 50 years. Joe is plenty sore about the whole thing. He was “…in the pink of condition,” after all. The fact that Joe’s body was recently cremated makes it impossible to return Joe’s spirit back to Earth. What a pickle.
Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), #7013’s boss and apparently the man responsible for transporting souls from purgatory to Heaven, tries to make good on the mistake by scouring the Earth for another form that Joe’s spirit can inhibit. They soon locate a wealthy businessman named Farnsworth, who’s about to be drugged and drowned by his wife, Julia (Rita Johnson) and her male accomplice, Tony (John Emery).
Hoping to make good on Farnsworth’s heinous business practices and win the heart of the sympathetic victim, Bette (Evelyn Keyes), Joe agrees to don the body of Farnsworth. What follows is a Ghost-like series of events where Joe (in the body of another man) tries to convince those who knew him of his existence (enter that lucky saxophone!).
If the story sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s been reincarnated a thousand times. It originally comes from a 1938 play called Heaven Can Wait; however, Twentieth Century-Fox had dibs on the title, so the film was crowned Here Comes Mr. Jordan. About five years later, a musical version was made called Down to Earth. In 1978, Warren Beatty remade the film, but used the original Heaven Can Wait title. Then, in 2001, what was dubbed a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan was released starring Chris Rock and was titled, Down to Earth. Now we just need someone to remake the 1947 Down to Earth and release it as Heaven Can Wait and the holy circle will be complete.
The term “Film Blanc” was invented to represent the opposite of Film Noir. Film Blanc films were often feel-good fantasies, “heavenly waiting room” movies where souls were granted the ability to return to earth as a ghost, revealing something amazing about a man’s life when viewed from an ethereal point of view: Our Town, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Ghost are a few of the most famous examples, in addition to all the reincarnations of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. While all these films share the supernatural element, the most common theme is that of love. Love cuts across all boundaries. One doesn’t have to believe in ghosts or the supernatural to believe in the power of love.
For most Film Blanc movies of the 1940s, the more light-hearted, the more successful. Here Comes Mr. Jordan, for example, was one of the top films of 1940, while It’s a Wonderful Life, which was released just four years later, was technically a box office bomb. Here Comes Mr. Jordan not only kept the tone light and optimistic, but showed how the human soul could live, and love, long after it’s done with the body it inhabits. It takes on new forms and identities and our essential goodness is passed on to those that follow. An angel may get its wings every time a bell rings, but Jordan puts the emphasis on humanity rather than celestial beings. We may not know what awaits us in the afterlife, but there’s some comfort in knowing our soul, the essence of who we are, lives on.
Blossoms in the Dust
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Felix Bressart, Marsha Hunt, Fay Holden, Samuel S. Hinds, Kathleen Howard, George Lessey, William Henry, Henry O’Neill, John Eldredge, Clinton Rosemond, Theresa Harris, Charles Arnt, Cecil Cunningham, Ann Morriss, Richard Nichols, Pat Barker, Marc Lawrence
Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction (Color)
Other Nominations: Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Picture
In the years prior to 1936, if a child was born to unwed parents, it was common to actually put the word “illegitimate” on the birth certificate. It’s certainly ironic, especially in today’s day and age, that the first state to actually ban the use of the word “illegitimate” was Texas. This was largely due to the efforts of Edna Gladney, a Wisconsin-born Texas transplant who was an early advocate for the rights of children.
Along with starting a home for orphans and abandoned children in Fort Worth, Edna also started one of the country’s first day care centers for the children of working mothers. She was a woman ahead of her time.
In Blossoms in the Dust, Edna’s life gets the Hollywood treatment, with some parts based on fact and others fictionalized for the sake of the story. In real life, for example, Edna knew first-hand about the challenges faced by children of unwed parents because she was one herself. Apparently, that was too much for the production company so Edna (played by Greer Garson) is given an adopted sister named Charlotte (Marsha Hunt), who discovers she was born outside of marriage. It’s a shame they made this change, as knowing Edna was “illegitimate” would have validated her story way more.
We first meet Edna in Wisconsin, planning a double wedding with her adopted sister, Charlotte. However, Edna is swept off her feet by Sam Gladney (Walter Pidgeon), a Texan who wants to start a wheat mill. The wedding plans hit another snag when Charlotte discovers that she was born out of wedlock, causing her future mother-in-law to halt the marriage. In a matter of minutes, the double wedding plans end in tragedy.
Tragedy continues to follow Edna and Sam throughout their journey. After the couple lose their son in a car accident, Edna decides to open a daycare facility where she could care for young children while their mothers work. With the help of Dr. Breslar (Felix Bressart), Edna expands her practice into a charity and starts arranging adoptions. All is well until Sam gets sick, leaving Edna alone to care for her growing flock.
Blossoms in the Dust really wants to turn Edna Gladney into a saint. She loses both her son and her husband, thereby “freeing” her for social work. A botched pregnancy means she can never give birth again, so she’s kept “virtuous” by not having sex. Thus, Edna becomes a beacon for women everywhere. Family and desire don’t make a great woman, according to MGM at least.
While the film also turns Edna into a bit of a trailblazer, the real Edna essentially revamped what was already established. The Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society was already created 40 years before she became the superintendent of the Children’s Home. After the success of Blossoms in the Dust, the facility was renamed to The Edna Gladney Home (it’s now the Gladney Center for Adoption). It’s credited as establishing one of the first ever crisis hotlines in 1976 and created a Sibling Registry for adopted persons born to the same birthmother or father. Today the Gladney Center has established programs in China, Columbia, and Taiwan, and the US.
Ultimately, Blossoms in the Dust is typical of the type of movies you tend to come across while watching films that were nominated for Best Picture. Some movies are great, some are terrible, but most of them were just well-made, respectable, middle-of-the-road entertainers like this one. Though it’s clearly given the Hollywood treatment, Edna’s story is one for the books – a woman taking on The System to make the world better for the generations to come.
Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, Geroge Tobias, Stanley Ridges, Margaret Wycherly, Ward Bond, Noah Beery, Jr., June Lockhart, Dickie Moore, Clem Bevans, Howard De Silva, Charles Trowbridge, Harvey Stephens, David Bruce, Charles Esmond, Joseph Sawyer, Pat Flaherty, Robert Porterfield, Erville Alderson
Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Film Editing
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Walter Brennan), Best Supporting Actress (Margaret Wycherly), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Director, Best Musical Score, Best Sound Recording, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture
Hollywood legend Gary Cooper won two Best Actor Oscars in his lifetime: one for his performance in High Noon (1953) as a marshal facing a showdown on the day of his marriage to a Quaker pacifist, and the other for his performance of a real-life conscientious objector who became an American war hero in Sergeant York.
Based on Alvin C. York’s personal diary, Sergeant York was typical of biopics from the period: wholesome, folksy, sentimental, and chock-full of religious symbolism. Mostly set in the backwoods of Tennessee, Sergeant York spends most of its time explaining how Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a hard-working mama’s boy, goes from Davy Crocket to a born-again Christian opposed to killing.
When he’s not working the land, York spends his days a’drinkin’ and getting into trouble. At the beginning of the film, he disrupts a church service by shooting his initials into a tree before his horse takes his drunk ass home.
Unsurprisingly, York’s claim to fame is his excellent marksmanship. On his way to kill someone who cheated him, he’s hit by lightning and is knocked off his horse. He takes this as a sign from God that it might be time to turn to a higher being for help.
Almost overnight, York becomes a model Christian, forgiving those who wronged him, becoming an active church member and even teaching Bible lessons to the kids. When the announcement arrives that all young men are expected to go to Europe and fight, York doesn’t much feel like it, thank you very much. But not even that ol’ time religion can do much to stop the draft.
The pacifist message of Sergeant York is similar to the recent Hacksaw Ridge…though Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was a true pacifist who refused to carry a weapon. York, on the other hand, was a conscientious objector who still fought to protect his men. York also received the Congressional Medal of Honor for single-handedly taking out a German machine gun nest, shooting 25 enemy soldiers and taking in 132 POWs. Not only that, the state of Tennessee bought York a farm upon his return to the US.
A true American through and through, the real Alvin York was not only the recipient of the Medal of Honor, but eight others, including the Legion of Honor, World War I Victory Medal, and the War Cross. He participated in bond drives and raised funds for war-related charities during World War II. He even named most of his 10 CHILDREN after famous Americans, including Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, and Betsy Ross. He was commemorated on a US postage stamp, honored with a statue on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol and has a state park named after him.
Sergeant York was still in theaters when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, influencing several young men to go directly from the theater to the enlistment offices. It was the highest grossing film of 1941, making $8.3 million on a $1.7 million budget. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning two – including a Best Actor win for Cooper.
Watching this film today, it feels a little naïve but – perhaps – so are the folks of which it tells. It’s filled with humility and pride, as simple as apple pie or the prayer offered up over a simple meal. While it’s nowhere near as gruesome as war films are today, it is powerful in other ways, showing how the two most important texts of the day – the Farmer’s Almanac and the Bible – could offer comfort and peace to men battling nature and God.
Hold Back the Dawn
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Starring: Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard, Victor Francen, Walter Abel, Curt Bois, Rosemary DeCamp, Eric Feldary, Nestor Paiva, Eva Puig, Micheline Cheirel, Madeleine Lebeau, Billy Lee, Mikhail Rasumny, Charles Arnt, Arthur Loft, Mitchell Leisen, Veronica Lake
Oscar Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Musical Score, Best Screenplay, Best Picture
A man walks the streets of a small, sun-drenched Mexican border town. It’s hot and dusty. The streets are filled with people waiting to get back in the US. Though he can see American soil from the place where he stands, he can’t actually step foot in America for another eight years.
In Hold Back the Dawn, Charles Boyer stars as George Iscovescu, a Romanian who finds himself stuck in Mexico, unable to enter the United States until his 8-year wait time is up. But an unexpected encounter with his former dancing partner, Anita (Paulette Goddard), proves to be beneficial: she reveals that she married an American man to shortcut the immigration process – then divorced him as soon as she was granted citizenship. George is intrigued. All he has to do is find a gullible young American to marry. No problem for a handsome, charming, well-dressed man like himself.
He sets his sights on one Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), an American schoolteacher in town on a field trip with her students. When her bus breaks down, George swoops in with his smooth-talking charm and courtly manner. The young Miss Brown doesn’t stand a chance. Game, set, match.
The two embark on a whirlwind romance, finding themselves married after just 2 HOURS of semi-quality time together. All seems to be going according to plan until George realizes that he’s developing real feelings for Emmy.
Though Hold Back the Dawn might sound like a screwball comedy, it’s far from one. This is straightforward romantic drama, filled with swoonworthy “weepie” lines like, “All those years with all the others, I’ve shut my eyes and thought of you,” and “Somehow, these walls will not seem so empty inside. You will be here very close to me. Breathing in the same night.”
While certainly predictable, this was still an interesting movie to see through today’s lens. It’s a timeless film that’s even timelier today. With poetic words about the vital role that new immigrants play in shaping American culture, Hold Back the Dawn is a love story to those who have given everything to seek a new life in a new land and who have risked life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the possibility of something better, somewhere better.
One Foot in Heaven
Director: Irving Rapper
Starring: Fredric March, Martha Scott, Beulah Bondi, Gene Lockhart, Elisabeth Fraser, Harry Davenport, Laura Hope Chews, Grant Mitchell, Moroni Olsen, Frankie Thomas, Jerome Cowan, Ernest Cossart, Nana Bryant
Oscar Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Picture
Well, that was 2 hours of my life wasted.
The values of church and state collide in One Foot in Heaven, a movie about a devout minister and his wife having to deal with modern society. We first meet William Spence (Fredrich March) explaining to his future in-laws that he’s suddenly decided to drop out of medical school and become a Methodist minister. Though no one, particularly his soon-to-be father-in-law, is pumped about William’s seemingly random decision to abandon any form of financial security, he feels it’s what he’s meant to do.
Though her parents are concerned, Hope (Martha Scott) stands by her man and marries him anyway. They move from town to town, living in dingy parsonages and barely paying the bills by performing weddings. Hope is frustrated by the less-than-ideal living conditions, but she remains supportive.
Three children later, the Spence family now faces a whole new set of challenges. On the brink of poverty, the family struggles to make ends meet. On top of that, they have yet to name and baptize their newborn baby, which becomes an added source of contention for the couple. They fight over the baby’s name, as both Hope and William want to honor those that came before them. William at first concedes, agreeing to move forward with Hope’s choice, but then changes it to his choice during the actual ceremony. What a guy!
Life moves on…yada, yada, yada. Several years later, the family is now at a new home with a new congregation, most of whom are anything but good Christian folk. Knowing Hope has given up a lot to be with him, William decides to build a new house for his family; however, that also means building a new church.
William sets up a meeting with the church board and explains his idea for a brand new and better church and, honestly, how dare he? The wealthy board (who have family members in the church choir) are against the change because the new building has the choir seats being hidden so you only hear their voices…and this choir INSISTS on being seen.
A few enraged choir members even spread a rumor about the Pastor’s son, which gets him expelled. Apparently, Hell hath no fury like a choir member scorned.
Out of the blue, William then gets an offer to pastor a big church in California – which would include a beautiful home for his family. But, like the good Christian he is, he refuses to run from hardship. William chooses to stay and complete his church – because that’s what Jesus would do. As he doodles around on the church organ, his partitioners flock to him like possessed zombies, singing together in beautiful harmony.
And that’s pretty much it. There’s really not much conflict to be found outside of William’s son going to the movies like the heathen he is. It’s a slow-moving, black-and-white sermon that clearly appealed to the religious crowd in small-town America. Unless you’re passionate about the history of Methodism, it’s not what I would call a particularly interesting watch.
So how did One Foot in Heaven receive a Best Picture nomination in the same year that saw nominations for Citizen Kane, Suspicion, and The Maltese Falcon? Probably for the same reason films like Of Mice and Men were nominated alongside Gone with the Wind…it’s a totally uncontroversial, safe choice. It’s the type of film that, if made today, would star Tom Hanks and be directed by Ron Howard. While I struggled to get through it, I’m sure it struck a chord with those folks from small religious towns. It very obviously speaks to the goodness of humanity and how it’s sometimes harder, but better, to simply accept your fate.
The Maltese Falcon
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan, Elisha Cook, Jr., James Burke, Murray Alper, John Hamilton, Walter Huston
Oscar Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Sydney Greenstreet), Best Screenplay, Best Picture
Much like its fellow nominee, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon was instrumental in setting the stage for future films to come. Not only is it considered the first film noir (in America, anyway), it also transformed Humphrey Bogart from a B-level supporting character to a hard-boiled, cigarette-smoking A-lister. His performance as Sam Spade defined the roles Bogie would come to play, setting the stage for the heartbreaking and tortured characters he would bring to life in Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Caine Mutiny, The African Queen, and many others.
As the story begins, P.I. Sam Spade (Bogart) is in his office, bantering with his secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick). A sly trumpet signals the coming of our femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor). She’s here to hire Sam and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), to liberate her sister from the throws of an abusive husband.
Sam isn’t buying her story, but he agrees to take the case. He sends Miles out to follow the suspect, but Miles is shot and killed during the stakeout. But by who?
If Sam is even remotely upset that his partner was shot dead, he doesn’t show it. In a matter of minutes, Miles’ name is removed from the door and Sam Spade is given top-billing. There’s also the teeny tiny problem that Sam is having an affair with Miles’ wife (Gladys George)…who also doesn’t seem terribly upset that her husband has been murdered.
Nevertheless, the job must be done: Sam has to find Miles’ killer and bring that person to justice. A slew of red herrings leads Sam to Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who go by “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, respectively. All three men are hunting the same artifact: “The Maltese Falcon”, which dates back to the 16th century.
The black bird (said to be made of gold and encrusted with jewels) is an example of Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin” – it doesn’t matter what it is, so long as everyone in the story wants it or fears it. The plot clumsily circles around finding this bird, but the plot is by far the least interesting aspect of the story. What we’re meant to care about here are the characters. For example, you may be cool – but are you Humphrey Bogart beating up a guy with one hand while smoking a cigarette cool? When the movie is over, it’s not the story you remember – chances are you’ll probably leave wondering what the F actually DID happen…instead, you remember Sam’s strange laugh, his banter with Effie, Effie’s fun personality, Brigid’s shady demeanor. This is a film that is fueled by great characters and witty dialogue. Everything else is just gravy.
One of the more popular scenes in The Maltese Falcon happens towards the end when Sam finally snags the murderer. In an icy speech, he says, “I hope they don’t hang you…by that sweet neck…the chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re good…you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
Spade is cold and hard, just like his name. When he hears his partner dies, he responds by removing his name from their door. Not 10 seconds later, he’s making out with the widow. If he doesn’t like you, he’s not gonna hide it. He’ll go from smashing faces to smashing glasses in an instant, then leave the room smiling, amused by his own acts. He plays dirty, but he does what he’s hired to do. And when he’s not working, he’s just as sleezy, just as calculating. You know you can’t trust him, but you can’t help but follow his lead. All in all, he’s the stuff great cinema is made of.
Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, William Alland, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris, Fortunio Bonanova, Gus Schilling, Phillip Van Zandt, Georgia Backus, Harry Shannon, Sonny Bupp, Buddy Swan
Oscar Wins: Best Original Screenplay
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Orson Welles), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Sound Recording, Best Picture
I have to be honest. I sat here staring at a blank page for about 10 minutes, not knowing how to start this review. How do you write about a movie that’s so intimidating, so worshiped, that many call it the best film EVER MADE?
Citizen Kane is often placed in best-of lists that include The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, and The Shawshank Redemption. Chances are that those who know the origins of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” and “There’s no place like home” also know the moanful cry of “Rosebud”. But is it worth the hype?
The geneses of Citizen Kane is well known, particularly with the release of the 2020 film Mank (which told the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the man behind the screenplay). Orson Welles, the boy wonder of radio and stage, was given the freedom by RKO Pictures to make any movie he wished. Together with Mankiewicz, Welles created a film inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst, who managed an empire of newspapers, radio stations and magazines. He then built himself a flamboyant castle furnished with rare and priceless artifacts.
The film begins on this ohmage to wealth and power: Charles Foster Kane’s (Orson Welles) castle he calls Xanadu. It’s quoted as being the “costliest monument of a man to himself.” Naturally, any resemblance to Hearst’s abode, The Ranch, is not coincidental.
Within moments of the opening scene, Kane is dead, famously uttering the word “Rosebud” before falling over. His death, like his life, is a big news event, with papers plastering news of his passing all over the front page. The New York Inquirer, which was owned by Kane, is desperate to unearth the meaning of his cryptic last word before anyone else.
A reporter (William Alland) is assigned to the story and begins digging into Kane’s past. In a series of flashbacks, the mogul’s history is unraveled through the accounts of several people who knew him well. As the story unfolds, we watch Kane move from a bold newspaper owner to becoming one of the most powerful men in America. It’s Succession for the 1940s crowd.
Eventually Kane takes on the final beast: politics. However, it all comes crashing down when his rival exposes Kane’s extramarital affair with Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). Kane then divorces his first wife, marries Susan, and goes into seclusion in his palace of Xanadu.
As people disconnect from him, including Susan, Kane fills those gaps with stuff. We finally end up back at the beginning, with Kane dying a lonely, unloved shell of a human being.
The final utterance of “Rosebud” never makes sense to the reporter, but it does to the audience. In the equivalent of a stage whisper, we see the meaning of the word in the final few seconds of the film, leading one to question whether the richest, most successful man really had everything he ever wanted.
Unsurprisingly, Hearst was not a fan of Citizen Kane…and really, neither was anyone else. Despite the numerous accolades it received, including several Oscar nominations, it would only win Best Screenplay. It didn’t make back its budget, mostly because it was banned from most theaters. Eventually, Citizen Kane would find its place among top-tier shelves, but it would have to battle everyone it offended first.
As a film, Citizen Kane is about as close to an American fable as you can get. It teaches what can happen when someone abuses wealth and power. It shows us how our lives, after we’re gone, survive only in the memories of others...and each person who holds a memory also holds a different version of us. It also serves as a lesson that money can’t buy everything…there are some things, some memories, that are priceless…that stay with us forever, until our last dying breath.
The Little Foxes
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, Richard Carlson, Dan Duryea, Patricia Collinge, Charles Dingle, Carl Benton Reid, Jessica Grayson, John Marriott, Russell Hicks, Lucien Littlefield, Virginia Brissac, Terry Nibert, Henry ‘Hot Shot’ Thomas, Charles R. Moore
Oscar Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Actress (Bette Davis), Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Collinge), Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Screenplay, Best Picture
Chances are if you’re watching a movie where Bette Davis is playing a cold hard b*tch, you’re in for a great time.
Wannabe southern belle Regina Giddens (Bette Davis) is ready, willing and able to use anyone at her disposable to get what she wants – including her sick husband, Horace (Herbert Marshall) and her impressionable daughter, Alexandra (Theresa Wright).
Regina is what one might call “new money”, having accumulated her fortune by marrying into money and buying land from those who could no longer afford to own it.
Regina’s brothers Ben (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) have proposed an offer to buy a cotton mill, but they need some extra cash. They approach Regina about coming in on the deal, as her wealthy husband is the only one who can offer the $75,000 needed to purchase the mill. Already scheming, Regina ensures that her brothers have nothing to worry about…they’re in.
The problem is that Horace is currently in Baltimore, seeking medical help for his heart condition. Regina sends Alexandra to bring her father home under the guise of a wife missing her love…but he’s not home for two seconds before Regina is hounding him about the mill deal. Horace isn’t sold on it…and Regina’s brothers are getting impatient.
Reaching an impasse due to Horace’s literal and figurative soft heart, the brothers discover a way to get Horace’s money without him finding out about it. Oscar involves his son, Leo (Dan Duryea) in a plan to steal bonds from Horace before he discovers that they’re missing…except Horace does find out. He quickly realizes that he’s underestimated the greed of Ben and Oscar, just as they’ve underestimated Horace’s intelligence. The kicker, though, is that they’ve all grossly underestimated the shrewdness of Regina.
Just like the murderess she played in The Letter the previous year, Bette Davis’ Regina is a woman who gets what she wants, no matter the cost. Watching her bully her husband while wearing a dead bird on her head is about as cold and calculating as Davis has ever been. You almost have to admire her for her ability to keep her emotions in check no matter what the circumstance.
Davis was also a pro at acting down to her fellow cast members. Regina is always above everyone else, thanks to the balcony and the stairs where most of the movie seems to take place. If she’s not looking down her nose at you, she’s towering above you on the balcony or lingering on the top step. And if anyone gets in her way, she has no problem taking them down.
Similarly to Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes shows us exactly what happens when a greedy person gets everything they ever wanted. It’s a lesson in what happens when you take advantage of those who are close to you, those who love you, those who trust you. If you’re willing to lose everything to get everything, what is there to show for it? And when you finally get everything you want, does it really matter if there’s no one to share it with?
How Green Was My Valley
Director: John Ford
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp, Roddy McDowall, Sara Allgood, Anna Lee, Patric Knowles, John Loder, Barry Fitzgerald, Rhys Williams, Morton Lowry, Arthur Shields, Frederick Worlock, Richard Fraser, Evan S. Evans, James Monks, Ethel Griffies, Lionel Pape, Marten Lamont, Ann E. Todd, Clifford Severn, Irving Pichel
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Donald Crisp), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Director, Best Picture
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Sara Allgood), Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Sound Recording, Best Screenplay
The beauty of a regular life and the humanity that shines in the souls of simple, honest folk are rarely the topics of award-winning films. Oftentimes, just a family trying to survive isn’t considered enough of a story to warrant a feature-length movie. Yet out of a humble Welsh mining town comes a story filled with music, dignity, and poetic charm…a simple-as-apple-pie tale about a boy who grows up and realizes that his best days are behind him.
Everything we see in How Green Was My Valley is told from the perspective of Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall), as he looks back on his life as a boy in a South Wales mining town. In his narration (Huw narrates the film in his adult form, similar to Ralphie in A Christmas Story), we learn that the mine has become so big and its pollution so extreme that the beauty of the valley has been eclipsed. The title, as you can imagine, not only refers to the town before the boom of the coal business, but the innocence of childhood now lost.
Most of the vignettes in the movie happen with Huw at the center. His brother, Ivor (Patric Knowles), marries the pretty Bronwyn (Anna Lee), upon whom Huw develops a crush. When Ivor dies in a mining accident, Huw does what he can to provide support and encouragement to the young widow.
Huw’s sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) falls in love with the local minister, Mr. Guffydd (Walter Pidgeon), who befriends Huw almost instantly. But trouble arises when Angharad marries the son of the wealthy mine owner instead (a marriage her father most likely arranges for her).
When work becomes scarce and wages are cut, the older Morgan brothers start to unionize, which greatly upsets Mr. Morgan (Donald Crisp). Eventually, the three older brothers have no choice but to leave for America, which has a huge impact on Huw’s mother (Sara Allgood).
Obviously, family is the central theme of How Green Was My Valley. The tight-knit Morgan household is a place where great love is shown. The importance of rite and ritual establishes the family structure and shows how simple traditions, like all eating dinner together, keep these family members united. Family roles are clear and obviously paternalistic, as Huw reminisces, “…whilst my father was the head of the family, my mother was its’ heart.”
The beauty of this film lies in its melancholy. Huw’s voice evokes a powerful sense of days gone by, of memories that have passed and will not come again. There’s relatability in this – when we look back at our childhoods through rose-colored glasses, remembering those moments when our families all lived together, parents were alive, brothers taught you how to fight in the living room – then inevitably realize those days are long gone.
This film reminded me of a quote from Dante: “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.” In the deepest regions of our hearts, especially when we’re upset or sad, we can easily recall the moments and events that shaped our own story. Those memories of family dinners, bickering in the living room, stories before bed. Seen today, How Green Was My Valley is dated and quaint, but many of its smaller details – such as looking back to something that no longer exists – strikes a resonant chord.