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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 66

Part 66: 1943


MOVIES:

  • Wake Island

  • Random Harvest

  • Yankee Doodle Dandy

  • The Talk of the Town

  • 49th Parallel

  • The Magnificent Ambersons

  • Mrs. Miniver (winner)

  • The Pride of the Yankees (hidden gem)

  • Kings Row

  • The Pied Piper

Wake Island

Director: John Farrow

Starring: Brian Donlevy, Macdonald Carey, Robert Preston, William Bendix, Albert Dekker, Walter Abel, Mikhail Rasumny, Rod Cameron, Bill Goodwin, Damian O’Flynn, Frank Albertson

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (William Bendix), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture


A few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombarded Wake Island, a small island in the Pacific Ocean that held a US military base. The island housed several infantrymen, but also Navy personnel, Army personnel, and several civilians.


The Japanese attacked Wake Island repeatedly for a month. Day by day, any hope for resupply or rescue for the men stationed there dwindled. After a great loss of life, the battle finally concluded with the US surrender on December 23, 1941.


While the film, Wake Island, doesn’t exaggerate or sentimentalize the brutal fall of a tiny island in the Pacific, it’s not quite accurate to the real battle. Nevertheless, it does what all war films in the 1940s were designed to do: stir up patriotism and get people to join the military. It also gave the folks back home – before the advent of 24-hour cable television – an idea of what was going on overseas.

The actual story of what happened on Wake Island wouldn’t be known until the war had ended, so the writers for the film worked with the US Marine Corps to invent a heroic Last Stand that is considerably less harrowing than what actually happened. We arrive in early December to find Major Caton (Brian Donlevy) coming to Wake Island to take command of the tiny garrison there.


Our two primary points of entry into this world are Private Joe Doyle (Robert Preston) and Private Aloysis “Smacksie” Randall (William Bendix), two goof balls who provide most of the comic relief throughout the film. We meet a few other key players, including the leader of the civilian construction crew, Shad McClosky (Albert Dekker), tasked with building the permanent base on the island.

Throughout the first part of the film, the civilians and the miliary bicker and argue about everything. But Wake Island is quick to show that, when times get tough, they can all band together despite it all.


But then Pearl Harbor is hit. Wake Island is bombed just an hour or two later. In those few seconds, bygones are bygones, and the civilians get to work digging defense trenches and helping out where they can. More than half of the film is taken up with this battle, and it’s pretty successful. There are certainly some great effects here, but there also seem to be slightly scratched shots of real Japanese planes and ships in action. Real dynamite is being used. The bombardments are more realistic than many CGI scenes I’ve seen today.


The battle continues for weeks until the US military is out of ammo and almost out of people. The Japanese then mount a much bigger offensive. With the writing on the wall, Major Caton is overcome by defeat. “Tell ‘em to come and get us,” he says.

Wake Island was the first World War II Hollywood film based on an actual battle. When it was released, it opened to great success. The process even inspired one of the actors (Macdonald Carey) to join the Marines upon completion of the movie. But, viewed today, Wake Island is essentially a time capsule. It captures a heartbreaking battle overshadowed by an even bigger one, an unwinnable fight to the death that resulted in hundreds of casualties. Despite its unwavering patriotism, it’s a realistic story of a group of soldiers who had no choice but to wait in their foxholes, defending themselves against an unstoppable force.

 

Random Harvest

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, Philip Dorn, Susan Peters, Henry Travers, Reginald Owen, Bramwell Fletcher, Rhys Williams, Una O’Connor, Aubrey Mather, Margaret Wycherly, Arthur Margetson, Melville Cooper, Alan Napier, Jill Esmond, Ivan F. Simpson, Ann Richards, Norma Varden, Marie De Becker, Charles Waldron, Elisabeth Risdon

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Ronald Colman), Best Supporting Actress (Susan Peters), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Director, Best Musical Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


Some of the best romances ask us to set aside all the world’s problems to concentrate on two individuals separated by chance, misunderstanding, or even time itself: see An Affair to Remember, Somewhere in Time, Gone with the Wind, or Pride and Prejudice. Often these romances wouldn’t stand a chance in the real world but, under that safety net of Hollywood, love can conquer all.


The romance at the heart of Random Harvest is certainly no different. Brought together by chance, Smithy and Paula are seemingly meant to be. Their romance represents that pure, romantic love of yesteryear – filled with romantic picnics, sweet nothings, and – my favorite – forehead kisses. For Paula, Smithy is her one true love, her everything. And no doubt Smithy feels the same about Paula – at least he would if he could remember her.

World War I has finally reached its end, leaving an unrecognized amnesia victim labeled “John Smith” (Ronald Colman) at the Melbridge County Asylum, waiting for someone to recognize him. After several failed attempts to match him to his family, John Smith takes an opportunity to escape unhindered, wandering into the nearby industrial town of Melbridge.


As he strolls through the crowded streets, Paula (Greer Garson), noticing his disorientation, takes him to a nightclub where she works as a performer. It’s love at first sight for her, taking immediate interest in this man she calls “Smithy”. Anxious to protect him and nurse him back to health, Paula quits her performing career and takes him to stay in a quiet village, where they soon marry and have a child together.


Eventually Smithy takes to writing and is invited to an interview for a job on a newspaper. On a busy street in Liverpool, Smithy is hit by a taxi and hits his head in the fall. It’s a minor accident, but it seems to jolt his memory back into place. Suddenly he remembers his real name, Charles Rainier, and that he’s the son of a wealthy businessman – but all of the memories of Paula, their child, and their life together, are erased completely.

Seven years later and Charles is a newspaper mogul. He’s wealthy, successful, and engaged to be married. But certain activities begin triggering memories locked deep inside his subconscious. Furthermore, when his secretary takes him to a familiar location, more memories begin to unravel. It wouldn’t be fair to tell you much more, but rest assured it’s a beautifully sappy ending.


Random Harvest boasts a heart-wrenching plot, dripping with sentimentality and romance (even a fun little twist!). It’s classically epic with just the right balance of fantasy and sincerity. Sure, parts of it are hard to believe, but aren’t all the best love stories that way? Do yourself a favor and ignore the Hollywood trappings and focus on the message: that people may change and grow distant – even without amnesia – but the love always remains.

 

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, Geroge Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp, Jeanne Cagney, Eddie Foy, Jr., Frances Langford, George Barbier, S.Z. Sakall, Walter Catlett, Minor Watson, Chester Clute, Odette Myrtil, Douglas Croft, Patsy Lee Parsons, Captain Jack Young

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (James Cagney), Best Musical Score, Best Sound Recording

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Writing, Best Picture


Yankee Doodle Dandy rides into town on a lot more than a pony; it’s a star-spangled, rah-rah America, red-white-and-blue, bespeckled explosion of patriotic pride. It’s the story of the Yankee Doodle Boy himself – George M. Cohan (James Cagney) – whose life and songs are a tribute not only to America, but to show business.


Up until Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney was best known for the gangster roles he played in the 1930s. He was Hollywood’s leading crime star, even at the studio that housed Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. But one of Cagney’s most famous roles would be thanks to a dancing, prancing, showman from vaudeville.


Audiences were surprised to see this wise guy singing and dancing for basically two hours straight. I mean, this would be like seeing Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, or James Gandolfini in a musical comedy. Kinda weird. But that didn’t stop Cagney from having the time of his life. While he may not have been the best performer (indeed most of his dance numbers looked more like a Groucho Marx impersonation than anything), it’s clear that he threw himself into the role with such complete joy.

This is most obvious in one of the final scenes in the movie, when Cagney does an improvised Astaire-like dance down the White House steps. What’s he doing in the White House, you might ask? Well, as the film begins, Cohan has been called out of retirement to star as Franklin D. Roosevelt in “I’d Rather Be Right,” a Broadway musical praising the president as war clouds loom. He gets a telegram summoning him to the White House, where FDR praises Cohan’s performance and his family’s dedication to show business in general.


This sets off an entire film of flashbacks, narrated by Cohan, as he tells the president his life story. It begins some 60 years ago, when George was born (on the 4th of July, of course) to Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nelly (Rosemary DeCamp). His name is picked to honor George Washington, but also because it will look great on a billboard should he follow in his parents’ footsteps of being on stage.


And, wouldn’t you know, as soon as the boy can stand up, he’s thrust into show business…along with his Shirley Temple-esque sister, Josie (Jeanne Cagney, Cagney’s real sister). Soon “The Four Cohans” take to vaudeville and entertain audiences throughout the country.

As George gets older, his versatility grows – along with his headstrong and presumptuous attitude. After finagling his way into a meeting with a playwright named Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), the two form a partnership that will take George to the next level. Together they create “Little Johnny Jones”, a Broadway musical about an American jockey who gets falsely accused of throwing a race. The play introduces two of the more famous songs from the film: “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy”.


The movie then hurries from one obligatory scene to the next: retirement of the parents, the offscreen deaths of mother and sister, the onscreen death of father, and a montage of marquees from his hit shows. Eventually darker subjects are introduced, including the sinking of the Lusitania and the start of World War I. In short, it’s really no different than any other biopic about famous showmen. Yankee Doodle Dandy is simply a visual greatest hits album with narrative, moving from one big hit from the songbook to the next.

The real George Cohan, who lived to see the final film, originally wanted Fred Astaire to star, a man he greatly admired. However, when Astaire passed on the project, Cagney’s brother Bill actually suggested James for the part. At first the casting seemed wrong. Cohan was a little too much of a red-blooded Conservative for the progressive Cagney. Cagney was a strong union man, a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild (then president of the Guild in 1942) and was under suspicion of being a Communist. So, when the part was offered to him, Cagney jumped at the chance to deflect rumors of un-American activity by playing an uber patriot.


And it worked. Yankee Doodle Dandy was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year and awarded James Cagney his first and only Oscar win. As of now, it’s voted by the American Film Institute as the 100th greatest Hollywood film of all time and branded Yankee Doodle Cagney politically untouchable.

 

The Talk of the Town

Director: George Stevens

Starring: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Ronald Colman, Edgar Buchanan, Glenda Farrell, Charles Dingle, Clyde Fillmore, Emma Dunn, Rex Ingram, Leonid Kinskey, Tom Tyler, Don Beddoe

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Original Writing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


The concept of the love triangle is certainly not foreign to classic cinema. Throughout the 1940s almost every movie, regardless of genre, had some type of romantic conflict. While Talk of the Town is pretty standard when it comes to a love triangle (it even stars Cary Grant whose very presence often results in some type of odd love shape – triangles, rhombuses, etc.), what’s intriguing about this movie is that it includes a criminal (Grant) as a potential male suitor to a female teacher (Jean Arthur)…pitting him against someone quite the opposite – a male law professor (Ronald Colman).


When the local wool mill burns down, the mill owner blames one of his most troublesome employees, Leopold Dilg (Grant). The fire cost the life of the mill foreman as well, and Dilg is charged with both arson and murder.

Claiming his innocence and believing he has no chance of being acquitted, he escapes jail and heads for the childhood home of his longtime friend, Nora Shelly (Arthur). She’s shocked at his arrival – mostly because she knows Dilg usually brings trouble with him wherever he goes. She’s also distracted, as she’s getting her house ready for a new tenant, Michael Lightcap (Coleman), who has arrived a day early and demands to spend the night.


Still, Nora takes pity on her friend and decides to hide him in her attic. However, Lightcap has just received word that he’s a nominee for the US Supreme Court and he’s cautioned to keep his name out of the papers. No problem, he laughs, there’s been no scandal in twenty years.


But little does he know that scandal is waiting upstairs…

The meat of Talk of the Town depends on Lightcap remaining unaware of Dilg and his current charges. In order to keep up the ruse, Nora introduces Dilg as the gardener and the two men develop a friendship. They have lively discussions about law, with Lightcap speaking from an academic perspective and Dilg speaking more from a practical point of view. Through their discussions, we realize that those with good liberal thinking (represented by Lightcap) need to warm up to human needs (represented by Dilg) if they expect to take on the crooked landowners and politicians of the world. In other words, there is no right or left, just corrupt and noble…and if the noble don’t get off their soapboxes and actually get into the trenches to fight for what’s right, America is in trouble.


This is a very curious project for Cary Grant, as his character is meant to be a political rabble-rouser, maybe even a Communist (his foreign-sounding name certainly makes him suspect, at least). And the fact that director George Stevens would champion such a character, and get Cary Grant to play him, is frankly pretty amazing.

At a time when the national tone was to rally around the flag, The Talk of the Town dares to say that maybe America isn’t so perfect – and not all “villains” are deserving of being demonized. While the ending doesn’t quite motivate us to storm Congress for Mr. Smith or join the military with ol’ Yankee Doodle Cagney, it does leave us questioning our values. Can we consider ourselves ‘good liberals’ if we don’t actually take action?


As far as the love triangle goes, star power tends to dictate who gets the girl, though the ending is technically debatable. Finally, as the couple quickly runs off screen, you can’t help but wonder where their destination is – City Hall? The bedroom? The ACLU?

 

49th Parallel

Director: Michael Powell

Starring: Richard George, Eric Portman, Raymond Lovell, Niall MacGinnis, Peter Moore, John Chandos, Basil Appleby, Laurence Olivier, Finlay Currie, Ley On, Anton Walbrook, Glynis Johns, Charles Victor, Fredrick Piper, Leslie Howard, Tawera Moana, Eric Clavering, Charles Rolfe, Raymond Massey, Theodore Salt, O.W. Fonger

Oscar Wins: Best Original Writing

Other Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


Released in America as The Invaders, 49th Parallel was specifically written as a tactic to persuade America to join the war effort. The British Ministry of Information actually approached filmmaker Michael Powell and asked him to make a propaganda film for them, suggesting the topic of “mine-sweeping”. Instead, Powell decided to make a movie to help sway opinion in the then-neutral United States. His goal was to “…scare the pants off the Americans”, thus bringing them into the war.


Even those in front of the camera thought this project to be a noble effort. Anton Walbrook donated half his fee to the International Red Cross. Raymond Massey, Laurence Olivier, and Leslie Howard all agreed to work at half their normal fee because they felt it was an important propaganda film. And while it tends to resort to racial stereotyping (what 40’s film doesn’t, honestly?), it still succeeded in its main objective – to reach the hearts and minds of Americans and Canadians with its anti-Nazi sentiments.

When U-boat 37 is blown up in the Hudson Bay above the 49th Parallel (the border between Canada and North America), five unsympathetic crewmen led by Nazi Lieutenant Kuhnecker (Raymond Lovell) attempt to make their way to America by way of Canada.


The Germans eventually make their way to a wilderness trading post, where they try (unsuccessfully) to force their views on their captives. An apolitical French-Canadian fur trapper named Johnnie (Laurence Olivier) tries to warn neighbors about the Nazi invasion, but is shot before the call can go through. A number of other Eskimos are also murdered before the Nazis steal a plane in order to escape.


The Nazis crash-land the plane in the wilderness and find themselves among a Manitoba Hutterite farming community filled with refugees with German backgrounds…yet they all respond negatively to the Nazi message. However, one Nazi named Vogel (Niall MacGinnis) finds solstice in these kind, Christian values; but things take a turn when the captain discovers Vogel’s betrayal.

The remaining Germans go on traversing through Canada and killing people that stand in their way. Eventually we work our way down to one German soldier left – and his final mission is to defend himself against an AWOL Canadian soldier (Raymond Massey) and the American customs agents (you can guess who comes out heroic here).


Similar in tone to The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!, 49th Parallel somehow manages to be better propaganda than most films in this awards year. It humanized the Nazi adventurers yet told a story of how those who blindly follow such evil leaders will be misled in almost every aspect of their life. To further please American audiences, the American censors also cut about 20 minutes from the film, including the speech by the fanatical Nazi commander who claims that Eskimos are “…sub-apes like Negroes, only one step above the Jews”. This was done to avoid certain Americans – namely the segregationists in the American South – from being offended by seeing their Nazi-esque racial attitudes on screen. How considerate.

Of course, by the time the film premiered in the US in March of 1942, the US had already entered World War II, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This may have diminished the film’s propaganda value, but didn’t dampen its entertainment appeal. And, as half a dozen Nazi survivors are picked off one-by-one as they experience Canda’s diverse democracy, decency, and intrepid spirit, we’re left with a film that emphasizes that England (and America, if she would just wake up) are facing not only an evil race, but an evil ideology.

 

The Magnificent Ambersons

Director: Orson Welles

Starring: Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett, Don Dillaway, Orson Welles

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Picture


It’s impossible to talk about Orson Welle’s first film, Citizen Kane, without mentioning the two central figures: William Randolph Hearst – the American newspaper magnate at the center of the story – and Welles himself – the wunderkind whose talents and ego burned too brightly, dooming himself to a lifetime of isolation. Likewise, it’s impossible to discuss his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, without examining how the film was stolen from Welles behind his back, placed in a woodchipper, and released with an ending designed to make test audiences happy.


Showcasing much of the technical talent he showed in Kane, Welles turned out a 131-minute cut of The Magnificent Ambersons before packing his bags and heading to South America to work on a new propaganda film. In Welles’ absence, a worried RKO elected to test screen the film, concerned that it wouldn’t be warmly received…they were correct.

It seemed that there were no meek responses. Some were thrilled, most were utterly disappointed. One comment card read something along the lines of “…people want to laugh, not be bored to death.” Deemed too long and too depressing (especially with America now involved in World War II), the decision was made to do a drastic re-cut. Nearly one hour of footage was removed and a new, happier ending was filmed. The missing footage was then destroyed, a loss that remains (for some film buffs) one of the greatest tragedies in film production history. Now, at only 88 minutes in length, the final cut of The Magnificent Ambersons is only a skeleton of the original. And, in a poetic ode to irony, the film still failed miserably at the box office.


The film charts the fall of the once aristocratic Amberson family near the beginning of the 20th century. Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello) and Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway) have a loveless, yet respectful, union. Their only child, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt) is the only heir to the family fortune.

As the only heir, George is doted upon by his entire family, particularly his aunt, Fanny Minafer (Agnes Moorehead). In turn, he becomes spoiled and spiteful – a nasty, egotistical man who will do anything and hurt anyone to get his way.


One winter evening, two newcomers arrive at the Amberson mansion – Eugene and Lucy Morgan (Joseph Cotton and Anne Baxter). Eugene, a manufacturer of automobiles, is Isabel’s true love and, if not for an error on his part, they would have been married 20 years ago.


Despite falling head-over-heals for Lucy, George wants nothing do to with Eugene. George despises automobiles and considers them a “useless nuisance”. He also considers George “riff-raff” and is horrified by the thought of him loving his mother. Things get worse when George’s father dies, opening the door for Isabel and Eugene to finally be together. George is infuriated and concocts a scheme to destroy their relationship – at the cost of his mother’s health. In the process, he loses everything – including Lucy, who is unwilling to wed her fortunes to those of a petty and shortsighted man. Penniless and friendless, the film ends with George isolated and alone in a world that has moved on without him.

At least, that’s where it should have ended. Fearful of such a tragic ending, RKO added a new ending where George was hit by a car and reconciles with Eugene and Lucy. This was actually the ending of the novel, but not the vision of movie director, Orson Welles. His original intension was to make The Magnificent Ambersons a sad tale of loss in the face of industrialization. As it stands, George’s accident is certainly poetic justice, but giving him the happy ending he frankly doesn’t deserve almost spits in the face of the rest of the production.


Happy ending or not – the major debate remains the same: is it a masterpiece equal to Citizen Kane or is it unqualified of even being mentioned in the same sentence? As someone who didn't LOVE either movie (blasphemous, I know), I’m probably the wrong person to ask. Still, even if The Magnificent Ambersons will never be seen as Welles originally intended, I can still appreciate its beauty – much as someone might regard the tattered remains of an old mansion, a dream of what once was, of its forgotten days of glory.

 

Mrs. Miniver

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen, Henry Travers, Richard Ney, Henry Wilcoxon, Christopher Severn, Brenda Forbes, Clare Sandars, Marie De Becker, Helmut Dantine, John Abbott, Connie Leon, Rhys Williams

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Walter Pidgeon), Best Supporting Actor (Henry Travers), Best Supporting Actress (Dame May Whitty), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, Best Special Effects


Mrs. Miniver is one of those movies that probably wouldn’t have had the success it did if it was released literally any other time. Hitting theaters just 6 months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mrs. Miniver – with its semi-religious overtones and focus on the domestic aspects of World War II – broke box office records and swayed many Americans to support the war efforts. It brought in $8.8 million worldwide and was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography (it won all of those, by the way). Winston Churchill even wrote to MGM, saying Mrs. Miniver is “…propaganda worth a hundred battleships.”

Though considered a World War II movie, Mrs. Miniver is not about soldiers in uniform. There are no bloody battles, no strategic moonlit missions, no captains screaming in the faces of his subordinates. This is a story about the people in small, unpretentious English town on whom the war creeps up slowly, disturbing their tranquil ways of life. This is a film of modern warfare, in which civilians become the front-line fighters and the ingrained courage of the people becomes the nation’s most vital strength.


We begin in those last, carefree days of summer. It’s 1939, just before the war bursts upon Europe. The Minivers are enjoying their blessings to the fullest – living a comfortable life in a cozy country house. Clement Miniver (Walter Pidgeon) is a wealthy architect married to Kay (Garson). Together they have three children: Vin (Richard Ney), a student at Oxford; Judy (Clare Sandars) and Toby (Christopher Severn). Though considered ‘middle class’, this family has money to spend. They have two domestic servants and laugh about splurging on cars and fancy clothing. They live on the water and own a private boat, more than 30 feet long. Some middle class!

While on vacation from school, Vin becomes involved with Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), the granddaughter of Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), whose chief concern in life is that her prize roses win an annual competition. Vin and Carol have friendly banter at first that quickly dissolves into romance; however, budding romance and blossoming roses don’t seem so significant against the backdrop of war. Vin joins the air force and Clement takes his boat to Dunkirk to assist with the evacuation there. Mrs. Miniver is left to tend to the home front, where she spends a melodramatic hour with a wounded German soldier who has landed in her garden.


And that’s only the beginning of turmoil as the war gets ever closer to home. Air raids cause the Minivers to seek shelter underground as once loved locations – their school, their church, their home – fall to pieces around them. Things take a somber turn yet again when not everyone makes it out alive.

Because it stays home and doesn’t bring us to the battle front, Mrs. Miniver offers a perspective not often seen in World War II movies. Like most William Wyler films, the movie starts off innocuously, but soon darkens as the war progresses. The final scene, which takes place inside a bombed-out church, says a lot through its visuals and dialogue. In the Vicar’s final sermon, he speaks not only to the people gathered there, but to the viewing audience, discussing how it is a war of the people and affirming their determination to win. President Roosevelt admired the sermon so much, in fact, that he requested it to be translated into multiple languages and air-dropped into territory occupied by the enemy in an effort to build morale.


To its credit, Mrs. Miniver pushes against the norm of traditional female roles in the home. Kay is portrayed as a strong, independent woman, capable of running her household and making her own decisions. It’s entirely fitting that the movie revolves around her and not the people that surround her. She’s the type of mom we’d want if we were in that situation – someone emotional, but level-headed…loving, but grounded…realistic, but hopeful.

 

The Pride of the Yankees

Director: Sam Wood

Starring: Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Babe Ruth, Walter Brennan, Dan Duryea, Elsa Janssen, Ludwig Stossel, Virginia Gilmore, Bill Dickey, Ernie Adams, Pierre Watkin, Harry Harvey, Robert W. Meusel, Mark Koenig, Bill Stern, Addison Richards, Hardie Albright, Edward Fielding, George Lessey, Edgar Barrier, Douglas Croft, Gene Collins, David Holt

Oscar Wins: Best Film Editing

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Actress (Teresa Wright), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Musical Score, Best Sound Recording, Best Special Effects, Best Original Writing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


In July of 1942, less than a year after the Hall of Fame ballplayer Lou Gehrig died of ALS, The Pride of the Yankeeswas released. This biographical film is not so much about Lou Gehrig, great baseball player, as it is about Lou Gehrig, fine and humble human.


Though it certainly feels like a baseball movie, The Pride of the Yankees is more of a review of the life of a shy and earnest young boy who loved his mother, worked hard to get ahead, and incidentally became a baseball player because he needed some extra money. It’s honestly a pretty relatable saga of American life – homely and sentimental; however, it feels about as long as an actual baseball game.

Like most kids in the 1920s, Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) loved baseball because of one person: Babe Ruth. During one backyard game, Gehrig drives a whopper of a hit through a glass window of a nearby shop, forcing his mother (Elsa Janssen) and father (Ludwig Stossel) to pay for the repair. As well-intentioned German parents, they try and convince Lou that his time is better spent studying to be an engineer rather than whacking a ball over a fence – but his dream doesn’t die so quickly…


It's years later and Lou is at Columba University. Even though he’s resigned to pursue engineering as a primary career, he still hasn’t given up his passion to play ball. And when fate comes knocking in the form of an offer to play with the New York Yankees, Lou will finally have to choose between making his parents happy and pursuing his dream.


Surprising to no one, Lou accepts the offer to join “Murderers Row”, batting behind his childhood hero, Babe Ruth. In his first major league game, Gehrig trips over a grouping of bats, then gets hit in the head on his way to second base. His clumsiness attracts the attention of Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright), and the two enter a courtship. This romance eats into the running time quite a bit, providing scenes that are theatrical, but offer little to the main premise.

Weirdly what this film lacks the most is baseball. Simple glimpses or montages have to suffice when it comes to seeing Lou Gehrig on the field. This is mainly because Gary Cooper – at age 41 – can’t quite pull off the athleticism of what is supposed to be a 19-year-old. However, The Pride of the Yankees does cover its bases when it comes to showing the highlights – like when both Ruth and Gehrig hit home runs in the same game for a hospitalized boy. It also makes mention of Gehrig’s impressive record for consecutive game appearances and shows Gehrig’s full farewell speech, delivered July 4, 1939, to a packed audience at Yankee Stadium. Real Yankee players – including Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig, Bob Meusel and the man himself, Babe Ruth – also make appearances, illustrating the historical significance this film has.


“Give it to me straight, doc.” Lou says after undergoing some tests. Strangely, it takes a good chunk of time before we get to the inevitable end of Gehrig’s story. His ALS diagnosis is left ambiguous, though it wouldn’t have been a mystery for audiences of the era. Nearly three quarters of the movie is over by the time we see any physiological decline and the prognosis rears its ugly head. Still, that doesn’t make his farewell speech any less emotional. I know there’s no crying in baseball, but I’d be surprised if that speech left any dry eyes in the stadium that day.

The final shot of The Pride of the Yankees is a haunting reminder of the nature of things. As “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” walks away into the darkness of an unlit hall, we hear the umpire give the call to start the game. The man has barely left the field and the world has already moved on without him. It’s a bittersweet reminder of the nature of celebrity in America – particularly in athletics. Once you’ve left the field, no matter the size of your star, there’s always someone there to take your place.


Gehrig never got to see his story put on screen – and we’ll never know if he would have appreciated his characterization. The movie played pretty fast and loose with Gehrig’s life, picking and choosing and editing events for the betterment of the story. And, in the end, I don’t think we got a very clear picture of Gehrig or what he was really like. But The Pride of the Yankees still stands as a great story of appreciation and love of the game.

 

King's Row

Director: Sam Wood

Starring: Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, Betty Field, Charles Coburn, Claude Rains, Judith Anderson, Ann Todd, Scotty Beckett, Douglas Croft, Mary Thomas, Nancy Coleman, Kaaren Verne, Maria Ouspenskaya, Harry Davenport, Ernest Cossart, Ilka Gruning, Julie Warren, Mary Scott, Pat Moriarity, Minor Watson, Emory Parnell

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Director, Best Picture


You know how when you order a burger from one of those snazzy burger places and it’s just freaking jam-packed with so many add-ons that you can’t even take a bite of it without everything spilling out…so you just end up eating it piece by piece? That’s what watching King’s Row is like.


This movie was an in-depth look at American morals, told through the eyes of a group of childhood friends. As they reach adulthood, they experience a series of tragic incidents that bring out sadism, insanity, moral decay, deceitfulness, and pettiness that for so long were just swept under the rug of this small Midwestern town. The problem is that this movie labors over things of passing consequence and doesn’t quite explore those elements that make this story interesting. It’s long…and it feels long…and all the storylines layered on top of each other just equate to a sloppy mess on the screen.

The town of King’s Row welcomes visitors with a roadside sign, proclaiming it’s “A good, clean town. A good town to live in. A good place to raise your children.”


Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), Cassandra Tower (Betty Field), Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), Louis Gordon (Nancy Coleman), and Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan) are five young people growing up in King’s Row. They all come from different backgrounds and all experience the town in a different way.


Parris and Cassie are childhood friends, though the adults around them don’t much care for the Tower family. Cassie’s father, Alexander (Claude Rains) is a stern, mean-spirited, reclusive psychiatrist with an equally unfriendly wife. Cassie is made an outcast as rumors fly about her mother, who is said to be kept locked in a room in the Tower house.

Parris is also good friends with Drake McHugh, an adventurous youngster who loves to have fun with his true love, Louis. Louis is the daughter of the town’s other doctor, Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn). And as for Randy, well, she’s from the wrong side of the tracks (literally).


It’s 10 years later and the drama is only getting worse. Parris is studying medicine with Dr. Tower, but still harbors feelings for his daughter, Cassie. Since Dr. Tower doesn’t approve of the relationship, Parris and Cassie are forced to meet up at Drake’s house. For her part, Cassie has become mentally unstable – shut away in her home, devoid of companionship for decades.


Drake and Louise plan to marry, despite Dr. Gordon’s disapproval of Drake. Drake is willing to move forward, but Louise doesn’t have the nerve to go against her parents’ wishes. A few revelations lead Drake to Randy, who becomes his next romantic interest.

It’s about here where whatever hasn’t gone wrong still has time to fall apart. Murder, suicide, betrayal, theft, and deceit are just some of the tragedies that await this group of Midwesterners as they make their way through the remainder of the movie. And to think the Hays Code prevented even more things that were apparent in the novel but not the film, including premarital sex (and pregnancy), homosexuality, and incest. And they say the Midwest isn’t exciting!


If the over-the-top acting wasn’t enough to distract you, there’s also the thunderous score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which clearly provided the inspiration for John Williams’ Star Wars theme. The starting notes are hard to miss – and you half-expect a storm trooper to come flying onscreen at any moment. It’s weird, I’m not gonna lie…


All that being said, I think King’s Row contains a better movie inside of it, struggling to get out. It’s a heartbreaking story about something all Midwesterner’s can relate to – sacrifice – covered up with extra layers that add little to the plot. I know that juicy burger is in there somewhere – but it shouldn’t be such a struggle to find it.

 

The Pied Piper

Director: Irving Pichel

Starring: Monty Woolley, Roddy McDowall, Anne Baxter, Otto Preminger, J. Carrol Naish, Lester Matthews, Jill Esmond, Ferike Boros, Peggy Ann Garner, Merrill Rodin, Maurice Tauzin, Fleurette Zama, William Edmunds, Marcel Dalio, Marcelle Corday, Odette Myrtil, Jean Del Val, Rudolph Anders, Henry Rowland, Helmut Dantine, George Davis

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Monty Woolley), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Picture


John Sidney Howard (Monty Woolley) is an Englishman on holiday. Mouring the death of his wife and the more recent death of his son, Mr. Howard is a bit of a loner these days. He even tried contacting the British government, hoping he could use all his free time to do his part for the war effort, but was rejected due to his old age. Disgusted, he takes his fishing rods to Switzerland to sulk in his misery.


While staying at the rustic inn, he is harassed by a young boy named Ronnie (Roddy McDowall), who is not shy of his elders. The two argue over whether Rochester is a city (as Ronnie says) or a state (as Howard says) and Howard is nothing if not stubborn. Nobody can sputter or sarcastically fly off the handle quite like Monty Woolley, and he’s found his match in this little bright boy.

It’s all fun and games for a while, but reality looms. It’s June 1940. France is likely to fall to the Nazis soon – and England may not be far behind. Howard decides to head home to England, but things hit a snag when Ronnie’s parents ask Howard to take Ronnie and his sister Sheila (Peggy Ann Garner) back to England to stay with their aunt (ironically, they had no idea that everyone would have been safer in Switzerland).


Howard is hesitant at first. Though he may look like Santa Claus, he’s quick to declare how much he dislikes children…but he ultimately agrees.


The trio make their way to France, only to pick up another traveler – a small French girl named Rose (Fleurette Zima) – with instructions to be dropped off with her father in London. The group barely make it through a Nazi attack, which leaves many dead in the streets – including the parents of a young boy named Pierre (Maurice Tauzin), who also joins Howard on his quest. Another orphan shows up out of nowhere, and soon Howard has his hands full with five small charges.

Eventually the group make it to the home of a family friend, where a young French woman named Nicole (Anne Baxter) helps Howard take care of the children. Unfortunately, he also has Gestapo Major Diessen (Otto Preminger) hot on his tail. How far is Howard willing to go to ensure the safety of the children?


Similar to Life is Beautiful, The Pied Piper does a more lightweight, comedic take on a World War II story. In a year that was weighed down with way too many propaganda pieces, this was the breath of fresh air I needed to get through this batch of movies. While it deals pretty directly with the war, it also shows us what it was like to be a child during this period in history. We are not made uncomfortable, but we are strongly reminded that very young, very helpless victims often suffer beyond our reach to help them – and that should be horror enough for any compassionate person.


Just as Greer Garson did in this year’s winner, Mrs. Miniver, Monty Woolley is meant to be less of an individual and more of a stand-in for Britain itself. Both films are not only anti-German, but unapologetically pro-British. When both Mrs. Miniver and Mr. Howard refuse to surrender in the face of German aggression, it proudly proclaims that the British were not losing hope, either. The Pied Piper certainly didn’t have the gut punch that Mrs. Miniver did, but it’s better for it. Instead, it shows the resilience of those groups often ignored in war films: children, women, the elderly…and how they fought relentlessly on the home front.

 



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