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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 70

Part 70: 1944


  • Casablanca (winner)

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls

  • Madame Curie

  • Heaven Can Wait

  • The Human Comedy

  • The More the Merrier (hidden gem)

  • Watch on the Rhine

  • The Ox-Bow Incident

  • The Song of Bernadette

  • In Which We Serve


Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Madeleine Lebeau, Joy Page, John Qualen, S.Z. Sakall, Dooley Wilson

Oscar Wins: Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Director, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains), Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart), Best Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Best Film Editing

Many of the films that have become “classics” have some triumph-over-adversity story to lend to their mythology: a chaotic production, weak box office, critics that didn’t get it, a less-than-stellar budget. When Casablanca went into production, no one thought they were making a great movie. It was an “A List” picture, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman at the helm, but it was also made with small expectations. When it hit theaters, it was warmly received – there was no inkling that it would turn into the sensation it has become today.

The jewel of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Casablanca is perhaps the best example of “the system works”. Talent came from every corner of the production – a sophisticated and witty screenplay, a beloved director, and a cast so close to their screen personas that it was hard to write dialogue that didn’t fit them. It’s also important to remember that Casablanca was a war movie released during the time of war. It was topical not only from a political perspective, but a historical one. It seems the problems of three little people do indeed amount to more than a hill of beans.

Ilsa (Bergman) and her husband, Czech freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) wander into Rick’s Café in Casablanca, a town in French-occupied Morocco. The two are on the run from the Nazis and have come to this American-owned nightspot to lie low. But the German-controlled local government, headed by Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) is on the move – and Lazlo has to act quickly to get the letters of transit he needs to flee to America with Ilsa.

The reason Ilsa and Victor are in Casablanca has to do with the black market there. The saloons, including Rick’s Café and The Blue Parrot down the street, help those looking to escape find the paperwork needed to book a flight out of town. Little does Ilsa know that the café they chose to enter is run by Rick Blaine (Bogart), the one true love of her life. When the two see each other, sparks fly, and memories of an enchanted time in Paris come flooding back.

At first, Rick is hesitant to help Ilsa…old wounds and all. He denies her the letters of transit and it becomes clear to her that the man she once loved has become cynical and disillusioned. Can she soften his hardened heart without breaking her own along the way?

The more we learn about Rick and Ilsa’s history, the deeper their relationship gets, leading to the famously bittersweet scene on an airport tarmac, where they put the world above themselves. Filled with fog and rain, the scene creates a hue that engulfs the characters in a softness that we have come to associate with romance ever since. In her closeups, Bergman’s face reflects confusing emotions…and rightfully so, as neither she nor anyone else on the film knew for sure until the final day of shooting how the film would end. She played the whole movie without knowing the fate of her character, and this had the subtle effect of making her scenes all the more emotionally convincing.

So, it’s got memorable scenes, iconic characters, countless quotable lines…but is it all worth the hype? Meh. Personally, I don’t think so. It seems Casablanca is so beloved today mainly due to its influence in popular culture. Movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, When Harry Met Sally, and the more recent La La Land have helped elevate Casablanca to iconic status. It’s been referenced, parodied, and paid homage to in everything from the movies of Hong Kong to the Looney Tunes cartoons. Without that, I don’t know if we’d still name this as one of the greatest films of all time. Technically, it did nothing groundbreaking. I suppose, just like Ilsa, it just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Since the creation of feature films, movies have been described as “an escape”. Casablanca certainly is that, even for those who reside there. It’s a moment in time, frozen in celluloid, where characters can hover in limbo between the world that was and the world that will be. It’s a place where love means something, where anything can happen. Is it perfect? No. But it doesn’t need to be. As Hollywood continues to change, as lovers come and go, as time goes by, we come to find comfort in those things that remain true and steadfast. In a world where nothing is certain, we can always look back and say, “we’ll always have Casablanca.


For Whom the Bell Tolls

Director: Sam Wood

Starring: Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff, Arturo de Cordova, Vladimir Sokoloff, Mikhail Rasumny, Fortunio Bonanova, Eric Feldary, Victor Varconi, Joseph Calleia, Lilo Yarson, Katina Paxinou, Alexander Granach, Adia Kuznetzoff, Leonid Snegoff, Leo Bulgakov, Duncan Renaldo, Frank Puglia, Pedro de Cordoba, Michael Visaroff, Martin Garralaga, Jean Del Val, John Mylong

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Katina Paxinou)

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Akim Tamiroff), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman), Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Film Editing, Best Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture)

Adapting a beloved book for the screen can be a tricky business. Not only do you have to appease those who are loyal to the source material, you also have to know how to pick and choose the right moments to show on camera. The Harry Potter films, for example, received criticism for leaving out entire plotlines and characters that were crucial to the book series; however, if EVERYTHING was included in the movies, they’d easily be twice as long (if not longer) than they already are…not to mention, not everything in a book really lends itself well to a screen adaptation.

Personally, I thought the Harry Potter films were a wonderful dedication to the source material. While they didn’t follow them exactly, they brought us into a magical universe, told an engaging story, and dropped the plotlines and characters that took away from the main drive of the film. The same cannot be said for For Whom the Bell Tolls, a long, dragging, word-for-word adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel. Filled with way too much dialogue, cartoonish makeup, and bland performances from nearly every cast member, For Whom the Bell Tolls did not toll for me.

Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) is an American explosives expert volunteering with the Republican side against the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. He accepts a dangerous assignment to blow up a strategic bridge that is key to an upcoming surprise attack by the Republican army. He has three days to plan the mission with a band of guerrilla fighters so that the sabotage coincides with the start of a key Republican offensive.

His team includes a group of Republican sympathizers and gypsies, led by Pablo (Akim Tamiroff) and Pilar (Katina Paxinou). While there, Robert meets Maria (Ingrid Bergman), a woman who was rescued by Pablo after she saw her entire family get murdered and was then raped by Fascist troops. The two fall in love and share some truly obnoxious sweet nothings with each other: “I do not know how to kiss, or I would kiss you. Where do the noses go?” What?

As Robert plans the destruction of the bridge, Pablo becomes an erratic and sometimes dangerous presence. Pilar effectively takes leadership over the group and shows she basically has more balls than most of the men in this movie. Over the course of three days (3 very long hours for viewers), the movie tries to juggle all these narratives in a way that makes for gripping or involving drama. Needless to say, it fails.

Most of the movie is spent listening to people talk, then talk, then talk some more. For whatever reason, director Sam Wood and screenwriter Dudley Nichols, felt that they needed to include almost everything in the book. Given that the novel is unnecessarily long, this makes the movie feel just as dull.

The only thing you can really focus on while people drone on about whatever the hell they’re talking about is the truly horrible makeup. Some characters sport brown face, others are caked in grey foundation that makes them look like they’re made of stone. Ingrid Bergman, in her first color film by the way, is so unnaturally colored that you can see the makeup lines on her neck.

Overall, For Whom the Bell Tolls is better off forgotten to the ages. At points, the story does ding, but mostly just dongs for far too long.


Madame Curie

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Travers, Albert Bassermann, Robert Walker, C. Aubrey Smith, Dame May Whitty, Victor Francen, Elsa Bassermann, Reginald Owen, Van Johnson, Margaret O'Brien, James Hilton, Lisa Golm

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Picture, Best Sound Recording, Best Actor (Walter Pidgeon)

It’s the 1890s and Paris is smack dab in the middle of her Belle Epoque…a period in history that saw the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the Paris Metro, the completion of the Paris Opera, and the first public projection of a motion picture. New innovations in commerce, art, and technology brought millions to Paris to explore what was new and exciting in the world.

At the Sorbonne, Marie Sklowdoska (Greer Garson) is planning to finish her scientific degree and return to her homeland of Poland. She’s so consumed with her studies that she apparently forgets to consume anything else. She faints from hunger during a classroom lecture. Men rush to her aid, where she attracts the attention of a kindly professor (Albert Basserman) who takes her under his wing and gets her a job in the research laboratory of physicist Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon).

Like most handsome, smart men, Pierre is initially reluctant to allow a freaking woman into his laboratory, but he’s soon won over by her genius and spirit. It’s only a matter of time before a geeky love begins to blossom…

The two wed and Marie soon begins her doctoral work, investigating why pitchblende (ore filled with uranium and therefore radioactive) emits energy strong enough to act like light on a photographic plate. She removes the uranium from the ore only to discover the ore is still radioactive. This brings her to the conclusion that there must be another unknown radioactive element within the rock.

With Pierre’s help, she is able to detect the theoretical existence of a new element, something she names radium. But isolating radium to conclusively prove its existence is much more difficult than she originally anticipated, testing her patience and taking her scientific talent to the limit. 

In the third of their eight films together, Garson and Pidgeon prove they have great chemistry in Madame Curie. Like the best nerdy couples, they’re painfully awkward, but find a kindred spirit in each other. Their relationship is one built on trust, collaboration, and mutual respect. It’s a refreshing representation of a fully functioning union where love blossoms deep into a relationship initially built on intellect. It’s also nice to see a smart, successful woman in control of her own experiments, her own thoughts, and her own projects. Pierre is there to help her, sometimes guide her, but he never overshadows her. Pretty progressive for 1940s Hollywood.

Like any biopic, not everything can make it to the final cut. The film greatly simplifies and reshapes Marie’s life, leaving out other major moments and milestones. There’s no mention of polonium, the first element she discovered and named after her beloved homeland. She also received not one, but two Nobel prizes – one in Physics in 1903 and the other in Chemistry in 1911. The film also glosses over everything she did after the tragic death of Pierre, including operating mobile x-ray units during World War I.

Madame Curie even fails to mention Marie’s own death, which was directly tied to her work with radioactive materials. She was buried in a lead-lined coffin and many of her notebooks and personal belongings are too irradiated to be directly handled. Talking about letting work kill you!

Though radium is now known to cause cancer, the work Marie put in to discover it is nothing short of extraordinary. Not only did she further the scientific field, she also made great strides for women in general, showing that women can absolutely do anything that men can (and in this case, cannot) do. 


Heaven Can Wait

Director: Ernst Lubitsch 

Starring: Gene Tierney, Don Ameche, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Laird Cregar, Spring Byington, Allyn Joslyn, Eugene Pallette, Signe Hasso, Louis Calhern, Helene Reynolds, Aubrey Mather, Tod Andrews, Scotty Beckett, Dickie Moore, Clara Blandick, Clarence Muse, Anita Sharp-Bolster, Doris Merrick

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Director 

Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) is a bad boy…at least, he thinks he is. After he peacefully passes away in his sleep at the age of 70, he finds himself in the waiting room of Hell, waiting to be escorted into the study of His Excellency (Laird Cregar), whose widow’s peak and upturned mustache clearly announce this dapper gentleman to be the devil.

But this is no evil horn-bearing demon…this Satan is an understanding man, someone who receives his guests warmly (pun intended haha) and desires to help them. In Henry, Satan is given an interesting predicament – while most who arrive in his waiting room are begging for leniency, Henry seeks to be sent to Hell for, what he says, was a life full of romantic betrayal.

From here, we flash back to Henry’s childhood. Born to puritanical parents (Louis Calher and Spring Byington), Henry is clearly the black sheep of his family. The only kindred spirit he’s got is his grandfather, Grandpa Hugo (Charles Coburn), who delights in Henry’s roguish ways.

As Henry enters his early teens, he begins turning the heads of ladies, but is perpetually outsmarted by almost all of them. When he finally gets his first kiss, he confesses to his French maid that he feels obligated to propose to the girl he wooed. The French woman reassures him that in these modern times, a person can kiss scores of people without being committed to them. Henry’s face noticeably brightens. And thus, a playboy is born.

A few years later, Henry spots a potential love interest named Martha (Gene Tierney) in a bookstore. He pretends to be a clerk, helping her find the book she’s looking for: “How to Make Your Husband Happy.” He sets his sights upon a new conquest, but Henry is given a shock when he finds out she’s engaged to his stuffy cousin Albert (Allyn Joslyn).

Hardly a challenge for our playboy. He woos Martha anyway, flirting with her, kissing her, then eventually eloping with her. Both Henry and Martha’s parents are appalled, and the young bride is disowned at once. The only one who supports them is grandpa Hugo, who even helps finance their honeymoon.

Still, Henry is far from the perfect husband. He cheats on Martha, almost leading to them getting divorced. He works diligently to win her back, but some cracks just can’t be fixed.

And so it goes – Henry continues to lead a moderately bad, moderately good, life…making his qualifications for Hell questionable. The film spins its wheels a lot along the way, devoting too much time to unimportant details. Some of the jokes fall flat, others are lost in translation, and the best elements – including the scenes in Hell that bookend the film – aren’t given nearly enough screen time.

Still, Heaven Can Wait is a light, humorous commentary on love and marriage. It seems the worst crime a character can commit here is having no sense of humor – as even the rudest characters seem irrepressibly chirpy. Martha’s spiteful parents, for example, who seem to be very unhappily married, also seem to enjoy being miserable together.

In the end, Henry learns a perfect life is not what matters, but a life spent living (and loving) fully. While he may have disgraced his family, ruined his marriage, tarnished his reputation and, by all matters and means, broken a lot of hearts, there’s something to be said for making the most of it. 


The Human Comedy

Director: Clarence Brown

Starring: Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, James Craig, Marsha Hunt, Fay Bainter, Ray Collins, Van Johnson, Donna Reed, Jackie Jenkins, Dorothy Morris, John Craven, Ann Ayars, Mary Nash, Henry O'Neill, Katharine Alexander, Alan Baxter, Darryl Hickman, Barry Nelson, Rita Quigley, Clem Bevans, Adeline De Walt Reynolds

Oscar Wins: Best Writing (Original Story)

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

Ask any movie lover why they love the movies and most of them will probably say the same thing: it offers an escape from the real world. For movie-goers in the 1940s, the theater was a welcome distraction from the bloodshed happening just outside their front doors. Colorful musicals or wholesome stories about families overcoming the hardships of war gave those at home a mental vacation from worrying about their loved ones overseas, if only for a few hours.

In The Human Comedy, we travel to a town called Ithaca. At first glance, it’s an all-American, red-white-and-blue, love-thy-neighbor place that everyone thinks they want but is glad doesn’t really exist. We all know that life this sweet would be intolerable. But not even this Mayberry-eque place is immune from tragedy. Like the title implies (this is NOT a comedy), not everything is what it seems.

In the center of this town, that probably smells like apple pie by the way, lives the Macauley family. Homer Macauley (Mickey Rooney) is the recent head of the household after the semi-recent death of his father and the call to service for his older brother, Marcus (Van Johnson). To make money for his family, Homer works the night shift as a telegraph messenger, meaning he is the frequent bearer of the worst possible news: condolence messages from the War Department.

Working in a telegraph office with his drunk boss, Mr. Grogan (Frank Morgan), Homer experiences war in his own way. Far from the actual violence of the battlefield, the clatter of typing and the freshly inked letters of “We regret to inform you…” hit different. We never see death, but we’re reminded of it every time we hear a message come in. In one fairly heartbreaking scene, Homer must deliver a telegram to a woman who can’t read English – so Homer must take on the responsibility of telling her that her son has died.

But those who die never really leave us – at least, not in Ithaca. Indeed, a narration from beyond the grave opens the film, as Mr. Macaulay explains how, although he’s passed on, the essence of his character thrives in the places and people he cared about. After the Spanish woman learns of her son’s passing, there’s a flashback to her rocking her child to sleep. Even Marcus, who never physically appears in Ithaca, is still there. Homer carries a picture of him around in his hat. A letter written by Marcus to Homer is read out loud, making his presence felt precisely because he’s not physically there. It was surely a heartfelt thought for those missing loved ones overseas.

The Human Comedy also features other plotlines that add to the runtime (and sappiness). Homer’s younger brother, Ulysses (lol) (Jackie “Butch” Jenkins) is so innocent that he doesn’t even know what ‘fear’ is. Another telegraph operator, Mr. Spangler (James Craig), takes his newlywed bride to the park, where he regales her with his knowledge of the town’s “exotic” cultures: Mexican, Armenian, Russian, Swedish. It feels like a ride through “It’s a Small World”. Spangler, of course, informs his bride (us) that these people are all Americans despite their funny little costumes and cultures.

Whether its depiction of America is true or not, The Human Comedy nevertheless reminds us of an innocent time when we believed that there were warm-hearted people who cared about their country and their community. It depicted a place where people could advance by getting a good public education and could leave their houses with the doors unlocked. And even though death still rears its ugly head, it’s okay because those we love always come home – in one way or another.


The More the Merrier

Director: George Stevens

Starring: Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn, Richard Gaines, Bruce Bennett, Frank Sully, Donald Douglas, Clyde Fillmore, Stanley Clements

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Charles Coburn)

Other Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Jean Arthur), Best Writing (Original Story), Best Writing (Screenplay)

As World War II raged on, many folks back in the states found it near impossible to find affordable housing. With construction efforts at a standstill and all useable building materials being diverted to the war effort, many larger cities, particularly Washington DC, had a serious housing shortage.

This meant apartments designed for one were suddenly filled with four to five tenants. Hotels filled up with people looking for a place to stay. Doors were tagged with “No Vacancy” signs, leaving many civilians out in the cold with nowhere permanent to lay their heads.

The More the Merrier uses this housing shortage as its backdrop. When Mr. Dingle (Charles Coburn), an advisor on the housing shortage, arrives in DC two days earlier than expected, he relies on his favorite inspiration, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” to bulldoze his way into an apartment, convincing Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) into subletting her second bedroom to him.

Looking at Mr. Dingle, you might think he’s a jerk, maybe even the villain, but with his smart face and jolly belly, he’s nothing but a teddy bear who loves manipulating situations to achieve his ends. When Connie informs him that she’d prefer to share her apartment with another woman, he responds, “That’s fine, so would I.” When she tries to get rid of him with an “I’m sure you’d be happier someplace else” line, he has a one-liner for that, too. “I’ve already been there,” he says. You really can’t help but love the guy.

Eventually, he wears Connie down – and she has no choice but to welcome this fuddy duddy into her home. She relays to him the morning schedule, with each activity (breakfast, bathroom time, retrieval of paper and milk) noted down to the minute, complete with a floor plan of the apartment. This leads to chaos the next morning in what can only be described as a screwball masterpiece. Of course, nothing goes according to schedule, resulting in people getting locked out, coffee being poured down the shower drain and clothes going missing. It’s organized chaos in the best possible way – and it’s moments like these that make The More the Merrier a joy to watch.

This dance becomes even more complicated when Dingle rents half of his room to a handsome, clean-cut Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), who doesn’t know Connie also lives in the apartment. Dingle tries to hide Joe as best as he can, but Connie eventually finds out, resulting in more hijinks (and, of course, eventual romance).

The More the Merrier is sustained by actors who are all masters of comic timing. The fun is watching the trio operate together and trying to get along with each other though feeling uncomfortable in their tight quarters. This allowed the producers to create sexy situations, especially with very thin walls between Joe’s and Connie’s beds.

The More the Merrier is considered by many film historians to be the last true screwball comedy. While the film does tend to lose speed by the third act (common with most films in this genre), it’s still a blast the entire way through.


Watch on the Rhine

Director: Herman Shumlin

Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Coulouris, Beulah Bondi, Donald Woods, Donald Buka, Janis Wilson, Eric Roberts, Henry Daniell, Kurt Katch, Clarence Muse, Mary Young, Anthony Caruso

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Paul Lukas)

Other Nominations: Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Supporting Actress (Lucile Watson), Best Picture

One of the greatest things about watching these old movies is finding one that is totally different from my expectations. I remember going into Skippy, one of the hardest films to find for this project, expecting to see a stupid movie about a troublesome kid and came out with the biggest smile on my face and my heart filled with warm fuzzies.

But diverging too far from what people expect can be disastrous, too. When it came time to see Watch on the Rhine, I have to admit I thought I was in for another World War II movie, probably having to do with, oh, I don’t know, the Rhineland. And with a cast that included Bette Davis, I figured I was at least in for some dramatic cigarette waving and big eye rolls…alas, as Dumbledore would say, earwax.

As the opening screen crawl makes clear, Watch on the Rhine is an ode to the Germans who resisted the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich through armed resistance. The story concerns an American woman, Sara Muller (Bette Davis), who returns home after 18 years abroad with her German husband, Kurt (Paul Lukas), and their three children. Though he looks like a 40s TV dad with high pants and short ties, it soon becomes clear that Kurt is not just a mild-mannered engineer he seems to be, but is one of the key leaders of the German resistance.

Sara’s wealthy mother, Fanny (Lucile Watson) agrees to house the Muller’s, as well as a disgraced Romanian count named Teck (George Coulouris), who eventually learns about Kurt’s motives and threatens to sell his identity to the Germans. The reason the count is there is never really explained, but it doesn’t matter much anyway because Kurt essentially takes care of the threat by just shooting him in cold blood. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Aaaand, that’s basically it. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of plot, it’s because it’s not. These characters basically sit in the same room for 2 hours and talk and talk and talk…and talk.

As the title so eloquently taught me, deception is a common theme in Watch on the Rhine. Much like Kurt doesn’t look like a revolutionary, the bad guys don’t look like typical Hollywood Nazis. Teck is a dapper man. When we see him, he’s mostly in evening dress. He’s charming, well-educated, and well-spoken. It’s like the movie is telling us that the real evil is not those in uniform, but those among us who have the money, smarts, and power to manipulate the public.

It’s important to keep in mind that the movie, and the play it’s based on, is an examination of America’s innocence and naivete not just about evil (i.e., entering World War II), but the whirlwind that created it. It’s propaganda in the truest sense…a series of lectures on the evils of fascism and the glory of fighting it. Several times Kurt or Sara give a speech standing in the middle of a room while the rest of the cast listen like attentive school children.

Though it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay, Watch on the Rhine is perhaps best known as the movie that caused Humphrey Bogart to lose his Best Actor Oscar for his now legendary performance in Casablanca. Paul Lukas not only beat out Bogie at the Academy Awards, but also took home the Best Actor honors from the Golden Globes and New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Hogwash if you ask me.

I don’t know if it was because I was expecting something different or because I’m just not interested in preachy flag-waving speeches, but I just couldn’t get into Watch on the Rhine. Like many propaganda films from the 1940s, this film is stuck in time, a relic that’s perhaps best left buried under Bette Davis’s better roles. 


The Ox-Bow Incident

Director: William A. Wellman

Starring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, Frank Conroy, Harry Davenport, Anthony Quinn, Francis Ford, Wiliam Eythe, Mary Beth Hughes, Jane Darwell, Marc Lawrence, Paul Hurst, Chris-Pin Martin, Victor Kilian, Matt Briggs, Willard Robertson

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Picture

The Ox-Bow Incident is a western without any heroes. If you set the bar low enough, there are seven “heroes”, but they are no Magnificent Seven. In this ugly study of mob violence, the only heroism possible is the refusal to take part in it.

We begin as many westerns begin – with two drifters riding into town. They sidle up to the bar for some shots, looking for something to do in a lazy Nevada dust-hole. Nobody is sure if Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Henry Morgan) are people known to the town or outsiders, causing the townsfolk to look at them with suspicious eyes.

Suspicions worsen when the community catches wind that a beloved local named Larry Kinkaid has been shot and killed. The facts have not been confirmed, but the wheels are no sooner set in motion. A lynch mob forms under the guise of a posse. With the sheriff conveniently out of town, they ride off looking for vengeance in this adult version of Lord of the Flies. Though reluctant, our boys Gil and Art also join the crew so as to not draw more suspicion to themselves.

Right away, The Ox-Bow Incident provides us with an ugly look at the kind of people who take justice into their own hands. Butch Mapes (Dick Rich), the leader of the group and sheriff’s deputy, jumps at the chance to administer swift justice, even deputizing some of the townsfolk (though he has no authority to do so). Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), a man who dresses like a soldier but has never seen battle, joins the mob – dragging his weak-natured son along with him. Tetley hopes this journey will make a man of his son: “I’ll have no female boys bearing my name,” he says. We get another glimpse of Tetley’s concept of legality when a judge asks him to promise to bring the accused in for a fair trial. “I promise that I’ll abide by the majority will,” he says. Here we have the essence of mob justice – a disregard of what’s lawful in favor of majority rule.

Other bloodthirsty members of the lynch mob include an older woman (Jane Darwell) who is quite happy to do the hanging herself, as well as Monty Smith (Paul Hurst), a man who takes sadistic pleasure in imitating the face of a hanging man.

But not all the participants are gung-ho for vengeance. A Judge, a preacher, and Gil and Art are among the few who question the motives of the posse…but there are some men even Henry Fonda can’t sway.

Ultimately, the group finds what they are looking for – a group of three strangers who happen to be driving some of Kinkaid’s cattle. The mob circles them like ravenous wolves, practically willing them to admit that they murdered Larry Kindaid. They question them about the cattle, which they claim they purchased without a bill of sale. Furthermore, one of these strangers is a criminal, the other claims to be a soldier but doesn’t respond to military commands.

These details cast doubt on the innocence of these three men, but nothing proves, without reasonable doubt, that they murdered someone. Even worse, the questioning done by the mob was unfair and accompanied by violence. It’s clear the posse has already made up its mind.

A vote is cast, with seven men opposing the hanging. The ending contains additional twists that I won’t reveal here – but really shouldn’t be all that unexpected.

The film ends with a monologue about justice: “Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity.” Justice cannot be administered as revenge, it requires civilization and due process. Standing outside the law renders all laws worthless. Only through fairness and decency can we hope to go through life with a good conscience.

Made on a modest budget, The Ox-Bow Incident lacks the action of traditional westerns. It was filmed on studio backlots and sound stages. The backdrops are obviously painted, the lighting is horrible, and there are no sweeping cinematic landscapes that have come to define the western genre. Still, The Ox-Bow Incident is an interesting addition to the canon. Henry Fonda regarded it as one of his favorites of his own movies. Other directors, including Clint Eastwood and Samuel Fuller, have claimed it’s the best western ever made.

Personally, I think that seems a little generous. As it stands, The Ox-Bow Incident is fine…but I think there’s a better film hidden inside. It is a great contender for a remake, not only as a way to produce it with a bigger budget, but because it’s a story that’s – sadly – still relatable today. It not only speaks to human frailty and cruelty, but the horrors of snap decisions and group think.


The Song of Bernadette

Director: Henry King

Starring: Jennifer Jones, Charles Bickford, William Eythe, Gladys Cooper, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, Anne Revere, Roman Bohnen, Mary Anderson, Patricia Morison, Jerome Cowan, Aubrey Mather, Charles Dingle, Edith Barrett, Sig Ruman, Blanche Yurka, Ermadean Walters, Marcel Dalio, Pedro de Cordoba, Eula Morgan

Oscar Wins: Best Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Actress (Jennifer Jones)

Other Nominations: Best Picture, Best Sound Recording, Best Supporting Actress (Anne Revere), Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Charles Bickford), Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Supporting Actress (Gladys Cooper), Best Director

The Song of Bernadette opens with a quote: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not, no explanation is possible.” Now, I usually try and go into these older movies with an open mind, but after seeing that flash up on my screen, I was turned off pretty much immediately.

The Soubirous family of Lourdes, France, is having a rough go of it. It’s 1858 and times are tough for this little southern village. Lack of suitable work and crushing poverty make it near impossible for patriarch Francois (Roman Bohnen) to find work, so he takes odd jobs wherever he can find them. His wife, Louise (Anne Revere) tends to their four children, including Bernadette (Jennifer Jones), the oldest – and dumbest, apparently – of the lot.

Sickly and asthmatic, Bernadette can’t seem to excel. Even though she’s older than all her classmates, she’s also the worst of them. “I’m stupid, Sister,” she openly states. “I have a poor head for study.” If the school had a yearbook, she’d no doubt be Least Likely to Succeed.

While out gathering firewood with her siblings one day, Bernadette sees a beautiful lady in a grotto praying the Rosary. Days later, the vision appears again. Bernadette is the only one who can see her and soon gathers a bit of a following. To others, she becomes the laughingstock of the village.

The legal authorities try to stop people from going to the grotto, but to no avail. Nothing will stop Bernadette from going to see the woman she identifies merely as “The Lady.”

One day, the lady asks Bernadette to wash in a nearby spring. Bernadette does not understand, for there is no spring — at least at first. She begins digging a hole and soon water begins to gush forth. Suddenly, miracles begin occurring when the people use the water. A blind man is restored sight. A paralyzed baby, who is given no medical chance of survival, is completely healed. Finally, “The Lady” reveals her identity: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

The magic spring attracts Catholics from all over the region but, nevertheless, skeptics abound. Local magistrates, church officials, even Bernadette’s own confessor remain unconvinced of Bernadette’s visions, not to mention the occurrence of any miracles (the fact that they all still believe in the miracles mentioned in the Bible remains unmentioned, of course). But, to her credit, Bernadette never wavers.

It’s years later in the movie (and in real life because this movie is 3 FREAKING HOURS LONG) and Bernadette has decided to become a nun. At the nunnery, she deals with jealousy, envy, anger, and then finally acceptance from her Sisters. She passed away at the young age of 35 from tuberculosis.

The Song of Bernadette also ends with a quote: “BUY WAR BONDS.” LOL, I guess this movie doesn’t even take itself too seriously.

In the end, this epic religious film is long-winded, sappy, and honestly – quite dull. Faith may have the strength to move mountains, but it’s especially taxed in sustaining this mountainous movie.


In Which We Serve

Directors: Noel Coward, David Lean

Starring: Noel Coward, Bernard Miles, John Mills, Celia Johnson, Joyce Carey, Kay Walsh, Michael Wilding, Derek Elphinstone, Leslie Dwyer, James Donald, Philip Friend, Frederick Piper, Richard Attenborough, Kathleen Harrison, George Carney, Daniel Massey, Ann Stephens, Hubert Gregg, Penelope Dudley-Ward, Juliet Mills

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Picture

The term “propaganda” probably conjures up images of evil geniuses like Joseph Goebbels brainwashing the masses with lies and half-truths during wartime. For the duration of World War II, cinema was easily the most powerful propaganda tool of governments the world over.

Unsurprisingly, Goebbels oversaw production on practically every movie made in Germany during those war years. Hollywood quickly jumped on the bandwagon once America joined the war effort, though FDR didn’t have quite as hard a hand in American cinema. But when it came to cinematic propaganda, no one could really hold a red, white and blue candle to the United Kingdom.

The UK churned out dozens of propaganda films throughout World War II, focusing on the actual war and those left back home. Films like Mrs. Miniver, 49th Parallel, The Best Years of Our Lives, even The Great Dictator were made to stir up patriotic feelings in even the most cynical critics. And for some, In Which We Serve is maybe the greatest of them all.

Written and directed by Noel Coward, a fierce patriot and close friend of Winston Churchill, In Which We Serve cuts between a major naval battle and flashbacks to the men’s lives before they left home. Co-directed by a young newcomer named David Lean, the film was a major breakthrough for both directors and remains a stirring piece of classic propaganda.

“This is the story of a ship,” says the voice that opens In Which We Serve. But it’s not, really. It’s the story of the men who fought in her. From the commander down to the lowest on the docket, these men are filled with deep pride in their ship. The wife of the commander even goes so far as to say that there is “one undefeated rival” in the life of every navy wife…“her husband’s ship.”

For these men, the ship named Torrin represents themselves, their families, their nation. It is their heart and soul and, within the first 3 minutes of the movie, is quickly sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Ambushed by bombers off the coast of Crete, the crew of Torrin make a break for a tiny life raft after the ship plunders. Holding on for dear life, the survivors recall life before the war, what led them to enlist and what they’ve left behind. Most of the film is told in flashbacks, as several members of the crew each get a turn to take us back in time before war tore their country apart.

For the most part, the lives of these men are unexceptional and that is, of course, the point. In Which We Serve is about what they’re fighting for, not what they’re fighting against. That does, however, result in a somewhat drab movie experience – especially in today’s day and age. Watching people go about their daily lives was probably a welcome relief for those experiencing war in their backyards, but it seems very outdated today. It’s a cruel fate that bequeaths many propaganda films.

However, In Which We Serve does use very cool editing techniques when transitioning from past to present. Wavy, watery transitional images called oil dissolves clue us in to an upcoming flashback. In most movies, this transition looks a bit goofy, but it seems oddly appropriate here – the men are, after all, floating in water. The tank work, even the sinking ship, are also done very well and prevent the film from looking like it was put together by two amateurs (which, at the time, it was).

This project has shown a fair share of propaganda films. Some are dated, some are sentimental, some are – somehow – still relevant. While I don’t agree that this is the best the United Kingdom had to offer during the war years, it’s certainly not the worst. This is clearly a film about British pride and strength. After all, it’s lose lips (not stiff upper ones) that sink ships. 


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