1940′s

13. Rebecca (1940)

Director:  Alfred Hitchcock

Alex – 8.5   Elliot – 8.3           IMDB 8.3   Rotten Tomatoes 8.7

Alex’s Commentary

 After the astounding Technicolor visual feast of Gone With The Wind, one might feel that the return to a black and white film would be a step backward; however, given the dark and moody depiction ofDaphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, I couldn’t imagine the film not in black and white. In fact, the film won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. Since the story is considered Gothic literature, the atmospheric and stark cinematography draws in the viewer. It may just be my imagination but it seems that when the film is lighter in tone, the images are not as sharply contrasting as compared to the more exciting, suspenseful scenes that contain more extreme black and white shots. As with many of the films we’ve viewed to date, rain scenes are abundant. I was surprised at the lack of technical sophistication in certain shots, particularly those in the automobile with the obviously fake backgrounds.

I must admit that unlike the women in the Kindler household, I had not read Rebecca. Of course, given director Alfred Hitchcock’s unexpected plot twists, I was glad I was unfamiliar with the story.

This is our first film that I would classify as a mystery / thriller and certainly our darkest Best Picture winner. Laurence Olivier plays the mysterious widower ‘Maxim’ de Winter who meets and falls in love with a shy younger woman portrayed brilliantly by Joan FontaineUpon their return to Maxim’s mansion, Manderley, the “new” Mrs. De Winter enters a world foreign to her where she encounters Mrs. Danvers, the head of the household staff, and truly the creepiest character we have yet meet on our film journey. Judith Anderson must have given some movie goers nightmares as she presents a stoic austere persona with an obsessive longing for the deceased “first” Mrs. De Winter. The extent of her mania becomes evident in the terrifying scene in which she attempts to entice the “new” Mrs. De Winter to leap out an open window.

Although Rebecca only won two Academy Awards, it received a total of 11 nominations including all of the major acting awards and Hitchcock’s first directorial nomination. I would be remiss not to mention the Franz Waxman original score that heightens the emotional ride. Rebecca was yet another enjoyable surprise along our Best Picture romp. If you have not seen the film, especially if you are a fan of Hitchcock or mystery/thrillers, it should be on your must see list.

Elliot’s Commentary

As we begin the next decade of Best Picture winners, we are graced with our first film in the mystery genre, Rebecca.  Directed by the master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca represents a fantastic turning point in the prolific director’s career.  However, it is very important to note thatRebecca is the only best picture win that Hitchcock received during his illustrious career.  While I am not trying to castigate the very institution that has inspired our journey through film history, I would be remiss not to mention the severe injustice of this fact.  Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese are both auteur directors whom the Academy has failed to give proper recognition to.  Both directors failed to have their best films recognized by the Academy, although each has had a more tertiary work win the honor.  At least Scorsese won Best Director to accompany his Best Picture win for the Departed, whereas Alfred Hitchcock failed to ever win Best Director honors.   I will try and keep an open mind in terms of my review of Rebecca, but the failure of the Academy to honor one of the best director’s in cinematic history is a blemish on both the authority and the judgment of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  Besides the aforementioned injustice, I really did enjoy Rebecca. 

 Our 1940 winner is the second straight David O. Selznick production to win Best Picture, though it is completely different from the 1939 winner, Gone with the Wind.  Rebecca is graced with the subtle nuisances of Hitchcock’s filmmaking style, and layers beautiful cinematography with a devious and mysterious undertone.  The film begins with a voice-over by an unidentified woman yearning for a return to her days at Manderley, which it contrasts with images of an expansive estate in ruin.  After the glimpse of things to come, we are presented with the image of a young and beautiful woman working as a paid companion for the wealthy Edyth Van Hopper (Florence Bates).  The young woman, played by the stunning Joan Fontaine, is not credited with a first name, which alludes to her lack of significance in the aristocracy that employs her.  After her employer falls ill, the young woman is given the ability to explore Monte Carlo, where the two are vacationing.   During her brief freedom, the young woman begins to spend time with the widower, Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  While their first introduction was odd, Maximilian was staring over a cliff and seemingly on the verge of suicide, the two quickly fall in love in a period of mere weeks.  Their newly blossomed love is consummated in marriage, and the young woman has now become the new Mrs. de Winter.  While the circumstances of the first Mrs. de Winter’s death have been briefly alluded to, the audience is only allowed to ascertain that she drowned in a boating accident.

As the modern setting of Monte Carlois forgone for the Gothic charm and architecture of Maximilian de Winter’s palatial estate, Manderley, the movie takes a sinister change in tone.  The new Mrs. de Winter is introduced to her staff in a scene similar to Annie entering the house of Daddy Warbucks, minus the song and dance but with the addition of the creepy mistress of the house, Madam Danvers (Judith Anderson).  Madam Danvers wastes no time in making the new Mrs. de Winter feel inadequate, and incapable of filling the shoes of the first Mrs. de Winter.  As the story progresses, we learn that Madam Danvers had a very close relationship with the first Mrs. de Winter, and that she could have had a possible Lesbian infatuation with her employer.  This allegiance to her former employer makes Madam Danvers a direct threat to the new Mrs. de Winters and her acclimation to Manderley.

In classic Hitchcock fashion, the pleasant story that could have been unravels to reveal hidden secrets that have the possibility to derail the happy lives of the new Mrs. de Winters and her husband Maxime.  It would be an injustice to Hitchcock to describe the twists and turns of the Master of Suspense’s narrative, so instead I shall conclude my commentary with my overall thoughts and feelings towards the film.  I certainly could not have predicted the chain of events that lead up to the destruction of Manderley.  I also am not giving away any spoilers, because we are aware of the estate’s demise in the first scene of the film.  I never read the Daphne du Maurier novel that the film was based on, but preliminary research indicates that the film was very true to the novel minus a few liberties it took to be in compliance with the production code.   Hitchcock would go on to direct another classic film based on a Daphne du Maurier novel, 1963’s The Birds.  While I did enjoy Rebecca, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little underwhelmed by the film compared to some of Hitchcock’s more provocative films like Rear WindowNorth by NorthwestPsycho, and Vertigo.  However, compared to his films proceeding Rebecca, Hitchcock showed a clear stride forward under the supervision of David O’ Selznick.  This film is worth watching for the creepy Madam Danvers moments alone, and I was very pleasantly surprised with the quality of this lesser known Hitchcock work.

14. How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Director:   John Ford

Alex – 7.3   Elliot – 7.5           IMDB 7.9   Rotten Tomatoes 7.8

Alex’s Commentary

Although I attempt to opine on each film based on its own merits, it is difficult not to reflect on the previous Best Picture winners as a basis for formulating my views. Because we have seen so many exceptional Best Picture offerings, unfortunately, I found How Green Was My Valley somewhat disappointing. The film did have some beautiful black & white scenes of Wales set in the late 1800’s (although not filmed on location due to an on-going World War). It also provided dialogue that was moving and well acted. However, I think my expectations were too high. I knew this film had received 10 Oscar nominations and had won the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography Black & White, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Donald Crisp) and Best Art Direction Black & White – Interior. We also tend not to focus on (or even mention) films that were Oscar runner-ups but how could I not mention that this film beat out Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and Sergeant York. I have seen all of these films and enjoyed them more than this film. I even had recently read in Parade magazine that Clint Eastwood considered How Green Was My Valley as one the three movies that most influenced his directorial style. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.

I was very impressed with Walter Pidgeon (Mr. Gruffydd) in his role the town’s minister and surprised that he did not receive an Oscar nomination. Maureen O’Hara (Angharad) looks beautiful and is very expressive. Of course, 11 year old Roddy McDowall (Huw) is instantly recognizable and I had to chuckle thinking that he never could have imagined that 27 years later he would gain fame as Cornelius in Planet of the Apes. I did feel McDowell was very good, especially given his age. I mention the names of the characters but given their Welsh origins, the characters’ names are unrecognizable and unpronounceable (at least by me).

The film does show a realistic depiction of the difficult life of Welsh coal miners and their families, the rise of unionism, and the sometimes hypocritical nature of religion and religious leaders and followers. The film also provides a glimpse into the necessity and growth of American immigration. My recommendation – How Green Is My Valley is a good film but not a great film.

Elliot’s Commentary

 How Green Was My Valley was the 1941 winner for Best Picture, and the third best movie of the year.  It would be hard for me to pose a valid argument for this film beating out Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, but I will rationalize the decision with two paranoid thoughts.  1). William Randolph Hearst used his influence in the media to squash the possibility of success for Citizen Kane.  Apparently he was offended at the thinly-veiled and harshly critical biopic based on his life as a newspaper magnate.  2). The Academy was not ready to legitimize the genre of film noir by recognizing the mastery of the subject matter that The Maltese Falcon demonstrated.  1941 is a terrific example of the Academy bowing to social and political pressure, and picking a well-made albeit safe choice for Best Picture.  How Green Was My Valley is honestly a solid film that arguably could have won Best Picture in either the proceeding or subsequent year, but its 1941 win was as improbable as VCU making it all the way to the finals of the 2011 March Madness tournament.  John Ford of Stage Coach, The Grapes of Wrath, and Young Mr. Lincoln fame directed this film about Welsh coal-miners.  It also helped me realize that my life-long calling of being a coal miner might perhaps be far too dangerous to pursue.  Actually, in the last few years there have been quite a few news stories about accidents in mines in locations across the globe fromWest Virginia toChile, but despite the vast technological improvements it seems as if the mining of fossil fuels far below the Earth’s surface is still a dangerous occupation.

How Green Was My Valley was released in late October of 1941, less than two months before the Japanese attack onPearl Harbor.  The film does have some uplifting moments, but concludes with a certain sadness that matched the audience’s ennui as the nation stood on the brink of the Second World War.  The film was originally slotted to be shot in Technicolor and inWales but war prevented that dream from being realized, and the Welsh mining village was instead built on a studio lot.  This film was surprisingly political, and showed a clear favoritism towards the idea of unionization.  Not that I am against that concept in any capacity, but I’m sure some would have called the film socialist propaganda.

The film details the story of the Morgan family as they are forced to deal with the implications of modernization on their Welsh homestead.   While there is not a distinct main character, the film is shown through the eyes of Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell), as the young boy watches the social fabric of his family and the town begin to unravel.  First there is the act of lowering the wages of mine workers, which causes the townspeople to strike for fair wages.  The elder Morgan, Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp), does not support the decision to strike and is therefore victimized by the dissenters even though he does not break the strike lines.  After the strike has concluded, workers returned to the mines only to find out that the highest paid workers have lost their jobs.  This leads to two of the Morgan boys to travel toAmericato find work.  The film begins to become much darker in the second half of the film, as the danger of mining work becomes more apparent.

Overall, I did enjoy this film despite being depressed by the conclusion of the film.  Apparently, no one in Hollywoodseemed to mind depriving film viewers of a happy ending, but I can definitely say I would not have predicted this particular story arc.  The cinematography of the film was beautiful, but it was hard for me not to wonder what the film would have looked like in Technicolor.  Technicolor would have let us know exactly how green Huw Morgan’s valley was… (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist that pun).  The fact that the village was built on a set, makes the grandeur of the shots even more impressive.  I also really enjoyed the singing of the miners, which provided an element that helped make the story feel more genuine.  I will admit that half of the reason I haven’t included many character names in this review is the fact that Welsh is a very difficult language to understand, and there are points in the film where I have no idea what the characters are even saying.  Subtitles would have provided a nice compliment to the Welsh utilized in the film, and would definitely have made the audience feel more like insiders than outsiders.  How Green Was My Valley is not as timeless as its contemporaries Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, but if you would like to see a romance/drama set in a turn of the century Welsh mining town, then this film is right up your alley.

15. Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Director:  William Wyler

Alex – 7.9   Elliot – 7.9           IMDB 7.7   Rotten Tomatoes 7.6

Alex’s Commentary

It seems fitting that I pen my Mrs. Miniver commentary on Memorial Day 2012 given the movie’s patriotic theme. Director William Wyler acknowledged he made the film as a propaganda vehicle to encourage American support against the Nazi aggression inEurope. He portrays the idyllic pastoral life of the English Miniver family in the months leading up to the German attack on England, and the dramatic upheaval the family and their town faces as England enters World War II.

The Joseph Ruttenberg award-wining black and white cinematography is superb, and the interior scenes of an upper-middle class British household are beautiful. The prologue describes the Miniver household as an average English middle-class household but their extravagant purchases of clothing and a luxury automobile belie that description. The attractive Greer Garson claims Best Actress honors for her strong portrayal of Mrs. Miniver. The Oscar winning screenplay crafted by a team of four writers trace Mrs. Miniver’s evolution from a housewife whose primary concern is clothes shopping, to a concerned mother of a fighter pilot and ardent supporter of the British war effort. Some of the more memorable scenes include Mrs. Miniver’s capture of a German parachutist, aerial battles, and the anxious family’s hunkering down in their bomb shelter unsure if the next bomb could be a direct hit or  if their house would still be standing when they emerged.

Walter Pigeon is well cast as Mr. Miniver. He joins the community effort to help rescue trapped British troops at Dunkirk, while his wife is left behind worry about his return. The town faces a series of air raids, blackouts and, inevitably, the death of many innocent civilian villagers, young and old.Teresa Wright took home Best Supporting actress honors as the ill-fated love interest for Mrs. Miniver’s RAF son, Vincent. I also enjoyed the side story of the annual town flower show and the town’s determination not to let the war cancel the festivities.

This film was the number one box office hit of 1942 as its patriotism resonated with American audiences. Winston Churchill even commented that the film was worth more to his nation than a dozen battleships, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged all Americans to view the film. While we have viewed films with war-time themes, WingsAll’s Quiet on the Western Front andCavalcade, this is our first film that was actually produced in the time of the war being portrayed. Although I don’t consider the film ground-breaking and at times it is predictable; nevertheless, Mrs. Miniver is interesting in its historical context.

Elliot’s Commentary

 1942’s Best Picture winner, Mrs. Miniver, is our first film to be released after the United States joined WWII.  Interestingly enough, rather than tackle the war through an American perspective, the film is based on the home life of a middle-class English family.  This film has aspects of many genres melded together to portray a strong and resilient family attempting to adapt to the constraints of war.   Directed by William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver acts as both war-time propaganda as well as a heart-warming family drama.  The film incorporates beautiful symbolism and metaphors in their story-telling as the family deals with real destruction on the home front.  Seeing the destruction in lives of fellow Allied countries was a good tool to incite more of a response from people in theUnited States, who didn’t have to deal with the nightly blitzkriegs of their allies. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves the family gathered for safety in a bomb shelter reading out scenes fromAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  It seems as if the war had brought the family down the rabbit hole, and it was impossible for the family to not use escapism as they prayed for their safe keeping during the raid.

Mrs. Miniver works on a variety of levels, the first of which being an impassioned albeit abbreviated love story between the Miniver’s altruistic son Vin Miniver (Richard Ney), and the aristocratic granddaughter of Lady Beldon, Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright).  While the couple does not have much exposition allotted for their courting period, they decide to get married due to the circumstances of the war.  It’s hard for your heart not to break hearing Carol describe that she needs to spend as much time with Vin as possible, because she is not sure how much longer her airplane flying husband can dodge death’s fateful grasp.

Another layer of the story is the flower show held in town, with the prodigious prize for best rose usually claimed by Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), who is Carol’s grandmother.  However, this year the local stationmaster Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers) has cultivated a beautiful competing red rose, named the Mrs. Miniver, to compete against Lady Beldon’s white rose.  There is an interesting discussion of class between Carol, Vin, and the Miniver clan as Carol asks for the competing rose to be removed from the competition.  While it was a tradition for Lady Beldon to win the prize, it shows a distinct breaking down of traditional classes for a lay person like Mr. Ballard to compete on the same level as the local nobility.  After all, there is no place for class distinction in war and this movie is about the breaking down of individual concerns for the greater good.  I also feel that it is prudent to emphasize the importance of the red rose in the mythology of England.  The red rose is a symbol of England, similar to the bald eagle’s significance in the American cultural pantheon.  By naming the ultimate victor of the competition the commoner’s cultivated red rose, it shows the importance of the underdog English overcoming the evil empire of Nazi controlled Germany.   The rose’s name being Mrs. Miniver shows that she is a true symbol of England, as she keeps her house together despite both her husband and son’s military commitments.  There is also a famous scene in which she is confronted by a wounded Nazi pilot and is able to subdue him and call the authorities.

Mrs. Miniver was a fantastic and moving film for a variety of reasons, but most importantly is the ability for Hollywood to continue to thrive in a rationed wartime environment.  Greer Garson has a fantastic acting performance in the role of Mrs. Miniver, and rightly earns the Best Actress Oscar for 1942.  While I will avoid spoilers in this review, I do have to say that the movie does a fantastic job at surprising the audience in terms of loss and sorrow, while at the same time uplifting a country in the midst of war.  Under different circumstances, it would be hard to say if Mrs. Miniver would have been the best film of the year.   However, in these trying times the film was exactly what America needed to inspire its population engaged in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of the world.

16. Casablanca (1943)

Director:   Michael Curtiz

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Alex – 9.5   Elliot – 10.0                   IMDB 8.7   Rotten Tomatoes 9.0

Alex’s Commentary

Where does one begin when reviewing Casablanca and how high do I rate it? Given that it is probably my favorite movie to date, I might be tempted to give it a 10; however, as we still have almost 70 years remaining on our cinematic journey, a 9.5 feels appropriate.Casablanca has everything going for it – a great story, great acting, great directing, great cinematography, even great music. Obviously, I think this movie is great!

Set in World War II Casablanca, the story revolves around refugees of varied socioeconomic backgrounds attempting to flee war-torn Europevia letters of transit obtained through whatever means possible. But this story is merely a backdrop for the real story, the ill-fated love triangle of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).

The dialogues are replete with expressions that have become part of the everyday vernacular or are simply remarkably memorable – “here’s looking at you kid”; “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”, “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue”; “We musn’t underestimate “American blundering”. I was with them when they “blundered” intoBerlinin 1918”; ”Well there are certain sections ofNew York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade”; “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”; and of course the quote that was never actually said “Play it again Sam.”

I had forgotten how entertaining the Epstein Brothers screenplay was encompassing both humor and poignancy.  The film is only 102 minutes but feels even shorter given Curtiz’s rapid pacing of scenes. The juxtaposition of Rick and Ilsa’s flashback time inPariswith current Casablanca is extremely effective. Max Steiner’s atmospheric score captures the cultures of Morocco,France andGermanywhile throwing in some “current” American standards for Sam and the band, most notably “As Time Goes By.”

Although none of the actors or actresses won any Academy Awards, stellar performances abound. Favorites among the cast members include Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), Ugate (Peter Lorre), and of course, Sam (Dooley Wilson).

Casablanca is a must see on every film critics list and certainly on mine.

 

Elliot’s Commentary:

With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But, not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up – Paris to Marseilles… across the Mediterranean to Oran… then by train, or auto, or foot across the rim of Africa, to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon; and from Lisbon, to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca… and wait… and wait… and wait.

There are so many things that are wonderful about the film Casablanca, that it is hard to properly organize one’s thoughts.  Casablanca has been enshrined in our minds as the quintessential film of classic Hollywood for a reason, and I am at a loss to name a single fault in the film.  It is a film that defies genre classification, and its universal appeal is hard to replicate.  In all honesty, I wouldn’t be able to name a single city in Morocco if this film hadn’t put the city of white houses on the map.  The genius behind this cinematic masterpiece, director Michael Curtiz, also brought us the classic filmsYankee Doodle DandyAngels with Dirty Faces, and White Christmas.  Curtiz provided the next step from 1942’s Mrs. Miniver, and used the global conflict as the background to frame a larger plot around rather than produce another propaganda film.  Curtiz didn’t really need to worry about making propaganda films, because Frank Capra was taking charge of that realm of filmmaking with the Why We Fight series.  To try and distill the reason why Casablanca remains one of the best motion pictures of all time into one specific reason, would be a futile and pointless effort.  Casablanca is the product of the universe aligning to provide an example of what happens when every fixture of a film works in perfect harmony to create a visual opus.

It is hard to imagine that I wrote a paragraph on the film without mentioning the inimitable Humphrey Bogart.  When I hear someone say Bogey, I don’t think about golf, I think about this magnificent man. The majority of the film’s action takes place in Rick’s Café Américain, and Bogey plays the proprietor of the establishment, Rick Blaine.  I do not think that anyone who has ever been born could play a better mysterious leading man with a concealed past and steadfast morals, than Bogey did.   It was also a fantastic casting decision to have Peter Lorre play a supporting role to Mr. Bogart, in a reprise of their superb on-screen dynamic first exhibited in 1941’s Maltese Falcon.

The entire premise of the film involves life in the geographical purgatory of Casablanca, which is located along the escape route for French refuges seeking asylum in America.  For many trapped in this French-owned African colony, life is about waiting to either escape toAmericaor for war to end.  However, in this diplomatic gray area, most people must resort to using the black market to obtain the necessary documents and paperwork to ensure their exodus.  In the mean time, Rick’s Café Américain provides a taste of Western culture in an otherwise barren landscape.  While Rick adamantly tries to abstain from engaging in political matters concerning the growing divide between French loyalists and German officers, a series of events unfolds that forces him to rethink his role as Switzerland.

Rick’s suppressed past jarringly reemerges in the form of the incomparable beauty, Ingrid Bergman, who plays the character Isla Lund.  Bergman is the perfect foil for Bogart’s character, because it takes a woman like her to shake Bogey’s cool.  As the plot unravels, Isla and Rick had a tumultuous love affair in Paris before the Nazi occupation tore them apart.  While, I am not interested in spoiling the film, I do have to note that there were other forces than the Nazi’s that also played a part in their separate diasporas.  However, after a couple of years have passed, Isla and her husband Victor Laszlo descend upon Rick’s purgatory seeking letters of transit to aid in their departure.  Victor Laszlo is an extremely important figure in the underground, and publishes revolutionary newsletters organize the resistance inEuropeagainst Nazi occupation.  As Victor and Isla arrive in the city, they head to the bastion of Western culture in the city, Rick’s Café Américain.  This sparks Humphrey Bogart to deliver one of the most famous lines in cinematic history, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”

Rather than spill out the rest of the plot summary that you can read on Wikipedia or IMDB, I want to highlight two of my favorite scenes of the film.  The first of which, is a scene that contains the most moving presentation of the La Marseillaise (The French National Anthem) that has ever been portrayed in film.  The scene is set in Rick’s and takes place after the arrival of Victor Laszlo.  A group of German soldiers at Rick’s are inebriated at the bar, and begin singing the German national anthem.  In the sake of full disclosure, I have no idea if it is the Nazi National Anthem or the German National Anthem.  Victor Laszlo stands up in the bar and begins to sing La Marseillaise, and slowly more and more patrons of the bar join Laszlo in song.  This leads to a cacophonous battle of music between the German soldiers and the stranded French citizens.  Then, in a triumphant moment, the French song crescendos to completely drown out the German voices.  This is the turning point of the film, and causes the politically abstinent Rick to realize the importance of Laszlo to the underground cause.

The second important part of this movie that I would like to highlight is the evolution of Hollywoodin its portrayal of the black piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson). Now I need to write a small concession before I explain myself, I am not saying that in 1943 Hollywood had finally overcame its issue of race portrayal in film.  In fact, I am willing to argue the point that it still hasn’t overcome it.  However, I want to applaud Casablanca for refusing to make Sam a caricature.  I understand that as one of the only black people in the movie, his portrayal of a piano player could tread the Gone With the Wind line and ignore the vibrant Black culture in America at that time.  However, Casablanca very clearly denotes that Sam is a minority owner of Rick’s and that he and Rick have been lifelong friends.  Also, Dooley Wilson is insanely talented and if I had unlimited money I would pay for his hologram to play As Time Goes By at my wedding.  While race portrayals of most 1940’s films are still incredibly dated, a nice way of saying racist, it was at least nice to see that one screenwriter wrote a role that positively portrayed a black man in earlyHollywood.

I know I have said this before in my review of Gone With the Wind, but this film trumps my previous recommendation.  You must see this film.  There hasn’t been a single film we have seen thus far that is as cinematically important or as well done as Casablanca is.

17. Going My Way (1944)

Director:   Leo McCarey

Alex – 7.4   Elliot – 7.6           IMDB 7.3   Rotten Tomatoes 6.8

Alex’s Commentary

Going My Way is a film the public needed in 1944. With World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific and hardships and sorrow impacting virtually every American, Going My Way was a feel good movie that depicted the generosity and caring of the American people. Throw in a number of classic renditions by superstar Bing Crosby and moviegoers could leave the theater a little happier and optimistic.

The film focuses on a young priest, Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), assigned to a New York parish that was experiencing financial difficulty. For the past 44 years, the church had been run by Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) who was nearing retirement and was clearly set in his ways. The dialogues between the two priests as they express their differing approaches and philosophies to both the church’s and parishioners’ problems create some of the film’s most memorable moments.

The film is entertaining but certainly dated – was American life really ever as like this? The portrayal of Irish Americans is so stereotypical that by today’s mores it is amusing – not a condescending portrayal but complete with Irish brogue, Irish whiskey, Irish priests and Irish policemen. The role in women in society, that of wife and mother and not “working girl”, is also evident; an interesting view given the number of women in the workforce in 1944 doing their part for the war effort.

It seemed a bit of a stretch that Father O’Malley could reform a group of neighborhood delinquents into a choir after a single discussion. It did provide a great vehicle for Bing Crosby to deliver some wonderful songs. I had forgotten what a beautiful voice Crosby possessed. It may have been the remastered DVD we watched but I couldn’t believe the clarity and warm tone of Bing’s voice. Although “Swinging on a Star” won the Oscar for Best Song, I actually preferred some of the traditional Irish and Church hymns.

I would be surprised if applications to the priesthood didn’t skyrocket based on the popularity of Going My Way. It is obvious the respect the whole community had for Fathers O’Malley and Fitzgibbon. In addition to being the neighborhood spiritual leaders, they also served the roles of community organizer, family therapist, youth counselor, financial advisor and musical director. Oh the good old days!

An interesting Oscar trivia question – who was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same movie role? – Answer: Barry Fitzgerald. He won for Best Supporting Actor losing at to Bing Crosby for Best Actor. The Academy changed the rules after the 1944 Oscars so Barry Fitzgerald was the first and last double nominee.   Leo McCarey was a double winner capturing both Best Director and Best Screenwriting honors.

Going My Way is an entertaining film that embodies the classic 1940’s Hollywood genre. The final scene of the unexpected visit of Father Fitzgibbon’s mother after a 44 year absence is a clever heartwarming surprise. Going My Way won’t make my favorite film list but was a worthwhile screening.

Elliot’s Commentary

1944’s Going My Way can be summed up in two words, Bing. Crosby.  He was one of the most famous actor’s in the history of Hollywood, and Going My Way can be considered the pinnacle of his acting achievements because it resulted in his Best Actor award.  Not to diminish his role in Irving Berlin’s wildly successful White Christmas, but Going My Way was a better showcase of his acting talents.  Going My Way was also one of the first times that a successful A-List movie spawned a sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s.  In both films, Bing plays Father O’Malley, the likable, scrupulous priest sent on a mission to help revitalize a struggling New York parish.  Bing was also nominated for best actor for The Bells of St. Mary’s, but lost to Ray Milland for his portrayal of Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend.  For more information on The Lost Weekend, read our next blog post on 1945’s Best Picture winner.

Released just a month prior to the D-Day Invasion, Going My Way was different than the last few best picture winners because it had much less to do with the concurrent war.  However, with the tolls of war mounting on the home front, Going My Way provided escapism at its finest.  Bing Crosby’s voice, cut through the tension of the time, to remind America what it was even fighting for.  The onscreen chemistry of Crosby and Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) was palpable, as the duo’s relationship evolved from terse to familial.  Father Fitzgibbon has become an old curmudgeon in his 44 years of service to St. Dominic’s church, and is originally put off by Father O’Malley’s antics like playing golf and tennis.  It is later discovered in the film that Father O’Malley was actually sent to revitalize the troubled parish, and help prevent an impending foreclosure at the hands of the mortgage company run by Ted Haines Sr. (Gene Lockhart).

One of the best developed plots in the movie comes from Father O’Malley’s relationship with a group of neighborhood children (not in that way!!!! Get your mind out of the gutter.)  He takes a group of troubled mischievous hoodlums who were more interested in shenanigans than actually being productive members of society, and turns them into an angelic singing boy’s choir.  The choir is put to the test as it performs signature songs of the film like “Swinging on a Star” and “Going My Way” in order to attempt to save the financially impoverished church from foreclosure.

Finally, I can’t review this film without mentioning the most moving scene of the film.  Father Fitzgibbon disappears on a rainy night, and Father O’Malley and his police contacts go out looking for the missing priest.  After he is found, he returns to the parish very weak and sickly.  Bing sings the song an Irish Lullaby (Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra) to Father Fitzgibbon to help ease his pain and longing for his homeland of Ireland.  Overall this film is a great and heart-warming family classic that uses morality and beautiful song to tell its story.  I can definitely see the impact this film had on a country at war that needed a distraction from its strained day-to-day life.  It’s worth viewing, for Bing Crosby’s voice alone not to mention his fantastic acting.

18. The Lost Weekend (1945)

Director:   Billy Wilder

 

Alex – 7.8   Elliot – 7.6           IMDB 8.1   Rotten Tomatoes 8.2

Alex’s Commentary

The Lost Weekend is certainly the darkest film we have viewed to date. The story follows a man’s tragic life ruined by alcoholism that reaches its apex, the lost weekend – a four day bender. The troubled character Don Birnam is portrayed by Best Actor winner Ray Milland, a far cry from the comedic roles he had previously starred in. Billy Wilder won the Best Director Oscar and shared the Best Writing Screenplay award. The stark black and white cinematography gives the Manhattan street scenes a gritty feel. Scenes filmed at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital detox ward add to the realism. The film’s edginess is created in part by the unexpected actions of an alcoholic and the audience’s instinct to wish this seemingly nice guy character not to indulge again (or steal that woman’s purse).

The film is backed by a very strong cast of supporting characters including Jane Wyman who plays Helen St. James, Don’s girlfriend.  Despite the strong performance, I do feel that Wyman’s character lacks the development necessary for me to understand why she would remain in such an obviously dismal relationship. Howard Da Silva plays Nat, the bartender, who struggles with the dilemma whether to provide his needy patron the rye whiskey he so desperately craves or whether he should cut Birnam off and allow Don to be subjected to intense withdrawal symptoms. Doris Dowling plays the prostitute, Gloria, who hangs around Nat’s bar and has a fondness for Don Birnam. She has quirky habit of truncating multi-syllabic words like “don’t be ridic”.

I had to wonder if the film’s 1945 release may have foreshadowed the unfortunate problems facing many returning World War II veterans. In the context of today’s society, Don’s alcoholism could easily be substituted for a myriad of additive habits that can ruin a person’s life and greatly impact family and friends. I’m glad I watched this film because it is the first of six Academy award wins for Billy Wilder, although I more thoroughly enjoyed Double Indemnity, his 1944 film that was a Best Picture nominee but lost to Going My Way. While I am a Billy Wilder fan, The Lost Weekend is not a film I would view multiple times due to its depressing subject matter.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Released just three months after V-J Day, The Lost Weekend is our first film since Gone with the Wind to be released outside of the context of WWII.  Rather than deal with any of the myriad of issues accompanying a nation robbed of a generation of young men, the film tackles a different blight upon society, Alcoholism. DISCLAIMER: I am not seeking to juxtapose any of my own personal opinions on the topic in this review, I am merely critiquing and recapping the events portrayed in this film.

In order to contextualize this film, it is important to describe a couple of important historical developments that had a large impact on alcohol use and abuse in America.  Spanning from 1919 to 1933, the Unites States were prohibited from imbibing alcohol due to the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution: Prohibition.  When we view Prohibition from a historical context, one often is presented with romanticized versions of bootleggers and gangsters evading authorities to deliver booze to speakeasy’s and other establishments of ill-repute.  However, the side of the 20’s that is not seen is the huge spike in alcoholism and binge drinking. The film briefly mentions this phenomenon, as the main character is detained in the drunk ward of a hospital.  A ward which the film explains was founded to combat the drinking issues that stained Prohibition.  Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded two years after the repeal of Prohibition in 1935, to help people find relief and support in dealing with their addiction.   The book that the film was based on was a semi-autobiographical novel that Charles R. Jackson wrote, which chronicled the lowlights of his addiction as well as a cerebral look at the mindset of an addict.  Jackson would go on to speak to groups such as AA about his addiction, and to bring awareness to others.  Our 1945 Best Picture winner was adapted from his seminal tome of addiction.

As for the actual movie, I found it hard to watch at points but that was the intended effect for the audience.  It is difficult to watch the main character forsake his loved ones and connections in order to fulfill his insatiable desire to drink.  We are presented at the beginning with the image of the main character dangling a bottle of rye out of the window by a string, in order to elude his brother.  As the two are about to go on a trip out to the country to escape Don Birnam’s drinking, Don (Ray Millard) disappears on a bender as the distraught brother decides to go on the trip alone.  Now the audience is left alone with two main characters, Don and his addiction.  The psychological aspects of the film make it difficult to watch, as we are subjected to the same train wreck his family and friends experience with each drinking binge.  Our ability to empathize with the main character slowly disappears as each interaction illustrates a new rock bottom for our struggling writer.

Ray Millard absolutely deserved his Best Actor win, for his ability to convincingly lead the audience on his self-destructive bender.  This was also the first time a film that we saw utilized the film technique of neon signs and sights from the city flashing by the main actor, as he roamed the streets in madness.  One of the most difficult scenes to watch involved Don Birnam stealing a woman’s purse at a bar in an attempt to pay his tab.  The resulting confrontation was so cringe-worthy it was almost unwatchable.  The Lost Weekend highlights the fact that a Best Picture winner can be extremely well done, but not enjoyable to watch.  However, it is most important to view the film as an awareness piece similar to modern day substance-abuse films like Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, Winter’s Bone, Leaving Las Vegas and Candy.  The Lost Weekend was really the first movie of its kind to raise awareness of a serious issue, without becoming a parody of itself like 1936’s Reefer MadnessAlso I can’t conclude this review without mentioning the fantastic acting of Jane Wyman in the role of Helen St. James, Don Birnam’s overly sympathetic girlfriend.   It was hard to watch her unrelenting support of her beau, regardless of the damage he caused to her and the people around him.

I would not suggest watching this film unless the viewer is prepared for a heart-wrenching psychological thrill ride through the inner-demons of an alcoholic.  I must admit though, this film was very important for advocacy and heightened awareness of this serious issue of the time that still rings true today.

19. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

Director:   William Wyler

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Alex – 8.4   Elliot – 8.2           IMDB 8.2      Rotten Tomatoes 8.6

Alex’s Commentary

 I had never seen The Best Years of Our Lives and didn’t know what to expect. I assumed a film released post-World War II might have a war related theme and I was correct. The strength of the story and its subject matter is relevant not only for WWII veterans but also for returning veterans from every war or military conflict. The film traces the lives of three returning veterans from different branches of the service who meet for the first time on a flight home from Europe. We meet Fred Derry, an officer played by Dana Andrews, who returns to a job as a soda jerk; Al Stephenson, a sergeant played by Fredric March who returns to his job as a bank executive; and Homer Parrish, an enlisted soldier who lost both of his hands in battle, played by disabled veteran, Harold Russell. Only after researching the history of the film did I learn that the entire film crew, including Academy Award winning director William Wyler, were all veterans. This film was undoubtedly a labor of love for the director and the importance of its message was powerfully presented.

The multitude of issues facing returning veterans from all conflicts is remarkably similar. In fact, this film was reissued following the Korean War to stir the conscience of our nation to provide much needed support and understanding to our returning troops. Fred Derry faces the emotional difficulties associated with men who garner respect as commanding officers in the military but are employed in menial capacities in civilian life. Derry was raised in the “poor” section of town and elevated his station in the military but was unsure how to translate this experience to a better life upon his return home. If life was not difficult enough for Derry, his wife Marie (played by Virginia Mayo) , whom he met and married quickly before shipping out, expects a better life and is not supportive of her husband’s attempts to find a good job. Of course, America does not have a plan to assist Derry’s job search either (sound familiar?).

Al Stephenson’s issues are different from Derry’s. He lives in what I would consider an upper middle class neighborhood and is a well-respected banking executive. He has a wife and two children but is depressed that he missed the children’s formative years as he returns to find them young adults. Although Al’s wife is clearly in love with him, Al has difficulty reestablishing intimacy after his extended absence. His boss wants him to return immediately to work and Stephenson does not feel ready. He does return to work but only after a few drinking binges. Given a promotion at the bank to provide loans to returning GIs, Stephenson must decide whether to follow the bank’s strict credit policies or offer loans to servicemen based on their character and handshake. He follows his heart and intuition at the risk of dismissal.

Homer Parrish’s issues are both the most obvious and also the most complex. It is easy to understand the difficulty of a veteran who has lost limbs navigating in a world not designed for the disabled. Harold Russell displays amazing dexterity and great courage accepting this acting role and his main motivation was to demonstrate what can be accomplished through rehabilitation and determination. A little Oscar trivia – Harold Russell is the only actor to win two Academy Awards for the same role. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and also received an Honorary Award from the Academy “For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives”. The more complex issues focus on the emotional impact of people staring (or avoiding eye contact) based on his physical appearance. Whether a veteran has two metal hooks attached to his arms or today’s advanced prosthetics, people’s instinctive reactions are similar. Homer must also deal with people going out of their way trying to help him with routine tasks when he really just wants to develop the personal agency to accomplish these tasks on his own. Further complicating Homer’s plight is his concern that his fiancée, Wilma Cameron (played byCathy O’Donnell), will have her life irreparably harmed by having to tend to his physical needs, thus sacrificing her own happiness.

All of these issues are real and thought-provoking. The movie does provide hope that the issues facing returning veterans can be overcome, but it emphasizes that the road is not easy. I do not want to neglect mentioning fine performances by Virginia Mayo who plays Al Stephenson’s daughter andHoagy Carmichael as Homer’s uncle, Butch Engle, who teaches him to play chopsticks on the piano. Although this review may make you believe that The Best Years of Our Lives is a depressing film, it is not – it is an Academy Award winning screenplay that is both thought-provoking and inspirational. If you have not seen the film you should.

Elliot’s Commentary: The Best Years of Our Lives was 1946’s best picture winner that had the difficult job of serving as a transition film between WWII and post-war America.  The film fits perfectly into the mindset of America, as the country came to terms with one of the most devastating periods of our country’s history.  The film follows the lives of three different men as they readjust to life in fictional BooneCity.  It is clear that the fictional nature of the city allows for more of a universal appeal for the film and American audiences.  The film tackles multiple issues in the readjustment phase that are still applicable to today’s returning soldiers.  It addresses everything from socioeconomic classes to post-traumatic stress disorder, as the soldiers struggle to come to terms with life in a town that has changed drastically in the five years that the soldiers have been gone.

William Wyler, the director, also directed best picture winners Ben-Hur and Mrs. Miniver.  While not as heavily reported on in the 1940’s and 50’s, the film shows the severe post-traumatic stress that the war placed on the psyche of these three returning heroes.  It also shows the coping mechanism that the soldiers developed as they were attempting to dull their fever dreams of battle.  This was a huge step for Hollywood, as it showed the bleak reality that some of these decorated soldiers had to come home too.  Even with the assistance of the GI bill, many of the jobs previously occupied by soldiers had been taken when the soldiers returned.  Suddenly, stripped of rank and of profession, these soldiers had the country turn its back on the men who risked their lives to protect it.  William Wyler was a veteran as well, so he took a special interest in adapting this play to fit the tumultuous times of Post-WWIIAmerica.

One of the three soldiers profiled, Homer Parish (Harold Russell), was actually a real veteran and amputee who William Wyler saw in a documentary.  He received two Oscars for his performance, both for the best supporting actor as well as a special honor for his service to his country.  After his battleship was bombed in the Pacific, Homer lost both of his hands in the aftermath.  Watching him deal with the painful reality of greeting his high school sweetheart and family for the first time since his amputation is really a powerful moment in cinema.  Even though he wasn’t previously an actor, Harold Russell delivered the performance of the film and really carried the entire film.  The amount of dexterity he showed with his claws was really amazing as he lit cigarettes and poured drinks with seemingly blunt objects.  His abilities with his primitive prosthetics were truly an inspiration to an entire generation of physically and mentally maimed men.

Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) had a much different reaction to his homecoming.  Before the war, Fred was a lowly soda jerk at a pharmacy in town.  However, in the war Fred became a high ranking captain in the Air Force.  His return to a life of the mundane after his exciting and decorated exploits in the military proved to be quite a difficult transition.  While in the military Fred’s social status and position were temporarily ignored, in his return to civilian life his stripes earned in the line of duty were not enough to help improve his non-military job prospects.  Fred had also married cocktail waitress Marie (Virginia Mayo) while he was in flight training, however Fred’s return to the position of soda jerk in the tough postwar economy quickly soured their relationship.  Marie was not satisfied with her former pilot husband’s new occupation, and missed the wages that went along with his old position.  When Fred could no longer provide for her in the way that his war status formerly permitted, it became quite clear that their marriage in the passion of war could not withstand the economic hardships faced by the limited postwar job environment.

The third returning war veteran Al Stephenson (Fredric March) experienced the opposite transition of his counterpart Fred.  Al did not receive the type of accolades Fred did in the war, but instead he returned to his upper middle class existence as an executive in the bank in works in.  Al is older than Fred, but quite frankly his return to family life after the excitement of war leaves him feeling a type of melancholy that has few outlets in civilian life.  Also, Al’s abuse of alcohol has been intensified in his time away and his new habits are having quite a negative impact on his family and personal life.  His wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) are left trying to help him pick up the pieces of his now fragmented existence.   His professional life and his status as a veteran also quickly come into conflict, as the president of his bank becomes irate after he approves a loan to another young veteran who didn’t have the required collateral to back up the loan.

As the film progresses, each of our three protagonists attempt to cope with the adjustment back into civilian life in their own individual way.  Fred’s marriage falls apart both due to the irreconcilable differences between himself and his wife and Fred’s blossoming infatuation with Al’s daughter, Peggy.  Homer struggles with intimacy towards his girlfriend and family while learning to love himself in spite of his amputation. Al has to rely on the help of both his family and Fred as he tries to quell his night terrors from the war.  This representation of post-traumatic stress disorder is very important because it highlighted an issue that wasn’t covered heavily by the media at the time.   When we imagine the post-war generation that gave rise to the baby boomers, we often see a glossed over representation that doesn’t emphasize the hardships that many veterans faced returning from WWII.  The Best Years of Our Lives was produced from a veteran perspective and thus was more in tune with the attitudes of returning soldiers.  While we have seen movies that focus on the actual war in our journey through the best picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives stands out because it was the first picture to accurately depict the after effects of extreme violence on the psyche of both returning soldiers and the families they came back to.

20. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan

 

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Alex – 8.0   Elliot – 7.2           IMDB 7.4      Rotten Tomatoes 6.8

Alex’s Commentary

I have seen Gentleman’s Agreement a number of times and still enjoy it. The Moss Hart screenplay of gentile reporter, Philip Schuyler Green(played by Gregory Peck), going undercover as a Jew to give an angle to his story about anti-Semitism provides an excellent vehicle to explore the myriad of ways prejudice can manifest itself. Although anti-Semitism is the specific prejudice addressed, the hate and bigotry expressed is relevant to any person or group be it religion, race, sexual orientation, or anyone considered “different”. I found the script to be intelligently written and though some viewers may consider the movie’s pacing slow, I liked the theatrical dialogue. This is our second best picture winner dealing with anti-Semitism; the other being The Life of Emile Zola. However, the films are in no way similar and offer perspectives from different eras and viewpoints.

There were many memorable scenes in the movie but I found two particularly intriguing. One involved Philip Green’s son Tommy (played by a very young Dean Stockwell) who asked what a Jew was and why some people didn’t like them. It was clear from the boy’s inquisitiveness, innocence and absolute belief that his father’s explanation would lay the framework for Tommy’s own system of values and beliefs. If his father had responded to his question with an anti-Semitic or racist answer, the child certainly could have grown up with those ingrained prejudices and passed them on to his children. The other scene was toward the end of the film when one of the characters proclaims that maybe this will be the century when prejudice comes to an end. A wonderful thought be alas it proved not to be.

I was surprised that a movie written in 1947 would have very limited mention of World War II and absolutely no reference to the Holocaust. The film’s black and white cinematography is beautiful and I’m not sure New York City ever looked so clean. We’ve had a short break since our last commentary and I had forgotten the pleasure I get from observing the era’s clothing, cars, furnishings and architecture. I had also forgotten the endless chain-smoking – it’s no wonder tobacco use continued its pervasiveness for generations given society’s emulation of motion picture stars. I also have to admit that one historical character that was referenced more than one time in the movie, Gerald L.K. Smith, was unknown to me. After doing some basic research, I learned that Mr. Smith was a well-known anti-Semite in the 1940’s who, along with his publications and speeches, urged the release of Nazi war criminals convicted at the Nuremberg Trials.

The cast was very strong. Gregory Peck was nominated for best actor; Dorothy McGuire was nominated for best actress (as Kathy Lacy – Phil Green’s love interest); and Celeste Holm won best supporting actress (as Anne Dettrey – fashion editor at the magazine). McGuire’s performance felt a little stilted to me but I loved Celeste Holm. I still can’t understand how Phil Green could have chosen Kathy Lacy over the obvious better choice to me of Anne Dettrey. Phil Green’s mother, played by Anne Revere, was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Although not nominated, John Garfield’s portrayal of Dave Goldman, Phil Green’s Jewish childhood friend, was very convincing. This film won Director Elia Kazan his first Oscar win as well, but we will cover his second best picture, On the Waterfront when we get to our reviews for the 1950’s. Although by this point, Kazan’s reputation would be tarnished through his cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and their compilation of the Hollywood Blacklist.

Although the themes of prejudice and intolerance have been portrayed in numerous films since Gentleman’s Agreement was first screened, I do not find the film dated. Hopefully this will be the century when prejudice comes to an end.

 

Elliot’s Commentary:

Gentleman’s Agreement is a film directed by Elia Kazan that tackles a subject which was widespread in America in the 1940’s, anti-Semitism.  While I’ll address the film shortly, I want to preface my comments on the film with a statement about Elia Kazan.  Kazan was a gifted filmmaker who won two Academy Awards for Best Director for his work in both Gentleman’s Agreement and another best picture winner, On the Waterfront.  However, I cannot condone the role in which Kazan played in naming names in front of HUAC during his interrogation.  During the great depression he had been a member of the American Communist Party in New York, and therefore Kazan overcompensated and provided testimony in order to save his own career despite the effects it had on the people whose names were mentioned.  The great irony of his participation in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt was the largely anti-Semitic undertones of the trial.  Outing Jews as communists was a common way of discrediting Jews in American society without being openly anti-Semitic.  So while in my opinion, this injustice will always tarnish my view of Elia Kazan as a person, his directorial work still exhibited signs of genius.

While the subject of this film tackles a serious issue that was a significant problem in society at the time, anti-Semitism, I feel the way the film introduces the plot device is a bit convoluted.   Gregory Peck plays hardnosed reporter, Philip Schuyler Green, who has made a name for himself in the journalistic field by going deep within the communities that he depicts in his pieces.  In the film, Green is given a new subject as his his publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker) tasks him with capturing the controversial theme of anti-Semitism. Philip Green decides that the best way to learn about anti-Semitism firsthand was to pretend he was a Jew in society and study the results.  While pretending to be a Jew seems easier than Hunter S. Thompson’s adventures with the Hell’s Angels, at that point in time in there was still a large cultural stigma against Jewish people.  This movie tackles the subject from a variety of different angles, i.e. the repercussions of dating a Jew for a non-Jew (gentile) amongst WASPy Connecticut socialites.  The inability for Jews to rent in different apartment buildings or to stay at certain hotels was illustrated in particularly vivid detail with Gregory Peck playing the role of the rejected Jew brilliantly.  His role as the moral compass of the film reminded me of his later role as Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

While I was watching the film, there were certainly parts where the depiction of the issue felt a bit dated to me.  The doctor who visited Philip Green’s mother after a late night attack was smoking a cigarette as he delivered the prognosis.  I also found the acting of Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), the publisher’s niece and Phillip Green’s love interest to be a bit overstated and melodramatic which can occasionally be indicative of movies of this time period.  Luckily, the bigotry towards Jews displayed in the film has also become a more dated concept.  Although, I would be remiss if I did not mention that some anti-Semitism still exists in our country today, it just has been forced to a more underground role now that it is not socially acceptable.  Anti-Semitic sentiments now disgrace prominent figures in the media (*cough* Mel Gibson *cough*) rather than being the norm.  Even in our assessment of the prominent figures from the early 1900’s, history seems to sweep under the rug the hatred displayed by some of the country’s most powerful people.  If you are curious about the subject, do a little digging into the views that Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Walt Disney had on Jews.

I will give Gentleman’s Agreement a lot of credit for their courage to tackle this difficult and unpopular topic.  Two years after the WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust, Hollywood decided to comment on the hatred here in our society that allowed for the atrocities to happen in another country.  While I am biased against Elia Kazan, I will give him credit for directing a powerful morality piece that forces viewers to evaluate their own personal beliefs and possibly the roots of their own irrational hatred.  It definitely took an actor like Gregory Peck to deliver a performance that raised the sentimentality in the film from hokey to inspirational.  I found the storyline with Kathy Lacey to be a bit contrived, and while her sentiments towards society’s view of dating a Jew were probably accurate, Gregory Peck was too quick to forgive her truly hateful views.  The film just felt like a first step in dealing with bigotry, rather than hammering the point home.  It just didn’t quite deliver the gut-wrenching message that an anti-bigotry movie should be able to.  My final rating does take the historical context into account because it was truly important at the time of its release, however its effectiveness and ability to deliver its message have waned during the passage of time.

 

 

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