21. Hamlet (1948)

Director:  Laurence Olivier


Alex – 7.0   Elliot – 7.2  IMDB 7.8  Rotten Tomatoes 8.4

Alex’s Commentary:

To be or not to be the best picture, that is the question. I’ve always viewed a “best picture” winner as a movie with a great original screenplay, amazing characters, a larger than life epic, or something unique that possibly we’ve never seen in a movie before. Obviously, Hamlet, being one of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, is a well-known story with more memorable lines than I had remembered.  But is it a best picture? – I’m not so sure. The film was produced in England so it may be the first film we’ve watched that would be considered a “foreign” film. thw-2011-01-05-12h58m46s227However, I don’t believe this would unique enough to qualify for best picture.

The black and white production is atmospheric but stark and at times visually harsh. Similarly, the musical score I felt was overly melodramatic and distracting. Laurence Olivier, often considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors, did win the Oscar for best actor and that is an award that is well deserved. He even proved to be an excellent swordsman. Is something rotten in Hollywood? I wouldn’t go that far but Hamlet is definitely not one of my favorite films. Good night sweet prince – on to 1949.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Hamlet is a take on William Shakespeare’s classic play that Sir Laurence Olivier directed and starred in.  The film won Sir Laurence Olivier two Oscars- one for his acting and one for best picture due to his producing role in the production of the film.  Olivier also appeared in an earlier best picture winner, 1940’s Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Hamlet was the second film that Olivier directed and his second Shakespearean adaptation. Olivier is considered one of the greatest actors of the 20th century and this version of Hamlet is considered his seminal work.  Olivier was the first film actor to be elevated to peerage (knighted) for his work in film by the queen.  While Olivier obtained four Oscars during his long and prolific career, Hamlet is the only film for which he won a best actor award.  Olivier’s other Oscars besides the two for Hamlet, came from a special award for his work on his first film, Henry V, and a lifetime achievement award given to the knighted actor in 1978.  screen-shot-2013-03-30-at-5-59-01-pmHamlet is also the first film that we have reviewed where the director was also the leading actor in the film. While Olivier did not win the directing award, his achievement of directing a best picture where he also won best actor clearly solidifies his place in the annuls of Oscar history.

While the previous two films we have viewed from the 1940’s dealt with the post-war malaise in American culture and the despicable rise of anti-Semitism in America in the 1940’s, Hamlet pivots away from reality and takes a stab at the escapist entertainment of the golden age of Hollywood.  This import marked the first non-American film to win best picture and was the first film version of Hamlet to include sound. There have been seven post-war versions of Hamlet including this 1948 version, “Grigori Kozintsev‘s 1964 Russian adaptation; a film of the John Gielgud-directed 1964 Broadway production, Richard Burton’s Hamlet, which played limited engagements that same year; Tony Richardson‘s 1969 version (the first in color), Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1990 version starring Mel GibsonKenneth Branagh‘s full-text 1996 version; and Michael Almereyda‘s 2000 modernization starring Ethan Hawke”.  While I had seen a few of the other aforementioned adaptations, this was my first time watching this 1948 version.   

While many of the shots in this depiction of Hamlet seem staged like the theatrical production, it takes the introduction of phantasmagoria to become more abstract.   Using close-up angles and fog, Olivier symbolizes the arrival of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The special effects in the film held up well to modern standards in most scenes, with only the shots of the entire castle suffering from a lack of CGI or expensive budget.  On a somewhat related note, the voice of his father’s ghost coming from the helmet of his armor reminded me of how George Lucas styled Darth Vader in Star Wars.   Perhaps Lucas drew inspiration from this Olivier film.

Without writing too much of a book report on Hamlet, whose plot and subject matter is some of the most well-known in the entire cannon of English literature, I will instead focus on the cinematic elements.  This cerebral story, with many soliloquies and internal dialogue, has a tendency to drag a bit. With limited action for periods of time, the movie is largely saved by the peaks of action including flashes of violence and emotion. Hamley-Ophelia The acting is superb at parts, but does show flourishes of melodrama typical of earlier films.  Additionally, the sometimes dragging moments are disrupted by the hits of the Shakespearean dialogue with a performance of the “To Be or Not to Be” Monologue delivered with Olivier’s incredible acting chops.  Besides Olivier, the real star of this film is the soundtrack. Between the brilliant score played by the orchestra, the sound effects in the form of heartbeats and gusty corridors add tremendously to moments of introspection and eeriness.   

Overall, I found Hamlet to be a very traditional yet innovative portrayal of Shakespeare’s source material.   While the play was cut down to deliver a film 2.5 hours long, it still captured the major action and dialogue for which Hamlet is known.  In full honesty, Shakespearean English is not my favorite and watching this film was a little bit of a chore. Fortunately, there were sword fights and murder to break up the dense dialogue. Unfortunately, the film ceases to cross the line from cinema to entertainment for my particular tastes.   Olivier’s performance and direction breathed life into the already dramatic story and the themes of betrayal and loss are timeless motifs that will remain relevant for all time.  Additionally, in comparison to other best pictures which we have viewed throughout our journey, this film seemed to do much less to acknowledge the new realities facing post-WWII Europe/America.  While Hamlet is clearly a classical work, it’s hard to pivot from groundbreaking commentaries on antisemitism, treatment veterans returning after WWII and alcoholism that represented the subject matter of our last three entries.  I also preferred the films, The Red Shoes  and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which were both better films than Hamlet in the best picture category that year.  With that said, in order to truly enjoy this film you really need to commit with both of your love of literature as well as the melodramatic style of 1940’s cinema.   

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20. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan


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.b03a993022bb6110d70ce199ca3c62bb--classic-films-movies-to-watch 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. John_Garfield_and_Dorothy_McGuire_in_Gentleman's_Agreement_trailerThis 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, antisemitism, I feel the way the film introduces the plot device is a bit convoluted.   Gregory Peck plays hard-nosed 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.  IFullscreen capture 6192011 102421 PMn the film, Green is given a new subject as his his publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker) tasks him with capturing the controversial theme of antisemitism. Philip Green decides that the best way to learn about antisemitism 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) among 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.  360fbaaa6f56318407317601b7070b35--celeste-holm-mirror-on-the-wallIt 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.

19. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Director: William Wyler


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; bestyears4Al 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. 80fb6c73ff870babb528ac3bb6a6a0dbWhether 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 by Cathy 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 and Hoagy 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 Boone City.  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. MiniverWhile 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.  bestyearsThis 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-WWII America.

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. hero_EB20071229REVIEWS08473062636AR 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– Also appeared in The Great Ziegfeld) 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 to which they came back.