Monday, June 09, 2014

What Works and What Doesn't After 75 Years

1939 has been called Hollywood's greatest year often enough that, a short while ago, I decided to revisit (or, in a couple of cases, visit for the first time) some of the biggest and most historically significant films from that year, to see how well I felt they stood up to watching exactly three-quarters of a century later. The results, in my opinion, were decidedly mixed. Let me go from worst to best--while noting 1) that not even the worst of these films are really "bad" in any kind of objective sense; I just find them (and suspect I am not alone these days) more or less unwatchable for various reasons, and 2) I'm looking only at American films, meaning that I didn't revisit one of the most demanding and important movies of that, Renoir's Rules of the Game.

I suppose there are any number of people out there who still swoon over Gone With the Wind, indisputably the biggest of all the great productions of 1939, but I'm not one of them. I grant the epic scale and the gorgeous sets and costumes, but the relationship between Vivian Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable's Rhett Butler is belabored, artificial, and unconvincing--and given that after Atlanta gets burned to the ground there's really no action left to the movie except watching the post-Civil War machinations of these two unappealing people, it just descends into a long, boring slog. And let's not even get into the film's poisonous cultural contribution to the Lost Cause myth. Skip this one.

Slightly less malicious in its effects than GWTW, but twice as melodramatic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is kind of a fascinating dry-run for the much, much superior It's a Wonderful Life. Besides having many of the same performers, the way it cinematically sets up its basic thematic assumptions--contrasting the nobility and innocence of families, little children, small towns, and the rural countryside to the corruptions of big city, big government, and big money life, most particularly--was often exactly echoed by the later movie (using the exactly same recording of "Auld Lang Syne" as a key emotional cue, for example). But anyway, let's face it: this film utterly defines the pejorative label "Capra-corn." Stewart's Jefferson Smith is just ridiculously, appallingly earnest, and when he's framed as a corrupt pol--because his dream of building a boy's camp gets in the way of a scam to benefit from the government's construction of a dam--he can't come up with any arguments in his defense. Instead, he just filibusters on the floor of the U.S. Senate, quoting scripture and oozing patriotism, until he nearly dies of exhaustion and through pure moral example leads to real bad guys to confess. You could argue it's an early example of the Green Lantern Theory of Politics. Not terrible, but really only worth it if you're an absolute Jimmy Stewart or "films about politics" completest.

The Women is more a stunt than a movie--a two-hour film, all about women complaining about their husbands and boyfriends, and then fighting with each other like mad to get those husbands and boyfriends back once any other woman manages to snag them, all without a single male being seen--but while the overall plot is both demeaning and atrociously sexist, there's enough good material to keep a viewer mostly interested, or at least so I thought. If you're willing to accept upfront such stereotypes as the bitchy gold-digger and the worldy-wise ranch manager, then I can't deny that a fair number of the zingers can still make you smile.

I don't know if Stagecoach was the first example a movie about "diverse strangers in a confined space trying to survive," but within that very limited and predictable genre, I think it may be one of the best. John Wayne's Ringo Kid shows glimmers of the sort of iconic hero that he would come to play in almost every movie he subsequently made, but in this 75-year-old movie some of his line readings and moves seem almost fresh. And for a movie made five years after the Hays Code went into affect, it was surprisingly frank about the folks on board the titular stagecoach: a prostitute, an embezzler, a drunk doctor (the ever-reliable Thomas Mitchell),a  professional gambler (very intriguingly played by John Carradine, bringing an interesting touch to the stereotypical Southern man of honor), and more. Very worth watching if you're never seen Wayne's breakout role before.

I didn't know what to expect when watching Ninotchka, but it surprised and impressed me on almost every level. Yes, it is--like every other movie on this list--assembled in a manner which can't help but strike modern audiences as broad, obvious, and unsubtle, and you'd think that would be death to the only comedy I watched from that era (Mr. Smith and The Women both have a good number of comic moments, but either were romantic comedies as Ninotchka was). But that stagey quality didn't stop me from being greatly entertained. Part of it was simply historical: how fun to discover evidence of the way people made jokes about Hitler's Germany (a couple of folks on a train in Paris who say "Heil Hitler" to each other are presented as weirdos, not wicked) or Stalin's Soviet Union (my favorite snark by Melvyn Douglas's Count to Greta Garbo's Ninotchka: "I've been fascinated by your Five-Year Plan for the last 15 years!") before World War II? Or the fun was ideological: I can only think of a half-dozen or so comedies up to this present-day that are as frank, smart, and genuinely funny when it comes to setting up conflicts between the classes. Anyway, Ninotchka, 75 years on, is a charmer.

Do I even need to say anything about The Wizard of Oz? It is a genuine masterpiece, and that's not just the fondness of 45-year-old Mormon who remembers as a kid in the early 70s being allowed to watch TV on Sundays when this movie was played (as it was, pretty much once a year, for decades). I've read The Wizard of Oz and subsequent Oz books to my kids over the years, and some of them really loved them--but this musical is a work of art which transcends its source material entirely. L. Frank Baum was trying to develop a genuinely American, post-Industrial Revolution fantasy sensibility, and I give him an A for effort, but Victor Fleming and the rest of the entertainment geniuses at MGM had a stronger sense of what the real  American fantasy was: a movie musical, using song to bring the fantastic into our daily lives and our hearts. I don't know how many times I've seen this film over the years, but it stands, I think, with Singin' in the Rain and a couple of others at most as one of the greatest, most joyous music productions of all time. 75 years isn't nearly enough time to even begin to dim this rainbow.

1 comment:

alkali said...

Completely agree on Ninotchka, which is delightful but does not get the attention it deserves.