Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (dir by Robert Z. Leonard)


On this date, in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first published.  The book was published Thomas Egerton, who bought the rights for £110.  Apparently, Austen didn’t expect the book to become the success that it did.  As a result, she ultimately only made  £140 off of the book.  (Egerton made considerably more.)  When the book was originally published, Austen’s name was nowhere to be found on the manuscript.  Instead, it was credited to “the author of Sense and Sensibility.”

(When Sense and Sensibility was originally released, it was simply credited to “A Lady.”)

The rest, of course, is history.  205 years after it was first published, Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most popular and influential novels ever written.  Every year, new readers discover and fall in love with the story of outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, the proud Mr. Darcy, the pompous Mr. Collins, and the rather sleazy George Wickham.  There have been countless film and television adaptations.  My personal favorite is Joe Wright’s 2005 version, with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth.  My least favorite would have to be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The very first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was released in 1940.  Originally, the movie was envisioned as being a George Cukor film that would star Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.  However, the film’s production was put on hold after the death of Shearer’s husband, the legendary Irving Thalberg.  When the film finally resumed pre-production in 1939, Gable was now busy with Gone With The Wind.  Cast in his place was Robert Donat (who, interestingly enough, would have played Rhett Butler if Gable had refused the role).  With the film originally meant to be filmed in Europe, the outbreak of World War II led to yet another delay.  By the time production resumed, Cukor had been replaced by Robert Z. Leonard and Norma Shearer had also left the project.  With Gone With The Wind breaking box office records, MGM came up with the idea of once again casting Vivien Leigh opposite of Clark Gable.  However, Gable eventually left the film and Laurence Olivier, looking for a chance to act opposite Leigh, agreed to play Darcy.  However, the studio worried that casting Olivier and Leigh opposite each other would lead to negative stories about the two of them having an affair despite both being married to other people.  So, Leigh was removed from the project and Greer Garson was cast.  Olivier was so annoyed with the decision that, after Pride and Prejudice, it would be eleven years before he would work with another American studio.

Despite all of the drama behind-the-scenes, MGM’s version of Pride and Prejudice is a thoroughly delightful film, one full of charming performances and witty lines.  Though she was 36 when she made Pride and Prejudice, Garson is still the perfect Elizabeth, giving a lively and intelligent performance that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat staid films that she was making at the same time with Walter Pidgeon.  As for Olivier, from the first minute he appears, he simply is Darcy.  That said, my favorite performance in the film was Edmund Gwenn’s.  Cast as Mr. Bennet,  Gwenn brought the same warmth and gentle humor to the role that he would later bring to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.  I also liked the performances of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane and Edward Ashley as disreputable Mr. Wickham.

Pride and Prejudice is not an exact adaptation.  For one thing, the movie takes place in the early Victoria era, supposedly because MGM wanted to cut costs by reusing some of the same costumes that were previously used in Gone With The Wind.  As well, Lady Catherine (Edna May Oliver) is no longer as evil as she was in the novel.  Finally, because the production code forbid ridicule of religion, the theological career of Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) was considerably downplayed.  Not even Jane Austen (or, more specifically, the film’s screenwriter, Aldous Huxley) could defy the Code.

Seventy-eight years after it was first released, the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice holds up surprisingly well.  It’s an enjoyable film and one that, despite a few plot changes, remains true to the spirit of Austen.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Madame Curie (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take her?  Probably about as long as it took scientists to discover radiation.  Still, she’s not giving up!  She recorded the 1943 best picture nominee, Madame Curie, off of TCM on February 16th.)

It would appear that if you wanted to produce a best picture nominee in the early 40s, the easiest way to do it was to cast Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson as husband and wife.

Consider the evidence: In 1941, Blossoms in The Dust was nominated for best picture.  Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon played wife and husband.

In 1942, Mrs. Miniver won best picture.  Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon played husband and wife.  Interestingly enough, Garson actually starred in another best picture nominee that year, Random Harvest.  Random Harvest is a far better picture than Mrs. Miniver and actually featured a better performance from Garson but it did not include Walter Pidgeon.  Make of that what you will.

Then, in 1943, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon starred in Madame Curie.  Again, they played husband and wife and, again, their film was nominated for best picture.

As you can tell from the poster above, Madame Curie was advertised as being “Mr. and Mrs. Miniver together again.”  Actually, Garson and Pidgeon are playing characters far different from the stalwart and very British heroes of their previous film.  Instead, they are playing the Curies, Marie and Pierre.  The film opens with Pierre meeting Marie at a party and it juggles scenes of their romance with scenes of them discovering and playing with radiation.  Of course, it’s a struggle at times.  Their colleagues are dismissive of their efforts.  Both Pierre and Marie tend to get so caught up in their research that they close themselves off from the outside world.  Their efforts pay off when they isolate radium and win the 1903 Nobel Prize.  Of course, then Pierre gets run over by a horse while out buying his wife a pair of earrings.  Can Marie continue to do their research without him?

The unfortunate thing is that the movie pretty much ends with Marie winning her first Nobel Prize, which means that it leaves out some of the most interesting aspects of her life.  For instance, during World War I, she developed mobile X-ray units and worked in field hospitals.  She was also active in the struggle for Polish independence, even naming the first element that she ever discover polonium after her native country.  She spent almost her entire career working with radioactive material, often carrying radioactive isotopes in her pockets.  In 1934, Marie died of radiation poisoning.  Her research notes and other papers are so highly radioactive that they’re kept in a lead box and I assume that they probably glow whenever the lid is shut.  If you want to study Marie Curie’s notes, you have to put on a radiation suit.  Unfortunately, none of this is discussed in the resolutely positive movie.

Judging from what I’ve seen on TCM, Greer Garson appears to have been the Meryl Streep of her day, undeniably talented but a bit too obvious in her technique and just a little boring.  The same can be said of Madame Curie, which is a very well-made but not extremely memorable movie.  It’s like a lot of the films that were nominated for best picture in the 30s and the 40s — a big, prestige picture that never exactly comes to life.  The film is probably at its strongest in the beginning, when Walter Pidgeon does a pretty good job of playing Pierre as a brilliant introvert who is almost too shy to talk to Marie.  But, as the film progresses, it just becomes another slow-moving MGM biopic.

What movie beat Madame Curie for Best Picture?

None other than Casablanca.

Cleaning Out The DVR #15: Random Harvest (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


Random-harvest-1942

This morning, as a part of my continuing effort to watch 38 films by Friday and clean out the DVR, I watched Random Harvest, a romantic melodrama from 1942.

And when I say that Random Harvest is a melodrama, I’m not exaggerating.  During the first hour of the film, I found myself thinking that if Random Harvest were made today, it would probably be a Lifetime movie.  By the time the second hour started, I realized that it would actually probably be one of those heavily hyped miniseries that ends up being broadcast on A&E, Bravo, and Lifetime at the same time.  This is one of those big, epic stories where, every few minutes, a new plot twist emerges.

When the film opens during the first World War, John Smith (Ronald Colman) is a patient at a British asylum.  He knows that he was once a soldier.  He knows that he was gassed during a battle.  He knows that he’s recovering from extreme shell shock and it’s still a struggle for him to relate to other human beings. He knows that he will probably spend the rest of his life as a patient at the asylum.  He also knows that his name is not John Smith.  He’s not sure what his real name is because he suffers from amnesia.

One night, a message comes to the asylum.  The war has ended!  All of the doctor and orderlies go out to celebrate, leaving Smith unguarded.  Smith simply walks out of the asylum and eventually makes his way to a nearby town.  It’s there that he meets Paula (Greer Garson), a kind-hearted singer who invites Smith to join her traveling theatrical troupe.

Paula and Smith fall in love, end up getting married, and have a child together.  Paula encourages Smith to become a writer and eventually, a publisher in Liverpool asks to meet with him.  However, when Smith goes to Liverpool, he ends up getting hit by a car.  When he regains consciousness, he suddenly knows that his name is Charles Rainier and that he’s rich!  However, he no longer remembers that he was once named John Smith, that he’s married to Paula, or that he has a child.

The years pass.  Charles returns to his old life of servants, money, and political ambition.  His stepniece, Kitty (Susan Peters), falls in love with him but Charles, for his part, cannot stop wondering about what happened between getting gassed in World War I and getting hit by that car in Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Paula refuses to believe that Smith had abandoned her.  Even after she has him legally declared dead, she continue to believe that he’s out there.  And then one day, she sees a picture of Charles Rainier.  She also learns that Rainier needs an executive secretary, which just happens to be what Paula does when she’s not singing…

Just from reading that plot, you probably think that Random Harvest is an incredibly silly film, that type that, if it were made today, would star Katharine Heigl and maybe a British guy who had a minor role on Game of Thrones.  But, dammit, Random Harvest works!  Filmmakers in the 30s and 40s knew how to make this type of melodrama totally compelling and believable.  There’s not a hint of snarkiness or cynicism to be found in Random Harvest and, as a result, it feels almost churlish to criticize the plot for being implausible.  Sincerity saves this film.

Random Harvest was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to another film starring Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver.  However, Garson gave a far better performance in Random Harvest than she did in Miniver.  When you watch most of her film today, Greer Garson always comes across as talented but a little boring and obvious in her technique.  (She was the Meryl Streep of her day.)  In Random Harvest, Garson actually gets to sing and danger and laugh and behave like a human being.  After seeing her in Blossoms In The Dust, Mrs. Miniver, and Sunrise at Campobello, watching her performance in Random Harvest is akin to an acting revelation.

Meanwhile, Ronald Colman also does a great work at both Smith and Charles (and they really are two separate characters).  Admittedly, Colman does come across as being a little bit too old for the role (and the age difference between him and Susan Peters does add a certain odd subtext to the scenes between Charles and Kitty) but, otherwise, he’s totally and completely credible as the character.  When he’s Smith, he speaks in a halting, uncertain tone and he walks like he’s still learning how to put one foot in front of the other.  When he becomes Charles, he’s definitely more confident but he still moves like a man who feels as if it’s his duty to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.

(I have to admit that I’ve always found it strange that Margaret Mitchell apparently wanted Ronald Colman to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.  Watching his performance here, I still could not see Colman as Rhett but he would have made a great Ashley Wilkes.)

The beautiful Susan Peters was nominated for best supporting actress for her performance as Kitty.  Random Harvest was her first major role and she gives such a great and likable performance that it makes it all the more tragic that her career was cut short.  Just three years after appearing in Random Harvest, Susan was accidentally shot by her husband.  Though she survived, she would never walk again.  When she died, at the age of 31 in 1952, the official cause was pneumonia but it was also said that she had stopped eating and drinking and had literally lost the will to live.  Whether you love Random Harvest or you think it’s just a silly melodrama, you should watch it just to see Susan Peters’s great performance and to consider what could have been.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (dir by Sam Wood)


220px-Goodbye,_Mr._Chips_(1939_film)_poster

After watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, I watched another old best picture nominee that was sitting on my DVR.  Goodbye, Mr. Chips was nominated for best picture of 1939, a year that many consider to be one of the best cinematic years on record.  Just consider some of the other films that were nominated in that year: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Dark Victory, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Love Affair, Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, and, of course, Gone With The Wind.  Goodbye, Mr. Chips may not have won best picture but its star, Robert Donat, did win the Oscar for Best Actor, defeating Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Laurence Olivier, and Mickey Rooney.

Robert Donat plays the title character, a British teacher named Charles Edward Chipping (affectionately known as Mr. Chips).  The film follows Mr. Chips over the course of 63 years, from his arrival as a new Latin teacher to the last night of his life.  When he first starts to work at Brookfield Public School, the young and inexperienced Mr. Chips proves himself to be a strict teacher, the type who enforces discipline and may be respected but will never be loved by his students.  It’s only after he falls in love with the outspoken Kathy Bridges (Greer Garson) that Mr. Chips starts to truly enjoy life.

After marrying Kathy, Mr. Chips relaxes.  He becomes a better teacher, one who is capable of inspiring his students as well as teaching them.  After Kathy dies in childbirth, Mr. Chips deals with his sadness by devoting all of his time to his many pupils.

While Mr. Chips deals with both new students and headmasters who view him as being too old-fashioned, the world marches off to war.  When World War I breaks out and there is a shortage of teachers, the elderly Mr. Chips serves as headmaster.  Each Sunday, in the chapel, he reads the names of former students (many of whom he taught) who have been killed in the war.  In perhaps the film’s best scene, he teaches a class while German bombs fall nearby, keeping his students calm and positive by having them translate Julius Caesar’s account of his own battle against the Germans.

The bombing scene is interesting for another reason.  Mr. Chips was filmed and released in 1939, shortly before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany.  Goodbye, Mr. Chips is not just a sentimental tribute to a teacher.  It’s also a tribute to the strength and resilience of the British people.  With the world on the verge of a second great war, Goodbye, Mr. Chips said that it was going to be tough, it was going to be scary, and there was going to be much loss but that the British would survive and ultimately be victorious.

And, as we all know, the film was right.

While the Oscar definitely should have gone to Jimmy Stewart for his performance in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Robert Donat still gives a sweet and touching performance as Mr. Chips.  And the film’s ending brought very real tears to my mismatched eyes.  Goodbye, Mr. Chips may be sentimental but it’s sentimental in the best possible way.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Blossoms In The Dust (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


Blossoms_dust_movieposterDid you know that up until the year 1936, if a child was born to unwed parents, it was common practice to actually put the word “illegitimate” on that child’s birth certificate?  As you all know, I am perhaps the biggest history nerd in the world and, while I knew that there was once a huge stigma associated with being born outside of marriage, I did not know just how institutionalized that stigma was.

I’m also proud to say that my home state of Texas — the state that all the yankees love to bitch about — was the first state to ban the use of the word “illegitimate” on birth certificates.  This was largely due to the efforts of Edna Gladney, an early advocate for the rights of children.  Along with starting a home for orphans and abandoned children in Ft. Worth, Edna also started one of the country’s first day care centers for the children of working mothers.

That’s right — there was a time when day care was itself a revolutionary concept.

I have TCM to thank for my knowledge of Edna Gladney, largely because TCM broadcast a 1941 biopic called Blossoms in The Dust.  According to Wikipedia, the film was a highly fictionalized look at Edna’s life but, to be honest, I would have guessed that just from watching the movie.  While Blossoms In The Dust gets the important things right (and it deserves a lot of credit for sympathetically dealing with the cultural stigma of being born to unwed parents at a time when it was an even more controversial subject that it is today), it’s also full of scenes that are pure Hollywood.

In real life, Edna knew firsthand about the challenges faced by children of unwed parents because she was one herself.  Apparently, at the time, that was going too far for even a relatively progressive film like Blossoms In The Dust so, in Blossoms, Edna (played by Greer Garson) is given an adopted sister named Charlotte (Marsha Hunt).  When the parents of Charlotte’s fiancée discover that she was born outside of marriage, they refuse to allow Charlotte to marry their son.  In response, Charlotte commits suicide.

In real life, Edna was born in Wisconsin but, following the death of her stepfather, moved to Ft. Worth to stay with relatives.  Edna was 18 at the time and eventually met and married a local businessman named Sam Gladney.  In Blossoms in The Dust, Edna is already an adult when she first meets Sam (played by Walter Pidgeon, who played Greer Garson’s husband in a number of films) and they meet in Wisconsin.  It’s only after Charlotte dies that Edna marries Sam and it’s only after they’re married that Edna moves to Texas.  Whereas the real life Edna had relatives in Texas, the film’s Edna is literally a stranger in a strange land.

That said, the film is actually rather kind to my home state.  The film spend a lot of time contrasting the judgmental snobs up north with the more straight-forward people who Edna meets after she moves to Ft. Worth and it’s occasionally fun to watch.  (Of course, I would probably feel differently if I was from Wisconsin.)

Blossoms In The Dust was nominated for best picture but it lost to How Green Was My Valley.  Greer Garson was nominated for best actress but she lost to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.  However, just one year later, Garson would win an Oscar for her performance in the 1942 best picture winner, Mrs. Miniver.  Incidentally, her husband in that film was played by none other than Walter Pidgeon.

Ultimately, Blossoms in the Dust is typical of the type of movies that you tend to come across while watching films that were nominated for best picture.  Some best picture nominees were great.  Some were terrible.  But the majority of them were like Blossoms in the Dust, well-made, respectable, and just a little bit bland.  Blossoms in the Dust is not bad but it’s also not particularly memorable.  If, like me,  you’re a student of history and social mores, Blossoms in the Dust has some historical interest but, when taken as a piece of cinema, it’s easy to understand why it’s one of the more forgotten best picture nominees.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: Mrs. Miniver (dir by William Wyler)


Mrs_Miniver_poster

Mrs. Miniver, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1942, is often treated somewhat dismissively by film historians.  The film tells the story of the Minivers, an upper middle class British family whose peaceful lives are changed forever by the start of World War II.  When the film initially went into production, the U.S. was still a neutral country.  As shooting commenced, the U.S. edged closer and closer to entering the war and, as a result, the script was continually rewritten to make Mrs. Miniver even more pro-British and anti-German than before.  The finished film was released four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, by which point Mrs. Miniver had gone from being domestic drama to being both a celebration of British resilience and the Allied war effort.  “If the Minivers can do it,” the film told audiences, “why can’t you?”  As a result, Mrs. Miniver is often described as being merely effective propaganda.

Well, Mrs. Miniver may indeed be propaganda but it’s amazingly effective propaganda.  I recently DVRed it off of TCM and I have to admit that, as a result of those previously mentioned film historians, I wasn’t expecting much.  But I was in tears by the end of the film.  Yes, World War II has long since ended.  And yes, I could watch the movie and see all of the tricks and the heavy-handed manipulations that were employed to get the desired emotional response from the audience but it didn’t matter.  The film is so effective and so well-acted that you’re willing to be manipulated.

(Of course, it helps that there’s not much nuance to World War II.  As far as wars go, WWII was as close to a fight between good and evil as you can get.  If you can’t celebrate propaganda that was designed to defeat the Nazis, then what can you celebrate?)

As for the film itself, Greer Garson plays Kay Miniver, matriarch of the Miniver Family.  Her husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is a successful architect.  When we first meet Kay and Clem, the only thing that they have to worry about is the annual village rose show.  (Henry Travers — who everyone should love because he played Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life — plays the eccentric stationmaster who is determined to win with his rose.)  However, that all changes when they go to church and the vicar (Henry Wilcoxin) announces that Great Britain has declared war on Germany.

Life changes.  Soon, Kay must hold her family together while bombs are falling from the sky.  When Clem is away, helping out with the Dunkirk evacuation, Kay comes across a wounded German flyer (Helmut Dantine) in her garden.  The flyer demands that Kay give him food and when she does, he snarls that the Third Reich will be victorious.  He then passes out from his injuries, allowing Kay to take his gun and call the police.  (Reportedly, this scene was rewritten and reshot several times, with the German becoming progressively more hateful with each new version.)

Kay’s son, Vincent (Richard Ney), joins the Royal Air Force.  He also falls in love with Carol Beldon (Theresa Wright), the daughter of the aristocratic Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty).  Over the concerns of Lady Beldon, Carol marries Vincent and she becomes the second Mrs. Miniver.  They do so, despite knowing that Vincent will probably be killed before the war ends.

Of course, there is tragedy.  People who we have come to love are lost, victims of the German onslaught.  Throughout it all, the Minivers (and, by extension, the rest of Great Britain) refuse to give into despair or to lose hope.  The film ends with them singing a hymn in a church that no longer has a roof and listening as the vicar tells them why they will continue to fight.

And yes, it’s all very manipulative but it’s also very effective.  I did cry and the film earned those tears.  In many ways, Mrs. Miniver is perhaps most valuable as a time capsule.  It’s a film about World War II that was actually made during the war and, as such, it provides a window into the attitudes and culture of the time.  But, if the film is valuable as history, it’s also just as valuable as a well-made melodrama.

I’m not sure if I would say that Mrs. Miniver deserved to defeat Kings Row for best picture of 1942.  But it’s still an undeniably good film.

Shattered Politics #15: Sunrise at Campobello (dir by Vincent J. Donehue)


Sunrise_at_Campobello_film

I can still remember that day like yesterday.

I was either 10 or 11 and I was at a big family gathering in Arkansas.  I was at my aunt’s house.  My great-grand uncle was sitting in a corner of the living room and watching the TV.  Because he was nearly blind, only an inch or two separated his face from the screen.  And, because he was almost deaf, the television was blaring.  When we first arrived, he was watching what sounded to be a cartoon but, after a few minutes, he changed the channel.

Apparently, whatever channel he was watching was showing a program about the Great Depression because my great-grand uncle snorted a little and yelled (not because he was mad but because he was deaf), “Some people like Roosevelt!  I say he was a dictator!”

That blew my young mind.  It wasn’t because I necessarily knew that much about Franklin D. Roosevelt, beyond the fact that he had been President.  Instead, it shocked me because that was the first time that I had ever heard anyone call a U.S. President a dictator.  It was the first time that I truly understoodd that not everyone shared the same opinions, especially when it came to politics and history.

Looking back, so many of the things that define me as a person — my skepticism about conventional wisdom, my mistrust of authority, and my tendency to dismiss “experts” — are the result of that day, that documentary on the Great Depression, and my great-grand uncle’s opinion of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

(Want to know why I hate it when the headlines of clickbait articles say stuff like, “Neil deGrasse Tyson gave his opinion on the movies and it was glorious?”  Blame me great-grand uncle.  Nobody was going to tell him FDR wasn’t a dictator.  Nobody’s going tell me what’s glorious.  I’ll make up my own mind.)

And, let’s face it — FDR is a controversial figure.  Most of what you read about Roosevelt is positive but if you glance under the surface, you realize that the legacy of the New Deal is far more ambiguous than most people are willing to admit.  You realize that there are serious questions about whether Roosevelt knew about the upcoming attack on Pearl Harbor.  You discover that Roosevelt wanted to reform the Supreme Court so that it would be a rubber stamp for the executive branch.  And, of course, his decision to run for a third term set up exactly the type of precedent that — if not for a constitutional amendment — could have been exploited by the wrong people.

And, yet, as ambiguous as his legacy may be, how can you not be inspired by FDR’s personal story?  He went from being a dilettante who was often dismissed as being an intellectual lightweight to being four-times elected President of the United States.  In between running unsuccessfully for vice president in 1920 and being elected governor of New York in 1928, Roosevelt was crippled by polio.  It’s always been a huge part of the Roosevelt legend that his battle with polio transformed him and made him into the President who led the country during the Great Depression and World War II.

It’s an inspiring story, regardless of what you may think of Roosevelt’s political ideology or his legacy of government intrusion.

It’s also a story that’s told in our 15th entry in Shattered Politics, the 1960 film Sunrise at Campobello.  This film opens with FDR (played by Ralph Bellamy) as an athletic and somewhat shallow man who, while on a vacation with his family, is struck down my polio.  The film follows he and his wife, Eleanor (Greer Garson), as they learn how to deal with his new physical condition.  Throughout the film, Roosevelt remains upbeat and determined while Eleanor remains supportive and eventually — after being out of the public eye for three years — Roosevelt gets a chance to relaunch his political career by giving a nominating speech for Gov. Al Smith at the Democratic National Convention.

(A little bit of history that everyone should know: Al Smith was the first Catholic to ever be nominated for President by a major political party.)

Sunrise at Campobello is one of those films that tends to show up fairly regularly on TCM.  It’s a well-acted film with Ralph Bellamy and Greer Garson really making the aristocratic Roosevelts into sympathetic and relatable characters.  At the same time, whenever I’ve watched the film, I’ve always been struck by how long it seems.  (The movie itself is only 144 minutes, which means its shorter than the average Christopher Nolan flick but it’s one of those films that seems longer than it actually is.)  Sunrise at Campobello was based on a stage play and it’s directed like a stage play as well, with little visual flair and emphasis on dialogue and character.  The end result is a film that I can’t really recommend for the casual viewer but one that is, at the very least, interesting for students of history like me.

Lisa Marie Does Julius Caesar (dir. by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)


As some of you may know, I’ve spent the past two years on a mission.  It is my goal to eventually see and review every single film that has ever been nominated for best picture.  After taking a few months off, I am now ready to continue that quest.  For that reason, I recently sat down and watched the 1953 best picture nominee Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic play about political intrigue, assassination, and demagoguery in ancient Rome.  (Technically, what follows is full of spoilers but come on, people — it’s Shakespeare!)  The citizens of Rome love their leader, Julius Caesar (played here by a very imperial Louis Calhern) but a group of senators led by Cassius (John Gielgud) fears that Caesar’s popularity will lead to the collapse of the Roman Republic.  Cassius recruits Caesar’s close friend Brutus (James Mason) into a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March.  However, once the deed has been done and Brutus has explained the motives behind the assassination to the Roman public, the previously underestimated Mark Antony (Marlon Brando) delivers his famous “Lend me your ears!” speech and soon, the people of Rome turn against the conspirators.  In the end, the conspiracy’s efforts to save the Roman Republic instead leads to the birth of the Roman Empire.

Speaking as someone who loves both Shakespeare and history, it was an interesting experience to watch this particular version of Julius Caesar.  As directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who later revisited the material in the infamous 1963 Best Picture nominee Cleopatra), Julius Caesar present a very traditional (and occasionally stagey) interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.  However, by this point, we’ve become so used to Shakespeare being presented with a gimmick (like modern-day costumes, for instance) that the traditional approach almost feels like something new and unexpected.  That said, Julius Caesar is definitely not the Shakespearean film to show to your friends who stubbornly insist that Shakespeare is boring or impossible to follow.  Julius Caesar was obviously made by people who appreciate Shakespeare and that remains the film’s best audience.  

When Julius Caesar was first released in 1953, it received a lot of attention because of the casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony.  An outspoken method actor who had been nicknamed “the mumbler” precisely because of his own internalized style of acting, Brando was considered to be too contemporary of an actor to be an effective Shakespearean.  Once the film was released, critics agreed that Brando had proven that, even while mumbling, he made for an electrifying Mark Antony and that, despite only having a few scenes, his charismatic presence dominated the entire film.  Out of an impressive cast, Brando received the film’s only nomination for acting.

It is true that, even when seen today, Brando does dominate the entire film.  He delivery of Mark Antony’s famous oration over Caesar’s bloody corpse remains one of the best Shakespearean performances to have ever been preserved on film.  It’s odd to watch this young, sexy, and energetic Brando and compare him to the legendary eccentric that we all usually think of whenever we hear the man’s name. 

That said, Brando’s performance would not be half as effective if it wasn’t surrounded by the more traditional (but no less compelling) performances of James Mason and John Gielgud.  Mason brings a brooding intensity to the role of Brutus and Gielgud is the Cassius by which all future Cassiuses must be judged.  Their performances might not be as flamboyant as Brando’s but they’re no less important.  Ultimately, the clash between the acting style of Brando and the styles of Gielgud and Mason nicely parallel the conflict over the future of the Roman Republic.

Julius Caesar won the Oscar for best art design and was nominated for picture, actor, cinematography, and original score.  Brando lost the award for best actor to Stalag 17’s William Holdenwhile the Oscar for best picture of 1953 went to a far more contemporary film, From Here To Eternity.  Brando, however, would win best actor the next year for his performance in On The Waterfront.