Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Pied Piper (dir by Irving Pichel)


The 1942 Best Picture nominee, The Pied Piper, opens in Eastern France, shortly after the outbreak of World War II.

John Sidney Howard (played by Monty Woolley) is an Englishman on holiday.  He says that he just wants to enjoy some fishing before the entire continent of Europe descends into chaos.  He knows that France is going to be invaded at some point and he even suspects that the country will probably fall to the Nazis.  In his 70s and still mourning the death of his son (who was killed during an air battle over occupied Poland), Mr. Howard just wants to enjoy France one last time.  Despite the fact that the bearded Howard bears a resemblance to a thin Santa Claus, he’s quick to declare his dislike of both children and humanity in general.  He’s a misanthrope, albeit a rather friendly one.

Howard’s plans change when the Nazis invade France sooner than he expected.  With his vacation canceled, Howard just wants to get back to England.  Complicating matters is that a diplomat named Cavanaugh (Lester Matthews) has asks Howard to take his children, Ronnie (Roddy McDowall) and Sheila (Peggy Ann Garner), back to England with him.  Despite his self-declared dislike of children, Howard agrees.  However, it turns out that getting out of France won’t be as easy as Howard assumed.  After their train gets diverted by the Nazis, Howard, Ronnie ,and Sheila are forced to take a bus.  After almost everyone else on the bus is killed in a surprise Nazi attack, Howard and the children are forced to continue on foot and rely on the kindness of a young French woman, Nicole Rougeron (Anne Baxer).

Throughout the journey, Howard keeps collecting more and more children.  Everyone wants to get their children to a safe place and Howard soon has a small entourage following him.  Unfortunately, he also has Gestapo Major Diessen (an excellent Otto Preminger) watching him.  How far is Howard willing to go to ensure the safety of the children?

The Pied Piper is an interesting film, in that it starts out as something of a comedy but it then gets progressively darker as events unfold.  At the beginning of the film, it appears that the whole thing is just going to be Howard getting annoyed with the precocious Ronnie and Sheila.  But then that bus is attacked and Howard find himself accompanied by a young boy who has been left in a state of shock by the attack.  When the group is joined by a young Jewish child named Pierre, it’s a reminder that, though the film itself may have been shot on an American soundstage, the stakes and the dangers in occupied Europe were all too real.

The Pied Piper was nominated for Best Picture of the year.  Viewed today, it may seem like an unlikely nominee.  It’s a well-made movie and Monty Woolley gives a good performance as John Sidney Howard.  It’s the type of film that, due to the sincerity of its anti-Nazi message, should bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened cynic but, at the same time, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking or aesthetically unique about it.  Still, from a historical point of view, it’s not a surprise that this competent but conventional film was nominated.  With America having just entered the war, The Pied Piper was a film that captured the national spirit.  Other World War II films nominated in 1942 included 49th Parallel, Wake Island, and the eventual winner, Mrs. Miniver.

In fact, one could argue that The Pied Piper is almost a cousin to Mrs. Miniver.  Both films are not only anti-German but also unapologetically pro-British.  Just as Greer Garson did in Mrs. Miniver, Monty Woolley is meant to be less of an individual and more of a stand-in for Britain itself.  When both Mrs. Miniver and Mr. Howard refused to surrender in the face of German aggression, these movies were proudly proclaiming that the British would never lose hope or surrender either.

Thankfully, the movies were correct.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Grand Illusion (dir by Jean Renoir)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1937 best picture nominee, Grand Illusion!)

A few things to consider when watching Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion:

It is considered to be one of the greatest French films of all time and yet, at the outbreak of World War II, it was banned by France pour la durée des hostilités.  It was also banned by Nazi Germany, with Joseph Goebbles declaring it to be “Cinematic Public Enemy No, 1.”  Italy followed suit, banning the film as well.

It’s a pacifist film but all of the main characters are soldiers.

It’s a war film but we never see any battles.  We hear about them, of course.  Characters cheer when they hear that their country has taken another town.  Towards the end of the film, when a gun finally is fired, it’s jarring because it’s the first gunshot that we’ve heard throughout the entire film.

It’s a film about change, specifically the change brought about by the First World War.  Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) may be French and Major von Rauffenstein (Erich van Stroheim) may be German but they both share the bond of being aristocrats.  (After Rauffenstein captures Boeldieu, the two of them have a friendly conversation about their shared acquaintances.)  Both of them serve in the army, not for ideological reasons but because they consider themselves to be patriots and tradition holds that aristocrats go to war for their countries.  At the start of the film, both Boeldieu and Rauffenstein seem to be above the fighting but, in the end, both realize that the old ways — their ways — will not survive in the new world that’s being created by the Great War.

(In another scene, a group of Russian soldiers are excited to receive a care package from “the Czarina,” just to open up the box and discover that, instead of Vodka, they’ve been sent used textbooks.  The soldiers respond by setting the box on fire.  For audiences in 1937, it would be impossible to watch this scene without reflecting on the fact that the Czarina herself would soon be dead, executed by revolutionaries.)

Grand Illusion tells the story of three French officers, prisoners of war who hope to somehow escape and make their way to neutral Switzerland.  Unlike the aristocratic Boeldieu, Marechal (Jean Gabin) is a member of the working class, a mechanic.  Lt. Rosnethal (Marcel Dalio) comes from a wealthy family but, as a Jew, he is still viewed as an outsider.  (Reportedly, Renoir specifically made Grand Illusion‘s most sympathetic and generous character Jewish as a specific rebuke to Nazi Germany and their policies.)  It’s Rosenthal who gives meaning to the film’s title when he says, regarding the belief that the great war will end all other wars, “That’s just an illusion.”

All three of them are moved from prison camp to prison camp, until they eventually find themselves at the camp commanded by the man who first captured both Boeldieu and Marechal, Major van Rauffenstein.  Rauffenstein explains that he was given his new post after being seriously wounded in combat and his movements are sometimes so stiff that he almost resembles a marionette, suggesting that war has reduced this proud man to merely being a puppet for his government’s war machine.

Grand Illusion is a film about the forgotten people who get caught up in the madness of war.  The French POWs may say they want to return to the front but, when they meet a woman who has lost her husband and three brothers to the war, they are reminded that even “victory” comes with a steep price.  Rauffenstein and Boeldiue may share much in common but ultimately, the only thing that the world cares about is that one is French and one is German.  Grand Illusion was Jean Renoir’s eloquent plea for peace, issued a mere two years before Europe plunged into World War II.

In 1938, Grand Illusion was the first foreign-language film to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture.  However, it lost to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #15: Casablanca (dir by Michael Curtiz)


CasablancaPoster-Gold

(This review contains spoilers but seriously, you should know all of this already.)

Is there anything left to be said about Casablanca?

Probably not.

As a film reviewer, I’m not supposed to admit that.  I’m supposed to come up with some sort of new, out-of-nowhere, batshit crazy way to look at Casablanca.  I’m supposed to argue that Rick was actually meant to be a survivor of abuse or that Victor Laszlo was some sort of precursor to President Obama or something.  Or, if that doesn’t work, I’m supposed to intentionally troll everyone by writing something like, “10 reasons why Casablanca is overrated” or “I hate Casablanca and I don’t care who knows it!”

But I’m not going to do that.

The fact of the matter is that Casablanca is as good a film as everyone says it is.  It is a film that everyone should see.  It is a film that quite rightfully was named best picture of 1943.  It deserves to be celebrated.  It deserves to be seen.  In fact, stop reading this review right now and go watch it.  Don’t let me waste another second of your time.

The thing with Casablanca is that it’s such an iconic film that everyone knows what happens, regardless of whether they’ve actually watched the entire film or not.  They know that the film takes place in Casablanca during World War II.  They know that Casablanca is full of refugees, spies, and people who are hiding from their past.  They know that Casablanca is policed by the charmingly corrupt Capt. Louis Renault (Claude Rains).  They know that Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) is the Nazi in charge.  (I nearly said that Strasser was the “evil Nazi in charge” but when you identify someone as a Nazi, is it really necessary to add that they’re evil?)  They know that Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is the American expatriate who owns Rick’s Cafe Americain and that everyone comes to Rick’s.  They know that Rick’s slogan is that he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone but they also know that his cynicism hides the fact that he’s still in love with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).  They know that when Ilsa shows up at Rick’s and needs him to help her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), escape from Occupied Europe, Rick is forced to decide whether or not to get involved in the resistance.

And, whether you’ve seen the film or not, you know that it all ends on a foggy airstrip.  Ilsa wants to stay in Casablanca with Rick but Rick tells her that she has to get on the plane with Laszlo because, if she doesn’t, she’ll regret it.  Ilsa goes with Laszlo, leaving Rick behind.

And it may have been the right thing to do but how many viewers would have done the same if they had been in Ilsa’s high heels?  Throughout the entire movie, we hear about how wonderful Laszlo is but, whenever he actually shows up on screen, it’s always a little bit surprising to discover just how boring a character Victor Laszlo really is.  Unlike the troubled and deceptively cynical Rick, there’s not much going on underneath the surface with Laszlo.  Just as Rick overshadows Laszlo, Bogart’s performance overshadows Paul Henreid’s.  Bogart and Bergman have all the chemistry and the charisma.  Henreid, on the other hand, comes across as stiff and a little dull.  But, as the film suggests, World War II was not a time for self-doubt and self-interest.  World War II was a time when the world needed straight-forward, determined men like Victor Laszlo.

And, if the world needed Laszlo and Laszlo needed Ilsa, then that meant Ilsa had to get on that plane.

That said, I’ve always liked to think that Ilsa ended up leaving Laszlo in 1945 and immediately made her way back to Morocco.  Rick and Ilsa belonged together.

But until Ilsa comes back, Rick has his friendship with Renault.  “Louis,” he says, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Did Bogart realize, when he delivered that line, that literally thousands of people would be repeating it decades later?  Bogart’s performance is probably one of the most imitated performances of all time.  Anyone who sees Casablanca thinks that they can talk about gin joints and hills of beans in Bogart’s trademark style.  Of course, they can’t and it’s a testament to the power of Bogart’s performance that it remains effective even after being endlessly imitated.

On Valentine’s Day of 2014, I saw Casablanca at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin.  It was an amazing and romantic experience.  See Casablanca on the big screen.  It’ll make you love life and bring life to your love.

Needless to say, Casablanca is an intimidating film to review.  So, I’ll just say this: Casablanca is even better than you think it is.  If you haven’t seen it, go watch it.  If you have seen it, go watch it again.

Just resist the temptation to say, “Play it again, Sam,” in your best Bogart-like voice.

Because, seriously, Rick never actually says that line.