Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: One Foot In Heaven (dir by Irving Rapper)


I have to admit that One Foot In Heaven is a film that I probably never would have watched if not for the fact that it received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

This film from 1941 tells what I presume to be a true — or, at the very least, a true-ish — story.  Fredric March plays William Spence.  The film opens in 1904 with Spence explaining to his future in-laws that he’s spontaneously decided to drop out of medical school because he feels that he’s been called to become a Methodist minister.  Though no one is happy or particularly encouraging about William’s decision to abandon the financial security of medicine to work as a minister, William feels that it’s what he was meant to do.

We follow William and his wife, Hope (Martha Scott), as they move from town to town, living in dingy parsonages and barely paying the bills by doing weddings.  Though Hope is frustrated by the constant moving and the less-than-ideal living conditions, she remains supportive of William.  They start a family and William goes from being a stern and somewhat judgmental man to becoming an inspiring minister.  He even changes his opinion about the sinfulness of going to the movies.  (All things considered, that’s probably for the best.)  Eventually, William, Hope, and the family end up ministering to a congregation in Colorado.  Determined to finally give his wife the home that she deserves, William tries to rebuild both the church and the parsonage.  It turns out to be more difficult than he was expecting.

That’s pretty much the film.  There’s not really much conflict to be found, until the final 30 minutes or so when William struggles to convince a bunch of snobs to help him achieve his dream of building a new church.  The film opens with a title card thanking the Methodists for their help in the production of the film, which should tell you everything you need to know about the film’s attitude towards Protestantism.  William does debate an agnostic at one point but it’s not much of a debate.  William, after all, is played by the authoritative Fredric March while the agnostic’s name isn’t even listed in the credits.  It’s a well-made film, in that sturdy way that many 1941 studio productions were, but — unless you’re just crazy about the history of Methodism — it’s not particularly interesting.

On the plus side, Fredric March gives a good performance as William Spence.  March was one of the best actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age and he gives a sympathetic performance as a stern but well-meaning man who respects tradition but who is still willing to admit that he has much to learn.  Probably the film’s most effective scene is when William reluctantly watches a movie with his son.  March captures William’s transformation from being a disapproving father to an entertained filmgoer.  It’s one of the few moments when the film really feels alive.

So, how did One Foot In Heaven receive a Best Picture nomination in the same year that saw nominations for films like Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, Suspicion, and The Maltese Falcon?  One Foot In Heaven is well-made and totally uncontroversial.  It’s the type of film that, if it were made today, it would probably be directed by Ron Howard and it would star someone like James Marsden or Garrett Hedlund.  One Foot In Heaven is not particularly memorable but there’s nothing particularly terrible about it either and it probably felt like a “safe’ film to nominate.  Still, it’s probably significant that One Foot In Heaven didn’t receive any nominations other than one for Best Picture.  It lost that Oscar to another film about family, How Green Was My Valley.

Film Review: The Ten Commandments (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)


Though you may not know it if you’ve only seen the film during one of its annual showings on television, the 1956 religious epic, The Ten Commandments, originally opened with director Cecil B. DeMille standing on a stage.  Speaking directly to the audience, DeMille explains that, though the film they’re about to see me take some dramatic license with the story of Moses, it still based on not just the Bible but also the accounts of Philo, Josephus and Eusebius.  He also tells us that The Ten Commandments is more than just an adaptation of the Book of Exodus.  Instead, it’s a film about every man’s desire to be free.

Demille concludes with: “The story will take 3 hours and 29 minutes to unfold.  There will be an intermission. Thank you for your attention.”

To be honest, it’s kind of a sweet moment.  Cecil B. DeMille is a name that is so associated with (occasionally overblown) epic filmmaking that it’s easy to forget that DeMille was one of the most important names in the artistic development of American cinema.  He was there from the beginning and, unlike a lot of other filmmakers, he was equally successful in both the silent and the sound era.  Say what you will about his films, DeMille was a showman and he handles the introduction like a pro.  At the same time, there’s a real sincerity to DeMille’s tone.  After you listen to him, you’d almost feel guilty if you didn’t sit through all 3 hours and 29 minutes of his film.

That sincerity extends throughout the entire film.  Yes, The Ten Commandments is a big, long epic and some members of its all-star cast are more convincing in their roles than others.  And yes, the film can seem a bit campy to modern viewers.  (In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it seemed a bit campy to viewers in 1956 as well.)  Yes, The Ten Commandments does feature Anne Baxter saying, “Oh Moses!  You sweet adorable fool!”  But it doesn’t matter.  Even the most ludicrous of dialogue just seem right.  The film is just so sincere that it’s difficult not to enjoy it.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses is described as having a speech impediment and even tries to use it as an excuse to get out of going to Egypt.  That’s actually one of the reasons why Moses brought Aaron with him to Egypt, so that Aaron could speak for him.  In the movie, Moses is played by Charlton Heston, who comes across as if he’s never felt a moment of insecurity over the course of his entire life.  But no matter.  Heston may not by the Moses of Exodus but he’s the perfect Moses for the DeMille version.  When Heston says that Egypt will be visited by plagues until his adopted brother Ramses (Yul Brynner) agrees to allow the Jews to leave Egypt, you believe every word.  (Aaron, incidentally, is played by the legendary John Carradine.  He doesn’t get too much other than respectfully stand a few feet behind Charlton Heston but still: John Carradine!)

And really, anyone who dismisses The Ten Commandments out-of-hand should go back and, at the very least, watch the scene where the Angel of Death descends upon Egypt.  The scene where Moses and his family shelter in place while the screams of distraught mothers echo throughout the city is chilling.  Ramses may spend most of the film as a petulant villain but you almost feel sorry for him when you see him mourning over his dead son.  When he sets off after Moses, it’s not just because he’s doing what villains do.  He’s seeking vengeance for the loss of his first born.  For that brief moment, Ramses goes form being a melodramatic bad guy to being someone with whom the viewer can empathize.  Brynner, with his burning intensity, gives a great performance as Ramses.

As I said before, this film has what, in 1956, would have been considered an all-star cast.  Watching the names as they show up during the opening credits — Cedrick Hardwicke!  Yvonne DeCarlo!  Woody Strode!  Debra Paget! — is like stepping into a TCM fever dream.  Some of the performers give better performance than others.  And yet, even the worst performer feels as if they just naturally belong in the world that DeMille has created.  John Derek may seem rather smarmy as Joshua but his callowness provides a good contrast to the upright sincerity of Heston’s performance as Moses.  Edward G. Robinson’s cries of, “Where is your God now!?” may have provided endless fodder for impersonators but just try to imagine the film without him.  Even Vincent Price is in this thing!  He doesn’t have his famous mustache but, as soon as you hear his voice and see that famous glare, you know that it’s him.

Of course, when you’re growing up and The Ten Commandments is on TV every year, you mostly just want to see the scene where Moses parts the Red Sea.  The Ten Commandments was nominated for seven Oscars but it only won one, for its special effects.  (The prize for Best Picture went to another epic, Around The World In 80 Days.)  Today, the film’s special effects may no longer amaze viewers but there’s still something rather charming about the Red Sea parting and then crashing in on the Egyptian army.  The scene where the Earth opens up and swallows those who worshiped the Golden Calf remains impressive, if just because all of the extras really look terrified that they might die.  And while the Pillar of Fire may look a bit cartoonish to modern eyes, that’s a huge part of the film’s appeal.

The Ten Commandments is a big, long, sometimes silly, sometimes effective, and always entertaining epic.  It’s a grand spectacle and one that I usually watch every year when it shows up on television.  I missed this year’s showing but, fortunately, I own it on DVD.  It’s a sincere epic and a difficult one not to like.

 

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #28: The Turning Point (dir by Herbert Ross)


(Lisa is currently in the process of trying to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing all 40 of the movies that she recorded from the start of March to the end of June.  She’s trying to get it all done by July 11th!  Will she make it!?  Keep visiting the site to find out!)

The 28th film on my DVR was the 1977 film The Turning Point.  I recorded it off Indieplex on June 3rd.

I guess I should start this review by admitting that I really have no excuse.  As someone who grew up dreaming of being a prima ballerina and who unknowingly caused her mother to spend an incalculable amount of money of dance classes, dance outfits, dance shoes, dance trips, and all the medical bills that go along with having a klutzy daughter who is obsessed with ballet and as someone who continues to love to dance today, I really have no excuse for not having seen The Turning Point before last night.  Along with The Red Shoes and my beloved Black Swan, The Turning Point is one of three ballet movies to have been nominated for best picture.  It’s a film that, as a result of its box office success, established many of the clichés that continue to show up in dance movies to this day.

Seriously, how had I not seen it before?

And make no mistake about it — The Turning Point is a dance movie.  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s a plot.  Actually, there’s several plots and it’s not incorrect to describe The Turning Point as being something of a soap opera.  But ultimately, all the plots are just window dressing.  Director Herbert Ross started his career as a choreographer with the American Ballet Theater and the characters in The Turning Point are fictionalized portraits of people that he actually knew.  Ross’s love for both ballet and the dancers comes through every frame of The Turning Point and the film’s best moments are when the melodrama takes a backseat to the performances onstage.

But I guess we actually should talk about the melodrama.  Okay, here goes:

Many years ago, DeeDee (Shirley MacClaine) and Emma (Anne Bancroft) both belonged to the same New York ballet company.  DeeDee was the star of the company and was set to play the lead in Anna Karenina when another dancer with the company, Wayne (Tom Skerritt), got her pregnant.  DeeDee not only dropped out of the company but she married Wayne and moved back to his home state of Oklahoma.  (The film suggests, in an oddly regressive moment, that Wayne only slept with DeeDee in order to prove that, despite being a male dancer, he wasn’t gay.)  DeeDee and Wayne opened a dance studio in Oklahoma City while Emma got the lead in Anna Karenina and went on to become a prima ballerina.

18 years later, Wayne and DeeDee’s daughter, Emilia (Leslie Browne), is invited to join the company.  Because Emilia is shy and somewhat naive, DeeDee accompanies her to New York while Wayne stays behind in Oklahoma with their younger children.

Once in New York, DeeDee starts to wonder if she made the right decision when gave up ballet for domesticity.  She run into an old friend, conductor Joe Rosenberg (Anthony Zerbe, not playing a villain for once) and has an affair with him.  Meanwhile, Emma is having an affair with a married man named Carter (Marshall Thompson) and is struggling to accept that she’s getting older and will soon have to retire.  Just as DeeDee regrets giving up dancing, Emma regrets never having children.

Meanwhile, Emilia slowly starts to come into her own and blossom as a dancer.  She even ends up having an affair with the self-centered and womanizing Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov), one of the stars of the company.  Emilia and Emma start to grow close, with Emma treating Emilia like her own daughter.  DeeDee finds herself growing jealous of both her daughter and her former best friend.

Needless to say, it all leads to Emma throwing a drink in DeeDee’s face and the two of them having a cat fight on the streets of New York…

The Turning Point is no Black Swan or Red Shoes.  Leslie Browne (who was playing a character based on herself) was a great dancer but not much of an actress so you never care about her the way that you do Natalie Portman in Black Swan.  The dancers are amazing in both films but Darren Aronofsky literally put the audience in Portman’s ballet slippers while Herbert Ross keeps the audience at a distance, allowing them to watch and appreciate the dancers’s passion but not necessarily to experience it with them.

But, with all that in mind, I still enjoyed The Turning Point.  What can I say?  I love dance movies!  Both Shirley MacClaine and Anne Bancroft give excellent performances.  Bancroft apparently had no dance experience before shooting The Turning Point (and it’s hard not to notice that, whenever Emma is performing, the camera focuses on those moving around her as opposed to Emma herself) but she still does a good job of poignantly capturing Emma’s fear of getting older and her joy when she realizes that Emilia looks up to her.  MacClaine, meanwhile, has an amazing scene where she watches her screen daughter perform and, in just a matter of seconds, we watch as every emotion — pride, envy, regret, and finally happiness — flashes across her face.

And, of course, there’s that cat fight.  It’s a silly scene, to be honest.  But seriously, if there was any actress who could convincingly throw a drink in someone else’s face, it was Anne Bancroft.

The Turning Point was nominated for 11 Oscars and it ended up setting a somewhat dubious record when it managed to win exactly zero.  (This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising when you consider its competition included Annie Hall and the first Star Wars.)

Well — no matter!

Though the film may not be perfect, I liked it!

The Turning Point

The Fabulous Forties #30: Cheers for Miss Bishop (dir by Tay Garnett)


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The 30th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set is the 1941 melodrama, Cheers For Miss Bishop.  Cheers For Miss Bishop is a bit like an Americanized version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.  The story of Cheers For Miss Bishop, largely told via flashback, deals with a retired teacher who never quite got what she wanted out of life but still had a profound impact on all of her students.

The film opens with elderly Miss Bishop (played by Martha Scott) alone in her house.  The time is the 1930s and Miss Bishop is nearing retirement and somewhat bitter over ending her years having never married.  Prominent businessman Sam Peters (William Gargan) comes to the house and they start to recollect.  We flashback to the 1880s, when Miss Bishop was preparing to go to college and Sam was just the local grocery boy.  Sam was in love with Miss Bishop and, it’s suggested, that she loved him as well.  But she was determined to go to college whereas Sam was determined to go straight into business.

With the support of the kindly Prof. Corcoran (Edmund Gwenn, giving a performance that pretty much epitomizes what we mean when we call someone a kindly professor), Miss Bishop got a job teaching English at Midwestern College.  She was a popular teacher, one who not only inspired her students but who was also willing to stand up for them.  Eventually she met and became engaged to a local lawyer, Delbert Thompson (Don Douglas).  However, her heart was broken when Delbert ran off with another woman.  Years later, she fell in love with another professor (Sidney Blackmer), with the only problem being that he happened to be married.

But that’s not all that Miss Bishop had to deal with.  She also ended up adopting and raising Hope (Marsha Hunt) after Hope’s mother died in childbirth.  As she got older, she became frustrated when the younger college administrators demanded that she adapt with the times.  Miss Bishop also had to deal with her frequent romantic rival and cousin, the impulsive Amy (Mary Anderson).

Amy, I should mention, was my favorite character in Cheers For Miss Bishop, even though I don’t think that was the film’s intention.  Some of that is because Mary Anderson totally embraced the melodramatic potential of her character, often going totally over-the-top in a way that still seemed perfectly natural.  But there’s also the fact that Amy, as opposed to the often painfully inhibited Miss Bishop, had no boundaries.  She knew what she wanted and she went for it, without apology.  Amy may not have been a big role but she still dominated every scene that she appeared in.  Amy demanded attention and good for her!

That said, the title of the film is Cheers For Miss Bishop and not Cheers For Amy.  Ultimately, it’s a tribute to Miss Bishop and to teachers everywhere.  It’s an extremely predictable and sentimental film but it does what it does fairly well.  Occasionally, I got frustrated with Miss Bishop as a character (she was always so prim, proper, and respectable!  Plus, there’s a scene where she gives a student from North Carolina some trouble about his accent, saying that he needs to take her English class and, if you know how I feel about actors from up north trying too hard to sound like they’re from the South, you can imagine how I felt about that scene) but Martha Scott gave a good performance.  In the end, it’s a sweet little movie.  And you can watch it below!

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Nominee: Our Town (dir by Sam Wood)


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(SPOILERS BELOW!  THE END OF THIS FILM WILL BE REVEALED!  I will also be revealing who played George Gibbs but that’s probably not as big a spoiler.  It depends how you look at it.)

I was only 15 years old when I first read Our Town.  Because I was a theater nerd, I knew a little about the play.  For instance, I knew it took place in a small town.  I knew that it was narrated by a character known as the Stage Manager.  I knew that the play was meant to be performed on a bare stage, with no sets or props.  What I did not know, as I innocently opened up that booklet, is that Our Town is probably one of the most traumatically depressing plays ever written.

When the stage manager appears at the start of the play and talks about the town of Grover’s Corner, he lulls you into believing that you’re about to see a sentimental, comedic, and old-fashioned celebration of small town life.  We meet the characters and they all seem to be quirky in a properly non-threatening way.  Joe Crowell shows up delivers a newspaper to Doc Gibbs.  The stage manager mentions that Joe will eventually grow up to attend to M.I.T.

“Awwwww!  Good for Joe!” the audience says.

And, the Stage Manager goes on to inform us, as soon as Joe graduates, he will be killed in World War I, his expensive education wasted.

Okay, the audience thinks, that was a dark moment but this play was written at a time when World War I was still fresh on everyone’s mind.  Surely the rest of the play will not be quite as dark…

And fortunately, George Gibbs and Emily Webb show up.  They’re young, they’re likable, and they’re in love!  George and Emily get married and they’re prepared to live a long and happy life in our town!  Good for them!  YAY!

And then Act III begins…

Oh my God, Act III.  Act III begins with almost everyone dead.  Emily died in child birth so she hangs out at the local cemetery and talks to all the other dead people, the majority of whom only have vague memories of their former lives.  Emily relives the day of her 12th birthday and discovers that it’s too painful to remember what it was like to once be alive.  Emily asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly appreciates life.  The Stage Manager replies, “No.”  In the world of the living, George Gibbs sobs over his wife’s grave….

And the play ends!

OH MY GOD!

Seriously, reading Our Town was probably one of the most traumatic experiences of my life!

The 1940 film version of Our Town is a little less traumatic because it changes the ending.  In the film version, Emily doesn’t die.  She nearly dies while giving birth to her second child and the entire third act of the play is basically portrayed as being a near-death hallucination.  But, in the end, she survives and she comes through the experience with a new found appreciation for life.

And it’s certainly the type of happy ending that I was hoping for when I first read the play but, as much as I hate to admit it, the story works better with Emily dying than with Emily surviving.  The play presents death as being as inevitable as life and love and it makes the point that there’s nothing we can do to truly prepare for it.  By allowing Emily to live, the film gives us a ray of hope that wasn’t present anywhere else in Our Town.  The happy ending feels inauthentic.  If Emily could live then why couldn’t Joe Crowell?  For that matter, why did Emily’s younger brother have to die of a burst appendix on a camping trip?

But, other than the changed ending, Our Town is a pretty good adaptation of the stage play.  While the film features an actual set (as opposed to the bare stage on which theatrical versions of Our Town are meant to be performed), director Sam Wood does a good job of retaining the play’s surreal, metatheatrical style.  Making good use of shadow and darkness, Wood and cinematographer Bert Glennon made Grover’s Corner seem like a half-remembered memory or a fragment of a barely cohesive dream.

Frank Craven, who originated the role on Broadway, is properly dry as the Stage Manager and, in the role of Doc Gibbs, Thomas Mitchell is so sober and respectable that it’s hard to believe that, in just 6 years, the same actor would play the delightfully irresponsible Uncle Billy in It’s A Wonderful Life.  Emily and George are played by Martha Scott and an impossibly young William Holden, both of whom give wonderfully appealing performances.

With the exception of that changed ending, Our Town is a worthy adaptation of a classic play.  It was nominated for Best Picture but lost to another literary adaptation, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: Ben-Hur (dir by William Wyler)


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I’m actually kind of upset with myself because, at one point, I was planning on spending all of February watching TCM’s 31 Days of Oscars and reviewing all of the best picture nominees that showed up on the channel.  Unfortunately, I ended up getting busy with other things (like Shattered Politics, for instance) and it was only tonight that I finally got a chance to sit down and watch TCM.  Oh well, maybe next year! But for now, I’m just going to watch and review as much as I can before the month ends.

With that in mind, I just spent four hours watching the 1959 best picture winner Ben-Hur.

In many ways, Ben-Hur feels like a prototypical best picture winner.  It’s a big epic film that obviously cost a lot to produce and which features a larger-than-life star surrounded by a bunch of a memorable character actors.  It features two spectacular set pieces and some human drama that’s effective without being particularly challenging.  It’s a film that deals with big themes but does so in a rather safe way.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s a film that, today, is often dismissed as being old-fashioned and simplistic and yet it’s still a lot of fun to watch.

Opening with no less of an event than the birth of Jesus, Ben-Hur tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy Jewish aristocrat who, as a young man, was best friends with a Roman named Messala (Stephen Boyd).  When Messala is named as the new commander of the local Roman garrison, he is upset to discover that Ben-Hur is more loyal to his religion than to the Roman Empire.  Feeling personally rejected by his best friend (and perhaps more, as there are a lot of theories about the subtext of their relationship), Massala frames Ben-Hur for the attempted assassination of Judea’s governor.

Over the next 220 minutes, we watch as Ben-Hur goes from being a prisoner to a galley slave to the adopted son of a Roman general (Jack Hawkins) and finally one of the best chariot racers in ancient Rome.  Throughout it all, he remembers a mysterious man who once attempted to give him a sip of water.  Meanwhile, Ben-Hur’s family has been imprisoned and afflicted with leprosy.  Appropriately, for a film that opened with the Nativity, it ends with the Crucifixion, during which Ben-Hur’s struggle to save his family also comes to a climax.

Ben-Hur is undoubtedly flawed film.  (Among the film that were nominated for best picture of 1959, my favorite remains Anatomy of Murder.)  The film runs about an hour too long, some of the supporting actors give performances that are a bit too over-the-top, and the entire film is so reverential that in can be difficult for modern audiences, especially in this age of nonstop irony, to take it seriously.  In the lead role, Charlton Heston is always watchable and has a strong physical presence but you never quite believe that he’s the thinker that the script insists that he is.  There’s nothing subtle about Heston’s performance but, then again, there’s nothing subtle about the film itself.

And yet, if the film struggles to connect on a human level, Ben-Hur still works as a spectacle.  The gigantic sets and the ornate costumes are still impressive to look at.  The film’s two big action sequences — a shipwreck and the chariot race — are still exciting and thrilling to watch.  Ben-Hur may be dated but you can still watch it and understand why it was so popular with audiences in 1959 and, though I may not agree with a lot of the decisions, I can see why the Academy honored Ben-Hur with a record 11 Oscars.  It’s the type of spectacle that, in 1959, could only have been found on the big screen.  By honoring Ben-Hur, the Academy was honoring the relevance of the Hollywood establishment.

In the end, Ben-Hur may not hold up as well as some best picture winners but it’s still worth watching.