Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Dodsworth (dir by William Wyler)


(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 1936 best picture nominee, Dodsworth!)

Dodsworth is the type of film that makes me thankful for both TCM and my own obsession with Oscar history.

Based on a Sidney Howard-penned stage adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Dodsworth tells the story of an American couple abroad and how their travels change them as both individuals and as a couple.  Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a wealthy man living in the middle of the United States.  20 years ago, he founded Dodsworth Motors and now, he’s finally reached the point where he can sell his company and retire.  Sam doesn’t have any big plans, not yet anyway.  Mostly, he just wants to visit Europe with his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton).  They’ve never been.

Walter Huston is perfectly cast as Sam Dodsworth.  When we first meet Sam, we’re not really sure whether we’re going to like him or not.  He seems to be a decent human being but he also seems to be rather resistant to change.  He’s a self-made man.  He’s smart but he’s not well-educated.  He’s honest but he’s stubborn.  He’s rich but he’s hardly sophisticated.  He says that he wants to experience new things but we can’t help but wonder how he’s going to react when he actually has the opportunity.

The cracks in Sam and Fran’s marriage become obvious as soon as they board a luxury liner heading for England.  Sam meets another traveler, Edith (Mary Astor).  Edith is divorced and lives in Italy, two things that make her very exotic to a proud product of middle America like Sam Dodsworth.  Edith and Sam immediately hit it off but there’s no way that Sam would ever consider having an affair.  Meanwhile, Fran finds herself attracted to a series of different Europeans, played by David Niven, Paul Lukas, and Gregory Gaye.  While Fran loves Europe, Sam finds himself yearning to return to the small town world that he knows best.

For a film that was released 82 years ago, Dodsworth remains a remarkably watchable and involving film.  Along with featuring brilliant lead performances from Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor, Dodsworth touches on universal themes that remains as relevant as today as when the film was first released.  Though neither Sam nor Fran would probably recognize the term, their trip to Europe leads to an existential crisis that will be familiar to anyone who has ever looked at their life and wondered, “Is this all there is?”  At the start of the film, both characters believe that they’ve found perfection in their marriage, their family, and their money.  By the end of the movie, both of them realize just how wrong they were.

If not for my love of Oscar history, I never would have seen Dodsworth listed among the films nominated for best picture of 1936.  And, if not for TCM, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to DVR Dodsworth this morning and then watch it earlier tonight.  That’s why it pays to know your history and to take chances on films of which you previously may not have heard.

Dodsworth was nominated for 7 Academy Awards but it only won the Oscar for Best Art Direction.  It lost Best Picture to a far less memorable film, The Great Ziegfield.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Kitty Foyle (dir by Sam Wood)


(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 1940 best picture nominee, Kitty Foyle!)

Kitty Foyle opens with a title card informing us that, before the film can tell us the story of Kitty Foyle, it is necessary to remind audiences of how Kitty Foyle — and so many other “white-collar” girls — arrived in their present (which is to say, 1940) situation.

We then get a strange little montage of life at the turn of the century.  A woman meets a man.  The man marries the woman.  They’re a happily married couple.  The man goes to work.  The woman takes care of the house.  The man comes home.  Everything’s perfect.  Then suddenly — oh my God, it’s the suffragettes!  They’re holding rallies!  They’re parading around with signs!  They’re demanding the right to vote!  They’re demanding prohibition!  Suddenly, women are expected to be independent and to have careers…

Which leads us to New York in the 1940s, where a bunch of women in an elevator discuss how difficult it is to find a good husband, especially now that they’re all busy working as salespeople and administrative assistants.  Apparently, this is the price that we all had to pay for the right to vote.  On the one hand, the women who cast their first votes in 1920 elected Warren G. Harding and spared the nation from another four years of Wilsonianism.  On the other hand, it’s now difficult to find a husband.

Fortunately, Kitty Foyle (Ginger Rogers) doesn’t have that problem.  She has a wonderful suitor, a man who has just asked her to marry him.  His name is Dr. Mark Eisen (James Craig).  He may not have a lot of money but he’s handsome, he’s considerate, and he spends all of his time providing medical care to the poor and indigent.  When Mark asks her to marry him, he asks her if she’s sure that she’s over that man from Philadelphia.  Kitty says that she is.

Of course, as soon as Kitty returns home, that man from Philadelphia is waiting for her.  Wyn Stafford VI (Dennis Morgan) is handsome, rich, and totally in love with Kitty.  Of course, he’s also married to his second wife.  (The identity of his first wife isn’t revealed until late in the film but you’ll be able to guess who she is.)  Wyn is in love with Kitty and he wants her to run away to South America with him.  Kitty says yes.

However, as Kitty is packing to leave, her reflection in the mirror starts talking to her.  It turns out to be a pretty judgmental mirror.  The rest of the film is an extended flashback, showing us how Kitty was raised by her single father (Ernest Cossart), how she first moved to New York, and how she met and fell in love with both Wyn and Mark.  Will she run off and live in wealthy sin with Wyn?  Or will she stay in New York and marry honest, hard-working Mark?

The main problem with Kitty Foyle is that there really isn’t much suspense as far as the film’s central dilemma is concerned.   Mark is a living saint who heals children.  Wyn is a heel who wants to abandon his wife and son so that he and Kitty can live in South America.  About the only thing that Wyn has going for him is that he’s got a better sense of humor than Mark but, in 1940, that wasn’t necessarily considered to be a good thing.  There’s really no question about who Kitty is going to pick and, in fact, the answer is so obvious that you kind of lose respect for Kitty when it takes her so long to make up her mind.  It’s like being told you could either marry a Nobel Peace Prize winner or someone who embezzles from a charity and replying, “Let me think about it…”

Of course, the main focus of Kitty Foyle is less on the love triangle and more on Ginger Rogers’s performance as Kitty.  This was one of Ginger’s first films after she stopped making films with Fred Astaire and it’s obvious that the film’s main theme was that Ginger Rogers could do more than just dance with Fred.  In Kitty Foyle, she gets to make jokes.  She gets to cry.  She gets to fall in love.  She gets a huge dramatic scene in which she mourns the loss of a child.  She does it all and yes, she does it very well.  Still, Kitty Foyle is never as much fun as the movies that she made with Fred.

Ginger Rogers won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Kitty Foyle, beating out Katharine Hepburn, Joan Fontaine, Bette Davis, and Martha Scott.  Kitty Foyle was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

A Movie A Day #155: Out of the Fog (1941, directed by Anatole Litvak)


When two aging fishermen (Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen) attempt to buy a new boat, they run into a problem with local mobster, Harold Goff (John Garfield).  As Goff explains, if they do not pay him $5.00 a week, something bad could happen to their boat.  When one of the fisherman’s daughter (Ida Lupino) falls in love with Goff, she makes the mistake of letting him know that her father is planning on giving her $190 so that she can take a trip to Cuba.  When Goff demands the money for himself, the fishermen attempt to go to the police, just to be told that there is nothing that the authorities can do.  Goff tricked them into signing an “insurance” contract that allows him to demand whatever he wants.  The two fishermen are forced to consider taking drastic measures on their own.  Out of the Fog is an effective, early film noir, distinguished mostly be John Garfield’s sinister performance as Harold Goff.

Out of the Fog is also memorable as an example of how Hollywood dealt with adapting work with political content during the production code era.  Out of the Fog was based on The Gentle People, a play by Irwin Shaw.  In the play, which was staged by The Group Theater in 1939, Harold Goff was obviously meant to be a symbol of both European fascism and American capitalism.  In the play, the two fisherman had Jewish names and were meant to symbolize those being persecuted by the Third Reich and its allies.  In the transition for stage to film, Jonah Goodman became Jonah Goodwin and he was played by the very talented but definitely not Jewish Thomas Mitchell.   The play ended with Harold triumphant and apparently unstoppable.  Under the production code, all criminals had to be punished, which meant the ending had to be changed.  Out of the Fog is an effective 1940s crime thriller but, without any political subtext, it lacks the play’s bight.

One final note: while Out of the Fog had a good cast, with up and comer John Garfield squaring against old vets Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen, the original Broadway play’s cast was also distinguished.  Along with contemporary film stars Sylvia Sidney and Franchot Tone, the play’s cast was a who’s who of actors and directors who would go on to be prominent in the 1950 and 60s: Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Karl Malden, Martin Ritt, and Elia Kazan all had roles.

 

Cleaning Out The DVR: Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir by Michael Curtiz)


Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_poster

So, today, I got off work so that I could vote in Texas’s Super Tuesday primary.  After I cast my vote (and don’t ask me who I voted for because it’s a secret ballot for a reason!), I came home and I turned on the TV and I discovered that, as a result of spending February recording countless films off of Lifetime and TCM, I only had 9 hours of space left on my DVR.  As a result, the DVR was threatening to erase my recordings of Bend It Like Beckham, Jesus Christ Superstar, American Anthem, an episode of The Bachelor from 2011, and the entire series of Saved By The Bell: The College Years.

“Acgk!” I exclaimed in terror.

So, I immediately sat down and started the process of cleaning out the DVR.  I started things out by watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, a film from 1942.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biopic of a songwriter, signer, and dancer named George M. Cohan.  I have to admit, that when the film started, I had absolutely no idea who George M. Cohan was.  Imagine my surprise as I watched the film and I discovered that Cohan had written all of the old-fashioned patriotic songs that are played by the Richardson Symphony Orchestra whenever I go to see the 4th of July fireworks show at Breckenridge Park.  He wrote You’re A Grand Old Flag, The Yankee Doodle Boy, and Over There.  Though I may not have heard of him, Cohan was an American institution during the first half of the 20th Century.  Even if I hadn’t read that on Wikipedia, I would have been able to guess from watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, which, at times, seems to be making a case for sainthood.

And that’s not meant to be a complaint!  74 years after it was originally released, Yankee Doodle Dandy is still a terrifically entertaining film.  It opens with George (played by James Cagney) accepting a Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  (We only see Roosevelt from behind and needless to say, the President did not play himself.  Instead, Captain Jack Young sat in a chair while FDR’s voice was provided by impressionist Art Gilmore.)  Cohan proceeds to tell Roosevelt his life story, starting with his birth on the 4th of July.  Cohan tells how he was born into a showbiz family and a major theme of the film is how Cohan took care of his family even after becoming famous.

The other major theme is patriotism.  As portrayed in this biopic, Cohan is perhaps the most patriotic man who ever lived.  That may sound corny but Cagney pulls it off.  When we see him sitting at the piano and coming up with the lyrics for another song extolling the greatness of America, we never doubt his sincerity.  In fact, he’s so sincere that he makes us believe as well.  Watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, I found myself regretting that I have to live in such an overwhelmingly cynical time.  If George M. Cohan was alive today, he’d punch out anyone who called this country “Murica.”

Yankee Doodle Dandy is an amazingly positive film.  There are a few scenes where Cohan has to deal with a few Broadway types who are jealous of his talent and his confidence but, otherwise, it’s pretty much one triumph after another for Cohan.  Normally, of course, there’s nothing more annoying than listening to someone talk about how great his life is but fortunately, Cohan is played by James Cagney and Cagney gives one of the best performance of all time in the role.

Cagney, of course, is best remembered for playing gangsters but he got his start as a dancer.  In Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney is so energetic and so happy and such a complete and totally showman that you can’t help but get caught up in his story.  When he says that, as a result of his success, things have never been better, you don’t resent him for it.  Instead, you’re happy for him because he’s amazingly talented and deserve the best!

Seriously, watch him below:

James Cagney won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance here.  Yankee Doodle Dandy was also nominated for best picture but lost to Mrs. Miniver.

I’m really glad that I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy today.  In this time of overwhelming negativity, it was just what I needed!