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.

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: Our Town (dir by Sam Wood)


Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_Our_Town_(1940_film)

(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 Reviews An Oscar Nominee: For Whom The Bell Tolls (dir by Sam Wood)


For_whom_movieposter

After I watched The Pride of the Yankees, it was time to watch For Whom The Bell Tolls on TCM.  Based on the classic novel by Ernest Hemingway, the film version of For Whom The Bell Tolls was released in 1943 and, when I first started watching it, I was a little bit worried.

For, you see, For Whom The Bell Tolls is an extremely long film.  It’s a film that takes its time.  It’s also a very talky film and I have to admit that one reason I was worried was because the movie started at 11:30 and it was scheduled to last until 2:15 a.m.  Oh my God, I wondered, as the film started to slowly play out before me, am I going to end up dozing off before this is finished?

Well, I need not have worried.  Yes, For Whom The Bell Tolls does take a while to get started but it all pays off in the end.  By the time the film concludes, you realize why it had to take its time and why we had to spend so much time listening to these characters talk about what they did in the past, why they’re doing what they’re doing in the present, and what they’re hoping for in the future.

Not that all of the characters have a future.  At the start of the film, Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) gets his palm read by Pilar (Katina Paxinou).  Pilar refuses to tell him what she saw in his future but it’s not difficult to guess.  Robert is on a suicide mission and everyone knows it.  Even when he falls in love with the beautiful Maria (Ingrid Bergman), he does so with the knowledge that he’ll be dead in just a few days.

Robert is an idealistic American who, as the film opens, is in Spain.  It’s the 1930s and Spain is embroiled in a civil war between fascists and guerrillas … well, if you’ve read Hemingway’s novel, you know that the guerrillas are communists.  But this is a Hollywood film so, for the most part, we don’t hear much about ideology.  But, then again, audiences in 1943 undoubtedly remembered the Spanish Civil War and understood that the guerrillas were fighting the forces of Gen. Francisco Franco.  And, for audiences today, all that matters it that the guerrillas are trying to overthrow a government.  Seriously, who doesn’t want to see the government overthrown?

(Full disclosure:  My grandmother on my mother’s side came to this country from Spain and frequently insisted that Franco had not been that bad.  At the time, not knowing one way or the other, I usually just smiled and nodded.)

Robert is fighting on the side of the guerrillas.  In four days, a major offensive is going to be launched against the fascists and, in order to keep fascist forces from pursuing the guerrillas, Robert has been assigned to blow up a mountain bridge.  Robert knows that he won’t survive this mission and, as he waits to die, he camps out with a small guerrilla band that is led by Pablo (Akim Tamiroff).  At first, Pablo refuses to take part in a mission that he considers to be futile but he is overruled by his strong-willed wife, Pilar (Katina Paxinou).

Among Pablo’s group is the beautiful Maria (Ingrid Bergman), a young woman whose family was killed by the fascist forces.  Robert and Maria fall in love, even as Robert prepares for his eventual death.

And then, finally, after two hours of screen time, Robert and the guerrillas head for that bridge and suddenly, we understand why the film took its time to reach this point.  By the time Robert reaches the bridge, we’ve come to know and care about both him and the other guerrillas.  And, as a result, we care about whether or not they survive.  When the fascists launch their own counter attack, every death counts.  We feel the loss of every casualty and we understand what they’re dying for.  After two hours of talk, For Whom The Bell Tolls ends with a genuinely exciting and even moving action sequence.  It all leads up to a final shot that will blow you away in more ways than one.

From Whom The Bell Tolls is a film that will reward those with the patience to stick with it and I’m glad that I turned out to be one of those people.  It was nominated for Best Picture of 1943 but lost to another film about an anti-fascist who fought in Spain, Casablanca.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Pride of the Yankees (dir by Sam Wood)


220px-The_Pride_Of_The_Yankees_1942

“People all say that I’ve had a bad break. But today … today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

— Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) at the end of The Pride of the Yankees (1943)

After airing Foreign Correspondent earlier tonight, TCM followed up by showing the 1943 best picture nominee, The Pride of the Yankees.  Knowing that Pride of the Yankees was going to be a baseball film and that I know next to nothing about baseball, I recruited my sister, the Dazzling Erin, to watch the movie with me.  Erin loves baseball and I knew that she would be able to explain anything that went over my head.

Well, I absolutely loved watching this movie with my sister but it turns out that The Pride of the Yankees isn’t really much of a baseball movie.  True, it’s about a real life baseball player.  Several actual players appeared as themselves.  About 85% of the film’s dialogue deals with baseball and probably about 70% of the film features characters playing some form of the game.  But the film never goes into any great detail about baseball or how it’s played.  There’s no talk of strategy or rules or deeper meaning or anything else.  Going into the film, I knew that baseball was a game that involved throwing, swinging bats, and running.  And it turns out that was all that I needed to know.

The Pride of the Yankees is less about baseball and more about celebrity.  It’s a biopic of Lou Gehrig, who today is best known for his battle with ALS, a disease that is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Lou Gehrig died on June 2, 1941 and The Pride of the Yankees was released just a year later.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that Gehrig was a beloved figure, the type of celebrity who, if he were alive today, would probably be the center of stories like, “Lou Gehrig Did Something This Weekend And It Was Perfect.”  Watching the film, it easy to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the nation when a beloved athlete like Lou Gehrig died at the age of 37.

As a result, The Pride of the Yankees is less a biopic and more a case for canonization.  From the minute that the film’s Lou Gehrig appears on-screen, he is presented as being the type of saintly athlete who, by promising to hit two home runs in one game, inspires a crippled child to walk.  Lou is modest, kind, unpretentious, and never gets angry.  Over the course of the film, he takes care of his mother, displays a worthy work ethic, and marries Eleanor.  He and Eleanor have a perfect marriage without a single argument or a hint of trouble, except for the fact that Lou sometimes gets so busy playing baseball with the local children that he’s late coming home.  There’s not a hint of sadness in their life, until Lou suddenly gets sick.

And really, it should not work.  If ever there’s ever been a film that should be painfully out-of-place in our more cynical times, it would be The Pride of the Yankees.  However, the film still works because Lou is played by Gary Cooper and Eleanor is played by Teresa Wright.  These two excellent performers bring their considerable talents to making overly sentimental scenes feel credible.  Gary Cooper was 40 years old when he made The Pride of the Yankees and there’s a few scenes — especially the ones where Lou is supposed to be a student at Columbia University — where Cooper is clearly too old for the role.  But, for the most part, Gary Cooper did a great job as Lou Gehrig.  Cooper is especially memorable when Lou first starts to show signs of being ill.  Watching Lou struggle to swing a bat, I was reminded of a horse struggling to stand on an injured leg.  It was almost painfully poignant.

The Pride of the Yankees was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including best picture.  However, it lost to another sentimental film that featured Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver.

Embracing the Melodrama #9: Kings Row (dir by Sam Wood)


Kings Row“Where’s the rest of me!?” — Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), upon waking up to discover that his legs have been amputated, in Kings Row (1942)

It is with that line that the 1942 best picture nominee Kings Row earns its place in film history.  The formerly carefree and rich Drake had lost all of his money due to a crooked banker.  However, instead of feeling for himself, Drake got a job working for the railroad and finally started to show that he was capable of acting like a mature, responsible adult.  However, when Drake was injured in a boxcar accident, he had the misfortune to be taken to the sadistic Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn).  Gordon felt that it was his duty to punish those who he considered to be wicked and that’s exactly how he felt about about Drake.  So, despite the fact that Drake had once been in love with Gordon’s daughter, Gordon proceeded to chop of Drake’s legs.

It’s just another day in Kings Row.

Of course, to an outsider, Kings Row looks like your typically calm and pleasant community.  But behind closed doors, this small town is full of sordid secrets.  Only those who have grown up in Kings Row understand the truth.  Only they can understand how Drake McHugh could end up losing his legs.

When they were both growing up at the turn of the century, Drake’s best friend was Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings).  While Drake was pursuing Dr. Gordon’s daughter, and being loved from afar by Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), Parris was studying to be a doctor under the tutelage of Kings Row’s other doctor, Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains).  While Dr. Tower appeared to be a much nicer man than Dr. Gordon, he definitely had his eccentricities.  For instance, there was the wife who was reportedly confined somewhere in the house and never allowed to leave.  And then there was Dr. Tower’s daughter, Cassandra (Betty Field).  Dr. Tower was very protective of Cassandra, perhaps too protective.  How would Dr. Tower react when Parris, his best student, started to develop romantic feelings towards Cassandra?

Again, it’s just another day in Kings Row.

So, by now, it should be pretty obvious that Kings Row is one of those films that deals with big secrets in small towns.  That, of course, is a theme that was explored by films that were made long before Kings Row.  What made Kings Row unique is that it was perhaps the first film to actually portray that evil as specifically existing and thriving because of the repressive nature of a small town.  Whereas other films had featured outsiders bringing bad habits to an otherwise innocent and idyllic community (and be sure to watch Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt if you want a perfect example of this), Kings Row suggested that the very nature of its setting is what led to all of the melodrama.  The film suggests that evil men like Dr. Gordon can specifically thrive in a town like Kings Row because his fellow townspeople aren’t willing to risk the placid surface of their existence by exposing him.  As such, Kings Row serves as a template for all of the sin-in-a-small-town films and TV shows that have followed.

Beyond the film’s historical importance, Kings Row holds us pretty well as entertainment.  As the film’s hero, Robert Cummings is a bit on the bland side but, fortunately, he’s surrounded by an excellent cast of character actors.  It’s a bit of a cliché to say that Claude Rains was perfectly cast because, seriously, when wasn’t Claude Rains perfectly cast?  But, in the role Dr. Tower, Claude Rains is perfectly cast.  Charles Coburn makes for a perfectly terrifying villain.  Ann Sheridan is likable and sympathetic as the woman who tries to help Drake recover after Dr. Gordon takes away his legs.  And finally, you’ve got future President Ronald Reagan in the role of Drake McHugh.  Reagan is usually dismissed a being a pretty boring actor (and I really haven’t seen enough of his films to say one way or the other) but he gave a great performance in Kings Row.

And that’s why, even beyond its historical significance, Kings Row is still a film that is more than worth watching.

KingsRowFRIENDS-1