film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Citizen Kane (1941)

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I found myself pondering an interesting question while watching this – what is Citizen Kane about?

I don’t mean the plot.  That’s an easy answer – after the death of publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), reporters discover that his last word was the enigmatic utterance “Rosebud”, and set out on a quest to examine his life and discover what that might mean.  ….Heck, everyone knows that.  Plenty of people even know the answer to “What does ‘Rosebud’ mean” without having seen the film; it’s the ultimate in movie spoilers.  I actually knew the answer ten years before ever seeing the film, for the most ridiculous of reasons – in a Peanuts strip, Lucy spoils the ending for Linus as he’s settling in to watch for the first time.

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Maybe the film is “about” William Randolph Hearst.  Welles clearly based the movie on Hearst’s life – Hearst was the head of a media empire founded on yellow journalism, he mocked up events to convince the U.S. government to declare war on Spain during the Gilded Age, he made an unsuccessful bid for a governorship, he was an early decrier of political corruption who became seduced by success, and he ultimately holed up in an elaborately ornate mansion decorated with art booty seized – er, purchased – from around the world, and retreated there with a mediocre actress he was wooing after unsuccessfully trying to promote her as a star.  (Some claim that the inclusion of “rosebud” in the film was a uniquely pointed callout – rumors are that this was Hearst’s special nickname for a very intimate part of his paramour Marion Davies’ anatomy.)

But those are just the plot and the inspiration.  Neither of those points address what the film is about, and I found myself returning to that question again and again.

Is it about how Kane’s formerly-simple life as a child was the last time he was truly happy, and how the more wealth and power he had and the richer he got, the unhappier he was?  The events of the story suggest so, with Kane building more and bigger and flashier emblems of wealth and privilege and power around him, building out walls around him like a nautilus shell and ultimately pushing real things of value – spouses, lovers, children, friends – away until his death alone.

Is it about the worldly trappings preventing Kane from even getting to know himself and others in the first place?  A couple of recurring motifs suggest this – a handwritten mission statement Kane drafts for his first paper is treated as a holy document at the beginning of the film, but diminishes in importance as Kane rises in fame, and by the end as he is rattling around alone in his mansion that paper is long gone.

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Is it about the seduction of power warping Kane’s own image of himself? Welles uses a lot of camera angles that suggest this; the more the film goes on, the more Welles plays with shooting from low camera angles and using forced perspective, making Kane loom over us as his power ascends; then throwing him against oversized backgrounds towards the end to show how small he actually is.

Is it about how a person’s friends each only know their one small piece of the story of their life? The reporter visiting each of Kane’s associates in turn – and each relating just their one bit of Kane’s story at a time – fits this.  There’s also a neat echo motif in the jigsaw puzzles Kane’s second wife Susan endlessly fiddles with out of boredom; the reporter even finds one such puzzle during his beat and compares “rosebud” to the one missing piece he despairs of ever finding.

…These theories are probably nothing new to film scholars.  What is knew for me is that this is the first time I’m actually coming away from a film thinking about it on this level; I went into this as a rewatch, after having seen the film once before sheerly because of its notoriety.  I’ve also looking at the film through the perspective of kitsch; how its techniques have been copied, how its lore has spread and become trivia fodder. I even visited Hearst Castle once and found myself having a full-on giggle fit in the gift shop when I saw that they sold a biography of Marion Davies with a foreword by Oscar Welles.  By all rights I should have just skated over this as a giant game of spot-the-reference and been on my way.

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But I didn’t. I got caught up in the question of what story Welles was trying to actually tell; and ultimately coming to the same conclusion our reporter does, which is that maybe there are some corners of every story that we may not ever know, and the questions themselves may be the point after all.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Bank Dick (1940)

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Well, it’s…..it’s better than the last W. C. Fields film I saw, at least.

As with It’s A GiftFields is the henpecked and perpetually drunk patriarch of a family who are all disappointed in him.  He gets a job which he is staggeringly bad at, he has ideas for get-rich-quick plans that initially crash and burn, but due to some highly improbable turns of events things turn out alright in the end.  And on the way there is an assortment of slapstick, situational comedy and sight gags.

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With this film, though, there’s a bit more of a cohesive plot.  As “Egbert Sousé”, Fields’ greatest desire is to while away the day at the Black Pussy Cafe sipping a series of cocktails (served up by a bartender played by Shemp Howard, one of the future Three Stooges and perpetually glum-faced here).  But his family – wife, mother in law, and two daughters – are urging him to get work. After blundering into a stint at directing a movie (and blundering right back out after only a few disastrous minutes), he stumbles equally blindly into a bank robbery, accidentally apprehending one of the criminals as they escape.  He is offered a security job by the grateful bank president, impressing both his eldest daughter (whose fiancé is a teller there) and wife (the bank president also promises to give them a tiny break on their current mortgage).

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The whole thing gives Sousé a bit of a swelled head, and he boasts about his fortune at the Black Pussy – within earshot of a con man trying to offload some worthless stock shares in a failed mine.  Sousé is taken in by his sales pitch, and brings him to the bank, urging his future son-in-law, Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton) to invest in the mine.  Even worse – when Og protests that he’s between paychecks and will have to wait four days, Sousé tells him to just secretly borrow money from the bank.  Og is a simple and trusting sort, and agrees.  And that’s when the bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington turns up to conduct a surprise audit.  Eeek!  Og panics – but not to worry, Sousé says, he has a plan…..

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Of course, comedic hijinks ensue – Mickey Finns, fainting bank tellers, drunk pratfalls, adorable children saying naively insulting things, and a slapstick car chase, with everything tying up neatly in a happy ending for all concerned.  Even the movie subplot suddenly comes back to give Sousé an additional reward.

Mind you, I’m not saying I was wholly won over. This is still solely a collection of gags strung onto a very slim plot thread. But at least there is a thread there.  Fields also just plainly does more – in It’s A Gift, he was just sort of reacting blandly to things that happened around him, but in The Bank Dick he takes more of an active role in the goings-on, and just that one change makes him much more interesting.  He’s still an absolute buffoon, but at least he’s a buffoon that is doing things instead of just sitting still.

It’s possible that Fields may have insisted on that himself.  He had a much greater degree of creative control on this film than he had in previous outings, even writing the entire screenplay (using the pseudonym “Mahatma Kane Jeeves”, a punning take on an aristocrat’s command to a servant: “My hat ‘n’ my cane, Jeeves!”).  The critical reaction was mostly positive, although there were still those who as dubious as I was about the stock characters and the meandering plot. On the other hand, this was apparently on Stanley Kubrick’s top-ten favorite film list, so go figure.

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Casablanca (1942)

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Casablanca is another Mt. Parnassus of filmdom; one that arguably deserved to be seen in a proper theater.  At least, that’s what I told myself when I saw it was screening at a local cinema on Valentine’s Day.  (The signature cocktail they invented for the audience was probably not necessary, but I indulged anyway.)  I’ve actually seen the film before, but was very surprised to see that there were elements I totally didn’t remember – and what’s more, those were the elements I really liked.

For the two of you who are wholly unfamiliar – the story is set in the city of Casablanca (big surprise), which in 1941 was a major port of embarkation for refugees from occupied France hoping to escape to the still-neutral United States.  As with any host city for refugees, many of them often were stuck there for a while, waiting their turn (or seeking legal or not-so-legal ways to jump the line a little).  Plenty of bars have sprung up in the meantime to cater to them; among them is “Rick’s Place”, run by American expat Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) who had a reputation for anti-fascist activism during the late 1930s; lately, however, he’s determined to stay strictly neutral. When a member of the French underground turns up with two exit visas he’s stolen from Vichy authorities, Blaine doesn’t protect him; but he also doesn’t turn over the visas.  Not even to Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Czech resistance leader who was hoping to buy those very exit visas.

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But then Blaine sees that Laszlo’s wife is Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), and that gets his attention.  For Ilsa is a woman with whom he shared a brief and intense romance in Paris right before its fall; they’d arranged to flee the city together, until Ilsa inexplicably backed out at the last minute.  But now here she was; of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into Rick’s place, right when Rick was holding on to two exit visas.  This all puts Rick in an interesting position; does he give Ilsa and Laszlo the visas?  Does he try to sell them at a high price?  If so, does he even sell them to Ilsa and Laszlo, or to someone else?  Or does he use one to get himself out of Casablanca?  ….And if he does, then who gets the other one?  One of his friends?  A stranger?  Or, maybe even Ilsa?

You no doubt have noticed that I quoted the film already.  The script is spectacularly written, with plenty of quipable and quotable lines that have passed into the general public consciousness, from Blaine’s go-to toast “here’s looking at you, kid,” to the French police captain’s orders after a crime that his officers should “round up the usual suspects” to plenty of others you’re probably already saying to yourself.  (Although, for the record: “Play it again, Sam” is actually a famous mis-quotation.)  But a script is more than just witty lines; there also needs to be a well-drawn plot and characters that act honestly and genuinely.  And happily, this script delivers.  You learn exactly why Ilsa fell in love with Rick in Paris, and exactly why she left him there.  And why Rick has become so cynical.  And that maybe he isn’t quite so cynical after all.  Even the minor characters have genuine arcs; the police captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) sometimes seems to half-ass his job, but there’s a suggestion that may be on purpose.  …Or maybe it isn’t.  Hard to say.

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Of course, the performances add to the picture as well.  Long ago I read that Ronald Reagan was at one point considered for the role of Rick Blaine, and that feels so wrong; Bogart is perfect for this, delivering most of his lines with a world-weary cynicism of the sort that you suspect masks some deep hurt.  There are subtle moments throughout where the mask slips a bit and Rick does some subtle good deed, but mostly he’s a deadpan sideline snarker.  Bergman, for her part, is luminously lovely as Ilsa; but fortunately has more to do aside from just be lovely.  There are some daring risks she takes to secure her husband’s safety; but there are also moments when you can tell, just by watching her look at either Blaine or Laszlo, precisely what she thinks of each of them.  And that’s just Bogart and Bergman; everyone else in the film, even the extras, are bringing their A-game.

This is especially so in a scene that is probably the film’s most famous.  It’s also the film’s most blatantly political scene, one where even Blaine subtly but definitively takes a side.  As Laszlo is meeting with Blaine, urging him to give him the exit visas – and Blaine is stubbornly refusing – suddenly they hear a group of German soldiers start singing a German patriotic song, to the discomfort of many of the other patrons.  After a few seconds of listening in disgust, Laszlo impulsively stalks over to the house band and urges them to start playing “La Marseillaise,” hoping to inspire the crowd to outsing the German soldiers. At first they hesitate – but Rick subtly nods his approval, and the band strikes up.

You’ve seen this scene before.  I know you have.  Even independent of the film, it’s an amazing scene.

 

There’s an excellent analysis of the Marseillaise scene here, on the blog “Seven Inches Of Your Time”, delving into just what makes it so powerful; it’s a heady blend of character moments as well as a key point in the plot, and plus it also uses one of the most kick-ass national anthems around.  But one aspect of this scene deserves special attention; most of the extras in this scene are actual refugees from occupied France who’d escaped to the United States.  Many of them had barely been in the United States for a year, and many feared that they’d never be able to return – or worse, that France would never be liberated.  “La Marseillaise” was banned in occupied France, and here was a chance to sing it again – and in a scene where they got to out-sing a German anthem.  Reportedly many of the extras were openly weeping between takes.

Even German film scholars agree with the scene’s power.  I mentioned my visit to Berlin’s Museum of Film in an earlier review; while there, I noted that they had a room devoted to the myriad artists from Germany and other Axis-occupied countries who escaped to Hollywood during the Second World War, and how they took work in the Hollywood system and shaped it as a result.  But even though their focus was on German refugees, this clip featuring French refugees was the one they had in the room on a continuous loop.  Officially I’m sure curators would say that it was a good example of a Hollywood studio using refugees in a famous film; but a part of me definitely got the subtext that they were saying “….yeah, we know this makes us look bad, but dammit even we think this scene is amazing.”

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

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So Maureen O’Hara is technically the star of this film.  However – in an echo of the plot itself, in fact- my attention was captured more so by her co-star Lucille Ball.

O’Hara and Ball are both dancers, members of the same troupe managed by expat Russian ballerina Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya).  Mme. Basilova tries to get her struggling troupe bookings as a package deal, but the best she can do is things like night-cub gigs in Akron; not because the dancers are bad, but because most pale in comparison to her two leads, ballerina Judy (O’Hara) and saucy, flirty Bubbles (Ball). In fact, during that Akron gig, a drunk-but-maudlin businessman named Harris (Louis Hayward) flirts with both Bubbles and Judy, albeit for very different reasons; he dances with Judy, but Bubbles is the one that goes to a bar with him after.

When they’re back in New York, the disastrous run of luck causes everyone to rethink. Bubbles accepts an offer to headline a burlesque show in Hoboken, effectively quitting the group. Mme. Basilova decides to cut her losses and back Judy’s career instead, getting her an exclusive audition with the city ballet company.  But Mme. Basilova gets hit by a car as they are en route to the audition and they have to postpone.  Then when an already shaken Judy turns up a few days later to try again, she sneaks a peek at one of the company’s rehearsals and is too intimidated, fleeing before producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy) can see her dance; but not before he sees her, and sizes her up as a cutie.  Judy is oblivious – she just needs work – and finally takes an offer from Bubbles, who hires her as the “stooge” for her act; someone to dance in a deliberately non-sexy way while Bubbles changes her costume, so the crowd’s appetite is whetted for Bubbles’ next number.  It’s clearly exploitative, but Judy is desperate.

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Except Judy’s also good.  As is Bubbles – good enough that the whole show is soon moved to Broadway. Their show’s fame draws the attention of Harris, who flies in for another visit, and of Adams, who wants to offer Judy another crack at an audition. But the rivalry between Bubbles and Judy is strong and long-simmering, Judy finally snaps….

So, the plot’s kind of hokey.  There’s a whole love triangle drummed up with Harris and Judy – but Bubbles isn’t the third leg, rather Harris’ soon-to-be-ex-wife is.  Bubbles is simply a distraction from his other problems.  But she’s well aware of that, and is manipulative enough to exploit that for all it’s worth. She doesn’t even want to dance all that much; she knows she can, though, and knows how to hustle to get her way with it, so she plans to dance to get by until something better comes along.  But the naïve Judy doesn’t figure that out for a long time.  Judy also genuinely wants to dance and is willing to work like mad for it; she’s kind of the Salieri to Bubbles’ Mozart, with all the professional jealousy that implies.

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The contrast between those two characters played over into my own reaction to the film.  Judy’s the purported star of the show, but I thought Lucille Ball was way more interesting to watch.  Partly because it was Lucille Ball as I hadn’t ever seen her. My only exposure prior to this was TV show reruns – and not even reruns of the show you’re thinking of, but reruns of her late-60s show Here’s Lucy.  That version of Lucy was a middle-aged talent agent in Los Angeles with two teenage kids in a boilerplate sitcom about “the generation gap”; this version of Lucy was a witty, bawdy, fleet-footed dancer who was an expert at working a crowd.  The movie shows us two of her burlesque pieces, and her comic timing and performance chops are spot-on.  I grant that director Dorothy Arzner may have set things up this way, but even from the very first scene, I instantly was drawn to Bubbles, even though she was one of a line of seven girls doing a tap number.  She just had much more of a fascinating presence; more personality, more style, more….something.  As Mme. Basilova explains to Judy early in the film:  “She has ‘oomph’.”  Judy lacks “oomph” – but I’m afraid to say, so does Maureen O’Hara.  Lucille Ball, meanwhile, has it in spades.

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But that could also be a director’s choice. Judy is presented as a virtuous goody-goody throughout; self-effacing, generous, and kind, but also very morally upright. She dismisses Adam’s flirtation because she feels he’s being too forward. She breaks a date with Harris when she learns about his ex-wife.  At some point she even lectures the crowd at the burlesque, chiding them for coming to see the show in the first place.  It makes sense for the character – and from what I’ve heard about O’Hara, it makes sense for her as well – but it doesn’t make the character anywhere near as interesting as Bubbles.  Just like Harris in the film, Judy is the one we want to waltz sweetly with to an orchestra, but Bubbles is the one we wanna hang with at the afterparty.

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The Mortal Storm (1940)

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The last year before the U.S. entered the Second World War must have been pretty tense for Hollywood.  They were already treading carefully when it came to films that might anger Germany (as we saw with The Life of Emile Zola), but the news coming from Europe was getting very grim indeed, especially as some of our nation’s friends were getting swept into the fray (and often releasing their own cinematic hot takes).  But that doesn’t mean everyone in Hollywood stayed mum; there was an Edward G. Robinson picture about an anti-Nazi spy in Los Angeles, and there was The Mortal Storm, based on a book by English author Phyllis Bottome.  Bottome lived in Germany during the 1930s, and was (understandably) increasingly uneasy about Hitler’s rise to power.

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To be honest, if you take the Nazi element out of the plot it’s a little melodramatic. Professor Roth (Frank Morgan) is a beloved biology professor at a small town in Bavaria, and the whole film kicks off on his 60th Birthday – his waking to good wishes from his family (wife, daughter, and his two grown stepsons), the surprise party planned for him at the school, the celebratory dinner at home with his family.  His grown children have also invited their two good friends, Fritz (Robert Young) and Martin (Jimmy Stewart), both of whom are like family and both of whom also are competing for the affections of the Roth daughter Freya (Margaret Sullivan).  However, just after Fritz happily announces his engagement to Freya, the Roth’s housekeeper runs in – it’s just been announced that Hitler has been appointed Chancellor of Germany.  Fritz and the two older Roth boys are delighted – but the Professor, Martin, and Freya are dubious.  Martin’s put off by the fascist tone Hitler’s followers seem to be taking, and as for the Roths…well, the film euphemistically uses the term “non-Aryan”.

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Martin keeps his distance from the Roth house for the next few weeks, nursing his heartbreak and steering clear of his friends’ political fervor.  He does let Freya drag him out for drinks with the gang, just like old times – “they’ve promised no politics,” she wheedles. But of course the current political climate comes up, especially when another Nazi party faithful starts singing the “Horst Wessel” and encourages the rest of the bar to sing along.  The Nazis start hassling an older man for not joining in, and when Martin comes to his defense, it starts a minor bar brawl that ultimately severs Martin from his friends, makes Freya question her allegiance – and leads the party-faithful students to publicly walk out of Professor Roth’s class the next day.  The Roths start to consider an escape to Austria – by train if they can, but if they can’t, Martin knows a daring mountain passageway over the Alps.

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Now, again, I get why the film pulled its punches a little. The word “Jew” is never spoken, or mentioned as being a target of the Nazis. But it is definitely implied that that’s what people mean by “non-Aryan”.  Still, it’s also implied that Professor Roth is targeted more so for his ideas than his ethnicity; the catalyst for the class walkout comes when one student challenges him about his claims that Aryan and non-Aryan blood are both the same.  Freya later draws some suspicion only when someone finds she’s carrying a copy of her father’s writings as she’s attempting to leave the country. As the film would have you believe, what gets the Roths into trouble is their outspokenness, not their Jewishness.  And as for mentioning Germany? The country’s name is uttered precisely once. Even though the dangers of the Third Reich were becoming ever more clear, the U.S. studios still wanted to play nice with any possible German and German-American market.

In one case, too, the film softballed one element based on a lack of information. Professor Roth is imprisoned in a work camp in one scene, and his wife is allowed to visit him there.  I really doubt whether a concentration camp inmate would have been permitted to receive visitors, and Professor Roth looks surprisingly spunky for someone who’s been in a camp for a few weeks.  But this was in 1940, well before the world discovered what the camps were really like; so we can forgive them, I think.

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Even though Freya and Martin are the main characters, the ones who really caught my attention at the end were Fritz and the two Roth stepsons.  All three have been party faithfuls; all three meet in the now-empty Roth house to discuss the tragic fallout of their actions (I won’t go into detail, but I will say that not everyone trying to flee Germany gets out alive).  As each considers his part in the events, each has a very different reaction – one doubles down on his allegiance, and one blubbers that he was “just following orders” before running out.  And one starts to question his own faith in the party.  The very end of the film is shot as if it’s from this doubter’s perspective – we pan around the now-empty Roth house, with quotes from the happier scene with the Professor’s party looped in in voiceover.  This moment could have been a sop to potential German audiences – “Okay, we get it, not all of y’all are Nazis” – but for me it felt more like an appeal to them, a last plea to regular Germans to leave the Nazi party and take their country back from the madmen now controlling it.  Everything else in the film is something that was familiar – the love triangle, the beloved town elder brought down by fascists, the desperate escape attempt – but this direct appeal on the eve of the Second World War was a haunting note to end on.

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Pinocchio (1940)

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So there’s something you all should know about me – even as a kid, I had little patience for a movie if I felt like the plot or dialogue had flaws.  An animated film like Pinocchio could be beautifully drawn and flawlessly animated, but if there was anything that sounded “off” about the way the characters talked, I’d notice.  If there was something about the plot that was far-fetched I wouldn’t buy it.  And if there were any moments that felt slow or indulgent, especially if they were indulging in something “cute”, I’d get bored.  I don’t know if this was because I was just precocious or just read a lot at an early age, or what.  I say this because that means that the child me would have been as “meh” about Pinocchio as adult me was.

I mean, it wasn’t awful.  We’re all familiar with the tale by now, of the little puppet who has been brought to life and is striving to earn the right to be turned all the way into a real boy.  I knew several of the plot points in advance – the Blue Fairy appearing, check, Monstro the Whale, check, Pleasure Island and donkeys, check.  There are some chuckleworthy little gags throughout – Jiminy Cricket bedding down in wee little matchbox, the tall tale Pinocchio spins the first time he lies, Pinocchio’s reaction to smoking a cigar; things like that. But that’s just it – several of the chuckleworthy gags ended up falling just over the line between cute and indulgent, and I felt things dragging in spots.

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One detail I may have bought as a child which gave me pause today was the inclusion of the characters “Honest John” and “Gideon”, the pair of ne’er-do-wells that lure Pinocchio away from school for their own gain.  Honest John is an anthropomorphic fox, and Gideon a similarly anthropomorphic – but mute – cat.  However, almost every other animal in the film is a proper animal – Monstro the whale, Gepetto’s pet kitten Figaro, various birds and beasts all.  But John and Gideon are gallivanting around town and heading to taverns and cutting deals with gypsy marionette shows as big as life, and no one remarks on the fact that they are a talking fox and a Silent-Bob cat. Yes, Jiminy Cricket is another anthropomorphic creature, but he spends the film trying to hide from other people, revealing himself only to Pinocchio, so it’s easier to accept him as part of the “magic” underworld.  John and Gideon, however, are a weird sort of Zootopia element in 19th Century Italy that had me puzzled.

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There are things to like about the film, mind.  The lovely “When You Wish Upon A Star” is one; that deservedly won Disney its first “Best Original Song” Oscar (the first of many), and stands head and shoulders above any of the other songs from the movie.  There’s also some lovely animation, particularly during a sequence where Pinocchio and Jiminy are underwater in a search for Monstro – sure, there’s a moment or two where Jiminy has “cute” encounters with chubby-cheeked fish, but there’s also a group of tuna animated with a lifelike attention to detail.  And the very space Pinocchio and Jiminy move through ripples and shifts and shimmers like water, and I’m still wondering how the animators did that.  The Academy was also impressed, awarding the animator team the second of Pinocchio‘s two Oscars.

Overall, though, this got shrug and a “meh” from me. Pleasant, cute, but that’s about it.

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The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

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There’s always an especial risk with watching the film adaptation of one of your favorite books.  You have a picture in your head about how the characters look, and how certain moments look, and they never match what’s on the screen and you may be thrown by that. Or the adaptation process forces the screenwriter to cut some of your favorite parts, especially the little throwaway lines that you know don’t advance the plot but they still added nuance (there’s a lot of ways where the miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand went wrong, but I will always appreciate their inclusion of a moment with a delirious CDC employee that always gives me chills).  I get even more so protective if it’s a story about the Great Depression, and how it was this country’s one strongest flirtation with a genuine national safety net for all. (Pause while I genuflect in the general direction of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and whisper “but may that record be surpassed.”)   So I am pleased to report that my impression of The Grapes of Wrath was “….actually, that was pretty darn okay.”

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I wasn’t expecting perfection anyway.  This was never going to be a faithful recreation of the book – John Steinbeck’s original novel was far more devastating in its narrative, far more progressive in its politics, and far more severe a depiction of the dire straits faced by migrant farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl. The particular family we follow through the book is the Joad family, largely through the eldest son Tom (Henry Fonda) who’s just been paroled for good behavior after serving 3 years for manslaughter.  He comes home to his sharecropper family’s farm to find it deserted, the land seized by the bank after severe drought cut into the crops.  He meets up with them at his uncle’s house, where they’ve all pooled their money and are packing for a road trip to California where they can start fresh.  Once in California, though, they find that the promise of easy work is a little empty, thanks to an oversaturation of workers and exploitative tactics on the farmers’ part.

At the time the film was made, Steinbeck was still facing harsh attacks from various California food growers complaining about how they were depicted in his book; several conservative politicians were also giving him the side-eye about sections that seemed to praise socialism.  But the book was also wildly popular.   So screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and director John Ford faced a bit of a tightrope in making something that would appeal to the fans, yet appease the critics.

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Steinbeck’s original work gave both a big boost.  The Joad family’s journey takes them along Route 66, from Oklahoma to California, right bang through John Ford’s favorite locations to shoot in; they don’t linger there, necessarily, but Ford includes several beauty shots of the Joad family truck poking its way through New Mexico desert and alongside Arizona mountains.  Ford also does a lot to set the Joads against the landscape; one especially eye-catching shot comes during the Joad driving through California’s desert at night, with three of the Joads having a conversation in the front seat of the car. Instead of watching them, the camera is pointed out the front window, showing us the Joads’ ghostly reflections against the backdrop of eerie Joshua Trees silhouetted against the night sky.

As for the language – usually I’m not too much of a fan of adaptations that stick large passages from the book into characters’ mouths, just because “in the book he thinks this, but it’s so pretty let’s make him say it out loud”.  I admit that my extant love of the book may have carried me over that in this case, but Johnson does a decent job recreating the book’s feel of a world where it does make sense for salt-of-the-earth farmers to randomly bust out with philosophical musings about how women can cope with change better because they experience things as all one great flow of life, or how maybe we don’t have individual souls but just our own bit of a universal consciousness.

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The performances help too, of course.  I didn’t have any particular image of Tom Joad in mind when I read the book, but Fonda’s tall, lanky build and weatherworn face instantly made me think “okay, yeah, that works.”  As the lead, he gets most of the philosophical musing, but delivers it in a way that sounds organic and natural.  Arguably his biggest co-star is Jane Darwell, as Ma Joad; instead of being a stereotypical “nurturing mother” character, Darwell gives the role a much-needed steeliness and grit, depicting the strength that a migrant family would need to keep the family together during its descent into economic chaos.  And yet she’s also nurturing enough that you understand why the family relies on her so.

Ma Joad also gets a quiet little scene I don’t remember from the book. As the family is packing up to leave Oklahoma, there’s a scene with Ma inside the house going through a box of keepsakes, pocketing the ones she’ll take and burning the rest in the kitchen stove.  But she reviews each carefully; smiling at the postcard from New York or tearing up at the love letter before consigning it to the flames, or admiring the slogan on a little toy dog declaring it a “Souvenir of the Great St. Louis Exhibition 1904” before pocketing it.  She pauses even longer at a pair of old earrings, taking a moment to hold them up to her ears and study her reflection in the dim light.  She pockets the earrings, but never wears them; the next time you see them, they’re on the ears of her daughter Rose-of-Sharon (Doris Bowdon), shortly after Rose’s husband has skipped out on her somewhere in Arizona.  But Darwell’s wordless scrutiny of her reflection speaks volumes; she’s admiring the earrings, remembering happier days of her youth, regretting the hard luck that’s befallen her family, and wondering at the passage of time and her own age, all just with the look on her face.

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Darwell won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and deservedly so.