Extra Credit, film, movies

Quick Extra-Credit Crosspromotion

MCU: Assembled

Hang on, that picture’s not got anything to do with the Crash Course*, what’s going on?

My roommate Alex, whom I’ve invoked in a few reviews, is participating in another movie-review project; he’s one of the panelists for a limited-run podcast series, which is examining each and every film in the Marvel Comic Universe in the days leading up to Avengers: Endgame.  I’ve been sitting in on some of the living room screenings (and getting my own secondary crash course in the MCU works, which has been a hoot), and wanted to give you a heads-up.

Sure, watching Thor: Ragnarok is a really different experience from watching Casablanca, but I wanted to share anyway; the discussions have been great fun to listen to, and all the panelists really go deep in their discussions.  (Alex was part of the panel for Iron Man 3, and apparently had a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard full of notes he was referring to as they spoke and invoked things like postmodernism and semiotics.)

They broadcast live at 9:30 pm Eastern Time every evening or so over at their podcast platform, and episodes are available on iTunes and Google Play after that.  And there is a chance that Tim Blake Nelson just might be following the podcast under an assumed name….Check it out!

 

*There are two MCU films on the list that I’ll be getting to eventually – Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Black Panther – but that won’t be for quite some time.
film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

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Mrs. Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) is doing quite well when this film starts.  It’s 1939, and times are prosperous again.  Her architect husband Clem  (Walter Pidgeon) makes enough for them to live a comfortable middle-class existence in a suburb outside London – not too wealthy, but enough for them to have a house on the Thames and pay for piano lessons for daughter Judy and a cat for little Toby and send their oldest Vincent to Oxford, and still allow Kay to splurge on the occasional new hat.  But wealth doesn’t go to their heads, like with Lady Beldon up in the big house in town; they’re polite and charming to everyone, so much so that the kindly old railway stationmaster, Mr. Ballard, wants to name the new breed of rose he’s developed after Kay, and even pit his “Mrs. Miniver” rose against Lady Beldon’s own blooms.  Things are ticking along quite nicely for everyone.

….And then war comes and things start to change.

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Not as fast as all that, though.  It’s only in retrospect that I realize how cleverly this film works –  I actually felt like the first half was a little slow and plodding, but only later did I realize it was lulling me into the easy comfortable groove that the Minivers were enjoying, with family teas and occasional dances at the social hall, and their regular visits to church each week, all the Minivers dutifully filing into the pew opposite Lady Beldon and her pretty granddaughter Carol.  There is the occasional reminder of the war –  Vincent enlists in the RAF, the family is encouraged to set up a shelter in their basement – but at first it seems a grand adventure, with Vincent close enough to home to still pop in for family dinner and spin tall tales for little Toby, and woo and win Carol Beldon.  Even when Clem is one of the many men summoned to the town hall for an “emergency” at 2 am one morning, they think nothing of it at first, and make time for quick glasses of sherry while they wait for the civil defense agent to arrive.

That’s actually the point that the film turned for me – because when the civil defense agent does arrive, he orders that all the men present were summoned because they own boats, and they’re to immediately go get them and head to the coast, to await further orders.   As soon as he said that I guessed – correctly – that they were about to be sent to Dunkirk.  We never see Clem in Dunkirk, mind you; but I’d seen the 2017 film and knew he was about to head into some heavy stuff.  And Vincent is called up on his first air mission at the same time, leaving Kay behind to fret about them both.  But she’s also got her hands full constructing the family shelter and keeping an eye out for a rumored fugitive German pilot that’s supposed to be skulking about town.  The air raids are starting to come more frequently as well.  Both Clem and Vincent come home in one piece and in good spirits, but we definitely kept a vigil with Kay, and that sense of cozy security has started to erode.  Within only a couple scenes we’re watching the family huddle in their air raid shelter and seeing great craters dot the lovely English town where the Minivers live.  Then the damage from the air raids creeps closer to the Miniver’s own house – and household.

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And the Minivers stiff-upper-lip through it all, even as things get worse and worse.  The Minivers’ little boat is in sorry shape after Dunkirk, but when Kay remarks on it and asks what happened, Clem just waves things off with a smile – don’t fuss about the boat when he’s okay. During a scary air raid, as the whole family huddles in their shelter, Kay tries to soothe her children by calmly reading them a chapter of Alice in Wonderland.  Lady Beldon goes on with her flower show, serenely inviting all attendees to shelter in her own basement when an air raid interrupts the proceedings.  Everyone tries to carry on in the face of war despite it growing nearer and nearer. And that is why the beginning went on so long, I realized – I needed to be grounded in the “before” to really get what they were losing, and appreciate how brave the Minivers and their neighbors were.

As a piece of propaganda it’s an absolute masterwork.  It’s one of the first Hollywood films not to pull its punches against the Third Reich, and Churchill applauded its depiction of English fortitude and bravery, predicting that it would boost American support of the Allies.  FDR was so struck by a lengthy speech towards the film’s end that he had it translated into German and printed on leaflets the US Airforce dropped over German cities.  Even Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels acknowledged the power of the film – “…its refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of. There is not a single angry word spoken against Germany; nevertheless the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished.”

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But its propaganda is not so blatant as to keep this from being a good film in and of itself. There’s an impressive sequence showing the boats heading off to Dunkirk, a whole flotilla of little tugboats and pleasure craft silently puttering on down the Thames by moonlight. First there are just a few, then a dozen in the next shot, then a few dozen next, and on and on until there’s a massive fleet gliding down the Thames, filling up the whole river.  It’s a stirring image.  I was also quite charmed by the romance between Carol Beldon and Vincent; she meets him before the war, when he’s come home spouting lofty ideals about the class system – she punctures his puffery with a remark so cutting I’m half tempted to use it on Twitter (I’m not sharing just so I can keep it for myself – it’s that good).  Speaking of Vincent, his casting was literally the only thing I didn’t quite accept; Greer Garson seemed awfully young to have a college-age son, and something about Kay’s relationship with Vincent seemed just a shade overly-intimate.  Not to the point that I was creeped out.  But enough that when I later learned that Garson was actually dating the guy who played Vincent in real life that I thought “oh, that explains it”.

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But still this got under my skin to the point that I caught myself involuntarily saying “oh no” when someone’s death is reported towards the end.  I couldn’t really relate to the Minivers at first blush – but by the end I’d been made well enough acquainted with their little world that I felt their losses as keenly as they did. That’s almost a miracle.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

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If you look back through my review for films with Jimmy Cagney, you’ll notice an interesting progression.  I started with a low opinion of him, based on some clips I’d seen years ago and found unimpressive.  But over the course of a handful of films, I discovered his acting chops…and then his dance prowess…and then got even more impressed with his acting chops.  With Yankee Doodle Dandy, we finally come to the film that soured me on him all those years ago – and it’s time for me to admit that I owe Jimmy Cagney an apology.

In my defense, the film doesn’t do him any tremendous favors – at least from the perspective of today.  It’s a fairly standard show-biz biopic, telling the story of theater showman George M. Cohan – the vaudevillian-turned-Tin-Pan-Alley-composer who wrote the spirited patriotic standards “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Over There”, plus “Give  My Regards To Broadway” and countless other show tunes from Broadway’s early years.  FDR awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal in 1942, an event that serves as the framing device for the film; at the top of the film, Cohan has just come out of retirement to play FDR in a new Broadway comedy, and after his curtain call he receives a telegram inviting him to the White House.

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He heads to Washington right away, is quickly shown into the Oval Office, and within a few brief minutes has started reminiscing about his life story, triggering a two-hour retrospective flashback covering Cohan’s birth, childhood in a vaudevillian family, initial early struggles, breakout success, ascendancy to fame, retirement, and a brief period of dotage before his return to the stage.  There are scores of musical numbers, scenes from his family’s act and his own musicals. There are scenes of him at a piano, frowning in concentration for a moment or two before finally getting an idea and hastily tapping out the tune to something the world now knows by heart. There are scenes when he is down on his luck but vows to just hang in there.  There are dancing girls and waving flags and World War I doughboys marching off to war whistling his songs.

There is, in short, nothing in the plot that you haven’t already seen in plenty of other biopics about famous showmen.  The film is more like a greatest-hits album than anything with a narrative; any “problems” are neatly resolved within minutes, and any “struggle” is also similarly dispatched with ease so that we can move on to the next Big Hit From The Songbook.

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It’s not anything I’d watch if it were a modern tale about a fictional person.  It’s doubtless I’d watch a modern remake like this even if it was about Cohan.  But at the same time, I can’t ignore that this came out a few months after Pearl Harbor, at a time when the United States was no doubt desperate for some heartwarming, sentimental rah-rah patriotism and good vibes, and so even while I want to cringe at moments like the staged recreations of that famous Spirit of ’76 painting or other similar numbers, I also am reminding myself that this was absolutely and exactly what audiences at the time were desperate for.

And – I have to say that Jimmy Cagney is one of the reasons why I’m able to forgive it.  Ironically, Cagney was not Cohan’s first choice for the part – Cohan was hoping to get Fred Astaire, whom he greatly admired.  Cagney wasn’t all that fond of Cohan either – Cohan was a little too much of a red-blooded Conservative for the progressive Cagney.  However, fate took a hand in things – first Fred Astaire turned down the part, since he felt Cagney’s dancing style was too stiff and clunky for him to recreate in a film. And as for Cagney, he was starting to get some unwelcome attention from the government due to suspicion he was a Communist.  So when Cohan and company next offered Cagney the part, Cagney jumped at the chance to deflect rumors of un-American activity by playing an uber-patriot – not just playing him, actually, but becoming him.

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Ironically, Cagney was so good at becoming George Cohan that that’s what lead to my initial distaste. The clips I’d seen before now all featured Cagney “singing” all the songs in this sort of spoken-word sungspiel, the kind that I’ve always associated with “this actor can’t sing but we had to cast him anyway and so we’re putting up with it”.  To my great surprise, I learned that this was how Cohan actually sang in his own shows; Cagney could sing all along, he was just taking on Cohan’s style.  He took on Cohan’s dancing style as well – a sort of wind-up toy stiff-legged thing, all stiff back and jerky kicks, but fast, blindingly fast and energetic.  It is indeed way off what the smooth and suave Astaire would have done – but Cagney throws himself into it, with all the gumption he has to spare (he was reportedly so enthusiastic he sprained his ankle twice during filming).  Whatever reservation Cagney may have initially had about the part, he left it behind.

Cohan also was won over by his performance, heaping praise on the movie and calling Cagney “a tough act to follow” at the premiere.  Critics were also effusive in their praise, including awarding Cagney a Best Actor Oscar that year.  And…I have to admit, Cagney has also at long last won me over.  I’m still not wildly impressed by the film, but watching the film that put me off Jimmy Cagney has finally won me over to him again at last.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

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I was aware of the existence of Ernst Lubitch’s To Be Or Not To Be before seeing it – only because Mel Brooks re-made it in the early 1980s.  And after seeing it, I have to say that Mel Brooks remaking this film makes complete and utter sense.

Jack Benny stars as Josef Tura, the leader of a theater in Warsaw.  When the story begins, it is right before the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, and Tura and his team are deep in rehearsals for a new play, “Gestapo”, a satire spoofing Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. When a government official stops by to urge them to stop – they don’t want to anger the actual Hitler – the troupe simply mothballs the set and costumes and re-mounts Hamlet, with Josef playing lead and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard) as Ophelia.  It’s familiar ground for the company – so familiar, in fact, that Maria knows exactly when she’ll have long breaks in between scenes and uses the time to welcome besotten admirers backstage to her dressing room (not what you think – she’s a flirt, but keeps it innocent and stays faithful to Josef).  Maria is entertaining one such swain – a young pilot named Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) – when the Germans make their move and invade.  Sobinski hurries off to enlist, while Maria joins the rest of the cast in the basement, where they huddle together to withstand an air raid.

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As the war wears on, Sobinski ends up in the British R.A.F. as part of a loyalist Polish division, while much of the theater troupe has secretly begun working for the Polish resistance.  When Sobinski discovers that a “Polish Resistance Leader” named Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) is actually a Nazi spy, and is currently en route to Warsaw to meet with officials there, he makes a daring flight to Poland to warn Maria.  As the company is debating how they can divert Siletsky, suddenly someone remembers – hey, don’t we still have the set and costumes from Gestapo that we never used?  And didn’t we all think that Bronski looked uncannily like Hitler when we were in rehearsals?  Maybe we can use all of that somehow…

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There’s more to the story than that, but it gives a good idea, and I don’t want to give much more away than I have already, as it’s a really clever clockwork of a story.  There’s a bit of a subplot woven throughout – Josef eventually learns that Sobinski was hanging out in Maria’s dressing room and she has to soothe his ruffled feathers – but most of it is a tale of a group of zany actors getting the better of the Nazis.  And it’s all definitely played for laughs – the SS Officer stationed in Warsaw is an utter buffoon, and the schemes that Tura and his troupe come up with outsmart the enemy easily (and even outsmarted me at one point!).

That poking fun may have worked to the film’s detriment at the time.  The film came out a few short months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and people were not in a joking mood about the war.  It was a little too soon, many critics complained.  Others took a dim view of some of the jokes – at one point, one Nazi with a low opinion of Tura’s acting talent quips that “Josef Tura did to Hamlet what we’re doing to Poland”.

Lubitsch stuck by his film, however. He firmly believed in using comedy to belittle those in power and knock them down to size.   “What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology,” he argued in a response to one critic.   Jack Benny’s father also reportedly walked out of the first screening, horrified at seeing his son in a Gestapo uniform.  Benny had a heart-to-heart with him afterward about the film and Lubitch’s thoughts on using comedy to poke fun at the Third Reich, and his father tried again – and went on to see the film another 46 times.

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There was an poignant moment as well.  Felix Bressart plays a company member, Greenberg, who early on opines to a friend that he wishes Tura’s troupe would do The Merchant Of Venice sometime, since he’s convinced he’d make a great Shylock.  He’s even got one of the speeches memorized, he says – “Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? …If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”  It becomes a frequent refrain for Greenberg – he says it ironically to a friend in the Ghetto, he recites it when he’s trying to impress other actors.  And towards the end of the film, when Greenberg is tapped to cause a distraction and lure a group of Gestapo soldiers out of an opera box, he knows exactly what he wants to say – Greenberg draws himself up to his full height, looks the Gestapo officer right in the eye, and asks, “….Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?….”

This film may have been a little too soon for 1942 audiences, but I greatly enjoyed it.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Now, Voyager (1942)

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So, watching Now, Voyager was seriously thought provoking for me. Although not for the reason you may think.

At the time of its release, it was heralded for handling psychotherapy and mental illness in a uniquely sensitive way; a trait that still wins this film applause today.  Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the youngest daughter of a super-strict Boston Brahman matriarch (Gladys Cooper).  Charlotte has grown up the target of her mother’s verbal and emotional abuse and repressive control.  But Charlotte has a sympathetic sister-in-law who brings a psychotherapist along for a visit one day so he can have a look-see.  Mrs. Vale protests mightily, but after only five minutes with Charlotte and her mother, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) sizes up the situation, tells Mrs. Vale off and drags Charlotte off to his sanitarium in Vermont.

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Charlotte is much better after a month (although the place looks more like a resort, so it’s no wonder), but is still uneasy about heading straight home right away, so with Dr. Jacquith’s encouragement she embarks on a six-month cruise.  She has a marvelous time, and turns out to be quite the social butterfly.  Most significantly, she meets Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), who’s hitching a ride on the cruise to make a business meeting in Buenos Aires.  Jerry is married, but unhappily so, and is the father of two girls – the youngest of which, Tina, is suffering the same kind of maternal neglect that Charlotte did. Charlotte’s confidences about her own troubles help Jerry to understand and support Tina, and Jerry’s kindness and attention brings Charlotte out of her shell even further.  Of course this leads to the pair falling in love – but they part at the end of the cruise, since Jerry won’t divorce his wife.  Jerry still can’t resist sending a corsage to Charlotte’s house in Boston as a parting gift – it arrives just as she’s about to finally see her mother again, and the gesture gives her enough confidence to finally assert herself and her autonomy.  Mother and daughter live under a kind of chilly truce for a while, with Charlotte even getting engaged to a distinguished Boston blue-blood, but a chance meeting with Jerry again shakes her up to the point that she breaks her engagement and calls her mother out for her neglect – a double-whammy shock which causes Mrs. Vale to suffer a fatal heart attack.  Wracked with guilt, Charlotte heads for Dr. Jaquith’s sanitarium again.  And on her first day there, she sees a surprisingly familiar face – Jerry’s daughter Tina, whom she recognizes from a picture he showed her. Thinking the girl can use a friend, she reaches out…

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So here’s the thing.  I read a quick 25-words-or-less plot blurb before watching, and wrote it off as the kind of melodrama I usually don’t like.  And I still don’t.  I’ve always felt this kind of plot was formulaic; it presents a woman whose sole path to happiness seems to be via Finding Love, and even worse, it denies the lead her heart’s desire and holds up sacrifice as a noble thing (the famous last line, “let’s not ask for the moon when we have the stars” is presented as romantic, but to me it sounds defeatist).  There’s a lot of sturm und drang along the way, a lot of chance meetings and tragic misfortunes, cruel twists of fate and at least two scenes with dramatic confrontations between two female relatives where one of them is finally confronting the other over some long-lasting mistreatment.  Alex inadvertently hit on a modern word for the genre after I told him that it was a classic example of the three-hanky picture; he hadn’t heard that term before, and I told him it was an older term for this kind of melodramatic, sentimental film with a woman going through various trials and tribulations and affairs of the heart.  “Oh,” Alex said, “you mean it’s like a Lifetime or Hallmark Channel movie.”

And he’s right.  And I further realized that I’ve been sneering at the contemporary version of this kind of film for years – the overwrought melodrama, the heightened plot twists.  Now, Voyager even includes the old trope of the character who undergoes a “stunning transformation” in appearance, which really just boils down to her giving up wearing glasses and doing her hair different, which I rolled my eyes over at first.

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But interestingly enough that is also what gave me pause.  Bette Davis tried to do a bit more to alter Charlotte, to be fair, and it’s an example of the trope that works a little better than usual.  There’s not much that can be done to “ugly” up Bette Davis, but they really try – Davis insisted on padding inside her costume to make her look fatter, a really stodgy pair of glasses and a Mary Todd Lincoln hair style with some fake bushy eyebrows.  It’s a marked difference from the “after” – Davis’ usual slim figure, stylish gowns and swept-up hair showing off a slim neck.  Davis also carries the difference emotionally – the “before” Charlotte is nearly mute, while the “after” Charlotte is gracious and charming.  It may have been a cliché, but it was a cliché that I realized that I bought in this case.

And that made me analyze my reaction a bit further.  I’ve protested in the past that I disliked this kind of film because the heroines ended up having to sacrifice happiness, and that was unrealistic – but on the other hand, I also take a dim view of the rom-com because the lead always gets happiness, and I also thought that was unrealistic.  Was the problem the films, I wondered, or was it me?  Have I been unfair to an entire genre of film?

What I finally realized is that it wasn’t the content of films like this that galls me – it’s the segregation.  This is something that discusses emotional abuse, neglect, psychotherapy, coming into one’s own and asserting one’s self, being a responsible parent – these are all things that affect men as well as women.  It isn’t even women who are the only ones with emotional stakes in this film – Jerry has some seriously high emotional stakes, and goes through some intense growth as well.  This could have been a film for everyone.  But it wasn’t billed that way – it was billed as being a film “for women”, for them to just have a cathartic cry over before going back to their own lives.  Lives which might have been similarly troubled; but instead of being encouraged to take more of the kind of control that Dr. Jaquith was encouraging for Charlotte, the women in the audience were being encouraged to get all the crying out of their system in the theater so they could suck it up and cope with the status quo at home.

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It may be unfair of me to expect third-wave feminism from a 1940s drama. But it may be women like me back then who were starting to get sick of this kind of thing who paved the way for third-wave feminism in the first place.