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76 years ago...

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Sergeant York (1941)
Director: Howard Hawks
Country: United States
Length: 134 minutes
Type: War, Biography, Drama

What it would be like if you fanedited 'Forest Gump' and 'Hacksaw Ridge' into one movie. Based on the true story of Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a wayward farmboy who found God and fought in WWI. Initially a conscientious objector on Bible grounds, he never the less ended up winning both the Medal of Honor and the Legion of Honour. Unlike Desmond Doss in 'Hacksaw Ridge', who never compromises his beliefs, York is persuaded that although it does say "Thou shalt not kill" in the Bible quite categorically, it's alright if it's for the USA. I don't think enough time was spent seriously exploring his moral/political conversion. Director Howard Hawks just has York sit atop a mountain pondering the problem, watching sunlight play among the clouds as some beautiful Max Steiner music plays. Even if the film plays partly as a 1941 recruitment drive for WW2's new young boys, it never shies away from showing the senseless slaughter of the trenches.



Another Disney classic next.
76 years ago...

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Dumbo (1941)
Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Country: United States
Length: 64 minutes
Type: Animation, Comedy, Musical

After the last two elaborate and expensive Disney pictures flopped, 'Dumbo' was made for half what the others cost. It's only an hour long and the animation economies are obvious, so there is none of the moving camera of 'Pinocchio' that was so impressive. Just like with the later cheaper looking Disney films of the 60s/70s the charm wins out over any budget limitations. The animators wring every drop of emotion out of the lonely little elephant, he never talks but his sad blue eyes speak volumes. There is only one really good song, performed by the jive talking crows. The most memorable sequence is when Dumbo drinks a few gulps of watered down Champagne, which inexplicably induces an acid freak-out where he imagines dancing multicolored Elephants with black void-like eyes.



Another Bogart film next.
77 years ago...

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High Sierra (1941)
Director: Raoul Walsh
Country: United States
Length: 100 minutes
Type: Crime, Drama, Romance

Going by the title, I thought this would be a Western but it's actually a heist movie. Humphrey Bogart plays a grizzled old ex-con who walks out the prison gates and straight into running a job with a group of younger, inexperienced criminals. When he's with the other hoods he is angry and scary but we also see him as a gentle and kind man, when with a poor family he befriends. Inevitably his two worlds collide and it all starts to go wrong. Many of Bogart's scenes are heartbreaking, watching a man yearn for something pure and good, as death approaches inexorably. See the intensity in Bogart's eyes in this scene:



The first film I've ever watched with Veronica Lake in next.
76 years ago...

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Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Director: Preston Sturges
Country: United States
Length: 90 minutes
Type: Comedy, Social-Commentary

Joel McCrea plays the titular disenchanted Hollywood Director who goes off to experience what it is really like for the poor people of the depression, so he can make his next picture 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' (A title the Coen's later borrowed). McCrea is perfectly cast as a straight-man trying to be serious, as the world keeps making fun of him. Much better suited to this than his role in Hitchcock's Thriller 'Foreign Correspondent'. No matter how hard Sullivan tries to slum it, he always seems to end up back in La La Land. A wonderful Satire on the movie business, I do love films-about-films.

'Sullivan's Travels' is to be celebrated for being a rare example of a Hollywood film from this period that is not horrifically racist (1937's Marx Brothers Comedy 'A Day at the Races' is the only other one I can think of?). The most crucial scene takes place in a black church, where the congregation is shown to be kind, forgiving and Christian. The best of humanity and the finest people in the film. Quite a difference to the usual Hollywood film, in which the black characters are at best shown as childlike buffoons.



This is the first Veronica Lake film I've watched and wow is she a shining star! She plays a young actress who meets Sullivan just as she is giving up on trying to make it in tinsel-town and returning home. The scene below (and some other lines) have a few very timely comments on the "casting couch" mentality that actresses have had to deal with since the early days oh Hollywood:



Another John Ford film next.
76 years ago...

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How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Director: John Ford
Country: United States
Length: 118 minutes
Type: Drama

'How Green Was My Valley' pipped 'Citizen Kane' for the Best Picture Oscar in 1941, starting a long Academy tradition that lasts to this day, of them picking this sort of worthy movie, over more memorable and game-changing films (e.g. 'Mad Max: Fury Road' vs 'Spotlight' in 2015, or 'La La Land' vs 'Moonlight' in 2016). That isn't to say John Ford's film isn't good, it's got everything cranked up to sentimental-factor-9, to really get you in the heart strings, so it would be pretty hard not be swept up by it. I'm sure some will find it overly nostalgic and schmaltzy but it stayed just the right side of that line for me.

The story takes place entirely in an initially idyllic Welsh mining village that becomes increasingly dark and broken-down as the film goes on. I found the overall social/political message to be muddled, or lost. The miners are abused and go on strike but the script seems afraid to tackle the issue too deeply. A couple of characters opine that Socialism is "The devil", yet the striking workers go back to work having settled the dispute with the bosses off screen somehow? Because of the War, filming in Wales was off limits, so Ford apparently had a whole village built specially on an 80-acre site in Santa Monica. It's a seriously impressive outdoor set that is indistinguishable from the real thing. Check it out:

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Walter Pidgeon's Pastor character is obviously supposed to be kind, noble and earnest but I also found him prideful, cowardly and deeply selfish. He condemns the woman he loves to a life of misery in a loveless marriage because he wants to devote his time entirely to God instead of her, something he later learns was a waste of time, having imagined himself the savior of the village... and still he abandons the woman who adores him. Maybe you have to be religious to understand these things.



Another Preston Sturges film next.
75 years ago...

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The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Director: Preston Sturges
Country: United States
Length: 88 minutes
Type: Comedy

A delightfully arch Comedy about a married couple with money troubles which drive them apart. Separately they ironically encounter nothing but the wealthy and privileged, from the oddly eccentric, to the old and dotty, to the dangerously deranged. The last being a "gentlemen's" club of blind-drunk millionaires blasting holes in their own train with shotguns! The script (by Director Preston Sturges) is full of witty dialogue and improbable fun, worthy of Oscar Wilde. Actor Rudy Vallée makes a comedic art of politely putting on and removing his Pince-nez, it really tickled my funny bone for some reason. The movie is book-ended by a couple of impressive layered FXshots (simply done in service of a gag), decades before the motion-control cameras of 'Star Wars'. I'd be fascinated to know exactly how it was done. Clockwork perhaps?



Next is a Bette Davis film.
75 years ago...

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Now, Voyager (1942)
Director: Irving Rapper
Country: United States
Length: 117 minutes
Type: Drama

Bette Davis plays an upper-class Boston woman that has lived for years under the suffocating control of her abusive and domineering mother. A nervous breakdown results in her being sent to a Sanatorium run by a wise and kind Doctor (Claude Rains). He repairs some of the mental damage and sends her off on a restorative cruise to Rio, with the instruction to experience life. The rest of the film follows her struggles to get her sanity and life back together, confronting her mother and also a liberating holiday romance with Paul Henreid. The script gets pretty deep into the psychology, even if the absurdly prudish US censorship of the time, means it has to frustratingly dance around any overt references to sex. Gladys Cooper as the tyrannical mother would scare even Carrie's mom!



'Now, Voyager' shares some of the same cast as 'Casablanca', Max Steiner scored both, they also feature lovers making a noble sacrifice and both finish on beautifully written lines. In this case "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars". Coincidentally...

Next up is 'Casablanca'.
75 years ago...

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Casablanca (1942)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Country: United States
Length: 102 minutes
Type: Romance, Drama

I'm not sure why 'Casablanca' has become such an iconic and well known film, as it's not significantly better than many other Hollywood movies of this period but it sure is one classy affair. Humphrey Bogart in his most famous role as Rick, the nightclub owner with a broken heart, who hides beneath a hard exterior. Casablanca is Vichy-French territory and a last stop for refugees fleeing the War in Europe. Rick tries not to be on anybodies side, the Vichy, the Free-French, the Nazis, or the refugees but as the film develops we see how much his morality is tested. No more so than when the woman that broke his heart becomes the latest refugee. Leading to one of the most iconic lines in movie history:

"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."

The 1000-watt charm of Claude Rains makes his Captain Renault (The Vichy chief of Police) character a lot more likeable than he should be on the page. He has people murdered and tortured, is unashamedly corrupt, openly collaborates with the Nazis and it is made pretty clear that he uses his position to force young girls into sex. One of the more powerful scenes has Rick intervening to save a crying girl from Renault's clutches. I doubt a character could act like this in a 2018 movie and be put forward as somebody the audience is supposed to like by the time the credits role. He does have some of the best quips:



Like the characters, the film itself remains neutral about Sam the Black piano player (Dooley Wilson). He is clearly Rick's best friend, confidant and business partner but to avoid offending any racists in the audience too much, the script cops-out and has Sam never calling his friend "Rick", it's always "Yes Mr Richard", or "Yes Boss". So near, yet so far.



Next is a send-up of the Nazis.
76 years ago...

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To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Country: United States
Length: 99 minutes
Type: Comedy, Satire

'To Be or Not to Be' is another film from this list that I knew nothing about but which is now a firm favorite. It has a genius comedy script packed with setups and payoffs and callbacks upon callbacks. On the eve of the German invasion, a Polish theater company is mounting a play sending up the Nazis but it's banned for being too inflammatory. Later when Poland is occupied the company get mixed up in the intrigues of a Nazi agent and a Polish RAF pilot. This is when their acting skills and their leftover German costumes come back into play. The cracking dialogue doesn't just mock the inherent ridiculousness of the Nazis to brilliant effect but also has an affectionate pop at the acting profession too. A good example would be when a Gestapo officer reviews an actor's performance:

"What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland."

The best bit has theater star Tura (Jack Benny) impersonate a Gestapo officer in order to fool the Nazi agent and then impersonates the same agent to fool the real Gestapo officer! Very, very clever writing that would make this an ideal double-bill with 1973's 'The Sting'. I must watch the 1983 Mel Brooks remake some time.



A Horror film next.
75 years ago...

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Cat People (1942)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Country: United States
Length: 73 minutes
Type: Horror, Drama

'Cat People's story of a woman who may be a satanic "were-panther", or may just be disturbed, is an interesting psychological one. The use of shadow and sound (and little else) to put the viewer on edge and engineer jump-scares is rightly famous. To create so much atmosphere with so little is a credit to Director Jacques Tourneur but everything else is weak. The relative cheapness of this B-picture is most evident in the poor acting of the two lead actors. French actress Simone Simon struggles a little with her English dialogue but Kent Smith is terribly wooden. The elaborate staircase from the expensive Orson Welles film 'The Magnificent Ambersons' (from the same period at RKO Pictures) is noticeably reused to save money. The artistic Ambersons barely broke even but the thrifty 'Cat People' made back about 60x it's budget. RKO took note and acted accordingly.



Next up is that million-dollar Orson Welles film.
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