Pinocchio (1940)

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Directed by Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske et al
Written by Ted Sears et al from the story by Carlo Collodi
1940/USA
Walt Disney Productions

#148 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Jiminy Cricket: You buttered your bread. Now sleep in it!

I don’t think Disney’s second feature cartoon quite matches the first but it is good value anyway.

Jiminy Cricket illustrates the power of wishing on a star through the tale of Pinocchio. Kindly woodcarver Gepetto who lives alone with his cat Figaro and goldfish Cleo wishes that a wooden marionette he has made was a real boy.  The Blue Fairy animates the puppet but tells Pinocchio that he will only become real if he proves honest, brave, and unselfish.  She assigns Jiminy as Pinocchio’s conscience to help out.  But the naive gullible puppet gets into one scrape after another en route to boyhood.

pinocchio 1 This film is undeniably a classic but is a little moralizing for my taste.  You can see the spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down all over the place.  I much prefer those crazy dwarfs.  Other than that, it is practically perfect and the songs are wonderful.

Lee J. Harlin, Paul J. Smith,  and Ned Washington won Academy Awards for Best Original Song (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) and Best Original Score.

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The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia StoryPhiladelphia Story Poster
Directed by George Cukor
Written by Donald Ogden Stewart from a play by Philip Barry
1940/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#144 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Macaulay Connor: The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.

This literate romantic comedy is a good representation of the heights the studio system could reach at its peak.  What a cast!

Beautiful headstrong  rich girl Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) butted heads with her first husband C, Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) during their short marriage.  Now she is set to marry self-promoting dupe George Kitteredge (John Howard of Bulldog Drummond fame).  It is hard not to prefer Dexter to George and almost everyone does.  Her wedding will take place in the home of her parents (Mary Nash and John Halliday), who are estranged at Tracy’s insistence due to her father’s alleged philandering.

Dexter arranges for magazine reporter Macauley Connor (James Stewart) and his sometime girlfriend photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to be admitted incognito into the household of the publicity-shy Lords.  Their cover is soon blown but the magazine has dirt on Mr. Lord that allows them to stay.  During the hubbub in the day before the wedding, events conspire to knock Tracy off her high horse and show her her heart. With Roland Young as Tracy’s lecherous Uncle Willy and Virginia Wielder as her wisecracking little sister.

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This film at last put the nail in the coffin of Hepburn’s “box-office poison” status.  And rightfully so as the material was written for her and she was never so radiant, beautiful, or bewitching.  Even when she is being a pain in the neck, you can’t help but love her.  And the two male leads rose admirably to the occasion.  James Stewart won his lone Best Actor Oscar for this but Grant is equally good in a less wordy part.  Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberger paints Hepburn’s face as only the silver screen could.

I always forget that this movie has a serious side.  That only serves to allow the actors more range for their talents.  The commentator on the DVD I rented says that this film shows the direction the studios would have taken in the forties if the war had not intervened.  I don’t know that I buy that but it is an interesting take.

Aside from Stewart’s award, The Philadelphia Story won for its screenplay.  It was nominated by the Academy for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Hussey), and Best Director.

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Christmas in July (1940)

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Written and Directed by Preston Sturges
1940/USA
Paramount Pictures

Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

 

Jimmy MacDonald: If you can’t sleep, it isn’t the coffee. It’s the bunk.

Preston Sturges is a great favorite of mine but somehow this early effort leaves me less than wildly enthusiastic.

Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) and Betty Casey (Ellen Drew) are in love.  Jimmy doesn’t want to marry unless he can do so in style.  He has his hopes pinned on winning $25,000 in a coffee slogan contest.  In the meantime, the jury at the coffee company is deadlocked in choosing the winner due to a recalcitrant member (William Demerest). Jimmy’s office mates play a practical joke by sending him a telegram to say he won.  When he takes it in to the company president, he writes Jimmy a check and the hijinx begin.  With Franklin Pangborn and a host of character actors from Sturges’s stock company.

christmas in july 1This just does not hit the heights of inspired lunacy I expect from Sturges.  That’s not to say that it isn’t a perfectly fine picture and very funny in places.  Something may be a little off about the pacing.  I like Dick Powell very much but I also think that he lacked the necessary edge to carry off the lead role here.

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Home again, home again …

We had cold weather and rain (and a snowstorm in Helsinki) but the mild winter and early spring in the Netherlands filled the fields with flowers. We had fun but I’m now itching to get back to watching some movies!  For a change of pace, these are my own pictures.

Windmills Kinderdyke UNESCO Site

Windmills at Kinderdijk UNESCO World Heritage Site – shades of Foreign Correspondent!

Lake at Keukenhof

The lake at Keukenhof Gardens

Fancy tulips at Keukenhof

Fancy tulips at Keukenhof

Away across the sea

I’ll be away for the next three weeks.  First my husband and I will visit his relatives in Gothenberg, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland and then we will take a river cruise through the Netherlands and Belgium, where, God willing, we will see tulips and windmills.  I expect it will be freezing but that will be a good change from here in the desert.

I’ll take up where I left off in my movie viewing on March 29.

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Cathedral, Helsinki

 

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The Sea Hawk (1940)

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Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Howard Koch and Seton I. Miller
1940/USA
Warner Bros.

First viewing?/Netflix rental

 

King Philip II: [anticipating the success of the Armada] With England conquered, nothing can stand in our way. Northern Africa… Europe as far east as the Urals… then the New World: to the north, to the south, west to the Pacific… over the Pacific to China and to the Indies will our empire spread. One day, before my death, we shall sit here and gaze at this map upon the wall. It will have ceased to be a map of the world. It will be Spain.

I thought this highly rated Errol Flynn adventure was only OK.  Then again, I was distracted.

In 15th Century England, dashing pirate Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) seizes Spanish ships and treasure for the crown.  He captures a galleon bearing the Spanish Ambassador (Claude Rains) and his daughter Maria (Brenda Marshall), sinks it, frees the English galley slaves (?!), and takes all passengers aboard.  The Ambassador complains loudly to Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) and she promises it won’t happen again while secretly welcoming her share of the treasure.  Her loyal counselor urges her to arm against a coming Armada but traitor Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) argues against it and the Queen herself believes the country cannot afford this.

Thorpe comes up with a daring plan to seize Spanish gold at the source in Panama (?). The rest of the story follows his travails in the jungle, his escape from a Spanish galleon, and his romance with Maria.  With Alan Hale as Thorpe’s sidekick, Donald Crisp as a courtier, and Una O’Connor as Maria’s lady’s maid.

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To be fair, I did not perhaps give this the attention it deserved amid my packing.  On the other hand, I had rated this movie before now and remember absolutely nothing about it.  Anyway, the performances are all fine although Brenda Marshall is no Olivia DeHavilland and Henry Daniell, snide as he is, is no Basil Rathbone particularly in the fencing department.  There is a definite patriotic flavor to the piece with Philip of Spain standing in for Hitler and Elizabeth for Winston Churchill.

The Sea Hawk was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Sound Recording, Best Special Effects and Best Score (Erich Wolfgang Korngold).

Trailer

 

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Thief of Bagdadthief of bagdad poster
Directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, and Tim Whelan
Screenplay by Miles Malleson, Scenario by Lajos Biró, Story by Miklos Rosca
1940/UK
London Film Productions

Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

Genie: You’re a clever little man little master of the universe, but mortals are weak and frail. If their stomach speaks, they forget their brain. If their brain speaks, they forget their heart. And if their heart speaks [laughter]  … they forget everything.

Why this hugely influential Technicolor special effects extravaganza does not qualify as a “Movie You Must See Before You Die” is beyond my comprehension.

Ahmad (John Justin) is the young King of Bagdad.  His evil Grand Vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) tricks him into going out among his people then having him arrested as a mad man.  Thrown into jail at the same time is a mischievous boy thief Abu (Sabu).  They escape together and head off for Basra.  There Ahmad is captivated by a Princess (June Duprez), daughter of the Sultan (Miles Malleson).  Unfortunately, Jaffar is also desperately in love with her and trades the toy-obsessed Sultan a mechanical flying horse for her hand.  He also blinds Ahmad and changes Abu into a dog until the day he can hold the Princess in his arms.

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The rest of the story shows the adventures of the two friends on the way to reuniting Ahmad with the Princess and his throne.  These include Abu’s encounter with a Genii and his theft of an All-Seeing eye.  All the while, the two must stay one step ahead of the ruthless Jaffar.

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This is a visual and aural feast and it is hard to imagine that anyone would not find some aspect of the production to love.  The colors are absolutely mind-blowing, particularly in the Blu-Ray edition that I watched. In addition, this is one of Conrad Veidt’s great performances.  Although many of the special effects appear clunky to our 21st Century eyes, this film influenced directors from Martin Scorsese to Stephen Spielberg.  In fact, the Blu-Ray Criterion Collection DVD has a commentary by Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in which they recount their reactions as children and, in general, gush about the movie.  Heartily recommended.

The Thief of Bagdad won Academy Awards for its Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction. and Special Effects.  It was nominated for Miklos Rosca’s beautiful Original Score.

Trailer

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Foreign CorrespondentForreign Correspondent poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, et al
1939/USA
Walter Wanger Productions

First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Johnny Jones: All that noise you hear isn’t static – it’s death, coming to London. Yes, they’re coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don’t tune me out, hang on a while – this is a big story, and you’re part of it. It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come… as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!

Hitchcock’s other 1940 Academy Award nominee couldn’t be more different than Rebecca or more Hitchcockian.

A newspaper editor is fed up with the analyses he is getting from his foreign correspondents in Europe on the likelihood of war.  So he decides to send a crime reporter (Joel McCrea) to get some facts.  Johnny Jones doesn’t even know there is a crisis in Europe and seemingly doesn’t care so he seems ideal for the job.  Johnny is rechristened Huntley Haverstock for his mission.

He is told to look up Mr. Van Meer (Albert Basserman), an elder statesman, on arrival.  Van Meer is slated to speak at a conference organized by the Universal Peace Party run by Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall).  When he gets to the conference, Van Meer has cancelled but he has the chance to meet and fall for Fisher’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day).  Johnny then sets off for Amsterdam to try to buttonhole Van Meer at another meeting only to witness his apparent assassination.

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Johnny takes off, with Carol, on the trail of the assassin and catches up with the gang and the kidnapped real Van Meer hiding out in a windmill.  The remainder of the story follows Johnny’s attempts to escape the gang and rescue Van Meer, with the assistance of Carol and fellow reporter Scott ffolliott (George Sanders).  It also follows Johnny’s arc from cynic to patriot.  With Edmund Gwynn as a murderous “private detective”, Joseph Calleia as a thug, and Robert Benchley as the paper’s actual foreign correspondent.

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I am a huge Joel McCrea fan and this is one of my favorite Hitchcock films.  It is the kind of episodic adventure and thriller that presages something like North by Northwest.  As such, it is made up of unforgettable set pieces like the assassination amid the crowd of umbrellas, the strangely behaving windmills, and a spectacular plane crash at sea.  The film was made at the same time that Hitler was marching through Europe and the message was updated constantly, through the time McCrea’s impassioned speech to America was tacked on at the end.  The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray that I rented contained a couple of interesting talks about World War II Hollywood propaganda and how the special effects were achieved.  Recommended.

Foreign Correspondent was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Basserman); Best Writing (Original Screenplay); Best Black-and-White Cinematography; Best Black-and-White Art Direction; and Best Special Effects.

Trailer

 

The Letter (1940)

The Letterletter poster
Directed by William Wyler
Written by Howard Hoch based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham
1940/USA
Warner Bros.

Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

 

Howard Joyce: Be flippant about your own crimes if you want to, but don’t be flippant about mine!

This gripping tale of deception and revenge features one of Bette Davis’s greatest performances and splendid moonlight-drenched cinematography.

The setting is a rubber plantation overseen by Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) and his wife Leslie (Davis) in colonial Malaya. The story begins as Leslie stands over a man’s body in cold rage and pumps several bullets into him.  She later explains to her husband and a couple of officials that she shot the man, whom the couple knew but had not seen in several months, in self-defense after he drunkenly attempted to “make love” to her.  Her explanation is deemed so detailed and believable that arresting her is a mere formality.  Her acquittal is even more assured since the victim had committed the seemingly unpardonable sin of marrying a “Eurasian” woman (Gale Sondergaard).

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The couple proceed to Singapore where they hire family friend and lawyer Howard Joyce (Robert Stephenson).  Joyce finds Leslie’s story a bit fishy but the jig is up when his law clerk (the appropriately oily Victor Sen Yung) tells him that the widow is in possession of a letter Leslie wrote the day of the murder begging the victim to come to her.  She is willing to sell the document for a sum that conveniently happens to be almost the entire balance of devoted Robert’s savings account.  The other requirement is that Leslie deliver the money in person.

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Leslie initially denies the letter is genuine and then tries to make it appear innocent but Joyce isn’t buying it.  And Joyce has serious ethical and legal reservations to buying the letter either but reluctantly decides to do so out of friendship to Robert.  Leslie is indeed acquitted. Will justice at last be done?

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This is a beautiful, beautiful movie with most key scenes taking place on moonlit nights amid shadows worthy of the best films noir.  Bette Davis is convincing as the utterly controlled Leslie, her emotions suppressed by obsessive lace tatting until they aren’t. There are almost no Davis mannerisms in evidence here.  Her tear-stained face after the climax of the film is utterly believable.  The supporting cast is equally fine.  Highly recommended.

The Letter was nominated by the Academy in seven categories: Best Picture; Best Actress; Best Supporting Actor (Stephenson); Best Director; Best Black-and-White Cinematography (Tony Gaudio); Best Film Editing; and Best Original Score (Max Steiner).

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And on to a new decade (1940)

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The Great Dictator – Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania and Jack Oakie as Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria

As Hitler marched through Europe, Hollywood kept a smile resolutely plastered to its face.

In industry news, 1940 saw the film debuts of Abbott and Costello, Woody Woodpecker, and Tom and Jerry.  Preston Sturges made his directorial debut with The Great McGinty. Disney’s groundbreaking Fantasia  introduced a stereo-like’, multi-channel soundtrack (an optical ‘surround-sound’ soundtrack printed on a separate 35mm reel from the actual video portion of the film).  Many critics call this year’s The Stranger on the Third Floor, starring Peter Lorre, the first film noir.  The first agents began to assemble creative talent and stories in exchange for a percentage of the film’s profits.
First_McDonalds,_San_Bernardino,_CaliforniaIn the United States, the very first McDonald’s restaurant opened in San Bernardino, California.  The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was signed into law, creating the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. The United States imposed a total embargo on all scrap metal shipments to Japan.  In November’s election, Roosevelt defeated Wendell Willkie to become America’s first and only third-term president.  In December, he laid out his plan to send aid to Great Britain that would become known as Lend-Lease and declared that the United States must become “the great arsenal of democracy.”

Hitler in Paris 1940

In World news, Hitler invaded Norway, Denmark (April 9), the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg (May 10), and France (May 12). Churchill became Britain’s prime minister and the Battle of Britain began. Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico on August 20. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were annexed by the USSR.   Japan occupied French Indochina.

Oscar winners for 1940

All 1940 films nominated for Academy Awards