Wake Island (1942)

Wake Islandwake island poster
Directed by John Farrow
Written by W. R. Burnett and Frank Butler
1942/USA
Paramount Pictures
First viewing/Universal Studios DVD

 

Maj. Geoffrey Caton: Boys, the honeymoon’s over. From now on you’re marines.

Why, if  Wake Island is the first “action” WWII movie, does it feel like such a cliche?  Maybe this is where these cliches started?

The film began production before the December 1941 battle for Wake Island was over and is a highly dramatized account of the Marines defense of the U.S. garrison on the island beginning on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.

The story begins as Major Geoffrey Caton (Brian Donlevy) is arriving to take command of the sleepy outpost.  From the beginning, he clashes with crusty Shad McClosky (Albert Dekker) who is arriving to supervise the civilian construction crew on the island.  At the same time we get the back stories of several of the Marines including cutup “Smacksie” Randall (William Bendix) who is being discharged and shipping home to marry his sweetheart and pilot Lt. Bruce Cameron (Macdonald Carey) whose wife is working at Pearl Harbor.

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All the kidding around and squabbling stops when the Japanese attack the island. Although they are vastly outnumbered, the Marines fight on to the last man, inflicting serious damage on the enemy.  With Robert Preston as a Marine private.

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Although the film implies that there were no survivors, the garrison surrendered after the first wave of attacks.  The Marines were sent to POW camps in Japan but the construction crew remained on the island as forced labor to build up defenses for the Japanese.  Ninety-nine of these civilians were massacred when the Japanese expected an Allied attack to retake the atoll.  The commander that ordered the murders was later executed as a war criminal.

This was my first viewing but I certainly felt like I had seen this before.  It has all the usual Hollywood combat picture tropes excepting a multi-ethnic platoon which I imagine emerges soon enough.  The combat scenes are good, though

Wake Island was nominated for four Academy Awards:  Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor (William Bendix); and Best Writing, Original Screenplay.

In Which We Serve (1942)

In Which We Servein-which-we-serve-poster-_1
Directed by Noel Coward and David Lean
Written by Noel Coward
1942/UK
Two Cities Films
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

(last line) Voiceover: God bless our ships… and all who sail in them.

This has been the best yet in my mini-festival of 1942 British films made to prepare the populace for hard times to come.

In Which We Serve is a tribute to a ship, the HMS Torrin, the men who love her, and the women who love them.  Noel Coward plays the captain of the ship E.V. Kinross, a character closely modeled on his friend Lord Mountbatten.  Cecilia Johnson, in her film debut, plays his wife.

The story begins with the dive bombing of the ship and is told in flashback as some of the survivors cling to a life raft and ponder the past.

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We follow the fate of the ship from its construction in the run-up to Britain’s entry into the war through various engagements, its evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk, and its eventual sinking.  We witness the wives and sweethearts of the sailors saying goodbye repeatedly to their men and displaying their own heroism during the Battle of Britain.

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Noel Coward brought in seasoned editor David Lean to direct the action sequences. as his directorial debut.  Coward soon tired of his directing duties leaving Lean at the helm for most of the shooting.  He did a really superb job on a very complicated project.  The acting is uniformly top-notch.

As I mentioned before many of the films of this period seem designed to teach the British how they were expected to deal with adversity – i.e. with a stiff upper lip, good humor, and courage.  There are many touching moments in the story whose pathos was only heightened with the bravery with which the men and women carried on in spite of everything.  Warmly recommended.

The film is apparently in the public domain and is widely available online.

Noel Coward won an honorary award at the 1943 Academy Awards ceremony for “his outstanding production achievement in In Which We Serve“.  The film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Writing, Original Screenplay the following year.

In Which We Serve marked the screen debut of Richard Attenborough who died on August 24, 2014.  May he rest in peace.

Trailer

The Major and the Minor (1942)

The Major and the Minor major and the minor 1942
Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder; suggested by a play by Edward Childs Carpenter; from a story by Fanny Kilbourne
1942/USA
Paramount Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental

First Conductor: If you’re Swedish, suppose you say something in Swedish.

Susan Applegate: I vant to be alone.

Billy Wilder’s directorial debut is made with his characteristic panache but I found the premise vaguely icky.

Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) finally gets a job in New York City. On her first night as an in-home scalp masseuse, she is repeatedly propositioned by her randy middle-aged client (Robert Benchley).  This is the final straw and Susan decides to return home to small town Iowa.  She has saved the return fare in a sealed envelope but when she tries to buy a train ticket she discovers that the price has increased.  Broke, she disguises herself as a twelve year old to ride on the half-price children’s fare.

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Conductors on the train find the disguise none too convincing and Susan slips into a sleeping compartment for shelter.  Surprisingly, the occupant Major Kirby buys Susan’s age hook, line and sinker leading to a number of risqué situations in which he tries to put Susan into bed with him to calm her fears of thunder, etc.

Kirby takes Susan to the military academy where he works as an instructor and is engaged to the very single-minded daughter of its commandant, Pamela.  He refuses to let Susan ride home alone, so she is subjected to the unwanted attentions of the teenage cadets.  Susan is put up in the room of Pamela’s kid sister Lucy (Diana Lynn) who is immediately wise to the ruse.  Lucy is willing to keep the secret, though, since she has little use for her sister and is trying to fight Pamela’s efforts to keep Kirby at the academy despite his desire to go on active duty in the army.  Lucy and Susan, who is falling for Kirby, team up to try to get him his wish.

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There is nothing per se wrong with this highly rated film.  Rogers, in particular, is excellent. She might even pass for a precocious twelve-year-old.  The trouble is that she often acts more like a six-year-old.  The other problem is that there is something that just seems wrong with using a twelve-year-old’s age to get away with a bunch of double entendres, however witty.  Otherwise, I would say go for it.

Trailer

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Went the Day Well?went the day well poster
Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti
Written by John Dighton, Diana Morgan, and Angus MacFail from a story by Graham Greene
1942/UK
Ealing Studios
First viewing/Lionsgate DVD

Went the day well?/We died and never knew/But well or ill/Freedom, we died for you. — Title card

Ealing Studios is generally associated with comedies.  This fine early effort is anything but.

Although the film was made while the outcome was far from clear, the story is told in flashback from a time after the Allies have won WWII.  A group of German parachutists disguised as “Royal Engineers” takes over a small English town as an advance team for the upcoming invasion of Britain.  They are assisted in their nefarious scheme by local Fifth-Columnist Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks).

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After initially cooperating, the villagers discover the identity of the soldiers fairly early on. The Nazis react by herding everyone into a church and terrorizing them.  Unfortunately, the villagers nominate Wilsford as their spokesman.  The rest of the story follows their heroic efforts to make their plight known to the authorities.

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I was surprised at how graphic and hard-hitting this movie was.  The Nazis are, of course, beasts but the villagers are driven to equal brutality by the end of the piece.  The most loathsome of the characters, however, is the oily Wilsford.  The film must have been a powerful means of rousing the people during the darker days of the war when fears of invasion were running high.  Very interesting and recommended.

Trailer for the BFI restored release

Holiday Inn (1942)

Holiday Innholiday inn poster
Directed by Mark Sandrich
Written by Claude Binyon and Edgar Rice from an idea by Irving Berlin
1942/USA
Paramount Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/ With every Christmas card I write/ May your days be merry and bright/ And may all Your Christmases be white — “White Christmas”, lyrics by Irving Berlin

Holiday Inn has a whole lot more going for it than “White Christmas”.

Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) are friendly rivals and partners in a nightclub act.  Jim is engaged to Ted’s dancing partner Lila and plans to retire to a farm in the country after the wedding.  Seeking to save his act, Ted confesses his love to Lila and persuades her to stay in show biz.

Jim sets off for the country anyway.  He comes up with idea of opening an inn at his farm that will be open only on holidays and feature entertainment with songs he will write for each occasion.  Eventually, he is joined by lovely singer/dancer Linda.

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After Lila dumps him for a richer man, Ted shows up at the inn like a bad penny.  He chances to dance with Linda and she becomes the only partner for him.  But she disappears and Jim manages to hide her from Ted for a while.  Then history repeats itself.  Or does it?

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Aside from performances of standards like “White Christmas”, “Easter Parade”, and You’re Easy to Dance With”, Holiday Inn is blessed with one of Astaire’s most classic numbers, “The Firecracker Dance”.  The lesser-known songs are good too and are presented enjoyably by director Sandridge (Top Hat).  The film is regrettably marred by a blackface number, “Abraham”, for the Lincoln Birthday holiday.  Even that gives us the chance to hear Louise Beavers sing, so all is not lost.

“White Christmas”, lyrics and music by Irving Berlin, won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original song.  Holiday Inn was nominated for Oscars for Best Writing, Original Story and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.

Until 1997, “White Christmas” was the best selling music single ever. It was passed at that time by “Goodbye, England’s Rose” done for Princess Diana’s funeral. These two songs still top the rankings.  The song’s success is attributable largely to the war years when millions found themselves longing for home at Christmas.

Trailer

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942)

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (L’assassin habite… au 21)
muderer lives at number 21 poster Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by Henri-Georges Clousot and Stanislas-Andre Steeman
1942/France

First viewing/Hulu Plus

 

Monsieur Colin: Life has never been very kind to me. And when I say life, I mean people. People are evil, father.

One part whodunit, one part black comedy, and one part film noir, this early effort by Master of Suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique, The Wages of Fear) is well worth a look.

Serial killer Monsieur Durand seems to slay with impunity, thumbing his nose at police by leaving his calling card with the body of each new victim.  Inspector Wenseslaus Wens (Pierre Fresnay) is on the case as is his annoying chanteuse live-in girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair), who hopes that solving the crime will get her work.  Wens gets a break when a furniture remover finds a cache of Durand’s cards in a trunk located in the attic of a boarding house.

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Wens rents a room there, disguised as a Protestant minister.  He finds plenty of suspects in the seedy establishment, but each is eliminated as the murders continue despite several arrests.  Wens promises to reveal the killer at a soiree held at the boarding house to celebrate clearing the names of the tenants. It would be criminal to reveal the nifty twist ending.

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I thought this was a whole lot of fun.  The intricate plot highlights Clouzot’s already characteristic misanthropy as well as considerable wit.  The visuals are stylish and beautiful and I adore Fresnay anew with each performance.  Recommended.

Clouzot made this film for Continental Films, which was owned by the Nazi government.  This and other films he made during the war were used as grounds to ban him from future involvement in the film industry for life at his post-war trial for collaboration with the enemy.  Fortunately for future generations of film buffs, his sentence was soon commuted to two years.

Clip – opening

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

The Man Who Came to Dinnerman who came to dinner poster
Directed by William Keighley
Written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein from the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
1942/USA
Warner Bros.
First viewing/Netflix rental

Sheridan Whiteside: Is there a man in the world who suffers as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?

This is a wacky frenetic comedy something along the lines of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You.

Sheridan Whiteside (Monte Woolley) is the grand old man of American letters and a beloved radio host, specializing in sentimental holiday specials.  He is also a nasty egomaniac who uses his acerbic wit to bully all in earshot to do his bidding.

He and secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) arrive in a small Ohio town to give a lecture. They are scheduled to dine at the home of local bigwig Ernest Stanley and his ditzy socialite wife (Billie Burke).  He slips on their icy steps before he can even get in the front door however and the doctor announces that he has broken his hip and cannot be moved.

Through threats of litigation, Whiteside manages to take over the entire household, relegating the Stanleys to cowering in an upstairs bedroom.  He terrorizes his nurse (the wonderful Mary Wicks – Now, Voyager) and starts running his media empire via long distance calls around the globe on the Stanley’s phone.  He also gives the Stanley children advice that causes both of them to run away from home.

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The sojourn in Ohio does have the positive effect of allowing faithful Maggie to fall in love with local newspaper owner and aspiring playwright Bert Jefferson.  Fearful that Maggie will leave him, Whiteside schemes his seduction by actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan). who has her own personal axe to grind against Maggie.  But Maggie has a secret weapon in the form of Whiteside’s friend Banjo (Jimmy Durante).

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I just loved Ann Sheridan in the part of the vain pretentious Lorraine, so uncharacteristic of her usual roles.  While a little bit of Durante goes a long way, he also is very good here.  The whole is a pleasant enough entertainment with some real laughs.

Clip – Jimmy Durante, Monte Woolley, and Mary Wickes

There Was a Father (1942)

There Was a Father (“Chichi Ariki”)there was a father poster
Directed Yasujiro Ozu
Written by Tadao Ikeda, Yasujiro Ozu, and Takao Yanai
1942/Japan
Shochiku Eiga
First viewing/Hulu Plus

 

The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup — this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to? And something that, in our Western civilization, we do not know how to attain?

The contemplation of eternity within the very movement of life. — Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I love the films of Yasujiro Ozu but this one, although exquisitely shot, was slow going for me.

Widower Shuhei Horikawa is raising his young son Ryohei.  He teaches at a junior high school in Tokyo.  When he takes the class on an outing, some of the boys disobey him by taking rowboats out on a lake. One of the boats capsizes and a boy drowns. Shuhei believes he could have been more forceful in preventing the tragedy and decides he can no longer be responsible for other people’s children.  He moves with Ryohei to his home town in the north and begins working on an assembly line.

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Shuhei’s total focus is on getting Ryohei a good education.  He sends him off to a boarding school for junior high.  The boy’s separation from his father leaves a life long yearning in his heart.  Later, Shuhei decides he can make more money in Tokyo and even the weekly visits with his son must stop to be replaced by very occasional time together in the summer.  The boy graduates from university and becomes a teacher himself.  When he tells his father he want to quit and find work in Tokyo so they can live together at last, Shuhei disagrees saying that everyone’s great duty in these times is to put aside personal concerns and concentrate on doing one’s best in his chosen profession.

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Even though by the end Ryohei has passed his physical for the draft, this is not treated as a matter of concern and the viewer would otherwise have no clue that total war was in the real life backdrop to this movie.  I found Ozu’s transition shots – to household objects, scenery, etc. – to linger longer than usual and to drag down the pace of this movie.  The understated love between father and son is quite touching and the ending is very moving  but I unfortunately found this one less contemplative than just plain slow.

The viewing experience was admittedly marred by the poor print and sound quality of the version I watched.

Clip – going away

 

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Mrs. MiniverPoster - Mrs. Miniver_01
Directed by William Wyler
Written by Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton and Claudine West from the book by Jan Struther
1942/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#164 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Kay Miniver: But in war, time is so precious to the young people.

And yet another 1942 film that tugs at the heartstrings …

The Miniver family, headed by architect Clem Miniver (Walter Pidgeon) enjoys a peaceful middle-class existence with grown son Vin and two much younger children.  They can afford little luxuries like a frivolous hat or a new car.  Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) is the heart and soul of her family and displays a special kind of grace and charm to her neighbors.  Railway station employee Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers) thinks so much of her that he names a new rose he has developed in her honor – the “Mrs. Miniver”.  He intends to enter the rose in the annual Flower Show.

Snooty Lady Belden (Dame May Whitty) has always won the first prize for her roses and takes umbrage that lowly Mr. Ballard would dare to even enter the show.  She sends her granddaughter Carol (Theresa Wright) to persuade Mrs. Miniver to use her influence.  This does not work but for Vin it is love at first sight despite a prickly beginning.

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The Minivers accept the coming of war with a stiff upper lip.  Vin immediately enlists in the RAF and is stationed at a nearby airbase.  Vin and Carol marry after a lightening courtship, over the objections of her grandmother.  The Minivers meet the many hardships and tragedies on the home front with courage befitting the bravest soldiers.  With Reginald Owen as an air warden.

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Winston Churchill said that Mrs. Miniver did more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers.  It certainly is a sweet and touching piece of propaganda with some beautiful performances.  I preferred Wright’s Oscar-nominated leading actress performance in The Pride of the Yankees to her supporting role here – her English accent is pretty spotty for one thing – but I’m glad she was acknowledged in this breakthrough year.  This is an England that more closely resembles suburban America but that would only have made it more sympathetic to American audiences.  The ending is kind of hard to take.

I hadn’t known until today that Garson ended up marrying Richard Ney, the actor who played her son Vin in the movie.

Mrs. Miniver won six Academy Awards:  Best Picture; Best Actress (Garson); Best Supporting Actress (Wright); Best Director; Best Writing, Screenplay; and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Joseph Ruttenberg).  It was nominated for an additional six Oscars: Best Actor (Pidgeon); Best Supporting Actor (Travers); Best Supporting Actress (Whitty); Best Sound, Recording; Best Film Editing; and Best Effects, Special Effects.

Trailer

Spitfire (1942)

Spitfire (AKA “The First of the Few”)spitfire poster
Directed by Leslie Howard
Written by Miles Malleson and Anatole de Grunwald; story by Henry C. James and Kay Strobe
1942/UK
British Aviation Pictures
First viewing/Amazon Prime Instant Video

Geoffrey Crisp: [Sotto voce, to the heavens] They can’t take the Spitfires Mitch. They can’t take ’em.

This is a fairly standard biopic about the engineer who designed the Spitfire fighter used by the RAF to great effect in WWII.

RAF squadron commander Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven) tells the history of the plane they fly to his men. Segue to flashback.  R.J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) was a very successful designer of seaplanes that consistently won important races.  But he dreams of building a plane that flies like a bird.  It takes him years to get the financing to realize his dreams.  He enjoys the constant support of test pilot Crisp, though.  When the two decide to take a holiday in Germany shortly before the outbreak of WWII, Mitchell becomes totally committed to his idea as a high-speed fighter plane.  He proceeds to work himself to death to get the plane into production before war breaks out.

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Spitfire plays on all the standard biopic tropes of the inventor who overcomes great odds to bring his ideas to fruition.  There are some good shots of WWII bombers and fighters in action.

This was the last on-screen performance of Leslie Howard before his plane was tragically shot down in 1943.

Clip – opening