Movie #75: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Director: John Ford

Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, and Russell Simpson

Academy Awards (1941):

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jane Darwell

Best Director: John Ford

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Henry Fonda

Best Film Editing: Robert L. Simpson

Best Picture: Darryl F. Zanuck, Nunnally Johnson

Best Sound, Recording: Edmund H. Hansen/20th Century Fox SSD

Best Writing, Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson

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Tom Joad (Fonda) returns to his family’s farm in Oklahoma after spending four years in prison for homicide.  He finds that his family has packed their things and is preparing to move to California in search of work.  Their journey is representative of many farming families of The Great Depression as they had to deal with homelessness, starvation, greedy company owners, and crooked cops as they searched for a means to provide for their family.

This is an interesting film, to say the least.  The Joad family here, representative of many families of the time, deal with a wide array of issues and problems: starvation, corporate greed, desperation.  At times it was sickening to see to what lengths those in charge would go to maintain control and keep their workforce more or less as indentured servants.

It’s sad how some of those injustices still exist today.

Henry Fonda does great as there strong-willed, though naive at times, leader of the Joad family.  Something Ford did right with this film is how he didn’t take away from the main message of the book for the sake of following the Hollywood formula.  Tom is a flawed hero: dealing with his anger and at times it getting the best of him.  In this film Fonda finds that balance of knowing how to be calm, but also to lose his calm when facing certain injustices.  He lost the Best Actor Oscar to Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story.  I’m not sure the Academy got that one right though.

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Though Tom Joad is the upfront leader of the family, Ma Joad (Darwell) is really where the buck stops with the family.  She puts Tom, and anyone else for that matter, in their place and is the strong voice of reason and rationality most of the time.  The only other film I’ve seen Jane Darwell in is Mary Poppins, and since she plays the bird lady in that film, The Grapes of Wrath is the only one I’ve seen that’s really showcased her acting talent.

Needless to say, she nailed this one.  I can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job.  Her command of her scenes is unquestioned, and her constant awareness of the state of the family really grounds the story.

At just over two hours, The Grapes of Wrath does a good job of advancing the story and it kept me engaged throughout.  I had mixed feelings about the sometimes short cut scenes.  There would be a fade in, a 15 to 20 second scene, and cut out.  Though I’m not generally a fan of that, Ford does a good job with these in making the most of the limited screen time for some of these scenes.  They serve their purpose, advance the plot, and communicate the message.

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Having neither seen nor read The Grapes of Wrath, and honestly not knowing a whole lot about the story, I was impressed with this film.  It works well as a historical look at the times and attitudes of farmers from The Great Depression, and presents compelling social observations.  Strong acting and directing communicate the message of Steinbeck’s book and remaining an entertaining film.  While I probably won’t read the book (and from what I’ve read the movie’s ending is a watered-down version of the book’s), I wouldn’t entirely rule it out.  I’d probably watch this again as a teaching tool in talking about the time period.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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Movie #74: Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, and Jean Heather

Academy Award Nomination (1945):

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Barbara Stanwyck

Best Cinematography, Black-and-White: John F. Seitz

Best Director: Billy Wilder

Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Miklos Rozsa

Best Picture: Joseph Sistrom

Best Sound, Recording: Loren L, Ryder

Best Writing, Screenplay: Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder

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Walter Neff (MacMurray) an insurance salesman devises a plan with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) to have her husband killed.  They plan on making it look like an accident so she can collect on her recently opened life insurance policy.  They take it a step further by staging the death to look like her husband fell off the back of a train, one of the circumstances that would grant her double indemnity, or a payout of double the policy’s value.  They run into a huge snag though with Barton Keyes (Robinson), the insurance company’s claims investigator.

The film opens with Neff recording his confession and weaving through the elaborate plan as the murder and subsequent investigation by the insurance company.  This was a great way to tell the story, and I must say I was impressed with the script.  This film is based on a murder that took place in the summer of 1927, where a housewife and her boyfriend killed her husband, attempted to make it look like an accident, and were eventually caught for the liars that they were.  I recently heard a little about the original murder on NPR, and it was significant because it was one of the first major murder cases that got the tabloid treatment and widespread publicity that has since become commonplace.  Insurance fraud is certainly something that has also developed and evolved over the years.

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A film like this needs two strong leads, and both MacMurray and Stanwyck perform wonderfully.  Walter’s character is savvy, but there’s the little hint that he knows the plan will ultimately not work.  MacMurray gives a great balanced, laid back performance.  Stanwyck does great as one of the first femme fatale characters.  Though not overtly sexual in her performance (it was still a major Hollywood taboo), she hints just enough to let the audience fill in some of the blanks.

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Edward G Robinson’s performance as Barton Keyes really tied the film together.  He provides a very strong moral compass, listening to his ‘inner man’ who tells him Phyllis’ husband’s death was no accident.  It’s his instinct to be critical where others might brush something like this off.  Keyes’ exchange with Ness at the end of the film was bluntly honest, superbly acted, and was shot very well.  Wilder had originally shot an ending where Ness is killed in a gas chamber, but changed his mind after seeing the exchange these two characters had.  While I think that would’ve been a fitting ending, it would have paled in comparison to the ending they ultimately went with.

Double Indemnity was an enjoyable film.   It laid a great foundation for this type of mystery film, as well as introduced a model for the femme fatale character that Barbara Stanwyck brilliantly pulled off.  While I won’t see this one again, like many others I’m glad to have at least seen it once.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

In Which We Serve (1942)

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This is a review about a ship, and the movie that brought its audience to the front lines of what that ship and its crew went through.

The HMS Torrin is a British Destroyer that saw more than its fair share of battles in World War II.  In the Battle of Crete, though, it is sunk by the German Air Force.  As a dozen crew members including the captain wait with a life raft to be rescued, each person has a flashback related to the ship.  From its commissioning to numerous battles, the evacuation of Dunkirk, and eventual demise, In Which We Serve follows the crew through the years of the Torrin’s service.  It also goes through a number of the crew members home life and how it evolves through time.

A strength of this film, which was no doubt a bit of British propaganda (with good purpose), is that it allows the audience to get into the life and thought process of the British Royal Navy crewman.  At the time of its release, it is relate-able to the common citizen, and offers hope as the films epilogue reassures that they are not done fighting, they will press on, and they will win.

I must admit I really struggled with this one at first.  I watched the first 30 minutes at the end of a long day, and battled with staying awake through it.  Having had a night’s sleep, watching the rest of the film was much easier.

A movie like In Which We Serve, which was filmed and released during World War II, makes for some interesting contextual considerations.  The story is based on the HMS Kelly, which had been sunk in the Battle of Crete in 1941.  Joel Coward, one of the film’s directors, screenwriter, and producer, was very good friends with the captain of the Kelly Lord Louis Mountbatten.  Coward based his performance largely on Mountbatten, even quoting from Mountbatten’s addresses to his men.  This kind of realism and faithfulness to the source material makes for an engaging, enjoyable, realistic film.

In Which We Serve is a film where brute honesty and a unifying symbol both inform and inspire the audience.  In a time where World War II hadn’t quite turned in the Allied Forces favor, this patriotic biopic gave the people something to look to with hope.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

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A widow, through the mourning period, decides to uproot with her daughter and start anew in a house no one has been able to stay in.  They claim a ghost lives there.  The previous owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), apparently committed suicide 4 years prior to Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) and her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) moved in.  The captain reveals himself to Lucy and the two form a friendship, though rough at times, and Lucy eventually writes a book about Gregg’s life.  They have an argument as Lucy takes interest in another man, a living man, and Daniel makes Lucy believe that her interactions with him were all just a dream and she came up with the story all on her own.  The film then quickly skips through Lucy’s life: Anna grows up and has kids of her own, one of which is engaged to be married by the end, and finally Lucy dies, bringing about an interesting twist to end the film.

This movie was pretty straightforward.  I like how older movies rely more on acting and storytelling in contrast to today’s films, which rely more on gimmicks and special effects.  There’s almost a purity in performance with older films like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  It was a time when talent carried a movie as opposed to things like sex appeal.  Though Lucy eventually falls in love with another man in a  cliché way, the fact that it doesn’t play out helps, and eventually Lucy finds the one she wanted to end up with.

I haven’t seen very much of Rex Harrison, actually only My Fair Lady, but he does such a good job in this film being intimidating but vulnerable.  Honest and to the point, but never too over the top.  While the act of seeing and interacting with a ghost seems impossible, his acting and interaction with Lucy seems very real.

In a way this film was refreshing, specifically within the romance genre.  Today’s films are so cookie-cutter and predictable, plus being a guy I have to be in the right mood to somewhat enjoy, or at least tolerate, this kind of film.  The older look and era simplifies the story without being cliché and predictable.  The ending was sweet, I will admit that much.  Unfortunately I had read what would happen before seeing it, so the allure and surprise was lost for me.

I liked The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, but probably won’t see it again.  It’s one of those films that you can watch once and be okay with not watching again.  I have nothing against it: the film was well done, the acting was top-notch, the cinematography was appropriate for the subject matter.  It’s worth seeing, I’d recommend it.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

 

Great Expectations (1946)

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As someone who has never read the Charles Dickens classic, I came into watching this movie with very little to go on and a very open mind.

I liked how the story came full circle as Pip realized who had been his sponsor.  Magwitch, an escaped convict, encounters Pip in a graveyard at the beginning of the film.  Pip gives him food and a file for his chains.  He eventually moves to London at the request of an anonymous sponsor who pays for his education and living expenses.  Realizing it was Magwitch was a nice surprise, especially in light of how creepy Miss Havisham had been at the beginning of the film.  It’s nice to see how the kindness to a stranger can have a drastic effect on one’s fortunes.

While Great Expectations was filmed before color had become commonplace, I find that the use of black and white helped, as this story is fairly dark.  I was also impressed with the lighting as teenage Estella and Pip walked through Havisham’s house.  The candlelight used seemed fairly close to what it would have actually been.

This film showcased a number of great actors.  John Mills (In Which We Serve, War and Peace, Swiss Family Robinson) as the grown up Pip is a delight to watch develop and unfold as the movie progressed.  Alec Guinness goes without saying as the adult Herbet Pocket.  It was about midway through the film when I realized who he was.  Most in my generation would identify Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, something Guinness had said he despised.  It’s nice to see him in his first major part on-screen, his talent and diversity as an actor is admirable, even when he has a minor part like here.  The only problem I had with these actors is the significant age difference between them and the characters they were playing.  Each was supposed to be 20 to 21, but there is a drastic difference between Pip and Herbet and Mills and Guinness.

Martita Hunt does a convincing job as Miss Havisham.  You can tell the bitterness and betrayal in how she carries, or sits in this case, herself.  She comes as close to a villain as can be in this story. Jean Simmons as the young Estella was more entertaining to watch than Valerie Hobson, though both do a great job at bringing their characters to life.

The person that I enjoyed probably more than any other was Finlay Currie as Magwitch.  To see the change in his character from convicted criminal to wealthy benefactor and father searching for his daughter provides many mediums to showcase his talent.

It was nice to see redemption in the end.  As light illuminates, Pip removing the curtains to reveal to Estella the cobwebs and decay that had grown over the years at Miss Havisham’s house and the prison that Estella was going to be in if she followed the ways of her adoptive mother.  A brief look at the plot of the book showed me that this was not how it ended, and that Pip and Estella never ended up together.  That’s a Hollywood ending I suppose, but it works, and the viewer is left with a bit of a cliff-hanger.  Estella embraces Pip, but it is left to the imagination of the viewer as to what happens next.  Do they marry, remain friends, or part company with someone else?  It can be fun to hypothesize where the story goes.

This is one that I’d watch again, but it would have to be in the right circumstances.  Also if I ever get around to reading Great Expectations, that will give me a good reason for a re-viewing.  Though many films have tried, David Lean’s Great Expectations remains the standard-bearer for this Charles Dickens classic.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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John Wayne, in his second of three cavalry movies, plays Captain Nathan Brittles, a Cavalryman who is nearing retirement and takes one final mission in the last week of his career.

Two things stand out in this movie: Wayne’s ability to play a much older character and the cinematography in showing the various landscapes in color.

John Wayne was 33 at the time this movie was filmed, however, he is playing a man many years further along in life.  I enjoyed the conflict this character has with leading his troops, succeeding in missions, but knowing the day was drawing near where he would have to move on to something else.  Brittles was a friend of George Custer, who had recently been killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  This kind of old guard passing on to the next generation shows through as Brittles asks to stay on in more of a consulting role.  His commanding officer quickly retorts that if the next man who will lead the troops gives an order, the men will still look to him.

From the 501 must-see movies book, regarding Wayne’s portrayal of a much older man.  “There is a moving moment when he wishes to read the inscription on a watch his troops have given him as a farewell gift and he shyly reaches for a pair of reading spectacles.”

This was the only John Wayne cavalry film to have color.  The only Academy Award this movie was nominated for was Cinematography, Color.  It won, and understandably so.  There is one particular scene where the cavalrymen are stampeding, and the camera follows one particular cover wagon as it attempts to adapt to the terrain.  I found myself hoping and anticipating it falling over, but that did not happen.  I wonder how many takes it took to get it right though.

My overall opinion of this film is that it does good with the subject material and John Wayne does more than enough to carry the movie.  I don’t imagine I’ll watch this one again, but as with many movies I’ve seen as part of this project, I am glad I’ve watched it.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Red River (1948)

This story begins in 1851 when Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) and his buddy Groot (Walter Brennan) break away from a wagon caravan to go south to Texas to raise cattle.  The caravan they were with was attacked by Indians later on, and Dunson lost the woman he left behind and had promised to send for.  They come upon a young boy named Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his first film).  Garth is adopted by Dunson, and they build a sizable cattle empire over the next 14 years.

During that time Garth had gone off and fought in the Civil War, and the need for cattle in Texas and The South, their primary market, dried up as carpetbaggers took over the area after the war.  He needs to make a large cattle drive up to Missouri, which is not friendly with southerners and there has been news of raiding parties destroying herds and killing the hired hands of others doing cattle drives.

John Wayne’s grit seems fitting for a character like Dunson.  He writes his own rules even at the expense of alienating everyone, especially those who have known him the longest.  I don’t claim to have watched many John Wayne movies, but this seems to be the type of character he seemed most at home with: cold, distant, tyrannical (but with good reason).  This is in significant contrast with Garth’s character, who is softer but more likable and can get the men to work with more loyalty.  This tension adds nice layers and depth to the story.

Tess Millary (with a lovely performance from Joanne Dru), adds another layer to the story as a woman who falls for Garth but acts as a sounding board for both sides.  She brings an interesting outsiders perspective, which culminates in the final fight.  I will probably watch She Wore a Yellow Ribbon soon, which matches Wayne and Dru again.

Garth’s growth shows throughout the film, especially after he takes over the convoy from Dunson.  He still shows his youth though, in negotiating a price for the cattle.  He does, though, develop a need to overcome his surrogate father and become a man.  It also worked out great that in the final fight, they use their fists instead of guns.

Is this the greatest western every? No, but it’s worthy of consideration in this list of movies.

My Rating: 4 stars out of 5