1939: Part 1

Midnight. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. This lovely confection stars Claudette Colbert – the Oscar-winning actress of romantic comedy classics It Happened One Night, The Palm Beach Story and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife – and Don Ameche, perhaps better known for his Oscar-winning turn in Cocoon and his starring role in the David Mamet film Things Change. Colbert and Ameche are well-matched as, respectively, the gold digger who tries to refuse Ameche’s affections and the taxi driver who knows that money can’t buy you love. The “Great Profile” himself, John Barrymore, makes his last great film appearance as a fairy godfather of sorts to Colbert. Mary Astor is deliciously catty, Rex O’Malley is a hoot as Astor’s pal and Francis Lederer is good if a little bland as the resident playboy. While Midnight is not better than Ninotchka (more on that below), it is still remarkably sweet and funny. And you can be sure that any movie co-written by Billy Wilder is bound to have crackerjack dialogue.

Ninotchka. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. I have seen Ninotchka (also co-written by Billy Wilder) numerous times over the years but the most interesting experience was back in early July, when I saw it at the Museum of Modern Art. I went with a friend who’d never seen it before and she really enjoyed the film, which made me glad because I’ve been such a devotee of Lubitsch for my whole life and Ninotchka is a good place for any beginner to start. (As a side note, I recently watched the Sidney Lumet film Garbo Talks, in which Ron Silver’s character sees Ninotchka for the first time at a Greta Garbo festival at MoMA. I remembered my experience from a few weeks earlier with all the more fondness.) I found myself laughing at things I’d forgotten about and had a new appreciation for Garbo. I have always enjoyed her movies, none more than this one, but it was at this particular screening that I was able to recognize the subtlety and nuances in her performance. She is paired perfectly with Melvyn Douglas, who is sublime as the charming and witty Leon. Ninotchka is a classic not just because of its script and its air of European elegance (that certain “Lubitsch touch”) but because of its warmth and heart. One of the many beautiful moments: when Buljanoff – Felix Bressart, whose kindly, bespectacled presence is welcome in any film – tells Ninotchka, “They can’t censor our memories, can they?” No, comrade, they cannot.

The Rains Came. Directed by Clarence Brown. Tyrone Power was really a rather good actor, although he didn’t always get a chance to act. Fox liked him because he was a pretty face. Every now and then he got intriguing parts, like in Nightmare Alley and Prince of Foxes, but most of the time it was something more like The Razor’s Edge and Captain from Castile, fare that didn’t require too much thespian heft. Even Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which is considered a musical drama, and the exciting back-to-back adventures The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand didn’t net him any accolades. The Rains Came is unusual in that it allowed Power to give a restrained yet impressive performance. Unlike other films of the period, its use of white actors in “brownface” makeup is fairly tasteful, with the possible exception of Joseph Schildkraut; then again, he was always so classy and dignified that it didn’t matter too much. Myrna Loy is quite good in an unusual role that requires her to be unsympathetic for a large percentage of the picture. George Brent, Brenda Joyce and Maria Ouspenskaya also give fine performances. Perhaps best of all are the technical achievements: the film won an Oscar for its special effects by Fred Sersen and Edmund H. Hansen and was nominated for, among other things, its crisp black-and-white cinematography by Arthur C. Miller and its excellent score by one of the best-ever film composers, Alfred Newman. (If you want to see Tyrone Power’s best performance, watch his last finished film before his untimely death, Witness for the Prosecution, directed by Billy Wilder and released in 1957. After decades at Fox, Power made this final movie at MGM and it’s a fine effort by all, including the superb Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester.)

The Wizard of Oz. Directed by Victor Fleming. It’s a “fantasy rooted in the landscape of your childhood,” says IMDb reviewer The_Film_Cricket. It’s true, The Wizard of Oz has a mythic, magical quality to it which is unique. It is a wonderful creation in every possible way and one of the best introductions any young child could have into the world of classic film. Frank Morgan and his multiple roles will always have a special place in my heart, along with the multi-talented Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow. I went to a screening at the New York Film Festival in September 2009 (in honor of the film’s 70th anniversary) that was introduced by Lorna Luft and had a post-film Q&A with surviving Munchkins: Ruth Duccini, Jerry Maren, Margaret Pellegrini, Karl Slover and Meinhardt Raabe (who wore his Munchkin coroner’s outfit; he passed away seven months later). Although I felt a little lonely since I went to the screening by myself, it was nice to be surrounded by lots of parents and their young kids, whom I recall being well-behaved. Truth be told, that was the first time I’d ever seen The Wizard of Oz in its entirety from beginning to end; I’d seen bits and pieces over the years but had never sat down and seen it as the work of art that it is until that autumn afternoon. It should be noted that King Vidor did well in his uncredited direction of the Kansas scenes. Besides the appeal of those sequences’ sepia-toned color, the “Over the Rainbow” segment is one of the most enduring moments in the film. Bravo to Miss Judy Garland for her beauty, grace and unforgettable voice.

Wuthering Heights. Directed by William Wyler. 1939 has been called the greatest year of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” for a reason; it’s a year filled with gems of every type, from the US and around the world (the UK had Goodbye, Mr. Chips [although it had an American director], The Four Feathers and The Spy in Black; France had The Rules of the Game, Le Jour Se Lève and The End of the Day; Japan had The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums; and Sweden had Only One Night, which starred Ingrid Bergman not long before she came to Hollywood). William Wyler was one of the kings of the American cinema, right up there with Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, because of his mastery of multiple genres. Wuthering Heights is one of the great Gothic romances, almost on a par with its sister story, Jane Eyre. Merle Oberon is at her best as Cathy and Laurence Olivier lives and breathes the very soul of Heathcliff. I never fail to weep uncontrollably at the end of the film. In fact, by this point in my life, just remembering how many times I’ve seen it and cried probably contributes to my crying during each subsequent viewing. It doesn’t hurt that Gregg Toland’s cinematography is almost unbearably gorgeous, making the windy moors – and Olivier’s chiseled face – look like the stuff of legend.

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2 thoughts on “1939: Part 1

  1. I have seen the Wizard Of Oz many times and it is a very good movie. I would like to know if you have information about another good actress Hayley Mills. Where can I obtain her movies and the movies of Judy Garland.

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