1940: Part 2

Dance, Girl, Dance. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. You couldn’t ask for two stronger actresses to represent opposing ideas of feminism than Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball. Each a firebrand in her own way, each actress makes a distinct and unforgettable impression in her respective role, O’Hara portraying a trained ballerina forced to make ends meet by working as the second-banana “stooge” to Ball’s burlesque queen (who, for the record, loves her job). There are good performances by Louis Hayward (a fellow who has never really received the acting credit he is due), Virginia Field, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Mary Carlisle, Katharine Alexander, Walter Abel and Sidney Blackmer too, as well as some fine footwork by dancer Vivien Fay. I must also applaud the camerawork by Russell Metty and an uncredited Joseph H. August. I don’t like the film quite so much as Arzner’s earlier drama Christopher Strong, but Dance, Girl, Dance is still very good, an important part of film history for women directors (the Library of Congress added the film to its National Film Registry in 2007) and it certainly moves along at a zippy pace, feeling even shorter than its 89 minutes.

The Grapes of Wrath. Directed by John Ford. Ford’s classic, adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel, is not my absolute favorite of his works – it doesn’t resonate with me quite like Drums Along the Mohawk, The Long Voyage Home, The Quiet Man and The Searchers do – and yet there is no question that Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell – Darwell won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar – give blue-ribbon performances here. Perhaps the most astounding work is done by John Carradine as infinitely wise preacher John Casy, but don’t forget John Qualen as “Muley,” a down-on-his-luck pal of the Joad family, Grant Mitchell as a suspicious caretaker of a migrant camp and Kitty McHugh as a tired, bitter waitress. The most striking element of the filmmaking is Gregg Toland’s cinematography; I’m surprised he didn’t get an Oscar nomination, although it is hard to complain too much when he did receive one the same year for a different Ford film, The Long Voyage Home, which also demonstrates his mastery behind the camera. Toland’s photography and the strong lead performances make the film a necessary watch for all film fans.

The Long Voyage Home. Directed by John Ford. How fantastic it was to see this on the big screen at the New York Film Festival, the first time that I have ever seen a John Ford film in a theater. Gregg Toland’s stunning, Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography, which stands with the best of his work (Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, etc.), looks so magnificent that I’m extra glad that I saw it at Lincoln Center rather than on TV. It’s too bad that Voyage has been forgotten compared to the other major Ford films that were released before and after – namely Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley – since Voyage was in fact nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, along with five other nominations at that ceremony. The film is clearly the product of a highly artistic vision, evident right away in the first five minutes, during which there is no dialogue from any characters, only the sounds of radio transmissions. Character actors rule the roost here, with engaging performances coming from Thomas Mitchell, Ian Hunter (perhaps not a “character actor,” exactly, but impressive no matter what category), Barry Fitzgerald, Wilfred Lawson, John Qualen (what a marvelous face! – examples here and here), Mildred Natwick, Ward Bond (a bastard in real life, but hey, he was a great actor), Arthur Shields (to be honest I prefer him to his brother Barry Fitzgerald, who is entertaining but awfully hammy) and Jack Pennick. Although John Wayne is top-billed, he doesn’t have either the most screen time or the most dialogue; he actually says very little, probably owing in part to the fact that his Swedish accent is kind of weird. Even so, Wayne is such an effective performer that he is watchable just for the wonderfulness of his cinematic presence. The Long Voyage Home was a flop when it was released – Ford’s budget was $682,495 but the film earned only $580,129 at the box office – but thanks to UCLA’s dedicated preservationists and the New York Film Festival, the film has found new admirers.

Strange Cargo. Directed by Frank Borzage. Based on Richard Sale’s popular novel Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep (1936), Strange Cargo is a somewhat maligned, misunderstood drama with mystical overtones that benefits from great direction by Frank Borzage (an old hand at nearly every genre he was tasked with during the studio era) and engaging performances from Joan Crawford (who somehow looks even more luminous than usual because she is deglamorized in many scenes), Clark Gable, Ian Hunter in perhaps his greatest role as all-seeing, all-knowing “Cambreau,” Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, Albert Dekker, J. Edward Bromberg and Eduardo Ciannelli, and extraordinary camerawork by Robert H. Planck that has remarkable uses of lighting and camera angles. Some of the logistics of the plot are muddled, but if you read the film as a fantasy and you just go along for the ride, you’ll enjoy it. Viewers may also note that the screenplay’s humanist message is interesting given the time when the film was made, when the United States was on the brink of entering World War II. Harking back to the novel’s title, New York Times film critic Benjamin R. Crisler wrote in Strange Cargo’s 1940 review that “the allegory is certainly not too deep, but it does seem a bit too narrow to accommodate itself readily to the broad and brutal sweep of the penny-dreadful narrative”; in spite of Mr. Crisler’s comments, I consider Strange Cargo definitely worth seeing.

Waterloo Bridge. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. This excellent adaptation of the World War I romance, which had previously been made in 1931 by James Whale and starring Mae Clarke and Douglass Montgomery, stars the incomparable Vivien Leigh and the much-underrated Robert Taylor (he gives the best dramatic performance I have seen from him so far). Joseph Ruttenberg’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is exquisite, particularly in a lovely scene set in the “Candlelight Club.” The best supporting performance is given by Maria Ouspenskaya as the ballet mistress from hell, a woman without an ounce of sympathy or tenderness, a 180-degree turn from her mentor-role in Dance, Girl, Dance. Fans of classic film will undoubtedly recognize Lucile Watson, Virginia Field, C. Aubrey Smith, Janet Shaw (probably best remembered as the waitress who says she’d “just about die” for Teresa Wright’s ring in Shadow of a Doubt) and Steffi Duna in the cast as well. There are no real surprises in this film, just a tearjerker of a story with great acting from the two leads and memorable photography.

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