Sunday, June 30, 2013

HAMLET - 1948



Upfront, I have to confess that I’m not the most fervent fan of Shakespeare’s tragic plays. You know, the ones that climax with death and destruction, leaving all of the major players face down on the stage in percolating pools of blood. Don’t misunderstand me; I can enjoy a heartrending conclusion that ensures the demise of all just as much as the next fellow. And I certainly appreciate the skill and mastery to which Shakespeare employs in crafting his not-so-sunnier tales. But I guess I’m more partial to the Bard’s pen when it sketches a world full of levity, as opposed to some stony-grim reality.

On that note, I can report that Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” emerged to be a pleasant surprise, causing me to reconsider my attitude toward Shakespeare’s tragic woes. To me, this version seemed to concentrate on plucking the strings of a more cerebral refrain attuned to dilemmas of nobility and honor, as opposed to rendering a series of notes composed entirely of madness and tragedy. I think one of the genius qualities of Shakespeare’s writings is that they can be remixed and reinterpreted to yield new perspectives and angles in approaching the material. Not that I’m a big connoisseur of the variety of “Hamlet” interpretations that are out there, but I felt that Olivier’s version tilted more in the direction of preserving principle through thoughtful action.

Directed by Olivier, “Hamlet” assembled seven Oscar nominations, triumphing in four categories, including Best Picture for 1948. This victory marked several firsts in the history of the Academy Awards: The first time a non-American production garnered the top prize; the first time an individual had been nominated for both Best Director and Best Actor; and the first time, and so far the last, that a Shakespearean adaptation has won Best Picture, unless you think a debate should be initiated that somehow “Shakespeare in Love” is a candidate that counts on this point.
  
However, like all adaptations of famous works, Olivier’s “Hamlet” brewed its own controversy out of the artistic liberties it took with the play’s original text. When presented in its entirety, “Hamlet” typically clocks in at about 4.5 hours, a much greater running time than Olivier’s “Hamlet,” which is about two hours shorter in length. This has led to critics charging that Olivier unnecessarily went all Edward Scissorhands on the script, snipping out large portions of dialogue and cutting out major supporting players, most notably the bumbling duo of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While I can appreciate and respect those purist sentiments whose allegiance is to keeping the original text intact, it’s the effect of Olivier’s cutting and re-stitching of the play that is perhaps at the root of why I enjoyed it so much in the first place. By boiling away so many ingredients of the original story, Olivier’s version is much more lean and focused on singularly conducting a character study into the upheaval of an ambivalent mind. For me, in the context of its traditional running time, this mental tumult is spread over a much larger surface area, reducing my ability to appreciate it as much as when it is presented in a more condensed form.

In keeping with this theme of condensation, the visuals in “Hamlet” also subscribe to a less-is-more approach with equally effective results. Elsinore castle is almost completely stripped bare of any furniture, tapestries or other accoutrements save for some bare essentials. The effect is striking in rendering a visual sterility that generates a cold, eerie atmosphere, underscoring that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Indeed, corruption and betrayal have taken up residence in Elsinore, seemingly decomposing any evidence of the dwellings of humanity to the extent that only cavernous rooms exist. This absence of material possessions is effective in emphasizing the empty state of the relationships between the inhabitants of the castle.

In combination with these vacant visuals is the eerie cinematography that snakes about the hollow corridors of Elsinore. The continual twisting and turning throughout the maze of passageways eventually grows into becoming a metaphor for Hamlet’s state of mind. During an opening voiceover, Olivier declares that “Hamlet” is “the tragedy of man who could not make up his mind.” With the camera turning left and right in this metaphorical brain, the feeling of Hamlet’s mental anguish rooted in his struggles for reconciling opposing courses of action is rendered visually, not suggesting madness, as is often the adjective used to describe him, but more in line with an inner gridlock. It isn’t until he finally decides to redeem his father and go through with his vengeance on Claudius that the camera’s roaming comes to a halt, indicating that Hamlet has finally decongested his mind by arriving at a path.

This edition of “Hamlet” is not referred to Olivier’s “Hamlet” for nothing. The man adapted, produced, directed and starred in this version, putting his fingerprints all over the film from top to bottom. It’s difficult not to admire Olivier’s passion for this work, which seeps through in every aspect from the quality of the production to the wonderful performances he is able to coach from his roster of players. His own performance tapped into the wavelengths of genuine anguish and despair that it made the entire atmosphere seem concealed in an ever-tightening vice; so much so that I wanted to give Hamlet a couple of Advil to release the headache tension. And the fact that this production can retain such visceral elements more than 60 years later reflects Olivier’s ability to capture the truly classic and enduring features of Shakespeare’s writing, thus producing a classic and enduring film worthy of Oscar’s recognition.



Favorite Line: You could lay out all the pages of “Hamlet” on a wall, randomly throw a dart them and probably have it land on a line or speech that is pretty great. I know it’s not an imaginative selection, but my favorite passage from “Hamlet” is the classic “To be, or not to be” speech.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?—To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,—
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,—puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT - 1947



I combed through several old reviews of “Gentleman’sAgreement” to get an idea for how others responded to this film. Generally speaking, it seemed like contemporary reviewers resided in one of two camps of thought. The first camp praised the film for still retaining its relevancy on the subject of anti-Semitism, while the second claimed it to be drained of its potency through its naïve and simple examination of the topic at hand. Ultimately, I think the answer to this debate is situated in a third camp somewhere in between these two points, settling closer to the former.

Directed by the provocative Elia Kazan, “Gentleman’s Agreement” stars all-around good guy Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and John Garfield, among others, accruing eight Academy Award nominations before taking home three, including Best Picture for 1947. In the same year as the release of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Kazan became a founding member of the New York-based non-profit workshop called the Actors Studio. As an author of the Actors Studio, Kazan guided his students to mine the depths of their talents through the method style of acting, efforts which produced such notable alumni as Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Maureen Stapleton. Throughout his career, Kazan directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, of which nine led to actual wins. 
 
Elia Kazan.
It should be no surprise then that half of the nominations bestowed on “Gentleman’s Agreement” were acting nominations, with Celeste Holm accounting for the only win for Best Supporting Actress. Across the board, the film is alive with remarkable performances, particularly from Peck and McGuire. The former plays Philip Green, an investigative journalist on assignment to write about anti-Semitism for a progressive New York magazine. On the precipice of declaring himself inadequate for the assignment upon failing to find a viable angle, Green decides to pretend he is Jewish and write about his subsequent experiences. This state of affairs creates shifting ground beneath Green’s recent engagement to his editor’s niece Kathy, who deplores prejudice in all its form, but still sits on her hands under pressure from her WASPy social circles. As the assignment wears on, both Philip and Kathy are forced to confront walking the walk regarding morally correct principles or whether they’ll decline in favor of not risking certain aspects of their lives.

I don’t think it’s fair to say this film is naïve and simple-minded in its presentation of the material. First of all, prejudice in any form is a complicated and expansive topic, incapable of being wholly captured and examined in one film. On that note, any filmmaker is going to have to be realistic in their approach to this type of subject, narrowing their scope to a sensible degree. “Gentleman’s Agreement” adheres to this notion of a more manageable scale, focusing mainly on anti-Semitism among the professional, upper-echelons of society, as opposed to inspecting it in all of its forms in every class and environment. Simple-minded is simply a misnomer then. I think the presentation is more aptly named practical and restrained, which, in the end, is a savvy move.

Dorothy McGuire and Gregory Peck in "Gentleman's Agreement."
The whole point of a socially conscious film like “Gentleman’s Agreement” is to bring awareness to an issue that purports an injustice that is morally antithetical to a society’s foundations. In order to deliver the message, it has to be packaged in such a way that is clear and digestible so that it will resonate with the largest audience possible. In other words, the deliverables have to be practical and sober in order to avoid confusion or the message risks a failure to communicate.

“Gentleman’s Agreement” is powerful in this ability to communicate because it simplifies the conflict rather than attempting to illustrate overly ambitious, extreme or bruising examples of anti-Semitism. An audience could easily dismiss the film’s message had it been expressed in more intense terms because, generally speaking, most people don’t nurture or personally associate with hardcore prejudices that lead them to engage in dramatic examples of it. However, the experiences of Philip and Kathy are much more every day, more relatable, particularly in the debate of condoning prejudice through silence and inaction. Caving in to social pressures over defending a moral principle in a public situation is probably something that a lot of people have regrettably experienced, and therefore cannot dismiss it so easily. In making this scenario a core component, “Gentleman’s Agreement” is effective in highlighting the fact that a toxic force like anti-Semitism begins to find its remedy through the actions and words of everyday people.

While a lot of the success of “Gentleman’s Agreement” should be pinned on Elia Kazan’s direction, a lot of the credit should also be attributed to the film’s confidently nimble script by Moss Hart, which he adapted from Laura Z. Hobson’s novel of the same name. It’s an expertly paced script that does an excellent job of blending snappy dialogue together with grounded mini-speeches about social injustice and equality, preventing it from feeling self-indulgent and preachy. The script also does a good job at handling its topic by demonstrating the myriad of dynamics that give life to anti-Semitism, rather than boiling it down to just resonating from a group of Connecticut Gentiles. For example, Philip Green’s Jewish secretary, Elaine Wales, has experienced prejudice to the point where she has resorted to changing her last name in order to avoid discrimination. However, in one scene with Philip, Elaine reveals her flippant prejudice toward other classes of Jews, whom she considers inferior. In her mind, she can lay claim to credibility in justifying this belief because she is Jewish herself. But, as the film rightfully points out, inter-community prejudice only allows others outside of a particular community to justify and find validation in their own expression of prejudice.

Despite its strengths, the film does have two obvious flaws that seemed particularly puzzling to me, especially given that the rest of the film was intelligent and so carefully crafted. The first is the fact that Philip is given to so much shock and amazement upon experiencing anti-Semitic prejudice once assuming a Jewish identity. For me, this presented a major inconsistency for a character that is a respected, veteran investigative journalist. Someone with this type of background should not have had such a naïve reaction to the realities of prejudice. For Philip, the whole experience seems to be a complete loss of innocence, which doesn’t seem consistent for a man who has seen as much of the ugly side of the world as Philip has. 

Celeste Holm and Gregory Peck in "Gentleman's Agreement."
The other curious flaw in “Gentleman’s Agreement” is the fact that there is no mention of WWII or the events therein. This is a pretty amazing omission for a film about anti-Semitism being released a few years after the end of WWII and the shocking atrocities committed against the Jewish people in Holocaust. I would have thought at some point, those events would have come up in conversations between the characters. But the fact that it isn’t included in the film made me wonder if it was omitted on purpose so as not to tie the film to any particular historical event or time period. No matter the reason, I think it is a mistake for the film to have omitted any reference to WWII because it is beyond a powerful example of what unchecked hatred and prejudice can lead to. 

In the end, I still think “Gentleman’s Agreement” is a film that has aged remarkably well. The simplicity of the film is what helps it to retain its youthful relevancy because it is able to be so easily transferable to other minorities facing similar struggles in different scenarios and different time periods. Even though time and culture may alter the landscape, the issues of prejudice and bigotry will always remain the same, even when packaged in different forms. As long as they exist in the world, a film like “Gentleman’s Agreement” will always retain a level of relevancy and power.

Favorite Line: For their honeymoon, Philip and Kathy plan to stay a resort that doesn’t allow Jewish clients. Upset and frustrated, Philip decides not to cancel the reservation remotely, but to go to the hotel, confront them and force them into telling him face-to-face that he cannot keep his reservation because he is Jewish. Kathy pleads with him not to go, telling him it isn’t worth the trouble, to which Philip responds, “They are more than nasty little snobs, Kathy. You call them that and you can dismiss them, it’s too easy. They’re persistent little traitors to everything that this country stands for and stands on and you have to fight them! Not just for the poor, poor Jews, as Dave says, but everything this country stands for.”

Monday, June 17, 2013

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES - 1946



Among the many observations noted about war is that even in triumph, the victor cannot fully escape defeat. War is that leviathan whose reach extends beyond the battlefield, immeasurably impacting lives long after the treaties have all been signed. “The Best Years of Our Lives” captures a kernel of this impact, chronicling the struggles that WWII exacts on the lives of three different men as they return home. Given it’s nearly three-hour running time, and the fact that it braids three complex stories together, “The Best Years of Our Lives” felt surprisingly trim and efficient, in a good way. I kept bracing for the film’s pace to be dictated by eager melodrama. Instead, it seemed low-key and restrained in taking its time to tell the story of these servicemen. An effective approach because the subject matter of war veterans struggling to transition back to civilian life is one that needs no superfluous bells and whistles, as it stands on its own two feet.

Directed by William Wyler, “The Best Years of Our Lives” stars Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Theresa Wright and Harold Russell, a real-life WWII veteran who lost both of his hands in a training accident. He holds the unique distinction of being the only actor to receive two Academy Awards for the same role: one for the Best Supporting Actor and the other an Honorary Academy Award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in ‘The Best Years of Our Lives.’” Additionally, the film went on to collect seven more Oscars, including Best Picture for 1946.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” chronicles the return home of Al Stephenson (March), Fred Derry (Andrews) and Homer Parrish (Russell) to the fictional Boone City. The momentary jubilation of seeing their families rapidly fades, leaving them reminded of their unavoidable realities. Like an old shirt that’s been outgrown, each man quickly discovers that their former lives don’t quite fit like they remembered. Al struggles in reconnecting with his now grown children and the business culture of the banking world where he is employed. Fred is forced to confront the failures in his marriage and in his job prospects, which find him back behind a soda fountain counter. Homer begins to alienate himself from those around him, especially his girl Wilma, as he suffers from a sense of worthlessness from having hooks instead of hands.

From left to right, Harold Russell, Dana Andrews and Fredric
March contemplate their lives as they head home from WWII.
As I mentioned earlier, this film felt trim, giving it an almost modern feel. A lot of this perception is rooted in the fact that the plot doesn’t claim any extraordinary features. The protagonists are not intellectual superiors, star athletes or anyone special. Dramatically speaking, their conflicts are fairly conventional experiences that don’t lead to any major breakdowns. Even their home, Boone City, looks like it could be any town USA. Ironically, in just depicting the simple truth, “The Best Years of Our Lives” radiates a certain power in its ordinary qualities, which the ordinary movie-going public is more apt to relate to, particularly in 1946.

These are characters who feel authentic; who deal with their setbacks in ways that don’t trespass the boundaries of realism. William Wyler does an excellent job in orchestrating the film so as not to bury the human elements under overly dramatic ones. In truth, I think there could have been no other successful approach to this material but an understated one. Audiences most certainly would have rejected it because the majority of people at that time probably knew at least one veteran struggling to become reacquainted with their former life. To dress it up with cinematic flare instead of realistic trimming would have, I think, felt manipulative.

Without a doubt, this commitment to realism is most harrowingly depicted in the storyline of Homer’s struggle to accept the genuine love of his friends and family, despite his artificial hands. It seems strange to refer to Harold Russell’s work in this film as a “performance,” due to his status as a double amputee. His presence in the film discards any line separating life from art, leading to a unique achievement in authenticity. Each time Homer shudders away from affectionate words or touch, Russell isn’t just acting, he’s reenacting. It feels as though he is tapping into and channeling personal experiences into his scenes, particularly those with reference to Homer’s usefulness to anyone else. Perhaps the most heartbreaking example is when Homer invites Wilma to his bedroom to put the self-perceived, ugly reality of his amputations on display for her as an attempt to showcase why he wouldn’t make a good husband. He plays the scene with such tenderness and sincerity, that ironically he defuses his own argument, as his humility reveals a tried-and-true strength that would serve him well in marriage.

Russell’s acting career essentially retired after “The Best Years of Our Lives.” At the suggestion of William Wyler, Russell matriculated back to Boston University, where he eventually graduated with a degree in business. He went on to start up a public relations business, but became more actively involved in the affairs of American veterans, even serving three years as National Commander for AMVETS. He also devoted efforts to campaigning for the disabled, touting a core message that "It's not what you lost, but what you have left and how you use it.” In 1992, Russell reportedly consigned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar to an auction house in order to raise money for his wife’s medical expenses, explaining that "My wife's health is much more important than sentimental reasons." However, a conflicting story in The New York Times reports that he actually sold the Oscar statuette to take a cruise with his wife. (Just as a side note, since 1950 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has required that all Oscar recipients sign an agreement prohibiting them from selling their award.)

Even though the nature of war and modern culture may change over time, the core challenges facing veterans reintegrating back into society will always remain the same, elevating “The Best Years of Our Lives” above the decaying effects of time. Unfortunately, in that way, it will always be a relevant and important cinematic experience. However, in the end it offers up hope that trials can be navigated; that footing can be made on happier ground; and that defeat is not an inevitable prescription handed down by the fates of war.

Favorite Line: In trying to convince Wilma that he’s no good for her, Homer leads her upstairs to his bedroom to demonstrate his nightly ritual of removing the harness he wears to keep his hooks in place. After tossing them onto his bed, Homer looks down at the floor, painfully muttering, "This is when I know I'm helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can't put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can't smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can't open it and get out of this room. I'm as dependent as a baby that doesn't know how to get anything except to cry for it." The belief with which Russell delivers this short speech carries an authenticity that a regular actor might not have been able to convey, making it one of the more distinctly raw and vulnerable lines of dialogue in film.

THE LOST WEEKEND - 1945


The Lost Weekend is an interesting patron of the Best Picture club, especially for the 1940s. Many of its contemporary Best Picture winning colleagues trumpeted uplifting and inspiring messages about life, particularly against the backdrop of war. However, in a way The Lost Weekend seems to exist worlds away from those types, instead placing a serious social issue under a gritty microscope and presenting it without a drop of varnish. It feels like a curious break in voting trends for the Academy at that time to select a dark, depressing drama, particularly at the dawn of post-WWII living when people were anxious to move on  and embrace the sunnier chapters of life.

Apart from its drearier tones, The Lost Weekend doesn’t boast snappy, quotable dialogue, any iconic scenes full of provocation and sparkle or a roster of legendary movie stars pushing their talents to the edge for the sake of bringing truth and humanity to the silver screen. But despite the dearth of any traditional trademarks typically found in Oscar-winning epics, The Lost Weekend is still a fascinating film to watch, precisely because it redefines what an Oscar-winning epic can look like. It shows that the internal struggle for one’s own soul can be a saga as grand and brimming with fear and courage, love and hatred with a footing equal to a more conventionally grandiose film, regardless of its more intimate scale.

Co-written and directed by the versatile Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend corralled seven Academy Award nominations, ultimately riding away with four wins, including Best Picture in 1946. Two of those wins were scooped up by Wilder, who won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, marking his first victory in the directing category. The film stars Welsh actor Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, who was briefly married to President Ronald Regan. The Lost Weekend would prove to be the apex of Milland’s career, critically speaking, as the film would be the source for his only Oscar nomination and win.

Adapted from Charles R. Jackson’s novel of the same name, The Lost Weekend paints a harrowing portrait of New York writer Don Birnam’s grinding battle with alcoholism over a particular weekend binge during his more than six-year struggle against the bottle. A promising young writer whose talents peaked during his college years, then valleyed after graduation, Birnam sought to assuage his pen’s personal failures with a few drops of the drink. However, what started out as a temporary remedy to feeling inadequate soon engulfed Birnam, creating a desperate dependent out of him whose entire spectrum of thought and action heralds the siren’s call of alcohol, threatening to dash his very existence against the rocks of his condition.

Given that he’s in just about every scene, it’s no stretch to say that the entire film rests on Milland’s ability to be authentic. His performance is beading with sweat and shaking with nerves, as he manically staggers about in a frenzy searching for his next swig. He infuses each scene with a sense of urgency and tension, as he begins to view everyone as merely an obstacle in his path to a shot of whiskey. He’s coiled, ready to spring into a defensive rage at the first sign of push back from anyone regarding his habit. Despite the overall tragedy of Don Birnam’s situation, Milland’s performance is so relentless that it elicits a response that threatens to drown out any compassion one might feel for him. He’s frustrating, exasperating and draining to observe, as he lies, cheats and steals from those who care about him. His performance captures the enslaving power an addiction can have over a soul, bleaching it of humanity and poise as it becomes a mechanized object obeying command and impulse. This sense of helplessness is scrawled all over Milland’s face as his obedience to alcohol shepherds him throughout the streets of New York to satisfy his Master.

Apart from Milland’s performance, another element of the film that heightens the palpability of the struggling alcoholic is the film’s score. The Lost Weekend was among one of the first films to prominently incorporate the unique sounds of the theremin into its soundtrack. A theremin is an electronic musical device that is primarily recognizable for its eerie ghostly sounds that often seem to be associated with cheesy sci-fi movies from the 1950s. The theremin’s paranormal reverberations are put to effective use in The Lost Weekend, creating this impression that alcoholism has other-worldly origins that are driven by unnatural forces not belonging to mankind. Every time Don Birnam’s craving begins to swell, so does the score’s use of the theremin, which gives an audible characteristic to the sense of confusion and lack of control associated with one’s thoughts while feeling the extreme need for a drink. Given the theremin’s ghostly noises, it’s inclusion in the score creates this image of alcoholism as something of a specter, continually hovering over and haunting its victims with relentless energy.

Despite its allegiance to realism and authenticity in examining the struggles and dynamics of alcoholism, The Lost Weekend delivers on its efforts all the way up until the conclusion of the film. There are instances where Don Birnam is able to momentarily step back and look at what a failed mess he has become, providing him with a surge of determination in rolling up his sleeves to pound out of his typewriter the great novel he feels is bottled up inside of him. Of course he never gets beyond a few lines, causing him to crash-land even harder than before. But in the final scene, after some intense and dramatic conversation with his girlfriend, Helen St. James, Don has supposedly been pierced to his very core, awakening him to the urgency of his reality. From this, we are left to believe that Don has finally found the strength to tackle the heretofore elusive task of settling down to his typewriter to tap out the novel inside.

For me, this conclusion did not jive with the rest of the film. For two hours, the viewer is riding along side Don as he flails in his alcoholism, experiencing the darkest depths of his personal hell, including, at one point, a hallucinatory spell where he sees a bat fly into his apartment and attack a mouse crawling from a crack in the wall. Clearly, the long, boney fingers of alcoholism have a menacing grip on Don that has been able to tighten over the past several years. It did not feel believable that Don could suddenly put everything into perspective and get a handle on things just because Helen showed up and delivered some words of encouragement to him. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that the tide of Don’s addiction could be so easily turned like the viewer is led to believe is has been by the time the credits roll.

However, I don’t think an imperfect ending discredits the rest of the film’s strengths. In watching The Lost Weekend, you almost get the sense that this film wasn’t made to be entertaining, but rather to exist as a delivery to enhance public understanding toward those afflicted with alcoholism. In that light, the ending makes sense because in dealing with something so dark, people have to believe that victory is possible or else they would never attempt to triumph against the trial.

Favorite Line: This line became the most famous line from the film. I thought it was great because it seemed to sum up Don Birnam’s hopeless perspective. “One drink’s too many, and a hundred’s not enough.”

Monday, June 10, 2013

GOING MY WAY - 1944



In comparison to most of its colleagues that have collected the trophy for Best Picture, “Going My Way” stands apart as a peculiar member of the club. It’s highly doubtful that a film like this would even be produced today, much less go on to become a box office smash, eventually taking home an armload of Academy Awards. This reality is telling of just how much “Going My Way” is a complete product of its age, meaning the hands of time have handled it roughly over the years.

But this isn’t to say that “Going My Way” is necessarily a terrible picture. It’s not. In hindsight, the fact that it took home so many prestigious awards elevates expectation that this is a great picture in the league of other recent Academy Award winning films like “Rebecca” and “Casablanca.” It’s not. It’s just a set-up for disappointment. Ironically, its Oscar pedigree leaves “Going My Way” vulnerable to modern-day backlash and cynicism because it isn’t a film that is riveting or filled with complicated characters stuck in some moral dilemma that riles up a roasting debate on our understanding of the human condition; elements that we’ve come to expect from our Oscar-winning movies. Against this type of criteria, “Going My Way” crumbles, which is perhaps an unfair approach to take with this film because obviously its financial success and the number of awards bestowed upon it are far beyond its control.

Directed by Leo McCarey, “Going My Way” seemingly had the entire body of the Academy voting its way as it scooped up seven of its 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture for 1944. Two of the film’s 10 nominations both went to Barry Fitzgerald, who was nominated twice for the same performance in the Best Actor and the Best Supporting Actor categories. He lost the Best Actor race to co-star Bing Crosby, but luckily he did emerge triumphant in winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The absence of a rule preventing such an occurrence quickly became established before the next Oscar ceremony, making Fitzgerald the first and only actor to ever be nominated twice for the same role in the same film in the same year.

“Going My Way” is considered somewhat of a breakthrough for Crosby, who had struggled to elevate his acting career beyond the towering shadow of his successful singing career. Everyone knew Bing could sing, but “Going My Way” cemented his popularity as an actor, furnishing him with momentum that helped him to become one of the top box office draws of the 1940s. It’s no wonder he shined, the role is practically tailor-made for a personality like Crosby’s, replete with crooning musical numbers. In the film, Crosby plays a spirited, young priest name Father Chuck O’Malley, who has been assigned to the fledgling parish of St. Dominic’s church in New York. Due to a series of mishaps on his first day, Father O’Malley fails to register a respectable impression with the elder pastor, Father Fitzgibbon. The evolution of friendship between the two pastors, as they learn to appreciate each other’s differences, is the main narrative thread that anchors “Going My Way.” However, along the way the story takes several detours, mainly chronicling Father O’Malley’s good deeds among the neighborhood, accompanied, of course, by a few musical numbers.

The whole picture is a world that orbits sentimentality, populated with characters that all have chicken soup coursing through their veins. Perhaps no actor excels more in this type of on-screen environment than Bing Crosby. He has a natural Boy Scout youthfulness to his energy, and is so effortless in the way he imparts cinematic sunshine. Even the sharpest cynicism seems dulled by his tenderness. I mean hell, even his very name alone seems to articulate a cheery disposition. Bing.

Barry Fitzgerald as Father Fitzgibbon in "Going My Way."
But what ups the feel-good factor here is the opportunity for Crosby to play off of Barry Fitzgerald’s sweet, curmudgeonly personality, topped off with an ol’ Irish accent. The two of them have a warm affection for each other onscreen, placing the majority of their scenes on par with a mug of hot chocolate by the fire. Their fondness for each other culminates when Father O’Malley secretly brings Father Fitzgibbon’s elderly mother over from Ireland to see her son after 45 years apart. Their reunion would melt even the heart of a dictator, as they tenderly embrace without a word.
  
As I mentioned early on, this isn’t a great film. It’s too long. The story meanders through a series of mildly interesting subplots. While I truly do appreciate listening to Bing Crosby’s unique singing voice, all of the musical numbers seem contrived as an excuse just for him to sing. But having said all of that, it’s hard to knock on a film that is so earnest in its aim to simply bring joy and levity into people’s lives. In 1944, it’s not difficult to understand why people gladly plunked down their dimes to see “Going My Way.” In the shadows of WWII, being presented with a perkier version of the world, one which contains a soundtrack of Bing Crosby tunes and where everyone is good-natured must have been an appealing respite to a war-weary public.

Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O'Malley teaching a gang of local kids how to sing.
I think the ability to bring joy to people’s lives through entertainment is an underappreciated art form that is deceptively challenging. The capacity to shock, depress and petition an audience’s cynical or scandal-loving nature seems to take less imagination and courage. I think creating entertainment solely with the intent to brighten up the lives of those who consume it is terribly tricky because a lot of its success is rooted in gaining audience trust. As corny as it sounds, enjoying and accepting a film like “Going My Way” requires people to open up their hearts and channel some touchy-feely emotions to get on board, creating a certain level of vulnerability. If an audience feels a film or performance has betrayed their trust by not delivering the goods, then it runs the risk of experiencing an even greater backlash. The overall veracity of the old adage that “everyone’s a critic” makes it difficult to pull off feel-good entertainment, which may be part of the reason why studios don’t produce films like “Going My Way.”

Interestingly, the following year, a sequel to “Going My Way” was released called “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Other than featuring the character of Father O’Malley and stacking up Academy Award nominations, it had little connection to the story and characters present in “Going My Way.” Both films generally follow the same wholesome formula, except that in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” Bing Crosby finds himself clashing with Ingrid Bergman’s Sister Superior Mary Benedict. The only particular note of interest regarding “The Bells of St. Mary’s” is that it was the first sequel to a Best Picture winning film to be produced, which is still a rare occurrence even today.

In the end, I don’t think you would be missing out terribly if you decided to tell Bing Crosby and Co. that you’re not going their way. I can appreciate that it strives to be chicken-noodle-soup entertainment, but even so, it could use a generous dash of salt and pepper to give it some memorable flavor. But I’m not going to fault the film for being dramatically inert and blunt of any compelling conflicts because it simply doesn’t aspire to be anything else other than what it is. Too many contemporary critics have piled on “Going My Way,” with one even calling its Oscar victory “almost embarrassing in retrospect.” I agree that its Oscar victory probably owes more to the mood of the times than to any cinematic achievement. But like I said, I find it unfair to heap a harsher helping of criticism on a film for something it didn’t set out to acquire.

Favorite Line: “Going My Way” opens with a scene between Mr. Haines, who has come from the bank to pay a visit to Father Fitzgibbon regarding a loan from the bank. “You owe the Knickerbocker Savings and Loan Company five payments on this mortgage,” Mr. Haines informs Father Fitzgibbon. “If it they’re not taken care of, I’m afraid the Knickerbocker Savings and Loan Company will have to take the necessary action. Why don’t you make that the subject of your sermon next Sunday?  Tell it to your people. The Lord loveth a cheerful giver.”

“Oh I can’t imagine myself saying that in Mass next Sunday. What a sermon that would be!” exclaims Father Fitzgibbon good naturedly. “The text of me sermon this morning is taken from the mortgage according to Mr. Haines, from the first to the twenty-third clause.”