Mrs Miniver (1942)

Mrs Miniver (1942)

I like to think of this project as having a kind of meta-narrative, an over-arching story which registers key moments in international history.  Mrs Miniver is a landmark in this meta-story.  It heralds one of the darkest times humanity has ever known; the onset of World War II.  Beautiful and poignant, it is easily a film highlight.

Set in a quaint area on Britain’s southern coast, Mrs Miniver begins early in the year of 1939.  The town is flourishing, and one of the local gardeners has just named his new breed of rose the ‘Mrs Miniver’ after a wealthy town lady he adores.  But we are poised for bad news.  War is a hot topic of discussion, inevitable, a matter of fact, yet held defiantly on the periphery of day to day life, treated in much the same way as the Boer War in Cavalcade.  I suppose that this is a natural way for people to act towards war, pretending that it’s not there until the first bombs finally start hitting.

The shock through the church congregation when the news finally arrives is palpable, and we feel deep empathy for the way that war has changed the life of the ‘everyday’ British family.  As the violence escalates, a German pilot crash-lands in the fields and terrorises Mrs Miniver, and a harrowing scene with the family drinking tea in their backyard bomb-shelter leaves a chilling impression of life in England under the Blitzkrieg.

There were two technical elements which really impressed me with this film.  The first was the acting – Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon share a tension that is electrical, and even when there are no lines to hang off they are superb.  The second is the stunning arrangement of the shots, what I have come to understand and describe as the mise-en-scene.  The depth of space, the arrangement of bodies, the motion of the camera – it is as dynamic and sophisticated as anything I have seen before, and reminded me in many instances of a theatre performance in the way it played with stillness and motion.

As things hit crisis point during one particularly intense air raid, I wait nervously for some sort of resolution.  But there is none.  The film ends with no sign of the war finishing, and it is here that things finally hit home.  For the people who made this film, there is no end to the war.  This is not an era in history or a historical perspective – this is life.  The film fades out with the roar of fighterplanes in the distance, and we’re left to contemplate the uncertainties of the future.  Harrowing, sobering and unmissable.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

It’s unfortunate that this film is overshadowed by the American Film Institute’s Top Film of the Twentieth Century, because How Green Was My Valley is a masterpiece.

Winning legendary director John Ford the Oscar for Best Director, How Green Was My Valley is far from the generical Western Ford would become famed for.  Set in a small Welsh village during the reign of Queen Victoria, our narrator guides us retrospectively through his childhood in the small coal-mining town.  Within minutes the narrator’s mellow voice deftly gives way to action and dialogue, the whole process rather like immersing an egg in boiling water.  We are dropped slowly and gently into the action until we are totally enveloped by the world.

The main thrust is an examination of family.  We witness the trials and tribulations of the Morgan’s through the eyes of young Hew (pronounced Hugh), played with stunning maturity by the young Master Roddy McDowell.  During the exposition phase we tend to see the villiage and the people in it from low-angle shots, giving us an impression of size and magnitude in much the same way as Hew sees his world.  There are soon some troubles at the local coal-mine, where most of the townspeople are employed, and the film then chronicles the ways in which the family fights against it’s disintegration.  Oh, and mark one point on the New Zealand reference list.

So we’ve got to ask ourselves why this fine film is overshadowed by Citizen Kane, which tops the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 films of the decade.  The answer seems straightforward to me.  We can look back at Citizen Kane and see a statement on the 20th Century, on modernity and capitalism and all of the themes which dominated the last hundred years.  Citizen Kane encapsulates the state of the century.  But How Green Was My Valley was awarded Best Picture over Citizen Kane because it captures more of a single moment in history.  It is a confined snapshot of the fears and values of 1941.  The idea that the family and the things we hold dear would fall apart with the onset of war, or that America was losing it’s connection to it’s roots, were surely predominate fears in the early 1940s.  And it is films like How Green which make this undertaking such an interesting project – because they give us a window into how people of the past thought about themselves.

Maybe Citizen Kane is better and maybe it says more to us today, but How Green Was My Valley is still a masterpiece of cinema and cinematography.  Well worth a watch.

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940)

Although I believe that Hitchcock would go on to make much greater films, I think that Rebecca is one of the most beautifully shot and memorably acted works of his career.  The question today is whether or not it’s flaws outweigh it’s strengths.

Effectively, Rebecca is a ghost story.  A short time after the death of his wife, the troubled Maxim de Winter (played with austerity by Laurence Olivier) takes a new wife (Joan Fontaine) whom he brings to his shadowy manor in England.  She cannot live up to the expectations imposed by the service staff, including Judith Danvers playing one of the creepiest villains I have ever seen.  Their friends and family persistently compare the new Mrs de Winter with the deceased Mrs de Winter, and we increasingly feel that Rebecca de Winter still lingers in the household.  Though dead, her presence is unshakeable.

My initial reaction is to try understand how we are to respond to the new Mrs de Winter and to think about her in the context of identity.  Unnamed in both book and film, she functions as a kind of canvas, a blank fixture which invites us to project our own identity.  We experience Manderlay through her eyes; she is us.  Yet as much as we are to project ourselves onto her, she also comes to embody the attitudes of the Manderlay household, being subtly moulded into her predecessor.  Who is this woman?  The plot doesn’t need her, she just gives the audience a way in.  She is nobody…like the prior Mrs de Winter, she is a ghost.

The problem here is that this makes her quite flat and boring.  Mrs de Winter doesn’t have much of a personality and because the film never quite reaches a climax equal to Vertigo or Rope, we’re left wondering why on earth we cared about her in the first place.

Speaking of the climax, this is another of the film’s weaker components.  Signalled by a series of revelations about what has truly become of Rebecca de Winter, the final scene reveals her solemn and lonely secret.  The issue is that the film grinds to a halt to reveal the succession of facts and past events, resulting in very little screen action.  In fact, anything which happens is merely described, effectively removing any sort of threat or excitement we may have had seeing these events played out.  Nothing really happens at the height of the film other than old men talking about stuff that’s already happened.  Not particularly interesting.

And yet the visuals are truly stunning.  Massive gothic architecture dominates Manderlay Manor, complete with flaming candles and billowing curtains.  Mrs Danvers, the scary housemaid, is dark and chilling as she swoops through the corridors.  And Laurence Olivier, nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, demonstrates why he is revered as one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century – watch this space (although quietly I wished that Clarke Gable was playing the role…what a hunk).

As a first time watch I found Rebecca more of a curiousity than a consummate example of Hitchcock’s work. He would go on to do everything he does here again, only a bit better.  Still, there was no way of knowing that Hitchcock would carry on for another thirty years making better and better films, so the fact that this picture was honoured so early in his American career is testimony to his pedigree as one of the greatest film directors in memory.

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Wow.  How does one begin to do justice to a film which is so perfect in pitch, tone and presentation that it remains embedded in our collective conscious as one of the greatest feats of visual narrative ever bestowed upon us?  I am humbled by its magnificence.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this film; Gone With The Wind is perfect.

Sprawling across decades and hinged upon the effects of the American Civil War, this is the epitome of the epic.  The narrative is elaborate and grandiose, but more importantly paced and edited to perfection.  From the length of the shots to the motion of the picture on the screen, every aspect of the film is designed to tune the viewer into the film’s world.  Eased in gently with long, extended shots, the characters and plot are unfolded with the kind of skill that takes a lifetime to develop.

And the colours!  Oh man, the colours.  Everything that has been seen before Gone With The Wind is blown out of the water by these rich and deliberate combinations of colour.  Being against the norm for the time, every tone is chosen with precision and purpose, from firey reds to rich greens and back again.

At four hours long you would think the film would drag on, but with a little preparation it’s easy to settle in for the long haul and be taken away by what is, for me, the epitome of great film.  I can’t write any more because the film speaks for itself.  Spectacular visuals, engrossing story, luscious soundtrack…Gone With The Wind is absolutely everything a film should be.  Plus, Clarke Gable and Vivien Leigh: two of the hottest lead actors you will ever see.

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

As if winning all ‘Big Five’ awards at the 1934 ceremony were not enough, Frank Capra managed to bag Best Picture and Best Director again just four years later with You Can’t Take It With You.  Seventy years on, though, does this picture have much to offer?

To access this film we need to remember the role that cinema played in 1930’s America and how it fit into their society.  In 1938 war was looming and the USA was at the tail end of a deep depression.  Audiences needed to escape, to get away from their day-to-day lives and find a reason to have fun.  Cinema created this space, a place for people to enjoy themselves.  You Can’t Take It With You, about a family fighting to keep their home, reminds us that money and property are not the things which make us happy.  It is what we do with these things which really matters.

The story’s main family can best be described as urban gypsies.  At one point they are found frolicking about the room in song and dance, much to the shock and displeasure of the rich family who, in a classic instance of dramatic irony, want to knock down their house.  During the film the richies learn that money isn’t everything, there’s a marriage at the end and everybody is happy.

The best thing about this film is it’s crystal-clear characterisation.  Lionel Barrymoore is fantastic as Vandorf despite his crutches, and a young, droopy-faced James Stewart is clearly destined for stardom.

Aside from the film’s dynamic performances and interesting social commentary, I found very little to get excited about.  The problem which presents itself early is inevitably resolved, leaving very little room for surprise and the conclusion of the film is dull as black sand.  Think of the plot structure of the classic Shakespearean comedy – which, I must say, always bore me to tears.

I’m all for having a giggle, but when the whole point is to have a laugh without being obliged to think I am inevitably disappointed.  It’s too easy in today’s world to pretend that there aren’t problems, to sit around getting stoned and living off the government without ambition or care.  I’m willing to consume art and culture to help me learn about life, and I expect to grow when I do so.  I want to be reminded of my existence, that I am real, that I live in the world and other people do too.  I don’t want the kind of apathy that You Can’t Take It With You tries to feed me.  I want feelings and I want something worthwhile to care about.

Before watching this film it felt funny to me that Capra never won Best Picture for It’s A Wonderful Life, but seeing You Can’t Take It With You clears this up.  This is a prototype, fancy in it’s day I’m sure, but in the twenty-first century I want a little more bang for my buck.