The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Lost Weekend (1945)

What never ceases to surprise me about these films are the undeniable parallels between my lived and seen experiences and the experiences of people from over half a century ago.

The Lost Weekend is a film about addiction.  Alcohol addiction specifically, but a modern audience is easily able to read alcohol as a stand-in for any form of drug, substance or perceived dependance.  Our protagonist (perhaps an early anti-hero?) has got it pretty bad for the booze.  His girlfriend and brother are trying to help him through it, but all he does is reject their attempts again and again and fall back to the bottle.  I take the message here as being that, ultimately, one is responsible for their own decisions, and no matter how much you are loved it is meaningless if you are not prepared to face up to your actions.

It’s not always that easy of course, and where Don’s actions take on a truth for me are in the way that he desperately wants to be driven and motivated.  I’ve seen too many people talk about the things they want to do, but just end up taking drink and drugs.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of both, but not at the expense of failing at the things I want to do with my life.  This is where Don strikes a chord.  Rather than writing and exploring what he is good at, he allows himself to become a slacker and a drunk.  He needs to take more responsibility for himself rather than letting those close to him deal with his issues.

Not only is this film a thematic success, it’s also a huge artistic acheivement.  Crossing over into art-film territory, some characters appear but are not entirely explored, offering a greater semblence of reality.  Also, the plot is structured a little differently to your typical Best Picture winner – for example, lacking a concrete conclusion – making this film all the more real and interesting.

I’ve said I’m surprised at how much human truth is in these films – but should I be?  As Shakespeare taught us, art holds a mirror up to nature, reflecting true human existence, and Shakespeare’s plays are as current today as they have ever been (more on this later, I’m sure…).  So why shouldn’t a 40’s film stand up against the films of today?  Good art never loses it’s potency, and to me, The Lost Weekend definantly qualifies as good art.

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Going My Way (1944)

Going My Way (1944)

Finally, after five years of war-time gloom we’re offered a smidgeon of light relief in the form of Bing Crosby, who stars in Going My Way.  Only a smidgeon of relief, mind – there is still of plenty of human drama here to remind us that the ‘real world’ is close to home.

The film is about a spunky young priest who arrives at a failing New York parish to help rescue it from financial doom.  Played by Crosby, Father O’Malley finds himself at odds with the stuffy older priest, Father Fitzgibbons, played with utter alacrity by Barry Fitzgerald.  Across the course of the film we will watch the old and the new attempt to connect, all the while observing the dramas of the parish and the people about it.

Touted today as a musical, all of the songs in Going My Way appear within the context of the story.  For instance, Father O’Malley plays the piano while his choir sing, or he accompanies a young lady while she demonstates for him her musical talent.  This is far removed from the outlandish spectacle of The Great Ziegfeld. Avoiding the fantastic and the surreal, Going My Way instead opts to keep itself ‘of the world’ rather than taking us out of it.  From what I have read, this film was big with the soldiers and I suppose that this method helped them feel more at home and in touch with both the film and their own place in the world.

To be honest though I found this film pretty bland, yet there was one moment which touched me quite deeply.  I think that the film is meant to be an escape from the war, and there is scarcely any mention of the war bar one moment; Haines Jnr emerges from his bedroom in his new army outfit completely out of the blue, and heads straight out the door to join the front line.  This was a poignant, surprising and very real moment.

At first there’s something a little unnatural, even forced, about Going My Way, and it feels a bit like a series of scenes rather than a fully immersive experience like How Green Was My Valley or Mrs Miniver.  I then remember to pay tribute to the year that this was made: 1944.  America is at the tail end of an intense war.  Money and resources for actors and production teams are scarce.  Like it’s characters who must find a way to survive off little money and huge debt, so too does Going My Way represent the financial hardships of the people of it’s era.  Times were tough, yet Hollywood still managed to make films which helped people see the days through.  I think that this is admirable.

Casablanca (1943)

Casablanca (1943)

Before watching this film I had a quick discussion about genre.  Genre is an idea I keep hovering around as I watch these films.  For some reason, I like to think of myself as being above genre, like I’m so open-minded that no sort of taste informs what I like or don’t like.  This is a lie, of course.  Genre, in film or music or novel, is present regardless of how we see it, and it always informs how we will read or respond to something.  Exactly what genre is Casablanca, and does this affect how we read it?

I had lamented earlier that there was a lack of noir in the Best Picture selection, and I thought that The Life of Emile Zola was as close to noir as we were going to get (there are some great shadows and noir-esque interactions in that film).  I couldn’t have missed the mark more; Casablanca is the Academy’s nod towards the shadowy, moody, cigarette-smoking aesthetic of the 40’s noir.

We’re not watching Casablanca for long before we start to notice long and deliberate shadows, an expression perhaps of the shady dealings and murders which are going on in the story.  When characters interact they do so with a desperate fire in their eyes and the air of having everything to lose.  Through the use of the noir aesthetic we are transported to a world where we are always on the look out for a double-cross or a twist in fate, much like the characters themselves.

Yet Casablanca is equally a war film.  It’s not so much about battles and military manouvres (although the Nazi occupation of France is awfully humbling), but about what happens to people during war.  And it is here that Casablanca retains it’s status as a classic after all these years, in that despite it’s heavily drawn generical influences it remains a story about human beings and their wants and needs in a time desperation.

If mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, Casablanca has been well and truly given its dues across the years.  The film is peppered with catch-phrases and what have since become cliches, and yet it still manages to transcend all of this and retain its power and conviction.  Intricate and detailed, it is easily one of the most memorable films ever, and at just over an hour and a half it is a nice, easy and fruitful watch.