February 23, 2010
Last week I looked at six of the Best Picture nominees from 1943, the last year the Academy nominated ten films for Best Picture, until they expanded the category once more in 2010. Today I’ll look at the remaining four titles, with James Agee and Manny Farber again providing perspective with their reviews from the period. The idea is to approach these films with fresh eyes, outside of the reputations (or lack of) that have accrued over time.
Madame Curie (1943, directed by Mervyn LeRoy)
Sadly, the production history of this turgid biopic is far more fascinating than the film itself (most of this history comes from Christopher Frayling’s Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist in Cinema). After their success with The Story of Louis Pasteur in 1936, Warner Bros. was circling Marie Curie’s story as a follow-up, with the Pasteur combo of director William Dieterle and actress Josephine Hutchinson penciled in for the project. But in 1937, Eve Curie’s biography of her mother was published, and interest in the story skyrocketed. Universal snagged the rights, intending Irene Dunne to star. Unable to produce an agreeable script, Universal sold the rights (along with Show Boat) to MGM in 1938 for $200,000.
MGM found it equally difficult to hammer out a script, taking five years and hiring 18 screenwriters before settling on the pages. Two of those 18 were Aldous Huxley and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The dream version of the movie had Huxley as writer, George Cukor as director, and Greta Garbo as star. Garbo was motivated to play the lead, but Huxley turned in a 145 page draft that was eventually tossed for being too “scientific”, as Tom Dardis quotes in his Some Time in the Sun.
Producers Bernard Hyman and Sidney Franklin then turned to Fitzgerald. His story, according to Frayling, wanted to focus on Madame Curie’s role as a “modern woman”. He expressed his interest to Zelda in a letter:
Madame Curie progresses and it is a relief to be working on something that the censors have nothing against…. The more I read about the woman the more I think about her as one of the most admirable people of our time. I hope we can get a little of that into the story.
Fitzgerald was fired after 18 months of work. The final writing credit was given to Paul Osborn and Paul H. Rameau, who turned in a more conventional script that focused mainly on the love story between Marie and Pierre Curie. Revisions continued right up to filming, and director Albert Lewin was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy soon before the start of production. These years of work produced some tantalizing what-ifs, but the finished product is a rather dire simplification of a remarkable life. The first half of the film finds distinguished scientists Marie Sklodovksa (Greer Garson) and Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon) toss moony looks at each other through gauzy lighting, while the second half compresses a lifetime of scientific discovery into a few anxious stares and lots of shouting. Neither section is convincing, aside from the small sections with Robert Walker’s obsequious lab assistant (with whom Marie Curie was rumored to have an affair). Agee is with me: “A smooth, rather horrible romanticization of a subject I am sorry to see romanticized.”
The More the Merrier (1943, directed by George Stevens)
A manic, strained, but rather irresistible screwball comedy that makes light of the Washington D.C. housing shortage during WWII. Connie Milligan (an uptight Jean Arthur) rents out a room in her apartment to Benjamin Dingle (a mischievous Charles Coburn), who can’t help but set her up with a strapping special ops soldier, Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), even though she’s engaged to the banal Mr. Pendergast (Richard Gaines). Already treading on Milligan’s last nerve, Dingle rents out half of his room to Carter, creating a full house and many opportunities for face-pulling farce. The scenario is so cute as to be cloying, but the actors have a ball, rendering it an amiable, although far from flawless, laffer from the period. Arthur’s obsessive-compulsive act pinballs off of Coburn’s jaunty ironist to create a crackling tension, while McCrea just looks happy to be there.
Which he wasn’t. In her biography of Stevens, Giant, Marilyn Ann Moss reveals that McCrea wasn’t comfortable at the first cast reherasal. He went so far as to have his agent call up and try to get out of the movie, but he soldiered through, and his easy, engaging demeanor is the perfect counterpoint to to the amped up Coburn-Arthur battle. The film is packed with incident, a pile-on of mistaken identity, misdirection, practical jokes, and general madcappery. There is so much stuff happening that there’s little time to flesh out the characters. They are vessels for the jokes and pratfalls, but never pop out of the story as more than silly names. Dingle is a walking plot device, instigating and solving the movie’s problems with an insouciant twinkle in his eye.
This works as long as the jokes keep hitting, but it’s impossible to sustain that pace, and eventually it winds down with a dully romantic clincher lifted from The Awful Truth, and some unbelievable deus-ex-Coburn from the impish old man. Regardless of these problems, Arthur, Coburn, McCrea, and Stevens are often able to make this creaky material sing (look at the lead photo and try not to crack a smile), which is some kind of accomplishment. And as Stevens said: “There was something about the times…you know you might as well have some fun because you might not be around too long.”
Agee: “The film as a whole is a tired souffle, for unfortunately Stevens doesn’t know where to stop. Farce, like melodrama, offers very special chances for accurate observation, but here accuracy is avoided ten times to one in favor of the easy burlesque or the easier idealization which drops the bottom out of farce. Every good moment frazzles or drowns.”
Farber: “This product is like an air conditioner, in that on the hottest day of the year it is better than no conditioner at all. There is a certain foolproof quality about it: each line produces some kind of smile, even if it takes all the smart dialogue writers in Hollywood. …Director Stevens’ troubles always arise in a comedy of this sort where his compassion collides, head-on, with slapstick. This gums the last half of the picture with tendernesses that fall flat, and laughs that break wrong.”
The Song of Bernadette, (1943, directed by Henry King)
This is all about Jennifer Jones, who passed away last December at the age of 90. The film is not much worth discussing without her. The story of Bernadette Soubiros, the child who saw visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, is told with no particular skill by Henry King. The tension between state and religion is raised and dropped halfway through, and the mix of studio artificiality and location landscape is jarring. For a story about attaining grace through deprivation, there sure is a lot of money present on-screen – in all of the garish sets and artistically muddied poor people. But Jones is defiantly radiant throughout, exuding an ascetic purity through her wide-set, almond eyes that startles with its intensity. Aside from the reliably oily performance by Vincent Price as the imperial prosecutor (his decadence represented by the ever-present hanky touched to his lips), hers is the only convincing performance, the only one to hint at what religious fervor might actually look like. For Agee, she “impossibly combines the waxen circumspections of a convent school with abrupt salients of emotion of which Dostoyevsky himself need not be ashamed.”
Farber, on the other hand, writes a hilariously insightful pan: “The script for this modern religious movie epic is uninspired to the point of tedium, and has been produced as though the entire picture were on trial before the Catholic Church. It is so cautious that near the end the whole production appears to be turning to stone: when people bend they creak, lifetime associates meet and come together with all of the recognition of ambulating sculptures, and they look at each other with paralyzed faces. ” He doesn’t spare Jones either, who he says “has been directed to be retiring to the point of evaporation.”
I think he is devastatingly correct on all counts, except for Jones’ performance. In every other way the film is a grim theme park ride through Lourdes.
Watch on the Rhine (1943, Herman Shumlin)
This faithful adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play is graced by Paul Lukas’ Oscar-winning performance, and is a valuable document of what the stage version must have looked like. But as cinema, it is unremarkable. Part of a wave of anti-Nazi films Warners was releasing in that period, it presents the Muller family, Kurt (Lukas), Sara (Bette Davis), and their three preternaturally intelligent children. Kurt, a German, is a faithful member of the anti-fascist underground, bouncing around Europe in a fruitless attempt to halt the Nazis’ rise. They escape to visit Sara’s mother in Washington, D.C., only to be ensnared by an opportunistic Fascist sympathizer, a Romanian named Teck (the Mercury Theater’s George Coulouris), who’s eager to give up names to the Nazis.
Adapted by Hellman’s lover Dashiell Hammett, and later polished by Hellman herself, it is said to hew very close to the original production. Hellman also brought along the director of the stage version, Herman Shumlin, to helm the film, his first (he would direct one other movie, Confidential Agent, in 1945). The slavish attention paid to the original saps the life out of the movie, consisting of a series of drawing room scenes, shot as if on a proscenium from the earliest days of cinema. Shumlin mainly has his characters stand and deliver their lines, with no dynamic choreography to goose the power relations. There is no visual correlative to the dialogue, rendering it inert. For Farber, the dialogue “has a cold, triple-duty nautre, that doesn’t seem to come out of the people who deliver it, and it is enunciated as to an audience that might not hear in the back rows of the gallery.”
Hellman’s story is an unblinkingly tough one, examining the moral compromises Kurt must make in order to defend his ideals. He diminishes himself for the cause, and his ethics go down with them. Paul Lukas renders this compromise with his trembling hand matching his ever-compassionate eyes. He underplays it all, while still conveying that he’s coming apart at the seams. No one is in doubt at Lukas’ accomplishment here. Agee calls his performance “superlative”, with Farber has a longer piece that praises it as “sufficiently mobile for the screen, and where the mobility, as expressed in pantomime, is always natural and understandable for the character played.”