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Tag Archives: How Green Was My Valley

2013: The Year of the Ford

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On one level, every year is the “Year of the Ford” in the Smith household. I am, after all, watching his movies all of the time, both for my own pleasure and in classes that I’m teaching. I’ve shown more films by John Ford, and in a greater variety of film studies classes (Intro to Film, Film and Society, Perspectives on Film, World of Cinema, etc.), than any other director. In less than five years I’ve managed to screen seven Ford features: Stagecoach (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); and this is not to mention that I also frequently show Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary feature Directed By John Ford in full — as well as clips from various other Ford films, including 3 Bad Men (1926), The Informer (1935) and The Battle of Midway (1942). My insistence on teaching Ford is in part because his very name seems synonymous with the American cinema — in much the same way that William Faulkner might be said to be synonymous with American literature or Bob Dylan synonymous with American music. (I’ll never forget how intensely gratifying it was to hear a young Korean student say she felt she was able to “understand America better” after watching Ford’s movies in my class.) Yet, even given my Ford-o-philia, 2013 was something special.

The year began on a sour note for some Ford aficionados when Quentin Tarantino repeatedly badmouthed Ford’s movies for their supposed “racism” to anyone who would listen (including Charlie Rose and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) while traveling around the world to promote his presumably more enlightened Django Unchained. Fortunately, Ford soon received the most eloquent defense his admirers could have hoped for in the form of a Film Comment rebuttal from the great Kent Jones. Then, in the following months, the world was reminded of the maestro’s continued relevance when four of what I would argue are among his five best movies were released on Blu-ray for the first time: How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (Ford’s other best movie, The Searchers, was released on Blu-ray years ago.) Incredibly, none of these titles were released together as part of any sort of Ford-themed package or box-set deal. Instead they were dropped, coincidentally and separately, by three different labels: 20th Century Fox, Olive Films and Paramount UK. TCM and Sony also teamed up to release the “John Ford Columbia Films Collection” box set but the five titles included there were made available on DVD only (and as much as I welcome the digital debuts of such underrated gems as The Whole Town’s Talking and Gideon’s Day, I passed on this set because I no longer purchase DVD-only releases). Finally, 2013 also saw the very welcome DVD release of the recently rediscovered Ford silent Upstream (included on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s “Treasures New Zealand” anthology). The rest of this post, however, will be devoted to the four new Ford Blu-ray titles that rocked my world in 2013.

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How Green Was My Valley is my second favorite Ford film and my favorite of his non-westerns. I am also fond of stating that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences correctly named it the Best Picture of 1941 over Citizen Kane, with which it curiously shares a flashback structure and a “subjectivity of memory” theme. This beautiful, melancholy story of one family’s disintegration in a turn-of-the-20th century mining town in Wales (though Ford was clearly thinking of Ireland) is set against the backdrop of union struggles and was one of the director’s most personal films. In it, he presents a vision of an idealized family life, the kind that he personally never knew (where Donald Crisp presides with benign authority over a brood of dutiful, mostly male offspring), and offers a stirring illustration of his Catholic belief that one’s physical death is not “the end.” Yet the film’s obsessive focus on the inevitability of change simultaneously marks it as one of Ford’s most pessimistic works. How Green Was My Valley has amazing deep-focus cinematography courtesy of the great D.P. Arthur Miller, a poignant Alfred Newman score and a star-making performance by the lovely Maureen O’Hara (working with Ford for the first of many times). Fox’s Blu-ray, which I reviewed at length back in February, is perfect.

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The Quiet Man is the most impressive of the new batch of Ford Blu-rays, not only because it looks and sounds incredible but also because it represents the most dramatic upgrade over all of the film’s previous home video incarnations. This movie has never looked good on VHS or DVD, the old video transfers of which were soft and blurry and sported sadly faded color (a particularly offensive crime since Ford insisted on shooting in Technicolor, the premiere color process of the day, over the objections of Republic Pictures boss Herbert Yates, who had patented his own color process — the cheaper and more lurid TruColor). So Olive Films did the world a huge favor by taking Ford’s single most personal film (and the only passionate love story he ever directed) and restoring it to something approximating its original luster. This new version boasts a high-definition transfer and remaster of the original camera negative and the results are glorious: primary colors (especially greens and reds) are vibrant and saturated: when John Wayne’s Sean Thornton first spies Maureen O’Hara’s flame-haired Mary Kate Danaher walking barefoot in an impossibly green grassy field, he wonders aloud “Is that real? She couldn’t be.” I said the same thing when I first watched this Blu-ray.

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In contrast to How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man, both of which are popular classics beloved by many casual movie fans, The Sun Shines Bright has always been the Ford-lover’s Ford movie. A remake of the director’s own Judge Priest (1934), a Will Rogers vehicle that remains a great film in its own right, this 1953 version similarly blends comedy and tragedy in a story of racial intolerance set in post-Civil War Kentucky. But it also daringly restores the incendiary lynching scene that censors ordered to be cut from the original, which was Ford’s acknowledged reason for revisiting the material to begin with. While the film may have looked deliberately old-fashioned by the standards of the early Fifties, this beautiful slice of Americana, and its impassioned plea for tolerance, looks positively ahead of our time today — Stepin Fetchit and all. Again, this is a terrific transfer courtesy of Olive Films: the original black-and-white cinematography comes across as satisfyingly film-like, showing admirable depth and grain, and the DTS-HD rendering of the mono soundtrack is likewise subtly awesome. Both Victor Young’s score and the crisp sound design (notably the rhythmic sound of marching feet in the back-to-back processions that serve as the movie’s double-climax) make a big impression.

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1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was Ford’s last great western — and the first of many great movies belonging to a subgenre concerning “aging cowboys” (followed swiftly by Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country). As the West is on the brink of being “settled,” the way of the gun (John Wayne) must cede to the rule of the law (Jimmy Stewart). While Ford sees this progress as being both inevitable and right, it is obvious that his heart belongs more with Wayne’s rancher-character, Tom Doniphan, and that he mourns the passing of the era when men like Doniphan existed, which turns the whole thing into a complex and ironic tragedy. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is in many ways Ford’s magnum opus (with explicit nods to earlier classics like Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln) and Paramount UK’s hi-def transfer does this masterpiece proud. It bests Paramount’s very good previous DVD in terms of image and sound — boasting a robust new 5.1 mix in the latter area. One does wonder why Paramount U.S. hasn’t yet bothered to release the same title although given that the U.K. edition is region-free (and can thus be played on any Blu-ray player worldwide), the cost of international shipping isn’t too much of a price to pay for a release this essential.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance also, of course, contains some of the most important dialogue Ford ever directed: “This is the west, sir. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.” These lines, delivered by a newspaper editor to Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard, have frequently been misunderstood — including by Steven Spielberg in the pages of Time magazine — as somehow being an argument in favor of the importance of inspirational “heroes and legends.” I would argue that they actually play out on screen as a sad reminder that official histories are often tragically incorrect. Fortunately, in 2013, John Ford’s own legend has been solidified more than ever due to the magnificent Blu-ray releases of four of his most timeless works. I am jealous of anyone who gets to see them in such pristine form for the first time.

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How Blu Was My Valley

Newly released on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox is How Green Was My Valley, the Best Picture Oscar winner from 1941 and one of director John Ford’s finest achievements.

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In the documentary Becoming John Ford, the screenwriter Lem Dobbs makes an interesting observation about John Ford’s 1945 film They Were Expendable: it is unusual, he says, that the title is in the past tense. This was, after all, a movie about World War II, made during World War II, and Dobbs believes that most other Hollywood filmmakers of the time would have wanted to conjure a more present-tense sense of urgency by calling such a movie either They Are Expendable or just plain The Expendables. (Needless to say, Dobbs’ observation was made, amusingly, several years before Sylvester Stallone’s action franchise ended up adopting the latter title.) Dobbs believes that by calling the film They Were Expendable Ford is saying these characters have already “passed into myth,” a good insight into Ford’s approach to history. One of the most prominent themes across Ford’s vast filmography is the discrepancy between the reality of a historical event and how it is perceived after the fact. This is an implicit theme in Young Mr. Lincoln, an explicit theme in Fort Apache and is perfectly encapsulated in the famous line of dialogue from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Looking at Ford’s movie titles alone, it is striking how many of them are in the past tense: How the West Was Won, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, They Were Expendable, and, Ford’s ultimate “past tense” movie, How Green Was My Valley. Valley tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, Huw Morgan, but it is his story as seen from the vantage point of the character as he remembers that time at the age of 50. As in Miguel Gomes’ recent Tabu, this means that Ford’s images are not “reality” so much as the decades-old memories of Huw’s off-screen (and perhaps unreliable) narrator-self. The subjective nature of the storytelling also helps to explain why the child protagonist (portrayed by Roddy McDowell in one of the finest child performances ever) doesn’t seem to age even though the film seems to span several years. This is similar to the poignant use of the superficially “too old” appearances of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in the flashback sequences of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962, Ford’s last great “memory film.”

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Ford once claimed that How Green Was My Valley was his most autobiographical movie, which is ironic considering that he joined the project as a last-minute replacement for the original director William Wyler. Wyler had already worked on the script with screenwriter Philip Dunne, overseen the construction of the sets on the Fox ranch in the Malibu hills and even cast the film. Perhaps it’s surprising that the movie seems as “Fordian” as it does considering how late Ford came on board the project. Then again, perhaps it’s surprising that Ford was not offered to direct the project originally, given how similar the subject matter is to The Grapes of Wrath (which had netted Ford a Best Director Oscar one year earlier). Like Grapes, a film that had arrived with the same instant prestige – and controversy – as John Steinbeck’s source novel, How Green Was My Valley was based on a current best-seller by Richard Llewellyn. Both books had been published in 1939 (an indication of how much quicker things got done in Hollywood at the time) and they tell similar stories: they are period dramas depicting the disintegration of a family, set against the backdrop of a labor struggle. How Green Was My Valley is set in Wales and the main characters are coal miners (as opposed to the Okie tenant farmers in Grapes) but the portrait of family life in each is strikingly similar.

Daryl Zanuck, the head of Production at 20th Century Fox, was a conservative Republican and, as had happened with The Grapes of Wrath, was made uneasy by some of the political themes of How Green Was My Valley, such as the workers’ struggle for the right to unionize. Zanuck commissioned screenplays for the film from two different writers and rejected both of them because he thought they focused too much on the unionization subplot. In a memo referring to an early story conference, Zanuck wrote: “I was very disappointed in the (Ernest) Pascal script mainly because it has turned into a labor story and a sociological problem story instead of a great human warm story about real living people. I got the impression that we are trying to do an English Grapes of Wrath and prove that the mine owners were very mean and that the laborers finally won out over them. All this might be fine if it were happening today like The Grapes of Wrath but this is years ago and who gives a damn? The smart thing to do is to try and keep all of the rest in the background and focus mainly on the human story as seen through Huw’s eyes.” The third draft, written by Dunne, did downplay some of the more radical political elements of the novel but it is still remarkable that the movie got made at all.

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Part of the reason why Zanuck first approached Wyler and not Ford to direct is because his original concept for the film was different from what it ended up becoming. The initial idea was to make How Green Was My Valley Fox’s Gone with the Wind. Zanuck was jealous of MGM’s success with their 1939 Oscar-winner and his plan was for How Green Was My Valley to “outdo” Gone with the Wind by being a four-hour Technicolor epic, shot on location and featuring an all-star cast that would’ve include Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Tyrone Power and Greer Garson. None of those things ended up happening; war broke out in Europe, which made location shooting impossible, and the top brass at Fox balked at the proposed budget as well as the choice of director (Wyler had a reputation for being an extravagant perfectionist who required many takes). When Fox cancelled the project, Zanuck fired off an angry letter to the front office saying that Dunne’s script was the best he had ever read and if he couldn’t make the movie now, he was going to make it later and would take it to another studio if necessary. The powers that be at Fox relented on the condition that Zanuck make the film in black-and-white and bring it in at a running time of under two hours. That’s when Zanuck brought in Ford because Ford’s reputation was the opposite of Wyler’s – he was able to get most of his shots in only one or two takes and was known for bringing his movies in on time and under budget.

The finished film was, as I’ve indicated, highly personal for Ford, who based a lot of its images on his own childhood memories. Coincidentally, Ford had been the same age as Huw Morgan at roughly the same time in history: Ford was born in 1894 and reached adolescence in the early part of the 21st century just like Huw. Further, Huw is the youngest son in a large Welsh family and Ford was the youngest son in a large Irish-American family (his parents had migrated, separately, from Ireland to America, where they first met and got married). Ford said he could identify with being the “fresh young kid at the table” and this identification is evident in the many poignant reaction shots of Huw sitting with his family at the dining room table. More importantly, Huw becomes sick in the movie and has a lengthy convalescence during which he discovers his love of books. The exact same thing happened to the director; Ford contracted diptheria when he was 12 and was quarantined at home for a year. During this time he missed a year of school but discovered his own love of literature and read classics like Ivanhoe, Treasure Island and the novels of Mark Twain. Oftentimes, one of his sisters would read to him, an event that is recreated in the film with Huw and his sister-in-law Bronwyn (Anna Lee who, like cast-mate Maureen O’Hara, was working with Ford for the first of many times).

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Ultimately, what makes How Green Was My Valley a masterpiece, and arguably Ford’s finest pre-War film, is the deeply felt, deeply Fordian depiction of family and the lament for its inevitable dissolution. Ford sees the family itself as a microcosm of the broader Welsh society and, as the family goes, so too goes the mining town. The movie is ultimately a tragedy because the intellectually gifted Huw Morgan refuses to leave his hometown and pursue an education, preferring instead to stay behind and do the same backbreaking work in the mines as his father and brothers – even as the “green”-ness is leaving the valley for good. But if there is a silver lining to be found, it is in Ford’s sense of spirituality and the notion that, as Peter Bogdanovich put it, “death is not the end.” This spiritual sense is depicted nowhere more strongly nor movingly in Ford’s entire canon than in Valley‘s climactic moments: after Huw’s father (Donald Crisp) has died in a mining accident, his mother (Sara Allgood) speaks of seeing him in a vision: “He came to me just now . . . He spoke to me and told me of the glory he had seen.” We then see all of the film’s characters, dead and alive, together on a grassy hillside, happy and smiling, as if reunited in paradise. “Men like my father cannot die,” Huw intones in voice-over as an adult. “They are with me still, real in memory as they were in the flesh, loving and beloved forever.”

After The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley was another big critical and commercial success for 20th Century Fox. It won Ford his third Academy Award for Best Director and it won Zanuck his first Oscar for Best Picture. The fact that its main competition that year was Citizen Kane (which had to settle for the Best Original Screenplay trophy only) has sadly caused some critics and cinephiles to downgrade Valley in hindsight, many of whom see it as the ultimate “proof” of the Oscars’ irrelevance–the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. I mean, the film that beat the Greatest Movie of All Time™? How good could it possibly be? Personally, while I yield to no one in my love of Welles, I have no qualms about saying that the Academy Awards actually got things right that year. The ultimate tribute to Valley came from Welles himself, who clearly modeled the gossiping housewives in his 1942 production of The Magnificent Ambersons on a scene involving similar characters from Ford’s film (not to mention identifying Ford as his favorite director in later interviews).

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About the transfer: How Green Was My Valley is presented by Fox on Blu-ray in a new HD transfer based on restored film elements. I do not believe this involved the same sort of extensive digital overhaul as last year’s brilliant Grapes of Wrath Blu-ray, which means the upgrade over Fox’s previous DVD version is not comparably dramatic. It is, however, still an upgrade — especially in the areas of detail, clarity and contrast. The amount of detail in close-ups in particular, such as the fine hairs on an old woman’s face, is extremely impressive. Arthur Miller’s gorgeous high-contrast/deep-focus black-and-white cinematography is comparable to Gregg Toland’s work on Grapes and likewise utilizes a lot of low-angled long shots; the film’s cinematic qualities come through better than ever on this new edition. Fortunately, all of the DVD’s welcome extras (especially the insightful commentary track with Anna Lee and Ford biographer Joseph McBride) have also been ported over here intact. How Green Was My Valley is one of my top three favorite Ford films, along with The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and I consider it an essential addition to the library of any Fordophile — or cinephile.

    Works Cited

1. McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.


John Ford and the Cinematic Meal

The following essay is based on notes for a lecture I gave in my friend Sara Vaux’s Religion and Film class at Northwestern University in January. The subject of the class was “The Cinematic Meal.” No sex toys were employed during the lecture.

The concept of “the meal” is a prominent and crucial aspect of the John Ford universe. Scenes set around dining room tables are more important in Ford than almost any other director I know. (The stiffest competition would probably come from his contemporary equivalent Clint Eastwood.) But the preponderance of mealtime scenes in Ford is just one facet of the director’s larger obsession with home and the domestic sphere, which is somewhat ironic considering Ford’s association with the western genre. When one thinks of a Ford movie, the first thing to come to mind is probably the spectacular outdoor location photography – in particular scenes shot in Monument Valley, Utah, the central location of thirteen of Ford’s most well known films. I personally associate Ford primarily with the Technicolor imagery of films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, where the big majestic rock formations of Monument Valley appear almost orange under a bright blue sky. Yet it’s one of the central paradoxes of Ford’s work that although his movies may be full of outdoor adventure, typically taking place in an “uncivilized” corner of his mythological version of the 19th century American West, the man always juxtaposed those scenes with equally essential interior scenes depicting domestic life.

This dichotomy between exterior/interior is also closely related to another Fordian paradox, which is that Ford can be viewed simultaneously as a “masculine” and a “feminine” director. In Ford’s own lifetime he was perceived critically as a man’s man and someone mainly interested in male worlds and masculine codes of behavior. Following the lead of critic Janey Place, Joseph McBride, author of the indispensable Searching for John Ford, has more recently argued that Ford can also be seen as an essentially feminine artist. McBride points out that the things Ford values the most – home, family and tradition – are typically thought of as feminine concerns. This is an acute insight because in order to fully understand Ford’s movies one has to understand how they show, and even obsessively dwell on, the disintegration of the family unit; in film after film, John Ford is continually mourning the loss of the things he loves the most.

There are a couple of mealtime scenes in Ford that perfectly illustrate the aforementioned paradoxes, albeit in strikingly different ways. Take for instance The Searchers from 1956, considered by many to be Ford’s masterpiece; early on in the film, Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran played by John Wayne, arrives at the home of his brother Aaron’s family after a mysterious three year absence. Almost immediately upon Ethan’s homecoming, a band of Comanche Indians run off with the prize cattle of the Jorgensens, the family who live next door to the Edwardses. In a highly memorable scene set around the Edwards family breakfast table, the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton, the local lawman (who is also a clergyman!), arrives to swear in as deputies the male members of seemingly every family within a hundred mile radius in order to form a posse to reclaim the cattle.

A depiction of community in long take and long shot (The Searchers):

This swearing in scene, which occurs over coffee and doughnuts, is a good example of how Ford depicts a community of people coming together over a meal. It is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite Ford scenes because of what he refers to as the “love” depicted onscreen – not only the love that the characters so obviously have for one another but also the love one feels Ford has for all of them. The feeling of a closely knit community is revealed through the dialogue and the acting, of course, but finds its perfect compliment through the way Ford stages the action. For instance, it is absolutely crucial that this scene unfolds mostly in long takes (i.e., with minimal cutting) and in long shots (i.e., where the camera is at a distance from the characters). This allows Ford to more effectively record the hustle and bustle of people coming and going in the dining room; the togetherness of this fledgling society is highlighted by the fact that we can see all of these characters in relation to one another at all times. There is a little bit of tension in the scene, between Ethan Edwards and Captain Clayton, which is typified by cryptic dialogue about the possibility that Ethan might be wanted for a crime in his recent past. Ford underscores the tension between these characters by having the camera track in to a close shot of the two of them. But because Ford never cuts to separate camera angles that isolate Ethan and Clayton from each other, he also lets us know that the conflict between them is ultimately not that serious. The real conflict, Ford seems to be telling us, will lie elsewhere.

The depiction of community in The Searchers can be fruitfully contrasted with a very different mealtime scene from another one of Ford’s best movies, How Green Was My Valley from 1941. The earlier film depicts life in a Welsh coal mining village around the turn of the twentieth century. Specifically, it deals with intergenerational conflict within a single family, the Morgans. The sons in the Morgan family, mostly in their teens and twenties, want to join a newly formed workers’ union but their father opposes the idea. Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp) is an old-fashioned patriarch who grew up without unions and thinks that joining one will only lead to trouble – he dismisses the talk of his sons as “socialist nonsense” even though the mine owners have recently slashed employee wages. This impasse reaches a state of crisis at the Morgan family dining room table when the sons, one by one, stand up, leave the table and walk out of the home for good. Ford stages this tragic scene from How Green Was My Valley with brisker cutting than in The Searchers and by frequently showing the Morgan men in separate close-ups, emphasizing their isolation from each other. It is a perfect example of Ford illustrating how the dining room table can be a place where families break apart as well as come together.

The scenes outlined above have another fundamental thing in common; they both succeed brilliantly as primarily visual storytelling (which should not be surprising given Ford’s origins in the silent cinema). In both instances, if you were to watch the scene with the sound turned off you would still be able to understand everything you need to know about the relationships between the characters because of the framing, the camera movement, the cutting and the lack of cutting. Daryl Zanuck, the longtime head of Twentieth Century Fox (with whom Ford frequently butted heads), said late in his life that he came to realize Ford was the greatest of all directors because of his uncanny ability to shoot scenes in such a way that made “even good dialogue secondary or unnecessary.” There is no higher compliment that a movie director can be paid.

Isolating characters in separate close-ups (How Green Was My Valley):


Deserve’s Got Nothing to Do With It

This Sunday night I will, as is my custom, watch the Academy Awards ceremony live on television. This is a ritual that some of my more serious-minded cinephile friends don’t understand. The Oscars, I tell them, are a night of good trashy fun, which is more than what I feel most Hollywood movies these days are capable of providing. And the Oscars do have a long and colorful history, stretching all the way back to 1927, which makes them more meaningful and interesting than any other awards show. The winners, of course, are chosen more for political reasons than anything else; for instance, if Annette Bening wins Best Actress for The Kids Are All Right, as some pundits are predicting, it will be less for her fine performance (the best thing about that overrated film) than because she’s been nominated several times before and hasn’t yet won. As Clint Eastwood said in the multiple Oscar-winning Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

But while I don’t believe the Oscars represent any legitimate measure of artistic validation for the winners (have you seen Cimarron lately? Or for that matter Dances with Wolves?), there have been rare occasions when the Best Picture winners truly were the best American films released during a given calendar year. It has become common for movie buffs to make lists of “alternative Oscars” – titles frequently trotted out include such perennial hindsight favorites as Sunrise (1927), City Lights (1931), Citizen Kane (1941), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Searchers (1956), Vertigo (1958), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Goodfellas (1990). It is less common to hear discussion about how Oscar sometimes gets it right. So below is a list of what I consider the top ten best Best Picture winners. In other words, these are films that I believe really did deserve the honor:

10. All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930)

He may have wound down his career by indifferently presiding over Rat Pack vehicles but Lewis Milestone also made two of the best American movies of the early sound era – the Al Jolson-starring musical Hallelujah, I’m a Bum and this powerful anti-war film based on the celebrated novel by Erich Maria Remarque. The battle scenes are astonishing, even by today’s standards, and the movie’s final symbolic image (a soldier cut down by sniper fire while reaching out to touch a butterfly) captures the futility of war better than most entire war films.

9. The Apartment (Wilder, 1960)

Billy Wilder’s last great movie is this acerbic comedy about a lowly office worker who unexpectedly finds himself climbing the corporate ladder after letting his superiors use his apartment to conduct their extramarital affairs. The witty screenplay, courtesy of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, is chockfull of memorable lines, which are delivered by a pitch-perfect cast including Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray. “Shut up and deal.”

8. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster saga is the rarest of feats, a great work of art that is also a cultural phenomenon. Transcending the pulp novel on which it’s based (and which Coppola was initially ashamed to adapt), every aspect of this movie is the stuff of legend: iconic performances by a heavyweight cast of Method actors, hauntingly beautiful Nina Rota score, cinematographer Gordon Willis’ innovative use of “Rembrandt lighting,” and a plot that achieves the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy. A lot of people prefer the sequel but not me.

7. An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951)

Some of the greatest tunes from the Gershwin songbook are strung together to form the backbone of this original MGM movie musical, one of the high water marks of the entire genre; Gene Kelly is the titular character, an American expatriate painter caught between the wealthy, older benefactress who loves him and the young ingenue with whom he is smitten. Vincente Minnelli’s direction is a model of colorful, expressive, intelligent mise-en-scene, nowhere more apparent than in the justifiably famous ballet sequence climax. The dancing of course is phenomenal.

6. Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992)

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

5. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 1950)

Writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz crafted the ultimate backstabbing, backstage drama with this tale of the rivalry between aging Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis in her finest performance) and devious young upstart Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). As with The Apartment, the real star here is the razor-sharp wit of Mankiewicz’s brilliant screenplay, one of the greatest ever written: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

4. Going My Way (McCarey, 1944)

Sentimental without being mawkish, this beautiful film tells the story of a youthful, liberal priest, Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), who is transferred to an inner-city parish where his methods conflict with those of curmudgeonly Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). Directed with a deft touch by the great Leo McCarey, who proves that Bing Crosby, a million miles away from the persona of his Road pictures, really could act. And if the scene where Fitzgibbon is reunited with his old Irish mother doesn’t make you cry, then I don’t want to know you.

3. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.


Top 25 Films of the 1940s

25. The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, Japan, 1941)

Hiroshi Shimizu’s film about a disparate group of vacationers staying at a hot springs resort for the summer starts off as a comedy and then wondrously, imperceptibly morphs into a poignant drama. The great Chishu Ryu (best known for his work with Ozu) plays a soldier who badly injures his foot when he steps on a hairpin in the communal bath. He later discovers that it was left behind by a beautiful young woman played by Kinuya Tanaka (best known for her work with Mizoguchi). When she returns to the resort to apologize, all of the guests speculate that love must be in the cards. But Shimizu, a master of subtlety, decides to steer the material in a more interesting direction. Released less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Ornamental Hairpin contains fleeting references to to the war and the fact that Tanaka’s character is a geisha, lending touches of gravitas to another deceptively light Shimizu masterwork.

24. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, USA, 1944)

23. Going My Way (McCarey, USA, 1944)

bing crosby, gene lockhart & barry fitzgerald - going my way 1944

22. Colorado Territory (Walsh, USA, 1949)

21. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)

20. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)

19. Children of Paradise (Carne, France, 1945)

The best collaboration of director Marcel Carne and writer Jacques Prevert is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.

18. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

17. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)

David Lean will probably always be best remembered for lavish, 70mm-photographed Oscar-friendly pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I think his relatively early Brief Encounter remains the high point of his career. It’s a minimalist story of adulterous love as “brief” and compressed as the later films are expansive and epic, and arguably all the more effective for it. The performances of Trevor Howard and doe-eyed Celia Johnson as the star-crossed lovers and the script by Noel Coward are all world class. In a memorable line of dialogue Celia’s Laura says “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” If “violence” can be considered purely emotional then this is one of the most violent movies ever made.

16. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, USA, 1943)

15. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)

In Carol Reed’s classic British noir Joseph Cotton stars Holly Martins, a dime store novelist who travels to Vienna to visit childhood pal Harry Lime only to find that his friend has died in a mysterious accident. Martins’ belief that Lime was murdered inspires a personal investigation that leads him deep into the morally dubious heart of the postwar European black market as well as into a love affair with Lime’s beautiful girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Among the film’s unforgettable ingredients are the catchy zither score by Anton Karas, the legendary extended cameo by Orson Welles and the cinematography of Robert Krasker, whose use of dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting make the rubble-strewn Viennese streets look positively lunar.

14. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1948)

13. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)

Yasujiro Ozu kickstarted his great late period with this terrific drama about a young woman named Noriko (Setsuko Hara, playing the first of three Norikos for Ozu) who lives with her widower father (Chishu Ryu) and is reluctant to get married for fear of leaving him alone. Not only is this the first of the loose “Noriko trilogy” (even though Hara’s characters are different in each film), it also laid down the template that all of Ozu’s subsequent films would follow until his death in 1963: the themes of intergenerational conflict, familial love, loss and regret, wedded to a precise visual style favoring static, low angle compositions and long takes. The depth of feeling that arises from this marriage of form and content is simply unparalleled in cinema.

12. Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II (Eisenstein, Russian, 1944-1958)

ivan

11. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)

10. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

9. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)

The first sound film that Carl Dreyer made in his native Denmark is this great work of art about religious intolerance, hypocrisy and persecution in the 17th century. While “witches” are being burned at the stake, a beautiful young woman marries an elderly pastor and then embarks on an affair with his son, leading to tragedy for everyone. This is no stolid “period drama” but rather a vital piece of filmmaking with incredibly atmospheric cinematography, restrained but razor sharp performances and a story that brims with obvious parallels to the question-and-torture methods of the Nazis. One of the essential films of its era.

8. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)

7. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

6. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)

As “The Archers,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collectively wrote and directed the most extraordinary movies of the golden age of British cinema and The Red Shoes is their masterpiece. Taking its inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, this beautiful, visually baroque Technicolor extravaganza tells the story of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between the desires of her heart and the quest for perfection in her craft. The highlight is the title ballet sequence, a fifteen minute scene employing dozens of dancers and over a hundred painted backdrops, shot and cut together as a thrilling spectacle of pure cinema. One of the great films about obsession. One of the great films about the artistic process. One of the great films period.

5. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.

4. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 1948)

The definitive Italian Neorealist film remains a deceptively simple, emotionally overwhelming experience that must be seen by anyone who loves movies. Writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica crafted the ultimately politically engaged drama with this tale of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed factory worker (non-actor Lamberto Maggiorani) who finds a job putting up posters around Rome that requires the use of a bicycle. After selling his bedsheets to get his bike out of hock, Antonio finds that his bicycle is tragically stolen, a turn of events that causes him to spend the day looking for the thief with the aid of his young son Bruno (Enzo Staioloa). A humanistic portrait of despair that has never been bettered.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Letter From an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.


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