Twenty years with the Oscars — and my twentieth return to the well to drink deep of the waters of repentance and forgiveness, and my twentieth mile in my journey to see every single available Oscar nominee (and more!).
After a year of exile, the Academy brought back the Best Documentary (Feature) category. Along with that, I’m still covering Best Documentary (Short), Best Short Subject (One Reel, Two Reel), Best Editing, and Best Sound. I’ll also be spinning plates, tap dancing, swallowing fiery daggers, and trying to make a really good peach cobbler, simultaneously. Some of us just like to keep busy.
Let’s get noisy first.
I have no idea why The Bishop’s Wife won for Gordon E. Sawyer and Samuel Goldwyn, other than it’s a great fantasy, a Christmas film that really needs little reason to watch it year round. There are a few sound effects that we recall, so perhaps that is what drew the Academy to select this one as a winner — that, and Cary Grant’s chin dimple.
Unless you really, really like Lana Turner and soapy melodrama, I would recommend avoiding Green Dolphin Street, which is more of the empty pretty that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Douglas Shearer specialized in helping us hear.
Want some gunfire? Watch out for those T-Men from Jack R. Whitney and Sound Service, Inc. A great B-flick, full of action and gritty images and sounds. A very solid film noir from director Anthony Mann about treasury agents going undercover to stop a gang of counterfeiters.
Best Documentary (Feature):
Design for Death won, remaking an earlier US Army Training film about why the Japanese went to war, Our Job in Japan, which was intended to train the occupation forces to understand what they were up against, and to understand the Japanese better. Dr. Seuss, Ted Geisel, was involved in both; Mrs. Geisel helped with this longer version. Hans Conreid (who would later star in the Seuss adaptation, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) narrated with Kent Smith. Design for Death encompasses a version of most of Japanese history, trying to explain why the concentration of power in the hands of a few is a very, very, very bad idea. Geisel was a classic libertarian, deeply opposed to totalitarianism; take a look at the documentary The Political Dr. Seuss some time, then go back and read his books. As for Design for Death, it isn’t available (it has been shown by the Academy a few years ago, but I missed it). What you can see is the original, shorter version, Our Job in Japan:
Journey into Medicine is from the United States Department of State Office of Information and Educational Exchange, and tells of the journey from the first days of medical school to taking part in statistical research on diseases. The tone is full of idealism, curiosity, honesty, and respect. I don’t think the experience has changed all that much, except for the technology involved. Worth a look for those interested in medicine, especially pediatrics and childhood diseases. Also a good depiction of postwar liberalism, with the call for helping the poor avoid preventable diseases through nutritional aid. Here is the first part (the other three are on Youtube as well):
The World Is Rich is a British film pointing out the starvation and suffering of the world after WWII, and calling for the spread of western-style industrialized farming around the world. The staggering lack of understanding of the different environmental needs of different ecosystems is what I noticed most about this short. A good example of the solution becoming the problem. I saw this years ago in an environmental science class, but could not locate a copy now.
Best Documentary (Short Subject):
First Steps won for the United Nations Division of Films and Visual Information. A heartwarming story of a handicapped child in India learning to walk through new techniques of physical therapy, this is exactly the kind of life-affirming display of optimism that so often wins Academy Awards — and goes viral on Youtube:
Passport to Nowhere isn’t home movies from my high school dating life. I’m pretty sure of that, because I wasn’t born yet. Just what it is, neither I nor the internet can tell.
School in the Mailbox is from the Australian News & Information Bureau. By the title, one assumes this is some kind of postal schooling, correspondence courses for those too far away from a physical school to attend. I can’t be sure, because this short film is lost in the mail.
Best Short Subject (One Reel):
Good-bye Miss Turlock won. Schoolteacher retires; many of her students reunite on her last day. I can’t believe this hasn’t been made into a movie yet — oh wait, it has. Does Mr. Holland’s Opus ring a bell? The short is also a paean to the one-room schoolhouse:
Brooklyn, U.S.A. shows us Brooklyn, U.S.A. Sorry about the lack of sound (at least when I watched it). Coney Island and Brooklyn Dodgers fans, take note!
Moon Rockets shows the uses the captured German V-2 rockets were put to here in the United States, with the first real camera footage of the earth from the edges of space. I suspect this is a piece of this short:
Now You See It is another Pete Smith short showing items incredibly close, including a wristwatch, insects, and a cat drinking. Or so I’m told.
So You Want to Be in Pictures is a comic piece about a wannabe actor who manages to annoy everybody on a set — including the director. You can find it on the DVD box set, The Ronald Reagan Signature Collection.
Best Short Subject (Two Reel):
Climbing the Matterhorn won. Who climbed it, I have no idea, because this winning short has fallen into an icy crevasse, never to be seen again until global warming really gets going (long about the same time we’ll be roasting marshmallows in the Arctic…). Update: I did find one reference. Apparently, footage shot for the movie High Conquest was re-cut and released as this short. So, if you really want to see what won the Oscar, find High Conquest and close your eyes to all the fictional stuff…Take a look at the life of cinematographer Richard Angst, who shot most of the films of director Arnold Fanck, who made a series of pictures set in the mountains. See Hans Michael Bock, Kevin Brownlow and Tim Bergfelder’s The Concise Cinegraph: Encyclopedia of German Cinema, Berghahn Books, 2009, p. 12. Here is the movie poster for High Conquest, starring Anna Lee, Gilbert Roland, and Warren Douglas, with supporting roles for C. Aubrey Smith, Beulah Bondi, Alan Napier, and John Qualen:
Champagne for Two has George Reeves, before he put on Superman’s cape. He’s a nightclub owner who is out to stop a rumored robbery on his business. Hijinks occur. Where’s Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane when you need them?
Fight of the Wild Stallions shows us stallions challenging each other for breeding rights in a wild horse herd in Wyoming. No, they do not show the breeding. That’s illegal in Wyoming. Cowboys are shown here. They’re not shown breeding either. That’s also illegal in Wyoming. The capture of the horses is shown. That’s not illegal in Wyoming. Part One is here; I have no idea if that’s illegal in Wyoming:
Give Us the Earth is apparently very like The World Is Rich, in that a third-world country — Mexico in this case — is taught how to grow food better by a scientist. Or so it seems, since I could not locate a copy.
A Voice Is Born: The Story of Niklos Gafni tells the true story of the real-life singer who learned his craft in a Nazi death-camp, and then went on to international singing tours. Although I could not locate this short, here is Gafni singing a piece by Bizet:
Body and Soul won, largely due to the fight scenes. I would suggest largely due to James Wong Howe’s camerawork, some of which was done on roller skates.
The Bishop’s Wife has an elegant, quiet quality to the editing, rather like listening to a well-sung version of “Silent Night.” A good nomination, this one.
Gentleman’s Agreement screams out its importance, and indeed it was at the time, as the first major studio statement against anti-Semitism. Ironically, the studio that made it was the only one run by a Gentile (Twentieth Century-Fox and Darryl F. Zanuck). Casting Gregory Peck as a man pretending to be Jewish was a good way to bring WASPs everywhere to questioning any anti-Semitism they might have encountered, inside themselves or elsewhere. But the movie is cut oddly (where are the rest of Anne Revere’s scenes?) and the pacing is quite slow at times. The film has not aged all that well.
Green Dolphin Street is edited with little interest for the modern eye. Boring, boring, boring.
Odd Man Out has its moments, especially if you enjoy James Mason stagger about for over an hour. A good early film from Carol Reed, who would go on to film mastery with The Third Man. Well-edited, if somewhat naive about the complexities of the Irish Question.
I would suggest another nomination would have been a very fine choice: Crossfire, starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Young helping to track down Robert Ryan, as an anti-Semitic murderer. The scenes shot in darkness, with the lamp in disarray, are perfectly cut. Crossfire is a considerably more interesting movie than the more popular, more didactic Gentleman’s Agreement.
Overall, an interesting year in film! And watch out for those wild horses and cowboys in Wyoming!
If you’re interested in the more mainstream categories, please see my book! http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00PKK8MBY