Welcome to the growing marathon!
This year, the Academy added a new category, Best Documentary (Short Subject). I promptly ignored it, because when I went looking for these, so many seemed impossible to find, there didn’t seem to be any point, despite my deep love for documentaries. But in the spirit of these special features, I shall try again! Yes, I will indeed, once more, be very trying…
I will be continuing to do penance for Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Short Subject (One-Reel, Two-Reel). One has to carry all the albatrosses, after all, once one has been put on trial…
I hope you enjoy this entry — it took me two weeks to track down and give these missing films a try…
Isn’t English fun?
Let’s start with the new kid on the block:
Best Documentary (Short Subject):
Churchill’s Island won, for the National Film Board of Canada (and United Artists), over Adventure in the Bronx (Film Associates), Bomber (United States Office for Emergency Management Film Unit and Motion Picture Committee Cooperating for National Defense), Christmas under Fire (British Ministry of Information / Warner Bros.), Letter from Home (British Ministry of Information and United Artists), Life of a Thoroughbred (Truman Talley / Twentieth Century-Fox), Norway in Revolt (The March of Time / RKO), A Place to Live (Philadelphia Housing Association), Russian Soil (Amkino), Soldiers of the Sky (Truman Talley / Twentieth Century-Fox), and War Clouds in the Pacific (National Film Board of Canada / MGM).
Looking at those titles, one can see how much the war played a role in bringing this category into creation. What are essentially newsreels became incredibly important in the incipient inferno that was WWII. One theater in New York actually showed nothing but newsreels, as a kind of visual newspaper. The fact that so many of these nominees were from countries already fighting the Nazis — Britain, Canada, Russia — is suggestive that this category was seen as a patriotic measure, allowing the Academy to support the war effort (without much real effort).
Also, the scarcity of these pictures is largely due to their lack of commercial value after their initial release, as well as such little studio investment in their preservation.
Churchill’s Island is essential propaganda, showing the defense of Great Britain against the German onslaught, first in the Battle of Britain, and then in the Battle of the Atlantic to protect shipping. The Americans receive credit for their aid (nothing like a little slap on the American back). Canadian Lorne Greene narrates, long before his days on the Ponderosa. One of the most interesting parts of Churchill’s Island is the use of captured German films to provide authentic footage — so the Nazi’s own propaganda was turned against them. Stiff upper lips are in bountiful supply.
Here is an ad for Churchill’s Island:
The entire documentary is available (thankfully):
Adventure in the Bronx has fizzled, leaving only the merest wisp of a trace of its existence: this nomination. I have no clue what it is even about, save for the location in the Bronx.
Aviation buffs and literary folk alike should enjoy this one. American poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote Bomber, a celebration of the American defense industry as we follow the construction of a B-26 Marauder in Baltimore, Maryland. The Hollywood Reporter had this to say about the movie: “It ranks with the finest documentary films ever made. The impact of the picture was tremendous and it should have a terrific effect in awakening America to the great importance of the national defense program. It is completely absorbing and dynamic, made more so by the vivid narration written by Carl Sandburg which stresses power and certainty in its poetic composition. His words bear ominous import, yet are inspiring in their revelation of America’s gathering strength.” [qtd in North Callahan, Carl Sandburg, p. 174.] The short is a highly polished, slick, inspiring piece of wartime uplift. The entire movie can be seen (or downloaded) at the Internet Archive, here: https://archive.org/details/gov.archives.arc.38638
Christmas Under Fire is a sequel to London Can Take It (discussed above in 1940). While the Blitz rages, the British people celebrate Christmas. We get lots of Christmas cheer along with German bombs and British endurance, all designed to make Americans feel guilty about celebrating while Britain suffered alone. Warner Bros. donated their end of the profits to the Spitfire Fund, which bought fighter planes for the British war effort. You can sing along to the Christmas carol here:
A Letter from Home will be of primary interest to Carol “The Third Man” Reed aficionados. The director made a number of these propaganda films during WWII. The star of Brief Encounter, Celia Johnson, plays the English mother in her screen debut. In real life, Johnson was married to Peter Fleming, whose brother Ian created James Bond. Think of A Letter from Home as the day in the life of a typical British woman during the war’s struggles — or so several biographers describe it. The short apparently exists, but I could find no available copy.
Life of a Thoroughbred is a welcome respite from wartime propaganda — or would have been, if I could have found a copy.
Norway in Revolt shows us Norwegians escaping to Britain from the German invasion, then training to return to fight the Nazis. Or so the synopses suggest. Unfortunately, this is another short which is not available (this is going to happen a good deal with these — and form the main reason why I dropped the category). It exists, because there was a boxed VHS set that included it which was released back in 1998. Feel free to buy it — they typically sell for over a hundred bucks (I do accept donations!).
A Place to Live is more the kind of thing we tend to expect from this category: muckraking exposing our social problems (which is often damnably necessary to help solve these issues). Watch this to see Philadelphia slums, circa 1941. Science fiction authors Robert A. Heinlein (along with his current wife Leslyn and his future wife Virginia), Isaac Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp spent the war doing engineering research for the Navy in a town they all called “Filthydelphia.” Apparently, they were justified. I say apparently, because I could not track down this short either.
Same thing for Russian Soil — which, I assume, is not about communist farmers in love — and Soldiers of the Sky, which I suspect is about paratroopers or aviators. I just hope it’s not about pigeons, because pigeons are just rats with wings, and who wants to see that?
War Clouds in the Pacific warned that the Japanese could attack at any time — and was released immediately before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In this short’s case, it was fear of a Japanese assault on the West Coast that drives the fear — but the short defends the patriotism of Japanese immigrants, which was unexpected. Like Churchill’s Island, Lorne “Commander Adama” Greene narrates. This time the short is available, here:
Overall, the one short that seems to have survived past the roots of propaganda is Bomber, due to the quality of Sandberg’s prose, and the value for aviation history — which is why I think Bomber should have won the first Oscar for Best Documentary.
This one is a no-brainer, and the proper winner should leap out at you as fast as it does me from these five classics: Sergeant York won for William Holmes, over Citizen Kane (Robert Wise), How Green Was My Valley (James B. Clark), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Harold F. Kress), and The Little Foxes (Daniel Mandell).
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Along with the cinematography, the editing on Citizen Kane was revolutionary, and best illustrated by this famous scene. Watch the shifts from the present to the past, then look at how the editing (and the shift in the set) suggests the accelerating loss of affection:
Robert Wise should have won this Oscar for Best Editing.
Here is a French movie poster for Citizen Kane to wrap up this section:
Best Sound Recording:
That Hamilton Woman won for Jack Whitney (General Service). I have to assume this was some kind of consolation prize for the British film, which won for nothing else. As a warning against Napoleon (read: Hitler), and as a romance, That Hamilton Woman has some value, but the sound isn’t particularly memorable.
Let me dispose of the nominees I have seen: Ball of Fire (Thomas T. Moulton, Samuel Goldwyn) is a fun screwball comedy, with plenty of music and snappy patter to recommend the quality of the recording. Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck are a hoot. Here’s a great Italian poster:
The Chocolate Soldier (Douglas Shearer, MGM) features very little chocolate, which would have been far more interesting than watching wood sing. Setting Nelson Eddy aside, we do get opera legend Risë Stevens, who is considerably more animated. For preserving her voice, the nomination is a good one.
Citizen Kane (John Aalberg, RKO) is almost as remarkable to listen to as it is to watch, constructed and written by experts who had cut their teeth in radio. Try listening to it sometimes while you’re turned away from the screen; it’s a valuable experience.
How Green Was My Valley (E. H. Hansen, Fox) is as competently recorded as anything one might ask for, preserving the accents (even though none of them are actually Welsh…) that help give a special quality to this meditation on the nature of time and memory.
Sergeant York (Nathan Levinson, Warner Bros.) has lots of booms, a few turkey gobbles, and Gary Cooper doing his best aw shucks. A good nomination.
Topper Returns (Elmer Raguse, Hal Roach Studio) is lots of fun, and given that the ghosts are generally rendered as floating voices, without first-rate sound, this ghost isn’t going to float. That it does means this is a good nomination. Here is a wonderfully suggestive poster, with Joan Blondell spouting innuendo:
As for those I haven’t seen, there are four, and all minor (and that’s the most complimentary thing I can muster):
Appointment for Love (Bernard B. Brown, Universal) is a largely forgettable romance with Charles Boyer and Margaret Sullavan. They marry out of love, and then he discovers she believes in — gasp — continuing her career as a doctor, for which she wants a separate apartment so as not to disturb him when she has to go make house calls. Almost nothing in this movie has any snap to it, and the cast is almost as wasted as the time I had to spend watching it and trying to figure out why the sound deserves a nomination.
The Devil Pays Off (Charles Lootens, Republic). The movie exists, and I would really like to see it, but I could not locate a copy. The plot summary I found makes little sense — shipping magnate, enemy bribery, bad girl. I am intrigued by this noirish poster, though:
The Men in Her Life (John Livadary, Columbia) offers us Loretta Young in a soap opera about her desire to change from becoming a bareback rider in the circus to a ballerina, trained by Conrad Veidt. Very sudsy, but made palatable by Young’s dedication to the role. and her obvious enjoyment in dominating the entire film. The sound of the ballet music, and before that the circus, make this a decent nomination.
Skylark (Loren Ryder, Paramount) is even soapier, with Claudette Colbert first in love with Ray Milland, then Brian Aherne, then back with Milland again. Sorry about the spoiler, but this is 1941, and the Production Code is in full force. I don’t think the nomination is really deserved, because I can still hear all the plot twists creaking…
In the end, I think Citizen Kane has by far the most innovative use of sound of the year, and should have won the Oscar.
Best Short Subject (One Reel):
This year, MGM decided it wanted another Academy Award, and got one for Of Pups and Puzzles. Actually, they may have actually deserved this one (hey, it happens!). If ever there was a bizarre corner of our history, this has to be one. A scientist is using a chimp and three dogs to design tests to select specific men for specific jobs for military service in WWII. I kid you not. A revolver is also involved — but no, unlike most Hollywood movies about dogs, the mutts don’t die. I saw this one years ago in a psychology class — quite unusual.
The number of nominations began to grow as well, including Army Champions (Pete Smith), Beauty and the Beach (Paramount), Down on the Farm (Paramount), Forty Boys and a Song (Warner Bros.), Kings of the Turf (Warner Bros.), and Sagebrush and Silver (Twentieth Century-Fox).
Army Champions is a celebratory look at how the American love of sports will lead to a high quality of military effectiveness. Or so I’m told — I could not locate a copy. We won the war; we must have done something right!
Beauty and the Beach is exactly what you think it is: girls in bathing suits, on the beach. Add in some music, and you’ve got a precursor for any number of music videos. This is going to start sounding like a broken record, but I couldn’t find this one either. Will this pinup art help to make up for it?
Down on the Farm is an oddity in this category, because this is an animated short from the great lunatic Tex Avery. Unfortunately, I can’t resolve the mystery, because…yup, you guessed it. No copies available. Perhaps the farmer ate them. The one image I could find seems to suggest this is one of those “let’s animate the mouth and have the animals say funny things” shorts, which could explain why it isn’t in the animated category. Here it is:
Here is the poster:
Forty Boys and a Song is just that — the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir singing, then singing some more. And some more. Movie lovers may recall that this is the choir which shows up to sing with Bing Crosby. Guess what?! I found this one! Enjoy the songs:
Kings of the Turf is about what you’d expect it to be about: horse racing. But this horse has slipped out of the barn — I can’t find a copy.
Sagebrush and Silver is even more of a mystery — I couldn’t find even the slightest trace of the subject matter, much less a copy of the short.
I think you can start to see why I chose to skip these categories in a published book. Here, between friends, I don’t mind walking around looking like such a failure…
Best Short Subject (Two Reel):
Let’s hope I can do better with the longer shorts.
MGM grabbed a second Oscar with Main Street on the March! beating out Alive in the Deep (Woodard Productions, Inc.), their own Forbidden Passage, The Gay Parisian (Warner Bros.), and the US Army’s The Tanks Are Coming.
Main Street on the March! shows the mobilization of the American people to fight WWII. Typical propaganda, but we get archival footage of Neville Chamberlain, FDR, Churchill, and George C. Marshall, among others. I haven’t seen this one in decades, since TCM played it to help with my insomnia, but I remember my father telling me he remembered it from when he was a boy. I would like to see it again, but I couldn’t find a copy.
Alive in the Deep shows a variety of sea creatures being sea creatures. I’m fairly sure that TCM has shown this one too — if I recall correctly, much of it looks like it was filmed in aquariums, with staged conflicts. Once again, I wasn’t able to find a copy.
Forbidden Passage is probably not a sexual reference or dating advice, but another reminder of how naughty we’ve all become these days. Try calling a building an “erection” these days and see how far you get. Actually, this one is available, on the Crime Does Not Pay DVD boxed set I’ve mentioned so frequently in previous entries. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the director, Fred Zinnemann, who would go on to direct High Noon and From Here to Eternity. What is ironic is that the short is about the U.S. government’s efforts to halt illegal immigration, and it’s directed by an immigrant…
Like Forbidden Passage, The Gay Parisian suggests something quite different for us today. What it meant for 1941 was a very happy fellow (which it could mean today as well, but for entirely different reasons). What any Parisian would be happy about under German occupation is somewhat befuddling, but here we get the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancing to the light music of Jacques Offenbach. Jean Negulesco directed, with Cyd Charisse appearing uncredited in a bit part. The picture frame device is an interesting touch. The short can be found on the extras of the DVD box set, The Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection — or here:
The Tanks Are Coming is a recruitment film about becoming a tank soldier for the U.S. Army. George Tobias and Gig Young (billed here as Byron Barr) have early parts. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin even show up, as does a taxi cab. You can have a go at this one yourself, in glorious Technicolor:
To finish things up, here’s a clip with all the pretty people from this year’s Oscar ceremony!
See you next post!
And my book: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OPEELH0