The Academy decided to punish me this year, probably because they wanted to make me feel even guiltier about skipping categories for my book series, WHO Won?!? An Irreverent Look at the Oscars. Not content with their new Best Documentary category, they proceeded to split into TWO new categories, one for feature length documentaries, and one for short documentaries. I do thank them for not nominating twenty-five films in each…maybe they realized that I was doing my best to spread out the love to these ignored orphan categories.
Yes, WWII is still happening. I’m hoping it turns out well. I really don’t like Nazis, except when Indiana Jones punches them…
Let’s hit the new kids on the block first.
Best Documentary (Feature):
Desert Victory won for the British Ministry of Information, and for the Allies, no other documentary could have possibly meant as much to them, for this covers the first major victory for Britain and the United States, the defeat of Rommel in North Africa. Captured German footage helps to fill out the gaps in the Allied coverage, as does some brief re-enactment. Overall, this is one of the most extensive and valuable of the documentaries released during WWII — a good choice for the Academy. Here is the entire film:
Elisha Cook, Jr. stars in Baptism of Fire from the United States Army. This is a training film, designed to teach new soldiers how to identify the enemy and fight them. I’m not certain about how dangerous you might become after you watch this, but remember: I’m not the enemy!
Frank Capra directed The Battle of Russia as part of the Why We Fight series from the United States Department of War Special Services Division. The Battle of Russia is a love letter and thank you card to the Soviets, lauding their capacity to defeat the Germans, and blithely ignoring that Stalin might just have been worse than Hitler. So when you watch this, please don’t start thinking that communism is ever a good idea. It isn’t, since it almost invariably masks dictatorships:
John Huston’s first contribution to the war effort came with Report from the Aleutians, for the United States Army Pictorial Service. The Aleutians, off the coast of Alaska, were a strange battlefront, since the Americans held one island, and the Japanese another (and if I recall correctly, they split an island as well). Bombing runs took place, which are shown in the movie, but for the most part, the situation was a stalemate. Huston almost died twice, once from a crash-landing, and once when his plane was hit (the gunner next to him died). Bundle up before watching this one — it’s cold up there!
Here is the poster:
Walter Huston narrates War Department Report for the United States Office of Strategic Services Field Photographic Bureau. War Department Report is quite literally a summary of the status of the war on all fronts in 1943. For me, the most interesting part was seeing the captured Japanese footage of their own attack on Pearl Harbor. Worth a look for that alone:
Some sources list three more nominees — For God and Country, The Silent Village, and We’ve Come a Long, Long Way — but according to the Academy database, these were not official nominations, but they were on the list of possible nominations from which the Academy selected the above. One of the most unusual is We’ve Come a Long, Long Way, from a newsreel service called Negro Marches On, Inc., which provided short films for the black theater chains. The feature shows the history of African-Americans from the Civil War to WWII, and while it lauds the distance traveled, it does not shy from suggesting how far the battle against racism and discrimination had to go [see http://www.answers.com/topic/we-ve-come-a-long-long-way for more]. I wasn’t able to locate a copy, but I would definitely like to see this one. Here is the poster, a clear example of what used to be called race pride:
All in all, a more interesting crop of documentaries than in previous years, as the form began to be used more extensively.
Best Documentary (Short):
John Ford and the finest cinematographer Hollywood had in 1943, Gregg Toland, directed December 7th, which won for the United States Navy. Unlike the Battle of Midway, December 7th was not filmed directly for this documentary. Overall, December 7th doesn’t pack quite the same punch as the earlier film, due to the recreations of combat, and the inaccurate depiction of events. Walter Huston narrates, and you can see an early appearance by Dana Andrews before he came to fame in Laura. John Ford edited down Toland’s feature-length version to a little more than a half an hour, which is the one seen here:
You might like to compare it to the original full-length version:
Children of Mars isn’t some Percy Jackson novel — probably, anyways. I suspect it is another WWII newsreel of some kind, but the short has vanished.
Plan for Destruction is not the name of my ex’s divorce attorney’s strategy; it’s MGM showing the planning of the German plan for world conquest by a German general turned professor, Karl Haushofer. Lewis Stone narrates. Plan for Destruction is on the Crime Does Not Pay DVD box set — or here:
Swedes in America has Ingrid Bergman at the height of her ravishing beauty and charisma, courtesy of the United States Office of War Information Overseas Motion Picture Bureau. Unfortunately, the short has vanished from accessibility, and all I can think of is the Swedish chef from The Muppets. Poppa-corn!
To the People of the United States, watch out for syphilis!!! And get a blood test! Actually, this is why many states used to require a blood test as a requirement for marriage, to catch syphilis before the wedding night. Syphilis, by the way, is the reason why rich European guys used to wear wigs, which then became a fashion standard. Syphilis also drives people insane in the end. Jean Hersholt — for whom the Academy’s humanitarian award is named — stars as a colonel. Just be careful you don’t end up a crazy bald guy…
Tomorrow We Fly is probably about navy planes, given that the United States Navy Bureau of Aeronautics was responsible. I have hopes it’s about jet aircraft or some kind of futuristic aviation, but probably not. I have no idea — the film has gone off the radar.
Youth in Crisis is from The March of Time, and tells us about how America’s young people need to be given programs to stay busy and out of trouble. Actually, this was fairly prescient, because the absence of fathers and mothers did, in fact, produce a teenage delinquency problem of substantial proportions in the postwar world. Think of Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. Young girls got involved with older soldiers; those who were regularly doing so became known as “victory girls.” Unfortunately, I can’t find the short. I suspect some juvenile hoodlum stole it.
Overall, there was a list of twenty-one films the Academy chose nominees from — I’m simply not going to do them! And you can’t make me…
Best Short Subject (One Reel):
Amphibious Fighters won for Grantland Rice, best known for coining the nickname for some Notre Dame’s football players: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.” Here, Rice is the producer of a short about amphibious cars. I believe this may be the short, although I can’t be sure:
Jean Negulesco directs the dancing pair Veloz and Yolanda in Cavalcade of Dance. The pair are most famous from their appearance in The Pride of the Yankees. Get your groove on to a variety of dances! The short can be found on the DVD box set The Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection — or here:
In Champions Carry On, athletes go to war! Well, given that many sports grew out of military exercises, perhaps that’s not so unusual. Take a look at track and field events sometime and ask yourself what those skills would have done on an ancient battlefield. I have no idea which athletes show up, because the short has gone to the locker rooms to shower.
Hollywood in Uniform is the one short I think most folks would be interested in today. Here are some of those you can see: Eddie Albert, Desi Arnaz, Gene Autry, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Alan Ladd, Bela Lugosi, John Payne, Tyrone Power, Ronald Reagan, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Robert Stack, James Stewart, and Rudy Vallee. Or you could, if you could find a copy. I certainly wish I could have found it. I’d rather see clips of these classic film stars than more training films and propaganda. Maybe someday I will.
Pete Smith is back with Seeing Hands, a short urging the hiring of the disabled. Child star Spanky MacFarland has a bit part. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this one either.
We might as well drop the discussion of which short should have won — too many unknown factors.
Best Short Subject (Two Reel):
Heavenly Music won, in which a musician dies and goes to heaven. He then has to convince Beethoven, Wagner, Paganini, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and the Jr. and Sr. Strauss to let him in. What kind of musician is this candidate? The kind of treacly, sugary sweet, fake swing wannabe crapster who should be banned to hell instantly by any of those fine musicians! Don’t believe me? Take a listen — just get ready to gag! The stereotypical black kid imitating Louis Armstrong’s playing style and facial expressions is musically more palatable, but visually offensive — although they call him Gabriel.
Letter to a Hero is in the lost letter box. Probably forgot to put a stamp on it.
Mardi Gras obviously drank too much and partied too hard and has forgotten to come home.
Women at War gives us three women who join the WACS. What happens then is anybody’s guess.
This is yet another illustration of why I never covered these categories in my books. Impossible to judge when you can’t see the contestants.
Fortunately, I’ve seen most of these nominees. Unfortunately, I’ve heard some of them too. Let’s cover the movies I’ve never seen before, including the winner, This Land Is Mine, which won for Stephen Dunn and RKO. Love this defiant poster!
I do regret missing this movie, because it stars Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara, two of my favorite actors, and was directed by Jean Renoir, one of the greats. Renoir was in the United States because of WWII, and he made several films here before returning to France after the war. George Sanders, Walter Slezak, and Una O’Connor also appear. Laughton and O’Hara play teachers in Nazi-occupied Europe; Laughton is in love with her, but she is engaged to George Saunders. Saunders informs on O’Hara’s brother, who is killed — and Laughton, through an awkward melodramatic device, is forced to decide between silence and urging resistance. Renoir and screenwriter Dudley Nichols invested a considerable amount of passion into showing what life in an occupied country is like (I suspect it was worse). Laughton’s nuanced voice is recorded beautifully, which is why I suspect the Academy chose this movie to honor with an Oscar — and I agree, given the competition (although I would argue Casablanca has a fair claim on this Oscar too).
I also missed Riding High (Loren L. Ryder, Paramount), but I don’t regret this one. Dick Powell and Dorothy Lamour star in this musical Western. If I want singing cowboys, I’d prefer Gene Autry or Roy Rogers (who, by the way, I met as a teenager in a bowling alley in Apple Valley — very genial, kind gentleman; my cousin had a massive crush on him at the time). Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer wrote the songs, but not at their usual level of genius. Cass Daley, playing a very aggressive, slightly naughty singing cowgirl, offers some WWII innuendo:
So This Is Washington (J. L. Fields, RCA Sound) features a forgotten cast in a hicks-teach-the-city-slickers-something subgenre. One has discovered a recipe for synthetic rubber; shenanigans ensue. None really matter. If you’d like to inflict yourself, here’s your chance:
As for the rest, we get a dandy WWII picture with Humphrey Bogart, Sahara (John Livadary, Columbia); a somewhat unreliable biopic of a truly great scientist, Madame Curie (Douglas Shearer, MGM); a second-rate Western with John Wayne fighting Albert “Dr. Cyclops” Dekker, In Old Oklahoma (Daniel J. Bloomberg, Republic), a truly awful pro-Soviet war picture, The North Star (Thomas T. Moulton, Samuel Goldwyn); a Fritz Lang anti-Nazi picture, Hangmen Also Die (Jack Whitney, Sound Service, Inc.); a Catholic love letter to a saint, The Song of Bernadette (E. H. Hansen, Fox Studio Sound Department); a Technicolor hack-job remake of Phantom of the Opera (Bernard B. Brown, Universal); Disney spreading the love for Latin America, Saludos Amigos (C. O. Slyfield, Walt Disney) and an all-star review, including color footage of boxer Joe Louis, This Is the Army (Nathan Levinson, Warner Bros.).
I’ve seen all the nominees here, so let’s give this a quick wrap-up.
Howard Hawks’ Air Force won for editor George Amy, and it’s a reasonable choice for a film about flying a bomber in combat. John Garfield stars, along with the B-17 bomber.
Five Graves to Cairo, edited by Doane Harrison, is an early film by Billy Wilder, with excellent cinematography, Erich von Stroheim as Rommel, and Franchot Tone as a British soldier. The opening desert scenes are visually stunning, especially the tank chugging away from Tone. See this one if you can!
Great foreign release poster, no? Does Casablanca, edited by Owen Marks, need any more attention? Only among the great unwashed. If you’ve never seen it, get cleaned up immediately! This is my personal favorite of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with crackling dialogue and first-rate performances by everyone involved.
The Song of Bernadette, edited by Barbara McLean, really could have done with less repetitive scenes. The editing should have been better.
The same is also true of For Whom the Bell Tolls, edited by Sherman Todd and John Link, both of whom could have tightened things considerably. Sadly, the director was the aptly named Sam Wood. Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman are fine, but the makeup of the supporting cast is among the worst I’ve ever seen in Technicolor.
We’ll see you next year! Who knows — we might actually win this war, if Hollywood keeps slugging away!
And my book: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OPEELH0