I'd like to spank the Academy

Archive for May, 2017

The Good Earth (1937)

good earthDirected by Sidney Franklin

I read the novel The Good Earth for the first time when I was fourteen, which is longer ago than I’d like to admit. Even though I was so young, I felt the love and respect that Pearl S. Buck had for the people and culture of China, along with some of her criticism (which is fair, because no culture is perfect). I was nervous about watching this movie, because I wasn’t sure what Hollywood would do to such a sensitive book about such a different place. Although the filmmakers did make some horrifying decisions (more on that later), The Good Earth is both an excellent movie on its own and an excellent adaptation of the book, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

So what’s the story? Poor farmer Wang Lung marries O-lan, a mistreated slave from a wealthy household. For many years, they work side by side on his small farm, buying more land whenever they can scrape the money together to do so. They stick together through storms, famine, and locusts. When Wang forgets what is truly important in life, O-lan is there to remind him. (This is basically the storyline, but the movie is much more exciting and subtle than this summary makes it sound.)

The Good: Luise Rainer makes an excellent O-lan. O-lan is a very quiet, shy character; she never has much to say. Rainer finds O-lan’s soul and brings out her inner strength for the world to see. Her expressions and body language are incredible; they let the viewer get a glimpse of O-lan’s inner workings.

Paul Muni shows boyish delight as Wang. He takes pride in the beautiful things that are his – his farm, his wife, his children. He loves the land and all it gives him. When the land betrays Wang and later, when he becomes wealthy, Muni is able to show the despair and hubris Wang experiences. Yes, Wang has more to say than O-lan, but he, too, has his inner struggles.

The cinematography is exceptional. Karl Freund, the cinematographer, makes excellent use of light and shadow. The scene where O-lan is having her baby during a thunderstorm with lightning as the only light is incredible. Freund also does wonderful work with wide-angle lenses. The panoramic views of people travelling during the famine adds to the feeling of despair, while the views of the locusts make it seem like the entire world is about to end. It’s amazing.

I know I’m not supposed to compare movies to books, but there are so few good adaptations that I have to mention it when I see it. Yes, some things get left out, but that’s because no one wants to sit through a five hour long movie. The story that is left is rich and full and draws the viewer in. So maybe I’ll excuse my indulgence by saying The Good Earth has an excellent screenplay.

There was no Oscar for special effects in 1937, but if there had been, The Good Earth would have deserved it for the locust scene alone. It was frightening on the 19 inch screen I watched in on in 2017. It must have been terrifying on a big screen in 1937, when people weren’t jaded by the CGI monsters that are so common now.

 The Bad:  Most of the music is very stereotypically Chinese; it uses the “Oriental” chords to evoke the strangeness of China. However, I did like music during the scene where O-lan kills the bull. The sweeping chords and building melody were how heroism was often underscored in the 1930s, and it echoes the O-lan’s heroism in the face of starvation.

The makeup was sketchy. While the makeup artists did a fabulous job using makeup to age the characters, they did not do a great job of making Paul Muni and Luise Rainer look Asian, which leads us to…

The Ugly: Let’s talk about the whitewashing. Yes, Paul Muni and Luise Rainer were wonderful in their parts. I’m not going to blame them for starring in the movie. But I do have a problem with the fact that the prominent roles of Wang, O-lan, Wang’s father, Wang’s uncle, and Wang’s second wife, along with a few less-prominent characters, were not played by people of Chinese descent, or even people from other Asian countries. They were all white. I recognize that the Hollywood of the day would not have even auditioned actual Asians to star in a story about China even though there were plenty of Asians living in California, but it still bothers me. It still happens today in Hollywood, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, because there are lots of very good Asian-American actors to choose from. I would have like to have been able to see The Good Earth with actors of the proper race. Since I can’t, I hope Hollywood will get over itself and let Asians play Asians.

Oscars Won: Best actress in a leading role (Luise Rainer); best cinematography.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best film editing.

Fun Fact: With her Oscar for this role, Luise Rainer became the first person to win Oscars for a leading role back-to-back.

Dead End (1937)

dead endDirected by William Wyler

“There was blood on his hands…and a price on his head!” I knew absolutely nothing about Dead End before I watched it, but this tagline made me pretty sure it was film noir. I was so excited; I love film noir. Turns out Dead End is not film noir, but something better: a look at the life of poverty-stricken people in New York’s Lower East Side.

So what’s the story? Drina is single and poor, struggling to raise her younger brother, Tommy. She has always been in love with Dave, a man who worked hard to put himself through college so he could escape the slums, but who can’t get a job now. Dave is falling for Kay, a young woman living in the fancy new apartment building that backs onto Drina and Dave’s block. Tommy is the leader of a street gang; he’s getting into more and more trouble lately. One day, a mysterious man comes to the block. On that one fateful day, the tensions between rich and poor, wealth and poverty, and law and crime all come to a head.

The Good: The lead actors (Sylvia Sydney as Drina and Joel McCrae as Dave) were amazing. Their performances were so good that I can’t figure out why I wasn’t familiar with their names. They both deserved to have much bigger careers than they did. Humphrey Bogart did a good job as always, as did some of the teens in Tommy’s gang.

The filmmakers used several elements to contrast the realities in the lives of the rich and poor. At the beginning, they use editing to show alternating scenes as both groups get ready for the day. The costumes also show class contrast. Drina has one dress on throughout the day, and although it’s clean and pressed, it’s not fashionable. We see Kay in a couple of dresses: a fashionably simple, blindingly white day dress, and a beautiful evening gown. The gang of teenage boys wear a variety of clothes, many of which are obviously hand-me-downs, while the teen boy who lives in the apartment house wears a tailored suit. Martin wears (and brags about) his expensive clothes, while Dave wears worn shirts and trousers. Those living in the poor neighborhood use more slang than the wealthy apartment dwellers; their grammar is also not always perfect. These things all come together to subtly remind viewers of the contrasting lives.

The musical score in Dead End is perfect for the movie; there isn’t one. Sure, there’s some music over the opening credits, and again at the “The End” placard, but the only other music in the movie is the naturally occurring music throughout the day: the player piano in the bar; the kazoo that one of the boys joyfully plays; the songs people sing; the jazz records of the wealthy. This adds to the realism of the movie.

More than anything else, though, the story and screenplay made me love this movie. Dead End speaks for people who don’t have voices, people who are doing their best but who can’t make it out of poverty. It shows why people get stuck in the poverty cycle. It explores that while all people have dreams, sometimes you can’t have all of your dreams. Fighting for your dreams is important, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll get what you’re fighting for. Doing your best isn’t always good enough. The wealthy are not only privileged in their money, but also with the law. They have connections that can get them what they want. On the other hand, just because they are wealthy doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the protections of the law. All of this was packed into one movie that takes place in one day. That was extraordinarily well done.

The Bad: While Tommy’s gang has some good actors in their midst, some of them are not so great. Also, some of them have such thick New York accents that it’s hard for this person from “out West” to tell what they are saying sometimes.

There were a few parts that felt a little bit slow, but everything is important at some point, so don’t let your attention wander.

The Ugly: This is still happening. People are still living in poor, crime-ridden parts of town. They want to move to a nicer place, but they don’t have the money. Kids still get in over their heads in gangs. Some people decide that they would rather have the money that comes with a life of crime than live an honest life. Some people try to get out of the life, but society makes it hard for them. The justice system comes down harder on poverty-stricken people. I have never ever said that a movie should be remade, but I think this one should be. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because many people won’t watch a black-and-white movie to save their lives. I also think some of the parallels to today might be lost on some people. But this is partially what the humanities are for: to help people understand other people whose lives are so completely different than their own.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a supporting role (Clair Trevor); best cinematography; best art direction.

Captains Courageous

Directed by Victor Flemingcaptains courageous

Side note: I knew I hadn’t posted for a while, but I had no idea that it had been three months. I wouldn’t have guessed more than one. Where does the time go? I’ve decided to make another change, since two movie reviews a week are apparently more than I can handle. I’m just going to post once a week. on Thursdays, so anyone looking for a weekend movie has a new idea. And now back to our irregularly scheduled post:

I knew that I had seen Captains Courageous as a child because I remembered very clearly a scene where Mickey Rooney has an argument with the captain. It turns out that doesn’t actually happen in Captains Courageous, so I’m thinking that maybe a similar thing happens in Boys Town. But I’m still sure that I saw this movie, because my love of pea coats and fisherman’s sweaters is rooted so firmly in Captains Courageous that when I see the DVD at the library, I think, “Oh! The pea coat movie!”

So what’s the story? Spoiled, conniving, manipulative Harvey Cheyne, aged ten, is suspended from his elite boarding when the teachers find out he is blackmailing other boys and trying to bribe teachers to get what he wants. His formerly absent father decides to take Harvey with him on a business trip to Europe to try to teach him that you have to work for what you want. When Harvey tries to play a prank on the other boys on the ocean liner, he falls overboard. He is rescued by a group of fishermen, but nothing he can say will make them return to shore before their fishing season is over. Faced with spending three months on a fishing boat full of men who all have to do their part, Harvey is forced to learn that hard work at honest labor delivers more rewards than he could ever have imagined.

The Good: The screenwriters made an amazing choice for this movie. Rudyard Kipling’s novel upon which this movie is based was published in 1897. The writers decided to set the movie in 1937 instead. It would have been good if it had been set in 1897, but changing the setting made the movie much more timely. At one point, Harvey tries to manipulate one of his classmates by threatening to have his classmate’s father fired. This would have been a huge threat in the 1930s, when millions of people were out of work and starving because of the Great Depression. This setting connected people to the movie much more strongly than a historical fiction film would have.

The supporting cast was wonderful. Lionel Barrymore is excellent as Captain Disko, and Mickey Rooney does a good job is his smaller-than-I-was-expecting role of Dan, the captain’s son. I loved the other sailors (some of whom are played by rather prolific actors), who all had different personalities and came to be fond of Harvey in their own different ways. Melvyn Douglas plays Mr. Cheyne, a widower who thinks that he is giving Harvey everything he needs, only to realize that he doesn’t know his own son. It’s a small role, but Douglas’s ability makes it a tender one.

Now let’s talk about the most amazing thing in the movie: Freddie Bartholomew’s acting. I marveled throughout the entire movie as I watched a spoiled brat struggling as he turns into a young man. It’s ridiculous how good of an actor that child was. Everything in the movie hinges on the part of Harvey, and if a lesser actor had played him, the movie would have failed. I don’t have the words to describe his acting; Captains Courageous is a movie you will want to watch if you enjoy watching fine acting.

The Bad and The Ugly: Nothing exactly fits into these categories, so I had to make a new category for today:

The I Have No Idea How I Feel About This: People who have looked at the movie poster will say, “Wait a minute. Spencer Tracy’s name is on the movie poster. Why haven’t you talked about him?” It’s because I have very mixed feelings about this performance. The performance itself is not exactly bad, but Tracy’s accent is atrocious to the point that it becomes distracting. He does express various emotions well, but for me, he never quite becomes jolly Portuguese sailor Manuel; he’s just an actor doing a bad accent. It’s possible that the performance is good and the accent is ugly, but since they are so intertwined, it’s hard for me to make a judgment.

Oscar Wins: Best actor in a leading role (Spencer Tracy).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, screenplay; best film editing.