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Posts tagged ‘Based on a book’

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

miracle on 34th streetDirected by George Seaton

It’s December 1st! For me, today is the day that I can hear Christmas music on the radio without being annoyed by how early it has started. I can justifiably watch Christmas movies, and I can start eating my daily piece of advent calendar chocolate. I’ve decided I’m going to start this Christmas season with a review of a Christmas movie. Have a happy holiday season!
(Also, yes, I am completely aware that this is not the first movie alphabetically. I had some availability issues, so I’m going backwards this month.)

Miracle on 34th Street is a movie that I grew up with. We watched it at least once every Christmas season. I loved it so much as a child that I was angry when it was remade in 1994. I was twelve, and could see no reason why there needed to be another version. The excuse that kids wouldn’t want to watch a black-and-white movie or an old movie made me so mad; I was living proof that kids were, indeed, capable of enjoying things besides the latest movies. Now I’m an adult, and I still don’t see that there was any need for a remake. I absolutely love this movie.

So what’s the story? Macy’s Department Store hires a man to play Santa at the last minute, not realizing that they have hired the real Kris Kringle. Although he is sad by how commercialized Christmas has become, Kris decides he will not only do his best to help everyone have a happy Christmas, but will also help no-nonsense Doris Walker and her young daughter, Susan, believe in Santa again. But when a jealous coworker accuses Kris of insanity, will Kris’s new lawyer friend be able to prove to the court that Kris is actually Santa Claus?

The Good: I would honestly not be surprised if it came out that Edmund Gwenn were truly Santa Claus. His performance as Kris Kringle is fabulous. He’s a jolly, twinkly-eyed man whose only sorrow in life is the unhappiness of others. Each of his scenes is a delight to watch because he truly embodies the spirit of Santa.

The rest of the acting in the movie is good, too. Maureen O’Hara plays Doris Walker perfectly, showing her growth as she changes from a bitter, jaded divorcee to a woman who believes that good things might be possible after all. Precocious seven-year-old Susan Walker is played wonderfully well by Natalie Wood. Besides showcasing these marvelous actresses, Miracle on 34th Street is also the film debut of one of my favorite character actresses: Thelma Ritter, who plays the exhausted, exasperated mother whose little boy wants a special fire truck, the catalyst for Kris’s shocking idea of helping people find what they want for Christmas, no matter where it is for sale. I adore Thelma Ritter in all of her roles, and even though her role is tiny in this movie, I am still happy to see her.

Miracle on 34th Street is a bit of an oddity in that it was released as a book and a movie at the same time. I’m not sure if the screenplay is wholly based on the book, or if the writers worked on both at the same time. I have read the book, and bits of it are word for word the same as the screenplay, but I’m not sure exactly how the dynamics worked. However it worked, though, the screenplay is perfect. The story of how Santa would fare in the modern Christmas season is simple and sweet, but the screenplay elevates the basic story to really make the characters come alive. There’s heart and humor and love without being too sickly sweet; it’s really just delightful.

The Bad: John Payne doesn’t do a bad job of playing Fred Gailey, per se, but Fred is such a flat, bland character that anyone could have played him. There’s just not much for him to work with. It’s a little bit sad that a movie with such dynamic characters has such a boring man for the leading lady to fall in love with.

The Ugly: Like One Hundred Men and a Girl, Miracle on 34th Street is much too sweet of a movie to have anything really ugly in it.

The Major Disappointment: I had always thought that the real Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel played themselves. However, I learned this year that they were played by actors. It’s obviously not a huge deal, but it feels like I’ve been lied to my whole life.

A Satisfying Fact: Even though Macy and Gimbel weren’t really themselves, Edmund Gwenn really was Santa Claus for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The film of him being Santa in the parade is real, not staged.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a supporting role (Edmund Gwenn); best writing, original story; best writing, screenplay.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture.

My Left Foot (1989)

downloadDirected by Jim Sheridan

I realized today that writing a post and getting it ready does absolutely no good if you don’t actually schedule it. Sorry for the delay. I promise I’m not always this flakey.

My family went to the movies one night when I was six, and I saw a poster for a movie called My Left Foot. I thought the title was weird, so I asked my mom what the movie was about. She said it was about a painter who used his left foot to paint, because that was the only part of his body that he could move. That explanation sounded so fake to me that I assumed she was lying; the movie must be about some grown-up thing she didn’t want to tell me about. When I saw My Left Foot for the first time 25 years later, I found out that not only was my mom telling me the truth about that bizarre plot, but that the movie was a true story. It blew my mind.

So what’s the story? When Christy Brown is born into a large Irish family in 1932, his parents find out that baby Christy has cerebral palsy. People assume that his parents will put him into a home, but his father refuses to do so. He grows up surrounded by his loving family, most of whom assume that he’s not really bright. Through much practice and perseverance, Christy learns to write the alphabet holding a piece of chalk with his left foot. From then on, Christy blooms into a brilliant painter and writer.

The Good: Daniel Day-Lewis is a brilliant actor. I would go so far as to say that he might be the most talented actor of his generation. I’ve seen him star in several movies without realizing it was him because he submerges himself so deeply into his roles. It’s no different in My Left Foot. Day-Lewis becomes Christy Brown. It’s almost frightening how well he does.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. Brenda Fricker was recognized with an Academy Award for her portrayal of Christy’s supportive, loving mother who refuses to give up on her son. Ray McAnally plays Christy’s father with equal gusto. He may not believe that his son is actually smart, but the love and pride that shines out of his eyes is beautiful to see. While Hugh O’Conor may not be quite as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis, he does a fantastic job in his incredibly difficult role of young Christy Brown, showing the audience the struggles of a young boy who just wants the people around him to understand what is going on in his head. Christy’s speech and physical therapist, Dr. Eileen Cole, who is intelligent and sympathetic, is played by Fiona Shaw. Shaw just slips into the role, becoming immersed in Cole’s personality.

Sometimes biopics fall into the trap of making the subject too perfect, almost saintly. The screenwriters of My Left Foot avoided making this mistake. While his achievements were incredible and inspiring, Christy Brown was sometimes still a jerk, and the filmmakers are not afraid to show this side of him. In the movie, he throws fits when he doesn’t get his way. He makes a horrible scene in a restaurant when he finds out that the woman he loves is engaged to someone else. He pesters a woman to go on a date with him even though she keeps telling him no. He has his good side, too, but the writers showed him as a whole person who has ups and downs and good and bad all mixed together. That makes for a wonderful screenplay.

The Bad: I didn’t get much of a sense of passage of time. Sheila, Christy’s older sister, is the only character whose clothes changed with time. I realize that this is a poor family in a place where fashion doesn’t change much, but there could have been other clues. Headlines in the papers? People talking about World War II in the pub? His brothers getting called up, maybe? It’s not a huge deal, but it left me feeling a little bit rudderless.

The Ugly: My Left Foot has nothing bad enough that it can be called ugly.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (Daniel Day-Lewis); best actress in a supporting role (Brenda Fricker).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

 

Field of Dreams (1989)

field-of-dreamsDirected by Phil Alden Robinson

I know this review is late; I’ve been putting off writing it. I have such mixed feelings about Field of Dreams that’s it hard for me to know what to say. Field of Dreams is a movie I grew up with. My dad would stick it in the VCR when he was working at home. As soon as the movie finished, Dad would simply rewind it and start it up again. He loved it so much that when my mom started to slim their movie collection down, there were three VHS copies and two DVDs of Field of Dreams among the other movies. I liked it when I was a child, but now I have very little patience for it. I don’t know what changed, but it was a chore to watch this movie.

So what’s the story? Reluctant farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice in the cornfield: “If you build it, he will come.” Ray becomes convinced that it means that if he builds a baseball diamond in his fields, long-deceased baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson will be able to come play baseball. Ray takes a leap of faith and makes the baseball field, and miraculous things happen.

The Good: Field of Dreams is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Because I had seen the movie so often, I was excited to read the book in high school when one of my teachers had it on the free choice book list. The book was not so great. I don’t say this often, but the movie is much, much better than the book. The screenplay takes all that is wondrous and beautiful from the novel and makes a much more concise, coherent experience. Making a screenplay that is better than the book is not easy; Phil Alden Robinson did a fabulous job with the adaptation.

James Horner’s score is hauntingly beautiful. It fits the movie so very well, ethereal and peaceful. It never takes over what is happening on the screen, but supports it as a good musical score should.

Most of the actors were perfect. Amy Madigan is amazing as Ray’s scattered, yet down-to-earth wife, Annie. She hits just the right combination of crazy, passionate, supportive, and stable. Annie is a complex character, and Amy Madigan nails it. Although author J.D. Salinger is a character in the novel, Salinger was adamant that he not be a character in the movie. James Earl Jones plays the replacement character, fictional author Terence Mann. At first truculent and reluctant to listen to Ray, Mann slowly turns into a believer and champion of Ray’s mission. Jones subtly portrays the changes of the character and brings Terence Mann to life. The minor characters are also well cast. Gaby Hoffman as Ray and Annie’s daughter Karin, Frank Whaley as Archie Graham, and the great Burt Lancaster as Doc Graham all do a wonderful job. I especially love the kindness that shines from Doc Graham’s face. The minor baseball players whose names I do not know have a good bromance chemistry. Shoeless Joe is played by Ray Liotta. He brings an intensity to the role that makes him believable; you can see the love of the game emanating from him. (Also, Ray Liotta is extremely attractive in this movie. I thought so even as a six-year-old girl.)

The Bad: My view of this may be tainted by personal feelings, but I’m not a big fan of Kevin Costner’s performance as Ray Kinsella. He has his moments (notably his fanboy excitement when he meets Shoeless Joe for the first time and then later during the kidnapping of Terence Mann), but he’s not consistently impressive. Again, this might be my feelings getting in the way. I am not a fan of Kevin Costner the man. I’m not entirely sure why, but he just strikes me as being full of himself.

It is never explained why Terence Mann needed to be brought to Iowa. Yes, he loves baseball, but there was nothing else. He’s fabulous character, and I love that he’s in the movie, but he doesn’t have a why, so it niggles at my brain.

The Ugly: In his introduction, Ray says that he was born in 1952. He and Annie both talk often about “experiencing the 60s,” especially during their college years at Berkley. But they would have turned 18 in 1970; they would only have had 70s experiences in college. They would have only experienced the 60s as teens in high school, and based on the strictness of their families, they wouldn’t have had much of a 60s experience then. That stupid wrong detail has bugged me for years. Come on, people. Details are important!

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best music, original score.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Born_On_The_4th_Of_JulyDirected by Oliver Stone

Happy Independence Day! I thought that there could be no better day to review Born on the Fourth of July than actually on July 4. I remember when this movie came out. I was pretty sure it was about someone whose birthday was July 4, and I thought there could be no better thing. Fireworks on your birthday! How fun is that?* What I didn’t know was that even though Ron Kovic was actually born on the Fourth of July, the movie is not about someone’s amazing birthdays year after year.

So what’s the story? All-American kid Ron Kovic decides that it’s his duty to join the Marines and fight in Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism. He is injured and sent back home to a VA hospital, where he learns that he will never walk again. As he slowly becomes disillusioned by the way the government treats the veterans, he realizes that it’s possible to love America without blindly following the leaders. Ron begins to make his anger known, eventually becoming an anti-war activist.

The Good: I’ve never thought of Tom Cruise as a serious actor. He does action movies, and he does a good job in action movies, but I would not have guessed that Cruise could pull off a role like Ron Kovic. He does a really good job of being a man with a message, not just a man with a pretty face. The rest of the cast is also good, but the true standout is Willem Dafoe. He plays Charlie, another Vietnam vet who is also paralyzed. He’s not in the movie for very long; I’d say ten minutes at the most. But what he does in those minutes is amazing. His scene with Cruise is the best in the movie, the moment that made me connect with Ron more than at any other time. Although he was not nominated for best supporting actor, Dafoe’s performance is Oscar-worthy.

I was struck by the cinematography. When I hear the word “cinematography,” I often think of sweeping panoramic views. Born on the Fourth of July does have those, but Robert Richardson, the cinematographer, also uses extreme close-ups: the character’s faces fill the whole screen. This helps to highlight the inner struggles that the characters are feeling, as their world shrinks to nothing but what’s going on inside their heads. The editors worked with these shots, interchanging the shots of the characters as they argued to show that the characters were so wrapped up in themselves or their point of view that they couldn’t see anything else.

John William’s score is beautiful. Much of the orchestration uses a solo trumpet, which is reminiscent of soldiers fighting in wars, but which also represents Ron Kovic’s lonely fight, first against his own disillusionment, and then against the United States Government.

The Bad: The soundtrack is not great. Pop songs of the era are sprinkled throughout the movie. While some of the songs used fit naturally into the movie’s action, other songs seem to be placed completely randomly. There were way too many songs used, and “American Pie” was used twice. It almost felt like someone decided that they were going to put every single one of their favorite songs from the 1970s into the movie. It was so distracting.

I will get this out of the way before I criticize the storytelling of Born on the Fourth of July: Yes, I understand that this movie is based on a true story/an autobiography, and as such, had less leeway with how the story goes. However, what really bothers me about this movie was that they tried to show Kovic’s entire life. It starts with his idyllic childhood, showing him playing war and baseball with his friends, watching television with his family, and having his first kiss. Then it jumps to his high school days, with wrestling and the prom. Then Ron is on his second tour of duty for about 15 minutes, and then in the hospital, etc. Biopics do not usually try to show an entire life. There might be a flashback to childhood, or people may discuss their past with each other, but cramming in an entire life doesn’t really work. I suppose it’s the way it is because the real Ron Kovic wrote the screenplay with Oliver Stone; he probably felt like every bit of his life was important. But because Stone and Kovic tried to shove everything in, I had a harder time connecting to this movie. The characters were there and gone in a flash. I know that people can have an impact on you in just a few minutes in real life, but it didn’t allow for any relationships to come off as meaningful. Even Kyra Sedgwick’s character, Donna, who it seems is supposed to be Ron’s girlfriend, barely interacts with him. I had a hard time feeling Ron’s trauma from the war because only one quick incident from the war was shown. I feel like Stone and Kovic should have picked more impactful moments and perhaps taken a bit of liberty with the storyline to give it more focus. The meandering way that Kovic wanders through his story works well for books, but it’s not nearly as effective in movies. I usually like it when an author does the screenplay based on his work, but I think that’s not as good an idea for an autobiography.

I hate to compare movies; it’s just not fair. However, since The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Born on the Fourth of July are all stories about the Vietnam War and how it affected the people caught up in it, my subconscious comparison is more understandable. Both The Deer Hunter and Coming Home worked better as movies because they didn’t try to tell the backstories of every relationship. The backstories of the relationships come out more naturally in those movies because we see what their relationships are now. In The Deer Hunter, we don’t have to be told that Michael’s group of friends have been friends forever; it’s obvious in the way they interact with each other. We don’t have to be told that the whole town is devastated by the loss of their sons; it’s evident in the reactions of the people in the town to the tragedies of war. Born on the Fourth of July doesn’t get this quite right.

The Ugly: Again, I understand that it’s a true story, but it was incredibly selfish of Kovic to go tell Wilson’s family that Kovic himself had accidentally killed Wilson. It was self-indulgent, and while it may have been cathartic for him, it just added to the pain that the Wilson family was feeling. That scene left a bad taste in my mouth.

Oscars Won: Best director; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Tom Cruise); best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best cinematography; best sound; best music, original score.

*I could have a holiday celebrated with fireworks on my birthday, too, but I live in the wrong country.

 

Lost Horizon (1937)

LostHorizon1937_previewDirected by Frank Capra

I read the book Lost Horizon a few years after I read The Good Earth, but it was still a very long time ago. I don’t remember every bit of the plot, but I did like it quite a bit; the adventure appealed to me, as did the idea of a beautiful place of peace. Being a fan of the book and a fan of Frank Capra, I thought the movie would be wonderful. The adventure and the philosophy that I loved in the book were in the movie, but I had a hard time remembering to watch through 1937 glasses. Shangri-La is not a utopia if you watch through 2017 glasses.

So what’s the story? Robert Conway, a British diplomat, is on the last plane out of a war-torn Chinese town with four other people: his brother, George; Lovett, a paleontologist; Barnard, a crook; and Gloria, a prostitute. Instead of heading to Shanghai as expected, the pilot flies the plane deeper into Asia. The plane crash-lands high in the freezing Tibetan mountains, but the group is rescued by a group of people who lead them to the monastery Shangri-La, where everyone is happy and all is well. But all is not as it seems…

The Good: The acting is good for the most part. It’s really quite fun to watch the change in Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), Lovett (Edward Everett Horton, who usually scares me), and Gloria (Isabel Jewell) as they go from frightened, selfish people to people who care about making their world better. Ronald Coleman makes a fine Robert Conway, although I would have liked to see a little more contrast in his character as Shangri-La changes him. That’s the screenwriter’s fault, though. John Howard is miscast as George Conway. He doesn’t even try to do a British accent, even though he is supposed to be the brother of the very British Coleman. That said, Howard did bring a lot of energy to the screen, with his growing impatience a contrast to the others’ peacefulness as everyone else settles in. Sam Jaffe makes a wonderful wise High Lama, even though he was only 46, so the makeup artists did a fantastic job, too.

The production design is great. The designers had to bring the east and west together for Shangri-La, which is in “Tibet” but built by a man from Belgium, with treasures from all over the world inside. The valley needed its own look, too. The end result is beautiful and believably peaceful.

Dmitri Tiomkin wrote a beautiful orchestral score for the film that underscores not only the beauty and peace of the valley but also the mystery and uncertainty that everyone finds there.

The Bad: Jane Wyatt is wooden in her performance as Sondra. She is school-girl giggly when she’s around Conway and sad when she thinks Conway is going. That’s all she’s got. It was a little painful to watch.

Chang is played stiffly by H.B. Warner. It may have been the way he was directed, but almost every time he talks, there’s a pause, almost as if he’s trying to remember his lines. He was nominated for best supporting actor, so some people saw something there. I will freely admit that I am not a professional acting judge, so I could be wrong and the performance could be brilliant, but it annoyed me.

The Ugly: There was nothing really ugly about the movie, except that about seven minutes of the movie are still shots instead of motion picture. The movie was edited from when it was first shown, and the original footage was lost. Film restorers looked in vaults all over the world for the missing minutes. They did find a full sound track and some of the missing moving footage, so they used stills from the filming to fill in the film that was lost. Some of the footage they found, though, was not of the best quality, so the movie is uneven in quality, too. It makes me so sad when movies aren’t taken care of. I hate it when art is lost.

Oscars Won: Best art direction; best film editing

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (H.B. Warner); best sound, recording; best assistant director; best music, score.

Why I would not want to live in the Shangri-La of 1937:

     Women have no rights and get very little respect from men.

  1. Conway asks the High Lama what happens if two men both want the same woman. The Lama replies that their manners are so good, that the man who had the woman first would give her to the second man. No one bothers to ask the woman which man she would rather be with.
  2. Sondra is teaching a class of children English when a child asks to be taken to the bathroom. As soon as she leaves to help the child, Conway simply dismisses the class without asking Sondra if she is done for the day. He assumes that she would be happy to spend her time with him instead of teaching.
  3. When Sondra tries to start a philosophical conversation about why people outside of Shangri-La are the way they are, Conway tells Sondra to stop asking why, saying that it is the most annoying question in the English language. He had a chance to actually think about his culture and discuss it with someone who is generally curious, and instead he shuts it down because he is more interested in Sondra physically than he in in honestly answering her questions.
  4. Barnard takes a shine to Gloria when she stops wearing her makeup, telling her she looks wholesome without and ordering her to never wear it again. When George asks if they would like to leave, Barnard says he isn’t going, and then Gloria says “I’m going to stay, too. Is that right, Barney?” (That’s paraphrased a bit.)

   The people of the monastery have no respect for the native people. 

  1. None of the people living in the monastery of Shangri-La are acolytes of the High Lama. Apparently only Europeans and Chang (who is played by a white man) are allowed to study in the monastery and do whatever they so desire, whether it’s playing the piano or riding horses or reading. The only native people living there are the servants. No one thinks to ask if that’s what they want to be doing.
  2. The people in the valley are basically patted on the heads and told what good people they are. They are not taught what is in the books that are brought into the valley. They farm and mine for the monastery because that’s what they have been taught to do. They are more or less slaves, even though they don’t know it. The High Lama even admits that those who live in the monastery rule those who live in the valley.
  3. Shangri-La was founded by a Christian missionary whose goal is to have the “Christian ideal” win all over the world. No, he doesn’t teach Christianity, but he also doesn’t draw on any tenants of other religions, including whatever the natives believed before he got there. While not stated, I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t allow the native religion to be followed in the valley.

Okay, rant over. I know that Lost Horizon came out 80 years ago, and I freely acknowledge that values have changed a bit over the years. That’s why it’s so important to try to understand where and when the filmmakers were coming from. You can’t judge art from the past with the values of today.

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.

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.