Rebecca (1940)

It seems inconceivable that the great Alfred Hitchcock only earned one Academy Award for Best Director and only one film named Best Picture.  That’s the reality, however and Rebecca is as fine a film as any for such a deserving distinction.  With one of the most memorable characters on film, Mrs. Danvers, Hitchcock’s thriller with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, in an Oscar-winning performance, holds up as a fascinating entre into the tales of love and death, past and present.

While on vacation on the Côte d’Azure, Maxim DeWinter meets the companion of an elderly, wealthy American named Mrs. Van Hooper.  As is usually the case in these ‘rich and poor’ love stories, we know that the wealthy DeWinter will surely fall in love with the simple woman beholden to Van Hooper, who’s brought the young woman to such an enclave of wealth and influence.

He does.

Maxim and his new wife return to Mandalay, his family home, and Mrs. DeWinter quickly sees, hears, and feels the presence of his deceased wife Rebecca, all around the estate.  When she explores her library, she sees monogrammed stationary with RDW beautifully embossed on the paper.  In her bedroom, she find a lovely embroidered pillowcase with the same RDW initials.  In fact, the viewer never learns Joan Fontaine’s character’s name.  She is only referred to as Mrs. DeWinter.  Even when working for Mrs. Van Hopper, she’s never spoken to by name.  It is as if she is void of any personality, any humanity until she is married.  And even then, she is a wife.  She never has her own identity like Rebecca did and seemingly still does.

In this nameless existence, Mrs. DeWinter finds herself constantly compared to Rebecca by her personal maid, Mrs. Danvers.  Judith Anderson creates one of cinema’s most compelling and chilling characters as the stilted, cold woman who once fiercely loved Rebecca and, arguably, still does.  This tension between Mrs. Danvers’s loyalty to Rebecca and her new duty to Mrs. DeWinter leads to a crisis between husband and wife, similar to the tension between Maxim and Rebecca that ultimately led to the end of their marriage.   Although a slower burn than other films like Psycho and North by Northwest, Rebecca is a classic Hitchcock film– full of intrigue, oddities, fine performances, and (of course) expert direction.

Rebecca (1940) 130 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, George Sanders.

 

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Gone with the Wind (1939)

Avengers: Endgame became the top-grossing film of all-time this summer. However, if adjusted for current inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind would still be at the top of the list. Depending upon who you ask, Gone with the Wind (GwtW) is either one of the best American films of all-time or one of the worst. Those proclaiming it one of the worst, point to the derogatory, racist language and caricature portrayals of slaves like Mammy and Prissy. Despite proclamations that GwtW is racist, it is not. (And not just because racism is a human trait and a film is not a person.)

GwtW, a highly anticipated film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel of the same name, was the first color film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The MGM Technicolor matched with the sweeping narrative of Civil War Atlanta makes for a grand spectacle that still sweeps audiences up in the romance of Rhett and Scarlett, 80 years later. From Victor Fleming’s expert direction to the Oscar-winning performances by Leigh and McDaniel, GwtW proves that albeit a document of a difficult time in our nation’s history, its representation of the time is appropriate and compelling.

It’s difficult to write about a film so entrenched in our cultural milieu. Like it’s fellow 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, how do you describe something so well known? Do I quote here Rhett’s famous “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” or Scarlett’s “Fiddly dee”? Prissy’s meltdown during Melanie’s childbirth? The inexplicable love Scarlett has for Ashley? Perhaps, this is more indicative of my appreciation for the film and the numerous times I’ve seen it. Instead, I believe it’s firm place in our culture is because of its quality, not its shortcomings.

Gone with the Wind (1939) 220 minutes. Directed by Victor Fleming. Starring Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland.

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You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

*After a hiatus, Oscar-winning films are back.

In the early days of the Academy, it seems as if the voting members weren’t quite sure what they thought movies were supposed to look like, sound like, and feel like in the new sound era.  For years, the industry had solidified and polished the artistry of filmmaking, albeit without sound.  Looking forward, from 1938 on, it seems as if the industry started to hit their stride.  With Frank Capra’s second Best Picture winner, You Can’t Take It With You, the Classical Hollywood tradition is well underway.  You Can’t Take It With You combines all the charm of It Happened One Night with the sincerity of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, further proving Capra as one of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs.

In this latest of Capra’s effort, Jean Arthur’s Alice Sycamore is in love with Tony Kirby, son of the wealthy entrepreneur Anthony P. Kirby.  The elder Kirby is anxiously waiting for one final house to sell so that he and his business partners can build a multi-block, state-of-the-art factory in the middle of the city.  There’s one hiccup– the home of the Sycamore family/compound/community is the last piece of property needed for the Kirby building to move forward.  It’s against this backdrop that You Can’t Take It With You flourishes as a comedy/drama for the ages.

In this battle of bank accounts and values, the Sycamore family clearly wins with their dancing granddaughter, novelist daughter, firecracker-making father, tax-evading grandfather, xylophone-playing fiancé, and a couple of random gentlemen who came to visit and just never left.  It’s apparent that when the Kirby family arrives for dinner that the eccentric Sycamores will cause the effete Kirby much stress and embarrassment.  Mrs. Kirby, in particular, fulfills her role as the difficult, potential mother-in-law.  By the film’s end, the refrain of Capra’s Clarence the Angel rings clear, Kirby can’t take his money with him.  His only riches are those of the friends around him.

You Can’t Take It With You (1938) 126 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold.

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4N6 isn’t nasty

This afternoon, while trying to nap on a gorgeous spring break day, I received a text from a friend. He’d attached a story from The Atlantic. It’s title struck me. But the photo, featuring the former head coach of George Mason University and University of Texas forensics, struck me harder. “Oh, God,” I thought. “The Atlantic?!?!” The tiny world of college forensics, or competitive speaking and performance, was being ‘exposed’ because of a man I once worked with.

I know Peter Pober.

I knew Peter Pober.

I don’t know which one is more accurate. The most accurate way to describe it is to say that as a graduate student, I was once the Assistant Coach to Peter Pober’s Head Coach of the University of Texas Individual Events Team. In that position, Texas won the national championship at the American Forensic Association tournament in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in 1995. It was such a big deal, we became the first non-athletic team to have the Tower lit for us. Hook ’em horns! This was a huge achievement.

This morning when my friend, from my time at Texas, sent me the link to The Atlantic article, I felt like I was in a bit of a mental haze. Really? Peter has made it to The Atlantic? It’s not that his alleged crimes aren’t severe and, quite frankly, vile. It’s that this is about forensics, a nerdy, geeky extra-curricular activity that I loved. How could something so gross and “nasty,” as another friend described it, happen in this activity that required young people to memorize speeches, learn about world events, and edit short stories and poetry for public performance? And how could it happen within my own personal experience with the activity?

Caroline Kitchener‘s article “A #MeToo Nightmare in the World of Competitive Speech” is both familiar and alien to me. I can see Peter’s necktie case like it was yesterday. I can also see the wad of cash he pulled from his pants’ pocket. It was the largest collection of bills I had ever seen a person hold on their person, ever. Alongside the American Express card he used to pay for everything, that was the most worn of any credit card I’d ever seen, Peter was never without the means to pay for anything or anyone. I agree that he didn’t like to be disagreed with and I did that on more than one occasion. From looking down at an interp book to wondering why in the world I ever gave August Benassi ‘the one,’ I would speak up and defend myself. I had learned to do so with my own speech coaches.  I remember the auditions of current members for next year’s team, as do I recall the team meeting before nationals where each student brought their planned outfits for Peter’s approval. I remember the team captain inspecting interp books for ‘proper form’ and the reminder she alone got about nail polish color for tournaments. Red was not allowed. While at UT, we did no dancing as Kitchener describes, nor did other teams look at us with awe or reverence like she claims was done to the GMU team. UT was at least a national champion. Surely, if teams were going to do such things it would have been to us Longhorns. GMU was never a national champion.*

I’m sure not being a national champion at GMU was something that didn’t settle well with Peter. While at UT, I heard a rumor that Peter was a passionate competitor. Impromptu speaking was his specialty and when he failed to make finals, yet again, his senior year, he sat on the ground and threw a temper tantrum. Rumor aside, I could believe it. And maybe that memory is the one that should make all of this not so unexpected.

Enough of Peter. Truly. Forensics is better than his contemptible behavior. I know it and a hell of a lot of people know it too.

As I continued to read the piece in The Atlantic, I kept reminding myself how lucky I was to have had the coaches I did. And my teammates. My coaches, trained in the performance of literature at Northwestern and Chapel Hill, knew quality literature. I competed in the days before competitors could write their own stuff and what a difference that made. My love of Margaret Atwood was solidified after performing her poetry and prose over two years time. Her story “Weight” would be the basis of my master’s thesis, the degree that got me my first full-time college teaching job. My love of literature grew more intense as I performed the poetry by a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and the prose a Pushcart Prize winner.

And my teammates? We were a mad-scrabble group of folks from Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. Some had done forensics at the high school level, but some, like me, had never heard of the activity until we got to campus. Those coaches, who taught us to discern nuanced, difficult literature from easy, fast-food-esque words on a page, helped us construct informative, persuasive, and rhetorical criticism speeches of detail and subtlety.  (And as for After Dinner Speaking? Damn, we were funny. And that’s all I’ll say about that.)

We are all better for having done forensics. We’re all better for having gotten up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, to dress in our suits, and speak to near-empty classrooms all day long, for the hopeful reward of a trophy around 5 p.m. We are better for those coaches. For those teammates. We are the majority, NOT Peter Pober. Peter and coaches like him are the gross, vile minority, thank goodness. I refuse to let his actions be the ones that control the narrative of college forensics. Maybe times have changed to the point that I wouldn’t recognize the activity I once loved so much. It doesn’t have to stay changed. It can return to goodness. Hear, hear to it happening soon.

*Thanks to AFA top speaker, Margaret Langford, I was informed that GMU was a national team champion in 1979.  Noted and clarified.  Thank you!

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The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

As the 1937 winner for Best Picture, The Life of Emile Zola, is a film that leaves many more drags in time than pulsing moments of fascination and captivating action. For a film recording the life of one of France’s most public figures, The Life of Emile Zola fails to give the audience a sincere sense of the man, but instead presents a puffed-up sense of a public man trying to maintain a public influence.

Paul Muni in the titular role

What we know about Émile Zola, based on the first half of the film, is that he was prone to getting ill, lived in poverty, had a loving wife, and was friends with the painter Paul Cézanne. Eventually, he sells his first blockbuster novel, Nana, and suddenly Zola has enough money to write full-time. We, the audience, see his success build and build and then we are brought in to a conspiracy occurring within the French Army, where officer Alfred Dreyfus is accused and convicted of treason, purportedly because he is Jewish. Enter Émile Zola.

Joseph Schildkraut as Captain Dreyfus

Once Dreyfus is humiliated and sent to spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement on a solitary South American island, Zola reenters the film as he takes up Dreyfus’s cause, having been convinced to do so by Lucie Dreyfus. Zola famously wrote his open letter “J’Accuse” about Dreyfus’s erroneous conviction, openly accusing the French government of anti-semitism. In sum, as a result, Zola was prosecuted and convicted of libel. Most importantly, Alfred Dreyfus eventually was exonerated of all crimes attributed to him due to the “J’Accuse” inquiry, and allowed to return home, with a return of his military rank and honors.

Quite simply, I accuse this film of having a disjointed execution. Yes, by the end we understand that Zola’s goal was to fight for justice, but only because of a blatant statement of such in his eulogy. Hollywood had done better by this point in 1937, and we all know it’s done better since.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937) 116 minutes. Directed by William Dieterle. Starring Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut.

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The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

I’m not quite sure that the producers of The Great Ziegfeld know what kind of film they were trying to make. A biopic? A musical? A comedy? A drama? All of the above? If the later is the answer then that explains a lot about the overall ineffectiveness of the film. The life of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. is one that is tied with film history. Those various ties may be the reason the film won Best Picture, rather than the storytelling and performances.

Ultimately, the film suffers from the less than charismatic performance of William Powell in the lead role. The overarching throughline of the film is that Ziegfeld was able to outspend and out-persuade all other promoters and show producers of the era. However, Powell’s Ziegfeld doesn’t come off as the kind of man who would compel anyone to leave their current management team, especially for a salary they might never see. For early cinema history fans, Ziegfeld’s pursuit of Edison’s Sandow the Strong Man, is a flashback to the truly earliest days of nickelodeon movies. In fact, it’s the inclusion of early American theater performers like Will Rogers and Fanny Brice that brings a special charm to the film. Unfortunately, the charm wasn’t enough for the film’s three-hour run time.

The film’s strength is in meticulous recreation of the outlandish and lavish production numbers of the Ziegfeld Follies. The sheer number of cast members is staggering. Then when you add in the massive sets, one quickly realizes why the Follies is still regarded as the epitome of spectacle. This nod to theater history is the most enjoyable part of the film, by far. And that dog number? I can’t even, as the kids say.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936) 176 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.  Starring William Powell, Luise Rainer, Myrna Loy, Frank Morgan.

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Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

When starting this project of watching all of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture, in order, there were a few, early on, that I wasn’t looking forward to. I thought they would be a bore, quite frankly. I thought the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty would be one of those. When I saw that the film was directed by Frank Lloyd, the director of Cavalcade (1933), I was even more certain. I am so glad that I was wrong. Mutiny on the Bounty was an arresting, tense, and visceral exploration of power and redemption. Starring Clark Gable, a year after his Oscar-winning turn in It Happened One Night, and the stunning Charles Laughton as the infamous Captain Bligh, the story of the HMS Bounty is a compelling one.

Based on the true story of the ship’s 1787 voyage to Tahiti, audiences come to sympathize with the crew of crooks, as Captain Bligh thinks of them. Fletcher Christian’s frustration with Bligh runs high throughout most of the film, finally reaching the point of no return when he commands those under him to mutiny and put Bligh and his devotees on a glorified row-boat, to tame the oceans of Southeast Asia. In a testament to his skill as a sailor, Bligh makes his way back to England and quickly proceeds to return to sea to find Christian. Nearly being found by Bligh, Christian shows his prowess as a sailor, as well, and manages to escape from Bligh, never to be captured or prosecuted for his mutinous behavior. Mutiny on the Bounty is such a robust story of action and adventure, it’s no wonder it has been remade several times, with stars like Marlon Brando, Mel Gibson, and Russell Crowe. As is usually the case, the original deserves viewing and judgment for the standard against which the others must compete.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) 132 minutes. Directed by Frank Lloyd.  Starring Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Eddie Quillan.

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