12
Jun
2012
Jordan's Movie Quest: The Year 1942
The Year 1942
Jordan
It has taken me a shameful 14 months to get through the movies necessary to prepare this next installment of my movie quest (and at this rate, I should complete the journey sometime before I turn 200). I would like to say that things will pick up for a while now, and I hope to get through a few more years over the course of the summer, when I have slightly more viewing time. With the nation plunged into war, 1942 is a year full of light as air comedies, patriotic dramas, and nostalgic looks back at the simpler time that was the turn of the century. The best films, in all of those categories, managed to reflect or transcend the tumultuous era America had entered into, and my favorite of the year (as you'll see below) managed to do a little bit of both. Without further ado (and after much delay), here are my favorite films of 1942:

10. This Gun for Hire"”A slick, sleek wartime noir, This Gun for Hire follows an L.A. cop (Robert Preston) on vacation in San Francisco to visit his nightclub singer girlfriend (Veronica Lake). The two get caught up in a conspiracy and potential treason when he begins to investigate the death of a chemist at the hands of a cold-blooded killer (Alan Ladd). It's little wonder that the film launched the career of Alan Ladd and cemented Veronica Lake as Paramount's top star. The film suffers slightly from The Hays Code, which deprives it of some of the ambiguity the story might otherwise have had, yet This Gun for Hire remains a fun, pulpy, often pulse-pounding story of murder, intrigue, betrayal, and loyalty.

9. Mrs. Miniver"”One of several wartime melodramas to hit screens during this year, Mrs. Miniver is easily the best, an often moving and wonderfully acted story of British resilience and courage. The film, adapted from a series of newspaper columns written throughout the war, follows the titular housewife (Greer Garson, who won Best Actress for the role) as she watches her son go off to war, her country ravaged by the blitzkrieg, and her quiet life disrupted by earth shattering events. The film mixes over-the-top heroism (at one point, Mrs. Miniver is held at gunpoint by a German soldier whose plane crashes near her house, and she outsmarts and apprehends him) with quieter moments of strength, as Miniver exhibits the "stiff upper lip" mentality of her country in the face of some very hard times. The film won six Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Picture, and remains one of the more inspiring and moving examples of patriotic propaganda from the era.

8. Kings Row"” Period pieces were as popular in the early "˜40s as they are today (if not more so). All that was different was the period. The vast majority of the period pieces made in this era focused on "simpler times," namely, the dawn of the Twentieth Century. To a war torn nation, the period must have seemed tranquil, and many of these films (perhaps most prominently Our Town) glorify the era as one of wholesome values, small town culture, and naïve whimsy. After seeing several of these films on my quest, Kings Row is something of a palate cleanser"”where most period pieces of the era glorified the early Twentieth Century, Kings Row showed at least a glimmer of the rot at the core of the small town mindset. Based on the novel by Henry Bellamann, the film is a dark melodrama about a small town populated with some deeply disturbed characters, like the creepy Dr. Tower (Claude Rains) who keeps his daughter (Betty Field) locked up in their house, or Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn) a sadistic surgeon with a penchant for unnecessary amputation. Against this backdrop of thinly veiled horrors, the young idealist Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) dreams of becoming a doctor, and is distracted from his studies only by the idea of a romance with the daughter Dr. Tower keeps locked away, or by an afternoon spent with his best friend Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan, in his star-making performance). Though The Hays Code required that many of the novel's darker and more salacious aspects be cut from the film ("illicit sexual relationships" out of wedlock, incest, euthanasia, homosexual undertones and Dr. Gordon's sadism were all excised or merely hinted at in the film), Kings Row still remains compelling as a rebuke of the rose-tinted view most films took of the early twentieth century. Dark, tragic, and almost relentlessly grim (save the tacked-on happy ending the censors required), Kings Row (which was nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Picture) is a melodrama that earns its overwrought emotions at every turn, managing to shock you and draw you into its world, even as it breaks your heart.

7. Now, Voyager"”Charlotte Vale (the Best Actress nominated Bette Davis, as stellar as ever) is a spinster, dominated entirely by her overbearing mother (Best Supporting Actress nominee Gladys Cooper) until she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She is put into the care of a psychiatrist (Claude Rains, toning down the creepiness that was on display in Kings Row and turning up the charm he would display in Casablanca the following year), and upon leaving treatment decides to take a cruise before returning home. The now blossomed Charlotte meets the married Jeremiah Durrance (Paul Henried), who is stuck in an unhappy marriage due to his devotion to his daughter. When the two miss the boat in Rio de Janeiro, they fall in love over the course of a week there before agreeing they must never see each other again. Of course, the duo's paths cross again, yet their relationship takes some unexpected turns along the way. Featuring one of Bette Davis' greatest performances, Now, Voyager is a film of self-discovery that gives credence to the sufferings of its characters, a poignant study in self-discovery, self-sacrifice, and ultimately, self-actualization.

6. The Palm Beach Story"”Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) are a married couple who have fallen on hard times financially, which has (along with another, more mysterious problem) caused their marriage to fall apart. Gerry decides to take the train to Palm Beach, where she can divorce Tom and find a rich new husband to help Tom out of his financial bind. On the way, she meets the eccentric John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee, in his first comedic role), one of the richest men in the world. Hackensacker immediately falls for her, but when the two arrive in Palm Beach, Tom is waiting there to win her back, and Hackensacker's thrice divorced sister (Mary Astor) sics herself on him. Written and directed by screwball legend Preston Sturges, The Palm Beach Story is hilariously convoluted in the best possible way, a flurry of plot twists, banter, and romance that is winsome without losing its cynicism and witty without sacrificing its heart.
5. The Talk of the Town"”Political activist Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) is accused of arson and escapes prison in the midst of his trial to hide out with his former schoolmate Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur). Shelley has rented her house for the summer to Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), a law professor looking to write a book. Both men arrive on Nora's doorstep within minutes of each other, and both quickly become infatuated with her, even as a friendship grows between the two. At heart a feather light comedy, The Talk of the Town (which was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture) also manages to tackle weighty issues like guilt, justice, and the flaws of our legal system, all without skipping a beat.

4. The Man Who Came to Dinner"”Notoriously acerbic radio host Sheridan Whiteside (a hysterical Monty Woolley) slips on ice on the front stoop while arriving to attend dinner with the prominent Ohio family the Stanleys (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke) and is forced to recuperate in the house over the holidays. Whiteside quickly dominates the household, involving himself in the lives of everyone who comes by, judging quickly and harshly and slinging barbs at anyone in earshot. While Whiteside drives the Stanleys crazy, his overworked, underappreciated assistant Maggie (Bette Davis) falls for local journalist Bert (Richard Travis). Whiteside, loathe to lose an employee so capable and attentive, does his best to sabotage the budding romance however he can. His scheme ropes in some of his famous contacts (including Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante) as his plots escalate and grow ever more desperate. Scathingly hilarious, superbly acted, and brilliantly witty, The Man Who Came to Dinner is a bracing satire of the rich, famous, and pretentious.

3. The Pride of the Yankees"”Less a sports biography than a love letter to a legendary sportsman, The Pride of the Yankees follows Lou Gehrig (Best Actor nominee Gary Cooper) as he deceives his mother and abandons the career he was reared for to play for the team he always loved. Gehrig falls in love with a fan (Best Actress nominee Teresa Wright), hits two home runs for a sick child, and generally lives up to his iconic status, until his strength begins to slowly leave him. The film ends on Gehrig's stirring speech to a full stadium, and the moment is as moving as it is mythical. Nominated for eleven Oscars, The Pride of the Yankees fully deserves its status among the greatest sports films ever made.

2. Woman of the Year"”Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) is a blue collar sports reporter who worked his way up to the job of his dreams. Tess Harding (Katherine Hepburn) is a political columnist, the daughter of a diplomat and an international traveler. Tess is an intellectual, Sam is an everyman. It's no surprise when the two fall in love, yet what follows is something for the ages. The first of nine films Tracy and Hepburn made together, Woman of the Year is a shockingly progressive (for the time) romantic comedy about the struggles of two career driven people to make their romance work. The film's resolution leaves a bit to be desired on the equality front (as Tess goes to great lengths to show her devotion to Sam, who ultimately admits he loves that she is a career woman), yet the chemistry between the leads is palpable, and creates the best romantic comedy of the year.

1. To Be or Not to Be"”A theater company in 1939 Warsaw prepares to put on a play critiquing the dictator across the border, only to be censored by a terrified government into performing Hamlet. Self-centered, egomaniacal leading man Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) is cripplingly insecure and worries his wife Maria (Carole Lombard) may be unfaithful. Unfortunately for him, she is carrying on a (chaste) affair with an air force pilot Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) who she sees only when her husband is delivering the famous soliloquy. When the invasion occurs, Sobinski leaves to fight in the resistance. Stationed in England, he attempts to send a message to Maria through Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), who claims to be a dedicated member of the resistance headed to Warsaw. Sobinski quickly learns Sletsky is a Nazi spy and returns to Warsaw to prevent him from destroying the underground with what he has learned. Soon the entire troupe is caught up in the mission, impersonating various members of the Third Reich (including Tom Dugan's turn as the Fuhrer himself) in a desperate attempt to save the Polish resistance. A pitch black satire that is as hysterical as it is bold (joking, as it does, about Hitler and concentration camps just months after America had entered the war), To Be or Not to Be is nothing short of a comedy classic, an irreverent farce that feels as rousing as it is hilarious for its willingness to confront, and mock, the greatest terrors of its time en route to creating one of the best farces of all time.
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