The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)

California, Super Cool To The Homeless

The Grapes of Wrath was impressively released less than a year following the release of the novel and yet within this short timeframe director John Ford crafted one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. A number of John Ford’s movies have that foreign film feel – a feeling of very raw, lifelike emotion. The Grapes of Warth itself is one of the most emotionally draining films of all time with one scene after another drawing up such feelings of pity; everything is rough, dirty nor is there makeup on any of the actors. Just take the scene in which the depression-ridden Joad family on their way to California attempt to buy bread from a dinner (a scene which really puts the value of money in perspective) – The emotion is one part humility and the other part pathetic.

Yokels, rednecks, hillbillies – everyone’s favourite punching bag. The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t look down America’s uneducated, rural white folk nor presents them as a caricature but that still doesn’t change the fact that none of the Joad clan are the sharpest tools in the shed nor don’t understand how the outside world works. Just as we are introduced to the family the youngest daughter Rosasharn is pregnant and married when still a teen while the family is dirt poor and huge as it is.

Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad may be the pinnacle of his acting career. His stone face alongside the laid-back manner in which he walked and talked is mesmerising yet Joad is not someone I would fancy being in the vicinity off. Fonda’s performance has a sinister edge to it and a sense of barely restrained violence. His proclamation to the truck driver near the beginning of the film when telling him the reason he was in prison, a simple uttering of “homicide” could come straight out of a horror movie. Jane Darwell on the other hand as Ma Joad is the other great scene stealer with her hauntingly sombre, tour-de-force performance as a character with one ultimate aim – keeping the fambly together.

The amazing landscape shots, use of German expressionism and high contrast lighting give way for such unforgettable images from a car light driving along the horizon to silhouettes walking across a hill, thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland. Take the scene at the campsite in which the characters discuss their present situation; it’s so dreamlike with the odd, unnatural angles, it couldn’t be more mesmerising. I also recommend watching the South Park episode Over Logging which parodies this scene (and the movie as a whole), right down to the black & white cinematography.

Once the Joads arrive at the Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch run by the Department of Agriculture it is a temporary relief to see something good happen to the family, after all, they have been through. When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940, the US Secretary of Agriculture was Henry A. Wallace, whom that same year was running for Vice President with Franklin D. Roosevelt; a message of support for FDR and the New Deal no doubt? At the government camp they are greeted by a seemingly genuine, honest man who looks like FDR and tells them they have washtubs with running water; a world away from the corporate run camps the Joads took residence earlier in the film – all sounds too good to be true? The government is the solution to the Joad’s problems (temporally at least as they end up leaving at a later point), nor at any point in the film do we see any charitable organisations out to help the poor. It’s fairly obvious that The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t exactly lean to the right of politics; evil bankers running people off their land, corrupt police, capitalists treating people like dogs, total collapse of the free market, socialist camp run by the government is only decent place to be in which cops are not allowed to lines of dialogue such as “people are going to win rich, people are going to die”. – A world of oppressor and the oppressed if there ever existed one. Regardless of one’s politics, I still contend The Grapes of Wrath to be one of the most emotionally draining films in all of cinema.

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The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Another Philadelphia Experiment

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant pushes Katharine Hepburn to the ground by putting his hand in her face. With any other actor this would be a vile act against a woman but because it’s Cary Grant, it works and thus showing the power of these three acting titans, Hepburn, Grant and Stewart. The Philadelphia Story gives an insight into the lives of the rich and famous, something which would be harder to pull off in later decades not to come off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. I do find myself trying to figure out why this is? Could it be the incredibly high standards of writing and filmmaking craft on display here and the love of these performers; even more so when compared to the poor standard of romantic comedies today?

Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is not a ditzy socialite. In this role written for Hepburn it’s clear that she is a symbol of first wave feminism; wearing pants and an emasculating suit and being an influence on her younger tomboy sister but more importantly, it’s not to be undermined the complex characterisation of Tracy Lord. Like in Holiday, Grant and Hepburn share some very poignant and hard to decipher dialogue in which he tells her about her standing as a goddess and her lack of human frailty. Despite her ego, she claims in a sincere manner “I don’t want to be worshipped, I want to be loved”. Under the surface of the usual Cary Grant charm and elegance, C.K. Dexter Haven is one the darker characters Grant ever played. Apparently he “socked” Tracy on occasions, destroyed the cameras of multiple photographers on a boat and is a recovering alcoholic. This is Cary Grant at his most conniving with no remorse and enjoying it, displaying the darkly comic side of The Philadelphia Story.

However, this is Stewart and Hepburn’s film. Macaulay Connor is the moral, do-gooder James Stewart is known for (at least at the beginning that is); objecting to having been given the assignment of snooping in on the wedding of a Philadelphia socialite, as opposed to something with more journalistic integrity. He is appalled by the rich and their lifestyle but unlike Jefferson Smith he throws this out the window when he falls in love with Tracy; a piece of subtle cynicism on the movie’s part? I also really appreciate the relationship he shares with his work partner Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Her character is very cynical throughout most of the film but later reveals her more idealist side. She shares a platonic friendship with Macaulay but there are hints they have deeper feelings for each other. Virginia Weidler, on the other hand, is a real scene stealer. Just look at her speaking French in an overdramatic manner then singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady by the piano; a pointless scene but funny.

I can’t call The Philadelphia Story a predictable movie as I couldn’t see where the story was going at the end. I could have sworn she would end up with Jimmy but at the last minute and totally out of nowhere she goes with Cary and with it coming off as contrived. Likewise, a drunken Stewart carrying Hepburn in his arms while singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow is surely one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid.

They Drive By Night (1940)

We’ve Got a Great Big Convoy Running Through the Night!

They Drive By Night captures the seedy and often dangerous world of the truck driver; the lack of sleep, the long distances to travel, the time missed with family, the comradery between truckers. The movie definitely highlights the dangers of trucking from the risk of falling asleep at the wheel, which in part lends itself to one very thrilling action sequence. With Warner Bros being the master of social commentary pictures, I enjoy movies like this which give you an insight into the lives of the lower class at the time; people trying to get by a day at a time with clearly little money to spare.

Thirty minutes into the picture we meet Ida Lupino, in my view possibly the epitome of the tough dame. Talk about a star-making performance, she owns the show as soon as she enters the picture. Every time she is in frame it’s hard to take your eyes off her as struts, poses and applies makeup to herself, even when her comedic foil of a husband Alan Hale is in frame acting like a buffoon. Her most notable scene in the film is one of the greatest, most gloriously over the top on-screen breakdowns ever committed to film. Charles Manson blamed The Beatles, Ida Lupino blamed the doors. Seeing Bogart as a family man is odd at first, the total opposite of his persona he would have in films such as those with Lauren Bacall. But he fits comfortably into the role, showing how adaptable an actor he was. George Raft is the weakest player out of the four stars, I’ve never seen Raft as much of an actor, but playing alongside these heavyweights manages to bring out the best in him.

What is the overall plot of They Drive By Night? There isn’t one; there’s no three-act structure. It’s almost like getting two movies for the price of one, with the first half focusing on trucking and the second half focusing on a murder. Comparing the two you wouldn’t think this is the same movie, but the odd combination works and makes for a unique viewing experience.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Other Jimmy Stewart Christmas Movie

The Shop Around the Corner was the first Ernst Lubitsch film I saw and as soon as the characters started interacting with each other I instantly knew this was a guy who knew how to handle dialogue in what is referred to as the so-called ‘Lubitsch Touch’. With such levels of subtly, this is the kind of movie that needs to be watched multiple times and gets better every time you do so. Often there will be a verbal joke in which I am unaware it even is a joke and it will take a few seconds to catch onto it. Most of Lubitsch’s films were set in Europe as this was where he was from. The shop of Shop Around the Corner is in Budapest, Hungary. The world this movie is set was on the brink of destruction in 1940 but there is no mention of this in the film. Just like how the film harkens back to a more peaceful time it also acts like a nostalgia portal to a time before the internet or big corporate businesses. A shop which is a physical, hands-on and above all a communal experience. The shop is a world onto its own populated by unforgettable characters.

Like Lubitsch, most of Margaret Sullavan’s movies also took place in Europe, I don’t know of the reason for this, however; a big coincidence or did she deliberately choose to star in movies with European settings? James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan aren’t remotely Hungarian but classic Hollywood movies aren’t exactly known for their realism in this regard. I also find it humorous how Klara is able to get a job by walking into a store and proving she is capable of selling items; if only it were that easy in real life!

The Shop Around the Corner is one of the prime examples of the classic “they hate each other but are really in love”; in fact, they really hate each other. Stewart’s Alfred Kralik is actually a real asshole; he’s brash and very opinionated. Likewise, Margaret Sullavan isn’t a sexy, glamorous Hollywood star; Klara Novak is a down to Earth, intellectual. As the movie progresses you so badly want these two characters to end up together to the point that it hurts. These aren’t two performers with great chemistry, these are two performers with incredible lifelike chemistry which blends the dividing line between fiction and reality. If ever there was an on-screen couple how where made for each other, this is it.

The Mortal Storm (1940)

I Did Nazi That Coming

I try to avoid calling movies underrated or saying “Why is this not more well known?!”, otherwise, I would sound like the most malfunctioning record but as to why The Mortal Storm is not more famous goes beyond just my own personal preferences. The fact that Hollywood’s then biggest studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer would release an anti-Nazi film at a time when the US and Germany were not involved in any conflict should be a bigger deal than it is. To give some historical context, although it seems hard to believe nowadays, fascist and other Nazi-like ideas were out in the open throughout the United States during the 20’s and 30’s (heck, just look at the film Gabriel Over the White House from 1933, also released by MGM, or the public initial backlash against films with pro-interventionist sentiments such as Sergeant York or To Be Or Not To Be). Prior to the US involvement in the war, there was even uncertainty as to whether or not the US should take part in the conflict in Europe.

The Mortal Storm being overlooked is criminal. It deserves the special edition DVD treatment with documentaries behind its production. I’m sure there must be an interesting story behind the making of this film. MGM has generally been seen as a studio who played it safe, thanks in part to its conservative studio head Louis B. Mayer. So it comes as a surprise The Mortal Storm would come from this studio and they paid the price. The Mortal Storm lead to MGM films being banned in Germany. The word Nazi is never used once throughout the film, while the characters I can only assume are Jews are referred to as Non- Aryan. I wonder if this was done to prevent further controversy surrounding the film but it’s still an incredibly brave picture.

The core story is about how Nazism tore German families and friends apart due to racial and political differences. The Roths (Jewish I assume) are a happy picture postcard family one day, the next there are completely torn apart. Things go bad for the family from the moment in which it’s announced Hitler has become chancellor of Germany as the adopted, non-Jewish sons of the Roth family begin saying disturbing yet enthusiastic comments (“If peasants want to keep their cows they better have the right politics”). Likewise, the patriarch of the Roth family and the professor of the town’s local university played by Frank Morgan is treated with the highest levels of respect one day and is awarded for his contributions to the fatherland. Not long after Hitler’s rise to power his students are boycotting his class after he states that science has shown there is no difference between the blood of various races.

The Mortal Storm is a work of propaganda, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Propaganda is an art form in itself, one which tries to get an emotional reaction out of the viewer in order to convert them to one side. The Mortal Storm achieves just that. The tension during the film just builds and builds, concluding in an ending which is one huge punch to the gut.

Watching the film again in order to write this review I surprised just how engaging it was on a further viewing. There are many little touches I never noticed previously, such as when Robert Young’s character announces his engagement to Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart is the only character the room who does react with joy. I do also have to ask how Stewart, a man who would become a World War II hero and later supporter of the Vietnam war must have felt playing a character who is a pacifist.

Majority of the film is shot on sets with the use of painted backgrounds and miniatures, yet the whole thing still looks fantastic and looks more idyllic than real-world locations could. You really get a sense for this small town in the Alps. The only complaint if any I can find with the film is that opening narration which is overly bombastic.

The casting of the previously paired Shop Around the Corner stars couldn’t be more perfect. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play two friends who are forced to become lovers due to the impending circumstances – I can’t recall any other movies which portray a love story like this. Sullavan often portrayed characters who represented bravery; her voice is so fragile yet powerful at the same time. The cast isn’t the only tie the film shares with The Shop Around the Corner; both films represent a European society which was on the brink of destruction. The Mortal Storm shows how even an enlightened society can turn to authoritarianism.