1939 Ten Best Movies

On to the consensus greatest year in Hollywood history. Do people still call it that? 20 years ago, everybody agreed on the magical status of 1939, the year of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz and Stagecoach. I haven’t heard much about it lately, even though we’re noting the 70th anniversary of those movies this year. Either the obviousness of the year’s pinnacle status has been challenged lately (what about 1959? North by Northwest, Rio Bravo, Some Like it Hot, The 400 Blows? Whoops, I’m giving away a future entry) or 1939 is quietly slipping away, with the rest of pre-WWII cinema, into a dignified but museum-y place in the public imagination.

rules5That would be too bad, because 1939 was indeed a swell year in film. No question Hollywood was at a kind of peak of the studio system, even if the European system was being buffeted by other concerns (see WWII reference, above). Still, the film of the year is from Europe, a defining masterpiece that stands as the great example of a cinema that makes room to breathe rather than follow out a set of preordained blueprints. The Rules of the Game is a flexible picture that nevertheless always displays a firm guiding hand: it’s both sympathetic and satiric, passionate and detached, melancholy and joyful. And having reached this high point, Jean Renoir and many of his colleagues were about to see their lives rooted up, like so many others on the edge of the catastrophe to come.

The ten best of 1939:

1. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)

2. Stagecoach (John Ford)

3. Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)

4. Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford)

5. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming)

6. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra)

7. The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda)

8. Love Affair (Leo McCarey)

9. Gunga Din (George Stevens)

10. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch)

No Gone with the Wind in the 10, but I like it all right. Look at the year John Ford had: two in the top five, plus Drums Along the Mohawk coming up high on the next tier. I had to give the advantage to Stagecoach, because when it comes to fountainhead movies, you can’t do much better. Only Angels Have Wings is one of my favorite films, and I have The Wizard of Oz happily ingrained in my head just like everyone else in my generation. The Four Feathers (which I describe in more detail here) is something of a sleeper, but this movie ought to be as well known as, say, Gunga Din, another adventure story.

Next week: 1974.

The Four Feathers

The Four Feathers

by Robert Horton

The following was written for a Film.com series, “The Best Films You’ve Never Seen,” probably in 2000, as an introduction to this film. It’s slightly updated.

The year is 1939, and the movie is a rousing tale of action in a far-flung British colony, a ripping yarn of courage set against spectacular scenery, a boy’s adventure with the spirit of Rudyard Kipling. No, we are not talking about Gunga Din. The other 1939 movie that fits that description is The Four Feathers, a sublimely entertaining piece of derring-do that remains criminally anonymous to conventional film history.

fourf4Why is The Four Feathers not as revered as Gunga Din — or Casablanca, for that matter? I haven’t the foggiest notion, although being a British production on the eve of the Second World War might have limited its accessibility. Minute for minute, this picture is the equal of those classics, and it closes with a final scene that rivals the most delicious fade-outs in film history. The story is obviously well-regarded, as the A.E.W. Mason source novel has been filmed a half-dozen times since the silent era, including a 1977 TV movie with Beau Bridges and a deeply regrettable 2002 remake with Heath Ledger. The 1939 version was popular at the time, and garnered an Oscar nomination for its cinematography. But first-rank fame has eluded this gem —  perhaps a fitting destiny for a story about glorious deeds done surreptitiously.

The picture opens in the 1880s, with the misery of 15-year-old Harry Faversham. Young Harry perfers reading poetry to hearing his father’s friends talk about their battle exploits, but he is doomed to a military career — following in the ancestors’ footsteps, and all that. Ten years later, Harry (now played by John Clements) resigns his commission in the Army, just as his regiment is about to leave for dangerous duty in the Sudan. The act brings disgrace on Harry, and his fiancee Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) breaks off their engagement.

Here’s where the title comes from: Harry’s three Army comrades send him three white feathers, with their cards attached. The white feather signifies cowardice. As he leaves Ethne after their break up, Harry bitterly tears a white feather from her fan and takes it with the others. Although he has thoughtful reasons for not wanting to go to war, Harry admits to a doctor (Frederick Culley), an old friend of his late father, that he is also afraid of battle. In order to redeem himself, he decides to go to Africa on his own.

To reach then Sudan from Egypt incognito, Harry pretends to be a member of an enslaved Arab tribe whose tongues have been cut out — and whose foreheads have been branded with the letter S. He can fake the muteness, but the brand is actually scalded onto his face. After a marvelous sequence showing Harry’s forced labor as a barge-puller along the Nile (great music here by Miklos Rozsa, then at the start of his long career as a movie composer), he escapes into the desert and goes to help his comrades.

fourf3The Hungarian-born Alexander Korda, one of the most important British producers of the era, sent the Four Feathers crew off to the Sudan to film the terrific location footage, which includes awesome battles scenes and beautiful views of sailboats on the Nile. (The movie has two rungs up on Gunga Din in this department: it’s in Technicolor, and it was shot where the story is set; Gunga Din, a tale of India, was filmed in Lone Pine, California.) To direct the film, Korda tapped his brother Zoltan, a great field general for outdoor movies, who stages the adventure scenes with a sure touch.

As splendid as the action is, the movie would not be a classic without its subplot, in which Harry’s mate John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) pines for the love of Ethne Burroughs. And what man would not pine for the love of a woman with a name like Ethne Burroughs? Sigh. Anyway, poor noble John always knows he is second choice, even when Harry is in disgrace, and the great Richardson beautifully captures his heroic resignation.

The film’s other great performance comes from eagle-faced C. Aubrey Smith, that most English of all English character actors. As Ethne’s father, he is forever boring everybody in sight with his memories of the Crimean War — “war was war in those days, and men were men.” That The Four Feathers pokes fun at the official voice of patriotism, while nevertheless un-ironically upholding old-fashioned virtues such as honor and self-sacrifice, has everything to do with its enduring (if neglected) charm.

Drag Me Up (Weekly Links)

up2Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week:

Up. “If you thought Pixar might cool off after ‘Wall-E,’ forget it.”

Drag Me to Hell. “Knee-deep in the muck of a newly-dug grave.”

Summer Hours. (dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

A universal family experience is beautifully probed in “Summer Hours,” a new one from the eclectic French filmmaker Olivier Assayas.

That family experience? Deciding what to do with what’s left behind. At a country home in rural France, an estate must be dealt with in the aftermath of a death.

Three adult siblings, none of whom have lived at the place in years, have differing opinions about that. Their mother (the luminous Edith Scob) tended the place as a kind of shrine to her uncle, a well-known artist. The artist’s things are still all around the house, and so are the valuable art objects he collected. The oldest sibling, Frederic (Charles Berling), feels the house ought to stay in the family, the history of the place maintained intact. The middle child, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), lives in New York, the younger brother Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) in Asia. Their notions of the house’s future might differ from their brother’s.

You could imagine this to be a dry premise for an entire feature film, or at least vaguely unpleasant. But Assayas (whose last one was the peculiar “Boarding Gate”) and his fine cast use the material as a way of examining the different reasons people have for holding on to things—or letting things go.

Assayas is scrupulous about letting the audience decide how we feel about this trio. Everybody’s got their good side and bad side. Jeremie might be a sellout for taking a job that involves manufacturing cheap athletic shoes in China, but Adrienne comes across as self-righteous when she calls him on it. It doesn’t hurt that a great deal of the movie is set at the country house, a gently declining but still quite beautiful place. We admire this home and the handsome objects that the great artist collected—a vase, a wardrobe, a couple of valuable paintings by Corot.

But Assayas is interested in more than enjoying pretty things. By the end of the movie we’re also wondering about the value of things like that. Is a vase valuable because it’s a work of art, or because it holds flowers really well? And just when you think the movie might be backing the wisdom of letting go of old things, Assayas includes a final sequence, involving Frederic’s teenage children (a sequence that nearly echoes a great party scene in an early Assayas film, “Cold Water”), that makes you re-think your conclusions yet again.

Seattle International Film Festival picks.

And this, a reversal of the usual review links in this slot: a Fangoria review of Rotten, the new comic book that arrives in stores next week (see tab at top of page for more).

Movie Diary 5/27/2009

Sweet Crude (Sandy Cioffi, 2009). A walloping study of the effects of oil in the Niger Delta, another of the world’s messes that has been woefully ignored (and badly reported). It’s typical of the film’s calm fury that the arrest of the filmmaker last year by Nigerian authorities is relegated to a brief epilogue; the real story is more significant than that. (Screens at SIFF 6/3; 6/7; 6/13)

Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009). Road trip with young-pregnant-unmarried John Krazinski and Maya Rudolph, featuring variable levels of comedy and a few standout supporting turns — notably by Alison Janney and Catherine O’Hara. (full review 6/5)

Everything Strange and New (Frazer Bradshaw, 2009). This tightly-controlled puzzle is very close to being something really fine, and it’s already very distinctive. (Screens at SIFF 6/4; 6/6)

Cold Souls (Sophie Barthes, 2009). A little like a leftover fragment from Synecdoche, New York, this one has Paul Giamatti signing up for a process of soul removal. Fun at first, until the thing collapses under the weight of supporting its whimsical premise for so long. (Screens at SIFF 6/8; 6/10)

Movie Diary 5/26/2009

Drag  Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009). I am one of the few people who like Spider-Man 3 better than the first two movies in the series, mostly because it erupts more frequently with pure Raimi weirdness, those little indications that something has broken through the (generally admirable) studio competence. So I like this director’s vibe. Here, the first ten minutes are blah, and then suddenly Raimi arrives: full-on gross-out catfight inside a car between Alison Lohman’s unnervingly distant loan officer and a rotten-dentured hag, a scene as funny as it is creepy. (full review 5/29)

Movie Diary 5/25/2009

Dodsworth (William Wyler, 1936). The Seattle International Film Festival last showed this one in 1983, the last time I saw it. 26 years is too long between viewings of this should-be classic, a thoughtful, even-handed study of middle-aged edginess.

The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008). An admirable journey into a dimly-recalled nightmare — a Hitchcock set-up directed by a distinctly 21st-century mind. (SIFF screenings 5/29, 5/30)

Trimpin: The Sound of Invention (Peter Esmonde, 2008). The kooky Seattle-based aural-visual artist is profiled, in a useful portrait of eccentricity. (SIFF screening 6/1)

Art & Copy (Doug Pray, 2008). Another crafty title for the hard-working documentarian, this time on what used to be called Madison Avenue — interesting for the uninitiated, although I would’ve liked more on the Sixties. (SIFF screenings 6/3, 6/5)

Modern Life (Raymond Depardon, 2008). A collection of French farmers, all being squeezed out of a livelihood, seen in sketches both plain and lyrical. Depardon’s Tenth District Court had a similar appreciation for faces and types. (SIFF screening 6/2)

Creature with the Atom Brain (Edward L. Cahn, 1955). Many creatures, actually.

Adoration (Atom Egoyan, 2008). Very tight little chamber piece for Egoyan, somehow a little like one of Woody Allen’s very very small interiors.

1957 Ten Best Movies

Here they come, those subtitled masters of the Golden Age of the imported foreign film: Fellini and Bergman, and Kurosawa and Antonioni too, although the year was strong enough in bold American films that the latter boys didn’t get Top-Ten this time. #1 slot finds the nuzzly Mediterranean humanist Fellini outpointing his severe Scandinavian colleague Bergman by a neck, but it’s close.



Nights of Cabiria, my Best for 1957, is buoyed up by the irrepressibly “on” performance by Giulietta Masina, her character — a prostitute in Rome’s night world — always plugging away for an unseen audience, hoping that at some point, someone will finally notice her glory. Of course, we do. Which is how the movie forges one of the great connections between audience and protagonist, maintained through the classic final shot.

If Bergman’s scoring two titles on the list is an impressive achievement, how about Samuel Fuller? Here’s the ten best accounting for 1957:

1. Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini)

2. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)

3. The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)

4. Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)

5. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman)

6. The Tall T (Budd Boetticher)

7. Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick)

8. Run of the Arrow and Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller)

9. Men in War (Anthony Mann)

10. A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan)

Kwai I find haunting beyond its adventure-movie appeal (some reasons are explained in a Lean piece here); Men in War is a much lesser-known title, but equally forceful on the subject — and just as existentially somber as The Seventh Seal (a much-lampooned movie that holds up really well these days, by the way). Boetticher and Fuller provide two very different approaches to the Western, but both feel new. I left off some good ones: Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder) — a somewhat problematic but still scrumptious film — 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet), Kanal (Andrzej Wajda), The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov); Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa). Plus fine genre work in Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold).

Next week: 1939.

Culture Notes: SIFF start; Scarecrow

The Seattle International Film Festival is underway, kicking off Thursday night with the British political satire In the Loop, a regularly funny film with some extremely good actors’ moments for the likes of Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Mimi Kennedy, and David Rasche. I was taping bits with Art Zone host Nancy Guppy for a Seattle Channel special covering the event —  which meant shooting material before and after the screening, which in turn meant waiting around in the theater lobby during actual movie (which I’d already seen). There’s something ghostly about sitting in the lobby of the Paramount theater while a film is going on; the old theater has a Shining-like quality anyway, and dozens of people were wandering through the airy mezzanine, doing god-knows-what. We could hear laughter come regularly through the walls of the place.  A subject for Michel Gondry: the alternate society that springs up in the theater lobby while the real event is going on inside.

The TV special, in which I am marginally less foolish than last year’s entry, will be online soon. I apologize for the hair. It was windy.

Le Amiche

Le Amiche

SIFF itself arrives as the usual bewildering onslaught: hundreds of movies, many of them seemingly chosen in the spirit of let’s-throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks, as well as some recent international festival must-sees and a gallery of U.S. indie titles getting air time. The “Archival Presentations” include a couple of eagerly-awaited unseen movies for me: Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair (1950), which has one of the great movie premises of all time (I have wanted to see this since hearing it described in Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock book), and Antonioni’s Le Amiche (1955), which is a recent restoration by The Film Foundation.

And speaking of film archives: the titles from the Warner Archive Collection, that smart-sounding project to get a great big backlog of catalog titles out in the world without expensive packaging or complex processing, is accessible even if you don’t pay Warner $19.95 to burn a copy of Mr. Lucky or Freebie and the Bean on a DVD-R. The staggering rental collection at Scarecrow Video, Seattle’s amazing brick-and-mortar mainstay, is being swelled by lots of the no-frills offerings from the Warner Archive. So if live around Seattle and you need to view, but not own, Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita or Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl, traipse over to Scarecrow. (Right now, Netflix isn’t carrying the Warner Archive stuff.)  The Scarecrow site, newly revamped, is here; search the Warner Archive here.

Terminator Bloom (Weekly Links)

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

Azaria in excelsis.

Azaria in excelsis.

Terminator Salvation. “Here comes my headache.”

Night in the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian. “Face-slapping Capuchin monkey.”

The Girlfriend Experience. “An inert presence.”

The Brothers Bloom. “Sophomore jinx.”

Rudo y Cursi. “Rancid in their ambitions.”

Seattle International Film Festival preview.

SIFF picks.

On the Seattle Channel’s Art Zone in Studio, I do some quick SIFF picks with Nancy Guppy: here.

And on KUOW-FM, I talk about SIFF and summer movies with Steve Scher: here.

Movie Diary 5/20/2009

Paper Heart (Nicholas Jasonovec, 2008). Giggly comedian Charlyne Yi in a somewhat mystifying quasi-pseudo-documentary, with Michael Cera doing his thing. (Screens at Seattle International Film Festival, 5/23 and 5/24)

Up (Pete Docter, 2009). Well, hell, these Pixar people really are pretty good. You wouldn’t think a kid hanging from a garden hose smacking against a zeppelin window would be one of the highlights of movie year 2009, but it is. One bummer, a sign of the times: security people roaming through the aisles of the preview screening, diligently scanning the crowd for cameras as the movie plays on, out of focus. (full review 5/29)