Posted in First Take

[1947] Gentleman’s Agreement | Crossfire

So the goal here was to watch Gentleman’s Agreement – 1947’s Oscar winner starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire – and, like all my other posts, comment on why it fits the Academy’s modus operandi of picking not the best movie of the year (too subjective, too many), but the movie that best represented its year’s gestalt. In 1947 anti-Semitism either had begun to run rampant or a series of filmmakers and studio executives decided that this was the year to tackle this off-center issue. In the span of a year, then, two movies decidedly different – one an overwrought, but ultimately thought-provoking exposé on Judaism and the tenets of pluralism in society and the other a dark-noir that opens and ends with a deus ex machina of “Jewishness” as the lock-and-key.

Usually, when two films operate in the same arena during a year they offset one another. When two films discuss World War II slightly differently, or deal with race and religion, or fall in the same thematic element, the Academy usually will decide that the theme itself is enough and look elsewhere to appropriate its crown for film of the year. In 1947, they deemed that one film about Jewishness was the best representation of the year in film and in theme and not the other. Why?

It goes without saying that the winner, Gentleman’s Agreement, brought with it a bigger tag. Acting, directing, budget, revenues drove Gentleman’s Agreement above its rival-cum-Judaism, Crossfire; Gregory Peck and Elia Kazan command more attention than does Crossfire‘s relatively unknown cast of characters (save Robert Mitchum) and director, Edward Dmytryk. Yet, noir seems to work best when the characters play second to the mood, so compromise would not have done Crossfire favors toward relevance in the eyes of the Academy voters. Is the tag itself enough to leap Gentleman’s Agreement over Crossfire? The distinction seems arbitrary, even to the sometimes wanton Academy voters.

There is also something to be said for the relative quality of the films compared, not only to one another, but to the rest of the competition. I find it hard to believe that among the nostalgia (Miracle on 34th StGreat Expectations) and the light-fare The Bishop’s Wife, that either Gentleman’s Agreement or Crossfire were that much “better” than the other films, or that much better than each other. Instead, I would contend that the quality of the film rather arbitrarily was ignored this year in favor of a more noble notion – bringing to light the sore subject of religious pluralism after the horror of the Holocaust that most Americans did not witness firsthand. Jews, according to Kazan, were unfairly second-rate citizens and Gregory Peck, perhaps the most Gentile human alive at the time, was to tell us all so through some deliberate method acting and overemphasizing the word “JEW” at every instance. This notion over-scored any nostalgia wrought in 1947.  Continue reading “[1947] Gentleman’s Agreement | Crossfire”

Posted in First Take

[1945] Mildred Pierce

This post is my first in two months and I’m sorry if the language is hyper-academic and proseworthy for the Journal of the American Filmbloggers Association. 

Medium is essential. I talk about how we know what we know in the same breath as what we know. The ontological argument distinguishing book from movie is in how we as humans learn or retain information.  Literary novelists were awarded more (not much more) freedom in their written word under the assumption that many more people would see a film rather than read a book. For example, James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, Mildred Pierce, is a bleak roman noir, set in 1930s Southern California and Michael Curitz’s screen adaptation à la film noir might be the watered-down version offered but not necessarily deserved.That said, The Hays code that stifled filmmaking for nearly four decades hung its lowly rules on the head of Mildred Pierce‘s pièce, somewhat dramatically altering the tone and motifs from the book to the screen. It circumstantially and unnecessarily took a censorship beat to the film that would see Joan Crawford as a star and painted Ann Blyth as a different character between mediums. Does it matter that the medium, so essential, produced wildly different works of art based on the same basic information?

First, the case against: no it does not matter. Broad strokes paint the same picture, and though at different resolutions, we can understand the basic assumptions and arguments of a story regardless of the medium. It is impossible and boring, anyway, to include the same level of detail from a 400 page book to a 2 hour film. The book’s Mildred has the same basic relationships as the films: there exists her ex-husband, daughters, lovers, friends, business partners. That Hays dramatically altered Mildred’s daughter, Veda, is inconsequential to the outcome in both scenarios. That Hays altered how the story moved from exposition to dénouement produces a different story does not change the basic framework of Mildred Pierce, the movie and the book, but the woman, Mildred Pierce. We are required as viewers to determine, after having imbibed all the relevant information whether we care about. If, at the end of each medium, we leave with the same sense of understanding of the story, does it matter? Continue reading “[1945] Mildred Pierce”