[1937.3] Captains Courageous

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

Captains Courageous is well-paced, well-acted and holds up over the 80 or so years since its premier in 1937. Rudyard Kipling, of Jungle Book fame, wrote a story that translates well to the screen; humans have a fascination with the unruly sea, that which can giveth life but also taketh. The ocean is often the setting for panacea, spreading hope like miasma, even to the darkest corners and especially for the darkest souls. Kipling’s story extends its reach to that of a child, young Harvey Cheyne, for whom wealth has clouded an imagination and turned a typically joyful time in a person’s life spoiled, spiteful and shrewd. As a character study, Captains Courageous provides a wealth of archetypes that interact: young Cheyne and his wealthy but distant father, Spencer Tracy’s slightly-overacted-but-nevertheless-earnest Manuel, seaworthy Captain Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore), et cetera. But the movie still feels told-before in a way, and as a consequence, dull.


Perhaps through jaded-colored glasses, this story has been told many times since and can no longer be differentiated from the countless iterations in the 80 or so years since. This is, of course, quite a subjective response dependent on the fact that The Academy Nominees Project exists with a close circle of friends almost guaranteeing we’ve seen everything (not literally). So while this pieces change, the story remains and those versed in storytelling notice a rehashing of tropes as a “teaching” moment, a resolution somewhat guaranteed, that’s incomparable to real life situations. It’s escapism at it’s finest because Captains Courageous is well-made and well-meaning. But escapism is unsustainable. Its counterfactual is weariness, to be surfeit with time and life experience.  Continue reading

[1936] San Francisco

I have a funny feeling that many if not all of the films from the 1930s will follow a similar pattern: a type-cast and suave leading man will confront himself and his peers in pursuit of a beautiful woman or a lofty dream – two sides of the same coin, if you will.

This man will have conflicts, both internal and external. He will be a rapscallion, but will show sensitive tendencies. His supporting cast of friends, acquaintances, enemies, nemeses, lovers and extras each will bring out a certain quality in him to move some semblance, or in the best cases, a very clear plot along from Point A to Point B and sometimes to point C or D. There will be a series of obstacles, some grand in nature, a few subtle, for this flawed hero to overcome to achieve his goal.

Nineteen thirty six’s San Francisco fits this mold with some minor edges. For this iteration, Clark Gable in pre-Gone With The Wind form pairs with Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt to form a lovers’ tango in 1905 San Francisco. The plot plays out thusly: MacDonald whisks into the Bay Area as a simple pastor’s daughter, Mary Blake, with a magical voice looking for work as an entertainer of sorts. After little to no luck for several weeks, Blake stumbles into Gable’s saloon/cabaret/bar The Paradise Club, where said club’s proprietor, Gable as “Blackie” Norton, hires her on the spot, because, see, Norton is a natural talent scout and an everyman’s man with an infallible “code.” The movie does a particularly good job in painting two of its leads within the first interaction: Continue reading

[1961] Judgement at Nuremberg

Maximilian Schell took home the “Best Actor” award this year (1961) for his performance as a bombastic and highly nationalistic defense attorney, Hans Rolfe, in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement At Nuremberg. Tasked with defending a prominent judge charged with crimes against humanity, Schell (as Herr Rolfe) argues an impassioned defense wrought with big, humanitarian questions: who bears responsibility when charged with direct orders? Is it ever just to defy international and humanitarian law to protect national interest or to prolong self-survival?

The backdrop to explore these issues in Judgement and Nuremberg is the Nazi conflict draped by World War II. Sixteen years after the surrender of the German forces in Europe, the atrocities still fresh in the minds of anyone with a pulse, Kramer decides to tackle the Big Issues in a courtroom drama starring not only the aforementioned Schell, but also a wizened Spencer Tracy as a wise elder statesman, Dan Hayward, and a brazen Burt Lancaster as indicted Nazi judge, Ernst Janning. The cast does a supreme job showing the story, with perhaps a touch of overacting to do the bloated script a semblance of justice.

Abby Mann – an American – adapted his own dramatic screenplay of Judgement and Nuremberg for the screen, and at over three hours, it’s hard to imagine that all 186 minutes are necessary. But remember the scope of this narrative: we, as an audience, are asked to follow along with the Big Issues through the lens of ideologues in Tracy’s adjudicator and Schell’s defense attorney; we are asked to question the notion that Nazis were Nazis were Nazis. That is, within the scope of a mere three hours, we are asked to reevaluate our revisionist history of the Third Reich and come up with an impossible verdict. Three hours! All while the story is half-heartedly developing a benign relationship between Marlene Dietrich’s Frau Bertholt and Judge Hayward asking us to examine “correctness” in sterilizing the feeble-minded. Three hours is quite short to develop opinions on these matters. Continue reading