Category Archives: Oscar Month

Oscar Month: You Can’t Take It With You

By Tom Kapr

As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

A few weeks ago, I lambasted a beloved Frank Capra film, so it seems only fair I publish a review of You Can’t Take It With You to restore balance to the force. Much less groan-inducingly outdated or desperately sincere than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take It With You may be Capra’s best film.

Written by Robert Riskin (who also wrote the screenplay for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) based upon the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, You Can’t Take It With You is a story about two families. The Vanderhof/Sycamore family are a middle-class bunch of eccentrics, much loved by their neighbors. The Kirby family are affluent bankers; they aren’t much liked by the neighborhood, and their plans to tear down the old neighborhood for the bakers’ profit don’t make things any better. Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) works as secretary to Tony Kirby (James Stewart), who falls in love with her, setting their extremely diametric families on a collision course. Subversive enough to keep from being maudlin and emotionally grounded enough to keep from being overly wacky, the film is both a heartfelt drama and one of the funniest romantic comedies I’ve ever seen. I laughed out loud several times, which I don’t usually do when I watch a film alone.

Jean Arthur and James Stewart have wonderful chemistry, which would come in handy a few years later when they again would co-star together in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Everybody in the cast is pitch-perfect: Spring Byington and Samuel S. Hinds as Alice’s childlike parents; a young and beautiful pre-fame Ann Miller as their second daughter who is (what else) an aspiring dancer; Mischa Auer as her very Russian dance instructor, who stops by as often for dinner as for dance lessons; Donald Meek as a bank teller and fledgling toymaker; Mary Forbes as Tony’s uppity ice queen of a mother. However, veteran actors Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold are the real stand-outs as the patriarchs of the Vanderhof and Kirby families, respectively. Barrymore especially carries the film, but as the two families slowly converge on each other, Arnold becomes just as much of an on-screen presence. Their scenes together are magnificent.

If I have one quibble about this film or its casting, it regards Lillian Yarbo and Eddie Anderson. A couple of African-American actors, Yarbo of course plays the Vanderhofs’ maid. (Anderson plays her fiancé.) Nobody in the family ever looks down on either of the two, and it is apparent that their characters have a deep affection for this eccentric family and vice versa; and Anderson’s character waits on the family not out of obligation to them but because he loves his fiancée. Taking everything into consideration, there is nothing really egregious about their place in the film; still, it is racial stereotyping, a product of a time when blacks were still seen as inferior to whites, when black characters in films were almost always in a position of servitude toward whites. Yarbo and Anderson’s characters seem as much a part of this eccentric family as any other member of the ragtag household, but still, they’re a black couple serving a white family. Regadrless, I do love this film, and both Yarbo and Anderson are as much a reason as any of the rest of the supporting players.

You Can’t Take It With You was honored by the Academy as Best Picture of 1938, as was Frank Capra as Best Director. Whether or not it deserves it is up for debate, considering it was up against such heavy hitters as the Errol Flynn swashbuckler (and another favorite of mine) The Adventures of Robin Hood, Jean Renoir’s war classic Le grande illusion, and the film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. But it was certainly much more deserving of its honors than was Mr. Deeds two years earlier.

Spring Byington received a nomination for her supporting role, which is good, though I’m surprised neither Lionel Barrymore nor Edward Albert were nominated for their roles. The film’s four other nominations were for Joseph Walker’s cinematography, Gene Havlick’s film editing, John P. Livadary’s sound recording, and Riskin’s wonderful screenplay, which lost to Pygmalion.

Learn more about You Can’t Take It With You at the Internet Movie Database.

Oscar Month: The Red Balloon

By Tom Kapr

As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)

Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) (1956)

The Red Balloon is one of the stranger winners in Academy Awards history, and the strangeness is three-fold. In 1957, it won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar over Robert Lewin’s war drama The Bold and the Brave, Andrew L. Stone’s thriller Julie, Federico Fellini & Tullio Pinelli’s highly regarded La Strada, and William Rose’s dark comedy The Ladykillers. Here’s the first part of the strangeness: there is almost no dialogue in The Red Balloon, which is strange not in regards to its worthiness (for a screenplay is much more than just characters saying things, and The Red Balloon has a beautiful structure) but as a rare distinction in the history of the category. The second part of the strangeness regards why it was even considered for this category, again not because its screenplay is unworthy, but because the film is only about half an hour long, making it a short film and not a feature; and I would be surprised if this distinction was not just a rare one, but a unique one. However, it is the third part of the strangeness that is the strangest of all, for The Red Balloon was not nominated in the short film category. Yes, this short film, perhaps the only short film in the history of the awards to be nominated outside the short film category, was not nominated in the short film category. I, for one, would certainly love to hear the Academy’s explanation for that anomaly of anomalies.

My recent viewing of this film on Turner Classic Movies was my third experience with The Red Balloon. I had seen it as a child. The only impression I had of it from all those years ago was that it was boring and foreign (being a French film). My second experience happened in college when my Fine Arts professor showed it to us during class one morning. It didn’t make much of an impression on me then either, but I’m sure the atmosphere created by my snickering classmates didn’t help. (I admit there may have been some snickering on my part too, though it is more likely I used it as an opportunity to catch some Z’s.)

This third encounter finally cemented the film in my consciousness, and it turns out The Red Balloon is a beautiful, whimsical, sad yet ultimately uplifting film. (If you watch the film, you’ll discover how paronomastic it is for me to say that, yet I mean it sincerely.) The plot is simple: a boy (played by Pascal Lamorisse, son of the film’s writer/director Albert Lamorisse) finds a red balloon, which he takes with him to school and then home, where the balloon is unceremoniously tossed out the window by the boy’s guardian. (I get the impression these people “caring” for the boy are not his parents.) But instead of rising up and up into the sky, the balloon hovers around outside until the boy sees it and lets it back in. For the rest of the film, the balloon follows the boy around, while we quickly learn that this balloon is the first friend the boy has ever had. His classmates are bullies, as are the adults in his life, and the now-sentient balloon takes delight in teasing them, even psychologically tormenting his principal after the man locks the boy away as punishment for the disruption the balloon causes at school.

Spoiler alert

The ending is a tragically beautiful display of love as the boy heroically tries to save the balloon from the neighborhood gang of boys who want to pop it, and then as the balloon gives its life because it refuses to abandon the boy. It is one of the most agonizing death scenes in all of cinema, the death of the Red Balloon. It put me in mind of how I felt when Wilson the volleyball was lost at sea in Cast Away. I cried when I saw that scene at the theater, with Tom Hanks’ pitiful cries of remorse as he watches the only friend he’s known for the past four years float away into oblivion. That scene is deeply emotional because we, the audience, have projected humanity onto this inanimate object right along with Tom Hanks’ character in the film. Wilson, however, was just a volleyball. The Red Balloon has life, has thought, has emotion, and is as much a main character as the boy himself. It’s a heartbreaking scene that thankfully ends on a happier note as all the balloons in Paris suddenly flock to the boy and lift him above the city and away from all this misery and loneliness.

I highly recommend you take a half-hour and watch this film. It is available for streaming on Netflix. Or, you could even watch it here.

Learn more about The Red Balloon at the Internet Movie Database.

Oscar Month: The 1955 Academy Awards

By Tom Kapr

As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)

Having seen eight of the films from 1954 that received Academy Award nominations, I thought I would take a look at all of them in the various categories in which they appeared. I begin with the film I saw this week for the first time, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, directed by Stanley Donen of Singin’ in the Rain fame.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was nominated for five Academy Awards in 1955. Its only win was a two-fer: Adolph Deutsch and Saul Chaplin took home Oscars in the category of “Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.” This award, as well as its nominations for “Best Cinematography, Color” and “Best Film Editing,” are the three of the five categories in which Seven Brides seems deserving. Although, there is a peculiarity about the win.

Seven Brides won the Best Musical Score Oscar over A Star Is Born (now generally considered the superior film), but it was conspicuously absent from the “Original Song” category, for which composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Ira Gershwin were nominated for their song “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born. In other words, there have always been certain inexplicable Oscar nomination anomalies–and I’ve just invented a new tongue-twister. (This category also gave White Christmas its sole nomination for Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”)

Seven Brides‘ other two nominations were for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, neither of which it deserved. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one of those films that I am constantly asked if I have seen. I finally have seen it, so I finally can say yes; but now, I foretell that when I say yes I am in for a debate. I cannot fathom this film’s popularity, especially over half a century later. It might more accurately have been titled Seven Kidnapping Victims Who Develop Stockholm Syndrome Over a Long Winter of Being Held Hostage in the Mountains by Seven Brothers. And that doesn’t even describe this film’s most bizarre and disturbing plot development, which occurs during the final scene. Women like this movie?

The film does have merits, going back to its three deserving nominations: the music is great, the cinematography is beautiful, and the editing is impeccable. It also has one of the most fun, entertaining, and well-choreographed dance scenes in musical history–when the seven brothers (the colorful shirts in the still below) go into town for the barn-raising festivities and use fancy footwork to vie for the affections of the young ladies of the town.

The phenomenal dance scene from "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," before the film's sanity begins to deteriorate.

As a whole, the film doesn’t hold up. Even its popularity from its own time in the 50′s is a little surprising. It’s far too simplistic (I’ll even go so far as to say sexist) to deserve any nominations for writing or Best Picture. But then it seems musicals used to get away with that sort of thing quite often.

I could have shown a picture of the apartment complex set from "Rear Window." Instead, here's a largely irrelevant shot of the film's star Grace Kelly. You're welcome.

Seven Brides‘ spot in the Best Picture nominations should have gone to Rear Window, which was nominated for Hitchcock’s directing, John Michael Hayes’ screenplay, and Robert Burks’ cinematography, but, in one of Oscar history’s most glaring omissions, not as one of the best films of the year. (Rear Window was also strangely absent from the art/set direction category, despite featuring one of the most memorable, unique sets ever built–the apartment complex and courtyard as seen from James Stewart’s character’s window.) Rear Window is my personal favorite from 1954, and I’m shocked it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, but at least the film that did win for Best Picture that year was entirely deserving of the honor. That would be On the Waterfront.

Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando have electrifying chemistry in "On the Waterfront."

On the Waterfront was nominated in 12 categories and deserved every one. All five of its foremost actors (Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger) were nominated, which must be a record (but don’t quote me on that). Brando and Saint took the gold, and for my money, if those two had won solely on the basis of their make-out scene, I’d say they deserved it, because it may be the best kiss in all of cinema. (Just thought I’d throw that in there.)

Waterfront also took home awards for Richard Day’s art/set direction, Boris Kaufman’s cinematography, Gene Milford’s editing, Budd Schulberg’s writing, and Elia Kazan’s directing. Leonard Bernstein was nominated for his dramatic musical score but lost to Dimitri Tiomkin for The High and the Mighty. (There were two separate music scoring categories in 1955: “Best Music, Scoring of a Musical PIcture” and “Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.” Musicals were so popular, they essentially had their own category.)

Other favorites of mine that were classy contenders at the Academy Awards in 1955 were the Edward Dmytryk-directed The Caine Mutiny, which was nominated in seven categories including Best Picture and Best Actor for Humphrey Bogart (his third and final nomination after 1942′s Casablanca and 1951′s The African Queen, for which he won); Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which won for its art/set direction and its visual effects; the post-nuclear horror film Them!, whose giant killer ants lost in the visual effects category to 20,000 Leagues‘ giant killer squid; and the Friz Freleng-directed Sylvester-and-Tweety short Sandy Claws, which lost in the animated short category to Mr. Magoo.

(Learn more about these films and the 1955 Academy Awards at the Internet Movie Database.)

Oscar Month: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

By Tom Kapr

As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)

Is that really supposed to look like Gary Cooper?

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

It is difficult to assess a film when seeing it for the first time nearly 75 years after its release. Having acknowledged that critical caveat, I will now say that some films can knock my socks off no matter how long after their release I see them. Metropolis (1927) is one of the those films. Even in its unfinished form, Metropolis is still an edgy sci-fi film. Buster Keaton’s The General (1927) is one of those films. It makes most modern action-comedies look amateurish. Stagecoach (1939) is one of those films, containing what is still possibly the single greatest stunt sequence in cinema history and paving the way for every Western and every chase scene in every action film after it.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is not one of those films.

Oh, it’s a decent enough film, and I’m glad I watched it, but this is one that has not stood the test of time. Everything about it is overly simplistic, from the dialogue to the characterizations to the plot. Nothing about it stands out. Nothing about it is all that memorable. It dealt with some social commentary that I appreciated–the plight of struggling, starving farmer families, the responsibility of the financially affluent to help their fellow man–but that was handled in an overly simplistic manner as well.

Raymond Walburn was the Stephen Fry of his time.

Mr. Deeds is weak especially compared to other favorite Frank Capra films of mine, like Meet John Doe, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington–all of which suffer a bit from Capra’s penchant for sentimentalization, and some of which also have simplistic shortcomings, but all of which create memorable characters in memorable scenarios saying memorable things.

Mr. Deeds won the Academy Award in 1937 for Capra’s directing, but surely there must have been a better contender. I have to admit that this may be the first film of 1936 I’ve actually watched, so I can’t compare it to the other films released that year. The other four nominations it received were Best Sound Recording (really difficult to judge after 75 years), Best Writing (for which I’m surprised it was nominated), Best Picture (which it lost to The Great Ziegfeld amongst eight other nominated films), and Best Actor.

Best Actor. I love Gary Cooper, but this was not one of his finest performances. His character of Longfellow Deeds is supposed to be a simple small-town man, almost childlike but with good common sense, who gets taken for a chump by nearly everyone he meets when he inherits his uncle’s $20 million estate and has to move to New York City. But Deeds comes off far too childlike in some scenes. Cooper has played this type in other better films, like Meet John Doe and Sergeant York, but even in Sergeant York I found his characterization cloying at times. Just a bit too “aw shucks ma’am.” Here that “aw shucks” attitude is amplified to the point of annoyance. Did he deserve a nomination for his performance? He’s not bad–well, in a handful of scenes, it’s pretty bad. I suspect he was nominated for being a popular actor in a popular role.

Gary Cooper literally blows in this film.

As for Cooper’s co-star, Jean Arthur, she’s playing almost the exact same character she would play a few years later in Capra’s own Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s kind of a thankless character, a fiercely independent professional woman who realizes what a nice guy Deeds/Smith is and reforms her worldview. It’s also basically the same character Barbara Stanwyck played in Capra’s Meet John Doe–though Stanwyck nailed that role in a way Jean Arthur couldn’t. Meet John Doe made me fall in love with Barbara Stanwyck. Jean Arthur–she’s pretty good in Mr. Smith, for what the role needed. She’s pretty forgettable in Mr. Deeds.

If I sound cynical, I don’t mean to be. But some films just don’t age well. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington suffers from this same problem, but at least Mr. Smith had that wonderful climactic Senate filibuster scene. Mr. Deeds ends in a courtroom where Deeds is being tried for insanity, and the villains are villainous, and Deeds is self-effacingly heroic, and everything just wraps up a little too nice and neat and quick. It all seems a bit silly through the 2011 lens.

All these criticisms aside, it’s still a pleasant two-hour diversion. But if you’re looking for something more substantial–or if you’re looking for immortal cinema–Mr. Deeds Goes to Town just doesn’t hold up.

Oscar Month: A Man for All Seasons

By Tom Kapr

As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

In 1535, Sir Thomas More was convicted of treason for not supporting King Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church over divorce laws and beheaded at the Tower of London. 437 years later, six people won Academy Awards. Ain’t causality grand? It’s a strange thought that someday, maybe hundreds of years from now, someone could have the greatest moment of his or her life because he or she wrote a screenplay based on a political assassination attempt at a supermarket in Arizona or directed a film about 3,000 people dying en masse on a September morning in Manhattan. Every tragic outcome for one life eventually leads to good fortune for another.

I’ll conclude my philosophizing there. I do not bemoan the fact that without the martyrdom of Thomas More we would never have been blessed with playwright Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. What joy in life would we have if looked at every blessing in terms of the tragedy that paved its way? (So, apparently I won’t conclude my philosophizing there.) Bolt justly won the Academy Award for his adaptation of his own play.

Director of photography Ted Moore won for his gorgeous cinematography of the English countryside and the Tudor-period architecture, though there were no nominations for John Box or Terence Marsh and their beautiful production design and art direction. Also overlooked for a nomination was Georges Delerue’s musical score, which I enjoyed despite this being a 60′s film. (So many period films of the 1960′s employ an overbearing musical style that assaults the eardrums, whereas Delerue’s score is beautifully restrained.) Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge won for their painstaking costume design. Wendy Hiller (as More’s long-suffering wife Alice) and the great Robert Shaw (as Henry VIII) were nominated for their supporting performances but did not take home the Oscars.

"Who needs an Oscar when I have such mirth!"

Taking home the Oscar for what must be one of the all-time great cinematic performances by an actor was Paul Scofield, who, against studio standards of the time, was not a Hollywood star but originated the role of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s Broadway play. (Also reprising his stage role was Leo McKern as the scheming Chancellor Thomas Cromwell.) Scofield’s ability to play More with such a sense of intelligent restraint and then suddenly raise his voice to emphasize his point without seeming to lose his cool is a testament to the abilities of one of the all-time great Royal Shakespearean actors. (Scofield was actually absent from the Academy Awards ceremony; his on-screen wife and fellow nominee Wendy Hiller accepted the award on his behalf–so at least she was able to carry someone’s Oscar off the stage that night.)

The lovely Susannah York (1939-2011).

Scofield's Thomas More faces his accusers.

Rounding out the superb cast, but not registering enough to warrant nominations, were a young John Hurt as the amusingly named soon-to-be-chancellor Richard Rich; Nigel Davenport as the Duke of Norfolk (also named Thomas–lots of Thomases in this story); the beautiful Susannah York, who just passed away on January 15, as More’s independently minded but loyal daughter Margaret; the great Orson Welles in a brief but memorable appearance as the Cardinal Wolsey; and both Corin Redgrave and, in what is essentially a cameo, his better-known sister Vanessa, who apparently has always done that weird thing with her lips.

Finally, winning two Oscars that night in April of 1967 for his successfully unorthodox efforts as producer and masterful director, was Fred Zinneman. Zinneman has now become one of my favorite directors. This film, The Day of the Jackal (1973), and High Noon (1952) are three of the best films I have ever seen, and I cannot wait to see more of his work (which includes, in a sad, high position on my List of Shame, 1953′s Best Picture-winner From Here to Eternity). Zinneman’s Man for All Seasons is a 1960′s period piece that does not feel in the least bit stagey (as many do), but rather natural and authentic. His direction and Bolt’s writing present a film largely about spiritual integrity that takes a decidedly moral stand without devolving into preachiness but still manages to have some of the most rousing dialogue ever written. It challenges my conceptions about the dogmatic aspects of Christianity in its historical context and also challenges, assuredly for the better, my own personal Christian convictions.

I love Zinneman’s attitude toward filmmaking–he was going to make the movie he wanted to make, studio conventions be damned. Were he a less resolute director, we might never have had the nearly real-time tension-building of High Noon; nor the antagonist-as-protagonist narrative structure of the equally tense The Day of the Jackal; nor the pitch-perfect “star”-less cast of this amazing, challenging film, A Man for All Seasons.

(Learn more about A Man for All Seasons at the IMDb.)