CITIZEN KANE (Orson Welles)
Probably the most remarkable thing about this film (and there are many) is that to this day it still belongs indisputably on the list of one of the greatest films ever made. The backstory of its creation is every bit as involving and I urge anyone to explore it, particularly the documentary, THE BATTLE OVER CITIZEN KANE (1998). But if CITIZEN KANE could possibly be seen in a vacuum, without any knowledge of the peripheral facts of its creation, it would still be stunning.
Yes, cinema is a collaborative art form. And yes, Herman J. Manckiewicz contributed enormously (and Oscar-winningly) to the co-authorship of the screenplay. And yes, Greg Toland was the perfect cinematographer for the playful and adventurous first-time director. But at the end of the day, it is the boy genius Orson Welles (then a wizened 25 yrs old) that deserves the pedestal on which he’s been put by countless others before me. CITIZEN KANE has become a catch-phrase as a unit of measure for excellence for all kinds of art works. And it still remains the “CITIZEN KANE” of cinema.
There is little that I could add to all that has been said about the film. But I can say that Welles’ genius did not just begin to show itself with this, his maiden voyage into cinema. For four years previously, Welles had been elevating the art of radio drama. From his 1937 adaptation of Les Miserables through his Mercury Theatre on the Air productions, he set standards that no-one else was able to equal. Through innovation and a deep and natural love of storytelling, Welles was pushing boundaries. It is no surprise that movies were the next step. Along for the ride were so many of the Mercury players, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins among them. And then there was Bernard Herrmann. With CITIZEN KANE, Herrmann began his journey to become one of the finest film composers the cinema has ever known.
Having seen CITIZEN KANE so many times, it has become like an old friend. Each time I see it, I am delighted to renew the memory of having known a good thing when I saw it as a teenager. And to be assured in the belief that I still do.
THE LADY EVE (Preston Sturges)
“You’re a funny girl for anybody to meet who’s just been up the Amazon for a year.”
In the early 40’s, the unstoppable Preston Sturges was writing and directing two movies a year, each one fully and beautifully realized. This one was no exception. The first 30 minutes are among the funniest, wittiest ever filmed.
THE LITTLE FOXES (William Wyler)
A simply stunning adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play, written by Hellman herself. Much of the cast reprised their Broadway roles with the notable exception of Bette Davis, replacing Tallulah Bankhead who was none too pleased about it. Davis is suberb, as is everyone in this riveting drama. And has a more intelligent director ever walked the planet than William Wyler? THE LITTLE FOXES is a master class in how to make a goddamn movie. Everything from composition and camera placement to setting the right tone for the actors is perfection itself. But none of this could be accomplished without Wyler’s obvious understanding of the play. The psychological tremors threatening to erupt within the placid facade of the Hubbard family are masterfully handled. They are allowed to be revealed through the actions of the actors in a way that only a director who gets it could do.
THE MALTESE FALCON (John Huston)
The perfect private eye movie, it elevated John Huston to the top of the director ranks his first time out. And it finally made a star out of Humphrey Bogart. Even though it had been filmed twice before within a decade, this adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel became the only one that really mattered.
BALL OF FIRE (Howard Hawks)
Wow! What a year everyone here was having! This little beauty came out at the end of 1941 (five days before Pearl Harbor). It was star Gary Cooper’s 3rd film that year, and co-star Barbara Stanwyck’s 4th! In that year, Stanwyck and Cooper had been in Capra’s MEET JOHN DOE together, while they had each been in THE LADY EVE and SERGEANT YORK, respectively. Cooper went on to win the Best Actor Oscar for SERGEANT YORK, directed by Howard Hawks who would join them here for BALL OF FIRE. (Stanwyck would be nominated for BALL OF FIRE). Whew!!
And the credits don’t stop there! Master cinematographer Greg Toland was having a good year, too. He had lensed Wyler’s THE LITTLE FOXES and Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (for which he was nominated). His deep focus and Stanwyck’s shiny dress can’t be forgotten! And what a year screenwriter Billy Wilder was having! Already HOLD BACK THE DAWN had been released, co-written with Charles Brackett, and elevating him into the director’s chair at Paramount. Both scripts are pure Wilder and he was deservedly awarded with nominations for both! (Screenplay for HBTD and Best Story for BALL OF FIRE). Pulling it all off with his sure and steady hand was the great and versatile Howard Hawks. What confidence a writer must have had when he learned that Hawks would be guiding his baby to the screen! Hawks knew comedy like he knew every other genre. Lesser talents would look at a Hawks film and say “Great! I’ll do it like that”. They never could.
HOLD BACK THE DAWN (Mitchell Leisen)
Like Sturges before him, Billy Wilder first established himself in Hollywood as a master screenwriter at Paramount. With partner Charles Brackett, this was his last and best before graduating to the Director’s chair. Charles Boyer is the womanizing scoundrel who woos schoolteacher Olivia De Havilland into marriage in order to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. Not everything goes as planned. Isn’t that just the way it is with movies?
LADIES IN RETIREMENT (Charles Vidor)
A deliciously dark melodrama adapted from the Broadway play. Full of wry humor and superbly acted by a cast led by Ida Lupino (at only 23, playing a woman much older). Elsa Lanchester is delightful. Production design is a standout, considering that almost the entire action takes place in a handsomely furnished home on the English Moors in the late 19th century. A true find for the discriminating movie lover.
THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (Josef Von Sternberg)
After his string of masterpieces with Marlene Dietrich in the early 30’s, Von Sternberg struck with a vengeance with this underrated classic. All of Sternberg’s delicious humor is employed in this intricately woven tale of intrigue and ambition. The place is Shanghai, and the world is ready to bust wide open. It is a melting pot, a confluence of Europe and Asia, and pleasure is still the main pursuit among the rich and adventurous. Everyone is a player and everyone is given equal weight in Von Sternberg’s grand tapestry. Supporting players, including recent emigre Marcel Dalio abound. Even the extras are given their own credit for the essential work they do. The casting is marvelous with both Gene Tierney and Victor Mature in atypical roles. Ona Munson has the role of her career as “Mother” Gin Sling. There is an abundance of one-liners from writer Von Sternberg and his cohort Jules Furthman. THE SHANGHAI GESTURE is a beautiful example of Von Sternberg’s tribute to human destiny, with all its passion and folly.
SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Preston Sturges)
Preston Sturges was on a major roll when he rolled out this classic, wherein Joel McCrea is a movie director wanting to go high-brow. Tired of making studio fodder like “Ants in Your Plants of 1939”, he wants to make relevant pictures, instead. You know, pictures about bigger things, important things……message pictures. He’s got a project called “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, but the studio isn’t buying it.
So our hero decides to do a little research (incognito) in the “real world”, something he knows little about. He hits the road, finds a delightful companion, and there we have our movie. Another example of Sturges’ unprecedented (and unequaled) string of cinematic gems. The Cohen Brothers referenced this classic of course, with their own O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU (2000).