There’s something that all of you need to know about For Science. Perhaps you’ve already picked this up. This column — a new favorite among readers, I’m told — was born out of the need for two things. The first is a dedication to investigative journalism. This includes, of course, the consuming of several pounds of Chicken McNuggets while watching Morgan Spurlock eat himself stupid in Super Size Me. This first type of article is a lot of fun, as you get to watch myself or members of the FSR team do things that no human should ever do, all in the name of good journalism or well, science.
There is a second need that For Science fills, one which exists on a more personal level for yours truly. In the years that I have been writing about film, there is one common thread that has always bothered me — I haven’t seen enough movies. This doesn’t mean that I can’t write intelligently about them, or that I’m any less of a man (there are other reasons for that, I’m told). It simply means that I have some learnin’ to do. And every so often, For Science is the forum in which I will discuss those learnings. Of course, it will also mean that such learning will come with a marathon of movies, all watched in one day — an endurance test in its own right. It’s less about being able to endure though, and more about experiencing something new, coming to terms with the gaps in my cinematic knowledge, and sharing said experiences with all of you. You should know this kind of thing up front, especially with this week’s column.
With the Academy Awards right around the corner, I’ve had history on the brain. Ever since I bought my mom The History of Oscar in the 11th grade (she’s a lover of Hollywood’s big night), I’ve been curious about Best Picture winners. What made something the Best Picture of its particular year, and how has the criteria for such an award evolved over the years? In an effort to start this journey, I sat down this weekend with four best pics from an era long before my time, spanning from 1944 to 1957. They were all films that I had not previously seen, and I decided to watch them in chronological order. Below you will find my account of what I saw in these four very different, great films. In the interest of brevity, here are my brief, experience-focused reviews.
Going My Way (1944)
While I would have liked to have started with the film with the longest run time (the last film on this list), I certainly did start in the most upbeat way possible. In Leo McCarey’s seven-time Oscar winning musical, Bing Crosby plays Father Chuck O’Malley, a young, energetic priest who has been sent to a failing church to help it get back on its feet again. He meets resistance from the church’s elder pastor, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), who sees O’Malley’s methods as a little too out of the ordinary. But after seeing that these methods might help bring a community of Catholics together for ole’ St. Dominics, he begins to warm to the young whippersnapper.
There’s something very easy about the experience of Going My Way. Crosby is charismatic and full of life, be it in song or in interaction with one of the film’s many interesting side characters. And the musical elements are truly beautiful. Not to mention the great on-screen chemistry shared by Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. It’s a classic generational gap tale, one that we’ve seen a thousand times, made interesting through performance — I’ll be damned if Bing Crosby wasn’t magnetic. It’s just a delightful story, all the way to the tear-inducing end. Perhaps it was the emotional impact of such an ending that drove votes from the Academy. Perhaps it was that this film was simply so delightful. And late in World War II, people probably needed something to lift their spirits — a story of saving the old church and doing right by others, starring a dynamite baritone if there ever was one. As I mentioned, I couldn’t have started with a more delightful film.
Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948)
How did I go from something that makes me want to whistle and save homeless puppies to one of the most tragic, heavy stories of all-time? Perhaps I’m a closet sadist. We all know the story of Hamlet (one would assume): his father dies, his uncle moves in on his mom and the throne, he sees his father’s spirit who tells him that he was murdered, and he sets out to enact revenge. It all ends very tragically, I assure you. There are few stage tales more famous, perhaps there are none. And with Lawrence Olivier’s film — grittied in black and white and shot with a gracefully moving, ever-present camera (stunning for a film made in ’48) — we get the full effect of the stage. The storytelling is theatrical in every sense, from Ophelia’s oddly empty bedroom (where did she sleep, seriously?) to the booming melodrama in the voice of the title character. Hamlet was at times a real prick, and at others quite mopey, so it is a testament to great storytelling that we’re ultimately rooting for him when he takes up arms against Laertes (Terence Morgan).
What sticks out most to me about this film is that it’s incredibly difficult to take in, especially for a modern moviegoer. That’s not to say that it is boring or that I couldn’t follow the story. I had no problems there. It’s just a simple language barrier, similar to watching a film in another language. Old English — really fucking old English — is not something we’re used to, no matter how many Shakespearean Cliff’s Notes we read in college. As well, we see so few films these days that are so deeply rooted in the world of stage performance. Yet despite the roots in the stage, Olivier achieves to much with the movement of his camera. It is alive and present, a great early example of camera-as-character, something that has become very popular lately. It helps us — we the plebes who don’t follow the 340 words of dialog it takes to tell Hamlet to get over his sorrow — feel the emotional weight of his journey, and see the large, looming figures that he must face (his dad’s ghost, the new king, all those winding stairs). It’s a matter of perspective, and performance. A performance that, for Olivier, seems like a vanity experiment — everything about his direction highlights his own grande performance. But hey, the guy was a pretty good actor, I say we give him his moment.