Category Archives: 1940

Vigil in the Night (1940, George Stevens)

Vigil in the Night is supreme melodrama. I mean, in its first ten minutes, the film manages to establish a small English town’s hospital, introduce stoic nurse Carole Lombard and her flighty sister Anne Shirley, throw them into tragedy and crisis, and kick Lombard into an entirely new setting. Vigil in the Night is an interesting melodrama in how Lombard’s not a suffering martyr, she’s a rejoicing one. It’s kind of iffy as far as character development goes, but Lombard plays saint perfectly.

She has a lot of help from director Stevens, who starts the film showing off a combination of miniature and ornate set. The camera just moves too. Robert De Grasse’s photography is effortlessly smooth. The camera moves around that small town hospital so much and so fluidly, it’s impossible to believe the film’s ever going to leave. When it does, it creates a fine jarring effect to accompany Lombard’s new position.

Steven’s style changes a little. He’s much gentler. He and De Grasse concentrate on holding shots, making Henry Berman’s editing do some of the work. Alfred Newman’s music gets more annoying–he has this one theme he uses over and over again and it sounds like a theme from Franz Waxman’s Bride of Frankenstein, which made it disconcerting for me, but also overbearing for the film. Stevens pushes on the melodrama boundaries and nearly breaks through in the second half, but he always relieves the genre pressure–read: retreats into genre–and he relies on Newman’s music to pull things back. Newman’s music blows the potential of some great shots, some great moments in performances.

Because, in melodrama, Stevens and his screenwriters and the film in general can get away with making Lombard the martyr. She doesn’t need to have a character as much as reject having one. She can become holy without too much trouble. Making her an actual character–she has less personality than everyone in the film–in a film about nurses suffering through terrible conditions for their patients, horny rich men after them, mercenary wealthy women exploiting them, the concepts of sibling responsibility and accountability, guilt, regret, loneliness, sacrifice. Well, it’d be a lot to do in ninety-six minutes and you’re not going to get the right tears or comeuppance. Stevens isn’t reinventing the wheel, he’s delivering an excellent melodrama.

Lombard’s good in the lead. She doesn’t actually have to do much. Anytime some earthly tragedy befalls her, just before she has to actually react, the film turns her into an angel. Stevens and De Grasse’s evolution of Lombard’s close-ups in Vigil probably warrant some better attention, just in terms of how subtly and gradually Stevens changes the viewer’s understanding of the character. Somewhere in the third act, I realized Lombard wasn’t the protagonist anymore–she was the film’s grounded center, while things ran wild around her.

Anne Shirley’s the most significant wild running thing. She’s the troublesome, callow, well-meaning sister. She’s Lombard’s sacrifice, but she’s actually got the film’s most developed character. It’s melodrama. The more drama a character has, the more development they have too. She’s good. She gets better as the film goes along and she succeeds in the role. It’s an unlikable part and Vigil has a somewhat peculiar structure. Stevens doesn’t worry about narrative transition, so Shirley will drop out of the film then have to come back and play catch up.

Brian Aherne’s solid as Lombard’s love interest. Ethel Griffies is awesome as the matron. Julien Mitchell’s a suitable toad of a horny rich man. Brenda Forbes and Rita Page are fun as Lombard’s sidekicks. Peter Cushing’s kind of disappointing.

Vigil in the Night does a bunch in ninety-six minutes. Stevens’s pacing of the film is exceptional. Lombard’s an awesome lead. The Newman music does hurt it. A better score might’ve done wonders. It’s an ideal melodrama.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Fred Guiol, P.J. Wolfson, and Rowland Leigh, based on the novel by A.J. Cronin; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman; music by Alfred Newman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Carole Lombard (Anne Lee), Brian Aherne (Dr. Robert S. Prescott), Anne Shirley (Lucy Lee), Julien Mitchell (Matthew Bowley), Brenda Forbes (Nora Dunn), Rita Page (Glennie), Peter Cushing (Joe Shand), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Martha Bowley), Emily Fitzroy (Sister Gilson), Helena Grant (Nurse Gregg), and Ethel Griffies (Matron East).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE CAROLE LOMBARD: THE PROFANE ANGEL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD and PHYL OF PHYLLIS LOVES CLASSIC MOVIES.


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The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)

The Grapes of Wrath starts in a darkened neverland. Director Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland create a realer than real Oklahoma for protagonist Henry Fonda to journey across. The locations and sets aren’t as important as how Fonda (and the audience) experience it. It’s actually rather hostile for this beginning. It’s all about Fonda getting settled, not the viewer.

Even though Fonda is the protagonist throughout and the whole show for the first twenty minutes–with John Carradine along to keep him company–Grapes is about Fonda’s family, specifically his relationship with his parents–Jane Darwell’s mom, Russell Simpson is dad.

Slowly–after Fonda does find his family–director Ford broadens the film’s focus. There’re just too many people to stick with him and get the story right. Later, as the third act approaches then arrives, Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson bring the spotlight back to Fonda but gradually fill out even more of the surrounding situations. It’s a wonderful balance.

Fonda and Darwell get the showiest parts–well, except for Carradine who gets even showier–and all three do great work. Ford knows how to shoot them too, with he and Toland going almost for scares at times. For Darwell, Ford occasionally shoots the film like a silent. He’s carefully, brilliantly, all over the place.

Everything about Grapes–directing, photography, editing, writing, acting–is a singular achievement on its own. Each vingette-like scene works perfectly. Put them all together and Grapes of Wrath is a relentless, devastating odyssey.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by John Steinbeck; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Alfred Newman; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), Jane Darwell (Ma Joad), Charley Grapewin (Grandpa), Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn), John Carradine (Jim Casy), Russell Simpson (Pa Joad), O.Z. Whitehead (Al), John Qualen (Muley Bates), Eddie Quillan (Connie) and Zeffie Tilbury (Grandma).


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The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch)

The Shop Around the Corner has a lot going on in a limited space. It’s not particularly long–under 100 minutes–and it mostly takes place in (or outside) the titular shop. And, while the present action is about six and a half months (there’s a big jump), the back story defines a lot of the characters and backstory.

It also requires the viewer pay a lot of attention to the details in dialogue. Samson Raphaelson’s script–adapted from a play, which accounts for the big jump in time (director Lubitsch beautifully turns act breaks and scene breaks into gentle resets for the viewer with fade outs)–always has a lot of talking and many of the details become important. It’s all so well-written and so well-performed, you get the important details because you don’t want to miss even disposable dialogue.

The film has two leads–James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. They start out equal, but Stewart gets more to do in the second half as his professional story arc (involving their boss, Frank Morgan) becomes very important. The Shop Around the Corner is a romantic comedy, but it’s also a film with a lot of seriousness. Not even the romantic stuff is always happy–or always hopeful. Lubitsch goes out of his way to create a world where dramatic turns can be negative (and inevitable).

The supporting performances are outstanding; Morgan, Felix Bressart and William Tracy are standouts.

Shop is simultaneously quietly and noisily brilliant. It’s wonderful.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, based on a play by Miklós László; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Werner R. Heymann; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Stewart (Alfred Kralik), Margaret Sullavan (Klara Novak), Frank Morgan (Hugo Matuschek), Felix Bressart (Pirovitch), William Tracy (Pepi Katona), Sara Haden (Flora), Inez Courtney (Ilona) and Joseph Schildkraut (Ferencz Vadas).


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British Intelligence (1940, Terry O. Morse)

It should be obvious British Intelligence is based on a play, so much of it takes place in a single house, but director Morse and screenwriter Lee Katz open it up enough it never does. Actually, even though it’s a low budget picture, their expansive approach even obscures the concentration around the one setting.

Intelligence is an early World War II propaganda picture; even though it’s set during World War I, all the ramblings from the Germans or against them are clearly about Hitler. Sometimes Morse can make it work, other times not.

Most of the film is Boris Karloff and Margaret Lindsay conspiring against the English. They’re German spies thrown together and mildly distrustful of each other–whenever Intelligence runs out of scenes, another double agent is revealed to perturb the plot a little.

Karloff is fantastic. Lindsay’s performance, however, is a wee broad. She concentrates on likable instead of believable and has conflicting chemistry with a couple male costars. Sure, Intelligence has to confuse to keep the viewer guessing but it shouldn’t be at the expense of an actor.

Almost no one else in the cast makes an impression. Bruce Lester pops up at the beginning and end to romance Lindsay–Intelligence even starts with him as the protagonist, the shift being a big reason it never feels like a play adaptation–and he’s weak. Holmes Herbert is good though.

Morse and his crew do all right considering they’re cutting in recycled war footage.

Intelligence‘s watchable but disposable.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Terry O. Morse; screenplay by Lee Katz, based on a play by Anthony Paul Kelly; director of photography, Sidney Hickox; edited by Thomas Pratt; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Bryan Foy; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Margaret Lindsay (Helene von Lorbeer), Boris Karloff (Valdar), Holmes Herbert (Arthur Bennett), Leonard Mudie (James Yeats), Bruce Lester (Frank Bennett), Lester Matthews (Henry Thompson), Winifred Harris (Mrs. Maude Bennett), Austin Fairman (George Bennett), Louise Brien (Miss Risdon) and Clarence Derwent (The milkman).


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