All the King’s Men (1949)

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“If you yell ‘foul’ long enough, hard enough, and loud enough, people believe you.”  If I suspected Trump might have done some research while preparing for his run for president, I’d say that he watched this film as a primer.  And if I’d watched this film a few months earlier, I wouldn’t have cringed in recognition at every scene.

Willie Stark is an everyman who sees corruption in the political world around him and vows to run for office to stop it.  He fails, but attracts enough attention so that a vaguely Hugh Laurie-looking guy follows him around to write about his campaign.  Then he tries again, encouraged by more powerful figures using him to steal away votes from their favored candidate’s opponent.  Instead, he rallies the uneducated masses to join him in a populist upheaval and suddenly finds himself with more power than he’s ever had.

Obviously, he uses that power to improve humankind and champion important causes, right?   If you believe that, you probably voted for Bernie Sanders.

The funny thing is, without knowing much about this film, I initially believed Willie Stark to be more of a Bernie-type character.  He runs on a platform of improving the conditions of his fellow “hicks,” the local farmers and working class folks who don’t have a voice in government.  With that plan comes free medical care, free education, no tolls or taxes – and an end to rampant corruption.  Who exactly will pay for this grand vision with all of these social services and no taxes is a crucial question, but fortunately we don’t need to find out, because is as corrupt as they come!

That’s where the movie takes a turn from #FeeltheBern to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.  Willie surrounds himself with minions and Mafioso-style heavies primed to do his bidding, whether it’s a judge who ignores his son’s drunk driving incident or the mysterious death of a political rival.  It’s like looking into the future of America.

What happens when the public gets duped?  I understand this film (and the book it was based on) was written about Huey Long, a political figure from the 1930s.  As always, when I’m seeking wisdom in a post-apocalyptic world, I turn to Battlestar Galactica:  All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.  Leaders of any kind are at risk of the power going to their head, or of convincing people that they will do something and then do something else.  It happens in oligarchies and in democracies.  The question, left mostly unanswered in this film, is how much damage will be wreaked before the people realize their mistake and take measures to correct it?

 

Theme:  King

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  They say he’s an honest man

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Casablanca (1943)

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Casablanca is one of those films that I assume everybody except me has seen, because everybody seems to be able to quote it at will and everybody, even seventy-five years later, knows exactly who Humphrey Bogart is.  That’s probably not entirely true, but Casablanca is high on the list of iconic films that I thought I should watch before I die, simply because it’s so famous.

Surprisingly, this is a case where knowing just enough about a movie to anticipate the ending doesn’t ruin it, but actually kind of enhances the rest of it.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the only thing I knew about this movie was the end of it (spoiler, if that wasn’t obvious):  Bogie sends his lady friend off on an airplane in a form of self-sacrifice.  The thrill of it was going back to see how they got to that point, like learning a joke after you’ve heard the punchline.

One of the things I marvel at in these films from the forties, particularly the ones about the war is that they came out during the war, before they knew how it was going to end, and yet they already knew how monumental it was.  When I look at the world around us now, I wonder if we are living in similarly momentous times, and how we’ll come out of it.  So far I am not totally optimistic.

For those who aren’t already familiar with the film, here’s a brief summary:  Rick Blaine (Bogart) owns a bar in Casablanca, Morocco, which is a nebulous zone of “unoccupied France,” which seems to mean that officials from France and Germany wander through the city at will, along with refugees from various parts of Europe.  Everybody’s on their way somewhere safer, so long as they can get the appropriate paperwork.  Rick just happens to get his hands on the equivalent of a get out of jail free card that will get two people out of the country scot-free.  And then an old flame walks into his bar.

The character Victor Laszlo has escaped from a concentration camp and thus is highly sought after by the Nazi forces.  His only expressed affiliation is as a member of the underground French Resistance.  Though there were certainly other groups singled out by the Germans for concentration camps, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this guy was Jewish, which kinda makes me root for him more than Bogie.  Beat those Nazis!

I’m glad I saved this for later in the year.  It’s one of my favorite movies from the earliest decades of Oscar history, and makes the whole project seem more worthwhile.  I mean, let’s be real, I could have skipped the crappy films and just watched this one, but then I wouldn’t have had the context to judge it among its contemporaries.

 

Theme:  War & Doomed Romance

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  A hill of beans

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

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So, interesting factoid:  this movie beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture in its year.  I once tried to watch Citizen Kane and fell asleep almost immediately, but managed to make it all the way through this one, so apparently The Academy made the right choice.  Assuming, of course, that Best Picture is another term for Picture Least Likely to Knock Bridgie Unconscious.

You’ve got coal miners, childhood fights, unionization, breaking through ice in the middle of winter, slut-shaming, bedridden invalids, secret romance.  What more could you ask for?

The film starts with a voiceover by the character Huw, who appears in the film as the youngest boy in a large family of coal miners.  Huw laments the good ol’ days of his native Welsh town, back before the hills had grown dark with the soot of coal dust.  In a throwaway line that’s never later explained, Huw tells us he’s finally leaving his hometown forever, which might lead one to believe that the events of the movie might be the cause.  If so, you’d probably wonder why he waited until the age of 50 to finally depart.

Over the course of the film, we see the typical travails of childhood, but also the challenges of a family whose livelihood depends upon their earnings from coal mining.  When the owner decides to lower wages, the miners argue about forming a union, and a rift forms between the family patriarch and his sons.  Gradually, the older boys seek out better opportunities and emigrate to other parts of the world, until only the elderly father is left with little Huw.  Meanwhile, their sister gets pressured into marrying the mine owner’s obnoxious son instead of the more likeable parson.

Something about this film reminded me a bit of my friend Andrew’s novel about the waning years of a sparsely-populated Scottish island.  Both are stories of transition, from a time that appears simpler, or better, or maybe just preferable to somebody when compared to the present.  Or maybe it’s just nostalgia, wistfulness without judgement about today.  Huw recalls his days at the school in town, where his teacher belittles him and other kids beat him up, and even though they’re not great memories, there’s still a fondness in their recollection.

After watching so many films, it’s interesting to see echoes of others.  There’s a wedding scene in this one that reminds me of the extended wedding sequence in The Deer Hunter.  Obviously, it’s supposed to be the other way around, but since I saw the more recent movie first, that’s the one that feels more like a response in my memory.  I’ve wondered whether there might actually be continuity between this long string of films, and maybe here’s my answer.

Ah, Huw.  You’re really big on memory, aren’t you?  Remember when memories were really something special?
 

Theme:  Times of Transition

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  They don’t make green like they used to

Rebecca (1940)

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It’s hard to write about a film like this without spoiling the fun of it, and yes, maybe a 75-year-old picture isn’t exactly spoil-able in the same way that big twist in Stranger Things (haha just kidding, you think I have time to watch Stranger Things while I’m busy watching all these movies??).  I think I can avoid major spoilers simply by being my usual vague self, but it’s worth noting that this is a film you would prefer to enjoy without knowing much about it in advance.

Though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an Alfred Hitchcock film, I knew what to expect:  suspense! mystery! atmosphere!  Based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca is about a naïve young girl who spontaneously marries a mysterious and wealthy man and returns with him to his estate, Manderley (I love how people used to name their houses), managed by a creepy housekeeper.  Looming over them is the memory of his first wife, who died under mysterious circumstances.

I felt bad for the poor girl, who starts out working as a hired companion for an obnoxious old rich lady – according to Agatha Christie, this was a pretty common form of employment back in the day.  Despite the apparent improvement in her circumstances when the handsome older aristocrat takes a fancy to her, I couldn’t help wondering whether she’d actually walked into a worse situation.  She’s unsettled and nervous in her new mansion, deferential to the servants who view her with varying degrees of suspicion.  Mr. de Winter is cold, sometimes insulting, and usually distant, and the new Mrs. de Winter (I didn’t even notice that she isn’t given a first name.  He tells her never to wear black satin or pearls, or be 36 years old, which suggests they have a nice long marriage ahead of them.  The first half of the movie is a bit dull, stuck in the oddities of its time.

But then it takes an interesting turn.  I can’t help thinking of Gone Girl, and the point in that novel where everything turned on its head (and yeah, there was a movie too, but I don’t think it pulled off the twist as easily, or maybe the problem was that I already knew the twist).  The idea of a plot twist is pretty common in storytelling, but it’s nice when it’s pulled off successfully, even to the point where it feels like a completely different thing afterward.  Where the Second Mrs. de Winter was once shy and unassuming, she now grows more self-assured.  And as Mr. de Winter exposes his own vulnerabilities, he becomes more likeable, as well.  That’s not to say that characters have to be likeable in order to be interesting, or well-rendered – it’s just that in a story like this, the fact that their likeability increases after the Big Reveal of the movie is in itself significant.

Like the last movie I saw, it’s unlikely I’ll ever get around to reading the novel it was based on, and I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.  My bet is that Rebecca the novel is far shorter than Tom Jones, but it would still take me over two hours to read it, and there are so many other things to read.  I wonder sometimes whether everything that’s written these days is just a stepping-stone to being converted to the screen.  Sure, movies are great and all, but in general, I honestly do prefer sitting down with a good book.  Then again, here I am spending the year watching movies instead of reading the best books of the last century.

 

Theme:  Novel into film

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Marry me, you little fool!

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Here’s where it gets real:  this is the first Best Picture that makes a genuine attempt to address the issue of alcoholism.  Even today, addiction is a tricky subject.  Despite growing evidence of the biological underpinnings of substance use disorder (the term that’s more in favor in the literature), the longstanding stigma of the disease remains.  You wouldn’t think I’d pause the film to grab a beer halfway through, but guess what?  I did.

Don Birnam (not Draper) is a writer who has a great novel somewhere inside him – autobiographical, of course, because there’s really no other kind of great novel.  Unfortunately, he spends most of his time tracking down where his next drink will come from.  There are a few scenes where Don frantically searches in his hiding spots for a concealed bottle that remind me of similar scenes on House – the clever addict secreting away a supply so he can get his fix later.  Of course, there are also a few parts that remind me of the afore-alluded-to Donald Draper, particularly in that season when he spent half of each episode on a bender.

Of course, our main man is both a writer and an alcoholic, two things that seem to go together often.  I don’t think writers are more likely to have problems with addiction than those in any other profession, but I’ve certainly noticed a kind of cultural atmosphere of drinking that surrounds writers in a way that seems more consuming than it might be for, say, an accountant.  Writers spend so much time alone that when they get together, they’re either socially anxious and need something to lubricate their interactions or something.  Or there’s the myth that booze or drugs fuel creativity.  I don’t know.

Although it’s clear that this film portrays a character that’s a little too histrionic for today’s acting tastes, I think its depiction of addiction and how it’s viewed by society is worth observing.  Don is usually helpless in the face of his alcoholism, but he certainly doesn’t lack self-awareness about how it’s affected his life.  We get a brief interlude in the middle where Don relates to his cautiously friendly bartender the plot of his as-yet-unwritten novel, about an alcoholic writer who falls in love with a girl.  Along the way, he spends an evening in the drunk ward at Bellevue, and we catch a glimpse of what kind of recovery treatment someone could expect in this era (not much).  Don’s full enough of self-loathing to push away his girlfriend and brother, the support network who relentlessly stand by him, waiting for him to reach a point where he’s willing to accept help.  The only sour note is the ending – his moment of epiphany comes all too easily, and I have trouble believing that he’s suddenly going to get better.

As a side note, I kind of loved the music because it reminded me of an episode of Star Trek.  I discovered that the reason why is because the soundtrack used theremins, those electronic wooowooooo instruments that feature so prominently in science fiction.  And in other random comments, I loved that somebody described a place as chichi, using a slang word that I thought was coined much more recently than 1945.   And final observation:  best moment of the picture might have been the lounge lizard breaking into song, “Somebody stole a purse!”

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Addiction

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Delirium is a disease of the night.

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Just the other day, I was cleaning out some drawers at work, and I stumbled upon a reproduction of an old letter dated 1925.  The letter writer considered the “disagreeable subject” of what to do about the increasing numbers of Jews admitted into the medical school.  It was apparently difficult to decide whether to split into separate schools or just stop allowing so many Jews because, though they were apparently talented and of sound character, there were just too damned many of them.

I thought about this letter while watching Gentleman’s Agreement, along with a lot of other things that have been going on in the world today.  I don’t know why this letter has been saved in the assorted documents of my office – except that it may hold historical relevance for my Jewish boss, who is a leader in an institution that once would have shunned him.  He once told me that he was one of two Jewish boys permitted at his school, not long after this movie was released.  We’ve come some distance since then – but it’s not hard to see how tenuous the hold is in the era of Trump.

Gregory Peck stars as an immersion journalist (before we even had such a thing) whose latest article is a piece about anti-Semitism.  Just, y’know, the whole general topic, distilled to a bit in a magazine.  He decides that the best way to approach it is by presenting himself as Jewish and seeing what happens throughout his daily life.  Eventually, he sees how it affects his supposedly liberal friends, and even his son (played by the adorable Dean Stockwell as a child).

Though this film can come off as a bit preachy at times – it’s clearly a Movie with a Message – it’s also a surprisingly modern-feeling look at white privilege.  Peck’s fiancée in the film, a fairly sheltered upper-middle class New Yorker with a home up in Connecticut, portrays the kind of liberalism that’s criticized today:  she believes in the cause of Jewish equality in theory, but only when it doesn’t inconvenience her.

I honestly didn’t expect to like this movie much, based only on what little I knew of it.  I figured, okay, it’ll be one of those old-timey moralistic stories – something like the Twilight Zone.  Where, even if you agree with the philosophy behind it, the cheesiness of the message just doesn’t ring true.  But this felt more like a journey in recognizing privilege.  It’d be interesting to see something like this story played out today, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement or the experiences of Muslims in America.  I don’t know if it would be any good, but it might offer another lens for us whites to look at ourselves and think about what we see.

 

Theme:  Anti-Semitism

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Do you get your ideas and then write, or do you write first and then get your ideas?

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

 

Based solely on the title and the fact that this movie is set during World War II (set and released), I decided that it must be about a Rosie-the-Riveter type of woman who worked in a factory in support of the war.  I thought, Oh, cool, my grandma did a Rosie-the-Riveter job during the war.  Which then prompted an evening-long venture through Google genealogy to research my family history, and which I’ll be happy to delineate in careful detail now.

Oh, wait.  Movie.  That’s right.  Well, anyway, though Mrs. Miniver is a war movie, it is unfortunately not about Rosie the Riveter.  It’s not even set in the United States.  The film was actually created to encourage Americans to support the Allied effort (even the end credits implore you to buy bonds!).

The title Miniver is your typical upper middle class lady who likes shopping and buys overly expensive hats (women, amiright?), which turns out to be okay because her Don Draper-esque husband just blew some cash on a new car.  Somehow, Mrs. Miniver ends up admitting she’s wrong about something while her husband calls her fat, and then they go to bed in neighboring twin beds.  Then the war starts.

You might wonder why a war movie is named after a woman.  Here’s the twist:  by the middle of the picture, there are actually two Mrs. Minivers.  The elder Mrs. M’s son, Vin, meets the daughter of the local baroness, and despite the fact that Vin introduces himself by man-splaining something about social consciousness, they fall in love.  In a weird side plot, the baroness hosts a flower competition in the village, except that nobody has ever attempted to compete against her… until now!

How might the Bechdel test have fared in a movie from 1942, even one that apparently focuses on the life of a woman?  Not well, as a matter of fact.  I’ve interpreted the Test to mean that two women characters must be in a scene alone to qualify, and it’s a good hour into the film before we even see the two women alone together.  Instead of dialogue, they sit gaping in shock at something war-ish.  I don’t think that counts.  Later on, after Vin enlists in the air force, the ladies Miniver end up discussing at length how much it will suck if Vin dies in combat, but that, at the end of the day, they’ll figure out how to move past it.  I won’t ruin the ending.

The moral of this movie, if you could say such a thing, is that war – and particularly this war – affects the lives of everyone, including the women who wait at home for their loved ones to return safely.  It’s not an especially novel message, but an affecting one nonetheless.  While watching, I found myself marveling at the very idea of making a movie about the war while it was going on, without knowing what its result might be.  Especially in 1942, when the U.S. had just barely got into the game, and everything seemed to be running in Germany’s favor.  For some reason, World War II remains in many ways the favorite war to depict on film.  I wonder whether and how the war will carry on in our memories long after our grandparents and their own memories have faded into history.

 

Theme:  Ladies in Film

Bechdel Test:  Total failure

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Gentlemen don’t propose when they’re eating.

 

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

I will admit that sometimes I think of old movies as being unsophisticated.  That they don’t manage to capture the emotional complexity of our lives, at least not as well as we can do today (but, to be fair, don’t necessarily do in every superhero movie).  I don’t know why I think this way – it’s not a bias I have against literature or music of a different era.  Maybe a part of it is that I’ve seen the signs of a medium in its early years, as filmmakers figure out what they can do with the equipment and what the censors allow, and either I don’t understand it or I’m not impressed.

All of this lead-up is to say that I don’t see a lack of sophistication in this film.  The story focuses on three characters, returning home to their small town at the end of the war.  All have encountered some degree of suffering, though it’s not really a film about what happened to them in the war so much as what happens after, and how these men re-adapt to civilian life.

Homer Parrish probably has it hardest:  he lost his hands.  Though he seems to have adapted surprisingly well with a set of prosthetics (which seem to my eyes to be exceptionally advanced for the era), the difficult part is seeing himself as something more than a burden on his family and his one-time sweetheart.  What’s particularly impressive is that the actor himself lost his hands in a training accident during the war, and so provides the audience with a realistic portrayal of what remains after armistice.

The other soldiers have wounds less visible, but troubling nonetheless.  Post-traumatic stress disorder was not named yet at that time, but Fred’s night terrors and paranoia certainly fit the profile.  Fred hopes to find work doing something other than working as a soda jerk at the local pharmacy, but finds that everyone else who’s returned home is looking, too.  Worst of all, he’s now working as underling to the dweeb who once assisted him but stayed behind during the war.

Finally, the older Al returns to a family that doesn’t seem to have much use for him anymore.  His kids are nearly grown and much more independent.  He returns to his old job as a bank manager, and gets reprimanded for offering loans to fellow ex-servicemen because they’re deemed too high-risk.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a story without a romance.  By the end, nearly everyone has a happy ending, which is certainly a welcome improvement over many of those who served.  At the same time, though, I don’t think the storyline is unrealistic or has a Hollywood ending.  I’m surprised at how willing audiences were to see a story like this so closely on the heels of the war, particularly because it does portray the more unpleasant aspects of soldiers at home.  It’s not a victory parade, not a story of heroism on the battlefield.

There’s an odd scene toward the end of the film where a customer in the malt shop argues with two of the servicemen.  He takes the unpopular view (and to my ears, entirely unheard of perspective until now) that America picked the wrong side during the war, and should have fought with the Germans.  I literally have no idea how this character could represent anything other than a straw man for Fred to beat into a pulp.  I’m sure there were some who expressed that opinion early on, but who would say that after the Allies had already won the war?  Nazis, that’s who.

Fred’s parting words to the guy could have been the final lines of the film (and were better than the actual last lines, which seemed as if they’d turned off the recorder a few minutes too early):  “I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done?”

 

Theme:  War

Which War:  World War II

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Nervous out of the service

Going My Way (1944)

 

Ah, the forties. A more innocent era, when priests could spend their time with troubled young boys, even offer to take them to baseball games and say to them, “It’s a date,” without raising any questions from the community. A time when a group of boys who stole turkeys off the back of a truck would willingly join a boys’ choir and, after only a few lessons from the priest in the church basement, start touring the country with their road show.

Jokes aside, it’s hard to watch a movie about a priest without the context of the recent Catholic Church scandal. All the same, I think there have been more stories on film about priests than there have been about any other religious figure. How many movies about a monk or rabbi or imam have you seen? Okay, okay, I’ll give you Sister Act.

Going My Way is less a narrative of a priest character than it is a set piece to demonstrate Bing Crosby’s singing talents. When I think of Bing Crosby, I think of two things (which, come of think of it, are basically the same thing): Christmas songs and that version of “Little Drummer Boy” he did with David Bowie just before he died. I re-watched it during the movie – as in, I literally paused the movie at one point so that I could pull up the video of their duet on YouTube because I thought about David Bowie’s recent death and felt sad and thus needed to revisit that poignant moment between the two of them. It turned out to be a worthwhile diversion, thanks to a one-off cheesy joke about the way people sang back in the day, i.e., back in Bing’s era of the crooner. That era is definitely over.

This film is inoffensive enough, but it is, like Bing Crosby himself, of a particular era. These days, our superheroes come in the form of costumed oddballs with unusual powers, but in the old times, they came in the form of Bing Crosby dressed up like a priest, swooping in to fix all the problems of a beleaguered parish using only the power of his magnificent singing voice. We get a sense of a character who has an interesting past – he clearly led a relatively normal life prior to the priesthood, based on his one-time romantic interest and his familiarity with popular music – but unfortunately, if the film makes an effort to explore how he made the transition into a life of faith, I must have missed it.

Maybe the idea of a priest with a normal life was surprising or radical enough to audiences at the time that it didn’t seem necessary to explore why he committed himself to the church. But that would have intrigued me more than this story, where everything moves effortlessly from conflict to denouement. Even the doddering old man who’s been running the church gets to see his wee Irish mother again – and I was convinced that she would have died long ago. They were uncomplicated times. Granted, this movie was released right in the middle of World War II, so maybe audiences needed to have a story in which everything worked out just fine in the end.

On a final note, I’ve learned an interesting bit of baseball trivia that I didn’t know before this film. Prior to becoming the Baltimore Orioles, the team was known as the St. Louis Browns – the uniform Bing Crosby’s character wears at several points during the film. In 1944, the year Going My Way was released, they won their only World Series, where they played against the Cardinals, and also happened to be the last year in which the World Series was played entirely in one stadium. Interesting if true! (It is true.)

 

Theme: Priest

First Time Watching? Yes

Final Verdict: I gave it my blessing, and it gave me the bird.

Hamlet (1948)

 

 

He’s totally about to make out with that skull.

As I mentioned in my last post, I got the chance to tour the Globe Theater in London last summer. One feature in the museum portion was a series of audio clips from famous performances so that you could get a sense of how different actors throughout history (audio-recorded history, anyway) performed some of the most familiar soliloquies. I wish now that I’d spent more time in that section, but it appeared close to the end, and there was a group of teenagers hanging around and I was probably hangry, so I only gave it a cursory listen and moved on. I’m sure Laurence Olivier’s “To be or not to be” speech was included, against other famous versions on film and stage. It’s such a neat comparison to make, and it’s too bad we can’t hear how actors read lines in Elizabethan times.

I’ve always liked Shakespeare – but maybe not loved him. At the risk of sounding dumb, I’ve never been great at parsing and comprehending the language. On the plus side, that means that each time I read or watch a play I’m already familiar with, I notice something that went over my head the last time. But then, what if the way Shakespeare writes was just how everybody talked back then? All their conversations just played out in perfect iambic pentameter, with clever use of metaphor. Maybe we’ve been giving ol’ Willy too much credit.

Hamlet is one of those plays that I think have the basic storyline down pat at this point, but even after a several readings, and probably several performances, I am still fuzzy on certain subplots. Like, for example, Ophelia and Laertes and, why not, Polonius. What’s their deal? I would probably have a better understanding if I hadn’t dosed off a couple of times during this film. I mean, honestly. It’s in black and white, and quiet as hell, full of murmuring in a not-quite-foreign language.

Olivier’s Hamlet starts out with this portentous voiceover: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Which somehow comes off as a bit heavy-handed or awkward. Why didn’t Shakespeare use that in his subtitle? The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who was Indecisive (Get it?). There are a few places where he made creative use of voiceover and condensing to get the film under three hours – and for that, I thank him. But in the process, we lose everyone’s favorite pair of minor characters that later get their own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. <gasp!>

One of my old friends from MFA school used to talk about writing a story concerning what happened to Hamlet during the interlude where he gets hijacked by a pirate ship on his way to England and then just rolls with them for a while, NBD. I still think that’s an awesome idea. Pirates were basically the superheroes of the 1600s. Throw a few in your play and you’ve got a guaranteed blockbuster.

Although it wasn’t the most exciting movie, I did really like the setting of this Hamlet. It actually takes place in a castle, full of winding steps and bleak seascapes. I actually believed they’d found some medieval castle on the coast of England or something, but that would be too perfect; the movie seems to have been filmed only in studios (according to IMDB). One odd quirk of women in film is that Olivier, at the time of filming, was 41 years old, and Eileen Herlie, who plays Queen Gertrude, was 30. Curious, and maybe also explains why Hamlet makes out with his mom so much here.

This is the only Shakespeare adaptation that has won Best Picture. I haven’t looked it up, but I suspect other versions have earned actors and actresses a win for particular roles (including Olivier, for his only Best Actor Oscar win – pay attention, trivia nerds). I suppose Shakespeare is the gold standard of acting, but most of us would still rather watch something a little easier to understand, and maybe with more pirates.

 

Theme: Shakespeare

First Time Watching? Yes, at least this particular version of the play.

Final Verdict: Ay, there’s the rub.