Check out his Underrated '85, '75, '65 & '55 lists as well:
At first I worried I couldn’t pull together a competent list of five underrated flicks from 1945. Before I could think twice, I’d jotted down five stellar candidates. And then I happened across a sixth just before submission. I didn’t even think about including one of the two Rathbone Sherlock Holmes pictures released this year (until just now anyway). I remember both fondly as above average entries in the series, but alas, I’ve got my six picks and I’m sticking with them.
Looking over the titles, it’s all feeling very British-y. But then again the 1940’s represented a peak in British filmmaking, if not an outright “golden era.”Lean, Powell & Pressburger, Ealing Studios, Carol Reed, Laurence Olivier, Hitchcock (from Hollywood, however)… the list goes on and on. And hopefully someday that list might include a couple of these choices.
Vacation from Marriage (aka Perfect Strangers, 1945, Alexander Korda)
I held off sending this Underrated ’45 list because I happened across Vacation from Marriage on TCM last week. Having just watched The Innocents for my #31DaysOfHorror marathon in October, I saw this Deborah Kerr title on the TCM schedule and earmarked it for the DVR.
Vacation from Marriage begins in London. Robert (Robert Donat) plans to ship out for training in the Royal Navy. His wife, Cathy (the almost unrecognizable and dowdy Kerr) prepares his breakfast, sees him off to work. They’re two people going through the obligatory motions of a dullsville marriage and their dullsville day-to-day obligations, each suffering their own unspoken adult crises. Even their regular vacation destination is dullsville. But this is wartime cinema in England. Such a stasis cannot endure.
Robert begins his training. Cathy too decides to enter the service (WRNS, Women’s Royal Naval Service) despite her husband’s request to remain home. The film alternates between the couple’s respective experiences. They’re each broken down by training, undergo self-discovery, and find a renewed independence and self-confidence. They each also experience a brush with steamy extramarital romance.
After 3 1/2 years Robert and Cathy are to be reunited, but Cathy refuses to entertain the notion of returning to the repressive Robert and her former life. She demands a divorce. It’s at this point that Korda’s film takes off. Vacation from Marriage not only tackles the so-called battle of the sexes with intelligence but also depicts the war-liberated feminist’s conflict with the traditional, conservative view of a woman’s role in society. Kerr and Donat ooze charm, but they also become fully realized characters (two fully realized characters each, actually). And it would be an egregious oversight if I didn’t mention the effervescent Glynis Johns. Playing Cathy’s similarly conscripted cousin Dizzy, Johns nearly steals every scene in which she appears.
Warner Archive has released Vacation from Marriage on burn-on-demand DVD, but it’s a shame that this wartime gem hasn’t yet found the wider audience it deserves.
Dead of Night (1945, Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Harner, Basil Dreaden, Charles Crichton)
I caught Dead of Night on TCM last Halloween. I don’t normally go for compendium horror flicks(even the supposed great ones), but this originated atEaling Studios, the British film and television production company that specialized in comedies during the 1940’s and 50’s – including the Alec Guinness classics Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Ladykillers. Naturally, the oddity of this film intrigued me.
Four guests at a secluded mansion recount stories of their individual supernatural experiences. Of the individual stories, Michael Redgrave’s stands out. His tale of a ventriloquist and his demonic dummy anchors the anthology and reignites the old debate of which is creepier – dolls, clowns or ventriloquist dummies. (I’m still voting for dolls, by the way.)
Even though the film lacks any specific moments of shock and awe, the unsettling psychological terror of this collection builds until the final twist magnifies the films’ collective impact. Dead of Night doesn’t feel like a horror film from the 40’s – the cinematic language feels more advanced compared to its brethren from the Universal horror department.
Dead of Night is available on a Region B/2 UK DVD and Blu-ray.
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945, Richard Siodmak)
How you feel about The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry hinges on your feelings about the ending. You’ll either break your television or consider this film a fascinating slice of censorship history.
The Breen office meddled with production, declaring the ending unfit for human consumption. As a result,we’re left with a big ol’ massive screenwriting faux pas that was reportedly chosen based on the reactions of preview audiences. With this in mind and with the knowledge that there were five different endings (four of which are now lost to time and tide), we have the ability to place ourselves at a scholarly distance rather than a purely critical one. We canenjoy George Sanders’ performance and the wildlyincestuous subtext with which the Breen Office apparently (inexplicably?) had no issue.
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry could have been an undisputed classic. It could have been raised to the classic film pantheon alongside some of the Hitchcock greats. It could have been something other than a cautionary tale of cinema censorship rather than an entry on my Underrated ’45 list, an entry more worthy of engaging intellectual discourse than reverence. Still, I find much to like about the film –and if you spend enough time analyzing the ending, you’ll start to wonder if Siodmark slyly, skillfully implied the ending he had in mind all along even if the script says something completely different.
Two O’Clock Courage (1945; Anthony Mann)
In its review of Two O’Clock Courage, the New York Times called it "a modest little item of second-rate cinematic fun.” I don’t know how you cull information from your movie blurbs, but that sounds like a wholehearted recommendation to me.
Directed by noir-maestro Anthony Mann, Two O’Clock Courage is a lark, a rambling mishmash of noir and screwball comedy that flies by at just under 70 minutes. Tom Conway (of the Falcon series and pencil ‘stache fame) awakens on a street corner and stumbles out in front of a cab. He’s lost, disoriented and can’t remember a thing about himself. A classic case of cinematic amnesia. The fast talking, street-smart cabbie (a delightful Ann Rutherford) takes thewounded fellow under her wing and shepherds him through one wild night of mistaken identity, thugs in shadowy corners, and kooky, comic relief newspaper reporters.
Don’t chart the film’s narrative – it won’t end well for anybody. Just sit back and enjoy the odd collection of 1940’s genre tropes. Footnote: Jane Greer makes a brief appearance (as Bettejane Greer) in her first credited role. Even if she doesn’t have much to do with her limited screen time, you can’t take your eyes off her.
A Royal Scandal (1945, Otto Preminger)
The scandalous love life of Catherine the Great filtered through Lubitsch’s words – if not his lens.The directorial credit reads Preminger, but the movie is all Lubitsch-ish.
A Royal Scandal is a remake of Lubitsch’s silent film A Forbidden Paradise. Lubitsch directed the rehearsals and worked with screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer on the screenplay. Before the movie was ready for cameras, however, Lubitsch had a heart attack and couldn’t complete the process. Enter Otto Preminger. Having just wrapped Laura, Preminger expected that acclaim to catapult him to greater directorial freedom – Darryl F. Zanuck instead forced him into second fiddle duties on A Royal Scandal. (Preminger and Zanuck had a longstanding grudge resulting from Preminger’s role in the bungled blockbuster Kidnapped.) To complicate matters Lubitsch had already cast the project with Garbo in the role of Catherine the Great. Though Preminger has expressed regret that he could not direct the picture that brought Garbo out of retirement, hecampaigned for Tallulah Bankhead, who he’d first directed on Broadway in 1938. She had lobbied her father – Speaker of the House, William B. Bankhead– to pull some strings to get Preminger’s family out of Austria after the institution of the U.S. Immigration Quotas. Preminger remained indebted to her and threatened to resign from the picture if Zanuck did not approve of Bankhead in the starring role. Bankhead thus became his Catherine the Great.
The use of the notoriously serious and temperamental Preminger on a Lubitsch picture seems ill advised. And indeed in a great number of scenes, the camerafeels static (and often stoic), at odds with the punchy Lubitsch dialogue. Vincent Price (who has asupporting role in the picture) said about the production: “Otto had the sense of humor of a guillotine. [Lubitsch] had to sit on the soundstage every day and watch a humorless Otto Preminger murder the comedy.” If I admit that this remark rings true (and considering that Preminger and Price were friends) would you think less of A Royal Scandal? I should hope so. Yet the film still works. It is a lesserLubitsch, but even a lesser Lubitsch is essential viewing. Bankhead and Charles Coburn lob zingers between each other with panache. That Vincent Price didn’t work among the Lubitsch players before thisfilm seems a crime against humanity.
It’s In the Bag! (1945; Richard Wallace)
A novelty flick of sorts. And maybe that’s all you’ll see in it, but I think there’s much more to enjoy. It’s In the Bag features the only starring film appearance of absurdist (and oft censored) radio personality Fred Allen, whose show became one of the benchmarks of the “Golden Age of American radio.” The movie takes the form of a series of eccentric vignettes, cameos and transgressions. Allen plays a flea circus ringmaster who loses his $12 million inheritance inside the seat of one of five chairs, chairs he just sold before learning of the bizarre method of inheritance.
It’s sloppy and disjointed, intermittently funny but often kind of 1945-era cornball. If you’re familiar with his radio show, the thrill is seeing Allen on screen, followed by the procession of cameos that include William Bendix, Don Ameche, Jack Benny, Rudy Vallee, John Carradine, etc. It’s In the Bag is a scattered, mismatched bag of gags and schtick, but it’s an enjoyable sample of Allen’s comedic talents with a few well earned guffaws mixed in.
(Based on the comic novel Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov, the work would later be adapted with a greater concern for character and narrative by Mel Brooks in 1970 starring Ron Moody and Frank Langella. That Mel Brooks assembled a more cohesive remake makes for a rather odd thinkpiece.)