Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '47 - James David Patrick ""

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Underrated '47 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong moviewatching habit. His current projects include #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project (thejamesbondsocialemediaproject.com) and Cinema Shame (cinemashame.wordpress.com). Follow him on Twitter at @007hertzrumble.

The Best Years of Our Lives wins seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Therefore, the following films most definitely did not win Best Picture. I have included a film that won an Oscar for its actor, but has since been marginalized by 21st century pragmatism. More often my 1947 picks were unworthy of their unfortunate critical and commercial fates.

As with all my Underrated lists I compiled two rosters. One featured the handful of movies I knew I wanted to include and the other contained the films from 1947 on my Watchlist. After I polished off that Watchlist, only one of the original films remained, and 1947 became one of my favorite Underrated lists because it samples so many different types of genres - melodrama, noir, western, musical, and classic literary adaptation. It's a truly representative grab bag of cinematic goodness from the year that begat the HUAC investigations, the first World Series TV broadcast and Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (Albert Lewin, 1947)
George Sanders plays a delicious cad of a journalist who woman-hops his way into wealth and title in late 19th century Paris while denying himself true love with Angela Lansbury. To be quite honest, I would recommend just about any movie in which Sanders plays a cad. Bonus points when the movie lives up to his performance. The Private Affairs of Bel Ami adds lush cinematography, exquisite set design and literary cred as an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's "Story of a Rogue."

As a vehicle for George Sanders, oozing disdain for everyone and everything, Bel Ami succeeds as a study of the worst tendencies of civilized society and falters only when the Production Code steps in to wag its finger of righteous indignation at Guy de Maupassant's original ending. Even if you have no knowledge of the source material, the abrupt change in tone during the finale will send your censorship senses tingling. Director Albert Lewin only made a handful of films during his career, but he had a way with George Sanders and artful literary adaptations - Lewin also directed Sanders in The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Moon and Sixpence.
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Riff-Raff (Ted Tetzlaff, 1947)
A goofy little Noir featuring everyone's favorite leading man, Pat O'Brien, doing a doughy Bogart. In this world where everyone's a little rougher around the edges, it's not impossible to take O'Brien seriously as a swinging Panamanian private dick. A Wellesian ten-minute opening sequence without dialogue will thrill film junkies, especially when it pops up in such an unlikely place as this B-grade Noir.

Riff-Raff concerns the whereabouts of a map detailing the locations of particular oil wells in Peru. This MacGuffin serves as a jumping point for exploring various degrees of moral turpitude. The film's narrative machinations concern us less than the on-screen character interaction. The mystery isn't who is or isn't lying - it's who will best jockey for position in a murderous game of musical chairs.

A number of playful and effective running gags carry the proceedings along rather expeditiously. "Pa" of Ma and Pa Kettle fame plays O'Brien's cab driver on retainer and steals much of the film as comic relief. Or I should say he would have stolen the film if not for Pat O'Brien's fuzzy white pimp hat. (Hat tip to Brian Saur for being the original pimper of the Pat O'Brien pimp hat.)
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A Double Life (George Cukor, 1947)
Ronald Colman works double time. By day a highly regarded stage actor Anthony John, by night a maniacal serial killer. John's personality has been partially consumed by his character in Shakespeare's Othello - a production that has run for so many weeks that the actors have become immune to their successes. The film plays like a prototype for Aronofsky's Black Swan.

Even considering the talent behind A Double Life, it's not terribly surprising that the film has slipped so far from the public consciousness as a result of the face-value narrative silliness. This would not be considered one of Cukor's finest constructs, but the director plumbs a mesmerizing piece of pitch-appropriate scene chewing from Ronald Colman. The screenplay by Ruth Gordon (Rosemary's Baby, Harold & Maude) and Garson Kanin (Born Yesterday) only carries the film until the final act when the premise crumbles and the tone shifts to a laggy detective picture. That said the film remains deliciously hammy and over-the-top. Colman's performance is bigger and broader than the material itself. Even when Cukor fumbles the ultimate descent into madness, Colman's perfect mustache stands by to distract us all from the film's relative shortcomings.
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Pursued (Raoul Walsh, 1947)
Even though the fact about Eskimos having 100 words for snow is a myth, it's a stone-cold fact that the camera loves 1947 Robert Mitchum from more than 1000 different angles. In Pursued, the chiseled specimen of Mitchum stands as a monument to moral and physical incorruptibility.

This brooding Western melodrama directed by the great and prolific genre-filmmaker Raoul Walsh (White Heat) concerns an orphan raised by a family who ultimately decides they'd rather see him dead. Within the nefarious intentions and the tear-streaked widows lies a noir-ish Western where the "noir" acts as shorthand for everybody but Robert Mitchum is an irrational asshat. Fortunately, I appreciate those kinds of films and you should, too.
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Good News (Charles Walters, 1947)
1947 looks back on 1927 college life and boy howdy was it swingin'. This ever-so-slight MGM musical features a few showstopping songs, 30-year-old June Allyson as a doe-eyed co-ed, tone-deaf Peter Lawford and a youthful Mel Torme. It's a simple frumpy librarian gets the football star with French lessons story, but this box office disappointment features a bevvy of standout song and dance numbers and early Technicolor that really zings.

If for no other reason, watch for the Academy Award winning "Pass That Peace Pipe" number. Joan McCracken makes love to the camera through song and dance, and we all love her back. The film is a toothless remake of the 1930 pre-code musical of the same name that, as I understand, only exists in incomplete form (individual clips exist on YouTube). Even minus the sexual innuendo and lewd dialogue, 1947's Good News manages plenty good clean fun.
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Secret Beyond the Door (Fritz Lang, 1947)
Fritz Lang dabbles in Hitchcockian psychosexuality on a budget and with style to spare. A newly widowed woman (Joan Bennett, who I'm convinced appeared in every film made during the 1940's) jumps blindly into a marriage with a charming stranger (Michael Redgrave) and soon learns he's a super creepy guy with a secret room. Let this be a lesson to all you love-struck young ladies. If a guy keeps a secret locked room, contents unknown, he's just not worth the trouble of fixing.

At the time of its release, critics eviscerated Secret Beyond the Door, and the film flopped at the box office. Stylized and cluttered with bizarro narrative fixtures, Secret Beyond the Door surely would have confounded contemporary 1947 audiences. From our perspective, however, Lang's take on Rebecca features compelling Freudian logic and character eccentricities. Conservative set design results in the German director using light and shadow to populate many of his sterile backdrops.

Other than a wonky final act that glosses over some important emotional beats to punctuate a sanitized ending, Secret Beyond the Door plays a familiar song that's most interesting because it's more than slightly out of tune.
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1 comment:

Laura said...

Really enjoyed this list! Was especially happy to see favorites like GOOD NEWS and RIFF-RAFF make the list. The only one I haven't yet seen is A DOUBLE LIFE. Given how much I enjoyed the other titles on the list, I'd better get to that one soon!

Hope people will check out these titles, lots of good viewing here.

Best wishes,
Laura