Set the DVR as the second day of Turner Classic Movies' 31 Days of Oscar festival occurs tomorrow on Saturday, Feburary 2. Below are brief reviews of the films you should watch or record, all of them essential viewing.
Sergeant York (1941) – Gary Cooper won his first Oscar as WW I hero Alvin York, a Tennessee backwoods farmer who was drafted into the Army, registered as a conscientious objector due to religious reasons, yet wound up being the most decorated solider of the war, having killed 32 German soldiers and capturing over 100 nearly singlehandedly one fateful day. To be sure, there’s more than a bit of mythmaking at work here, but Cooper’s modest, natural performance keeps the film grounded and the human element front and center. Shamelessly patriotic, this movie is often referred to as the first propaganda film of WW II as its subtext speaks to our joining the conflict as a moral obligation. Interestingly, this was the first biographical film to made while its subject was still alive. A winner all the way, and in the interest of full disclosure, my favorite movie of all time. (4:45 AM)
Key Largo (1948) – Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson are cast as moral opposites in John Huston’s classic crime tale that served as a reminder of why so many of our soldiers fought and died during World War II. Bogie is Frank McCloud, a vet who pays a visit to the father (Lionel Barrymore) and wife (Lauren Bacall) of a fallen solider he knew. The hotel they run in southern Florida is nearly empty, what with a hurricane about to hit, but there are some boarders left, namely Jonny Rocco (Robinson) and his crew, a criminal outfit set to make a deal just off the coast. The action of the film takes place predominantly in the hotel, which lends a degree of claustrophobia and tension as Frank tries to muster the nerve to oppose Rocco, who represents all of the ills he’s been warring against for years. The acting is top-notch across the board with the real-life animosity between the two stars creeping into the scenes they share. Don’t miss the moment early on when we first see Rocco, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar while in the bathtub. Huston thought this was a priceless image saying Robinson reminded him of a turtle that had slipped out of his shell. (2:00 PM)
White Heat (1949) – The last great film from the studio’s original gangster cycle finds James Cagney as the psychotic Cody Jarrett. Suffering from debilitating migraine headaches and attached to his overbearing mother (Margaret Wycherly) in a manner that gives credence to Freud’s Oedipus Complex theory, the gangster is constantly out to prove himself, intent on making it to “the top of the world.” Cagney oozes charisma here, dominating each scene with a degree of fierceness that’s frightening to behold. Of particular note is the moment in which he’s told about the death of his mother. The actor is the very definition of animalistic despair in this scene and it retains its power to surprise and even move you today. Featuring one the great endings of all time, this one will have you marveling at director Raoul Walsh’s economic storytelling style. (4:00 PM)
Casablanca – Is there anything I can tell you that you don’t already know about this film? That is was to initially star Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan as the two doomed lovers Rick and Isla? That it’s original title was “Everybody Come’s to Rick’s?” That the script wasn’t complete when filming began and no one in the cast knew how it would all end until a few days before production wrapped? Thank goodness level heads prevailed where the casting and title were concerned as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman deliver iconic performances here, perfectly capturing the passion and heartbreak that love is wont to inflict. Without question, the greatest romantic film of all time and one that continues to move viewers, even after multiple viewings. (7:00 PM)
Mildred Pierce – Having spent the first part of her career at MGM, Joan Crawford found new life when she signed on with Warner Brothers in the early 1940’s. This film would prove to be the pinnacle of her career as it would bring her the Oscar she so desperately coveted. In the title role, she stars as a divorced mother trying to provide for her daughter in an era in which independent women were as rare as a four-leaf clover. She takes a chance by opening a diner, which proves to be a hit and even seems to have found a new love in playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Unfortunately, Mildred finds that her success comes at too great a price. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, this has soap opera melodrama written all over it, but Crawford single-handedly saves the film from veering in that direction, delivering a realistic and sympathetic performance of a woman whose only sin is that she loved her daughter too much. (11:00 PM)