Feature film directors (and Meryl Streep) tell the tales of American feature film directors in the 1930’s and 40’s who were sent to war to make documentaries for the homefront… with one of the best motion-graphics-meets-stock-footage opening title sequences. If you’re interested in filmmakers and/or war, the whole thing’s just fascinating.

William Wyler, fresh off the inspirational Mrs. Miniver, rages against racism while Frank Capra is producing Private Snafu cartoons. Working (mostly) under Capra, John Ford and George Stevens are sent to film D-Day. John Huston makes the gritty San Pietro, using mostly reenacted fight footage but real dead bodies. And Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland proves himself a poor director. Stevens went on to film the liberation of concentration camps, while Wyler snuck a trip home and found the holocaust had killed his family and all their neighbors. In the end, Huston’s final work about emotionally wounded soldiers was censored for decades, Ford returned to make They Were Expendable, and Capra/Wyler/Stevens founded their own Liberty Studio, which immediately went broke on the flop It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’d love to watch a bunch of the original documentaries themselves, all available on netflix: Battle of Midway, Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro, Let There Be Light, The Negro Soldier, The Battle of Russia, Nazi Concentration Camps and Memphis Belle. But that’s six hours of WWII docs, and it’s Cannes Month now, and six movies I want to see opened in theaters this week, and a new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 just came out, and it’s baseball season…

Pretty-good movie with convoluted plot based on a Hungarian play with English dialogue rewritten by Preston Sturges. Wyler didn’t have a knack for this sort of thing. Comic timing is off from the start, and the Frank Morgan character crosses the line from annoying the protagonist to annoying the audience, but the second half seems to settle into a nice groove, thanks to the soothing influence of actor Herbert Marshall.

Margaret Sullavan (of The Shop Around The Corner, also set in Budapest) is quite good anyway. She’s an orphan recruited by Alan Hale (does he buy her? adopt her?) to work at his movie theater. Trying to avoid sexual harrassment in the street she latches onto sensitive, protective Detlaff (Reginald Owen, Scrooge a few years later), who works as a waiter at a restaurant where she meets wealthy, sexually aggressive annoyance Konrad (Frank Morgan, Sullavan’s costar again in Shop Around The Corner) who works for hilarious drunken gov’t minister Eric Blore.

Through a series of preposterous events, Margaret, who wants only to be a “good fairy” and help others, gets Konrad to enrichen randomly-selected destitute & honest (the movie isn’t necessarily saying he’s destitute because he’s honest) lawyer Max (Herbert Marshall, star of Trouble In Paradise). She then tries to carry on a relationship with Max while pretending to Konrad that they’re married, all under the watchful eyes of Detlaff.

Wikipedia: “In particular, Sturges added a movie-within-the-movie in which the actors communicate in one-syllable sentences.” Beulah Bondi of the Sturges-written Remember the Night plays the orphanarian, and the musical remake I’ll Be Yours a decade later featured Sturges regular Franklin Pangborn.

We also rewatched the Sturges-written Remember The Night for Christmas.

I’ve always gotten this confused with Charade (starring Audrey Hepburn with Cary Grant) and Holiday (starring a different Hepburn with Cary Grant). This one has no Cary Grant at all, just boring ol’ Gregory Peck. But Audrey is charming, and Greg is better than I’ve ever seen him, and this movie lives up to its lovely reputation.

Audrey is a princess hating her European press tour, so she sneaks off after receiving a sedative and is found, presumed drunk, on the street by noble newspaperman Greg. He shows her around Rome the next day, pretending not to know her identity, while he and cameraman Irving (Eddie Albert, the husband in Green Acres) sneak photos and pre-sell their exclusive story. But after getting to know her better, Greg respects her privacy and withholds the story, giving her the photos as souvenirs.

I’ve seen few Gregory Peck movies (Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, Spellbound) and none in the last 15 years, so maybe he’s not so bad and I’ve had him confused with Gary Cooper or James Mason. Hepburn won best actress in this, her debut film, and it was nominated for damn near everything else but From Here to Eternity won the rest. We saw the 2002 restoration with then-blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo’s names in the opening titles. Coincidentally, a Trumbo bio starring Bryan Cranston as the Roman Holiday writer was playing next door.

Greer Garson (in Random Harvest the same year – this movie stole all of that movie’s oscars) is the slightly crazy-eyed wife of boring ol’ Walter Pidgeon (Man Hunt, Forbidden Planet). They have a happy, normal life with two little kids and one away at college. Everything’s just ducky, but what’s this about impending war with Germany? Oh I’m sure it won’t affect us.

Vin comes home from school and falls for a local girl named Carol (Teresa Wright of Best Years of Our Lives and Shadow of a Doubt), but she’s the daughter of the rich and stuffy Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty of Suspicion and The Lady Vanishes – Hitchcock runs in the family). A poor local man (angel Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life) has grown a beautiful new rose and named it the Mrs. Miniver – and he dares to enter it in the flower competition against Lady Beldon, even though she wins the rose prize every year (yes, this whole segment was lifted by Downton Abbey). Surely all this drama is of utmost importance and the just-announced war with Germany can’t compete.

But the war proves to be a bigger bother than anyone anticipated. Vin joins the RAF. Beldon relents and lets the lovebirds marry. Clarence “wins” the rose prize then is killed offscreen. And everyone expects Vin to die in combat but instead his young bride is killed by a strafing nazi plane while she’s out driving with Mrs. Miniver.

A justly-acclaimed propaganda film, made to get the U.S. to join Britain in the war. The film was praised by Winston Churchill, and its closing speech (given by vicar Henry Wilcoxon in his half-wrecked, roofless church) was printed up and dropped all over Europe. Wyler enlisted straight after the film was done, found war to be more dispiriting than he’d envisioned, and made The Best Years of Our Lives as a post-war companion/corrective piece when he got back. Miniver‘s reputation lived on, so the studio made a sequel in 1950 with the same cast minus Vin (so maybe he was killed after all).

Katy and I did not know they made this kind of movie in the 40’s. It’s a wonderful bummer of a post-war drama dealing with the problems ex-soldiers faced upon returning home. Won every male-centric oscar that year (sorry, actresses), wiping It’s a Wonderful Life and Brief Encounter off the board.

Myrna Loy (between Thin Man 5 and 6) is first-billed for being the most famous person in the cast, mother of Peggy (Teresa Wright, star of Shadow of a Doubt) and husband of Al (Fredric March of I Married a Witch, Seven Days in May), who suffers from psychological trauma and chronic comic drunkenness (a common affliction in the 40’s).

Homer (Harold Russell, my favorite actor in the movie despite having never appeared in films before) has hooks for hands, thinks he is no longer worthy of his longtime sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell of Side Street, They Live By Night) so spends all day hanging out with his bartender buddy Hoagy Carmichael (a rare film role for the songwriter, who also appeared in To Have and Have Not).

Fred (Dana Andrews of Laura and Canyon Passage) is underemployed now that all the fighting men are back to work, gets along fine with new wife Marie (Virginia Mayo of White Heat, The Flame and the Arrow) at first, until her love for fast dudes and fancy duds outpaces his salary.

What does happen to Fred? Does he get divorced? I remember he has anger management issues and gets fired from his job for tossing an anti-military sumbitch through a glass display, but it’s been a couple weeks now since we watched this and Fred is starting to slip my mind. He was a bombardier in the war and wanders into a new job when he’s spotted by a deconstruction crew while visiting decommissioned planes. Al is a banker, promoted to loan supervisor by the higher-ups who think it’s prestigious to have a war officer in their employ, but they aren’t too happy when he starts approving loans for trustworthy-seeming but collateral-lacking young soldiers. Homer’s main conflict is that he’s comfortable with the hooks physically but not socially, figuring himself an unlovable outcast. They’re all mighty good roles, and the movie has an epic feel despite being about three small families in a small town. Katy and I found it quite deserving of its reputation.