It’s an annual argument: As Oscar ballots are filled out, Academy voters debate among themselves whether this has been a good year for films or a disappointing one.
My attitude: They’re debating the wrong issue.
The films released in ’07 reflected both talent and courage, but they nonetheless fell short on two criteria: scope and hope. The movies covered a disturbingly narrow range of subject matter. And their view of the world was almost obsessively dark.
To illustrate, turn back the calendar to a fateful moment precisely 70 years ago. The year 1938 was anything but auspicious around the world. The U.S. was on its knees economically. Hitler was on the move across Europe.
Within the Hollywood studios, however, an amazing phenomenon was taking place. As though anticipating a doomsday scenario, Hollywood’s filmmakers in 1938 were putting into production a truly remarkable range of movies — one that would have a historic impact.
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The slate embraced epic dramas such as “Gone With the Wind,” fantasies like “The Wizard of Oz,” Westerns like “Stagecoach,” poignant pieces like “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” witty star vehicles like Garbo’s “Ninotchka,” comedy-satires like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” flights of social realism like “Golden Boy,” chick flicks like “The Women,” teen comedies like “Babes in Arms” (pairing Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, if you please) and war dramas like “Gunga Din.”
Presiding over these projects were all the old front-office monsters — Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer (Thalberg had died in 1936), and under their stormy reigns scores of filmmakers were coming into their own — Wyler, Ford, Hawks, Stevens and Capra.
Equally relevant, the star system, nurtured by the old studio czars, had produced an array of quirky personalities — Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Stewart, Joan Crawford, John Wayne and so forth.
The biggest stars were frequently on suspension, fighting with studio czars over their assignments. They resented their typecasting and fought over their scripts. The filmmakers, too, were in constant combat. The studios had an appetite for comedy and star vehicles while directors, true to form, pressed for more serious films that reflected the troubled times.
The solution, of course, was tradeoffs — memorable tradeoffs. The filmmakers got to make some of their favored movies while the studios kept their assembly lines of commercial product humming. The studio chiefs kept final cut and won their share of happy endings.
But consider the result. Even the marginal movies turned out at that moment, seven decades ago, still resonate today: “Dark Victory,” “Only Angels Have Wings,” “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Drums Along the Mohawk,” “Intermezzo,” “We Are Not Alone,” and “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” (who else besides W.C. Fields would make a movie with that title?).
Why were the results so bountiful? Part of the explanation was that the studio system had reached its zenith. Further, as Ted Sennett observed in his book “Hollywood’s Golden Year,” the films “reflected one last gasp of sunlit innocence before the darkness of war descended.” Even as “The Wizard of Oz” opened, Nazi troops were marshalling their troops and U-boats were turning up in the North Atlantic.
The studio system would never be reassembled, nor would the amazing balance between art and commerce ever again be recaptured.
So that’s my main reservation about the films of ’07. A film like “There Will Be Blood” deserves plaudits. It’s just that, besides blood, I wish there were more laughs and a few more glints of empathy.