Turner Classic Movies’ annual extravaganza, the recently concluded “31 Days of Oscar” was a departure from presentations of years past. This time the films were shown in alphabetical order, not grouped by Oscar category, and I enjoyed the jumble. Two films in particular were welcome surprises—the wartime “This Land is Mine,” and 1928’s “Our Dancing Daughters.” They couldn’t be more different, but both leave an indelible impression.
“This Land is Mine” (1943) is unlike any other American World War II film I’ve ever seen. Directed by the French exile, Jean Renoir, who evidently contributed to the script by Dudley Nichols, it’s set in an unnamed country (read “France”) recently occupied by German troops. What makes this film unusual is that its main subject isn’t fighting in the streets or sabotage, but rather the nature of collaboration and the various motivations behind it.
The basic plot goes like this: Albert Lory (Charles Laughton) is a momma’s boy school teacher with a secret crush on fellow teacher Louise Martin (Maureen O’Hara). Unbeknownst to all, her brother Paul (Kent Smith) is a resistance fighter whose success at sabotage causes serious damage to materiel intended for German troops. What develops out of this situation is a comprehensive take on how the occupied town either copes or collaborates with the Nazis. The principal of Lory’s school, aghast at the directive to tear out democratic content from his student’s books, nevertheless complies, maintaining that the thoughts espoused will still live in the minds of teachers. Others are more openly collaborative. The mayor wishes to do all he can to see his town survive (and no doubt himself to remain in power), but he still enjoys accompanying the commandant of the occupying troops in what appears to be a victory procession.
But the most interesting character, presented in arguably the best performance of the film, is George Lambert (George Sanders), Louise’s fiancé and the local rail transportation supervisor. Initially he makes no bones about his politics. In conversation with the commandant, Major von Keller (Walter Slezak, playing the Hateful Nazi to the hilt), he reveals he’s just as fascist as this officer. But upon reporting his future brother-in-law Paul as a saboteur, he has second thoughts. His confrontation with Paul is the highlight of the film: his agonized “yes” when Paul asks him if he was the one who turned him in, and the terse exchange that follows: “Why did you do it, Paul?” “Why did you do it, George?” “Don’t look at me like that.” “You’re looking at yourself, George.” Although he (temporarily) helps Paul escape, George himself can’t escape Major von Keller’s pressure to continue to inform, and he shoots himself. In a case of “wrong place at the wrong time” Albert Lory is found at the scene and stands trial for murder.
It’s to Renoir’s credit that what we have already seen makes Lory’s long heroic courtroom speech in his defense a bit superfluous, at least in certain respects. Renoir has already shown us the various attitudes of those in the occupied town, and Lory simply makes express what had previously been inferred or at least more subtly conveyed. Renoir’s point of view toward these characters is something you don’t usually see in American films of that era. Although not sympathetic to collaborators for obvious reasons, he takes pains to differentiate the various “whys.” While not exactly stating that there are gray areas, he’s definitely a bit removed from the standard black and white views of most World War II films.
“This Land is Mine” won an Oscar for Best Sound, no doubt for the incredibly scary Allied bombing raid which we witness holed up in a shelter with Lory, Louise and their pupils. Two other thoughts linger after viewing the film. First, George Sanders’ performance proving he could indeed act. He was always great at playing cads, only surpassed by Zachary Scott in “Mildred Pierce,” but his George Lambert displays far more complexity. And then the indelible last shot of the film, as Lory, accompanied by his Nazi captors, jauntily strides off, presumably to meet a firing squad, hands in his pockets. A hero at last.
“This Land is Mine” will continue to be available until May 28th on the Turner Classic Movie website (subscription required).
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Light years away from “This Land is Mine” is “Our Dancing Daughters,” the 1928 film that made Joan Crawford a star. And for good reason—she plays a seemingly wild child who’s really a good girl at heart, while her rival, played by Anita Page, is coached by her mother to act the waif in order to marry rich (for shame!).
“Our Dancing Daughters” is a movie I had read about but never seen before now. At the time of its filming the studios were still converting to sound. As a result this movie is without spoken dialogue though it features a music soundtrack with occasional sound effects. Nevertheless the vo-de-o-do never stops. Can Joan Crawford ever Charleston! The clothes, decor and make-up are high Art Deco, and the men (Johnny Make Brown, Nils Asther and Edward Nugent) are incredibly handsome. It’s fun to see the attitudes and styles of the Roaring 20’s on full display, hip flasks included. Interestingly the mothers in the film wear the same short skirts and fringe as their dancing daughters, albeit a bit more modestly, and it’s somewhat startling to see just how short the girls’ hair styles really were.
Joan Crawford’s huge eyes stand her in good stead in this film, and her performance paid off with MGM. Nevertheless I think Anita Page is prettier and has the more interesting role. But MGM evidently felt Crawford was the better bet, and despite Anita Page’s starring role in 1929’s “Broadway Melody,” still a very enjoyable film, her career stalled.
“Our Dancing Daughters” was nominated for Best Writing and Best Cinematography. It will continue to be available to subscribers on the Turner Classic Movie website through May 20th.