In the run-up to the Oscar night,its both instructive and interesting to look at a bunch of early Best Picture winners,and see what made them come out on top. The default setting for films made during World War II was the war: propaganda was on top of everyones agenda,even of the entertainment-meisters in Hollywood. A decade later,all the sadness,all the darkness,was banished,and the cheery,happy musical was back in full swing.
Both Mrs Miniver and Casablanca (the former won the Best Film in 1942,the latter the year after) have the war as their backdrop. Mrs Miniver,credited with having drawn the till-then-neutral US into the war (more effective than a thousand pamphlets and speeches,according to a political commentator then),is the story of a loving housewife and her experiences during the war. She is the mother of two young children and a much older son who falls for a disagreeable aristocrats granddaughter. Not only does Mrs Miniver marshal her forces to get the old lady to agree to the match,but she also helps capture a wounded Nazi pilot,and gets a rose named after her. The film,the top box-office hit in 42,is a gentle,deftly told tale,with loving attention to detail,but doesnt in the least feel old. The humour and the skilful sketching of the characters have lasted well.
When it first came out,Casablanca was considered one of the hundreds of films churned out by Hollywood at the time. Slap a story on an exotic location,put some planes and uniforms in there,and get hold of some horrible Nazis there was your movie. It was meant to be directed by William Wyler,the same fella who did Mrs Miniver,but he was unavailable,so they had to settle for Michael Curtiz,who was said to have shot mechanically from the script. Ingrid Bergman was a few inches taller than Humphrey Bogart,so it was claimed that he had to stand on blocks for their scenes together (or,they had to sit). The town of Casablanca was studio-created on a Hollywood lot (except for a couple of scenes with the aforementioned planes). But the film,rising magnificently above these shortcomings,was an instant success: the lead players looked as if they were made for each other and some of the most memorable lines ever written in Hollywood were in this film. Play it.
Its not only the star-crossed lovers of Casablanca who always had Paris. Gigi is set in awash-with-love-Paris,where men will not marry,and women do not marry. Leslie Caron plays an impish little girl growing up fast under the watchful eyes of her grandmother and aunt,to play the perfect courtesan: to clip off the end of a cigar and hand it to her suitor,to stroke his male ago,and to stoke his passion,to sip champagne delicately,and to accept expensive gifts. Thats what the rich,debonair Gaston (Louis Jordan) wants from Gigi to begin with,and then he doesnt. Its not enough that Gigi is his plaything; he will have her for his wife,or not at all. Its all very Georgette Heyer,full of song and dance. Gigi won the big one in 1958.
The very same Ms Carons debut feature An American in Paris,with the very same director,Vincente Minnelli,in the very same city,was also a Best Picture winner. It was a full-blown MGM musical (the last of the big ones),which paired her opposite the twinkle-toed Gene Kelly,in an age-old story. She is indebted to an older man,but in love with the younger man. Kelly and Caron drink coffee and eat freshly baked baguettes at streetside cafes. And match moves,sliding smoothly around each other.