You Can't Take It With You (Directed by Frank Capra)
The Nominees: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Alexander's Ragtime Band, Boys Town, The Citadel, Four Daughters, La Grande Illusion, Jezabel, Pygmalion, Test Pilot
La Grand Illusion (Directed by Jean Renoir)
My Nominees: The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz and William Keighly), Alexander Nvsky (Sergei Eisenstein), Angels With Dirty Face (Michael Curtiz), Boys Town (Norman Taurog), Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks), The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock), Marie Antoinette (W.S. Van Dyke, Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard ), Room Service (William Seiter)
George Kaufmann and Moss Hart's stage hit You Can't Take It With You, was so successful that it won the Pulizer Prize in 1936. Then Frank Capra spearheaded the film version and it was box office triumph and was named Best Picture of the Year. Sadly, it hasn't held up. This story of the sweet-natured son of a bullish businessman who gets engaged to a secretary from a wacky family contains themes that Capra would use to better effect in It's a Wonderful Life. Plus, is populated with characters and dialogue that seem forced. It is silly, corny third-rate Capra, and you can see the work of a director whose work would improve over time.
Nineteen Thirty-Eight was a great year for movies, all kinds of movies, and this led to an impressive list of nominees for Best Picture. Unfortunately, the winner was the least impressive (though I have yet to see The Citadel) and the victory was speared more by popular sentiment than artistic merit. I was proud of the academy for at least acknowledging my choice for Best Picture, a French film, Jean Renoir's powerful The Grand Illusion.
The Grand Illusion does something that no other film about war has ever done it presents the idea of how a war changes a society. The point is made that the first world war was responsible for the breakdown of old European social order, just as the second world war turned America into a prosperous nation and inspired social change, Vietnam led to a generation of America’s political apathy and a mistrust of its own government. The first world war led to the breakdown of polite social rules order still lingering from the 19th Century. That social order had also extended to the battlefront.
The grand illusion is the rules that had dictated warfare in the past which the European upperclass assumed would be followed into "The Great War". But this war would be like no other. The weapons introduced in this war were so devastating and so ferocious that it broke the morale of those left behind from the men in the trenches all the way up to the high ranking officers. It might have seemed impossible to keep one's word, to stand by a gentlemen’s code when faced, for the first time, by tanks and mustard gas.
The story follows the struggle between a prisoner of war who is determined to escape and a prison camp commandant who is determined to keep him in check. But the struggle doesn't come down to a meeting of the minds so much as a meeting of the gentlemen's code. The man, Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is determined to escape but the commandant Van Ruffenstein assumes that he will keep his word and not try anything. Van Ruffenstein has made a gentleman's pact with a French aristocrat named Captain de Boieldieu that he will not make an attempt to escape from his mountaintop fortress. Escape is relatively easy but that speaks to the shortsighted naiveté of those who rule it. There is a heartbreaking moment late in the film when Maréchal and de Boieldieu are attempting to escape and Van Ruffenstein is forced to shoot the man he deems a companion. "Neither you nor I can stop the march of time," the Frenchman tells him, and there is a note of sadness and sorrow as the commandant shoots him to prevent his escape.
The achievement of the film is the manner in which it presents mixed cultures. Most war films (especially American films) hammer together a gaggle of citizen soldiers from backgrounds so similar that they might as well have lived next door from each other. The Grand Illusion insists on three characters that seem to come from different worlds. Maréchal is handsome, striking and in another film might have been played by Steve McQueen (the similarity is there). He's the average joe, a nice guy from the middle class who seems to have a determination in him that isn't overly present on the surface.
de Boieldieu is formal, astute and reminds me of Claude Rains in Casablanca. On the surface de Boieldieu wears the uniform of a French officer but he's not above bending the rules to escape. Most curious is that even while he wears the neatly pressed uniform, his family is going broke back in the motherland.
The most curious character is Rosenthal, a Jewish banker with a jolly face and a air of mischief. Jewish characters are the norm for this era, usually angry shopkeeps or disapproving Rabbis but Rosenthal is different, he has a specific personality, he's a banker back in the world and ironically has just purchased the chateau that de Boieldieu has been forced to sell.
I am never sure of the character of Van Ruffenstein. He's a likeable man but a man who walks around with blinders on. Does he see the clouds of change that will disperse the rules of war as a gentleman's pursuit or does he simply choose not to see it? He is disappointed in de Boieldieu when he tries to escape but, was there any doubt that he would try? After all, the man gave his word. Van Ruffenstein represents the breakdown of the hero, after shooting down many planes, he becomes a victim himself, with a rigid back brace and his chin cupped in a painful device he portrays, for us, the reality of the war hero, that not all heroes die in the war and not all successful soldiers stand triumphantly in the sun. He represents, for me, the constant reminder that the war is a reality in which not all who survive come away clean. He represents of soldier who, for years, haunted the streets of Europe after the war, a grim reminder of how brutal and awful it really was.
The citizen soldiers in his charge are the backbone of what the movie is really about, that the rules that dictate war are beginning to crumble. The film anticipates the American involvement of World War II (this was 1938) in which hastily assembled citizen soldiers, teachers, students, factory workers, farmers, bankers, policemen would become not only frontline infantry but pilots, officers and high ranking officials. This message was the danger that the German forces feared when they seized the film upon their occupation of France.
The history of the film itself has become legend. According to history, when the German forces under Adolf Hitler marched into France, one of the first objects seized were the masters of The Grand Illusion. Hitler's minister of propaganda and enlightenment, Joseph Goebbes, banned it, and it was assumed that it was either destroyed by the Nazis or in one of the many allied air raids. It wasn't until the war was over that it was revealed that a Nazi archivist named Frank Hansel smuggled it back to Berlin where it stayed until it was seized by the Russians and taken back to Moscow. It wasn't until director Renoir was attempting to restore the film in the 1960s that he discovered that the print existed. Today the film can be found on DVD in a crystal clear print that seems as flawless as the day it was released.
But The Grand Illusion is much more than the sum of its historical journey. This is the story of The 20th Century in some ways, in the manner in which world wars destroy a world and societies are forced to rebuild upon what remains. Old ways, old customs, old ideas, old notions, old illusions die away and what is left are the social changes that help build the future.