#609) The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

#609) The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

OR “Dude, Where’s My Husband?”

Directed & Written by Preston Sturges

Class of 2001

The Plot: Among the residents of the mid-west town of Morgan’s Creek is Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), the fun-loving daughter of her gruff police officer father (William Demarest), and Norval Jones, the naive, perpetually nervous boy-next-door who has always pined for Trudy. One night Trudy attends a send-off dance for a group of soldiers heading off to war, and comes home the next morning with no memory of the evening’s events. Slowly, she pieces together that not only did she marry one of the soldiers, but she is pregnant with his child. With the help of her sister Emmy (Diana Lynn), Trudy concocts a plan to annul the marriage and marry Norval to keep her pregnancy legitimate. But complications and hilarity ensue, as they so often do in the breakneck comedies of Preston Sturges.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “possibly the screwiest of Preston Sturges’ screwball comedies”, praising William Demarest’s performance, and citing the film’s skirting of the Production Code. Plus, there’s a link to watch the film free online. Cool!

But Does It Really?: We’ll put “Miracle” in the “minor classic” category. While “Sullivan’s Travels” is the best of the Sturges comedies, “Miracle” is not without its share of small town charm and hilarious performances. Some of its wartime jargon and binary gender politics date the film, but if you’re willing to go along with it, “Miracle” is a sweet, funny little slice of Americana with a lot of meat on its bones.

Everybody Gets One: Betty Hutton was a contract player with Paramount when “Morgan’s Creek” came her way and made her an overnight star. Hutton continued to find success as a recording artist, but her filmography is limited due to a litany of personal and behind-the-scenes drama. Despite her varied showbiz career, Hutton always spoke highly of Preston Sturges, calling him the only director who “ever let me act”.

Wow, That’s Dated: A lot of wartime talk in this one, especially regarding “the boys”. Plus the kind of “women, am I right?” misogyny that tends to crop up in films of this era.

Seriously, Oscars?: One of Paramount’s biggest hit of 1944, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” received its share of critics prizes, and one Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay. Struges found himself in competition with…himself for his script for “Hail the Conquering Hero“, and no doubt split his own vote, paving the way for wartime biopic “Wilson”.

Other notes 

  • As expected with this kind of subject matter, the Production Code had a lot of problems with “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”. Prior to filming, the PCA sent Sturges a seven page letter urging him to be “extremely careful” about the subject matter, recommending that the film’s plot points either be “drastically cut down” or “rewritten entirely”. In addition to concerns about underage drinking and a Christ-like birth, the US War Department objected to the “implication of the soldiers’ lack of proper conduct”. Sturges started filming in late 1942 with only 10 pages of approved script, which led to massive rewrites and a strained production schedule. Due to a backlog in Paramount films (including another film by Sturges), “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” wasn’t released until February 1944, a full year after production wrapped.
  • Here’s an odd one from the Preston Sturges Cinematic Universe: the film is bookended by cameos from Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff, reprising their starring roles from Sturges’ 1940 political satire “The Great McGinty”. Weird ly, they are credited solely by their character names: “McGinty” and “The Boss”, respectively. Makes me think that Springsteen’s going to be in this.
  • There’s a lot of fast-talking and ’40s jargon in this one. I have no idea what’s going on, but at least it’s funny.
  • I’m enjoying all the performances in this movie, especially William Demarest as Trudy’s put-upon father. Demarest is prepping for the kind of exasperated caretaking he would perfect as Uncle Charley on “My Three Sons” 20 years later. And he does his own pratfalls!
  • Apparently I can’t get away from piano prodigies. After the fictional ones from last week’s post, this movie features real-life prodigy Diana Lynn as Trudy’s smart-aleck little sister Emmy. That explains all the piano playing she does in this movie. Also, she’s 14!? Everyone in that generation looks like they’re 40.
  • Longtime readers know I’m a sucker for one-take scenes, and like the rest of Sturges’ oeuvre, “Miracle” features plenty of them. Most of the single-take scenes are “West Wing”-esque walk and talks, typically of Hutton and Bracken trading dialogue as they wander through their idyllic small town. It’s impressive, though a few artificial zooms are utilized to hide some cuts.
  • Preston Sturges’ films are populated with his stable of character actors in supporting parts, and “Miracle” is no exception (Demarest, Porter Hall, Al Bridge, J. Farrell MacDonald, etc.) . Every part is cast to perfection, with even the smallest bit role making an immediate impression with their strong characterizations.
  • This is definitely one of filmdom’s funniest proposal scenes, and the follow-up sequence between Trudy and Norval is hilarious, with Bracken’s overblown reactions knocking it out of the park.
  • My favorite exchange in the movie: “Did you break anything dear?” “Nothing but my back.”
  • I love me some ’40s slang, but “zipper-puss” takes the cake. That could mean anything!
  • Wait, she’s a minor!? How old is everyone? Betty Hutton was 21 when she filmed “Miracle”, but I guess the character is 17? You know Preston, you could have made her newly 18 and saved yourself a lot of trouble.
  • I laughed pretty hard at the scene where Kockenlocker tries to subtly suggest that Norval knock him out and escape the jail cell, with Norval earnestly oblivious to Kockenlocker’s increasingly frustrated hints. “You get me?”
  • Hey, another movie for my “Die Hard” Not-Christmas list! This movie’s turning into the funnier cousin of “It’s a Wonderful Life“.
  • The line that surprised me the most is Mr. Kockenlocker’s line about “the Almighty, or whatever it is that makes the wheels go round.” How dare you suggest that there is any religion other than white-bread Christianity!
  • The original publicity for this film urged viewers not to reveal the “Miracle” at the end of the movie, and to their credit I still didn’t know what it was almost 80 years later. No spoilers, but it’s a pretty big surprise, and the newspaper headline “Canada Protests” made me laugh out loud.
  • One minor spoiler: I was not expecting Hitler to show up in this. Longtime stage and screen actor Bobby Watson found a second career playing the Führer in cameos for both comedies and dramas throughout the early ’40s. Hitler’s raving in his brief moment here is very reminiscent of those “Hitler Reacts” videos from a few years back.

Legacy 

  • “Morgan’s Creek” continued Preston Sturges’ untouchable streak of hit comedies at Paramount. Infighting with Paramount led to Sturges’ departure from the studio in 1944 following the release of “Miracle” and “Hail the Conquering Hero”. Although Sturges made several more films, none could touch the classic status of his Paramount films.
  • “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” received the remake treatment with 1958’s “Rock-A-Bye Baby” starring Jerry Lewis in an update of the Eddie Bracken role. From the clips I’ve seen, it looks like this was more an attempt to take down that new rock ‘n roll music the kids were into.
  • Although Betty Hutton’s career peaked at “Morgan’s Creek”, she hit another apex replacing Judy Garland in the film of “Annie Get Your Gun”. Eddie Bracken’s film career stalled, but he found a second career on the stage, returning to film in his later years in such comedies as “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York”.

Listen to This: The Class of 2021

It’s here at last! Typically the National Recording Registry announces its annual roster of inductees in mid-to-late March, and although the NRR Class of 2021 didn’t arrive until today, it was worth the wait. Below are the latest 25 recordings to make the registry, with embedded links where available.

  1. Harlem Strut” — James P. Johnson (1921) 
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Complete Presidential Speeches (1933-1945)
  3. Walking the Floor Over You” — Ernest Tubb (1941) (single)
  4. On a Note of Triumph” – Norman Corwin, Martin Gabel (May 8, 1945)
  5. Jesus Gave Me Water” — The Soul Stirrers (1950) (single)
  6. Ellington at Newport” — Duke Ellington (1956) (album)
  7. We Insist!  Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite” — Max Roach (1960) (album)
  8. The Christmas Song” — Nat King Cole (1961) (single)
  9. Tonight’s the Night” — The Shirelles (1961) (album)
  10.  “Moon River” — Andy Williams (1962) (single)
  11.  “In C” — Terry Riley (1968) (album)
  12.  “It’s a Small World” — The Disneyland Boys Choir (1964) (single)
  13.  “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” — The Four Tops (1966) (single)
  14.  Hank Aaron’s 715th Career Home Run – Milo Hamilton (April 8, 1974)
  15.  “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Queen (1975) (single)
  16.  “Don’t Stop Believin’” — Journey (1981) (single)
  17.  “Canciones de Mi Padre” — Linda Ronstadt (1987) (album)
  18.  “Nick of Time” — Bonnie Raitt (1989) (album)
  19.  “The Low End Theory” — A Tribe Called Quest (1991) (album)
  20.  “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” — Wu-Tang Clan (1993) (album)
  21.  “Buena Vista Social Club” (1997) (album)
  22.  “Livin’ La Vida Loca” — Ricky Martin (1999) (single)
  23.  “Songs in A Minor” — Alicia Keys (2001) (album)
  24.  WNYC broadcasts for the day of 9/11 (Sept. 11, 2001) 
  25.  “WTF with Marc Maron” (Guest: Robin Williams) (April 26, 2010)

As always, it’s an eclectic list with a lot of worthy inclusions. This year definitely has a few “Wasn’t that already on this list?” entires (“Moon River” and “The Christmas Song” come to mind), but my reaction to most of these recordings was an immediate head nod of approval. And although my attempt to get Robin Williams on one of these registries probably had nothing to do with this, I’m happy to see him represented from an unexpected source.

As always, you can submit your own nominees for consideration, as well as listen to this year’s inductees on the NRR’s official playlist. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to spend the next several days trying to get “Livin’ La Vida Loca” out of my head (a sentence I haven’t said in over 20 years).

#608) Five Easy Pieces (1970)

#608) Five Easy Pieces (1970)

OR “This Prodigy Is Condemned”

Directed by Bob Rafelson

Written by Adrian Joyce (aka Carole Eastman). Story by Rafelson and Joyce (aka Eastman).

Class of 2000

The Plot: Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a former piano prodigy, having abandoned that life years earlier and now living an aimless existence as an oil rigger in Bakersfield, California. When he learns that his father (William Challee) is dying, Bobby reluctantly returns to his family home in Puget Sound, Washington, with his bubbly girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) in tow. While there are sparks between Bobby and Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspagh) – a pianist engaged to his brother Carl (Ralph Waite) – Bobby must ultimately come to terms with his impetuous behavior and become a responsible adult. Or not.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “[a]n intense character study” that “exudes the themes of alienation and self-destruction that often appeared in films of the 1970s.”

But Does It Really?: This is definitely in the “minor classic” / “You had to be there” category of NFR films. “Five Easy Pieces” is by no means a bad movie, with its top-notch performances and incisive screenplay, but it is definitely a movie of its time. Historically, “Five Easy Pieces” is part of the wave of New Hollywood films that bucked the traditions of the classic studio system, opting for complex characters, aimless plots, and ambiguous endings. “Five Easy Pieces” was an early example of this, but there have been so many other films in the last 50 years that have emulated this style that it’s hard for the original to stand out on its own. And while an important moment in Jack Nicholson’s career, the film has been largely overshadowed by his later, more iconic filmography. A yes for “Five Easy Pieces” on the NFR, but a little context is needed to fully appreciate it.

Everybody Gets One: Bob Rafelson started his show business career in television, founding Raybert Productions (later BBS Productions) with producer Bert Schneider, and scoring a hit with the TV show “The Monkees”. A film starring The Monkees, 1968’s “Head”, was Rafelson’s directorial debut and, while not successful in its day, was his first collaboration with the film’s co-writer, Jack Nicholson. The success of “Easy Rider” (produced by BBS) gave Rafelson the freedom to make “Five Easy Pieces”, based on a semi-autobiographical script he penned with friend and screenwriter Carole Eastman.

Title Track: “Five Easy Pieces” was the name of a beginner’s piano book and was meant to be the film’s working title. According to the opening credits, the five “easy” pieces are: “Fantasy in F minor” by Chopin, “Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue” by Bach, “Piano Concerto no. 9” by Mozart, “Prelude Op. 28, No. 4” by Chopin, and “Fantasy in D minor” by Mozart.

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit with critics and audiences alike in its initial run, “Five Easy Pieces” received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Jack Nicholson’s first Best Actor nod. Unfortunately, it was the only one of 1970’s five Best Picture nominees to go home empty-handed, losing Picture, Actor, and Original Screenplay to “Patton“, with Karen Black losing Best Supporting Actress to Helen Hayes in “Airport”.

Other notes

  • Nicholson is, of course, dynamic as Bobby, effectively oscillating between the character’s implosive and explosive behavior. Bobby lacks a lot of redeeming qualities, but because it’s Jack, you can’t help but keep watching him. Also, with Bobby’s penchant for turtlenecks, this whole thing looks like a prequel to “The Shining”.
  • Ah yes, the misogyny that permeates most of ’70s cinema. Bobby and Rayette’s relationship is severely unhealthy, but that’s the point. Kudos to Karen Black for making Rayette the only genuinely redeeming character in this movie. She’s unapologetically herself (re: white trash) without becoming arrogant or annoying. And Black has a lovely singing voice when she’s crooning along with her country music. Are you watching this, Altman?
  • Like many New Hollywood films, there are plenty of “Before-they-were-famous” performances on display in “Five Easy Pieces”. We get Ralph Waite right before he became the patriarch of “The Waltons”, Sally Struthers in a bit part before her eight-season run as Gloria on “All in the Family”, and when I learned that future “Fried Green Tomatoes” author Fannie Flagg was in this movie, I _________. 
  • The traffic jam sequence was filmed on an unopened section of I5 in Bakersfield. With all the vacations and road trips I’ve taken in my lifetime, the odds are very good that I have been stuck in traffic on that very site.
  • “Five Easy Pieces” earns my trademark “What is happening?” note. There’s a whole lot of meandering in the first chunk of this film (please Lord, not again. I just sat through “Licorice Pizza”), but thanks to Rafelson and Eastman, I always knew that the film was heading towards something. It’s a hard balancing act to pull off and, like many a ’70s character study, patience is a virtue.
  • That’s veteran stage actor Lois Smith giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as Bobby’s sister Tita. As of this writing, Ms. Smith is still with us, and won her first Tony award last year at the age of 91!
  • Tammy Wynette is to “Five Easy Pieces” as Cat Stevens is to “Harold and Maude“. Every piece of music in this movie is either classical piano or ironic usage of “Stand by Your Man” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E“.
  • And then this movie stops being an aimless character piece and becomes an aimless road picture. A good chunk of Bobby and Rayette’s trip to Washington involves them picking up two female hitchhikers, one of who launches into an extended monologue about consumerism (I’ve never heard the words “crap” and “filth” so many times in my life). The monologist is played by actor Helena Kallianiotes, and her friend is Toni Basil, choreographer and future “Hey Mickey” singer.
  • Easily the film’s most iconic scene: While making a pit stop at a diner, Bobby berates a waitress who refuses to let him substitute the roll that comes with his omelet with wheat toast. He then orders a chicken sandwich, and tells her to hold the chicken “between your knees”. I’m sure it was a monumental moment in 1970, a verbal middle finger to “The Establishment”, but without its original context it plays as yet another of Bobby’s “Christ, what an asshole” moments. That being said, I’ve never had a problem making substitutions at a diner in my life, and that may be in part to this movie.
  • We arrive in Washington, and the movie shifts gears yet again. Now back in his upper-class origins, Bobby is a different kind of uncomfortable, equally out of place here as he was on the oil rigs. We get some lovely subtleties from Jack (especially the scene with his father), plus some nice work from Susan Anspach, as well as the aforementioned Waite and Smith. Anspach in particular does a good job of balancing Nicholson’s energy in their scenes.
  • [Spoilers] Well that’s a downer ending. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that Bobby would just abandon his current life and try something new. Even from a distance, watching Rayette walking around an empty gas station looking for Bobby is heartbreaking.

Legacy

  • Following the success of “Five Easy Pieces”, Rafelson’s follow-up film was “The King of Marvin Gardens”, once again starring Jack Nicholson. While the film was not as well-received as “Pieces”, it is not without its own following of devoted film buffs today. Among the other Rafelson/Nicholson collaborations is 1981’s steamy remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” with Jessica Lange.
  • BBS Productions had a string of counterculture successes in the early ’70s, including “The Last Picture Show” and “Hearts and Minds“. The company eventually dissolved, selling its shares to distributor Columbia Pictures.
  • The “hold the chicken” scene has been referenced and parodied many times over the years, but the best one was the parody we didn’t see. A scene from 2002’s “About Schmidt” was to feature Jack Nicholson’s character at a diner, calmly accepting that he couldn’t substitute anything on his order. Although intended as commentary on how much times have changed, and despite a positive reaction from test audiences, director Alexander Payne felt the reference took people out of the movie and cut the scene.

Listen To This: Bach, Chopin, and Mozart are all well represented on the National Recording Registry, but all I really care about is that a) Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” was inducted in 2010 and b) Cary O’Dell wrote an essay about it.

#607) The Docks of New York (1928)

#607) The Docks of New York (1928)

OR “Stoker’s Wild”

Directed by Josef von Sternberg

Written by Jules Furthman. Titles by Julian Johnson. Based on the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders.

Class of 1999

The Plot: A steamer ship arrives in turn-of-the-century New York, with all of the ship’s coal stokers getting a night of shore leave. The ship’s engineer Andy (Mitchell Lewis) heads to the seedy saloon The Sandbar, where he discovers his estranged wife Lou (Olga Baclanova) in the company of another man. Meanwhile, stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) is on his way to the Sandbar when he rescues Mae (Betty Compson), a prostitute attempting to drown herself. After commiserating over their shared unhappiness in life, Bill impulsively proposes to Lou, who accepts. The two quickly marry in the saloon, but will this newfound commitment last when the morning comes and Bill ships out?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film for being “[m]asterfully directed” by von Sternberg and “expertly photographed” by cinematographer Harold Rosson. The write-up also, however, cribs from the Daily Variety review, which called the film “a good entertaining picture that misses greatness by a whisker.” Seems a little backhanded to me.

But Does It Really?: This is the third and god-willing final installment of my “Maybe I Just Don’t Get von Sternberg” trilogy. Like “The Last Command” and “Morocco“, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “Docks of New York”, but it never fully gelled for me. Sure I don’t mind melodrama, but I didn’t care about any of these people or their predicaments. And while the film’s visuals (like many of its contemporaries) are a notch above your standard silent film, the story relies too much on the dialogue and intertitles. “Docks” is not without its supporters, but no one has made a compelling argument for its NFR inclusion, other than being another film lumped in with von Sternberg’s other classics. Until then, I’m content to sit here on the fence about “Docks of New York” and move on with my life.

Everybody Gets One: Eleanor “Betty” Compson started acting in silent films in 1915, quickly becoming one of Paramount’s first big stars. She left Paramount after a salary dispute, and worked with Hitchcock on a few of his early British films before returning to Paramount, where she made “Docks of New York”. Compson made the transition to talkies, but she started getting smaller roles and diminishing box office returns before quietly retiring in 1948.

Wow, That’s Dated: One little piece of historical context: “Docks” was released at the height of the prohibition era, so it would have been exciting for an audience in 1928 to watch a movie set primarily in a rowdy bar at the turn of the century.

Seriously, Oscars?: Although “Docks of New York” received zero Oscar nominations, both of its stars were nominated that year for different movies: Bancroft as a jealous criminal in “Thunderbolt” (also directed by von Sternberg) and Compson as a seductive carnival girl in “The Barker”. Side note: There were no official nominees at the 2nd Oscars, but Bancroft and Compson are considered de facto nominees based on Academy records of which films were under serious consideration by the judges.

Other notes

  • One of the things keeping “Docks” watchable is Josef von Sternberg working with his trusted group of collaborators, including screenwriter Jules Furthman, cinematographer Harold Rosson, and leading actor George Bancroft. The film comes across as confident, with each of these artists comfortable enough to stretch themselves and create the best possible product. Even if you didn’t know that going into the film, there’s a slickness that suggests quality and professionalism.
  • We don’t get a lot of the artistic, cinematic compositions I have come to associate with von Sternberg’s films, but the few that do make it really stand out. The establishing shot of the Sandbar is a tracking shot moving its way through an assortment of lowlifes and characters, not unlike the café shot in William Wellman’s “Wings” the previous year. A+, everyone.
  • I don’t know why, but it tickles me that Russian actor Olga Baclanova is credited here as simply “Baclanova”. Clearly an attempt to exoticize her in the same vein as fellow Russia-to-Hollywood film actor Alla Nazimova. If Baclanova looks familiar, she’s a few years away from playing Cleopatra the trapeze artist in the cult classic “Freaks“.
  • Part of my problem with this movie is that the two male leads look very similar, as do the two female leads. Both George Bancroft and Mitchell Lewis are bulky, broad-shouldered men costumed in dark longshoremen outfits, while both Betty Compson and Olga Baclanova are pale, petite women with short bleach-blonde haircuts. It makes for a confusing viewing experience trying to remember who is who.
  • I couldn’t place where I knew Mitchell Lewis from, but it turns out I just needed to imagine him with green skin: he’s the Captain of the Guard for the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz“.
  • Everyone at this bar looks like Willem Dafoe.
  • With its romance via suicide rescue, “Docks” is kind of a blue-collar “Vertigo“. Thankfully, there’s far less creepy obsession here, though still an uncomfortable amount of leering. Similarly, the film’s impromptu love story between two lowlifes (one of whom is a prostitute) gives this movie some “7th Heaven” comparisons as well.
  • As previously mentioned, “Docks” has a lot of dialogue intertitles, which leads me to believe that it might have fared better as one of those newfangled “talking” pictures that was starting to catch on in 1928.
  • German character actor Gustav von Seyffertitz shows up a handful of times in the Registry, but he is put to his best use here as the parson “Hymn Book” Harry, his stern facial features casting a judging shadow over the bar patrons and this impromptu marriage. By the way, did they ever end up paying him?
  • Well this movie took a turn. Everything was going along pretty even-keeled with its character development and romantic entanglements, and then there’s a hard right into melodrama. I was not expecting someone to get shot during this.
  • While I ultimately didn’t care about whether or not Bill and Mae would get together, it helps that thanks to the film’s pre-Code sensibilities, that was still a genuine mystery. There’s no guarantee of a happy ending in pre-Code Hollywood. Side note: Mae’s prostitution was allowed by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (now the MPAA) because it was not forced prostitution, and no element of her profession is explicitly shown on screen.
  • The other great composition from this movie: in a last minute attempt to keep Bill from leaving, Mae tries to mend his shirt. We cut to a POV shot of the needle and thread, with the camera quickly going in and out of focus to simulate the tears welling up in Mae’s eyes. Nicely done, Rosson.
  • What a…happy ending? I really don’t know what to think about it. And I recall going to night court was a lot funnier than it’s depicted here. Where’s the sex-craved prosecutor and the dim-witted bailiff? Where’s Mel Torme?

Legacy 

  • “The Docks of New York” opened in September 1928, the same week as “The Singing Fool”, Al Jolson’s “Jazz Singer” follow-up which overshadowed every other movie at the box office. Despite good reviews, “Docks” was virtually ignored by moviegoers, although it did find an audience in Europe a few years later. In the ensuing years, “Docks” has been rediscovered by multiple generations of movie lovers and film historians, almost always in conjunction with von Sternberg’s contemporaneous filmography.

#606) Powers of Ten (1977)

#606) Powers of Ten (1977)

OR “Eames For the Stars”

Directed by Charles and Ray Eames

Class of 1998

Watch more of the Eames’ filmography on their official YouTube channel.

The Plot: What starts as a couple having a picnic near Chicago’s Soldier Field becomes perhaps the biggest (and smallest) movie ever made. We zoom above the couple, expanding our field of vision by powers of ten – past Chicago, past Earth, past our solar system – until we are 100 million light years (1024) from our starting point. After observing the vastness of space for a few moments, we propel back to Earth and the picnic, shrinking down to the surface of the man’s hand, down to his cellular structure at 0.000001 ångstroms (10-16). From the husband and wife team that also brought you the quintessential midcentury lounge chair and ottoman.

Why It Matters: The NFR describes the film as being “as much a math exercise as an avant-garde film”, praising it for its “excellent use of the film medium”. An essay by Eames expert Eric Schuldenfrei delves into the Eames’ ecological implications within the film, and enough scientific jargon to make my eyes glaze over.

But Does It Really?: This movie is, in a word, trippy. In less than 10 minutes, Charles and Ray Eames took me from the farthest reaches of space to the inside of an atom in an astonishing, engaging undertaking. We have got plenty of filmmakers on the list known for their work in other fields, but the Eames may be the definite part-time filmmakers, crafting this film as exquisitely as they would any of their trademark structures. A yes for “Powers of Ten” on the NFR, one of the few modern shorts to make the cut in the Registry’s first decade.

Everybody Gets One: While teaching industrial design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in the late 1930s, Charles Eames met Ray-Bernice Kaiser, an artist and graphic design student assisting Charles for a home furnishing competition sponsored by New York’s MoMA. After getting married in 1941, Charles and Ray spent the next 37 years excelling in a variety of fields, most notably modern architecture and furniture (you’ve probably sat in one of their chairs). Although Charles typically received sole credit in the press, he always stressed that his wife was an equal partner in their projects. In the 1950s, the Eames’ love of photography and theater evolved into filmmaking, with the couple making 125 short films. “Powers of Ten” was inspired by the book “Cosmic View” by Kees Boeke (who gets a special thanks in the credits), and is the Eames’ second attempt at adapting the book to film, the first being a a black-and white prototype (or “rough sketch” in their words) in 1968.

Seriously, Oscars?: I don’t believe “Powers of Ten” ever played an Oscar eligible run, usually reserved for museums and private screenings. For the record, 1977’s Documentary Short winner was “Gravity Is My Enemy” about abstract painter Mark Hicks.

Other notes

  • The film’s narrator is Phillip Morrison, a physics professor at MIT. He sounds a bit like Eli Wallach.
  • “Powers of Ten” touches upon practically every branch of science: mathematics, astronomy, quantum physics. And how about the chemistry between the couple at the beginning, am I right?
  • Recreating this film’s opening on Google Earth was significantly less exciting for me.
  • Shoutout, as always, to Pluto, which was demoted to a dwarf planet the same semester I was studying astronomy in college. Very big topic of discussion as I recall.
  • Looking out at the vastness of the universe makes me feel so small and insignificant. Ah well, back to my film blog, I guess…
  • The film’s adventure through inner space (if you will) is a fascinating journey even for someone as scientifically illiterate as myself. If we got any smaller we would probably run into the Incredible Shrinking Man.
  • Elmer Bernstein scored this? Between this movie, “The Magnificent Seven” and “Airplane!” Bernstein’s filmography was all over the place.

Legacy

  • “Powers of Ten” marked the end of the Eames’ collaborations, as Charles died in 1978 at age 71. Ray survived her late husband for a decade, dying in 1988 at age 75. The Eames have been honored and recognized through countless exhibitions and lifetime achievement awards, and their home in Los Angeles (which they designed themselves, of course) is a National Historic Landmark.
  • No film is too obscure for “The Simpsons” to reference, with “Powers of Ten” serving as influence for one of the show’s better known (and longer) couch gags.
  • In the 45 years since “Powers of Ten”, scientists have continued to explore the edges of the known universe. This 2021 video by the BBC pays tribute to the Eames as the soothing voice of Professor Brian Cox takes us 100 billion light years (1027) away from Earth.