21st Academy Awards (1948) – Part I

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  • Hamlet, Laurence Olivier
  • Johnny Belinda, Jean Negulesco
  • The Red Shoes, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
  • The Snake Pit, Anatole Litvak
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston*

1948 was a recovery year for the Academy. Having gone from the existential depths of The Lost Weekend to the cautious post-war optimism of The Best Years of Our Lives to the sloppy and overblown bathos of Gentleman’s Agreement in just two years, they needed to take a break from overt social commentary and reassess. As such, the winner this year came as a surprise to many (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was heavily favored, and Johnny Belinda‘s 12 nominations led the field–both won Best Picture at the Golden Globes).

One can argue the merits of Hamlet‘s win over such stellar competition, as I intend to do here, but this was the first time in Academy history when every nominee for Best Picture deserved to win. They are all fantastic and timeless films, made by directors at the peak of their creativity and craftsmanship.

Also for the first time, there is a remarkable consistency in the five nominees, and boy did they get serious. Just one year after seeing two Christmas comedies among the nominees, here we have five films each as dark and brooding as the next, reflecting on themes of greed, obsession, anguish, insanity, and isolation both physical and mental. Watching how each film treats these subjects and how they resolve them is a rich and rewarding experience, making this the first of these Oscars where I am unreservedly and enthusiastically recommending all five films…to both of my readers.

speechless2.jpgYes, both of you!

I’m excited to talk about these, so let’s get to it! This entry is a bit long, but let’s face it…I’ve been ruminating on these films for about 18 months!

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You may remember Anatole Litvak as the director responsible for the ultra-syrupy All This, and Heaven Too back in 1940. Full of florid Charles Boyer/Bette Davis swanning and overwrought declarations of love, the memory of that film made me rather reticent to dive into The Snake Pit, as the director combined with the very unsubtle title led me to expect another film where the actors compete to see how much scenery they can eat in an hour and a half.

Unknown.jpegThey say the trick is to dip the dialogue in water and swallow it whole.

And it wasn’t–mostly. As I said, it was the peak of Litvak’s creativity, but for him that means the peak of his penchant for schlockiness and lust for schmaltz.

The story of a young woman, Virginia Cunningham, who finds herself in a mental institution after having a nervous breakdown, The Snake Pit manages to present a (comparatively) sympathetic view of the mental health profession but continuously falls victim to Litvak’s melodramatic indulgences. Overpowering music and garish camera angles abound, particularly when any attempt is made to show an actual psychological tool. Early in the film, there is an electroshock therapy sequence that is shot, scored, and edited exactly like a horror movie, and every doctor in the hospital but one is startlingly (and one-dimensionally) incompetent and callous.

Litvak’s uncontrollable bathos also ruins the best shot in the film: a slow track up and up from Virginia’s face to show the whole ward of writhing, confused, and forgotten patients, losing focus as it draws away, the faces melt into anonymity. It is powerful, dramatic, and, for once, perfectly scored…and then Virginia’s voiceover comes along, laboriously working her way to the perfect analogy for her present situation: “It was like I was in a…deep hole…and the people in it were…strange animals! …I was in a pit, and it was full of snakes. A snake pit!” No, seriously. She then compares her position to the medieval practice of throwing insane people in with snakes in order to cure them.

While I appreciate the unspoken rule that 90% of films must feature a character saying the title at some point, this seems a particularly harsh metaphor.

Unknown.jpeg“Yes, yes, go on…it’s a very good sign when patients start dehumanizing each other.”

And the payoff of the story is…not great. The script idolizes Freud to an uncomfortable degree, and when all is said and done, the root of Virginia’s descent into a dissociative episode and her continuing inability to find stability and happiness comes down to: her father didn’t love her enough. Even though flashbacks and her own words show that he really did, and so did her mother…she was just a spoiled, jealous brat. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that what she needs is less gentle coaxing and more of this:


2:20 – 3:30, though feel free to enjoy the rest.

Despite all of these very major faults, I still enjoyed the film. Its saving grace was the acting, particularly the three starring roles: Olivia de Havilland as Virginia, Mark Stevens as her husband Robert, and Leo Gann as Dr. Mark “Kik” Kensdelaerik. Honorable mention should also go to character actor and founder of Newfoundland, Lief Erickson, as one of Virginia’s former beaus. They manage to keep their cool and deliver grounded, well-crafted performances in the midst of the Litvakian excess surrounding them.

This was de Havilland’s second foray into the portrayal of mental illness, having previously starred in dual roles in the less-realistic thriller The Dark Mirror (1946) in which she played a set of identical twins, one of whom is a murderer. She prepared for her role in The Snake Pit by immersing herself in the world of psychiatry, having become interested in method acting years before Marlon Brando made it cool.

Annex - Brando, Marlon (A Streetcar Named Desire)_04.jpgFun fact: she was also considered for Stanley Kowalski. Here’s a still from her audition.

So while The Snake Pit was undoubtedly the weakest of the nominees this year, it’s still a great film, far better than any of the nominees in 1947. It has its shortcomings, but it fits in well with the themes of 1948, as Hollywood’s finest continued to examine the challenges of the post-war world.

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We’ve seen the team of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell before, back in 1942 with the superb 49th Parallel, easily the second-best of the wartime propaganda that dominated the period. Here, they reunite with Anton Walbrook (I’ve already shown his clip from 49th Parallel four times, so I won’t do it again…much as I’d like to!) for The Red Shoes, a beautiful tale about the human price of art–though in the end, is there anything more human?

Is there?

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The emotional, sumptuous, stirring film tells the story of Vicky, a gifted dancer, torn between her love for Julian, an aspiring composer, and her need to dance…specifically, dance for ballet director Boris Lermontov, who grooms them both as rising stars in his company. Since love is supposed to conquer all, the movie does its best to make us hate Lermontov, as he cold-bloodedly manipulates Vicky and Julian and destroys their love through his singleminded desire to keep Vicky dancing.

The whole thing is mirrored by the ballet-within-the-film, The Red Shoes, which tells the exact same story but with less words, more dancing, and slightly sillier make-up. Indeed, as Vicky sinks deeper into her quandary and hurtles towards her inevitable choice between Julian and Lermontov, the two narratives begin to synch up until they are indistinguishable. The highlight of the film is the 15-minute Ballet of the Red Shoes, perfectly distilling the film’s essential drama into one wonderfully-choreographed fantasy sequence.

I spoke of the evolution of movie musicals in my last two posts, and talked about the wild and crazy climax of 42nd Street, which blurred the line between stage musical and cinema…this sequence continues that trend (although if we’re being nitpicky, what the hell is the audience within these films so excited about?). Fans of Gene Kelly will probably recognize this as the genesis of his amazing climactic ballet in An American in Paris three years later, and it’s because of the success of The Red Shoes that he was able to include it, and have such creative control over it, at all (and the one in Singin’ in the Rain the following year).

One of the reasons I love this movie is that it makes no attempt at realism…Powell and Pressburger allow the actors to commit fully to their characters’ raw emotions and motivations, which become more and more pronounced as the structure and plot gradually merge with that of the The Ballet of the Red Shoes. However, true to their manifesto, “not realistic” does not mean escapist. As the film progresses, from its slow, inauspicious beginnings to the transcendent climax, everything from the music to the acting to the set design draws the audience into the minds of Vicky and Lermontov–and P&P never forget that art is beautiful, even in a tale of psychological torment.

Regarding the story and the ultimate moral, that art destroys love but love is just the bee’s knees…I don’t think viewers are supposed to side with Lermontov, but I found myself on his side, largely for two reasons. First, it’s hard not to when he’s played by Anton Walbrook…

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And Julian is…well…

Unknown.jpegEarly anti-smoking campaigns were simply this. Teen smoking was nearly eradicated.

Second, studying Lermontov’s motivations reveals nothing but steadfast pursuit of perfect art, and seeing the potential for perfection in Vicky, he sees it as his duty to steer her in that direction. In addition, “hero” Julian seems to me selfish, irresponsible, and annoyingly short-sighted. Late in the film Lermontov tells Julian that he is in fact jealous of his (Julian’s) relationship with Vicky, “but for reasons you could never understand.” He’s right, damn it…Julian writes fine music, but it’s clear he’s not at Vicky’s (or Lermontov’s) level.

He was also right, earlier, when he asked Vicky why she had to give up her dream of dancing while Julian writes and produces operas at Covent Garden. She never gives an answer, and in that moment she finally realizes what she’s lost. She remembers the first conversation she had with Lermontov, when he asks her, “Why do you dance?”, and her response is, “Why do you live?”

All the beautiful moments of the film are those of the dancing, the music, and the performance, while all the moments of love between Vicky and Julian are sappy, juvenile, and empty. No one watches The Red Shoes to see them cuddling in a horse-drawn carriage, they watch it for the aforementioned ballet tour de force, for the majestic visuals. and for its celebration of art triumphant in post-war Europe. So in the end, for my money Vicky chooses correctly, even if her fate is predictably tragic.

Unknown.jpegAnd the red shoes held illimitable dominion over all.

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Despite the horror film promised by the poster, Johnny Belinda is a black-and-white film about a deaf-mute farm girl living on a remote island in Nova Scotia, which I realize sounds like a great premise for a horror film but I assure you it’s not. Instead, it’s a well-crafted morality play about misperceptions, loneliness, and the consequences of evil, in which every person not nominated for an Academy Award is an irredeemable, insensitive shitheel.

Fortunately, that leaves a solid moral center of four great performances. The two leads are Jane Wyman (Best Actress winner) as the half-titular Belinda MacDonald, a simple farm girl in the Song of Bernadette tradition, who is deaf-mute and thus ridiculed and shunned by society; and Lew Ayres (Best Actor nominee…remember him from All Quiet on the Western Front?) as Robert Richardson, a sympathetic doctor who befriends Belinda and teaches her sign language, saving both of them from their isolation. Their mutual respect and friendship that eventually grows into love is one of the most honest cinematic relationships of the era.

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I mean, after these kooky kids.

Supporting them are Charles Bickford as Belinda’s traditional but sensitive father, and stern but loving Mercury Theatre alumna Agnes Moorehead as her stern but loving aunt. And as I said above, the four of them stand alone against a town full of horrible people.

The film caused quite a stir when it was released due to its treatment of something heretofore prohibited by the Production Code. Unfortunately, by today’s standards, it doesn’t do a bang-up job. The central drama centers on the rape of Belinda by local thug Locky McCormick and the troubles that follow when she brings the child to term, while the attack itself is treated as a plot device. Belinda gets over the trauma remarkably quickly…in about 12 hours, in fact, thanks to a pep talk by Richardson. Even though it is explained away as repression, I can’t say I found this to be convincing.

In fact, the reaction of everyone to what happened, once it comes out, are rather muted on that aspect. The focus is more on what will happen to the child than what happened to bring him about in the first place. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Locky’s wife Stella, who is jealous of Belinda and Richardson’s relationship. She had previously told Locky not to “get sweet on” Belinda, and once she finds out the truth, her response is less shock, horror, or disgust than spousal indignation.

Unknown.jpeg“I can’t believe you raped that girl after I specifically asked you not to.

We do see a bit of Belinda’s torment later on, when she sees Locky in church and is noticeably afraid (a scene that would be repeated, much more graphically, in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs [1971]), but aside from that, she quickly regains her old composure and the focus of the film becomes what will happen to her, her child, and Dr. Richardson. The townsfolk all believe the baby is the doctor’s, and make plans to steal him (the baby, not the doctor) and run the MacDonalds off their farm (haha).

Eventually, since the Production Code was still the Production Code even as it began to show signs of crumbling, Locky gets his comeuppance when he is shot dead by Belinda while attempting to steal her baby, and the truth comes out in her subsequent murder trial. Of course, the townspeople don’t learn any lesson and will probably facilitate more such violent hooligans in the future, but what does it matter once the credits roll?

Despite its contrivances, this is a great film. Like The Snake Pit, its performances are a joy to watch, as well as its focus on humanity, what drives people to do good even in the face of evil (“There’s only one shame: failing a human being who needs you”), and what it means to be alone. Each of the four main characters struggle with each of these in their own way.

In fact, it deals with many of the same themes as 1947’s winner, Gentleman’s Agreement: bigotry, ignorance, hive-mindedness, and violence against the unknown and misunderstood. The difference is that Johnny Belinda doesn’t tell us these things at every opportunity, or fill the last twenty minutes with monologues about what we’ve learned…it just tells a deceptively simple story with compelling characters and a lot of heart.

Well, that’s the first three films of 1948! I’ll be back soon with Part II, covering two of the greatest films ever made!

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