Trivial Matters #40 – Posthumous Awards

So today is Easter–Orthodox Easter, or, one might say, Correct Easter–and it inspired me to do an entry about posthumous Academy Award winners.

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Full disclosure: I originally intended to post this last Sunday, on Western Easter. But, as the Academy might say, “Better late than never.”

The Academy began nominating the dead from the very first awards, and the first person to receive a posthumous nomination was writer Gerald Duffy for The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927), for Best Title Writing. Duffy was the only person in this swiftly-discontinued category to be nominated for one movie; the winner, Joseph W. Farnham…

220px-Joseph_Farnham_001.jpgYou all know who he is, don’t play that hipster game.

…won for “No specific film,” further proving that the early awards really had no idea what they were doing. The other nominee, George Marion, Jr., was similarly nominated simply due to having the job of title writing. So, one could say that ol’ Duffy’s loss was also the upset in Oscars history. He died as he lived: dictating a script over the phone.

secretary-5-850x619.gif“My darling, I love you, please don’t oh god, my heart. Got it. Anything else, sir? Sir?”

Jeanne Eagels became the first performer to score a nomination the following year, in the category of Best Actress for The Letter, only to lose to Mary Pickford. Incidentally, when The Letter was remade by William Wyler in 1940, Bette Davis received a Best Actress nomination for the same role as Eagels, Leslie Crosbie, making it the first time two performers received Oscar nominations for playing the same character.

The first person to win a posthumous Oscar would be Sidney Howard, for the screenplay of Gone with the Wind (1939). This, despite the fact that several other writers worked on the script and the writing process, based on the final result, seems like it was limited to holding the book open and copying literally everything within. Howard remains the only posthumous writing winner.

Sidney_Coe_Howard_1909.jpgDaffy Duck put it best when he said, “It’s getting so you have to kill yourself to sell a story around here.”

The “deadest” ceremony in Academy history so far has been the 32nd, which featured two posthumous winners: Sam Zimbalest, producer of Best Picture Ben-Hur, and William A. Horning, winner of Best Art Direction for the same. This was Horning’s second consecutive posthumous award, having won the same award the year before for Gigi, making him the only person to win two posthumous Oscars.

The longest time a posthumous nominee spent dead before winning is eighteen years, due to the strange saga of Charles Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight. Upon its initial release, it was critically panned and even boycotted, until finally being screened in Los Angeles for the first time in 1972. Since this was, technically, its L.A. premiere, it was eligible for the 45th Academy Awards, where it won Best Original Score (Dramatic). This was Charlie Chaplin’s only competitive Oscar, easily the Academy’s most contrived “Sorry we screwed up” awards.

Charlie+Chaplin.jpg“Feels just like I always imagined it…”

Anyway, his two collaborators were also given the award, but both were long dead…Raymond Rasch, who died in 1964, and poor Larry Russell, dead since 1954. Due to the unusual circumstances, it is the only instance of two posthumous winners for the same film in the same category.

And who has received the most Academy attention while dead? That would be Howard Ashman, songwriter, who holds the record for most posthumous nominations with four (of seven total in his career), all for Best Original Song. Three of them were for Beauty and the Beast (1991)–“Belle”, “Be Our Guest”, and “Beauty and the Beast” (the winner). He then received another nomination the following year for Aladdin, for the song “A Friend Like Me”. Another song from the same film, “A Whole New World”, won the Oscar.

HowardAshman.jpgHe’d won an Oscar while alive for “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, so don’t feel too bad for him. Or, do…I mean, he still died at 40.

Finally, some acting milestones:

  • Massimo Troisi is the only person to score posthumous nominations for acting and writing, for Il Postino (Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay) at the 68th Academy Awards. Alas, both were unsuccessful.
  • Only two performers have won posthumously: Peter Finch for Best Actor (Network [1976]) and Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor (The Dark Knight [2008]).
  • James Dean remains the only performer with two posthumous nominations, both for Best Actor, for East of Eden (1955) and Giant (1956).
  • Best Lead Actor is the acting category with the most posthumous nominees, with five. In addition to those above, Spencer Tracy was nominated for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
    • Besides Heath Ledger, the only other posthumous Best Supporting Actor nominee was Ralph Richardson for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984).
    • The aforementioned Jeanne Eagels is the only posthumous Best Actress nominee, and there has never been a posthumous nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

I suppose I should close with honorable mentions for Dalton Trumbo, Carl Foreman, and Michael Wilson, all of whom won writing Oscars through fronts while blacklisted in the 1950s. Their proper credits, and places in Oscar history, were restored posthumously (and a little too late, if you ask me) by the Academy in the 80s and 90s. Meanwhile, Trumbo’s front for Roman Holiday (1953), Ian McLellan Hunter, may be the only person to lose an Oscar posthumously, since the Academy now, justifiably, gives Trumbo sole credit for its win for Best Story.

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Pictured: the moment after Hunter said to Audrey Hepburn, “Look, I won an Oscar, too!”

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27th Academy Awards (1954) – Part II

As I said in Part I, 1954 closed very well, and it will be very difficult for me to assess which was the stronger of the two remaining films. In addition to being great films in almost every respect with three future Angry Men between them, both featured career-high performances from their leading actors, at the head of impeccable work by their supporting casts…and both have uncomfortable Red Scare truths lurking in the background that take some ignoring if one wishes to judge them solely on their artistic merits. Apologies for the long entry, but these films really do warrant it!

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Last time we saw Edward Dmytryk was 1947’s Crossfire, an early crack at solving anti-Semitism with film noir that, alas, failed to live up to its promise (though a film that did even worse managed to win Best Picture). This gap is because he spent some time as one of the “Hollywood Ten,” and was in exile in England until Stanley Kramer brought him back to Hollywood in 1952. More on this later.

Shot in Technicolor despite clearly being a classic late-1940s black-and-white war drama, The Caine Mutiny–the film responsible for giving Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, Jr. his stage name–like From Here to Eternity last year, managed to be a nearly perfect film despite constant interference from the armed forces it (fictionally) portrays. The Navy objected to everything from the title to the premise of a mentally unbalanced (shell-shocked) captain, and the script took fifteen months of rewrites to meet their approval…which explains why the studio went with the tagline “At last on the screen!”

35zk3sl0pg1hb9.jpgI guess it was the best choice, after all.

The film is nominally about some rich Princeton grad named Ensign Willie Keith, an insufferable, arrogant twerp whose name I had to look up on Wikipedia, who is aghast that his first assignment is the ragtag, all-but-decommissioned minesweeper USS Caine. He spends most of the film in a state of patrician contempt, which puts him at odds with everyone except his inexplicably loyal fiancée May Wynn (May Wynn…the fact that they don’t change her name in the film perhaps reflects the minimal effort the writers, producers, and director put into her character). Pro-tip: when you watch this film, any scene in which none of the four top-billed actors are present can be safely skipped, to avoid the utterly superfluous romantic subplot between them…and, incidentally, making for a much better ending. This cuts about half an hour and saves you more than is necessary of his smug, punchable face.

Robert Francis  The Caine Mutiny (1954).jpg“I demand to be taken seriously.”

The film is really about Captain Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), the new skipper aboard the Caine, and his gradual mental unraveling, as witnessed by long-suffering executive officer Stephen Maryk (Van Johnson) and communications officer Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray at his weaselly best). Queeg arrives to the Caine with eight years of naval service behind him, the past three of which have been in combat, so he’s more than a little twitchy and set in his ways…which earns him the immediate dislike of Keefer, a cynical “writer” already openly contemptuous of the Navy and everyone in it.

MacMurray as Thomas Keefer is a less-sure-of-himself version of his triumph as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944), playing Keefer as a manipulative narcissist whose sole purpose in everything he does is protecting himself…even if he doesn’t particularly need protection. To that end, his unshakable (and almost immediate) belief in Queeg’s instability drives the plot, as he convinces Maryk and Keith to do his dirty work while maintaining plausible deniability to the very end. The closest thing in the film to a running joke is every other characters’ constant insistence that Keefer has no psychological background and thus no basis for judging Queeg’s mental state…though perhaps his own, better-hidden problem (antisocial personality disorder) gives him some insight into those of others.

The-Caine-Mutiny-19543-300x188.jpgJosé Ferrer sees it, of course, because he’s the man, but everyone else is hoodwinked.

After a series of increasingly disturbing breakdowns by Queeg, Maryk and Keith seize control of the Caine during a typhoon when it seems Queeg’s leadership is putting the ship in danger of foundering. They are, of course, court-martialed, and given very little chances for escaping execution, given Queeg’s spotless record. Enter Barry Greenwald, played so well by José Ferrer that he is the second-highest billed member of the cast despite only appearing in the final thirty minutes of the film. As soon as he enters the room for his initial meeting with the accused, you can see in his face (c.f. the above photo) that he knows exactly what needs to be done to win an acquittal, and that he hates every rotten moment of it.

And what needs to be done is, goad an innocent man–who has clearly been suffering, without help or even acknowledgement, for years while trying desperately to maintain his composure, his self-worth, and the respect of his subordinates–into a complete breakdown on the stand. To that end, he allows E.G. Marshall to steal 90% of the trial, expertly maneuvering Maryk and Keith into admitting their culpability in the mutiny, before calmly and stoically tearing Queeg down until the latter deteriorates into a sweaty, paranoid mess.


The faces of everyone at the end of this scene when they just can’t contain the awkward one second more…

The film then cuts to a scene of apparent triumph, as the officers gather to celebrate Maryk’s acquittal…even Keefer, though his reception by Maryk is frosty to say the least. But Greenwald isn’t finished with them.


If I were one to nitpick, I could point out that if he felt this way he was under no obligation to take the case in the first place, but whatever. It’s worth it to see tear Keefer a new one.

Now, to the actor that made the whole thing work, because if Queeg wasn’t a three-dimensional, sympathetic character, it all falls apart. Humphrey Bogart showed the Academy that they’d thrown him a “Hey, nice career” Oscar in 1951 too soon, as his amazing portrayal of Queeg–in addition to being the culmination of an incredible year that included Sabrina and The Barefoot Contessa–was much worthier of the honor than his (still great) role in The African Queen. Queeg is the natural progression of Bogart’s early “paranoid loner” characters in such classics as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, and here he finds himself truly adrift without any kind of lifeline, where everyone really is against him.

Though introduced as a tyrannical taskmaster, Bogart instills Queeg with such vulnerability and humanity that this notion is quickly dispelled in the minds of the audience, if not in those of the other characters. Queeg’s need to be in control stems from years of combat fatigue, yet he is intensely self-aware of his decline. After a particularly humiliating incident in which he (apparently) shows cowardice by turning the Caine away from an engagement, he bares his troubles to his subordinates and asks for their support…only to be met by stony silence and, later, mockery.

cainemutiny_thereaintnomorestrawberries_FC_470x264_022320160603.jpg“It’s because I eat sand for breakfast, isn’t it? Look, I’d rather you were honest.”

In the end, his fall is completed when he is unable to maintain his leadership in the aforementioned typhoon. Admittedly, Queeg is shown in this scene as unambiguously frozen and unable to command, making Maryk’s actions 100% justified…if one ignores the officers’ own blameworthiness in bringing the situation to such a head. And so Queeg takes the stand, and Bogart plays his slow but steady deterioration under Greenwald’s cross to an absolute tee. In a microcosm of his entire existence, going from self-assured to uncomfortable to angrily paranoid to, finally, scared, alone, and out of things to say. And with that, a career that should have ended in commendation instead fizzles out in awkward silence.

As I said, take away the bits with Keith, and it’s a perfect movie. Bogart was, of course, nominated for Best Actor but, in a rematch from 1951, justifiably lost the award to Marlon Brando.

Oh yeah, the Hollywood Ten thing…and since I’m already up to 1,400 words here, I’ll keep it quick. Edward Dmytryk was originally indicted, but later decided that “Hollywood Nine” sounded better and turned on his fellow blacklistees to became a friendly witness for the HUAC, in what is described in legalese a “dick move.” And so, he got to continue working and get Oscar nominations while his (former) friends languished. Still, it’s not like he made a whole movie about how he was really the persecuted and brave one. I mean, who would do that?

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Elia Kazan, that’s who.

I absolutely love On the Waterfront: the gritty, on-location cinematography in Hoboken, Manhattan always hazily looming like a dreamscape in the background; the gut-wrenching and honest performances from Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and of course Rod Steiger, all five of whom were nominated for Oscars; the unsettling score by Leonard Bernstein; that amazing moment with the glove…it’s just incredible. So it was a bit of a downer for me to find out it was all a vanity project by Kazan to paint himself as a crusading hero for selling his friends down the river.

kazan.jpg“We even kind of look alike, don’t we?”
“…No.”

Yes, Kazan earned the disdain of many in Hollywood–including his friend and frequent collaborator Arthur Miller–for agreeing to testify and name names to the HUAC. Not too much disdain, mind you…almost everyone in power in Hollywood at the time, from all the studio heads to big shots like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, supported the blacklist and actively worked to keep the Commies out of the pictures for as long as they could. So, Kazan’s equating himself (and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, another friendly witness who replaced Arthur Miller when the latter fell out with Kazan over the aforementioned betrayal testimony) with Terry Malloy is a bit of a stretch. Also, the fact that the film won eight Oscars is a good indicator that Kazan wasn’t exactly being persecuted for his actions.

I’ll try to ignore it for the time being, but I will probably want to address it later. First, let’s talk about the film on its own, and that puts me in a better mood because on its own it is amazing. For all the reasons I said above, it was an easy choice for Best Picture this year, especially since Rear Window wasn’t nominated.

1954-Three-Coins-in-the-Fountain-09.jpgObviously, they had to leave some films out, to make room for this masterpiece.

Say what I will about Elia Kazan, the man knew how to get amazing performances out of his actors, both on stage and screen, and On the Waterfront is probably his triumph in this regard. Marlon Brando finally won Best Actor (on his record fourth consecutive nomination*, following A Streetcar Named Desire [1951], Viva Zapata! [1952], and Julius Caesar [1953]) for his role as simple, overly-trusting ex-boxer-turned-errand-boy Terry Malloy.

The film opens with Terry unwittingly setting up a friend, Joey Doyle, to be murdered by union boss Johnny Friendly, innocently (and a little unbelievably) thinking that Friendly’s goons want to meet Joey on the roof of a tenement house, in the middle of the night, just to “talk.” From here he begins his journey from easily-manipulated mob pawn to easily-manipulated whistleblower, with the help of Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and impossible-to-intimidate local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden). Opposite them are Friendly himself (Lee J. Cobb) and Terry’s brother and Friendly’s righthand man, Charley (Rod Steiger).

Friendly is the mob-controlled boss of the local dockworkers’ union, and since the price of disobedience is any number of fatal accidents and OSHA is still about twenty-seven years away, all the workers living in poverty would rather play D&D…

91TV+vSWHGL._SX425_.jpgNo, that was even further away than workplace protections.

That is, they’d rather be “deaf and dumb” to all the corruption that risk their lives for decent pay and steady work. Incidentally, the suggestion that maybe unions didn’t have the best interests of the workers at heart and might actually be riddled with corruption and graft was apparently very upsetting to Hollywood studios, and at one point Columbia Pictures agreed to finance the film on the condition that the antagonists be Communists, instead.

e0f5a1a95c37fbbaf4f1d08bcb783c9a.jpg“Also, instead of pigeons, what if he raised eagles?”

Fortunately, even Kazan thought that this would be a little on-the-nose. Anyway, Terry is torn between loyalty to his brother and to Friendly, who (he believes) has been a father figure to him all his life, and to his awakening conscience. Friendly and Charley employ the only method they know–strong-arming–while Edie and Father Barry, being supporting characters in a Code-era film, know all they need to do is gently push in the right direction and wait for the inevitable moral dominoes to fall. And in the end, the rest of the longshoremen are about as easy to convince as Marc Antony’s crowd in Julius Caesar…they just go along with whichever side gave the last rousing speech (or in this case, ass-kicking).

As you may have guessed, I have nothing but praise for Brando’s performance in this film…he embodies Terry Malloy’s struggle in every scene and every confused, conflicted expression. His scenes with Malden are particularly effective, with the dynamic between them the exact reversal of Streetcar, as Malden towers, confident and authoritative, over the juvenile, naïve Brando. In the end, it’s a kind of sad relationship, as Terry shifts his absent father complex onto Father Barry, who, it seems to me, never comes to admire or even respect him…he just uses him as a tool, same as (nearly) everyone else.

On-the-Waterfront-001“Think you got one more round in you, slugger?”

Just about the only person in the film who actually treats Terry as a human being is Edie, though admittedly she too has a pretty severe conflict of interest (wanting to avenge her brother’s murder). Her attitude towards Terry is the most dramatic shift in the story, as she goes from indifference to pity to affection, then briefly to anger and malevolence about the whole sending-Joey-to-his-death thing, and finally to genuine love for the big lug. Their first scene together is bloody outstanding, with the two characters working towards two very different goals–he trying to establish a human connection with probably the only innocent human being he has ever met, she just wishing she had a tennis ball to distract him with–and the two actors carry it off brilliantly.


For me, few moments in film history equal Brando sitting, childlike, on the swing, absentmindedly slipping her glove onto his hand, while she thinks about saying something and then just lets it go.

Of course, in a film chockfull of great dialogue, performances, and scenes, one stands out in particular as the greatest, the one that has been alternately idolized, copied, parodied ever since. The best supporting performance in the film comes courtesy of Rod Steiger as Charley, who, like Terry, is stuck in a seemingly inescapable web of conflicting loyalties; the difference is that Charley is smart enough to realize just how bad it is, and to see that for him, at least, there is no way out once Terry starts to slip from his grip. Steiger is so damned good that one can see this in Charley’s face from his very first moment onscreen…with nothing else but Steiger’s body language and intonation, we see that Charley has been struggling to keep Terry from questioning anything about Friendly’s operation for a long damn time, for both their sakes, and he’s exhausted.

Deep down, though, he understands that Terry has to break free, and no one–not him, not all the waterfront muscle, not Friendly himself–can stop it. And he also knows that he won’t, can’t, be around to see his brother’s redemption, which may explain the fatalism that creeps in as the film progresses, as he sees the end clearer and clearer, until finally the brothers are thrown together for the confrontation that has been building for years. Despite thinking he has a handle on the situation, Charley is still blindsided by the realization that Terry–his sweet, trusting kid brother–has always known who was to blame for his (Terry’s) unremarkable, nowhere life:


That line, “You was my brother, Charley,” in the past tense, says it all.

Unfortunately, since Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” monologue (rightfully) gets a lot of attention, I couldn’t find a clip with the build-up to this moment, but obviously you should watch the whole film to see it. Steiger is incredible in this scene, better than Brando even, and definitely should have won the Oscar.

sidney-poitier-and-rod-steiger-in-the-heat-of-the-night-1967-directed-F4PRT0.jpgThough he would have his day…we’re coming to that.

So yeah, On the Waterfront is a pretty impeccable film on its own merits and was deserving of all the Oscars it won (and a few that it didn’t). However, as I said, one must take into account the motivation and the political message behind it, and then it becomes a bit harder to credit. Kazan saw himself as Terry Malloy, a man at first willfully blind and complicit in the horrible corruption around him, finally realizing that it’s worth the (temporary) contempt of his fellows–for whom he, of course, is sacrificing himself the entire time–if he can do his part to take the bastards down. And so he made the perfect film about his situation, except he got one thing wrong…he wasn’t Terry Malloy at all, he was Johnny Friendly, ruthlessly taking out dissenters at the behest of those in power.

download.jpg“Well, I’m not going to beat myself up over that.”

But of course, the Oscars are all about judging films on their merit, in theory anyway, and so On the Waterfront was the clear winner for 1954, telling a timeless story that continues to resonate long after the demise of the political clusterfuck that birthed it. Thanks for staying with me through this very long entry…the reward is, another Oscars in the books! On to 1955, the year of Ernest Borgnine!


* Record for male performers, anyway…both Bette Davis and Greer Garson received five consecutive Best Actress nominations (1938-42 and 1941-45, respectively).

27th Academy Awards (1954) – Part I

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  • On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan*
  • The Caine Mutiny, Edward Dmytryk
  • The Country Girl, George Seaton
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Stanley Donen
  • Three Coins in the Fountain, Jean Negulesco

1954 was an odd year, with the Best Picture nominees reflecting a strange mix between the old and the new. The 1940s were still hanging on, with two black-and-white, grittily realistic films, contrasted by two over-the-top advertisements for Technicolor that heralded the second half of the decade better than any film so far…and that are, ironically, by far the most dated of the nominees. Straddling the line between them was The Caine Mutiny, a 1940s drama with a 1950s look and feel, and the result is one of the most schizophrenic slates I have yet seen.

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Not that I wasn’t before, but after watching Seven Brides for Seven Brothers I find myself very glad that my introduction to musicals came with Gene Kelly and Singin’ in the Rain, because without the unwavering love of the genre that began on that day, I don’t think I could have survived this nominee. As a collection of catchy songs and some of the hootenanniest dance numbers ever filmed, it’s undoubtedly resplendent, but as a film it falls woefully short. I get that musicals often play fast and loose with the story and characters, usually writing just enough dialogue to bridge the gap between songs, but it can go too far…and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is what happens when nobody bothers proofreading scripts before they go into production.

The story is this: Adam, the eldest of seven alphabetically-named, backwoodsman brothers, arrives in town to sell his wares and get him a bride…singing his intentions with a song called “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”, which should be the first red flag to any woman he approaches. But because this is a musical comedy, he finds a willing partner in Milly, to whom he freely admits that what he’s looking for is not love but someone who can cook and clean and slop the pigs. Since this is still one of the better lives a woman in 1850s Oregon could hope for, she accepts his proposal and they ride off into the mountains, where she finds his even less couth brothers waiting. And in this remote place where no one can hear you scream, a plot not entirely unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ensues, only with more dance numbers and less cannibalism.

SBFSB-Bros.pngNot no cannibalism, but certainly less.

It may seem a strange comparison, but hear me out: both films feature an isolated family, living alone in the middle of nowhere with little to no contact with the outside world, with their own strange customs…

Seven-Brides-610x380.a8ea2849f91de4a3007c3eb5160bcd97.jpg

…who, following the lead of the eldest, kidnap and imprison the objects of their desire, secure in the knowledge that no one is coming for them. Admittedly the similarities end there, but it’s enough to get across the creeping horror film lurking under the surface.

When Adam’s six younger brothers see Milly, their desire for a wife is awoken, and they set their sights on the only six women their own age in the nearest town, who helpfully wear different colored clothing to help them, and the audience, tell them apart…since the film doesn’t waste time actually developing their characters or nonsense like that. Adam, being the romantic of the family, encourages them to kidnap the women and hold them at the cabin, cut off by the snows from potential rescue, until they accept their horrible, horrible fate fall in love with the brothers, too.

seven-brides-5.pngWho are also helpfully color-coded.

So, they swoop down on the village under cover of night and steal the girls away, then cause an avalanche that prevents them being stolen back by the evil townsfolk…who are actually the girls’ worried-sick families, but they’re not featured on the poster so we’re not concerned with them or their ruined lives. The girls are, rightfully, terrified and angry when they arrive at the cabin, but within a few minutes of screentime are back to being the flirtatious ingenues the brothers fell in love with.

SevenBridesSevenBrothers_07.jpg“It’s hard to stay mad about the whole violent abduction and imprisonment business, when we got these sweet petticoats out of it.”

Hopefully by now you’ve figured out what’s wrong with this picture, so before we get to the good parts of the film, I’ll spoil the ending: Milly has a baby, and when the snow melts and the law arrives to rescue the girls and imprison the brothers in the most secure location they can find, all six unwed maidens claim the child as theirs. Instead of trying for even a moment to suss the truth out of this easily disprovable lie (for example, by randomly asking one of the brothers how one goes about making a baby), their honorable families immediately demand that they marry all the brothers, just to be on the safe side.

So, yeah, the story is awful. But in terms of pure dance, this is a wonderful musical. The songs are imaginative, both in terms of lyrics and music, and the dances make great use of the sets and talents of the leads. The choreographer, Michael Kidd, recalled years later the difficulties of the film’s premise: “Here are these slobs living off in the woods. They have no schooling, they are uncouth, there’s manure on the floor, the cows come in and out – and they’re gonna get up and dance? We’d be laughed out of the house.” Apparently, he had never seen a movie musical before.

Wizard-of-Oz-RSC-and-MUNI1-541x346.jpgPresumably he had to be escorted out of the theatre in 1939 when he started ranting about how lions don’t actually walk on two legs.

Nevertheless, he managed it, and maybe it was I was distracted by the misogynistic violence that forms the film’s comedic center, but I never questioned the whys and wherefores when the characters suddenly broke into dance about literally every thought that pops into their heads. And many of the numbers are genuinely imaginative and perfectly executed, such as the barn-raising dance that almost makes you think these brothers aren’t exactly like the jackasses they’re trying to outwoo:


Don’t worry, everyone, this degenerates into a hilarious fistfight moments later.

In the end, though, it’s not enough to save the movie, and I was glad when it ended. Now, a week after watching it, I would be hard-pressed to remember the words to any of the songs or the names of the characters I didn’t look up on Wikipedia to write the above plot summary. It’s a pretty weak musical and an undeniably terrible film, though I think I may still like it better than the next one…

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Watching films like Julius CaesarThe Robe, and Roman Holiday from last year, a bunch of executives at 20th Century Fox got the idea that the only real audience-pleasing aspect of those movies was Rome per se, and decided to dump a ton of money into a Technicolor travelogue that left little budget for the script, an editor, or acting classes. It was for Rome what Trader Horn (1931) and King Solomon’s Mines (1950) were for Africa, an excuse to see pretty pictures of a place without having to follow an actual story. How the Academy decided that this was worth a Best Picture nomination over Rear Window, A Star is Born, and Sabrina is kind of astounding.

But, they did, so I am duty bound to talk about it. If you’ll forgive a slight misuse of the word, the “plot” of the film centers on three women who are in Rome looking for love, and the people unlucky enough to exist in their world. One of them, Miss Frances (seriously, that’s her character’s full name) has already found it in the form of septuagenarian misanthrope John Frederick Shadwell (Clifton Webb, whom we last saw as almost the exact same character in The Razor’s Edge [1946]). Her entire arc consists of waiting for him to fall in love with her.

21476278203_60f9893a80_b.jpg“I’ll be back here.”

Another is Anita Hutchins (Jean Peters, whom you may recall from The Robenot the film, just the poster), who is going back to the US to get married…or so she claims. In fact, she has no fiancée, but can’t bear to tell people she’s failed in the aspirations of every woman her age, and so even when dashing Italian co-worker Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi) makes a pass at her, she refuses, for reasons known only to the illiterate badgers who wrote the screenplay.

Finally, there is Maria Williams (Maggie McNamara), the newest arrival in Rome and who is the most overt about her intentions; with the exception of telling Anita her name at the beginning of the film, everything she says and does is about her goal of finding and keeping an Italian man. This poor soul is Prince Dino di Cessi (Louis Jourdan, though not that one), and she gets him by pulling a Phil Connors: pretending to be interested in everything he is. Dino never suspects he’s being had, despite Maria’s being laughably incompetent at pretending to be intelligent.

22071223286_c37127f7d3_b.jpg“I find this work very lifelike, almost as if it’s moving.”
“That’s the security guard.”

The fountain in the title is the Trevi Fountain, into which the ladies toss the titular three coins (though only two of them actually do…damn it, every aspect of this film is a conspiracy to piss me off). The film also ends there, with all of them reunited with their beaux–all of whom had been estranged at some point, the circumstances of which are too contrived to bother recapping. And off they go to live their bland, missionary-position lives.

As I said, the plot was given very little import by anyone concerned…what the people really wanted, and what the film delivered, was color shots of Rome and Venice (Dino kindly takes Maria and Anita to Venice by plane one day, so we could see it from the air), to make idle middle-class families call their travel agents and suburban GIs nostalgic for the city they once occupied. It’s almost comforting to think of these characters as self-aware figments of the Italian Tourism Board’s collective subconscious, because it gives them far more reason to exist than if they were actually people whose lives we are supposed to care about. But even though it is the only reason the movie exists, the city of Rome and the glimpses of the surrounding countryside manage to fall flat as well…unlike Roman Holiday, which made the city a central character in itself, this film just points a camera at it and hopes for the best.

The result is a big, fat nothing of a film that no one should watch, ever, under any circumstances. But writing about it did serve one purpose: ruminating on this movie has made me sad and depressed, which is a good frame of mind to be in when reviewing the next film…

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I knew nothing about this film going in, except the title and the fact that Grace Kelly had (been seen as having) stolen the Best Actress award from Judy Garland, the heavily-favored nominee for A Star is Born. And at first, I watched half of The Barefoot Contessa, with Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner, before I realized it wasn’t the film that was nominated. I’m glad I noticed and corrected my mistake, which would have otherwise made this entry pretty embarrassing…though I did finish the latter film and thought it was quite good. Go watch it, if only for Edmund O’Brien’s smarmy role as an incompetent publicist.

humphrey-bogart-thebarefootcontessa-6.jpgAnd to see what heavy smoking and drinking can do to a man. Bogie was 31 years old.

Anyway, The Country Girl also stars Bing Crosby and William Holden, and was directed by George Seaton, so the talent was certainly in place to make a hell of a movie…and they did. The film, a stark black-and-white domestic drama about a washed-up singer/actor being given a second chance, is a surprisingly realistic and uncomfortable examination of alcoholism, misogyny, and PTSD, and the effects of all three on human relationships.

the_lost_weekend.jpgThink The Lost Weekend, only somehow even darker.

Bing Crosby (himself the favored Best Actor nominee) is electric as Frank Elgin, a faded star who secures the lead in a new Broadway musical at the insistence of writer/director Ernie Dodd (William Holden), over the objections of literally everyone else involved in the production. Between Dodd and Elgin is Elgin’s harried, overstressed wife, Georgie (Grace Kelly), who cautions Dodd that Elgin is in a very delicate frame of mind and might not be able to handle the pressure. Frank explains to Dodd that Georgie is an alcoholic, which led Frank himself to start drinking…at which point Georgie, who is insecure and controlling, immediately gave up the bottle and started taking care of every aspect of Frank’s life.

Dodd (whose unwavering faith in Frank is only barely adequately explained), having been through a bitter divorce and thus acquired a deep animosity towards women, accepts this explanation and becomes immediately hostile towards Georgie, blaming her for everything that subsequently goes wrong. In reality, both are being manipulated by Frank, who, desperate for attention but suffering from cripplingly low self-worth, plays them against each other so that both are fighting for/over him. Dodd, blinded by misogyny, continues to believe Frank long after the audience is let in on Frank’s deception, and when he finally figures it out, Georgie is rightfully pissed.

the-country-girl-ss3.jpg“Come on, this is only awkward if you let it be.”

All three principal actors play their roles free from melodrama, in spite of the sometimes heavy pathos of the script, which was a welcome refresher after the over-the-top glitziness of the two movies I started the year with. Crosby in particular plays the dark side of his public “crooner” image to the hilt…though in light of revelations about his treatment of his wife and children, perhaps it’s not as amazing an acting job as it first appears. William Holden is also stellar as the bullheaded Dodd, at once pitiable in his work-obsessed life and unbelievably aggravating in his refusal to see things right in front of his face…which is the most realistic antagonist a movie can have.

image-w448.jpgThough there has to be a moment, perhaps when you’re literally screaming abuse at a crying woman, that you have to wonder if maybe you’re the bad guy.

The center and true protagonist of the film, of course, is Grace Kelly, playing against type as the exhausted, unglamorous Georgie (unglamorous, that is, until Frank straightens out and they are reaccepted into the theatre elite…then she becomes America’s sweetheart Grace Kelly again). She spends every moment of screentime in the film’s first hour and a quarter quietly taking abuse from both male leads: Frank’s steady stream of passive-aggressive manipulation alternating with cringeworthy bouts of self-defeat, and Dodd’s cathartic, increasingly vitriolic attacks on her every word and thought. The fact that it is believable that she doesn’t collapse and/or flee from the burning building that is her life is down to Kelly’s performance, exuding a silent strength and resilience that Frank and Dodd only realize is there at the very end.

Aside from the very, very forced romance that threatens to blossom between Georgie and Dodd after Dodd works out that she’s actually not a succubus bent on crushing the balls of every man she meets, the film progresses at a steady and well-balanced pace. Naturally it ends with Frank becoming successful and Georgie staying by his side, but the final scene between the three leads is not triumphant at all, and is in fact devastatingly honest: Dodd is left alone, pining for Georgie and what she represents (a life where his work is not everything); Georgie stays with Frank but one can see, despite her love for him, the grim determination it takes to make that decision; and Frank freely admits to both of them that he can’t promise he won’t wind up just as bad as he was, or worse, in a week or even a few days. So as we fade to black, no one has really changed…just like real life.

As I said, it’s a hell of a film, a huge step up from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Three Coins in the Fountain by being, paradoxically, a perfect example of a well-executed 1940s-style drama. The latter two can be forgiven, perhaps, for belonging to an era that was only just starting to find its feet, but that they are still pretty bad. Thankfully, that will not be the case next week, which will cover two of my favorite films of all time and lead us into 1955. Onward!

Shakespeare at the Oscars

On this, the Ides of March, it seems befitting to devote some time to the rich history of Shakespeare in cinema. The Bard has been a source of inspiration almost as long as there have been moving pictures–the earliest, barely-extant film of one of his plays is a very short advertisement for a stage production of King John from 1899, filmed on the banks of the Thames in London. The Guinness Book of Records claims that there have been 410 feature films adapted from his works, and he is listed as a credited writer on nearly 1,300 films, according imdb.com.

Just as with musicals, the Academy has a tumultuous history with Shakespeare, bouncing from googly-eyed admiration to pointed indifference and back again…though he seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years. Many adaptations have been nominated, but as of now, only two Shakespearean films have taken home Best Picture.

MV5BM2ZkNjM5MjEtNTBlMC00OTI5LTgyYmEtZDljMzNmNzhiNzY0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDYyMDk5MTU@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_.jpgNot counting Shakespeare in Love, because why would I?

Shakespeare got his Oscar debut in 1935, with the ensemble comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Presumably inspired by Grand Hotel (the original Ocean’s 11), this production threw as many big names into the mix as possible hoping for chemistry. Maybe it was because the director didn’t actually speak English, or maybe it was because no one ever spoke up at a meeting to suggest that casting Dick Powell in a Shakespeare play probably wouldn’t work out, but the result was a decidedly sloppy affair. Here’s Olivia de Havilland, who made her screen debut as Hermia, desperately overselling it in a promo:


Still better than anything in the movie, and still better than most trailers today.

The film was rightfully vilified, though critics were kind to James Cagney’s surprisingly decent performance as Bottom, and it wasn’t quite the fatal blow to Shakespeare at the movies that it could have been. However, it definitely proved that twelve Best Picture nominees was too many, and the following year the slate was cut down to ten, where it remained for a further eight years.

The fatal blow would come the following year, with Romeo and Juliet, starring Leslie Howard, the only man I ever loved, and Norma Shearer. I was definitely overexcited for this one, as it starred two of my absolute favorite early Hollywood performers, and since they were trained in the Shakespearean arts it seemed a perfect match. Unfortunately, as the film progresses it becomes very clear why R&J is written about, and usually stars, teenagers: the plot and dialogue just look and sound ridiculous when the actors are older than, say, eighteen. Shearer and Howard were both in their late 30s or early 40s, and John Barrymore was cast as Mercutio despite being 54 goddamn years old, so even though their sonorous voices drip with emotion and gravitas, it cannot hide the fact that people their age should just…know better.


Jesus, grow up…

Critics and audiences were quick to realize that they were simply watching a story about immature assholes, and the film lost nearly a million dollars. Hollywood, and the Oscars, learned a valuable lesson about the importance of casting films properly…just kidding, they decided it was Shakespeare’s fault and a great Bard famine swept the land. Grahame Greene famously said that he was “less than ever convinced that there is an aesthetic justification for filming Shakespeare at all,” which is, ironically, a bit of shade that Shakespeare himself probably would have thrown if he’d been around.

As usual, it took Laurence Olivier to save the day. In 1944, with World War II grinding along, Winston Churchill asked him to make a movie that would restore morale in Britain after Noël Coward’s In Which We Serve almost caused the Allies to surrender from embarrassment. Olivier responded with Henry V, a sumptuously inventive and visually stunning film that restored Shakespeare to the attention of cinemagoers and showed that adaptations of his plays could be artistically and commercially successful.

Beginning in the Globe Theatre with a contemporary exhibition of Shakespeare’s latest play, showing all the background preparation and even the mental rituals of the actors playing the roles, the film transports the audience, dreamlike, first to stylized sets and matte backgrounds and then to the fields of Agincourt itself, where Olivier, in his element as a man surrounded by a sea of onlookers hanging on his every word, delivered the rousing Band of Brothers soliloquy that embiggens the hearts all who hear it:


No music, no close-ups…just pure Olivier, which is all Shakespeare ever needed.

From this climax, the film transitions back through the sets and finally to the Globe again, and finally the camera pans away across Elizabethan London, as the music swells with the certainty that the film’s work is done.

Just two years after Henry V scored a nomination for Best Picture at the 19th Academy Awards (losing–and, despite my admiration, justly–to The Best Years of Our Lives), Olivier topped himself with Hamlet (1948), itself the most filmed of all Shakespeare’s plays (over fifty versions, of extremely varying quality). Excising all the political mumbojumbo and focusing his attention, as was his wont, on the psychological struggle, he created a sombre, austere masterpiece of cinematography, acting, and directing…not to mention the inspired casting of Eileen Herlie, an actress twelve years his junior, to play Hamlet’s mother.

Hamlet was one of the first major upset wins at the Oscars, beating out the heavy favorite, John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, although the latter did scoop Olivier (again, I think justly) for Best Director. Olivier himself became the first–and, until 1998, only–person to direct himself to an acting Oscar.

After Hamlet, the Academy took a short break from Shakespeare before James Mason, John Gielgud, and Marlon Brando stood up and demanded their attention once again with Julius Caesar (1953). I’ve recently covered this film in my article about the 26th Academy Awards, so I’ll keep it short here…but just to reinforce how truly great Brando’s performance was, here, by comparison, is Charlton Heston’s smarmy take on Marc Antony in the genuinely horrible 1970 adaptation:


If you can make it through this, you’re braver than Marc Antony ever was.

Anyway, Julius Caesar did not win Best Picture, because Hollywood had gotten it out of their system with Hamlet and also because this was also the year of From Here to Eternity and nothing was going to beat that. However, the next time Shakespeare (kind of) found his way into the Best Picture list, he won big: this time with a snappy modern take on Romeo and Juliet, complete with musical numbers and Rita Moreno. I’m talking, of course, about West Side Story, already covered in my Musicals at the Oscars article from last year.


It pains me to say this, but this is so much better than Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer’s version…

Of all the attempts to “update” Shakespeare, this one works best, because it, like Shakespeare, takes advantage of the zeitgeist and gives the people what they want. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a brief and extravagant time for musicals, as the genre raked in Best Pictures the whole decade before fading into obscurity again (which you know from the other article, faithful reader!). So the time was just right for a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, starring actors who were a bit closer to the appropriate age–though still not getting it exactly right–and damn it, it works.

Unlike Hamlet, which was a clear upset, West Side Story was destined to clean up at the Oscars…and it did, sweeping up ten of its eleven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and both Supporting Acting awards, plus, for good measure, an Honorary Award for co-director Jerome Robbins.

Jerome_Robbins.jpgThis is a picture of him from 20 years prior, but I could not, in good conscience, not use it.

After West Side Story, there was only one Shakespearean Best Picture nominee still to come…though in the intervening years, Olivier’s 1965 version of Othello managed to score four acting nominations without earning a nod for Picture (the third of four such films to date). Oliver’s Best Actor nomination was his fourth for a Shakespearean role.

But the last to vie for the top prize came in 1968, and it was yet another Romeo and Juliet adaptation, this one from Italian director Franco Zeffirelli and actually starring teenagers in the title roles. I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t really comment on it…but for the purposes of this overview of Shakespeare at the Oscars, suffice it to say that it is, to date, the last of the Bard’s plays to see a Best Picture nomination. Unfortunately for it, the Academy was still in the grip of dance fever, and awarded Best Picture to Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver! instead of this.

maxresdefault.jpgOr, you know, this…but we’ll get to that in good time.

Shakespeare has not been totally absent from the Academy Awards in the intervening forty-nine Oscars…in 1989, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Henry V scored him nominations for Best Director and Best Actor, and his 1996 version of Hamlet managed to do what Olivier’s had not: receive an Oscar nomination for Writing. Aside from a few technical nominations for some lesser-known films, that has been about it.

So, it seems that Hollywood is over Shakespeare again, and obviously Shakespeare in Love had to be one of the strongest nails in that splintery coffin. Since it is extremely unlikely that we will ever have another Olivier come along to revitalize the genre (Branagh tried gamely but he never really did it), perhaps we have seen the last of Shakespeare as Best Picture fodder. As with musicals, though, I await the next great leap forward. In closing, I’ll leave you with my favorite filmic Shakespearean soliloquy, delivered courtesy of the amazing Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I (1987):

26th Academy Awards (1953) – Part II

(Part I.) 

1953 finished very, very strong, with two of my favorite directors delivering films that are rightly considered among the best of their age, and possibly of all time. Both these films are master classes in acting, writing, directing, and cinematography, and in different ways, were equal joys to watch and review.

roman-holiday-eddie-albert-gregory-peck-audrey-hepburn-1953_u-L-PT9PSU0.jpg

The Roman Invasion of 1953 entered the contemporary age with Roman Holiday, one of the few forays William Wyler made into comedy. On paper, it looks amazing, but perhaps not as amazing as some other films with similar cast and crew…produced and directed by Wyler, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and written by Dalton Trumbo (while he was blacklisted, living in Mexico and working through fronts). Maybe I’ve seen too many recent romantic comedies to get excited by the them anymore, even after seeing such early gems as The Smiling Lieutenant and It Happened One Night.

In what I’m beginning to suspect is becoming a tired narrative device on this blog, I was proven happily wrong. The film not only does not disappoint, but Wyler’s trademark focus on character and compelling emotional arcs elevate the film above its genre and ensure its timelessness, and in the process he directed his tenth Academy Award-winning performance. And Trumbo’s kinæsthetic, witty script certainly needs a hand as sure as Wyler’s, seeing how about 90% of the film’s dialogue is shared between just three performers.

Roman Holiday has probably the easiest-to-describe plot of any film I’ve reviewed so far in this project: a young, bored princess escapes and has a day out in Rome (a holiday, if you will) with a reporter, and they inevitably fall in love. In any other film I would call this fast-tracked romance a typical Hollywood cliché, but honestly, twelve hours seems far too long a time to take to fall in love with Audrey Hepburn. In her Hollywood debut, she plays Princess Ann, who is deeply unhappy and needs to get out and live.

audrey-hepburn-roman-holiday-28.jpgAccording to Hollywood, we should all feel very sorry for these unlucky sadsacks born into limitless wealth and privilege.

Fortunately for her, the man to do it, American freelance reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), is in Rome and more than willing to squire the erstwhile princess around town in hopes of getting a scoop. To that end, he takes the very well-known and, one would think, instantly recognizable royal to such places as the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum, and the Pantheon. This being before the time when the holiday would have been over faster than you could tweet “lol Ann takes a bath in the Tiber #princessgraceless”, they manage to stay incognito the entire day.

And so, starting down the royal road to romance, they gallivant around Rome on foot and on Vespa, accompanied by Joe’s photography buddy, the adorably dense Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert), taking clandestine snaps of the unending hilarity. The series of romantic mishaps these krazy kids get into are all straight out of the screwball comedy playbook, but the lively direction by Wyler, the infectious chemistry between Peck and Hepburn, and the wonderfully realistic ending all work to keep the film from ever descending into cliché.

giphy.gifMaybe I’m wrong about the clichés, but on the other hand, wheeeeeeeeeeee!

To say the film is a delight is a massive understatement. Aside from some very well-handled moments of pathos, the film is an upbeat celebration of life and the joy that comes from breaking free from its constraints every now and again. The fledgling romance between Joe and Ann develops naturally and never feels forced, and doesn’t succumb to the usual Hollywood “eternal love at first sight” bilge; it becomes, and remains, the intense but fleeting emotional connection that it should be. The escalating fun they have together mirrors their increased comfort in each other’s company, made all the more compelling by their shared knowledge that their relationship will end when Ann turns into a pumpkin at midnight.

And turn into a pumpkin she does…at the end of the night, Joe pulls up to a corner near her palace, and they have a brief, nearly wordless goodbye, knowing the futility of saying anything. She gets out and disappears, and he sadly goes home, both to resume the lives they’d had twenty-four hours earlier. The next day, Joe and Irving attend her scheduled press conference, where the three of them share a smile of recognition and conspiracy together, and Irving gives her all the photographs of her holiday. It’s a genuinely sweet moment, perfectly acted by the three principals and directed with panache by Wyler.

Afterwards, Ann vanishes back into her royal life, and Joe lingers a minute or two before slowly walking out of the hall, doubtless to grab a coffee with Irving before their next assignment. Wyler draws out Joe’s departure, doubtless exploiting the expectation of the romcom ending in which Ann would suddenly call out Joe’s name and run into his arms before the music swells and the credits roll…but no such ridiculousness occurs. The events of the film remain as the title promised: a holiday, to remain forever perfect in the memory of those involved…or at least as perfect as human memory is capable of.

roman-holiday-watching-recommendation-videoSixteenByNineJumbo1600.jpgHe’ll remember her, because she’s a princess and he’ll see her in photos and newsreels all the time, but in ten years time, she’ll vaguely recall a day out in Paris with Cary Grant.

So in the end, they all go their separate ways…Ann continues her daily grind of galas, museum openings, and balcony waving, Joe goes back to the grind of being an expat reporter, and Irving marries a Gabor and moves to Hooterville. It’s actually kind of sad to think about, but their loss is our gain, as we’re left with two hours of classic cinema, a film which, by all accounts I’ve read, was as fun to make as it is to watch. It was definitely a wise decision to sacrifice color photography in favor of location shooting, as the movie becomes a celebration of Rome in much the same way 1951’s Best Picture was a celebration of Paris (even if that one was filmed entirely on the backlot).

Hepburn, originally to receive lowly “Introducing…” credit but elevated to star billing at Gregory Peck’s insistence, earned the Academy Award for Best Actress, continuing Wyler’s penchant for directing Oscar-winning debuts (cf. Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives [1946], and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl [1968]). The film also won for Dalton Trumbo’s story, and since Trumbo was blacklisted at the time, fellow screenwriter and future blacklistee Ian McLellan Hunter received credit (and the Oscar) instead. In 1993, the Academy finally acknowledged Trumbo’s achievement and gave his Oscar to his widow…they had to cast a new statuette when, in a colossal display of pettiness, Hunter’s son refused to return his father’s (fake) award.

It’s a timeless, amazing, and nearly perfect film…but not as nearly perfect, or not nearly as perfect, as the year’s winner…

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It’s rare for a film to receive five acting nominations (only nine have, and none since 1976), and even rarer that three of the nominations are in lead categories. From Here to Eternity, the first Best Picture set during World War II since Casablanca, is one of the three to achieve both feats, as every actor on the above poster received at least a nomination at the 26th Academy Awards. And man, did they earn them.

from-here-to-eternity.jpg“Jesus, relax, Ernest. You’ll get one in a couple of years.”

Last year, director Fred Zinnemann gave us High Noon, a film which is almost perfect in every way…and here, he does it again, but without the uncomfortable fascist overtones. Eternity tells the story of three soldiers stationed at Pearl Harbor in the months leading to the attack in December 1941: career NCO Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), whose tough exterior belies a sensitive, confused individual who cares deeply for the men in his command; and buddy troublemakers Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) and Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra). Rounding out the cast are Deborah Kerr as Karen Holmes, the unhappily married wife of the company captain who begins a love affair with Warden, and Donna Reed as Alma “Lorene” Burke, an “escort” at a “gentleman’s club” whom Prewitt falls in love with.

The film is driven by the complex relationships that develop and, ultimately, unravel amongst the five leads. Warden begins a doomed relationship with Karen, both knowing full well it will never last, while Prewitt tries to court Lorene but is rejected in favor of her dream of a “proper” life in the States. Both of these are depicted very realistically, beginning as mere flirtations and flings before developing gradually into real romance, making their ultimate demise all the more tragic. Donna Reed’s turn as the ambitious but fickle Lorene is fantastic, as she steals every scene she’s in as she tries to let Prewitt down, gently at first and then as rough as she possibly can.

Particularly electric, amongst such intriguing pairings, are the scenes between giants Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift, which laid the groundwork for all future “tough sergeant gradually comes to respect the new private” arcs in future war films. Both are actors who exude confidence with every word and gesture, and are able to lose themselves in any number of characters while retaining their leading-man personas just enough for 50s Hollywood.

montgomery clift & burt lancaster - from here to eternity 1953And their “funny 1950s drunk” voices were on point.

Their relationship, growing from antagonism on Warden’s part and antiestablishment dismissiveness on Prewitt’s to softspoken affection and admiration, forms the backbone of the film. It cannot be overemphasized just how good Clift and Lancaster are together in this movie, neither of the performances giving the other the slightest room for slack. Both were nominated for Best Actor, and even the eventual winner, William Holden, felt it should have gone to one of them. Much as I love Holden and think he did a stand-up job in Stalag 17, he’s right, and for my money Monty deserved it just a little bit more.

140228-barra-eternity-tease_mnangt.jpgThough maybe Lancaster deserved it just for making this position look like it isn’t murder on your spinal column.

But two performances did win: Donna Reed’s aforementioned Lorene, and Frank Sinatra, showing off his acting chops as the insubordinate Pvt. Maggio, Prewitt’s best friend and partner in crime. When Maggio comes into conflict with the squadron’s sadistic stockade commander Sgt. James R. Judson–played to goddamn frightening perfection by Ernest Borgnine–he begins a descent into an increasingly dangerous game of chicken that ultimately leads to his death at Judson’s hands. Sinatra plays Maggio with just the right blend of insecurity and tragic cockiness, and, Full Metal Jacket aside, is one of the best representations of individual will foundering against the rocks of the armed forces.

From Here To Eternity 2.jpg“It wasn’t like this with Gene…”

Many movies, no matter the era or genre, can barely handle a single realistic character dynamic, yet here Zinnemann effortlessly juxtaposes the two fully-fleshed-out romances and two deep, platonic friendships, providing satisfying conclusions for all of them by the time “The End” appears after just under two hours. The score, cinematography, and pacing, just as in High Noon, all combine with flawless performances to bolster the film’s success and keep the sometimes syrupy subject matter from sinking into bathos.

Despite all this, the film was not quite the “fearless, honest” adaptation of the novel that the above poster promises. The producers had to keep both the Army and the Hays Office happy, and this meant making several changes to James Jones’ book. One of the biggest was the fact that, in the book, Lorene is unambiguously a prostitute, and Karen Holmes contracts gonorrhea from her unfaithful husband; as you can imagine, both of these were deemed too “hot” for Hollywood. Now, these don’t make a huge difference to the film overall, but that’s just for starters.

More annoying were the changes the Army demanded to keep up its image. The corrupt captain, Dana Holmes, allows Prewitt to be mercilessly hazed so he will agree to box on the company team, and in the novel, he (Holmes) never gets his comeuppance and in fact receives a promotion for kissing all the right asses. The Army insisted that this be changed, and so the film features a very out-of-place scene in which some heretofore unseen brass court martial and roundly berate Holmes, forcing him to resign and grandstanding that the Army and indeed the world is better without his presence. It’s a moment with no relevance to the plot and feels completely out of tone with the rest of the film, and Zinnemann later said that it “makes me sick every time I see it.”

Even with these and other minor tweaks, however, the finished film is still a masterpiece. Despite approving the script, demanding changes, and allowing training footage to be used for various scenes, the Army was still unhappy with how it came across and had its name removed from the credits. Fortunately this had little discernible effect on the film’s success; it was the second-highest grossing film of 1953 after The Robe, and won eight of its thirteen Oscar nominations. The film was the second to win both Supporting acting Oscars, and the last until Network (1976) to receive three acting nominations between the Best Actor and Best Actress categories.

095d6e238eee57cfb169abd01aefe45f--oscar-wins-frank-frank.jpg“This is great, boys. Absolutely worth the horse’s head thing. Allegedly, I mean.”

You know, 1953 was, excuse me, a damn fine year at the Oscars. I can only hope for as good a year coming up…and with films like The Caine Mutiny and On the Waterfront among the nominees, I’m expecting great things. Onward!

26th Academy Awards (1953) – Part I

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  • From Here to Eternity, Fred Zinnemann*
  • Julius Caesar, Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • The Robe, Henry Koster
  • Roman Holiday, William Wyler
  • Shane, George Stevens

Hollywood caught a fever in 1953, and the cure was Rome…three of the nominated films this year are at least partially set in the Eternal City. The “Hollywood on the Tiber” era had begun, taking advantage of the low-cost production potential in postwar Italy. This came about as the result of the success of Quo Vadis, and one of the nominees–The Robe–is so similar as to be a remake. More on that later, but suffice to say, it is the weakest of the five films.

Besides that, however, the Academy redeemed itself after 1952 with a very, very strong year. Even The Robe has at least a few things to recommend it, and doesn’t feel nearly as padded-out as the other sword-and-sandal epics that permeated the 1950s. The other nominees include the best non-Olivier Shakespearean film I have yet seen, a groundbreaking Western, Audrey Hepburn’s cinematic debut, and the winner, From Here to Eternity, which was so good the Army and Navy banned servicemen from seeing it.

140228-barra-eternity-tease_mnangt.jpgWhile the Coast Guard confirmed that this was a daily occurrence for them.

It was a welcome, and predictable, rebound from 1952…the Academy has a habit of following a weak year with a redemptive one. In fact, with a couple of exceptions, they maintained a strong grip on what truly made a film Best Picture material for the remainder of the decade. Black-and-white continued to be the favored method of photography for “serious” movies, but that was changing, too.

Speaking of which, note the snarky dig at 3D movies on the poster for the first film I’ll be discussing…

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The Robe, as I said, is basically a remake of Quo Vadis: a Roman officer encounters Christianity, tries to kill it with his sword for a while, experiences an epiphany, meets St. Peter, and ultimately stands up to the emperor in the name of Jesus. It differs from its predecessor by shifting the timeframe a few years backwards, depicting the actual crucifixion and making the emperor in question Caligula rather than Nero, and by casting an actual actor, Richard Burton, as the lead.

The film opens in Rome, as Marcellus Gallio (Burton), a young tribune and notorious ladies’ man, runs afoul of then-regent Caligula, who banishes him to Jerusalem as petty revenge for a minor, if deliberate, slight. The first half hour actually sets up a very different, and I think more interesting, story than the one that follows: Marcellus is chided by his father, a member of the senate, for provoking Caligula with these squabbles, making it more difficult for he and his allies from fighting the future emperor’s harmful policies. I would have loved to see a tale of the political machinations of early-A.D. Rome, as the emperors became more and more corrupt, and depicting the efforts of those who tried to salvage what remained of the Republic.

Instead, Marcellus arrives in Jerusalem just in time to receive orders to return to Capri, but not before completing his only duty: crucify the recently-arrived Jesus. Despite all the Biblical signs that this is a terrible idea, he carries out the execution and wins Jesus’ titular Robe in a dice game, only to be stricken with guilt and shame that he can’t understand. From here on the story unfolds as I laid out in the opening paragraph.

Aside from Marcellus, there are no real characters in the film, so Burton is forced to play against archetypes and caricatures of real people. Chief amongst these is Diana, played by Jean Simmons, who pops in and out of the film whenever Marcellus needs someone to declare their undying love for him, which is annoyingly frequently. She plays almost no role in the advancement of the plot and her death alongside Marcellus carries no weight, as she’s been dead since long before her first scene.

62bdf6eed2b767ffb59d2825b33a1c4b.jpgShe’s so uninteresting they put Jean Peters on the theatrical release poster, because they figured any Jean would do.

Aside from her, we have Victor Mature as Marcellus’ defiant and cloyingly Christian slave Demetrius, who safeguards the Robe after the crucifixion; a ridiculously over-the-top portrayal of Caligula by Jay Robinson that makes the 1979 porno film look restrained;  the rather on-the-nose Justus (Dean Jagger), the first openly Christian person Marcellus meets; and a host of forgettable supporters who alternately chide or give spiritual guidance to Marcellus. This includes Mariam, a crippled girl in Cana, who believes that Jesus did her a great service by not curing her of paraplegia, and who sings extremely literal “songs” to the hushed villagers while strumming amateurishly on a lyre.

betta-st-john-on-set-of-the-film-the-robe-1953-ETBD95.jpg“Freebird!”

There is even a very Quo Vadis-esque appearance by St. Peter, who pops up to help the recently-converted Marcellus finish his second act transformation. Whereas in QV Peter managed to give several sermons, here he is mostly silent; a scene shaping up to be identical to QV ends just after Peter is being introduced to a crowd by the unflappably pious Justus. Justus goes on at length about how Peter was the one person who never betrayed Jesus in his hour of need; knowing this to be false, a clearly uncomfortable Peter tries to hush him up, before he is mercifully saved from embarrassment when Justus is killed by a Roman archer.

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“Thank you, Lord.”

The film’s saving grace is surely Richard Burton, who, despite some very over-the-top sequences involving Marcellus panicking in the presence of the Robe, gives a stellar and sympathetic performance. In contrast to Robert Taylor’s perpetually dumbfounded Marcus Vinicius, Burton’s Marcellus is a real person who, although skeptical of the principles of Christianity, nevertheless reacts to the people he meets like a human would. Instead of, say, spluttering “Duuuur, but slaves! And swords! And sand!” or whatever Vinicius said in Quo Vadis (full disclosure, I have made an effort to forget most of Robert Taylor’s performances).

The Robe also beats Quo Vadis because, unlike that film shamelessly padding its ridiculous runtime, The Robe comes in at two hours and fifteen minutes and wastes very little time. Even the early scenes–which, as I said, set up a far more interesting film than the one we get–are essential in building the character of Marcellus, so that his admittedly abrupt change feels earned…unlike QV. There is sermonizing, it is true, but overall I didn’t feel the film’s length in a negative way.

And from here, 1953 just gets better and better…

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Not trying to be controversial here, but Westerns are pretty awesome. They’re one of the main reasons we have movies at all. Westerns have existed just about as long as motion pictures have…one of the first “hits” was The Great Train Robbery (1903), which managed to keep audiences glued to their seats for an unprecedented twelve minutes (leading to the first critic decrying how bloated and overproduced films were getting these days). Before (marvelous) directors like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah got their hands on the genre, it was a heroic, dreamlike landscape depicting clearcut heroes and villains, and a longed-for epoch of American history that never really existed.

Shane was a new kind of Western, the kind that critically examined some of the major themes of its genre and attempted to make sense of them. I wouldn’t call it “revisionist” (that great leap would come later, with Leone and Peckinpah and others), but it’s certainly self-referential in a way that Westerns–and, indeed, most films–hadn’t been before. The characters seem to be aware that they exist in a mythology, that each of them represents a certain “type”, and that their actions, as a result, are predestined. The events of the film unfold before them and no one is ever surprised by what happens, merely playing their part and accepting it with the resigned laconism of a Cormac McCarthy protagonist.

the-road-cityscape.jpgOkay, this might have surprised them a little bit.

The film, shot in gorgeous, Oscar-winning Technicolor panorama by Loyal Griggs, features Alan Ladd as Shane, a former gunslinger who appears on the ranch of Joe and Marian Starrett (Van Heflin and Jean Arthur), who are the leaders of a group of settlers who are fighting the illegal efforts of Rufus Ryker to drive them off their land. Within minutes, Shane has joined the Starretts’ fight, and the settlers struggle to keep their determination in the face of Ryker’s increasingly violent will.

Shane is, like John Wayne’s Sean Thornton, a man haunted by his violent past and seeking peace and quiet. In what would become a very rich well for future Westerns, he cannot find it and is instead drawn, albeit honorably, back to his old ways for “one last duel.” In this case, said duel is against the terrifying Jack Palance, here playing a terrifying gunman named Jack Wilson, a dark mirror to Shane who seeks to destroy peace and quiet wherever he finds it. When Wilson enters the film, a black-clad and enigmatic merchant of fate anticipating villains like Anton Chigurh, one almost can feel the shift in the genre, and from then on there was no going back.

Shane-1.jpg“Who’s the fella owns this shithole?” would not have been possible without this moment.

Director George Stevens wanted to use the film the examine and lay bare the horrors of violence and its emptiness, even when deployed for “good.” To that end, although there are only a few deaths in the film, they are far more graphic and brutal than was common at the time (although extremely tame compared to what was to come). Whereas in past Westerns, gunshot victims tended to merely slump over, groaning with all the pain and misery of someone getting a Swedish massage, ultimately lying gracefully in repose, in Shane they are thrown backwards and die undignified in the mud or buried in a pile of debris.

501px-SN-SAA-6.jpgAlthough the guns themselves continued to have a mysterious lack of recoil.

That scene, in which Elisha Cook, Jr.’s hotheaded Southerner Frank “Stonewall” Torrey allows himself to be goaded into drawing against Wilson, not only marked a sea change in the depiction of violence on film–in the words of Sam Peckinpah, “When Jack Palance shot Elisha Cook Jr. in Shane, things started to change.”–it also aptly demonstrates what I was saying before, that the characters have a surprising amount of self-awareness of their status as archetypes and their existence in a mythical world. Even though Torrey draws on Wilson, he does it without a shred of conviction or even hope that he will be victorious…and as you can see from the above screenshot, he never so much as points his gun at Wilson, looks him in the eye, or bothers getting his hat out of his face. He knows his place in this legend, and he fulfills it, though nothing about the scene suggests he’s happy about it.

46 Shane 1953 Van Heflin, Elisha Cook Jr.jpg“It’s because I’m short, isn’t it? Come on, somebody say it.”

With one glaring exception, the entire cast of this film is phenomenal. Van Heflin plays patriarch Joe Starrett with quiet, frontiersman wisdom, unflappable and steadfast in the face of any threat to his family and land. The friendship between he and Shane is one of cinema’s best, ranking just below another one in the same movie, that between Shane and Joe’s wife, Marian (Jean Arthur in one of her few non-annoying roles). Marian acts as the film’s moral voice, reminding Shane that even though he wields his six-shooter for the “right reasons”, the world would still be better off if no one used them to settle disputes. In many films, such a character comes across as overbearing, but Arthur imbues Marian with such conviction and honesty that even Shane and Joe can’t help but agree with her.

The glaring exception I mentioned is this wiener:

171 Shane 1953 Brandon De Wilde.jpg

That’s the Starrett’s son, Joey, whose main role in the film is to chime in at every opportunity about how great Shane is, to ask inane questions about everything, and to generally be a frigging pest. For reasons known only to the empty void where most people keep their brain, he attempts to instigate a pissing contest between his father and Shane, wondering constantly which is a better shooter and who could “lick” whom in a fistfight–this attempt fails, because both Joe and Shane have better things to do, and even if they do get into a scrape towards the end of the film, it’s certainly not to satisfy Joey’s curiosity.

The film ends on an ominous note, as the outlaws are defeated (it was still the 1950s, after all), but there is no triumph or vindication. Joe Starrett lies at home, beaten and bloodied; three corpses litter the floor of the saloon; and Shane rides off, knowing that he does not belong in a peaceful world, resigned to live by the gun until he finally dies by it. He cautions Joey that it is not an honorable or satisfying way to live, and expresses hope that his (Shane’s) world will soon pass, before leaving the little wiener crying after him as he disappears into the darkness.

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And now, back to Rome!

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The thought of Marlon Brando doing Shakespeare made me really look forward to Julius Caesar, but not for the right reasons…I thought it would be absolutely hilarious to see him mumble his way through the Bard, even if it would probably also be perfectly realized and dramatically compelling mumbling. I mean, it’s Marlon Brando…the man was physically and psychologically incapable of bad acting, even when he had to act like someone who could sing.

brando_sinatra_guys_and_dolls_10.jpgHe was so good he convinced Frank Sinatra to let him sing “Luck Be a Lady”.

How wrong was I…proving that there is not a single role he couldn’t nail, Brando’s performance as Mark Antony is goddamn amazing in the best Shakespearean sense. He enunciates every word perfectly, and then elevates the role to Brandonian heights by laying bare all the pain and passion behind each and every one of them. He’s only onscreen for about 20 minutes, but they are 20 perfect minutes, more than earning him his third consecutive Best Actor nomination, if only for his brilliant delivery of the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech:


He made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Before this, in his first major scene in the film, Brando discovers Caesar’s corpse as the conspirators are washing their hands in his blood (because Romans were fucking weird). The look on his face as he struggles to maintain his composure, and as he coldly sizes up each of the murderers and takes in their motivations and weaknesses, is pure genius. By the time they leave him alone, they are convinced of his loyalty, and only the audience sees him let loose with his anger and vengeful intentions. Goddamn, this man was good.

And, as is so often the case in life, we owe it all to John Gielgud, who offered Brando tutelage in proper Shakespearean performing. For his part, he is typically on form as Cassius, the ringleader of the assassination plot, playing the role with equal parts deviousness towards Caesar and sycophancy towards Brutus. His descent from self-assuredness into quaking uncertainty is subtle and heartbreaking to watch, nearly as satisfying as his own turn as Julius Caesar in the 1970 film opposite Charlton Heston’s Mark Antony. My only regret is that Shakespeare never wrote a line as perfectly suited to Gielgud than this one:

The star of the show, however, is James Mason as Brutus, reluctantly drawn into the plot against his best friend, who delivers the coup de grace himself and finds himself the leader of the civil war that follows. Mason always plays his parts with a good balance of humor, class, and gravitas, and his Brutus is in constant battle with himself over the proper course of action. He knows Caesar must go (though due to run time constraints, the film had to excise a lot of the play that made this clear to the audience), but hedges over his murder until the last possible moment. The farewell scene between Brutus and Cassius, two friends who know they will never see each other again, is a tragic and heart-wrenching moment, played with understated emotion by two actors at the top of their game.

I should also mention that Caesar himself is played by Louis Calhern, in a wonderfully pompous performance that I could not fully enjoy because no matter what movie I see him in, I always think of this:


Caesar didn’t go through anything nearly as trying as did Ambassador Trentino.

Naturally, when two egos as big as James Mason and Marlon Brando collide, there is the potential for trouble. As soon as Joseph L. Mankiewicz realized that Brando could actually do Shakespeare, he began shifting the emphasis to Mark Antony, in spite of his limited screen time. Mason felt this would make the audience unsympathetic towards his own character, and demanded, with the utmost humility, that Mankiewicz “put the focus back where it belongs. Namely on me!” Brando, for his part, threatened to quit if one more scene got “thrown” to Mason. In the end, I think Mankiewicz got it just right, as both Brutus and Antony emerge as characters worthy of our respect and sympathy.

Like I said, it’s the best Shakespeare film I have seen that wasn’t made by Laurence Olivier, and Julius Caesar certainly proves that his hard work had paid off…his influence on the staging, pacing, acting, and direction is evident in every scene. It’s startling to look back on Shakespearean adaptations nominated before he came along.–I’m thinking of 1935‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and 1936‘s Romeo and Juliet, which were almost damnably bad despite the presence of some great actors–and see how far the genre had come by 1953, just five years after Hamlet.

Richard-III-pic-11.jpgOne might even say, “Now is the winter of our discontent…”

So, a fine start to a fine year. Every one of these films more than makes up for 1952, and it looks as though it’s going to end on a high note…next week!

25th Academy Awards (1952) – Part II

(Part I.)

The last two nominees left in 1952 are the ones everyone remembers, and are very similar thematically: each has some things to say about what it means to be a “real man”. To that end, they star the two realest men the early 1950s had to offer: John Wayne (playing John Wayne) and Gary Cooper (playing Gary Cooper). While they are both enjoyable and entertaining, for different reasons, I just can’t bring myself to share the widespread admiration these movies continue to inspire in people.

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The Quiet Man was a movie I’d been looking forward to for some time, though maybe because I didn’t know very much about it. On paper, it looks great: directed by John Ford, it tells the story of an American boxer, Sean Thornton, who, after accidentally killing an opponent in the ring, retires and moves to his childhood village in Ireland, where he hopes to be the titular quiet man. John Wayne stars, in what appeared–again, on paper–to be an against-type character, a soft-spoken, nonviolent individual who has forsworn machismo despite moving to the country that invented it. Add to the mix Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald, always good for a lark, and I was intrigued and excited to see what kind of mature, thoughtful insights of manliness and tradition the film had to offer.

Turns out, not a whole heck of a lot. If you don’t have 130 minutes to invest in the movie, the narrative can be boiled down to: “violence doesn’t solve anything haha jk it solves everything.”

maxresdefault.jpgNope, nothing wrong here.

95% of the film sees Thornton lose the respect of literally everyone in Ireland, for refusing to engage in fisticuffs with the local idiot, Will Danaher, played by John Ford’s go-to local idiot, Victor McLaglen. The conflict arises when Thornton buys his family cottage, which Danaher had set his blurry sights on, and then escalates when he falls in love with and marries Danaher’s sister, Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara). Out of spite, Danaher withholds MK’s dowry, which to her represents her independence but means nothing to Thornton. As such, still haunted by his past, he quietly allows himself to be ridiculed and thought a coward rather than fight Danaher for the money.

That is, until she threatens to leave him. Then, finally getting over his sissiness and “being a man,” he pulls her off a train and literally drags her across five miles of rolling Irish hills while being cheered on (and encouraged to beat her) by everyone he encounters. Upon meeting Danaher, he obtains the dowry (which Mary K. promptly burns, proving something), then promptly gets into the very brawl that, not twelve hours earlier, he’d sworn would awaken his PTSD, which immediately solves all his problems and makes he and Danaher BFFs.

ohara25n-6-web.jpgMaybe I’m doing it wrong, but not one of my friendships has ever begun with drunken ass-kicking.

So, in one fell swoop, the film abandons all the lessons and character development of the first two hours in favor of a ten-minute slapstick sequence and a denouement straight out of a screwball comedy. And it reminds us that violence is not only hilarious but is also the only way to win and keep the respect of your friends, family, and spouse.

Is the film a comedy or a drama? I think it depends on knowing the ending. If you don’t know how it turns out, then it definitely feels like a drama, watching Thornton struggle against his own demons but keeping them hidden from everyone, including his wife. The quiet man, we are led to believe, keeps a low profile and doesn’t rise to the bait of loud, blustering brawlers like Danaher. Thornton even confesses that whenever he fought in the ring, he felt real anger, enough to kill a man–and now, he never wants to feel that way again. Is, in fact, afraid of what will happen if he loses control. Better to be thought a coward than risk ending another life over something so insignificant as money or even pride.

o9rGWqP.jpg“On second thought, fuck it.”

But if you know that ridiculous fight is coming, then the whole film becomes hilarious, as we watch Thornton foolishly believe that violence isn’t the answer even though it’s obvious to everyone that it is. All the moments where he appears to take the mature, high road are actually just set-ups for the story’s (literal) punchline. You watch the other people laugh at him, all the while chuckling and thinking, “Just you wait, he’ll show you that he’s got what it takes to be respected and admired. He only needs to get over himself and listen to the truth the world is telling him.” Then he triumphs and, like all who settle their differences by punching them in the face, becomes the true quiet man, because it’s very hard to speak when your jaw is wired shut.

Being in the former group, I was not happy to see two hours of my life, and of investment in what I thought was a fairly progressive story for 1952, so glibly swept aside. Not that the “serious” portion of the film was all that progressive, mind you. Even before the aforementioned dragging that leaves Mary Kate bruised, bloodied, and without a shred of dignity or agency, Thornton forces himself on her twice, but since it’s all in the name of taming the shrew it’s portrayed as perfectly alright.

quietman-windyot.jpgDespite what the film wants you to think, this is not a dance scene.

So yes, maybe The Quiet Man is entertaining, and maybe it is a comedy (of that, I am still not convinced), but its conflating of machismo with manliness, violence with tradition, and assault with courtship just didn’t do it for me. On the plus side, it’s well-acted (for the most part) and the filmmakers’ clear love of Ireland comes through in every exterior shot. It’s worth a watch, but not an Oscar…though it did earn John Ford his unprecedented fourth Best Director award. But to me, the film most deserving of the top awards this year was…

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Upon rewatching High Noon for this blog, having seen it many, many years ago, I was expecting greatness (as I remembered it as being very, very good), but at the same time, I was apprehensive, knowing what I now know about the kind of movies Gary Cooper makes when he isn’t playing Lou Gehrig. My apprehension was well-founded, and now as I sit down to write this, I’m realizing that High Noon is, and probably ever will be, a very confusing movie for me.

pigsandbttlshps2.jpgAt least as confusing as Pigs and Battleships, but for different reasons.

On the one hand, it’s one of the best-made films I’ve ever seen…the pacing, the photography, and the direction are all masterful, and though the score can, at times, be over-the-top and distracting, overall it does its job admirably as the tension builds. Clocking in at a mere 85 minutes, unfolding in real time, there is not a single ounce of fat on this movie: every line of dialogue, every action, and every shot of the advancing clock feels just right, and not a foot of film is wasted. Had it won–which, despite all my reservations about it, it definitely should have–it would have been the shortest Best Picture of all time (the current recordholder is Annie Hall [1977], coming in at a bloated 93 minutes).

But on the other hand, the film is almost insultingly manipulative and transparent, ensuring that the audience is firmly on the side of the hero without him having to do much of anything to earn it. Said hero is, of course, Gary Cooper, grimacing his way through the film as Will “One-Marshal-To-Rule-Them-All” Kane, the only decent human being in a town full of cowards, rogues, and other assorted ne’er-do-wells.

As a story, it’s full of promise, the very definition of high-concept: Will Kane, the just-married marshal of a backwater town, is retiring, but upon hearing that his old nemesis, an outlaw named Frank Miller whom he had sent to jail, has been released and is arriving in less than an hour to reunite with his gang and wreck havoc upon the town once more, Kane decides to stay and confront them. His new wife immediately threatens to leave him, and as he tries to rally support from the townsfolk, he quickly finds they all range from cringing vermin hiding in their homes and taverns, to Miller sympathizers actively hoping he (Kane) gets gunned down. And yet, he feels it’s his duty to stay and fight Miller, even if it means doing so alone.

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“The Babe wouldn’t run
.”

Like I said, the story starts promising, but once I realized that everyone besides Kane is meant to be hated, once I started hoping Kane took his stand alone, since he was the only one with the stones to do so anyway, I got a sneaking suspicion that Kane would be the villain in any movie with three-dimensional supporting characters. It’s easy to forget, in the fervor of watching Gary Cooper stand up for Truth and Justice, that he’s technically not the marshal anymore…he had officially retired that morning. What he is, is a man without any legal authority, demanding the townsfolk form a posse against a group of outlaws who have a personal vendetta against him, not the town.

He even manages to make a hypocrite of himself for claiming to be there to defend the town, not himself, and to be an instrument of the law, not vigilantism. For most of the film, Miller’s three buddies are calmly waiting for him at the train station, and when one citizen asks Kane why he does not simply arrest them, he replies that there is no law against sitting around. Fair enough, spoken like a true lawman…but the very first thing he does when, united with Miller at last, the outlaws stroll into the deserted streets is sneak around and shoot one of them in the back, initiating the climactic gunfight. I’m not sure what ordinance he was enforcing there.

3c5189d4f4c4cb9a1ace509a14af4e89--high-noon-western-movies.jpg“Nobody jaywalks in my town.”

Said climactic gunfight, by the way, for all the buildup, lasts less than five minutes and, like the rest of the film, is disappointingly one-sided. Even as the film jump-cuts and raises the tension unbearably as the noon train approaches and Kane writes out his will, I don’t think anyone watching High Noon even once thinks that the outlaws stand any chance of victory. That about sums up the whole movie: Will Kane is always right and always will be right, and will do the noble thing even if everyone around him refuses to help.

In the end, he defeats the outlaws, with a little help from his wife, and the film concludes with the justly-famous shot of Kane surveying the ungrateful townsfolk with contempt before throwing his tin star in the dirt and riding out of town. It’s an iconic moment that has become the signature of films about people rejecting The System in pursuit of justice, and was famously copied by Clint Eastwood at the end of Dirty Harry (1971).

I understand that the story is meant to be an allegory for blacklisting, that standing up not just for yourself, but the people around you, is a noble act to which everyone should aspire. But High Noon goes to ridiculous extremes to make its point, and in the end I found it hard to see through the dangerous idea that, in times of crisis, we should bestow the roles of judge, jury, and executioner on one person. Which works out great here, and in all such situations where the people are actors reciting words written for them advancing towards a satisfyingly complete story arc, but seldom goes so well in the real world.

Also, the fact that High Noon‘s producer, Stanley Kramer, and star Gary Cooper were both staunch anti-Communists who sat back and allowed the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, to be run out of Hollywood for refusing to name names to the HUAC doesn’t help me see it as an exercise in standing up for what’s right.

tightly-directed-by-fred-zinnemann-and-written-by-the-blacklisted-carl-foreman-earned-the-hatred-of-1950s-mccarthyists-including-john-wayne-and-howard-hawks.jpg“Listen, Gary, I’m starting to think you guys are missing the point of this thing…”

Still, none of these problems detracts from what I said at the outset, that High Noon is one of the best-made films I have ever seen. Few other films can match it for its slow ratcheting of tension, its hopeless atmosphere, its simultaneously triumphant and bleak climax, and the way Fred Zinnemann managed to make a shot of desolate train tracks so goddamned heart-pounding. For all of these reasons, High Noon was the clear choice for Best Picture…though I’d rather have seen Best Actor go to Marlon Brando for Viva Zapata!.

607404060.jpgIs it me, or does he look a hell of a lot like Gene Kelly with that mustache?

But in the end, the Academy gave the top prize of 1952 to a circus ad, and for the next sixty-three years, no Best Picture won as few Oscars as this one did. The Bad and the Beautiful won the most Oscars of the evening, the second and, to date, last time a film not nominated for Best Picture was the year’s most awarded. On to 1953, which, unlike this year, features a slate of nominees still well-regarded today, including Audrey Hepburn’s film debut. Onward!