Trivial Matters #37 – William Wyler

It’s been a busy start to the year, and before I begin watching the nominees of 1952, I’d like to take a moment to talk about William Wyler, the most fêted director in the history of the Oscars. I’ve mentioned him before in a trivia entry about directors, but that was before I’d seen any of his movies and grown to appreciate what a genius he was.


Wyler cut his teeth on Westerns, and as the sound era dawned he began to branch out into all sorts of genres. Along the way, he gained a reputation as a perfectionist, taking his time to craft every detail of every scene, and as a director for whom actors loved to work. He had many early collaborations with Walter Huston, and went on to direct some of the finest performances of Laurence Olivier (who credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for film), Bette Davis (who won her second Oscar under his direction and, through their numerous films together, said he made her a much better actress), Olivia de Havilland, Fredric March, Kirk Douglas, and many others.

I admit it took me a while to pay attention and realize how many of Wyler’s movies I was seeing among the Best Picture nominees, but the first one that really made me step back and consider who was behind all these amazing films was The Little Foxes (1941), starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, and Teresa Wright. Davis is at her most cold and cruel as Regina Gibbons, and this scene, when she admits her deep contempt for her husband and then sits, scheming and unmoving, as he suffers a heart attack is one of the finest scenes of the decade:

Wyler’s decision to keep the camera on Davis while Marshall struggles, in the background and out-of-focus, was inspired. He could have gotten the whole thing in crisp focus (Gregg Toland was cinematographer, after all, the same Gregg Toland who brought the world Citizen Kane the same year), but instead he allows Marshall to fade away, keeping us riveted on Davis, and sparing us none of her cold, calculating stare. It’s probably one of the most terrifying death scenes I’ve ever seen in a non-Disney film.

He didn’t dabble in comedy much, but when he did, he went big. His third-to-last film, released in 1966, was How To Steal a Million, starring Audrey Hepburn, the always-hilarious Peter O’Toole, and Hugh Griffith. The whole movie is worth a good watch, but here’s a brief clip, with Audrey Hepburn being gracious as ever, and Peter O’Toole further honing the “devastatingly charming yet perpetually confused” look that he developed in What’s New Pussycatthe year before:

Also his trademark flit…seriously, do his feet even touch the floor in this scene?

Basically, there was nothing Wyler couldn’t do, and he had a creative streak of brilliance that lasted over 30 years and 20 films. Here are his Oscars records, most of which are nigh unbreakable:

  • Most films nominated for Best Picture (13), from Dodsworth (1936) to Funny Girl (1968).
    • Next on the list would be Steven Spielberg, who has directed 10 Best Picture nominees. He could conceivably tie or surpass Wyler, but I doubt it…it took him 40 years to get to that number (from Jaws [1975] to Bridge of Spies [2015]).
  • Most consecutive years with nominations for Best Picture (7) (* = also nominated for Best Director). This run was only interrupted by his enlistment in the Armed Forces.
    • Dodsworth (1936)*
    • Dead End (1937)
    • Jezebel (1938)
    • Wuthering Heights (1939)*
    • The Letter (1940)*
    • The Little Foxes (1941)*
    • Mrs. Miniver (1942)* – Won Best Picture and Best Director
      • Only Frank Capra ever had a run that came close, with four in a row  between 1936-1939, inclusive.
  • Most films to win Best Picture (3): Mrs. Miniver (1942); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Ben-Hur (1959).
    • The only active director with two Best Picture-winning films is Clint Eastwood–Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).
  • Most nominations for Best Director (12).
    • His nearest active rival is Martin Scorsese with eight nominations, and much as I love him I doubt he has five more in him.
  • Directed more Academy Award-nominated performances (36) and -winning performances (14) than anyone else.
    • For nominations, his only active rival is, again, Scorsese (22); Woody Allen has directed half as many Oscar-winning performances (7).

One Wyler record (wylerd) that has been broken is most overall Oscar nominations for films he directed, in all categories. His films earned a total of 127 nominations at the Oscars, a record which stood until 2015 when Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies gave his filmography its 128th Oscar nomination. His latest film, The Post, a historical drama starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, is pure Oscar-bait and, when the nominees for the 90th Academy Awards are announced on Tuesday, will likely increase his total (and probably raise his Best Picture nominations to 11).

I have several more Wyler films yet to see for this project: Roman Holiday (1953), Friendly Persuasion (1956), Ben-Hur (1959; his third and final Best Picture winner), and Funny Girl (1968). He was also nominated for Best Director for Detective Story (1951) and The Collector (1965), which did not receive a Best Picture nomination. I never miss a chance to watch one of his films, so I did have a look at Detective Story, and I think he certainly deserved the Oscar that year more than George Stevens. Though maybe not over Elia Kazan and John Huston.

Wyler’s influence in the development of American cinema, and his indelible mark on Hollywood’s Golden Age, is hard to overstate. I’ll close with a quote from Laurence Olivier, which sums it up, predictably, better than I could:

If any film actor is having trouble with his career, can’t master the medium and, anyway, wonders whether it’s worth it, let him pray to meet a man like William Wyler.

–Laurence Olivier

CAUHLvYWAAAOx_u.jpgOr if you just need a steady hand for your mustache.


24th Academy Awards (1951) – Part II

(Part I.)


It’s been a while on this blog since I’ve pointed out sea changes in Hollywood, or cinema in general. One of them was Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929) with Maurice Chevalier; another was Laurence Olivier’s film debut in Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939), an otherwise ignorable adaptation highlighted by the master’s commanding performance; then we have Hitchcock’s arrival in Hollywood with Rebecca (1940), and who–besides the Academy–could forget Citizen Kane (1941)?

Well, A Streetcar Named Desire was more important than all of those except the last, because it established a new benchmark against which all future acting would be measured. I’m not just talking about Marlon Brando’s game-changing performance as Stanley Kowalski, though obviously that one was the most influential…every actor in this film took it to a new level, all the time, and instantly a new paradigm was born. The Academy recognized this by bestowing three of the four acting awards on this single film. Many considered it all but a lock for Best Picture, as well.

A_Streetcar_Named_Desire_(1951)_4.jpgIt was the feel-good movie of the year, after all.

Being based on a Tennessee Williams play, the plot is fairly straightforward: Scarlett O’Hara Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) appears in the French Quarter and moves in with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter) and her scary, perpetually-sweaty husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Being from a formerly wealthy family, Blanche is immediately disliked by Stanley, and for her part, is openly and vocally dismissive and condescending towards her sister’s husband and lifestyle. The majority of the film, like the play, is set in the Kowalski’s squalid apartment, and tensions rise and rise until, in typical Williams fashion, everything and everybody is miserable, detached, and existentially terrified.

Vivien Leigh, as Blanche, is pathetic and depressing from the very moment she appears, and throughout the film it is awkward and painful to watch her descent into a final break from reality. In watching her attempts to “rescue” her sister and her doomed courtship Mitch (Karl Malden)–seemingly the only decent man in all of New Orleans–one can’t help but see Blanche as the logical older version of Scarlett O’Hara. They share a lot of traits, including a string of unsuccessful relationships, a failed Southern plantation, and being hated by literally every man they meet, making Leigh the only logical choice for the role (though it was initially offered to fellow Gone with the Wind alumna Olivia de Havilland).

The film not only broke new ground in the field of acting, which I’ll get to in a minute…it also brought heretofore unfilmable themes and subtexts to the American screen for the first time. Even though Williams, in adapting his play, had to excise a great deal to comply with the Production Code, the film still kept in enough to enrage the Catholic Legion of Decency and push the boundaries for cinematic portrayal of such themes as domestic violence, rape, insanity, obsession, and even homosexuality (though still heavily disguised by euphemisms and evasions). Its unflinching presentation of a woman’s ultimately futile fight against the forces driving her over the edge was shockingly unrelenting for 1951, and even today the film retains much of its power.

A big part of that power comes from the stark cinematography of Harry Stradling, best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock and one of the era’s most sought-after photographers. As I said above, most of the action takes place in the dimly-lit, seedy interior of the Kowalski’s tiny apartment, and the black-and-white photography lends the whole film a claustrophobic atmosphere in which the viewer can all but feel the humid, steamy New Orleans air. Even when the camera ventures outside, the sets are always dimly lit (due to Blanche’s compulsive need to hide her aging face), so the audience never gets a break…the feeling of suffocation that the characters are going through is ours, too, and it never relents until the final moment.

It should continue even after the final moment, in fact…but one of the major Production Code compromises was the alteration of the play’s ending. Onstage, after Blanche is led away to an asylum, Stella silently allows Stanley to embrace her, even though she knows exactly what he did to her (Blanche) to drive her over the edge. In fact, all of Stanley’s buddies, despite being disgusted by him, will continue to keep him in their lives because it’s all they know. It’s a perfectly bleak, pessimistic, Williamsian ending in which no one ever truly confronts Stanley over his actions.

a-streetcar-named-marge10Fortunately, this was rectified in future adaptations.

But the Code said otherwise; if the film was to be made, Stanley had to be shown to pay for his crimes. And so, the film ends with Stella defiantly taking her newborn son away from Stanley and vowing never to return. The music swells triumphantly, as if this were a happy ending and we hadn’t just seen a rape victim with a broken mind committed to a mental institution, and in so doing releases the tension of the previous 120 minutes. Had Streetcar been made ten years later, in the wake of the eroding influence of the Code that began in earnest with its release, they have had stood a chance at preserving the play’s dismal conclusion.

Finally, we have the performances. All of the main cast and crew had come from the stage play: Brando, Hunter, and Malden had all been directed by Kazan on Broadway in the show’s first run, and Vivien Leigh had originated Blanche on the West End stage (in a production directed by Laurence Olivier). As such, they were already intimately familiar with the material and with each other’s performances, and since the film was staged and blocked very much like a play, they were able to easily transfer their roles to the cinema. Kazan made sparse use of close-ups, preferring instead to let the actors inhabit the gritty world around them. At the forefront of it all is Brando, inhabiting his role like no actor had ever done before…and far from shrink in the presence of such intensity, his co-stars rose to the challenge and (mostly) held their own.

As mentioned, Brando had originated the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, and was disappointed by the reaction he received. One of the reasons he was keen to make the film partly because he was tired of receiving fan letters (and…let’s just say “articles of clothing”) from women saying how dreamy Stanley was. He saw Kowalski as barely human, manipulative, and not sexy at all, and it was his hope was that the film, when seen by a wider audience than the play, would convince the world of this.

81Qk8T3NWHL._SY450_.jpgCan’t imagine why it didn’t work.

In spite of its darkness and lack of likable characters, both the play and the film were rapturously received by audiences and critics. For all the concessions to the Code, the movie still manages to retain the raw, powerful emotions and pessimistic themes of Williams’ original, and the force with which the actors threw themselves into their roles–creating realistic, intense performances that blended elements of stage and film acting–established a high watermark to which future films could aspire.

In the end, despite receiving twelve nominations, Streetcar won only four Oscars…Best Actress (Leigh), both Supporting Acting awards (the first of eight films to do so) for Hunter and Malden, and Best Art Direction, Black and White. Amazingly, Marlon Brando lost his Best Actor bid to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen, which was meant to be a “Sorry we never gave you an Oscar” honor. You can’t blame them; no one could have known Bogart still had The Caine Mutiny in him, but that year, the Academy stiffed Bogart by giving Brando a “Sorry we didn’t give you an Oscar in 1951” award.

on-the-waterfrontIt was also a well-deserved Best Actor award, but still.

So with all that going for it, how could this masterpiece lose out on the top prize? Well…


I’ve read in a few sources that the audience at the 24th Awards was already filing to the exits as the year’s winner was announced. It’s not surprising…the race had been presumed to be between A Place in the Sun and Streetcar, and with the former just having won Best Director, it seemed an opportune time to skip the final, predictable speech. George Stevens was the producer, anyway, so what more could he possibly have to say? Another reason for the early egress may have been that the award for Best Picture was being presented by this guy, Jesse L. Lasky, Sr.:

Jesse-lasky-1915.jpgThough he went by “Chuckles”.

So it was to the shock of all when the announcement rang out that the winner was in fact An American in Paris, which had swept up most of the technical categories but was not believed to be a serious Best Picture contender. I can see their point of view…no musical had won since The Broadway Melody (1929), and none had been nominated since Gene Kelly’s own Anchors Aweigh (1945). As recently as this morning, I fully expected to be on the side of Streetcar, for all of the reasons outlined above…but after re-watching it, I have to admit that, even though it may only have won due to a split in votes between the two “top” contenders, this film fully deserved the win.

An American in Paris opens with establishing shots of Paris, and the following narration from our protagonist: “This is Paris, and I’m an American living here.” Following that merciful explanation of the incomprehensible, Beckett-like title, we follow one Jerry Mulligan, an ex-GI living in Paris trying to make it as a painter despite being able to sing and dance like Gene Kelly.

82076_full.jpgAnd being able to paint like…well, like Gene Kelly.

As so often happens both in Paris and in musicals, he falls in love with a girl, Lise (Leslie Caron), but she is already engaged to a dashing Frenchman, fellow triple-threat Henri (Georges Guétary). And so, in between breaking into song and teaching English to the local children, he must win her heart and defend his own against lecherous socialite Milo Roberts (Nina Foch).

14947-604.jpgThough she has Dr. Bellows to fall back on, so she’ll be fine.

That’s about it for plot, and this being a musical directed by Vincent Minnelli, you can guess how it all turns out: Henri recognizes where Lise’s heart truly lies and, after giving Jerry time to stew in his failure and dream up an exquisitely-choreographed 18-minute ballet about his unsuccessful courtship, he graciously breaks his engagement with Lise and she returns to Jerry. The film is about as realistic a portrayal of a love triangle as it is of the living conditions of poverty-stricken artists in postwar Paris, but who cares?

003-an-american-in-paris-theredlistNot us!

The film is also an Impressionist love letter to Paris, celebrating the city as a romantic and beautiful place with thousands of cinematic stories happening at any given moment. In the climactic ballet sequence, Kelly and Caron dance their way through a beautiful pastiche of all the great landmarks of the city, to the tune of Gershwin’s titular score, and even though the sequence cost approximately half a million dollars to film, I think we can all agree it was worth every penny:

<p><a href=”″>&quot;An American In Paris&quot; Ballet with George Gershwin's Original Music</a> from <a href=”″>Movie Musicals</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Much of the comic relief of the film comes from Jerry’s friend and fellow struggling American, Adam Cook, played by eccentric musician and actor Oscar Levant. Cynical and worldweary in all the ways Jerry is not–and in all the ways his successor, Donald O’Connor’s Cosmo Brown in Singin’ in the Rain, is not–Adam is an out-of-work pianist who does not have the charm or good looks to attract rich patrons, and as such serves as the voice of reason…who turns out to be completely wrong about everything, as, despite Adam’s misgivings, Jerry’s fairy tale romance ends in the happiest way possible. At the end of the film, we have no idea what happens to poor Adam, as his two best friends–and the only two people he knows in Paris who speak English–have left him for greener pastures, but I have to imagine it involves a lot of alcohol and despair.

Hm, that’s probably the saddest ending I’ve ever written to a paragraph that started off talking about comic relief. To fix this, here’s a clip from the film in which Levant’s bored reactions to Jerry and Henri’s exuberance utterly steals the show.

And I’m going to imagine that after the credits roll, Jerry and Lise go out a few times but, without the thrill of their initial, titillatingly forbidden courtship, they find they have little in common and awkwardly drift apart. After an amicable breakup, Jerry then returns to his flatshare with Adam, and finally gives him the friendship he needs and deserves. Let’s face it, in the final analysis, Oscar Levant needs a win more than Gene Kelly.

Sorry about that…back to the film. As I said above, An American in Paris astounded the critics and the industry by winning Best Picture, but it’s easy to see in retrospect how right it was. Both it and Streetcar are, by almost any definition, perfect films, but in very different ways; both productions were emboldened by the geniuses driving them, and as a result they elevated and pushed the boundaries of their respective genres to heights no one had imagined possible before. And while Streetcar‘s influence extended well beyond its genre, it was also dark as hell (though not as dark as its source material), and I think, seven years after Going my Way, the world was ready for another happy Best Picture.

B001EBYM62_singinintherain_UXWB1._RI_SX940_.jpgIt also helped ensure we got Singin’ in the Rain the following year, although by then the Academy was over Gene Kelly and ignored it completely.

In many ways, musicals are the quintessential cinematic genre. The great musicals, which sadly fell out of vogue not long after An American in Paris, exemplify the best qualities of the art form, the ones that give movies their magic. Done right, and musicals can do anything…more than comedies, they make us smile at life’s idiosyncrasies; more than drama, they express the emotions and the troubles of being alive; more than science fiction, they transport us to wildly different dreamscapes where anything can happen and usually does. Done wrong, and they are La La Land.

And An American in Paris is done absolutely right. Even now I can’t watch the climactic ballet without forgetting the outside world exists…it’s that beautiful, that well-made, and that perfect. It’s the feeling of knowing you’re watching a master at the height of his creative genius, and all his energy and enthusiasm is brilliantly present in the final product. Again, musicals seem to be the ideal genre for this sort of thing.

marlon-brandon-main-lr.jpgThough the energy and enthusiasm is undoubtedly there, it just doesn’t fill me with the same joy, for some reason.

This love of musicals will probably come as a shock to my 21-year-old self when time travel is perfected and I show him this blog in an attempt to create an alternate timeline in order to test the Novikov self-consistency principle. Nevertheless, I stand by my assessment that, for the first time since The Best Years of Our Lives, the Academy nailed it…except, of course, in not naming Brando Best Actor and, I would say, John Huston Best Director for The African Queen.

And now to 1952, which has a reputation as one of the most disappointing Oscars in history…The Greatest Show on Earth is considered one of the worst Best Pictures of all time, and it won over High Noon and The Quiet Man, so this should be interesting. Onward!

Another Oscars and I New Year’s Eve

Hello, it’s the end of 2017, and even more so than last year, I am woefully unprepared to comment intelligently about this year’s potential Oscars. Last New Year’s Eve, I had seen five films of the previous year…this time, I’ve seen just three, and none of them in the theatre. At least this year I can blame that on living in Spain, even though I think the list would be roughly the same in any case. Here, then, is Oscars and I’s official ranking of 2017 films, none of which will–or should–receive any serious attention by the Academy:

  1. Logan, James Mangold
  2. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos
  3. Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh

Logan, which I saw on a plane in a trilogy with Deadpool and La La Land, takes the top spot because, though ostensibly an X-Men film, it was a surprisingly excellent, well-written road movie that rose above its material. It was understated, touched on some interesting motifs, and had some fun with the superhero genre along the way. Logan Lucky, by contrast, was Ocean’s Eleven for rednecks, and was ultimately unfulfilling, despite some enjoyable moments and the joy of seeing Daniel Craig stumble through a southern accent.

maxresdefault.jpgThis is a behind-the-scenes shot, as Steven Soderbergh assures him he’s nailing it.

I had intended on seeing John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky next, completing a nice Logan-Logan Lucky-Lucky trilogy and then never seeing another 2017 film again, but I forever ruined that once-in-a-lifetime chance by watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer. This turned out to be a disappointing experience, especially given how much I enjoyed Lanthimos’ last film, LobsterSacred Deer isn’t bad, but it’s a stagnant feature without much in the way of innovation or commentary, and I almost ranked it last on this extensive list because of that.

Anyway…last year, I wrote about New Year’s Eves of Oscars Past, and about the Best Picture nominees down the years that have at least addressed this only-important-in-movies holiday. There weren’t many last year, and this year there are no more to add, unless Moonlight was about New Year’s Eve…still haven’t seen it. So instead, I’ll use this short post to make a few Oscars & I resolutions for the coming year.

  1. Continue updating this blog at least once a week.

I was on a good roll going into December, and I’d like to keep it up. This resolution is for both of my loyal readers, who are right to expect more of me.

And if you’re sick of the “both my readers” joke, one of you could recommend this blog to a friend.

2. Watch more than three new theatrical movies in 2018

Now that the aforementioned Logan-Logan Lucky-Lucky ship has sailed, it wouldn’t be remiss for a blog based on films to watch more of them, so that maybe on 31 December 2018, I can actually reflect on the year in film instead of faffing around with a list of resolutions.

On the other hand, I missed seeing La La Land until after the Oscars were over, and I found it well worth missing, so maybe I’m doing the right thing by letting these films percolate in the collective unconscious a while.

large_pCA57auzcoqNUpaP2XrxoNqexX5.jpg  Titanic_poster.jpg  La_La_Land_(film).png
These are the only three films to ever score 14 Oscar nominations, which kind of makes me want to scream.

3. What other resolutions can I really make for a blog? Two is enough.

I suppose I could pledge to write better reviews, be more objective and less biased in my coverage of the nominees, and be more forgiving of the effects that the ravages of time have had on some of the nominees. Oh well…maybe next year.

And, of course, 2017 is the last year (presumably) that we will see a new film from Daniel Day-Lewis, which is obviously cause for grieving for the loss to film that his absence portends. Over the past forty years, from his first appearance playing a young hoodlum in John Schlesinger’s classic Sunday Bloody Sunday:

…to his unprecedented three Best Actor-awarded performances in My Left Foot (1989), There Will Be Blood (2007), and Lincoln (2012)…

Be honest, we all want to do this to Paul Dano.

…and everything in between, showing such a range, a talent, and a commitment to character that I’d be hard-pressed to name a single performer in cinema history as his equal. The only one to come close isn’t even real…I’m thinking of Anthony John, Ronald Colman’s character in 1947’s A Double Life, who drives himself to Lewisian immersive depths in search of the perfect performance.

I’m guessing this kind of thing happens to Daniel Day-Lewis roughly twice a day.

It does make me a little sad to know that there is a finite number of Daniel Day-Lewis films, and that one day, there will be no new ones to watch. And after a bit of a Day-Lewis binge this year, the number is already dwindling. It’s the same way I feel about Leslie Howard, Greer Garson, and a select few others…there are just some performers I never want to be finished with. Fortunately, even if there are no new films, one of the things I love so much about cinema is that there are some movies, some performances, that can be watched countless times and always offer something new, something previously unseen. That’s Daniel Day-Lewis to me. He may be off to a well-earned retirement, but what he’s given to the world through his work is forever.

And so, since Hollywood ignored my plea from last year to add more quality films to the genre of New Year’s Eve, I’ll close with the same two clips I did last year, from Charles Chaplin’s 1925 The Gold Rush:

Happy 2018, everyone!

24th Academy Awards (1951) – Part I


  • An American in Paris, Vincente Minnelli
  • Decision Before Dawn, Anatole Litvak
  • A Place in the Sun, George Stevens*
  • Quo Vadis, Mervyn LeRoy
  • A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan

Since the uniformly great 21st Academy Awards, the field of nominees seems to have settled into a pattern of two near-perfect films, one pretty damned great film, and two that have earned their obscurity as Academy Awards also-rans. While this may have made the job of choosing the best picture of the year a bit easier (and even given that 50-50 chance, they still rarely get it right), it does make writing these introductions a bit of a chore.

Before we get to the five films, I should point out that this was the year that Hollywood legend Humphrey Bogart finally won an Oscar, for his performance as a tough, hard-drinking cynic (surely the acting challenge of a lifetime) in John Huston’s un-nominated The African Queen–though Huston did receive a nod for Best Director.

560ecdf9a9cab__humphrey-bogart.jpgLong overdue.

One of my favorite bits of film trivia is Bogart’s account of how, during filming in Uganda and the Congo, everyone in the cast and crew became seriously ill with dysentery–except for he and John Huston, who didn’t touch the local water and instead ate and drank nothing but baked beans and Scotch for the entire shoot. He later quipped, “Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.”

Anyway, 1951 finally took a break from the brooding postwar gloom that had reigned as Best Picture since 1945, heralding what would be a decade of (mostly) honoring escapist fare. The winner, An American in Paris, was only the second color film to win Best Picture, and the first since Gone with the Wind (1939), and represents the genius behind it, Gene Kelly, at the height of his powers. For that reason, and for its many, many other merits, it would have earned my approval as the year’s best, if it didn’t happen to be competing against one of the best and most influential American films ever made.

americaninparis2.jpg    showimg_eve21_tablet
Although the category of Best T-Shirt would have been a very tight close race indeed.

But we’ll get to that next week. First, let’s have a look at the less successful films of 1951.


Quo Vadis, a Sunday school special disguised as an historical epic, tells the story of Marcus Vinicius, a Roman legionnaire who, over the course of three insufferable hours, overcomes his hatred of Christianity in order to boff Deborah KerrShe, being a good Christian, falls for his rapey charms after a rousing speech by Saint Peter makes Vinicius reconsider his opinion of this Jesus fellow. Meanwhile, Nero is an aggressively idiotic emperor who spends his days playing the lute, burning Rome to the ground, and eating grapes. He is played by Peter Ustinov, easily the second-greatest portrayal of Nero in film history.

historyofworld2309.jpgThe greatest, obviously.

Marcus Vinicius returns to Nero’s Rome to find a new sect has formed called Christianity, which he wouldn’t care about if it didn’t keep interfering with his attempts to bed Lygia, a hostage from the Punic Wars. When his literal enslavement of her attempts to court her are rebuffed, his only way to get in her frock is to accept her new religion…which he doesn’t, but the moment he shows the slightest sign of being willing to not kill every Christian he meets, Lygia immediately falls in love with him. You would think a three-hour film would be willing to spend any amount of time building a nuanced, believable connection between its romantic leads, but you would be wrong.

Very, very long story short, Nero burns Rome on the advice of his architect (in a scene that is basically the scourging of Atlanta from Gone with the Wind but in tunics) and blames it on the Christians, but during their persecution in the Coliseum they Christian so hard that the people of Rome realize that Nero is guilty and cheer the subsequent military coup that seizes power. Nero dies and our heroes survive, newly married, with Vinicius not quite Christian but finally willing to share Deborah Kerr with Jesus. Everyone lives happily ever after.

rt4262.jpgWell, except Ferdinand there.

This is a film that could easily have been a tolerable, if forgettable, 90 minutes, but is an unforgivable, and still forgettable, 179 instead. To that end, a lot of things that might have been merely bad become annoying at best, and outright offensive at worst. A case of the latter is the aforementioned rape-centric pursuit of Deborah Kerr by Vinicius, which takes up the first hour of the film. I understand that characters must have an arc, and Vinicius’ is to go from clueless, reactionary Roman to clueless, progressive Christian, but when your hero spends the first third of a three-hour movie forcing himself on his “love” interest and talking about how great it is to own people, it’s very hard to root for him. And when, as I said above, she falls in love with him simply because they appear in love on the poster, it becomes even creepier.

Add to the mix that the only reason they end up together at all is because Nero’s wife, Poppaea, is jealous of them, and it may be the least compelling and most amateurishly executed love story in Hollywood history. Poppaea, by the way, is one of the most two-dimensional characters I’ve encountered in this project, whose only function is to be horny and catty to everyone she sees. Nero never even jumps on her. Not a great character.

e8209eadc790cd05bbb1b6bae40e33c7--madeline-kahn-history-of-the-world.jpgAgain, we all know which film got it right.

The movie blows, is what I’m saying. But it does have one great and memorable element, and that is Peter Ustinov’s campy yet undeniably engrossing performance as Nero. Ustinov plays him not as the evil conniver of history (and myth), but as a pathetic manchild so desperate for attention he doesn’t care if it’s good or bad. In this interpretation, Nero becomes a pitiable creature, and although he is unquestionably the antagonist one feels no elation when, as his world crumbles and the people whose approval he so cravenly sought finally turn on him, he meets his inevitable end. One just feels sorry for him.

2204_1.jpgIt’s the same way I felt when Cujo died. He was a good boy.

It’s also worth pointing out that Quo Vadis is one of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made and almost nothing about its portrayal of Nero or his administration or the behavior of humans is faithful to reality, but what can you do.


The token melodrama on the list this year was A Place in the Sun, winner of Best Director. I had high hopes for this one…directed by George Stevens, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, photographed by William C. Mellor, it had no excuse to be as bad as it was. After being hugely disappointed, I thought how much better it would have been if it were a half hour shorter, better paced, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who would have withheld more information and given the film some much-needed tension (of which there was none). When I told someone this, they responded, “So, basically, it would have been better if it was a different movie?” As odd as it may seem, the answer is…yes. Yes, A Place in the Sun would have been significantly better if it was an entirely different movie.

But, until time travel is invented and the multiverse theory is proven true, we are stuck with the film that inexplicably won six Oscars and was nominated for three more in 1951. Its plot is the very definition of high-concept: a socially ambitious young man, George Eastman, is entangled in affairs with two women, one of whom is Alice, a plain factory girl, and one of whom is Elizabeth Taylor, and he must choose.

024-a-place-in-the-sun-theredlist.jpgOh, the suspense.

Alas, he gets his factory girl (Shelley Winters) into trouble, and as his worlds threaten to collide, must consider increasingly drastic solutions to his problems. He takes F.G. out on a lake to kill her, but at the last second chickens out…only for a poorly-built canoe to do the dirty work for him. The canoe gets off scot-free but he gets sent down for murder.

3422258.jpgThough they do bring the canoe in as a prosecution witness.

Like Quo VadisA Place in the Sun suffers from too much air, and a subtext-phobic script intent on spoon feeding the audience every detail that may otherwise have made it a fine picture. We are privy to everything that happens before, during, and after Alice’s death, so there is no question that George is innocent of the crime. As a result, the last forty minutes of the film is spent laboriously showing us what we already know, to set up the big payoff that since he didn’t want to be with her, he is guilty anyway and definitely deserves the electric chair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a courtroom sequence with less drama.

This problem runs throughout the film, and the finished product feels forced right from the opening sequence. The only scene that plays naturally is probably the film’s most famous, in which George, bored being a fish-out-of-water at a high-class dinner party, passes the time in the billiard room by himself. As he pulls off a trick shot, Elizabeth Taylor happens to be wandering past the open door and sees it. Her quietly impressed and slightly breathless “Wow!” is the most honest moment in the film.

It falls apart after that, of course, but it’s a classic scene for a reason. It’s just not enough to save the other 118 minutes.

Another thing that dates the film is the justification for George’s fate, the fact that he “wanted Alice out of the way” and so murdered her in his heart or whatever. It’s terribly unconvincing, and highlights one of the more offensive repercussions of the Production Code: namely, that we are supposed to feel that George “got what he had coming to him” through being executed for a crime he did not commit. It may have been effective in 1951 but feels forced and ridiculous today.

Charlie Chaplin proclaimed it “the greatest movie ever made about America.” I wonder if even he knew what he was talking about.


I’ve been harping a lot about the posters for the nominated films, and how they often fail to capture the essence of the movies they were supposed to advertise. That’s not the case with Decision Before Dawn, as the above poster definitely conveys the tone of a tense, shadowy espionage film…but there’s still something about it that makes no sense: the title. Not once in the entire film is there any decision that is made, or needs to be made, before dawn, or really anywhere near as quickly as that. I don’t think there is even a single scene set at dawn. Oh well, it’s still not a bad title, considering it was a compromise after German audiences objected to director Anatole Litvak’s original idea, Legion of the Damned.

Anyway, the movie takes place in the closing days of World War II, as allegiance to the crumbling Nazi regime began to break apart. The story centers on a young, idealistic German POW Karl Maurer, who is recruited by Allied counterintelligence and agrees to return to his hometown of Nuremberg to gather details of a planned secret surrender by a German general. Despite being really, really bad at spying (basically just openly asking everyone he meets if they know the information he has been sent to find out), he makes it to the rendezvous with his American partner Colonel Devlin, and ends up sacrificing himself so that the intelligence can make it back to the Allies.

The film is a great one, particularly notable for its compassionate and nuanced portrayal of Germany in late 1944 when it was clear to all but the most obstinate Party hardliners that the country was on the verge of calamitous defeat. Karl Maurer is a fascinating and well-written character, based on a real person, whose patriotism and love for Germany is exactly what compels him to work for the Allies: he sees that the continuation of the war will only increase his countrymen’s suffering. His idealism is contrasted with fellow spy Rudolf Barth, who is only in it for the money and ultimately proves himself unreliable at the worst possible time.

Decision Before Dawn 008.jpgWho could have anticipated it, with that innocent puppy-dog face?

As he makes his way through the devastated country (filmed on location in Germany’s ruined cities), Maurer encounters a population wearied by the long war, and an army falling apart as soldiers who can see the end coming clash with superiors bound by duty to continue the fight. His mission is often threatened by the true believers who dot the countryside, who keep a sharp eye out for dissenters and traitors; the film continually contrasts the effects of their actions and Maurer’s on the fate of Germany and asks, what is treason?

callittreason00howe.jpgMakes sense, given the title of the novel on which the film is based.

I’ve left a lot of details of the plot out, partly because the film is definitely worth watching and I’d hate to spoil it, but mainly because the plot is secondary to the examination of the psyche of a population of a country about to lose a war, and lose it badly. I’m quite impressed by Litvak’s sympathy and sensitivity to the Germans he presents, and it seems that he really did take pains to treat them as people, and to counteract the then-prevalent notion that the country was united and monolithic in its support of the Third Reich. It was a bold move to make such a movie only five years after the end of the war, and to film it in the country itself.

In the end, I think he nailed it. Every person who crosses the frame is a fully-realized individual with a past, and we see them at a turning point in their own lives and in that of the world. How they deal with it, and how it affects those around them, is what Decision Before Dawn is all about; and for those of them who still have a future when it’s all over, one gets the sense that they are strong enough to make something out of it. The coming Wirtschaftswunder would prove this prescient.

image-604151-galleryV9-dnsc-604151.jpgThis is the first image I got when I searched Wirtschaftswunder. Says it all, I think.

And so we have the first three films of 1951! Next week, for the third year in a row, I’m about to disagree with the choice for Best Picture…but these two films are undeniably two of the best films ever made. Part II coming soon!

Three Years of Oscars and I – Another Clip Show


Today marks three years since my first post here at Oscars and I. It started on a wicked pace, and within one year I was already posting on the 17th Academy Awards (1944), dotted throughout with trivia. Unfortunately my updates have slowed down considerably since then, as I am now two years later working on the 24th Academy Awards for 1951, but I hope to maintain this momentum and continue with weekly updates until I finally finish! As of this moment, I have seen all 182 extant films nominated for Best Picture from 1927-1951 (if anyone finds a copy of 1928’s The Patriot kicking around, let me know).

I should probably start watching more films from this year, since I doubt that the one I have seen (Logan), good though it was, will receive much Oscar attention. I eagerly await Daniel Day-Lewis’ swan song, which I’m sure will be both interesting and well-represented in the 2017 nominees. Until then, and as I mull over the nominees for 1951 (I’m beginning to think that An American in Paris really was the right choice, after all!), here is a collection of some of my favorite moments from the Oscars between 1944 and 1951:

Oh, I know this clip of Gaslight isn’t from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman-Charles Boyer version which was nominated for Best Picture at the 17th Academy Awards…but this one, the original British production from 1940, is just better. Not only because it stars two of my favorite actors, Diana Wynyard and (*sigh*) Anton Walbrook, but it has a much creepier, noirish feel throughout, full of unsettling close-ups and odd camera angles, and the final confrontation between Bella and Paul is tense and unforgettable.

I also wanted to show it because when MGM acquired the rights to remake Gaslight, part of the deal was a demand, thankfully ignored by BNF, that all of the prints of the 1940 version be destroyed so their own film wouldn’t have competition…so naturally I have to disseminate the original.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) was one of the first films to actually represent mental illness as something that could be scientifically studied and treated. Yes, we had Gaslight the year before, but the moral of that one was more how one can use mental illness as a weapon against a conniving, thieving husband who is stealing from you and cheating on you with Angela Lansbury. Arguably, Spellbound has the more universal message.

Even if the ideas of Spellbound are outdated today, it is full of great moments and fine performances by Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. This sequence, designed by Salvador Dali, originally ran over 15 minutes but was cut down by studio execs. You can see its influence on future dream montages, particularly the one towards the end of Father of the Bride (1950)!

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (Best Picture of 1946) remains powerful in my memory despite the fact that it’s been nearly two years since I watched it. This scene is one of many that stand out in an almost perfectly-made film, and its imagery–an air force veteran wandering aimlessly through the rusted, dusty remains of thousands of disused aircraft about to be melted down and turned into cheap, mass-produced housing–is one of the best cinematic representations of the problems of the postwar world I have seen.

Olivier’s Henry V brought Shakespeare back to prominence after A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and the curiously adult-filled Romeo & Juliet (1936) ruined it. From this magnificent opening he transported us back further and further in time until we were on the very battlefield of Agincourt, then guided us. with just as much grace, back to the present. Four years later he topped himself with Hamlet, but he would never have had the chance to make that film if it hadn’t been for his inspired genius with this one.

Ah, The Bishop’s Wife, the result of a $50 wager that no director could possibly make an uncharismatic film starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. Well, Henry Koster proved them all wrong. The above clip is pretty representative of the movie’s schlocky and misguided “wisdom”…here, Grant waxes poetic that “not everybody [grows old]. The only people who grow old were born old to begin with.” Which is why all of our nursing homes are filled with old 6-year-olds and why you find so many Korean War veterans in primary school.

The demise of Fred C. Dobbs at the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t the best scene in the movie by any stretch, but I still wanted to post it as an example of the well-crafted piece of tension-building that Huston did so well. You can see the reuse of the machete attack shot, since Huston decided against using the image of Dobbs’ disembodied head rolling into the water…though if you look closely you will notice the ripples in the puddle that it made in the originally conceived sequence.

Anton Walbrook continues to smash it in every role I’ve ever seen him in, and he never looked more at home than as the arrogant, charming, and thoroughly brilliant Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes. His exchange with Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) here, in particular her response to his question, is one of my favorite moments in all of cinema.

I posted this clip of Twelve O’Clock High in the main article about the 22nd Academy Awards, but I wanted to show it again because it is such a wonderfully self-contained piece of filmmaking at its finest. Even though Hugh Marlowe (as Ben Gately) barely moves or speaks, he goes through all the stages of grief as his career dies under the relentless and calculating verbal blows from Gregory Peck…as I believe we all would.

One of the few memorable and resonante scenes of King Solomon’s Mines, a rumination on life in the jungle and, by extension, life everywhere. This, combined with some beautiful shots of African fauna, make the movie worth a watch, but it’s nothing to do with the story or the acting, all of which was old-hat even in 1950.

Nothing to add here…just a little preview of the Best Picture of 1951, An American in Paris!

And now I’ll leave you with this before we move along to the 24th Academy Awards…Anton Karas performing (with some accompaniment) his brilliant theme for The Third Man.

See you next week!

23rd Academy Awards (1950) – Part II

(Part I.)

I apologize in advance for what will be a long entry, but there’s a lot to say about these next two films!


Every so often at the Oscars, there is one film amongst the nominees that clearly stands above the rest. Occasionally, that film does win (Casablanca is one example from the years we’ve already covered, along with The Best Years of Our Lives and All Quiet on the Western Front), but more often, its genius isn’t recognized (enough) at the time and it misses out on the Best Picture award (e.g., Citizen KaneLa Grande Illusion, or all of the losing nominees in 1939). I love it when I get to talk about the former, because it means the Oscars were doing their job, but the flip side is that I get so frustrated when the superiority of a film is so obvious and the Academy swings and misses. 1950 is an example of the second one.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Sunset Boulevard deserved to win Best Picture this year…there’s no doubt in my mind that it would deserve to win in most years. A William Holden noir directed by one of the era’s great cynics, Billy Wilder, it is a wonderfully perfect film that captures the essence of Golden Age Hollywood, and how the studio system could be so magical from without, and terrifying from within. Working on dismantling the myth of Hollywood from the inside out, Wilder reveals how the industry destroys even its brightest stars, yet continues to attract multitudes of hopefuls desperately fighting for their close-up with Mr. DeMille.

It’s quite possibly the greatest movie about movies ever made, excluding perhaps only Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which is also about the struggles faced by silent stars in the transition to talkies.

e1af035e1b71e94aa8f68eec33d8924d--lina-lamont-hagen.jpg   Norma_Desmond_smoking.jpg
In fact, Singin’ works almost too well as a Norma Desmond origin story…

The film opens with its protagonist already dead, and is told entirely in flashback from the point of view of the very man we see floating lifeless in a swimming pool, Joe Gillis (William Holden). The story unfolds with tongue firmly in cheek, narrated by the dead man and following the unlikely series of events that led to his demise. Since the dead are notoriously unreliable narrators, we must take Gillis’ word for all that happens, but being deceased seems to give him such a sense of freedom and dark humor that one gets the feeling that he is not all that upset about being murdered. Though as the story proceeds, we find out why.

Gillis is a hack writer trying to make it in the cruel Hollywood system, but his almost total lack of talent continually prejudices studios against him. Fortune smiles on him, however, in the form of psychotic former silent film star Norma Desmond, who lives nearly alone in a decrepit mansion on…some street in LA, I can’t remember offhand. Anyway, she takes him in as her script doctor/gigolo as she plans her Big Comeback, and all she asks in return is his utter acquiescence to being a kept man.

born-yesterday-1950.jpgHe really couldn’t catch a break this year.

He puts up token resistance to the idea of being romanced by a 1,000-year-old woman trying desperately to look 600, but she wins him over with a few tweed suits and the prospect of not starving to death waiting for that big Paramount contract to come though. With the benefit of supernatural hindsight, Gillis-the-Narrator knows that the power dynamic shifts against him within minutes, but Gillis-the-Idiot-Protagonist takes a while longer to figure it out. Too long, in fact, though the moment when she has his car towed away, leaving him stranded and at her mercy in the middle of the Hills, should have been a big clue.

Their relationship grows in fits and starts, and he more than once considers flying the coup, but Norma is the master here, and soon they end up where we all knew they would…though the film has the good grace to fade to black before the heavy stuff starts.

article-1126430-0323044E000005DC-334_468x286.jpgGood, because it was about to get a little…yuck.

The whole arrangement ends about as well as you might expect, and I won’t spoil how Gillis ends up in the pool, but see it for yourself…it’s a wild ride. Gloria Swanson turns in a wonderful (and, in any other year, I would say Oscar-worthy) performance as Norma Desmond, able to act over-the-top and neurotic in a completely realistic and believable way. Of course, the character helps, since Desmond is slowly going mad and usually believes she is giving a performance in a silent film at all times, but Swanson manages to play a delicate balance, keeping the audience engaged with and sympathetic towards Desmond without making her (too) sad and pathetic.

Every performance in the film is solid gold, but the one who steals the show is silent film director Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s steadfastly loyal–and domineeringly Austrian–butler Max, who caters to her every whim to maintain the illusion of her solipsistic madness. He even finds the time to write her bogus fan mail every day, and Norma is so wrapped up in neuroses and feather boas that she never notices that they all have the same handwriting and come exclusively from fans in a zip code that only covers her house.

The casting of von Stroheim–a silent film giant whose monumental achievement, Greed (1924), is easily the greatest film of the pre-sound era and a strong candidate for the greatest film, period–was a stroke of genius; his very presence adds layer upon layer of complexity to an already rich plot. Von Stroheim imbues every line, every movement, with a gravitas that feels completely natural, a rock against which Norma’s histrionics crash and echo in their shared mausoleum. And when Gillis finally gets around to asking Max why he is so devoted to Norma, the answer is so dark, twisted, and perfect, and encapsulates everything that is great not just about Max, but also Norma, Gillis, and even Cecil B. DeMille…and the myth of Sunset Boulevard itself.

Add to the mix Nancy Olson as idealistic and aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer, a dead monkey, several hilarious Hollywood in-jokes (such as the producer who turned down Gone with the Wind), and an enchanting cameo by Buster Keaton, and Sunset Boulevard is pretty much a perfect film.

c0f4b008bd9b3450992591ffce0527d0--boulevard-.jpg“This is the most fun I’ve ever had without trains.”

Part of what makes it so perfect—aside from the biting satire, the flawless acting, and the moody black-and-white cinematography—is Billy Wilder’s penchant for injecting extremely dark and bitter themes with such acerbic and self-referential humor. We saw him do it five years ago with alcoholism in The Lost Weekend, and we’ll see him do it with adultery in about a decade with The Apartment, and here he does it while eviscerating the very system that was allowing him to make movies in the first place. Every scene in Sunset Boulevard is dripping with bitter irony, and it’s handled with such deftness that we are laughing, maybe a little uncomfortably, even as the situation spirals out of control towards an inevitably tragic climax.

Even for 1950, in the wake of the postwar cynicism and examination of society that Hollywood embraced, and even for a noir, it’s a remarkably nihilistic film. In the end there is no redemption, no justice, and certainly no optimism…everything remains as hopeless and cruel as it was before. The only difference is that there is one less failed artist wandering down Hollywood Boulevard desperate, destitute, and rejected. In other words, the film ends as organically and realistically as possible…like I said, a perfect film.

That said, however, it’s easy to see why it lost to All About Eve for the top Oscar. Sunset Boulevard is unrelentingly dark and cynical in its treatment of the studio system, laying the blame for Norma Desmond’s descent into irrelevancy and madness squarely at the feet of the executives and filmmakers who cast her aside when she stopped being profitable. Considering this was the exact same system still in place in 1950, it’s hardly surprising that the Academy offered it a bunch of nominations but couldn’t bring itself to lavish too much honor upon it—though it received the second-most nominations of the evening, its awards were limited mainly to technical categories, and its acting was completely shut out despite being nominated in all four categories.[1]

idqIv.jpg“Sure, we could give Best Actor to the performance that lays bare all the profit-driven selfishness and evil deeds of our industry…but how about we give it to this guy with the goofy nose? Sound good?”

That brings us to this year’s winner, a film that also examines the aging-actress theme, but which comes to an altogether dumber conclusion:


As I stated in Part I, with All About Eve Joseph L. Mankiewicz repeated his double win in Directing and Screenwriting from 1949, becoming the first and, to date, only person to do so; he’s also one of three to win consecutive Best Director awards (the other two being John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath [1940] and How Green was my Valley [1941], and Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Birdman [2014] and The Revenent [2015]). And, also as I stated in Part I, he probably didn’t experience a great deal of suspense on Oscar night.

Like A Letter to Three Wives before it, All About Eve is pure Oscar bait, starring big names and telling a story with a “wholesome” moral in which career and family are mutually exclusive concepts–for women, that is–and it is very obvious which one is best–again, for women. It is a propaganda film pure and simple, sending American women a very clear message: it was real cute when you all were working, but the war is over, the men have returned, now go back home.

Annex - Davis, Bette (All About Eve)_03.jpg“Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’m whipping out the answer to your ‘career’ problems right now.”

Before I get into all that, I must say that the film does endure as a classic, and the reason is the acting. Bette Davis is masterful as aging Broadway star Margo Channing, who finds her career stalling as she gets older but her roles do not. Enter Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a young, starstruck simpleton who worms her way into Eve’s lives and those of her friends.,.namely her director/boyfriend Bill Sampson, playwright Lloyd Richards, and his wife Karen Richards (Celeste Holm).

The plot is fairly simple. Eve appears in their lives with little fanfare or ambition, but as the story progresses, slowly reveals her true purpose: to replace Margo as the darling of the Broadway scene and be a great actress. She pursues this goal ruthlessly, abusing and throwing away everyone in her path…with one exception, veteran theatre critic and silver-tongued devil Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, in one of the most deserved Best Supporting Actor-winning performances I’ve yet seen), who sees through Eve in an instant but guides her along for his own amusement.

Which was his M.O. for everything, really.

Eve, so used to casually using everyone in her path, doesn’t see DeWitt coming until it is far too late. For his part, he gleefully strings Eve for yuks along until she goes too far, even for him, and then the gloves come off in truly glorious fashion. The climactic, almost triumphant scene in which he lays bare her sordid past is amazing, and is enough in itself to justify his Oscar. It is her well-deserved comeuppance, and is, thankfully, handled very realistically and doesn’t feel forced by the Code or by the story’s questionable morality.

Despite the film’s title, it is Margo, not Eve, who is the story’s true protagonist, the one whose decisions and agency truly move the plot. Her anger with Eve’s interference, which gradually morphs into outright manipulation, combined with her aforementioned frustration at not receiving parts commiserate with her age and experience, pushes her to her very limit. Davis, as ever, handles the role with grace and aplomb, and it’s a real shame she didn’t receive her third Best Actress award for her efforts.

Now for the bad stuff. Like I said, the film is a propaganda piece, one that, in its own way, is more over-the-top and offensive than the most forced and jingoistic wartime flicks we saw flood the Oscars a decade ago. All About Eve firmly and unambiguously tells women that they must choose between a man and happiness, or a career that leaves them crushingly empty and unfulfilled. What’s more, it is only immature, shortsighted women who choose the latter anyway…the film’s emotional climax comes when Margo Channing has an emotional epiphany in which she realizes that, in pursuing a career, she “gave up” being a woman, and that a woman is “nothing without a man.”

hqdefault.jpgThey also spelled it out in the trailer, presumably so women in the audience wouldn’t need to bother their husbands asking for an explanation.

In the end, Margo gives up her career and is instantly happy…Karen was always happily married, her only moment of unhappiness being when she’s worried Eve might steal her man…and then there’s Eve, at the top of her field due as much to her talent as her machinations, with a promising and still ascendant career ahead of her, dead inside. The men, meanwhile, never had anything to worry about, because they never had to make the choice between love and career…though I suppose they did have to grapple with the terribly difficult decision of whether to step out with Eve or not.

120715041019-celeste-holm-story-top.jpg“Dolls, I’d say you owe us a few drinks for keeping it in our pants.”

This message has, to put it mildly, not aged well, and as a consequence of this, combined with the story’s subtle but still icky treatment of homosexuality, the film is an uncomfortable one to sit through in 2017. In terms of dated stereotypes it falls short of Father of the Bride, but it is made worse by the fact that it tries so, so desperately to be taken seriously as a cautionary tale.

Still, as I said, the film abounds in great performances, particularly the lead actresses, all four of whom were nominated for Oscars (the only time one film received four female acting nominations). They are all rich and compelling characters, even taking into account the oppressive script, but unfortunately come Oscar season they were split evenly between Lead and Supporting Actress, and thus canceled each other out. The film could have taken three acting categories this year if Anne Baxter had been nominated for Supporting Actress instead of Lead Actress for her role as Eve Harrington. The role really was a supporting one, and if she’d be in the right category, I’m sure Bette Davis would have taken Best Actress and Baxter, even against Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter, Best Supporting.

But, this was not to be. As it stands, of the film’s five acting nods, only George Sanders, whose only real competition in the category was Erich von Stroheim, came away with a win. I can’t say I’m disappointed, either, that Josephine Hull took Best Supporting Actress for her role as James Stewart’s long-suffering sister in the classic comedy Harvey.

And thus, the 23rd Academy Awards were decided, and before we move to 1951 I’d like to leave you with a clip from the real best picture of 1950…a little British movie that came out in 1949–but premiered in New York and Los Angeles in 1950–and should have swept the awards this year.

See you all in 1951!

[1] It joined My Man Godfrey in having the distinction of receiving nominations in all four categories and not winning a single one; the next film to do this was American Hustle (2013), though that was justifiable.

23rd Academy Awards (1950) – Part I


  • All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz*
  • Born Yesterday, George Cukor
  • Father of the Bride, Vincente Minnelli
  • King Solomon’s Mines, Compton Bennett & Andrew Marton
  • Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder

Once again, a dark and socially relevant Best Picture was followed by a much lighter year in which the Academy remembered that comedy films existed. Unfortunately, they were so out of practice they missed the good ones. The nominees for Best Picture in 1950 included two comedies, both moderately screwball; a Hollywood noir; and a location-shot, Technicolor adventure. None of these genres traditionally does very well at the Oscars, at least in terms of Best Picture, so the stage was set for a potentially precedent-setting year.

So it should come as no surprise that the winner was the only straight drama on the list, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, which won him his second consecutive awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay. The film dramatizes all the ways career ambition is bad for women, and the only way for them to find true happiness is to devote themselves to their loving husbands. Such a happy and uplifting message could not go unrecognized by the Academy.

1950_view_directing_writing_Mankiewicz.jpgThey just handed him the Oscars when he pitched the script.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great movie, if somewhat dated and more than a little uncomfortable in its propagandistic intentions, but more on that next week. If I’m honest, aside from this film and Sunset Boulevard, I found 1950’s slate to be terribly, terribly weak, especially compared to the last couple of years…and it didn’t have to be. For example, if the Academy really wanted to nominate a Spencer Tracy comedy, they’d have done better to replace Father of the Bride with Adam’s Rib. Also, though it pains me to bring it up, I have to mention that The Third Man was released in the U.S. in 1950 and, unforgivably, was not nominated.

orson-welles-the-third-man-xlarge.jpgThis single smirk by Welles was better than any of the Oscar-nominated performances.

Oh well, what’s done is done. So without further ado, let’s have a look at the first three nominated films before getting to the ones that are, rightly, considered classics.


King Solomon’s Mines, a Technicolor adventure set and filmed in Africa, was 1950’s Trader Horn, following a naïve American traveling with a grizzled, cynical British adventurer on a mission to save a white person lost in the uncharted wilds of central Africa. It also mimics T. Horn insofar as the story pauses at least four times in favor of lingering shots of African fauna and monologues about humanity’s place in the natural order, at the expense of consistent pacing and a satisfying climax. To its credit, King Solomon’s Mines contains a hell of a lot less racism and sexism than its predecessor (though it is still there, just more subtly woven), and at least as the courtesy to fake any on-camera human deaths.

I really could just copy-paste my review of Trader Horn here, because aside from being in color, I can’t think of much that sets King Solomon’s Mines apart. I could also lift from my assessment of Gone with the Wind, in that this film earned its spot in the Best Picture nominees by being lavish, expensive, and beautifully photographed, but featured a very dull and poorly-paced story. At least GwtW had a memorable climax…King Solomon’s Mines stumbles drunkenly over the finish line with a swift narrative collapse that suggests the director received word that his car was illegally parked on Hollywood Blvd. and he had to return and move it immediately.

_77368720_crushed.jpgNaturally, he was eager to receive word about his cube.

Credit where its due, though: the film does feature a strong environmentalist message, or at least strong for 1950. There are more than a few surprisingly insightful monologues by the grizzled veteran adventurer about respect for animals and the natural world, and how arrogant it is for humans to treat the Earth as nothing more than a resource for our pleasure. Unlike Trader Horn, the protagonists only kill animals when directly threatened, and every time they have to, the act genuinely affects them.

In the end, our heroes do not find, or even come close to finding, the titular mines, nor do they succeed in finding their lost white guy…but this turns out to be a blessing in disguise, since his wife falls for the aforementioned Grizzled Adventurer along the way, and by the end locating the husband would have really cramped their style.

cdfbdfe48629edcf0f1b8e2cc08e3b78.jpgOf course, they’ll still have to deal with his S.O. when they get back to civilization.

The best parts of King Solomon’s Mines can be condensed into a compilation of sweeping panoramas of the east African landscape and shots of the endemic animal species. I guess I’m saying you should just watch a David Attenborough documentary instead.


Next was Born Yesterday, the earliest example I have found so far of the “smart is the new sexy” trope.

william-holden-judy-holliday-born-yesterday-1950-C8CKA4.jpgThough of course they their glasses off when it was time for romance. Smart isn’t that sexy.

When I told my older sister that 1950 was a weak year, and then proceeded to mention that Born Yesterday was among the nominees, her reaction–that it’s a great movie and Judy Holliday is wonderful–has me worried that the next decade or so of this blog could lead to a real falling-out between us. She’s already upset with me over my (anticipated) conclusion that An American in Paris didn’t deserve to win in 1951, but we’ll get to that soon enough.

I mean, it’s not a bad movie by any means…I found it funny, charming, and full of great moments. I laughed a fair amount, which is the chief criterion, perhaps the only criterion, for judging something a good comedy. But still, overall, the movie fell flat. Maybe it was because I watched it only a few days after All the King’s Men, and just wasn’t emotionally prepared the sight of Broderick Crawford shouting his way through a naïve romcom with delusions of insight.

Unknown.jpegOr maybe it was the four-minute, dialogue-free scene where they sit and play gin. That’s not a joke.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think what really goes wrong with Born Yesterday is the fact that it tries to be more than what it is. It’s not satisfied with being a romantic comedy…it clearly has grander political and social points on its mind, and the script consistently fails to deliver.

The plot, basically, is this: millionaire junk dealer Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford, essentially playing Willie Stark in an alternate timeline) arrives in Washington, DC with the idea of “buying” a senator. He comes with his fiancée Billie (Judy Holliday), an ostensibly dumb blonde, and hires William Holden (William Holden) to teach her how to behave with class. Billie and William quickly fall in love, and he transforms her, Flowers for Algernon-like, into an intelligent person.

You can tell when it happens because she starts to wear glasses. You know, like smart people do.

Combining the one-two punch of love and intelligence, they show Brock who’s boss–by leaving him free from their meddling and with all of his money and properties…yay?–and ride off into the sunset.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t just stop there…instead it has points to make about the American political system, and brother, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington it ain’t. It is adorably innocent even in its “cynical” moments…for instance, positing that 95% of Congress is made up of upstanding, moral, hardworking patriots, and only a “few bad apples” are vulnerable to outside interests. And even with Harry Brock written and performed as the world’s most ignorant straw man, the movie still can’t manage to demonstrate this idea convincingly.

The film’s idea of “getting serious” is having William Holden deliver several speeches about political responsibility and the importance of an educated populous, speaking of a level of participation in the political process that I don’t think America has ever had. I can’t judge the film as a simple comedy when it tries so hard to be something more, and then shits the bed so miserably every time it tries to address anything deeper than “general corruption.”

born-yesterday-05.jpg“Hm, we’d better cut to Broderick yelling at somebody. I’ve run out of Thomas Jefferson quotes.”

I haven’t even mentioned Billie’s “transformation” from dumb to smart, which the film’s Wikipedia article assures me happens at some point. Even in the end, when she is fully intelligent, her lines are nothing but paraphrases of William Holden and Thomas Paine, delivered with the intonation and conviction of someone reciting a list of Latin verb conjugations. However, I think Judy Holliday did a great job with what she had, and it’s a funny, if shrill, performance (though I don’t think she deserved to win Best Actress).

And even with all of that, it wasn’t the worst comedy nominated this year. That would have to be…


Father of the Bride should have been amazing…a screwball comedy about the trials and tribulations of putting on a wedding starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor, directed by Vincente Minnelli. It sure did well in 1950, and still enjoys a pretty favorable reputation…but I kind of hated it. Even at 92 minutes it seems stretched and ill-paced, and almost every joke is based on one of two tired, hackneyed stereotypes: a) men are wearied, stoic victims of emotional women, and b) women be crazy, amirite?

elizabeth-taylor-03--4821219-.jpgFortunately, the 1950s knew how to handle the problem with dignity and class.

The “story” is told in flashback by Spencer Tracy, who from his very first line–delivered directly to camera, to “the fathers out there”–looks bored and out of place. This could have been great for his character, who is both of those things and more throughout the film, but every aspect of Tracy’s lackluster performance just screams that he took the role based on a dare.

Anyway, he plays Stanley Banks, whose daughter Kay announces her surprise engagement to some schmuck with the unlikely name of Buckley Dunstan. This comprises the entirety of the film’s first act. From then on we are treated to an hour of mishaps, misunderstandings, and tomfoolery leading to the wedding, all of which are solved with some hugs and soft words, until the movie just sort of ends. I kept waiting for the payoff for this ordeal, but the movie offers nothing…it was as rewarding as playing solitaire. In the back of a night bus. To Stockton. And the aces are missing from the deck.

Along the arduous path of clichés and instantly forgettable scenes, the movie tries to muscle in some “heartfelt” moments that are meant to remind viewers that fathers and daughters share a very special bond (see above photo) that not even marriage can destroy.

19eef20c28ffe16dd5b48f85412b0ece--joan-bennett-father-of-the-bride.jpgWhile the bond between a husband and wife remains separated by twin beds forever.

There’s only one moment in the film that was interesting, and only because it was completely different from everything that comes before and after it. It’s a short dream sequence Stanley endures on the night before the wedding, encapsulating all his fears and trepidations, and it’s actually very avant-garde and well-done. Unfortunately, it does its job too well, since it does in two minutes what the rest of the film can’t do in ninety. After watching it here, you can safely ignore the rest of the film.

I’ve seen some bad movies in this project, but this was the first one in a while whose inclusion in the list of nominees genuinely baffled me. It’s hard for me to believe that even in 1950 was this film considered anything more than a project cobbled together by bored professionals who should know better and who had an afternoon to kill. In fact, just to be sure I wasn’t missing something or being unfair to a classic, I even watched the 1991 remake of the film, to see if there were any substantive differences between a Best-Picture nominated movie starring, I must restate, Spencer goddamn Tracy and Elizabeth frigging Taylor, and a cash grab family flick starring Steve Martin–who hasn’t made a good film since the Reagan administration–and Diane Keaton.

And goddamn it, the remake is better. It’s still pretty bad, but at least the lead actor actually makes sense in the role, and it just seems to make far more sense as a light ’90s comedy. So that is the legacy of Father of the Bride: a bad film that eventually got remade as a mediocre one.

So there is the start of 1950…not promising, but as I said, it ends with two undisputed classics. And like 1934 before it, the strength of the great films compensates for the weakness of the bad ones. Part II coming soon!