27th Academy Awards (1954) – Part I


  • 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.


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…


…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…


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…


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!


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.


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…


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


  • 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…


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.


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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 17.34.46
“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…


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.


And now, back to Rome!


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.


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…


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.

“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!


25th Academy Awards (1952) – Part I


  • The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille
  • High Noon, Fred Zinnemann
  • Ivanhoe, Richard Thorpe
  • Moulin Rouge, John Huston
  • The Quiet Man, John Ford*

1951 was one of those 1934-esque years, when a generally weak selection of nominees was buoyed by the top half, which more than made up for the rest. 1952 was…well, not. Maybe it was the hangover from whatever wild party the Academy threw to honor its 25th birthday, but whatever it was, it was bad, and the results speak for themselves.

The top Oscars at the 25th Academy Awards were spread exceptionally thin; for the first time since the introduction of the Supporting Actor and Actress awards, Best Picture, Best Director, and all four acting Oscars went to six different films. Not only that, but two films not nominated for Best Picture received more nominations than the winner: The Bad and the Beautiful and Hans Christian Andersen, with six apiece. The exceptionally misleadingly-named The Greatest Show on Earth received just five, and was the last Best Picture to win only two Oscars until Spotlight (2015).

I could go on, so I will. The Bad and the Beautiful won five Oscars, the most of the evening, and the most ever for a film not nominated for Best Picture. And it is a damned fine film, but with it lacking a nomination and all, we won’t go into it here.

MV5BYmRmMmIyYWQtYTJkNS00OTIzLTg0ZTEtMThkN2U2ZjE0ZjVkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDI2NDg0NQ@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgJust imagine Citizen Kane but in Hollywood and you’ll get the general idea.

It was a terribly weak year, all around…none of the nominees was mind-crushingly great, and even though The Quiet Man and High Noon are still well-regarded today, they haven’t aged all that well. Especially considering the Academy made the unforgivable decision to all but ignore Singin’ in the Rain, which received just two nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Jean Hagen) and Best Musical Score.

So weak was 1952, in fact, that I’m going to break with my usual O&I format and talk about the winner first. The better to get past this mediocre year all the faster.


Once one accepts the truth that the Academy Awards are really, really bad at their stated mission, it’s not hard to see why The Greatest Show on Earth upset the odds and won Best Picture. It may not have been well-paced, well-acted, well-written, or well-anything, but it was produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, a man who had been instrumental in founding…well, Hollywood itself. Yet despite a previous nomination in the form of the (equally dumb) Cleopatra (1934), he had never won an Oscar. The Academy was worried that this bloated, two-and-a-half advertisement for Ringling Bros. was the last chance they’d get to honor the 70-year-old legend, so they jumped at it.

This was a bad decision. The Greatest Show on Earth is rightly vilified as one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time, failing at just about every level. It wastes its amazing cast, especially poor Jimmy Stewart, stuck in face paint for the whole film and showing a level of commitment to his craft utterly out of place amidst the hammy melodrama surrounding him. He plays a clown named Buttons who, wanting to hide a dark secret, never removes his makeup, even between shows.

25766804112_f2f26042f8_b.jpgNope, nothing suspicious about that.

Naturally, the film wastes a good set-up. Is he some kind of nameless djinn, without identity or past, flitting through the circus world dispensing wisdom and spreading love as only Elwood P. Dowd could? No, of course not…he’s just a fugitive on the run for killing his wife. It’s a “shocking” “twist” that could only have been invented by filmmakers for whom dialogue was just the boring bits between watching imprisoned elephants dance for the amusement of popcorn-guzzling schoolchildren.

I’m getting worked up now, and I haven’t even mentioned the plot. Here it is: Charlton Heston runs a circus, Betty Hutton is a trapeze artist who is in love with both him and Cornel Wilde, and Gloria Grahame is a silver-tongued vixen who loves Heston but ends up with Wilde. They work out their insane love quadrangle while DeMille gives screen time to every performer working for Barnum and Bailey during the production period. At least the actual performers are shown with dignity, which is less than can be said for the professional actors at the periphery.

23805642033_70077d71a3_b.jpgJimmy Stewart, weighing finishing the film against life in prison for murdering his agent.

It’s a thoroughly forgettable affair in all respects, and I think it’s time to move on to marginally greener pastures. Unfortunately, they’re not much greener…



Robert Taylor did not impress me with his doofy performance as a Roman legionnaire in last year’s Quo Vadis, and he’s even doofier as a Saxon prince. Here, he plays the same kind of “aghast that cultures different from his own exist” character, in the form of Ivanhoe, an illiterate knight fighting valiantly in his attempt to show more than one emotion.

pop-up-beijing-classic-movie-tuesday-ivanhoe-1952-robert-taylor-elizabeth-taylor-joan-fontaine-4_2.jpg“I must show them Ivanhoe’s deep unconsciousness.”

Actually, Ivanhoe is trying to raise the money to free King Richard I, whose brother John has usurped the throne in his absence. Along the way, he must deal with the dastardly Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders, less bitchy than he was in All About Eve but still damned bitchy), and fight off the attentions of Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) while still keeping her on the hook until her wealthy father helps to pay Richard’s ransom. Ivanhoe’s lady love (since all knights must have a lady love) is Rowena, played by Joan Fontaine, though she contributes little to the plot aside from being supremely capturable. Meanwhile, De Bois-Guilbert falls for Rebecca, but since his name isn’t on the poster she rejects his admittedly coercive advances.

This tangled web of predictable romance is a bit more believable than the one in The Greatest Show on Earth, but it is still little more than window dressing, as the plot itself moves forward largely without its help. In fact, it moves forward without help from anything…things just kind of happen, without suspense or agency from the characters. It must have been hard for the performers to look invested in their roles, seeing as how none of them had much effect on the final outcome.

One scene that does deserve credit, though is the final duel between Ivanhoe and De Bois-Guilbert.

Kind of like how the Thunderdome fight in Mad Max 3 makes the rest of it worthwhile.

Even though the outcome of the fight is never in doubt, it is still excitingly staged, paced, and blocked. The sound mixing brings every crunch of mace-on-metal to life, and the timing of Ivanhoe’s snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is played just right. Naturally, this is followed by De Bois-Guilbert’s obligatory redemption and a happy ending for all concerned. Yes, even De Bois-Guilbert’s future isn’t as bleak as it looks.

ivanhoe-1952-2-300x225.jpg“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be playing opposite Peter Sellers in twelve years.”

It was also great fun when I realized the Scottish castle used for the film’s exterior and battle scenes is none other than Doune Castle, which was to be used some twenty-two years hence as the primary location of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, all of the interiors were shot at Elstree Studios, so I didn’t get the pleasure of seeing George Sanders look out the same window as Terry Jones and Michael Palin did in this classic scene:

I got to see it myself in 2004, though, so my life is pretty much complete.

So, pretty slow start to 1952. Fortunately, the year began to get a little brighter, with…


I believe that Moulin Rouge was nominated for Best Picture over Singin’ in the Rain because the Academy looked at An American in Paris‘ success the previous year and decided that the takeaway was that what audiences really wanted to see was not Gene Kelly’s genius, but just films set in Paris.

an-american-in-paris-gene-kelly-and-dancers1.jpg“Can’t we get those dancers out of the way so the audience can see the fountain?”

Based on the poster, one would be forgiven for thinking that, despite being directed by John Huston, Moulin Rouge is a musical extravaganza, a wild and crazy celebration of Belle Époque Paris, and not a depressingly, unrelentingly bleak portrait of a tortured artist. Of course, the contrast between the perception of that champagne-soaked time and the real life of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the film’s main motifs, but it’s still a bit misleading to not even feature him on the advertisements.

Moulin_Rouge_(1952)-Caratula.jpgOn second thought, maybe they had the right idea.

Moulin Rouge tells the story, as I said, of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, played by José Ferrer (who also plays the painter’s father in a few scenes). It is less a feature than it is two short films in succession: the first hour concerns Henri’s early struggles as an artist, his heavy drinking, and his disastrous affair with a Parisian prostitute; while the second follows his artistic success, his heavier drinking, and his disastrous affair with a Parisian socialite.

The story begins with the painter sat the Moulin Rouge in 1890, drinking bottle after bottle of cognac and sketching the dancers onstage–one of whom is Zsa Zsa Gabor (whose performance Huston later glowingly described as “creditable”). He falls in love with a prostitute, Marie, on the way home from the club, but the courtship ends after roughly three days after she admits she was only using him for his money. Cut (literally) to ten years later, and Lautrec is becoming a sensation in the Parisian art scene, still depressed but now an “eccentric artist” instead of a “pathetic drunkard.” The second half, as I said, sees him fall for another woman, this one with sophisticated Myriamme Hyam, who, unluckily for him, is also being wooed by Peter Cushing.

CushingPeter_MoulinRouge.jpg“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Having learnt all the wrong lessons from his first failed romance, he aggressively sabotages his relationship with Myriamme, driving her into Cushing’s arms more efficiently than his puppydog looks and soulful eyes ever could. Myriamme, ironically, possesses a Lautrec original: a portrait of Marie from all those years ago, which stares down at him in mute judgment during his climactic, acidic tirade against her.

Being directed by John Huston, the two halves, though clearly delineated, are not disparate at all; the second half features numerous callbacks to and mirrors of the first, unflinchingly (for 1952) showing Henri’s steady personal decline even as he struggles to maintain a proper façade commiserate with his newfound respectability. José Ferrer imbues the role with a fine balance of panache and almost painful bitterness, and Huston’s direction steers them with ease in all the right directions. The result is a Toulouse-Lautrec that at once inspires pity and fear.

moulin_rouge_1952_film_a_round_of_cognac 333.jpgExcept when he has Christopher Lee by his side…then it’s mostly just fear.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s undesired rise is mirrored by that of his favorite burlesque, the eponymous Moulin Rouge, which gradually transforms from a gin joint to a sophisticated haunt of Europe’s elite. Huston uses the club as a manifestation of the price to be paid for such an era as  La Belle Époque, which swept aside the undesirables that birthed it as soon as it became trendy and left them to languish in the gutters and the dives not yet discovered by the hipsters of the 1890s.

It’s a fine film, but one with a few melodramatic touches that keep it from being amongst Huston’s best. Still, it was nice to see him experimenting across genres, and the finished product mostly pays off. Like all the nominees this year, it’s really feeling its age in 2018, but the strength of the direction and performances more than makes up for it.

The last two films of 1952, The Quiet Man and High Noon, were the odds-on favorites for Best Picture this year. They’re also the only two of the nominees still talked about today with anything other than derision, so we’ll see what can be said about them in Part II!

Trivial Matters #38 – Regarding the 90th Academy Awards nominees

It’s that time of year again, the time when the discerning members of the Academy announce their nominations for the Oscars. Haha, I’m just joking…it’s that time when members go on Wikipedia, copy-paste the nominees and winners from the Golden Globes and the SAG awards, and change them just enough so it looks like they made an effort. No big surprises this year amongst the nominees…and thus far, of the nine films up for the top award, I have seen only Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird.

I’m writing off four nominees immediately from the running: Darkest HourDunkirk, The Post, and Phantom Thread. Of those, only Phantom Thread has nominations for both acting and directing–The Post has only the obligatory Meryl Streep nomination, Darkest Hour may finally give Gary Oldman an Oscar but that’s about it, and Dunkirk received a nod for Christopher Nolan but nothing in acting. But what seals the deal–devotees of Oscars & I will know the reason before I say it–is that all four of these films lack a nomination for writing. No film since Titanic (1997) has been named Best Picture without one, and the last one before that was The Sound of Music (1965).

Based on Oscars history, we can also probably eliminate Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Call Me by Your Name for their lack of nominations for Best Director. Only four times has a film been named Best Picture without a nomination for its director, most recently in 2012 when Argo won. However, Billboards did win the Golden Globe (although director Martin McDonagh was nominated there).

So that leaves, effectively, three nominees: Get OutLady Bird, and The Shape of Water. If I had to choose a likely winner, it would be The Shape of Water, given that Guillermo del Toro won the Globe for Best Director, and it leads the field with 13 nominations.

It’s actually kind of astounding to me that The Post was nominated for Best Picture, considering Meryl Streep’s Best Actress nod is its only other nomination. If it does win, it will be the only Best Picture in history without nominations for directing, writing, or editing (except for Grand Hotel [1931/32], of course, which received no nominations outside Best Picture).

I’m also waiting on tenterhooks to see if the Academy will again split the winners of Best Picture and Best Director. It has done so the previous two years (and four of the last five), and if it happens again, it will be the first time since 1935-1937 that the awards were split three years in a row. In case you want to know, the films were: :

  • 1935: Best Picture, Mutiny on the Bounty; Best Director, John Ford – The Informer
  • 1936: Best Picture, The Great Ziegfeld; Best Director, Frank Capra – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  • 1937: Best Picture, The Life of Emile Zola; Best Director, Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth

Some other things I noticed:

  • This is only the second year that there is both a woman (Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird) and an African-American (Jordan Peele for Get Out) amongst the Best Director nominees, both for their directorial debuts. This happened previously in 2009, when both Kathryn Bigelow and Lee Daniels were nominated.
    • Gerwig is the fifth woman to receive a Best Director nomination, following Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1976); Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003); and the aforementioned Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009), the only one to win (it also won Best Picture).
    • Peele is the fifth African-American nominated in the category, after John Singleton for Boyz N the Hood (1991); the aforementioned Daniels for Precious (2009); Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave (2013), and Barry Jenkins for Moonlight (2016). It’s worth noting that the latter two films won Best Picture.
  • Mary J. Blige is nominated for both Best Original Song and Best Supporting Actress for Mudbound, meaning she could conceivably join, in a single evening, the elite group of people who have won Oscars for acting and in a different category. There have been only five so far:
    • Laurence Olivier: Best Actor and Best Picture for Hamlet (1948); the first to accomplish this feat and the only one to do it in a single year
    • Barbra Streisand – Best Actress for Funny Girl (1968) and Best Original Song for A Star is Born (1976)
    • Michael Douglas: Best Picture for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Best Supporting Actor for Wall Street (1987)
    • Emma Thompson: Best Supporting Actress for Howards End (1992) and Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility (1995)
    • George Clooney: Best Supporting Actor for Syriana (2005) and Best Picture for Argo (2012)
  • Three Billboards received two nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, who won the Golden Globe), the first film to do so since Bugsy (1991).
  • With its Best Picture nomination, The Post inches Steven Spielberg closer to William Wyler’s record of directing 13 Best Picture nominees (The Post is Spielberg’s eleventh). However, without a matching Best Director nomination, Spielberg remains well behind Wyler (12) (and Scorsese [8]) with only seven.
  • Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep could tie Katharine Hepburn’s record of four acting Oscars. However, only Day-Lewis could tie her record of four lead acting Oscars, if he wins an unprecedented fourth Best Actor award for Phantom Thread.
  • Christopher Plummer, already the oldest acting winner of all time at 82 for his Best Supporting Actor in 2010 for Beginners, became the oldest acting nominee at age 88, surpassing the previous record holder, Gloria Stuart (nominated for Best Supporting Actress at age 87 for Titanic).
    • If he wins, he’ll be the oldest winner in any category. Right now, the record is held by Ennio Morricone, who won Best Original Score two years ago at age 87 for The Hateful Eight (2015).

And there we have it! If I think of any more, I’ll update the post…but those are what leapt to mind first!

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=”https://vimeo.com/60145841″>&quot;An American In Paris&quot; Ballet with George Gershwin's Original Music</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user16602560″>Movie Musicals</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>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!