- 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.
Not 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.
Who 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.
“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.
Presumably 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 Caesar, The 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 ). Her entire arc consists of waiting for him to fall in love with her.
“I’ll be back here.”
Another is Anita Hutchins (Jean Peters, whom you may recall from The Robe…not 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.
“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.
And 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.
Think 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.
“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.
Though 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!