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!


Musicals at the Oscars (Part I)

With La La Land leading the nominees this year by quite a wide margin, and having cleaned up at the Globes, it looks poised to become the first musical since Chicago (2002) and the eleventh musical overall to win Best Picture. This, combined with the fact that I am a late-blooming Hollywood musical enthusiast, made me think that I should take a look at the presence of musicals at the Oscars through the years.

Musicals started popping up in the Best Picture nominees, and winning Best Picture, as soon as sound was a thing. The second winner ever was The Broadway Melody, even if it only won that one award and was the best of a pretty weak year even by the standards of 1928/29. The nominees even included a silent film, The Patriot, Frank Lloyd won Best Director for the silent The Divine Lady, which gives an idea of just how little forethought was put into the whole thing back then. I suppose it could have something to do with one of the Academy’s more prominent members, Irving Thalberg, confidently predicting that “talking pictures are just a fad” (he also passed on the chance to produce Gone with the Wind because “Civil War movies never make money”).

Unknown.jpegIf he’d been head of Decca Records when the Beatles auditioned, he’d have signed the rejection slip without a second thought.

The Broadway Melody is a good film but not a great one, and if I weren’t writing this specifically about Academy Award winners, I wouldn’t even mention it in a history of the musical. I’d skip right over to next year’s The Love Parade, Maurice Chevalier’s entrance onto the Hollywood scene and the first “true” movie musical. I talk about it extensively in my entry about the third Academy Awards, about how it pretty much invented the genre as we know it today. Its most important innovation was that its songs were not stage performances within the story…they were fantasy sequences of characters breaking into song to sing about what was happening in the story. We take this breakthrough for granted today, because it has been copied in about 99.9% of all musicals made since.

No joke caption here. Without hyperbole, this scene changed movies forever and captures, in its simplicity, everything we love about films.

Like movies in general, musicals kept getting better and better for the next twenty years or so, and a few of them won or were nominated for Best Picture. Maurice Chevalier surfaced again with two films nominated at the 5th Awards, One Hour with You and The Smiling Lieutenant, and the next year, 42nd Street followed the old Broadway Melody approach but showed some inventiveness with a highly entertaining turn to fantasy in its closing number.

The next big leap forward was in 1934 with The Gay Divorcee, which finally struck the right balance between catchy songs, witty dialogue, and outstanding dancing courtesy of the great Fred Astaire. Writers and directors found that the screwball comedy template established by The Thin Man and It Happened One Night worked perfectly with the musical, and thus, in 1934, the last piece of the musical puzzle that everyone is still using today fell into place.

Even so, the next musical to win Best Picture was The Great Ziegfeld in 1936, which returned to The Broadway Melody‘s “let’s make audiences watch stage performers sing songs to an audience that is in the movie itself” approach. It wasn’t until 1944’s Going my Way that a film with “meta,” fantasy musical numbers took the top prize. In between, only two musicals were even nominated: The Wizard of Oz in 1939 and Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942.

And the next one to win, in 1951, starred a man very dear to my heart, someone who left the world an immeasurably better place just by having the decency to exist in it. As amazing as Fred Astaire was…and he was amazing, just take a look at this clip:

He did this when he was 52 goddamn years old, and I get winded opening a can of pickles.

Anyway, like I said, as amazing as he was, he wasn’t–

Pssh, look at that decrepit 71-year-old. (Start at 2:30)

Ahem. What I’m trying to say here is–

Drums arrange themselves in a semi-circle at his approach. Science has yet to explain it.

OKAY. I get it, Fred Astaire was beyond incredible. The man breathed the same air as the rest of us, yet exhaled pure grace, dexterity, and charm. And yet, he received only one Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actor in The Towering Inferno (1974), but in one of Oscar’s greatest upsets, lost to Robert de Niro for The Godfather Part II.

And speaking of great film and Broadway dancers who received only one acting nomination but starred in two films nominated for Best Picture…

tumblr_lbzhxxUiP51qe5vzdo1_1280.pngAnd at the end of the day, is there anything else really worth talking about?

…Gene Kelly brought the musical to new heights in the 1940s, after being brought to Hollywood by Judy Garland for Me and My Gal. He had all the grace of Astaire, all the genius for choreography and snappy dialogue and roguish charm, and he took dancing and musicals to the next level by taking them out of the ballrooms and into the navy yards, into the ballparks, and into the rain. He once remarked that “if Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I’m the Marlon Brando.”

The Academy took notice of Gene Kelly early on with Anchors Aweigh (1945), his first of three films with Frank Sinatra (who also acted alongside the Marlon Brando of movies in general, Marlon Brando, in the musical Guys and Dolls [1955]). It was nominated for Best Picture that year, and Kelly received a nod for Best Actor (both nominations lost to The Lost Weekend, because obviously they did).

But in 1951, the Academy decided that they’d had enough of the gritty realism they had embraced following World War II, and were ready for bit of good, old-fashioned escapism. To that end, Kelly’s An American in Paris scored a major upset by winning Best Picture over the likes of A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. The highlight of this undeniably great film is undoubtedly the 20-minute ballet fantasy towards the end, choreographed by Kelly at the height of his imaginative powers:

<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>

This also led to a similar ballet sequence gracing Singin’ in the Rain the following year, which failed to garner any serious Oscar nominations. The next time Gene Kelly would turn up at the Awards would be 1969’s Hello Dolly!, which he directed but did not star in.

That takes us to 1951, and the first four musicals to win Best Picture at the Oscars. There have been six more, mostly in the late ’50s and ’60s when the Academy went a bit crazy with the musicals to try to stem the tide of all those newfangled, Code-violating films that kept threatening to change the way Hollywood made motion pictures. They did not succeed, making the 1960s one of the most aggravating decades in Oscar history…but that story will be told in Part II!