30th Academy Awards (1957) – Part II

Both of the remaining nominees of 1957 seem, at first glance, to be fairly straightforward and realistic. However, despite being nearly perfect films in terms of technique, acting, cinematography, direction, and scoring, realistic they are not. One would be utterly ruined by realism, and the other would be infinitely better with it. Let’s begin with the former.

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The ultimate courtroom (or rather, jury room) drama, 12 Angry Men is a masterclass in…well, just about every aspect of filmmaking and storytelling. Directed by the great Sidney Lumet (a leading member of the Master Directors who Never Won an Oscar Club), the film unfolds in real time and follows the deliberations of a jury on a murder trial that seems open-and-shut…but is it really???

knife 1.jpg“No, it’s not. Any of you punks wanna say different?”

It’s difficult to know where to begin with a review of this film. 12 Angry Men hot takes are few and far between, as it’s probably one of the most-analyzed American films of all time. The dialogue, acting, pacing, cinematography, and direction are all outstanding, and the synergy that develops between all these elements creates an almost perfect film in every respect. It falls down (pretty hard) when one digs even slightly into the narrative conceit, but we’ll come to that in a bit.

First, the good stuff. Director Sidney Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who won an Oscar for his work on On the Waterfront three years prior) are the true stars of 12 Angry Men, because they found a way to create suspense and a real sense of dread with nothing more than a dozen middle-aged white men bickering for two hours. Maybe not suspense about the final outcome (Henry J. Fonda doesn’t lose arguments, damn it), but about how the final outcome can possibly be achieved with everyone still in one piece.

17923-20145.jpgAnd about how this guy will make it to Yankee Stadium in time.

The stark, austere black-and-white photography adds to the claustrophobic and serious nature of the proceedings. As the deliberations proceed and tempers (and temperatures) rise, Lumet and Kaufman eschew wide shots and high angles, gradually bringing the camera down to face level and shooting everyone in intense close-ups with telephoto lenses, creating the illusion that the room itself is closing in on the jurors (and the audience). The final shot inside the jury room, after the last holdout breaks down and joins the others in voting for acquittal (spoiler alert, I guess), returns us to the safety of the wide angle and its comforting depth of field, and is the perfect “exhale” after everything that has transpired.

It’s a brilliant technique that shows the power movies have to transport their audiences into worlds like no other visual medium can. Not “worlds” in the sense of Middle Earth or anything like that (though, those, too), but ordinary places like an office, a home, or a jury room, and with an intimacy that cannot be achieved on the traditional stage. Sometimes, as here, this intimacy can be uncomfortable, as we watch, silent and invisible spectators, hovering inches from the faces of ordinary, flawed people struggling against one another and against their own prejudices and objectives. 12 Angry Men did not invent this, of course, and was far from the last film to push the boundaries of this intimacy (later filmmakers, such as Gaspard Noé, would take it to new extremes to inspire shame and guilt in the viewer), but it’s all about knowing how to use it most effectively, and in that regard this movie rises to the level of greatness.

Of course, great technique can only get a director so far. Sidney Lumet also managed to get twelve unique, memorable performances out of his actors, with, let’s be real here, very little to go on. The nameless jurors are all caricatures whose personalities can be summed up in five words or less:

  • Juror #1 (Martin Balsam) – meek, ineffective
  • Juror #2 (John Fielder) – meek, but then not
  • Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) – the angriest man
  • Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) – logical, rational, bad at parties
  • Juror #5 (Jack Klugman) – former slum kid, Orioles fan
  • Juror #6 (Edward Binns) – workman, your ideal drinking buddy
  • Juror #7 (Jack Warden) – wisecracking baseball guy
  • Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) – Jesus
  • Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney) – old guy (the good kind)
  • Juror #10 (Ed Begley) – old guy (the bad kind)
  • Juror #11 (George Voskovec) – what “diversity” meant in 1957
  • Juror #12 (Robert Webber) – smarmy, mindless, grey flannel suit

getimg.jpgEither a jury, or the hardest police lineup in history.

For all that, though, each of the actors turns in a stellar performance, turning those star sign summaries into real people with believable motivations and reactions. None of them go through any real change over the course of the film, other than in terms of their vote…Lee J. Cobb remains angry and shortfused, Ed Begley remains racist, and Henry Fonda remains Henry Fonda. But then again, it’s not a film about how people change, but rather about how people of varying temperaments and sociopolitical backgrounds handle themselves when forced to work together.

gilligans_island_18251725_custom-c3bf717d6f0fe91421570710a4104e7daa3cb28e-s900-c85.jpgWhich, by the way, was the original pitch for Gilligan’s Island. No, seriously.

This isn’t to say the characters don’t have arcs…far from it, every one of them does. As the evidence against the defendant begins to unravel, it is fascinating to watch the inner struggle at work in each juror, which the actors convey beautifully and, for the most part, without going over the top. Lumet (working from a script by Reginald Rose, who also wrote the original play) keeps the momentum moving steadily forward and ensures that when each man flips from guilty to not guilty, it is, if not for a “good” reason, believable, which for a movie is much more important.

It pains me to say that the only performance I take issue with is that of Lee J. Cobb as Juror #3, painful because he’s one of my favorite actors and was more than capable of knocking this role out of the park. He’d done complex, “slow burn” antagonists before (notably as Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront), so his part here should have been easy for him…starting as outwardly calm and rational, only to slowly unravel and betray his true motivations and flaws as the story progresses, leading to his climactic outburst and tearful epiphany (again, spoilers). Unfortunately, in the film, he skips the middle part, going from softspoken to clearly-this-guy’s-got-some-issues before Henry Fonda even begins to sway anyone to his side. This makes his final diatribe less the explosion it should be, and more just a simple continuation of what we’ve been seeing all along.

12_angry_men_lee_j_cobb_bellowing.png“You’ve made me SLIGHTLY ANGRIER than I was in Act One!!!!”

Maybe this was a deliberate choice so that he, and his character, didn’t steal the film away from Henry Fonda’s saintly Juror #8. Actually, given the fact that Fonda produced the film, this makes some sense. Probably best not to overthink it…even with his sometimes hammy gesticulations, Cobb is still phenomenal here, and there is a feeling of true catharsis and empathy when he finally admits that (he believes) the defendant is not guilty.

Which brings us to the narrative, and this is, as I said, where the film begins to falter. Or, to be frank, it completely comes apart at the seams. I said at the start that realism would ruin this film, and that’s because, if it truly were realistic, it would be over in about three minutes.

When I say “realistic,” I’m not talking about how a jury composed entirely of middle-aged white men over 40 would be anachronistic even in the 1950s. I’m also not talking about how the film clearly establishes the New York Supreme Court Building at 60 Centre Street as the trial’s location, despite the fact that that particular courthouse houses the Civil and Appellate Courts, not the Criminal Court. I’m not even talking about how horribly dated and lazy the final “twist” is, when the final holdouts for guilty are swayed by an argument that essentially boils down to “women sure are vain, amirite?”

movietalk-12angrymen-jpg_200809.jpg“Meh, I’m sure the judge won’t press us on that. He knows.”

No, it’s the fact that the whole film completely misses the point of what juries are supposed to do, which is decide the guilt or innocence of a defendant based solely on the evidence as presented by the attorneys at trial. Had they done that, as I said, the film would take a few minutes and would be shown to juries as a shining example of exactly what their job is. Instead, it is a two-hour tutorial on how not to act on a jury, and has had a tangible effect on jurors ever since, turning everyone into potential Fondas, hoping to be a hero who prevents a dastardly miscarriage of justice. But the simple fact is that Fonda’s Juror #8 is a terrible juror, and Juror #3, who by his own words has been on many juries, should have had the wherewithal to bounce him out and get him replaced by an alternate, which he would have been entirely justified in doing.

knife 1.jpg“Uh…bailiff?”

Let’s start with the obvious…jurors are not allowed to present evidence (the duplicate knife), conduct investigations (go walking in the boy’s neighborhood to acquire said knife), make arguments (assessing the noise level of a passing el, recreating the crime scene, etc.), or second-guess the competency of witnesses (the old man “trying to be important” or the woman whose testimony is entirely dismissed when it is suggested she might wear glasses). It’s obvious why: jurors are supposed to be impartial, and the moment they start to “dig” themselves, they lose that disinterest and become advocates for one side or the other. And we already have people whose job it is to do that…they’re called lawyers. Maybe it’s true that the boy’s lawyer didn’t do the best job in the world, but that doesn’t give any juror, even one in a symbolic white suit, the right to step in and fill that role.

Even if this film takes place in an alternate universe where jurors can do all those things, then Juror #8 is just a manipulative bastard. He plays the mild-mannered truth-seeker at the start, timidly raising his hand and hedging about why he won’t vote with the others (“I don’t know, I’m just not sure…I just want to talk”), which is quite sensible…until he reveals the knife he had in his pocket the entire time, just waiting for that issue to come up so he could dramatically stick it into the table.

Related image“What now, bitch?”

That’s when he tips his hand…not to the rest of the jurors, who are too shaken by the realization that they are dealing with a maniac, but to the audience. He wasn’t undecided about anything; he walked into that jury room knowing exactly what he wanted to do. I can’t guess as to his motivation, but at a glance, it would appear that he maybe harbored dreams of being a trial attorney, and this was as close as he would ever get and by god he was not going to let this chance slip by just because his actions were against the law.

Annex-Fonda-Henry-12-Angry-Men_05.jpg“I know what I’m doing. I’ve seen Perry Mason point like this a hundred times.”

Also…I’m pretty sure metal detectors existed in 1957 (and in 1954, when the original TV play was broadcast). Why was he even allowed to sit in the jury box with a goddamn switchblade in his pocket?

Anyway, I know what you’re thinking…the film isn’t meant to be taken as a literal representation of jury work. It’s really about power dynamics, about the ability of one person to effect change, about differences in perception amongst individuals, and all the rest. First, let me just say, hi, and thanks a bunch for reading this, it’s been a lean time for Oscars & I. And second, you’re right, it is. But because of the aforementioned influence the film has had on potential jurors (and heaven knows we already have plenty of misconceptions that demonstrably prejudice juries, we don’t need more), I think it’s important to at least note the extreme break from reality the story takes in order to tackle those themes.

All of that doesn’t detract from the film’s power; one simply needs to suspend disbelief and accept that the inaccuracies are there to service the story, and so long as the internal logic of the movie is coherent and consistent, it doesn’t matter.

12 Angry Men was pretty badly represented at the 30th Academy Awards, earning only three nominations–Picture, Directing, and Adapted Screenplay, unforgivably ignored in the fields of cinematography and art/set direction, which may have been due to this being the first year that these awards were no longer split between Black & White and Color films–and losing all three to the year’s winner…

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12 Angry Men would have won Best Picture if it came out a decade earlier, but in this post-1956 world, the Academy was still promoting the advantages of cinema over television…and a picture that began as a TV play just wasn’t going to cut it. So instead, the top prize went to The Bridge on the River Kwai, a Technicolor, Cinemascope production that transported audiences to the jungles of Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka, subbing for Burma, present day Myanmar). But like 12 Angry Men, this is a near perfect film, so you won’t hear me complaining about their decision.

tumblr_m5rm17rpl11qb7328o1_1280.jpgNo one would listen, anyway.

Kwai manages to be that most rare of films, having every appearance of a war epic while managing to stay close and intimate and entirely focused on character development and humanity. This makes sense, seeing as it was directed by David Lean, who showed in great films like Brief Encounter (1945) and Hobson’s Choice (1954) that he possessed great range and was a master at eliciting true human performances from his actors (he also co-directed In Which We Serve, but let’s ignore that). And he brought this all to bear with Kwai, and was known as a director of big-budget epics from then on.

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear before we move on: The Bridge on the River Kwai, apart from everything else, is a gorgeous film. Jack Hildyard, a cinematographer who cut his teeth on Olivier’s Henry V and was a frequent collaborator with David Lean, turns nearly every shot into a painting, making the colors of the jungle pop against the dirt and grime that covers the camp and its prisoners. He had a beautiful country to work with (Sri Lanka), and he got everything he could out of it.

The story is simple enough: a group of British POWs is brought to a remote, desolate Japanese prison camp and put to work building a bridge (on some river whose name escapes me for the moment) needed to provide a vital link in the Burma railway. They are under the command of the impossibly posh Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who is so by-the-book that he endures torture rather than allow his officers to perform manual labor…though not so by-the-book that he would consider not building the bridge that the enemy so desperately needs. For him, the bridge isn’t for moving troops and matériel across the river…no, it’s a symbol of British ingenuity and craftsmanship.

bridgehed.jpg“Obviously, gentlemen, our pride is more than worth the additional years of war and the thousands of deaths that the bridge will make possible. Now, sing boisterously.”

As Nicholson is never shown as being secretly the son of the Emperor or having suffering a closed head injury, we can only guess as to the reasons why he chooses to act the way he does…indeed, no one in the film can seem to fathom his actions, either, and he doesn’t entertain any questions. But more on that later.

Running in tandem to this is the story of Major Shears (William Holden), a cynical American POW who, just after meeting Nicholson and immediately ascertaining that he is a danger to himself and others, manages to escape the camp and make it to the safety of Ceylon and the embrace of the nurses there. Shears is the film’s voice of reason, always at odds with the idealists (or rather, to his mind, idiots) surrounding him, and always arguing for the course of action that results in the least death (especially his own). As was his wont, Holden plays the role with a quiet stoicism always threatening to boil over into outright mutiny.

images.jpgIt was 1957, so he was still contractually obligated to be shirtless for at least 75% of his screentime.

During his sojourn at the hospital, he comes to the attention of a group of British commandos, and just before he is to be invalided back home, he is asked to go back to Burma to blow up the bridge. Then we learn the truth: Shears, as it turns out, is not Shears at all, but an enlisted man who donned a dead officer’s uniform just before being captured by the Japanese, hoping it would earn him preferential treatment (it did not). This scene is a gem, with Holden smirking like a schoolboy as he confesses, only to be told that the army already knew about his subterfuge and have seconded him to the British because they don’t want to deal with the paperwork. It’s a scene straight out of a wacky Billy Wilder comedy, but it works so damned well and gives us a ton of insight into Shears’ (and his soon-to-be commanding officer, Major Warden’s) character.

Holden and company cross the arduous jungle and mine the bridge…only to have their efforts uncovered by none other than Nicholson, who nearly wrecks the whole plan in his zealousness to see the bridge stand for a thousand years. They share a brief moment together at the very end, and the utter contempt, hatred, and frustration that Holden expresses for Nicholson with just a single word is one of the highlights of his entire career.


Again, spoilers.

Nicholson’s dumbfounded “You?” is also a treat, as is, moments later, his long overdue epiphany that maybe building a marvel of modern engineering for the enemy in wartime might not earn him the Victoria Cross after all.

bridge-on-river-kwai.jpg“What have I done?” is British for “Ooohhh, fuck…”

From his very first moment onscreen, Nicholson is probably the most punchable character I’ve seen in a film in quite some time. He’s impossibly officious, stubborn about the stupidest bullshit, and, oh yeah, he makes his men build a solid bridge for the enemy. His first “great stand” against the commandant (the longsuffering Colonel Saito, played with patient exasperation by Sessue Hayakawa) is refusing to permit his officers to work alongside the enlisted men, and subjecting himself and his officers to torture until the Colonel relents. The enlisted men, meanwhile, are so used to being of an inferior class that of course they agree with Nicholson.


“We’ve been told since childhood that we only exist to work for our betters, so naturally we’re happy when they win back the right to order us around!”

After this, to the confusion of absolutely everyone (including, probably, Saito, who by now has learned to just keep quiet to avoid any further heartache), he is appalled that his men are goofing off instead of aiding and abetting the enemy, and immediately sets them straight. And after they build a damned fine bridge, he waxes poetic about his long career and how this bridge will be his legacy to…something. I think he even confused himself at this point, and I have to admit I’d pretty much started to tune him out by this time.

(Funny side note: Guinness had the audacity to question Lean’s decisions on camera placement during this monologue, which led to Lean angrily exclaiming, on completion of the scene, “Now you can all fuck off and go home, you English actors. Thank God that I’m starting work tomorrow with an American actor.”)

As the above clip shows, Nicholson eventually redeems himself and blows up the bridge. It would have been a damned sight simpler if he’d just listened to, I don’t know, everyone around him before that, and then maybe William Holden wouldn’t have had to die. But, that’s the way it goes…or at least, that’s what the film (and the novel upon which it is based) would have you believe. The truth is, there is precious little historical fact in this thrilling tale (even down to the destruction of the bridge…it was actually used for a couple of years before being destroyed from the air), and even less in its unflattering depiction of Nicholson as camp leader.

In the real life construction of Bridge 277, the senior POW officer was Lt. Col. Philip Toosey, and from all accounts he was an inspired and compassionate leader, unlike Nicholson. He worked with his men to quietly sabotage the construction, including gathering large numbers of termites to eat at the supports, and organized escapes (which are forbidden by Nicholson in the film). If you have the chance, check out the book The Man Behind the Bridge, which was based on interviews with Toosey about his time on the Burma railway. It’s quite fascinating.

For this reason, a lot of people (including Alec Guinness) felt the story was anti-British, and it generated quite a bit of bad feeling amongst the survivors of the camp that built the real bridge (and of the Burma railway in general, who felt the film underplayed the torturous conditions under which it was constructed). Meanwhile, the Japanese resented the portrayal of their engineers as so incompetent that they needed to be rescued by “superior” British knowhow, which also wasn’t even close to true.

As I said at the top, this film would have benefitted from more realism, from sticking to the true story. It’s very cinematic as is, but so, too, would be the story of soldiers risking death and torture to sabotage the enemy with little to no hope of survival. Instead…well, instead we get the nearly perfect film I’ve been talking about up until now, but still.

The-Bridge-On-The-River-Kwai-Shearer-Woman.pngTell the true story, and we don’t get the scene of Holden having a smoke while he gets smeared in tar. So, it all balances out.

Alec Guinness rightfully won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal as Nicholson, mainly because he listened to David Lean’s insistence that Nicholson be played as a “bore” and not, as Guinness wished, played with a wry sense of humor to inspire audience sympathy. Lean, at least, recognized that Nicholson was a satire, and as such had to be shown to be almost without personality. One can see how this would irk Alec Guinness, who was coming off roles like this:

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The Ladykillers (1955)

…and this:

kind2.jpgKind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Roles brimming with personality and that Alec Guinness je ne sais quoi. So to play someone like Nicholson, a man utterly devoid of spirit, must have been a challenge for him. In my opinion, Lean’s interpretation won (not once in the film did I look at Nicholson and think, there’s a man with a sense of humor), and I think the film is all the better for it. Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and while I do think that Red Buttons deserved it for his role as Joe Kelly in Sayonara, Hayakawa knocked his role as Colonel Saito–the constantly put-out commandant just trying to make deal with Nicholson as best he can–out of the park.

That nomination was the only one of Bridge‘s eight that the film lost; in addition to Best Picture, Best Director for Lean, and Best Actor, it also picked up Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. The Screenplay Oscar was awarded to the novel’s author, Pierre Boulle, despite his having done no work on the script and also not speaking a word of English, because the two real screenwriters, Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, were blacklisted at the time and were not recognized by the Academy until well after their deaths.

The score of the film is, of course, a classic. I have always found it difficult to tell the main theme apart from that of The Great Escape (1963), and I don’t think I’m the only one…they both start very similarly, and are both best heard whistled. This is a good guide, though…if it’s the tune of this classic song, that’s The Bridge on the River Kwai theme.

We’ll be seeing more of The Great Escape when we get to 1963!

And so this verbose entry comes to an end. Thanks for sticking with me, hypothetical reader! I’ll remember your cogent interjection as I move on to the Academy Awards’ fourth decade, beginning with 1958…coming soon!

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30th Academy Awards (1957) – Part I

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  • The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean*
  • 12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet
  • Peyton Place, Mark Robson
  • Sayonara, Joshua Logan
  • Witness for the Prosecution, Billy Wilder

The Academy realized it may have went a bit overboard in the previous year‘s Oscars, and made a concession to the past by sneaking in a couple of low-budget, black-and-white films into the nominees again this year. However, rather than reduce the overall amount of schmaltz and Technicolor garishness, it simply condensed them into a single film, then proceeded to completely ignore it. This year’s slate includes one of the greatest films ever made, easily one of the worst, and was otherwise fairly solid, without a lot of room for surprises. For the first time, all five Best Picture nominee directors received corresponding Best Director nods as well.

An interesting anomaly this year was that three of the five nominees for Best Picture went away empty-handed, an oddity that occurred only a few times in the five-nominee era. This includes the night’s biggest loser, in more ways than one…

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Way, way back in 1929, there was a film amongst the nominees of the 2nd Academy Awards called The Hollywood Revue of 1929. I condemned it rather roundly at the time, saying that there was no reason for it to exist and decrying the injustice of a universe where so many films are lost and this one remains available. It’s been a while since a film inspired that kind of vitriol in me, and having been lulled by nearly three decades of, if not consistently great, at least consistently defensible fare by the Academy, I was not ready to feel it again.

Well, feel it I did. Peyton Place is a thoroughly unnecessary film, 162 minutes of bathos tarted up by Cinemascope and Technicolor. Not a single second rings true, strikes any kind of emotional chord, or manages to make a point that hasn’t been made a million times before in every conceivable artistic medium. Bricks being smashed against typewriters by other bricks would produce more three-dimensional characters. If you then got the bricks drunk, they could replace the actors, too.

diane_varsi.jpgActually, I’m pretty sure they did that with Mr. Personality there.

The film opens in the little town of Peyton Place, just seconds before its wholesome, smalltown façade cracks and all its evilnasty secrets spill out all over the place. The rest of its unconscionably long runtime is devoted to watching everyone in town who was already sad and depressed…stay sad and depressed, mostly. It was definitely the first movie to ever consider that tiny, cut-off, reactionary towns might not be utopias where everyone is eternally happy and finding dreams and fulfilment at the bottom of every blueberry pie.

This dumpster fire set to music swirls around Lana Turner as uptight spinster Constance MacKenzie, a single mother who obsesses over the purity and virtue of her daughter, Allison (Diane Varsi). She’s an insufferable non-character, whose only function is to gasp at the audacity around her until she inevitably succumbs to the “charms” of new high school principal Michael Rossi (Lee Philips). She spends most of the film desperately trying to comprehend the actions and emotions of the townsfolk she was sent to infiltrate by a race of aliens whose only Earth research materials were unlabelled anatomy charts.

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“I specified to you and your fellow adolescents that your social function must not include the bonding of food holes, human daughter.”

Luckily, Michael is a man of little to no description, so he’s just the tonic she needs to finally, well, stay an ice queen, but one not afraid to get some…behind tightly closed curtains and an alibi for the neighbors about a visit to Saratoga, of course. Because an actual character arc would betray the whole ethos of Peyton Place: nobody changes, the world is unhappy, and love is just a word for complacency while we await the blissful, creeping hand of death.

All the town drama culminates in the trial of 19-year-old Selena Cross (Hope Lange), which arises from a set of circumstances so convoluted and contrived that I’m not going to recount them in detail for fear of having a stroke. It’s a murder trial, because what else could it be, and because this is a bad film the town uses it as an opportunity to examine its own sins…all of them except the murder, of course, but that was only a plot device anyway. Naturally, everyone who matters lives happily ever after, and they all learn a little something about being better people…again, except for the man who was murdered, but who cares about him anyway.

Arthur Kennedy Peyton Place.pngHe was asking for it anyway, wearing those overalls.

The upshot of all this is, Peyton Place is just the worst. The Academy saw fit to lavish nine Oscar nominations upon it, but it failed to win a single one, tying the record (unjustly) set by William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941). Among them were five goddamn acting nominations, for performances that couldn’t have taken more than half a sentence of direction to get right. Its failure to win a single one of them set a record that stands to this day (tied once, by 1963’s Best Picture, Tom Jones).

Anyway, it exists, and there’s not much I can do about it (yet). Needless to say, I was in the mood for something to lift my spirits and restore my faith in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson. Fortunately, Billy Wilder delivered…

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The above poster makes it seem like the title of this next nominee is Unmatched…in a Half Century of Motion Picture Suspense! It’s directed by Roger Corman and stars Charles Laughton as a man with a green shadow who drives Tyrone Power to madness and gives Marlene Dietrich a Shirley Temple haircut for reasons never fully explained. Cards on the table, I’d watch that film. But just so we’re clear, the one I’m about to talk about is Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, and it’s a damned fine movie.

First of all, it was nice to see Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich together in one film, and to see them all back in Oscars contention. We’ve not seen Laughton since his tripleheader at the 8th Academy AwardsMutiny on the BountyLes Misérables, and Ruggles of Red Gap, his personal favorite of all his films–Tyrone Power since The Razor’s Edge (1946), nor Marlene Dietrich since…well, actually we just saw her last year in Around the World in 80 Days, but not in a real role since, damn, 1932 with Shanghai Express. It’s a refreshing trio of classic Hollywood stars, showing those smug kids of the Brando era that they’ve still got it.

Full disclosure: I’m in a bit of a bind when it comes to this review, as I have been explicitly requested by the Management of the Theatre not to reveal any details about the end of the film to those who haven’t seen it. Therefore, when I get to the end of the plot, don’t be surprised if I switch to describing the film in only the most equivocal, blandest terms possible, to avoid incurring their wrath.

witnessfortheprosecution_averyhandsomemotive_FC_177a_470x264_091420150327.jpgOne hint: It isn’t that Charles Laughton was secretly a Terminator the whole time.

Like 12 Angry Men, the other courtroom drama on the slate this year, Witness for the Prosecution was based on a stage play, and therefore employs minimal sets, is driven primarily by dialogue, and moves at a lean pace that increases in proportion with the growing complexity of the case. The three primary actors are, in one combination or another, onscreen for the entire film, and they carry their roles out with consummate Golden Age professionalism that leaves plenty of room for surprises from each one.

Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Robarts, who despite not being able to spell his name correctly is one of London’s most respected defense barristers. Fresh from the hospital, his long-suffering personal nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife in real life) tries to keep him rested and alcohol- and cigar-free…which lasts about five minutes and then goes right out the window when impoverished inventor Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) bursts in about to be charged for the murder of a wealthy widow. After meeting Vole’s stone cold wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) and going through the required “will he, won’t he” scene, Sir Wilfrid takes the case.

Tyrone Power is quite charming and pitiable as Leonard Vole, who stumbles about in a confused daze for most of the film. The contrast in him from the self-possessed, enlightened soul in The Razor’s Edge is amazing, showing off the breadth of his talent (back in his heartthrob days, he was contractually barred from ever appearing out of sorts) and making me want to go back and see his filmography in the intervening years to watch his development. Not that he wasn’t a fine actor before, but I never pictured him in this kind of part when watching Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

1938-filmtitel-alexanders-ragtime-band-regie-henry-king-studio-fox-im-bild-kleidung-henry-konig-tyrone-power-bild-kredit-snap-f6j3f6.jpgSeriously, can you imagine this man being fazed by anything?

The case proceeds apace, with Sir Wilfrid breezing through the prosecution’s circumstantial evidence without batting an eye, until they call their titular witness, Vole’s wife Christine. Now the twists start, and…that means it’s time to get vague. She answers questions and objections from both attorneys, to the consternation and/or delight of one or both, and the reaction of the onlookers is somewhere between complete indifference and a riot overthrowing the court system (inclusive). Sir Wilfrid then discovers something that casts doubt on something that we have seen, and uses it; after this, the jury reaches a verdict in the case and, some time later, after a couple of shocking twists, the film ends.

witness1.jpgSatisfied?

Billy Wilder guides the enterprise with his usual grace and sure hand, proving once again that there was not a single film style he couldn’t nail. The performances he gets from his cast are always brilliant, and here he employed a very effective trick to ensure that the aforementioned shock ending had the biggest impact possible: the final scene of the film was absent from the script for the entirety of the filming, and only shown to the actors involved just before it was shot. Which means they spent the entire shoot unaware of where this was headed, and in this way Wilder made sure they didn’t accidentally give any hint in their speech or mannerisms…instead dropping subtle hints of his own throughout. It gives the twist(s) a satisfaction and a sense of being earned that are sorely lacking in about 99% of films that attempt them.

The_Sixth_Sense_poster.pngSpeaking of which, we’ll get to this ridiculousness in due course (72nd Academy Awards).

I find it interesting, and telling, that this was Laughton’s first role after directing the amazing The Night of the Hunter (1955), with Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters. Short digression: If you haven’t seen this film yet, go see it immediately. The trailer for the Criterion release gives a small hint to the innovative, expressionistic thriller that Laughton crafted, in his first and only directorial effort:

Despite being clearly brilliant, the film was savaged by critics and was a box-office failure, and Laughton vowed to never direct another film. The point is that in Witness, his first role after this disappointment, he plays a man constantly being told what to do by people who don’t know better, forcing himself to battle everyone and everything in order to do what he believes is right…and knowing, in the end, that he did what he had to do, even if he is left dissatisfied and a little broken. After the ordeal of (the aftermath of) The Night of the Hunter, I don’t think he had to dig too deep to find motivation for this character!

witness4-1100x662.jpg“Explain, please, what you meant by ‘too many offbeat touches that have a misty effect.'”
“Charles, just stick to the script, please…”

Before we compare and contrast Witness for the Prosecution with 12 Angry Men, a film that is just about perfect in every way, let’s leave the courts for a while and travel back to Technicolor, and Japan, for the next nominee…

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Definitely the most surprising film of the year for me was Sayonara, starring Marlon Brando and directed by Joshua Logan. Coming in at two-and-a-half hours, and from the director of 1955’s Picnic, I was definitely expecting a film long on style and short on substance, padded out by typical Hollywood “hey, we’re in a foreign country!” scenes that stereotype celebrate the local culture but grind the plot to a screeching halt. And while those scenes are present, they are definitely more restrained than most, and the overall result is a very, very good film with strong performances and heart to spare.

Marlon Brando stars as Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver, an air force pilot in the Korean War with a thoroughly unplaceable Southern accent. This accent was Brando’s idea, even though director Joshua Logan argued that it was out of place for the social position Ace is supposed to occupy, but Brando was insistent, being in the phase of his career when he could ask for whatever the hell he wanted and get it (a phase which lasted roughly from Streetcar until his death in 2004). To be fair, for all its nondescript nature, the accent does work, and qualifies as a mild request from Brando compared to his later demands for dwarvish doppelgangers.

21f22ae8-8301-4dc2-85d2-2574c23a3b1d.jpgOh, you thought I was joking?

Anyway, Ace is set to marry Eileen, herself the daughter of an influential general who gets him reassigned to Kobe, Japan. There, he meets Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka), a dancer, and, with the support of James Garner, embarks on a forbidden romance under the increasingly oppressive eye of the military establishment. Eileen, for her part, once it becomes clear that the marriage is off, begins a flirtation of her own with Nakamura, a Kabuki performer inexplicably played by Ricardo Montalban.

Sayonara1957_89152_677x381_06272017041925.jpgWhose Japanese accent consists of his normal, Mexican-inflected English, but swapping all his r’s and s’s.

Ace is aided in his journey by Joe Kelly (Red Buttons), an airman in his regiment who defies the military authority by marrying his sweetheart Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). Kelly serves as Ace’s inspiration, as well as his–and, by extension, the audience’s–guide to Japanese life and culture. (I wouldn’t exactly say the film has a great deal of respect for its audience in this regard…just about every third or fourth scene in the second act consists of Kelly or Hana-ogi explaining something to Ace like a teacher explaining geography to a third-grader.)

tumblr_lpa4lesjBW1qmc7ofo1_1280.png“And that is a cherry blossom, of which over 200 cultivars are grown in Japan and which are an integral part of Japanese art and mythology.”

Ace and Hana-ogi’s romance blossoms (sorry) almost immediately after they first meet, following a bit of light stalking by Ace outside her theatre. How it starts is at once tender and touching, and batshit insane: As a friend of Katsumi, Hana-ogi is invited to dine with Ace, Katsumi, and Kelly at the newlyweds’ home, and Ace tries a bit of awkward flirtation. She appears stony, making him think he has struck out, when she suddenly launches into a lilting speech about how, if he wishes it, she will love him for the rest of her life and never anyone else. Keeping in mind that this is literally the first time she has ever spoken to him, Ace is understandably a bit flustered, and Brando is characteristically brilliant as he silently tries to comprehend what just happened.

hqdefault.jpg“I was just hoping for a bit of strange before getting married, but alright.”

While their relationship eventually works out, because they’re the ones who appear on the poster, such a star-crossed romance demands contrast and sacrifice, which is provided by poor Kelly and Katsumi. The establishment continues to place undue and increasingly harsh pressure on their marriage, eventually culminating in an order to rebase Kelly in the United States…which meant, at the time, that Katsumi could not follow him as their marriage would not be legally recognized. Faced with permanent separation, they are left with no option but mutual suicide. The scene where Ace discovers their bodies is genuinely heartbreaking and infuriating, and highlights one of the aspects of the film that, for me, sets it apart despite its flaws.

The film impressed me with its frank portrayal of the contemporary institutional racism and prejudice directed towards the Japanese people by the U.S. military, and lacked the usual “but they were right the whole time and are actually pretty cool” elements that marked other films of the period that dealt with the armed forces. Indeed, there is no redemption for the military, whose policies are presented as detrimental and reactionary and never let off the hook. I can’t think of too many other movies from this time that portrayed the U.S. military as the true antagonists, and that didn’t try to hedge by painting the people involved as acting “outside” the regulations (as in From Here to Eternity and The Caine Mutiny) but rather as strictly adhering to them. Everything that happens, including Kelly and Katsumi’s deaths, are the direct result of this system that perpetuates and, worse, encourages bigotry and ignorance.

This kind of honesty was refreshing, and as I said, redeemed the film despite its sometimes lax pacing and occasional questionable casting (which could have been worse…Logan’s original choice for Hana-ogi was Audrey freaking Hepburn). Brando, cast somewhat against type as a romantic lead, redeems himself nicely, and gives Ace’s emotional arc a satisfying and realistic quality that prevents the film from sinking into melodrama even at its most syrupy moments. The rest of the cast performs admirably, aside from maybe the aforementioned Montalban, but mercifully his scenes are kept to a minimum and he doesn’t influence the plot too much.

So yes, this film was a nice surprise that succeeded, together with Witness for the Prosecution and the last two nominees, in driving the painful memory of having seen Peyton Place from my mind once and for all. Having already proofread my entry about it, I can now move forward with my life and only reference it again when I need reminding that while movies today may have slipped a bit down the artistic ladder, at least there will never, ever be another Peyton Place.

220px-ReturnToPeytonPlaceFilm.jpgGoddamn it, Hollywood…

Anyway, on to the conclusion to the 30th Academy Awards, and the conclusion to the third decade of Oscars…hopefully soon!

29th Academy Awards (1956) – Part II

In Part I, I mentioned that the total runtime of the 1956 nominees was a staggering 873 minutes. I suspected that this had to be high on the list of cumulative Best Picture runtimes, and damned if I wasn’t right! I crunched the numbers (read: I spent an afternoon on imdb.com to create a spreadsheet containing the runtime of every film ever nominated for Best Picture) and found that these 29th Academy Awards hold the record for longest total runtime of the five-nominee era, and #1 all-time in terms of average runtime (174.6 minutes per film!).

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: I use my time wisely.

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It’s been a while, in writing this blog, that I watched a film and thought “How in the hell did that get nominated over xy, and z?!” This year, that film is Giant, and I can safely leave those variables undefined and have the question make sense.

In a certain sense, I know exactly why it was nominated…because 1956 was the Year of the Epic, with Hollywood attempting to assert its dominance over television with all the power that color and Cinemascope could muster. Watching Giant, it feels less like a movie and more like a three-and-a-half hour advertisement for your local Loews, and even though it’s only been a few hours since the words “The End” mercifully enveloped the final, cloying melodramatic scene, I can already feel my memory aggressively replacing it with scenes from The Man who Knew Too Much, a strong contender for x in the question above.

The_Man_in_the_Gray_Flannel_Suit_-_1955_-_poster.png  The_Man_Who_Never_Was.jpg
Hell, I could fill the whole thing only with The Man… movies from 1956.

The story of Giant is pretty straightforward. The film was not allowed to go into production until they’d gone down the ’50s movie checklist and made sure they were going to hit every cliché in the book. Fish-out-of-water wife? Check. Rivalry with her new family relieved by a convenient tragic death? Check. Rags-to-riches ne’er-do-well? Faux concern for the oppressed? Rebellious children, including one stubbornly idiotic teenage daughter to fall in love with the objectively undesirable and age-inappropriate antagonist? Check, check, check.

sleeping-movie.jpgBloated runtime justified more by the budget than the story? Oh, you’d better believe check.

Rock Hudson is a cattle rancher named Bick Benedict who meets Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), a Maryland socialite with a strangely Southern accent, and marries her after knowing her for less than the film’s runtime. She moves out with him to Texas, shocks his friends and family by being all Eastern-liberal-tolerant of Mexicans, and when she refuses to settle into the role of stereotypical Texan society lady…well, nothing really, they just go on being married and annoying each other. Then they have children, because why keep misery confined to a single generation?

screenshot-411.pngThis is the happiest any of these people will ever be in their lives.

Everyone just kind of sleepwalks through their roles, including James Dean, though this can be partially forgiven because it was kind of his whole schtick. He plays Jett Rink, the aforementioned ne’er-do-well who starts as a ranch-hand before striking it rich in oil and growing an evil moustache. He spends the rest of the film using his moustache to bring misfortune to everyone who…well, actually his oil wells make Hudson and Co. richer and more powerful than ever before, but that upsets Rock of Ages because he had his heart set on cattle being the way the future.

In a film completely devoid of real characters, Rink stands out as particularly cartoonish. He exists only to drawl, sniff, and binge-drink his way through a string of set pieces in which he hits on whichever Benedict lady happens to be within reach of his flailing arms and droopy eyelids. Most of the time, this is Leslie, but later it’s also Luz, she and Bick’s second daughter, Luz–who returns his lecherous affections because she is slightly less intelligent than a brick–though he only uses her in a Heathcliff-like plot to stay close to Leslie.

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“Sorry, Luz, I prefer younger women…such as your mom.”

The passage of time in the film is marked primarily by the appearance of various babies and the progressively greyer hair of Hudson, Taylor, and Dean, the best (read: only) way make-up artists of the era knew to make 25-year-olds look 65.

liz.jpgNailed it.

If there is a point to this rambling postcard, it’s that it’s important to treat everyone with equality, a moral never before made in the history of cinema (or at least you’d think so, based on how much of an ego this production clearly had). This is first illustrated by Elizabeth Taylor’s compassion for the Mexican laborers on her property (which doesn’t extend to giving them proper housing or wages, she wasn’t insane), and later by their son (Dennis goddamn Hopper) marrying a Mexican girl named Juanita. They have a baby, which then becomes the focal point of all the bigotry in Texas.

The film’s climax takes place in a diner where the newly woke Pet Rock defends the honor of Mexico with his fists against a racist diner owner with whom he probably would have been drinking buddies just the week before. We then see him and Liz lolling on a couch in their mansion, blissfully contemplating their impending deaths while gazing with pride at their grandchildren, whose very existence solved racism in the state of Texas, and the world, from that moment on.

The two cute grandkids.jpgYou can’t really see it in this shot, but there’s a white lamb and a black calf behind the babies, which Stevens shows us about twenty times to make sure we understand his subtle social commentary.

The movie received the most nominations at the 29th Awards with ten, but only George Stevens’ for Best Director was successful. And it’s not what I’d call well-deserved…my pick, out of the nominees anyway, would be Walter Lang for The King and I, for forging one of the most honest and well-rounded friendships of the age between his two leads while maintaining the air of goofiness that the film needed. Extend the purview beyond them, and I’d pick Otto Preminger. The point is, not George Stevens, as I don’t think it takes a strong directorial talent to point the camera at Texas and not miss.

I’d like to end my commentary on Giant–and, hopefully, never think about it ever again–with a few words from François Truffaut’s savage review (which can be read in its entirety here), which sums it up nicely:

Giant is everything that is contemptible in the Hollywood system, especially when the said system works for the benefit of a prestige movie, deliberately conceived to win a few Academy Awards. It’s a silly, solemn, sly, paternalistic, demagogic movie without any boldness, rich in all sorts of concessions, pettiness, and contemptible actions.

Well said, sir.

truffaut0.jpgHe also said “Three films a day, three books a week, and records of great music would be enough to make me happy to the day I die.” Words to live by.

With that out of the way, on to the winner!

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Naming Around the World in 80 Days, a three-hour global romp featuring a cameo by just about every available actor/actress in 323, as the best of 1956 was quite a change for the Academy, coming as it did on the heels of the austere, charming Marty, the shortest Best Picture winner of all time (yes, I crunched those numbers, too. Come at me.) This movie is a monumental travelogue leant sophistication by the name Jules Verne, a refreshingly unpretentious producer’s picture, and the first non-musical feel-good film to win the top prize since You Can’t Take it With You (1938). It may be the lightest Best Picture of them all, floating above the ground like Fogg’s hot air balloon and inviting us to look up and marvel at what motion pictures can do nowadays.

David Niven anchors the boisterous production as Phileas Fogg, an unperterbably proper and distinguished Englishman who, like Immanuel Kant, lives his life entirely on routine and punctuality. Niven was the perfect choice for the role, embodying as he did, and still does, everything one imagines in an old-fashioned gentleman such as Fogg.

phileasfoggvinegar59p.jpgThe name seems to have since come down a bit in the world, unfortunately.

I think everyone knows the story, probably better than any other Best Picture: Fogg makes an impulsive bet that he can circumnavigate the world in only eighty days, and immediately sets off, accompanied by his new valet with the unlikely name of Passepartout…who, though played by Cantinflas, an obviously Latino expert bullfighter and native Spanish speaker, nevertheless is supposed to be French.

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Though, fair’s fair, he’s a more convincing Frenchman than Eric Idle.

Along the way, they meet, in order: Sir John Gielgud, a valet on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he quits Fogg’s services; Charles Boyer as a Parisian travel agent and lady’s man; the Joker himself (Cesar Romero) as a Spanish majordomo; Marlene Dietrich as a madam in a seedy San Francisco dive, and George Raft as her goddamn terrifying bodyguard/gigolo; Frank Sinatra as the bored (and silent) pianist in said dive; and Buster Keaton in his element as the head conductor of the train the bears them across the continent from San Francisco. There are many, many more cameos along the way, but those stood out to me as favorites.

borders.jpgThe movie is so packed with names that, when I used to play “Six Degrees” with my colleagues at Borders, we had a rule against using it, as it made connections way too easy. Nothing to do with this review, just a happy memory. We had a similar ban on The Godfather.

True to the source material, the film doesn’t waste a lot of its 182-minute runtime as it races from London through Europe and on to India, Hong Kong, Japan, the US, and back across the Atlantic. In avoiding the temptation to grind the film to a halt to monologue about exotic animals and trees (as in King Solomon’s Mines and Trader Horn, for example), 80 Days keeps a frenetic pace, and the downtime that is scattered throughout feels natural and well-intentioned, as befits the narrative.

I do need to call out the film on one thing, however. Early in the journey, Fogg and Passepartout find themselves accidentally in Spain, in a small coastal city near the French border (having drifted off-course in their attempt to reach Marseille from Paris by hot air balloon). Having some time to kill before hiring a boat, they settle down for a drink in a tavern. Here they are treated to a elaborate flamenco performance…a traditional style of music and dance from the south of Spain in a village in Catalonia in 1872 would have been, to put it mildly, highly unlikely. It’s another sad example of Hollywood thinking “Spain = Andalucía” and leaving it at that.

Minor complaint, though! The whole film is great fun, and since it never takes itself seriously at any moment, it’s the second film this year (the other being The King and I) to avoid getting bogged down by its considerable length. Beyond the silly story, it also gives film nerds like me the chance to play spot-the-star amongst the many, many cameos, which start from the first moment and don’t let up until Fogg is back in London. One advertisement contained a helpful guide:

1956_around-world-80-days_10-stars.jpgAs well as (what I hope is) a dig at Cecil B. DeMille.

And sticking around for the closing credits is well worth it, as the frolicking animation (in a style that anticipated such 1960s classics as A Shot in the Dark and What’s New, Pussycat?) recaps the whole movie and reminds us “Who was in what scene…and who did what”:

These ten minutes alone could have been nominated for Best Animated Short Film.

The film racked up four more Oscars besides Best Picture, including Adapted Screenplay and a well-deserved win for Cinematography, Color (though somehow Giant missed out on a nomination in that category, the one award I’d say it deserved), but is one of eleven Best Picture winners to date to not receive a single acting nomination. In fact, it’s pretty telling that of the twenty acting nominees of 1956, only six were from films nominated for the top prize, and two films–this one and The Ten Commandments–missed out entirely. This year was not about acting.

It’s easy for me to see why, out of the nominees, Around the World in 80 Days was the winner…it fulfilled the year’s objective of proving that cinema > television (and, since all five nominees were literary adaptations, that both were better than books), and was jolly good fun to boot. This last was important, as goofy sitcoms like I Love Lucy were keeping audiences at home, and Hollywood decided to lighten up to lure them back. This isn’t to say that socially-conscious films weren’t still being made (this was also the year of Baby DollThe Searchers, and I’ll Cry Tomorrow, to name but three), but the message the Academy wanted to send was pretty clear.

1956-Around-the-World-in-80-Days-03.jpgBasically, it was “Movies are fun! Don’t stop giving us money!”

The “go big or go home” precedent thus firmly set for a while, let’s move on to the conclusion to the Slow March to Technicolor decade, 1958 and the 30th Academy Awards!

29th Academy Awards (1956) – Part I

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  • Around the World in 80 Days, Michael Anderson
  • Friendly Persuasion, William Wyler
  • Giant, George Stevens*
  • The King and I, Walter Lang
  • The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille

The 1950s finally arrived full-force at the 29th Academy Awards…for the first time, all five nominated films were in color, and all were sweeping epics running between 133 and 220 minutes.

frustration.jpgWhich is very hard for someone watching these on a goddamn laptop.

And so, since my eyes are already burning enough from staring at this screen for the grand total of 873 minutes it took to watch these motherfuckers, let’s not waste any more time on the introduction and dive right in.

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More poster fun, as Friendly Persuasion‘s promises that “it will pleasure you in a hundred ways!” To be fair to the Allied Artists marketing team, maybe this had different connotations in 1956. Let me tell you, when I went into a…store…and asked for something that would do that, this movie is not what they handed me. (It was for a friend.)

Knowing nothing about it, based solely on the title I was anticipating some kind of gritty noir involving All the King’s Men-like methods of persuasion. Instead, I got a mostly-jolly crash course in Quaker stereotypes courtesy of William Wyler (who is better than this, damn it) and Gary Cooper et al. Discounting a few shorts made for the army during the war, this was Wyler’s first color film, a bit of an odd choice since the palate in Indianan Quaker country was a bit…limited.

buggy-race.jpgJust look at those colors pop.

The story, that of a Quaker family deciding when it is justified to jettison pacifism in order to kick some Rebel ass, takes up roughly half an hour of the film’s 137-minute runtime, while the rest is made up of short vignettes in which they dance (shock!), show their bare feet (horror!!), and play music (fetch the smelling salts!!!). In between these japes, there’s a war going on, which occasionally injects some gravitas into the proceedings that is never allowed to develop too much before a county fair or a hootenanny intrudes.

Gary Cooper leads the film as patriarch Jess Birdwell, whose Quakerism functions mainly to get in the way of the fun he is desperate to have. His wife, Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), is much more devout, serving as a minister at their local meetinghouse, and she plays the thankless role of straight woman to the antics of Jess and her children. The film never explicitly states that happiness is forbidden to true Quakers, but Eliza’s pitiful character arc from tightly-wound killjoy to tighter-wound guilt-ridden killjoy conveys that message quite powerfully.

“I e5f0472277925be8de110dd1a84e4e28--anthony-perkins-gary-cooper.jpg“I don’t want a better husband, just a better screenwriter.”

Eliza and Jess are in constant conflict over Jess’ love for horse racing, dancing, carnival games, and generally not being a good Quaker. This reaches a head when Jess impulsively purchases an organ and sets it up in their living room, despite Eliza’s strong opposition and threat to live in the barn for as long as the organ is in the house. Being a reasonable man, Jess lets her go so he can listen to his daughter’s inarguably pathetic attempts to play the instrument…letting her stew in her juices before heading out to the barn and, well, convincing her to let him keep the devil’s ivories.

6e9e0cbc87a145d6e220136a9517f723.jpg“Oh, just had a conversation, you know. You might say I tried a little…friendly persuasion? Haha, wink-wink. We screwed, is what I’m saying.”

Rounding out the family is eldest son Josh (Anthony Perkins); daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love); and obligatory annoying child Little Jess (Richard Eyer), whose adult voice provides random narration for no discernible reason. Anthony Perkins is particularly good as the conflicted Josh, who struggles with his pacifist convictions and his growing belief that fighting is the only way to protect those he loves…even if his mother, whom he worships,  steadfastly preaches the former. Actually, his teary-eyed devotion to his mother adds an interesting dimension to the film if one views it as a prequel to Psycho.

s-l300.jpgFun fact, Dorothy McGuire played both roles.

If it seems like I’m constantly mocking the Quaker characters’ beliefs, well, I’m just following the film’s lead. Even though the source material was written by a Quaker author, the film feels less like a celebration of their lifestyle and more a sniggering series of condescending tests of their ridiculous convictions…all of which they inevitably fail, to the laughter and glee of those around them (including the audience). The final test, that of whether they can keep and maintain their opposition to war and violence, is thus teed up nicely for the film’s final sequence, when every member of the family surrenders, to varying degrees, their commitment to pacifism.

Naturally, there was a reason for this, and in 1956, you can imagine what it was. The original screenplay was written by Michael Wilson, who had been working on it since the end of the war, but had it repeatedly turned down (by Frank Capra, with whom Wilson had worked on It’s a Wonderful Life, and others) for its pinko depiction of a society that dared to be antiwar. In his original conception, it was true to the source material and praised its protagonists’ ability to remain true to their beliefs in the face of stiff opposition.

Wilson was ultimately blacklisted as part of the Hollywood Ten for his refusal to cooperate with HUAC. During his unfriendly testimony in 1951, he brought up the as-yet unproduced script: “I feel that this committee might take the credit, or part of it at least, for the fact that The Friendly Persuasion [sic] was not produced, in view of the fact that it dealt warmly, in my opinion, with a peace-loving people.”

sjff_04_img1642.jpgHe then struck this pose until everyone got uncomfortable and left.

After Wilson was forced off the project, the script was revised considerably, and in the end the film was released without any screenwriting credit whatsoever. The Academy, ever classy, made its position clear by introducing a new rule that no one who refused to cooperate with a congressional inquiry could be nominated for an Oscar; the Writer’s Guild of America responded by giving Wilson an award for Best Written Drama.

In the end, Friendly Persuasion is a misguidedly lighthearted and slightly gormless film about bad Quakers who are induced to be “real” people and stop all their silliness…except for Eliza, whom, as I mentioned above, just winds up unhappy and guilty over all her family’s transgressions that she’s been powerless to stop. For a director I’ve come to admire for his deft treatment of each and every character in his films, I was a bit disappointed by this film coming from William Wyler. Fortunately, there was lightheartedness of a far more enjoyable kind on the horizon…

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The 29th Academy Awards were a show with everything including Yul Brynner, whose oiled abs leapt from Broadway to Hollywood in 1956 to become the industry’s number one guy for vaguely-ethnic autocrats. We’ll get to his *snicker* “serious” one in a minute, but for now, let’s talk The King and I, a Cinemascope spectacular of a musical whose plot, true to the genre, is almost entirely summed up by the title.

220px-AnnaAndTheKingOfSiam.jpgThough they did make it a bit more ambiguous than the source material, presumably so every lady in the audience could imagine themselves as “I”.

This film is, to put it mildly, a carnival of delights that pretty much nails every aspect of what makes movie musicals the superior genre they once were. The songs are imaginative and their rhyme schemes playful; the story manages to be more than just a thin excuse to show off Yul Brynner’s tan; the lush, Oscar-winning sets and costumes explode with all the glories of Technicolor; and Martin Benson as perpetually shirtless prime minister Kralahome.

medium.jpgWho, after the Siamese monarchy fell, moved to France to deal with Inspector Clouseau.

But hey, that’s all just the bare minimum for a good musical. What makes the film exceedingly wonderful is the dialogue and chemistry between Brynner as King Mongkut (พระบาทสมเด็จพระปรเมนทรมหามงกุฎ พระจอมเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว to his friends) and Deborah Kerr as Anna Leonowens (in a performance that earned her the third of her six career unsuccessful Best Actress nominations). Seeing as they are the title characters and they share the screen for about 85% of the film, they’d better be great together, and they really, really are.

Anyone who complains about the lack of realistic platonic relationships between men and women in movies has clearly not seen The King and I. Anna and the King, over the course of several songs, dances, and history lessons, develop a very real and believable friendship based on mutual respect, even if it smacks strongly of “white savior” vibe by today’s standards (the King introduces a great number of reforms and Westernizations at Anna’s behest, changing his kingdom to reflect “proper” British values and mores, while Anna…sure thinks his children are cute).


There’s an awkward deleted scene right after this where the children ask her to say “Hello” in Thai, and she feigns a headache and runs.

Not that any of that matters when you’re swept away by Brynner’s amazing repeated delivery of “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,” which never, could never, and will never get old.


Seriously, just try.

If I had to call the film out on one thing, it’s that maybe it should have trimmed a couple of songs (maybe the one at the start with Anna’s stupid kid?) and given us just a little lead-up to the King’s death at the end (don’t read that if you haven’t seen the movie). He goes from this…

…to his deathbed…

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…in about five minutes of screen time after Anna is mean to him. Specifically, she gets in his head and keeps him from whipping one of his wives when she is caught trying to escape with her lover. Thus, he goes from full of life to mostly dead with nothing in between, and after watching his eldest son impulsively upend the traditions of his country, he dies without any of his children even noticing.

I mean, it’s fine…movies, and especially musicals, and especially musicals of this time period, rush plot developments and turn worlds upside down with far less notice than this. Still, like I said, I wish they’d cut Anna’s son out entirely (he’s barely there, but when he is, holy fuck does he suck the joy out of the film, and out of life) and let us bear witness to a little more Yultide.

Fortunately, though, Brynner’s debut wasn’t over yet!

10Command56.jpg

Like Gone with the Wind before it, and many, many pictures after it, The Ten Commandments earned its Best Picture nomination almost solely due to its epic scope (in terms of both story and production values), its widescreen, Technicolor beauty, and the above-the-lines names on the poster. And for all that, it’s a fine film…but as far as acting, directing, and writing goes, it’s a major letdown. It’s one of those movies that I think can be considered “viewed” by casual cineasts through watching highlights on YouTube. Or, if you don’t even have time for that, just check out Mel Brooks’ abridged version:


These seventy seconds have more laughs than every Judd Apatow movie combined.

First off, the writing, if I may call it such, is pitifully thin on development and excruciatingly long on melodrama, bathos, and ’50s-style “women be crazy,” with the same story beats hit again and again and again. For some reason, even in a film that runs nearly four hours, crucial details are glossed over or omitted while completely irrelevant catfighting over Moses by Nefretiri repeats ad nauseum. Granted, DeMille has the luxury of trusting that his audience will be familiar enough with the story of Moses to fill in the blanks themselves, but it’s still damned sloppy.

charlton-heston-yul-brynner-the-ten-commandments-1956-BPA9GE.jpgThis is a still from a scene in which Heston literally just gives Yul Brynner a rundown on the various plagues that have so far been inflicted–offscreen–on Egypt.

Despite Bosley Crowther’s fawning New York Times review, the script is far too padded, far too concerned with giving Anne Baxter as many catty lines and orgasmic jealous rages as possible, to present a “moving story of the spirit of freedom rising in a man.” In reality, it’s a wild hodgepodge of Exodus, the Qur’an, and some contemporary Moses fanfiction.

As far as acting is concerned, it’s fine. Really, the performances are adequate, considering they all (with a few exceptions) take themselves so goddamned seriously. There’s no James Stewart giving unnecessary dramatic effort, but just about all the lines are delivered with such weight that the whole enterprise is just dragged along by its own self-importance. Still, the aforementioned Yul Brynner gets plenty of opportunities, as in The King and I, to show off his impressive tan, toned muscles, and extravagant eyebrow emoting.

tumblr_mk78hn0jq21qzsuffo2_1280.pngOften all at once.

He plays Rameses II with evil glee, the dark side of fun-loving hoofer Mongkut in The King and I…one can easily imagine him breaking into song and dance if only the gods (or Cecil B. DeMille) would let him. Maybe that, after all, is the source of all his anger and jealousy, that he can’t cut loose and really be Rameses.

the-ten-commandments-yul-brynner-1956-everett.jpgYou can’t tell me the man who owned that hat wasn’t a dancer at heart.

Anne Baxter, meanwhile, is the only performer who doesn’t seem to realize she’s an Egyptian queen in a biblical epic and not an over-the-top femme fatale in a noir. To that end, she plays Nefretiti like a ’40s Lady Macbeth, stirring things up to the point where God has to kill her only child to shut her up…and even that doesn’t work, because from her first scene to her last she remains obsessed with Moses and stops paying attention to everything and everybody once they cease to involve him. If I remember my Pentateuch correctly, it was always Yahweh who hardened the Pharaoh’s heart and made him endure so many plagues…in The Ten Commandments, it’s Nefretiti all the way. So in a very real sense, Anne Baxter was God.

New Picture (3).jpgThe only thing she’s missing is an evil cigarette holder.

Elsewhere, Vincent Price is suitably creepy as lecherous overseer Baka; Edward G. Robinson is cartoonishly contrarian as slimy opportunist and resident douchenozzle Dathan; and Charlton Heston shows his amazing range, from strong-jawed determinism to stronger-jawed determinism to stronger-jawed determinism with a beard, as Moses. The supporting cast included Lily Munster as Moses’ wife Sephora, and Heston’s infant son Fraser as baby Moses.

4e7c1bde460e18024c9d0d740787438d.jpgThey wasted a great chance to make the film an “‘–All You Zombies–‘”-type story.

Hm…you know, I thought I’d have more to say about a film that lasted half an hour longer than the actual 29th Academy Awards ceremony, but I’m finding it difficult. It left me with a strange sense of emptiness and the firm conviction that it could have been told in half the time and with far less focus on the “Nefretiti is thirsty” subplot. If I hadn’t already been filled with good will towards Yul Brynner after watching The King and I, and generally willing to watch anything with Anne Baxter and Vincent Price, it would have definitely taken me longer to watch than the two days it already took.

But if there is one film that perfectly portends the true arrival of what we, with the benefit of hindsight, call 1950s Hollywood, it’s this one. Maybe the decade took a while to really get going, but now it’s here and The Ten Commandments proves it. The last two films of the year are also epics; one is a dark and noble tale of Texan ranch owners, while the other is a fun romp around the globe with David Niven and just about every actor in Los Angeles who had a free afternoon during the production. We’ll see what they have to offer in the next installment!

28th Academy Awards (1955) – Part I

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  • Marty, Delbert Mann*
  • Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Henry King
  • Mister Roberts, John Ford, Mervin LeRoy, Joshua Logan
  • Picnic, Joshua Logan
  • The Rose Tattoo, Daniel Mann

I’ve been stalling on writing about the 28th Academy Awards, because for some reason I am finding it extremely difficult to find and watch The Rose Tattoo. After my little snafu with the 20th Awards–in which I confidently declared Gentleman’s Agreement a masterpiece based on a decade-old memory in Part I only to realize, when I rewatched it for Part II, that it fell far short of the classic I’d imagined–I am loath to begin my assessment of the year without seeing all the films involved. I considered cheating and just using one of the three Best Director-nominated films that were denied a spot at the Best Picture table–David Lean’s Summertime, John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock, and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden–but in the end decided to just forge ahead and trust that, without too much of a gap between this entry and and next, I will locate a copy of The Rose Tattoo somewhere in Madrid.

Anyhoo, I can at least say that 80% of the year is solid, so that already puts it ahead of most Oscars. The nominees include two William Holden melodramas, one set in Kansas and the other in Hong Kong; a raucous World War II comedy (possibly the first!) set aboard a lackluster cargo ship in the Pacific (imagine The Caine Mutiny as a screwball comedy and you pretty much have it); and the winner, a B-movie romance called Marty that, so the pundits believed, didn’t have a chance in hell of winning any major Oscars…so naturally it won Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay. It missed out on Best Actress only because the Academy has always had a very poor understanding of what constitutes the difference between a lead and a supporting performance.

ee5c902c667b855b80011d984ec4ddd7.jpgAnd possibly because Anna Magnani deserved it for The Rose Tattoo. Again, haven’t seen it.

The first three I mentioned above are in color, while Marty and The Rose Tattoo are black-and-white. It’s as good a way to divide the films this year as any, since there are no “black and white in color” films like last year.

Picnic.jpg

In the above poster, Kim Novak examines her make-up while William Holden silently watches and does his best James Dean in the background, and this image conveys 80% of their courtship between her first sight of him burning garbage to their declarations of love following the titular picnic.

kgNnU58Y.pngThe other 20% is her burning desire to get away from Cliff Robertson, which is a basic human need.

Holden plays Hal Carter, a drifter who rolls into a small Kansas town abuzz with preparations for their annual Labor Day picnic and starts shaking things up with his mostly-shirtless presence. This includes, but is not limited to, hitting up his rich friend Alan for a job; drawing the matchmaking dotage of resident yenta Mrs. Potts; breaking up a few relationships and forcing together others; and generally forcing the townsfolk to confront their complacency, comfort, and belief in the just-soness of life. You know, like drifters do.

The biggest thing up which he shakes is the Owens family, being comprised of mother Flo and daughters Madge–the “prettiest girl in town,” a quality of which the audience is reminded more times than in The Room–and Millie–book smart and street smart, at least what passed for street smart in 1955 Kansas. Madge (Kim Novak) is bored with life and tired of only being valued for her looks, including by her semi-fiancé Alan and Flo, whose only bit of motherly wisdom throughout the film is to tell her to let Alan have his way with her so he knows she’s serious about him.

Picnicolor7.jpg“Also, poke holes in his condoms. Oldest trick in the book.”

Understandably in the mood for some strange, Madge catches sight of aforementioned shirtless drifter Hal, and their 24-hour odyssey of forbidden love begins. This climaxes with a sultry-for-1955 dance at the climactic picnic–which won the film the Oscar for Best Film Editing for making it look like Holden and Novak could do more than step in approximate time to music–and all hell breaks loose. Aside from Mrs. Potts, who starts mentally bouncing their future children on her knee as soon as she catches sight of Hal, the entire town disapproves, and brings in the cops in an attempt to keep them apart. Hal does the reasonable thing, assaulting Alan and two police officers before losing them in a high-speed pursuit and bunking with local bachelor Howard Bevans.

Their list of detractors, apparently not big enough for an Inge play, also includes little sister Millie. Despite being way to young–like, by law–she falls for Hal as well and sinks into a deep depression when he ignores her for someone his own age.

1928-3.jpgOr at least more than half his own age.

Not that Madge and Hal’s star-crossed love is the only drama in this sleepy town. In one of the saddest subplots in cinema history, Rosalind Russell joins the fray as aging, “old maid” schoolmarm Rosemary, outwardly prim and “above” romance…until she gets some whisky in her, at which point she becomes the bitterest, meanest drunk I’ve seen outside a Charles Bukowsky novel. Mild-mannered Howard is her pitiable beau, who thinks he’s just stepping out with a pretty, if tightly-wound, proper lady, only to finally see her inner Cthulu when it’s too late to escape the locusts that burst from her fevered brain in the final act.

While Hal and Madge are off starting a romance for the ages that defies the unspoken class barriers of midcentury small town America (i.e, bonin’), Rosemary is busy going from 0 to biddy, bemoaning her miserable lifeand begging, literally begging Howard to marry her. It’s already a very pejorative and nasty role, made all the worse by the fact that she’s played by Rosalind Russell, easily one of the most badass actresses of the era reduced to an insufferable stereotype. It works, of course, with Howard basically bullied and shanghaied into the marriage, and as they drive away for a few weeks of happiness before his suicide, she contemptuously sticks her tongue out at the public school where she wasted years of her life as a beloved educator and role model for the children of the community instead of staying home with a husband.

1955-Picnic-04.jpg“When I think of all your laundry I haven’t done, all the meals I haven’t cooked for you…”

In case it’s not obvious by now, this film is hilarious, with the melodrama is so high that Rainer Werner Fassbinder considered it over-the-top, and the sheer earnestness of its cast adds to the unintentional comedy. It is now notable mainly for its beautiful widescreen color photography by the great James Wong Howe, whose striking panoramas in an environment other than the sweeping vistas of New Mexico was highly unusual and wonderfully innovative. Granted, they may have decided to shoot in widescreen only so they could make the most of Holden’s many topless scenes, but it paid off in other ways.

Oh, one more thing before we move on: according to a biography of William Holden, the nighttime scene between Hal and Madge had to be reshot back in Hollywood when, while watching the rushes at the Columbia offices, some eagle-eyed viewer noted that they’d inadvertently filmed the original in a field of marijuana. I imagine it must have taken some cajones in 1955 to out oneself as the only person in the room to recognize grass, assuming it wasn’t Robert Mitchum, who would have just been upset they didn’t bring any back for him.

Robert Mitchum.png“Trust me, the film would be better if we had some stronger shit.”

The year of William Holden’s bare chest continued with…

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This film is based on an autobiographical novel by Han Suyin, called simply A Many Splendoured Thing. I like to think that a memo was drafted during pre-production from some up-and-coming producer’s assistant at Twentieth Century Fox saying “But what is the many-splendored thing?? It could be anything! We gotta let ’em know it’s love!!”

A_Many-Splendoured_Thing_(book).jpg“Bill Holden’s not even half-naked on the cover! Who’s going to understand that?!”

Well, they took this kid seriously, because if there’s one thing Love is a Many-Splendored Thing teaches us, it’s that love has, just, so many splendors. Holden plays Mark Elliott, an unhappily married war correspondent hanging around in British-occupied Hong Kong in 1949, who meets Han Suyin, a half-Chinese, half-British doctor preparing to return to war-torn mainland China after ten years abroad. Despite her insistence that she is in lifelong mourning for her dead husband, she soon succumbs to his charms (see the above poster, which leaves few of his charms to the imagination). Splendors abound.

If there are two things Splendor in the Many-Loved Grass Thing teaches us, the second would be that Jennifer Jones, the whitest actress in an era when all actresses were white, can totally pass for half-Chinese. In case the tight-fitting green silk dresses are not enough to convince you, she speaks in what was believed to be a Chinese accent in Hollywood at the time (which consists of dropping all contractions from one’s speech and occasionally quoting Confucius) and reminds anyone within earshot of her Chinese ancestry every other sentence.

Love-Is-a-Many-Splendored-Thing-1955-3.jpg“By the way, have I mentioned that I am Chinese?”
“Yes…please stop.”

As the film progresses, however, and she and Mark fall deeper and deeper in love, she suddenly stops referencing her Chinese side and starts dressing in a more European (i.e., revealing) manner. I’m not entirely sure what the film was trying to convey here, but I’m sure it was innocuous. Surely it would be too harsh to imagine that the implicit message was that love between ethnicities was something to be discouraged and that, if truly in love, a woman would happily give up any non-white part of her heritage, family and culture in order to boff Bill Holden guilt-free.

Man, that’s depressing. But I suppose when the rest of the film is just a standard-issue romantic melodrama that progresses from cliché to cliché with all the suspense of a dramatic reading of a Syd Field book, what else can one focus on?

12364.jpgI know the ads wanted me to focus on Bill Holden’s legs, but I’ve seen enough of them for one year.

However, two amusing things do stand out about Love in the Time of Splenda. The first is that, according to one Holden biographer, Jennifer Jones hated her co-star and made the production extremely difficult as a result. She allegedly even ate garlic before shooting their love scenes, in order to keep their kisses short. Maybe Holden liked the taste of garlic, because the two of them do have genuine chemistry in the film…which leads me to this moment:

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1961’s Splendor in the Grass is credited as being the first American film to show a French kiss, but come on…your romantic leads lighting each other’s cigarettes off one another was the ’50s equivalent. It’s the end of the scene, too…the film fades away on this image, just as it would in any melodrama at the moment of the lovers’ first kiss. It’s probably the one original and even slightly subversive element of the whole affair, and it almost makes up for the belabored star-crossed romance we’re forced to endure for the following 80 minutes.

MV5BNmQzNTJkMmUtMzZjMi00NmJjLTlkMWUtMTFiMTZiNWFiYmRlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDMxMjQwMw@@._V1_.jpgThough I suppose “Hasn’t that penetrated?” counts as mildly risqué.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m ready to move on from William Holden. Fortunately, a great film–which almost starred Holden, too–came to my rescue:

Mister_Roberts_(1955_movie_poster).jpg

Mister Roberts, the first WWII film with a poster appropriate for its tone, is a delightful film on almost every level, even if it too had a troubled production that necessitated three directors to finish. Aside from The Great Dictator, it was one of the first comedies, if not the first comedy, to come out of World War II.

220px-Poster_of_The_Pigeon_That_Took_Rome.jpgThe Pigeon that Took Rome was still years away.

Based on a successful Broadway play, the film is episodic in nature but manages to tell a coherent story along the way. Henry Fonda plays the titular Mister Roberts, a modest, decent fellow as only Henry Fonda could portray. He serves on a backwater cargo ship in the Pacific theatre, and spends most of his time acting as a buffer between the crew and James Cagney, who steals the picture as the ship’s image- and palm tree-obsessed Captain Morton.

5.pngI like to think that Cagney himself brought the palm tree from home and insisted it be used because he loved it so much. It’s a simple fantasy but it brings me comfort.

Also along for the ride are William Powell, in his last film appearance as wise, faux-Scotch-making “Doc”, and Jack Lemmon, who won the Best Supporting Actor award as work-shy “morale officer” Ensign Frank Pulver, who idolizes Roberts and harbors a genuine terror of Morton. A running joke in the film is that Pulver never performs any of his duties and leaves his cabin so rarely that, even though he’s been on the ship for six years, Morton has no idea he even exists. Pulver spends most of his time scheming how to get ashore to chase girls, or, failing that, how to get them aboard the ship to chase him.

The central conflict of the film is this: Roberts has a dream, shared by no one else on board, of leaving the ship (the USS Reluctant) for a position on the front lines, and he makes weekly requests for transfer that become more elaborate and desperate as the war begins to wind down. Morton, equally desperate to avoid giving the slightest impression that anyone is unhappy aboard his ship, much less would ever want to be anywhere else, consistently refuses to endorse these requests while trying to get Roberts “on his side” so that the crew will respect his authority. As you might expect, the comedic possibilities are endless, and the vignettes that make up the film manage to pack in the laughs while affectionately conveying the day-to-day life aboard a near-mutinous ship.

maxresdefault.jpgImagine The Caine Mutiny as a comedy and you’ve pretty much got it.

Roberts seeks to go into combat so he can be a hero, and it’s only when he gets his coveted transfer that he realizes he already is one, just for the act of being a sympathetic, generous superior officer to the men in his command, for treating them as human beings, and for making their service at least as close to bearable as it can be. This is shown in any number of ways throughout the film, but never so much as the sequence in which, in exchange for granting the men a sorely-needed shore leave, Morton demands Roberts cease all efforts to be transferred and fall into line. Roberts accepts these terms and endures the crew’s enmity for weeks until the truth accidentally gets out, after Roberts–in a moment that would be mirrored twenty years later in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s glass-breaking scene–clandestinely tosses Morton’s beloved palm tree overboard.

32e4eb730ec7fdcc8267b558b0794bab.jpgUnfortunately, just a production still, and not the captain learning a valuable lesson about taking it easy and letting out his inner Woody Guthrie.

No, Morton never does learn his lesson, and continues his reign of tyranny after Roberts leaves the ship. The film has a bittersweet ending in which Pulver, Doc, and the rest of the crew learn that Roberts was killed by a kamikaze attack, but this finally encourages Pulver to grow a pair and become the new Mister Roberts, angrily confronting the Morton and taking his idol’s place once and for all.

3dc10dcc3dadce50848a48d3e6955e5e.pngSorry, I just keep finding these and I’m damned if I’ll let them go to waste.

The casting of the film is perfect, but for me, the one who stands out (as you might expect) is William Powell, who, much as I love Jack Lemmon, deserved to win the Oscar for his role as sagely Doc. Even more mellow and even-keeled than Roberts, without the latter’s blind ambition and strange desire to get himself killed, he serves as the ship’s highest voice of reason…a lofty position, considering Henry Fonda is onboard. One can see him as Roberts himself in his early years, who’s seen it all before and so is not surprised by any of the twists and turns Roberts encounters on his journey. He’s also a fair hand at homemade Scotch, which he probably learned in his youth as a Manhattan private detective.

roberts.jpg“And remember, gentlemen, the most important thing is the rhythm.”

That scene, by the way, is a solid six or seven minutes of just watching these three turning sparkling water into something resembling Scotch, and it is one of the best six or seven minutes in the whole film. In the end, with a combination of various medicines and Coca-Cola, they end up with a drink that they deem even better than the Scotch they were trying to replicate (though to be fair, it was only Johnny Walker Red, so not the greatest challenge in the world).

Again, I haven’t seen all five pictures yet, but I think it’s fair to say that Mister Roberts is the most fun of them all. It is also extremely charming, but if I’m honest, it’s the winner of this year, Marty, that earns the highest marks in that category. Unfortunately, until I can get my hands on The Rose Tattoo, Part II of these 28th Academy Awards will have to wait. In the meantime I will get started on 1956, and hopefully another trip to the film archive at UCLA will not be necessary to finish this year. Onward!

Trivial Matters #40 – Posthumous Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, some acting milestones:

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

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

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

27th Academy Awards (1954) – Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elia Kazan, that’s who.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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