24th Academy Awards (1951) – Part I

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

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

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

560ecdf9a9cab__humphrey-bogart.jpgLong overdue.

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

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

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

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

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

historyofworld2309.jpgThe greatest, obviously.

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

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

rt4262.jpgWell, except Ferdinand there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three Years of Oscars and I – Another Clip Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week!

23rd Academy Awards (1950) – Part II

(Part I.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you all in 1951!


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

23rd Academy Awards (1950) – Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22nd Academy Awards (1949) – Part II

(Part I.)

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Despite knowing nothing about the story going in, I had very high hopes for The Heiress, what with it being directed by William Wyler (his first film since The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]), and featuring one of the best casts of this or any surrounding year. And brother, did this movie exceed even my lofty expectations. The Heiress–a taut, exquisitely acted, mellifluously shot chamber piece, the true Best Picture of 1949–earned Olivia de Havilland her second Best Actress award, and was William Wyler’s fifth consecutive film to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.

De Havilland plays the titular heiress, Catherine Sloper, whose drab, socially isolated existence in 1840s New York is upended by the romantic overtures of an alluring young rogue named Morris (played by alluring young rogue Montgomery Clift)–she falls in love with him in about as long as it takes you to read this sentence, but her father suspects Morris is just out for her money (she stands to inherit an income of $40,000 a year upon his death–I checked it out, that would be over $1,200,000 a year today). He can’t be swayed from this opinion no matter what Morris or Catherine say, because he knows Catherine is so plain, uninteresting, and simple that no man would want her if a fortune were not involved.

Her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, is played by venerable British actor Ralph Richardson, and he plays the part to perfection, toeing a tricky line between showing his daughter utter contempt and doing everything he can to keep her from being taken for a ride. For my money, Richardson deserved the Best Supporting Actor award over Dean Jagger’s just-decent performance in Twelve O’Clock High. He is austere, unforgiving, arrogant, and stiff…everything an overbearing father should be.


It should have gone like this.

The best scene in the film is between Richardson and de Havilland, as Dr. Sloper finally reveals the depth of his scorn for his daughter, angrily telling her that it is impossible that any man could love her for anything but her money. Within hours, he is proven right–Morris flakes on their planned elopement upon finding out that Catherine is to be disinherited, and therefore live on only $15,000 a year (a paltry $462,803 in today’s world)–but soon discovers how wrong he was about Catherine.

I don’t want to give too much away, since this is a film everyone should watch, but I’ll just say that Catherine is a fast learner. Having seen how little her own father and the man she thought she loved care for her, she grows up fast and turns the tables on them in a deliciously satisfying way. Even when her father reveals he hasn’t long to live, she continues to taunt him by promising to return to Morris and allow him to squander her entire fortune, just to spite him. And when he does die, there is no cheesy tears, no Hollywood deathbed reconciliation. Just this:

Olivia-de-Havilland-Heiress-1949.JPGNo joke here. This is her reaction upon hearing the news that her father is going to die.

A character going from young and naïve to tough and resourceful is similar to de Havilland’s previous Oscar-winning performance in 1946’s To Each His Own, in which she learns to cope with the pain of having to give up her child after the father is killed in the war. The difference in this film, of course, is that her character sheds not only her naïveté but also her compassion and trust. It’s hard to fault this transformation, given what she’s gone through, and her final ascent (brilliantly staged as such by Wyler…it truly is a victory, if a pessimistic one) is just a thrill to watch. The sight of Morris pounding impotently against her door as she walks away like a goddamned badass is one of the few cinematic endings for which I actually cheered.

theheiress3.jpgending-the-heiress.jpgHahaha…eat shit, you loser.

It would have been very easy to stick them together as the credits rolled, implying that love will truly conquer all (or, even more insidious, that it’s better for a lady to marry a man who doesn’t love her than face the world as a weak, fragile woman). Either of those would have been a “happy ending” in 1949, and probably would have thrilled the Hays office. I was actually very fearful, coming down to the final sequence, that they would do exactly that, but I should have had more faith in Mr. Wyler to do the right thing.

Amazingly, Montgomery Clift went un-nominated for his tantalizingly ambiguous role as Morris. He keeps you guessing, almost for the entire story, about whether he is truly in love with Catherine or merely, as her father suspects, a gold digger. He acts the role with an easy grace and charm, his eyes as sincere as eyes can be…which is, of course, the whole point, and Clift seduces us right along with Catherine. Even after the façade begins to crack, you’re not sure…and because it’s Montgomery Clift–and because Catherine is Olivia de Havilland and nobody screws over Olivia de Havilland–you want him to be virtuous and true. (This was a deliberate and, it turns out, inspired bit of studio intervention, as they requested that Morris’ character be made less overtly evil than in the stage play, to capitalize on Clift’s budding leading-man status.)

In the end, his true colors are flown for all to see. The final, irrefutable proof of Morris’ duplicity comes very late in the film, and it is a devastating moment…

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No, no! He grew a villainous 1940s mustache! He IS evil! WHY, MONTGOMERY? WHY???

It is, for all intents and purposes, a perfect film. How Wyler was denied his third Best Director award in favor of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “point the camera at actors” approach in A Letter to Three Wives is mindboggling. De Havilland decisively earned her Best Actress Oscar, and the film picked up three more in technical categories, making it the biggest winner of the night. However, it was denied Best Picture by…

MV5BZjQyN2MwMjAtNmJmZS00OWZlLWE1NGQtOGZmYmRjZjIyNWEyL2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc1NTYyMjg@._V1_UY1200_CR81,0,630,1200_AL_.jpg

Having stepped away from overt commentary the previous year in favor of some quiet Shakespeare, the Academy brought the former back with a vengeance by awarding Best Picture to All the King’s Men, a “vital, very great” movie about corruption in politics and how the only way to stop it is by gunning it down. Which makes it just about the most American American film of the 1940s. While I did enjoy the movie and was intrigued by the way it was edited and acted, it isn’t much more complex than that (admittedly snarky) summation, and I think it was the wrong choice for the top Oscar.

The best way to describe the film is that it is the exact opposite of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): instead of a young, idealistic progressive fighting to keep his wits and his integrity against the realpolitik of the Washington machine, All the King’s Men tells the story of an old, cynical reactionary who starts corrupt and fights to become even more corrupt, shocking his corrupt corroborators with the sheer depth of his corrupting corruption.

All-the-Kings-Men-2.jpgThough to its credit, the film fools you at the beginning by dressing him in grandpa pants and a very honest hat.

I suppose the film is trying to make a point about American politics, not about how power corrupts but rather how easy it is for such a nakedly power-mad individual to rise to power. Unfortunately, this makes for a static narrative and a terribly boring protagonist…while Willie Stark’s journey from country bumpkin to state governor might be what drives the plot, he himself doesn’t do a great deal to move the story forward, and nothing about him changes from beginning to end except that he loses his oxygen habit. Part of this might be the fact that he is played by Broderick Crawford, who I have trouble picturing as anything but a loudmouthed, brash, uneducated blowhard.

The role was originally offered to John Wayne, and man what an amazing performance that would have been. Despite his reputation nowadays (which he himself carefully cultivated), Wayne was a good actor before he realized there was more money in just stepping in front of the camera and being himself. And because he had that all-American, patriotic, beatnik-thumping persona, it would have been very interesting to see him in the role of Willie Stark. Watching Crawford bluster through the film, one simply accepts that he is evil and is just impatient for the supporting characters to figure it out…if it had been John “not-Sands-of-Iwo-Jima-because-he-would-have-been-in-this-film-instead” Wayne, the film could have been far more subtle, Stark would have been a far more dynamic character, and we the audience would have been right with the other characters, trying desperately to hold onto our idealized image despite the mounting evidence against it.

176452-004-7242C6DD.jpgUltimately, he elected to be simply John “Sands-of-Iwo-Jima-because-he-found-the-script-for-All-the-King’s-Men-unpatriotic” Wayne, which was much catchier on a marquee.

The film becomes a little better if one considers the supporting cast, the ones who aid and abet Stark’s machine, to be the true main characters. After all, it is a corrupt politician’s retinue of corroborators, bulldogs, and hangers-on that drives them to, and keeps them in, power, and in this respect the movie is very realistic and unforgiving. I’m thinking particularly of John Ireland as Jack Burden, the journalist who sells Stark to the people and quickly becomes his hatchetman–he’s the only character in the movie who changes (albeit only a little) by the end, and the only one to finally realize that Stark’s obviously immoral actions weren’t in pursuit of some nobler, populist end, but were simply a means to more power.

Beyond Burden, the rest of the film offers little in terms of character development, which was surprising for me, considering two of its performers won Academy Awards. If 1949 had an award for Most Badly Written Character, all five nominees would be from All the King’s Men. Don’t get me wrong, Broderick Crawford is wonderfully obnoxious and slimy as Willie Stark, but since, as I said, his character is never anything but obnoxious and slimy, his performance is terribly one-note. Stark goes through the whole film solving every problem by shouting at it or threatening it until finally he kills it, or it kills itself. Compare this to Gregory Peck’s Frank Savage in Twelve O’Clock High–a character with an actual arc and more than one type of reaction to a given situation–and Crawford’s Best Actor award makes very little sense.

Same goes for Mercedes McCambridge, whose character goes from jaded, faux-sassy politician’s moll to jaded, faux-sassy politician’s ex-moll. Clearly the acting challenge of a lifetime. It becomes even weirder when her character pretty much vanishes from the narrative halfway through and does absolutely nothing of consequence for the plot.

All-the-Kings-Men-3.jpgThat empty coffee cup turned out to be a more intriguing character…where’s its Oscar?

But the highest honor in the Badly Written Character category must also go to Joanne Dru as Anne Stanton, whose sole purpose in the film is to be Stark’s fawning, disturbingly loyal and naïve mistress. Her character literally has no agency or higher brain function, as she willingly and unthinkingly helps Stark drive her beloved uncle to suicide. She ends the film still in love with him, firmly believing that he is a moral, misunderstood champion of the people.

a5eddd9269909a48b8a64e07714b3de6--ireland-robert-richard.jpg“Oh, please, as if Abraham Lincoln never murdered a judge. Get off your high horse.”

If the film was innovative in any area, it was in the editing. The original cut of the film ran far too long–director Robert Rossen, despite his best efforts, just couldn’t seem to get it under four hours. So he instructed his editor to take each scene, find what he considered to be the emotional and/or narrative “center” of the scene, and chop off everything outside one hundred feet of film before and after that point. This resulted in short, sweet scenes with abrupt transitions, giving the film a nervous energy that imbues it with far more tension than does its script. The style–even though done out of necessity rather than artistic curiosity–anticipated the experimental jump cuts of the French New Wave a decade later, particularly Godard’s Breathless.

And that’s 1949…personally, I think of the nominated films, The Heiress would have been a far better Best Picture winner; perhaps it doesn’t have the political and social punch of All the King’s Men, but it, like almost all Wyler films, features fully-formed, impeccably-acted characters and a rich story that, despite being set in the 19th century, does not feel dated. Now it’s time to move ahead and give Joseph L. Mankiewicz a chance to redeem himself in 1950!

22nd Academy Awards (1949) – Part I

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  • All the King’s Men, Robert Rossen
  • Battleground, William A. Wellman
  • The Heiress, William Wyler
  • A Letter to Three Wives, Joseph L. Mankiewicz*
  • Twelve O’Clock High, Henry King

Well lo and behold, with the 1949 awards the Academy managed to put two strong years together in a row, though this year was marred by the inclusion of one desperately boring film and a Best Picture winner that, while a scathing and sporadically brilliant indictment of American politics, suffers from a weak script and weaker characters. However, the weak script is given a boost by some clever and experimental editing, and the very weak characters are given a leg up by some very strong performances…two of which won Oscars. It is one of only two films to win Best Picture and two acting Oscars, but not Best Director, and the other is…

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Because not all trivia is fun.

Best Director, meanwhile, went to one of the most needless films ever made. But I’ll get to that. Even taking into account that waste of 105 minutes, strong performances were the real theme of 1949; it was the first of only eight years in the five-nominee/supporting acting era where every acting winner was from a Best Picture nominee.

This year’s crop is also notable for including the first postwar-era World War II nominees, Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High. Unlike the propagandistic fare we saw between 1939 and 1944, these two films each make use of the intervening years to cast an appraising, humanistic eye on the conflict, just as La Grande Illusion did for World War I in 1937. That said, they are not morally ambiguous by any means, but they both dug a bit deeper than films were willing (or permitted) to go when the war was still going on.

There’s plenty to say about these movies, so let’s not waste any more time…

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A Letter to Three Wives is a movie about…well, that. The letter, sent by one of their cattier friends, informs them that said “friend” has skipped town and absconded with one of their husbands…but neglects to tell them which. Which is absolutely something a real human with a functioning brain would do, even if she wasn’t an unseen character in the world’s dumbest screenplay. As fate would have it, our titular wives are on a day trip with a youth organization, so they are left to quietly panic and have flashbacks to why the letter could only be referring to their hubby. What a mystery for the ages…what a high-stakes thrill ride that definitely kept me interested and invested in which bland, caricatured housewives would lose which bland, caricatured husband. You won’t believe the surprise ending…but only because it is even stupider than anything you are possibly imagining right now.

ab70800ac6c9f4de62290c884e1d8e32--a-letter-academy-awards.jpg“Uh…and then they find $20!” –Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the pitch meeting, probably

Kirk Douglas is mostly tolerable as an impossibly easygoing high school teacher, but nothing else about this production has any merit and one can almost feel the brain cells dying as the film lurches from one cliché to the next with an almost gleeful abandon. I only watched it a few days ago, so it’s too soon to fully assess the damage it’s done.

It’s been a while on this project since I had to write a review of a movie I absolutely despised—that would be The Human Comedy at the 16th Academy Awards—and since I’m still in an era when I can mostly get away with it, I’m simply going to declare A Letter to Three Wives one of the worst films of the 1940s and move on. All’s I can say is, Mankiewicz better get his act together for All About Eve, next year’s winner.

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Based on the above poster, I’m guessing that at the initial studio meeting, Battleground was pitched as an extravagant MGM musical comedy about a bunch of kooks and knuckleheads fighting the Battle of the Bulge. Then, some new personnel were hired, producers added and removed some ideas, the script went through some rewrites, backs were patted and heads rolled, and eventually they landed on the quiet, almost philosophical, study of the stresses of combat that is the finished film…but no one told the art department, and they never revised their original concept.

I was very pleased to find this film among the nominees, because it’s one of the first movies I have a memory of watching, way back in the mid-1990s, while I was preparing a school project about the experiences of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne in 1944. Battleground was a favorite of my grandfather, a WWII veteran who was able to confirm, in realtime, all of the tiny details the movie got right–as well as fill us in on a few that got left out (for instance, there were a lot more f-bombs amongst soldiers than Code movies would have us believe). Just about every scene in the movie reminded me of his stories, and of him.

Upon returning to the movie twenty years on, all I remembered was a pair of scenes involving a soldier who refused to sleep with his boots on, and the consequences of his boot-hubris.

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Spoiler: they’re not good.

Battleground was directed by William A. Wellman, who, devotees will remember, directed the very first Best Picture winner, Wings. The film dramatizes the events of the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, wherein the 101st Airborne Division held the Belgian town for just over a week before being relieved by the Third Army under Patton. However, the film shows almost none of those “big” events, focusing entirely on the day-to-day lives and struggles of a single regiment as they try to cope with the weather (the Germans had worked out the timing of the offensive specifically for the bad weather that would prevent the Allies defending from the air), short supplies of food and matériel, and the constant threat of sneak attack from the dense, claustrophobic forest.

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Here they are, enjoying the “gags and glory” promised by the poster.

One of the things I really like about the movie’s structure is that, since it never leaves the soldiers’ sides, the audience experiences the same disorientation, uncertainty, and disappointments that they do. We open on the regiment as they are ready to ship out to Paris for some well-deserved R&R…only to be sent to a tiny Belgian town they’ve never heard of, told to defend it at all costs, and soon find themselves surrounded by an unseen, ghostly enemy hiding in the foggy woods. Along the way, sporadic and often confusing news trickles in, which often only serves to isolate the troops more…just like it did for the real 101st.

Unlike most of the propaganda films made during the war, in which the soldier characters were merely moving scenery through which Western audiences could cheer the inevitable defeat of the Nazis, Battleground does the opposite: the war itself, its causes and outcomes, and even its purpose are unimportant next to the lives and minds of the participants. With the benefit of hindsight (and victory), the film was able to portray the human gripes, foibles, and even cowardice that the soldiers faced, and show that these were not only perfectly normal, but perfectly alright. In the heat of battle, any faults are secondary, and are quickly forgotten…even for Khan himself.

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Years later, he would find Lt. Frank Drebin far less forgiving, but that’s another story.

Of course, as I said in the opening, the film is not morally ambiguous, nor does it resist the temptation for an upbeat ending, as we finish with all of the soldiers (the ones who survive, anyway) marching and singing in unison as fresh troops arrive to relieve them. The ending is reminiscent of that of Grand Hotel, as the protagonists leave and are replaced by new ones with just as many stories to tell. In the end, like La Grande Illusion before it, the film is hopeful without bathos, celebratory without propaganda, and tender without sacrificing objectivity. Nostalgia aside, it’s my favorite of the nominees.

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Twelve O’Clock High, like Battleground, is a war film that barely shows any war, and, again like Battleground, features a very odd poster that I’m certain could have been improved with a little less (or maybe a little more) drinking. The tagline definitely could have been workshopped a bit more, and the copywriters must have been kicking themselves eight years later when they couldn’t use it for the gay porn parody 12 Horny Men.

Film_591w_12AngryMen_original.jpgWhich was notable for reuniting all of the original cast.

Anyway, Twelve O’Clock High tells the story of a ragtag group of aviation misfits in the early days of American involvement in the war, the Eighth Bomber Command carrying out daytime precision strikes on Luftwaffe airfields and munitions factories from their base in Surrey, England. They are becoming undisciplined and careless, and it’s up to General Gregory Peck to whip them into shape. The unit is so undermanned and short of supplies that he is quickly forced to fly missions with them, improving their performance but earning himself some pretty severe PTSD in the process.

It’s an extremely well-made film, if a bit overlong (more on that later); the script is lean and the editing brisk, as befits a movie in this genre. We’ve seen quite a bit of Henry King amongst the Best Picture nominees–In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and The Song of Bernadette (1943)–and his strong eye for mise en scène serves the story well. One scene in particular is a masterclass in lighting, blocking, writing, and acting, a five-minute unbroken take of Peck mercilessly dressing down an errant officer. The fluid movements of both the camera and Gregory Peck raise and lower the tension perfectly.


Since this is a 1940s WWII movie, you’ve probably already guessed that, by the film’s end, this officer is the bravest, most capable pilot in the entire war.

As professionally made as the film is, it does run longer than it should, mainly because of an extended air battle sequence late in the film. The scene is partly comprised of actual aerial combat footage filmed by Allied and Luftwaffe planes during the war, though as far as I know they stopped short of having Gregory Peck fly missions (after all, the film was directed by Henry King, not Howard Hughes). However, the whole thing takes place well into the third act, and though I understand why it’s there, it feels jarring and out of place within the human drama we have been watching and which picks up again immediately afterwards. Because of this, I lost the tension and excitement of what should have been a pulse-pounding spectacle, which wouldn’t have happened if it took place earlier in the film’s runtime.

Although I enjoyed Twelve O’Clock High, and although it features great performances and more than a few classic scenes, I don’t think it succeeded in portraying the physical and mental toll of war as successfully as did Battleground. Aside from the opening scene, the tribulations of the men flying the missions are largely ignored, instead focusing on those of the General and his command staff. When the men are shown to be at their breaking point, the commanders–and, since we are seeing the men through their eyes, the film itself–treat them as cowards and slackers who need to be pushed even further, and this is never really resolved in the end. In fact, the moral of the story seems to be that, while it may tax the emotional stability of the commanding officers, pushing soldiers beyond their limit is what makes them good soldiers.

876d4a0f81b04b7c788fdf30dfd27680--stanley-kubrick-movies-arliss-howard.jpgFuture war films would disagree.

The film very briefly makes a halfhearted attempt at a better moral late in the film, as the squadron’s studious adjutant, Major Stovall–whose flashbacks from present day England bookend the film–remarks that he has dreams of all the men of the unit who have died, and how their faces all blend together, “and it’s a very young face.” It’s a powerful, understated moment…which is immediately laughed away by Peck and the others present, who brush it off as maudlin ramblings brought on by whisky–which, the film makes clear, it is. When Peck does finally snap in the next scene, it gives a little bit of weight to Stovall’s words, but he snaps back pretty quickly, so not a lot.

On the whole, Twelve O’Clock High is a good film, if not a great one. Dean Jagger won the Best Supporting Actor award for his role, though it was more of a “thanks for a great career” Oscar and for my money it should have been Ralph Richardson. In fact, aside from Battleground,  there’s only one film this year that I would describe as “great”…and I’ll be covering that, and the year’s winner, next week in Part II!

 

21st Academy Awards (1948) – Part II

(Part I.)

Before we get started, I should give honorable mention to a film that was not among the nominees this year: I Remember Mama, directed by George Stevens. With nominations for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and two for Best Supporting Actress, it is one of four films in Oscar history to receive four acting nominations without a nod for Best Picture, the others being My Man Godfrey (1936), Othello (1965), and Doubt (2008). Perhaps tellingly, none of these films’ acting nominations was successful. Anyway…

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The last two films of 1948 went even further than the previous three in their exploration of obsession, isolation, and the tragedy of the human condition; the winner is generally thought to be the English language’s foremost authority on these subjects. But first, there was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of the best cinematic depictions of greed ever filmed and certainly the most visually stunning (the runner-up would probably be 2007’s There Will Be Blood, which was strongly influenced by this film).

It tells the story of three gold prospectors who go off into the wilds of the Sierra Madre Occidental range in search of the prosperity that has eluded them all their lives. One of them confidently declares repeatedly that gold will not absolutely, definitely not turn him into a greedy, murderous madman, only to immediately turn into one almost before they even find any.

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Try to guess which one.

That ragtag trio of ne’er-do-wells are Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs, Tim Holt as Bob Curtin, and director John Huston’s father Walter (remember him from Dodsworth?) as a wizened, sagely prospector known only as Howard. Dobbs and Curtin are decent men who have fallen on hard times, and when they hear Howard’s tales of gold lying about waiting for them, they ignore his warnings of its malicious effect on the soul and strike out to make good.

Howard, of course, knows better, and Walter Huston is absolutely brilliant. He portrays Howard as old and wise, but his wisdom has come at a great cost, one only hinted at in his dialogue and actions. He is confident that the enterprise will end bloody, having seen it all before–perhaps even been driven to madness himself. Nevertheless he takes Dobbs and Curtin under his wing, resigned to his fate, but spurred on by a glimmer of hope that his cynicism will be proven wrong. And maybe, it’s because he sees Dobbs and Curtin as two sides of his younger, ambitious self. It’s a wonderful performance that justly trounced the competition for Best Supporting Actor.

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He’s just lucky Hedy Hedley Lamarr wasn’t in the running that year.

As I said, the greed sets in almost immediately after they find the gold, for the compelling narrative reason that filming on location in Mexico was really, really expensive. I’ve read a few analyses of the film, most of which conclude that Dobbs was already greedy and ready to go insane (kind of like Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining), but I think this is unfair to the realistic and compelling character created by Bogart and Huston. Dobbs certainly is prideful when the film opens, but Bogart plays him as generally moral and unaffected by materialism, a man of shallow tastes to be sure but only trying, by honest means, to get a little ahead.

A pivotal early scene shows Dobbs and Curtin confronting a swindler who cheated them out of an honest salary. After one of the most realistic barfights in movie history, Dobbs grabs the man’s wallet, stuffed with ill-gotten gains, and promptly takes only what is owed to him and Curtin, throwing the rest back in the man’s battered face. This is consistent with his earlier pledge to Howard that, if he did strike gold, he would take only what he set out to make and not gorge himself, and makes his later descent into madness and murder all the more tragic.

Eventually, of course, Dobbs (or “Dobbsie,” as he liked to be called) is consumed by avarice and meets a bloody end, as must befall all men unlucky enough to be movie antagonists during the Production Code era.

treasure2.png“If this were sixty years later, I’d be caving in your head with a bowling pin.”
“Well, it’s not.”

He ends up beheaded by bandits, the same ones who earlier told him they didn’t have to show him any stinking badges (by the way, the line is often misquoted, most notably in Blazing Saddles, as “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”, when in fact it is, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”). The scene in the film is violent, to be sure, but very tame compared to what Huston wanted to show us (and did, in fact, shoot, though the footage is lost): a shot of Dobbs’ severed head rolling down the hill into the dirty water from which he’d just drank. Shockingly, the censors had a problem with it.

Tim Holt’s quiet turn as Curtin is generally overshadowed by the legendary performances turned in by Huston and Bogart, but he holds his own in every one of his scenes. Howard and Curtin quickly develop a father-son bond, and Curtin soon proves himself the most honorable of the three as he desperately tries to hold the rocky fellowship together, at least long enough to return to Durango in safety. He could easily be seen as the obligatory “good” character, a one-dimensional foil for Dobbs and Howard to react against, but Tim Holt manages to show us a real person who chooses morality, despite fully understanding the temptations to which Dobbs succumbs.

In the end, the gold is lost, and we’re treated to one of the best denouements I’ve seen in this enterprise, as Curtin and Howard share a genuine, emotional, and cathartic laugh about the universe’s dark sense of humor before going their separate ways, as poor as they were at the beginning, but richer in wisdom and friendship.

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I’m not sure I would be so happy to accept this over a lifetime of financial security and knowing where my next meal was coming from, but it’s still a nice moment.

I should also mention the minor character of James Cody, a man who shows up just long enough to bring tension to the film and is swiftly killed by bandits. However, he proves to be the moral center of the whole story, thanks to a letter from his wife the prospectors find on his person after his death. I won’t go into too much detail, as I feel this review is already getting long and I still have Hamlet to cover, so I’ll just say that this letter, read with real emotion by Curtin, in just a few minutes imbues this otherwise forgettable character with a rich, fulfilling life outside the story we’re watching, and makes his death one of the most gut-wrenching I’ve ever seen in a film. He is, simply put, the person that our three protagonists all wish they were, and if only for that moment makes them forget all about their gold.

From a technical standpoint, Treasure was the first American film shot on location in Mexico–with the exception of night scenes and some reshoots, the entire movie was filmed in and around Tampico and Durango, as well as the Sierra Madre range–and, quite simply, it looks gorgeous. Being a psychological drama, however, the film refrains from too many wide shots, preferring instead to emphasize the isolation and entrapment of the characters without too many establishing shots.

Walter Huston finally earned himself an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for his alternately over-the-top and quietly philosophical portrayal of Howard. John Huston, who this year beat out Laurence Olivier for Best Director, would go on to direct his daughter, Anjelica Huston, to a Best Supporting Actress win for Prizzi’s Honor (1985). The Hustons, then, became the first three-generation Oscar family, and John Huston remains the only person to direct two family members to Oscar wins.

However, the real surprise at Oscar night this year came when they opened the envelope for Best Picture and found it went to…

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Full disclosure, I have never read Hamlet nor seen a serious performance of it. Until I watched Laurence Olivier’s version, my experience with what is regarded as one of the finest plays in the English language was: a rather shitty modern-day reboot performed by a local theatre troupe in Dearborn; the comedy stylings of The Reduced Shakespeare Company in London in 2007; a throwaway joke in A Shot in the Dark (1964); and, of course, The Lion King (1994).

The_Lion_King_II-Simba's_Pride_poster.jpgI wanted to write a joke caption about the direct-to-VHS sequel being an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but Wikipedia informed me that that’s actually true.

So, what with that rather embarrassing lack of context, I cannot comment on the many, many criticisms Olivier received from Shakespeare enthusiasts who were mortally offended by how much of the play he cut out to fit it into an acceptable film adaptation. I can only comment on the film per se, and damned if it’s not a perfectly distilled, beautifully photographed, and–of course–exquisitely acted rumination on grief and the human psyche. It was the second sound adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, and the first in English (the previous adaptation, the 1935 Hindi/Urdu film Khoon ka Khoon or Blood for Blood, shockingly failed to win any Oscars).

Olivier excised all of the political subplots and characters from the film and confined all of the action to the dimly-lit, cavernous, and often smoke-filled rooms and turrets of Elsinore Castle. We’re left with, in the words of Olivier’s opening voiceover, “the story of a man who could not make up his mind,” an austere portrait of suspicion, betrayal, and psychological unraveling. In many ways, the story of someone becoming increasingly unsure of what his mind perceives anticipated the paranoid thrillers that would dominate American cinema in the late 60s and early 70s.

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And none of those films was dark enough to have a character rap about mortality with a human skull.

As plots go, the film follows a pretty basic one: Hamlet learns from his father’s ghost that he (his father) was murdered, and that Hamlet must avenge him. Through a cunning combination of feigned-then-real madness and soliloquies, he exacts the requested revenge, but at a greater cost than he anticipated (typical of costs). Along the way, there’s a lot of death, but also a lot of laughter, mostly from Peter Cushing‘s deliciously campy portrayal of Osric.

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“That’s…great, Peter. Do you want to maybe try it with a different costume?”
“…’Costume’?”

Hamlet is started on his quest by the appearance of his father’s ghost, who has the good manners and foresight to appear to other witnesses who can corroborate his existence in the likely event that no one believes Hamlet’s claims. He helpfully tells Hamlet things about his murder that are objectively true, so when Hamlet does go off in search of vengeance, we don’t have much reason to doubt his righteousness. I think it goes a bit deeper than that, though.

Elsinore itself is a character in the film, and as Hamlet wanders its labyrinthian halls, both he and the audience find themselves trapped in its cold, oppressive confines. It’s a giant metaphor for Hamlet’s mind that lends a wonderfully distorted ambiguity to the entire film and leaves one questioning how much of what we see is real. Many of the scene transitions are slow, methodical pans and tilts through the empty halls, gradually becoming more and more frantic as Hamlet’s mental state deteriorates. So in the end, I was left wondering if I had just seen a character avenging his father’s murder, or a quintuple-homicide through the eyes of a deluded maniac driven insane by grief.

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“I’m fine. This is normal.”

Either way, the film was unambiguously praised in two areas: the performances and the direction, both courtesy of Laurence Olivier. As I said when discussing Henry V back in 1946, Olivier had the rare gift of understanding and interpreting the bard both as a director and as an actor, and he manages to keep his production balanced on the delicate tightrope between Shakespearean grandiloquence and sombre realism. Under his meticulous eye, no word is superfluous and every look, gesture, and action is perfectly staged and delivered. And, just as in Henry V, he is simply masterful in his use of the camera as storyteller.


The film would deserve Best Picture for this scene alone.

Of course, as is the case in all of his films that don’t co-star Joan Fontaine, Olivier stands miles above his co-stars and delivers one of his greatest performances in a career that pretty much only includes great performances (though he himself considered John Gielgud to be the century’s greatest Hamlet). Even in the aforementioned graveyard scene, he is so mesmerizing that you don’t even think about how freaking weird it is for a person to pick up a skull and start talking to it.

His Hamlet is brooding, dark, and more than a little dickish, and yet he still has moments–particularly later in the film, as he starts to believe his schemes will succeed–of boyish charm and humor, especially in his interactions with his mother, Gertrude. Their somewhat odd relationship drives the film, as he watches his uncle take the place that he–in true, then-trendy Freudian fashion–thinks of as his. And to make sure audiences got it, Olivier cranked the Oedipal undertones up to eleven by casting the role with Eileen Herlie, who was 11 years younger than he.

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“Hm, cut the bodice a bit lower.” “Um, it’s already pretty l–” “FOR ART.”

For his efforts, Olivier became the first person to direct himself to an acting Oscar–only one other has done it since: Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful (1998)–and Hamlet shocked the pundits by winning the top prize at the 21st Academy Awards. It was the last film to win Best Picture without a screenwriting nomination until The Sound of Music (1965), probably passed over due to the fact that, despite the adaptation that went into trimming it to two-and-a-half hours, the surviving scenes retain the dialogue from Shakespeare pretty much exactly as written. However, he was denied Best Director, which went to John Huston. Much as I just heaped praise on his work on Hamlet, I can’t say I disagree with the Academy’s decision.

So, in a very strong year, did it deserve Best Picture over the likes of The Treasure of the Sierra MadreJohnny Belinda, and The Red Shoes? (The Snake Pit, while great, is not in the same class as these four.) As I said at the beginning of Part I, the Academy’s choices in 1948 were uncommonly consistent in terms of themes and preoccupations, and in comparing the films based on this, and their artistic merit, I would say they got it exactly right. Hamlet is, to my mind, a nearly perfect encapsulation of the trials of isolation and obsession, and Olivier’s innate understanding of the language of film both in front of and behind the camera made it possible.

I happen to agree with all the top choices this year, in fact. John Huston deserved his win for Best Director (and Best Screenplay); he wove a beautiful, humanist tale and brought out three truly remarkable performances. Given Humphrey Bogart’s (inexcusable) absence from the list of Best Actor nominees, Olivier was the only real choice in that category; Jane Wyman’s wordless turn as Belinda MacDonald was captivating; Walter Huston was sublime as the grizzled-yet-tender Howard, again the only just winner in his category; and even though I didn’t cover this film, Claire Trevor was definitely Oscar-worthy in her supporting role in Key Largo (which was also directed by John Huston and starred Humphrey Bogart).

So, the Academy got it all right in 1948, not just in the winners, but in the films they chose to nominate! Not since the 3rd Academy Awards have I said that…and they immediately disappointed me one year later. We’ll see if they can keep it going longer as we move into the 1950s! Stay tuned for the 22nd Academy Awards.