Looking Back at Oscar, #24

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1951:


The African Queen
An American in Paris
The Blue Veil
Bright Victory
Come Fill the Cup
Death of a Salesman
Decision Before Dawn
Detective Story
The Mating Season
A Place in the Sun
Quo Vadis
A Streetcar Named Desire

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 10 of the year post:
The African Queen
A Place in the Sun
A Streetcar Named Desire

Now for the rest! I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1951 Year in Review post, including the following in a full length writeup:
The Blue Veil

An American in Paris
My first viewing of American in Paris was colored by the fact that it had a weak reputation and had still somehow won Best Picture while Singin’ in the Rain had to settle for two lousy nominations, but I tried to put that aside, admiring the production design with grim determination as if to forestall the inevitable (and the sets really are gorgeous throughout). It didn’t work, for I began having doubts from the Strauss number, a series of attempts at ’50s boys club banter married to an exhausting modern twist on opera. But what’s this? Why, it’s Nina Foch! Surely she’ll help things out, and she does with her peculiar brand of friendly surliness. Truly the only actress who resembles, well, a person, rather than an excuse to sing or dance. She also deserves props for totally selling with conviction everything from her annoyance with the Kelly character’s cutesy misogyny to the script’s vague feints towards making her dramatic and unpleasant to be around just because she gets jealous when Kelly flirts. I genuinely got absorbed into the film as she tried to seduce Gene Kelly as he frantically looked away…only for the next scene to be the I Got song. Or, as the French children pronounced it: “……….ahgot!” Dubbing would’ve helped here, or just not centering a number around children. Things get even more exhausting once Leslie Caron, never a great talent and a fairly new discovery here to boot, enters the scene and plays the most generic woman alive. She feels like the woman who Roland Cassard from Umbrellas of Cherbourg should have wound up with. Three more false notes for the road: one, the never-ending ballet at the end is just a bad choice and really feels like something ripped off from The Red Shoes. Musically, it’s nowhere near as fun as the extended dance sequence from a certain film one year later that also starred the same leading man. And secondly, here is a reminder that there was a twenty year age gap between the two leads. Yikes. Finally, there is nothing more annoying than a movie that consistently laughs at its own jokes, and that’s fully on display here, with everyone either smirking their way through every quip or hamming it up for things like the cigarette joke. Perhaps this movie would have been better if “werewolf” had been added to the title? Certainly less corny.

Bright Victory
Forgotten due to its lightweight nature and the fact that all films about racism from that time period are going to look dated (except when they don’t!), Bright Victory is no classic and I can’t say I particularly liked it but it still has several good things going for it. First and foremost is Arthur Kennedy, whose performance as a blind man is not the showiest work and which definitely declines as the film goes along, but his early scenes are a standout. There’s great sketching of a man who is still fundamentally the same before and after he goes blind, but whose personality drives him to react to the situations he gets stuck with because of the war in certain ways. You can definitely tell it’s acting done by a steady straight-laced character actor, but when he gets better at seeing (both literally and metaphorically, this movie is not exactly subtle when it tackles racism) he just feels like he’s doing the minimum job possible. Don’t get me wrong, he looks beautifully restrained compared to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, especially since he doesn’t feel the need to STARE REALLY HARD BECAUSE HE IS BLIND, but it’s definitely the start of this movie that got him the Oscar nomination. The decline in quality is likely because of the weakness of the racism subplot, which is handled with much more grace than several films in far more radical times but still feels tacked on. I have to put the blame on the writers for this one, as Kennedy’s character casually dropping the n-word in front of a fellow blind soldier who happens to be black after he loses his sight as the big “he’s racist” reveal is a bit too thin a justification for my liking and there’s literally no opportunity for Larry Nevins to look like a fleshed out human who’s still a bigot in the earlier scenes. The movie is basically a one person show, with the supporting cast not getting much to do outside of Larry’s mother turning out to be a surprise racist herself. It’s a silly subplot, but it’s handled about as well as it could be when you consider the context of both history and the rest of Bright Victory. Watch The Best Years of Our Lives instead, I say. Much better at handling the return home from war, although I wish it had this movie’s breezy runtime.

Come Fill the Cup
Come Fill the Cup is one of those really unfortunate Academy picks if only for how it becomes a curio to people wasting their lives like me by sheer virtue of a single lousy Supporting Actor nomination that it didn’t deserve and where I’m pretty sure it was forever an also-ran due to how well the other nominees in that category did in terms of nominations that year. James Cagney has never been flatter, with a passionless smirk behind all of his overly sincere, hokey remarks about overcoming his drinking, and growling out demands for booze when he’s drunk. I attribute this simply to how dire and heavy handed the script is, a mix of overly self-serious banalities relating to alcoholism, and trite attempts at humor that probably felt dated even in the 1950s. I suppose there’s some vigor to his physicality, but at what cost? He looks like a ham even in a fairly straight-laced role and sounds even worse. The direction…well, it apparently exists in the form of the camera moving behind some bottles while shrieking, depressing music plays. On that note, the music in this film is some of the crassest, pushiest stuff I’ve ever heard, with a score straight out of a horror film approaching our hero when he describes a hallucination he suffered while under the effects of alcohol. The twist into gangster picture is when the rails really start to come off, a transparent attempt to appeal to both Academy voters and the general public that doesn’t fit with the self-seriousness of the work to boot. As for the one portion of the movie that actually scored with the Oscars, there’s not much to say about Gig Young except that he is exceptionally attractive, and looking at him made the going a little earlier even if his performance only looks good in the context of this slow asphyxiation by interchangeably dull scenes. There’s a whole lot of Alcoholics Anonymous in the crusader’s writing for Come Fill the Cup when it could have used the utter bonkersness of someone like Carrie A. Nation. How this came from the same director of Them!, Gordon Douglas, is absolutely incomprehensible, for there’s nothing to distinguish this piece of work from something like The Lost Weekend except that it’s plenty flatter and the sanctimonious preaching isn’t hid one bit during the near two hour runtime that it doesn’t remotely earn.

Death of a Salesman
My Brief Year in Review piece for Death of a Salesman: A bizarre mix of overly theatrical and interesting subjectivity. March’s performance is an interesting failure but McCarthy/Dunnock pump a little subtlety in, along with the score.

A film that’s more of an interesting experiment in how to adapt plays than anything else, Death of a Salesman has a certain stodginess about it even with a text that still feels ahead of its time (despite the slightly clunky writing), and which messes around throughout with subjectivity and the unreliability of human memory in ways that could’ve been a real risk cinematically if Laslo Benedek wanted to make more of an effort. The Production Code gutted the angry foundation, warping and twisting it into more than a little bit of a smoothed out chunk of safe viewing. No subtlety or style to be found here, really, with one very notable exception in the form of Fredric March, replacing the inevitably hammier original played by Lee J. Cobb in the original. While Cobb would have probably acted the loser of the title even louder (hooray for Joseph McCarthy!), March’s performance is very much keyed to the stage, with the dreaded madman squint and very imposing body language that is simultaneously a bad case of scenery chewing and tightly repressed. He comes across as someone who started at the top of the world but then totally slipped off, and I’m not sure if this is a positive or a negative for the portrayal, although I lean towards the former. The direction doesn’t help, with uninspired camera work and the two sons being fairly forgettable. Mildred Dunnock as the pushover wife is total typecasting (she’s one of the most frail looking women ever) and she doesn’t exactly elevate the role but it works anyway simply because all the character’s worst traits get turned into a character core rather than shoddy writing. Kevin McCarthy is the MVP, although it all hinges on one speech. Despite the fact that everything about this review reads as a discouragement, I do ultimately skew towards recommending Death of a Salesman for how unusual it is. In addition, the score adds to the generally weird vibe of the movie are both absolutely beneficial to what makes it stand out as anything other than any other film that the Academy went for before being forgotten. When you consider what else was a hit for the Academy in Season 24, it’s a little startling to think about how some adaptations of plays, one other from 1951 in particular, can open up the text so well while others just work with what they’re given. This isn’t the only good but uninspiring version of that latter descriptor from that year…

Decision Before Dawn
My Brief Year in Review piece for Decision Before Dawn: Wish the supporting cast was up to Werner’s level-they’re slightly stilted. Nice little ambiguities peppered throughout if buried too deep, with truly grim production design thanks to it being genuine shells of buildings and the like.

The forgotten 1951 Best Picture nominee, which somehow only got that nomination and an editing nod despite having plenty of other commendable aspects (cinematography is stunning), begins with the very matter of fact execution of a spy while the narrator ponders why anyone would want to do such a thing in any war-either you get no appreciation or you are remembered after you are executed by the opposition. Decision Before Dawn takes this idea to even grimmer levels, having a German POW do spy work for the United States in the last days of the war, posing as a medic. Oskar Werner plays the turncoat who gets the job thanks to a friend of his getting executed for making treasonous remarks, and it becomes very clear very quickly, to the point of being stated outright, that he will get nothing out of this task even if he dies for the United States, for everyone believes he will just rejoin Germany and hates him for his nationality. It’s fairly obvious that the Academy went for this movie out of sadness for World War II, with the film being shot on location and looking shockingly realistic for it due to all the buildings being genuine bombed out shells. Most of the extras, actual Germans, talk about how they hate the leaders more than the Americans. I can’t exactly call Decision Before Dawn subtle or particularly enjoyable to watch, but it’s very much just what the doctor ordered at that time, and it holds up remarkably well in some respects. Werner, a real life service member of Germany’s army, has to carry a whole lot of running time but was ignored (likely because of the anti-German sentiments that no doubt still existed), particularly a standout because of the rest of the cast having a certain level of stiltedness. Most interesting about Peter Viertel’s script is the ambiguities layered within it so that we’re never quite sure if our lead is actually turning on the Axis or the Allies. Werner’s performance supports this too, with one scene where he has to choose whether or not to give a superior medication being the most interesting question raised of them all. Sadly, these are few in number and embedded so deep they can be easily missed in favor of the standard espionage plot that the bulk of the movie is dedicated to at its own expense.

Detective Story
My Brief Year in Review piece for Detective Story: It’s well-written but I wish it innovated more, and the two nominated ladies are quite bad. Bendix is the real standout-where are his prizes?

Comparing the many play to movie adaptations from 1951, with Streetcar leading the way forward via the strength of Kazan and Brando as the other examples simply recorded the text on screen with a more genuine looking setting than a bare stage, would be a worthwhile enterprise, if a repetitive one, for how many didn’t try to do anything visual with their storytelling. Detective Story stays cooped up in its police headquarters for the bulk of its running time and lets the cast sweat it out (and over things like a “baby farm grist mill” to boot), with mixed results in all directions. William Wyler’s direction is not his highest point, simply because all his hopes lay pinned on the screenplay (admittedly a good one for slightly wrong reasons). Lee Grant’s shoplifter may have a fun role, especially considering that it was her screen debut, but she herself is too coquettish and hammy, playing her scenes like each of her joints is operated by a separate puppeteer and pulling faces (Wyler, depressingly, lets her get away with it in the final cut via unnecessary reaction shots). Still, I’m happy if it led to Shampoo (although let’s not think about how Nashville could’ve won). Eleanor Parker (who is really not a lead) is a bit of a ham in a different way, but it’s ultimately rather dull since she plays her long suffering wife in a way so breathy as to appear airless. Kirk Douglas goes for the overly sincere approach in his unwarranted moral high ground and is thus quietly loathsome, but it works in a very roundabout, unintentional way (I genuinely have no idea if the hokey, canned nature of some of the lines in this work the way they were intended or if they just make the cast more unlikable unintentionally). The real MVP is William Bendix, who may have gotten typecast throughout his career but pulled it off well. Everyone has seen world weary older cops before but this is about as good as it was ever pulled off, especially since he’s the quietest of the ensemble. It’s the true definition of a supporting role, too-a relief in the modern nature that it appears to be, mostly relative to an ocean of early 1950s stodginess. The broad strokes of this might warrant a remake, but it’s such a product of its time that I don’t see the need for it either.

Mating Season
My Brief Year in Review piece for Mating Season: Mostly just an excuse for Ritter and Tierney to fuck around, but they do it so well even with the idiot plot.

It’s a complete trifle, but what’s wrong with that? The Academy needs to laugh more often. More of an issue for me is that the film’s antics hang entirely on an idiot plot that could’ve been cleared up within literal seconds if Thelma Ritter’s character just explained that no, she wasn’t the cook that Gene Tierney’s character hired for the dinner. But thankfully, she allows things to remain emotionally complicated and we get to just watch Tierney and Ritter being pleasantly silly while John Lund puts up with their shenanigans-he’s a good straight man and it’s a shame his career never really went anywhere. Mitchell Leisen’s entire prerogative as a director was maintaining a light comedic tone, never really aiming for depth, and that’s exactly what you get when watching The Mating Season, for better (it’s great for background watching if you’re that kind of person) or for worse (visually the movie has near nothing going on). While I enjoyed Tierney’s refusal to make her portrayal any brighter and coming across naturally like a bit of a ditzy oddball who would totally just go along with whatever she gets thrown into, Ritter’s obviously the actress to watch this one for. Her strong accent naturally helps her naturalism in everything I’ve seen her in, but whenever she opens her mouth to dispense some unappreciated advice to the newlyweds and their business associates, you know exactly who she is, what she’s been through, just how many hamburgers she’s slaved away cooking on the grill for unpleasant customers, and why she’s dispensing this advice in the first place independent of it being aimed towards her son and daughter in law when they blatantly need it. It’s delightfully snippy stuff, and her casual “I don’t give a fuck” attitude whenever she gets in someone’s way is the icing on the cake, loaded with the fun kind of empty calories. Sadly, her fellow mother to the couple, played by Miriam Hopkins, turns in a performance straight out of a soap opera featuring a snobby British woman with double takes and snarky hand gestures accompanied with bitch faces. You know the stereotypical condescending Englishwoman voice? It’s fully on display here…despite the film taking place in the United States. It works as contrast to Ritter’s strong accent, but enough in this movie already revolves around her, so why not let some of the others shine a bit?

Quo Vadis
I’m admittedly not a huge fan of most “swords and sandals” epics that were so popular once upon a time but I can acknowledge the strengths of something such as Ben Hur (while also acknowledging that the movie needs a major trim job). None of that on display here! From a production standpoint, it’s hard to deny that Quo Vadis is well done epic stuff, but all the colors look the same. Every purple is the same shade of purple, every yellow is the same brand of gold. The cast fits right into this homogeneous universe. Robert Taylor’s career is inexplicable, with his accent not even approaching anything that could be considered…well, none of the accents in this are appropriate and that is fine, but he just sounds so hugely out of place. His I’M ACTING, hideously posturing delivery of hackneyed lines that don’t warrant it in the least certainly doesn’t help matters. Shifting focus to the supporting men, Leo Genn’s nomination is a baffling one. I suppose the Academy genuinely liked the film and appreciated how he was perpetually in the background during all the moments of livelihood, but he’s really just going through the motions with a few clipped deliveries here and there to feed the fire. Far more explicable and secretly delightful is Peter Ustinov as Nero, a gloriously hammy drag queen straight out of a Shakespeare comedy that jolts some life into the proceedings. It’s empty calories, but it is totally airless otherwise so thank goodness they feel good. Who needs Taylor attempting to flirt with a woman who he initially thinks is a slave girl and then tries to practically force into a bed (god do I feel bad for Deborah Kerr in this, what a thankless role for the most talented cast member) when you could have Ustinov in an entirely different sort of movie, one that is delightfully broad and actually fun to watch as the right kind of spectacle. He’s everything I’ll remember about this in the long run, a parody of every ancient Roman in all their hedonism, and luxuriant in his awfulness. Truly the only occasion there’s some variety in all the noise on display, even if it’s so much louder too. Is there anything more exhausting than a film that treats all its characters like they’re some of the greatest ever written when they’re so blatantly not?

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