The 1950s

 

SomeLikeitHot

If you’ve missed the explanation for the FOSCARs, look here.

I’ve already found the best films of the 1930s and 1940s, so time to jump into the 1950s. Again, I’ll be going year by year, and keep any larger thought on the decade until I’ve finished each year.

1950
1951
1952
1953
1954
1955
1956
1957
1958
1959
Top 10


1950

  • Sunset Boulevard

  • All About Eve oscar600
  • Cyrano de Bergerac
  • Harvey FSF2
  • King Solomon’s Mines

 

sunset1Perhaps Hollywood was so bad in 1949 because it was saving for 1950. My FOSCARs, as well as the Oscars, and cinema in general, was on a higher level than the previous year, but if I only look at American films, we’re on a whole different planet. The least of my nominees, Cyrano de Bergerac (my critique here), would have been my top US film in ’49 and would have taken second world-wide. It has a fantastic script, taken from Brian Hooker’s poetic translation of the French play, and it has José Ferrer well deserved Oscar-winning performance as Cyrano. But that’s only enough for 5th place. Then there is Harvey, the comedy fantasy about a man and his giant rabbit friend. It contains Jimmy Stewart’s best performance and is a wonderful adaptation of the play of the same name. And there’s King Solomon’s Mines, the iconic adventure film that has been copied dozens if not hundreds of times. (My review here, along with those of two lesser versions).

But as much as I love those three, 1950 is dominated by two classic films, two films very much alike and very different: Sunset Boulevard (my full critique here) and All About Eve. Both are homages to the entertainment world that also rip it apart. Sunset Boulevard takes on the film world, which it loves and loathes simultaneously, showing how it uses up people. It is a dark twisted comedy that sees life through a fun-house mirror. All About Eve takes on the theater, and while it has its comedic moments, is a drama leaning toward melodrama. The knives are less for what the theater is or does, and more for the kind of person that is required by it. The theater didn’t make Margo or Eve or Addison (the three nastiest character in the film), though it will grind them up. They were predators before and it called to them.

I was never a big Bette Davis fan, however All About Eve is such a perfect fit for her that I can’t help liking her. But I think the film works because she is the focus, but not our entrance. That’s the wonderfully caustic Addison DeWitt played by George Sanders at his most George Sanderish. He’s evil, and I love him, just as I like Davis’s nasty, self-indulgent Margo. Most everyone else I hate, but they are fun to hate. Well, except for a young and breathtaking Marilyn Monroe in one of her early roles. Don’t ever say she couldn’t act. She steals a scene from Davis, Sanders, and Anne Baxter, and that takes real skill. All About Eve pulls me in, but then puts me in DeWitt’s shoes as I judge these people, who deserve to be judged, and it is gleeful in it. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps All About Eve is a comedy after all.

One real difference in the two is the director’s philosophy. Wilder (For Sunset Boulevard) uses every trick in the book to invent his gothic world, while Mankiewicz just plops the camera in place and lets the actors go at it. It works in both cases, but for two films shot so well, they couldn’t be shot more differently.

The Academy didn’t do too bad with its nominations, giving the nod to All About Eve, Sunset Blvd. and King Solomon’s Mines, along with the undeserving Born Yesterday and the positively ludicrous Father of the Bride. Three out of five, and the most important three, isn’t bad. All About Eve won, which is, by Academy standards, a fine outcome.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Billy Wilder {Sunset Blvd.}
Screenplay: Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, D. M. Marshman, Jr.) oscar600
Actor: José Ferrer {Cyrano de Bergerac} oscar600
Actress: Gloria Swanson {Sunset Blvd.}
Supporting Actor: George Sanders {All About Eve} oscar600
Supporting Actress: Josephine Hull {Harvey} oscar600
Cinematography: Sunset Blvd. (John Seitz)
Art Direction: Sunset Blvd. oscar600
FX: Destination Moon oscar600
Makeup: Sunset Blvd.
Choreographer(s): Gene Kelly & Nick Castle {Summer Stock}
Score, Non-Musical Film: All About Eve (Alfred Newman)
Song: Once Upon a Dream {Cinderella}
Musical Routine: Get Happy {Summer Stock}
Animated Short: Rabbit of Seville (Chuck Jones/WB)
Animated Feature: Cinderella
F&SF Feature: Harvey

The Academy and I agreed on 6 categories (out of a possible 12), which is a record. But for all that reasonableness, there was some weirdness at the Oscars and it popped up in the best Actress category. It was a two woman race, in every way, that is, not only in quality, but in sympathy and in how the Academy likes to honor actresses. It was Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson. Davis was at her most Bette Davisish in her most Bette Davisish part in her most Bette Davishish film, and she was so good at it. The Academy loved Bette Davis, having given her two statues before, but she’d run into a string of nominations without a win. This was clearly her finest movie. This would be what she would be remembered for, and she was old enough that it was time for the career highlight award. The fact that she gave a performance worthy of a win is just icing. It was hers.

Except there was Swanson. She also put in a career best performance in a fabulous film. She also was worthy of a win. And she was older. Her career had died out over fifteen years early so this was the comeback of all comebacks. And giving her an Oscar would not only count as her career award, but would be a nod to all the silent stars who’d been cast off.

So by my standards, one of them had it, and I lean toward Swanson, but either would be good. And by Academy standards, one of them had it. So it went to… Judy Holliday, and I don’t get it. Some claim Davis was taken out by a split vote because Anne Baxter (who played Eve) had pushed her way onto the ballot. I don’t buy it as Baxter was no competition for Davis, but if that was the case, then it should have gone to Swanson. Holliday was fine in her role, but nothing special. She did her normal dumb-blonde shtick that worked better in fluffier fare. While it’s hyperbole to say Holliday’s win was the greatest mistake the Academy ever made (which is often said), it was certainly toward the top.

Choreography was not a strong point for the year. Both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire had movies released, but both had had (and would have) far more impressive demonstrations of footwork, but no one else’s films had anything memorable in the dance department. Get Happy wins Routine not on footwork, but on Judy Garland’s singing and costuming.

If I listed nominations for the Categories, the dominance of Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies in Animated Short would be even more obvious. They not only took 1st, but also 2nd with Hillbilly Hare and 3rd with The Scarlet Pumpernickel.

 


1951

  • The African Queen

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • The Lavender Hill Mob
  • The Man in the White Suit
  • Scrooge FSF2
  • Strangers on a Train
  • The Tales of Hoffmann

 

african_queen1951 is notable for its depth. I’ve enlarged my number of FOSCAR nominee to its max of seven and each one of those is above average for noms.

The Brits make a good showing, starting with two Alec Guinness-led, Ealing studios, Post-War British Comedies: The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit. The first is a light heist movie that still manages to say something about living ones best life. The Man in the White Suit is social satire and in most years would win best F&SF, but 1951 also brings the finest version of A Christmas Carol, Scroogeit’s title was switched to that of the story’s for its US release. Alastair Sim—who has my vote as the greatest film comedian of all time—makes the perfect Scrooge (My review). And on top of those there’s The Archers’ The Tales of Hoffmann, a combination of ballet, opera, theater, poetry, architecture & design, and painting, encompassed in the tricks of a motion picture. It’s also beautiful, with the breathtaking colors that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are known for. It also was fighting for that best F&SF designation (My review).

This was the best year of the decade for fantasy films, with yet a fourth film, this time American, in line for the title of best F&SF: The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was made with moderate skill, yet is one of the most effective movies ever made, mixing social commentary with religious allegory (to the point that censors demanded they add a line specifying the spaceman was not Jesus). Its meaning is clear and as relevant today as it was then.

1951 also brings us one of Hitchcock‘s better films, Strangers on a Train. Farley Granger doesn’t sell his part as the good half of a murder bargain, but Robert Walker is one of the screen’s greatest psychopaths. This is Hitchcock at his most joyfully twisted.

Climbing over them all is the WWI-era adventure romance, The African Queen. Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn perfectly jell as two people past their prime, with limited social graces, first while being uncomfortably polite, then fighting, and finally falling in love. Director John Huston and Bogart were on a winning streak, making one great film after another. This is the duo’s third win together.

The Best Picture Oscar race was peculiar once again. All of the FOSCAR nominations were ignored, which was as confounding at the time as it is now; The African Queen was an obvious top nominee. But the race was between A Place in the Sun and An American in Paris, neither of which should have been on the track. A ‘50s movie in the worst way, A Place in the Sun is a turgid melodrama of unlikable people that trudges along, with the only spark being the beauty of a pre-acting Elizabeth Taylor. She’s beautiful and that’s her purpose. Montgomery Clift’s purpose is to mope. Poor Shelly Winters’s purpose is to be so drab no one cares if she lives or dies. The moral question that is the heart of the novel is given short shrift, as the film instead plays up the doomed romance of the pretty people. Yet it was the favorite going into Oscar night. An American in Paris is a nice picture—a second or third rate Gene Kelly musical which is fine to watch but nothing more (My review here).

A distant third in the eyes of the bookies was A Streetcar Named Desire. It was praised for its realistic acting, but time has shown they got that backward. “Method” gave us hyper-realism, a style that can work on stage, as well as in comedies in film (My discussion of method acting in the 1950s). But drama, particularly emotional dramas, need some connection to reality; they cannot be totally intellectual. For Streetcar, the actors simply repeated what they’d done on stage, but their exaggerated style is farcical when the camera brings us close. The Breen office-approved altered-ending eliminates even accepting the film symbolically.

The final two nominations, Decision Before Dawn and Quo Vadis, never had a chance of winning. I’d rank Decision Before Dawn as the best nominee. It’s a mid-level war picture marred by some terrible narration and hammering on the message. It came out of nowhere to get a nomination and disappeared just as quickly. I suspect that its nom had more to do with timing. It was one of the first films to show Germans sympathetically after the war, and it was shot on location in the rubble of Germany so the sort of thing that gets labeled “courageous.” Quo Vadis’s nom was about cash. It cost a lot and made much more. Robert Taylor, never much of an actor, is more than usually terrible and even Deborah Kerr doesn’t come off well, not that anyone could have uttered those lines and sounded human. But the Academy counted big box office in those days so it got a nom.

And the winner was An American in Paris. My guess is that A Streetcar Named Desire drained votes from A Place in the Sun. Since none of them should have won, it doesn’t matter to me. It is remembered as one of the poorer Oscar years.

Category FOSCARs

Director: John Huston {The African Queen}
Screenplay: The Lavender Hill Mob oscar600*
Actor: Humphrey Bogart {The African Queen} oscar600
Actress: Katharine Hepburn {The African Queen}
Supporting Actor: Robert Walker {Strangers on a Train}
Supporting Actress: Jan Sterling (Ace in the Hole)
Cinematography: The African Queen (Jack Cardiff)
Art Direction: The Tales of Hoffmann (Hein Heckroth)
FX: The Day the Earth Stood Still
Makeup: The Tales of Hoffmann
Choreographer: Frederick Ashton {The Tales of Hoffmann}
Score, Non-Musical: The African Queen (Allan Gray)
Song: Silver Bells {The Lemon Drop Kid}
Musical Routine: American Paris Ballet {An American in Paris}
Animated Short: Rabbit Fire (Chuck Jones/WB)
Animated Feature: Alice in Wonderland
F&SF Feature: Scrooge

Huston, Powell, Hitchcock, Wilder, and Lean all had new films. Add Brian Desmond Hurst doing his best work ever (Scrooge) and it is a tight race for Director. The Academy ignored all but Huston, and he didn’t win.

Post-War British Comedies are all about script, so it’s not shocking that The African Queen was edged out by The Lavender Hill Mob. It also won a writing Oscar, but by Oscar rules, that was in ’52.

Humphrey Bogart, Alastair Sim, and Alec Guinness (twice) were all in competition in the Actor category. Sim’s performance is perfect, cruel and funny, and what sells it, sympathetic. It’s tempting to make it a tie between Bogart and Sim, but I go with Bogart 51% of the time, so Bogart gets the prize. Bogart finally got a best actor Oscar. Hepburn should have taken best actress, but the Oscar went to Vivien Leigh for A Streetcar Named Desire.

This is the 4th Category FOSCAR for Jack Cardiff’s cinematography; the others are all on films for The Archers. In 2nd place this year is The Archer’s The Tales of Hoffmann, with Christopher Challis behind the camera.

By the Oscar’s ever-changing-and-never-clear rules on music, Silver Bells was probably ineligible in the song category. It was recorded for The Lemon Drop Kid first, which should make it eligible, but a different version of the song was released on vinyl before the film made it to theaters, but I’m counting it.

Alice in Wonderland is a mid-level Disney feature. It’s only competition was Brazil’s first animated feature, Amazon Symphony, which told multiple stories backed by classical music. It was created by a solitary man, drawing for five years, and has lovely moments, but it is often too juvenile, and one man can’t beat Disney.

 


1952

  • Singin’ in the Rain

  • Alraune FSF2
  • Fanfan la Tulipe
  • The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Scaramouche

 

singinintherain1952 gives us a a competition between two of the finest films ever made, both the very top of their “types.” Singin’ in the Rain is often ranked as the finest musical ever filmed, and The Importance of Being Earnest is the finest pure adaptation of a play. What can I say about Singin’ in the Rain that hasn’t been said hundreds of times before? The songs are great, the dance routines are revolutionary, the characters are engaging, the script is relentlessly funny, the editing is flawless, and the cinematography is creative. The Importance of Being Earnest is even funnier and is such a perfect adaptation of the play that stage versions now seem lacking. (My review here). I give the nod to the musical, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who went the other way.

Coming in a not-so-close third is Scaramouche, one of the great Swashbucklers and a lot of fun (My review). With those three this is looking like one of the great years… And then…that’s it. Three great films, with two of them true masterpieces, but after that there’s nothing else. There are no more 4 star (or 5 star films) in 1952. There are plenty of 3 star ones, but a nominee should be better than just “good.” Luckily, the non-English speaking world had a few 3½ star movies—a bit low, but that’s as good as it got. The first is a French romp, Fanfan la Tulipe. (My review) It was a world-wide crowd-pleaser which has been mainly forgotten. The second is the German Alraune, which also takes the award as best F&SF films in 1952. (My review) It’s more of a 3¼ star film, but that puts it just ahead of the pack.

In the history of Oscars mistakes, this one stands out. Is this the worst Oscar? Well, it’s in the running. The nominees came partly from that pack of 3 star films, and of course they weren’t going to go for a swashbuckler or a very British comedyHigh Noon has aged poorly, with uneven acting, slight characters, and dialog that’s hard to take seriously, but it was a metaphor for the communist witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee at a time when such a metaphor was needed, and without those foreign language films, it would have been on my list. The Quiet Man, a massively flawed if pleasant John Wayne romance, and Moulin Rouge, a mid-level John Huston effort, are worth watching, but not nominating. The final two places were taken by even less deserving pictures: Ivanhoe, which suffers from a horrible performance by lead Robert Taylor and rises only to the level of Saturday afternoon TV, and The Greatest Show on Earth, a bit of silliness that can be enjoyed in a so-bad-it’s-good way. Those slipped in, but not even a nomination for Singin’ In the Rain. What the hell? Even at the time this was seen as a joke and now it is mentioned in every discussion of Oscar errors. Was the undeserved Best Picture win of An American in Paris the previous year at fault? Perhaps the members of the Academy figured they’d recognized Gene Kelly enough. What is clear now is that the best film was ignored.

And things only got worse. High Noon was the best of a weak crop, but John Wayne wasn’t going to have that, and he had power in Hollywood. Wayne sided with McCarthy and his ilk, and put substantial effort into derailing High Noon’s award chances. Well, he had the political clout to harm another film, but not to do that and get the award for The Quiet Man, which would have made his gung-ho political dealings look too self-serving. So, with the best two out of the running, they gave the big award to The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s stupid and meaningless, but Cecil B. DeMille hadn’t won before, and there were no good options.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Stanley Donan/Gene Kelly {Singin’ in the Rain}
Screenplay: The Importance of Being Earnest
Actor: Gene Kelly {Singin’ in the Rain}
Actress: Joan Greenwood {The Importance of Being Earnest}
Supporting Actor: Donald O’Connor {Singin’ in the Rain}
Supporting Actress: Edith Evans {The Importance of Being Earnest}
Cinematography: Singin’ in the Rain
Art Direction: Singin’ in the Rain
FX: The Sound Barrier
Makeup: Moulin Rouge
Choreographer: Gene Kelly {Singin’ in the Rain}
Score, Non-Musical: Ivanhoe (Miklós Rózsa)
Song: Make ’Em Laugh {Singin’ in the Rain}
Musical Routine: Singin’ in the Rain {Singin’ in the Rain}
Animated Feature: The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird
Animated Short: Feed the Kitty (Chuck Jones/WB)
F&SF Feature: Alraune

With such a strong FOSCAR winner, but with little else of quality in the year from Hollywood (and not that much from the rest of the world), Singin’ in the Rain dominates the categories. It’s likely to have won many of the categories even in years with strong challengers, but there simply weren’t any in 1952.

As I have remarked previously, and will again in the future, dancing is part of a performance, which allows Kelly and O’Connor to win their categories over their exclusively foreign competition: Carlo Battisti in Umberto D, Takashi Shimura in Ikiru, and Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, & Miles Malleson all in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Singin’ in the Rain deserved its win in Art Direction (The Oscar—split between B&W and color—went to The Bad and the Beautiful and Moulin Rouge, which weren’t bad picks), though for the decade it isn’t a standout. Its Cinematography win is a matter of having nothing else in the top tier (the Oscar—also split—went to The Bad and the Beautiful and The Quiet Man, both of which are fine).

I came close to skipping Effects and Makeup. These are just the best I could find of an unexciting lot.

This is a weak year for scores. While The Academy did nominate Rózsa’s work on Ivanhoe, they gave the Oscar to High Noon for a score I find un-listenable and that wrenches me out of the drama. But the Academy loved it, also giving the Oscar for song to its cringe-inducing theme Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’ over the un-nominated  Make ’Em Laugh.

Animated Feature was all about France and Russia in ’62, with France coming out on top with a film with an odd history. Paul Grimault and Jacques Prévert began work on The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep in 1948, but ran out of time and money. The producer took the nearly finished film and released it in 1952 against the wishes of the director and writer. He titled the English dub (with the voice of Peter Ustinov) The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird. Grimault acquired the film’s rights in the 1970s, and finished it his way, releasing it in 1980 as The King and the Mockingbird. The ’52 version (though not the ’80 one) is in the public domain and easy to find free online.

Chuck Jones continues his absolute domination of animated shorts. Feed the Kitty is one of the top shorts of all time, and in 2nd place is another of his works that is considered a classic, Rabbit Seasoning.

 


1953

  • Stalag 17

  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
  • Kiss Me, Kate
  • Pickup on South Street
  • Roman Holiday
  • The Wages of Fear
  • The War of the Worlds FSF2

 

Stalag 171953 was a very good year for very good movies, but not so good for masterpieces. I’ve got a solid list of nominees here, but no film that really stands above the rest. ’53 has the weakest top film since 1932. Still, what’s good is very good and the field is deep.

Winning by a nose is Stalag 17, a strange film that only Billy Wilder could make: a dark prisoner-of-war picture where the Nazis are taken quite seriously and yet it bounces into pure comedy, before bouncing back into drama. William Holden plays a cynical hustler who deals with the Germans… And he’s the hero. Wilder and Holden won three years earlier with Sunset Blvd and Wilder will go on to be the top directors of the ‘50s. He will lose with better films three times in the next four years, but Stalag 17 is an excellent film, and this year the fates were on his side.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the final FOSCAR nom for Howard Hawks. You can spend days analyzing the subtext of this Jane Russell/Marilyn Monroe musical, which ends with Monroe’s Lorelei Lee giving a defense of gold digging that is impossible to refute. The second musical on my list is Kiss Me Kate, which gives us both the on-stage and behind-stage antics of a production of Taming of the Shrew. If they’d stuck with the onstage parts, this would have won the year, or at least if they hadn’t made some odd changes from the Broadway version (inserting Cole Porter into the movie was interesting…). After Howard Keel’s singing, the standout was young dancer Bob Fosse who choreographed his own routine, marking the beginning of an amazing film career.

Pickup on South Street is a Film Noir that mixes in espionage, and rides on an amazing performance by Richard Widmark (My Review). Roman Holiday is a lovely romantic fairy tale that miscasts Gregory Peck (soft and loving were not skills he had) but nothing matters because Audrey Hepburn lights up the screen. It was her first lead and she became an instant star. The Wages of Fear changes things up. It’s a nihilistic French thriller that begins as an examination of the depths that humans can fall to along with a statement about corporation greed and American influence, and then turns into a nail-biter as four men attempt to drive trucks filled with explosives over rough terrain. It kept me on the edge of my seat for over an hour. The 1977 American remake can and should be skipped. Finally there is The War of the Worlds, which doesn’t separate itself from the other 4-star pics that didn’t make the cut, but I give it a nudge for fulfilling the spot as best F&SF film of the year. The later scenes in the destroyed city are seared into my brain, and I don’t know that anyone has done a better job of designing an alien craft. (My review)

The Academy was all about the sticky melodrama From Here to Eternity. Shock value had a lot to do with it and it was considered quite shocking at the time, but it had been sanitized from the book, and it comes off as prudish now. If you are selling sex, and that’s what they were selling, then you probably should deliver it, or find something else to sell. It’s shot well, though that can’t make up for the ridiculous dialog and silly characters, nor of the cheesy manipulation at the end (a Rambo-with-a-machine-gun moment feels like a parody). It’s a film of its time and that time is gone. If it came out now people would laugh, or yawn. But in a primly proper way it pushed the edges, allowing it to win most of the major awards.

The other best picture nominees were Roman Holiday, Julius Caesar, The Robe, and Shane. So they got one right, and Julius Caesar wasn’t a bad choice. Marlon Brando was miscast as Mark Antony. He drops his standard “method” acting in favor of simply yelling his lines, and is outclassed by John Gielgud, James Mason, and everyone else. Still, it is a nice rendition of the play and without Brando would have made the FOSCAR noms. (My review). The Robe is one in a string of big budget, good looking, but extremely silly Christian epics (remember Quo Vadis? No? Lucky you.) Richard Burton puts in one of his hammier performances, but he does have that voice. It also has Victor Mature, which is never a good idea. The Oscars liked to nominate this kind of religious cotton candy; time has not been kind to this one. And then there is Shane, which has aged worse than either The Robe or From Here to Eternity and is mainly a punchline now. Alan Ladd was a “limited” actor but can’t pull off the very limited role he’s given as the mysterious gunslinger. The annoying child yelling “Shaaane” is even worse to see in the film than it appears in its many parodies (and doesn’t hold a candle to the same scene played properly for comedy in the Batman TV show). The Oscars has had worse years, and worse nominations, but it is hard to fathom how The Robe and Shane made their list while Stalag 17 did not.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Billy Wilder {Stalag 17}
Screenplay: Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, Edwin Blum)
Actor: William Holden {Stalag 17} oscar600
Actress: Audrey Hepburn {Roman Holiday} oscar600
Supporting Actor: John Gielgud {Julius Caesar}
Supporting Actress: Thelma Ritter {Pickup on South Street}
Cinematography: Ugetsu
Art Direction: Julius Caesar oscar600
FX: The War of the Worlds oscar600
Makeup: House of Wax
Choreographer: Michael Kidd {The Band Wagon}
Score, Non-Musical: Julius Caesar (Miklós Rózsa)
Song: That’s Entertainment {The Band Wagon}
Musical Routine: The Girl Hunt {The Band Wagon}
Animated Feature: Peter Pan
Animated Short: Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones/WB)
F&SF Feature: The War of the Worlds

This is Billy Wilder’s 3rd Category win as director, putting him in second place, behind James Whale with 4 wins, and tied with Michael Powell and John Huston. It’s his 4th as a writer, putting him in the lead.

Holden won the Oscar, and I agree, but Oscar and I only match for the top spot. The Academy ignored Richard Widmark, my 2nd place pick, for a career best in Pickup on South Street, as well as James Mason in Julius Caesar. Instead it nominated Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar, which is wrong in every way: It was a weak performance and it is clearly a supporting role.

It took something amazing to beat Ray Harryausen’s stop motion in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but The War of the Worlds has it in special effects (and is in my top 5 for art direction due to the design of the Martian ships). It’s the best winner of this category to date, and it will hold that crown for over a decade.

A Miklós Rózsa score wins for the second year in a row, and in both cases, they are nice scores, but not truly great.

It’s a tight year for Choreographer and Musical Routine. Besides Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing in The Band Wagon, there’s Marilyn Monroe’s iconic Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend (and multiple other routines from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). And both Hermes Pan and Bob Fosse worked on Kiss Me Kate, which produced the energetic From This Moment On dance. Add in Give a Girl a Break (good dance numbers, bad film) and we end up with one of the best cinematic dance years.

The Academy had dropped rewarding dancing years before, but it did give an Oscar for best song, and it managed to completely miss That’s Entertainment. It nominated The Moon is Blue and gave the Oscar to Secret Love (from Calamity Jane) but didn’t nominate When Love Goes Wong (from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) or the now-considered classic That’s Entertainment.

It was a spectacular year for Warners’ animation. Besides Duck Amuck, there was Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, and Duck! Rabbit, Duck!, making this the strongest top 3 of all time. Their second line of shorts, Punch Trunk, Much Ado About Nuttin’, Bully For Bugs and Don’t Give Up the Sheep would be worthy winners in weaker years. None of those 7 received an Oscar nomination. Disney’s edutainment Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom won the Oscar, and is best restricted to classrooms.

 


1954

  • The Belles of St. Trinian’s

  • The Caine Mutiny
  • Dial M for Murder
  • Gojira FSF2
  • Sabrina

 

The_Belles_of_St_Trinians_photoThe best of the year were a diverse lot, with a Brit-com, a romantic comedy, a thriller, a drama, and a Japanese horror film. They also included the two most successful directors of the decade, Billy Wilder  and Alfred Hitchcock, and two films starring Humphrey Bogart. Taking the crown is Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, previously nominated in 1946 for I See a Dark Stranger and in 1950 for The Happiest Days of Your Life. You probably didn’t expect The Belles of St. Trinian’s. It is one of the greatest screen comedies—I find the funniest film ever made—but it has slipped from general memory, particularly in the US. For an explanation of why it deserves its top spot, go to my review here.

Humphrey Bogart’s return to the FOSCARs in The Caine Mutiny comes with one of his finest performances. His Captain Queeg—whose paranoia, and bizarre and dangerous behavior forces his men to mutiny—is one of the screens great villains; he’s loathsome, and yet Bogart turns him around to make him sympathetic. It’s a brilliant piece of acting. He’s ably assisted by José Ferrer and Fred MacMurray. Those are magnificent performances, and the film also has clever dialog, bright dynamic cinematography, and steady directing. So, why didn’t it win? Well, I haven’t mentioned the lead, Robert Francis, or Van Johnson, who is the second major character. They are both fine, but no one remembers them. When I think of the film, I think of Bogart at the trial, or Ferrer castigating the sailors after the trial. Francis and Johnson fade away, which makes this a great film, but not the year’s best.

Missing from many lists is Godzilla, and that’s a mistake. Mainstream critics tend to lump it with the children’s films that came later and few actually watch it. And I am referring to the Japanese film, not the re-edited American cut which spliced in scenes of Raymond Burr explaining the movie. Godzilla is a powerful film about nuclear destruction, looking at it politically, philosophically, and personally in a way that only people who have lived through a nuclear explosion could do. It is given strength by the moving score by Akira Ifukube, which combines driving military motifs with sorrowful choir music. (My review is here) It beats out another water-based monster film to take Best F&SF for the year, one that marks the end of Universal’s classic monsters, The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Hitchock is back with the perfect cozy mystery. Dial M for Murder’s strength is in keeping the story focused and claustrophobic. It has been criticized for its two greatest assets: not opening up the play and being very British. Ray Milland makes a wonderful urbane villain, Grace Kelly is a lovely icy blonde, and John Williams is superb as the inspector. Hitchcock would cast both Kelly and Williams again the following year for a film that will make my nominations.

And my top five conclude with Sabrina, Billy Wilder’s follow-up to his 1953 FOSCAR winning Stalag 17. His lead is Audrey Hepburn as a the chauffeur’s daughter that has a crush on the playboy of the house (William Holden). Bogart plays the older brother who needs to step in when romance threatens to break up a business deal. Hepburn is the flame. She elevated Roman Holiday purely on her innate charisma, and she’s just as blinding here, but now she’s got a lot of help. Much of that comes from Wilder who had a hand on the camera and on the script. But she also has a loosened-up Holden and Bogart being forced to stretch. It isn’t uncommon to hear that Bogart was miscast, but that’s only true if you think the film needed a young pretty boy. It didn’t. There are great performances all around, including from John Williams, as the chauffeur, in his second nominated film of the year. Sabrina is a charming fairy tale.

The Academy’s Best Picture nominations weren’t entirely embarrassing, though included only one FOSCAR nom: The Cain Mutiny. It received 7 Oscar nominations, but lost them all. It also nominated two films in my top 10, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Country Girl. The first is an enjoyable musical with remarkable dance numbers (though it’s beaten for best cinematic musical of the year in my book by White Christmas). More interesting is their nomination of The Country Girl, another in the string of behind the scenes in entertainment dramas that were popular in the 50s. It isn’t up with Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve, but is better than A Star Is Born, which surprisingly, though correctly, wasn’t nominated. Bing Crosby is good as a drunken washed-up singer, and William Holden inhabits the vicious misogynist director who means well, but this is Grace Kelly’s film as the abused wife. The story doesn’t live up to the performances, so its Oscar win in Actress and nom in Actor gives it the right kind of acclaim.

But then the Academy lost it with Three Coins in the Fountain. The Academy is well known for ignoring romantic comedies, so its bizarre that when it does look in that direction, it gets it so wrong. Steeped in 50s gender politics that makes 40s films look wildly progressive, Three Coins in the Fountain is neither funny nor romantic, with flat performances that lack charm across the board (it takes effort to make Clifton Webb this drab). The Academy was right in withholding noms in writing, acting, and directing. Besides best picture, it only received nominations in cinematography and song. How do you give a Best Film Oscar nom to this and ignore Sabrina (which did receive the writing, acting, and directing noms)? Well, time has corrected that as Sabrina is considered a classic and no one remembers Three Coins in the Fountain.

For the Oscar, none of those four mattered as On The Waterfront took Best Picture with ease, along with 7 other statues, and was nominated for 4 others (oddly, Leonard Bernstein’s score lost—the one award I would have handed it from the choices offered). It’s an interesting film—a 108 minute self-justification for bad behavior, complete with the director crowning himself with a halo. It isn’t a great film, but it is…interesting (my critique here).

Category FOSCARs

Director: Billy Wilder {Sabrina}
Screenplay: The Belles of St. Trinian’s (Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat, & Val Valentine)
Actor: Humphrey Bogart {The Caine Mutiny}
Actress: Audrey Hepburn {Sabrina}
Supporting Actor: Fred MacMurray {The Caine Mutiny}
Supporting Actress: Joyce Grenfell {The Belles of St. Trinian’s}
Cinematography: Rear Window (Robert Burks)
Art Direction: Sabrina (Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler)
FX: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  oscar600
Makeup: The Creature From the Black Lagoon (Milicent Patrick)
Choreographer: Michael Kidd {Seven Brides For Seven Brothers}
Score, Non-Musical: Godzilla {Akira Ifukube}
Song: The Man Who Got Away {A Star Is Born}
Musical Routine: House-Raising Dance {Seven Brides for Seven Brothers}
Animated Feature: Animal Farm
Animated Short: Design For Leaving (Robert McKimson/WB)
F&SF Feature: Godzilla

Wilder’s win ties him with James Whale for most awarded director.

Since I mentioned Robert Francis and Van Johnson as the leads in The Caine Mutiny, shouldn’t Bogart be up for Supporting Actor instead of Actor? Perhaps, but he feels like the most important character, and both The Academy (who nominated him, though he didn’t win) and the studio called him the lead, so I’ll go along with them. This is the second time in three years that Alastair Sim loses out to Bogart. This is Bogart’s 8th category win, twice as supporting actor. If Bogart was considered a supporting actor here, he’d take that category from Fred McMurray and Sim would move in as best actor.

The Country Girl was nominated for 7 Oscars, but all anyone can talk about now is Grace Kelly’s Best Actress win over the sympathetic choice of Judy Garland. I’d have voted for Audrey Hepburn, but Kelly didn’t swipe the award from Garland. She’s excellent.

For supporting actor, The Academy did notice The Cain Mutiny, but skipped over both José Ferrer and Fred MacMurray in favor of Tom Tully who played the previous captain of the Cain; he’s fine, but not in the level of MacMurray.

Milicent Patrick’s story has been getting some press in recent years. She deserves it. She designed the creature, but her boss took the credit and fired her.

The silliness with Three Coins in the Fountain continued into the categories with it winning the Oscar for song. OK, so the title song was popular for reasons I can’t fathom, but it was competing against Count Your Blessings from White Christmas and The Man Who Got Away from A Star Is Born. The Man Who Got Away should have won easily, and the passage of time agrees.

Animal Farm is a passable adaptation of the George Orwell book, produced in Britain with funding from the US government, making the already strongly anti-communist theme a little stronger. It’s well made for a non-Disney picture, putting it easy above the only other animated feature of the year, the children’s stop-motion Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy.

 

 


1955

  • Mister Roberts

  • Kiss Me Deadly FSF2
  • Lady and the Tramp
  • The Seven Year Itch
  • To Catch a Thief
  • We’re No Angels

 

misterrobertsI can’t think of another year where the nominations are so close. Mister Roberts is the winner, by a hair, but I haven’t even thought of ranking the others, and I wouldn’t fight with anyone who wanted to swap any of the other 5 for the winner. It’s also a year that collects some of the greats: directors Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Michael Curtiz, and stars Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Basil Rathbone, William Powell, Jimmy Cagney, Henry Fonda, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe. It was also a year of transition away from the Golden Age. Curtiz, Bogart, Rathbone, Cagney, and Powell will not appear again in the FOSCARs. Grant will, but his time as a superstar was (slowly) fading.

The dramedy Mister Roberts contains Henry Fonda’s best work. Fonda had mastered the part of the officer on a cargo ship who felt the war was passing him by while starring in the stage play. John Ford helped translate the play to the screen, but did a bit too much translating and was rightfully sacked (drunkenness and picking fights with Cagney didn’t help—word of advice, don’t pick fights with Cagney; he was as tough as his characters), with Mervyn LeRoy taking over the production. The result is funny, tragic, and moving. Fonda is the heart to the picture, with William Powell supplying stability while Jimmy Cagney and Jack Lemmon bring comedy, and the three are nearly (or perhaps not just nearly) the equal of Fonda.

Kiss me Deadly is the darkest film of the lot, and the end of the original Film Noir cycle; once you’ve made Kiss Me Deadly, it is hard to go on. If you haven’t seen it, then you haven’t understood either Repo Man or Pulp Fiction. (My full review here). Lady and the Tramp is the gem of Disney animation’s grayer years, between the Golden Age (ending in ’42) and the Disney Renaissance (1989): pleasant songs, identifiable characters, beautiful animation.

The Seven Year Itch is writer/director Billy Wilder’s fifth nominated film in the decade. It won’t be his last. Everyone knows the image of Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway grate but a lot of people don’t know where it comes from. Monroe is captivating, the dialog is consistently funny while having more meaning than most would like to admit, and character actor Tom Ewell nails his one real lead as the everyman schlub.

To Catch a Thief is my third favorite Hitchcock feature. It’s an action romp with Hitchcock’s best leading man, Cary Grant, and Gracy Kelly, who is in the running for his best icy blonde. It gets talked about less than it did forty years ago compared to other Hitchcock films, primarily because it isn’t as dark as his other works around this time, and critics and uber-fans flock to the self-serious.

Lastly (but only alphabetically) there’s We’re No Angels, a lesser known Christmas classic where three escaped convicts help a family in ways only killers and thieves could. Curtiz weaves an interesting tale, filled with comments of murder and cruelty (“We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re gonna do – beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes.”), and a little of both, yet giving the whole thing a wholesome feeling. Managing that trick is why Curtiz was the finest studio director. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray are the crooks, Leo G. Carroll is the father of the family in need of help, and Basil Rathbone is the evil cousin. Bogart didn’t get a chance to do much comedy and it’s a real shame.

The Academy nominated the low-budget, character-driven Marty, the stage play-based Picnic, Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, the massively fictionalized account of a bi-racial love affair, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, and Mister Roberts. I’ll give them credit for noticing Mister Roberts, but it didn’t win when it clearly should have.

Their choice wasn’t so good with Picnic. Some films say “theatrical play” in a good way. Some not. This is one of the “nots.” The dialog is contrived and mostly exposition, with people talking to make up for the lack of visual storytelling. “Why yes, it is hot, thank you for specifically mentioning it.” The characters lack depth beyond their single purpose, everyone overacts, and while there are multiple locations it is clear that a single set would have been fine. William Holden, with his out-of-place shaved chest, is wildly too old for the lead—he needs to be 15 years younger. This is a story about a youth and he is clearly a middle-aged man. A film so focused on hopelessness, emptiness, and repressed sexuality should be either more realistic, or more extreme.

The Rose Tattoo’s problems start with the play. It’s not considered one of Tennessee Williams’s better works and he didn’t improve on it with his screenplay. He seems to show no understanding of grief or of youth (Hollywood was struggling with depictions of teens in the mid ‘50s). The film has odd tonal shifts. Mostly it is in deadly earnest, but Burt Lancaster plays it for goofy comedy. Like Picnic, everyone overacts and exposition is the rule.

But both of those were brilliant choices compared to Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, produced as a response to From Here to Eternity (complete with beach love-scene). How did this garbage get a nomination? Was it just because the song was popular? The very White Jennifer Jones plays a half-Chinese doctor (with eye prosthetics occasionally showing up and occasionally not because she found them uncomfortable), and that’s the best thing they do with race. It would be embarrassing on that front if it wasn’t embarrassing on so many others. Jones and co-star William Holden (in his second subpar film of the year) hated each other and it shows. It isn’t that they lack chemistry, but that they have antithetical chemistry. They’d have been more natural stabbing each other than kissing. Holden earned his paycheck by forcing out the ridiculous dialog; Jones looks pleasant in the high fashion outfits her character could never have afforded, and that’s as good as the film gets.

The award went to Marty. It was based on a TV movie and feels like a TV movie. It’s the story of an ugly, bland, lonely butcher who meets an unattractive, uninteresting teacher, except of course he’s more average than ugly and she’s reasonably attractive, but the film insists that they are hideous. Well, they weren’t as beautiful or made up as stars normally are, and 1950s America, particularly critics, jumped at that: “Hey, unattractive people can find love too!” Which is nice, I guess. Earnest Borgnine does a nice job in the lead. The directing is nice. And the dialog is…nice. The cinematography is less than nice, but this was a cheap film. So, nice. Not award worthy, but nice. Compared to Mister Roberts or To Catch a Thief or any of the other FOSCAR noms, this win was pretty silly and few now give it much credence, but the film is nice.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Alfred Hitchcock {To Catch a Thief}
Screenplay: We’re No Angels
Actor: Henry Fonda {Mister Roberts}
Actress: Marilyn Monroe {The Seven Year Itch}
Supporting Actor: Jack Lemmon {Mister Roberts} oscar600
Supporting Actress: Mildred Natwick {The Trouble with Harry}
Cinematography: To Catch a Thief (Robert Burks) oscar600
Art Direction: Smiles of a Summer Night
FX: This Island Earth
Choreographer(s): Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly {It’s Always Fair Weather}
Score, Non-Musical: The Man With The Golden Arm (Elmer Burnstein)
Song: He’s a Tramp {Lady and the Tramp}
Musical Routine: The Binge {It’s Always Fair Weather}
Animated Feature: Lady and the Tramp
Animated Short: One Froggy Evening (Chuck Jones/WB)
F&SF Feature: Kiss Me Deadly

The year is filled with good direction, though with nothing world-shattering. Hitchcock, Wilder, and Curtiz, as well as John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock), Otto Preminger (The Man with the Golden Arm), and Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter) are all in control of their films, displaying great skill, but all have been better, except Laughton who never directed again.

In a year with the acclaimed screenplay for Mister Roberts and yet another script written by Billy Wilder (my pick for top screenwriter of all time), I give top honors to We’re No Angels. The script is well structured and extremely funny, and a huge step up for screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, so a good portion of the credit goes to Albert Husson who wrote the French play, and Samuel and Bella Spewack who composed an English stage version. The Spewacks are not credited in the film, I suspect for financial reasons; having read the play, I’d say they should have been.

The Academy snubbed Henry Fonda—not even a nomination—and they would do it again in a few years (a move no one understands now and is why Fonda got an “oops” Oscar in 1982). In ’55, Fonda clearly stands above the rest. I enjoyed Bogart and Grant (both of whom make my top 5) and Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine, and Spencer Tracy (all of whom received Oscar noms), but this was Fonda’s year and as is so often the case, The Academy blew it. At least they acknowledged Jack Lemmon with the Supporting Actor award.

The only real choices in special effects are This Island Earth and It Came from Beneath the Sea. It’s tempting to give the award to anything Ray Harryhausen worked on, and the hexopus is nicely done, but overall the effects in It Came from Beneath the Sea look a bit too cheap. The Academy gave their award to The Bridges at Toko-Ri (from 1954) and nominated The Damn Busters and The Rains of Ranchipur. The Damn Busters is a good movie, but the effects are its weakest element, while The Rains of Ranchipur is a terrible film, a step down in every way from the earlier version of the story, 1939’s The Rains Came, including in special effects.

I simply couldn’t find anything worthy of a makeup FOSCAR.

This is a reasonably good year for Song, with Something’s Gotta Give (Daddy Long Legs), The Michigan Rag (One Froggy Evening), Unchained Melody (Unchained), and everything from Lady and the Tramp.

One Froggy Evening is one of the greatest animated shorts and The Academy ignored it, instead choosing a Speedy Gonzales cartoon. This continued blindness of the Oscar folks toward Chuck Jones is hard to fathom.

 


1956

  • The Ladykillers

  • The Green Man
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers FSF2
  • Richard III
  • The Ten Commandments

 

ladykillers1It’s a repeat of 1949, with Britain dominating, taking three of the slots, including the top two. Hollywood was a tier lower. It produced some good musicals, dramas, and romances, but little that can be called great. The best is the loud, brash, and thoroughly silly The Ten Commandments. It’s a film that functions on bluster and charisma, and it had plenty of both. It’s lavish and bright, and it defined “epic” for several generations. (My Review here) Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the polar opposite. It is tight, claustrophobic, and one of the top cold war science fiction films.  (My Full Critique)

Richard III is the best of Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations. As is always the case with him, Olivier was a bit too respectful to the play, but his rendition of Richard, particularly in the first half, is extraordinary.

The standout British films (or I could just say “films” and leave out “British”), are the two Post-War British Comedies. The Green Man, coming from the farcical/satiric wing of the movement, sees the return to the FOSCARs of the writing/directing/producing team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, along with actor Alastair Sim. That collaboration won the FOSCAR in 1954 with the The Belles of St. Trinian’s and earned a nomination in 1950 for The Happiest Days of Your Life. Launder & Gilliat’s film I See a Dark Stranger (1946) was also nominated, while the Alastair Sim Scrooge was nominated in 1951. The Green Man is a great comedy with another top performance by Sim. (My Review)

That winning film is The Ladykillers. It comes from the Ealing branch of the movement. It is the 4th nomination for an Ealing/Guinness comedy (Kind Hearts and Coronets in 1949, and both The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit in 1951) and the second win after ’49. It’s clever, funny, beautifully filmed and perfectly cast. (My Review) The Academy only thought to nominate its script. At least the BAFTAs nominated it for best picture as well as giving it the award for script and also for Best Actress for Katie Johnson.

[Note: Both The Ladykillers and Richard III premiered in December ’55, but didn’t get going until ’56 and I’ll go with the Academy in placing them in ’56.]

This year is often noted as one of the worst for the Oscars, giving Best Picture to Around the World in 80 Days, but I find that view overstates matters. No, it isn’t a worthy award winner, but then many Oscar winners are not, and it is better than Cavelcade, Cimarron, The Great Ziegfeld, The Life of Emile Zola, The Greatest Show on Earth, and nearly two dozen winners yet to come. It isn’t a bad film; it just isn’t a very good film. It’s bright and flashy and everyone does their job. Think of it less as art, and more as a few hours at the amusement park, and you’ve got the right mindset. Well, if the movie isn’t terrible, then to be one of the worst Oscar years, it needs to be because another film that should have won was passed over. But that isn’t the case either. The problem is that Hollywood didn’t produce a film to take the crown. The Academy wasn’t going to honor a British comedy, nor a science fiction film. And while Richard III is an excellent film, I place it as 5th for the year. The only American film that stood a chance was The Ten Commandments, which was nominated, but it is the same sort of film as Around the World in 80 Days; that is, it is silly and loud and spectacular, but filled with empty calories. It just happens to be better, with a magnificent score that should have won the Oscar, and the same kind of ridiculous performances, turned up one more notch. So while The Ten Commandments should have won that competition, it is hardly a major miscarriage of justice that it didn’t.

The other three nominees are even weaker than Around the World in 80 Days. The King and I is the one that perplexes me as it is the sort of thing the Academy likes. It has some catchy songs, and the art direction and costumes are lush and beautiful, although the camera work reminds me a TV sitcom (hey, there’s more than one side to a room), the editing is lazy, the dialog is neither believable nor witty, and the acting is stilted. Yul Brynner gives a better performance the same year in the un-nominated Anastasia. As the Academy is a professional organization, maybe the horrible camera work, or lack of camera work, was enough to sink it. It was enough for me. Giant is shot like an epic, but plays out sometimes as a melodrama, sometimes as a message picture, but all the time as a boring slog. Rock Hudson is out of his depth, Elizabeth Taylor only seems skilled when compared to Hudson, and James Dean is…James Dean. And then there’s Friendly Persuasion, a civil war costume flick focusing on those zany quakers. After 10 minutes of “dos’t” and “thee,” and wacky music and hijinks, we’re all set for a pretty silly comedy. To bad it is supposed to be a serious moral treatise. Gary Cooper plays Gary Cooper, as he often did, without concern for his supposed character. The frivolous and overly happy bits work for a comedy, but destroy the tension of the drama and the self-serious sections kill the humor. It isn’t a bad film, just a confused one, but what can one expect from a film with nice Confederate marauders.

So a bad Oscar year? Yes, about like all the others.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Alexander MacKendrick {The Ladykillers}
Screenplay: The Ladykillers (William Rose)
Actor: Alec Guinness {The Ladykillers}
Actress: Ingrid Bergman {Anastasia}
Supporting Actor: Alastair Sim {The Green Man}
Supporting Actress: Katie Johnson {The Ladykillers}
Cinematography: The Ten Commandments
Art Direction: The Ten Commandments (Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler)
FX: The Ten Commandments
Makeup: The Ten Commandments
Choreographer: Gene Kelly {Invitation to the Dance}
Score, Non-Musical Film: Elmer Bernstein {The Ten Commandments}
Song: Who Wants to be a Millionaire {High Society}
Musical Routine: Ring Around The Rosy {Invitation to the Dance}
Animated Feature: The Twelve Months
Animated Short: Three Little Bops (Fritz Freleng/WB)
F&SF Feature: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

This is a tricky year when looking at Best Actor as I hate having to compare Alastair Sim to Alec Guinness, so I took the easy out and declared Sim a supporting actor as George Cole has a few more lines in The Green Man. Best Actress is similarly difficult; at first I put the two standout performances of the year in the same category, but I’ve seen Katie Johnson listed as a supporting actress, and there is a good enough argument for that view for me take it.

Invitation to the Dance was Kelly’s labor of love, that scared MGM management and they were correct as it lost a lot of money. That’s unfortunate as it is very good, just slipping out of my FOSCAR best picture noms. It’s an anthology film of three stories told through dance. Ring Around The Rosy follows a bracelet as it’s passed around. Since that can be interpreted as one routine, or a group of routines tied together, I’ve awarded the whole segment, but if pushed it would be the Streetwalker sub-segment that would get the prize.

It was a great year for musical scores, with The Ten Commandments just edging out Richard III (William Walton). It was not such a great year for Song as nothing deserves the award; I’ve chosen Who Wants to be a Millionaire to signify the best of what was available instead of noting something great.

The Twelve Months is a Soviet fairy tale. It’s very attractive. The only other animated feature of the year was a stop motion picture, also made in Russia.

For years the Academy was obsessed with Tom & Jerry. Now it was UPA, nominating 3 mediocre animated shorts from that studio (and nothing else) for the year, and giving the award to a Mister Magoo cartoon for the second time in three years. At least they weren’t ignoring an all time WB classic as they had the previous year, but while it was the weakest year for Looney Tunes of the decade, they still had three that clearly topped anything from UPA: the winner, Rocket Squad, and Broomstick Bunny.

 


1957

  • The Seventh Seal FSF2

  • 12 Angry Men
  • A Face in the Crowd
  • Sweet Smell of Success
  • Witness for the Prosecution

 

seventh-seal-chessHollywood bounces back in a big way, with multiple films deserving the win, and yet the crown goes The Seventh Seal. Four films all that could have easily won in other years, but few films can stand up to Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece. Bergman is known as one of the greatest all-time film directors, and this is it; this is the culmination of his skill, his pain, and his investigation of life. It is cruel and brilliant and hypnotic, and somehow fun to watch. (My review here)

The American films are heavy on theme and few films say more or say it better. 12 Angry Men was Sidney Lumet’s first film, and ranks as one of the best débuts. It’s a courtroom drama that sticks to the jury room, examining the rights of men, the problems with men judging men, and both racial and social prejudice. The performances are wonderful, particularly from Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, so good in fact that it is easy to overlook the cinematography that tells the story as well as the script. Everyone knows it is an important film, with a strong message. Sometimes people forget that it is an exceptionally good film that is also entertaining.

Sweet Smell of Success also has a message, and has a darker view of humanity. It is a harsh Film Noir, also with great performances and dialog. (My review here)

Elia Kazan was a message director with a hand often too heavy and he could be self-serving. With A Face in the Crowd he managed to deliver his message with the proper amount of entertainment and skill without making it about himself. Looking at how this film sidesteps Kazan’s normal problems (and the few times it doesn’t manage it) it’s clear his solution was Andy Griffith. Most people remember Griffith as the good, wise, and controlled TV sheriff. Here’s he’s a sly populist demagogue on his way to becoming a despot and he’s a joy to watch as he sinks into evil, and how mass media makes that evil so much easier. This is how fascism is born. It was pure foolishness that Griffith wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. I place this as a companion piece to Network.

And finally there’s Witness for the Prosecution, yet another Billy Wilder film, solidifying him as THE director of the 1950s. It’s also a courtroom drama, but of a lighter sort where mystery is more important than meaning. It’s based on an Agatha Christie story and once again, Wilder has a hand in the script. And like its three American siblings, is filled with award-worthy acting, this time from Charles Laughton, John Williams, Elsa Lanchester, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power. It’s the seventh time a film helmed by Wilder has been nominated.

The Academy missed some obvious choices, both from the FOSCAR nominees (A Face in the Crowd and Sweet Smell of Success; The Seventh Seal wasn’t eligible till ’59, which is when they ignored it) and a few that didn’t quite make my list, such as Silk Stockings and The Enemy Below. Snubbing Sweet Smell of Success is considered a major blunder now, but not then. The Oscars care about box office and it wasn’t a hit.

It did nomination both 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution, but then things slip. In place of the many great options, the Academy chose Sayonara, one of the multiple ill-conceived “interracial love stories in the mysterious orient” that ‘50s Hollywood seemed to love. It also had Brando, who had already started to fall into eccentricity; he insisted, against the better judgment of the director and producers, to speak in a false-sounding Southern accent. And if that choice wasn’t bad enough, they gave a nom to Peyton Place, a trashy soap opera of no artistic merit and without even the lurid aspect it would need to be interesting in any other way. Their final choice, and winner, was no surprise: The Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s certainly a good film, though overrated. It’s pulled down by poor pacing and an unrealistic take on WWII POWS (many of whom found the film insulting—really, watch how the POWs behave and then think about what real POWs would feel about it), and falls apart at the end where it destroys Guinness’s character by tossing the book’s ending and making him suddenly realize his folly, which pretty much kills the point of the entire film. It is very well made, and not a terrible choice by Academy standards, but in a year with so many flawless films, it was the wrong choice.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Ingmar Bergman {The Seventh Seal}
Screenplay: Sweet Smell of Success (Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman)
Actor: Andy Griffith {A Face in the Crowd}
Actress: Joanne Woodward {The Three Faces of Eve}
Supporting Actor: Gunnar Björnstrand {The Seventh Seal}
Supporting Actress: Elsa Lanchester {Witness for the Prosecution}
Cinematography: The Seventh Seal
Art Direction:The Seventh Seal
FX: 20 Million Miles to Earth
Makeup: The Seventh Seal
Choreographer: Eugene Loring {Silk Stockings}
Score, Non-Musical Film: {Sweet Smell of Success (Elmer Bernstein)
Song: You’re Just Too, Too {Les Girls}
Musical Routine: The Red Blues {Silk Stockings}
Animated Feature: The Snow Queen {aka Snezhnaya koroleva}
Animated Short: What’s Opera, Doc? (Chuck Jones/WB)
F&SF Feature: The Seventh Seal

This is a fiercely competitive year for actors, one of the best ever, enough so that I’ll list my runners up:

Actor:

  • Tony Curtis (Sweet Smell of Success)
  • Charles Laughton {Witness for the Prosecution}
  • Henry Fonda {12 Angry Men}
  • Max Von Sydow {The Seventh Seal}
  • Alec Guinness {The Bridge on the River Kwai}

Supporting Actor:

  • Burt Lancaster {Sweet Smell of Success}
  • Tyrone Power {Witness for the Prosecution}
  • Lee J. Cobb {12 Angry Men}
  • Sessue Hayakawa {The Bridge on the River Kwai}

The Academy made some understandable choices for Best Actor, nominating Laughton and Guinness. What is unfathomable is it snubbed Fonda. The snubs for Griffith and Curtis were foolish, but not as confounding. Fonda is the kind of nominee they like, and he had a very showy role in a very good film. I rank him 4th, which in this year means something.

In one of the best years ever for film, it isn’t surprising that it ends up as one of the best years ever for actors. However it is surprising how relatively weak the Actress categories are. All the top films are male-dominated, with only A Face in the Crowd having a major female role.

It was a good year for dance performances, as expected when both Astaire and Kelly have films out, though neither is in my top routine; it’s Cyd Charisse, who costars with Astaire, who has the best dancing moment of the year.

I debated Visual and special Effects, choosing between two different kinds of FX in two very different kinds of movies: The Bridge on the River Kwai and 20 Million Miles to Earth. For the first, it’s all about the bridge explosion, and it’s nicely done. But it’s that moment against all of Ray Harryhousen’s work in 20 Million Miles to Earth and Harryhousen’s is more impressive.

What’s Opera, Doc? Is my choice for the pinnacle of animation. It has Elmer hunting Bugs, in full Wagnerian opera-mode, and Wagner has never been better. I can’t choose what works best: the opera(s) parody, the wild gags, or Elmer’s sadness when he finally gets what he’s always wanted. This is perfection. The Academy didn’t even nominate it, instead choosing a good, but much lesser Tweety and Sylvester cartoon.

 


1958

  • A Night to Remember

  • The Ballad of Narayama
  • The Fly FSF2
  • Ice Cold in Alex
  • Vertigo

 

nighttorememberThe inconsistency of the 1950s continues with a huge drop from 1957, giving us the weakest year so far for the FOSCAR. 1958 takes the title of Worst Cinematic Year away from 1932, with not only the weakest winner, but the weakest set of nominees, several of which do not hit the basic qualifications I have for a nominee, but there’s nothing to take their places. These are good films, with a few great ones, but I like to see masterpieces in these slots, and there are none to be found. And once again, Britain saves the year, if to a lesser extent. This is the 3rd British winner of the 1950s, and 5th in the last eleven years.

A Night to Remember is a very British look at the sinking of the Titanic, done without hysteria or added romances. It’s calm, and without false theatrics, manages to be far more emotional and engaging than any other version. Cameron’s 1997 Titanic was directly based on this film, with scenes, lines, and characters lifted from it, but he couldn’t manage to equal it. A Night to Remember is tragic and believable and uplifting.

Ice Cold in Alex comes in second place, and the only other film I’m comfortable being on this list. An unreliable, alcoholic officer, his loyal sergeant major, a competent nurse and a panicked one, along with a suspicious South African captain they pick up, make a dangerous trip across the desert in an ambulance. Damn, this was a surprise. I hadn’t seen this until I started my FOSCAR project, and here is was, one of the great war films. Ice Cold in Alex doesn’t look at the grand scale of war, but of the struggles of a few people. It is tense and exciting and moving, with top notch performances by John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Harry Andrews, and Anthony Quayle. Director J. Lee Thompson and Anthony Quayle would work together a few years later in the more popular The Guns of Navarone, but this is the far superior film.

The Ballad of Narayama is yet another non-Hollywood nomination. In vivid colors and kabuki theater style, it tells the story of a village where the elderly are sent to die on a mountain side. The themes here, on treatment of the aged, family structures, the place of women in society, and Japanese traditions are too heavy for a realistic portrayal, but it all works when removed an extra step from reality.

Then there’s The Fly, the top F&SF film of the year. It is less of a creature film than most remember, and has become a part of pop culture. (My review). Which leaves Vertigo, which no doubt some will think I should have rated higher—but then the Oscars paid less attention to it than I did. Jimmy Stewart overacts and is miscast (Hitchcock blamed Stewart for the box office failure, and rightly so) and the early exposition scene is clunky (explaining to us what acrophobia is, relationships, and that he’s quit the force even though the characters clearly would not be having the conversation at this time), but Kim Novak is solid (even if Hitchcock thought she was wrong for the part) and the colors sell the story. It’s Hitchcock finest use of color. The actors—and characters—can’t express the obsession the film wants to wallow in, but the cinematography can. Vertigo was pulled out of circulation for thirty years, so later critics tend to overrate it, but it is still good enough to rank in the top five of the year.

The Academy nominated Auntie Mame, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, Gigi, and Separate Tables.

Auntie Mame is a fine film. Not a great film, but fine. Its one true asset is Rosalind Russell, who’s very good, but has many better performances. It never had a chance of winning, nor should it have. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, on the other hand, was made to win Oscars, and it could have been one of the truly great films, but it was neutered due to the production code to the point that Tennessee Williams (author of the play) suggested it be skipped. It needs the excised homosexual subplot re-inserted, and a re-edit of the first third. What it does have is strong writing in the third act, and incredible acting. Elizabeth Taylor is stunning, Burl Ives is powerful, and Paul Newman manages—eventually—to overcome his nonsensical character (if he isn’t gay, what the hell is he doing?). Unlike Williams, I don’t say to skip it, but it isn’t what it should have been.

The Defiant Ones is the first of Stanley Kramer’s socially conscious message pictures and its importance cannot be underrated. It made a strong statement on racism, accelerated Sidney Poitier rise to superstardom, transformed Tony Curtis’s career, and had a major part in destroying the black list. It’s also shot well and is well remembered for its acting, though Theodore Bikel as the good-natured sheriff hunting the two shackled escaped convicts isn’t discussed as much as the leads, and he should be. But the theme overwhelms the picture, tossing us into the stage play arena as people talk and talk and talk. There are few conversations but there are a lot of speeches. Character is also thrown out the window when it gets in the way of the message, making all the major players, including a lonely abandoned wife they run into, act in ways that do not follow from anything we’ve seen or from human behavior. That leaves The Defiant One as a good and meaningful film, but not a great one.

Gigi is a vividly filmed musical. The songs are nice, the singing is non-offensive, the story is amusing, and you can see the money lavished on the production in ever frame. The result is quite pleasant, but not first rate. Finally Separate Tables is a stagy soap opera. It isn’t bad, and except for Bert Lancaster’s insistence on yelling, the acting is quite good. It feels like one of those star-studded disaster films of the ‘70s, minus the disaster. It needs a burning building or an airplane with a bomb onboard.

With Oscar-bait like Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones, it is bizarre now to think that they gave the award to Gigi, but these were times when colorful musicals were the tent pole films (instead of sci-fi epics) and they were respected as well. The double shot was enough to put it over the top.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Roy Ward Baker {A Night to Remember}
Screenplay: Ice Cold in Alex
Actor: John Mills {Ice Cold in Alex}
Actress: Elizabeth Taylor {Cat On a Hot Tin Roof}
Supporting Actor: Burl Ives {Cat On a Hot Tin Roof}
Supporting Actress: Elsa Lanchester {Bell Book and Candle}
Cinematography: Vertigo (Robert Burks)
Art Direction: The Ballad of Narayama
Choreographer: Bob Fosse {Damn Yankees}
Makeup: Vertigo
FX: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
Score, Non-Musical Film: Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann)
Song: Thank Heaven for Little Girls {Gigi}
Musical Routine: Who’s Got the pain {Damn Yankees}
Animated Short: Robin Hood Daffy (Chuck Jones/WB)
Animated Feature: Hakuja Den aka Panda and the Magic Serpent
F&SF Feature: The Fly

The Academy completely ignored Ice Cold in Alex (though the BAFTAs gave it four awards), and leaned heavily into career awards for actors who should have won other years: David Niven in Actor and Wendy Hiller in Supporting Actress, both in Separate Tables. Burl Ives did win the Oscar, but for the wrong film: The Big Country. It’s two years in a row for Lanchester as Best Supporting Actress, though this year the competition was light.

By my rules, the Art Direction FOSCAR is for a feature, otherwise, it would have gone to Chuck Jones’s amazing station for Marvin the Martian in Hare-Way to the Stars.

Hakuja Den, the first color anime feature, is more important than good, but it had little competition. If you are a fan of anime, it is a must-see.

So the Academy finally decided to give an Oscar to a Bug Bunny cartoon, and they chose Knighty-Knight Bugs. Huh. It’s a very good short, though not a classic. It’s hard to image that they passed over What’s Opera, Doc? the year before, and went for Knighty-Knight Bugs here. I place it 3rd for the year from Warner, after the winner and Hare-Way to the Stars.

 


1959

  • Some Like It Hot

  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • Li’l Abner
  • North by Northwest
  • Sleeping Beauty FSF2

 

SomeLikeitHotYet again, Hollywood bounces back. It didn’t hurt that both Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, the best directors of the 1950s, had new films and both in great form. The winner by a hair is Some Like It Hot, often cited as the greatest comedy or the funniest film of all time. It’s regularly said to have the best final line of any film. I don’t disagree with any of that. It’s a buddy, drag, romantic comedy with gangsters and music, starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe. This is the 8th nomination for a Wilder-directed film, and the 3rd win. As for Hitchcock, he can’t catch a break. This is his 8th nomination, and here with one of his very best films, but just like in ’46 with Notorious, he has a film that would win in many years but is pitted against one of the all-time-greats and he ends up in second. North by Northwest is his perfected version of the innocent lone man on the run, a general concept he’d used multiple times before. Cary Grant was Hitchcock’s finest leading man and this is their best collaboration.

Sleeping Beauty is the 5th Disney animation to get a nomination and the second from the Silver Age. It’s one of the better princess movies, with a supporting actress performance by Eleanor Audley as Maleficent that should have earned a supporting Oscar nom, and memorable songs, including Once Upon a Dream, which was clearly the best of the year, but didn’t even get an Oscar nomination. Right behind it comes another musical, this one live action, though it leans heavily on its cartoon routes. Li’l Abner is a stylized political satire that could have been written yesterday. As beautiful Daisy Mae tries to win the heart of the hulking but nearly sexless Abner, the citizens of Dogpatch have to find some reason why the town shouldn’t be used as a nuclear test site. The cast is marvelous, with the standout being Stubby Kaye, who is generally the best thing about any film he is in. The nominees are rounded out by Anatomy of a Murder, a courtroom drama that pushed the production code. Jimmy Stewart, in one of his less twitchy performances, plays an attorney defending a violent thuggish soldier, accused of murdering a man who raped his wife, a wife he often beats and is known for stepping out for a good time with other soldiers. It’s an all around solid film. I want to mention Lee Remick who does an amazing job as the wife because she doesn’t get the acclaim that she should for her performance.

The academy once again missed the boat is some very odd ways. Some Like It Hot and North By Northwest are not just thought of as classics now, but were critically lauded at the time; top movies from two great directors, and neither got a Best Picture nom. They did nominate Anatomy of a Murder. The other four were the two ultra-serious prestige pictures The Diary of Anne Frank and The Nun’s Story, the British semi-Noir Room at the Top, and the goofy religious adventure Ben-Hur.

The contest was over before it began. Any critic who doesn’t choose Some Like It Hot as the best film of ’59 (and it would take some effort to find such a critic) would choose North By Northwest, but in ’59 Ben-Hur had what counted: money. It made a lot of it, and so the studio put a lot behind their campaign for awards. It’s the last in a line of big budget, silly, loud, violent, religious epics that owed very little to The Bible, and it’s one of the worst. The problem isn’t Charlton Heston’s extreme overacting, nor the general bombast, though those don’t help. The questionable dialog doesn’t help either. The real issue is the structure. It’s a three act film. In the first, Ben-Hur is betrayed and brought low. In the second he rises again and gets his revenge. And… Do you see the problem? The story is done, but the movie isn’t. And at nearly 4 hours it could have been. Slice off act 3 and you’ve got a far better (still silly and unworthy of a nomination, but better) film.

As for the also-rans, Anatomy of a Murder is the best of their nominees, but Room at the Top wasn’t a bad choice. A film about an angry young man constrained by Britain’s class structure. If Anatomy of a Murder pushed the censors, Room at the Top kicked them in the head and drove over them. It involves lust and adultery and poverty and changed British filmmaking. The public was ready for something gritty and money wins. It was a hit. I can’t say I enjoyed it. Our protagonist has been screwed over for a very long time, but he’s such a weak bastard I couldn’t bring myself to care. “Favorite” and “good” are not the same thing, and this is a good film

I read The Diary of A Young Girl, as that version was known at the time, back in school, like every child did in those days. (Do they still?) It was a powerful book, personal but with vast implications. The film is not so powerful. It’s a story that works best on the page; it loses its immediacy when transferred to the screen. The book is the work of a real young girl in a horrible real world situation, and the film is so respectful to the book and to that girl that it strips away her reality. The casting of a woman far too old to play a young teen takes the viewer further out of the story, and the casting of Richard Beymer, who would two years later suck the emotion from West Side Story, was never a good idea. It’s not a bad movie, but at nearly 3 hours, just read the book again.

As for The Nun’s Story, it’s the definition of boring. It plods along, telling a 15 minute story in 2½ hours. It’s well shot and acted, but it is tedious. The entire story is: woman becomes a nun, and changes her mind. That’s it. There are no great events, no dramatic moments that cause her to see the world differently. She just gradually accepts that the church isn’t for her. Audrey Hepburn does the best she can, but she has nothing to do but gaze off at nothing.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Alfred Hitchcock {North by Northwest}
Screenplay: Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond)
Actor: Jack Lemmon {Some Like It Hot}
Actress: Marilyn Monroe {Some Like It Hot}
Supporting Actor: Joe E. Brown {Some Like It Hot}
Supporting Actress: Lee Remick {Anatomy of a Murder}
Cinematography: North by Northwest
Art Design: Ben Hur
FX: Ben Hur
Choreographer: Dee Dee Wood {Li’l Abner}
Score: North by Northwest (Bernard Herrmann)
Song: Once Upon a Dream {Sleepy Beauty}
Musical Number: Jubilation T. Cornpone {Li’l Abner}
Animated Feature: Sleeping Beauty
Animated Short: Baton Bunny (Chuck Jones/WB)
F&SF Feature: Sleeping Beauty

For the Academy, it was still all about Ben Hur, giving it 11 statues and with one more nomination for screenplay (Screenplay?!). OK, Sound and Art design are reasonable. Score and Effects are fine. But Editing is ridiculous. Then there is Best Actor for Charlton Heston; he didn’t even understand his character (specifically they didn’t tell him he was gay as they knew Heston couldn’t handle it). Whatever he’s doing, it’s not good acting. Now they could have been thinking along the same lines that I did in awarding Marilyn Monroe, that for film, creating a charismatic, iconic image is more important than what is normally thought of as acting, and Heston could do that, though he didn’t here; he was just loud. Jack Lemmon was both charismatic and iconic.

All of the songs from Sleeping Beauty were eligible, yet none were given an Oscar nomination… None. The Academy still could not deal with an animated feature.

Warners holds onto the Animated Shorts category, as they had for the entire decade, but Disney’s edutainment Donald in Mathmagic Land deserves a mention.

 


The Top 10 Films of the 1950s

  1. The Seventh Seal 
  2. Singin’ in the Rain
  3. Some Like It Hot
  4. Sunset Boulevard
  5. The Belles of St. Trinian’s
  6. The Importance of Being Earnest
  7. The African Queen
  8. North by Northwest
  9. All About Eve
  10. The Ladykillers

 

7 of the 10 FOSCAR Best Film of the Year winners take a spot, with Stalag 17, Mister Roberts, and A Night to Remember making room for The Importance of Being EarnestNorth by Northwest, and All About Eve. It’s a non-Oscar group, with only 6 Hollywood films and 5 clear comedies (plus a pair of very dark comedies).