(Note: It’s been a while since I’ve written. There was some pandemic going around that seems to have messed things up a while. Plus I’ve been busier than usual. But I hope that retiring from teaching, which I’ve just done, will leave me more time for this. I did see Tenet in the theater, btw, but am not anywhere near ready to write about it.)
The 1950s were another world, in more ways than one. There was economic growth, political turmoil on every side, and the culture wars of the ‘60s were bubbling under the surface if one was willing or able to look.
For film, it was in the middle of its own war for survival. Television was encroaching on its business, and people were moving out into the suburbs, which meant that folks couldn’t walk to their movie theaters several times a week like they used to. And oh, yes, returning WWII vets were getting married and having children (like yours truly), which limited financial resources and free time.
Two films that won Best Picture that decade would be laughed off the screen now, if audiences even had the patience to sit through them. That’s not a criticism, but an observation of how things have changed. Both of these films won for several reasons each, but the wins were not as controversial then as they are looking back and reevaluating today. Rather than throw the Academy and its voters under the proverbial bus, it’s important to note that tastes and preferences change over time, and every Best Picture win is a bit of a Rorschach Test, for its time and even for our own. Unfortunately, our cultural divisions and that wretched trend toward cancel culture make it too easy to dismiss films rather than try to understand them, which for Oscar winners, involves understanding context as well as the film itself.
First up is 1952’s Best Picture winner and greatest financial success of that year, The Greatest Show on Earth. In many a cinematic discussion, this vies with our other winner as possibly the worst Best Picture winner ever. (I believe some kind of recency bias is as work, however, as my guess is that those that insist on that haven’t seen many of the early ones.) It’s a big fat extravaganza about the Big Top and the lives and loves of those associated with it. It stars a relatively restrained (and relatively has to be the word) Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston in his star-making role, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, and James Stewart buried under clown makeup throughout. It also features a “voice of God” performance from producer/director Cecil B. DeMille, which more than perhaps any single element dates the film and constantly takes the viewer out of it.
But if movies wanted to make you forget your little black-and-white TV, this was how they did it. The scope is huge, with hundreds often on the screen at once. The color is knock-your-eyeballs-out Technicolor by George Barnes, and that and the camerawork give a sense of the epic that never lets up. The film goes back and forth between showing us how this mammoth circus production is set up, and focusing in on the various relationships—romantic, competitive, or both—of the performers. It goes on for far too long, but it keeps pouring out the spectacular right through to the end.
The acting in a DeMille production is usually rather stolid, but the acting is surprising good for those with lower expectations. Hutton and Wilde are impressive in their trapeze work, and the stunt folks we see in the long shots look surprisingly similar to the leads. In a minor role, Gloria Grahame is a joy to watch and listen to, and she has a great edge to her cynical lines. (She won her Best Supporting Actress award that year for a much smaller part in The Bad and the Beautiful, and that award may well have been for her work throughout the year.)
So what was this film up against? Nominees High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, and The Quiet Man. Not nominated were The Bad and the Beautiful; Come Back, Little Sheba; and My Cousin Rachel. Current wisdom has it that folks in the Academy were too afraid of Sen. Joseph McCarthy to support soon-blacklisted screenwriter and make his High Noon (directed by Fred Zinneman) Best Picture. The Quiet Man won John Ford his fourth and last Best Director Oscar, and a case can easily be made for that film as the Best Picture winner. (It was produced by little-leaguer Argosy Pictures, and distributed by the smaller Republic Pictures, all of which had to limit its chances.) But as will be seen in the next film, the Academy may well have reflected popular tastes rather than critical ones; the film also won Best Picture, Best Director, AND Best Cinematography (not even an Oscar nomination for that one!) from the Golden Globes.
The Oscars often give career awards, and often do so in the wrong year, which may be the case here. DeMille had been an early mover and shaker since the silent days, and was a brand unto himself. The Academy may have thought this was his last best chance. The next film DeMille made would have made a more understandable winner, and certainly was a better choice than the actual winner.
As we’ll also see in the next film, the actual best picture that year also contained the best female supporting performance, though at least she was nominated. The actress was Jean Hagen, and the film was the classic Singin’ in the Rain, the greatest Hollywood musical ever, and the best film of that year.
Crowning the BIG FAT FILM continued in 1956 with Around the World in 80 Days, a first cousin to The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s also long, HUGE, colorful, and epic in scope if not in intelligence. It won five (!) Oscars, including Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture). It’s basically a trip around part of the world, with stops to push forward a thin plot and/or to enjoy the culture of this or that country. For its time, the special effects were good, and some of the dialogue is amusing. But poor Shirley MacLaine as an Indian (as in India) princess is a performance vying for worst miscasting ever, and she looks as uncomfortable in the part as she has written she was.
David Niven is well cast in a role that producer Michael Todd hoped that Cary Grant would take. That film might have been more fun, but at least Niven helped to hold the disparate parts of the film together with his characterization. What might have been thought of as fun too was the film’s use of cameos—reputedly the first film to do so on this scale. In addition to Niven and MacLaine, the film featured quick appearances by Charles Boyer, Martine Carol, John Carradine, Charles Coburn, Ronald Colman (coming out of retirement to do so), Noel Coward, Andy Devine, Marlene Dietrich, John Gielgud, Hermione Gingold, José Grego (at least this one was worthy of a moment of the viewer’s time), Cedric Hardwicke, the wonderful and criminally overlooked Trevor Howard, Glynis Johns, the legendary Buster Kearon, Beatrice Lillie, Peter Lorre, Victor McLaglan, John Mills, Robert Morley, Edward R. Murrow (yes, THE Edward R. Murrow), Jack Oakie, George Raft, Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero, Red Skelton, and oh, yes, a ridiculous blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Frank Sinatra. These folks were quite famous then on both sides of the pond, but the jolt of seeing them show up is gone for everyone but the most ardent cinephile, which makes them confusing and awkward today.
So, the other nominated films, the ones that others insist should have won? Friendly Persuasion (nearly forgotten today), Giant (clearly a better film), The King and I, and finally, the DeMille film the Academy might have waited for, The Ten Commandments. Others that year were Lust for Life, Moby Dick, Richard III, Anastasia, Baby Doll, Written on the Wind, Bus Stop, and War and Peace. (Now we can give Best Picture to foreign films, but this year had films that tower over most of the American nominees: La Strada, I Vitelloni, and Seven Samurai, to name just three.) Interestingly, or perhaps embarrassingly, Around the World won the Golden Globe Best Picture, and the New York Film Critics Circle Best Film. I can understand the first, and can only hope that the second brings humility to a well-respected critical group as they look back.
The Golden Globes also gave their Best Actor Award to Cantinflas, a wildly popular Mexican actor that brought a heavy dose of international cred to the film. Perhaps his status as one of the most popular comic actors of his time is the reason for the Globe award. But let’s just say the performance doesn’t stand up today, and is embarrassing on several levels. Try not to think of the other actors that could have been awarded: Yul Brynner for The King and I, Kirk Douglas for Lust for Life, and James Dean for Giant. The Globes are usually beyond embarrassment (can you say Pia Zadora?), but this choice, this year, is one of the reasons they got to that place.
So what should have won? Well, just as a brilliant musical wouldn’t have won in 1952 just because it was a musical, a landmark Western wouldn’t have won Best Picture in 1956 just because of its genre. The best film? John Ford’s The Searchers, one of the most influential films in American film history, and one of surprisingly depth and feeling.
Let’s not be too harsh in judging previous Academy choices, but let’s also not hesitate to consider how much these films and awards are of their time. We shouldn’t be too dismissive as well, as even these wins give us a glimpse into a different time and place, and function as a kind of time capsule for those of us willing to study them without judgment.