Monday, February 10, 2014

Forgotten Oscar Winners, 1950-1959

With the advent of television, movies got bigger and splashier. More movies were made in color and various widescreen formats were introduced. More serious self-reflexive films about the industry were being made by people like Billy Wilder and Vincente Minnelli. Three of the greatest filmmakers of all time - Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Satyajit Ray - were making their greatest masterpieces. At the 1951 Oscars, the World War II drama, Decision Before Dawn, was competing against biblical epics, Technicolor musicals, and theatrical adaptations, garnering two nominations for Best Motion Picture and Best Film Editing. Decision Before Dawn is about a German prisoner of war who agrees to spy for the Allies because he desperately wants to end the war. The film's star, Oskar Werner, had in fact deserted the German Luftwaffe because of his pacifist beliefs. It's one of the finest war films of the era - nuanced, understated, and humanitarian.

Today Joseph Breen is demonized as a censorship tyrant, but in 1953, the Academy gave him an honorary award "For his conscientious, open-minded and dignified management of the Motion Picture Production Code." Whereas Will H. Hays, who had been the face of Hollywood censorship in 1930, had been far more lax, Breen zealously enforced the Production Code, which prohibited ridicule of the clergy, miscegenation, scenes of childbirth either in fact or in silhouette, venereal disease, white slavery, and "willful offense to any nation, race or creed," among other things. That last item seems to have been the only one Breen was happy to let slide.

That same year, a lovely fairy tale of a film starring Leslie Caron, Lili, received six nominations, including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Story and Screenplay. Bronislau Kaper won the award for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, though the famous song so essential to the film's score overall, "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo," was not nominated. Lili is about a naive young woman who connects with a carnival puppeteer through his puppets. This film, like 1947's The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, is charming largely because the Production Code prohibited overt depictions of sexuality, which would have rendered both films horrifically creepy.

Today, Disney films are considered kids' fare, but that wasn't always the case. Most of the films Disney made, both animated and live-action, were as much for adults as kids (though it's true that the company strove for a squeaky clean quality in their filmmaking). This is particularly unfair in the case of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a film that won the awards for Best Special Effects and Best Art Direction, Color, as well as receiving a nomination for Best Film Editing. Its all-star cast - James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, and Paul Lukas - and a very fine screenplay make this a science fiction classic. Even the special effects, sixty years later, are still impressive. That same year, one of Max Ophuls's great masterworks, The Earrings of Madame de..., was nominated for Best Costume Design, Black and White. Foreign language films were (and are) rarely recognized at the Academy Awards and it is quite pleasing that at least one aspect of this film was recognized. The Earrings of Madame de... is about a deeply unhappy aristocratic woman whose luxurious tastes lead her into debt and an attempt to pawn her diamond earrings. It's a brilliant and sophisticated film, one that examines capitalism, elitism, marital boredom, sexual freedom, and a host of other topics few American films dared to address.

Another wonderful film that was only nominated for Best Costume Design, Black and White, is 1955's The Pickwick Papers, a delightful British film starring James Hayter as Dickens's hero, Pickwick, and Harry Fowler as the irrepressible Sam Weller, supported by a host of fabulous British actors. The novel is the funniest of all of Dickens's works and the movie captures many of the wittiest moments, including a recitation of "Ode to an Expiring Frog."

1956 was the first year that the Academy accepted competitive submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film award, which had previously been an honorary award. The first competitive winner was Fellini's La Strada  - hardly a forgotten film, but it is interesting to remember the high artistic quality of the earlier winners, given the tamer fare that generally receives nominations for the award today. The Best Motion Picture nominees this year are disappointing. Around the World in Eighty Days, a bloated homage to colonial power, won the award, over such pathetic competitors as The Ten Commandments, an equally bloated biblical epic, and The King and I, a film only slightly less racist than the award winner. But one of the finest films of the year also garnered a nomination,
William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion. Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire star as Quaker parents forced to confront violence when the Civil War arrives at their doorstep. It was nominated for six awards, but didn't win a single one. In a sea of swollen, lumbering blockbusters, Friendly Persuasion was one of the only nuanced films of the year.

With occasional exceptions, the Western was, and is, not typically an Oscar-winning genre. In 1957, one of the many iterations of the legendary battle fought by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, was nominated for a single Oscar, for Best Sound Recording. Burt Lancaster and the magnificent Kirk Douglas are wonderful as the lawman and the gunslinger who form a beautiful friendship. The film was a big hit in its day and should be better remembered as a classic Western.

In 1959, The Nun's Story received eight nominations, but failed to take home a single one. It's a difficult drama starring Audrey Hepburn as an idealistic Belgian nun who works as a nurse until the onset of World War II makes it impossible for her to retain the political neutrality required by her vows. Hepburn very much deserved the Best Actress award for her performance, but she lost to Simone Signoret. The French submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year was actually an international co-production with Brazil and Italy, with all dialogue in Portuguese. Black Orpheus is a retelling of the Orpheus myth set during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. The bossa nova soundtrack is stellar and the cast of non-professional actors is excellent.


  1. I've always hated "Friendly Persuasion", mostly because I find Dorothy McGuire positively sickening. Her voice makes me want to barf and she's got one delivery: breathless. Breathlessly thrilled or breathlessly angry or breathlessly bewildered, it's all the same and it's all nauseating. Tony Perkins is pretty good, Cooper is miscast, and the whole enterprise is so very, very earnest. Sorry but I can't get behind you on this one! I would have, reluctantly, given the award to "Giant", even though it's so very bloated in just about every way. Mercedes McCambridge is a one-woman bitchfest and Taylor was at the peak of her incandescent beauty. However, I think the best picture of that year was really "High Society", just because it's a very successful remake of what was already a very successful film and play; because everyone is clearly having such fun; because the music is witty; because Louis Armstrong is in it; and because, somehow, Bing Crosby (an actor on my "irrational hate" list) makes me forget he is horribly miscast (Grace Kelly would REALLY prefer him over Sinatra? Come on!) and also makes me forget he is on my irrational hate list. "Lust for Life" was pretty darn good, too.

    1. I actually like both Friendly Persuasion and Giant, but I hated High Society - because of Bing Crosby. I also harbor an irrational hatred for him and I couldn't get past it. And I agree that Sinatra is clearly the winner over Crosby!