Saturday, November 9, 2019

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Films of '54: Eight

Next week, we'll delve fully into the Best Picture nominees. But while we have the weekend, let's take a closer look at some of the films discussed earlier this week that weren't up for Best Picture...

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
nominee - Best Actor (Dan O'Herlihy)

My only exposure to this story was a comic adaptation (I think Classics Illustrated) I read in either fourth or fifth grade. I barely remembered any of it except that Crusoe's deserted on an island and then Friday eventually appears and is more or less adopted, so I was prepared for some problematic times. But wow, I was not ready for such a beautifully-shot satire about stubborn imperialism and white supremacy, in which a spoiled idiot almost dies, spends thirty years trying to recreate a parody of western society, before realizing there are other, non-white people on "his" island. It's hilarious.

Eight more, after the jump......

Broken Lance
winner - Best Motion Picture Story (Phillip Yordan)
nominee - Best Supporting Actress (Katy Jurado)

That Oscar win is bizarre, considering the history behind the screenplay: Phillip Yordan adapted the novel I'll Never Go There Anymore into the 1949 film noir House of Strangers. He was completely unaffiliated with the production of Broken Lance, but his screenplay for the earlier film was used as the basis for screenwriter Richard Murphy's western spin on the tale. The film itself? Terrific, anchored by the reliable Spencer Tracy as a ranch owner who has built up land and sons in equal volume - and is very vocal about his favorites.

Executive Suite
nominee - Best Supporting Actress (Nina Foch), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White (George J. Folsey), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - Black-and-White (Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno, Edwin B. Willis, Emile Kuri), Best Costume Design - Black-and-White (Helen Rose)

My cup of tea, an ensemble drama (though mostly focused on William Holden and, to a slightly lesser extent, Fredric March) about businessmen jockeying for the top spot in a corporation when the big boss suddenly dies. I love a movie predominately made up of people in suits, sitting at desks, loudly moralizing or quietly shivving each other while the viewer is left to ponder The Way Things Are Now. There is a Little League game to break up the tension (boo!) - and a bonus bitter Barbara Stanwyck! The movie that truly has it all!

The High and the Mighty
winner - Best Dramatic and/or Comedy Score (Dimitri Tiomkin)
nominee - Best Director (William A. Wellman), Supporting Actress (Jan Sterling, Claire Trevor), Best Original Song ("The High and the Mighty"), Best Film Editing (Ralph Dawson)

Disaster movies are always a great time: the all-star cast of veterans and newbies sailing in for a showcase scene (and/or splendid death!) in between VFX-heavy setpieces; they're like The Big Broadcast movies but with killer bees instead of jokes. If you're not going to be good, like Earthquake, be bonkers, like The Swarm. Perhaps we should give The High and the Mighty a pass for being an early progenitor of the genre, pre-dating Airport by 16 years. But we won't, because it's trash: boring, hideous to look at, pulling every potential punch. Only the score nomination makes any sense; perhaps Tiomkin's ear-worm theme made people think they had seen a masterpiece.

Rear Window
nominee - Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Screenplay (John Michael Hayes), Best Cinematography - Color (Robert Burks), Best Sound Recording (Loren L. Ryder)

Is this what perfection looks like? A claustrophobic thriller that puts the hero in the role of the audience, thus allowing a double-voyeur experience as we helplessly watch him helplessly watch others, and indicting us all - us gossips, us spies - as ghouls thirsting for sex and violence. Indeed, sex is all over this film: Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts, opposite sides of a seemingly similar coin; the newlyweds, extremely active, day or night; the supposed motive behind the maybe-crime that our hero could have heard; and of course, Jeff and Lisa, with all the comforts and quarrels of intimacy yet locked in the long battle of commitment. Careful, Tom, indeed.

winner - Best Costume Design - Black-and-White (Edith Head)
nominee - Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Actress (Audrey Hepburn), Best Screenplay (Billy Wilder, Samuel A. Taylor, Ernest Lehman), Best Cinematography - Black-and-White (Charles Lang), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - Black-and-White (Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler, Sam Comer, Ray Moyer)

A seemingly frothy, class-conscious rom-com between the haves and their servants. They share the same property, even the same (moral) values, yet to mix the two is unthinkable - the working-class are either employees, outlets for sexual appetite, or pawns in a capitalist game. And all it takes to cross class lines That'd be nice, yes, but a makeover certainly helps. So, yeah, there's lots of "serious" elements to consider when it comes to Sabrina. If you don't care to, there's also the story of an earnest young woman who shapes her destiny and opens a cold man's heart. Such a delight!

A Star is Born
nominee - Best Actress (Judy Garland), Best Actor (James Mason), Best Musical Score (Ray Heindorf), Best Original Song ("The Man Who Got Away"), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - Color (Malcolm C. Bert, Gene Allen, Irene Sharaff, George James Hopkins), Best Costume Design - Color (Jean-Louis, Mary Ann Nyberg, Irene Sharaff)

This is the version of A Star is Born, the story of a movie star doing himself in while nurturing, and eventually observing, the rise of his wife. Yet the film, does not make this a story of jealousy, at least not obviously so, but a tale of a broken man blocked by self-pity, and a woman who, though she goes by her married name at tale's end (not a big spoiler, unless you've never seen a version of this film), is just as much Her Own Person as she is in love with this man. A complex tale of relationships and show business with incredible songs? Is masterpiece too strong a word here?

Susan Slept Here
nominee - Best Original Song ("Hold My Hand"), Best Sound Recording

Risible shenanigans occasionally interrupted by refreshing Glenda Farrell...though her character's enabling, nay encouragement, of the central storyline is...whew! Based on a play, it's about a 35-year-old screenwriter who's friendly with the cops. So the cops have him babysit a 17-year-old street urchin on Christmas Eve. Because otherwise they'd have to throw her in jail for vagrancy and he's looking for inspiration for a new screenplay... Anyway, it's a rom-com. It's gross. 

White Christmas
nominee - Best Original Song ("Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)"

Not just the song, but I'm pretty sure the same sets from 1942's Holiday Inn are re-used for this musical that's got it all: a sister act, the war, veteran appreciation, even an ode to minstrel shows without blackface! The definition of feel-good, with dynamite musical numbers (look for the gorgeous George Chakiris as a dancer) and a finale that'll have you crying 'til you're standing in a puddle.
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