As we tend to do, our coverage of the year that was begins with the Academy Awards. And we shall take the categories in their order of presentation at the 23rd ceremony, held March 29, 1951, at the Pantages Theatre. Today, we focus on the nominees that were up for the "craft" categories, but nowhere else: Special Effects, Costume Design, Art Direction, Sound Recording, Cinematography. We'll also look at the winner for Best Foreign Film, still an honorary award without a block of nominees at the time.
Let us begin where the Oscars did:
Best Special Effects
Only two nominees in this category. The winner is Destination Moon (George Pal Productions), which makes a serious (one might say dull, with a mid-film Woody Woodpecker cartoon offering the only light touch) effort to sell the public on lunar travel, 19 years before the US actually did it. Beautiful details in the matte-heavy visual effects, and if the rocket is still more fi than sci, it's amazing to see what they actually got right. The other nominee was Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille Productions), which has storms, an inferno engulfing a home, and the destruction of an entire temple and all within. While Destination Moon is a cool and worthy winner of this particular award, Samson and Delilah would get my vote.
Best Costume Design
This was the era when Black-and-White and Color films competed separately. For the B&W honors, All About Eve (Edith Head, Charles LeMaire) beat out Born Yesterday (Jean Louis) and The Magnificent Yankee (Walter Plunkett). For the Color honors, the Biblical epic Samson and Delilah (Edith Head, Dorothy Jeakins, Elois Jenssen, Gile Steele, Gwen Wakeling) rightfully triumphed over the two films you see here. At left, The Black Rose (Michael Whittaker), in which a disinherited Saxon nobleman (dashing, adequate Tyrone Power) escapes Norman England and joins up with Mongol general Bayan of the Hundred Eyes (Orson Welles, enthralling even under the makeup). The period costumes, showcasing the styles of multiple nationalities and classes, are probably the movie's strength; they're certainly the best thing about Cécile Aubrey's performance. At right, That Forsyte Woman (Walter Plunkett, Valles), a period drama about a woman (Greer Garson) torn between two brothers (terrific Errol Flynn, miscast Walter Pidgeon) and her niece's fiance (Robert Taylor). Doesn't Garson look marvelous? The rest of the costumes are just as beautiful, reflecting the wealth of the long-moneyed Forsytes and the world they inhabit. The Academy made the right calls.
Best Art Direction
Again, split between Black-and-White and Color. In the former, it was Sunset Blvd. (Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer, Ray Moyer) that won against All About Eve (Lyle Wheeler, George W. Davis, Thomas Little, Walter M. Scott) and the film pictured at left, The Red Danube (Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters, Edwin B. Willis, Hugh Hunt). All contemporary stories, though Danube is set in post-war Vienna, where the Soviets are, with help from the Allies, "repatriating" reluctant citizens. Our heroes, the Brits, operate out of a convent. Honestly, I think its nomination is less a response to the design and construction of the sets, and more to how they're lit - this should be a Cinematography nomination. In Color, Samson and Delilah (Hans Dreier, Walter Tyler, Sam Comer, Ray Moyer) won against Annie Get Your Gun (Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, Edwin B. Willis, Richard A. Pefferle) and the aforementioned Destination Moon (Ernst Fegte, George Sawley), pictured at right, which gives us our first look at the lunar surface. Sunset Blvd. is the right choice for the Black-and-White films but among the Color ones? Oh, mercy. Give me a moment. Probably, again, Samson and Delilah.
Best Sound Recording
A really interesting group of nominees here. All About Eve (Thomas T. Moulton and the 20th Century-Fox Studio Sound Department) wins, and Cinderella (C.O. Slyfield and the Walt Disney Studio Sound Department) is among the nominees. The other three got a nod nowhere else, and are more or less, if not forgotten, at least do not hold as firm a place in the culture as their fellow nominees. At top left, Louisa (Leslie I. Carey and the Universal-International Studio Sound Department) is a comedy in which a man deals with his elderly widowed mother's burgeoning love life - an amusing piffle of a film with a great Spring Byington performance at its center, and a fight at a hoedown. At top right, Trio (Cyril Crowhurst and the Pinewood Studio Sound Department) adapts three W. Somerset Maugham stories, all with varying degrees of comedy, drama, and crowds - a great movie, by the way. At bottom, Our Very Own (Gordon Sawyer and the Samuel Goldwyn Studio Sound Department) is, eventually, a drama about a teenager who finds out she is adopted - I say "eventually" because it takes us forty minutes to get there, with no payoff to the long opening sequence that sees little Natalie Wood bugging the man installing the family's new TV set. Sound-wise, I'm not sure what these three films have over, say, Paramount's Samson and Delilah or Sunset Blvd., or MGM's Annie Get Your Gun or King Solomon's Mines - or even, since it qualified for consideration, Renoir's The Rules of the Game! Of the five here, I would probably give my vote to Cinderella, ifjust for the sound of the corn kernels hitting Gus in the face before thunking to the ground.
Another category split between Black-and-White and Color. The Third Man (Robert Krasker) earned a very deserved Academy Award for its B&W cinematography, against All About Eve (Milton Krasner), The Asphalt Jungle (Harold Rosson), Sunset Blvd. (John F. Seitz), and the film pictured above, The Furies (Victor Milner). I love The Furies, a film I'd never even heard of before I started this retrospective. So funny, so sexy, so exciting, the kind of film that shocks with its daring no matter what decade. And yes, gorgeous, glorious cinematography. For Color, King Solomon's Mines (Robert Surtees) and its on-location photography capturing its stars against the plains, mountains, and wildlife of Uganda, Kenya, and the Congo, won against nominees Annie Get Your Gun (Charles Rosher), Broken Arrow (Ernest Palmer), The Flame and the Arrow (Ernest Haller) and Samson and Delilah (George Barnes). I think Oscar chose well for both categories, and the overall lineups are dynamite.
Honorary Foreign Language Film Award
The Walls of Malapaga
Ironically, this French-Italian co-production probably wouldn't even be eligible today, simply because it is a cooperation between two nations instead of fully one or the other. It takes place in Genoa, Italy, but focuses on a Frenchman on the run, played by French actor Jean Gabin, who finds himself connecting with a woman (Italian actress Isa Miranda) and her daughter. Gabin and Miranda manage a comfortable, almost languid, chemistry with each other, even with violence all around them: Gabin's past, Miranda's ex, the scars of The War still evident in the city's crumbled walls and the dilapidated remains of a convent-turned-rooming house. It's a very moving film.
Tomorrow, we cover the three music categories: Comedy Or Dramatic Score, Musical Score, and Original Song. The fourteen films up for discussion: All About Eve, Annie Get Your Gun, Captain Carey, U.S.A., Cinderella, The Flame and the Arrow, I'll Get By, No Sad Songs for Me, Samson and Delilah, Singing Guns, Sunset Blvd., Three Little Words, The Toast of New Orleans, Wabash Avenue, and The West Point Story.