Thursday, May 5, 2022

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1950: The Writing Awards

Until 1956, the writing awards were no simple delineation between Adapted Screenplay and Original Screenplay. This was a time when studios marked a difference between their screenwriters and their story department.  So: if someone came up with a story, its characters and plot and all that, but did not write the final screenplay, they were eligible for Best Motion Picture Story. If someone wrote a screenplay, with dialogue and action and INT./EXT. and all that, working off of either a play, a novel, a magazine article or a Motion Picture Story written by another, they were eligible for Best Screenplay. And if a screenwriter also wrote the original story they were working off of, they were eligible for Best Story & Screenplay.

Two-time Academy Award nominee Ruth Chatterton put it succinctly in her presentation of the Writing Awards at the 23rd Oscars:

Here, we will try to separate our feelings for the completed films themselves - with the acting and cinematography and, again, all that - from the actual texts they come from. We will try to separate our love for certain lines of dialogue from our judgment of Best Story. We will, however, also try to give some idea of what we thought of these films: after all, nine of these nominees weren't nominated in any other category, and we must pay them their due!

Starting with Best Motion Picture Story:

Bitter Rice
Giuseppe De Santis and Carlo Lizzani
first and only nominations

Now here's a unique story: set against the real backdrop of seasonal rice field workers in Italy, where a crook's generally good-hearted girlfriend is hiding out, keeping some hot jewels from a recent theft for him; unfortunately, that nogoodnik boyfriend has also gotten under the skin of another broad working the fields, and that broad's gotten under the skin of a local soldier. Crime and jealousy and romance intertwine with the stories of the other women working the fields. Juicy social pulp.

The Gunfighter
William Bowers and André de Toth
first of two nominations for Bowers; first and only nomination for de Toth

A simple story: gunslinger hides out at an old friend's place, on the run from brothers of a youth who pulled a gun on him, hopes to see his estranged wife and kid before he leaves forever. The clock ticks, he knows he's staying too long, other hotheads wanting a crack at him are gathering 'round, and we reflect on violence and reputation and what it means to be A Man. A thoughtful scenario.

Mystery Street
Leonard Spigelgass
first and only nomination

A detective story: we know the victim from the beginning, but it is entertaining to watch the detectives make use of traditional deductive reasoning and modern forensic science and technology to identify the body, recreate her final hours, and follow up on multiple leads. Great, too, to follow those affected by the crime: the blackmailing landlady, the hapless red herring, the sympathetic witness. The reality of police work and the messiness of human life.

Panic in the Streets
Edna Anhalt & Edward Anhalt
first of two nominations for Edna; first of three nominations for Edward

A lot happening in this story: a medico dissatisfied with where he is in life, teams up with a policeman to track down the gang who murdered an immigrant on the docks, partly because it's a crime but mostly because they've been exposed to a deadly contagion that they're unwittingly spreading across New Orleans. Hard to separate my feelings about the final product from the story itself, which honestly is an interesting twist on ticking time bomb storytelling, though I'm always a little wary of films built on the premise of "the public need not know!"

When Willie Comes Marching Home
Sy Gomberg
*** / DQ'd
first and only nomination

An unconventional war story: a small town's golden boy is pressured to be the first to volunteer for duty when World War II begins. The military immediately recognizes his talents...and therefore keeps him on the base in his own hometown in order to train new recruits, much to the locals' resentment. It's a story that looks sardonically at how society at large defines "service," at class resentment even at a local level, at the dangers of peaking early. But you know what? It shouldn't be here - the film is an adaptation of a short story.

Oscar awarded, of course, my least favorite nominee, Panic in the Streets. I give my vote to:



Moving on to Best Screenplay:

All About Eve
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
adapted from "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr
previous winner, third of five nominations for writing; Golden Globes winner for Best Screenplay, WGA Awards winner for Best Written American Comedy; WGA Awards nominee for Best Written American Drama

Justly famous for its dialogue - "Fasten your seatbelts - it's gonna be a bumpy night," etc. Beyond the witticisms, though, Mankiewicz uses his long speeches to showcase the self-aggrandizement of his characters. Margo doesn't argue, she makes a scene, and her vulnerable moments are always soliloquies; Addison, whether in print or with "friends" or in his big scene with Eve, always seems to be tasting each word he proclaims. Rarely introduces a character without making them distinct and realistic, from Birdie to Miss Casswell to the Aged Actor.

The Asphalt Jungle
Ben Maddow and John Huston
adapted from the novel by W.R. Burnett
first and only nomination for Maddow; past winner, fifth of eight writing nominations for Huston; Golden Globe nominee for Best Screenplay, WGA Awards nominee for Best Written American Drama and Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene

I love a crime tale set in a city outside NYC and LA. Such an exquisite setting-up of ready-to-fall dominoes, from the corrupt lawyer getting too big for his britches to the recently-paroled heist master immediately preparing the next job. Surprisingly sympathetic to its cast of criminals, even as they double- and triple-cross each other: there's something relatable about their cornered desperation.

Born Yesterday
Albert Mannheimer
adapted from the play by Garson Kanin
first and only nomination; WGA Awards nominee for Best Written American Comedy

A Pygmalion tale crossed with a Statement about corruption in politics. The two threads are about bettering oneself, as a person and as a nation, in order to meet your fullest potential, and thanks to some great lines ("This country and its institutions belong to the people who inhibit it") it nearly gets away with it. But I also think the actors, especially Judy Holliday, are carrying what is, on paper, an awfully vague, somewhat confused, story that doesn't quite bring those two threads together. More than any other title here, this feels like a nomination that benefited from the execution on screen rather than the one on paper.

Broken Arrow
Albert Maltz (fronted by Michael Blankfort)
adapted from the novel by Elliott Arnold
second and final nomination for writing; WGA Awards winner for Best Written American Western; WGA Awards nominee for Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene

A genuine and humane attempt to deal with the US government's history with the land's Indigenous population. Told through a white man's perspective, of course, but I do think from a script perspective, it does a sincere job of addressing the tensions between the white settlers and the natives whose land they're encroaching on, the general lack of interest/understanding on the government's part, and the uncomfortable relationship peacemakers have with all sides. Thoughtful, mature writing.

Father of the Bride
Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
adapted from the novel by Edward Streeter
third of four nominations; WGA Awards nominee for Best Written American Comedy

Episodic by necessity, each scene related to the planning of the nuptials implied in the title and yet somehow their own little one-act. Which may explain the vague, uneven nature of the writing. Relatable funny scenes (the titular father finally able to sleep after imparting all his worries to his wife) are quickly followed by ones that don't quite live up to their full potential (meeting the in-laws). Characters are established but may as well not exist. An established framing device is abandoned. I was surprised by this nod.

Oscar gave the award to All About Eve, the juggernaut of the evening. They were right, and so my vote goes to:



And wrapping up with Best Story & Screenplay:

Adam's Rib
Ruth Gordon & Garson Kanin
second of three writing nominations; WGA Awards nominee for Best Written American Comedy

Married lawyers on opposite sides of a court case? Why the antics practically write themselves! OK, obviously they don't, especially not with the surprises Gordon and Kanin offer: a sincere defense of women driven to violence by bad husbands, a successful have-it-both-ways call for an understanding of women's issues that also pokes fun at upper-class liberal do-gooders, the strain between tradition and modernity - what is just? What is fair? Hell, what's a marriage, and what does it take to keep one going? Most importantly, hilarious.

Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld
second and final nomination for Kellogg; first and only nomination for Schoenfeld

Kellogg wrote the book on women's prisons; now she's collaborated with Schoenfeld on this drama about a girl at the wrong place with the wrong man who winds up in jail..and learns to become the criminal society has already labeled her. Addresses prison reform without sounding like a study or editorial; clearly discusses VD, homosexuality, sexual assault without either trivializing them or making the references too vague to follow; even gets away with a downer ending.

The Men
Carl Foreman
second of six writing nominations; WGA Awards winner for Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene; WGA Awards nominee for Best Written American Drama

Its heart is in the right place, dealing with the realities of soldiers returning home from war without the full use of their limbs, the difficulty of acclimating to society, and the struggle to not define, and not allow others to define, themselves by their new paraplegia. And it doesn't have to end with any miraculous healing or the triumph of mobility. The triumph is in acceptance and adjustment.

No Way Out
Joseph L. Mankiewicz & Lesser Samuels
fourth of five writing nominations for Mankiewicz; first of two nominations for Samuels; WGA Awards nominee for Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene

A Black doctor tends to the wounds of a pair of brothers, Caucasian, who are spitting-mad racists. When one brother dies, the other believes the Black doctor did it deliberately, sparking racial tensions within and without the hospital. Gets at racism as a systemic issue: the drop-out, shanty-town criminals share their ignorance with the clean-cut doctors and nurses, the middle-class cops. The lack of communication, the refusal to acknowledge basic humanity, leads to an outbreak of violence that is partly cathartic, partly horrific - innocent people will die, no one wants to reason in the middle of a punch. Smart, without pat answers.

Sunset Blvd.
Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman, Jr.
past winner, sixth of seven writing nominations for Brackett; past winner, seventh of twelve writing nominations for Wilder; first and only nomination for Marshman; WGA Awards winner for Best Written American Drama; Golden Globes nominee for Best Screenplay

The best thing about Sunset Blvd. is that I don't know if I can classify it as a drama or as a comedy. Bitingly funny in every scene, well aware of the irony in just how talkative silent star Norma Desmond is. Marvelous, having a screenwriter narrate everything to us: we see everything already, but he cannot resist describing it all to us anyway, needs us to hear his author's voice. Great characters all around, another script boasting terrific, multi-dimensional female characters.

And, once again, my vote aligns with Oscar:


Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Director: George Cukor (Born Yesterday), John Huston (The Asphalt Jungle), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve), Carol Reed (The Third Man), and Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd.).

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