Wednesday, July 10, 2024

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1952: Before It Was a Classic

There's a movie here that you might expect to be our next Best Picture nominee. The movie is Singin' in the Rain. It was not nominated for Best Picture. It wasn't nominated for anything except Best Supporting Actress and Best Musical Score. Yet today, who doesn't know Singin' in the Rain? I've seen people reference it who didn't even know what they were referencing, it's so much a part of our culture. But in 1952, it was one of many films released in April. Here are eight of them:

The Man in the White Suit
release: April
nominations: Best Screenplay
dir: Alexander Mackendrick
pr: Michael Balcon
scr: Roger MacDougall & John Dighton & Alexander Mackendrick, from the play by Roger MacDougall
cin: Douglas Slocombe

A chemist invents a new kind of indestructible material, sending the bosses and the union workers of the textiles industry into a tizzy. Winces at everything: at the workers who struggle for a better life but have to believe in a world where they must work, must struggle; at the bosses who must continuously adjust and make progress but not too much too soon, otherwise there's no work or struggle or profit, things must be controlled; at the innovators who see solutions for a better world, if only everyone else would just see how practical and brilliant and perfect the innovations are; and, finally, at this society, this capitalist world where we can't have the best because we not only can't conceive a world without toil...we can't we're too impatient to know a thing's flaws before declaring it the best. Fun run, these Alec Guinness flicks.

With a Song in My Heart
release: April 4
wins: Best Musical Score (Alfred Newman)
nominations: Best Actress (Susan Hayward), Best Supporting Actress (Thelma Ritter), Best Costume Design - Color (Charles Le Maire), Best Sound Recording (Thomas T. Moulton, 20th Century Fox Sound Department)
dir: Walter Lang
pr/scr: Lamar Trotti
cin: Leon Shamroy

The life of Jane Froman, a singer whose career was almost derailed when she was in a plane crash. Most rousing bit sees Froman entertaining the troops and doing a medley of songs with states in the title. There's nothing bad here but: five nominations???

My Son John
release: April 8
nominations: Best Motion Picture Story
dir/pr: Leo McCarey
scr: Myles Connolly / Leo McCarey, adaptation by John Lee Mahin, story by Leo McCarey
cin: Harry Stradling, Sr.

Patriotic parents begin to realize their son is a Communist. Hysterical is the best way to describe this movie, so unhinged in its paranoia that it equates "disagreeing with the local priest" with being a government spy. Helen Hayes returns to the screen after a 17-year absence (well, unless you count her cameo in Stage Door Canteen, but I'm talking acting), and gosh, she puts the motion in motion pictures, there's never a scene where she's not grimacing, twiddling her fingers, shrugging, working every muscle in her body to convey seven emotions at once...but, dammit, it works, and you walk away from the film impressed once more with her formidable talent. Dean Jagger as her husband less so, I have to imagine, given the story's trajectory and Leo McCarey's own political views, we're supposed to side somewhat with his frustration and anger at these godless pinkos, but Christ, the man is such a self-righteous asshole, such a condescending prick to his family, such a bozo, you wish you had the opportunity to put him in the Rosenbergs' place. Just a monstrous, evil film in concept.

Bend of the River
release: April 9
dir: Anthony Mann
pr: Aaron Rosenberg
scr: Borden Chase, from the novel by Bill Gulick
cin: Irving Glassberg

Former gunslinger guides a wagon train to a new settlement in Oregon, but finds greed and corruption have also followed the new civilization. Gosh, I remember really enjoying this but I don't have much to say about it. Maybe because it is beautifully shot and stars James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy and Julie Adams I like it; maybe because it's a little goopy as far as the narrative flow and focus go, I can't remember much of it except a general feeling.

Singin' in the Rain
release: April 9
nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Jean Hagen), Best Musical Score (Lennie Hayton)
dir: Stanley Donen / Gene Kelly
pr: Arthur Freed
scr: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
cin: Harold Rosson

Silent film stars panic at the dawn of talkies. An American in Paris had just won Best Picture three weeks before this film's release, so I can see, having seen that film - also Gene Kelly, also a songbook musical, also with a climactic dream ballet - why it might have felt like more of the same, only with more Hollywood navel-gazing. Audiences of 1952 wanted circus! And it wasn't like it was roundly dismissed, it was #1 at the box office for a few weeks. But there's still a marked difference between two Oscar nods, no wins, didn't even crack the Top Ten of the year...and being declared the #5 greatest American film of all time 55 years later. Well, that's what happens sometimes, but is the movie really as good as it's delayed reputation? It's better. It's one of the best. It shouldn't work - the style's An American in Paris, the plot is Hit Parade of 1941, the songs are all from other films, it's got the deadly double act of Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor, but some perfect alchemy was going on when this was made. It's hilarious, romantic; the musical sequences take your breath away, the performances are perfect, even the costumes and sets are unparalleled. Often imitated, never recreated, a movie that gives a one-of-a-kind high that demands your return again and again and again.

release: April 11
dir: Josef von Sternberg
pr: Alex Gottlieb
scr: Bernard C. Schoenfeld and Stanley Rubin, from a story by Robert Creighton Williams
cin: Harry J. Wild

Gangsters try to identify an undercover cop in the gambling dens of Macao. It is fun to have a cat-and-mouse mystery where we know the bad guys, it's the good guys we have to identify. Stylish moments, trust JVS to give us that. Good ensemble here: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Gloria Grahame, William Bendix (much better here than in A Girl in Every Port, I think I prefer him in dramas than in straight-up comedies, where he strains to be funny).

Jack and the Beanstalk
release: April 12
dir: Jean Yarbrough
pr: Lou Costello / Alex Gottlieb
scr: Nathaniel Curtis, story by Pat Costello, from the fairy tale of old
cin: George Robinson

Costello is Jack, Abbott sold him the beans, they both go up the beanstalk in this riff on the classic tale.  Feels beneath them. Makeup's OK. A few musical numbers, all of them very shoddy.

The Narrow Margin
release: April 23
nominations: Best Motion Picture Story
dir: Richard Fleischer
pr: Stanley Rubin
scr: Earl Felton, story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard
cin: George E. Diskant

A cop protects a mob informant on a train ride from Chicago to Los Angeles. One of those movies I watched alone, then texted everyone I knew right after, telling them they must see this. The train makes for a dynamite setting, everything compact, nowhere to hide, but of course, both the mobsters and the police have to, and the confined back-and-forth makes for genuine sphincter-puckering suspense. Charles McGraw is our lead cop, a good man with a foul mouth, as tough as he talks but with a streak of something tender in him. Marie Windsor is the woman in his care: just goddam marvekous, the ind of performance that prove how false all other "tough broad" roles/performances ring, she's so the real thing. Cool-ass movie.

Tomorrow, a trip to Los Alamos, birthplace of The Bomb.

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