Tuesday, July 9, 2024

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1952: The Circus Comes To Town

It's February in 1952 and, although no one knows it yet, the Oscar race is over. The Greatest Show on Earth is out. 

It will spend six weeks in a row at the top spot of the box office and end the year as the #1 highest-grossing. It's a high point for producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, a Hollywood veteran since his 1914 film debut The Squaw Man. Since then, he's cemented himself as a master of the art and the business: indeed, the older he gets, the more successful and acclaimed his movies become. The Greatest Show on Earth, a Technicolor epic about life in the circus featuring actual acts and performers from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, is no exception. And it's the only time he will win Best Picture.

But the Academy Awards are in March 1953. Right now, it's February 1952. And it's not the only film in town:

release: February 12
nominations: Best Cinematography - Black-and-White, Best Documentary Feature
dir/scr: Norman Foster
pr: Hall Bartlett
cin: Virgil E. Miller

A young Navajo boy resists assimilation. "Documentary" classification is a stretch, this is more of a neo-realist coming-of-age drama set in the West - similar, actually, to Louisiana Story, another tale of encroachment on a community on the fringes of American society. It is a little dry, but it tackles the under-discussed evolution (or lack thereof) in relations between the United States government and her representatives, and the Indigenous peoples who were already here. Interesting history. Great cinematography. Francis Kee Teller, the lead, has a great blank face you can imprint anything on.

A Girl in Every Port
release: February 13
dir/scr: Chester Erskine, from the story "They Sell Sailors Elephants" by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan
pr: Irwin Allen / Irving Cummings, Jr.
cin: Nicholas Musuraca

A pair of Navy sailors have a new con involving twin racehorses or something. Good for a couple laughs. Groucho seems too old for his part. By a lot.

Viva Zapata!
release: February 13
wins: Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Quinn)
nominations: Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Story & Screenplay, Best Score (Alex North), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - Black-and-White (Lyle R. Wheeler / Leland Fuller / Thomas Little / Claude E. Carpenter)
dir: Elia Kazan
pr: Darryl F. Zanuck
scr: John Steinbeck
cin: Joseph MacDonald

The life of Mexico's revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, from standing up for his fellow peasant farmers to his role as a powerful general in a new government to his assassination. Anthony Quinn won for playing Zapata's brother (and was reportedly, understandably, frustrated by being an actual Mexican actor having to play second fiddle to Brando in brownface). It's a rousing picture, feels directly targeted to me and my tastes: one beautiful sequence has Zapata's supporters silently following soldiers who have him captive, watching this prisoner procession, their numbers growing - support, intimidation, revolution, and no one has to say a thing. Oh, I loved it. Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No himself!) plays an intellectual unsatisfied with everyone else's revolution, frightening.

The Greatest Show on Earth
release: February 21
wins: Best Picture, Best Motion Picture Story
nominations: Best Director, Best Film Editing (Anne Bauchens), Best Costume Design - Color (Edith Head / Dorothy Jeakins / Miles White)
dir/pr: Cecil B. DeMille
scr: Fredric M. Frank & BarrĂ© Lyndon & Theodore St. John, story by Fredric M. Frank & Theodore St. John & Frank Cavett
cin: George Barnes

The trials and tribulations of the performers of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. We'll discuss it more next Friday, but let me just say this: Charlton Heston's pretty good in this!

Rancho Notorious
release: March 6
dir: Fritz Lang
pr: Howard Welsch
scr: Daniel Taradash, story by Silvia Richards
cin: Hal Mohr

A man searching for his girlfriend's killer traces him to the titular ranch, an outpost for outlaws run by Marlene Dietrich. Fun to watch with people who've never seen a Dietrich film and therefore do not expect it when (a) she sings and (b) she sounds like that while doing so. Arthur Kennedy plays the handsome young man out for revenge - great actor, but feels miscast here. Dietrich, songs, sets, and Mel Ferrer (as her lover who begins to feel jealous of Kennedy) are all great.

5 Fingers
release: March 7
nominations: Best Director, Best Screenplay
dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
pr: Otto Lang
scr: Michael Wilson, from the book by L.C. Moyzisch
cin: Norbert Brodine

A diplomat's valet moonlights as a Nazi informant. It's a funny movie about British class prejudice allowing a spy to go undetected and about Nazi bureaucracy and red-tape not making use of genuine intelligence that could have helped them win the war. Source author Moyzisch reportedly hated the spineless depiction of him in the movie, but that's his own affair. James Mason leads as the valet, charming and handsome as always, wickedly amusing. Action takes place in a neu8tral zone, where people entertain Allied and Axis ambassadors, sometimes together and sometimes through hurried entrance-exit arrangements, making for a unique comedy of manners about diplomacy amidst, you know, global horror and genocide. Surprised this wasn't a bigger thing.

Deadline - U.S.A.
release: March 14
dir/scr: Richard Brooks
pr: Sol C. Siegel
cin: Milton R. Krasner

With his newspaper on the brink of being sold and shut down, an editor figures, "what the hell" and devotes his resources to taking down a local crime boss. Some good lines: "A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness." "It may not be the oldest profession, but it's the best." " Bogart makes for a convincing crusader, Ed Begley's a great sidekick, Audrey Christie brings tough fun as the lady reporter who can hang with and best the boys. Cool flick.

My Six Convicts
release: March 20
dir: Hugo Fregonese
scr: Michael Blankfort, from the book by Donald Powell Wilson
cin: Guy Roe

Inspired by a true story, a prison psychologist tries to make a difference in six convicts' lives.  Millard Mitchell has the biggest role and gives the best performance as a genius lifer who commands respect and becomes the psychologist's greatest ally. Honest about the system as more about punishment and confinement than it is rehabilitation, but has the ray of hope, of course, in the psychologist's gradual progress with some of his six. Yeah, gradual, but still progress. A nice movie.

The Sniper
release: March 20
nominations: Best Motion Picture Story
dir: Edward Dmytryk
pr: Stanley Kramer
scr: Harry Brown, story by Edna Anhalt and Edward Anhalt
cin: Burnett Guffey

Can you believe, it's about an incel who uses a gun to take out his frustrations with women? Guess that's always been a problem! So, yeah, frighteningly timeless, and without the concrete psychobabble of, say, Psycho to explain and comfort us. There are references to his mother, there are some vague theories bandied about, but overall there's a sense of helplessness, of doom, of a world that's lost its mind. Bummer. Good movie.

Tomorrow, the moderate success that eventually became a classic...and the most famous film of 1952!
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