1948-1952: An era of giants

From 1948-1952, giants of the entertainment world — including the motion picture –industry played prominent parts in the movies that won the Academy Award for best picture.

Those names would include Laurence Olivier, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Cecile B. DeMille, Charlton Heston, Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli, Leslie Caron, Anne Baxter, and in a relatively minor role Marilyn Monroe.

Even William Shakespeare got in on the action.

“Hamlet,” 1948, directed by Laurence Olivier.

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Laurence Olivier in Hamlet

This Oscar-winning version of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” was the first time one of The Bard’s great plays received the Academy Award for best picture.

This production was a creation of Laurence Olivier who directed the movie and played Hamlet. The film version was shortened considerably from the four-hour play to 153 minutes. Shot in Denmark, it was lauded for its photography.

In case this is new to you,  the story is about the prince (Hamlet) “who just couldn’t decide” and was seeking revenge for the death of his father.

The great cast included Jean Simmons, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Stanley Holloway, Eileeen Herlie, Basil Sydney and Felix Aylmer.

Among other nominees for the top prize were”The Red Shoes” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

“All the King’s Men,” 1949, directed by Julian Jarrold

Based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren, this incredible political drama is the fictional story of a politician who rises to the governorship fighting corruption but then falls to the same demons.

The movie and book are supposedly based on the life and death of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, who called himself “The KIngfish.” He served as the governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and as a member of the United State Senate from 1932 until his assassination in 1935. There’s also a bit of Major League Baseball Commissioner and former Kentucky Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler in the character, but Chandler wasn’t assassinated.

Set in the depression era, it starred Broderick Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, John Ireland, Joanne Dru and John Derek (future director/photographer and husband of Ursula Andress, Linda Evans, and Bo Derek). This was a big break for Crawford whom many of us boomers remember from the “Highway Patrol” TV series.

A remake in 2006 starring Sean Penn doesn’t have quite the same power as the original.

Other contenders for the 1949 top picture Oscar included “A Letter to Three Wives” and “Twelve O’Clock High.”

 

“All About Eve,” 1959, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewciz

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Anne Baxter, left, and Bette Davis talk in “All About Eve.” Also pictured, from left, are George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe and Hugh Marlowe.

“A’ll About Eve” is the ultimate backstage drama with Anne Baxter’s character taking over the Broadway role and life of aging star Bette Davis’ character .

In addition to Davis and Baxter, the great cast of this best picture winner includes  George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill and Thelma Ritter. Marilyn Monroe also appears in several scenes.

This movie deservedly won six Oscars. Among the other outstanding films competing for the best picture Oscar were “Born Yesterday,” “King Solomon’s Mine,” and “Sunset Boulevard.”

An American in Paris, 1951, directed by Vincente Minnelli

Best picture winner “An American in Paris” serves as a great showcase for the marvelous dancing skills of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in addition to the great music of Gershwin.

The plot involves Kelly, playing an artist in Paris, being torn between two women. The songs, choreography and production are what makes this a delight to watch, not the plot.

This is not this writer’s favorite Kelly musical. “On the Town” and “Singin’ in the Rain” rank higher on my list of favorite Kelly musical vehicles. Yet, it is an outstanding film, worth watching several times if you appreciate great productions.

Other nominees for the best picture Oscar included “A Street Named Desire” and “A Place in the Sun.”

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Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron  in “An American in Paris.”

The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952, directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

This Oscar winner might have been about the greatest show on Earth, but it wasn’t the greatest movie of 1952.

“The Greatest Show on Earth” is a romance and fugitive story under a circus big top. This film lives up to Cecil B. DeMille’s reputation as a fabulous creator of big productions.

The outstanding cast includes Jimmy Stewart. Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston and Dorothy LaMour.

This writer’s problem isn’t that this is a bad film, but that there were better movies nominated for the 1952 Academy Award for best picture. Those included “High Noon,” “The Quiet Man,” and “Moulin Rouge.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1943-1947: Top films offer heroic tales, address social issues, entertain

Of the five Academy Award best picture winners between 1943 and 1947, three of them dealt with major social issues, one was set during World War II and the other was a rather light musical comedy.

These films made a mark for themselves when they won the Oscar for best picture and several of them still are regarded in February 2017 as cinematic landmarks.

Casablanca, 1943, directed by Michael Curtiz

Casablanca

In 1996, an American Film Institute poll of a jury of film artists, critics and historians determined that “Casablanca” was the second greatest American film of all time (“Citizen Kane” first). Ten years later, Casablanca was voted the third greatest.

Why the acclaim for this 1943, Warner Brothers wartime film?

The now-late film critic Roger Ebert wrote that although Casablanca was going to be an “A-list” title for Warner Brothers, it wasn’t expected to be a great movie.

“If,” however, Ebert wrote, “we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and woman who are in love and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is able to imagine not only winning the love of Bogart or Ingrid Bergman but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.”

The film is appealing on so many levels. It has a great dramatic story, humor, romance and is richly evocative of that time in World War II. The great cast of Bogart, Bergman, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and Dooley Wilson doesn’t hurt either. And, all politics aside, I am so grateful that Bogie got the part of Rick rather than Ronald Reagan.

Going My Way, 1944, directed by Leo McCarey.

This musical comedy features singer/actor Bing Crosby at near the height of his popularity. It was the prequel to the better known today “Bells of St. Mary,” but “Going My Way” took the Oscar for best picture unlike “Bells.”

Of the five winners between 1943 and 1947, “Going My Way” is the most lightweight. In addition to the best picture honor, “Going My Way” star Bing Crosby won best actor, McCarey took the top director prize and the charming “Swinging on a Star” was selected as the best song.

The rather simple story involves a progressive priest assigned to a downtrodden parish who works to get the parish out of debt but clashes with an elderly curate.

Also competing for the 1944 top motion picture honor were “Double Indemnity,” “Gaslight” and “Wilson.”

“The Lost Weekend,” 1945, directed by Billy Wilder

Nearly 30 years before former Beatle John Lennon suffered his “lost weekend” in Los Angeles, the award-winning movie “The Lost Weekend” delivered a powerful tale of how alcoholism ruins lives.

Ray Milland and Howard da Silva in “The Lost Weekend.”

Ray Milland plays the alcoholic writer whose struggle we witness over five days. In 1945, a New York Times reviewer called the film a shatteringly realistic and morbidly fascinating film. …An illustration of a drunkard’s misery that ranks with the best and most disturbing character studies ever put on the screen. …We would not recommend this picture for an gay evening on the town. But it is certainly an overwhelming drama which every adult moviegoer should see.

The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946, directed by William Wyler

The winner of eight Academy Awards (including an honorary one), “The Best Years of Our Lives” is a film about three veterans returning to the same hometown from World War II. Even before the post traumatic stress syndrome term emerged during and after the Vietnam War, this movie illustrated the physical and psychological traumas facing a middle-aged lieutenant, an air officer and a sailor who has lost both of his hands.

Directed by Wyler and written by Robert E. Sherwood, the nearly three-hour long movie achieves “some of the most beautiful and inspiring demonstrations of human fortitude that we have had in films,” a Times critic wrote in 1946.

Stars in the film include Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews. Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo and Hoagy Carmichael. Among others competing for the top film honor that year were “Henry V” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947, directed by Elia Kazan

In “Gentleman’s Agreement,” a magazine writer, played by Gregory Peck, pretends he is Jewish and tells people he knows that he’s Jewish after he agrees to write a series of articles about anti-Semitism. His life changes in unexpected ways and almost destroys several relationships.

This was Hollywood’s first major attack on anti-Semitism and is a powerful indictment on that cancer. It was richly deserving of the top picture honor.

Also competing for the best picture honor in 1947 were “The Bishop”s Wife.” “Great Expectations” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

John Garfield and Gregory Peck in “A Gentleman’s Agreement.

Enter the ‘Golden Age’ of Oscar winners

The veritable explosion of great films beginning in the late 1930s earned that era the “golden age” of Hollywood tag. And many of the great films from that time wouldn’t be truly recognized for their artistry until many years later. The next five Oscar best picture winners described below are what was regarded as the cream of the crop.

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Among “You Can’t Take it With You” cast were, from left, Lionel Barrymore, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold.

You Can’t Take it With You,” 1938, directed by Frank Capra.


A great comedy with tremendous cast directed by Frank Capra was the second best picture Oscar he won. The tremendous cast included Jimmy Stewart, Jean  Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Mischa Auer, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, H.B. Warner and Dub Taylor. It was adapted from a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play. Part of that adaptation included changing the play to allow Lionel Barrymore, who had a broken hip, to perform in a wheelchair. The highly entertaining film is about a man from a family of uptight, rich snobs who becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family.

The competition for the 1938 honor was considerable-. It included “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Boy”s Town,” and the French classic “Grand Illusion.

 

“Gone with the Wind,” 1939, directed by Victor FlemingEPSON MFP image

“Gone with the Wind” is more than just the third movie Clark Gable starred in that won the best picture honor in the 1930s. It was a landmark film with some flaws that are rarely discussed.

This sweeping drama was the first Oscar winner released fully in color and it makes spectacular use of that palette. It would be several years before another movie in color won the best picture honor. At nearly four hours long, the film included an intermission and that was the case when this writer took a field trip while in high school to a downtown Louisville, Ky., (when downtowns still had theaters) movie theater and decades later at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

In case you haven’t read or heard, “Gone with the Wind” is the story of how the lives of southern aristocratic, slave-owning, plantation owners changed from the pre-Civil War days, during the war and after it. It’s a story of troubled romances, suffering and a change in lifestyle that some suspected would never happen.

The problem is the strong anti-union sentiment, the phony portrayal of the supposedly fine lives for slaves, a sympathetic nod to the Ku Klux Klan and terrible negative stereotypes of blacks.

That’s not to detract from the power of the film nor its great cast that includes Gable, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel and Thomas Mitchell.

The competition for the 1939 honor was top notch. Those other films included “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Wuthering Heights.”

“Rebecca,” 1940, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Despite his tremendous influence on film and the great library of films he created, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” was his only movie that won the best picture Oscar. That same year another of his films, “Foreign Correspondent,” also was nominated for best picture.

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Alfred Hitchcock,, left, with “Rebecca” stars Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier.

 

The extraordinary cast included Lawrence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, and Nigel Bruce. The story involves an unsophisticated, self-conscious bride who is tormented by the memory of her moody and prominent country gentleman husband’s dead first wife.  In addition to Hitchcock’s other film, the competition in 1940 include “The Grapes of Wrath,” Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and “The Philadelphia Story.”

“How Green Was My Valley,” 1941, directed by John Ford. 

One of great director John Ford’s greatest motion pictures, “How Green was My Valley” may be one of the most underappreciated winners of the Academy Award for best picture. In 1941, a New York Times critic called the movie “a picture of great poetic charm and dignity, a picture rich in visual fabrications and in the vigor of its imagery.” The movie is a story about a group of Welsh mining people, their families’ lives and a few sturdy leaders. It’s a story about how black coal darkened the lives of those who mined it and the destruction to the verdant valley in which they live.

The cast includes Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp and Roddy McDowell. Once again in this golden era, there were several outstanding films that lost out to the winning film. Those competitors included “Citizen Kane,” regarded by many critics and cinematic enthusiasts as the greatest picture of all time; “Here Comes Mr. Jordan;” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Sgt. York” and “Suspicion.”

 

Mrs. Miniver,” 1942, directed by William Wyler

Starring an always impressive Greer Garson, “Mrs. Miniver” was made during World War II. It shows the cruel effect total war has upon civilized people. The New York Times critic wrote in 1942, “It is the finest film made yet about the present war and a most exalting tribute to the British people who have taken it gallantly.” Garson is magnificent as Mrs. Miniver whose family lives in a small English town before the war sends members away. Her character’s strength even shines when she encounters a German flier in her home. In addition to Garson, the cast includes Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Reginald Owen and  Henry Travers, The other competitors for the 1942 Oscar included “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Pride of the Yankees,” “Talk of the Town” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

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Mr. and Mrs. Miniver with family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The early Oscar years of Capra, Gable and more

This is the second part of a multi-part series on the Academy Award best picture winners, reviewed chronologically.

 

“Cavalcade,” 1932-1933, directed by Frank Lloyd

Before this writer first watched “Cavalcade,” he had no idea what a great film this is. When it was released, it was regarded as a highly innovative film. In the late 20th century, a critic called it, “A truly remarkable film.” Adapted from Noel Coward’s London stage play, the film is richly textured with nostalgic and atmospheric elements along with an anti-war message. The movie is a story of two families from the eve of the 20th century until the 1930s and how their way of life changes.

Cavalcade

 

“It Happened One Night,” 1934, directed by Frank Capra

This comedy was the first of Frank Capra’s films to win the Oscar for best film. It also features the first of several movies starring Clark Gable that won the best picture. What really makes this film work is the chemistry between Claudette Colbert, starring as an heiress running away to avoid a marriage, and Gable, a newspaper reporter running after a story.

Claudette Colbert shows Clark Gable in “It Happened One Night” her successful hitch-hiking technique.

“Mutiny on the Bounty,” 1935, directed by Frank Lloyd

This was director Frank Lloyd’s second best picture Oscar honor and the second consecutive movie starring Clark Gable that won the honor.The story regards a mutiny against tyrannical Capt.Bligh, played by Charles Laughton, and a mutiny led by Fletcher Christian, Gable’s role. It is the best of the multiple version of the story.

Capt. Bligh and Fletcher Christian confer.

“Great Ziegfeld,” 1936, directed by Robert Z. Leonard

This bio-pic about the colorful showman Florenz Ziegfeld is an immensely entertaining movie despite the downturn Ziegfeld faces. The outstanding cast includes William Powell, Myrna Loy, Fannie Brice, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger.

“The Life of Emile Zola,” 1936, directed by William Dieterle

You could call this powerful film a bio-pic, but it’s much more than that. The New York Times critic in 1937 wrote, “Rich, dignified, honest and strong, it is at once the finest historical film ever made and the greatest screen biography.” The movie focuses on French writer Emile Zola’s crying out against the injustice that caused Capt. Dreyfus to be exiled. Paul Muni stars as Zola.

 

Emile Zola, played by Paul Muni, takes the stand in a French courtroom.

And in the beginning: First Academy Award best picture winners

This is the first part of a multi-part series on the Academy Award best picture winners, reviewed chronologically beginning with “Wings,” the first winner.

“Wings,” 1927, directed by  William Wellman

Unlike some later best picture winners, “Wings” was truly deserving. It was the only silent picture to win the honor until 2011 when “The Artist” (except for a single scene of dialog and a dream sequence with sound effects in the  2011 film) won the Oscar. “Wings” aerial scenes are still impressive 90 years later. Stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who would marry Mary Pickford a decade later, and Clara Bow, the “it” girl, were part of cast. In a brief appearance as a doomed pilot,  future star Gary Cooper had one of his first significant roles. What helped make all of this work was a  director who had been a pilot and was a wing-walking stunt pilot before his movie career took off.

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“Wings”

The Broadway Melody,” 1929, directed by Harry Beaumont

It was a surprise to at least some later day critics that this film won the best picture trophy. Referred to as the prototype of backstage musicals, “Broadway Melody” was described by one critic as suffering from “stolid acting and awkward sound techniques.” Film aficionados will note, however, that this was the first MGM movie featuring a “Singin’ in the Rain” number.

“All Quiet on the Western Front,” 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone

This drama is listed in the “New York Times Guide to the Best Movies Ever Made.” Based on a book by Erich Maria Remarque, “All Quiet on the Western Front” drew praise from the opening night reviewer for The Times who wrote, “Truth comes to the fore when the young soldiers are elated at the idea of joining up, when they are disillusioned, when they are hungry, when they are killing rats in a dugout, when they are shaken by fear, and when they, or one of them, becomes fed up with the conception of war held by the elderly man back home. …Often the scenes are of such excellence that if they were not audible one might believe that they were actual motion pictures of activities behind the lines, in the trenches and in No Man’s Land.”

Cimarron,” 1931, directed by Wesley Ruggles

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This is the worst movie to win the best picture honor, in this writer’s opinion. It’s a well intentioned movie with an interesting story based on the novel by Edna Farber. The story is about a newspaper editor who moves to a booming town in 1889 with his wife and what happens over the next 40 years. It is a western/soap opera that suffers from awful acting, huge plot holes and racist overtones. It also tells us how much our tastes have changed over the years.  The movie does star popular actors Richard Dix and Irene Dunne.

“Grand Hotel.” 1932, directed by Edmund Goulding

Originally a stage play, this is a truly great movie featuring such stars as Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Wallace Berry. This is a tale regarding strangers whose lives cross during their stay at the Grand Hotel in Berlin.

The Grand Hotel is supposedly a place where nothing ever happens but by the time the guests have checked out, the audience will see manslaughter, gambling, a baron seeking to steal pearls, love affairs, business dealings and more.

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Greta Garbo and John Barrymore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Academy Award best picture history preview

Within the next few days, this site will feature brief reviews and descriptions of every winner of the Academy Award for best picture beginning with “Wings” through “How Green Was My Valley, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “Ben Hur,” “My Fair  Lady,, ” “The Godfather,” “Chariots of Fire,” “The King’s Speech” and ending with “Moonlight,” last year’s winner.Pop corn with soda and movie shows

This include references to some controversies, what made the winners special. It will be  a great way to get ready for this March’s presentation and generate a good bit of conversation.

The writer has collected every movie that has won this top award and is a self proclaimed movie junkie.

Waiting to discover more about new Trek series

Two episodes aren’t enough to determine whether one should continue to buy “Star Trek: Discovery” from CBS All Access for $5.99 per month, but there are several indicators that make watching at the least next few episodes an attractive idea.

The first two episodes show promise, but also raise serious issues for some Trek enthusiasts such as at least one major variance with Star Trek canon.

While the first episode aired on CBS’ broadcast outlets, the second is only available from CBS All Access online service. In addition to Star Trek, nearly the entire catalog of old and new CBS programming is available through the subscription service. This writer didn’t sign up for the service for the other programming, only the exclusive online availability of the new Star Trek.

Probably the first thing that viewers will notice is that they won’t see the Discovery in either of the first two episodes. The action occurs outside the spaceships and  inside the U.S.S. Shenzou and a Klingon ship. You will see a multitude of Federation and Klingon ships in battle scenes, but they are part of the ensemble in support roles for the central antagonists.

From the first,scene, it appears Klingons will play a major if not dominant role in the new series. The new series begins with a fierce speech by a Klingon chieftain trying to rally the other tribes, getting ready to deal with the humans. In his words (translated in subtitles), the most dangerous words are, “We come in peace.”

The Klingon ship is inside Federation territory.

While patrolling Federation space, the Chenzou encounters an object of unknown origin in the same vicinity. Commander Michael Burnham, a human raised by Vulcans, persuades her captain to let her take a space walk to find what the object is.

While on the surface of this object, Burnham encounters a Klingon and the result is a death. That death leads to a violent conflict between the two enemy empires.

Upon her return to Chenzou, Burnham is treated for exposure to massive levels of radiation. She, however, runs from her bed to warn the captain that the Klingons are coming and the Federation ship should attack before it is attacked, employing a strategy referred to as “The Vulcan hello.”

A conflict develops between Burnham and the captain, longtime friends on the starship, and Burnham is sent to the brig.

As the battle ensues, Burnham finds herself in deeper trouble. By the second episode, Burnham is tried and convicted and locked up.

If you haven’t seen the first two episodes, I’ve already given you several spoilers, but I will hold back on sharing other tidbits.

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There are other items of note. One is the clear violation of Trek canon by the use of holograph technology. This show takes places before The Original Series and in the Trek timeline follows Star Trek Enterprise. On the timeline, the Next Generation followed the Original Series.

There was no use of holography by the Federation before the Next Generation. If one checks out the relatively new “Star Trek Encyclopedia” by Denise and Michael Okuda, there are lots of listings for various types of holographic imaging.

There are, however, no uses of that technology by the except by the Romulans in two Enterprise episodes. In “Babel One” and “United,” the Romulans used holographic projectors to create skins for ships  that would make them appear of any design. And that’s it until  Next Generation. …

The technical prowess of the new series is undeniable. Yet, many questions remain that need to be answered.

One concern about the new series is the role of Klingons. Michael Dorn, who starred as the Klingon Worf, reportedly had pitched a series idea to CBS about Klingons.

I certainly hope this series isn’t just about the conflicts with the Klingons. There is so much to explore and discover in the universe before the Original Series.

I guess we will start to discover that as we watch the future episodes.