1958-1962: Musicals, comedy, a religious drama plus a spectacular adventure win

Four of the five best picture Oscar winners between 1958-1962 were big picture productions, including two musicals. The fifth was a comedy.

Gigi, 1958, directed by Vincente Minnelli.

Thank heaven for musicals like “Gigi,” the 1958 winner of the Oscar for best  picture.

And for director Vincente Minnelli  it meant another Oscar for best picture.

The story surrounds young a Parisian girl being trained to be a “courtesan,” but finds herself drawn to a man known to be a womanizer.

The New York Times reviewer in 1958 wrote, “There won’t be much point in anybody trying to produce a film of ‘My Fair Lady’ for awhile because  (producer) Arthur Freed has virtually done it with ‘Gigi.'” Actually, “My Fa Lady” became a film and won an Oscar for best picture in 1964. More about that movie in a future post.

Aside from the similarity to “My Fair Lady,” “Gigi” was one of the first MGM films to be shot on location. The film is filled with tributes to the French lifestyle.

The memorable songs for this movie include “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” and “I Remember It Well.”

The cast includes Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan, Hermione Gingold and Eva Gabor. The screenplay’s music by Frederick Loewe and lyrics and screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner.

Other competitors for the 1958 Oscar included “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the Defiant Ones.”

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Charlton Heston in Ben Hur

Ben Hur, 1959, directed by William Wyler

Though many watch this just for the chariot race or watch it as their Easter weekend tradition, “Ben Hur” also is a powerful, deeply religious, nearly four-hour long movie that is rich enough in detail to merit several viewings.

Although this movie is largely a Christian movie, agnostics, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and others can find meaning in this William Wyler-directed extravaganza. It’s about learning to forgive, being loyal to one’s family, the healing power of belief and, of course, about the story of Jesus Christ as viewed by the author, and about the clashes between the Jews and the occupying Romans.

Although based on Civil War Gen. Lew Wallace’s novel, the story had previously been produced on stage (no kidding) and in films. But this version was the most spectacular yet.

For this writer growing up in Louisville, Ky., this move was such a spectacular for our family that we had to see it in one of the fancy downtown movie theaters, not one of the usual drive-ins where we could bring our beverages and homemade popcorn.  If we wanted popcorn, we would have to buy it at the Brown Theater concession stand.

The outstanding cast for this movie included Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Sam Jaffee, Haya Harareet, and Hugh Griffith.

Other 1959 competitors for the honor included “Anatomy of a Murder,” “The Diary of  Anne Frank” and “Room at the Top.”

The Apartment, 1960, directed by Billy Wilder.

“The Apartment,” the 1960 Academy best picture is both a comedy and a morality tale about assisting others’ infidelity.

Under the direction of “all-star” director Billy Wilder, the film involves a bachelor (Jack Lemmon) who turns over the key to his apartment to the hierarchy of his employers,  a situation he doesn’t like. When gives the key to one boss (Fred MacMurray), he finds that the woman (Shirley MacLaine) he brings is someone Lemmon’s character knows and is attracted to.

Lemmon drew high praise for his performance in this part, following his starring role in “Some Like it Hot.” A New York Times critic wrote Lemmon “takes precedence as our top comedian by virtue of his work in this film.”

This was quite a different role for MacMurray, whom some of us were just getting to know as the dad in “My Three Sons.”

Other contenders for best picture in 1960 included “The Alamo,” “Elmer Gantry” and “The Sundowners.”

West Side Story, 1961, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.

Academy Award winning best picture “West Side Story” is one of the best-loved musicals even by those shaking their heads at ballet-style dancing gang members.

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Loosely based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the story is about gang and ethnic conflicts on New York City’s West Side. A ground-breaking musical, the story follows the Jets and the Sharks as they fight for their turf while Maria and Tony fight for love.

The magnificent music is by Leonard Bernstein and  Stephen Sondheim. The cast includes Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn.

Other films nominated for the 1916 best picture Oscar were “Fanny,” “The Hustler,” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, David Lean

While based on a true story, David Lean’s Academy Award best-picture winning “Lawrence of Arabia” is about a descent into madness even though the basic story is a action-filled tale regarding how Brit T. E. Lawrence helped Bedouins in their battle  against the Turks during World. War I.

This spectacular movie needs to be seen on a big screen. The cinematography by David Lean’s crew is spectacular showing the beauty and terrors of the desert. It’s truly one of my favorite movies to watch, an intelligent and visual delight as nearly all of David Lean’s films were.

The descent into madness by Lawrence is exemplified by his increasingly dangerous tactics and even his seeming loss of identity. The movie is loosely based on T. E. Lawrence’s “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Although Lawrence is very heroic, he eventually starts to lose his British identity, takes more and more chances, wears Arab garb and takes on action in the desert that few would chance.

Lawrence is played marvelously by Peter O’Toole in his first major film. Others in this great cast include Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Omar Shariff, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains

Films competing with this Lean masterpiece for the 1962 best picture honor included “The Longest Day,” “The Music Man” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

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Coming soon: 1963-1967, the age of “They call me Mr. Tibbs,” “The Rain in Spain” and much more.

 

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1953-1957: Big stories on bigger screens

By the early 1950s, movie studio executives realized that television was a real competitor and they needed to take action to bring audiences back into the movie theaters.

The Turner Classic Movies documentary series “Moguls and Movie Stars” includes an episode on the period from 1950 to 1960 titled, “The Attack of the Small Screens.” Cinerama, Cinemascope and 3D were among the innovations the studios tried, but the solution was big stories told on the big screen in powerful ways.

Several of those big stories hit the big screen between 1953 and 1957.

Best Picture winners

 

“From Here to Eternity,” 1953, directed by Fred Zinnemann.

“From Here to Eternity” is a prime example of powerful film-making in the mid-1950s.

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The Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr kissing on the beach is one of the most famous kissing scenes in motion picture history and has been imitated and lampooned many times.

This Oscar Best Picture winner draws from the deep well of memories and emotions tied to the days before and day of the bombing of Pearl Harbor as well as its immediate impact. It’s a story of romance, ill-fated affairs, ladies of the evening’s hopes for the future, the military life, the masculine lifestyle and occasional cruelty of the early 1940s, all drawn from the 850-page novel by James Jones.

And, of course, it leads to the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to as “a day that will live in infamy,” the day of the surprise attack (at least to most people) on Pearl Harbor.

This film includes one of Frank Sinatra’s finest performances and it’s a non-musical role for the legendary singer. Others in the outstanding cast include Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, a gorgeous Donna Reed and many others in relatively minor roles who would become much better known over the years.

The Oscar Best Picture honor was a great choice by the Academy. Other contenders included “Julius Caesar,” “The Robe” and “Shane.”

“On the Waterfront,” 1954, directed by Elia Kazan.

The strikingly powerful, Oscar-winning “On the Waterfront” featured Marlon Brando’s greatest performance in a career filled with outstanding acting.

This story is about a dock worker who believes he could have been a champion boxer, but now is subject to the whims of a mob-run union* with which his brother has strong ties. Now, he faces major moral decisions.

Brando’s character is pulled in different directions by people including union bosses (including his brother) who want him not to talk to Congressional investigators and by a Roman Catholic priest and a love interest who want him to testify at a hearing.

In addition to Brando, the great cast includes Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger.

This movie won eight Oscars.

Other contenders for the Best Picture award included “The Caine Mutiny,” “Country Girl” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

On the Waterfront
Terry (Marlon Brando), right, tells his brother (played by Rod Steiger) that his life could have been better. “You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money. You don’t understand. I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” 

 

“Marty,” 1955, directed by Delbert Mann.

The Oscar-winning picture “Marty” was a nice, relatively small movie compared to the other four films that won that award between 1953 and 1957. The competition for the award wasn’t as strong as in some previous years.

The story was adapted for the big screen from a television play written by Paddy Chayefsky. It is a story about a Bronx, N.Y., butcher played by Ernest Borgnine who unexpectedly finds love. He escapes family squabbles and finds the strength to escape from what he believes is a meaningless existence.

Borgnine won the best actor Oscar for his sensitive performance. Also in the cast were Betsy Blair, Joe Mantell and Esther Manciotti.

Other contenders for the 1955 best picture Oscar included “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” “Mr. Roberts,” and “Picnic.”

Around the World in 80 Days, 1956, directed by Michael Anderson.

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From left, Shirley MacLaine, David Niven and Cantinflas while trying to travel around the world in 80 days.

“Around the World in 80 days” is a rollicking, Oscar Best Picture winning adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. It’s a lot more fun than many Best Picture winners, even though some critics claim it has lost much of its charm over the years.

David Niven heads up the extraordinary cast that includes some new stars in major roles and several existing stars in cameo roles. The other stars in this film included Shirley MacLaine in another breakout role (after winning a Golden Globe award earlier for her part in The Trouble with Harry), the outstanding comic Cantinflas, and Robert Newton. The cameos included Buster Keaton, John Gielgud, Robert Morley, Marlene Dietrich and even Frank Sinatra.

Set in the 19th century, the story is about an Englishman’s bet that he could travel around the world in 80 days. The means of traveling around the world in this pre-airplane and pre-automobile era were by ships, trains, stage coaches, hot air balloon and even elephants.

If you get a chance to see this on the big screen or even a 4K Ultra HD or HD television, go for it..

Other contenders in 1956 included “Giant,” “The King and I” and “The Ten Commandments.”

“The Bridge on the River Kwai,” 1957, directed by David Lean.

I confess “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is one of my all-time favorite films, at least in my top 50. I like it so much that when I saw it was available on 4k Ultra HD, I ordered it.

It is a big screen extravaganza with big messages about the madness of war. Toward the end of the movie, a doctor calls what has happened “madness.” Directed by David Lean, one of the all-time great directors, his “Lawrence of Arabia,” which won another best picture Oscar in 1962, also showed a major character’s descent into madness. More about that in a future post.

The madness here is not just the Japanese forcing British prisoners of war to build a bridge, but a British colonel played by Alec Guinness who persuades the Japanese to let the British control the building of the bridge. The colonel believes that activity will keep up morale for his fellow British soldiers, whom had been ordered to surrender by the British hierarchy.

In the meantime, a former American prisoner of war (played powerfully by William Holden) who had escaped the inescapable island is recruited to join a British team that intends to blow up the bridge.

By the way, there is a great deal of similarity between the POW camp commanders’ warning/welcome to the new POWs in Bridge and the Klingon commander’s warning to Capt. James T. Kirk and Dr. Leonard McCoy in “The Undiscovered Country” when they arrive as prisoners on an icy planet that is known as being an alien graveyard. What the Japanese commander first warns and decades later the Klingon warns is that there are no guard towers because there is no need for them. If you check out the two scenes, you will be struck by the similarities.

In addition to Holden and Guinness, the outstanding cast included Jack Hawkins (no known relation), Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald and Geoffrey Home.

The other contenders included (who didn’t really have much of a chance against Bridge) Peyton Place, Sayonara, Twelve Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution.

 

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*A personal note: this writer believes unions have done much more good than harm, even though that doesn’t apply to all unions. The writer and his family members have benefited from what his father earned because of his union.