Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron enjoying themselves in An American in Paris (1951)

The 24th annual Academy Awards for the film year 1951.  The nominations were announced on February 11, 1952 and the awards were held on March 20, 1952.

Best Picture:  An American in Paris

  • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • A Place in the Sun
  • Decision Before Dawn
  • Quo Vadis

Most Surprising Omission:  The African Queen

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Strangers on a Train

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #57

The Race: The two most critically acclaimed films of the year were drenched in lust and corruption: George Stevens’ film version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, A Place in the Sun, and Elia Kazan’s production of Tennessee Williams’ hit play A Streetcar Named Desire.  Both were black-and-white and both had a hard time getting by the censors, but driven by great scripts and phenomenal acting, both became big hits and were headed towards awards attention.  The major challengers were the big MGM musical, An American in Paris, which had is studio backing it to the hilt, William Wyler’s gritty film, Detective Story and the new John Huston film, The African Queen.  MGM also decided to try to put some attention to its huge epic Quo Vadis.

A Place in the Sun won the first victory, winning Best Picture from the National Board of Review in mid-December.  Streetcar, An American in Paris, Detective Story, Quo Vadis and the new Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train all managed to make the top 10 list (African Queen was released too late for consideration).  Their Best Director went to Akira Kurosawa for his international hit, Rashomon, but it wouldn’t be Academy eligible until the following year.  The New York Film Critics went with Streetcar, which many of the critics were familiar with from Broadway, also giving it Director and Actress.  The Directors Guild pushed their annual award up, this time only having three nominees (the winners of the quarterly awards): Stevens, Hitchcock and Vincente Minnelli (for An American in Paris).  Stevens took home the prize.  A Place in the Sun continued its winning ways by taking home the Writers Guild Award, but An American in Paris took home the award for Musical.  Those same two films would then go on to win Best Picture at the Globes for their respective categories.  But Laslo Benedek won Best Director for Death of a Salesman, officially splitting all of the precursor awards for Best Director.

The Results: Detective Story and The African Queen were both up for 4 Oscar, including Actress, Director and Screenplay, but were pushed out of the Best Picture race by Quo Vadis and the surprise World War II film, Decision Before DawnStreetcar held the lead with 12 nominations, but A Place in the Sun was the betting favorite with 9 nominations.  On the night of the awards, things went as planned for most of the night.  Place won 6 Oscars, including Director and Screenplay while Streetcar had a monopoly on the acting awards, taking home three.  But then Streetcar failed to complete the sweep when Humphrey Bogart won Best Actor.  Then, even more surprisingly, An American in Paris, which had won 5 Oscars already, somehow came away with the Best Picture prize.  For the third time in four years, a film had won Director and Screenplay and failed to take home Best Picture.

An American in Paris: one of the most surprising winners

An American in Paris

  • Director:  Vincente Minnelli
  • Writer:  Alan Jay Lerner
  • Producer:  Arthur Freed
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Nina Foch
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography (Color), Scoring of a Musical Picture, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Release Date:  4 October 1951
  • Box Office Gross:  $4.50 mil
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #24  (year)  /  #349  (nominees)  /
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup

The Film:  “Why is he so interested in the weird-looking girl?  The blonde sitting next to him is so much better looking.”  That’s my wife speaking, not that I’m going to disagree.  Leslie Caron is decidedly odd-looking and that she should so inspire the fierce passions of Gene Kelly, Louis Jourdan and Horst Buchholz in two Best Picture winners and a Best Picture nominee is outside of my scope of understanding.  But then, there are many things about this film that kind of boggle my mind.

The first is the long ballet sequence.  I’m not a fan and to me it really kind of makes the film come to a standstill.  But the film never really gets going for me.  The songs are okay, but none of them really speak to me.  The performance by Gene Kelly is okay, but not on the level of pure joy and energy like he would give the next year in Singin in the Rain (did that film suffer a backlash from this one, perhaps, not earning major nominations because this one somehow managed to win Best Picture over vastly better films that had been predicted to win?).  There really isn’t much to the plot (poor painter finds a sponsor who is interested in him, but he is interested in a young French woman who isn’t interested in him), yet somehow it also won the Oscar.  This was not a great year for original scripts, as most of the best films were adapted (Streetcar, Place, Detective Story, African Queen, Oliver Twist, Strangers on a Train, La Ronde), but Ace in the Hole most assuredly should have won.

It comes down to this.  This film is filled with energy and songs and dancing, but it lacks spark.  It isn’t nearly as good as Anchors Aweigh or Singin and it didn’t belong in the race, let alone to steal Best Picture away from Streetcar (or, more likely, Place).  It’s a good enough film.  It’s enjoyable.  But it’s not great and shouldn’t be here.

no film has better acting than A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

A Streetcar Named Desire

  • Director:  Elia Kazan
  • Writer:  Tennessee Williams  /  Oscar Saul  (from the play by Tennessee Williams)
  • Producer:  Charles K. Feldman
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando,  Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Brando), Actress (Leigh), Supporting Actor (Malden), Supporting Actress (Hunter), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Sound, Art Direction (Black-and-White), Costume Design (Black-and-White)
  • Oscar Note:  The first film to win 3 Acting Oscars.
  • Length:  125 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Tragedy)
  • Release Date:  18 September 1951
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #16  (nominees)  /  #20  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Brando), Actress (Leigh), Supporting Actor (Malden), Supporting Actress (Hunter), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Makeup

The Film:  When I first started writing about film with any regularity on this site, I began with lists of the 10 best performances of all-time in all four acting categories.  On all four lists was the same film: A Streetcar Named Desire.  Three of the performances won the Oscar (with ease – early polls showed that no one else was going to even be close).  As for the fourth? Well, Roger Ebert says it pretty well: “you could make a good case that no performance had more influence on modern film acting styles than Brando’s work as Stanley Kowalski, Tennessee Williams’ rough, smelly, sexually charged hero.”  Brando’s performance lead to James Dean (with a connection provided through director Elia Kazan) and Dean would lead to Newman and Beatty and down through the ages of great acting.  Brando revealed the naked emotion at the core of Stanley’s character and a new dawn had come to motion pictures, in much the same way that had come with the arrival of Citizen Kane.

Of course, Streetcar is more than just a single performance.  It is even more than four great performances.  They are among the greatest in all of film history and three of them won the Oscars and they all deserve to be remembered, but even great acting can not make a film into one of the greatest films of all-time.  It takes more than that.

It takes writing.  It starts with a play by one of the holy trinity of American playwrights, Tennessee Williams (I hope you don’t actually need me to tell you that the other two are Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller).  Not just any play, but his greatest play, one filled with amazing and tragic lines (Stanley’s desperate cry of “Stella!” may have been provided by Brando and directed by Kazan, but it was Williams who wrote the scene), most notably “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  Then there is the direction by Kazan, one of the great directors of all-time.  Watch on the restored DVD how Stella walks down the stairs after Stanley has called for her, watch the lust in her eyes and the way she draws Stanley to herself before he puts her over his shoulder.  It is Kazan’s direction that so masterfully makes this scene.  Certainly there was a large amount of talent involved, but it was Kazan who helped herald that into these performances, Kazan who helped Brando bring method acting to the forefront of the film world.

Of course the rest of the film is magnificently made.  This film, which could have been made in black-and-white, with brilliant sets (that I would give the Nighthawk Award to these sets over the amazing London scenes in David Lean’s Oliver Twist tell you how highly I think of them), the magnificent camerawork, especially in the great scene of Stella coming down the stairs and the fantastic music.  There is not a moment in this film which doesn’t work and if it is forced to truncate a few lines about the homosexuality of Blanche’s dead husband and to force a harder ending, those rules of the censors are still made to work in the film’s favor.  It makes harder and more subtle to a film already drenched in lust and degradation.

6 Oscars, including Director, but no Best Picture trophy for A Place in the Sun (1951)

A Place in the Sun

  • Director:  George Stevens
  • Writer:  Michael Wilson  /  Harry Brown  (from the play “An American Tragedy” by Patrick Kearney adapted from the novel by Theodore Dreiser)
  • Producer:  George Stevens
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, Elizabeth Taylor
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Clift), Actress (Winters), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Costume Design (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  122 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Tragedy)
  • Release Date:  14 August 1951
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #162  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actress (Winters), Editing, Cinematography, Score

The Film:  “Theodore Dreiser should ought to write nicer,” Dorothy Parker famously quipped in the pages of The New Yorker.  She was commenting on his autobiography, but it could have easily applied to any of his books.  His epic An American Tragedy is nearly 900 pages long, the story of Clyde Griffiths, the young factory worker who accidentally kills the woman he has been sleeping with, though he had thought seriously about killing her.  The brilliance of A Place in the Sun is to eliminate most of the first half of the novel and reduce it to a two hour film.  It captures the emotions, the story, the power, without dragging it down in the kind of tedious naturalistic details that make Dreiser such a chore to trudge through.

A Place in the Sun changes the names of the characters but keeps the plot the same.  Montgomery Clift is George Eastman, a young relative of a rich factory owner who gets a job in the factory, starts sleeping with one of his co-workers, Al, impregnating her, then manages to gain entry into the rich social world of Angela Vickers, the beautiful young woman he idolizes.  When Al’s pregnancy threatens to derail his opportunities, he goes out with her on a lake, planning to kill her.  He decides not to, but then in an accident, she drowns in the lake.  He is eventually, after a sensational trial, convicted of her murder and goes to his execution as the film ends.

The film perfectly captures the naturalism of the novel.  The stark black-and-white photography helps contrast the dim work in the factory and the drudgery of George’s life with Al with the glorious social occasions with Angela.  Of course, the casting only added to that – contrasting the drab, mopey Shelley Winters (in one of the best performances of a career that would later include two Oscars) with the gorgeous, more vacuus Elizabeth Taylor.  George, as played by Montgomery Clift, is too weak to make a smart choice – he wants the money and he wants the beautiful girl.  The film moves along at a nice pace (so much better than the novel) and we can see the tragedy coming from a long way off.  So much smarter than a normal film, it ends the only way it can – with the poor pathetic wretch too weak to kill, instead dies.

the little film that could: Decision Before Dawn (1951)

Decision Before Dawn

  • Director:  Anatole Litvak
  • Writer:  Peter Viertel  (from the novel Call It Treason by George Howe)
  • Producer:  Anatole Litvak  /  Frank McCarthy
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Richard Basehart, Gary Merrill, Oskar Werner
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Editing
  • Oscar Note:  The first film of the 5 Best Picture Nominee Era to only receive 2 nominations
  • Length:  119 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War II)
  • Release Date:  21 December 1951
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #12  (year)  /  #281  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Sound Editing

The Film:  It came out of nowhere and almost disappeared back into nowhere.  When Decision Before Dawn opened just before Christmas in 1951, Darryl F. Zanuck pushed it with a glossy 12 page insert in the trade magazines.  Then, somehow, it made it into the Best Picture race over both Detective Story and The African Queen.  Yet, it only earned 2 nominations, for almost 50 years the only film in the 5 Best Picture nominee era to do so.  Then it just slipped away.  It never got a video release.  It was pretty much forgotten (it got a little bit of press in 1994 when Four Weddings and a Funeral finally joined it on the 2 nomination list).  It finally earned a DVD release in early 2006 (one of the first films I saw on Netflix, as I got Netflix at the same time the film finally came out), but even having been available on DVD for the last 4 years, it is one of only a handful of post-World War II films to have fewer than 1000 votes on the IMDb.

All of this is kind of tragic, because while it is not a better film than either Detective Story or African Queen, it is a very good film.  It takes place near the end of World War II and is about captured German soldiers who are recruited to spy on Germany for the American military.  It stars a young Oskar Werner in one of those complex roles that he would become more well known for in the sixties.  He faces the choice of being killed if caught by his own people or having his success buried among the rest of the records in the war.  There is no upside to his involvement, but he does what he feels he must.  It is shot in black and white, in a spare, almost documentary style (very much in the style of many of film noir mystery and crime films of the late 40’s and early 50’s).  It is well made, is stark and gritty, with good cinematography and sound.  It followed The Snake Pit and these were the two best films of Anatole Litvak, a director for 40 years who never quite made it to the top.

hours of hours of Robert Taylor: spare yourself from Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis

  • Director:  Mervyn LeRoy
  • Writer:  John Lee Mahin  /  S.N. Behrman  /  Sonya Levein  (from the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz)
  • Producer:  Sam Zimbalist
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Peter Ustinov, Finlay Currie
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Supporting Actor (Ustinov), Supporting Actor (Genn), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  171 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Roman Epic)
  • Release Date:  25 December 1951
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #56  (year)  /  #438  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Ustinov), Makeup

The Film:  It can be distracting when one member of the cast is so much better than everyone else.  It’s not that Peter Ustinov is great.  He is very good and very enjoyable and perfectly cast.  But it’s more than that.  Everyone else in the cast is so god damn awful.  Here we are, in the same year as A Streetcar Named Desire, the film that introduces modern acting, the best acted film in the history of cinema and it is nominated alongside this film filled with some of the most putrid acting around.  I will never understand how Robert Taylor became a star.  He didn’t have the charisma of someone like Charlton Heston.  He wasn’t as good looking as Tyrone Power.  He sure as hell couldn’t act.  What he could do was create a giant void in the center of a film for all the energy to bleed away.

Of course, Taylor is only part of the problem with this film.  The first problem was the novel that it was adapted from.  There are those who claim it is a classic, but I’m suspecting those people haven’t read it.  I tried to read it but I don’t put myself through the punishment of finishing a long dreadfully boring book anymore, so I gave up.  The film is the same way, except I can do other things while watching it, so it’s not a colossal waste of time.  It can just sit on in the background while I plow my way through a Sarah Vowell book that is far more interesting (Assassination Vacation, but all the Vowell books are more interesting than Quo Vadis).  But the script follows from the book and it’s dreadfully boring.  The main summary would be this: A Roman general falls in love with a Christian woman, pursuing her in spite of his best interests.  He eventually converts to Christianity after his life is spared by one of her fellow Christians.  This is set against a background of Nero’s neglect and eventual destruction of Rome and persecution of early Christians, including the crucifixion of Peter.  Taylor and Kerr eventually end up in the Coliseum, sentenced to death by Nero in spite of a Roman crowd that wants to spare them.  Things work out for them, of course, and they have a happy ending while Nero dies, too cowardly to even stab himself.

There are so many problems it’s hard to explicate them.  Taylor’s character seems driven by lust, but then suddenly seems to turn into love and he seems to go from Roman general to devout Christian in the space of about thirty seconds.  It’s not helped of course by the fact that he’s so wooden that there’s no reason to believe it (Richard Burton in The Robe does a much better job of converting).  And of course, Nero’s persecution of the Christians is so obscene, there is no question that they will find a happy ending for the film.  The problem is that Nero is the only interesting character and Ustinov is so good that any minute when he’s not on screen is wasted (even the beauty of Deborah Kerr can’t save what is possibly her worst performance).  It’s not just a Roman epic, it’s an epic waste of time.

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