Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) - the Best Picture winner that stunned everyone

The 25th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1952.  The nominations were announced on February 9, 1953 and the awards were held on March 19, 1953.

Best Picture:  The Greatest Show on Earth

  • High Noon
  • The Quiet Man
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Ivanhoe

Most Surprising Omission:  The Bad and the Beautiful

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Rashomon

Best Eligible English Language Film Not Nominated:  Singin in the Rain

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #68

The Race: The Greatest Show on Earth, the new Cecil B. DeMille film, opened the second week of the year, immediately became a huge hit and no one could catch up, even if the critics didn’t think much of it.  It was easily the biggest box office earner of 1952.  But the critics were heaping all their praise on High Noon, the new Western from producer Stanley Kramer and director Fred Zinnemann.  The critics loved it, but its fable about a man willing to take a courageous stand sat poorly with John Wayne, among many others, because the writer, Carl Foreman, had pleaded the Fifth in front of HUAC and fled to England.  John Wayne’s own film was the new John Ford comedy about Ireland: The Quiet Man, which was doing well with both critics and audiences.  Two more of the best films of the year were films about Hollywood: Singin in the Rain, which romanticized the early days of sound and The Bad and the Beautiful, which took a scalpel to the notion of such romanticism about the industry.  Finishing up the year were two new biopics from 1951 nominees: the Zapata biopic Viva Zapata from Elia Kazan starring Marlon Brando and Moulin Rouge, the new John Huston film, again opening just in time to qualify for the awards.

The National Board of Review went with The Quiet Man for Best Picture, but gave Best Director to David Lean for The Sound Barrier.  Their top 10 included High Noon, The Bad and the Beautiful and Singin in the Rain.  But the New York Film Critics went with High Noon for both Picture and Director.  None of the awards groups seemed to be able to agree on Best Director.  The Directors Guild went with John Ford and the Golden Globes went with Cecil B. DeMille.  The Writers Guild went with High Noon and The Quiet Man, and even threw a bone to Singin in the Rain, giving it Best Musical.  The Golden Globes were no help sorting things out, giving Best Picture – Drama to Greatest Show, but giving Best Picture – Comedy or Musical to With a Song in My Heart.  Of the major contenders, only High Noon and Singin scored Best Picture nominations, neither of which earned a Best Director nomination, though John Ford did.

The Results: Leading the way with 7 nominations each were High Noon, The Quiet Man and Moulin RougeThe Greatest Show on Earth was also in the running as was, surprisingly MGM’s Ivanhoe, which earned 3 nominations.  The Bad and the Beautiful, Viva Zapata and Singin in the Rain were relegated to other categories.  Going into the awards, Variety predicted that High Noon would win Best Picture.  But with John Ford so popular among directors (he would take home his fourth Best Director award) and with John Wayne encouraging people to oppose High Noon on political grounds, things went differently.  The Bad and the Beautiful won 5 Oscars, still a record for a film without a Best Picture nomination.  It would be the only film to ever win the Best Screenplay award without a Picture nomination (when it would become the Adapted Screenplay award later, it would happen twice more, but not until 1996) and would end up with the most awards of the night.  With no win for Director or Screenplay, High Noon was still in the lead among the Picture nominees with 4 Oscars, having won its other awards for the night.  But somehow, in the end, The Greatest Show on Earth took the prize, immediately beginning its reputation as one of the worst Best Picture winners of all-time.

one of the worst Best Picture winners of all-time: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show on Earth

  • Director:  Cecil B. DeMille
  • Writer:  Fredric M. Frank  /  Barre Lyndon  /  Theodore St. John  /  Frank Cavett
  • Producer:  Cecil B. DeMille
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, James Stewart, Gloria Grahame
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Motion Picture Story, Editing, Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  152 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  10 January 1952
  • Box Office Gross:  $36.0 mil  (#1 – 1952)
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #61  (year)  /  #449  (nominees)  /  #81  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Visual Effects, Makeup

The Film:  What is Gloria Grahame doing in this film?  I can understand James Stewart.  He’s just relaxing, enjoying himself, and besides, he’s hidden under all that makeup.  But Grahame is a real actress and shouldn’t be anywhere near crap like this.  In fact, in the same year that she starred in this, she was winning Best Supporting Actress for her amazing performance in The Bad and the Beautiful.

Unfortunately, the film drags Grahame down to the level with the rest of them.  And by the rest of them, I mean Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde.  At least Charlton Heston had a ton of charisma, even if he never did a whole lot of acting.  But Hutton, who could be well cast in a Preston Sturges comedy, never really had any talent and here she is just shrill and annoying.  And Wilde never had any talent whatsoever.  He just struts and struts and then pretty much struts some more.  And Dorothy Lamour doesn’t help.  All of them just seem to bring Grahame down to their level as she just hopes that Heston will notice that she is much, much more beautiful than Hutton, not to mention far less irritating.  Jimmy Stewart just seems to try to hide in the background.

All of this is set against a story that is pretty worthless.  Like King Solomon’s Mines, this would seem better if it were a documentary.  Then we could get an idea of what a circus is like, how much it could excite a small town, and the kind of amazing show it puts on.  But instead they try to give us a story and two and a half hours worth of story at that.  But the story is ridiculous, none of the characters are interesting, the film isn’t even particularly well-made (its two Nighthawk nominations stem more from the lack of other viable nominees than any particular quality involved.  But then, aside from being nominated in the first place (a testament to its sheer scope, size and box office gross), it somehow managed to win, perhaps because of the right wing attacks on High Noon and thus became one of the single worst winners in Oscar history instead of just one of the lesser choices for a nomination.

High Noon is still a classic, no matter what any current critic might think

High Noon

  • Director:  Fred Zinnemann
  • Writer:  Carl Foreman  (from the story “Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham)
  • Producer:  Stanley Kramer
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Cooper), Editing, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Song (“High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin)”)
  • Length:  85 min
  • Genre:  Western
  • Release Date:  30 July 1952
  • Box Office Gross:  $8.0 mil  (#3 – 1952)
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #85  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Cooper), Supporting Actress (Jurado), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing, Song  (“High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin)”)

The Film:  For some reason, there are major critics today who feel that this film has badly dated, that it doesn’t hold up as a classic Western in the way that say, Shane, does.  Foremost among those is Roger Ebert, partially because he is the foremost critic at work today.  But I don’t buy it.  Not for an instant.  In fact, in watching this film again, it seems to me that this film is better than ever (my low opinion of Shane isn’t relevant but it adds to the disagreement).

First, we can look at the film in context.  Carl Foreman, the writer of the film (it says it was based on a story, but Foreman actually wrote a separate script that had enough similarities to a previously published story that producer Stanley Kramer purchased the rights to the story to prevent any legal problems) was on the verge of being blacklisted.  He had written the film as a metaphor for what was going on in the Communist witch hunts at the time.  Cooper was a stand in for the few people, like Foreman, who refused to bow down and name names.  No matter that everyone in the town backs down and flees, he is determined to make a stand because it is the right thing to do and it is the only thing that he feels that he can do, even if it costs him his wife and even his life.  The film was so hated by John Wayne and Ward Bond that they worked hard to demonize it and were proud of getting Foreman banned (he fled to England after the film was made).  But this film has the courage of its convictions.  It knows what it wants to say and it says it well.

Now we can look at the film today.  The opening shots of the film perfectly establish it.  We have Lee Van Cleef, watching the horizon as the wonderful music comes on and then we see the rider in the distance (amazing how Van Cleef seems to be so much a part of this film when he doesn’t actually say a single line).  That wonderful song, written after the first preview to help move the action along during the slower moments in the film, works so amazingly well.  Not that there are many slow moments in the film.  At only 85 minutes, this film is perfectly constructed.  Not a single shot is wasted and not a single minute drags.  The film is anchored around the magnificent performance of Gary Cooper, the best performance of his career and one that rightfully won the Oscar.

So, why then does it so consistently come up short in the Nighthawk Awards?  How does it manage to garner 11 nominations but only one win?  Well, simple, really.  This is the same year as both Rashomon and Singin in the Rain.  It is a great film, an enduring classic that deserves all its accolades and should have won all of its Oscars.  Because, after all, Rashomon and Singin weren’t nominated for Picture or Director.

John Ford won a fourth Oscar for The Quiet Man (1952)

The Quiet Man

  • Director:  John Ford
  • Writer:  Frank S. Nugent  (from a story by Maurice Walsh)
  • Producer:  John Ford  /  Merian C. Cooper
  • Studio:  Republic
  • Stars:  John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (McLaglen), Cinematography (Color), Sound, Art Direction (Color)
  • Length:  129 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Release Date:  14 September 1952
  • Box Office Gross:  $7.6 mil  (#4 – 1952)
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #215  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Original Score

The Film:  Would the last act of this film work today?  There are two parts of it that equally would seem ridiculous if they were presented in a contemporary film.  And it hurts the film.  It doesn’t take knock out of the **** range.  It’s still a great film, but just barely hanging on to that.

First, we have John Wayne dragging his poor bride across several miles of Ireland.  She struggles to keep up, but keep up she must because he won’t stop pulling her along.  Then he throws her at the feet of her brother, denying her as his wife if he can’t have his dowry.  Of course, the film has been leading up to this.  Wayne plays Sean Thornton, an Irish born, American raised boxer who killed a man in the ring and has come back to Ireland to forget it and take over his old family homestead.  He immediately falls in love with his neighbor, must deal with the obnoxiousness of her brother and eventually wins over both.  But to do this, he must get that dowry, which her brother has refused to give.  So we have this scene, that looks so awful today, where he just keeps dragging her along, pulling her up, even if she can’t walk fast enough to keep up.

Then we have the fight.  The two men start beating each other into the ground.  The fight seems to go on forever, even pausing for a drink in the local pub.  Everyone in town seems determined to bet on the outcome.  But today, it just seems silly.  This isn’t how men react to being beaten.  They don’t seem to have any bruises, not even on their knuckles.  In the era of Fight Club, can you really watch this and think anything other than that it’s ridiculous?  Especially, given how long it goes on.

It’s a shame, because it’s a great film.  It’s filled with rich humor and charm, contains one of the most likable performances ever given by John Wayne, has a strong supporting performance from all of John Ford’s regulars and is heartily enjoyable.  Too bad about how much the ending seems so dated.

third time's a charm: John Huston gets a Best Picture nomination to go along with Best Director for Moulin Rouge (1952)

Moulin Rouge

  • Director:  John Huston
  • Writer:  John Huston  /  Anthony Veiller  (from the novel by Pierre La Mure)
  • Producer:  John Huston
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Jose Ferrer, Colette Marchand
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Ferrer), Supporting Actress (Marchand), Editing, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  119 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • Release Date:  23 December 1952
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #11  (year)  /  #246  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actress (Marchand), Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup

The Film:  Henri Toulouse-Latrec was a great artist, but as great as Van Gogh?  And Jose Ferrer is extremely good, but as good as Kirk Douglas?  And Colette Marchand was Oscar nominated but Anthony Quinn actually won the Oscar.  So why is it that Moulin Rouge is so much a better film than Lust for Life?  What is it about it that takes Moulin Rouge up to the ***.5 level, one of the better biopics of the 1950′s, while Lust for Life can’t rise above ***?

Perhaps it’s the direction.  Certainly the script is part of it.  Whichever answer is involved, it almost certainly has to do with John Huston, with his masterful control of film.  Huston is almost completely unique among the truly great directors, in that he was a writer-director, that same group of people that included Wilder, Allen, Bergman and Kurosawa.  However, unlike almost every other great writer-director, nearly all of his work was adapted.  He was the consummate adapter and his only two Oscar nominations for Original Screenplay were from his pre-director days.

Huston most certainly knew what kind of film he wanted to make and set about doing everything he needed to do it.  First, he did a magnificent job of casting Jose Ferrer as both the crippled artist and his authoritarian father.  Then he wrote the script in such a way that we get to experience the Moulin Rouge and all its splendor before we ever see the artist himself.  In fact, it’s quite a shock to see him for the first time, to see how small he is.  These days thanks to the newer Moulin Rouge there might be more people who know about Latrec, but it certainly was a shock to me the first time I saw the film, back in the nineties, and I think many will still be surprised.

Then there is the direction.  Huston fills the film with light and sound and the art is always the key to the film.  Latrec’s art comes alive and by seeing the wonders of his life: the dirty young woman that he falls so desperately in love with (played so wonderfully by Colette Marchand) and the dancers of the Moulin Rouge we can see where they come from.  The film is fascinating, all the way from those first wonderful moments when we see him at work before we actually see him until those final minutes when the characters of his life dance their way in a ghostly fashion past his deathbed.  The art isn’t just Latrec’s.  It’s also Huston’s.

yet another Robert Taylor film that didn't deserve its Best Picture nomination: Ivanhoe (1952)

Ivanhoe

  • Director:  Richard Thorpe
  • Writer:  Marguerite Roberts  /  Noel Langley  /  Aeneas MacKenzie  (from the novel by Sir Walter Scott)
  • Producer:  Pandro S. Berman
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Robert Taylor, Joan Fontaine, Elizabeth Taylor, George Sanders, Finlay Currie
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Cinematography (Color), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture
  • Length:  106 min
  • Genre:  Adventure
  • Release Date:  31 July 1952
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #47  (year)  /  #407 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  Imagine if The Adventures of Robin Hood had been made without the great fights, without the wonderful sense of humor, without any sense of adventure and with a star who had absolutely no charisma.  That should give you a pretty good idea of what Ivanhoe is like.  It stars Robert Taylor in another one of those performances that defies the senses.  You look at him and you think, how could someone who wasn’t all that good looking, who had absolutely no charisma, who couldn’t act, become such a star?  He’s all wrong as Ivanhoe, an adventure hero who needs charisma to show his leadership and abilities.

Ivanhoe is a classic novel which I remember liking when I read it, some 20 years ago, in spite of how much my brother railed against it.  It is the story of Ivanhoe, a knight of Sir Richard who returns from the Crusades in the hopes of raising the money to free Richard from captivity in Austria.  Much as in the better versions of the Robin Hood story, he plies his wits against Prince John, and in the end, Richard himself arrives in time for a last battle.  But really, don’t bother.  Somehow, it managed to come out of nowhere and get nominated for Best Picture without any precursors.  But you’re much better off watching The Adventures of Robin Hood.  It tells a similar story, but does so with style and humor and great adventure.  There are some decent moments in this film, but it’s mostly a waste.  Or just go read the novel.  Too few people read it these days.

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