The 29th Academy Awards, for the year 1956.  The nominations were announced on February 18, 1957 and the ceremony was held on March 27, 1957.

Shirley MacLaine, David Niven and Cantinflas in Around the World in 80 Days, the Best Picture for 1956

Best Picture:  Around the World in 80 Days

  • The King and I
  • Giant
  • Friendly Persuasion
  • The Ten Commandments

Most Surprising Omission:  Baby Doll

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Seven Samurai

Best Eligible U.S. Film Not Nominated:  The Searchers

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #78

The Race: The race was really over before it even began.  Mike Todd was determined to make his incredible production of Around the World in 80 Days something that would be talked about for a long time (little did he realize it would succeed, but mainly because it is considered one of the weakest winners in Oscar history).  It was one of the three enormous releases in October that became the biggest money-makers of the year, along with Giant and The Ten Commandments.  While it might have finished behind Commandments on the box office front, it quickly leaped to the head of the awards race by winning both critics groups: first the National Board of Review, then the New York Film Critics.  The Directors Guild gave a boost to Giant in February with their annual award, but the Golden Globes seemed to cement World by giving it Best Picture – Drama (an odd choice, as it also won Best Actor – Comedy).  The King and I entered the fray with a win for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical.  With the three Writers Guild awards going to World, King and Friendly Persuasion, the major positions in the Best Picture race seemed to be cemented.  Lust for Life had been nominated by the Golden Globes and had been in the Top 10 from the NBR while Baby Doll had won Best Director from the Globes and earned a WGA nomination.  But it was The Ten Commandments, with almost no pre-cursors (only a nomination for Charlton Heston at the Globes and a mention in the NBR Best Actor award to Yul Brynner) that took its phenomenal box office success to the Oscars, earning the fifth spot.

The Results: For the first time, all the nominees were in color.  They were all also extremely bloated, averaging a mind-boggling 174 minutes.  Don’t get me wrong.  Films can be long.  A film is only as long as it feels.  And watching these five films felt like a long week.  There is not a single one of these nominees that at some point didn’t have me checking the time counter to wonder how much of the film was left.  And these were films I had all seen before.  I don’t rate a single one of these films any higher than 14th for the year.  But part of that is Hollywood itself.  It’s not like I’m placing them below other quality Hollywood films of the year.  Of my top 13 of the year, 5 of them are Foreign (The Seven Samurai, Diabolique, La Strada, Sawdust and Tinsel, Rififi), two are British (Richard III, The Ladykillers) and two are from less respected genres (Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers).  So what does that leave in the more mainstream fare?  Well, there’s The Searchers and with John Ford’s 4 Oscars and the best performance of John Wayne’s career it’s a wonder that it was completely ignored by the Oscars.  Then there is Baby Doll, which won Best Director at the Globes, yet somehow got ignored.  There is Stanley Kubrick’s masterful crime film, The Killing.  And there is The Wrong Man, a slightly off-kilter film from Hitchcock and not quite as good as the Hitchcock films surrounding it.  So that left the bloat.  And the bloat came through quite solidly as The Ten Commandments was the only one missing a Best Director nomination and it was replaced by another bloated epic: War and Peace.  So Elia Kazan became the second of six directors to win the Golden Globe and fail to earn an Oscar nomination, The Ladykillers had to make do with Screenplay, Richard III with Actor and The Searchers and The Killing earned high spots on the best films to never get an Oscar nomination.  And we are left with a year where people continue to rail more about the poor choice of winner (not such a poor choice given the nominees) than the problems with Hollywood productions in the first place that lead to such a winner.

Spectacle wins at the 1956 Oscars: Best Picture Around the World in 80 Days

Around the World in 80 Days

  • Director:  Michael Anderson
  • Writer:  James Poe / John Farrow / S.J. Perelman  (from the novel by Jules Verne)
  • Producer:  Michael Todd
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography (Color), Dramatic or Comedic Score, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  183 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Release Date:  17 October 1956
  • Box Office:  $42.00 mil
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #29 (year)  /  #71 (winners)  /  #363 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  This is one of the examples of the production aspect of Best Picture.  There are certain films that seem to win because they are spectacles.  Indeed, this film could have won if only it got the votes of all the actors who were in the film.  It became a big deal during the time that it was being filmed to get asked to do a cameo.  Gregory Peck was fired from his cameo for not taking it seriously.  And it probably means a lot to those people who were in it.  There were 13 different actors in the film who were Oscar nominated at some point in their careers.  Of those 13, only Frank Sinatra had ever been in a Best Picture before and only three more, Shirley MacLaine, John Gielgud and John Mills would ever be in one again.  So for David Niven, Marlene Dietrich, Trevor Howard, Ronald Colman, Charles Boyer, Robert Morley, Glynis Johns, Victor McLaglen and Jack Oakie, not to mention such greats as John Carradine and Buster Keaton who were never nominated, this was their one taste of true Oscar glory.

So what kind of film is it, anyway?  It is widely ridiculed as one of the worst choices in the history of the Oscars.  Only three Best Pictures are ranked below it on the IMDb (The Greatest Show on Earth, Cavalcade, Cimarron).  But for all the disdain it is not a bad film like Cimarron or The Broadway Melody, nor is it a mediocre film like The Greatest Show on Earth or Braveheart.  It is an enjoyable film, a solid *** film that is most certainly too long and has no need to be so (the novel itself is a scant 192 pages).  As noted in the Saturday Review when it was first released: “What it does seem to be without question is a good show.”  And for the most part it is a good show.  The Oscars it won for Cinematography and Score, while I may not agree with, are not bad choices.  And the nominations it didn’t win for Art Direction and Costume Design were more than deserved.  While the Editing Oscar is sheer ridiculousness, it was not the first or last time that this award went to a film that was far, far too long.  It takes an enjoyable performance from David Niven that seems to perfectly encapsulate the description of Phileas Fogg from Jules Verne’s novel.

All of the kudos for this film really rest squarely on the shoulders of producer Mike Todd.  He put most of his own money into the film and took complete control in a way that hadn’t been seen since David O. Selznick.  He fired John Farrow as director on the first day of shooting “because (he) thought he took too long to set up the cameras.” (Inside Oscar, p 270).  He pushed the level of spectacle as high as it could go and even gave detailed instructions to theaters on how they should show the film.  It ended up the second biggest film of the year and the third biggest film of all-time before its theatrical run was completed (it currently sits 46th all-time when adjusted).  When it won, Todd sprinted up to the stage to bask in his moment of glory.  He would never have another one as he would die in a plane crash four days before the next ceremony.

The original movie poster for The King and I (1956)

The King and I

  • Director:  Walter Lang
  • Writer:  Ernest Lehman  (from the play by Oscar Hammerstein II which was from the book Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon)
  • Producer:  Charles Brackett
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox
  • Stars:  Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, Rita Moreno
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Brynner), Actress (Kerr), Cinematography (Color), Musical Score, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  133 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Release Date:  29 June 1956
  • Box Office:  $21.30 mil
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #14 (year)  /  #275 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Brynner), Actress (Kerr), Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  I have never been a particular fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein.  On the DVD of The King and I is a trailer for the DVD releases of several other film versions of their musicals and all I could think was, I’m not sure I can find any song out of any of those musicals that I really enjoy.  So that seems to say all the more for The King and I that I think it a very good film in spite of my lack of interest in the songs.  Yes, of course, some of the songs are extremely well known (most notably “Getting to Know You”), but I’ll take Stephen Sondheim any day of the week.  And it’s quite hard to enjoy a musical if you don’t enjoy the songs.

So, outside of the songs, what do we have?  Well, first of all we have two magnificent performances.  I don’t give Yul Brynner my Best Actor award, not because he wasn’t worthy, because quite frankly, he is fantastic, but because Laurence Olivier and Kirk Douglas are just that much better.  And Deborah Kerr, as always, gives a grand performance that manages to define what British gentility is all about.  Then, of course, there are the production values of the film, the beautiful costumes, the lush art direction, the solid cinematography.  If there is a single dominant problem of the film it is the scenes of the king’s children performing, which go on for a considerable amount of time and long past any point of reason.

For years, this film was banned in Thailand for its portrayal of the king.  Yet, given other Hollywood films at the time, this is actually a pretty good film when it comes to depicting the clashing of cultures.  If anything, we see a strong willed, prideful king interested in taking his country and making it more important on the international scene.  He is interested in science and technology and foreign relations and he is quick to take to learning whatever the teacher might bring his way.  True, in the two nominees for this year he plays a Siamese and an Egyptian, when, in truth, he was Russian.  But there’s only so much you can expect from the movies after all.

James Dean's third and final starring role: Giant (1956)

Giant

  • Director:  George Stevens
  • Writer:  Fred Guiol / Ivan Moffat  (from the novel by Edna Ferber)
  • Producer:  George Stevens / Henry Ginsberg
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Mercedes McCambridge
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hudson), Actor (Dean), Supporting Actress (McCambridge), Editing, Dramatic or Comedic Score, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  201 min
  • Genre:  Western (Epic)
  • Release Date:  10 October 1956
  • Box Office:  $35.00 mil
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #28 (year)  /  #360 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actress (McCambridge)

The Film:  It is amazing to look at.  It nicely contrasts the lush grass of Maryland with the dusty desolate fields of Texas.  It gives you epic shots of the Texas ranch, beautiful shots of the oil as it first comes rushing up and large empty shots of the upper class society that springs up around the characters in their later years.  It won Best Director, of course (“I wish Stevens would hold Giant back a year so I can have a crack at an Oscar” King Vidor said, concerning his own epic, War and Peace).  Yet, somehow it was passed over for The Eddy Duchin Story when it came to Best Cinematography.  A shame, really.  Because the direction and cinematography are the core of the film.  The problem is that also wants to try to tell a story and its story is neither very good nor very interesting.

There are a couple of problems with the film.  The first is that the most interesting and vibrant character, backed by the film’s best performance, is Luz, played by Mercedes McCambridge.  She was one of the three nominated actors for the film and the one who most deserved it.  She is vibrant and alive and the film moves when she is around.  Unfortunately, she is killed off-screen fairly early on and what we are stuck with are the three big stars of the film, each with their own problem.  Rock Hudson is Bick Benedict, the ostensible star of the film, and somehow he managed to walk away with a Best Actor nomination.  It’s not that Rock is bad, for him he’s actually pretty good.  It’s that he’s so hopelessly outmatched in almost any film that doesn’t require him to engage in sexual banter with Doris Day.  He was always perfect for the Douglas Sirk films because his shallow pretensions fit perfectly with the kind of films that Sirk made.  Then there is Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie Benedict.  She is supposed to somehow deal with the racism and somehow ignore the animal magnetism of James Dean and stay blindly with Rock Hudson.  This was one of the last films before Taylor really learned how to act and the immensity of it seems to have overwhelmed her.  She is marginally okay in the early scenes, but the longer the film goes on, the longer she seems out of place.  Then there is Dean himself, in the weakest of his three major roles.  When he is striking out on his own and is allowed to exert himself, he is able to bring some life into the film.  But in the later scenes, he is robbed of life and who wants to see James Dean robbed of life?

The film tries to make too much of the racism, but there isn’t enough there to build the story around it to the extent that it wants to.  This is the very problem of the last hour of the film.  It’s been a large film, filled with epic scenes, yet it suddenly wants to become a message film and the beautiful shots of land are replaced with cold buildings, and finally, they focus on the the two children playing in the crib.

Yet another nomination for William Wyler for Friendly Persuasion (1956)

Friendly Persuasion

  • Director:  William Wyler
  • Writer:  Michael Wilson  (from the novel by Jessamyn West)
  • Producer:  William Wyler
  • Studio:  Allied Artists
  • Stars:  Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Perkins), Sound, Song (“Friendly Persuasion”)
  • Length:  137 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  25 November 1956
  • Box Office:  $8.00 mil
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #48 (year)  /  #412 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Song (“Friendly Persuasion”)

The Film:  This is one of those films that when you watch it, you don’t think, that was a great movie.  You think, this is what people voted for because they think of it as a Best Picture nominee.  It’s well over two hours long, it stars Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire, it’s directed by William Wyler, he of the numerous Oscar nominations and it tells a big story of the Civil War.  Of course, it wants to have it both ways as well.  It wants to tell of the Quakers, the branch of Protestantism that is non-violent, yet also wants to be able to bring in the war itself.  What good is it having Gary Cooper in the film if he really isn’t going to pick up a gun at some point?  So, why we have to put up with two hours of the characters speaking of “thee” and “thou”, we also get to watch them break character because, of course, the war and the evils of the Confederates are just too much.

The first problem with the film begins with the opening narration from the younger son.  The makers of the film seem to have forgotten the annoyance of bad child actors.  Yet, they don’t keep with it.  They soon drop the narration and move away from the child’s point of view.  If only they had kept with it.  This could have been a Northern, Quaker version of Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, making the human cost of the Civil War come to life in an utterly unique way.  But instead, it’s just a story of a different society and the problems they have in dealing with the society at large, especially in a time of war.  It gives us Gary Cooper in a typical Gary Cooper understated role, but with an underlying core of heroism.  Many of the scenes would remind a younger audience of Witness, but of course, the whole idea of casting in that film came from the producers remembering Gary Cooper in this film and this film lacks the fish out of water aspect that Harrison Ford brought to the proceedings.

At 137 minutes, this film is far too long, although of course, it is significantly shorter than 3 of its fellow nominees.  The problem is that the film can’t really decide what it wants to do.  It doesn’t really want to tell the story of this family.  It just wants us to see how the war could be brought home, and it doesn’t do a particularly good job at that.  My suspicion is that if this film had been made with a different star and by a different director, it maybe would have pulled off one or two nominations and would be mostly forgotten by now.

Cecil B. DeMille's final film: The Ten Commandments (1956)

The Ten Commandments

  • Director:  Cecil B. DeMille
  • Writer:  Aeneas MacKenzie / Jesse E. Lasky Jr. / Jack Gariss / Frederic M. Frank  (from the novel Pillar of Fire by J.H. Ingraham, the novel On Eagle’s Wing by A.E. Southon and the novel Prince of Egypt by Dorothy Clarke Wilson)
  • Producer:  Cecil B. DeMille
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Editing, Cinematography (Color), Sound, Art Direction (Color), Special Effects, Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  220 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biblical Epic)
  • Release Date:  5 October 1956
  • Box Office:  $65.50 mil
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #59 (year)  /  #432 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Visual Effects

The Film:  The Ten Commandments was nominated for Best Picture and there’s an argument for that.  It was made on an epic scale, it was the final film of one of the giants of early American cinema and it told a grand story without skimping on any production aspects.  It also was a huge box office success, at the time the second biggest film ever made.  Even today, when adjusted for inflation, it still stands at #5.  I can also understand that argument.  It tells an important biblical story, and while it doesn’t tell it accurately, it does tell it on a large scale, emphasizing the religious aspects of it all.  Released in the middle of the fifties, it spoke to a lot of people in middle America and they obviously went back again and again.  But two years ago, when the AFI did their Top 10 in 10 Genres, it was there on the list of the best Epic films.  And that’s just ridiculous.  You can appreciate the film in terms of production, or in terms of box office, in terms of scale.  But to appreciate it in terms of art?  I’m not buying that.

There is no question that Charlton Heston has an extraordinary charisma in his portrayal of Moses.  Note that I say charisma and not talent.  There isn’t much acting in this portrayal.  Yet, sadly, it is by far the best acting in the film.  Part of what makes this film so mediocre as a work of art is that while the technical aspects of the film were all amped up, they forgot to work on the basic parts of the film: the acting and the writing.  The acting is by far the bigger problem, with horrendous casting (Edward G. Robinson?  Seriously?) and even when casting isn’t the problem, the performances are.  How could Anne Baxter, an Oscar winning actress, be so unbelievably bad?  How could she take a line as bad as “Moses, you splendid, stubborn, adorable fool” and actually make it sound worse on film than it does on the written page?  Nonetheless, she succeeds.  Of course, there wasn’t much she could have done with that line and pretty much any line that doesn’t come straight from The Bible is pretty awful.  In fact, therein lies the real problem.  The Bible is one hell of a book, with a great story.  But this film isn’t that story.  It takes enormous liberties with the story presented in Exodus and pretty much every change, designed to make it a more vibrant film, in fact makes it less interesting.  Just think of how much horror you could have generated if you focused less on the relationship between Moses and Nefertiri and instead actually gave screen time to all ten plagues.  And the ten commandments of the title don’t even come into play until the end of the film.  This film doesn’t have much to say about the actual commandments.

So, in the end, what can be said about the film?  It is a mediocre film with an iconic, though not particularly well acted performance by Charlton Heston.  It is appreciated and worshipped by millions who think of it in terms of what it has to be said about religion.  It has as a good score, good special effects for the time (well, some of them anyway, like the parting of the Red Sea, but others are not so good) and looks fairly nice, even though the costumes and art direction look more like what Hollywood though Egypt in the twelfth century B.C. should look like rather than any historical research would have found.

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