Right. Like I was going to put any other picture here.

The 26th annual Academy Awards for the film year 1953.  The nominations were announced on February 15, 1954 and the awards were held on March 24, 1954.

Best Picture:  From Here to Eternity

  • Roman Holiday
  • Julius Caesar
  • The Robe
  • Shane

Most Surprising Omission:  Stalag 17

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Stalag 17

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #67

The Race: The race was over in August.  The Robe, which would be one of the biggest hits of the year, and Roman Holiday, which would be one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year hadn’t yet opened.  Julius Caesar, the newest film version of a Shakespeare play, combining established British actors with Hollywood’s biggest rising actor, Marlon Brando, had already opened, as had George Stevens’ acclaimed Western, Shane.  Otto Preminger had pushed the boundaries of the Production Code with frank talk about sex in The Moon is Blue and the star of the film, William Holden, was bucking for an Oscar in Billy Wilder’s latest film, Stalag 17.  But none of it mattered.  On August 5, the star studded production of James Jones’ best-selling novel From Here to Eternity landed on screens and immediately started raking in the acclaim and the money at the box office.  No other film stood a chance.

The National Board of Review forced a pause as Julius Caesar took Best Picture and George Stevens won Best Director, but Eternity took home Picture, Director and Actor with ease at the New York Film Critics.  The Golden Globes declined to announce nominees, instead giving Best Picture to The Robe while Eternity had to settle for Best Supporting Actor, but both the Directors Guild and Writers Guild handed awards to Eternity.

The Results: The Academy made it semi-official on February 15, 1954.  From Here to Eternity had joined Gone with the Wind in second place with 13 nominations.  A month later it was all done and settled.  The film would tie Wind‘s mark with 8 Oscars and would set a record with 675 points that has yet to be toppled, even with all the additional categories added over the years.

the Academy gets it right for the first time since 1945: From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity

  • Director:  Fred Zinnemann
  • Writer:  Daniel Taradash  (from the novel by James Jones)
  • Producer:  Buddy Adler
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Clift), Actor (Lancaster), Actress (Kerr), Supporting Actor (Sinatra), Supporting Actress (Reed), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Sound, Costume Design (Black-and-White)
  • Oscar Records:  Most Wins  (8  –  tied with Gone with the Wind; broken in 1958); Most Points  (675)
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  5 August 1953
  • Box Office Gross:  $30.5 mil  (#3 – 1953)
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Lancaster), Actor (Clift), Actress (Kerr), Supporting Actor (Sinatra), Supporting Actress (Reed), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing

The Film:  Well, sometimes the Academy gets it right.  They gave From Here to Eternity 8 Oscars among its 13 nominations including Picture, Director, Screenplay and both supporting awards.  I give it 8 Nighthawks among its 14 nominations including Picture, Director, Screenplay and both supporting awards.  It does the extremely difficult job of taking a long novel (861 pages) with the kind of language and situations not allowed by the Production Code and turning it into a first rate production.

It was not an easy job from the start.  Joan Crawford was originally cast, but left because she didn’t like the costumes (this might have been the film’s biggest blessing – she would have been a horrible choice).  Then Deborah Kerr’s agent suggested her to Columbia head Harry Cohn, who slammed down the phone.  When Fred Zinnemann and Daniel Taradash came in, Cohn said “You know who this stupid son of a bitch suggested?  Deborah Kerr!”  (Inside Oscar, p 234).  Thankfully, Zimmermann and Taradash had better ideas than Cohn and they cast her.  Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed were also added over Cohn’s objections.  Then Eli Wallach dropped out of the role of Maggio and Frank Sinatra begged for the part (as I’ve said before, this was the inspiration for the horse in the bed scene in The Godfather) in a desperate attempt to get his star shining again.

But look at the results on-screen.  Every single one of them is brilliant.  The film manages to have star performances and feel like an ensemble piece at the same time.  It holds together as one large film, the story of poor Private Prewitt, determined to survive in the army in whose own way and Sergeant Warden, the tough man who holds the regiment together.  While Deborah Kerr has the other nominal lead role as the captain’s wife that Warden has an affair with, it really is the story of those two men.

But the brilliance is also in the details.  There is, of course, the famous scene of Lancaster and Kerr in the surf, still wonderful and sexy after all this time.  There are the tender scenes between Clift and Reed, both when they first meet and again, later, when she realizes how much she means to him.  There is the tragic death of Maggio and the touching moment when Prewitt plays Taps for him.  Notice the wonderful detail of how Prewitt pulls his mouthpiece out of the bugle before handing it back to the company bugler.

We are so wrapped up in the story for an hour and a half that we almost forget the setting of the story.  Suddenly everything becomes clear on a fateful Sunday morning in December.  These are some of the best scenes in the film, as Warden continues to keep everything together (“Make a pot of coffee.  Wait.  A barrel of coffee!”) and pushes the men to fight back and save something of the day.  And we can understand Prewitt’s determination to return to his company in such a pivotal moment in history, making it all the more tragic what comes of it.

It’s interesting to watch this film now.  Does watching it again in the years after 9/11 make the attack on Pearl Harbor seem almost small?  Or can we understand how these men react because we have now seen it in out own lifetimes: the attack of foreign powers against our own land.  When you think of men who signed up for the military in that first week after the attacks, can we come to a greater understanding of why Prewitt feels that he has to return?  Does it perhaps lend even greater pathos to the film?

The fact is that the film doesn’t need anything else.  It’s a great film, through and through, a magnificent triumph of the best that Hollywood had to offer in terms of story-telling, direction, acting and technical film-making.  It deserved those Oscars.  After all, the Academy does get things right sometimes.

one of the great romantic comedies: Roman Holiday (1953)

Roman Holiday

  • Director:  William Wyler
  • Writer:  Ian McLellan Hunter  /  John Dighton  (from an original story by Dalton Trumbo)
  • Producer:  William Wyler
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Motion Picture Story, Actress (Hepburn), Supporting Actor (Albert), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Art Direction (Black-and-White), Costume Design (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • Release Date:  2 September 1953
  • Box Office Gross:  $5.00 mil
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #164  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Hepburn), Supporting Actor (Albert), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction

The Film:  For years, it has been a well known fact about my mother that she likes films with a happy ending.  I’m beginning to suspect that this “fact” is a bunch of crap.  For starters, her favorite film for years has been Casablanca.  And for the last several years, the film that has most spoken to her is Brokeback Mountain.  Not to mention the fact that she highly recommends Z and Breaker Morant.  I suspect that while she enjoys happy endings and would prefer a romantic comedy to a heavy drama, she knows a great film when she sees one and that her real preference is for a truly great film.

Take Roman Holiday.  I strongly suspect that if Roman Holiday were made today it would get a traditional Hollywood happy ending.  There are some similarities between it and Notting Hill and look at the way they chose to end that.  But Roman Holiday has exactly the ending it should have.  It gives us exactly the film it should give us and ends it exactly as it should.  I think of the line from Shakespeare in Love: “How is this to end?”  “As stories must when love’s denied.  With tears and a journey.”

This film is one of the great romantic comedies for a variety of reasons.  First of all, there is the story.  It is kind of ridiculous, but ridiculous in that Hollywood fifties sort of way, in the kind of place we wish the world was rather than the way the world is.  But it is a very charming story, which works so perfectly because of the setting.  It gives us a wonderful glimpse of an amazing city.  It serves as a sort of triptych, but in the romantic journey, it makes the city come alive in a way that a documentary never could.  Then there is the acting.  Gregory Peck had been playing solid hero types for years and yearned to do a comedy and he’s absolutely wonderful.  Eddie Albert gets the best character he’s ever been given and responds with his best performance.  And what to say about Audrey Hepburn?  Her wonderful, elfin looks, gorgeous smile and boundless energy take what could have been a fun movie and turn it into an instant classic.  In one performance she went from being an unknown to winning the Oscar (deservedly) and becoming an international star.  Is there anyone who could see this film and not fall instantly in love with her?

And so we come to the ending.  If you’ve never seen it, well, you need to fix that right now.  If you have seen it, you know how it ends of course.  Peck doesn’t get his story, he doesn’t get the girl and he’s pretty much going to be slaving away for that horrible newspaper for the rest of his life.  But it seems like it’s all worth it.  Hell, it probably was.  In that sense, the couple doesn’t have to end up together for it to be a happy ending.

"Shakespeare can be different": Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar (1953)

Julius Caesar

  • Director:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • Writer:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz  (from the play by William Shakespeare)
  • Producer:  John Houseman
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Geilgud, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actor, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Art Direction (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  120 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Shakespearean Tragedy)
  • Release Date:  4 June 1953
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #21  (year)  /  #342  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea.  Here was a more modern take on Shakespeare.  Not any changes to character or dialogue of course, or even of dress, but the idea of using a distinguished, mostly British cast and then giving the biggest role to the hottest young American star.  How would the hip young star, added to the cast for some sex appeal work?

Well, as it turns out it was a mixed blessing.  Marlon Brando storms up the stairs and yells “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” and something changes.  That something is Brando taking over the film.  Surrounded by John Geilgud, one of the greatest Hamlets in theater history, not to mention James Mason, Deborah Kerr and Greer Garson, only Brando exists.  His performance is so much better than everyone else that they all seem to fade away into the distance.  He somehow manages to take that smoldering appeal from Streetcar and apply it to Rome.

As a Shakespeare adaptation, it is good but not great.  Three times the death of Julius Caesar has been filmed and ended up in the Best Picture race and none of them are particularly satisfying (though this is by far the best of the three).  There are some good battle moments later in the film.  But the heart of the film is early on, just after the assassination, when first Brutus, then Mark Antony come to give their speeches to the people of Rome.  Like Antony, Brando makes everyone forget that anyone spoke before him.  And in a film like this that relies on the ensemble cast, that isn’t always the best thing.

the original movie poster for The Robe (1953)

The Robe

  • Director:  Henry Koster
  • Writer:  Albert Maltz  /  Philip Dunne  /  Gina Kaus  (from the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas)
  • Producer:  Frank Ross
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actor (Burton), Cinematography (Color), Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  135 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Roman Epic)
  • Release Date:  16 September 1953
  • Box Office Gross:  $36.00 mil  (#2 – 1953)
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #31  (year)  /  #400  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  In some ways The Robe treads on the same grounds that Quo Vadis had just two years previously.  In some of those ways, Quo Vadis is the superior film.  It had great costumes and sets, an epic scale and the persecution of the early Christians by Nero, in a brilliant performance by Peter Ustinov.  The costumes and sets are good in The Robe, though not the equal of Quo Vadis and though many people remember Jay Robinson as Caligula (and he even starred in the sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators), it is more distracting than anything else.  Oh, and Caligula didn’t persecute the Christians, so Quo Vadis has the edge on historical accuracy there.  They both come out with about a tie for the presence of Robert Taylor in Quo Vadis is counter-balanced by the equally worthless Victor Mature in The Robe, though at least he is not the lead.

In fact, that is part of what makes the difference: the presence of Richard Burton.  Burton’s performance was described as wooden by some, but it must have impressed others because he managed to score his second straight Oscar nomination for it.  Burton, with that wonderful voice, brings  a commanding presence to the film that was lacking in Quo Vadis (and the fact that it is much shorter also helps).  But the main difference, what makes The Robe an acceptable, though by no means great film, rather than the complete mess that Quo Vadis is is the difference in religious conversions.  In Quo Vadis, Taylor’s Roman warrior seems to suddenly convert to Christianity on a whim based on his lust for Deborah Kerr (Jean Simmons serves the Kerr role of standing around and looking beautiful here but at least she isn’t offered up as a reason for a religious conversion).  Burton, on the other hand, undergoes a mystical experience, having been covered by the robe Christ was crucified in after witnessing the crucifixion.  Something outside the explainable has happened to him and only faith can offer a solution to him.  It is a more believable conversion and one that leads to some of the same results, though even there, The Robe has the courage of its convictions and its characters die, instead of getting a ridiculous happy ending (in one sense they do, with blessed eternity, but they are still dead).

Shane (1953): still over-rated after all these years

Shane

  • Director:  George Stevens
  • Writer:  A.B. Guthrie Jr.  (from the novel by Jack Schaefer)
  • Producer:  George Stevens
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Brandon de Wilde, Jack Palance
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (de Wilde), Supporting Actor (Palance), Cinematography (Color)
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Western
  • Release Date:  23 April 1953
  • Box Office Gross:  $20.00 mil  (#5 – 1953)
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #46  (year)  /  #425  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  “But it is Master de Wilde with his bright face, his clear voice, and his resolute boyish ways, who steals the affections of the audience and clinches “Shane” as a most unusual film.”  That is Bosley Crowther, writing in the April 24, 1953 edition of The New York Times.  I would say that Mr. Crowther must have seen a different print than everyone else did, except for the fact that the Academy nominated Brandon de Wilde for an Oscar.  It boggles my mind.  The performance of de Wilde, indeed the very presence of his character in the film is part of what pushes me so far away from Shane.  The first time that I saw Shane I didn’t think it was very good.  Nothing has changed in the intervening decade and a half.

The 1950’s were very good for George Stevens, one of the great directors to emerge from the studio era and whose reputation has never survived his ascension in that decade.  As I pointed out in my description of his career in the top 100, Stevens, in spite of the two Oscars (Best Director in 1951 and 1956) and the two other nominations (this one and 1959) has never been particularly well regarded.  What’s even more baffling is that this is the film usually held up as the pinnacle of his career, when in fact, this was an example of everything he could do wrong.  The film starred two men who were never particularly emotive actors, Van Heflin and Alan Ladd and stuck them in a Western playing archetypes that required no acting whatsoever.  It also has Jean Arthur in her final role, a thankless performance as the poor wife forced to put up with her husband’s desperate dreams which would end with him dead in the mud if not for the intervention of the mysterious gunslinger who seems to come out of nowhere, befriends them, solves their problems, then disappears into the distance.  And there are the two Oscar nominated performances: Jack Palance in a role of pure malevolence in which he is required to do nothing but look menacing and say “Prove it,” and Brandon de Wilde as the most annoying child who ever lived.  Aside from de Wilde’s whining, we also get the horrible close-ups, the most painful being those when he is watching the fight in the saloon in town.

In the end, Shane doesn’t work because there isn’t anything to it.  Though Roger Ebert applies a great amount of sub-text, I find it to be an empty archetype story of the lone gunslinger.  It is not well directed, it has ridiculous dialogue and has only one worthwhile performance, that being Jack Palance, who barely seems to have a dozen lines in the film.  How Ebert could say that High Noon is badly dated and that Shane is one of the great films of all-time will always be a puzzle to my mind.

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