And the Oscar for Worst Picture goes to...
Professor MacGuffin does not teach a film course. Nor has he ever taken one. But he has been going to movies since the pre-silent era and is therefore more than qualified to jot down his thoughts on the state of cinema, old and new. Check out his posts on this year's Oscar race here, here, and here. Also here.
I'm so looking forward to commenting on this Sunday’s Academy Award ceremonies. But until then, let’s go back in time and have a look at some of the really lousy movies that won the Best Picture prize.
This 1947 film won Best Picture, Best Director (Elia Kazan), and Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm), and was widely praised as a brave, powerful look at American anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, the flick has aged as badly as any message film in history. Gregory Peck plays a writer who’s onto something really big. He’ll pretend to be Jewish and write about his experiences. But before he can do that, he must provide us an unintentially hilarious scene in which he actually looks at himself in a mirror before deciding yes, he does look Jewish and “this will work.” It’s kinda like the scene in The Wolfman when Lon Chaney starts to grow hair in weird places.
Speaking of hair in weird places...
Based on a popular novel by Laura Z Hobson, Gentleman’s Agreement was one of 20th Century Fox President Darryl F. Zanuck’s pet projects. Zanuck, the only non-Jewish studio head in town, was praised for his bold move, even though Hollywood’s Jewish kingpins Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn had pleaded with him not to make it. The film was a huge hit and garnered great reviews for its daring, honest expose of prejudice.
Looking at it today, however, is a different story. One of the main problems is the dated script. Another is the casting of Dorothy McGuire as Peck’s love interest. Her character, an upper middle class divorcée with a snooty sister (Jane Wyatt of Father Knows Best fame), is so weak and silly that the audience never pulls for her and Peck to get together. And honestly, Dorothy always gave me the willies despite having some talent. The only time I ever liked her was in the 1946 thriller The Spiral Staircase, in which she played a mute servant girl being terrorized by a serial killer. (I think it helped that she barely spoke in the film.)
Celeste Holm’s character is the lovely, liberal Ann. She secretly loves Greg Peck and is the logical character for him to end up with. After all, why should he stick with prejudiced twit McGuire when Celeste Holm is there for the taking?
To be fair, there are a few good things in this movie. Anne Revere (who won an Oscar for playing Liz Taylor’s mother in National Velvet) was great as Peck’s mom. She received a Supporting Actress nomination and I always thought she should have won it over Celeste Holm. Revere was a great actress whose career was eventually ruined by the House Un-American Activities committee. Dean Stockwell was also moving as Peck’s son who’s called a “lousy kike” by his school mates. But the scene is ultimately ruined when creepy Dorothy McGuire rushes in to assure him that he’s not Jewish at all! Real life Jew John Garfield, the sexy star of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body and Soul—whose true surname had been Garfinkle—also makes a cameo performance because he felt so strongly about the issue.
The real irony is that this same year RKO turned out a film noir called Crossfire that dealt with the murder of a soldier due to anti-Semitism. Tautly directed by Edward Dmytryk and co starring Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and the great Gloria Grahame (who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination), this film really tackled the subject and gloriously so. However, it’s interesting to note that in the novel on which Crossfire was based (called The Brick Foxhole), the soldier was killed not because he was Jewish but because he was…gay. Good plots never go out of style, they just evolve. Which means we might be due for a modern day remake set in Iraq.
The Greatest Show on Earth
This 1952 turkey directed by Cecil B. DeMille probably has the distinction of being the worst movie ever to win the Best Picture award. A silly circus movie filled with clichés and lousy acting, it remains one of the great mistakes in Academy voting. Apparently, Hollywood was trying to reward Mr. DeMille for his long and commercially successful career.
Cecil B. started out in the silent era, making the original King of Kings (H. B. Warner, the drunken druggist in It’s A Wonderful Life, played Jesus Christ) and turning out hit after hit (like Reap The Wild Wind, Unconquered, and Samson and Deliah) before ending his career with the grotesquely popular The Ten Commandments.
But this circus film is really bad. (It also won an Oscar for writing!) The only bright spots in the film are Betty Hutton as the peppy trapeze artist and Gloria Grahame as Angel, the Elephant Girl. The rest of the stars Charlton Heston (acceptable) Cornel Wilde (with a ghastly French accent), an aging Dorothy Lamour, and James Stewart as a clown on the lam from the police are pretty dreadful.
Granted, 1952 was not the greatest year on earth for Hollywood movies, but The Quiet Man, The Bad and the Beautiful, and even Joan Crawford’s Sudden Fear were better than this.
As for DeMille himself, he usually introduced his films, and his serious intoning is beyond hilarious today. My only fond memory of him is the short scene in Sunset Boulevard in which he played himself. He was totally convincing as a film director and maybe should have considered a career as an actor instead.
Check back Monday for Professor MacGuffin's thoughts on Lawrence of Arabia.