Friday, July 30, 2010

On the Waterfront: A Method for Greatness

Oscar winners in the 1950’s reflected the reactions of the film industry to historical and cultural events and changes. In general, the biggest changes the film industry faced were the threats from television. This is why the big budget musicals and epic films became dominant throughout the latter half of the decade and throughout the 1960’s. The socially conscious films that were rewarded in the 1940’s (especially after the end of WWII) would eventually fall out of favor with Academy voters in favor of films focusing on pure entertainment and demonstrated the might of the studio system.

History, though, was still a major force in shaping acclaimed entertainment. On the Waterfront represents the zenith of the socially-conscious message film. The film can be seen as the culmination of what worked best about all of the previous socially conscious Best Picture winners preceding it. On the Waterfront is also permanently linked to the conflict between Hollywood and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, with McCarthy relentless in his zeal to eradicate the perceived threat of Communism by blacklisting anyone within the film industry associated with it. On the Waterfront’s director, Elia Kazan, achieved infamy by naming names of people associated with communism in Hollywood (though, it should be noted, with significant threat to Kazan’s career—an argument can be made that Kazan was blackmailed into cooperating) to HUAC. The film is seen both as Kazan’s apology and a defense of his actions. No matter which side of the Kazan debate you lay on, On the Waterfront is the picture most associated with the Red Scare of the 1950’s (and it isn’t even about Communism).

In my review, I am going to focus less on the Kazan controversy and more on why the film has achieved its success as the finest social issues picture ever made in America. When compared especially to the 1947 Best Picture winner, the Kazan-directed Gentleman’s Agreement, it is clear that Kazan learned that the best, most effective, and longest lasting way to ensure a social issue is addressed through film is not by putting the message before the movie. Where Gentleman’s Agreement bludgeons its audience over the head with its message that anti-Semitism is morally wrong at the expense of memorable and interesting characters, On the Waterfront reverses that notion, creating characters that have upheld themselves mightily in the fifty-six years since the picture’s release. With its unforgettable characters, the power of On the Waterfront will never be diminished.

The primary cast is as follows:

• Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy. In my opinion Terry Malloy is Brando’s greatest role—a once promising boxer who works as hired muscle for the corrupt union bosses running the Hoboken, NJ waterfront. Terry’s burgeoning conscience provides the narrative thrust of On the Waterfront.
• Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle. Edie’s brother, Joey, is murdered for being “a canary” at the start of the film. Terry, while not directly responsible for Joey’s murder, is indirectly complicit. When Terry tries to win over the angelic Edie, his guilt over Joey’s death provides an impetus for a conscience to be coaxed out of him. Edie and Terry begin a tender relationship.
• Karl Malden as Father Barry. Father Barry is the local priest determined to eradicate corruption on the docks. He takes an active, moral stance that takes him out of his parish and into the everyday lives of his parishioners. Father Barry is one of the few people who see that there is more to Terry than simply being a hired goon.
• Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly. Johnny Friendly is the villain of the piece. He is the boss of the longshoreman’s union. Friendly is anything but, and makes no bones about resorting to murder to keep his pockets lined and his corrupt operation running smoothly.
• Rod Steiger as Charley “The Gent” Malloy. Charley is Terry’s older brother, and consigliere to Johnny Friendly. Charley ultimately shows more loyalty to his crime family than his blood family.

Each of these five actors received Oscar nominations for their roles in On the Waterfront (with Brando and Saint winning, and Malden, Cobb, and Steiger competing against each other in the Supporting Actor category). Each actor contributes to the core theme of the film—that it is the duty of an honest man to take an active moral stand against corruption.

On the Waterfront is impossible to discuss without digressing into the absolute greatness of Marlon Brando’s turn as Terry Malloy. The picture could easily have been titled Terry Malloy, so crucial is his character to the success of the film. Brando has the most difficult job an actor can have: effectively portraying an inner struggle. In the case of Terry Malloy that inner struggle is growing a conscience at the risk of his life. The entire success of the picture hinges on if the audience believes that Terry can make the journey from being a man who is nonchalant about witnessing a murder to a man who can galvanize his fellow dockworkers to take a stand against the union bosses who dominate their lives. Of course, Brando was magnificently successful in doing exactly that, and the strength of his performance lies within the style of his acting.

Brando was a pioneer in Method acting. Brando brought Method with him from stage to screen and revolutionized acting in film. Method is often misconceived as staying in character even after the cameras have stopped rolling and going to such extremes as if one was playing a blind person, then the actor would live as a blind person for a period of time to try and comprehend their world from the inside. While both of those techniques can be part of Method acting, Method is more simply defined as an actor drawing on internal techniques instead of external means to create and develop character. Whereas a more classically trained actor would use differing facial expressions and voice intonation to convey meaning, Method actors seek to discover the psychological and sensory motivations for their characters. In film, before Method, actors were largely cast to type. This is why—and I am in no way meaning to diminish any of these actors—Clark Gable played the roguish alpha male over and over again, Humphrey Bogart perfected weary cynicism, Bette Davis was the bitch. These actors played to type.

Brando, and other Method actors like him, could be chameleonic. For example, in 1953—a year prior to On the Waterfront—Brando played both a leader of a motorcycle gang in The Wild One and Marc Antony in the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. His previous roles also included Emiliano Zapata and his iconic turn as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. These roles came within four years of one another. More classical actors in Hollywood would take nearly their entire careers to break type and develop that type of range (of course, this is also largely a function of the studio system, but Brando made studio financed pictures, so his arrival to film represented a sea change in the function of actors).

With his internally-based Method, Brando did nothing but exist within the psychoses of Terry Malloy. The technique is ideally suited to showing how a man would grow a conscience. Method is also ideally suited to improvisation, and Brando made liberal use of the freedoms given to him by Kazan.

Two of the most famous scenes in the film show Brando using improvisation to reveal the soul of Terry Malloy. First is on a date with Edie. Terry is clearly smitten with her, and Edie is very tentative, but Brando makes an excellent, improvised choice that reveals Terry’s true feelings. During the scene where Terry and Edie are walking home through a park, Edie drops one of her white gloves. Brando has Terry pick the glove up and brush it off, but he first puts the glove on his left hand instead of immediately returning it to Edie. This action is code for Terry wanting to get close to Edie—it is a way he can hold her hand without holding her hand—but still displaying both an innocence and tenderness that will she will eventually warm to. Brando and Saint have a very unforced chemistry in the picture. Saint, for her part, recalled that Brando was constantly teasing her on set, and she was always kept on edge by him. That edginess transferred marvelously onto the screen.

The other major act of improvisation is within the most famous sequence of the film, where Charley and Terry share a taxi. By this point in the film, Johnny Friendly is afraid of Terry’s newfound conscience. Charley is sent to test his brother’s loyalty, and if it is no longer there, Charley must assassinate Terry. Friendly instructs Charley: “All I want to know is, is he D and D (deaf and dumb, the code the Hoboken longshoremen live by if they wish to keep a job) or is he a canary?” In the taxi, Charley presses his brother for an answer and doesn’t get one. In frustration, Charley pulls a gun on his brother, and it is how Brando has Terry react that tells the whole story. Instead of acting rashly—like immediately grabbing Charley’s gun, or resorting to physical violence—Terry slowly, gently pushes the gun away and says, “Charley…Charley…Oh, Charley. Wow.” That, right there is the essence of heartbreak.

Only a bit later, after Charley tries to cheer Terry up by waxing nostalgic—yet inaccurate—about his boxing career, does Terry become bitter. Finally realizing that Charley was in on the fixed fights that doomed his career as a prizefighter, that his own brother has betrayed him for years, Terry finds the strength to turn away from the corruption of the life led by Charley and Johnny Friendly.

"It wasn't him, Charley! It was you. You remember that night in the Garden; you came down to my dressing room and said: 'Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson.' You remember that? 'This ain't your night!' My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in the ball park - and whadda I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville. You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me - just a little bit - so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money. (Charley: "I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.") You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it…It was you, Charley."

Again, improvised reactions are the most telling here. Steiger, playing Charley, can barely look at Terry in the scene. And Brando, although he is playing Terry with anger and bitterness, isn’t directing all of the animosity toward Charley. There is a sense of internal loss and regret within Terry, for if he only would have had a conscience when he was boxing, if he had stood up to Johnny Friendly and Charley then, he would be a champion. He would have class. He would have been somebody. Ultimately, this is what provides Terry with the motivation he carries with him into the finale of the picture, when he stands up to Johnny Friendly (and in many ways, gets his championship bout—Kazan stages a bloody fistfight between the two men where Terry is ultimately overcome by Friendly’s goons).

Kazan also provides external motivation for Terry. While Terry, Charley and Edie make changes, develop and grow as characters (and Brando, Saint, and Steiger make the most of Method in conveying them), static characters like Father Barry and Johnny Friendly are just as crucial in the development of Terry Malloy. Here, casting to type works, as Malden and Cobb play opposing forces of good and evil, each in battle for Terry’s soul. Oddly, both Malden and Cobb are quite similar looking—large, hard-nosed (and nobody in Hollywood has ever had a more prominent proboscis than Malden) and intimidating men—as if they were two sides of the same coin. Each embodies their characters in ironic ways. Cobb plays Friendly as the ultimate smooth operator; trying his best to live up to his name all the while knowing that he uses everyone around him. Malden plays Father Barry as an instigator, demanding that the dockworkers become men of conscience and basically strong-arming Terry into cooperating with him. On a surface level, the smooth criminal is more appealing than the cajoling priest. Cobb and Malden know this instinctively, and play those aspects up to maximum effect.

Again though, it is how Brando has Terry react to the men that tells the story. When Friendly slips a fifty into Terry’s pocket, Brando makes Terry look physically uncomfortable. When Father Barry is sermonizing, he is asking questions like, “There's one thing we've got in this country and that's ways of fightin' back. Gettin' the facts to the public. Testifyin' for what you know is right against what you know is wrong. Now what's ratting to them is telling the truth for you. Now can't you see that? Can't you see that?” What Kazan focuses on is Terry. Brando initially is poker-faced when first asked these questions (and note also, how those questions are also directed at the audience). But after a man is killed on the job, and Father Barry—with trash being hurled at him by Friendly’s sympathizers—in his “sermon on the docks” speech (“You want to know what's wrong with our waterfront? It's the love of a lousy buck. It's making the love of the lousy buck—the cushy job—more important than the love of man! It's forgettin' that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ! But remember, Christ is always with you. Christ is in the shape up.”), elicits a reaction of affiliation from Terry. Kazan uses these effective performances from Cobb and Malden in type roles to show the audience how Terry is changing as well as probe the consciences of the audience watching the film.

Lastly, aside from the performances, Kazan strove to be authentic as possible in capturing the waterfront of Hoboken. It helps that the film was actually shot there. Unlike All the King’s Men, which was set in Louisiana but shot in California, Kazan knows that no studio could effectively recreate the locations he needed for his film to feel real. Adding to the authenticity of the film were real-life ex-boxers hired to play Johnny Friendly’s goons, and the use of actual dock workers as extras. On the Waterfront’s screenplay was derived from fact; a series of articles from the (now defunct) New York Sun about mob crimes and other corruption on the Hoboken waterfront provided the basis of Budd Schulberg’s screenplay. Of course, the story also had personal resonance for Kazan, who was undoubtedly attracted to the message of the power of testimony as a central theme of the film (of course, many feel that when Kazan played “canary” to HUAC, he was doing the ignoble thing…). Each of these elements contributed to On the Waterfront being an unforgettable cinematic experience that refined the socially conscious message picture. Authenticity in performance, story, setting, and character would be primary, and only with that authenticity could any sort of lasting moral, social or political message be gleaned.

The film, though popular and justly feted with Oscar gold, marked the end of an era for the socially conscious picture winning Academy Awards. First of all, not many “message pictures” are made better than On the Waterfront (if at all), and second, the movies faced significant threats from the popularity of television, and film storytelling became bigger, more spectacular, and simpler. The films of the 1950’s reflected the trends of the times. Unfairly or not, On the Waterfront is the film most closely associated with the Red Scare that gripped America. While the country remained afraid of communism, Hollywood is always eager to put politics in the rear view mirror.

A film as incandescent as On the Waterfront is hard to top, and it wouldn’t be until the late 1960’s/1970’s that more films tackled issues of conscience. Not at all coincidentally, that period of time is when many, many Method trained actors came into prominence (Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, and Ellen Burstyn). They all have Brando to thank for leading the way.


On the Waterfront (1954)

Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscars: 8 (Best Picture—Sam Spiegel, Best Director—Elia Kazan, Best Actor—Marlon Brando, Best Supporting Actress—Eva Marie Saint*, Best Original Screenplay—Budd Schulberg, Best Art Direction (B&W), Best Cinematography (B&W), Best Editing) from 12 total nominations (Best Supporting Actor—Lee J. Cobb, Best Supporting Actor—Karl Malden, Best Supporting Actor—Rod Steiger, Best Score—Leonard Bernstein**)

*Eva Marie Saint won an Oscar in her debut motion picture performance
**The score for On the Waterfront marked the only time Leonard Bernstein delivered a score for a non-musical picture


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

From Here to Eternity: Irresistible Forces, Immovable Objects

Part of the fun in writing these series of blogs is coming up with the subtitles. Originally, this piece was going to be subtitled From Here to Eternity: Blue Hawaii, for the sense that the overall mood of From Here to Eternity is rather blue—be forewarned, this is an awfully depressing picture—and I wanted to play ironically off the title of the 1961 Elvis Presley film, which is completely unlike the 1953 Best Picture winner aside from their setting in the fiftieth state. Frankly, I also didn’t know how to come up with an approach to reviewing the film aside from recapping it (which I think I have done too much in some postings).

Thankfully, I read Seattle’s finest alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger.

The movie reviews in The Stranger have a reputation for being both awfully snarky and extremely negative. In fact, outright disdain is shown toward the vast majority of mainstream films released each week. One area The Stranger does cover well is the older films being revived at Seattle’s independent movie houses. In June, Seattle’s Grand Illusion theater on University Way and 50th Ave NE—which is basically a garage with a couple dozen seats and a movie screen (and where I saw Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Best Picture winner, Unforgiven, for the first time)—screened From Here to Eternity, and this is what Stranger reviewer Charles Mudede had to say:

“In the classic From Here to Eternity, we see a contrast between the lives of little people and a major historical event. The little people are prostitutes, slutty housewives, horny soldiers, alcoholic bachelors, and psychologically needy boxers. Their lives are going nowhere. Their lives are stuck on an island. Their lives are disrupted by one of the most significant events of the 20th Century, the attack on Pearl Harbor. The most famous scene of the movie—the bodies of the kiss-locked lovers on the beach washed by the foaming (spermatic) waves of the ocean—is not only erotic but also (more importantly) Thanatonic. The wave is the force of history, and the lovers are the little lives that are washed away and forgotten.”
(And hey, for those not up on their Greek Mythology, Thanatos is the daemon personification of Death—but in Mudede’s usage he is referring to the psychological concept of people who willfully participate in thrill- or death-seeking behaviors, which absolutely applies to this film. And don’t feel stupid; I had to look it up.)

What struck me about Mudede’s capsule review was the last line—“The wave is the force of history, and the lovers are the little lives that are washed away and forgotten.” That line perfectly encapsulates the theme of From Here to Eternity, where conflicts between the characters are played for maximum dramatic irony. No matter what happens in the film, we as viewers have the foreknowledge that on the morning of December 7th, 1941, all conflicts will be rendered moot. The characters in the film become the irresistible forces that draw the audience into From Here to Eternity; history becomes the immovable object that crashes unsuspectingly down upon them, turning the picture into a tragedy.

The film is made up of a series of characters and events that collide in powerful and ultimately tragic ways. Let’s start by examining that sex on the beach (and in 1953 the scene was as explicit then as graphic sex is now) kiss between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. First, the obvious irony. If you’ve ever seen an Oscar ceremony in the past twenty years, chances are you’ve seen this famous clip. If all you knew about From Here to Eternity was that kiss and decided, “Hey, that movie looks nice and passionate and romantic, let’s check it out,” you would be in for a surprise. For as dreamy and romantic as the scene plays out of context, the relationship between Lancaster’s Sgt. First Class Milton Warden and Kerr’s desperate military housewife Karen Holmes plays out in ways that are anything but.

Sgt. Warden is a career military man, an NCO (non-commissioned officer) that rose up through the ranks to attain his status. Warden is the “top-kick” to Captain Dana “Dynamite” Holmes (Philip Ober), a career officer who cares only about the inter-regiment boxing matches and how they can raise his profile to be considered for the rank of Major (Capt. Holmes reminds me very much of Lieutenant Scheisskopf—German for “shithead”—from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, who cared only about winning parade marches and using them to rise through the ranks). Holmes is an incompetent and lazy leader (as is Scheisskopf) who heavily relies on the efficient and hard-working Holmes to run the operations of his unit. Holmes also cheats on and neglects his wife Karen (again mirroring Heller’s creation), and when Warden hears from one of Karen’s former lovers (George Reeves) stationed at Schofield Barracks, he is irresistibly drawn into an affair.

Cut to the passion contained in the famous Eternity Cove kiss, and you would think that everything works out swimmingly for Sgt. Warden and Karen. Wrong. The characters each have an immovable stubbornness that their relationship is unable to overcome. While Warden fills Karen’s emotional and sexual needs, he is unwilling to provide her stability and upward mobility. Karen will only get a divorce from her husband if Warden will enlist in an officers training program. Warden is immensely proud that he has risen through the ranks as an NCO; he despises officers, and feels that he wouldn’t be true to his soul if he became one. As an additional complication, Warden risks being sent to federal prison if the affair is discovered—an NCO sleeping with an officer’s wife is a serious offense, and if Warden becomes an officer, Karen can file for divorce without condemning him. Even after the situation becomes less complicated, and despite the fact that the pair love one another, Warden remains steadfast—he will not become an officer. Karen describes him as “being in love with the army,” and the affair ends in unhappiness and heartbreak for both of them.

The other male lead, Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt, played by Montgomery Clift, is as immovably stubborn as Sgt. Warden when it comes to being “married to the Army” and upholding a deep sense of personal honor. Prew is renowned for two unique skills—his bugling and his boxing—and they both get him into trouble. His transfer to Schofield comes about via a dispute with his previous top-kick, who passed Prew over as top bugler for a friend who was inferior. He is also regarded as a sensational middleweight, and Capt. Holmes irresistibly covets his skills to capture the regimental boxing championship. Yet Prew inadvertently blinded a man in his last boxing match, and he vows to never again set foot into a boxing ring. Both episodes prove that Prew is completely willing to buck authority when his personal honor is challenged, a decision carries unfavorable consequences. Capt. Holmes warns him: “You should know that in the Army it's not the individual that counts.” Warden encourages Prew—“You gotta play ball”, but Prew tells him, “A man don't go his own way, he's nothin'.” Prew’s principle causes him to become alienated from his company, and he is assigned “The Treatment” from Holmes, where Prew receives all of the KP duties, extra laps during exercises, longer marching practice, and peer pressure and harassment from the boxers on Holmes’ team who try and manipulate Prew into joining. Again, the irresistible forces between two immovable objects—in this case Prew’s obstinate individuality and Holmes’ abuse of authority—lead to disastrous consequences for the protagonist.

Prew also engages in a doomed relationship, which plays out just as predictably as Sgt. Warden and Karen’s. Prew’s lone friend—Maggio (Frank Sinatra, in his Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning role, which he purportedly used his mafia connections to secure), takes him out for a night of revelry in Honolulu. They make their way to the New Congress Club, a whorehouse (called, of course, a gentleman’s club where the girls are called hostesses) popular with the soldiers on Oahu. There, Prew catches the eye of Lorene (Donna Reed), dubbed “the Princess” because of her aloof manner with the soldiers. Perhaps because of their status as outsiders within their professions, Prew and Lorene begin a relationship and open up to one another, with Prew revealing his tragic past and Lorene revealing her real name as Alma.
The deeper Prew and Alma fall in love, the more complicated things become. For starters, both of their jobs are in jeopardy if their relationship is discovered, though Alma is at greater risk. Their off-island plans are discussed, and Prew says he’s “a 30-year man” with the Army, though Alma cannot fathom why Prew would love an institution which is causing him so much angst. Prew tells her that after his parents died, the Army was his only refuge and that “A man loves a thing. That don’t mean it’s gotta love him back. You love a thing, you gotta be grateful.” He later proposes marriage to Alma, but she declines, knowing full well that Prew, like Warden, loves an institution first. Yet like Karen, she also craves stability, and she tells Prew:

“I won't marry you because I don't want to be the wife of a soldier...Because nobody's gonna stop me from my plan. Nobody, nothing. Because I want to be proper...Yes, proper. In another year, I'll have enough money saved. Then, I'm gonna go back to my hometown in Oregon and I'm gonna build a house for my mother and myself, and join the country club and take up golf. And I'll meet the proper man with the proper position to make a proper wife who can run a proper home and raise proper children. And I'll be happy because when you're proper, you're safe.”

Again, an irresistible love cannot overcome immovable stubbornness in both principals.

The final—and most traditional—irresistible force/immovable object relationship in From Here to Eternity is between Maggio and his nemesis, Sgt. James R. “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine). Maggio is a traditional foil to Prew. While Prew is a stubborn individualist, he is also a model soldier. No matter how much punishment is dished his way, Prew doesn’t complain or bitch. He complies, no matter how unfair the punishments may be. Maggio is the opposite of Prew—undisciplined and without principle. Where Prew rebels as an act of individuality, Maggio rebels for kicks (though to be fair, Maggio is the only soldier who sticks up for Prew, and his loyalty sometimes earns him punishments alongside his friend).

Maggio is also prone to instigation. When in the New Congress Club, Fatso is loudly and poorly playing the piano. Maggio would do well to ignore Fatso—especially given the brutal reputation he has earned as sergeant of the stockade, not to mention Fatso outranks Maggio—but like moth to flame, he cannot help but tell him to pipe down. Fatso responds by calling Maggio “wop”, and the racial slur only incenses the situation. Maggio is bailed out by Prew, and on another occasion, Sgt. Warden, but ultimately, Fatso tells him “Tough monkey. Guys like you end up in the stockade sooner or later. Someday you'll walk in. I'll be waitin'. I'll show you a couple of things.” Maggio, unable to resist his passions for disobedience, walks off of guard duty, gets drunk, and ends up under Fatso’s tyranny in the stockade. Maggio’s actions have fatal consequences—Maggio escapes but not before suffering a beating that eventually kills him. Prew avenges his friend, and mortally wounds Fatso in a knife fight, and he is forced to also go AWOL to avoid murder charges.

Each of the subplots reaches a point where male protagonists become free to make changes. Prewitt eventually earns the unconditional respect of Sgt. Warden, who calls Prew “the best stinkin’ soldier in the whole Army.” After Fatso is killed, Warden knows that Prew took revenge, and covers up for his friend by keeping him on the rolls while he is AWOL at Alma’s cottage. At the same time, Warden leaks the abuses of power Capt. Holmes has shown towards Prew, and the Captain is forced to resign his position rather than face court-martial. This leaves Warden as a natural successor to Holmes, and with his loyalty to Prew, Prew could rejoin the ranks or abscond stateside with Alma. Of course, neither man does the sensible thing in regard to their romances, and on the day Warden and Karen break up, Director Fred Zinnemann gives the audience an establishing shot of a calendar, the date reading December 6th, 1941. Even if Warden opted to become an officer and Prew realized he could find as much comfort in Alma as he does in the Army—or conversely, if the women could learn to live with men who are mere soldiers—history awaits them all the next day, when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and an entire nation—not just simply the fates of four lovers—is irrevocably changed.

Zinnemann directed a film that wisely plays off the audience’s anticipation of the inevitable. This isn’t a flashy picture. Zinnemann directs From Here to Eternity with a steadfast and even hand, allowing the audience to become enraptured by the melodrama. The actors give considerable aid to the director in creating characters so alive, so palpable that you give yourself wholly to Zinnemann’s adaptation of James Jones’ praised 1951 novel of the same name. The men each play up to type—Frank Sinatra is perfect as a carefree soldier, Ernest Borgnine looks exactly like a bullying heavy, Burt Lancaster is the chameleon—at ease being a leading man but with enough of an edge to keep him interesting, and nobody in Hollywood ever played sensitive men of smoldering, aching tragedy better than Montgomery Clift. The women are cast against type. Deborah Kerr was a British actress best known for playing prim characters in musicals (her Anna in The King and I, made three years after From Here to Eternity, is a typical Kerr role), but here she is an unhappy adulteress. Donna Reed is best known as James Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life, but she is a hooker with a heart of gold in From Here to Eternity. Of the sextet, all but Borgnine were rewarded with Oscar nominations (making From Here to Eternity one of the rare films containing a nominated performance in each of the four acting categories). The entire cast grounds their characters in reality, giving humanistic and emotional performances blending perfectly with the tone Zinnemann establishes for the picture.

By the time the Japanese planes roll in, I became so spellbound that I forgot, momentarily, that the shadow of Pearl Harbor loomed over the whole picture. Like the wave crashing down on Karen and Sgt. Warden, I was shocked to my system. History came crashing down upon me as I was watching this superb melodrama, and delivered the cruelest of ironies. No matter how at odds we may each be with our own personal conflicts, no matter how unconquerable our differences may be, history is the great leveler—an irresistible force and an immovable object rolled into one.


From Here to Eternity (1953)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine, Philip Ober, George Reeves*

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscars: 8 (Best Picture, Best Director—Fred Zinnemann, Best Supporting Actor—Frank Sinatra**, Best Supporting Actress—Donna Reed, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (B&W), Best Editing, Best Sound Recording) out of 13 total nominations (Best Actor—Montgomery Clift, Best Actor—Burt Lancaster, Best Actress—Deborah Kerr, Best Costume Design (B&W), Best Score)

*According to a legendary Hollywood rumor, George Reeves, best known for playing Superman in the 1950’s, had his scenes as Sgt. Maylon Stark cut because audiences at a preview screening—too familiar with his exponentially more famous role as the Man of Steel—couldn’t buy Reeves in the part. Director Zinnemann maintained that the role of Stark remained the same throughout all drafts of the screenplay, and there was no preview screening. This controversy is depicted as truth in the 2006 film Hollywoodland, about Reeves’ life and suspicious death.
**Another famous Hollywood urban legend involves Sinatra securing the role of Maggio. By the early 1950’s Sinatra’s career had stalled to the point of isolation, and Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn favored Eli Wallach in the role. The very famous scene in The Godfather with the severed horse’s head as an “offer he can’t refuse” was based on this urban legend, with the characters of Johnny Fontaine and Jack Woltz as Sinatra and Cohn, respectively. The story has no basis in fact. More likely is that actress Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s wife at the time used her influence with Cohn to gain influence for her husband.

NEXT BLOG: On the Waterfront

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Greatest Show on Earth: Not-So-Ready for a Close-Up, Mr. DeMille

Everyone knows this Andy Warhol quote: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” The converse of Warhol’s line is that infamy lasts far longer. Cecil B. DeMille’s circus extravaganza has gained infamy for being one of, if not the, worst films to ever be awarded Best Picture. Yet the funny thing about infamy is that because The Greatest Show on Earth did win the top Oscar, whenever the “Best Ever” and “Worst Ever” Oscar winners are discussed, a place of dubious distinction will always be held for this film.

I’m a positive kind of guy, so I will highlight some positives of the film before diving into the pool of negativity. This film isn’t outright awful—none of the Best Picture winners are—on the level that Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is; it just isn’t Best Picture material. Hell, there were several parts of The Greatest Show on Earth that I really enjoyed. The overall plot of the film is simple: the movie is a fictionalized version following the real-life Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus—the big-top known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”—as it travels around the country. Director DeMille—one of Hollywood’s most legendary filmmakers who was famous for staging epic films as far back as the silent era—wisely employed the real life 1951 travelling Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, along with its over 1,400 employees (including performers, carnies, animal wranglers, backstage help, staging technicians and management), hundreds of animals, and a the famous circus train hauling 60 carloads of tents, equipment, animals, and humanity. The film is undoubtedly massive, and only DeMille had the talent and experience to mount such a gargantuan production.

Unsurprisingly, the plot is really overstuffed. The main through line involves the financial survival of the circus itself. Charlton Heston—in one of his earliest roles, and one that cemented him as the go-to male star to carry an epic film—plays Brad Braden, the no-bullshit general manager of the circus who manages to show compassion to the 1,400 souls who work under him. The owners of the circus are finding that in post-WWII America, the circus doesn’t have the same appeal as it once held, and that they are contemplating running a shorter national touring season rather than risk huge financial losses. Brad bargains to keep the full schedule running and his trump card is the most famous (yet also temperamental and egomaniacal) trapeze artist in the world, The Great Sebastian, who has inked a contract with the circus but only if it performs their full schedule. The bosses allow the show to run so long as it turns a profit, and Brad keeps his workforce employed.

I found the behind-the-scenes look into what makes the circus go easily the most compelling part of the film. Heston gives an excellent portrayal of a man who holds incredible responsibilities under extreme duress. There is never a shortage of problems at the circus; be it feuding star acts, sick animals, low ticket sales, potentially fatal accidents, personal dramas, et cetera, et cetera. Often, the problems conspiring to overthrow the success of the circus are happening all at once, and while Heston acts Brad as harried and stretched thin, he also gives the character a mastery of control over his emotions and the strength to keep his circus operating despite long and overwhelming odds through willpower alone. That Heston makes the audience believe that Brad can succeed at an incredibly difficult job defined him as an actor comfortable playing authority. Heston would forever be known for playing authoritative, decisive characters—most famously as Moses in DeMille’s remake of (his own film version of) The Ten Commandments just four years later and as the title role in Ben-Hur, the massively successful, Oscar-winning epic that closed the decade. Heston’s roles helped define a masculine ideal in the 1950’s and The Greatest Show on Earth was Heston’s first opportunity at playing a man with ultimate authority. He is often overlooked as an actor, but Heston creates easily the most compelling character in this film.

Another unique element to The Greatest Show on Earth is that DeMille includes documentary-style footage of the actual big-top tents being erected. DeMille himself provides narration during these segments. His voice-over is prone to exaggeration and melodrama, calling the circus “a mechanized army on wheels that rolls over any obstacle in its path” and a place where “Death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear.” His hyperbole is wholly unnecessary; the footage alone of braces of men hauling the massive tent poles into place and unrolling canvasses wide as football fields show exactly what an undertaking simply moving a circus from town to town is. I found myself wishing for more insight into this undertaking, but the film becomes far more concerned with melodrama.

With the hiring of The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), Brad angers his other star trapeze artist, Holly (Betty Hutton), who is also Brad’s girlfriend (I couldn’t really buy into the fact that Brad would have such a serious relationship with someone in the circus when he gives off such a steely, no-nonsense demeanor—a romance with a co-worker would be exactly sort of the nonsense that Brad would warn one of his performers against). Brad displaces Holly from the circus’ center ring, and Holly takes it upon herself to engage in a game of one-upsmanship with Sebastian. Anything he can do, she can do better, and their aerial stunts become more dangerous and thrilling with each performance (the circus acts themselves are mesmerizing, and if you like that sort of thing, The Greatest Show on Earth is an excellent showcase for it). While the competition is good for business, Brad orders the acts to be toned down, putting further strain on his relationship with Holly. Finally, when Sebastian suffers an injury, Holly succumbs to the Florence Nightingale effect and ditches Brad for the wounded Sebastian. The love triangle becomes a love square when Brad takes up with Angel (Gloria Grahame), Sebastian’s ignored girlfriend who performs in the elephant act. There are too many silly love complications in The Greatest Show on Earth. Not to mention that the actors involved don’t have the chops to play romantic sequences without being cloying or over emotive (despite Heston’s brilliance playing authority roles, he’s never really great as a screen lothario). DeMille should have heeded the advice of the immortal Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (a film that was released 32 years after The Greatest Show on Earth, but play along, people): “Dr. Jones, no time for love.”

There is also no time for the many criminal subplots that fill up much of the film’s 152 minutes. I don’t think that DeMille should have glossed over the fact that the transient nature of the circus holds a special appeal to those either running from or wishing to exploit the law, but the stories in this film get ridiculous. First, there is a subplot involving crooked carnies running rigged games who are secretly conspiring to undermine Brad and the whole Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey operation. Brad has to eventually fire the conspirators, whose ranks have grown to include some of the performers (including Klaus, the head elephant trainer who is rejected by Angel, thus tying the conspiracy subplot to the already silly romantic subplot), and they retaliate by causing a massive collision of the circus trains (the wreck is spectacularly staged and is a highlight of the film).

The other criminal subplot centers on Buttons (played by none other than James Stewart), a clown who never takes off his makeup, even when the circus is travelling between cities. Buttons has not revealed any of his history to the other performers, though when accidents happen, he provides expert first aid to the injured and can wrap bandages around a trapeze far better than anyone else. Buttons, who rarely socializes with outsiders, provides fodder for the gossip cannon when he is seen speaking to a woman during a performance. As it turns out, Buttons is on the lam, and the woman he is speaking to is his mother, whom he only sees once a year when the circus rolls into his hometown. Buttons is revealed to be a doctor who has become a fugitive because he has euthanized his wife. Throughout the film, FBI agents are in pursuit of him (they carry a picture of Buttons without his makeup), yet neither Brad nor any other member of the circus are aware of Buttons’ past life. Inevitably, Buttons becomes crucial to the finale of the film, when the train becomes wrecked and Brad’s is gravely wounded.

In the words of the estimable Tim Gunn, what DeMille should have brought to his screenplay was “an editing eye”. There is just far too much going on in The Greatest Show on Earth to be believable. In fact, when first watching the film, I thought that while there was too much material for a two and a half hour movie, the massive subject matter would be perfect for television. (As it turns out, ABC produced a one-hour drama based on the film, with future Best Supporting Actor winner Jack Palance as Brad. The series aired 30 episodes for the 1963-1964 television season.) Sadly, the most interesting parts of the film are shunted aside for melodrama, and anyone who has ever seen a movie knows that this one is going to have a gift-wrapped happy ending. If the circus didn’t recover from the accident, I think the film would have had more depth. If DeMille had chosen to highlight the crew who so quickly and professionally assemble and breakdown the big-top tents as the circus moves from town to town with a character as interesting as Brad, the film would have had some more original perspective. Instead, "The Greatest Show on Earth" serves as a backdrop to contrived melodrama. This clichéd and predictable story won the film’s other Oscar.

Aside from the quality of the picture itself, what has incensed film critics the most about The Greatest Show on Earth was that the film unjustifiably defeated some truly fine and classic films. First, I’ll talk about some of the nominated films I haven’t seen. John Ford took home Best Director that year (his fourth win in that category, an Oscar record) for his Irish romance The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The film is regarded as one of Ford’s best non-Westerns, and the excellent performances from Wayne and O’Hara were overlooked. The Quiet Man reaped two more Oscar nominations than The Greatest Show on Earth and took home the same amount, two. Another big Oscar winner (though it did not receive a Best Picture nomination) that year was Vincente Minnelli’s Hollywood-set melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful, which took home five Oscars (including Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame, who also played Angel in The Greatest Show on Earth). The film holds the record for the film that has won the most Oscars without receiving a Best Picture nomination, and one would think given the Academy’s tendency to repeat nominations, Minnelli (who directed the Best Picture from the year previous, An American in Paris) would have had more success.

The two films—which I have seen—that raise the most ire among critics for being overlooked in 1952 are Singin’ in the Rain and High Noon. First, Singin’ in the Rain. That film is held in near-universal regard as the greatest musical ever made (the American Film Institute first had it ranked #10 on its list of the 100 Greatest Films, then it rose to #5 when the list was revised and it placed #1 on their 100 Years of Musicals list). Astonishingly, (and again considering that a Gene Kelly musical was the big winner a year prior) Singin’ in the Rain only received two Oscar nominations (for Supporting Actress and Score) and won a total of zero. However, the results weren’t all that surprising as the film was not as well regarded when it was released as it is today (proving that audiences and critics in 1952 were morons). The film also casts a critical eye on Hollywood—the plot revolves around the transition from silent to talking films in 1927—and the Academy rarely ever rewards films that cast a critical on the film industry. The Bad and the Beautiful likely also suffered from this syndrome, as did Sunset Boulevard two years earlier.

The favorite in 1952 was Fred Zinnemann’s classic, real-time Western High Noon. Actor Gary Cooper took home the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Sheriff Will Kane, the only man in a town full of cowards willing to stand up to a gang of criminals. Like Singin’ in the Rain, High Noon is universally critically regarded as one of the best films of its genre as well as one of the best films ever made (it ranked #33 on AFI’s initial 100 Greatest Films, #27 on the revised list, and is #2 on the 100 Years of Westerns list). Its Oscar undoing lies in its screenplay, for reasons more about politics, not quality.

High Noon’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, intended the film to be an allegory against McCarthyism. While he was writing High Noon, Foreman was called to testify in hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Foreman declined to name names to HUAC, and landed himself on the Hollywood blacklist. The film was a political lightning rod, with obvious supporters on the left-leaning members and blacklist sympathizers in film community, and staunch, vocal opponents with conservative leanings. The biggest hater—John Wayne, in a clear reveal of his right-wing bias, called High Noon “the most Un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” (Ironically, Wayne would end up accepting Best Actor on behalf of Cooper.) Yet the film also had a big supporter in President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the film has since been a favorite of conservative and liberal Presidents alike. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (who calls High Noon his favorite film, and screened it seventeen times in the White House during his eight year term) were Presidential admirers of the film. Oscar, however, has rarely courted controversy, and Communism was the kiss of death in the 1950’s.

Who benefitted most from the red scare surrounding High Noon? Cecil B. DeMille, who sympathized with Senator McCarthy’s cause. DeMille was also in an enviable position with Academy voters—that of the elder statesman, veteran, respected filmmaker who has never sniffed Oscar glory. Many Academy voters in 1952 likely determined that DeMille’s last, best shot at winning an Oscar was for The Greatest Show on Earth (which ended up being the penultimate film directed in DeMille's career), and they favored his more readily wholesome, all-American film over the controversy magnet. The fact that DeMille was awarded the Thalberg Award the same year as his Best Picture victory is evidence that DeMille clearly had the favor of the Academy (yet he did not win Best Director). This is far from the only example of politics determining an Oscar winner, yet it is easily one of the most egregious examples of political interference in the history of the Academy Awards. The lesson to filmmakers looking to win an Oscar—be careful in courting controversy.

While not a terrible film, The Greatest Show on Earth does not hold up under critical scrutiny, and certainly did not deserve to win Best Picture. The film is not-so-ready for a close-up. Its victory was indicative of several trends at the Academy Awards for the next two decades. The Greatest Show on Earth was the first Oscar-winner since Gone With the Wind to be a feat of epic filmmaking. Big-time epics with casts of thousands and spectacular sequences (like the train wreck) would prove both commercially and critically popular, especially since film would have to distinguish itself as something much grander than its chief competitor: television. Another trend was established with Charlton Heston creating a template for male masculinity in his authoritative, tough-guy roles. America wanted to see men in charge, and the films in the 1950’s provided them in spades. Finally, the Best Picture victory of The Greatest Show on Earth proved that Oscar was not ready to reward politically challenging films (films that, in this reviewer’s opinion, have withstood the test of time far greater) in a time when the country was in the grip of a palpable fear of all things considered to be un-American. After all, what is more American than the circus?

I’ll end on a positive note, one which shows that even a film infamous for being the Worst Best Picture can end up being a source for greatness. The Greatest Show on Earth was the first film Steven Spielberg saw, and he cites it as a major inspiration for wanting to become a filmmaker. The wellspring for creativity can have unusual sources indeed.


The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Starring: Charlton Heston, James Stewart*, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Gloria Grahame

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Total Oscars: 2 (Best Picture, Best Story) from 5 total nominations** (Best Director—Cecil B. DeMille, Best Costume Design (Color)—Edith Head, Best Editing)

*Unbelievably, The Greatest Show on Earth is the only Best Picture winner Jimmy Stewart ever appeared in, and he spends the whole film in clown makeup.
**DeMille was also awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1952, and the award that mirrors the Thalberg at the Golden Globes bears DeMille’s name.

NEXT BLOG: From Here to Eternity

Saturday, July 3, 2010

An American in Paris: Ars Gratia Artis, part II

It will probably be best to start this review by saying that this will be less a summary of the 1951 Best Picture winner than an examination of what makes a movie a movie instead of something more properly categorized as part of another artistic medium. But I will be honest with you: as a movie, I think An American in Paris is a failure.

Unsurprisingly, the studio behind this art-for-art’s-sake musical is MGM (whose motto, visible under a roaring Leo the Lion at the start of every MGM film, is “ars gratia artis”). No studio was more adept at staging and producing musicals than MGM. From the silent era through the 1930’s and up until the American involvement in WWII, MGM was the undisputed champion studio of Hollywood. No studio had more stars under contract. No studio made more profitable and critically regarded pictures. In the 1940’s, MGM made a slow decline. Likely precipitated with the death of “boy genius” producer Irving G. Thalberg in 1936, Louis B. Mayer became both studio head and head of production (Thalberg’s old role). Where Thalberg preferred to mount tasteful and literary productions, Mayer liked crowd-pleasers, and when Mayer became entrenched atop MGM, he and his management team released a series after series of “serial films”, like the Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy, the Andy Hardy films, and the “backyard musicals” starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, starting with Babes in Arms. Ultimately, production decreased by half; by 1940, MGM had gone from producing 50+ films a year to roughly 25.

MGM was onto something with the Garland/Rooney musicals though. Babes in Arms was produced by lyricist-turned-producer Arthur Freed, and Freed would eventually become the most celebrated producer of movie musicals ever. While other studios shied away from musicals because of the expensive costs associated with staging them—after all a musical needs not only a film crew and actors, but also a team of songwriters, composers, singers, musicians, dancers, choreographers, more advanced and elaborate production values (namely costumes and sets)—musicals accounted for roughly a quarter of MGM’s output in the 1940’s. (I would also argue that shifting tastes in audiences hardened by the realities of WWII caused the genre to be less popular with the other studios in Hollywood.) By 1950, MGM’s musicals were threatening to bankrupt the studio, and Mayer was ousted after creative conflicts with his “new Thalberg” Dore Schary. Mayer preferred wholesome, mainstream entertainment; Schary preferred edgier message films. The new guy won.

Despite Schary’s preferences for more mature material and the fact that MGM’s musicals placed a hefty burden on the overall operating budget of the studio, Freed’s productions were successful enough to justify their expense, but more importantly—the musicals carved out the identity of the studio. Freed ran his musical unit as an essentially independent film studio within MGM. He was able to attract top talent from Broadway by providing them nearly total creative control. Such autonomy was unheard of in an era where movie studios—MGM especially so—were controlled by corporate committee. Free rein in hand, the most talented musical performers in entertainment could be found at MGM—Garland, Fred Astaire, Lena Horne, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, and both the star and director of An American in Paris, Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli, respectively.

Minnelli was Freed’s top director. Possessed of incredible taste and style, Minnelli helmed Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944 with Garland, his future wife, as star (their union produced a daughter, Liza). Garland’s versions of “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” were featured in the film and immediately became standards. Minnelli and Garland would collaborate several times in musicals of a variety of different genres (for example, they teamed with Kelly in 1948 in The Pirate). Minnelli was also skilled in bringing lighthearted melodramas to life. In 1950, he directed Father of the Bride to several Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Spencer Tracy and Best Picture.

Gene Kelly was the most ambitious dancer of the era. Unlike the only male dancer rightfully considered his peer, Fred Astaire, who was a lean, lithe classicist—Kelly was muscular, brawny and a boundary pusher. One of his earliest films for MGM, Anchors Aweigh, had Kelly partnered with Jerry Mouse in a dance duet that combined live-action and animation. The film also starred Frank Sinatra, whom Kelly would co-star with three times. In the Kelly/Sinatra film On the Town, the pair made extensive use of real-life locations in Manhattan, one of the earliest instances of taking a musical outside of the studio. Kelly was also a huge fan of ballet, and was a constant proponent of using ballet in musical films.

Minnelli and Kelly would find themselves ideally matched in An American in Paris. With both men being ambitious artists given near-total artistic freedom from Arthur Freed the stage was set for a musical which would shatter conventions.

When looked at as a musical that achieved the unexpected, An American in Paris is a complete success. One of the earliest scenes in the film showcases its young lead actress—French-born Leslie Caron, 19 at the time of filming (and who would later re-team with Minnelli and Freed in the 1958 Best Picture winner, Gigi)—in an impressionistic sequence where we see five different styles of dance—each accentuated by a different color—expressing the different moods and aspects of Caron’s character, Lise. Within the first act of the film, the audience knows that dance—not story, not acting—will establish character.

Another unconventional scene that establishes character is centered on Adam (Oscar Levant)—in the best friend role to Gene Kelly’s lead. The script gives meager details about Adam, aside from his musical virtuosity on the piano, a detail that he has lived on an endless series of fellowships, and that his cynicism is used as a foil to the general optimism of Gene Kelly’s character, Jerry Mulligan. In a dream sequence, Adam imagines himself playing George Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F”. At first it is just Adam on the piano, but the dream becomes more elaborate with Adam taking on the role of conductor, then a variety of other instruments in the orchestra, and finally as a member of the audience who is applauding his own performance. Minnelli uses split-screen and special effects to portray Levant as a wunderkind, one-man orchestra, but what it best about the scene—my favorite in the film—is that the dream suggests Adam has feelings of inadequacy toward his genius. He only feels successful in his dreams, where he can be in complete control of his performances and how they are received. In the context of the dream, it is easy to understand why this character—though granted a series of opportunities to live up to his potential as an artist, has ultimately failed to do so.

The finale of An American in Paris contains the single most avant-garde sequence to ever appear in a Best Picture winner. Unique for even musicals, Kelly and Minnelli stage a wordless, uninterrupted seventeen-minute ballet sequence where Jerry and Lise tell the story of their relationship and time in Paris (essentially recapping the entire film). Audaciously, the ballet is inspired by French impressionist painters (a key detail, as Jerry is an artist) Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Maurice Utrillo, Vincent Van Gogh (a Dutchman, but nevertheless closely associated with Paris), Henri Rousseau and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Kelly and Caron dance through stages where works by these painters spring to life—the dancers are costumed like the people in the paintings, and Minnelli pumps in colored smoke to surreal effect, making the colors of the art something tangible for the dancers to pass through. For added effect, Kelly incorporates several styles of dance in the finale—modern, tap, jazz, classical, and yes, ballet. Overall, the “American in Paris Ballet” is a vivid, inspired and masterfully executed sequence that provides a very untraditional end to a genre of films that demands tradition.

Apart from the rest of the film, the convention-breaking sequences I’ve just discussed would, by themselves be worthy of Academy honor. But there’s the rest of the movie to deal with.

Now, musicals have never been noted for containing screenplays with the depth, wit, or insight of films like All About Eve or Casablanca. The story is likely beyond tertiary in a musical. The songs, dancing, and performers are the draw for these films. Suspension of disbelief is key. Believe me; I have no problem with suspension of disbelief. I think Aliens is the greatest movie ever made, and to buy into that, you have to believe on some level that predatory, acid-for-blood aliens exist. I can buy into a ton of bullshit Hollywood shovels my way. The story in this film is so insipid and implausible that I just couldn’t do it.

Jerry is an ex-G.I. who has remained in Paris after WWII to pursue his passion of becoming a painter. He lives on the West Bank of the Seine among other artists in Montmartre. The building Jerry and his neighbor Adam (the concert pianist living off of renewed fellowships) live in is indicative of their status as starving artists (the Rube Goldberg design of Jerry’s flat is another area where an artistic element in film—in this case, set design—really helps to establish character). One day, while dining in the bistro below their apartments, Jerry and Adam reunite with one of Adam’s old partners, the dapper Henri (Georges Guetary), who has been a successful music hall entertainer. Henri tells Jerry and Adam about his new love, Lise (cue Leslie Caron’s entrance in her five-faceted dance number).

Next, the film delves into Jerry’s struggles to establish himself as an artist. One day, while selling his paintings on the street, his work catches the eye of Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy American. Milo buys two of Jerry’s paintings and eventually offers to be his sponsor. Jerry suspects that Milo has interest in having Jerry become her kept man, and he resists any and all seduction from his patroness, even offering to return the money Milo has given him for his work.

Yet Jerry is persuaded to go out with Milo on a few harmless dates, and it is at a nightclub where he meets Lise, and Jerry is immediately smitten. Lise tells Jerry that she is flatly uninterested in beginning a romantic relationship with him—after all, she is with Henri, unbeknownst to Jerry—yet Jerry continues to pursue Lise with zeal that borderlines on stalking. Eventually, she too is won over and goes on a date with Jerry that ends with a lovely dance between the pair.

Complications, of course, ensue. Milo becomes more aggressive in her patronage, offering Jerry his own studio where he can live and create art unburdened by financial restraint. A guilt ridden Lise admits to Jerry that she is engaged to Henri, and she feels devotion and obligation toward him because he saved her after he parents were killed during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Jerry and Lise mutually part despite a growing attraction, and Jerry accepts Milo’s sponsorship.

In the final act, all of the characters are brought together at a black-and-white ball, Lise and Jerry confront one another again, cue the extended ballet-sequence, and when the film returns to normal, Henri leaves, allowing Jerry and Lise—the true lovers—to be together.

I had all sorts of problems with the story. First of all, it doesn’t seem remotely plausible that Jerry would outright reject Milo’s offer. Although Milo is clearly sexually attracted to Jerry, it is never once implied in the film that they sleep together or that Jerry sleeping with Milo is an absolute condition of her support for him. She may be a cougar, but she is also a businesswoman. Also, Jerry has never had the opportunities Adam has, so his rejection of financial support seems too cynical for his character.

Then there is the Lise/Jerry/Henri love triangle. None of these characters are given any real reason to fall in love with one another, or why their relationships would work. Only after Jerry pesters Lise to the point where she has to go out with him to get rid of him does she agree to see him. Jerry and Lise fall in love because he is played by Gene Kelly and she is played by Leslie Caron, and Hollywood dictates that the stars must end up together. Furthermore, we are given a decent enough reason why Henri and Lise would be together. She feels obligated to him, he clearly adores her, and he’s financially stable, doesn’t treat her like shit, and allows her to be herself. Why would Lise even think about straying, and why doesn’t Henri put up a fight? No man is that much of a gentleman.

I also don’t think that—aside from their dancing, which is sublime—Kelly and Caron have any romantic chemistry. Suspension of disbelief can work really easily when there is chemistry along the lines of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Gable and Vivien Leigh, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Kelly and Caron can’t hold a candle to those pairings. Even in musicals, where not much more than “love at first sight” is required to buy into a relationship, there has to be some sort of implied, subtle reason why two characters will fall in love. Maria and Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music complete one another; she gets him to loosen up and provides a much needed mother role for his children, he shows her that love can come from other places than God. Tony and Maria in West Side Story have the Romeo and Juliet thing going for them. Even in a musical as stupid as Grease there is subtext as to why Danny and Sandy should be together (they can both be themselves around each other). In the storyline of An American in Paris, Jerry and Lise have nothing, no tangible reason for an audience to buy into their relationship, a supposed demonstration of true love.

Of course, all of the information you need to understand these characters is within the musical numbers (though I could live without the Gershwin standards—I vastly prefer an original or Broadway adapted musical score in a musical film). But that brings me to my original point: if the musical numbers, ballet sequences and other avant-garde indulgences is what really makes An American in Paris, is it really then a musical film, or is it a hybrid form of ballet and other artistic mediums?

Suspension of disbelief aside, I expect a film to have a logical screenplay as its foundation. Without one, you have the filmic equivalent of gibberish. Look at music videos. While some videos do tell elaborate stories, most simply exist to marry image, sensations, and music. With no original songwriting material, is An American in Paris no more than an extended music video for Gershwin tunes and Francophiles? Is this really a movie?

History really seals the deal for me. One year later, Gene Kelly teamed up with another celebrated director within MGM’s Freed unit—Stanley Donen—to create Singin’ in the Rain, which is widely considered to be the greatest musical ever filmed. That film also indulges Kelly’s tastes for bringing extended, avant-garde ballet sequences to film, has genre-defying numbers, and the music (save one song) is entirely recycled material. The difference between Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris: the story in the former film makes fucking sense. The characters behave logically. The 1927 Hollywood setting perfectly serves the themes of the story—talking films are replacing silent pictures. The acting is magnificent. The satire and comedy works. You buy into the world that is created on screen.

The other key difference: An American in Paris won six Oscars from eight nominations, Singin’ in the Rain was virtually ignored the next year with two nominations and zero wins. That represents one of the grossest oversights in Academy Awards history. Singin’ in the Rain is a movie musical done absolutely right. An American in Paris is an experiment that indulges in far too many art-for-art’s-sake moments that shifts the work from being a movie into something else.


An American in Paris (1951)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Nina Foch, Georges Guetary

Studio: MGM

Total Oscars: 6 (Best Picture—Arthur Freed*, Best Original Screenplay—Alan Jay Lerner**, Best Art Direction (color), Best Cinematography (color), Best Costume Design (color), Best Score) from 8 total nominations*** (Best Director—Vincente Minnelli, Best Editing)

*Freed was also awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the ceremony
**The category for Lerner’s award was properly titled Best Writing, Story and Screenplay
***Gene Kelly also received an Honorary Oscar—his only—that year for "his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film."

NEXT BLOG: The Greatest Show on Earth