Thursday, August 26, 2010

Around the World in 80 Days: Todd's Zenith; Oscar's Nadir

1956 proved to be one of the finest years in cinema ever. John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers—recognized by the American Film Institute as the finest Western ever made and career highs in the prolific careers of both Wayne and Ford. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. A pair of sci-fi classics—Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers—were both overlooked. Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece—The Seven Samurai—though released in Japan in 1954, hit American soil in 1956. What does each of these great films have in common? Little no absolutely no Oscar recognition. Even among the Best Picture nominees, Giant (which took home the Best Director trophy for George Stevens) is the only film that holds up under both critical and popular acclaim (The Ten Commandments and The King and I, though each incredibly popular then and now, don’t measure up by critical standards as great films).

What did happen in 1956 was a film completely undeserving of an Academy Award took home the biggest Oscar. Worse than being undeserving—several quality films have won Best Picture yet didn’t deserve it—Around the World in 80 Days plain stinks. If you’re following the blog and thinking, “Hmmm, with the victory of Marty, wouldn’t it signal the beginning of an Oscar trend to reward small, intimate and honest films?” you’d be dead wrong. If Marty is film haiku, then Around the World in 80 Days is an epic ballad on crack.

The film is the brainchild of its producer, Michael Todd. Todd made his mark in entertainment as a very successful producer of Broadway shows (he is also famous for being husband #3 to Elizabeth Taylor). His other significant contribution to film history is the development of the Todd-AO process. In Todd-AO, film was shot on 65 millimeter film which was blown up to 70mm for projection purposes. Films shot in Todd-AO have an aspect ratio of 2.20:1. Films shot in Todd-AO are meant to be projected onto a curved screen at 30 frames per second (a bit faster than the standard 24 fps), giving the film a richer, high-definition feel which eliminated many imperfections like flickering. Unlike the other major widescreen presentation, Cinerama, which used three projectors, films shot in Todd-AO had the advantage of needing only one projector to be screened.

Okay, we all get the point. Michael Todd wanted to make a really big fucking movie. Around the World in 80 Days is a big fucking movie, so good on Todd for accomplishing what he set out to do.

Unfortunately, Around the World in 80 Days is also a really big fucking mess.

The film is liberally adapted from Jules Verne’s 1873 novel. In the book, protagonists Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout (played in the film by David Niven and Cantinflas, respectively) attempt to circumnavigate the globe to win a wager of ₤20,000. Their primary methods of transport are trains and steamships. Not sexy enough for Todd, who has Fogg and Passepartout embark on their journey via hot air balloon, creating a huge misconception about the source material.

The casting of Cantinflas is another issue. Loath though I am to knock a fellow Mexican—especially one regarded as Mexico’s version of Charlie Chaplin—but his presence in the film ultimately distracts from the storyline. Cantinflas’ casting was a huge coup for Todd, and entire scenes in the movie are designed to show off his considerable physical comedic talents. The bullfighting scene is a perfect example of this. No bullfighting scenes were in the Verne novel, but Todd felt obligated to showcase his big international star. In fact, although Niven received top billing for the film, upon viewing, it is obvious that Cantinflas is the true star. He gets far more to do, all the major set pieces revolve around his character, and he receives the bulk of the screentime.

(As an aside, David Niven sort of made a career of being overshadowed. In 1958, he won Best Actor for his performance in Separate Tables, a film where he is third billed in an ensemble cast and received a scant sixteen minutes of screentime for his performance. It remains the shortest performance to ever win Best Actor. He was also Sir Ian Fleming’s personal choice to play James Bond, though the role went to Sean Connery. When Niven did finally get to play Bond, it was in the satirical 1967 version of Casino Royale, where he plays one of six characters called “James Bond” in the film and totally overshadowed by a huge cast with actors like Orson Welles, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen—who also plays a Bond—hamming it up in an obviously ridiculous film. Finally, in 1974, as one of four hosts of the Academy Awards ceremony, Niven was interrupted by a man named Robert Opel, who streaked across the stage flashing the peace sign at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Niven, unflappable, got the last laugh in that situation, saying “the only laugh that man will probably ever get is for stripping and showing off his shortcomings.”)

Anyhow, Cantinflas’ antics become the real excitement in the film (anyone with half a brain, even if you’ve never read Verne’s story, knows that Fogg is going to win the wager), so much so that the film should more accurately be titled The Cantinflas Show. Don’t even get me started on the fact that a Mexican is playing a Frenchman (and when Around the World in 80 Days was remade in 2004, Jackie Chan played Passepartout, a Chinese actor playing a French character).

More strange casting decisions are made in regards to ethnicity. Shirley Maclaine—in one of her first films—is cast in the lead female role as Princess Aouda. The strange thing is, Princess Aouda is Indian. Fair-skinned, blue-eyed, red-headed Shirley Maclaine was cast as royalty from the subcontinent. A Mexican plays a French guy and an American plays an Indian in two of the three main roles in the film.

The film also has an astonishing number of cameo roles. Todd, in fact, is credited with coining the phrase “cameo appearance”. Over forty stars have cameo roles in Around the World in 80 Days. There are at least four Oscar winners (Ronald Colman, John Gielgud, Victor McLaglen and Frank Sinatra) to make cameos in the film, alongside some really legendary actors like Marlene Dietrich and Buster Keaton. Anytime the film meanders or gets a little boring—which happens quite often—an actor in a cameo pops up. “Look! There’s Sinatra!” “Look! That’s Red Skelton!” “Man, Dietrich and Keaton got old!” (I did like Peter Lorre’s cameo the best.) The film is also reputed to have 8,552 animals on screen, a veritable menagerie worthy of Noah’s Ark. If old celebrities aren’t your thing, there are plenty of lions and tigers and bears (Oh my!) to ogle. Distractions abound.

Also, the film has one of the oddest openings I’ve ever seen. It begins with legendary television journalist Edward R. Murrow (who must have enjoyed the payday) in a prologue where he describes otherworldly journeys man has undertaken, including rockets being blasted into space (current events for 1956). The rocket footage is accompanied by clips from Georges Méliès 1902 early science fiction film A Trip to the Moon. Todd is obviously and bluntly equating the journey in the film to astronomical exploration (and hoping his film will be as important to cinematic history as Méliès’).

The overall effect is not watching a film as much as a parade. I don’t know about you, but I pretty much despise parades (and watching a parade on television is especially cruel torture). No matter what the theme of the parade is, you can always count on basically the same stuff. Corny marching bands, fancy or ridiculous or obnoxious (or all of the above) modes of transportation, a litany of animals (along with animal poo), acrobatic performers, a princess or two, a politician, and candy being tossed your way (which is probably the only way a parade is better than Around the World in 80 Days—at least you get bubblegum and Tootsie Rolls when you watch a parade). And like this film, parades are neverending. At three hours, Around the World in 80 Days is at least twice as long as it needs to be. Two whole Marty’s could fit inside this picture.

What a disaster of a movie.

But, in the 1950’s Hollywood was terrified of television. Films needed to provide a larger-than-life experience, and Michael Todd took the concept to an extreme notion in Around the World in 80 Days. I think also, its Oscar victory is a clear signifier that the Academy was more concerned with how mightily a film tried to entertain an audience instead of how much a film made an audience think, or be moved, or feel an emotional bond with the characters. And frankly, the more deserving films like The Searchers (or any of the films I mentioned in the opening paragraph), were simply way, way ahead of their time and ultimately initially widely misunderstood in terms of their lasting impact.

Nothing could ever be misunderstood about Around the World in 80 Days. The film is as blunt as an anvil, as subtle as dynamite.


Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Director: Michael Anderson

Starring: David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley Maclaine and 40 cameo appearances including Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Red Skelton, Peter Lorre, etc.

Studio: United Artists*

Total Oscars: 5 (Best Picture—Michael Todd, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score) from 8 total nominations (Best Director—Michael Anderson, Best Art Direction (Color), Best Costume Design (Color))
*UA held the rights to the film from 1956 to 1976; Warner Brothers has held the rights to the film since 1983

NEXT BLOG: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Marty: Small Screen Roots, Big Screen Brilliance

Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show (which, by the way, received a Best Picture nomination) recreated the competition between nebbish Jew Herbie Stempel and handsome Gentile Charles Van Doren on the 1950’s Jeopardy!-style game show Twenty-One. In the film, the producers of the show have rigged the results to enhance the drama and create a national sensation. While both Stempel and Van Doren are brilliant men in their own right, each is seduced by the allure of fame and willingly plays along with the deception of the show; they are fed the answers and taught how to play up the drama. Stempel, the reigning champion as the film begins, does not have the star quality the executives on the show really want. He’s nerdy, a bit uncouth, too nebbish, and most unforgivably in the eyes of the anti-Semitic producers: too Jewish. Van Doren is photogenic, handsome, and comes from a wealthy family. Twenty-One’s producers see him as marketable and appealing. When Stempel and Van Doren clash, Stempel is told to throw the game. The decisive question: What movie won Best Picture in 1955 (Quiz Show is set in 1956, so the answer is a gimme)? The answer Stempel must give: On the Waterfront.

For Stempel, answering On the Waterfront instead of Marty is very nearly a deal breaker. He claims that it was his favorite film, he has seen it several times, and would consider it an indignity to answer that question wrong. Although Stempel does eventually compromise, when you watch Marty, it becomes clear why Stempel idolizes the picture. Marty describes himself as an ugly man. Unlovable. Painfully ordinary. Marty’s ordinariness becomes his endearing quality, and in Marty, men and women like Herbie Stempel found a kindred spirit. For once, a film showed one needn’t look like a matinee idol to find love and happiness. Of all the films ever awarded Best Picture, Marty is unquestionably the smallest in scale, yet in its celebration of the ordinary man, it proves to have the biggest heart.

Ironically enough, Marty began its life on television. The story originally debuted on television, broadcast on The Goodyear Television Playhouse on May 24th, 1953. (Another irony—The Goodyear Television Playhouse, like Twenty-One, were both programs on NBC, proving that both quality and corruption can exist on a single network.) The Goodyear Television Playhouse brought serious works of drama and theater to the home audience in a one hour program. Works popular on Broadway were condensed along with standalone original material. Marty, one of the latter, was scripted by Paddy Chayefsky (who is most famous for his searing script for Network) and proved to be quite successful and stood out amongst the fare it was aired with.

What is significant about Marty was that it went against the grain in terms of how Hollywood viewed television. TV was seen as a very serious threat to the movie studios in the 1950’s. Why would audiences pay good money to go out and see a movie when they can be entertained at home? Hollywood answered by giving audiences massive, spectacular films that television could not hope to recreate. This was the decade of the musical, of the epic, of the films adapted from great works of literature. Look at some of Marty’s Best Picture predecessors—An American in Paris, The Greatest Show on Earth, and From Here to Eternity fill out the bill for musicals, epics, and literary adaptations. Even All About Eve and On the Waterfront, with their marquee casts, pedigree filmmakers, and universal themes are larger than life in their own right, and could only work as feature films. In a decade of filmmaking where gigantic storytelling and gimmickry was seen as an absolute need (don’t forget, that the 1950’s were also the decade where 3-D, widescreen, and forgettable gimmicks like Aroma-vision were developed), Marty is tiny, unadorned and honest.

(Hell, the film was rumored to be a tax write-off for its producers, Harold Hecht and the actor Burt Lancaster. What bigger indicator of a throwaway project than that. In fact, in the trailer for Marty, Lancaster is seen introducing the picture, lending it some star power although Lancaster does not appear in a frame of the film itself. It is as if Lancaster doesn’t believe the story alone will sell the picture. Ultimately, when Marty became a critical and financial success—the film made back nearly ten times its budget—it made history as being the only film for which the Oscar campaign mounted for the picture cost more than the actual film itself. ($400,000 campaign budget against a $343,000 production budget, though it does seem like producers spend what it costs to make their film on many Oscar campaigns in recent history.))

Director Delbert Mann’s film traces roughly thirty-six hours in the life of its titular protagonist, butcher Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine). Marty is a lifelong bachelor in his thirties who lives at home with his overbearing Italian-American mother (Esther Minciotti) in the Bronx. Though Marty is a hard and dependable worker with a secure job, he has a grand total of zero romantic prospects. Partially due to his looks—Marty describes himself as a “fat, ugly man” (the stocky, round-faced Borgnine isn’t quite as hideous as his character describes himself as, but Borgnine is certainly not cut from traditional leading man cloth like his producer and From Here to Eternity co-star Lancaster)—and partially due to the constant browbeating he faces from his mother, Marty has become a large, decent man with absolutely no self-esteem. Marty is all-too aware of the price he has paid for his decency: “You don’t get to be good-hearted by accident. You get kicked around long enough; you become a professor of pain.”

Despite the fact that Marty has resigned himself to bachelorhood, Mrs. Piletti constantly harangues her eldest son into finding a girl. The fact that all of Marty’s younger brothers are married yet the oldest son is still single becomes a source of laughter in the community, and in many ways, reflects a failure on the part of Mrs. Piletti. Marty’s lack of romantic prospects becomes the primary source of conflict between mother and son: he is sick of rejection and heartbreak, she wishes to see her son happy. Ironically, Mrs. Piletti is clueless to what actually would make her son happy—some independence, for starters, and a chance to find love on his own terms. Furthermore, Mrs. Piletti secretly doesn’t want Marty to find love; she is absolutely terrified that if Marty does marry, she will be left utterly alone. Marty, in honest and direct terms, spells things out for his mother: “Ma, sooner or later, there comes a point in a man’s life where he’s gotta face facts. And one fact I gotta face is that whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it.” It is a testament to the strength of Chayefsky’s script and the skilled performances of Borgnine and Minciotti that the lived-in bickering between mother and son—which the audience, is of course, witnessing with fresh eyes—seems eternal.

Mrs. Piletti wins the argument, and she convinces Marty to go to a community dance to meet women. Marty has his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell), tag along. Angie is an equally luckless bachelor, and when Marty says “I’ve been looking for a girl every Saturday night of my life,” one senses that the statement applies to Angie with the same fidelity, and that both men are burnt out in their search for female companionship. Again, Borgnine and Mantell make it appear that Marty and Angie have been best friends for a long time, and that their shared motivation for going to the dance springs not from the prospect of meeting women—both men dread the prospect of doing so by this point, they have a shared hopelessness in that regard—but simply because going out is a far better alternative than staying in and doing nothing and being bored. When the friends ask each other “So, what do you feel like doing tonight?”/ “What do you want to do tonight?” (This line became a 1950’s catchphrase), their fruitless search for women becomes a mundane, rote part of their weekly routines.

At the dance, Marty is unsurprisingly rejected when he asks a woman to dance. He wanders off by himself, and meets a 29-year old schoolteacher named Clara (Betsy Blair). Clara came with a couple and hoped to be set up with a man they were acquainted with, but Clara’s date has stood them up. Clara is called “a dog” by other men at the dance (Angie included), though if Clara has any strikes against her appearance, it is that she is spectacularly ordinary (Blair, while certainly no “dog”, benefits from her plain appearance in this role). Marty, sensing a kindred spirit begins to talk to Clara, and though both parties are apprehensive—Clara especially so—Marty finds that the pair have much in common. On a surface level, both are relatively committed to their careers and both live with and are devoted to their parents (with Clara, it is her father). On a deeper level, both Marty and Clara intuit that they are both people who have resigned themselves to never falling in love. Their shared outlook provides a foundation for the pair to begin a relationship.

Eventually, Clara and Marty warm to each other. Both Borgnine and Blair have, like every successful romantic pairing in the movies, perfect chemistry. In this case, things start perfectly awkward and timid. Borgnine and Blair understand that Marty and Clara have both been hurt in the past, both fear rejection and loneliness, and both can hardly believe that there is another person out there who feels the way the other does. Eventually, Marty and Clara warm up to each other, and both have found what has eluded them throughout adulthood: a potential partner. They spend the evening together, out so late that Marty has to take a taxi home after ushering Clara to her doorstep because the trains have stopped running. Marty kisses Clara as he leaves, and in a sublime movie moment, he giddily dances down the middle of the street. Borgnine makes this large, oafish man twinkle-toed, the picture of utter happiness. Marty’s dance down the street after his date with Clara is a moment as equally joyful as Jimmy Stewart running down the main street in Bedford Falls at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, and frankly, the moment should be equally as famous.

The next day, Marty tells his mother how his date went and is met with reservation. It is here that Mrs. Piletti’s fears of abandonment are made explicit, and she puts it in Marty’s mind to renege on the promise he made Clara: to call her the day after the date. The final scene of the film finds Marty in the café that he frequents with Angie. Angie—peeved that Marty left him at the dance without telling him where he was going—also doesn’t approve of Marty’s matchup with Clara. Marty though, sees through Angie’s anger and realizes that Clara represents an opportunity at love that he would be foolish to throw away (Mantell also plays the role with a touch of obvious jealousy, and like Mrs. Piletti, the fear of abandonment is writ large over his face). Marty tells Angie:

“You don’t like her. My mother don’t like her. She’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I’m gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we have a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad. Hey Ange, when are you going to get married?”

The final moments of the film have Marty inside a telephone booth, making good on his promise to call Clara.

Marty is an honest film dealing with ordinary love. Atypical of romantic films, Marty does not adhere to the characteristics of its genre. Unlike It Happened One Night—a film I would categorize as prototypical—Marty doesn’t have leads who “meet cute” (and they certainly aren’t played by marquee stars like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert—Borgnine and Blair are character actors). They are a pair of kindred spirits, not opposites who attract. Marty and Clara are very much, almost painfully ordinary, unlike Peter Warne, who is popular and likable, and Ellie Andrews, who is essentially a princess. Marty and Clara don’t have glamorous jobs—they’re a butcher and a teacher, not a star reporter and heiress. There is no love at first sight, a sweeping off the feet, or a mad dash for the marriage altar. There is simply a promise to make a follow-up date that is adhered to, a possibility of happiness. In Marty, there is romance but there is no bullshit.

And really, how many real-life romances and couplings are as zany as the movies make them out to be? Do any of us meet our spouses-to-be under wacky circumstances or are they more mundane? Do we really fall immediately in swooning love? Are we really attracted to our bickering opposites—and I’m not talking in a lustful manner here, I think everyone in some manner has a physical attraction to otherness—or when we seek out someone for a long-term relationship, do we look more for partners with whom there are shared characteristics? Do first dates go smoothly or awkwardly? Marty always errs on the side of realistic answers to those questions.

Reality is what attracted Herbie Stempel to the film. Marty showed that an ordinary man—one who, God forbid, may be considered a bit of a loser—resigned to bachelorhood can defy the odds and find a soul mate. (And another great thing about the film: it neither judges nor celebrates Marty and Clara’s resignation to be single; it presents it as it is. If anyone is condemned in the film it is Mrs. Piletti and Angie, who try and force Marty to act in ways that go against his heart.) Stempel was an ordinary guy—God forbid, a bit of a loser too—who also defied the odds and got to win money on a game show. The film resonated with ordinary folks worldwide. The French loved Marty; it was one of only two Best Picture winners that also received the Palme d’Or, top prize at the Cannes Film Festival (Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend is the other film).

Marty is a testament to the virtues of realism and honesty. It says that what is ordinary is also beautiful.


Marty (1955)

Director: Delbert Mann

Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Joe Mantell, Esther Minciotti

Studio: United Artists

Total Oscars: 4 (Best Picture*—Harold Hecht, Best Director—Delbert Mann, Best Actor—Ernest Borgnine, Best Adapted Screenplay—Paddy Chayefsky) from 8 total nominations (Best Supporting Actor—Joe Mantell, Best Supporting Actress—Betsy Blair, Best Art Direction (B&W), Best Cinematography (B&W)
*At 91 minutes, Marty is the shortest film to ever win Best Picture

NEXT BLOG: Around the World in 80 Days