1952 – High Noon

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High Noon – 1952

Gary Cooper is back in a role that some call his best.  This film was a western, but it wasn’t your traditional western.  Most westerns of the era were packed full of fast-paced action sequences, but High Noon threw that formula out the window.  The only action in the film took place in the last ten minutes.  The rest of it was really a drama about a man who was the Marshall in a town full of fair-weather friends.

Aside from Cooper, playing the part of Marshall Will Kane, the film also starred a virtual newcomer to world of film, Grace Kelly, playing the part of Amy Fowler Kane, his new wife.  But the film also boasted a few other names that I already knew from more modern times.  A young Lloyd Bridges played Kane’s faithless deputy, Harvey Pell.  Harry Morgan played a craven townsperson.  Another favorite of mine, Thomas Mitchell, played the selfish mayor Jonas Henderson.

The story can actually be summed up pretty quickly.  The evil Frank Miller, played by Ian MacDonald, was coming to town on the noon train to murder Marshall Kane with his three cohorts.  The three killers spend most of the film waiting at the train station, allowing the tension to build and build to a shoot-em-up climax.

Kane is first seen getting married to Amy, a Quaker who is against killing.  When he hears of his gathering executioners, he is told to leave town with his new bride, but his conscience will not allow him to abandon the town he has cleaned up and grown to love.  He returns to the town to take care of his responsibilities like a man, even though Amy threatens to leave him if he fights the men.

Kane goes to all the men of the town to enlist them as emergency deputies in order to meet the threat and keep the streets safe.  But each of them, for their own reasons, refuses him.  One after another rejects him and leaves him to face his suicide mission alone.  In the end, he is forced to realize that those who called themselves his friends when there was no trouble, have abandoned him when he is up against four killers.

Miller’s train arrives right no time and the gunfight begins.  The only way Kane is able to survive is with the help of the one person who should have never been involved.  His wife, Amy, kills one of the men herself, allowing Kane to beat his final foe.  And I loved how, after the fight is over, Kane throws his badge to the ground at the feet of all his so-called friends who had left him to die alone, as if to say, “It is done.  I owe you traitors nothing, ever again.”

It was a drama that could easily be translated to almost any other time period.  It just happened to take place in the Old West.  The director, Fred Zinnemann, who was nominated for Best Director, though he did not win, made a film that was actually quite controversial for its time.  It was filmed and released during the second Red Scare and the Korean War.  The House Un-American Activities Committee was finding Communists in everything.

Actor John Wayne disliked the film because he felt it was an allegory for blacklisting, which he actively supported.  He called High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”  He actively helped to blacklist the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, from Hollywood.  When Gary Cooper, who later strongly opposed blacklisting, won the award for Best Actor for his work on the film, he was not able to be at the awards ceremony to accept the award.  Ironically, John Wayne accepted it for him.

However, I personally didn’t see anything un-American about the film at all.  Apparently, critics thought that it was un-American for a U.S. Marshall to ask for help in solving his problems, and that he was saved by a woman in the end.  Balderdash!  All I saw a film that was well-made and interesting to watch.  Zinnemann did a fantastic job of building tension to a point where you can’t help but get wrapped up in the drama.  And I thought it was powerful story-telling in the way that the woman had to go entirely against her principles to save her husband’s life.  I’m generally not a big fan of westerns, but this one was unconventional enough that it won me over.

1952 – The Quiet Man

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The Quiet Man – 1952

My opinion of this film is divided.  On the one hand, it had a cute story and most of the acting was good.  On the other hand, the principles behind the story are either very antiquated, extremely sexist, or both.  It starred John Wayne in a role that was not quite typical for him, and Maureen O’Hara, in a role that was easily typical for her.

The plot centered around Sean Thornton, an ex-boxer from Pittsburgh who has a dark secret in his past.  He moves to Inisfree, the small Irish town in which he was born.  He is met by the quirky and quaint townsfolk, and in particular, by Michaeleen Flynn, wonderfully played by Barry Fitzgerald, who offers him a carriage ride back to his ancestral home.  Before they arrive, they pass a woman tending a flock of sheep.  Their eyes meet and lock, and that’s all she wrote.  They are madly in love with each other.

The shepherdess is the fiery red-head, Mary Kate Danaher, played by Maureen O’Hara.  She is known for having a temper.  The film’s main complication comes in the form of Mary Kate’s older brother, Will, played by Victor McLagen.  He has interests in purchasing the vacant property in which Sean intends to live.  But when Sean buys it out from under him, he is infuriated.  In retaliation, he refuses to give his sister permission to marry the Yankee.

What follows is a little pastiche that shows the strange and antiquated customs of the land, specifically in regards to proper courtship.  But in the end of the film, the final ten minutes, their differences are resolved in a grand and somewhat comedic brawl between the two opponents.  After refusing to fight for the entire film, Sean proves his love for Mary Kate for all to see.  He not only earns her respect, but the respect of Will, himself.  Once they have beaten the crap out of each other, they get drunk and stumble home, leaning on each other and singing together.

And there is Mary Kate, waiting at the house with dinner sitting on the table.  She scolds the two drunkards while trying to hide her grin.  Incidentally, she did that several times in the course of the movie.  She yelled at the men for behaving like men, but her hidden grin tells the audience that she is actually pleased, and possibly even a little turned on, by their manly misbehaving, presumably because it is how “real men” should act.

But therein lies the heart of the plot’s main failing.  The film is incredibly sexist.  First, it says that women are only truly happy when they are cooking and cleaning for a man.  Men are only truly happy when they are getting drunk and fighting.  Second, it is not only a husband’s prerogative to beat his wife when she misbehaves, it is his duty.  At one point, when Sean is physically abusing Mary Kate for being a bad wife, in front of the entire town, no less, an old woman actually hands Sean a large switch with witch to more efficiently beat his bride.  And third…well, there isn’t a third, but aren’t the first two enough?

Still, despite its antiquated, sexist ideals, it was still a fun movie to watch.  It had a bit of humor, a bit of heart, and a bit of drama.  It didn’t take itself too seriously, which was all for the better.  And I have to make special mention of the fantastic cinematography.  Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout did a fantastic job of showing off the Irish Countryside in a way that was grand and inspiring, yet at the same time, they captured the feel of the small and charming village of Inisfree, despite the fact that it was a fictional town.

I mentioned earlier that most of the acting was good.  Unfortunately, I was slightly disappointed in the film’s lead, John Wayne.  He was out of his element and it showed.  Everyone was used to seeing him play the parts of cowboys and war heroes.  But when he was walking down the streets of the town, he still had that cowboy swagger that he was known for.  It was a walk that made him look like he had a bad leg and swishy arms.  It was either that, or he was drunk.  I suspect that it might have just been his own way of walking, slightly hunched over and swaying.  Either way, it looked really out of place and I sometimes had trouble seeing the character of Sean Thornton instead of actor, John Wayne.

1952 – Ivanhoe

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Ivanhoe – 1952

I went into watching this movie having already seen it once before, and that was after I had already read the book.  The story is great.  The film has plenty of complex character development, fast-paced and exciting action, and lots of great sets and costumes.  It is just a lot of fun to watch.

Robert Taylor stars as the title character Ivanhoe, son of a wealthy land owner, Cedric, played by Finlay Currie.  The film starts as Ivanhoe is searching for the missing King Richard, the Lionhearted.  He is supposedly Richard’s bravest and most loyal knight, most skilled in battle and tournament.  He finds Richard locked in an Austrian prison with a ransom of 150,000 marks of silver.  He starts making plans to raise the ransom to set his king free.

But we all know the story.  The Normans, led by Richard’s evil brother Prince John, oppress Richard’s Saxon subjects, keeping them down and trying to seize the throne of England for themselves.  In challenge, Ivanhoe enters a jousting tournament to draw out his enemies, but fails!  He takes on the four best Norman knights and unhorses three of them.  But the fourth one, Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert, excellently played by George Sanders, almost kills him!

The story smacks a little of Robin Hood, doesn’t it?  Well, it should.  It takes place during the same historical period.  In fact, the character of Robin Hood is a part of the plot, though he is called only Locksley.

Joan Fontaine plays Ivanhoe’s love interest, Rowena, Cedric’s ward.  I actually loved the way Rowena’s character was written.  She loved Ivanhoe, but also understood that he had duties of danger and honor.  She knew that because of them, he could not always be safely at her side, even when that meant rescuing another beautiful maiden who she knew to be in love with him.  She trusted him and was not so jealous as to forbid him to have any contact with her.

That other woman was the Jewess, Rebecca, played by the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor.  The secondary plot of the film involved Rebecca’s father, Isaac, played by Felix Aylmer.  Ivanhoe saves Isaac’s life and in return, he agrees to use all his resources and contacts to raise King Richard’s ransom.  And lest I forget, I have to mention the wonderful portrayal of the court jester who becomes Ivanhoe’s faithful squire, Wamba, played by Emlyn Williams.  Surprisingly enough, his character is actually killed off during an act of heroism.

Now, one of the really big themes in the original novel, written by Sir Walter Scott, was the oppression of the Jews.  They were treated like homeless vagabonds and looked down upon as money-grubbers.  I am happy that the film did not shy away from the subject of the negative stereotype.  On top of that, they made the incredibly popular Elizabeth Taylor play one of the wrongly oppressed race.  I have to give them props for including the touchy subject, which, in its way, was just as relevant in the 1950s as it was in 1194, when the story takes place.

The fighting sequences were certainly exciting, though the director tried to add a little more intensity by speeding up the film during a few of the sword fights.  Sure, it made the sword-play faster and dazzling, but it was obvious and looked unnatural.  The siege of the castle of Front de Boeuf was amazingly well done.

And though I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy it as much as the battle, I really enjoyed the jousting tournament scene and the final contest between Ivanhoe and his arch enemy, De Bois-Guilbert.  You see, the characters were so well written, that even though De Bois-Guilbert was the obvious bad guy, he was portrayed as a somewhat noble character.  He falls in love with Rebecca and is willing to give up everything, including his life to save her.

And that is why Ivanhoe was such a good movie.  The good guys were not flawless.  The bad guys were partly noble.  The Jews were selfless.  The maidens were smart without being sassy.  The jester is not just comic relief.  Everything seemed to fly in the face of the typical Hollywood stereotype.  Well done, Ivanhoe.  Well done.

1951 – A Streetcar Named Desire

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A Streetcar Named Desire – 1951

The first word that comes to mind when I recall watching this film is sleazy.  It was so appropriately seedy and base.  You could almost smell the dirty sweat and grease in the projects of New Orleans, where the story took place.  The movie starred Marlon Brando, Vivian Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden as the poor and wretched people living in those filthy slums.  It was a rough and violent place, but one that was all too real.

Leigh is a Blanche DuBois, a Southern Belle who has fallen on hard times, so she has to move in with her sister, Stella, played by Hunter, and her terror of a husband, Stanley, played by Brando.  Blanche’s past is something that she hides, ferociously guarding her dirty little secrets.  She puts on the frilly and flowery airs of her affluent, southern ancestry.  Stanley, though, is a violent, bully, without an ounce of sensitivity in him.  He sees right through Blanche’s affectations.

The two of them butt heads from their first meeting.  Stella, who is pregnant, does her best to be a mediator and keep them away from each other’s throats, but Stanley’s temper can’t be controlled.  Malden plays Mitch, one of Stanley’s poker buddies that falls in love with Blanch and her genteel mannerisms.

Stanley’s cruelty toward Blanche comes to a head when he investigates her past on his own.  He finds that she had a history of mental instability and sexual promiscuity, even going so far as to have an affair with a 17 year-old student, for which she is fired from her teaching job.  Stanley ruins the relationship between Mitch and Blanch by telling Mitch about all of Blanche’s skeletons.

The plot is complex and deep and the cast of actors did a fine job of bringing out the essences of the larger than life characters.  And it is no wonder they all did so well.  Brando, Hunter, and Malden had all originated their roles on Broadway in the original play, while Leigh was brought in from the London Theatre production to play Blanche.  They were all fantastic and worked well together as an ensemble.

The look and atmosphere were very real, as were the characters.  The dialogue, while a bit flowery and verbose at times, was deep and meaningful.  The author of the original play, Tennessee Williams, who also penned such other hard-hitting dramas as The Glass Menagerie, The Rose Tattoo, and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, obviously had a talent for writing wonderful and complex characters with which many people could identify.

I’d like to take a moment to focus on Malden’s portrayal of Mitch.  The character was a stand-out to me.  He showcased, through his mild mannerisms, his shy hesitance, and his hopeful yet desperate need for companionship, inner pains, and conflicts of the role.  Malden did a fantastic job, and took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work.  In fact, both Hunter and Leigh took home Awards for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress, respectively, as well.  Brando was nominated, but he did not win.  He lost to Humphry Bogart in The African Queen.  I’ve not seen that film, but I have heard that Bogart was exceptional.

All that brings me around to Brando.  When you mention the film A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando is the first actor that comes to most people’s minds.  It was the movie that really elevated him to the level of the superstar.  The famous line in which he is screaming Stella’s name over and over again is much more impactful now that I understand the context from which it came.  He has just gotten into a drunken fight, during which, he accidentally hits his wife.  She runs to the upstairs neighbor’s apartment as he stands on the ground in tears, shouting her name.  It is actually a very moving scene that really proved how much he loved his wife.

Of course, that particular character development only makes the rape scene even that much more confusing.  After Stanley confronts Blanche with his knowledge of her past, he rapes her and has her taken away to spend the rest of her life in a mental hospital.  It was an act that was part in character, and part not.

The film was good and the acting was first rate.  Sure, it was a bit of a downer, but who doesn’t enjoy a good depressing drama from time to time.  And why not?  Williams seemed to have a knack for writing harsh dramas, and this one translated very well from the stage to the big screen.

1951 – Quo Vadis

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Quo Vadis – 1951

Quo Vadis was a gigantic, three hour spectacle, a feast for the senses, a production on a massive scale.  It was a big MGM blockbuster on par with Ben-Hur, except that… it came first.  Ben-Hur would not be hitting the screen for another eight years.  In fact, it is doubtful that Ben-Hur would ever have been made if Quo Vadis had not been as big a hit as it was.

True, it was not, by any means, the first biblical epic ever made.  In fact, it was not the first time Quo Vadis had been made.  It had first been made as a silent film in 1901, a second time in 1912, a third time in 1924, and finally, a fourth time, in 1951.  Incidentally, it was also made a fifth time in 2001, and as a 6 hour miniseries in 1985.  Obviously, it is a popular story.

But what made the 1951 version stand out enough to be nominated for Best Picture?  This was the first sound version of the film ever made, and it was in glorious Technicolor, something of which it took full advantage.  Director Mervyn LeRoy and producer Sam Zimbalist took on the massive project that was nominated for a total of 8 Academy Awards, though amazingly enough, it didn’t win a single one.

Quo Vadis, which is a Latin phrase meaning, “Where are you going?” is about a Roman Commander, Marcus Vinicius, played by Robert Taylor.  He is, of course, a heathen, a stereotypical example of a pompous, pig-headed legionnaire and soldier.  He returns to Rome after a 3 year campaign of war and slaughter.  He sees a beautiful girl who was once a slave, but has become the adopted daughter of an old friend.  She is Lygia, played by the beautiful Deborah Kerr.  He desires her and is willing to do anything to get her.  So he goes to his uncle, Petronius, wonderfully played by Leo Genn, who is one of Emperor Nero’s advisors.  Nero was wonderfully played by Peter Ustinov.  As a gift to his favored Commander, Marcus, Nero gives him Lygia by royal order.

The performances of all the actors were good, but I would have to call those of Genn and Ustinov inspired.  Ustinov’s childish and blithely cruel Nero was one of the best parts of a good film.  He was so appropriately bonkers.  And Genn’s portrayal of Nero’s trusted advisor who secretly despised him was perfectly executed.  At first, I thought his character was one of the bad guys, but I eventually learned that he, while not one of the good guys, was at least an honorable character.

The huge and epic nature of the film was, from what I have read, historically accurate, especially the sets and costumes.  Apparently the original author of the 1896 novel, Henryk Sienkiewicz, had actually traveled to the historical sites in Italy, saw and studied the ancient ruins, and learned about the ancient Roman customs and culture.  However, the focus of the novel was actually on the character of Saint Peter, played in the film by Finlay Currie, and his vision of Christ as he is fleeing Rome.  This does happen in the film, but it is only a sub-plot next to the romance between Lygia and Marcus, and Marcus’ conversion to Christianity.

The film got so many things right, but I have to mention a few minor things that I think they got wrong.  I realize that I am being incredibly nit-picky, but if I wasn’t I wouldn’t have any criticisms at all.  For example, when a woman is speaking in a gigantic coliseum, it would be difficult to hear her from too far away.  But don’t worry.  This woman was obviously using a microphone.  But the one thing that really stuck in my craw was the depiction of the Last Supper.  As Peter is describing the famous meal, we see his memory of the scene, showing that he was actually there.  But then we are shown a live recreation of the Leonardo Da Vinci painting.  Why?!?  It is an artist’s famous representation of the event, painted 1500 years after the story of Quo Vadis takes place!

But Nero’s burning of Rome was a particularly exciting scene to watch and was well done.  The large, screaming mobs and the crumbling buildings were great.  Just watch out for the blue-screening.  It was awesome that they had such technology at their disposal, but it didn’t really hold up to my modern eyes.  The bright purple lines around the figures really stood out like sore thumbs.  But I’m not complaining.  It was still a great movie that took a lot of risks and competently paved the way for other great biblical epics like Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and King of Kings.  And thank goodness it was in Technicolor.  It wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting to watch in black and white.

1951 – A Place in the Sun

 

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A Place in the Sun – 1951

A Place in the sun was a wonderful movie that really has had me thinking about it, even after the film was over.  It was drama done the way one should be done.  The characters were complex and real, the plot was very believable, and the tragic ending was sad, horrifying, and appropriate, all at the same time.  In fact, I think that it was a better movie than An American in Paris, the film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1951.

The film starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelly Winters.  Clift took the lead, playing the part of George Eastman, a poor, working-class man.  He is a good man, at heart, though his morals are questionable.  He is a liar, but not a very good one.  He makes one bad decision after another, and the main question I was left with at the end of the movie was: Should he have been convicted of murder?

You see, I still think he was a good man.  He just wasn’t a very smart one.  He is poor, but gets a good job working for his wealthy uncle’s factory.  The only rule he is given is that he refrain from fraternizing with any of the female employees.  But he can’t do that.  He meets co-worker Alice Tripp, played by Shelly Winters, and starts dating her.  Before long, he gets her pregnant.  Then he starts getting promoted as his uncle takes him under his wing and into his home.  While there, he meets Angela Vickers, played by the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor.  And here is where I have to suspend my disbelief for a brief moment.  They fall madly in love with each other at first sight.  Because that’s how love works.

Either way, they are hopelessly in love, which becomes a problem for George as he has to start leading a double life: one with Alice and the other with Angela.  His terrible solution is to murder Alice.  So he takes her to a lake, knowing that she cannot swim.  But he can’t do it.  He is obviously troubled, but cannot bring himself to kill her.

Unfortunately, she accidentally causes the boat to capsize and drowns.  But his bad decisions continue.  He flees the scene and tries to hide her death.  He tries to run from the law.  This guy is a very inept criminal.  He has left an incriminating trail of evidence behind him, and when he is caught and tried for murder, the guilty verdict is inevitable.

Taylor was just 17 years old when filming took place, but she was a real stand-out.  She was beautiful and her acting had a subtle softness to it that was quite charming.  Her emotions were real, but not over-stated.  I really felt for her character, as she was an innocent victim of the whole situation.

And while I am on the subject of Taylor, I have to mention the gorgeous gowns she was given to wear.  Costume designer Edith Head was already a big name in the film industry, but I think she really out-did herself.  The glamorous dresses that Taylor wore were exquisite and she wore them well.

Clift’s performance was also noteworthy.  He seemed to really understand the character.  The way he reacted to the consequences of his poor decisions were believable and heart-wrenching.  And then, in the end, when he was convicted of murder, his disbelief had just the right touch of confusion and despair to make him a truly tragic figure.  His mind was no longer in contact with reality, and he started to question his own innocence.

And lest I forget, Shelly Winter’s portrayal of Alice was also well done.  She was just the right mixture of innocence, fear, confusion, and self-pity, with a healthy amount of pathetic neediness.  I didn’t want her to die, but she was annoying enough that I wanted her to go away.  In other words, she played the character well.

So I am left with a big question.  Was he a murderer in his heart, or was he completely innocent in the eyes of God?  I don’t know.  It seems to be a moral question with an answer that is unclear, making me question the rightness of his fate.  Did he deserve to be punished with a death sentence?  Watch the film and decide for yourself.

1951 – Decision Before Dawn

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Decision Before Dawn – 1951

Once again, we are treated to a WWII war film.  This one is directed by Anatole Litvak.  It boasted no big names, though it was well cast, and adequately acted.  It had a unique perspective on a little known aspect of the war, and because of that, it held my interest.  But though it was enjoyable enough, it was nothing to write home about.

Oskar Werner played the leading role of Karl Maurer, codenamed “Happy.”  He was a German POW near the end of the war.  At that time, POWs were apparently recruited by the Americans as spies against their own people.  Those who accepted were, of course, reviled by their own countrymen who remained loyal to the Reich, and labeled as traitors.

But Karl was an idealist who believed that his treasonous acts would ultimately bring a swifter end to the war, a war he never really believed in to begin with.  He is sent back into Germany and charged with learning the location of the 11th Panzer Corps, and then returning that information to the Allied forces.  If successful, he would save the lives of many Americans.

Werner did a fine job, but sometimes he seemed to lack energy.  His performance was pretty low-key, which isn’t always a bad thing.  I just think he could have raised the intensity level a little every so often.  Fortunately, he had one thing that was absolutely essential for the character.  He had a look of innocence about him that was undeniable.  It went a long way to cementing the motives of the character.

Other notable actors in the film were Hans Christian Blech as Sergeant Barth, codenamed “Tiger.”  He was another POW turned spy, though his reasons were completely different than Maurer’s.  He was a man who would fight for whichever side was winning.  I thought he actually played his part with a little more depth and strength than his fellow spy.

On the Allied side, Gary Merrill played the part of Colonel Devlin.  When I first saw him on the screen, I though he had just walked in off the set of the 1949 nominee, Twelve O’clock High.  But he didn’t really have much screen time.  Instead, Richard Baseheart played the part of Lieutenant Dick Rennick.  He was the American officer on assignment along with the two German spies.  And finally, we have two ladies rounding out the cast.  Dominique Blanchar as Monique, a French woman who had the task of training the spies before they went out on assignment, and Hildegard Knef as Hilde, a broken and depressed German woman who Maurer encounters.

But the actor that really stood out to me as just a bit better than the rest was Wilfred Seyferth.  He played the part of a German courier who helps Maurer until he suspects him of being a spy.  Then he does what he can to get him captured.  He was loyal to the Reich and though he did his job with a smile, you could tell that he was angry and bitter about the fact that Germany was about to lose the war.  His volatile explosion during a calm conversation hinted at the dangerous personality that lurked beneath the happy-go-lucky surface.

The film really delved into Maurer’s motives and his reflections on the attitudes of the German people he encountered.  He ran into both civilians and military personnel, both people he know and people who knew him.  And Litvak really got us into his head.  Whenever Maurer had a moment alone to reflect, the dialogue of the people he had met that day could be heard as telling phrases rolled through his mind.  It really painted a clear picture of how different people felt about the war from the German perspective.

We sometimes tend to forget that it was the Nazis who waged the war, not necessarily the Germans.  By that, I mean that all Nazis were German, but not all Germans were Nazis.  Either way, civilian and military, alike, were all affected by the terrible conflict.  They all suffered and unfortunately, they were all blamed.  But I suppose that might have been one of the points that the film was trying to make.  There were some good German men who had no choice but to take part in the war.  Maurer was one of them, and his noble yet tragic fate was proof.

The end of the film was poignant and meaningful.  Not only does Maurer refuse to betray his new Allied allegiances, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to keep them.  He gives his life so that the mission would be accomplished.  He is captured and executed by his countrymen as a deserter.

Over all, I liked the film, but I just think that there could have been more suspense and more intensity.  It certainly had drama and even a bit of action, but for this nominee, I don’t think that was enough.  I would have liked to see more personal conflict or turmoil within Maurer.  Maybe a little guilt at being a traitor to his native country would have given him a deeper dramatic arc.  But the film concentrated on his reactions to others, not on his reactions to himself and his own actions.

1950 – Sunset Boulevard

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Sunset Boulevard – 1950

This was an excellent film.  The story was simple on the surface and complex beneath.  The casting was perfect, the sets were amazing and realistic, the acting was top notch, and the costumes were amazing.  It was everything that a good film should be.  I think it even hold up well by today’s standards, which is saying something for a movie that is 65 years old.

This is another wonderful example of a film noir, written and directed by Billy Wilder, one of the biggest names in Hollywood in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  He had a hand in either writing or directing other such great films as Ninotchka, Hold Back the Dawn, The Bishop’s Wife, Double Indemnity, The Seven Year Itch, AND Some Like It Hot, just to name a few.

The two leads are William Holden, playing Joe Gillis, a penniless writer in Tinsel-Town and Gloria Swanson playing Norma Desmond, a Hollywood has-been, living in seclusion.  Filling out the supporting cast is Erich von Stroheim, playing the part of Norma’s obsessively devoted servant, Max, and Betty Schaefer, played by Nancy Olson, a hopeful writer who falls in love with Joe.

You see, the film starts out showing us Joe’s dead body floating in a swimming pool.  After that all the movie’s narration is told, in true film-noir style, by the murder victim.  Also in film-noir style, the scene then back up to tell us the story of how he ended up dead in a pool.

While on the run from men who are trying to repossess his car, Joe hides in a seemingly abandoned Hollywood dream-palace on Sunset Boulevard.  He is greeted by Max, a funny little butler with a foreign accent.  He is taken to see the lady of the house, Norma Desmond.  She is a larger than life character.  She is vain and haughty, in command of every conversation, witty, powerful, and altogether bonkers.

Swanson was incredible as the aging actress.  She was somewhat sane on the surface, but the delusional craziness that lurked beneath came out easily and often.  Swanson was actually an actress who had been in films in the silent era of Hollywood, so she had the over-exaggerated facial expressions, the grand movements, and the intense eyes that were necessary traits for actors in that by-gone era.

Edith Head designed the costumes beautifully, mixing older styles with modern fashions of the 50s, and adding just a touch of flamboyant madness to sweeten the pot.

Norma hires Joe to work on a film script that is supposed to usher in a new era in her life, her comeback to the silver screen.  She still lives with the idea that she is one of the biggest stars in the business.  Joe, however, knows that she has been away from the public eye for too long.  She has been all but forgotten.  He wonders how she can maintain her delusion, only to find out that Max, once her director, then her husband, and now her willing slave, fabricates fan mail and phone messages, letting her think that her star has never faded.

But things get complicated when Norma falls in love with Joe.  Like everything else in her life, her love is grand and obsessive.  But Joe finds love with Betty, a girl wanting to turn one of his stories into a script.  Norma finds out about Joe’s wanderings and rather than allowing him to leave her, she murders him.

What follows is one of the best scenes in the movie.  The police arrive to take her away but her mind is gone.  She is no longer in touch with reality.  She sits at her dressing table, putting on her make-up.  The only one who can get her to come down the grand staircase is Max.  He tells her that the cameras have arrived.  Of course, the only cameras present are the news cameras, photographing the murderess.  When Max shouts, “Action!”  Norma makes her dramatic entrance, and we get to hear her say that famous line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

The film certain has it cringe-worthy moments of creepy, not in the sense of horror movie creepy, but in the sense of a woman walking a tightrope between obsessive love for a man half her age, and homicidal madness.  Add to that the narration by a deceased man and the gothic dream-palace which is always shown in an advanced state of decay, and you have enough creepy to catch our interest and imaginations.

And lest I forget, I have to mention that Holden did a fine job as well, though if truth be told, he was fairly unmemorable, simply because he was constantly being upstaged by Swanson.  But then, that was the point of her character, wasn’t it.  She desperately desired to be the complete center of attention.  “You used to be in silent pictures.  You used to be big.”  “I am big!  It’s the pictures that got small.”  Indeed.

1950 – King Solomon’s Mines

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King Solomon’s Mines – 1950

I’ll start off by saying something I hate hearing when I discuss movies with anyone: The book was better.  Well, of course it was.  The book is always better.  But I have a reason for my opinion.  First of all, the book by H. R. Haggard was a very good book.  It was well written and had some great characters in it, like the evil Watusi witch, Gagool.  But Hollywood has messed it up again.

In fact, there have been at least 6 movie adaptations and not one of them has followed the book.  They all ignore the fact that the book was popular for a reason.  They all seem to want a female lead and a romance to spice up the plot.  In this 1950 version, the main protagonist, Allan Quatermain, played by Stewart Grainger, is set opposite Mrs. Elizabeth Curtis, played by Deborah Kerr.  There was no Mrs. Curtis in the book.

But I’ll step down off my soap-box.  The main plot follows Quatermain, the quintessential great, white hunter of Southern Africa.  He is tired of the hardships of his profession, and is ready to call it quits.  But then, in steps Mrs. Curtis and her brother John Goode, played by Richard Carlson.  Her money does her talking for her and she hires Quatermain to become her guide on an expedition to find her missing husband who had been searching for the legendary mines of King Solomon.

At this point, the movie takes a little break from the story to become a safari travelogue of the dangers of the African wilderness.  Of course, Mrs. Curtis, a rich woman who has never even been camping, has a harder time than the men who are obviously tougher than her.  Not to be outdone by the insufferable men, Mrs. Curtis quickly learns how to handle the harsh conditions of the African wilderness.

During this segment of the film, the cinematographer really earned his pay.  It was like watching a nature documentary with lions, elephants, porcupines, monkeys, snakes, rhinos, giraffes, hyena, crocodiles, hippos and cheetahs.  Fortunately, there was a bit of an action sequence where the party somehow survives being killed in a stampede by hiding behind a convenient fallen tree branch.  Never-mind that there was no tree around from which it might have fallen.  There, we saw a great many gazelles and zebras trampling the plains.

Finally, we make it back to the plot and the romance between Quatermain and Mrs. Curtis.  Along the way, the pick up a character who is pretty important in the book, but who is portrayed in the film as almost incidental.  Umbopa, played by an actor named Siriaque, is an unusually tall and mysterious native who offers his services as a pack carrier.  He is more committed than anyone to reaching the fabled land of the Watusi people, where King Solomon’s mines are rumored to be located.

In the book, they cross the desert sands, heading toward two snow-capped mountain peaks which were called Sheba’s Breasts.  The movie changed them to the White Twins.  When they cross the mountains and reach the land of the Watusi, they are treated like gods because the natives have never seen a white man before, or more specifically, their deadly weapons.  There, they are taken to the diamond mines, sealed in by a treacherous Watusi guide.  They find Mr. Curtis’s dead body, thus allowing for the romance between the widow and Quatermain to be acceptable to the Hayes code, escape the mines through an underground river, and return to the Watusi tribe just in time to see Umbopa kill the evil king.  He becomes king and the white people are allowed to leave in peace.  The end.

As for the acting in the film, it was generally overdone, so nothing special there.  The costumes were adequate, but the makeup was not that good.  I refer mostly to Quatermain and his darkened skin that made him look like he had at least a full two inches of caked-on makeup covering his face.

And I have to mention the big climax of the film.  It should have been the fight between Umbopa and Twala, the usurper King of the Watusis, played by real Watusi actor, Baziga.  Instead, that short sequence was overshadowed by the dance of the Watusis.  And lest I forget, the Watusi people were supposed to be a secluded tribe of African natives that had only ever seen one or two white men.  But their clothes were all made of the finest textiles from around the world.  It is hard to believe that people still living in grass huts had the means to craft such fine, bright patterns into their clothing.

But all that being said, it was still a fun enough film to watch.  And though I try not to let the ham-fisted fingers of Hollywood get in the way of my enjoyment of the film, the differences from the original book, which I enjoyed very much, were disheartening.  The book had no female lead, and no romance.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  It had an interracial romance between Captain Good and a Watusi woman named Foulata.  Interracial romance in a book written in 1885?  Now that would have made the movie racier!  But don’t worry you white audiences of 1950.  Foulata gets killed off before the end of the book.

1950 – Father of the Bride

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Father of the Bride – 1950

I’ll be honest.  Father of the Bride was a bit of a disappointing movie.  It wasn’t bad, but I was somehow expecting something more, and the problem is that I can’t exactly put my finger on what it was.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  I thought that since it had spawned a remake in 1991 starring Steve Martin, it was going to be something special.  Unfortunately, it was an average film with nothing that stood out to me as extraordinary.

The film starred Spencer Tracy as Stanley Banks, a middle aged lawyer, and his loving wife Ellie, played by Joan Bennett.  Their daughter Kay, played by Elizabeth Taylor, is, of course, getting married.  The film is about exactly what the title implies.  In fact, Stanley starts off the film by delivering his dialogue directly to the viewers, as if he is just chatting with them.  The entire film is also punctuated with voice-over narration from Stanley.

The wedding, which was supposed to be a simple event, quickly gains momentum until it is an extravagant celebration with hundreds of guests in attendance.  Then we find that there are two main conflicts.  First is the financial burden which is placed on Stanley, giving the movie its comedy, and though Stanley never seems strapped for cash, he is always upset by having to spend it.  After that is the conflict within Stanley, himself, as his only daughter is growing up and leaving the nest, which gives the movie its emotional content.

Unfortunately, by today’s standards, the movie just wasn’t very funny.  It was cute enough but nothing that caused more than a slight chuckle.  Instead, I found myself focusing on things like the differences in prices for the things purchased in 1950 as compared to today, or the fact that Ellie keeps insisting that more and more money be spent on a big wedding because she’d never gotten one herself.  (Never-mind that Kay said, several times, that she just wanted a small wedding.)

No, the real heart of the film was Stanley’s struggle to come to terms with the fact that his little girl was no longer a little girl.  In this, there were small moments of real emotion which Spencer Tracey did a fine job of portraying.  Tracey always has a fatherly gentleness about him in just about every character I have seen him play.  He was perfectly cast.

It is interesting to note that Tracey, who had a history of working with Katherine Hepburn, wanted her to play his wife, but the producers felt that they were too romantic a team to present the image of a common middle-aged couple.

Of course, there is the unsurprising scene in which Kay and her fiancée Buckley Dunstan, played by Don Taylor, have a fight over nothing.  Kay comes home in tears and tells her father that she is calling the wedding off.  But I was neither surprised, nor fooled.  Within moments, Buckley is banging on the door, spouting apologies.  They kiss and make up, and the wedding is back on.  I had to roll my eyes at the predictability of the scene.

Elizabeth Taylor’s performance was good but not great.  I’ve seen her do better, like in 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but I think that had more to do with the dry script than her skills as an actress.  The character of Kay was shallow and one-note, but Taylor was able to cry on cue and she always had a youthful sparkle in her eye.  And, of course, she was pretty attractive in those days, so she was at least nice to look at.

As I think about it, I guess the film’s biggest disappointment was its predictability.  There were no surprises, no plot twists, and really, no conflict serious enough to make me care too much about the characters.  It was an overly-wholesome, family-oriented film, so much so that it just came across as a little dull.  Maybe it resonated more with fathers who had been through the experience of paying for a daughter’s wedding.

Still, I can see why it appealed to so many people.  It was a snapshot of upper-class white society as they played out every young girl’s fantasy: a perfect white wedding with all the trimmings.  It was, in the 1950s, the idealized version of what the perfect wedding was supposed to be like.  I just don’t think it translates well to a modern audience.  I wonder how the Steve Martin re-make modernized the story to make it more palatable.

And finally, I have to mention a little bit of interesting trivia which revolved around the personal life of Miss Taylor.  The actress was going into the first of her eight marriages.  In fact, her wedding was only two days before the film’s premiere.  The costume designer that designed the wedding dress for the movie also designed Taylor’s dress for her real-life marriage to Nicky Hilton.