*An American in Paris (1951)*

american

Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron (in her debut), Oscar Levant, Georges Guetary, Nina Foch

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Summary: An American artist falls in love in Paris but almost loses it due to conflicting loyalties

Other Nominations: Director, Original Screenplay*, Musical Score*, Color Art Direction*, Color Cinematography*, Color Costume Design*, Film Editing

Positives

-The movie looks fantastic, the color palette is fun and vibrant-this is a prototypical example of why Technicolor was so great, and this is one of the best.

-Gene Kelly is charming and as great a dancer as ever, while Caron is gorgeous is a slightly unconventional way. They make for great leads, at least from a physical standpoint.

-The score, especially the instrumental portions with George Gershwin music, is excellent

Negatives

-Caron’s character is attractive and…not much else. Seriously, the movie itself keeps asking “what do you know about her?” and we never get an answer. Some of this movie needed to be from Caron’s perspective, with at least one song from her, because without it, she’s just kind of a sweet, pretty object who can dance instead of a real character with a definable personality that we can get invested in.

-The last number has a lot of good stuff in it, but it goes for 17 minutes and doesn’t advance the characters or plot in any way, it’s just a “we need a big impressive dance number with a bunch of scene and costume changes.”

Overall

Fun, vibrant musical that is good, but suffers from a weak female lead character and some pacing issues that crop up in the second half.

Rating: B

Advertisements

Decision Before Dawn (1951)

decision

Starring: Oskar Werner, Richard Basehart, Hans Christian Blech, Gary Merrill, Hildegard Knef, Wilfried Seyferth, Dominique Blanchar

Director: Anatole Litvak

Summary: As the U.S. Army approaches Nazi Germany, they risk recruiting German prisoners to spy behind German lines

Other Nominations: Film Editing

Positives

-The production design is perfect-it looks like they’re in war-torn Germany because they actually filmed there, and a lot of the country hadn’t been rebuilt yet.

-It does a nice job of depicting the average German citizen as normal people who aren’t really tied to an ideology, but mostly want to just live their lives.

Negatives

-This movie fails to fulfill such a great premise: the idea of the army having POWs spy on their own country and seeing whether their convictions over what is right will waver in the face of having to betray your own people to their faces is fantastic. The problem is that it would work better as a taut thriller or an emotional drama, but until the last 30 minutes it’s neither. The lack of a score hurts, as it’s hard to build tension a lot of the time without it in a movie that should be very tense; the other thing that hurts is actually the editing in my opinion-there are way too many long-running shots in this movie which ends up making the whole movie slow and dull.

-Oskar Werner would go on to do some good movies (Jules and Jim, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), but here he has one expression for the entire movie and delivers his dialogue in a monotone manner and it works with everything else to make this a mostly unexceptional movie.

-There’s three or four times in the movie where Werner’s character is going to bed, and we’re reminded of the conflict between his duties through repeating earlier on-the-nose dialogue. It’s a really clumsy and insulting way to the audience to remind us of something we really don’t need to be reminded of.

Other Stuff

-This movie was somehow nominated for Best Picture over another movie I’ll talk about in the “Other Notables” section in a decision that was insane then and now. The only information I can find is that 20th Century Fox lobbied hard for its BP nomination (despite getting only one other) through an expensive glossy 12-page insert in all the trade magazines. This is relatively mild compared to later tactics that we will cover, but it still baffles me how this was nominated-it wasn’t even a Top 10 movie at the box office.

Overall

This is a deeply flawed movie with a great premise-these are the kind of movies we should be remaking, not already great movies like Robocop or Total Recall. It does pick up towards the end though.

Rating: C

A Place in the Sun (1951)

placeinthesun

Starring: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere, Raymond Burr

Director: George Stevens

Summary: An ambitious young man wins an heiress’ heart but has to cope with his former girlfriend’s pregnancy

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Clift), Actress (Winters), Adapted Screenplay*, Dramatic/Comedy Score*, B&W Cinematography*, B&W Costume Design*, Film Editing*

Positives

-The performances in general are very good. Winters does the best job, as she transforms from her previous sex-symbol image to mousy and plain and comes off as totally natural in this. Taylor is a clear step-up from Father of the Bride, as she gets way more to work with. She’s beautiful and glamorous yet pure, meaning she’s perfect for the part; hard to believe she was 17 at the time of the filming. Clift is pretty good, although I’m not a big fan of him; much like Taylor, he’s much better than he was in The Heiress, the previous movie I saw him in. I also like Raymond Burr a lot, he steals the scenes he’s in and foreshadows his later career as Perry Mason here.

-The score was good and fit the ibg and dramatic feel of the film very well

Negative

-This is a big soap opera of a movie, but it lacks the entertainment value of Mildred Pierce which I liked better. Although I praised the acting in this movie, it would have fit the movie better if it was more over the top, which I blame on the direction. Not only was it played a bit too straight for its premise, there’s some tone problems here, mainly that Winters’ character comes off as much less sympathetic than she should and Clift’s much more than he should given the circumstances.

Overall

This is a pretty good movie with some really good scenes and quality acting, but some of the bigger elements were off and some of the then-shocking and sordid elements that sold this movie aren’t quite as taboo as they used to be, both of which brought this movie down for me.

Rating: B-

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

streetcar

Starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden

Director: Elia Kazan

Summary: A fading Southern belle tries to build a new life with her sister in New Orleans (home of pirates, drunks and whores, New Orleans…)

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Brando), Actress (Leigh)*, Supporting Actor (Malden)*, Supporting Actress (Hunter)*, Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic/Comedy Score, Sound Recording, B&W Art Direction*, B&W Cinematography, B&W Costume Design

Positives

-Both leads and their characters are outstanding, as is the cast as a whole who all had been involved with the stage production: Brando, Hunter, Malden and Kazan from the original broadway show, and Leigh from the London production (who was chosen over Jessica Tandy because she was the bigger name at that time). Leigh (who looks almost unrecognizable from Gone With the Wind), is vulnerable, pathetic, and embodies everything the character of Blanche DuBois needs to be; ironically, Leigh herself was suffering from a mental illness of her own starting around 1948. This was the breakout role for Brando, who dominated the movie with his raw sexuality which works disturbingly well with his genuinely terrifying depiction of an abusive husband. Malden is also quietly great as a reliable and good-hearted man who’s looking for a relationship with someone similar. This was the first movie to win three Acting Oscars, something only matched by Network (1976), which also failed to win Best Picture considering that feat.

-The cinematography and the score help elevate this movie beyond its stage confines (it essentially takes place in one location). The noir-ish cinematography makes great use of shadows and does a wonderful job of highlighting characters expressions and makes bigger dramatic moments seem even more impactful. The jazzy score is sparse, but when it does show up, it does an excellent job of underlining the current mental states of the characters. This was Alex North’s first (and most celebrated) feature film score; he would go on to get a total of 15 Oscar nominations without winning, a record for a film composer.

Negatives

-The altered ending (which was demanded by the production code ethics of the time) is less impactful than the original. The result is that we have a “happier” (but still very bleak) ending that feels inconsistent with the characters as presented in the rest of the story.

Overall

A memorable psychological drama that pulls few punches and has an outstanding cast.

Rating: A-

Quo Vadis (1951)

quo

Starring: Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, Leo Genn, Patricia Laffan, FInlay Currie, Buddy Baer, Felix Aylmer

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Summary: A Roman commander falls for a Christian slave girl as Nero intensifies persecution of the new religion

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Genn), Supporting Actor (Ustinov), Dramatic/Comedy Score, Color Art Direction, Color Cinematography, Color Costume Design, Film Editing

Positives

-Peter Ustinov is extremely entertaining as Nero (always a great part), playing him like an insane toddler. Whenever he’s on-screen, the movie is good and when he isn’t, it’s pretty boring, simple as that. Luckily, he gets a good amount of screen time.

-This was a massive production, and boy can you tell: they used a record 32,000 costumes, had a zillion extras, built opulent sets and filmed in Italy, and there were 115 speaking parts. It paid off for MGM though, as the movie was #1 at the box office for 1951.

-It has a really good score that feels as epic and ancient Rome-y as it should, while also not overwhelming the movie.

Negatives

-The movie feels its runtime-168 minutes minus breaks. Some of the parts feel overly long (a good 30 minutes is devoted to Christians being martyred), but the bigger issue is that Taylor is a mediocre leading man here, and his romance with Kerr, which is a big focus of the movie, is awful. There’s been plenty of movies where, at least to the audience’s perspective, two people don’t know each other that well fall in love; this is much worse, as they fall in love despite them having diametrically opposing views on the only thing we ever see them talk about, Christianity. There is nothing there beyond physical attraction yet these are our two romantic leads that have to carry a good chunk of the movie together.

Other Stuff

-This is the first movie so far where I noticed the use of chroma key (or green screening), which is used quite a bit in the second half and is very noticeable with the blue halo around the characters. Previously, they would have used rear-projection which looks worse in my opinion.

-Future Best Actress winners Sophia Loren (in her first U.S. movie) and Elizabeth Taylor appear as uncredited extras. Taylor was actually slated to star in this movie alongside Gregory Peck when it was first planned in 1949 (with John Huston as director), but when it got delayed, they went with a whole new group.

Overall

It’s a massive epic featuring a wonderful performance by Peter Ustinov, but it’s long and there’s a lot of dead spots.

Rating: C-

 

1951 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1951

The African Queen: Nominated for Best Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay but not Best Picture; this has only happened two other times (Hud in 1963 and Sunday Bloody Sunday in 1971). Decision Before Dawn was nominated for none of the other Big 5 besides BP and only one other Oscar, yet got a nod, one of the most bizarre voting curios in history. Named #65 on the last AFI list.

The Day the Earth Stood Still: One of the first big-budget Sci Fi movies to come from Hollywood, it along with The Thing From Another World helped launch the 1950s as the Sci Fi decade, although most of the movies that came out were of vastly lower quality. Without these movies, who knows if we would ever have Mystery Science Theater 3000?

Alice in Wonderland: Initially a financial failure, it saw new life in the late 1960’s as the perfect LSD movie (and therefore is probably what inspired the song White Rabbit). Not one of my favorite classic Disney films, but still pretty good.

The Lavender Hill Mob & The Man in the White Suit: Classic Ealing British comedies starring Alec Guinness. Lavender Hill Mob was ranked #17 on the BFI list, The Man in the White Suit #58.

Strangers on a Train: After a series of movies that ranged from somewhat disappoint to outright mediocre, Hitchcock came back in a big way with this movie, highlighted by Robert Walker’s excellent performance. #32 on the AFI 100 Thrills list.

Ace in the Hole: For some reason, most of Kirk Douglas’ big movies never got a Best Picture nomination including Spartacus, Paths of Glory, Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and this movie, directed by Billy Wilder. Douglas here plays a memorably vicious newspaper reporter without morals in a pitch-black story that has lost none of its power.

1951 Nominees in Review

A Streetcar Named Desire: A-

An American in Paris: B (Won Best Picture)

A Place in the Sun: B-

Decision Before Dawn: C

Quo Vadis: C-

Streetcar was the clear best movie of the 1951 nominees, as it is better written, has better performances and has aged better than any of the other movies. There weren’t any bad movies here, but other than Streetcar, there was nothing especially memorable, except for how An American in Paris looked and Peter Ustinov’s performance in Quo Vadis.

1952 is most famous for a massive Best Picture upset that is still notorious today for how egregious it was; the combination of the political climate (one movie was considered a thinly-veiled allegory about the HUAC hearings, written by someone who had been blacklisted; the other was by the most anti-communist and powerful director in Hollywood who wanted a loyalty oath from all DGA members) along with wanting to give Cecil B. DeMille an Oscar almost certainly had something to do with it. Besides those the two movies alluded to above, we also have two historical technicolor films: one a medieval-era adventure movie starring two of the top actresses of the era, the other set in 19th Century Paris. Finally, we also get to look at one of John Ford and John Wayne’s rare non-Western collaborations that’s set in Ireland.