Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

splendored

Starring: Jennifer Jones, William Holden

Director: Henry King

Summary: A Chinese-English doctor in Hong Kong falls in love with a war correspondent

Other Nominations: Actress (Jones), Dramatic/Comedy Score, Original Song (“Love is a Many-Splendored Thing”)*, Sound Recording, Color Art Direction, Color Cinematography, Color Costume Design*

Positives

-Jones and Holden have good chemistry, and Holden is as always a reliable lead

-Considering the time and the premise, this movie could have been worse when it comes to racial aspects, but it wasn’t too bad. Obviously Jones isn’t Chinese, but considering her character is half English as well, whoever you cast wouldn’t be a perfect fit (unless you somehow found the one bankable half Asian-Half Caucasian woman in 1950’s Hollywood who didn’t exist).

-The score was probably the best thing about the movie, playing off many variations of the award-winning title theme that was also #1 on the charts

Negatives

-This isn’t an especially interesting romance movie, as neither of the characters are all that fleshed-out (especially Holden), and the premise of two people being in love but society/family/etc. gets between them has been done to death and this doesn’t bring much new to the table. It can get pretty depressing at times as well, and dour romance movies aren’t something I tend to enjoy.

Overall

Eh, this is an okay at best romance movie. The leads are solid, but just their chemistry alone can’t pull this movie up from its other mediocre elements.

Rating: C-

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*Marty (1955)*

marty

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

Director: Delbert Mann (in his film debut)

Summary: A lonely butcher finds love despite the opposition of his friends and family

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Borgnine)*, Supporting Actress (Blair), Supporting Actor (Mantell), Adapted Screenplay*, B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography

Positives

-This is especially apparent after having just watched two very standard romance movies right before this, but nobody else has really made a romance movie like this before or after. It’s a romance stripped of glamour, gloss and passion and instead it focuses on two middle aged, average looking people who simply want someone to be with. The only other film I can think of that has the same feel is Don Hertzfeldt’s wonderful short Lily and Jim, which you should check out if you have never seen it. Marty is an incredibly refreshing idea from one of the most original screenwriters of all-time, Paddy Chayefsky, who is the only person to win 3 Oscars for solo-written screenplays.

-Borgnine gives a career-defining performance. He was previously known for playing heavies in films (much like he did in From Here to Eternity), but here he goes in the complete opposite direction, as extremely sympathetic, likeable, sensitive and real. Future Academy Award winner Rod Steiger played the character in the original TV version of the film, but I can’t imagine anyone him being able to so perfectly express the loneliness and vulnerability of the character.

Negatives

-Even though the movie is only 90 minutes, making it the shortest Best Picture winner ever, it still gets a bit worn-out at times because it lacks any subtext and its themes are immediately obvious and continually repeated.

-The movie’s focus is on our main character, but the female lead (played by Betsy Blair) really should have a least a little more developed of a personality than she does. The fact that Blair isn’t all that great in the role probably doesn’t help help either.

Other Stuff

-There is certainly some irony to casting Blair as a plain woman who no normal guy would want to guy out with, as she was married to Gene Kelly of all people at the time. She apparently got the part because Gene Kelly used his sway to pressure United Artists into casting her and getting her off the blacklist.

-Delbert Mann won the Oscar in his first feature he ever directed. A feat only later equalled by Jerome Robbins (Co-Winner for West Side Story, 1963), Robert Redford (Ordinary People, 1980), James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, 1983), Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves, 1990) and Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999).

Overall

It has some flaws, but at its core, this is an excellent, original love story with an outstanding lead performance by Ernest Borgnine.

Rating: A-

Mister Roberts (1955)

roberts

Starring: Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon, William Powell (in his final film)

Director: John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy (who replaced him midshoot) & Joshua Logan (who did uncredited reshoots)

Summary: A naval officer longing for active duty clashes with his vainglorious captain

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Lemmon)*, Sound Recording

Positives

-It’s consistently entertaining throughout with most of the jokes working, even if it never becomes anything great. I was never bored throughout the two hours, and that’s an accomplishment

-The four main actors range from good to great. Fonda is consistently solid as always, reprising the role he won a Tony for; Powell is great to see after all these years and still retains his charm; Lemmon makes a strong impression playing a firecracker of a character who brings a lot of manic energy to the film and I look forward to seeing him in starring roles down the road; finally, Cagney is my favorite in the movie playing a tyrannical naval captain (the second time we’ve seen one in as many years) and he basically chews as much scenery as possible and he’s a glorious cartoon character.

Negatives

-The ending is pretty jarring. The whole movie has one tone throughout, then it takes a sharp turn in the opposite direction just before the end before whiplashing back into the original direction all in the course of about a minute. I don’t think the tone shift worked, but it’s made worse by immediately ignoring it as we go to credits.

-As mentioned before, it’s consistently good but never gets beyond that. There were no especially memorable moments for me.

Other Stuff

-This movie was a strange project for Ford, considering this is a light comedy for the most part; I guess his reason was that he had been in the Navy and was friends with Fonda. Ford was notorious as a brutal director to his actors, abusing them to get the performances he wanted out them. He immediately clashed with Cagney (when they met for the first time at the airport, Ford warned him they would “tangle asses” and this set the tone from the start), and surprisingly Fonda who had made numerous films with Ford before. Fonda resented Ford trying to give extensive direction to him, considering he won the Tony for the role on Broadway and had been playing it for 5 years. Any possibility of Ford continuing on the project ended when he sucker punched Fonda in the mouth after an argument on set.

Overall

Genuinely enjoyable comedy with heart to it with a wonderful cast of (at that time) past, present and future leading men.

Rating: B

Picnic (1955)

picnic

Starring: William Holden, Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Susan Strasberg, Betty Field, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell

Director: Joshua Logan

Summary: A handsome drifter ignites passions at a small-town Labor Day picnic

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (O’Connell), Dramatic/Comedy Score, Color Art Direction*, Film Editing*

Positives

-The film is excellent on a visual level and it feels distinct for its time. The color is naturalistic yet warm in that signature Technicolor way, but the real star is the outstanding cinematography which inexplicably was not nominated; if it had, James Wong Howe might have won two Oscars that year, as he also won for best B&W cinematography for the next film I’m reviewing.

-I loved the score (which should have easily won over Love is a Many-Splendored Thing), and it reminded me a lot of Aaron Copeland’s wonderful score for Our Town (which also had William Holden)

-Holden is the name and O’Connell got the only nomination, but this is a movie about its women, who give mostly good performances. This was Novak’s breakout performance that led Hitchcock to cast her in Vertigo and while I wouldn’t call her great (either in this or Vertigo), but she gives a solid performance as a young woman who wants to be taken more seriously than just for her looks. I’m surprised Russell wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her role as an old-maid school teacher trying to hold on to her youth (or a man), but apparently she refused to be nominated for Supporting Actress so that would be the reason. She’s a mostly positive mixed-bag, either hitting the depressing and desperate aspects of her character just right or going over the edge into camp. However, the best performance came from the 17 year-old Strasberg who gives a wonderful performance as the bookish younger sister of Novak who is the reverse of her: someone who’s smart, but wants someone to treat her like a woman. Strasberg was a major up and coming actress at the time, getting lauded for this and her performance next year originating the title role in The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway. Unfortunately, she didn’t end up doing much as an adult.

Negatives

-The whole movie is an exploration of the themes of age, beauty and a woman’s place relative to men and to society, but it never quite gels. The biggest problem is that all the female characters are superficial and can be quickly summed up: the beauty who sometimes wishes she wasn’t, the brains who wants to be noticed, the old maid, and the mother who doesn’t want her daughter to make the same mistakes she did and go with the safe and reliable monied boyfriend. All of them are sexually frustrated in one way or another, and Holden becomes the (too old at 37) powderkeg that sets off everyone. The movie would have been improved if you had focused on just 2 or 3 of them and had removed Russell and O’Connor’s characters entirely, although that would have required they give those character a little more depth than they did

-I didn’t really like the ending, which as I expected, was changed from the original stage version that won the Pulitzer Prize because they wanted something more upbeat (and much less definitive).

Overall

The screenplay hasn’t held up that well (barring one memorable scene that still feels passionate), but there’s still quite a bit to like about it, especially on a presentation level.

Rating: B-

The Rose Tattoo (1955)

rose

Starring: Anna Magnani, Burt Lancaster, Marisa Pavan, Ben Cooper

Director: Daniel Mann (No relation to Delbert Mann)

Summary: A woman goes into a long period of mourning after the death of her husband, who she didn’t realize was cheating on her.

Other Nominations: Actress (Magnani)*, Supporting Actress (Pavan), Dramatic/Comedy Score, B&W Art Direction*, B&W Cinematography*, Film Editing

Positives

-Magnani pretty much is the reason to watch this movie, and she gives a great performance. She’s incredibly expressive at all times, but somehow never overacts which is a remarkable feat. She pulls off a wide range emotions, being both lively and deeply depressing, sometimes changing at the drop of a hat.

-Pavan put in a very solid performance as Magnani’s daughter

-The cinematography was good (even if I’m surprised it won the Oscar)

Negatives

-This is a very strange movie with lots of different elements, a few of them working extremely well and many others feeling totally off. Lancaster’s performance and character were just…odd. I’m not completely sure what was going on with him, other than he was a weird and smiley man with an occasional Italian accent who’s supposed to be our love interest? It’s also a slow movie, playing out as a handful of really long scenes with 2-3 characters; heck, Lancaster doesn’t even show up until the midway point of the movie. Finally, the movie doesn’t open up that much from its play routes, with almost everything taking place inside Magnani’s house; why it won for Art Direction, I don’t know, because none of the sets or costumes, or the style in general were at all distinctive.

Overall

I can understand why Magnani won an Oscar (especially against what looks like a weak field), but I don’t know why it was nominated for Best Picture considering most of the other elements of the movie besides her don’t work all that well.

Rating: C

1955 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1955

The Night of the Hunter: This movie was a total failure both critically and financially upon its initial release, which is why it’s the only movie Charles Laughton directed; however, it is now acknowledged as one of the best American films of its era. Robert Mitchum’s performance as a reverend turned serial killer makes for one of the most memorable villains of all time. In the National Film Registry.

Rebel Without a Cause & East of Eden: These two movies made James Dean one of the biggest stars in America before he died the very same year in a car crash. Rebel was really the first movie to give a sympathetic portrait of youth’s struggles again the older generation, something that would continue to grow into a bigger problem until it boiled over the next decade; it’s in the National Film Registry. East of Eden was the only starring role of his released in Dean’s lifetime, and was nominated for 4 Oscars (including Dean for Best Actor and Elia Kazan for Best Director) and is one of only 3 Golden Globe Best Drama winners to not get an Oscar BP nomination; the others: Spartacus (1960) and The Cardinal (1963).

Pather Panchali: The first part of the Apu trilogy by Satyajit Ray, which is generally considered the pinnacle of Indian cinema. Amazingly, Ray had no previous experience whatsoever making films, nor did most anybody involved with the project, and it had no script, only storyboards. Somehow, it all ended up working out and is exceptional for its realistic depiction of poverty.

Ordet: Along with The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, this is considered one of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s greatest works. Noted for its stirring emotional qualities and cinematography, it is considered one of the best movies of all-time, placing #2 on the last Sight and Sound poll.

All That Heaven Allows: Romance movie starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, directed by Douglas Sirk, who was a great influence on director Todd Haynes (especially his film Far from Heaven). In the National Film Registry.

Kiss Me Deadly: A highly unusual film noir that had cold war-era themes about paranoia and the atomic age, and was the first film to feature the great “glowing briefcase” macguffin that was most famously homaged in Pulp Fiction. In the National Film Registry.

The Ladykillers: Acclaimed black comedy starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers amongst others, about a group of thieves living with an eccentric old widow. Named the 13th greatest British film of all-time by the BFI. Remade by the Coen Brothers in 2004 to poor reviews.

Blackboard Jungle: This movie is famous for three things: one, it was Sidney Poitier’s breakout role (along with the debuts of Vic Morrow and Jamie Farr), two, it introduced “Rock Around the Clock” to the nation at-large, changing the music landscape forever, and three, it inspired riots in theaters the UK and was banned there for a time.

The Seven Year Itch: Most famous for Marilyn Monroe’s famous skirt-blowing scene, it was named #51 on the AFI 100 Laughs list, although its director Billy Wilder personally considered it a dud because they couldn’t really explore the themes of adultery in a proper way under the Production Code.

Les Diaboliques: Great psychological thriller, starring future Oscar winner Simone Signoret in her breakout role with a famous ending involving a bathtub. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot optioned the novel’s rights just before Alfred Hitchcock could, and it is generally credited as an influence on Hitchcock’s Psycho.

1955 Nominees in Review

Marty: A- (Won Best Picture)

Mister Roberts: B

Picnic: B-

The Rose Tattoo: C

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing: C-

This is probably the weakest slate of nominees so far from the 1950’s: even if nothing was outright bad, nothing really stood out other than Marty, which I thought deserved its Best Picture win. The 50’s is full of years where you could have come up with a much more interesting slate of nominees, even just looking at what came out of Hollywood, and this is certainly one of them.

Coming up for 1956: the first year where all the films were in color, and five movies with an average runtime of 176 minutes. Oh joy. We have a Best Picture winner known as more notable for its list of cameos than actually being a good movie; Anthony Perkins only BP nominee and his only Oscar nomination (yes, it was for this, not that other movie that everybody remembers him from); James Dean’s only BP nominee; and Yul Brynner in two movies: one is signature role in a famous Rogers and Hammerstein musical, the other was Cecil B. DeMille’s final film which was, what else, a massive biblical epic that was at the time, the most expensive film ever made.