*Around the World in 80 Days (1956)*

around

Starring: Cantinflas, David Niven, Robert Newton, Shirley MacLaine

Director: Michael Anderson

Summary: A Victorian gentleman bets that he can beat the world’s record for circling the globe

Other Nominations: Director, Adapted Screenplay*, Dramatic/Comedy Score*, Color Art Direction, Color Cinematography*, Color Costume Design, Film Editing*

Positives

-This was one of the most massive projects anyone ever attempted. Even if a lot of it was filmed on soundstages, there were a ludicrous amount of extras, costumes, elaborate sets, animals, etc. You have to admire the sense of scale and that they spared no expense to make the movie as visually impressive as possible

-Victor Young’s very good score here finally won him an Oscar after 20 previously unsuccessful nominations; sadly, he died a month after the film’s release and was awarded with it posthumously

-The cameos are what people primarily remember about this movie, and it was fun to see a number of people for the first time in years. Here’s a list of some of the better ones: Edward R. Murrow (yes, really), Ronald Colman, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra, John Carradine, Charles Coburn, Red Skelton, Cesar Romero, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Joe E. Brown, Victor McLaglen, Andy Devine, Jack Oakie and Trevor Howard.

Negatives

-This barely counts as a movie, and is more of a travelogue with a bunch of stereotypical set pieces: in Spain, we get Flamenco dancing and bullfighting, in the U.S. we get an Indian attack and in India we get Cantinflas running away from angry villagers after he shoos away a cow. There’s a connecting thread through the story, but it’s completely in the background and is an excuse to get us to the next exotic place-even The Greatest Show on Earth had a major plot running throughout with multiple subplots that converged into the finale.
-I can’t remember a movie before this starting out by showing us another (better) movie, but the beginning is Edward R. Murrow narrating over A Trip to the Moon. I know they’re both based off Jules Verne stories, but it’s still a really strange way to start off a movie, where it thuds out of the gate like that.

-The cinematography is mostly good, but the first 25 minutes or so are appalling bad for some reason: lots of wide shots of people talking that have empty space, everything as flat and uncreative as possible. There’s also a noticeable panoramic “curved” perspective (like this: http://www.chem.uky.edu/xray/people/parkin/panohead/office_tiny.jpg) that shows up periodically that looks strange. I can’t remember any of the other widescreen movies having this problem, although none of them also tried to do as much as this one did.

Overall

I can appreciate the amount of effort that went into this, but I really didn’t enjoy this. For the most part, it failed to be entertaining, funny or exciting, and it was three hours. The kinds of things I enjoy movies for like memorable characters, story, great action, etc. are generally absent here, and I was bored through most of it. I can see someone getting more out of it than I did, but this is still one of the weakest Best Picture winners ever.

Rating: D+

Friendly Persuasion (1956)

persuasion

Starring: Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins, Richard Eyer, Robert Middleton, Phyllis Love

Director: William Wyler

Summary: A peaceful Quaker family’s sanctity is tested during the Civil War

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Perkins), Adapted Screenplay, Original Song (“Friendly Persuasion”), Sound Recording

Positives

-The movie definitely tries to tackle some interesting themes, mainly how should one live as a pacifist in a violent world where conflict is at your doorstep. It’s answer to this question is somewhat muddled even in that regard, but I will give it credit for trying and for presenting multiple reasonable viewpoints in a respectful manner.

-I thought Cooper’s performance was the best in the movie and one of his best I’ve seen from him, even if that’s not saying THAT much.

Negatives

-The movie kind of putters around for the first 90 minutes, showing the trials and tribulations of a Quaker family whose system of beliefs were considered quaint even in the 1860’s. It’s generally light and breezy, but lacked anything for me character or story wise to really grab onto and barely hits upon the core theme for the first 2/3 of its runtime.

-This is an odd movie in that it seems to revere the Quakers for living a kind of pure and honest living, yet for the majority of its runtime pokes fun at how dated and stuffy their tenants were by having the family constantly break those tenants.

Overall

Although there’s nothing I actively disliked, this is a movie that never really engaged me. It took too long to really get to the meat of the story and by that point I was tuning out; once it does though, there are some potentially interesting themes here, but they probably could have been handled better.

Rating: C-

Giant (1956)

giant

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean (in his final film), Mercedes McCambridge, Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper

Director: George Stevens

Summary: A Texas ranching family fights to survive changing times

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Dean), Actor (Hudson), Supporting Actress (McCambridge), Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic/Comedy Score, Color Art Direction, Color Costume Design, Film Editing

Positives

-Once the kids get involved in the second half, it gets to be an interesting movie that tries to tackles tons of heavy themes like racism, legacy, how men either must change with times or be left behind by it, sexism, and the emptiness of wealth if you have no one to share it with. It’s not always successful, but there are a number of really poignant and memorable scenes and it’s pretty engaging.

-I initially didn’t like Hudson and I was just trying to figure out what was going on with Dean’s almost indecipherable mumbling (some of which was due to lines being recorded by another person after his death), but I eventually warmed up to them both. Hudson looks like Cary Grant and acts like a late-career Gary Cooper which isn’t that bad and fits the stoic, masculine Texas rancher character he plays. Dean was interesting for me to see for the first and last time for this project, because he plays against type: for the majority of his screentime he’s aged up to about 45 years old and is wearing sunglasses. His character was interesting and had a nice arc to him, and when he was on-screen he was the obvious center of attention. McCambridge also had a small but significant supporting role, and again showed why she was an unfortunate case: a really good actress who was always stuck in minor parts because she didn’t have the looks to be a lead.

-The cinematography did a wonderful job of capturing the Texas landscape and was generally very good throughout, and the art direction is spot-on, especially the huge mansion where most of the movie occurs that feels like something a rich Texas rancher would have built.

Negatives

-The same woman who wrote the novel Cimarron was based off of also wrote the novel this movie was based on, and you can tell, for better or (more often) worse. Both movies are sprawling, relatively unfocused western epics about families with a strong, masculine lead and an intelligent and headstrong wife, and both have significant themes of racism/white people stealing the land from a group in the west (against Indians in Cimarron, Mexicans in Giant). Giant tries to cover way too many big themes, rarely getting beyond the surface level of any of them (i.e. racism is bad, although I will say Dean’s racism has something more to it) and hammering those themes over and over again in obvious ways.

-At 200 minutes, it’s needlessly long and even though they spent a year editing it, they could have tightened up the first half of the movie considerably.

Overall

Giant is a mixed bag movie that takes way too long to get to brass tacks, but once it does it’s an enjoyable melodrama.

Rating: B-

The King and I (1956)

kingandi

Starring: Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, Rita Moreno, Terry Saunders, Martin Benson

Director: Walter Lang

Summary: Siam: 2015 A.D. A city lies in ruins after the 9th nuclear world war. It is a grim future with lots of explosions and partial nudity. A future where an oppressive new king has seized power. Only one man can stop him; no, one machine…

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Brynner)*, Actress (Kerr), Musical Score*, Sound Recording*, Color Art Direction*, Color Cinematography, Color Costume Design*

Positives

-I liked Kerr well enough, but Yul Brynner is the reason to watch the movie-he’s incredibly charismatic and his big stage-style acting works well here and he just makes the movie fun in general.

-The numbers were hit or miss for me, but the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” number, the biggest in the movie, was really, really well-done. Second place would be the famous “Getting to Know You” which is a musical standard at this point.

-The movie visually is really good, with lots of great sets and costumes along with solid cinematography.

Negatives

-As is the case for a lot of pre-70’s musicals, the plot and characters (besides the King of Siam) are very basic and didn’t interest me all that much. The romance aspect (which was understated and never directly addressed) is pretty routine stuff and I didn’t find the chemistry between Brynner and Kerr to be exceptional or anything.

-The characterization and historical inaccuracies didn’t bother me, as it was a musical and not a biopic; however, this is still very much a story about a white person coming in to fix the barbarous and infantile foreigners which has not aged well in this regard.

Other Stuff

-Kerr’s singing voice was dubbed over by Marni Nixon: she would make a career out of this, with her most well-known assignments after this being Natalie Wood’s voice in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn’s voice in My Fair Lady. She was paid $420 for six weeks of work ($3677 in 2016 dollars)

-The King of Siam references Moses a number of times, once saying “Ms. Anna, I think your Moses shall have been a fool”; this is ironic considering our next film has Brynner directly opposed to Moses.

Overall

This is a solid musical, with the main highlight being Brynner’s entertaining performances. However, I’m not that big of a musical fan most of the time, and has some very dated racial elements that are noticeable. Good, but I still prefer some of the  Astaire, Kelly and Lubitsch musicals over this.

Rating: B-

The Ten Commandments (1956)

commandments

Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, John Derek, Debra Paget, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Summary: Story of Moses and the freeing of the Jews from the rule of Ramses I

Other Nominations: Sound Recording, Color Art Direction, Color Cinematography, Color Costume Design, Film Editing, Visual Effects*

Positives

-The highest compliment I can give it is that I was never bored despite it being 3 hours and 51 minutes long. Consistently entertaining for a variety of reasons I will talk about below

-Presentation-wise, it’s outstanding with great sets and costumes, a gazillion extras, a really strong score (which I’m shocked wasn’t nominated even if other Biblical epics have had better), and very good special effects for the time, using a combination of practical effects ingenuity and animation.

-The 3 leads (and DeMille) all set the tone, which is a Biblical movie that wants there to be an air of entertainment and excitement to it even with the subject matter. Heston’s line delivery style is always fun and lends a larger-than-life element, which is why he fit so well in these kinds of movies. Brynner and Baxter are the main villains, with Baxter vamping it up to the nth degree in a classic Biblical “women ruin everything” role (see: Eve, Delilah and numerous others) and was logical casting after some of her stuff in All About Eve. DeMille also knew sex sells (just look at his pre-code movies), but here is one of the first “beefcake” movies I can remember, where not only are the women sexualized, but most of the main men in the movie (Heston, Brynner and Derek) are not only shirtless, but muscular.

Negatives

-Although I liked Brynner’s performances, as a character he’s not all that interesting and is fairly one-dimensional. This is obviously intentional, but that’s thing that Prince of Egypt, the 1999 animated film about Exodus did showed how this movie could have been even better.

-The dialogue in general is stiff and constrained by the genre’s standards.

Other Stuff

Adjusted for inflation, it’s the 6th highest grossing movie ever, although unadjusted, another Biblical epic we’ll get to was #1 for the decade.

Overall

This is one of the better Biblical epics and still holds up as a very entertaining movie that’s as big and grand as they come. However, it lacks real substance as anything other than pure entertainment.

Rating: B

1956 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1956

The Searchers: Considered by many to be the greatest American western ever made and the culmination of John Ford and John Wayne’s careers; it however, was not nominated for any Oscars. Probably the most notable thing about the movie in comparison to their previous collaborations is that Wayne’s character is much more complex and is very much an anti-hero who is deeply angry and racist throughout. To be honest, I saw it a couple of years ago and wasn’t a big fan of it, but I would be interested in seeing it again. Ranked #7 in the last Sight and Sound Poll, and #12 on the last AFI list.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers & Forbidden Planet: Two of the greatest sci-fi movies of the 1950’s, both of which are in the National Film Registry. Invasion has often been thought of as an allegory for the red-scare, being anti-McCarthyism or anti-communist depending on how you look at it; for me, it works as a straight sci-fi horror film, held together by a great lead performance from Kevin McCarthy. It’s also one of the only movies I can think of that had two good remakes: once in 1978 with Donald Sutherland (which is on-par with the original) and again in 1993 with Gabrielle Anwar. Forbidden Planet is notable for being the debut of Robbie the Robot, Leslie Nielson’s most notable pre-Airplane performance and Walter Pidgeon in one of his better performances as Dr. Morbius.

The Court Jester: The rare period-comedy movie, taking place in medieval times, with a great cast of Danny Kaye, Angela Lansbury, Basil Rathbone and Glynis Johns. Named to the AFI 100 Laughs list and the National Film Registry.

The Girl Can’t Help It: Jayne Mansfield stars in this big rock ‘n roll movie with the title song sung by Little Richard. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney cited the movie as an influence for why they wanted to become rock stars.

Aparajito: The second part of the Apu trilogy, this time focusing on his adolescence through college.

The Killing: Stanley Kubrick’s breakout film, although it failed to make an impact at the box office.

1956 Nominees in Review

The Ten Commandments: B

Giant: B-

The King and I: B-

Friendly Persuasion: C-

Around the World in 80 Days: D+ (Won Best Picture)

This was a very weak year, one of the worst since the first decade of the awards (1928-1937). The irony of course was that this time it was DeMille with the best movie of the year that got snubbed against the big, over-bloated barely-a-movie. The rest of the nominees ranged from pretty good to mediocre. I just hope this year of big (mostly) overblown epics isn’t the start of a trend…

1957 looks to be a marked improvement however. We have two of the most famous courtroom movies ever made; David Lean’s first big-budget, lengthy epic; a movie that spawned multiple TV soap operas and a film sequel; and the only Oscar-winning performance by a Japanese person (and one of only two by an Asian actor/actress ever).