Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 25
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 25: 1949
The Snake Pit
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Red Shoes
The Snake Pit: Even before it hit the silver screen, The Snake Pit established a sense of realism. To begin with, it was adapted from Mary Jane Ward’s 1946 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, which described her time spent in a state hospital after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Director Anatole Litvak and his ENTIRE cast and crew did extensive research on their parts, too – visiting mental institutions, attending lectures, observing therapy sessions and interviewing actual patients and doctors. Common problems such as overcrowding and understaffing make their way into the film, as does the carelessness that comes with overpopulated hospitals and overworked nurses.
In what is perhaps the performance of her career, Olivia de Havilland stars as Virginia Cunningham, though she seems a bit confused about the Cunningham part. She’s actually pretty confused in general, hearing voices, not quite knowing where, or even who, she is. She’s even more surprised when a woman, who clearly knows her, starts leading her into a building that looks like a prison – moreover, everyone treats her as if she’s been here a while.
Virginia is indeed an inmate – but an inmate at a mental institution, with no memory of how she got there. Through a series of flashbacks brought on by her various therapy sessions (including Freudian talk therapy, electroshock therapy and other, let’s say, ‘in vogue’ treatments for the time), we come to learn who Virginia is, what happened to her, and why she’s found herself in a state hospital.
The Snake Pit is known for being one of the first films to take a serious look at mental illness, particularly schizophrenia. It graphically explores popular treatments for the disease, like electroshock therapy and hypnotherapy, and what it’s actually like living in an insane asylum.
These “life on the ward” moments include Virginia interacting with other patients and doctors. We see cruel nurses and kind ones, meet lucid patients and delirious ones.
Like any institution, there is a pecking order between the different wards of the hospital, and your ward number says a lot about where you are in your illness and how you are treated. Ward 1 holds patients who are nearly cured, while patients in Ward 33, the place Virginia calls “the snake pit”, are considered the sickest. These poor souls are left to meander around the basement basically abandoned.
Though a lot of what The Snake Pit shows is outdated today, it’s still a very sympathetic portrayal of the mentally ill. In what’s easily the most moving scene in the film, the patients are treated to a performance of the folk song, “Goin’ Home”. As the song rings out over the ward, the camera shows the faces of the patients, transfixed by the hopeful message of the lyrics. Both emotional and humanizing, this scene shows the simple desire all these souls share: to get better and go home.
In the end, the “reason” for Virginia’s illness seems more or less lackluster. The movie drags the ending out, but anyone who has played “I Spy” at least once in their lifetime can count on two hands how many times Freud appears in the background of Virginia’s therapy sessions. After seeing mental thrillers like Rebecca, A Beautiful Mind and All About Eve, I was expecting something a little more exciting, but the simple, albeit happy, ending certainly didn’t take away from the impact of the movie.
In addition to being a success with audiences, critics and the Academy, The Snake Pit also inspired a number of states (possibly up to 26) to pass legislation calling for reforms in patient treatment and procedures. In 1952, the film was screened at a Boston state hospital, and it was reported that it had a beneficial effect on the patients, providing them with a very real hope for recovery. It very obviously paved the way for other stories like it, most notably One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the realism hit so close to home in America and Britain that actions were taken to warn the public about what they would see on screen.
The title of this film stems from an ancient practice involving throwing mentally ill patients into a pit of snakes. The theory was that something like this would make a normal person insane, therefore it must work in reverse. Though its clearly and thankfully not practiced anymore, it’s still very clear to see that we as a culture still don’t know how to handle and help those who are mentally ill. Whether it’s a lack of funding, a lack of space, or a lack of care, those that often need the most help find it hard to come by, and The Snake Pit is a cryptic, yet pointing revelation of a crying need for better facilities for mental care.
Johnny Belinda: There are only a few rare films that can be both sentimental and melodramatic without losing any heart and soul. All too often a “heart-warming movie” insults the intelligence with nonstop pulling of the heartstrings, rendering it basically unrelatable in today’s day and age.
Johnny Belinda is one of those rare stories. A socially conscious and (appropriately) sentimental picture, Johnny Belinda was one of the first Hollywood films to look at a handicapped person as a worthy subject for a drama. Taking place in the Great White North, this movie shows us that people can be decent, even if the community itself is somewhat pessimistic.
Cape Breton Island is a remote fishing island off the coast of Nova Scotia. As the narrator says at the beginning of the film, “The village isn’t much to shout about.” It’s just a quiet, peaceful place where the people are proud of the community they’ve built.
For Old Man MacDonald (Charles Bickford), life on the farm is a lot of work. Not only does he have to provide for his cows and chickens, but he also houses his sister, Aggie (Agnes Moorehead) and his deaf-mute daughter, Belinda (Jane Wyman). With a cow in labor, MacDonald has no choice but to call on the town’s only doctor, Dr. Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres), in the hopes that he might moonlight as a freelance veterinarian.
While assisting the pregnant cow, Dr. Richardson meets Belinda and the two become fast friends. After all, Dr. Richardson was once a student of sign language and he commits to teaching Belinda how to communicate using her hands.
Belinda’s father is overjoyed with the ability to communicate with his daughter in this way – but the same can’t be said for other people in the town. Dr. Richardson’s jealous secretary Stella (Jan Sterling) believes Belinda is trying to steal the doctor away from her. Furthermore, Stella’s fiancée Locky McCormick (Stephen McNally) sees an opportunity to take advantage of Belinda’s situation.
After getting drunk at a town social, Locky stumbles to the MacDonald farm, where he finds Belinda alone. Knowing she cannot scream nor defend herself, he rapes her, leaving her pregnant.
Rumors begin to spread about Dr. Richardson having raped Belinda, causing him to lose the respect of his patients in this tight-knit community. The oh-so-understanding townsfolk also try to convince Belinda to give up her baby to Stella and Locky, on the grounds that she’s an unfit mother and can’t raise a child on her own. But Hell hath no fury like a woman protecting her child.
Nominated for 12 Oscar nominations, Johnny Belinda was a box office hit. It ranked in about $7 million worldwide and earned Wyman a much-deserved Best Actress award. Without uttering a single line, Wyman shows us a woman reborn. From her forlorn, introverted acceptance of being a town simpleton to her fierce resolve and passion as a mother, Wyman conveys more in one, single glance than may actors do in an entire film.
Lew Ayres, who acts as Belinda’s voice throughout the movie, was also fantastic. He easily conveys the warmth and bedside manner every doctor should have and his protection and adoration of Belinda never crosses the line.
There is also an understated beauty in watching Johnny Belinda. Though it is in black and white, there are so many scenes that paint such a lovely picture. In one scene in particular, Belinda is watching a few kids her age dance to a barn tune. Knowing she can’t hear the music, Dr. Richardson places her hand on the violin being played and her face lights up. As the musical vibrations pulse through her, she begins to move her feet to the rhythm of the song. It’s such a simple and quiet scene – all things considered – but so beautifully arranged, shot and directed.
In another, Belinda is using sign language to pray for her sick father. With Dr. Richardson translating, Belinda signs “The Lord’s Prayer”, and by God if that scene didn’t get me….
In a tiny town where everyone knows everyone and gossip pulses through the streets and alleyways, it can be hard to be accepting of those who are different, those who communicate differently. Not only did Johnny Belinda showcase that, but it made it very clear that we, as humans, really aren’t all that different. A mother who can’t hear is just as protective, if not more so, than a mother who can. And just because someone can’t make noise with their mouth doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: Money is the root of all evil. So says the Bible. So says Tolkien. So says B. Traven, the mysterious author whose novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, became the source material for John Huston’s 1948 film adaption. A poignant meditation on the effects of greed and isolation on the human psyche, this Western/adventure story is an intense character study that sits comfortably atop many top 10 lists, and rightfully so.
One of the first films to be shot almost entirely on location (mostly in Mexico), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre explores the psychological breakdown of three men who aim to strike it rich in the Sierra Madre Mountains. American expatriates, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtain (Tim Holt), are in need of money. After getting swindled by a man who hired them to work on an oil rig, Dobbs and Curtain meet an ex-prospector named Howard (Walter Huston), who shows them how they can all pool their resources together and head into the mountains looking for gold, which is not too hard, and how to keep it and not get killed, which ain’t too easy.
Dobbs and Curtain are eager to make a buck, but can’t seem to keep up with Howard, who ‘displays the energy of a billy goat’. Though he’s the oldest member of the trio, Howard has impeccable instincts, which lead him to discover a rich vein filled with enough gold to keep the crew there for months.
As time goes by, these three miners become victims to paranoia, as each one fears the others might be looking for their hidden shares of the gold nuggets. They must also deal with other explorers looking to make a buck, Mexican bandits hunting for weapons and ammunition, not to mention the very real threats of starving to death or succumbing to heat stroke.
However, it’s not until the group decides to head home that things really take a turn. As the three men leave and go their separate ways, a chain of events leads to betrayal, deception and death. Not everyone makes it out alive – and the ironic ending is one you have to laugh at because of its honesty and its brutality.
Though Bogart was well-loved by audiences during this time in his career, they didn’t love THIS Bogart. Non-romantic and even villainous, Dobbs was unlike Bogart’s other film characters and viewers didn’t quite warm up to him, though this is widely considered one of Bogart’s best roles. Watching him diminish and eventually disappear into himself and his delusions was heartbreaking to say the least, one might even say Shakespearean in irony and performance.
Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father, is a delight to watch as the loveable Howard, who won a Best Supporting Oscar for his part in Sierra Madre. He plays peacemaker between Dobbs’ paranoia and Curtain’s level-headedness and does his best to keep the focus on survival. Listening to Howard’s rapid-fire dialogue just proves this man has no time for bullshit.
In addition to the Best Supporting Oscar win, John Huston also won an Oscar for Best Director and Best Screenplay, making Sierra Madre the first instance of a son and father winning in the same year. Thanksgiving must have been a hoot at the Huston house!
Like in most Westerns, everyone pretty much gets what they deserve here – the good get rewarded, the bad get punished. And as Howard and Curtain take their conventional endings, Dobbs becomes the tragic hero, begot by his own flaws.
As for the treasure, well, it was never really about that, anyway. Despite its title, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is about character. Much like money destroys man or gold rings destroy Hobbits, the drive for wealth and prosperity can turn even the strongest among us into a pathetic, frightened, selfish shell of our former selves. They say money is the root of all evil – but it’s not. It’s greed.
The Red Shoes: Over the years there have been several movies that have tried to capture the spirit, the beauty, the enchantment, of the ballet. Most audiences today would be quick to name Black Swan as one, but there have been many others, including one of my personal favorites, An American in Paris. But none of them come to such tragic conclusions as The Red Shoes, where art and life are set as an impossible binary that tears the main character apart.
Based on a fairy tale by Has Christian Andersen, The Red Shoes follows the career of dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), as she rises through the ranks of the respected ballet company, Ballet Lermontov. Run by obsessive director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and musical composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), Ballet Lermontov soon becomes a famed institution when it transforms Andersen’s fairytale, ‘The Red Shoes’, into a ballet.
Much like the fairytale, the ballet tells the story of a magical pair of shoes that force their wearer to dance at the expense of all else. As Victoria, Boris and Julian enjoy a quick rise to fame with the release of their show, Victoria and Julian begin to fall in love – forcing Boris, who doesn’t believe in such diversions as love and marriage – to dismiss them both from the company. When Victoria is given the opportunity of a lifetime to return to Lermontov’s company, she must finally choose between art and life – to get married and have a family or fulfill her lifelong dream of being a prima ballerina…because no one is lucky enough to have it all.
Smack dab in the middle of this film is ‘The Red Shoes’ ballet itself, so grand in scope that it warranted its own design and production team. Set up as a fantasy that may or may not be going on in Victoria’s head, ‘The Red Shoes’ ballet transforms the stage into a surreal space, where Victoria glides, flies and dances through unreal landscapes. A newspaper flying in the wind becomes a dance partner, a breeze lifts and transforms Victoria into a flower, a bird, a cloud. In her red shoes, Victoria is unstoppable, whether or not she actually wants to be.
Moira Shearer, who was a ballerina by trade, proves to be a compelling delight in this role. With hair as red as her shoes, Shearer is distinctive, unique, original – everything a prima ballerina should be. When you look at her, you see a dancer, even when she’s not moving. She knows, more so than anyone, the emotional and mental toll of the part she so effortlessly plays.
And she finds her equal in Anton Walbrook, who brings a very emotional realism to a character who is, by all intents and purposes, a stereotype. Lermontov is arrogant, curt and wickedly smart. He demands perfection from his performers because he can. Yet there’s something very guarded in his performance. He’s layered and nuanced. He doesn’t show all his cards, and it’s very unsettling. What is it with these ballet movies and these weird, scary, twisted, un-trustable leads!?
The best of the best have named The Red Shoes as one of their favorite movies, including Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, who even has a collection of movie memorabilia that you can see on the special features of the DVD. It has inspired some of the most popular dance scenes in movie history, including the ballet in An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, and the large dance sequence in La La Land. Gene Kelly reportedly screened the movie several times before filming An American in Paris and the use of color and cinematography in The Red Shoes have no doubt influenced generations of moviemakers.
Early on in the film, Lermontov is explaining the plot of ‘The Red Shoes’ to composer Julian: “The ballet…is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a girl who’s devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She get the shoes, goes to the dance. At first, all goes well and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets. They dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.”
And so it goes. Desire gets us all in the end. And once she has possession of us, we are powerless against it.
Hamlet: I’m no thespian, but Hamlet seems to be one of those parts that looms so heavily over Western culture that it would be dauting to take it on. Twisted, fascinating and all too headstrong for his own good, Hamlet is a character that can easily be interpreted differently by anyone brave enough to take him on. It also seems that every generation is treated to their own Hamlet, whether he’s played by Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier or even a little lion named Simba, Hamlet remains relevant no matter how many times he’s revisited, reinterpreted or recast.
In his 1948 adaption, Laurence Olivier portrays a Hamlet damned by lack of resolution. In his opening monologue, he announces it as “the tragedy of a man who couldn’t make up his mind.” His Hamlet isn’t moody or irritating. He isn’t quite as emo as the Hamlet of my mind is – rather he’s a man lost in his thoughts…educated, yet constantly questioning.
Considering most of us know the basic gist of The Bard’s famous play, I won’t go into details here…but I will say the key to the success of any adaption, be it Shakespeare or otherwise, is what is done beyond the dialogue we all know from high school English class.
As as both lead (Hamlet) and director, Olivier cut about 40% of the original play, including the play’s comic relief, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What we’re left with is a Reader’s Digest version of Hamlet, with a near constant focus on Hamlet’s internal turmoil. That’s all well and good, but without the comradery and friendship of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet becomes very dark and gloomy.
Some comic relief is given to Polonius (Felix Aylmer), but not enough to really balance how intense Olivier’s portrayal of Hamlet is. Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia (Jean Simmons) is also downplayed here, with Hamlet showing little to no affection for this woman who is supposed to be his true love.
On the other hand, Hamlet is quite taken with his mother, Gertrude (Eileen Herlie), who he kisses on the lips and cuddles with several times throughout the movie. This is made even weirder when you learn that Olivier was 40 when he played Hamlet, while Herlie was nearly 12 years younger than him when she played his mother.
Having said all that, though, there’s no denying that Olivier GOT Shakespeare. Hamlet is sandwiched in between two other Oliver adaptions, Henry V four year before and Richard III seven years after. Of the three, Hamlet received the most popular appreciation, winning an Oscar for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. It’s the only Shakespeare film to win a Best Picture Oscar and was the first non-American film to take home the prestigious award.
While Olivier’s interpretation of Hamlet does capture many different facets of his character, including his sadness, cruelty and stubbornness, his portrayal of Hamlet is, for lack of a better word, dull. In addition to cutting characters, speeches and plot points, Olivier also removed the political subtext of the play. We never learn that the late king brought Denmark to the brink of war – or, more importantly, that Claudius is trying to wager peace. Without that, we have no sympathy for Claudius. He’s no longer a man who performed a horrible act for potentially good reasons – he’s now a murderer who must be dealt with. When you look at it that way, Hamlet has no choice but to be the cape-wearing hero Olivier wants him to be, even though he himself is not an honest or kind man.
While this adaptation of Hamlet is certainly not without merit, it felt a little too on-the-surface. Nothing ever went deep enough…and the heroic ending Hamlet received seemed to work against the darkness and brooding nature that makes Hamlet such an iconic character in English literature.
OK, 1949 – way to bring your A game! I literally can’t pick a favorite from this year because all of these movies were so good.
One thing that really made these movies so outstanding was how every single one of them seemed to deal with mental illness of some kind. The Snake Pit became one of the first films to showcase schizophrenia, while The Treasure of the Sierra Madre showed how greed and pride can convince even the strongest among us to commit crazy, insane acts.
The Red Shoes showed what it’s like to completely lose yourself in your work while my hidden gem this year, Johnny Belinda, cast a deaf-mute woman as the freaking lead of a film.
Ironically Hamlet, which should have been the craziest of all of these, wasn’t quite crazy enough. It’s clear the Academy wanted to show some support to its international partners, which is most likely why Hamlet won, but it was certainly the weakest of the five.
The opening soliloquy of Hamlet – “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind” – could have easily been applied to any of the films this year. In the 1940s and 50s, mental illness and awareness was becoming more prominent, and no where is that more apparent than in the films nominated for Best Picture here. While Hamlet seemed like a handed win, any of the other films this year could have taken home the award if given the opportunity. While these films my not have been as vocal as other films about mental illness would be in later years, they still put unlikely heroes front and center, which is more than most movies even today can say.
Onto the next pull!