Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 41
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
Part 41: 1957
The King and I
The Ten Commandments
Friendly Persuasion (hidden gem)
Around the World in 80 Days (winner)
The King and I
In many ways, The King and I is similar to The Sound of Music – telling the true story of an independent, forward-thinking woman infiltrating the strict household of a narrow-minded patriarch. She brings with her music, a possible shift in perspective and, of course, plenty of fun!
They also share similar love stories – big, burly manly men watching their facades crumble in the face of a woman with an education. And even though they put up a tough exterior, a part of them still ends up falling for this “…very difficult woman!”
While The Sound of Music arguably has the better soundtrack, The King and I is still a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein gem filled with all those things that make the 1950’s musical so enjoyable – great costumes, brilliant sets, and just a little subtle racism.
The King and I is based on a true story – that of Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) and her work as a teacher in Siam. Her charges are the numerous children and wives of King Mongkut (Yul Brynner).
Siam is equal parts mesmerizing and infuriating to Anna’s proper English sensibilities. Polygamy is virtually unheard of in Britain, and Anna’s elegant and hooped dresses mystify the King’s near 100 children. Yet, Anna falls in love with the royal children and educates them on the world outside of Siam.
The King, however, proves to be more of a challenge for Anna. He remains a fascinating contradiction throughout the film. While he desires a modern and progressive Siam, he also has a hard time letting go of his traditionalist values. This causes clashing between himself and Anna, yet also opens a door to acceptance and understanding.
This comical clashing helps set The King and I up as a romance…yet it remains platonic. Their quarreling is entertaining and their relationship is a perfect example of two very different people from two very different worlds who come to have huge respect for each other.
Arguably one of the most iconic scenes in The King and I is the “Shall we Dance” sequence, which is filled with so much sexual chemistry that it feels almost forbidden, despite the fact that it remains purely innocent. As the King whisps Anna around the dance floor, their hands and bodies touching for the first time, it’s near impossible not to feel the charge in the room. It’s a scene that works beautifully, never crossing a line, never seeming unrealistic. Yet I can’t argue that a part of me just wanted them to freaking kiss already!
I also loved the play-within-the-play, based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which reinterprets the American story using Siamese ballet-inspired dance and masks. Meant to be a commentary on the King’s attachment to wife enslavement, this sequence is both enchanting and distracting, not to mention borderline inappropriate but hey – it’s the 1950s! It was a brilliant piece of Asian-inspired theater that united East and West – seemingly clashing and complementing – not unlike Anna and The King.
Like most musicals and films from the mid-century, The King and I is a classic and should be approached that way. It may not have the cultural respect or snappiness of modern musicals, but it still holds up as a sweet story of worlds colliding, friendships blossoming, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
The main tagline of Giant describes its epic scale: “A picture of proud people. A love story. A cavalcade – A conflict of creeds – A personal drama of strong longings – A big story of big things and big feelings. THIS IS GIANT!”
Not only that, it’s near 4-hour run time is pretty giant, too – as was its all-star cast, including Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean (in his last feature performance, which most likely contributed to the film’s box office success).
Despite all of that, though, Giant falls short of true brilliance. Similar to Gone with the Wind, released just 17 years earlier, Giant is a southern epic with a strong male and female character and a central ranch/plantation that’s as much a character in the film as anyone else. And while Giant is certainly well-meaning, it’s often misguided. It denounces racism, yet unintentionally creates division. It questions the patriarchy, yet its central female character ultimately bows to her husband’s wishes. It’ a grand film of contradictions, delivered in a pretty package.
Bick Benedict (Hudson) is a wealthy Texas landowner who presides over a 595,000-acre ranch called Benedict Reata. While in Maryland to purchase a prize stallion, Bick becomes infatuated with Leslie Lynnton (Taylor), an attractive, educated, independent young woman.
The two are soon married and Leslie accompanies Bick back to Texas. Once there, she has trouble adjusting – not just to the climate, but to the domestic situation. Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), who is the house manager, resents Leslie’s arrival and does little to hide her displeasure. She does not approve of Leslie’s desire to be friendly with the Mexican workers on the ranch and Bick is almost constantly displeased with Leslie’s educational passions and interest in “manly” things, like politics.
Meanwhile, Leslie befriends a local worker named Jett Rink (Dean), a sullen, sad man who falls in love with her. Jett is antagonistic to Bick and their friendship is, to say, unwelcome.
However, when Jett finds oil on his little plot of land, he goes from ranch hand to millionaire overnight. The oodles of money coming in only intensify Jett’s bad characteristics and he soon finds himself indulging in the pleasures that come with sudden success, including alcoholism and depression.
Throughout the film, we also watch Bick and Leslie’s relationship change from courtship, to parenthood, to becoming grandparents. We see the rise and fall of Jett as he becomes an oil tycoon and experience Bick’s racism, and eventual reformation, after his son marries a young Mexican woman.
Though it’s called a “James Dean film”, Giant leaves his arc incomplete. We see him move from a life of loneliness to one of wealth and prosperity, yet he remains profoundly unhappy. Ultimately, his life is an ironic tragedy, maybe not unlike Dean’s own personal experiences.
The real protagonist in Giant is Leslie, who is the only true “good” person in the film. She is a woman of strong principles who seeks to bring reform to Riata, despite her husband’s racist views.
And for his part, Bick is the most complex character, who shows a wide spectrum of virtues throughout the story. He can be sweet and loving in one scene, then cold and cruel in another. There are times we root for him and times we can’t stand to look at the guy. Hudson’s performance is nuanced and, maybe for lack of a better word, realistic. Though he spends most of the film believing his Mexican workers are beneath him, his views eventually change with the birth of his half-Mexican grandchild. Then, at the end of the film, he comes full circle by defending a Mexican family against a racist bully who basically mirrors Bick at the beginning of the movie.
Unsurprisingly, Giant is not one, but many stories – maybe too many. The pace is leisurely and slow, like a Southern film often is. Yet it tries to showcase a Texas in transition, not only highlighting the changes wrought by time and money, but the steps Texas must take towards becoming a more modern state. In the end, we’re left with the impression that Texas is indeed changing, but far too slowly – and not always for the better.
The Ten Commandments
Go big or go home. That seems to be the motto when Hollywood tackles a Biblical story. With its exteriors filmed on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai and the Sinai Peninsula – not to mention a total cost of $15 million – there’s certainly nothing modest about The Ten Commandments. Behind the scenes sat four screenwriters, three art directors and five costume designers. There were thousands upon thousands of extras and, at the time of its release, was the most expensive film ever made. Yet, bigger isn’t always better.
Cecil B. DeMille was clearly having delusions of godliness as he brought the story of Moses to life. With its lavish costumes and over-the-top dialogue, The Ten Commandments wants to be taken seriously, but it honestly feels like a grand Sunday school pageant, complete with JUST enough Judaism to make it passible to a mostly Christian crowd.
“Proclaim liberty throughout the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof.” So says Moses to the Jews as the Chosen People approach the River Jordan. This is the theme of The Ten Commandments, liberty under God. The story is familiar to everyone. Moses, born into a Hebrew family in slavery, is spared from death when his mother puts him in a basket and sets it adrift on the Nile. The child is found by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised has her own (clearly her father has no questions…okay).
Eventually Moses learns he is Hebrew and becomes a savior for his people. He leads the Jews out of Egypt, delivers to them the 10 Commandments and, after years of wandering, delivers them to the Promised Land.
Of course, what’s a good Biblical story without romantic drama? Between fighting for the rights of his people, Moses (Charlton Heston) must also deal with a thirsty princess by the name of Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) who does her darndest to seduce him without much success.
For her part, Nefretiri is promised to the Pharaoh Rameses (Yul Brynner), who despises Moses and refuses to obey his demands to free the Hebrew slaves. I know I’m not SUPPOSED to like Rameses, but like, how DARE he stand there in these tight tee shirts looking CUT A F?
As a first-time viewer of The Ten Commandments, the part I was looking forward to the most was the 10 plagues; however, the movie’s various preoccupations left room for only three. The entire holiday of Passover is basically passed over, too – lacking the explanations that would have made these scenes so much more meaningful. Still, they try. A boy asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”, which is the question that kicks off the entire Passover story. But that’s about as much Passover as we get.
Also missing from this story is the importance of Moses’ sister, Miriam – who is a bit of a heroine in Jewish lore. The celebration she led after the Jews crossed The Red Sea is left out of the film, though DeMille seemed all to eager to fill the space with a crazy orgy scene which seemed…weird.
But there are several scenes that work really well. The parting of The Red Sea, for example, is impressive even for today’s standards. And when Moses turns his staff into a snake, it looks no worse than the special effects I recently saw in the 2018 film, Santa Jaws.
But, on the whole, this 4-hour film was a Biblical soap opera that didn’t even come close to achieving what the animated film, The Prince of Egypt did in half the running time. While The Ten Commandments certainly remains an epic of classic Hollywood filmmaking, it sacrifices story for substance.
This film is the epitome of false advertising. First off, it stars Gary Cooper, who was famous for sleeping his way through the Hollywood constellation of starlets. Secondly, it boasts a rather provocative tagline: “It will pleasure you in a hundred ways!”. From that, I was expecting a Doris Day/Gary Cooper-style meet-cute, complete with all the 1950’s sexual innuendos. What I was NOT expecting was a family drama about Quaker culture, set during the Civil War.
Filled with Cracker-Barrel Americana, Friendly Persuasion is loaded with sweetness and warmth. Set in Indiana in 1862, this film follows the Birdwell family, made up of father, Jess (Cooper); mother, Eliza (Dorothy McGuire); and children, Josh (Anthony Perkins), Mattie (Phyllis Love) and Little Jess (Richard Eyer).
They live on a farm with a riley goose named Samantha, attend the local Quaker place of worship, and maintain friendly relations with neighbor Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton) and his son, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), who is romantically pursuing Mattie.
For the most part, Friendly Persuasion is a loosely woven account of the adventures of the Birdwell family. Their old-fashioned principles are often put to the test in the modern world in which they live. They feud over Jess’s desire to buy an organ, how much leeway to give Mattie in her budding romance with Gard, and how to prevent Josh from engaging in fisticuffs with some feisty boys down at the state fair.
Meanwhile, the turmoil of the Civil War is getting closer, with Rebel soldiers making their way up north towards Indiana. When Josh expresses interest in fighting for his country, Jess and Eliza must come to terms with the fact that their Quaker pacifism may not have a place in this war-torn world.
While entertaining and heart-warming, Friendly Persuasion is by no means a thoughtful account at religious nonviolence and Quakerism. That wouldn’t come until 30 years later, when Peter Weir’s Witness, starring Harrison Ford, showcased a truer look at Quaker life. Yet Friendly Persuasion does succeed in offering a up a slice of all-American-apple-pie-style family life and the struggles that unite us, no matter what our religious persuasion.
Around the World in 80 Days
For today’s modern viewer, it might be hard to see how Around the World in 80 Days could have won Best Picture in 1957. The pace is slow, there are several scenes that seem to go on way too long and the endless stream of cameos only works to make this 3-hour movie feel like it’s unfolding in real time.
Yet if we take a step back and consider the scope of this project, it all starts to make sense. Shot on location all over the globe, Around the World in 80 Days is a travelogue to the highest degree. It does a wonderful job of showing off parts of the planet a 1950s audience would never see otherwise and does so without the use of CGI or special effects.
Our guide on this worldly adventure is a man named Phileas Fogg (David Niven), who bet several of his wealthy club members that he would be able to circumnavigate the globe within 80 days. Together with his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas), Fogg uses every mode of transportation possible, including train, boat, elephant and hot air balloon, to journey around the world.
For the next 3 hours, we accompany Fogg and Passepartout from London to Paris, then to Spain to see the bullfights (one of the unnecessarily longer scenes). From there we go to Marseilles, India, Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco, New York and back to England, all over the course of almost 3 months.
Along the way, Fogg and company meet a whole slew of characters, made up by a delightful cast of popular actors and actresses of the day. Around the World in 80 Days actually created the film cameo as a vehicle for introducing outside actors into the movie. Some of the best cameo appearances include: Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Buster Keaton, Charles Boyer, John Carradine, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Glynis Johns, and many, many more.
As Fogg, Niven is the perfect stereotype of the unruffled English gentleman. Prim and pompous in all the right ways, Niven is a caricature of British propriety. He seems to be having a grand ol’ time throughout this entire film and his chemistry with Passepartout is not unlike Kato and Inspector Clouseau of The Pink Panther.
Matching him in a delightful performance is Cantinflas, who has a Chaplinesque quality that endears him immediately. His physical humor allows him to carry most of the comedic elements of the movie and he excels at almost all of them...though I so badly wanted to shave off his pitiful mustache the entire time!
Besides Best Picture, Around the World in 80 Days also won Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Score. It’s also one of the few Best Picture winners to not have any acting nominations.
Shot in various locations around the world, this film really took us on an excursion in every possible way. Though parts of the film dragged from slow pacing, the overall effect was delightful. A film like this is a relic of its time – when studios and production companies had no choice but to take viewers on an unforgettable adventure to places unknown, all through the medium of film.