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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 44

Part 44: 1961


  • The Alamo

  • The Apartment (winner)

  • Sons and Lovers

  • The Sundowners

  • Elmer Gantry (hidden gem)

The Alamo

As much a passion project for John Wayne as it was a chance to take a stab at American folklore, The Alamo is nothing but a Texas-sized dump, filled with religious undertones, patriotic soliloquies and dated ideals about the American experience (even though Texas wasn’t even an American state when the Alamo actually happened, but whatever, John Wayne).

The Alamo marked Wayne’s first foray into directing and, despite being a protégé of the great John Ford, he was not a natural director. This movie drags on for a very long 3 hours and never really manages to come alive like it should. Perhaps because of his stereotypical basic nature, Wayne never managed to figure out where the story was, even though he devoted $1.5 million of his own money (and nearly 14 years of his life) to finishing it.

Also starring in the film as the king of the wild frontier, Davy Crockett, Wayne was so committed to showing himself in a good light that, as one reviewer said, “…it seems more like Crockett, coonskin cap in place, doing his best Wayne impression.”

It’s 1836 in a Texas controlled by Mexico. The army of General Santa Anna is sweeping through the countryside to consolidate his rule. On the other side, pro-independent soon-to-be-Texans are united against him, but are disorganized when it comes to actual planning.

In a last-ditch effort to defend their freedom, General Sam Houston (Richard Boone), leader of the Texas army, appoints Colonel Travis (Laurence Harvey) and his men to make a stand at the abandoned Alamo mission compound. Fellow Colonel Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark) eventually joins Travis’ battalion, as does Tennessee congressman and legendary maverick, Davy Crockett (Wayne). Together with their troops, these men prepare for battle they know they will never win.

The actual battle of the Alamo lasts about 15 minutes and comes about 2 ½ hours into this slog of a movie. The rest of the film is jam-packed with big speeches about freedom, nationalism, and patriotic pride. The most “rousing” example of this is the “cross the line and volunteer” scene, when the defenders of the Alamo choose to stay and face certain death among a Mexican army of about 2,000. First Jim Bowie decides to stay, then a few more. Eventually Crockett and Travis make the move to stay, as well. When the noble gesture is done and we’re supposed to have tears of admiration streaming down our cheeks, we’re just left with an awkward spectacle of about 200 men standing and staring off into space, as if posing for an “American boy” poster. It’s a move that validates Wayne’s belief that he’s standing on the right side of history – then asks us if we’re willing to cross the line, too.

With an intimate connection and respect for Davy Crockett, Wayne certainly had an emotional attachment to this story. His desire was to show that the battle at the Alamo was not only one of the most heroic moments in American history, but also use it as a metaphor for America itself. As a result, The Alamo is inflated with value statements that tote a “John Wayne America”, not an accurate one. “Republic,” Crockett says, “I like the sound of the word. It’s one of those words that makes me tight in the throat.” Crockett’s words or Wayne’s?

In the end, this is one Alamo I’d rather forget.


The Apartment

When it comes to getting ahead in the business world, there are many ways to go about it. The preferred way, which is often a myth, is to put in long hours and work overtime to show your “dedication”. However, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has found another way.

In exchange for favorable performance reviews, Baxter opens his apartment up to the executives in his office looking to conduct extra-marital affairs.

Of course, this means Baxter can go anywhere but home, even when he’s sick with a cold. This causes him to spend late nights in the office, where he develops a sweet friendship with an elevator operator named Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).

When big-boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) eventually learns of Baxter’s little side hustle, he wants in. Like his peers, Sheldrake has a mistress and is in a position to really further Baxter’s career – that is if Baxter is willing to hand him exclusive use of his apartment key.

For Baxter, nothing would make him happier. As a man who spends more time juggling other people’s affairs than he does is own workload, Baxter is all for giving Sheldrake the shag pad; however, things become a little more complicated when Baxter learns that Sheldrake’s mistress is none other than Fran Kubelik.

The wonderful thing about The Apartment is that it uses comedy as it should be used – to evoke a rainbow of emotions. There’s a precise balance between farce and sadness, particularly when both Baxter and Fran realize what their so-called “dreams” are costing them. Both are using Sheldrake to try and get ahead, but the reality is that they’re the ones being used. Sheldrake only needs Baxter for as long as he needs the apartment, and he’s stringing Fran along until he tires of her. She’s the latest in a long line of office conquests for him. She’s not the first, and she won’t be the last.

Jack Lemmon is just as wonderful as he always is, balancing humor and melancholy as only he can. The way he performs with inanimate objects also adds another wonderful layer of comedy that had me laughing out loud several times.

And MacLaine’s Fran is no ditzy dame. A strong woman who’s been lied to before, Fran has a good heart, but little patience, and is prepared to make the necessary compromises to lock her man down. But there’s an underlying sadness of MacLaine’s performance, which is what anchors The Apartment. It raises the stakes and prevents it from becoming a game of musical beds.

When it was released, The Apartment scooped the Academy Awards, winning statues for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Though it’s easily one of Billy Wilder’s best films, it never gets the attention that Double Indemnity or Some Like it Hot does. Perhaps it was because the film starred a whole lot of nobody when it came out (Lemmon and MacLaine were not even at the peak of their fame at the time). But more likely it was because this comedy tells truths about American business and sexual mores that are as uncomfortable now as they were in 1960.

Personally, I just found it to be an absolute diamond in the rough. The Apartment comes fully furnished. Built upon a sturdy comedic foundation and illuminated with a sun-dappled cast, this romantic dramedy offers one amazing view after another!


Sons and Lovers

More like Sons and Mothers

Based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers tells the story of an artist named Paul (Dean Stockwell). He is the youngest son of a disgruntled coalmining father named Walter (Trevor Howard) an overprotective mother named Gertrude (Wendy Hiller).

Walter is a drunk with a bad temper who finds it all too easy to take his aggression out on his wife. Gertrude knows how to manage him, but is unable to love him…so she offloads all of the love that she cannot show for her husband onto her son.

She loves Paul so much that she feels that no woman is good enough for him, least of all Miriam (Heather Sears) – the girl next door who has been friends with Paul since childhood. Miriam must also manage her own strange mother, who believes that sex is something that a woman must “suffer” for the sake of childbirth.

When the opportunity arises for Paul to leave his small coalmining town and go to Nottingham to practice his art, he decides to up and go, but a lot changes at home when he’s away. Life for Gertrude gets more and more difficult and Miriam eventually comes to the conclusion that she may have just let the love of her life slip through her fingers.

Things get even more complicated when Paul falls for a woman recently separated – but not divorced – from her estranged husband. Not all three women can have Paul’s heart – and it’s a survival to the finish to see who will win the power struggle for his love.

Shot in black and white, Sons and Lovers feels…dirty. Besides the fact that it takes place in a coalmining town and everything is almost always covered in soot, there’s also a risqué (non-incestuous) Oedipus-style relationship between Gertrude and Paul. The love Gertrude needs from Walter is masked under his drunkenness – so she seeks it out in Paul. And the love Miriam desires from Paul is being sucked up by his mother, who disapproves of any other woman in Paul’s life.

There’s also a strong theatrical feeling to the film, mostly due to the fantastic cast. Trevor Howard is easily the outstanding feature, giving a moving and wholly believable study of a man equally capable of tenderness as he is of being tough. And Dean Stockwell, looking something like a knockoff James Dean, looks quite different than his roles in Quantum Leap and Battlestar Galactica.

Like most stories about love, Sons and Lovers has aged well – telling a classic tale of love in all its forms. Whether it be a mother loving her son, a young girl being infatuated with the boy next door, or a young boy swooning over a woman way out of his league, Sons and Lovers showcases the happiness, and damage, that love can bring.


The Sundowners

Nomads, vagabonds, hobos, roamers, migrants. There are so many names for those who wander without a place to call home. In Australia, these people are called “sundowners”, as they lay their head where the sun goes down.

In The Sundowners, we meet an Australian family who have made the decision to live their lives on the road. Irish immigrant Paddy Carmody (Robert Mitchum) greatly enjoys his nomadic lifestyle, but his wife of 16 years, Ida (Deborah Kerr) and their teenage son Sean (Michael Anderson, Jr.) are starting to tire of living in tents. They yearn to settle down, especially when they stumble upon a quaint riverfront farm for sale.

In order to make money, Paddy works as a sheep drover and shearer at a camp where Ida also works as a cook. The family makes new friends and Ida does her best to save every penny towards buying that little farmhouse – but Paddy enjoys his drinking and gambling, and convincing him to settle down won’t be easy.

Like the recent Oscar-winning film, Nomadland, The Sundowners is old-fashioned in the best possible way. There are no heroes, villains, or family drama. This is a sweet, simple film that goes searching for life’s small, but essential, building blocks.

It also reflects upon the hard problems of real-life characters. Ida is not getting any younger and has no intention of remaining homeless. She desires a home where she can cook a meal for her son and live out her remaining years in comfort. When she was younger, Paddy’s reassurance of, “…the whole world is our home” may have helped inspire her to embrace this bold lifestyle, but now she’s envious of every dowdy housewife she meets.

On the outside, Ida is rugged pioneer stock. Her arms are slim and toned, her skin is burned from working out in the sun. But she remains wistful and feminine within. The film even features a lovemaking scene between Ida and Paddy within the first 20 minutes. They clearly love and respect each other, but must come to terms that life on the road can’t work for them forever.

One can, of course, pick holes in this film. Yes, it’s kind of slow. Mitchum and Kerr do struggle with the Australian accent (but props to both of them for even trying) and some have even called this film sexist, but really what film wasn’t in the 1960s? While I wasn’t completely engrossed in The Sundowners, I wasn’t distracted by these holes either. The Carmody family dynamic features plenty of love, respect, and joint effort, even if Ida spends most of her time cooking. And as someone who grew up in a close family household, it’s certainly reassuring to see a film family that hangs together like this one.


Elmer Gantry

My dad was a salesman, just like his dad before him. They were both financially successful, not because they sold anything exciting, but because they were amazing performers.

Sales is, after all, a performance. Whether you’re selling small mechanical parts like my dad, or you’re preaching your gospel all over the country, getting others to believe what you say you believe is the key to earning the big bucks.

In Elmer Gantry, Burt Lancaster plays a salesman who turns to religion as a way to cash in and cash out. As the movie slogan says, “If there was a dollar to be made, Gantry would make it…if there was a soul to be saved, Gantry would save it.” He’ll lead you to salvation but bypass his own sins.

“Elmer Gantry was drunk.” This is how we’re introduced to our lead character. Elmer (Lancaster) is a charming womanizer with an uproarious laugh who has been kicked out of seminary and now works as a traveling salesman. He loves three things: whiskey, women, and wealth.

When Elmer stumbles across the tent revival church of Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), he quickly talks his way into her inner circle. By preaching the fire and brimstone, then letting Sister Falconer offer the comfort of salvation, Elmer is able to chase the almighty dollar from one location to another.

But, as Elmer and Sister Sharon quickly rise in popularity, the skeletons in Elmer’s closet begin to get restless. Not only must he stay ahead of the game he’s playing now, but must also manage his less than savory past, which is coming back to bite him in the ass.

Similar in tone and subject matter to The Master and even Network, Elmer Gantry shows how easy it is to be swept up under the spell of a salesman. Did Elmer believe in the power of the lord? Unlikely. But he certainly believed in the power of selling that image. Like a county fair fortune teller, he’ll tell you exactly what you want to hear for five bucks a session.

Though the dichotomy of good and evil runs through this film, Elmer Gantry is not about making good choices. It unites elements of religion, sex and money and foretells the real-life scandals of many tele-evangelists today. It’s a movie about driving passions so hot and so strong – be they for a sale or for salvation – that they can literally burn a person up.




The Alamo

Wins: Best Sound

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Chill Wills), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Original Song ("The Green Leaves of Summer"), Best Picture

The Apartment

Wins: Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Kruschen), Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Sound

Elmer Gantry

Wins: Best Actor (Burt Lancaster), Best Supporting Actress (Shirley Jones), Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Musical Score, Best Picture

The Sundowners

Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Trevor Howard), Best Actress (Deborah Kerr), Best Supporting Actress (Glynis Johns), Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

Sons and Lovers

Wins: Best Cinematography (Black and White)

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Mary Ure), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Director (Jack Cardiff), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

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