Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 47
Part 47: 1950
Twelve O' Clock High
All the King's Men (winner)
A Letter to Three Wives
The Heiress (hidden gem)
Twelve O’ Clock High
Set and filmed four years after the end of World War II, Twelve O’ Clock High was one of the first movies to revisit the conflict with a new perspective. Audiences didn’t need patriotic propaganda films anymore and were anxious to move on. In this war film with little to no actual war, the pressure of command isn’t limited to the battlefield. This is a film that examines the physical and emotional anxieties caused by giving the “maximum effort” day after day.
Twelve O’ Clock High was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (which it won); however, it’s highest approval came from the veterans who acknowledged that this film was both respectful of the sacrifice of American flyers and accurate in its portrayal of the experience of the B-17 bombing squadrons stationed in England. It’s often hailed as one of the greatest management training films ever made and has been used by most of the US military at one time or another as a case study for great leadership, a fact I find more depressing after finishing this film.
The opening of Twelve O’ Clock High is reminiscent of other popular war films – an old, retired major general (Dean Jagger) wanders through postwar England, arriving at a former American air base, now overgrown with weeds. As he gazes off into the wide, open sky, we flash back to his time in the war as leader of a bombing squadron.
The 918th Bomber Group is under the command of Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), a likeable – albeit soft – leader who behaves more like a friend to those under his command. Naturally, it’s Davenport’s sympathy with his squad which ultimately causes his downfall. More concerned with their mental and physical well-being, Davenport is deemed unable to meet the demands of his superiors, General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell) and General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck).
Davenport is relieved of his duties and replaced by Savage, a ruthless leader who is hell-bent on whipping these boys into shape. No more leave, no more nights at the local bar. From now on, it’s pressed uniforms, sturdy salutes and strict army-like behavior.
But no human is capable of ignoring their emotions forever…furthermore, tough leadership can’t keep mistakes from happening, either. The constant fear of failure may even cause more screwups to happen. And when Savage reaches his breaking point, the decorated general seems incapable of the very basic ability to establish self-control. All the stars and bars in the world can’t teach a man how to deal with the pressure of sending men to certain death.
What this movie tried to do was to showcase the troubles commanders face, especially those who hold themselves responsible for losing some of the men and women under their command. There’s a pressure to meet the mission goals, but also keep their service members alive, a daunting task to say the least.
But it didn’t seem to go far enough. So many members of the bomb squad come back from battle with horrible injuries, both physical and mental. Some drink until they can’t feel the pain anymore, others just take their own life. There’s mentions of these moments, but then the film glosses right over them. We literally see men calling out for help and they’re just told to buck up and shut up. The fact that so many veterans feel this is the most accurate portrayal of their time in the armed forces makes this situation even more depressing.
While Twelve O’ Clock High is not a bloody film, it is a violent one. The air combat scenes were pieced together from a real bombing mission pulled from the Army Air Force archives. The men we see die actually died. The planes that crash actually crashed. Real bombs were filmed and shown here, hitting real buildings with real people in them. This certainly helps give a very real and emotional element to the film and slightly makes up for the truly dull first half.
But, for as realistic as those missions were, the ending is far from it. One could only hope that a successful mission could cure someone’s trauma response, but that is far from the truth. And it is my hope that, as more and more military personnel view this film, there’s just as much talk about what this movie did wrong as there is what it did right.
All the King’s Men
Willie Stark sat on a wall, Willie Stark had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men Couldn’t put Willie together again.
Those who even pay the least bit of attention to the news might believe that politics have never been nastier and dirtier than they are today, but you’d be surprised. What it takes to win an election in today’s political climate isn’t that much different than it was 200 years ago – we are just witness to every lie, smear and agenda thanks to 24-hour televised news.
And while our recent political leadership has felt like something out of a dystopian novel, it’s unfortunately not that uncommon. Based in part on the real-life exploits of Louisiana governor Huey Long (1928-1932), All the King’s Men tells the story of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a man who initially appears as a hero. He wants to do good and make positive changes in his community…you know, make America great again.
When the Chronicle newspaper gets wind of Stark, they send Jack Burden (John Ireland) in to pen an article on “the only honest man running for office.” When Burden finds Stark, he’s speaking to a crowd of potential voters about his dreams of making the world a better place. But the Political Machine won’t have any of that. With the local sheriff in his pocket, political leader Tiny Duffy (Ralph Dumke) creates random ordinances to stifle free speech, break up the crowds and prevent Stark from passing out pamphlets to his fans. It’s defeat for the little guy.
Four years later, Stark is breathing hellfire and brimstone. He knows what it takes to get people to listen, and he know what it takes to win. He becomes the voice for the people – the average Joe, the “hicks” – and is smart enough to include himself as one of them. He’s elected governor and proves to be skilled at playing the games of politics. Bribery, intimidation and graft come easy to him. As an onlooker, and eventual right-hand-man, Burden sees everything up close and personal, including Stark’s besmirching of the local judge, his affair with Burden’s girlfriend, and his abusive treatment of his own son, Tom (John Derek). Once a believer in Stark’s message of change, Burden becomes disillusioned, seeing how power and politics can corrupt someone.
But Stark also does some amazing things for the state. He creates incredible infrastructure programs, creates better education and health care opportunities, builds hospitals and schools, and creates several recreational zoos and parks, all bearing his name, of course.
The tragedy of All the King’s Men is that Willie Stark really was a man who sought to fight the good fight but sold out his principles for power and influence. Newspapers smear his image, begging the question: “messiah or dictator?”. Yet his supporters stand by this man who speaks their language. The similarities to today’s political unrest are all too obvious.
Of the seven Academy Awards it was nominated for, All the King’s Men won three: Best Actor (Crawford), Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge in her film debut) and Best Picture.
The greatest irony of all is that Willie Stark becomes what he first claimed to detest. He betrays is family, his friends, and those who have given their lives to help him succeed. Of course, the ultimate betrayal is to himself, though – giving himself over to power. In this sense, All the King’s Men is as much Greek tragedy as it is political drama. Stark is a fallen king hoisted by his own petard.
A Letter to Three Wives
If Gossip Girl has taught me anything, it’s that even the rich and wealthy are trashy at the core. The towns that populate the upper east side don’t only survive on drama, they seem to give birth to it. These are the towns where everyone knows everyone; sometimes too well. Adultery, betrayal, and lust pulse through these Americana cul-de-sacs and no one is safe from prying eyes.
“The name of the town isn’t important,” says the narrator at the beginning of A Letter to Three Wives. It’s a wealthy town, with big, overgrown trees and large, spacious houses. The narrator is revealed to be a woman named Addie Ross (Celeste Holm), a vixen the town just can’t shut up about.
Chief among the gossips is Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), an emotionally fragile woman who met her husband, Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) when they both served in the navy. He is from a wealthy and respected family, while she is from more humble origins. Deborah feels inferior in the country club crowd they’ve become accustomed to, and Brad only fuels her insecurities whenever he mentions the vivacious Addie.
Brassy Rita (Ann Sothern) has a successful career as a radio writer, while her husband George (Kirk Douglas) is a proud but underpaid school teacher. George looks down upon her commercial brand of writing and is one of those who will happily correct your grammar if you say something wrong. George knows Addie from college, where they bonded over a mutual love for the arts.
Confident Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) grew up in a poor household on the wrong side of the tracks – or, more specifically – right next to them. While working at a department store, she caught the eye of the wealthy owner, Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas). He actively pursues her but she refuses to indulge him until he proposes marriage. Porter and Addie were possibly romantically involved at one point, but he’s willing to give up Addie for Lora, or so he says.
Just as Deborah, Rita and Lora Mae are about to depart on a volunteer trip, a courier brings them a letter from none other than Addie Ross, stating that she is running away with one of their husbands. Far from a phone, the women spend an afternoon thinking back upon their relationships, each one fully expecting their man to be the unfaithful one.
These three flashbacks, one for each wife, take up the majority of the film. Each wife represents something that often results in failed marriages: For Deborah, it’s her moments of insecurity; for Rita, it’s the fact that she is more successful than her husband; and for Lora Mae, it’s the fact that many consider her a gold digger.
It’s not until the women return home to a potentially empty house that we learn who the heartbroken one is. Addie, who we never see on screen, could be as much a real person as a fabrication made up by these women as a way to evaluate their relationships. Her presence, be it physical or mental, has a tendency to make all these women question the strength of their marriages. She represents their insecurities and shares a past with all of their husbands. She could easily nab any one of them, but which men are strong enough to withstand her test?
A Letter to Three Wives is Americana at its finest – not quite a celebration of cocktail parties, hometown football games and candy-colored cars, but an acknowledgement of human foibles that always have, and always will, persist. It’s the hometown drama that keeps life interesting, that keeps neighbors peeking out from the blinds and gossiping at the local restaurants. It simultaneously intrigues us and disgusts us, and always keeps us guessing about those who live, and sleep, beside us.
Director William Wyler was king of the “women’s picture”. With such credits as Wuthering Heights, Jezebel, The Little Foxes and the more recent Funny Girl, Wyler loved creating psychological battles between bull-headed men and passionate women. Many of his female characters chafed at being underestimated, unappreciated and controlled by their male counterparts, and The Heiress is certainly no exception.
As the only child born to a wealthy nineteenth century New York family, a sheltered and shy young woman named Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is the sole heiress to her father’s fortune. Her possessive and manipulative father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) resents her, due to the fact that his beloved wife died giving birth to Catherine. He also considers her dull and unattractive, especially in comparison to his late wife. Father of the year right here!
Dr. Sloper’s sister Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), herself a widow, also stays with them. She is the mother Catherine never had and loves her as her own.
When Catherine becomes the target of a dashing young suitor named Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), her father – convinced Morris is after the family fortune – does his best to drive a wedge between the two. This, of course, only works to bring them closer.
Catherine is certainly head over heels for the guy, but her father's opinions may not be that far off. What follows is a story of deception, manipulation and betrayal that might just make Scarlett O’Hara proud. By the end, everyone gets their comeuppance in a stark ending that was very unlike traditional golden-age Hollywood dramas.
But it certainly doesn’t seem that way, at least not from the start. The Heiress is at first set up to be a love story. Even Aunt Lavinia coaxes Catherine to behave like some Austen-like heroine, but she cannot. Every time she looks in the mirror, she just hears her father’s words in her head. When Morris comes to call on her, he looms over her in a way that seems more coercive than romantic. It’s like the movie is preventing Catherine from being a romantic lead…But she’s not as stupid as people take her for – and Catherine might just be playing a devilish game of her own.
Though The Heiress was highly praised, it was not a box-office success – mostly due to its controversial ending. However, it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four: Best Actress (de Havilland), Best Art Direction, Best Dramatic Score, and Best Costume Design.
Money may not buy happiness, but it certainly seems to buy a crap ton of problems. Whether you’re born into it, you come upon it, or you marry into it, money has a tendency to bring out a different side of us. It leaves us second-guessing the intentions of our loved ones, questioning the loyalty of our friends and family, and even second-guessing our own sanity. For Catherine, money certainly offers her some security, but – like everything – it comes at a price. Who can she trust with her home, her body, her heart? Furthermore, what’s a girl to do when those she thought she trusted end up betraying her the most? Turns out it certainly is lonely at the top.
When Battleground first hit theaters, it was praised for its portrayal of reality. The New York Times claimed it was a “…smashing pictorial re-creation of the way that this last war was for the dirty and frightened foot-soldier who got caught in a filthy deal.” Written by Robert Pirosh, who actually fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Battleground offered audiences a little taste of war life without going overboard. While it certainly showed battle, it was more focused on the comradery and mutual suffering that kept the 101st Airborne Division from losing all hope of making out of there alive.
In its depiction of a diverse group of soldiers and their harsh daily survival, Battleground served as the blueprint for many later war movies and productions, including Platoon, Sands of Iwo Jima and the infinitely better Band of Brothers. This puts Battleground in the same category as films like Stagecoach and San Francisco – films that walked, ever so slowly, so other, better films could run.
It’s December 1944 and the men from the 101st Airborne Division (historically known as the “Screaming Eagles”), including Holley (Van Johnson), Roderigues (Ricardo Montalban), and Jarvess (John Hodiak) are eagerly anticipating some downtime in Paris. Some big meals, excursions to the bar, and of course, women.
But war waits for no man, no matter how…hungry…he may be. Their division is ordered to deploy to the front lines, for the Germans have mounted a surprise offensive (later known as the Battle of the Bulge). Outgunned and outnumbered, they are soon surrounded but refuse to yield.
In the snowy forests of Belgium encompassed by fog, the soldiers lack any oversight of the unfolding strategy. Planes can’t send in supplies due to the overcast conditions and besides the immediate command to dig foxholes and defend their turf, they have no idea what’s going on or why. Still, they try to make the best of their situation. Their leader, the hard-nosed, tobacco-chewing sergeant Kinnie (James Whitmore) tries to keep morale high, despite his feet suffering from frostbite. Holley, who gets the most film time, offers some comic relief and Roderigues, who hails from California, wonders and frolics like a child when he encounters snow for the first time.
Perhaps what makes Battleground so relatable is that there are no super-soldiers here. Everyone is scared, and everyone makes mistakes. While enemy encounters are brief, the battle against the elements is constant. The cold weather drains away physical strength while the ever-present fog saps morale by preventing a much-needed drop of food and supplies.
However, this means that Battleground feels like it moves in real time. The film is often painfully slow as soldiers dig foxholes, move to somewhere else, then dig more foxholes. Many have described the military as being 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror – and I think Battleground highlights that perfectly.
These men of the 101st who held their ground became known as the Battered Bastards of Bastogne. Though Battleground is indeed 99% boring, it is also an honest salute to this weather-worn division. Like Glory or Saving Private Ryan, this film is a testament to genuine individual behavior coalescing into group courage.
Twelve O' Clock High
Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Dean Jagger), Best Sound Recording
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Picture
All the King's Men
Wins: Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge), Best Picture
Other Nominations: Best Actor (John Ireland), Best Director (Robert Rossen), Best Film Editing, Best Screenplay
A Letter to Three Wives
Wins: Best Director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Best Screenplay
Other Nominations: Best Picture
Wins: Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Costume Design, Best Dramatic Musical Score
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Richardson), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Director (William Wyler), Best Picture
Wins: Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Writing
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (James Whitmore), Best Director (William A. Wellman), Best Film Editing, Best Picture