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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 49

Part 49: 1956


MOVIES:

  • Picnic

  • Love is a Many-Splendored Thing

  • The Rose Tattoo

  • Mister Roberts (hidden gem)

  • Marty (winner)

Picnic

“What good is it only being pretty?” a 19-year-old girl asks her mother in Picnic. “I get tired of only being looked at.”


In 1955, particularly in the quaint, Americana Midwest towns, being pretty was nothing if not an entire lifestyle. Pretty girls went steady. Pretty girls got married. Pretty girls got to leave places like Fish Creek, Salina, and Greenville with a suitcase in one hand and a mortgage in the other.


Looking at the cover of Picnic, you might think you’re about to watch some salacious, smutty romance, complete with torn shirts, passionate dancing, and sexual innuendo a plenty and, well, you wouldn’t be “wrong”, per se…

It’s actually hard to believe that Picnic was considered hot stuff in 1955. Its clunky, awkward and the dialogue is worse than one of those 10-cent Fabio books my grandma used to buy at the five and dime store. While Picnic does earn some points for casting soon-to-be bombshell Kim Novak and a shirtless William Holden, it’s sexual boldness can’t even compare with the likes of A Streetcar Named Desire (1952) or From Here to Eternity (1954). If anything, Picnic is a great study in how attitudes towards gender, appearance and marriage have changed and evolved.


The film begins with the arrival of Hal Carter (Holden), a drifter who has landed in Neewollah, Kansas looking for his old college roommate, Alan (Cliff Robertson). In desperate need of work, Hal gets a job on Alan’s family farm. Though his job is a manual one, he’s not shy about his desire to have a “sweet little secretary” and an office where he can talk about “enterprises and things.”

Hal has also fallen into the orbit of the Owens family, made up of mom (Betty Field), her beautiful daughter Madge (Novak), and her younger, rebellious daughter, Millie (a scene-stealing Susan Strasberg), who sneaks puffs of cigarettes between the pages of her well-loved Flannery O’Connor novel.


Madge, who is romantically involved with Alan, yearns for something more than what this small town can give her. She’s tired of Alan, and her mother, doing nothing but doting on her looks. “A girl gets to be 20, 21, and then she’s 40!” Mrs. Owens says. Thanks, mom.


It’s not until she sets eyes on Hal (half-naked, of course), that Madge realizes she may not love Alan after all. Ironically, Madge spends the entire movie doing to Hal what Alan does to her but somehow it’s fine cuz he’s a man?!

Picnic gets its name from the film’s beefy center, which takes place at the weirdest picnic I’ve ever seen (it’s really more of a fair than a picnic). It’s here where truths are revealed, relationships are formed (and broken), and town royalty is crowned. But what happens at the picnic doesn’t quite stay there, and soon the small town of Neewollah is thrown into shambles when Hal makes a crucial mistake.


The actual subject of Picnic seems to be how irrelevant women were in this place and time. Madge says wistfully that she wishes she were as smart as her kid sister (who plans to attend college and write novels), but she can’t ignore her mother’s advice to marry into money instead. Madge’s beauty won’t last forever, and she may as well use it now to score herself a sugar daddy.


The irony is that Madge, who is tired of being looked at, falls instantly for Hal, who only looks at her. He never comments on her smarts, her willingness to learn, her generosity of spirit…the best thing about Madge is that he loves her…and she’s granted hero status for loving him, even though he has nothing to offer her (well, except his rippling pectorals that will not be bound by any shirt of any kind!).


Overall, Picnic is one of those movies perfectly suited for its time. It’s an interesting commentary on the gender roles and “responsibilities” assigned to men and women in the 1950s and proves how hard it was for men and women alike to move past them. Filled with metaphor and sexual frustration a plenty, Picnic is also a depiction of the tension that seems to fuel the battle of the sexes.

 

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing

Love, as portrayed in this 1950’s semi-racist, drippy romance, is anything but splendored.


Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) is a young, Eurasian surgeon based in Hong Kong. We know that she’s Eurasian (half English, half Chinese) because she reminds us of it every 30 freaking seconds.


While at a lavish party with her friends, Suyin meets journalist Mark Elliot (William Holden). He asks her to dinner, but she’s focusing on her work right now – plus, as a recent widow, Suyin has basically given up loving anyone else again ever for the rest of her life.

There’s also the fact that Mark Elliott is still married. He wants to divorce his wife, but she refuses to grant him a divorce. Healthy relationships all around!


Dinner dates, summer swims and dancing in the moonlight help Suyin and Mark form a more intimate relationship – though she’s still adamant about keeping an emotional distance. But, as you know, love, uh, finds a way.

As is often the case with these 1950s romances, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing builds a storyline on two people finding love despite their very obvious problems – for one, Mark is still married. Secondly, Mark is white. Suyin, in case you forgot, is Eurasian and must deal with her friends and family apposing her romance (even though Suyin, being Eurasian, is the result of a mixed coupling).


It’s also painfully obvious that the filmmakers cast Jennifer Jones (who is not Eurasian or even a little bit Asian) because they were afraid of social stigmas against miscegenation. Heaven forbid they put a racially diverse couple on screen in a movie about a racially diverse couple. This caused Love is a Many-Splendored Thing to succumb to the very social stigma it was trying to damn.

And I haven’t even mentioned the romantic chemistry – probably because it doesn’t exist. Both Jones and Holden literally hated each other and almost never talked during the filming of the movie. Holden claimed Jones would constantly complain on set and would chew garlic before their kissing scenes. Even when he offered her some white roses as a peace offering, she supposedly threw them back in his face. When does the movie about the filming of Love is a Many-Splendored Thing hit the screens, because that’s the one I want to see!


So, with no chemistry and a racist relationship about a mixed-race relationship, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing joins the likes of The Good Earth as a film that is more remembered for what it did wrong than what it did right. Instead, perhaps this film should have been titled Love is a Missing Thing.

 

The Rose Tattoo

Tennessee Williams certainly has a modus operandi. An exotic, hot locale; sexual longing bound up with questions of femininity and masculinity; big, beefy men in tiny white tees…The Rose Tattoo certainly bears all of these marks, but where A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof seem to boil over with passion, The Rose Tattoo barely simmers.


Serafina Della Rose (Anna Magnani) is blinded by love. Convinced her husband could do no wrong, she refuses to believe the allegations flying around the neighborhood that her husband has found himself a mistress.


We only see her husband in dark shadows, but we see enough of him to glimpse a large rose tattooed on his chest. Moments later, he’s dead – a casualty of an automobile accident. Supposedly transporting illegal goods in his truck, Serafina’s husband becomes the talk of the town – particularly when it comes to light that a blonde, PYT recently got a tattoo of a rose on her chest to match her lover’s.

This news of her husband’s infidelity and death sends Serafina into a severe state of depression, which leads to the deterioration of her relationship with her fifteen-year-old daughter, Rosa (Marisa Pavan). Young and in love with a sailor (Ben Cooper), Rosa begs her mother to back off, but Serafina – who has basically given up entirely on herself and her love life – doesn’t want to see her daughter hurt.

Rosa is ashamed of her mother’s refusal to move on and let some light into her life, just as her own is blossoming. It’s not until another banana truck driver (just like her husband) with a overpowering physique (just like her husband) and a rose tattoo on his chest (just like her husband) comes into Serafina’s life that her dark, black cloud she’s cast on herself begins to lift.


While her first husband was obviously a strong “Burt Lancaster” type, this new man, Alvaro, is played by none other than Burt Lancaster. The self-proclaimed son of the village idiot, Alvaro hasn’t fallen far from the proverbial family tree. With a bizarre haircut, an insane laugh and more ham than a deli, Alvaro comes off as absurd more than anything.

Completely miscast in this role, Lancaster plays an Italian-American with no accent, no passion, and no ability to match Magnani’s talent. It’s particularly strange to watch him play an Italian against real Italians Magnani and Pavan. His entrance into the movie, about ½ way through, only work to drag the ending to a slow, brutal death.


Supposedly Tennessee Williams wrote The Rose Tattoo with Magnani in mind, and her performance indicates it. She fits the part – or rather, it fits her – like skin. In her first Hollywood film and first English-speaking role, Magnani won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her part in The Rose Tattoo. Clearly the best piece of acting she did was trying to fall for Lancaster’s insane Alvaro!


Though his performance is bonkers, Alvaro’s relationship with Serafina is quite fascinating, if only to shine light on the fact that widows – and older women – still have sexual desires. Alvaro isn’t perfect – he comes home drunk, he can’t tell Serafina from her daughter (#akward) – but everyone needs a little love, right?


When all is said and done, I had very different notions of what The Rose Tattoo would be, and I’m sad to say I was disappointed at the film’s end. Ironically, in a film filled with the symbol of love, I struggled to find the passion. But, I guess, every rose has its thorns.

 

Mister Roberts

Of all the war movies made about World War II (and there’s a LOT), Mister Roberts is unique in that there’s not one single onscreen battle…not even a gunshot. Set far from enemy lines aboard a Navy cargo ship, Mister Roberts is a fun, military comedy that celebrates the human spirit with humor, warmth and insight.


Nicknamed “The Bucket” by its crew, the Reluctant is an insignificant Navy ship that roams a remote area of the South Pacific, far from any combat. On board we have a colorful cast of characters, including Lieutenant Commander Morton (James Cagney), who cares more about his beloved palm tree than the welfare and morale of his crew.

Most of the men on board look up to executive officer Roberts (Henry Fonda), who tries to advocate for them. Though he’d rather spend his time fulfilling his honorable destiny, he’s spending his days mediating petty squabbles between men who act like children. It’s a distasteful and thankless job, but Roberts is so good at it that Lieutenant Morton refuses to honor his numerous requests for reassignment to a military hot zone.


Roberts bunks with Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon), resident joker and lothario who somehow gets away with doing as little work as possible. Just as Roberts yearns for action, so does Pulver, only his version involves shore leave with a harem of army nurses.

Also on board is Roberts’ best friend, Doc (William Powell in his final screen role), who must put up with near constant complaining from Roberts, as well as all the other hypochondriacs on board. While Roberts is the selfless one and Pulver is the selfish one, Doc is the well-rounded one, someone who can actually step back and see the big picture.


With these three goof balls on board, the entire film becomes a comedy of wills between male egos. At times it feels stiff and constrained – I suppose most movies would that take place entirely on a boat – but Mister Roberts survives the test of time by concentrating on characters rather than action.

The role of Roberts was a part Henry Fonda knew well, having played the character on Broadway for years before the film went into production. Even William Powell, cast as a wise man looking forward to retirement, was playing a bit of himself, too. But its Jack Lemmon who really shines here, bringing forth a funny, spirited and engaging performance that would win him a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar and would set the bar for a slew of other comic characters in such iconic films as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. When it came to this cast, these men didn’t just play their roles, they embodied them, which is a big reason why Mister Roberts still endures today.


Though Mister Roberts would lose the Best Picture Oscar to the intimate film, Marty, it still scored a huge box office success and influenced military comedies for years to come. And while it may not wield the same degree of power and emotion that it did just a few years after the end of World War II, it still continues to entertain and uplift viewers – all while reinforcing many of the personal qualities we revere: friendship, camaraderie, duty. While it’s nowhere near a perfect movie, it uses everything at its disposal just right.

 

Marty

I’ve always struggled with the idea of a soulmate. I have a hard time believing that there’s just one person out there for you because I’ve found love and compassion in more than one relationship…and I know there’s privilege in that statement. Not everyone gets to experience love once, let alone more than once.


And for those of us who are entering our 30s unmarried or uncoupled, the feeling of loneliness can be hard to bear. Marty Pilletti (Ernest Borgnine) knows this all too well.


Marty is a “good-hearted guy”. In today’s terms, you might say, “he has a face for radio” or “he has a great personality”. A self-proclaimed “dog”, Marty knows he’s not a looker, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to find love.

At 34 years old, Marty has seen all his siblings settle down and get married, leaving him at home with Ma (Esther Minciotti). And this perpetual bachelor seems to get grilled from all sides. His customers (he’s a butcher) ask him when he’s gonna get married, his mother begs him to settle down with a nice girl, his friends try again and again to set him up, but – for whatever reason – nothing seems to work.


That is until he meets a young girl named Clara (Betsy Blair) at a dance. Her date has ditched her for an old flame and Marty, in all his feminine glory, swoops in to comfort her. Soon, these two ugly ducklings find something in each other and spend the night talking and walking around the city. For the first time, Marty feels exuberant and can’t wait to introduce Clara to his family and friends.

Buuuut, things don’t go quite according to plan. Marty’s mom suddenly realizes that she’ll be left alone and miserable if Marty moves out and gets married. His friends are also scared to lose Marty to a woman, especially one so plain-looking as Clara. This causes Marty to have second thoughts about pursuing a relationship with the only girl he’s ever really cared for. What’s a lonely heart to do?


The first thing one notices when watching this Best Picture winner in today’s climate is how understated everything is. Romantic films today are often packed with overheated melodrama or ridiculous comedy that makes the idea of finding true love unobtainable for some. Marty, on the other hand, gives its characters time to interact and fall in love. The complications that face Marty and Clara aren’t jealous exes…they’re real-world issues that we can all identify with. Screenwriter Paddy Cheyefsky once said that Marty is “…the most ordinary love story in the world”…and therein lies its appeal. Although times have changed, human emotions haven’t.

Taking place over the course of just a couple days, Marty doesn’t boast anything grand. There’s not a passionate kiss at the end, no shots of a couple being sprinkled with rice as they exit a church. In fact, the lack of this type of Hollywood ending might make it feel like Marty is missing something – but maybe that’s the point. Love often isn’t filled with great romantic gestures. It’s not always trumpets and fireworks as films might have us believe. Sometimes, oftentimes, love is simple. It’s a reassurance that maybe life won’t be as lonely as it was the day before. In this way, Marty is as classic as it gets.

 

SCORECARD

 

The Rose Tattoo

Wins: Best Actress (Anna Magnani), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White)

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Marisa Pavan), Best Costume Design (Black and White), Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Picture


Love is a Many Splendored Thing

Wins: Best Costume Design (Color), Best Musical Score, Best Song ("Love is a Many Splendored Thing")

Other Nominations: Best Actress (Jennifer Jones), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Sound Recording, Best Picture


Marty

Wins: Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine), Best Director (Delbert Mann), Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Joe Mantell), Best Supporting Actress (Betsy Blair), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White)


Picnic

Wins: Best Art Direction (Color), Best Film Editing

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Arthur O'Connell), Best Director (Joshua Logan), Best Musical Score, Best Picture


Mister Roberts

Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Jack Lemmon)

Other Nominations: Best Sound Recording, Best Picture

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