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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 80

Part 80: 1953


MOVIES:

  • High Noon

  • The Quiet Man (hidden gem)

  • Moulin Rouge

  • The Greatest Show on Earth (winner)

  • Ivanhoe

High Noon

Director: Fred Zinnermann

Starring: Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Jr., Harry Morgan, Ian MacDonald, Eve McVeagh, Morgan Farley, Harry Shannon, Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke, Sheb Wooley

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Film Editing, Best Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Best Music (Song) ("High Noon [Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin']")

Other Nominations: Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Director, Best Picture

 

The infamous anti-western, High Noon, has gathered a lot of lovers and haters. Two of the most notable supporters of the film were past US presidents: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. After seeing the movie, it’s not difficult to see how these heads of state might see themselves in Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, a small-town marshal who’s determined to do what’s right, even if it defies popular opinion. And while it’s funny to think of Reagan or Clinton going against the popular vote, there are certainly times when any leader feels isolated from their constituents or forced into making a hard choice between differing opinions.



But Kane doing the right thing is only half the story. The other, darker suggestion of High Noon is that the citizens in this small southwestern town are unworthy of Kane’s moral representation. When asked to make sacrifices and take some responsibility in their public lives, ordinary people will often retreat into their own self-interests. Ask not what I can do for my country, but what my country can do for me. Ultimately Kane risks his neck for a town full of people that aren’t really worth saving.

 

Now, more than 70 years later, High Noon stands out as the proto anti-western, questioning the conventions of this quintessential American genre long before it was cool to do so. Though it does bristle with tension and danger, it’s not so much a western as it is a drama set in the old west, complete with political undertones and symbolism that had the likes of John Wayne and Howard Hawks crawling in their chaps and leather-skinned boots.



Will Kane’s final day of work in Hadleyville is a blissful one. After a successful run as marshal of the town, he’s passing his gold star to his successor and settling down with his new young wife, Amy (Grace Kelly). But before the happy couple can depart on their honeymoon, Kane gets word that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), an outlaw that he’d sent to prison for murder, has been granted an early release and is due to arrive in Hadleyville on the noon train seeking revenge. Waiting at the station are three of Miller’s allies – and Kane’s chances of defeating all of them on his own are slim to none.

 

The action in High Noon unfolds in real time, so when there’s little action on screen, the race-against-the-clock tension raises the stakes considerably. The bulk of the film is simply Kane meandering around town, asking his fellow townsmen to help him form a 12 to 14-person gang tasked with helping him defeat Miller and his men. However, those that aren’t too drunk or cowardly to volunteer are still holding a grudge against him for something he did to them during his reign as marshal. The congregants at his church are more sympathetic, but don’t understand why they’re being asked to do the job of a lawman. Furthermore, they can’t help but wonder why Kane doesn’t just leave town. If Miller’s beef is with Kane, then his departure would save the whole town from any danger, right?



But nothing will ever stand in the way of a man and his pride. With no one to back him, Kane is left to defend himself as the town watches like it’s live theater. In a dramatic final scene, Kane throws his marshal’s badge to the ground at the feet of those citizens who turned their back on him before he packs up and rides out of town. It’s about as close as Hollywood could come to a parting wave of the bird – but audiences got the message nonetheless.

 

Though High Noon contains many of the elements of a traditional western, they’re all blended together differently. The ending had audiences confused or even dissatisfied, since it didn’t play out as they were expecting. It’s rumored that the king of westerns John Wayne called the film “un-American”.

 


Indeed, 1952 was the time of un-American things, with Senator Joseph McCarthy wielding the power of paranoia and fear as he presided over the 20th century Salem Witch Trials. Carl Forman, the screenwriter of High Noon, was blacklisted soon after writing the script. Director Howard Hawks reportedly hated the film so much that he made Rio Bravo as a rebuttal. Also on McCarthy’s list were actor Lloyd Bridges and cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who were both suspected of being Communist sympathizers. Even Gary Cooper, who was very famously a Conservative, a Republican, and was one of the founding members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (which included such members as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan) put his career on the line to defend Foreman when he was subpoenaed by the HUAC. When John Wayne and others threatened Cooper with blacklisting if he did not walk off High Noon, Cooper gave a statement to the press, calling Foreman “the finest kind of American”.

 

According to those who disliked the film, High Noon was a veritable hot bed of “un-American” activity. Even the story can be seen as allegorical: a man is turned on by those he thought were his friends, then comes to the conclusion that the most valued principle of all is self-preservation. A man standing up for himself and his beliefs…stopping to look fear in the face…hmm, what can be more American than that?

 

The Quiet Man

Director: John Ford

Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, Francis Ford, Arthur Shields, Eileen Crowe, Charles FitzSimons, James Fitzsimons, Sean McClory, Emily Eby, Jack MacGowran, May Craig, Paddy O'Donnell, Eric Gorman, Kevin Lawless, Joseph O'Dea

Oscar Wins: Best Cinematography (Color), Best Director

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Victor McLaglen), Best Sound Recording, Best Art Direction (Color), Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Picture

 

During a career that spanned nearly six decades, John Ford directed more than 140 movies. While his collection of work covered almost every genre, he was best known for his Westerns, including Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Searchers. Though more than half of his movies fit into this category, the four that earned him a Best Director Oscar were far from the genre he knew and loved so well.

 

The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley (which also won Best Picture, beating Citizen Kane) and one of his most beloved films, The Quiet Man, were the movies that earned him the coveted award. Similarly, John Wayne’s best performance is one where he’s not a cowboy, but a lover boy. Who woulda thought!

 


The Quiet Man was filmed on location in Ireland, set in the tiny fictional town of Inisfree. Sean Thorton (Wayne) returns home to his family cottage in Ireland after spending most of his life in America. On his way there, he spots a red-headed woman herding sheep in a nearby field. Her name is Mary-Kate (Maureen O’Hara), and it’s basically love at first sight for the both of them, though they don’t share a word of conversation.

 

Sean asks the landlord of his family cottage to buy it and, after some convincing, she agrees – mostly to piss off local villain Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) who’s been wanting to buy the cottage for a while.

 


When Will’s sister, the red-headed Mary-Kate, hears word that Sean is purchasing the cottage, she runs over to clean it up a bit, just to spite her brother. In the most bizarre “meet-cute” ever, Sean walks in on Mary-Kate cleaning the cottage, then instantly recognizes her as the girl from earlier that day. He grabs her and kisses her without so much as a “hi” or a “nice to meet you” or a “what’s your name, again?”.

 

So, Sean wants to court Mary-Kate, but he can’t without her brother’s permission because Ireland is a weird, conservative culture. Will, of course, refuses because he hates Sean and everything he stands for (plus, you know, the Irish temper and all). As a final Hail Mary, Sean’s friend, Michaeleen (Barry Fitzgerald), who is like a little magical leprechaun, pulls a fast one on Will, convincing him there’s a woman who loves him, but will not be with him unless Mary-Kate is off and wed.



Will finally agrees to the marriage, but when he realizes he’s been had, he refuses to pay Mary-Kate’s dowry. He throws them out of his house, not even letting Mary-Kate pack up her stuff. Sean is happy not to see his smug face again, but Mary-Kate is devastated. Her dowry is tied to her sense of self-worth. If her brother gives a dowry of nothing, that’s what she’s worth – nothing.

 

Sean tries to explain to her that he’s never wanted her for her money and that he doesn’t care about the dowry, which he considers an outdated and offensive tradition. He just wants her for all the other stereotypical wifey things she does for him. You know, because he’s progressive.

 

But, of course, it doesn’t matter what he thinks. Mary-Kate feels so dishonored that she refuses to even sleep with Sean because, without her dowry, she’s not even really a wife. She decides to leave him, but not before Sean catches up with her, then proceeds to drag her body like a ragdoll across half the country until they reach Will’s farm, where Sean demands Mary-Kate’s dowry. Will grudgingly gives them the money, which Mary-Kate and Sean happily throw into a furnace. I loved that part. Screw the money, it’s the principle of the thing. One of the best moments in the film.

 


Enraged, Will throws out the first punch in what’s probably one of the longest fight scenes in movie history. It’s like a freaking Family Guy episode, with Will and Sean fighting all over town, stopping at the pub for a beer, then picking up the fight right after.


While the romance in The Quiet Man is certainly spirited (that scene in the rain was H.O.T.), the attraction between Sean and Mary-Kate is mainly due to looks rather than words. Obviously, the movie title alludes to the fact that there may not be much conversation happening between these two love birds, but I feel like we needed at least SOME. It’s hard to believe that the connection between them goes any deeper than looks when they never actually talk about anything. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t chemistry. Maureen O’Hara would play John Wayne’s love interest in four films over the course of their 13-year friendship…and every time they had a romantic moment in The Quiet Man, you could tell there was great respect and attraction between the actors, even if their characters were more surface-level.

 

On a more serious note, The Quiet Man does mix depictions of domestic abuse with comedy. For example, as Sean aggressively drags Mary-Kate across the countryside, an old woman cheerfully offers him a stick to beat her with. So funny! After Sean aggressively kisses Mary-Kate when they first meet, she tries to slap him, but he smacks her hand away. Sean’s “progressive” views of not wanting Mary-Kate’s dowry are followed by his desires to marry her because she’s great at cleaning and can satisfy him sexually. These moments of toxic masculinity, dated gender stereotypes and the trivialization of domestic violence date the film quite a bit. And while I don’t think we need to cancel The Quiet Man or anything, it’s certainly speaks to a different time in Hollywood’s history.

 


Over the course of this project, I’ve seen six John Wayne films. I’ve seen him as a cowboy, a seaman, a soldier, and a military leader. But in The Quiet Man, this all-American boy sports no ten-gallon hat. There are no horses, no guns, no witty one-liners, and no American flags. Stripped of every “John Wayne” characteristic, this performance put a manly man completely out of his comfort zone – and provided him one of the best performances of his career. Seems the luck of the Irish was on his side after all.

 

Moulin Rouge

Director: John Huston

Starring: Jose Ferrer, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Colette Marchland, Suzanne Flon, Claude Nollier, Katherine Kath, Mary Clare, Lee Montague, Walter Crisham, Theodore Bikel, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Balfour, Eric Pohlmann

Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction (Color), Best Costume Design (Color)

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Jose Ferrer), Best Supporting Actress (Colette Marchand), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture

 

The infamous red windmill emerges in silence, followed by Paris, 1890. Well-dressed people travel by carriage or foot to one destination: The Moulin Rouge.

 

Soon we are enveloped in the raucous atmosphere. People yell and cheer. Women dance in colorful costumes, showing off ruffled granny panties and ripped stockings. The Moulin Rouge offers patrons an enchanting escape.



Off in the corner, a man sits, sketching the scene. A second bottle of Cognac has just been placed on his table as he turns the tablecloth into a canvas. The man is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer), a tortured artist who sketches scenes of dance and debauchery while drinking himself into a stupor. While other stories surrounding the legendary 19th century French dance hall focus on the bohemian revolutionary art and culture scene, this version tells the story of a man whose fame came with a price that ultimately cost him his life.

 

As Lautrec stands to leave, we see all 4 feet of his broken body. A score of tragic strings accompanies him as he stumbles out of the venue and onto the streets of Paris. In a flashback, we see young Lautrec as a spry teenager. Though known for his short stature, he was not born with dwarfism. An accident occurred that left him with a pair of broken legs that did not heal correctly, causing his growth to be stunted. The fact that his parents were first cousins probably didn’t help, either.



We then follow Lautrec into a brief relationship with an explosive sex worker named Marie Charlet (Colette Marchand). She tries to entice him into bed, but he rejects her, not wanting to be her customer (the man just wants love!). The relationship between Lautrec and Marie is toxic, chaotic, and full of resentment. They’re so unlikeable that you want to strangle them both and throw them into the Seine just to end the misery. But, alas, from great pain comes great art – and Marie’s sulfurous fumes push him to create the piece that makes Lautrec truly famous.

 

The two go on fighting and making up, but the relationship never progresses to the kind of intimacy Lautrec desires. They finally separate, and Lautrec begins a new relationship with an independent woman named Myriamme (Suzanne Flon). All seems well for a minute, especially after he finds success with his poster tributes to the Moulin Rouge, but his self-loathing turns into cruel remarks that break any romance with him and Myriamme.

 

This all leads to the conclusion – one final tragedy to complete the sad life of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Through the haze of injury and disease, Lautrec finally finds comfort in his memories of the Moulin Rouge, the dancers, singers, bohemians, and weirdos that formed the only community where Lautrec felt at home. These memories slowly come to hazy life as Lautrec’s life is coming to an end, a graceful exit for a man who seemed to suffer his entire life.



Thanks to some truly stunning costume and art direction (for which the film won both Oscars), Moulin Rouge has vibrant colors that pop off the screen, almost as if Lautrec had made the film himself. Director John Huston and his artistic team presented a vividly magical recreation of Lautrec’s world, with scenes from his prolific paintings, posters, and drawings that virtually came to life before our eyes.

 

Unfortunately, even with vibrant colors and costumes, this film is a total bummer. There’s no reprieve from the constant torture this man endured throughout his life, and honestly, he’s not even that likeable. That makes it hard to sympathize with him and his plight…making a very long movie feel even longer.

 

Still, those scenes set at the Moulin Rouge bubble with life and lust. They’re easily the most enjoyable moments in the film, but they’re basically over and done within the first 20 minutes. Once we leave the venue, we’re thrown down the rabbit hole of sadness and depression and it’s a rough 3 hours, let me tell you.

 


Like many films about painters and artists, Moulin Rouge won’t be for everyone. It’s not even remotely close to the 2001 remake and is filled with so many depressing characters that you almost have to find pleasure in how the film looks because that’s the only enjoyable part. And maybe that was the goal. The story behind some of our favorite works of art are usually not all that uplifting – and the popular posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec are no different. Moulin Rouge exists as a tribute to a man who saw Paris differently, who saw the beauty in debauchery, even if he couldn’t find it in himself.

 

The Greatest Show on Earth

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Starring: Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, James Stewart, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, Henry Wilcoxon, Lawrence Tierney, Lyle Bettger, Bob Carson, John Ridgely, Frank Wilcox, Brad Johnson, John Kellogg, Julia Faye, Lillian Albertson, Emmett Kelly, Lou Jacobs, Merle Evans, Cucciola, Miss Loni, Antoinette Concello, John Ringling North, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, William Boyd, Danny Thomas, Van Heflin, Oliver Blake, Noel Neill, Lon Ames, Edmond O'Brien

Oscar Wins: Best Writing (Story), Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Film Editing, Best Director, Best Costume Design (Color)

 

STEP RIGHT UP! COME ONE, COME ALL TO LITERALLY ONE OF THE MOST BORING BEST PICTURE WINNERS OF ALL TIME! CHILDREN WILL HATE IT! ADULTS WILL HATE IT! DO YOU LOVE ANIMALS? YOU’LL HATE THIS EVEN MORE! STEP RIGHT UP AND WASTE 3 HOURS OF YOUR LIFE IN THIS MELODRAMATIC DOCUMENTARY ABOUT STUFF NO ONE CARES ABOUT!

 

I wish I was kidding.

 

The Greatest Show on Earth takes place under the Big Top of Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. It functions as a three-ring circus of its own, being a quasi-documentary, a soapy melodrama, and a time capsule of an era few remember nowadays. It’s often considered one of the worst Best Picture winners ever and, while I certainly don’t disagree, it’s also a victim to time.



Much of why this film doesn’t work anymore is related to how things have changed since it was produced. In 1952, the circus was still a popular form of entertainment. Now, it’s a cultural artifact that generates little excitement or interest…in fact, it straight up pisses a lot of people off. Add to that the cheesy story, the over-acting and outdated special effects and you’ve got yourself one slog of a flick.

 

In the center ring of this mess is Brad (Charlton Heston), the circus manager, and his budding romance with his star aerialist, Holly (Betty Hutton). Holly is locked in a professional rivalry with the new aerial star, The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), which eventually turns into a romantic one.



Also occupying the center ring is Sebastian’s ex, Angel (Gloria Grahame), an elephant performer who is being pursued by the insanely jealous Klaus (Lyle Bettger), the animal trainer. Angel has unrequited feelings for Brad, despite Klaus threatening and attempting to kill her, like, multiple times.

 

Meanwhile, the caring clown Buttons (Jimmy Stewart) keeps a low profile, never removing his clown makeup. He’s on the run, hiding from a tragic past. Honestly, this is the most interesting plot line in this entire stupid film and it’s virtually glossed over. Instead, everyone just seems perfectly fine with this grown-ass man wearing a suit and sporting clown makeup all day every day, even when no one is performing. Ooook.



For further conflict, a group of gangsters try to stir up trouble by shutting down the circus, though it’s never explained why they’re so intent on it or who they work for or whether they have ties to organized crime. It seems all this drama is supposed to be the driving force of this movie, but it’s not.

 

It’s not, dear readers, because director Cecil B. DeMille freaking LOVED the circus. You know you’re gonna get at least some circus when you watch a movie called The Greatest Show on Earth, but this was overkill. Most of this film’s near three-hour runtime is a quasi-documentary, complete with cheesy narration and long scenes of people putting up and taking down a circus tent. It’s essentially a commercial for Barnum & Bailey, featuring full-length circus sets, parades, and dance numbers that grind the plot to a halt. At one point, the camera sits in the bleachers and we literally just watch a parade of costumes for 20 minutes. Snooze. A few celebrity cameos make things somewhat more interesting (look out for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope), but overall, these are nothing but distractions in a movie that’s not even that exciting to begin with.



The dated technology, including the use of “blue screen”, “green screen” and miniatures for the infamous train collision scene, were also distracting as a modern viewer, but I can’t fault the film for those. Frankly, it was pretty cool what production crews could do back in the day without the use of computers or CGI. That’s why I try not to comment on the technical achievements, or lack thereof, on these older films – because crews could only do what they could do. Unfortunately, in this case, these outdated tactics give this movie a low-budget, cheap look, which certainly doesn’t help when everything else is going against it.

 

In the end, this self-indulgent, bloated film is about as exciting as watching the paint dry on Jimmy Stewart’s clown face. Like its subject, it tries to handle too much, becoming too long and tedious in the process. “Suckers are born every minute,” P.T. Barnum famously said. It would seem quite a few got bamboozled into picking this clunker as the finest of the year.

 

Ivanhoe

Director: Richard Thorpe

Starring: Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Robert Douglas, Finlay Currie, Felix Aylmer, Francis De Wolff, Norman Wooland, Basil Sydney, Harold Warrender, Patrick Holt, Ronerick Lovell, Sebastian Cabot, John Ruddock, Michael Brennan, Megs Jenkins, Valentine Dyall, Lionel Harris, Carl Jaffe, Guy Rolfe

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Cinematography (Color), Best Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Best Picture

 

Hark, o reader, and attend the tale of the brave Ivanhoe, the horse-riding, tights-wearing, medieval swashbuckler who challenged an imposter king and defended King Richard the Lionheart!

 

Or, if you’d rather not waste your time, you can just watch The Adventures of Robin Hood…up to you.

 

Based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe finds our hero (played by Robert Taylor) searching for King Richard the Lionheart, who has disappeared following a crusade campaign and is assumed dead.



In his absence, Richard’s brother, Prince John (Guy Rolfe) has assumed the crown and his oppression has descended across England.

 

However, the first few minutes of the film reveal that Richard is indeed very much alive, just being held for ransom. As the titular hero, Ivanhoe must gather a trusted group of allies, including members of England’s wealthy Jewish community, to return the king to his rightful throne and end Prince John’s run of power.

 

All in all, not that exciting…so why not throw in a love triangle? Caught in the middle of it all is Ivanhoe’s old flame, Rowena (Joan Fontaine) and a fair Jewish damsel named Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor). Add a few noble jousts, castle sieges, and even an appearance by the legendary outlaw of Sherwood himself, and you’ve got a mediocre costume drama that, when viewed today, seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel of a genre long perfected before this film hit theaters.

 


But that wasn’t always the case. Filmed in Technicolor in Hertfordshire, England, Ivanhoe was an ambitious production. It used not one, not two, but four actual castles in Italy and was weighed down with a soaring $3 million budget (about $35 million today).

 

The film crew was concerned it wouldn’t be able to make up the budget, but they need not have worried. Its initial theatrical run brought in a whopping $10 million, setting a box office record during its run at Radio City Music Hall and becoming the highest grossing MGM film of 1952. So massive was its success that Ivanhoe garnered two unofficial sequels: King of the Round Table (1953), another massive success, and The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955), which barely broke even and ended Robert Taylor’s swashbuckler cycle.

 


While Ivanhoe certainly entertained audiences back in the day, I found this film boring by today’s standards. This is definitely one of those movies where the supporting cast overshadows the hero. George Sanders for example, who plays one of Prince John’s henchmen, is particularly delightful. His scenes are easily the best in the film, and there aren’t nearly enough of them. Guy Rolfe is also fun as Prince John, in a role that no doubt influenced animators and writers for Disney’s Robin Hood 20 years later.

 

For those who enjoy combat scenes, Ivanhoe has some brutal on-camera jousting that looks way too authentic. Even now, the real blows from the lances, maces, and axes pack a punch, denting the metal on shields and armor with little to no effort.

 


Ivanhoe combines big Hollywood production with the classic romanticall themes of chivalry and heroism. For me, it feels way too long, even at 106 minutes, but that might be because Robert Taylor greatly lacks the charisma of some of Hollywood’s better swashbucklers. Still, the action is fun, when we do get it…and you can’t ask for better bad guys than George Sanders and Guy Rolfe!

 

Ultimately, Ivanhoe can’t quite compete with the true rebel of Sherwood Forest. It doesn’t improve on its inspiration (The Adventures of Robin Hood), nor does it stand apart from those films that would come after it. Though it does sport colorful costumes and beautiful scenery, it’s not enough to save this swashbuckler from falling from its horse.

 


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