Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 9
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 9: 1955
Three Coins in the Fountain
On the Waterfront (winner)
The Caine Mutiny
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
The Country Girl
Three Coins in the Fountain: When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore…when the coin hits the water in the hopes of a lover that’s this moooovie…
Hahahah. OK sorry I just had to indulge myself. 😊
In this 1950s love letter to Italy, three American women make a wish for romance and love while working abroad in Rome. Frances (Dorothy McGuire), the eldest of the three, has been in Rome for 15 years, serving as secretary to novelist, John Frederick Shadwell (Clifton Webb). Her roommate, Anita (Jean Peters), is a government secretary, but is planning to return to America to settle down and find a husband. Maria (Maggie McNamara) is the newbie, hired to replace Anita once she leaves. The three women get along swimmingly, living together in a large lavish apartment and walking the streets of Italy in swanky fashionable dresses.
While showing Maria around the streets of Rome, the girls stop at The Fountain of Trevi and decide to throw a coin in the fountain, hoping to find love and romance in Italy (despite the title, only Frances and Maria throw coins in the fountain, as Anita is planning to leave for America).
And so, our comic melodrama begins. Frances, who has been in an unrequited love affair with her boss for years, finally gets up the courage to tell him how she feels. Shadwell, who is such a limp fish of a human being that most people think he’s actually DEAD, laughs her off – that is until an untimely health scare has him proposing literally 5 seconds later, if for no other reason than to make sure there’s someone who can return his dead-ass body back to America. How romantic.
Maria sets her innocent eyes on Dino de Cessi (Louis Jourdan), an actual Italian prince with a reputation for womanizing. Knowing he would never fall for her if he got to know the real her, Maria becomes a crazy catfishing stalker, interviewing his friends and family, following him into restaurants and bars, and recording all his favorite things so she can literally become the object of his affections.
Anita, who did not throw a coin in the fountain, is perhaps the luckiest in her conquests, as she finally lets herself succumb to the budding romance that’s been brewing between her and her fellow co-worker, Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi). Though Giorgio is poor and has little to offer her, she sees right through that and risks everything to be with the man she loves. There’s even a scene where Anita literally throws herself at Giorgio, but he, ever the good CHRISTIAN gentleman, shuts that shizz down (or so it’s implied).
While these characters are certainly lacking in any type of depth, that’s not to say they weren’t entertaining stereotypes. I enjoyed Jean Peters performance and liked her kind of Joan Holloway-type swagger and sass. Louis Jourdan played the mother-loving Italian boy perfectly and Maggie McNamara, despite her actions, was a cute little button of an actress. But the real star of this movie, the crème de la crème, was Rome itself.
Shot using a widescreen camera, Three Coins in the Fountain brought the true beauty of Rome to American audiences (tourism to Italy actually spiked after this movie was released). However, the Rome shown here is clearly a superficial tourist fantasy. The streets are basically empty of pedestrians and traffic, three American women are able to afford fashionable clothes and a Monica Gellar-style apartment on a secretary’s salary, and every touristy fountain, statue, and locale is basically void of humanity. It also ignored many of the realities of living in a foreign city, like the fact that (GASP!) not everyone speaks English.
Nominated for three Academy Awards, Three Coins in the Fountain took home two – Best Cinematography (obviously) and Best Song, for the title track performed by an uncredited Frank Sinatra. And if you’ve never heard of this song before, you’ll know it by the end of the film because it’s basically flogged to death, reprised every which way to Sunday and used in pretty much every scene in the film.
When all’s said and done, Three Coins in the Fountain was a bit of a wash. The magnificence of the scenery was much more impressive than the rambling storyline which, despite being categorically ‘a woman’s film’, is not very nice to women. While it may have made an impact with 1950s audiences, it lacks the ability to age with time.
On the Waterfront: If there’s one thing I learned from binging The Sopranos, it’s that you don’t mess with the Mob. One wrong move and those mo-fos will take you down to Chinatown and turn you into fish food…or, in the case of Joey Doyle, rat food.
In the opening scene of On the Waterfront, washed up boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) unwittingly helps set the trap for the murder of longshoreman Joey Doyle, who refused to abide by the dock’s “deaf and dumb” code. Joey (Ben Wagner) only has a few words of dialogue before he’s thrown over the roof of his building by his Mob-connected union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).
Always a man out to save his own skin, Malloy agrees to stay silent about what he saw. However, all that begins to change when he starts to fall for Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who has been working tirelessly with local pastor, Father Barry (Karl Malden) to expose the crimes taking place on the docks. Through Edie and Father Barry, Malloy comes to learn that the reason Joey was killed was because he was planning to testify against Friendly before the crime commission.
Clearly On the Waterfront is a story about conscience, and so is the story behind the story. Made in 1954 after director Elia Kazan agreed to “name names” and testify against fellow Communist Party members before the House Un-American Activities committee, this film is thought to be an answer to his critics for why he decided to rat out his friends. It seems he was looking for a way to show people that informers were good, noble and brave souls who were facing up to oppression (rather than squealers looking to save their own asses).
Despite its controversial creation story, the tale of Terry Malloy and his quest to stand up for justice was actually based on the true story of a longshoreman named Anthony De Vincenzo, who tried to overthrow a corrupt union. Though Vincenzo failed his mission in real life, Malloy succeeds in his, but not before getting an ass-whooping by the scum of the New Jersey docks. In fact, Malloy’s bloody and bruised walk to freedom at the end of the film (where he’s followed by a man of God and a flock of supporters, no less) is almost Christological, which says a lot about what Kazan thought of himself.
Easily the most enduring part of On the Waterfront is Marlon Brando himself, whose casual acting style helped usher in a new era of more naturalistic acting – today known as method acting. Words are slurred so as to not sound scripted, improvised moments are caught on camera and simple gestures provided by Brando help give the illusion that this man is indeed from the New Jersey waterfront. The fact that Brando appears as an inarticulate hero, yet has one of the best-known and most-quoted bits of dialogue in movie history (“I Coulda Been a Contender” speech), is even more of a tribute to the emotional power of his performance.
And, as luck would have it, Brando almost lost this role to a local New Jersey-born actor by the name of Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was even getting fitted for costumes when Kazan decided to bring Brando in instead, thinking his star power would help double the available budget for the film. Sinatra supposedly “let him off easy”, but this did cause a bit of a riff between Sinatra and Brando, who would both go on to star in Guys and Dolls the following year.
While Sinatra would have been well cast in this role, Brando would actually go on to win his first Oscar for his portrayal of Terry Malloy. The film would win 7 additional Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Director and Best Cinematography.
In today’s day and age, On the Waterfront may not be as fresh as it once was. The union battles and Christian symbolism are conventions from an older time, but it still holds up as a powerful story about a man standing up for what he thinks is right. Filled with inspiring quotes and amazing performances, this film cemented Brando as a Hollywood star and brought to light a story filled with power and heart.
The Caine Mutiny: What Davy Jones’ Locker is for those lost at sea, The Caine is for those Navy seamen lost in their own lives. The rust-covered battleship, which was supposedly designed by geniuses to be run by idiots, is “…an outcast ship manned by outcasts and named after the greatest outcast of them all.”
Set in the Pacific during World War II, The Caine Mutiny depicts the events on board a fictitious U.S. Navy minesweeper. The ramshackle crew, made up of Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray), Lt. Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis), and a handful of other misfits is whipped into shape by the new Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), a domineering man with a brittle composure.
Showing increased signs of paranoid behavior, Queeg makes foolish mistakes at sea, misdirecting his attention towards insignificant details, such as untucked shirts and missing strawberries. For the most part, these little faults are forgiven by the crew, who shake off his behavior as a factor of his old age and time spent at war. But when the time comes for Queeg to man up and actually make a life and death decision, he freezes, forcing his crew to take over command of the ship.
What the crew saw as a last-ditch effort to save themselves and the ship, Queeg saw as a criminal act. A court-martial follows, with Navy attorney Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer) reluctantly defending the mutiny led by Maryk and Keith. This is where the meat of this drama picks up, as Queeg is put on the stand and prodded into revealing his insanity. And, I never thought I’d say it, but Bogart really excels here, turning this unstable villain into an almost sympathetic figure. I actually felt sorry for the guy. Seeing this powerful leader reduced to a mumbling shadow of his former self was easily some of Bogart’s best work, and would help earn him is third, and final, Oscar nomination.
Captain Queeg would also mark Bogart’s last great film role before he died of esophageal cancer in 1957. Though very obviously tired and bitter on screen (almost like an older version of Rick Blaine), he still delivers a strong performance that has gone down in history as one of his best.
Produced by Columbia Pictures, the same studio that also produced On the Waterfront, The Caine Mutiny didn’t get near the amount of press coverage that Waterfront did. However, it was still a commercial success. It was the fifth-highest grossing film in the U.S. in 1954, bringing in about $21 million in domestic sales. It received several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Bogart), Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording and more, but lost in every category.
The Caine Mutiny is classic Hollywood in every way, a 3-part drama, a starlit cast and even a little romance thrown in to appease female viewers. Not only does it showcase the comradery of the armed forces, but also gives viewers a clear understanding of how isolating leadership can be. I mean, when Queeg tells his officers, “There’s the right way, the wrong way, the Navy way, and my way – and if you do things my way, we’ll get along”, you get the picture. Leadership is a blessing and a curse, and sometimes power and control aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Sometimes the insecurities that come with not following the rules become a detriment to your character…and oftentimes, whether you’re a king, a president, a sergeant or a captain, it can drive you to insanity.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: The first time I ever saw Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was at my grandma’s house. Whenever I’d come over for a sleepover, she’d gather up my favorite Frank Sinatra musicals, namely Anchor’s Aweigh and Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and we’d settle in with pop and cannoli’s (I really lived the high life there). I don’t remember when it was exactly that she introduced me to SBfSB, but as soon as I saw Howard Keel’s breadth and heard the sweet, sultry sounds of his deep baritone voice, I was IN. FREAKING. LOVE.
Now, let’s get one thing straight right off the bat…I freaking love this film – and not just because it stars a big, hairy redhead with a body to boot. Yes, this movie is sexist. Yes, it is basically Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical!, yes, it deals with abduction, violent behavior and gender bias. But I’m checking all that at the door because SBfSB is also a satire. If you were to really look deep at this storyline, you’d see it’s the women who actually run the show here, which is quite bold considering it came out in the 1950s. You want to hate on a musical for being evil to women and promoting violence? Go watch Carousel and then get back to me.
OK, onward to the bearded men!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a farm must be in want of a wife. As Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) roams the streets of a frontier town in Oregon, he bellows a mating call titled “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”, which will instantly get stuck in your head the first time you hear it. As he literally shops the streets of town for a wife, he spots a “sassy” lady named Milly (Jane Powell), chopping wood and cooking food for the local townsfolk. Game. Set. Match.
Adam sets his sights on wooing Milly, though he needn’t bother – she knows a freaking stud muffin when she sees one.
The two marry and it’s off to the farmstead. However, Milly is shocked to realize there’s more waiting for her there than she thought. Not only does she have a husband to care for, but he also lives with his 6 hot-headed, bad-tempered brothers. Seven redheads in one house…that’s a lot for a little country girl.
But never fear…for Milly is of the thoroughly modern type and soon shows them who’s boss. In a series of enjoyable scenes, Milly begins civilizing the Pontipee brothers, teaching them everything from basic grooming skills to how to woo a woman.
The culmination of Milly’s work comes midway through the movie at a barn raising, which is easily one of the most rousing and insane dance numbers ever filmed. After watching this scene, it should come as no surprise that all the actors portraying the Pontipee brothers were professional dancers and gymnasts, because what happens can only be described as one hell of an acrobatic hoedown.
After wooing the local ladies at the dance, the brothers head home, but are obviously lovesick about losing their womenfolk. Yearning to be with their lady loves, the brothers ask Adam for advice. Alas, Adam has been reading a book about the abduction of the Sabine Women (or, as he says, ‘sobbin’ women’) and tells them they should do as the Romans did and kidnap their girls. Well, you don’t have to tell a group of guys that twice…
Needless to say, the women are kidnapped and brought back to the farm. An avalanche prevents the townsfolk from rescuing them until spring, but the ladies don’t seem to mind. Vowing to remain on their best behavior, the boys make no untoward advances towards their ladies, remaining in the barn on even the coldest of winter nights. The girls remain protected in the house under Milly’s care, that is until spring arrives and love begins to bloom again.
This hand-clapping, foot-stomping country-style musical ends with a series of shotgun weddings, as brothers Adam, Benjamin (Jeff Richards), Caleb (Matt Mattox), Daniel (Marc), Ephraim (Jacques d’Ambroise), Frank (Tommy Rall) and Gideon (Russ Tamblyn) embrace their new brides.
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Music (which it won), SBfSB was an instant favorite with audiences the world over. It still appears on lists of the best musicals of all time and has a strong following despite the fact that some of the humor doesn’t quite translate to 2020.
Though originally considered a “B-film” in comparison to Brigadoon, which MGM was producing at the same time, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers actually holds up better than its cousin…and really contains everything I love about these classic Hollywood musicals – catchy showtunes, big, burly men who aren’t afraid to dance and sing, and cheesy happy endings that, maybe ironically, bring a tear to my eye.
Can I mention Howard Keel’s beautiful hide again?
The Country Girl: Here’s the basic jist of what I have to say about this film: don’t judge a movie by its cast.
With Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly at the helm of The Country Girl, I thought I was in for a little down home romance, maybe some rollin’ in the hay, maybe a few crooning songs about love and longing, maybe even a dance number or two…what I was not expecting was a story about a suicidal alcoholic who is not only suffering through a broken marriage, but is also failing in his career and mourning the tragic death of his only child.
Phew, this one was a bummer.
Crooner Bing Crosby and soon-to-be princess Grace Kelly took 180-degree turns from their usual on-screen personas for this Hollywood adaptation of Clifford Odet’s play, The Country Girl. The fun begins when theater director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) decides to cast washed-up Broadway star Frank Elgin (Crosby) as the lead in his new musical. A longtime fan of Elgin, Dodd tries to get this old-timer back on his feet, amidst loud animosity from his producers and Elgin’s wife, Georgie (Kelly), who’s fearful that the pressure of the performance may drive Frank to start drinking again.
And the fact of the matter is, Frank isn’t really so sure of himself, either. He’s been on a career decline since his young son was killed in a car accident several years ago, and he has trouble with everything from showing up on time to remembering his lines. While Frank puts on a front with Dodd, joking with the musicians and blaming his behavior on his overbearing wife, his façade crumbles when he’s home, revealing a broken, weak, insecure man who must partake of the liquid courage just to walk out the door.
While Dodd and Georgie constantly fight with each other regarding what’s best for Frank, it becomes clear that no one is actually listening to each other, or Frank for that matter. The only truth is their own version of events. Dodd, who only sees Frank at rehearsals, sees a tired and broken man itching to find his place in the spotlight again. Georgie, who sees Frank at home, knows he’s a man who hates himself and who will do or say anything to be liked by other people. Yet, both Dodd and Georgie stay by Frank’s side, standing up for him, fighting for him, making excuses for him. It begs the question, how far will Dodd go to give a man he admires a second chance? And how far will Georgie go to redeem the man she loves?
Despite its dour subject matter, The Country Girl showcases Crosby and Kelly at the height of their careers. Crosby’s portrayal of a neurotic drunk is just unbelievable – or should I say quite believable. Frank’s career was so eerily similar to that of Crosby himself that it somehow made his performance that much sadder.
Kelly shed her glitz and glamour to play a middle-aged housewife (despite her only being 25 in this movie), yet was still almost too pretty to pull this role off. She won her only Oscar for her role as Georgie, beating out the sentimental favorite, Judy Garland, for the not so dissimilar A Star is Born.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Crosby), and best Director, The Country Girl took home two – Best Actress (Kelly) and Best Screenplay.
We often try to see the best in the people we love…maybe to both their detriment and our own. We’re easy to forgive, quick to move on and more than willing to believe the lies we tell ourselves to make it all better. In The Country Girl, Dodd, Georgie and even Frank are victims to their own insecurities, unable to really stop and think about what would be best for themselves and each other. It’s not until they each face the threat of the thing they fear the most that they finally realize what they have to lose. Whether that helps them or hurts them is up to us to decide, but Frank seems to wrap it up perfectly. “Just about anybody can face a crisis,” he says. “It’s the everyday living that’s rough. I’m not sure I can lick it, but I think I got a chance.”
While almost all of these films are victims to the test of time, there’s no denying that they all brought to light real-world issues that are somehow still relevant today.
The Caine Mutiny and The Country Girl packed a punch, giving us heroic stories of bravery, as well as showcasing the dark side of abuse and mental illness.
Three Coins in the Fountain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, my hidden gem this year, were much more light-hearted, but still took a stand in showing that women can do much more than cook a meal and sweep the floor.
This year’s Best Picture winner, On the Waterfront, showcased incredible acting and set design, but the drama that surrounds the making of this film somehow clouds its validity as a winning picture.
Besides these five movies, 1954 also saw the release of Rear Window, White Christmas, Animal Farm and Judy Garland’s comeback performance, A Star is Born. Needless to say, it was a great year for film. Smack dab in the middle of some of Hollywood’s best years, the films of 1954 (’55 award season) showcased our most beloved stars in what would become some of their most memorable performances and brought us films that will go down in history as some of the most influential and powerful stories brought to the silver screen.
Onto the next pull!