Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

I can't believe it took me this long to finally catch up with Vincente Minnelli's THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, but it was worth the wait. It's 118 minutes of grand fun from the moment David Raksin's memorable score begins and the names of the all-star cast flash onto the screen. This highly entertaining film is the epitome of glossy MGM style, deservedly winning Academy Awards for its beautiful black and white Cinematography, Costume Design, and Art Direction, along with two more Oscars, for Best Supporting Actress and Screenplay.

The film tells the story of ruthless -- and highly successful -- film producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), a character whose back story was clearly inspired by David O. Selznick.

Studio executive Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) summons to his office director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), hoping they will agree to work on Shields' new picture, as Shields' career has hit a low point and he desperately needs a success. Shields believes he'll have a hit if he can work just once more with the successful trio.

In flashback Amiel, Lorrison, and Bartlow each tell how their careers were helped by Shields, who then betrayed each of them in turn. None of the threesome wants to work with Shields again, yet his magic is such that -- in a classic final shot -- they can't resist picking up the phone to listen together to his latest pitch.

The film is fairly melodramatic at times; Douglas in particular has a scene where his character, Shields, goes a bit over the top, screaming at Georgia (Turner), although I suspect this was meant to convey the depth of the guilt Shields felt for tricking her. For the most part, however, the melodrama is part of the fun, along with the film's wit, atmosphere, and clever allusions to familiar bits of film history. (Film fans will recognize characters and plot developments inspired by Val Lewton, Diana Barrymore, and Carole Lombard, among others.) The high point of the film might be the most melodramatic moment of all, Lana Turner's deservedly famous hysterical drive through the rain.

The film provides plenty of fodder for discussion. For instance, isn't nice guy exec Pebbel (Pidgeon) just as ruthless as Shields? His suggestion that Bartlow (Powell), who was a professor and successful author before Shields brought him to Hollywood, is better off because of Shields is absurd; Pebbel really believes that winning a Pulitzer is plenty of consolation for Bartlow's having lost his wife? Of course, we know that Pebbel has his own stake in signing the trio, since the last Shields picture left him broke.

Another question: Gloria Grahame won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for playing Rosemary, the Southern belle wife of Bartlow (Powell). Grahame is excellent, but how is it that she won the Oscar for her small role, while Lana Turner didn't even receive a nomination? (In his introduction on Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne suggests Grahame won in recognition for her entire body of work that year, which also included THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, SUDDEN FEAR, and MACAO.) Turner is flat-out terrific in this. A few years later her acting ability would finally be recognized with a Best Actress nomination for PEYTON PLACE (1957).

Another curious Oscar omission was the lack of a nomination for the superb score by David Raksin, which helps set the film's glamorous tone from the moment the opening credits begin. I suspect that many more people remember Raksin's score today than could whistle a few bars of the music for a couple of the actual nominees, such as THE MIRACLE OF OUR LADY FATIMA or THE THIEF.

Gorgeous Elaine Stewart is a scene stealer in a small role as Lila, who dates Jonathan and Latin lover Gaucho (Gilbert Roland). Her last scene, on a staircase, where she tells Lana Turner "You were swell" and then sashays back up the stairs, is classic. Musical fans might remember Stewart as Jane, Gene Kelly's fiancee in BRIGADOON (1954), also directed by Vincente Minnelli.

Little Sandy Descher plays the child actress screaming in the "Cat Man" film. Vanessa Brown has a few scenes as the girlfriend who later marries Amiel (Sullivan). Paul Stewart plays Syd, the studio press agent, and Sammy White plays Georgia's devoted agent. Look for Barbara Billingsley (LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) as a costume designer unhappy with the way Georgia wears her gown. The actor in Georgia's screen test is Steve Forrest (who, incidentally, was Dana Andrews' little brother). Kurt Kasznar can be spotted in an uncredited role in a party scene.

Other familiar faces in the cast include Ned Glass, Marietta Canty, Kathleen Freeman, Madge Blake, and Dabbs Greer.

I wonder how many of perennial bit player Bess Flowers' 785 credits were party scenes? The number must be in the hundreds. She's in an evening gown at a party again in this film.

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL has been released on VHS and DVD. DVD extras include the documentary LANA TURNER: A DAUGHTER'S MEMOIR.

It can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies, where it next airs on March 7, 2010.

The trailer can be seen here.

Highly recommended as glossy, grand MGM entertainment at its best.

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