Every year when Oscar-time comes around, the voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must consider what to do with all the terrific films that earned great reviews, but didn't make tons of money or capture the attention of the masses, though some of them are clearly among the best films of the year. Since few people have seen or even heard of these smaller, less-popular films, the Academy voters usually don't seem inclined to load them up with a bundle of Oscar nominations. Still, the voters will often throw these films a bone by allowing them to compete for one or two awards in the lesser categories—like Best Supporting Actress or Best Original Screenplay. Some recent examples of this include the brilliant 2005 political thriller SYRIANA, nominated only for Best Supporting Actor (George Clooney—he won) and Best Original Screenplay, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, an excellent Mike Leigh film that was nominated for just one Oscar—Best Original Screenplay of 2008—and last year's THE MESSENGER, up for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay.
It occurred to me that the Academy has probably been doing this sort of thing throughout its 83-year history, since most of the Best Picture nominees over the years have been popular classics that have made lots of money and that many people are fairly familiar with, whereas categories like Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography are commonly peppered with forgotten titles like DR. EHRLICH'S MAGIC BULLET (Best Original Screenplay nominee—1940), THE CHALK GARDEN (nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Edith Evans—1964) and RIDE THE PINK HORSE (nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Thomas Gomez—1947). So I've decided to go through the Oscar lists year by year and watch all the films nominated for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay/Story, Cinematography and all the acting awards, along with Best Documentary Feature and Best Foreign Language Film. I'm hoping that I will discover some of the less-popular and now-largely-forgotten cinematic gems of the past. I decided to start with 1953.
I was fortunate that the winner for Best Picture of 1953, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, was being shown at The Grand Illusion Cinema here in Seattle at around this time. A romantic melodrama set in and around the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor just prior to the Japanese attack there on December 7 of 1941, the film is one of my all-time favorites; I'd seen it twice before.This particular screening featured a brand new 35mm print, so it looked fantastic. Aside from Best Picture, the film was awarded Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed), Best Writing—Screenplay (Daniel Taradash), and Best Black-and-White Cinematography (Burnett Guffey). Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr were also nominated for acting in the film.
Other films from 1953 I was watching for the second or third time were ROMAN HOLIDAY (it's fun to imagine audiences seeing Audrey Hepburn on the screen for the very first time!), SHANE (I didn't like this odd western back in college, but now I think it's great!—but if you ask me, it didn't deserve either of its Best Supporting Actor nominations) and THE ROBE. I didn't much care for this sword-n-sandals religious epic either when I first saw it in college—and I still don't, even though it's interesting that it was the first movie ever released in Cinemascope. While watching Richard Burton's hammy performance, this character repeatedly came to mind. And then there's TORCH SONG, in which a deliciously (ridiculously?) bitchy Joan Crawford torments a blind pianist and then performs a saucy musical number in blackface. It's hard to imagine how anyone could have thought this was a good idea. Marjorie Rambeau earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for playing Crawford's mother. I'm pretty sure I'd also seen Disney's Best Doc winner THE LIVING DESERT in my grade school years, but I enjoyed it even more as an adult. Sadly, the other Best Doc nominees, THE CONQUEST OF EVEREST and A QUEEN IS CROWNED, have never been put on DVD or video.
[ Robert Wagner in BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF ]
Just like any other year, there are some real duds included on the Oscar nominations list of 1953—like STALAG 17. William Holden and Robert Strauss were nominated for Oscars (Holden won) for this "comedy" about U.S. servicemen being held in a Nazi prison camp, but the film comes off as an irritating and distasteful mixture of Hogan's Heroes and Schindler's List. With hopes high, I'd brought the DVD along to a dinner party to watch with friends, but we all voted to turn it off after about 30 painful minutes. I finished it by myself at home. There was one interesting homoerotic scene wherein two American POWs are dancing together romantically (of course it's played for laughs, but you gotta' start somewhere), but otherwise this one was a real stinker. I'd been looking forward to THE MOON IS BLUE, since I'd never heard of the film nor its Best Actress nominee Maggie McNamara—and also because its director, Otto Preminger, has a pretty good track record. Reportedly scandalous back in 1953, the film is now little more than an insufferable talk-fest. It put me right to sleep. Best Color Cinematography nominees ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT (shipboard swashbuckling and Ann Blythe) and BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF (rival rare-sponge-hunting families in the Florida Keys) both look great and feature sexy men running around without their shirts on, but otherwise they're forgettable fluff.
HONDO, a fairly typical John Wayne Western, is mainly interesting for an odd performance by Geraldine Page in her Oscar-nominated film debut. I learned a lot about the origins of the Lutheran Church from Best B&W Cinematography nominee MARTIN LUTHER; THE CAPTAIN'S PARADISE is a smart and enjoyable Alec Guinness comedy with a surprising feminist slant; Richard Burton, now wearing neither sword nor sandals, stars as a British captain stationed in North Africa in the exciting WWII drama THE DESERT RATS—nominated for Richard Murphy's story and screenplay and directed by Robert Wise. I enjoyed the soapy 1953 film version of TITANIC, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb—and THE BAND WAGON is a fun and colorful Vincente Minnelli musical starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse and featuring a dynamite grand finale.
I'm happy to report that, as hoped, I did indeed discover some previously unknown jewels hiding amongst the list of the Oscar-nominated films of 1953. My favorite is LILI, a vibrant and moving musical about an orphan in Paris (Best Actress nominee Leslie Caron) who, seeking excitement and romance, runs off and joins the circus. Aside from the lovely Caron, the film features the dashing Jean-Pierre Aumont, the brooding Mel Ferrer, puppets, bizarre dream sequences and Zsa Zsa Gabor. I also particularly enjoyed seeing Marlon Brando in a toga, surrounded by an all-star cast in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's JULIUS CAESAR. Sam Fuller's gritty film noir PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET features a terrific Oscar-nominated turn by Thelma Ritter, and one of the funniest bits of Production Code-evading sexual innuendo I've ever seen (Richard Widmark's thumb gradually becomes erect during a passionate kissing scene with Jean Peters). MOGAMBO is a silly, thrillingly overheated jungle love-triangle between Clark Gable, Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner—thrown together by John Ford.
[ Richie Andrusco at Coney Island in LITTLE FUGITIVE ]
Written and directed by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley, LITTLE FUGITIVE is a charming early American independent movie about a young boy who runs away from home after believing he's accidentally killed his older brother. Much of the movie was filmed on location at Coney Island; the footage of the famous amusement park circa 1953 is a real treat to see. Best Screenplay nominee THE CRUEL SEA is a snappy, suspenseful and realistic WWII drama from England, featuring a handsome young Denholm Elliott in the cast. I agree with Leonard Matlin when he calls Anthony Mann's THE NAKED SPUR one of the best Westerns ever made—and that doesn't mean he thinks it's a motel. The film features strong performances by James Stewart, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell, and this is where I would have divvied out the Best Supporting Actor nominations that were instead allotted to Jack Palance and Brandon De Wilde for SHANE. Nominated only for Beirne Lay Jr.'s Best Motion Picture Story and for Hugo Friedhofer's musical score, ABOVE AND BEYOND tells the story of Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the U.S. pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima at the end of WWII. The film features Oscar-caliber performances by Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker and seems like an obvious candidate for some of the year's top awards. It's hard to imagine how this fine film somehow slipped through Oscar's fingers. Perhaps voters figured there was only enough room for one WWII melodrama atop the Oscar A-list, and they decided to put their money on FROM HERE TO ETERNITY instead.
The basic-training drama TAKE THE HIGH GROUND!, starring Richard Widmark and Karl Malden, has never been on video or DVD. Unfortunately, the same is true for THE FOUR POSTER—a Rex Harrison/Lili Palmer drama about which Leonard Maltin writes: "Tour de force for stars who enact various phases of married couple's life; warm, witty script; superb performances enhanced by ingenious animated interludes by UPA studio"—and he gives the film ***½. That sounds like a movie I'd like to see!
Special thanks to the folks who've been churning out titles for the Warner Archives Collection, since I wouldn't have been able to watch ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT, ABOVE AND BEYOND or THE MOON IS BLUE on DVD without them. Special thanks also to Scarecrow Video, for carrying everything ever released on VHS or DVD. They've made this project not only possible, but relatively easy too. A special "no-thanks" goes to Netflix (aka. Wal-Mart Video) and all their Seattle customers who've helped put several wonderful local independent video stores out of business, including Rain City Video in Fremont. Up yours.
Here are the Oscar-nominated films of 1953, the winners are listed in red:
From Here to Eternity
George Stevens for SHANE
Charles Walters for LILI
Billy Wilder for STALAG 17
William Wyler for ROMAN HOLIDAY
Fred Zinnemann for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Marlon Brando in JULIUS CAESAR
Richard Burton in THE ROBE
Montgomery Clift in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
William Holden in STALAG 17
Burt Lancaster in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Leslie Caron in LILI
Ava Gardner in MOGAMBO
Audrey Hepburn in ROMAN HOLIDAY
Deborah Kerr in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Maggie McNamara in THE MOON IS BLUE
Best Supporting Actor:
Eddie Albert in ROMAN HOLIDAY
Jack Palance in SHANE
Frank Sinatra in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Robert Strauss in STALAG 17
Brandon De Wilde in SHANE
Best Supporting Actress:
Grace Kelly in MOGABMO
Geraldine Page in HONDO
Marjorie Rambeau in TORCH SONG
Donna Reed in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Thelma Ritter in PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET
Best Writing, Story and Screenplay:
Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, Richard L. Breren for TITANIC
Betty Comden, Adolph Green for THE BAND WAGON
Millard Kaufman for TAKE THE HIGH GROUND!
Richard Murphy for THE DESERT RATS
Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom for THE NAKED SPUR
Best Writing, Motion Picture Story:
Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin for LITTLE FUGITIVE
Alec Coppel for THE CAPTAIN'S PARADISE
Ian McLellan Hunter, Dalton Trumbo for ROMAN HOLIDAY
Louis L'Amour for HONDO
Beirne Lay Jr. for ABOVE AND BEYOND
Best Writing, Screenplay:
Eric Ambler for THE CRUEL SEA
Helen Deutsch for LILI
A.B. Guthrie Jr. for SHANE
Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton for ROMAN HOLIDAY
Daniel Taradash for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Best Cinematography, Black & White:
Joseph C. Brun for MARTIN LUTHER
Burnett Guffey for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Hal Mohr for THE FOUR POSTER
Franz Planer, Henri Alekan for ROMAN HOLIDAY
Joseph Ruttenberg for JULIUS CAESAR
Best Cinematography, Color:
Edward Cronjager for BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF
George J. Folsey for ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT
Loyal Griggs for SHANE
Robert H. Planck for LILI
Leon Shamroy for THE ROBE
Best Documentary Feature:
The Conquest of Everest
The Living Desert
A Queen Is Crowned