A Savage Story of Lust and Ambition

Room at the Top is the most scandalous story the late 50’s had to offer. Although black & white with a standard full screen format, Room at the Top is filled with swearing and strongly implied sexual situations. Most of the movie centers around an affair between a younger man and an older woman. Since Room at the Top came out in 1959, it predates Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. I think they got away with so much because the film is a British production not made by a major studio. Room at the Top is based on a 1957 novel that managed to win the movie Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated for Best Picture, but only Ben-Hur had any chance of winning.

The title Room at the Top refers to poor former POW Joe Lampton who wants to turn his life around by marrying a wealthy woman. He sets his sights on the lovely young Susan, but he quickly develops a strong connection with the older and less wealthy Alice. I know it’s an affair, but Joe and Alice’s romance is so genuine that you can’t help but root for them. Alice’s husband doesn’t treat her right and refuses to divorce her. Joe has no feelings for Susan, yet he’s forced to marry her through unexpected circumstances. Laurence Harvey gives a complex performance, but it’s Simone Signoret who deserved her Best Actress win with an even more multilayered performance.

Room at the Top is also known for featuring the shortest performance ever nominated in an acting category. Hermione Baddeley’s performance is only 2 minutes & 19 seconds long, but boy does she leave an impression. She plays a friend of Alice who wants her to be happy, comforts her when she’s down, chastises Joe when the unthinkable happens, and reacts with disappointment at his wedding in only four separate scenes. Room at the Top truly is a savage story of lust and ambition.

Room at the Top

Joe makes love to Alice

Thank Heaven for Little Girls

Gigi is the last MGM musical to win Best Picture. Ending a great tradition dating as far back as The Broadway Melody. Gigi was only adapted as a musical from French author Colette’s novella of the same name. It’s another Parisian romance suited for director Vincente Minnelli, but it couldn’t be more different than An American in Paris. Gigi doesn’t break any new ground, but it did break the record for highest clean sweep at the Academy Awards. Gigi won all 9 of its Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography – Color, Costume Design, Film Editing, Scoring, and Original Song.

All of them are deserving wins, but it is odd that Gigi wasn’t nominated in a single acting category. The cast is very French with Leslie Caron returning to work with Minnelli. Gigi is an innocent fun-loving school girl groomed by her aunt and grandmama to become a wealthy man’s courtesan. Being a trained mistress is quite scandalous for the late 50’s, but not too much attention is called to it. Gaston is simply a wealthy womanizer with a new woman every week. Louis Jourdan is second only to Maurice Chevalier as his similarly womanizing Uncle Honoré who cheers him on in the background.

His song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” speaks for itself. Eva Gabor plays one of Gaston’s romantic conquests who goes so far as to attempt suicide when he leaves her. Gaston’s only genuine relationship is with Gigi. It’s a classic close friendship that develops into something more. If any of Gigi sounds similar to My Fair Lady it’s because Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe contributed to both. The Oscar winning song “Gigi” perfectly captures Gaston finally seeing Gigi as a woman. The only question is whether or not he’s willing to give up his playboy lifestyle for her. Gigi is a heartwarming romance with plenty of color and music.

Gigi

Gaston takes Gigi out

‘S Wonderful

Funny Face is the first Audrey Hepburn musical and one of the last to feature Fred Astaire. Both are screen legends with a serious age gap. Since Hepburn was just getting started, most of her romantic co-stars were a lot older than her. Funny Face is actually based on a 1927 Broadway musical starring Astaire and his sister. The movie has almost nothing to do with the original show. Aside from Gershwin music and Astaire in a different role. Singin’ in the Rain director Stanley Donen turned Funny Face into a colorful affair filmed in VistaVision.

The titular “funny face” is an intelligent bookworm named Jo Stockton. Hepburn is as beautiful and elegant as ever, so I’m not sure what it is about her face. Funny Face isn’t particularly deep apart from all of Jo’s talk about philosophy and empathy. Overbearing fashion designer Maggie Prescott takes Jo upon her photographer’s suggestion, and molds her into a model. Eloise creator Kay Thompson makes a rare on-screen appearance as Maggie.

Jo falls for her photographer Dick Avery during their stay in Paris. Although her interest in philosophy doesn’t go away, Jo does come to love her many costumes and themes. Funny Face was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, but it wasn’t a financial success. Only after My Fair Lady did it get the appreciation it deserved. Songs like the titular “Funny Face” or “‘S Wonderful” are upbeat and dances have plenty of energy. Though the most memorable dance actually comes from Hepburn in an iconic all-black beatnick ensemble. Funny Face is ‘s wonderful.

Funny Face

Maggie examines Jo’s funny face

Getting to Know You

The King and I is an extravagant musical production etc, etc, etc. The 1956 film is based on the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, based on the 1944 Margaret Landon novel Anna and the King of Siam, based on the 1860’s memoirs from Anna Leonowens etc, etc, etc. There have been many adaptations before and since, but only The King and I was nominated for Best Picture etc, etc, etc. 1956 was packed with epics that included Around the World in 80 Days, Giant, and The Ten Commandments etc, etc, etc.

Yul Brynner made his mark playing Rameses II, but it was King Mongkut of Siam that won him Best Actor etc, etc, etc. Brynner was Russian with an exotic look and shaved head that made him convincing for the role etc, etc, etc. Mongkut is an old fashioned, but eccentric king willing to modernize his country etc, etc, etc. Anna Leonowens is a British school teacher who educates the King’s many wives and children etc, etc, etc. Deborah Kerr stands equal with Brynner and plays off him well etc, etc, etc. There are hints of romance, but their relationship is more about mutual understanding etc, etc, etc.

The King’s youngest concubine Tuptim stands out since she’s played by Rita Moreno etc, etc, etc. Her forbidden love of a commoner puts the King’s ancient customs into question etc, etc, etc. The King and I also won Best Art Direction, Costume Design, and Scoring etc, etc, etc. Musical numbers benefit from distinct Rodgers and Hammerstein songs like “Getting to Know You” etc, etc, etc. An extended Siamese interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin stands out as well etc, etc, etc. The King and I knows just what to say etc, etc, etc.

The King and I

Anna and the King of Siam

Short and Sweet

Marty is the shortest movie to ever win Best Picture. It’s no secret that the Academy Awards prefers films with an extended 2-3 hour runtime. As if a good story can’t be told in a short amount of time. Marty is not only a great story, but they manage to tell it in only 1 hour & 30 minutes. It’s short because Marty was originally written as a 51 minute teleplay for The Philco Television Playhouse. First time director Delbert Mann took over the project and won Best Director. Meanwhile, Paddy Chayefsky won Best Adapted Screenplay for his own story. Marty was so impactful that it ended up winning the first Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Marty is refreshingly simple and gets right to the point. Marty Piletti is a 34 year old Italian American Catholic butcher living in the Bronx with his mother. Right off the bat it’s made clear that Marty is a lonely man afraid he’ll never get married because of how he looks. Marty speaks to me on a personal level. Such an unconventional lead was played sincerely by the late great Ernest Borgnine in a Best Actor winning performance. Marty finally meets someone at a ballroom dance. Clara is a shy school teacher who’s no more attractive than he is. Betsy Blair is just as sincere with their simple romance that plays out over the course of one night.

At first awkward, Marty and Clara manage to connect through their families, aspirations, and similar experiences. Marty is only made longer with subplots that mirror Marty’s budding relationship. Marty’s mother fears her son will leave since his aunt is forced to move out of his brother’s house. Marty’s brother has relationship problems with his sister-in-law. Then there’s Marty’s friend Angie and drinking buddies who are content with their party lifestyle. All of them call Clara a dog, but Marty finally realizes he’s crazy to care what anyone else thinks. A valuable lesson that ends the movie where it needs to. Marty is short and sweet.

Marty

Marty and Clara meet his mother

The Strawberry Investigation

The Caine Mutiny is like a cross between Mutiny on the Bounty and From Here to Eternity. It both deals with a mutiny aboard a Navy vessel and takes place during World War II near Pearl Harbor. The difference is the 1951 book wasn’t based on historical fact. The Navy never had an official mutiny and the movie didn’t receive their seal of approval until that was made clear. I knew nothing about The Caine Mutiny, but I’m glad I saw it. Fun fact, Michael Caine actually got his stage name from the movie. It’s an interesting character study that centers around the actions of Naval officers who fear their captain is unfit for duty.

Officers include the late Robert Francis as fresh out of college Ensign Willis Keith. When he questions his first captain, he’s immediately replaced by the far worse Lieutenant Commander Queeg. Humphrey Bogart manages to make Queeg unreasonably difficult and overly strict, but never unsympathetic. Queeg is seen as paranoid due to his cowardice actions, ball bearing habit, and launching an investigation of something as ridiculous as strawberries. Fred MacMurray is somewhere in-between as writer Lt. Tom Keefer who initially suggests a mutiny, but tries to save face in the end.

Van Johnson follows through with the mutiny as Lt. Steve Maryk relieves him of duty during a typhoon. The final act is a rousing court-martial led by José Ferrer as their lawyer Lt. Barney Greenwald. When Queeg cracks, Greenwald manages to make the men (and the audiences) see things from both sides. It’s a complex story that had to be stripped down from page to screen. Which is why the movie includes a mostly unnecessary love story between Keith and singer May Wynn. Yet The Caine Mutiny still managed several Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. The Caine Mutiny has an enduring legacy.

The Caine Mutiny

Lieutenant Commander Queeg joins the USS Caine

The Princess and the Peck

Roman Holiday is the original “Princess fleeing from her royal duties and falling in love” story. I’ve seen this kind of story before, but Roman Holiday is the romantic comedy that perfected it. It’s one of the few Oscar nominated William Wyler films that I most wanted to see. How could I pass up the chance to see Atticus Finch and Holly Golightly fall in love. Roman Holiday is responsible for the American debut of the incomparable Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn’s beauty and elegance was perfectly suited for the European Princess Ann. Ann is so desperate to escape her responsibilities that she leaves her embassy while sedated. It’s on a bench that she encounters Gregory Peck as reporter Joe Bradley.

Their pairing reminded me of It Happened One Night, right down to both of them spending the night together. Though not as scandalous as it sounds. Joe actually seizes the opportunity to write an exclusive about the Princess. They do what she always wanted to do around Rome. Including getting her hair cut into her classic pixie look, touring the Colosseum, smoking a cigarette, eating gelato, and riding a Vespa. Hepburn balances Ann’s regal demeanor, childlike wonder, and conflicted emotions so well that she won an Oscar for Best Actress. Peck wasn’t nominated, but his co-star Eddie Albert was nominated for playing Joe’s bumbling news partner.

Roman Holiday was intended to be shot in color, but it was too expensive. Black & white didn’t stop it from being nominated for Best Picture (and From Here to Eternity ended up winning anyway). Edith Head won one of her many Oscars for Best Costume Design, but Dalton Trumbo was a more controversial win for Best Story. Since he was blacklisted, he couldn’t accept the award in person. Luckily that was cleared up decades later. The slowly blossoming romance is very well written. The ending reminded me of Casablanca since it doesn’t exactly end up happily ever after. Roman Holiday is a day and movie I will never forgotten.

Roman Holiday

Princess Ann rides a Vespa with Joe

Step Right Up!

The Greatest Show on Earth is great spectacle, but it’s little more than exhibition. It’s one of the least deserving Best Picture winners of all time. In fact, The Greatest Show on Earth has a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. Director Cecil B. DeMille was one of the finest Hollywood filmmakers, but this is not the film he should’ve won for. Especially not when his competition was the critically acclaimed High Noon and the classic Singin’ in the Rain. The latter wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture! There are probably many reasons why The Greatest Show on Earth won. The controversial blacklist is very plausible, but I’m pretty sure it was just a legacy award for DeMille. Plus the fact that The Greatest Show on Earth was a grand production filmed in technicolor and filled with music and merriment. After the success of An American in Paris, audiences seemed to want more stories like this.

The Greatest Show on Earth won a record low 2 Academy Awards. It didn’t really deserve Best Story either, since the movie barely has a plot. The Greatest Show on Earth is more like a documentary for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The legendary big top circus is explored in full detail with meticulous narration by DeMille himself. At least they know how to put on a good show, even if it is almost 3 hours long. Many of the acts were from the actual circus, but most of the cast had to learn their part. There are trapeze artists, clowns, acrobats, jugglers, trained elephants, lion tamers, singers, and so much more! Shows go on for some time, but they are the most entertaining part of the movie. The only semblance of a plot involves lots of backstage melodrama.

Before The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston was the brash fedora wearing circus manager Brad Braden. Betty Hutton actually learned the trapeze for her part as Holly. She has a frustrating arc where she can’t choose between Brad and her creepy new trapeze partner The Great Sebastian. Cornel Wilde didn’t take to the trapeze as well, but you can hardly tell on screen. Gloria Grahame is also caught in the middle of the love triangle as spunky elephant trainer Angel. The most interesting character is the wise, mysterious Buttons the Clown played by James Stewart exclusively wearing clown makeup. The only real drama happens near the end when the circus train has a spectacular crash. Aside from that, The Greatest Show on Earth fails to live up to its title.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Brad Braden and Buttons the Clown help The Great Sebastian walk off

I Got Rhythm

An American in Paris is the first technicolor film to win Best Picture since Gone with the Wind. At this point in 1951, color was slowly becoming more common. Black & white features continued to thrive, but An American in Paris was a colorful production that deserved to win big at the Academy Awards. Awards like Best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design were all won in the color specific categories. Vincente Minnelli failed to win Best Director, but Best Screenplay and Scoring were equally worthy wins. An American in Paris is just a lot of fun to watch and dance along to. None of the cast was nominated, but Gene Kelly received a much deserved Honorary Oscar for being the triple threat that he was.

Not only does Kelly sing, dance, and star, he also choreographed the whole picture. As the title suggests, Jerry Mulligan is an American ex-GI living in Paris, France as a happy-go-lucky painter. All of his songs are upbeat and filled with infectious tap dancing energy. Jerry lives a bohemian lifestyle alongside his failed musician neighbor Adam Cook played by real life concert pianist Oscar Levant. Georges Guétary plays their mutual friend Henri “Hank” Baurel, a more successful French singer who shares an awkward connection with Jerry. Since Paris is the city of love, there’s bound to be romance.

Jerry is first pursued by Nina Foch as wealthy heiress Milo Roberts. She promises fame in exchange for love, but Jerry only has eyes for Lise Bouvier (who happens to be with Hank). Jerry is a little persistent in his conquest, but luckily Kelly has amazing chemistry with newcomer Leslie Caron. The French actress is a natural dancer with expert ballet skills. In fact, Caron’s chair dance was so steamy that the Hays Code nearly had it cut. Although Jerry and Lise’s love is complicated by their respective relationships, they manage to live happily ever after in the end. But not before an extended 17 minute stage number set to George Gershwin’s original An American in Paris orchestral piece. It’s a long time to go without talking, but sets are so colorful and the dancing is the best that Hollywood had to offer. An American in Paris is magnifique.

An American in Paris

Jerry dances with Lise

The City Under the City

The Asphalt Jungle details the seedy underbelly of a dirty crime-ridden city. Similar to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston chose to director an adaptation of another book about the morally corrupt. The Asphalt Jungle was inspired by films like White Heat, but it’s really the former that emphasized the heist genre. Though nominated for Best Director, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and Cinematography – Black-and-White, The Asphalt Jungle didn’t win a single award. It lost almost every category to All About Eve. Ironically both movies have Marilyn Monroe in common.

Despite only appearing in two scenes before she was famous, Monroe made a big impression with her charm, beauty, and acting skills. Though the rest of the movie isn’t overshadowed by her memorable appearance. The Asphalt Jungle centers around a jewel heist perpetuated by small time hooligans, a safecracker, getaway driver, and other criminals. Sam Jaffe was nominated for his role as the aging Doc in charge of the heist. Sterling Hayden is the Southern hooligan Dix Handley who agrees to the job if it means returning to his family farm. Jean Hagen plays his ditzy chatterbox girlfriend Doll.

Though the safecracker Louis Ciavelli is the only one with a family to think about. James Whitmore plays his friend Gus who acts as the getaway driver. There’s also bookie Cobby, corrupt private detective Brannom, and lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich played by a morally ambiguous Louis Calhern. Emmerich is the one having an affair with Monroe’s character Angela. The heist is tense thanks to noir aesthetics and the fact that we got to know every character. Making the manhunt performed by John McIntire’s police commissioner feel justified. Much like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, none of the men can escape their inevitable fate. Each man is either arrested, shot dead, wounded, or commits suicide. The Asphalt Jungle captures crime without hesitation.

The Asphalt Jungle

Angela charms a cop