My Journey through Films and Film Songs 15

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Watching English Films in 1950s #2

There was much to commend in An American in Paris. Gene Kelly’s choreography and dancing, debutante French dancer Leslie Caron matching Gene Kelly step to step, the music and the locales were all exemplary. For me, the most memorable sequence was filmed on Oscar Levant, American concert pianist, composer, conductor, and actor, in the role of a jobless pianist struggling for a break. Levant daydreams about performing in an auditorium. As the scene unfolds, we see the conductor, the musicians and finally the audience, shouting Encore, Bravo etc., all in the likeness of Levant!

Talking of Oscar Levant I am reminded of an incident that found place in the humour column of Readers Digest many years ago. While he was performing in a playhouse in Beverly Hills, a sexy young starlet entered the hall and, to draw attention to herself, walked towards her seat slowly, swinging her bottom provocatively.  Levant noticed that the audience’s attention was distracted by the intrusion. He interrupted the piece he was playing and instead, adapted the piano sounds to the rhythm of her swinging gait. The audience burst out laughing and the embarrassed starlet was shamed to run to her seat. Levant resumed his recital as if nothing had happened.

We liked to watch films in which actors and actresses were nominated for Academy Awards. In 1951, Academy Award winner Humphrey Bogart, and Katherine Hepburn impressed us in The African Queen. In Detective Story, we were moved by the intensity displayed by Kirk Douglas. Death of a Salesman, for which Frederick March was nominated for Best Actor, confused us. Adapted from a play of the same name by Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman had a series of flashbacks that would appear unexpectedly, unlike what we were used to see in Hindi films. But it was a good film and Frederick March excelled as a failed salesman.

We could not understand the dialogues of A Streetcar Named Desire, for which Vivien Leigh won the best actress Academy Award and Marlon Brando was nominated for best actor. A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most critically acclaimed plays of the twentieth century and Tennessee Williams’s most popular work. It had been staged on Broadway for many years. The leading pair of the film had enacted the same roles on the stage. Marlon Brando played a Central European immigrant who speaks American English with a marked accent. I had to read the book carefully to get the hang of it.

Marlon Brando was hailed as the new superstar, but he had to wait for three years and two nominations in Viva Zapata (1952) and Julius Caesar (1953) before winning his first Oscar in 1954 for On the Waterfront. When he was cast as Mark Antony in MGM’s Julius Caesar, doubts were raised about his ability to stand up to established British Shakespearean actors like Sir John Gielgud (Cassius), but Marlon Brando proved equal to the challenge, and won an Oscar nomination. His performance in On the Waterfront was so powerful that Humphrey Bogart is reported to have said, “Wrap up all the Oscars and send them to Brando.” Brando could get into the depth of a role and adopt the mannerisms and diction of the character. We loved his acting in Viva Zapata. In On the Waterfront, we had trouble following his dialogues once again.

The directors nominated for Academy Awards in 1951, George Stevens, the winner for A Place in the Sun, John Huston for The African Queen, Elia Kazan for A Streetcar Named Desire, Vincente Minnelli for An American in Paris, and William Wyler for Detective Story were the best in the business at the time.

In 1952, showman Cecil B DeMille’s well mounted The Greatest Show on Earth won the Academy Award for the best picture, beating High Noon, a western with a difference and Ivanhoe among other films. Others notable films of the year were Marlon Brando’s Viva Zapata!, Kirk Douglas’s The Bad and the Beautiful, British spy film Five Fingers starring James Mason, mystery film Sudden Fear, starring Joan Crawford and, the delightful Gene Kelly musical Singin' In The Rain, that had dancing stars Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Cyd Charisse.

The Greatest Show on Earth was an American circus drama starring Charlton Heston as the circus manager, Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde as trapeze artists, James Stewart as a mysterious clown, with Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame in supporting roles. The movie won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Story. Some reviewers consider The Greatest Show on Earth among the weakest selections for the Academy Award for Best Picture, as it scored over highly rated films such as High Noon, Ivanhoe, and the un-nominated Singin' in the Rain. Time considered it among the 10 most controversial Best Picture awards. Producer, Director Stanley Kramer alleged that the film's Best Picture Oscar was the result of the political climate in Hollywood in 1952.

Around this time, US Senator Joseph R McCarthy became synonymous with rabid anti-communism when he alleged that communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers had infiltrated the United States federal government, universities, film industry, and elsewhere. One of the important victims of McCarthyism was J Robert Oppenheimer, nuclear scientist, often referred to as the “father of the atom bomb”. Oppenheimer, the film based on his life, won seven Academy Awards in 2024. Most contemporary scientists believed that he was a martyr, unjustly attacked by his enemies. If he had been in England, Oppenheimer would probably have been knighted.

McCarthyism had its echo in Hollywood, when supporters of McCarthyism in the industry helped to prepare a blacklist that included actors, screenwriters, directors, musicians, and other American entertainment professionals who were barred from work by the studios. Cecil B DeMille was a conservative Republican, while Carl Foreman, the producer of High Noon and Marguerite Roberts, one of the scriptwriters of Ivanhoe, were on the Hollywood blacklist. This could have been the reason for these two films losing the race for the best picture award. Others speculated that The Greatest Show on Earth won Best Picture because it was seen as a last chance for DeMille (then past 70) to win an Oscar. DeMille's best work had been done during the silent film era, before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was established. Perhaps, the members of the Academy felt that, as an elder statesman of Hollywood and one of the founders of the Academy, DeMille deserved the honour.

High Noon was an intense film about a town marshal, played by Gary Cooper, whose sense of duty is tested when he must decide to either face a gang of killers alone or leave town with his new wife, played by Grace Kelly, another iconic actress of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Gary Cooper won the Academy Award for best actor for High Noon.

Making her film debut in Fourteen Hours (1951), Grace Kelly starred in several significant films in the early 1950s. Apart from High Noon, she starred in John Ford's adventure-romance Mogambo (1953) opposite Clarke Gable with Ava Gardner as co-star, The Country Girl (1954) opposite Bing Crosby, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress, Green Fire (1954) opposite Stewart Granger, the war film The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) opposite William Holden, The Swan (1956) opposite Alec Guinness, and High Society (1956) opposite Bing Crosby, co-starring Danny Kaye, apart from three Alfred Hitchcock suspense thrillers, Dial M for Murder (1954) opposite Ray Milland and Robert Cummings, Rear Window (1954) opposite James Stewart, and To Catch a Thief (1955) opposite Cary Grant. Without flaunting her physical attributes, she won hearts with her simplicity, grace, charm, and acting prowess. It was a big loss for Hollywood when she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in April 1956 and gave up acting to discharge her duties as the Princess of Monaco. In her short career spanning six years, Grace Kelly acted opposite most of the popular leading men of the time, and won one Academy Award and three Golden Globe Awards, and was ranked 13th on the American Film Institute's >25 Greatest Female Stars list.

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More by :  Ramarao Annavarapu

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