Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)


Jimmy Stewart is Buttons the Clown!

Listen, there’s a lot of things that can be said about the 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.  Not only was it one of three Cecil B, DeMille films to be nominated for best picture (along with 1934’s Cleopatra and 1956’s The Ten Commandments) but it was also the only one to win.  It brought Cecil B. DeMille his first and only nomination for best director.  (DeMille lost that directing Oscar to John Ford but he still took home an award, as the producer of The Greatest Show On Earth.)  The Greatest Show on Earth not only featured Charlton Heston in his first starring role but, with a finale that featured everyone involved in the same spectacular train crash, it also set the standard for the countless disaster movies that would follow.

But, with all of that in mind, the main thing that you’ll remember about this movie is that Jimmy Stewart was Buttons the Clown.

Buttons is a beloved member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.  He travels with the circus across the country, entertaining children and generally helping out wherever he can.  Everyone loves Buttons, despite the fact that no one has ever seen him without his makeup.  (That said, you only have to hear him speak to immediately recognize him as being played by Jimmy Stewart.)  Not even the circus’s no-nonsense manager, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston, naturally), knows what Buttons actually looks like.  Everyone assumes that Buttons is just a dedicated performer, a method clown.

However, it turns out that Buttons has a secret.  Of course, nearly everyone at the circus has a secret but Buttons’s secret is a little bit more serious than just a love triangle or a case of professional jealousy.  There’s a reason why Buttons is surprisingly good at providing first aid to the members of the circus.  Before he was a clown, Buttons was a doctor.  And, while he was a doctor, he killed his wife.

NO!  NOT JIMMY STEWART!

In Buttons’s defense, it was a mercy killing and he feels really bad about it.  That, of course, doesn’t matter to the FBI agent (Henry WIlcoxon) who suspects that the doctor may be hiding among the circus performers.  At first, Buttons views that train crash as the perfect opportunity to escape but then he finds out that many of his fellow performers have been seriously injured.  A doctor is needed.  Perhaps even a doctor in clown makeup….

Even under all that makeup, Jimmy Stewart does a great job of bringing Buttons to life.  Sometimes, we associate Stewart so much with his famous way of speaking that we overlook just what a good actor Jimmy Stewart actually was.  Even before you discover why Buttons is running from the cops, Stewart does a good job of capturing the sadness and the regret that lies at the heart of Button.  He’s truly a tragic clown.

Buttons’s status as a fugitive is just one of the many subplots to be found in The Greatest Show On Earth.  There’s a lot of drama (not to mention parades and performances) to get through before that train crashes.  Brad, for instance, is struggling to keep the circus from going bankrupt.  Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), is torn between him and the arrogant but charming Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  In fact, every woman in the circus — including Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour — is in love with the Great Sebastian.  Sebastian is a bit self-centered but he’s famous enough to ensure that the circus won’t have to be closed.  Or, at least, he is until he’s injured in a trapeze accident.  Will Sebastian ever perform again?  Meanwhile, there’s a jealous elephant trainer named Klaus (Lyle Bettinger) and a crooked concessionaire named Harry (John Kellog).  A local gangster, Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney), is trying to muscle his way into the circus’s business.  Is it any surprise that Brad always seems to be in something of a bad mood?  He’s got a lot to deal with!

And yes, it’s all a bit overblown and a bit silly.  And yes, the film really does feel like it was meant to be a commercial for Ringling Bros.  And yet, in its way, the film definitely works.  There’s a sincerity at the heart of the film, one that’s epitomized by Cecil B. DeMille’s opening narration.  “”A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus — and this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops — and of the men and women who fight to make it — The Greatest Show On Earth!”  DeMille was 71 years old when he made The Greatest Show On Earth and he was coming to the end of a legendary filmmaking career.  DeMille was one of the founders of the American film industry and you can argue that, if not for some of his silent spectacles, Hollywood would have always remained just a neglected suburb of Los Angeles.  If anyone understood that importance of that old saying, “The show must go on!,” it was Cecil B. DeMille.  And really, that’s what The Greatest Show On Earth is all about.  It’s a tribute to the performers who refuse to give up.  Love triangles?  Fugitive clowns?  Injured acrobats?  Lawrence Tierney?  No matter what, the show must go on!

The Greatest Show On Earth is often described as being one of the worst films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  That has more to do with the quality of the films that it beat — High Noon, The Quiet Man, Moulin Rouge, and Ivanhoe — than the film itself.  The Greatest Show On Earth is old-fashioned and a bit silly but it’s still entertaining.  Should it have beaten High Noon?  That would be a definite no.  But it’s still better than Crash.

Blues On The Downbeat: ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (United Artists 1959)


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Desperate men commit desperate acts, and the three protagonists of ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW are desperate indeed in this late entry in the film noir cycle. This is a powerful film that adds social commentary to the usual crime and it’s consequences plot by tainting one of the protagonists with the brush of racism. Robert Wise, who sharpened his skills in the RKO editing room, directs the film in a neo-realistic style, leaving the studio confines for the most part behind, and the result is a starkly lit film where the shadows of noir only dominate at night.

But more on Wise later… first, let’s meet our three anti-heroes. We see Earle Slater (Robert Ryan ) walking down a New York street bathed in an eerie white glow (Wise used infra-red film to achieve the effect). Slater’s a fish out of water, a transplanted Southerner drifted North, a loser and loose cannon…

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Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3


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To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest…

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Happy 100th Birthday Kirk Douglas: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (MGM 1952)


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Today is the 100th birthday of movie legend Kirk Douglas! Like Olivia de Havilland earlier this year, Kirk is one of the last living Golden Age greats. Bursting onto the screen in film noir classics like THE STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS and OUT OF THE PAST , he first received top billing in the 1949 boxing noir CHAMPION, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance. Later, Kirk starred in some of the best films Hollywood has to offer: ACE IN THE HOLE, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , LUST FOR LIFE (his second Oscar nom, though he never won the statue), PATHS OF GLORY, SPARTACUS, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. One of my personal favorites is 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

One of those Hollywood movies about making Hollywood movies, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is expertly directed by insider Vincent Minnelli, who knew this material like the back of his hand. Aided…

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The Big Let-Down: CHANDLER (MGM 1971)


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“Some (producers) are able and humane men and some are low-grade individuals with the morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine, and the manners of a floorwalker with delusions of grandeur”- Raymond Chandler, “Writers in Hollywood”, first published in Esquire Magazine, Nov. 1945

I had high hopes for CHANDLER, I really did. An homage to the hard-boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler (born July 23, 1888) with Warren Oates as the titular detective sounded like it’d be right up my dark alley. But as much as I wanted to like this movie, I was let down by its slow pace, convoluted script, and butchering by studio execs. Much of the film was cut, scenes were replaced, and the result is an evocative mood piece that ultimately doesn’t satisfy the noir lover in me.

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I don’t have a problem with Warren Oates as Chandler, with his Bogie-esque look and low-key performance…

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Film Review: Chandler (1971, directed by Paul Magwood)


C1971chandler1handler (Warren Oates) is a former private investigator who quits his job as a security guard and gets back into the detective game.  An old friend of his, Bernie Oakman (Charles McGraw), hires Chandler to follow and protect a woman named Katherine Creighton (Leslie Caron).  Katherine is scheduled to testify against gangster John Melchior (Gordon Pinset) and Oakman tells Chandler that he believes Melchior may be planning on murdering her.  What Chandler does not know is that Oakman is being manipulated by a corrupt federal agent, Ross Carmady (Alex Dreier), who is planning on duping Chandler into killing Melchior so that Carmady can take over Melchior’s racket.  Though Chandler tries not to get emotionally involved in his cases, he ends up falling for Katherine.

In case you are keeping count, Chandler is the sixth Warren Oates film that I’ve reviewed this week.  Some of that is because TCM devoted all of Monday to showing his films but it’s also because Warren Oates was a really cool actor who died too soon and never got as much credit as he deserved.  Warren Oates combined the talent of a leading man with the face of a character actor and, as a result, he played some of the most memorable supporting roles of the 60s and 70s.  He was the tough guy who could talk a mile a minute and his upturned grin always showed up at the most unexpected of times.  Warren Oates brought humanity to outcasts and sympathy to villains.

Chandler is one of Warren Oates’s few leading roles.  Unfortunately, it’s not much of a showcase.  Director Paul Magwood and producer Michael Laughlin felt that the then-head of MGM, James Thomas Aubrey, interfered with the production of the film.  After the film’s release, Magwood and Laughlin took out a full-page, black-bordered ad in Variety that read:

Regarding what was our film Chandler, let’s give credit where credit is due. We sadly acknowledge that all editing, post-production as well as additional scenes were executed by James T. Aubrey Jr. We are sorry.

Chandler is a strange film to watch.  The plot is complicated but nothing really happens until the downbeat ending.  Much like Robert Altman’s far more successful The Long GoodbyeChandler tries to contrast the title character’s old-fashioned 1940s style and moral code with the 70s.  Chandler, who always wears a suit and drives an old car, is meant to be a man out of time.  Warren Oates does a good job, giving a Humphrey Bogart-style performance.  But since Chandler doesn’t seem to be sure what it is trying to say about either the 40s or the 70s, it’s all for naught.

Chandler is a forgettable film, one that is only worth watching for the rare chance to see Warren Oates as a leading man.

Warren Oates in Chandler

Warren Oates as Chandler

 

Ghosts of Christmas Past #24: It’s a Wonderful Life


Just in case you somehow missed your chance to see one of the greatest films ever made, here’s Frank Capra’s classic It’s A Wonderful Life.  I’ve seen this movie a countless number of times.  I can recite every line by memory.  And yet, every time I watch it, I still get tears in my eyes.  If you missed it on TV this year, please feel free to watch it below.

Incidentally, I always related to Violet.

Lisa Marie Reviews The Oscar Winners: The Bad and the Beautiful (dir by Vincente Minnelli)


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What can I say about The Bad and the Beautiful?

Released in 1952 and directed by Vincente Minnelli, The Bad and the Beautiful is arguably one of the greatest films ever made.  It’s certainly one of my favorite films.

Perhaps appropriately, The Bad and the Beautiful is a film about the movies.

Jonathan Shields (played in a truly amazing performance by Kirk Douglas) is a legendary film producer.  He’s won Oscars, he’s got a reputation for being a genius, and, as the film begins, he is one of the most hated men in Hollywood.  It’s been years since Shields made a succesful film but he thinks that he’s finally come up with a movie that can put him back on top.  His assistant, Harry Pebbel (played with a weary dignity by Walter Pidgeon), invites Hollywood’s best director, actress, and screenwriter to a meeting and he proceeds to spend the rest of the film trying to convince them to help Jonathan make his comeback.

The only problem is that all three of them hate Jonathan Shields and have sworn that they’ll never work with him again.  Through the use of flashbacks, we see how each of them first met Jonathan and how each eventually came to despise him.

Director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) first met Jonathan when Jonathan hired him to pretend to be a mourner at his father’s funeral.  With Jonathan’s help, Fred moves up from directing B-movies to finally getting a chance to make his dream movie, an adaptation of a believably pretentious novel called The Far Off Mountain.  With Jonathan’s help, Fred even gets womanizing film star Gaucho Ribera (a hilariously vain Gilbert Roland) to agree to star in Fred’s movie.  Jonathan also introduces Fred to Georgia (Lana Turner), the alcoholic daughter of Jonathan’s mentor.

Jonathan eventually makes Georgia into a film star and Georgia falls in love with him.  Of all the major actresses of the 1950s, Lana Turner seems to get the least amount of respect from film historians.  She’s more remembered today as the epitome of glamour and scandal but, in The Bad and the Beautiful, Turner gives one of the best performances of her career.  In her best scene, Georgia has a nervous breakdown while driving in the rain and, for those few minutes, you forget that you’re watching an iconic film star.  Instead, you’re just amazed by the performance.

Finally, the screenwriter is James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), an intellectual novelist who is brought to Hollywood by Jonathan.  While the reluctant Bartlow finds himself being seduced by J0nathan, his flighty wife (Gloria Grahame) is seduced by Gaucho.

The Bad and the Beautiful is perhaps one of the few perfect movies ever made, a film that qualifies as both art and entertainment.  There are so many reasons why I love this film that its hard for me to describe them all.  The film snob in me loves the fact that Minnelli directed The Bad and the Beautiful as if it were a classic black-and-white film noir.  The entire film is lit and shot to emphasize shadows and moral ambiguity.  As played by Kirk Douglas, Jonathan Shields is as seductive and dangerous a figure as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.  My inner film historian loves the fact that the film is full of barely disguised portraits of real life Hollywood figures like David O. Selznick, Val Lewton, Alfred Hitchcock, and Diane Barrymore.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, my girly girl side loves that this film is basically a big melodramatic soap opera.  Lana Turner’s outfits are to die for and Jonathan Shields is the ultimate bad boy that we can’t help but love.

The Bad and the Beautiful received 6 Oscar nominations but it wasn’t nominated for best picture.  (This snub is all the more surprising when you consider what the Academy did name as the best picture of 1952 — Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth.)  Out of those six nominations, the Bad and the Beautiful won five Oscars.  (Of all the film’s nominees, only Kirk Douglas failed to win.)  As of this writing, The Bad and the Beautiful still holds the record for most Oscars won by a film that failed to be nominated for best picture.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Crossfire (dir. by Edward Dmytryk)


I recently decided that I wanted to watch and review every single movie ever nominated for the Academy Award for best picture.  As part of that mission, I recently rewatched one of my favorite also-rans, 1947’s Crossfire.

Crossfire is a message movie disguised as a B detective flick.  A group of soldiers who have just returned from World War II decide to get together for a drink.  At the bar, they run into a civilian named Joseph Samuels (Sam Levine).  The soldiers end up going back to Samuels’s apartment and the next morning, Samuels is found dead.  Obviously, he was killed by one of the soldiers but which one.  Suspicion falls on the meek (and missing) Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie) but police detective Finlay (Robert Young) and Sgt. Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum) both (correctly) suspect that Samuels was actually murdered by the far more outspoken and imposing Montgomery (Robert Ryan).  It quickly becomes obvious that Montgomery is an anti-Semite who killed Samuels solely because he was Jewish.  However, neither Finlay or Keeley can prove it.  The film quickly becomes a darkly intense duel between these three men as Finlay and Keeley attempt to trick Montgomery into implicating himself while Montgomery attempts to further frame Bowers for the murder.

Before Crossfire, director Edward Dmytryk specialized in making low-budget “B” movies and he brings that noir, near-grindhouse sensibility to Crossfire.  As a result, Crossfire is a one of those rare “message” films that is actually entertaining.  Only a few times does the film start to feel preachy and luckily, Robert Mitchum is there being his usual cynical self.  If anyone could deflate the pompous nature of the mid-40s message movie, it was Robert Mitchum.  The film says, “Love one another.”  Mitchum replies, “Baby, I just don’t give a damn,” and he keeps things from getting too heavy-handed.  Mitchum is one of three Roberts to star in this film.  Robert Young plays the police inspector with just the right amount of world-weary indignation while Robert Ryan is a force of nature as the film’s brutal murderer.  Don’t get me wrong.  You can pretty much peg Ryan as a killer from the first minute he shows up on-screen.  If Mitchum and Young smartly underplay their roles, Ryan goes the exact opposite direction.  He’s an obvious brute but he’s also totally believable.  You look at his character and it’s not difficult to imagine him passing the collection plate at Westboro Baptist Church.  As well, Crossfire also features an excellent supporting term by one of my favorite noir actresses, the great and wonderful Gloria Grahame.  She plays Bowers’ married girlfriend and gives a compellingly, real performance that suggests that maybe Hollywood in the 40s wasn’t quite as clueless as we all like to assume.

Crossfire was nominated for Best Picture of 1947 but it lost to another film about anti-Semitism, Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement.  (Oddly enough, both Kazan and Dmytryk would end up naming names during the McCarthy Era.)  Like Gentleman’s Agreement, Crossfire was based on a novel.  However, in the original novel, the victim was not Jewish but instead was gay.  However, back in the 1940s, the Hollywood Production Code specifically forbade any open depiction of homosexuality and so, the crime went from being motivated by homophobia to anti-Semitism.