Lana Turner

Thoughts on the Ultimate Hollywood Film

Kirk Douglas is pleased with Lana Turner's performance - for now. Image: The Guardian

Kirk Douglas is pleased with Lana Turner’s performance – for now. Image: The Guardian

*SPOILER & CYNIC ALERTS*

Quick! Without searching online, do you know who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year? … Anyone?

Alas, this is the downside of winning a Big Prize. In time, winners’ names become reduced to a trivia answer. (“I’ll take last year’s winners for $200, Alex.”)

There are countless movies that examine winning big prizes or, rather, winning big in life. One film, the 1952 drama, The Bad and the Beautiful, examines winning in Hollywood.

We think The Bad and the Beautiful could be the ultimate Hollywood film, but not in the way you might expect.

First, let us say this is a well-crafted film with inspiring performances. It would take us at least week to describe how brilliantly cast these actors are, under the expert direction of Vincente Minnelli.

Told through flashbacks, the film is cordoned into three sections as told from the perspective of three characters, each a member of the Hollywood elite. Common to all of these characters is Jonathan Shield (Kirk Douglas), a ruthless but charming movie mogul who uses people then beats them at their own game.

Douglas’ character has been exiled from Hollywood and is languishing in Europe. In an attempt to resuscitate his career, he arranges a phone meeting with the three people he’s used the most: a film director (Barry Sullivan); an actress (Lana Turner); and a screenwriter (Dick Powell). Each of these has a heart-wrenching story of how Douglas used them and knocked them aside.

At first the trio is reluctant to have the teleconference with Douglas, let alone work with him again. But Douglas’ ally/producer (Walter Pidgeon), a smooth-talking diplomat, explains to each of them how Douglas has actually boosted their careers. The director has twice been awarded an Oscar. The actress is a top box-office draw. And the writer has won the Pulitzer Prize.

See? Douglas’ character isn’t that bad, explains Pidgeon. He’s actually helped you people. It’s not like he’s killed anyone.

Oh. Wait a minute.

Let’s look at Powell’s character. He wrote a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about a southern woman based on his late wife; a woman who died in an accident during an illicit rendezvous that Douglas had arranged. Douglas didn’t mean for the woman to die; after all, it was her choice to jump at the bait he offered. Is it Douglas’ fault he spotted her weakness and gave her a push? But now that she’s dead, Powell ends up writing the Great American Novel. Pidgeon’s character tells Powell he should be grateful.

Grateful? For losing his wife?

Similarly, Sullivan’s character thinks he’s Douglas’ friend and entrusts him to direct a screenplay he wrote. Douglas steals the screenplay and manages to get Sullivan fired from the project. As for Turner’s character, she falls in love with Douglas; their relationship lasts during the filming of a movie, then he dumps her without warning.

Pidgeon also tells Sullivan and Turner they should be grateful, too. Being used and stabbed in the back in return for more money and fame is worth it, apparently. Why else would you develop relationships?

Is this really the underlying message here? Relationships are expendable when furthering your career? It’s all worth it if you attain greater material success?

The Bad and the Beautiful is a perfect example of a character-driven film and, if you haven’t seen it, you really ought. You may not agree with our cynical view of the film, but we think you’ll be intrigued by its steely-eyed view of Hollywood.

The Bad and the Beautiful: starring Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Written by Charles Schnee. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., B&W, 1952, 116 mins.

Questions about (another) Trial of the Century

This hurts us more than it hurts you

Clinton Rosemond is told he’s the fall-back accused.

Gentle Reader, we have done you a disservice.

We screened the 1937 drama They Won’t Forget but, oddly, we have formed no insightful opinions. We have nothing but questions.

First: Why are the opening credits so creepy? Look:

Don’t stare at it for too long. It’ll make you go cross-eyed.

Next: What happened in this movie?

Here’s what we do know. In a small southern town, a business college student (a pre-blonde Lana Turner in one of her first movie roles) is murdered on Confederate Memorial Day. But why was she killed? Did she have unsavoury information about someone? Was she a secret agent, or a visitor from another planet? The answer is never given.

We know that the African-American janitor of the school (Clinton Rosemond) finds the body and calls police. Of course he is arrested, and it’s because he’s a plausible suspect, right? Not because, as an African American, he’s handy for police to nab?

(Sub-Question #1: Why isn’t Rosemond, as an actor, allowed to give his character any dignity? He relegated to playing the character like a hysterical child who weeps over and over, “I didn’t do it!”)

Meanwhile, the district attorney (Claude Rains) discovers that an instructor (Edward Norris) was in the building when the student was murdered. The college instructor is arrested and promoted to Prime Suspect.

We as viewers are forced to face a difficult revelation: Rains (upon whom we – as in yours truly – thinks the sun rises and sets) is unable to do a convincing southern accent. We are not a little disappointed by this; however, Rains still gives an entertaining performance of a man determined to see justice done – not because he cares about justice, but because it would help his political career.

Back to the Questions! A trial date is arranged for the college instructor; but why is there no mention of a trial for the janitor, who is still in jail? Not only that, he is told that if the college instructor is found innocent he (the janitor) will be put to death.

(Sub-Question #2: This is a realistic depiction of the American justice system? Seriously? In the event one man is found innocent, there’s an accused-in-waiting who can be called up to death row? Without trial?)

This is a film about prejudice, as we are continually reminded. The college instructor is a northerner who feels uneasy about southern sentiments towards him. As this particular Trial Of The Century gears up (yes, another TOTC), the South feels slighted by the North’s newspapers. We suppose this is prejudice of a sort, but why does it feel more like unfinished Civil War business?

And why would this kind of prejudice be more important than a man languishing in prison without rights or a proper attorney?

(Sub-Question #3: Gloria Dickson, who plays the wife of the accused college instructor, is utterly fabulous. Why didn’t they write more lines for her, for Pete’s sake?)

Dear Reader, we are loathe to present you with such a noncommittal appraisal. We are truly unable to figure out if we liked this movie or not. If you see it, please let us know what you decide.

They Won’t Forget: starring Claude Rains, Gloria Dickson, Edward Norris. Written by Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Warner Bros. Pictures, B&W, 1937, 90 mins.