1953 inaugurates the new season of guilt, contrition, penance, and redemption, as I continue my quest to fill in all the blanks I left in my books.
This time, we’re going through Book 3: 1953-1963, a decade that saw the studios lose much of their traditional character, as the moguls died, television boob-tubed, the Production Code began cracking, the stars began dominating film-making, and most of the categories I left out of the book became increasingly the province of dedicated amateurs, enthusiasts, and Machiavellians out to find a way to break into feature films.
Of course, little of that is true of the Best Editing category, although I’m sure they have their share of oddballs (don’t we all?). Editing was omitted simply due to my feeling that I wasn’t talented enough, educated enough, or bright enough to really do justice to what may be the greatest of all film-making arts. Chalk it up to my arrogance, guilt, obsessive need for completion, and my apparent masochism that I just can’t leave well enough alone.
Other than editing, the missing categories from my books include Best Documentary (Feature and Short); Best Short Subject (One-Reel and Two-Reel); Best Sound; and very shortly, Best Foreign Film, or as I like to call it, the Academy creates a pretty little fenced-in area to keep all those damn furriners out of their pasture! Hollywood barely tolerates competition from Britain, because those English talk so pretty, and so many of them came to America before WWII the Academy couldn’t lock them out without appearing impolite. The Best Foreign Language Film has rules all its own, mostly having to do with countries submitting their choices for consideration, ignoring the American release date that all the other categories follow, and pretty much only a handful of Academy voters ever bothering to watch them before they vote for the best one (with rare exception).
The Academy had tried to be polite about blocking out foreign films by handing out an honorary Oscar to what a small group of them considered the best of that year, but other branches persisted (before and after the new category) to nominate foreign films for competitive Oscars in other categories. Here is a list of the honorees who were named Best Foreign Language Film: 1947, Shoe-shine; 1948: Monsieur Vincent; 1949: The Bicycle Thief; 1950: The Walls of Malapaga; 1951: Rashomon; 1952: Forbidden Games; 1953: no honoree; 1954: Gate of Hell; and 1955: Samurai, Legend of Musashi. I’ve seen most of those, but I will be doing a special page for them as soon as I can track down the rogues who have escaped me thus far. Overall, they didn’t do so bad, although there are a couple of years where they blew it completely. But any list that includes Shoe-shine, The Bicycle Thief, and Rashomon shows some intelligence at work!
Back to 1953 and the Lost Six!
Best Documentary Feature:
Let’s start with the long form first:
Walt Disney continued to dominate this category with his True-Life Adventures, which were often fictionalized (don’t get me started about the poor lemmings they threw off a cliff…). This time, he won with The Living Desert. Actually, Disney dominated most of these categories this year, along with Best Animated Short; this is the year Walt set a record for most Oscar wins, as he got four, including both the documentary categories, the cartoon, and the two-reel short subject. The Living Desert is built around a ten-minute combat between a tarantula and a tarantula wasp — hey, you’d fight having eggs laid in you too! — staged and filmed by a doctoral student at UCLA, N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr., who went on to further work for Disney, as well as sharing a technical Oscar in 1978 for helping to invent a snorkel camera. There is also a scorpion battle, this one set to hoe-down music. Audiences loved it — as did I, when I saw it as a kid. Seen today, it can be a bit of a stretch, but then, we’ve been spoiled by so many hundreds of more accurate nature documentaries that followed in the wake of Disney’s pioneering efforts.
Here is Walt Disney accepting his Oscars this year:
And now, the summit is reached!
The Conquest of Everest is about precisely that: trying to climb the tallest mountain in the world. The British filmmaker George Lowe was also an expert climber, taking part in the successful ascent of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Here is a clip:
The final official nominee for this category is A Queen Is Crowned, about the coronation of the QEII in 1952. No, not the ship, and I’m fairly certain that they didn’t crack her over the head with champagne, either. Queen Elizabeth II of England still reigns as of 2015, a reign that will surpass that of her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, on September 9, 2015. Laurence Olivier narrates this technicolor record of the last British coronation.
You too can watch the monarch start monarching, and perhaps you may come to regret the American Revolution…or celebrate that epochal moment all the more:
Best Documentary Short:
Walt Disney again won, this time for The Alaskan Eskimo, an entry in a series called People and Places. Essentially, this is the left over footage shot by husband-and-wife team Alfred and Elma Milotte, when it was left out of Seal Island. Like Seal Island, The Alaskan Eskimo is historically important as a snapshot of a time and place. You can watch it here:
The Living City is the product of future great cinematographer and documentary director Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night) and John Barnes (a documentarian with a taste for English literature, producing a number of shorts on Shakespeare). Cue Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Chicago” — a few years too early, but the Second City is the subject:
Secret military bases, anybody? Freezing off your tuchus to win the Cold War, anybody? If so, check out Operation Blue Jay, which shows the building of Thule Air Base in Greenland, which was the furthest north of any American military installation:
You can get in on the secret here:
Dam them! Dam them all! Give a dam! Now that I have your attention, watch They Planted a Stone if you want to see the Nile river irrigate the Sudan. Dam! Dam! Dam!
What is The Word? I literally have no idea, although I doubt very much the bird is the word. Have fun with the ear worm, because all trace of this 1953 nominee has vanished. I can tell you John Healy and John Adams produced, and that Twentieth Century – Fox released it. More than that, I cannot say.
Best Live Action Short, One-Reel:
The Merry Wives of Windsor Overture won because MGM’s musical conductor Johnny Green conducted the MGM Symphony Orchestra in this short, playing the…wait for it…overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Falstaff play as an opera by Otto Nicolai. MGM wanted to show off the new stereo sound and widescreen color it had developed, as a war against television and low-brow entertainment with this elegant if stilted little concert piece.
You can take a gander and get high-toned yourself:
Christ Among the Primitives is an intriguing title. I know Jesus, but I’m not quite sure who the primitives are here. Here’s everything I do know: the short is Italian, and nobody has any more information than what you now possess. Welcome to my ignorance!
Want to go catch some smelly fish? Let’s watch Herring Hunt! The National Film Board of Canada worked with RKO to release this short about the perils of the fishing industry. Thankfully, Canada has done a very good job cataloguing its cinematic history in this period, so here’s the website along with the video:
How is your Joy of Living? Perhaps this might make you happier: the subtitle is The Art of Renoir. Jean Oser directed; Peter Allen narrated. I would guess this is a filmed trip through Renoir’s art, which I would dearly love to see. Unfortunately, there isn’t a trace of it out there. Unfortunate. Here’s a lovely landscape to keep you looking!
Wee Water Wonders isn’t home video of potty training. Jack Eaton directed; Ward Wilson narrated. Grantland Rice Sportlight, for Paramount; I suspect this may have been small children playing some kind of water sports (and NOT that kind, you sick puppies!). This is another one that has completely vanished.
Best Live-Action Short, Two-Reel:
Disney continued picking up awards with Bear Country, a short entry in the True-Life Adventure series. This time around, we see da bears. Lots of bears. No Goldilocks — just bears. Here’s a clip:
Disney grabbed another nomination for their adaptation of the 1939 classic children’s tale by Robert Lawson of a mouse who helps Ben Franklin with his inventions — and the birth of the United States. The short was packaged with The Living Desert for the initial release in theaters. The voices are a wonderful collection: Winnie the Pooh — Sterling Holloway — plays Amos, the mouse; veteran character actor Charles Ruggles (Bringing up Baby) plays Franklin; Hans Conreid plays Jefferson. Charming — and, I think, more enduring than Disney’s original winner, Bear Country, and more deserving of the Oscar in this category.
Here’s the short:
The next nominee is a true obscurity: Orson Welles, taking a break from filming Othello, tells a ghost story of vanishing hitch-hikers and a castle in Return to Glennascaul.
Hilton Edwards directed; Welles narrates after a brief opening appearance. Worth seeing — and now you can!
The next nominee is Vesuvius Express, Twentieth-Century Fox’s first Cinemascope travelogue, shot aboard a train traveling through Italy before arriving at the famed volcano. The short accompanied the release of Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. The short has vanished into the vaults. I am surprised it’s never been included as a DVD extra.
The final nominee is Winter Paradise, from Warner Brothers. John Jay directed; Art Gilmore narrated. The alternate title is Alpine Safari, which leads me to suspect it’s a travelogue to the Alps, but again, like Vesuvius Express, the short has vanished into the vaults. Again, why this has not been slipped onto some release as a DVD extra is beyond me.
Best Sound Recording:
From Here to Eternity won, as it did in numerous categories this year.
I have no particular complaints about this winning; I’ve never noticed anything imperfect about the film’s technical achievements; the sound works from the explosions to the smoochy waves.
Calamity Jane was more than likely nominated for conveying the bullets, the ballads, and the barnburners. Fun but trivial.
Iron jockstraps, anybody? Knights of the Round Table and other medieval tales were Robert Taylor’s bread-and-butter in the Fifties. He called them his iron jockstrap movies. I suspect the nomination was for all the clashing of swords, along with MGM’s block voting.
The Mississippi Gambler is the unexpected nominee here, from Universal. The Mississippi Gambler stars Tyrone Power as the title character, romancing Piper Laurie while Julie Adams pines for him. This is the only one of the sound recording nominees I hadn’t seen — minor fluff, but enjoyable once.
The final nominee is the science fiction classic, The War of the Worlds. Given the sound effects they had to invent, and then fold into the model work and live action, I would argue this is the film which should have won. Originality should generally trump repetition — and those ray guns aren’t going to shoot themselves! The Oscar should have gone to Loren L. Ryder.
Our final go-round for today is the best editing category. Editors can make or break a film — they are the great unsung artists of the film world. This year, the Oscar went to From Here to Eternity, as it did in so many categories. Certainly, keeping a juggernaut of a film like this one requires a considerable amount of stamina, and William Lyon certainly proved he had that. He also edited Picnic and The Caine Mutiny. I have no particular reason to question this selection, but let’s take a look at the other nominees:
Crazylegs is the one movie I hadn’t seen, a low-budget football flick from Republic Pictures, which was riding high from the profits the low-budget studio made from its association with John Wayne and John Ford (The Quiet Man, for example). The movie stars Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch as himself — not unlike Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth, who also played themselves at times. Basically, the editing award seems to be for including so much newsreel footage in the filmed narrative, but seen today, the achievement is not that impressive. Here is a clip:
The next nominee was the formerly naughty The Moon Is Blue, which is so tame now even the Disney Channel would run it today.
I simply can’t see any reason why this should have been nominated, unless editors really like the risque bits which led to the film being released — successfully — without the Production Code’s approval.
Roman Holiday is my favorite adult fairy tale. Brilliantly acted, and one of the few romance movies to refuse the easy out of a happy ending. The editing is highly professional and provides the cleanest, fastest route through the story (a lesson today’s editors and directors need to learn, as movies have increasingly bloated too much).
The final nominee is The War of the Worlds, which seamlessly edits together the special effects footage and the live action, which I suspect is the reason for the nomination — a well deserved one!
So that’s 1953! Thanks for coming by!
Feel free to make other suggestions below in the comments.
As always, I have much more to say in my book: http://www.amazon.com/WHO-Won-Irreverent-Look-Oscars/dp/069232318X/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8