Welcome to yet another attempt to confirm my OCD — and yours, apparently! Let’s take a look at the Lost Six for this year (the six I didn’t cover in my book): Best Documentary (Feature and Short); Best Short Subject (One-Reel and Two-Reel); Best Sound; and Best Editing.
Best Documentary Feature:
Walt Disney continued to rack up his dominance in this category with another True-Life Adventure, the companion to last year’s winner, The Living Desert:
I recall seeing this and The Living Desert together when Disney re-released them as a pair in 1971. One of the great tragedies of the rise of VHS and DVD players is the end of this tradition Disney (and other studios) had of re-releasing pictures for a new generation. Movies were meant to be seen on the big-screen, with an audience!
Here’s the prairie dog segment of The Vanishing Prairie:
The only other nominee in the category this year — the scarcity a sign of how the long form documentary was going into decline in the Fifties, as the studios dropped them like cow chips — was The Stratford Adventure, a Canadian record of founding of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada. Film fans will want to see this for a chance to watch Alec Guinness on stage, starring in Richard III. You can see the entire film on the National Film Board of Canada’s website here:
And here is how it was originally seen, as a double feature:
Best Documentary Short:
Thursday’s Children is a British short about The Royal School for the Deaf, which showcases the historical oddity of focusing on teaching lip reading instead of sign language, which is the norm now. Richard Burton narrates. Clearly, the intent was to erase, as much as possible, the stigma of being deaf, rather than focusing on helping them to learn to communicate. One oddity, as a remnant of my childhood popped up unexpectedly, with the book Little Black Sambo. I recall finding this in the hundreds of children’s books from the Fifties my parents had bought for my brothers, who are a decade older than me. Even as a child, I found it uncomfortable. Those kinds of racist images were disappearing in the late Sixties and early Seventies; the restaurant Sambo’s had changed their character in their coloring book to an Indian, then shortly dropped it all together and changed their name to The Friendly Tiger. When that failed, they became Season’s. Shortly thereafter, they closed completely, except for the original restaurant, surviving today in Santa Barbara, California today as an historical landmark under the original name.
Here is the short, in two parts:
The next nominee was Jet Carrier, filmed aboard the USS Yorktown by Otto Lang, a ski instructor turned Hollywood producer because he taught celebrities how to ski in Sun Valley (he worked on Sun Valley Serenade, as well as Tora! Tora! Tora!). Unfortunately, the short seems to have vanished, although it was filmed in Cinemascope by Twentieth Century-Fox.
The last official nominee was Rembrandt: A Self-Portrait, produced by Morrie Roizman, of whom I know nothing. One assumes the short is about Rembrandt, but unfortunately, as with so many short subjects, no trace seems to exist of this film. I would really like to see this one.
Best Live Action Short, One-Reel:
The winner this year This Mechanical Age, a history of early aviation. Robert Youngson produced. Youngson is most famous for his efforts in the late Fifties and early Sixties to bring back the silent comedians to our national attention, an effort that was highly successful for a generation. He compiled and released The Golden Age of Comedy and When Comedy Was King. This Mechanical Age can be seen here, with some proprietary graphics:
Otto Lang (Jet Carrier) scored another nomination with his short, The First Piano Quartette, which is, like Jet Carrier, sadly missing, although it was filmed in Cinemascope by Twentieth Century-Fox. A musical quartet — Glauco D’Attilli, Adan Garner, Edward Edson, and Frank Mittler — play Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malaguena,” Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” and John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
MGM continued in the same musical vein in The Strauss Fantasy, with Johnny Green conducting the MGM Symphony Orchestra in a medley of Strauss waltzes and polkas. One presumes, as with the Otto Lang pieces, that they are still in the vaults, awaiting re-release on some appropriate DVD as special features.
Best Live-Action Short, Two-Reel:
Two UCLA students won the Oscar for A Time Out of War, a Civil War film based on a public domain story from 1897 by Robert W. Chambers, a writer remembered today almost entirely for his influence on H.P. Lovecraft with the weird tales in his collection, The King in Yellow. Denis Sanders and his brother Terry used this short — and the Oscar — to catapult themselves into film careers. Charles Laughton was so impressed with the short he hired the brothers as second unit directors for his magnificent The Night of the Hunter. Denis directed the film debuts of Robert Redford, Tom Skeritt, Sydney Pollack, and George Harrison in 1962 with War Hunt. He would go on to win another Oscar in 1970 for his documentary, Czechoslovakia 1968. Terry made a number of documentaries, and he continues as a filmmaker today.
A Time Out of War is clearly an anti-war piece, calling on us to recall our common humanity with the enemy.
Oddly enough, I had a teacher back in high school show us this on a movie projector, and I recall how moved we were. Nobody had much to say; nobody needed to. I would really like to see this one again, but it seems to be unavailable.
The next nominee was Otto Lang, double dipping with his film Jet Carrier. Unfortunately, it’s still missing.
Beauty and the Bull was the next nominee, offering up Bette Ford — better known as an actress in Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact — as a tourist in Mexico who gets excited by bullfighting and eventually trains to be a matador. She was the first American woman to appear as a bullfighter in Mexico’s largest bullring! While I couldn’t find the short, here is Ford on What’s My Line, with Ernie Kovacs as one of the guest questioners!
The final nominee is another Disney short in his People and Places series, Siam. Today known as Thailand, Siam is shown as a place of exotic beauty and interest. Unfortunately, the short seems to be completely unavailable, which is highly unusual for Disney, who have spent a considerable amount of effort in recent years making practically EVERYTHING available. I grew up with the accompanying book — and I recall it with fondness, and look forward to seeing the short someday,
Best Sound Recording:
The Glenn Miller Story won for best sound recording, and it’s not hard to see why. Even though Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson don’t really do much more than play their basic screen personalities — Stewart the aw-shucks humble good guy, and Allyson the eternally devoted wife — there is a charm to the music that can’t be denied. Miller himself was a real son-of-a-bitch taskmaster, and was far from the devoted husband shown here. The music also didn’t develop in anywhere near the fashion shown here, but there is much big band vanilla to enjoy. I still hope that someday somebody will film the life story of Duke Ellington, a far greater composer, innovator, and bandleader, and do the man justice.
Brigadoon isn’t the best musical MGM ever made, although Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse have their moments. The budget cuts necessitated by the declining box office doom Brigadoon to second class status, unfortunately.
The strawberries! Actually, I think The Caine Mutiny got a nomination for us being able to hear Humphrey Bogart’s steel ball bearings clicking more than anything else.
Rear Window is an outstanding choice, given the subtle nuances of Jimmy Stewart’s voice throughout, captured as perfectly as the gentle swish of Grace Kelly’s fashion designs and Thelma Ritter’s wisecracks.
The final nomination is an odd one: Susan Slept Here, with Dick Powell (in his last screen appearance) and Debbie Reynolds, mining the cute. I’m not sure why there’s a nod here for sound recording, and I think A Star Is Born would have made a much better choice, for capturing Judy Garland’s final screen songs so brilliantly.
This time, they were more than a contendah!
On the Waterfront is a reasonable choice, although nothing fancy occurs in the editing. Just very effective storytelling (even if Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg were rat bastards during the McCarthy era).
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is an eminently acceptable choice, for helping to merge the special effects with the more mundane footage. The battle with the squid should be a textbook example of how to cut action sequences, and I might even go so far to argue that that scene is the best editing of the year, even if much of the rest of the picture weren’t so mundane and slow-paced).
The Caine Mutiny is not a film I would recommend for editing, since it badly needs about a half an hour torn out (the pointless romance, particularly).
Ditto with The High and the Mighty, which is badly in need of pruning and a considerable amount of rewriting on the often bone-headed script.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, on the other hand, should receive more kudos for the inventive pacing and staging of the musical numbers, particularly the barn-raising (destroying?).
I might suggest a better choice for the editing Oscar would have been Rear Window, for reasons I think are obvious — no other film this year is more expertly cut to tell a story.
And that completes yet one more year of penance! You can see why I did avoid the shorter categories — what were once simply holes have moved into entire categories being almost vanished. I do hope somebody finds a way to recover these lost films — which I suspect exist in vaults out there. I think the Academy should put some more effort into preserving their history — which they already do much for — and find a way to release these shorts in collected packages. I know TCM shows shorts several times a month as fillers — perhaps they can go look for these, since they probably own the rights to most of them.
So that’s 1954! 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