Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!
As many of you know — and if you don’t, don’t you think you should? — I’ve been using the Special Features here on this blog to fill in the missing categories for my book series, WHO Won?!? An Irreverent Look at the Oscars. 1956 still sees me omitting the Secret Six: Best Documentary (Feature and Short), Best Short Subject (One-Reel and Two-Reel), Best Sound, and Best Editing.
But here comes the new quandary: Best Foreign Language Film has been shifted to a competitive category, rather than an honorary one. I’ve often speculated the Academy did this for two reasons: one, to show how cosmopolitan they were; and two, to keep those pesky foreign films out of their own categories. Not that there weren’t occasionally foreign films nominated, particularly in writing, art design, and costume design, but much of Hollywood remained hopelessly provincial in the Fifties, and desperately selfish for much of the rest of the century. The rules were different for Foreign Language Film as well: Instead of the Academy branches making the nominations, foreign countries were allowed to submit one entry per country, which would then be winnowed down to five by an American committee. Release dates were in their country of origin, not in America (which explains why some foreign films have two different years in which they have nominations). The director of the film is given the honor of accepting, but the Oscar itself goes to the winning country.
It all sounds suspicious to me, which is why I chose to ignore it, and consider foreign films to be nominated in their year of American release, in all categories (which has, upon occasion, happened with the official Academy Awards as well).
In the interest of being a completist, and serving the needs of my so-called public, I’m going to include the category in these special features from now on, even though tracking down some of these nominees is going to be even harder than finding short subjects nobody has seen in half a century. So fair warning: I may have to leave that section of Special Features unfinished as I struggle to locate them.
Let’s start with the documentary categories!
Best Documentary (Short):
The True Story of the Civil War won, over A City Decides, The Dark Wave, The House Without a Name, and Man in Space.
Louis Clyde Stoumen directed The True Story of the Civil War, which is narrated by Lincoln and John Brown themselves, Raymond Massey. Unfortunately, the short has disappeared from availability. I’d really like to see this, if only because I love Massey’s voice so much.
A City Decides is a chronicle of the crusade to desegregate the public schools in St. Louis, Missouri, Charles Guggenheim directed. Guggenheim remained committed to racial equality and liberal politics, working with both the Adlai Stevenson and Bobby Kennedy presidential campaigns. Here is this well-meaning, earnest short:
Hollywood feature director Jean Negulesco slipped into the short form for The Dark Wave, a documentary about a girl with epilepsy (the short was double-nominated, here, and in the two-reel short subject category). Charles Bickford and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, Nancy Davis, star in the fictional frame for this look at how epilepsy was diagnosed and treated in the mid-Fifties. The short was released in Cinemascope, which could explain the folks involved. Unfortunately, this short has also disappeared from availability.
The House Without a Name was written by Valentine Davies and directed by Joe Parker. Raymond Burr, Vera Miles, and Robert Ryan all appear. In what, I have no idea. Neither does the internet — nothing more than a few scant (and contradictory) credits remain.
Man in Space is a distillation of the Wernher von Braun/Willy Ley television episodes of Disneyland, directed by animation great Ward Kimball, who also narrates. The original series is a wonderful look at an important moment in the space program, when Disney and the space enthusiasts combined to educate America about the importance of going into outer space. Like Robert Heinlein’s science fiction juveniles, these programs laid the groundwork for us landing on the moon in 1969. A priceless historical artifact, although I prefer the original full-length broadcasts. Man in Space was released as a featurette with Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Here is part of the television broadcast (the featurette version doesn’t seem to have been released):
Best Documentary (Feature):
The Silent World won, over The Naked Eye and Where Mountains Float.
Enter Jacques Cousteau! For those of us of a certain age, Cousteau was as warm and familiar a television presence as Marlin Perkins and Walt Disney. Cousteau introduced an entire generation to a love of the world under the ocean surface, sailing about on the beloved Calypso. The Silent World was co-directed by Cousteau and Louis Malle, who would go on to fame as the director of a number of classic films, including Atlantic City, My Dinner with Andre, and Au revoir, les infants. Watching the film today, I was shocked by the damage done to the environment, from a baby whale being injured, to sharks being killed, and a coral reef dynamited. Not the Cousteau I grew up with! Here is the entire film:
The Naked Eye is from the director of The True Story of the Civil War, Louis Clyde Stoumen, and also features Raymond Massey narrating. Here, the history of photography is the subject. Here is an excerpt:
Finally, Where Mountains Float is a Danish documentary about a little Inuit girl with tuberculosis, and the problems her father has fishing while industrial trawlers are about. Bjarne Henning-Jensen directed. I wasn’t able to find this one, but here is the stylized movie poster:
Best Short Subject (One Reel):
Crashing the Water Barrier won over I Never Forget a Face and Time Stood Still.
Konstantin Kaiser directed Crashing the Water Barrier, a documentary about trying to break the water speed record. Knox Manning narrates; Donald Campbell flies across the waters of Lake Meade in Nevada (his father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, was a British auto-racing champion). Here is the exciting short in full:
I Never Forget a Face is from Robert Youngson, who produced a series of documentaries using silent film clips. I Never Forget a Face features appearances by Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Al Jolson, William Jennings Bryan (at the 1920 Democratic Convention, and with Clarence Darrow at the Scopes Monkey Trial), Richard Bird, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and George Bernard Shaw, among others. As a history teacher, I would have really enjoyed this one — but as is so often true, the short has vanished from availability.
Time Stood Still is a travelogue short directed by André de la Varre about the German town of Dinkelsbühl. Once again, the short is completely unavailable.
Best Short Subject (Two Reel):
The Bespoke Overcoat won, over Cow Dog, the double-dipping The Dark Wave, and Samoa.
British director Jack Clayton, soon to be famous for Room at the Top and The Innocents, directed The Bespoke Overcoat, an adaptation of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story,”The Overcoat.” Alfie Bass stars as a man who so desperately wants an overcoat, he returns from the dead to steal one from his cold-hearted boss, Alan Tilvern, with help from his still-living friend, David Kossoff. Stylish and effective, think of this as a practice run for The Innocents:
Cow Dog is not about some weird mutant (now, that might have got some attention). Instead, Australian shepherd dogs help capture a rogue Brahma bull which has been…bothering…some local cows. Larry Lansburgh wrote and directed. Slim Pickens shows up, as does Jay Sisler. Unfortunately, not a trace of this one seems available.
Samoa is a travelogue from Walt Disney. More than that, I cannot say. But there appears to have been an accompanying album:
The King and I won, in one of those-knee-jerk award choices which voters sometimes made when they really weren’t qualified to make this kind of decision (well, I’m not really qualified either, but at least I’m willing to admit it — but unless you’ve got a degree or serious sound recording experience, you’re among the great unwashed aural canals with the rest of us).
The other choices were The Brave One (probably for the “Olés” more than anything else in this bullfighting story), The Eddy Duchin Story (for which I would gladly give away an Oscar to avoid having to hear this dishrag piano garbage again), Friendly Persuasion (probably for all the gunfire the Quakers aren’t supposed to be shooting off), and The Ten Commandments.
Of those five, in my willful ignorance, I’d be most inclined to hand the Academy Award to The Ten Commandments, given all the sounds they had to manufacture from scratch — the Red Sea dividing, the spiritual visitors, the huge crowd scenes, and the voice of God, which is actually an amalgamation of Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille. If that isn’t worth an Oscar for sound recording, what is?
Around the World in 80 Days won for editing, which is again somewhat odd, given the travelogue nature of the film, and the largely static cinematography.
The other official nominees were The Brave One, Giant, Somebody Up There Likes Me, and The Ten Commandments. Bullfighting scenes, panoramic vistas, boxing shorts, and stone tablets are the likely reasons for these nominations, but once you see the three poetic masterpieces of editing which the Academy ignored, you’ll probably join me in forgetting those nominations immediately.
First, John Ford and The Searchers. Think of only two scenes: the chase after Natalie Wood down the canyon, and the final intersection between homecoming and farewell at the end.
But even more unbelievable was ignoring Akira Kuosawa, for both Ikiru and Seven Samurai!
Ikiru has many quietly beautiful scenes, but consider the final images of the old man in the rain, on the playground he has wrought with his dying days:
Seven Samurai is a revolution in editing styles, mixing slow motion and innovative cutting for a groundbreaking miracle of editing. Here is one of the many fight scenes which remade the nature of the action-adventure picture:
Best Foreign Language Film:
La strada won for Italy — and really, who can argue with that?!? — over The Burmese Harp (Japan), The Captain from Kopenick (Germany), Gervaise (France), and Qivitoq (Denmark).
And before you start screaming Ikiru and Seven Samurai, let me throw up the same gag that stopped me: the Academy rules for this category don’t involve the American release dates, but the original release in the country of origin. Ikiru is 1952; Seven Samurai is 1954. Both were released here in the US in 1956.
The problem here is that La strada is a 1954 Italian film, which means it wasn’t eligible either. The rest of the official nominees were eligible 1956 releases.
Given that development, I would tip the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film over to one of two 1956 foreign releases: either Satyajit Ray’s second entry in the Apu trilogy, Aparajito, or to Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Spring. In the balance, I am inclined towards Aparajito to have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
So that’s 1956! 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