Once more unto the breach, my friends! The breach of my ignorance, that is…and let’s hope to avoid a breach birth!
These Special Features complete all of the categories from the Academy Awards which I did not cover in my books, largely due to my feeling that I had no way to effectively discuss these categories, either due to the difficulty of locating them (the short subjects and documentaries, and even the Foreign Language category), or to my feeling that I couldn’t really do the category justice without more insider information (Best Editing, especially).
So let us now regard my omitted categories, and try to fill that breach!
Off on a trip around the world first!
Best Foreign Language Film:
Jacques Tati and France rocked this category with a win for Mon Oncle, over Arms and the Man (Germany), Big Deal on Madonna Street (Italy), The Road a Year Long (Yugoslavia), and La Venganza (Spain).
Mon Oncle is a charming comedy, and Tati’s first one in color. As I said (in print, even!), “Tati was essentially a silent film comedian working in the sound era, a categorization he fully embraced in his acceptance speech – and then took advantage of coming to Hollywood for the Oscars to visit Mack Sennett, Stan Laurel, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. Silent film comedy was inherently a writers’ medium, as coming up with the gags and routines required extensive brainstorming and planning, Tati’s handful of films were no exception, and watching Mon oncle is to see the Frenchman revisiting the clash between the modern world and a simple soul. In it, he visits his nephew, who lives in the kind of modernist nightmare that cultural critics used to decry as the death of human values in the period. The house is a monstrous distillation of everything that was wrong with Fifties futurism and materialism, undercutting all warmth and comfort in the name of the new and the artificial. Tati’s response to the absurdity of the forcedly new is the gentlest subversion of middle class consumption ever put on film, pointing out the ridiculous, and getting us to laugh at pretension. We walk away a little less full of ourselves.”
Of the other nominees, perhaps the one that still remains in cinephile memory is Big Deal on Madonna Street (I soliti ignoti). I love this movie, and said so: “With Big Deal on Madonna Street (I soliti ignoti), Italians Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, and writer-director Mario Monicelli set out to make a parody of the wonderful French heist film, Rififi. This tale of completely incompetent crooks also may have been inspired by the short story “Furto in una pasticceria” (“Theft in a Cake-Shop”) by the great Italian writer, Italo Calvino. In any case, they adapted a wide variety of sources to create this comedy of errors. Big Deal on Madonna Street is like a silent film, the ones with all the cars and trains rushing at each other and never quite hitting each other (well, maybe once or twice). The idiots on display won’t make anybody want to take up a life of crime – or be convinced of the presence of intelligent life on the planet Earth – but they will bring enough laughter to make you wonder why the Academy ignored this comic caper when it came to nomination time. Oh, wait…that’s right. The Academy often has no sense of humor…”
The other three nominees have slipped considerably over time.
Arms and the Man (Helden) is a German adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play. I freely admit I have yet to locate a copy of this to see, but I will keep trying.
The Road a Year Long / The Year Long Road (Cesta duga godinu dana / La strada lunga un anno) has become even more obscure than the rest. Here’s how obscure it is: the spam vendors on Youtube aren’t even trying to get me to watch a copy on their website. Again, I could not locate a copy, but it seems to be about an attempt to build a road over the government’s objections and/or failure to do so.
The final official nominee La Venganza (Vengeance) looks to have been a politically motivated nomination, as the director, Juan Antonio Bardem, was jailed by Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco for censorship issues (and perhaps more to the point, for being an active communist). Bardem may be best known today as the uncle of the actor Javier Bardem. The plot is sheer melodrama: a convict’s sister convinces him to get vengeance against the rat who ratted him out — but then she falls in love with the rat. One can see why Hollywood nominated this, because the cinematography and color aspects look very much like a typical Hollywood blockbuster of the time, with very attractive people playing out a screenplay Jimmy Cagney would have been cast in back in the 30s. The end result is not particularly distinguished, and mostly undeserving of a nomination.
There were better choices for the Academy to select this year, although the rules for this category may have prevented their nomination by their home country. Foremost among them, the classic Polish film, Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament) from Poland’s Andrzej Wajda, which has remained a perennial favorite for many lovers of world cinema.
Also unjustly ignored: Akira Kurosawa having fun with The Hidden Fortress, beloved today as well by Star Wars fans and George Lucas (The Hidden Fortress has been named by Lucas as an influence on the original film, particularly as the source for C-3PO and R2-D2, as well as Princess Leia and Han Solo).
Also appearing for the first time in 1958: the second half of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible
And even more surprising, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician was ignored as well.
Quite a good crop, but I still think Tati deserved the win.
Best Documentary Feature:
Walt Disney continued his dominance of these categories with a win for White Wilderness. As I said in Volume 3: “White Wilderness is another of Disney’s True-Life Adventures, this one set in the Arctic: walruses, polar bears, wolves, and seals abound. Surprisingly, years before Farley Mowat’s classic environmentalist Never Cry Wolf appeared, White Wilderness argues against the image of the wolf as a dangerous killer with no redeeming qualities. But the most infamous part of the movie comes when the lemmings apparently commit mass suicide over the cliff. In fact, the film crew pushed the lemmings off the cliff for the scene. Run for your life, little fellers! Hollywood is coming for ya! One wonders if Mickey and Goofy knew.”
Here are some “suicidal” lemmings — “alternate facts” for the cinephile!
The other nominees were Antarctic Crossing, The Hidden World, and Psychiatric Nursing.
Antarctic Crossing is based on the book by Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary, documenting Fuchs’ journey back from Shackleton Base — or so I’m told, since there is nary a trace of the film anywhere I can find. Unless, of course, they changed the title (and didn’t bother telling me…) from Antarctic Adventure — in which case, here is a piece of the film itself, although I’m not sure this isn’t a different film about the same expedition, in which Hillary beat Fuchs to the South Pole:
Amusing, and bravo, New Zealand!
Gregory Peck narrates The Hidden World, a science documentary that apparently takes very small things and makes them very large on-screen, including a giant praying mantis, guaranteed to freak out those kiddies who loved giant monster movies in the Fifties. Like so many documentaries from now-defunct film companies, this one has vanished off the face of the earth, hidden or otherwise.
Finally, Psychiatric Nursing is directed by Lee R. Bobker, who later directed Frank Langella in the TV special, I, Leonardo. One assumes — again — this is about nurses in psychiatric wards, and hopefully, not Nurse Ratched.
As is so often the case with these non-fiction categories, unless a major studio like Walt Disney saw a benefit in preserving them, they’ve largely vanished. They probably exist in film archives, and should you wish to pay me to go visit said archives, I will happily take your money and oblige you. But until then, these documentaries will remain in the unseen pile.
Best Documentary Short:
Once again, Walt Disney won, for Ama Girls — and again, a True-Life Adventure (Ben Sharpsteen directed both this and White Wilderness). Ama Girls is also known as Japan Harvests the Sea, which is considerably more descriptive.
Yes, that’s the foreign movie poster for this little short. The girls dive down more than 60 feet without breathing apparatus, to recover rare seaweed; the village also fishes communally. A fascinating little portrait of a forgotten way of life, and well deserving of the Oscar, if my memory of seeing it on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color forty years ago holds true. They really should be re-issued in a DVD box set (some of them have, but not all).
The other nominees included: Employees Only; Journey into Spring; The Living Stone; and Overture.
Employees Only — who knows? Only Kenneth G. Brown, the director, because there isn’t even a mention of the content anywhere on the internet.
Journey into Spring is a British film directed by Ralph Keene, and which double-dipped nominations for this category, and Best Live Action Short. Stephen Murray (The Nun’s Story) stars — but as who or what, who or what knows? The footage still exists, as parts of it have been used as backdrop for a crappy music video, but where is it intact, or more importantly, available? Nature cinematographer Patrick Carey shot this, and The Living Stone, and was known as a nature photographer, so one assumes we see pictures of spring…
The Living Stone is about Inuit art, and can be seen on the 2011 Inuit collection, Unikkausivut: Sharing Our Stories. John Feeney wrote and directed The Living Stone, which is available, due to the 2011 transfer to DVD. Here is the short in its entirety — and it is fascinating!
Finally, Overture is a black and white animated Canadian paean to the United Nations, set to the music of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Gian Luigi Polidori directed this praise of peacekeeping (a major obsession for Canadian animation for decades).
Best Live Action Short:
In what was a pattern throughout the decade, Disney tended to sweep these categories, simply because Hollywood knew Disney, and the chances of the Academy seeing anything but their nominees was slim and none, and Slim just went to Texas…
Grand Canyon won for Disney, setting some fairly spectacular footage to the equally spectacular piece of classical music, Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Think of this as a live-action segment of Disney’s animated Fantasia. I also suspect the success of this short — which was released as an accompaniment to Sleeping Beauty — prompted Disney to create the Grand Canyon panorama for the 1964 World’s Fair (the exhibit now graces the Disneyland Railroad, as does the primeval world exhibit, which was most likely inspired by the Stravinsky Rites of Spring segment of Fantasia.
Here is the short in its magnificent entirety:
The other nominees were Journey into Spring (discussed — sort of — above), The Kiss, Snows of Aorangi, and T Is for Tumbleweed.
The Kiss is from exploitation director John Hayes, who later filmed such immortal schlock as Jailbait Babysitter (“Her friends call her jail bait…her clients call her anytime!”), The Farmer’s Other Daughter, Grave of the Vampire, and Heterosexualis. I suspect Hayes parlayed this minor Oscar nomination into a career filming schlock, and not particularly good schlock. The Kiss may be the best thing he ever did — certainly, it was the most mainstream. Here it is in its entirety:
Snows of Aorangi is a short from New Zealand, a kind of tourist bureau visit to the snowscapes of New Zealand’s mountain. This was the first film from New Zealand ever to be nominated by the Academy. The film (which apparently was released in a longer version, seen here) has a certain charm — and you may recognize a peak or two from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Finally, T Is for Tumbleweed is an American analog for the far more famous French film, The Red Balloon. A tumbleweed rolls around a small desert town, interacting with various people. Anne Lockhart, best known today for her voice work in various animated features, has a part as a child. I haven’t seen it since I was a kid, as it was one of those films substitute teachers were given to fill the time. I recall most of my class fell asleep. I stayed awake, but only because I hated tumbleweeds and wanted to see it get torched or something (I had to dig the damn things out of my dad’s garden on our ranch in Apple Valley — if you don’t get the whole root, it’s growing back asap!).
Obviously, Disney, FTW.
On to the next category…
Best Sound Recording:
As always, the musicals tend to win in this category, and who can blame the Academy? How does one make this decision, except with some kind of aural pleasure? I suspect the technicians in this guild would have different criteria, such as difficulty in recording sound on live shoots, or creating new sounds, like Godzilla’s roar or a lightsaber hum. As I’ve said before, this is one of those categories that I simply don’t have the chops to decide — but let’s run them by you and see what you think! Or hear…
South Pacific won, over A Time to Love and a Time to Die, I Want to Live!, The Young Lions, and Vertigo.
It’s hard to argue with the sound of this classic musical, although I have plenty to bitch about visually, in Joshua Logan’s misbegotten version. But the voices are spectacular, and they’re recorded well enough. If only the director hadn’t been so leaden…
One of the odd things about the technical categories is how completely forgotten films crop up — but I suspect these categories were often used (especially in the early days) as a way of spreading the Oscar love around to all the studios. Louis B. Mayer deliberately manipulated the first year’s awards specifically not to hurt the other studio chiefs’ feeling. A Time to Love and a Time to Die has a considerable cult following, largely due to director Douglas Sirk and novelist Erich Maria Remarque’s source material, but almost no mainstream footprint. John Gavin (better known as Janet Leigh’s adulterous lover in Psycho) is a German soldier returning home from the Russian front, to find everything has changed — and a beautiful young girl, Liselotte Pulver. Universal had scored an enormous hit almost thirty years before with their adaptation of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. As other studios were recycling their big hits from their early days with new versions — Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, A Farewell to Arms — Universal must have thought it was a good idea. The sound nomination is more than likely for the war scenes early on, which always make this category’s voters happy with the explosions and the firearms going off.
I Want to Live! is Robert Wise’s diatribe against the death penalty, and Susan Hayward’s most wrenching performance. My personal reason for this nomination — the music and sounds of the execution may be others — is the tremendous sensitivty in recording Hayward’s voice, which is a phenomenal instrument in this film. A good nomination for that alone.
The Young Lions is another war film, and the Academy always likes the sound of firearms and high explosives. Also, Dean Martin might have sung, so there’s a two-fer. I would hope that it wasn’t for recording Brando’s dreadful Cherman ax-cent.
Vertigo is an interesting choice, given that this and art direction were the only nominations this challenging picture won. I suspect we may have a bit of the respect vote going on here again, making sure Hitchcock wasn’t snubbed more than he already was. We do get some nice ocean sounds, the ambient sounds of San Francisco, and some lovely screams, so a decent nomination.
Gigi won in this category — but then, Gigi won in almost every category, and almost none of them deservedly. Has there ever been a musical with a higher creep factor? “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” alone sets my teeth on edge over the pedophiliac implications (and yes, I know they didn’t mean it that way…but still…yikes!).
There isn’t much about the way Gigi is cut that lends itself to any sense of tight, economic construction, or inventiveness, or even elegance. Not only do I think it doesn’t deserve the Oscar, I’d be willing to argue it doesn’t deserve a nomination. There, I said it! No nomination should there have been!
At least with Auntie Mame you can understand the editing nomination — the cuts from scene to scene are quite memorable. Stagy, yes, but memorable.
Here’s another unexpected film: Cowboy. Because doesn’t everybody want to see Jack Lemmon in a western? Glenn Ford, yes, but Lemmon? Shows they were still trying to figure out how to use him. Paging Billy Wilder! As for the editing, I can’t imagine why they singled out this particular film, which is minor at best. Light entertainment, with mundane but competent editing.
I Want to Live! and The Defiant Ones are the last two remaining nominees, and both of them are better choices than the rest. I Want to Live! brings out Robert Wise’s editing and film noir background, and as I said of the movie in V. 3, “I Want to Live! is a competent picture, reinforced by faster cutting and shorter takes than is typical of 1958. Once we get to the trial and prison, the cinematography is more conventional, if not overbearing (the extreme close-up on the judge’s mouth during sentencing is a bit much). But when we get to the death sentence, the camerawork becomes occasionally innovative again, with an overhead shot, and a reflective composition with rain and windows that shows Susan Hayward trapped inside, while we are outside.” The editing is by William Hornbeck (It’s a Wonderful Life; A Place in the Sun).
Director Stanley Kramer would eventually stultify into one of the most visually boring directors of the Sixties, but his work here on The Defiant Ones shows he was capable of more. Sam Leavitt’s camerawork is exquisite, as I pointed out in V. 3: “From the opening shot of The Defiant Ones, we are in a world informed by film noir – and cinematographer Sam Leavitt’s nearly four decades of experience lighting black & white pictures (culminating in this movie and next year’s Anatomy of a Murder). I’ve never seen a prettier wet black tire spinning slowly. But once we shift to the chase in the daytime, the look is that of the documentarians, along with a stark, glaring light that unsettles us as viewers, putting us in the emotional tension of the escapees. When we get to the night scene in the company town, film noir techniques take over. In short, The Defiant Ones is a catalog of almost everything cinematographers had learned how to do with black & white film, at a time when that hard-won experience was on the way out the door, as color inexorably ground out the more artistic and expressive black & white. Look at the scene in the barn, with Sidney Poitier reflected in the window as Tony Curtis plots to abandon him. ”
The editing by Frederic Knudtson, particularly in the chase scene on the train, is excellent — and in my mind, a much better choice for Best Editing than Gigi — and Knudtson (Inherit the Wind) should have won the Academy Award for Best Editing.
And thus, the breach is filled! Time to go back and sit on the bench at the beach with that bitch who just gave birth to all those puppies…
Or something like that…
So that’s 1958! 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