1959 saw the triumph of spectacle at the Academy Awards, with Ben-Hur making a massive 11-Oscar win sweep (matched only by Titanic and The Return of the King).
Meanwhile, down the ticket, less memorable films clocked in for wins — and in this particular chariot race, these are the categories I didn’t include in my books, because a) I’m occasionally unsure of myself (shocking, isn’t it?), and b) so many of these films have vanished off the face of the earth…or at least, the internet, and c) to be quite honest, most of these films don’t gather much more than dust in the memory of moviegoers.
But YOU’RE with me, right? Right? Is this thing on? Is there anybody out there?
Oh, there you are. Ok, you and me, kid! Let’s take a look at the six categories I didn’t cover in my books — together!
Let’s start with the shorties!
Best Live Action Short:
If you’re of a certain age, the name Jacques Cousteau and the Calypso will thrill you still (along with Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom!). This year, the French inventor of the Aqua-Lung and quiet but intense underwater narration won for his short film, The Golden Fish.
Surprisingly, we’re not under water here at all — but rather, a charming tale of a child who wins a goldfish, who then gets to spend the day with the family cat. Cousteau seems to have been the producer; the director of The Red Balloon, Edmond Séchan, did the honors here (the two shorts have a similar ethereal quality as a result).
Here is the short in its entirety, for your goldfish pleasure!
The other nominees were Between the Tides; Disney’s Mysteries of the Deep; The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film; and Skyscraper.
Between the Tides is a British short, clearly influenced by the success of Disney’s True-Life Adventures. Tidal life is filmed thoroughly (I would have loved this as a child, as I spent endless hours looking through tide pools at the beach; I wanted to be a marine biologist until I discovered I get violent headaches every time I went on a boat…)
Here is the short in all its Technicolor glory!
Surprisingly, Disney didn’t win yet another Oscar in this category, with Mysteries of the Deep. One of the curiosities of this short is the narrator — Roy Edward Disney, who also wrote the narration, and who later went on to be a dominant force at the company his father Roy and his Uncle Walt had founded. Mysteries of the Deep films the life in and around a coral reef. I recall seeing this one as a child on Wonderful World of Color, but the short is currently unavailable.
Peter Sellers?!? Running? Jumping? Standing Still? How wonderful! Richard Lester and Peter Sellers co-directed this short, which led to Lester directing A Hard Day’s Night for the Beatles, who loved this short. We get a series of gags, mostly based on the English love of eccentricities. Here is a typical gag (you can find the entire short on some DVD releases of A Hard Day’s Night):
The final nominee, Skyscraper, shows the construction of said building on 666 Fifth Avenue in New York. Documentary filmmaker Shirley Clarke (Portrait of Jason) shot this to a jazz soundtrack, bringing us into the workers’ points-of-view and getting us excited about all the erections going on… (sorry about that one, but at least I know you’re paying attention now!).
Here is the entire erection…(hey, you laughed the first time!)
Best Documentary Short:
Staying small, we come to Glass, a Dutch documentary on glass-making, from director Bert Haanstra. Glass compares the art of handmade glass with the efficiency of machine-made glass. A jazz soundtrack helps keep things blowing along. For those of you obsessed with the subject, here is the whole carafe for you!
One can see why the short won, despite the competition from Disney’s Donald in Mathmagic Land and Edward F. Cullen’s From Generation to Generation. Each shot of Glass is done elegantly, beautifully, with perfectly artistic lighting, and the determination and beauty of the artistic intent of the craftsmen perfectly captured. A very elegant win!
At nearly half an hour, this Donald Duck cartoon was yet another one of Disney’s attempts to educate American children in exciting ways — this short was shown in American classrooms for decades afterwards. I recall watching it as child in school and being quite happily entertained (I suspect this may be part of why I still enjoy math, even when I’m not particularly good at doing it…). An excellent nomination — and here is the short itself! Get out those pencils and protractors! Let’s get mathematical!
From Generation to Generation is, believe it or not, a sex education film, set on a farm with a husband and his pregnant wife — and those animals in springtime! Animation covers the dirty parts, but the short remained in biology classrooms (including mine) for decades. Sadly, as is so often the case with obscure film companies, the short doesn’t seem to exist any more, except perhaps tucked away in a film archive. If you know where to see this one, let me know. Until then, here’s some farm animals having sex…no, just kidding! This is a PG-13 website!!! So here are some farm animal babies…let the cute begin!
Best Documentary Feature:
Serengeti Shall Not Die won over The Race for Space.
Serengeti Shall Not Die is an attempt to preserve the legacy of the Serengeti National Park, from a German veterinarian and zookeeper, Bernhard Grzinek, and his son Michael, who sadly died when his plan collided with a vulture. Here is a clip:
While I applaud the wonders of the Serengeti, and think it deserved to win, my own personal preference is for The Race for Space, from David L. Wolper, and narrated by Mike Wallace.
A history of the development of rocketry, The Race for Space begins with Sputnik, then steps back to cover Robert Godard, the German V-2 and Wernher von Braun, and the Russian push to Sputnik. Much rare footage is included! Here is the entire documentary:
On the basis of the chariot race alone, I am prepared to argue that the Oscar for Best Editing for Ben-Hur was justified. While much of the rest of the film is staid and uninspired, the chariot race remains one of the glories of Fifties cinema.
Take a look and see if you don’t agree:
Not that there isn’t serious competition here — because there is.
Anatomy of a Murder is perhaps Otto Preminger’s best film, with the possible exception of Laura. The editing is competent, although Preminger tended to prefer long scenes with little cutting, and little of the film’s magic comes from the editing, which is serviceable, in the standard studio mold.
North by Northwest, on the other hand, is the major competition in this category (and if we left out the chariot scene, clearly the better editing over Ben-Hur). The editing is, in every single case, innovative and striking. The stabbing scene at the UN, the Hitchcock appearance on the bus, the kissing scenes, and most famously, the clambering over Mt. Rushmore — all of these are among the very best which editing had to offer in the Fifties.
Such is not the case with On the Beach, which is little more than competent, and is an early sign of director Stanley Kramer’s move to a less and less visually inspired film-making, over sending messages..
The final nominee isn’t much better, with Audrey Hepburn wringing our hearts with The Nun’s Story.
Again, competent, but hardly inspired editing.
Best Sound Recording:
Ben-Hur won, and understandably so, again with a heavy emphasis on the chariot race. I really can’t argue with that — or really want to, because the other nominees pale in comparison, aurally: Journey to the Center of the Earth, Libel, Porgy and Bess, and The Nun’s Story.
Fake fins on lizards, anybody? That’s as good as the dinosaurs get in this Jules Verne adaptation; somebody should have called Ray Harryhausen! The nomination is probably for the fake roars…
Is Dirk Bogarde the real Dirk Bogarde — or is he an imposter, pretending to be a British Lord? Paul Massie accuses Bogarde, in print, and the libel suit begins. Olivia de Havilland is Bogarde’s wife. All in all, a decent film, but the nomination is an odd one for the sound, which I assume is for the POW flashbacks.
I’d discuss this one, but as I pointed out in my book, it’s not available: “From the start, the production was troubled. Poitier did not want the part, and had to be coerced. A fire destroyed the sets and costumes two days before filming was to commence. Both leads had to be dubbed – Poitier by Robert McFerrin (father of “Be Happy” Bobby), and Dandridge by lyric soprano Adele Addison. Diahann Carroll, a very fine singer in her own right, also had her part dubbed by coloratura soprano Loulie Jean Norman. Pearl Bailey went on a rampage when she saw a bandanna, not wanting to promote any Aunt Jemima images (much of the cast had concerns over the racial images being projected). Director Rouben Mamoulian, who had staged the original production in 1935, was fired by Goldwyn – who then brought in Otto Preminger. Dorothy Dandridge had ended her relationship with Preminger when she became pregnant with his child and he forced her to have an abortion. Preminger so hated the operatic score that he begged for a whole new one, with a jazzier approach; denied one, he proceeded to shoot the entire film with long shots, with the camera barely moving, so Goldwyn couldn’t change anything. The Gershwin estate hated this film – because of the absence of the original recitatives, and the dubbed voices – and since it controls the rights, has generally refused to allow any screenings (a few festivals is all). Bootleg copies circulate, but all need major restoration – and nothing exists of the original 70mm version. So, reluctantly, all consideration of this Porgy and Bess must be set aside.”
One assumes the nomination was for the way the music sounded.
The Nun’s Story is all about the silences, and the quiet moments. A good nomination, given how little is so often happening that we can hear, other than prayers and the odd ambient noise.
I would like to suggest another movie might have been nominated, given that it is one of the best recordings of Chuck Berry in his prime: Go, Johnny Go! is still a joy to watch, despite the lame plot. Berry is just everywhere. Also appearing: Jackie Wilson, Ritchie Valens, The Cadillacs, The Flamingos, and Eddie Cochran. Alan Freed comes along for the ride. Well worth your time — and a nomination.
Here is the trailer!
And now, for the finishing category!
Best Foreign Language Film:
Hard to argue with the Academy on this one!
Here is the film that made the world fall in love with Brazil and Carnival — and their music! Oddly enough, France nominated it. Everything about this movie remains fresh and exciting, as I said in my book: “Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa put the rhythms of samba and bossa nova into the world’s ears with Black Orpheus (sounds which would provide much of the soundtrack to the early Sixties until the Beatles and the British Invasion challenged that dominance). “Desafinado” and “The Girl from Ipanema” are still used extensively in movies to evoke perfectly the early Sixties. The score from Black Orpheus is driven by energetic rhythms we’ve only heard pale imitations of in Carmen Miranda musicals. Almost as unheard in North America are the unexpected sounds of Brazilian Portuguese, which sounds rather like a drunken combination of Spanish and French – and is altogether beautiful.” The cinematography is just as magnificent: “Few stories have ever benefitted more from color than Black Orpheus. Given the riot of hues that is Carnival, so much would have been lost using black & white. Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin serves the story beautifully, with almost exclusive location shooting being matched by a careful balancing of natural light. Look at the moment when Orfeo lays his head on Eurydice’s hand, with the sunset framing them – the “golden hour” cameramen learned to depend upon outside of the soundstage. But the nighttime shot that follows is just as photogenic, and just as pertinent to a story about the descent into the underworld – as is the marvelous image of the circular staircase, going down into the depths of shadow. The final touch of Bourgoin’s art comes with the rising sun shifting the light in the faces of the children, as the young boy plays the sun into existence with Orfeo’s song.”
The other nominees were The Bridge (Germany), The Village on the River (Netherlands), The Great War (Italy), and Paw (Denmark).
The Bridge is a very serious film, depicting a true incident in the final days of Germany’s resistance in WWII, when a handful of untrained boys are drafted and told to guard a bridge against the Americans. Death ensues, in a general condemnation of the stupidities of war. I suspect the Academy nominated it as a pat on the head to Germany for essentially arguing that WWII was pointless. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JHG2SD-9fI&list=PL600436C863A6468B
Village by the River is a slice of life novel of a small Dutch village, with the focus being on a contradictory doctor. Largely forgotten outside of the Netherlands today, there is a certain charm and seriousness that rewards viewing. Should you care to watch, here is a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5F9qnUvLo-4&list=PLhBpKG2mUYXqxk2_5lkDmsOYiKW9W24EJ
The Great War is an odd mixture, an often funny film dedicated to getting into the dismal, ugly trenches of WWI. Irony rules the lives of the cowardly soldiers. Here is a clip to get you started: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QNs-Ur8ITA
And the last official nominee, Paw, also known as Boy of Two Worlds:
Boy of Two Worlds really ought to be better known today, as it is a sensitive portrayal of the issues of racism, prejudice, and the desire to escape back to a more innocent world. The boy of the title has a Danish father and a Caribbean mother; returning to Denmark, he finds hostility, and so much so, that he escapes to the forest as a kind of reborn Mowgli. I found it compelling, and appropriate for children, especially to help them become more aware of these issues.
The nominating process blocked out these other foreign film classics, all of which are worthy of a nomination here (and several are outstanding counter-arguments to Black Orpheus winning, and DEFINITE replacements for several official nominees!): Italy, Roberto Rossellini, Il generale Della Rovere; France, Claude Chabrol, Les Cousins; India, Satyajit Ray, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu); Japan, Yasujirō Ozu, Floating Weeds; and Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour.
Why don’t we argue about this one in the comments below?
And so we come to the end of another ignored nomination race, and I’m declaring myself the winner! Ben-Hur has nothing on me…
So that’s 1959! 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