December 23, 2019
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Dick Powell, Gloria Grahame, Walter Pidgeon.
For an actor who immortalized Spartacus not just for the movie masses but Billy Crystal’s joke bank as well, Kirk Douglas took his initial steps toward superstardom playing the lowest kind of heels — and did so as early as his memorable third screen role in Out of the Past. Then, over the subsequent five years, he earned his first two (of career three) Oscar nominations for Champion and The Bad and the Beautiful, which means that, all too typically, Academy voters ignored his all-transcendent sociopathic achievement: Playing ruthless reporter Charles Tatum in Billy Wilder’s commercial disaster turned masterpiece Ace in the Hole. But 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, a critical/commercial hit in its day, is nonetheless tops of its kind if you’re into Vincente Minnelli’s specialized approach to sometimes gasket-blowing melodrama.
A dissection of Hollywood’s underbelly all dressed up in MGM slickness, the relatively calm-side B&B is both savvy and the next thing to over-the-top, without much attention paid to what was really going on in the industry at the time: continuing fears of hugely competitive TV; the flood of new independent productions shot frequently out of the studio and on outdoor California locations; and at very least rumblings about imminent widescreen pictures. The type of movies it portrays as being major hits belong to previous eras, and barely even to the postwar ’40s — productions more like Louis B. Mayer sanctioned concoctions than Dore Schary’s, even if Schary, more seriously minded stiff, was in charge of Metro when B&B got made. Though come to think, you can make a case that Minnelli’s treatment represents a hybrid of the two regimes’ approach to screen entertainment, given that Mayer likely wouldn’t have been that crazy about the boozing and adultery that makes up a lot of Charles Schnee’s Oscar-winning script.
Though Douglas is the story’s motivating force, the movie is effectively broken into thirds, giving each segment’s new central character an absorbing story of his/her own. Their unifying thread is the degree to which the producer and eventual studio head Douglas plays so thoroughly shafted them — personally and professionally — that they’ve vowed never to work with him again. As a producer in the middle (Walter Pidgeon) makes the case that it might be to their advantage to do so despite even Douglas’s de facto current banishment from the biz due to the loss of his box office touch. We see their stories in flashback, with the lineup breaking down into a director who began his career with Douglas (Barry Sullivan) and eventually came to wonder where his half of the so-called partnership went; an alcoholic bit player (on a good day) that Douglas molded into a major star (Lana Turner); and a pipe-smoking Pulitzer winner (Dick Powell) who was unwillingly enticed to out of Virginia and into the Hollywood jungle to adapt his novel. Meanwhile, the Southern piece of work he’s married to is played by Gloria Grahame, who took the supporting Oscar here for one of the shortest awarded screen roles ever.
That’s quite a cast, and we haven’t even gotten to Gilbert Roland as “Gaucho” — a Latin lover who has as many women in his stable as a ’60s secret agent as the other male characters here are shown to be toiling hard at their craft. (Though in a nice touch, we see Roland turn deadly serious and all business when asked to read a script for consideration.) Despite this treatment’s built-in struggle between a fanciful and realistic portrayal of industry machinations, Minnelli hit the directorial bullseye when it came to mining this contradiction into a lump-less vision, which is one mark of an auteur. He and the great Robert Surtees (another Oscar winner from the movie’s awarded five) also go to town with the latter’s camera, which is almost as peripatetic with boom shots as anything in the director’s career-dominant musicals.
In some ways, this is an insiders’ movie, though one in which paying customers went with the flow the way they don’t always with Hollywood sagas. Turner’s character is the daughter of a deceased acting great with spellbinding vocal deliveries, a set-up that suggests Diana Barrymore (who’d rate her own tawdry screen biopic, based on her best-selling autobiography) only a few years later. Earlier, Douglas and Sullivan get handed a no-budget quickie about cat men complete with tired actors wearing cat suits with zippers — until they come up with the brainstorm never to show the cat (Val Lewton, anyone?). Maybe Tom Hooper should have gone this route with Cats, though I suspect this might have been deemed audience-unfriendly.
All this plays out against David Raksin’s score, which for years has graced many best lists devoted to movie scoring; Rhino gave it a CD release many years ago, and much of it once graced a Raskin-conducted RCA Victor LP that also featured his classics for Laura and Forever Amber. In terms of performances, there are some jewels here: I had forgotten how amusingly prickly Powell’s characterization is here, while Grahame, for all her role’s brevity (though this should have been Jean Hagen’s Oscar year for Singin’ in the Rain), suggests a character who isn’t totally the dizzy mate I had read her as being in long-ago previous viewings.
In some ways, the big surprise is Lana Turner (though I always thought her underrated, anyway) — at a time when her career was in a rough spot following a couple years of inactivity followed by three box office flops in a row, notwithstanding that A Life of Her Own (1950) looks pretty good today. For B&B, Turner ended up getting outstanding reviews for only the second time in her career as a star (The Postman Always Rings Twice was the other instance), and the Minnelli film was the only really decent one she did until being cut loose by MGM in the mid-1950s before going freelance with more success (at least for a while) than a lot of her peers.
A lot of this material is covered in 2001’s Lana Turner … A Daughter’s Memoir, a bonus TCM documentary that centers on the star’s daughter Cheryl. She, as every attentive Boomer will recall, became a center of attention herself when she stabbed her mother’s mobbed-up lover Johnny Stompanato to death — a case of justifiable homicide, it was ultimately ruled, because he was threatening Turner during a knockdown/drag-out in the latter’s home. I’m not kidding about how big this story was; my oldest friend Jim Foreman and I used to reenact our vision of the Stompanato killing during lunch breaks in fifth grade, using a ruler as the weapon.
The doc has some historical re-creations that I mostly could have done without, though it does portray enough of the house’s physical layout to give us a better idea of events that culminated in Stompanato walking right into a kitchen knife. In addition to taking time to deal with Turner big-screen bombs like Mr. Imperium and the color remake of The Merry Widow (way to green-light, Dore), Story also provides welcome annotation of a loving but woefully inattentive seven marriages plus her long relationship with Tyrone Power. One of these marriages was to Lex (RKO Tarzan) Barker, a grown-up conservative rich-kid whose personal taboo on drinking a) failed to sync with the Lana lifestyle; b) added to the shock value when the word came out that he repeatedly sexually abused Cheryl as a teen. As presented on camera here, Cheryl seems unpredictably well-and and certainly well-composed, though (again) the pic is almost 20 years old.
The Blu-ray’s main event is another visual winner from Warner Archive, though it doesn’t hurt to have won the black-and-white cinematography Oscar for starters. A decade later, much of the same creative team would reunite for Two Weeks in Another Town, another movie industry melodrama from Minnelli that’s as delirious as Kirk Douglas’s driving in its most unforgettable scene — a censor-compromised box office flop that really did go over the top. I blow hot and cold on Minnelli melodramas, but the later ones in his career are usually more than I can take, for all of their perverse entertainment value (reassessments may be in order).
Town, though, has already gotten its own Warner Archive Blu-ray treatment, making it undeniably ideal double-feature material with B&B for anyone so inclined. It even includes a scene where Douglas views a clip from the earlier picture in a projection room and lauding it as great filmmaking, which isn’t that easy to top when it comes to self-referential cinema. This didn’t exactly hurt it in Europe (which was Weeks’s backdrop), where they take this kind of “movie universe” thing very seriously. In America, it’s more like, “Turner really looked hot in those pajamas.”