The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1951
1951 is an important year in film history. After the end of the war, the threat of Communism became very prevalent in the U.S. And a nice portion of Hollywood, especially in the 30s and 40s (before Stalin), attended communist party meetings because communism sounded like a nice alternative to the Depression. Now, with the Red Scare in full effect, Hollywood, with its loose morals and subversive tendencies, was an easy target for communist witch hunters. So in 1947, HUAC (the House of Un-American Activities) summoned members of Hollywood to Washington to investigate whether or not there were comunists among the ranks. And some people, like Walt Disney and Adolphe Menjou, were outspoken against communists and named names, while others, like Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, signed a petition to protect the first amendment and refused to.
About 40 people were called to testify. 19 of them refused to. 11 of those 19 were called before the committee. Of the 11, 10 refused to answer the question of whether or not they were or were communists on the grounds of freedom of speech and assembly. And Hollywood, under immense pressure from the government (which was the last body they wanted to piss off, with the issue of them having a monopoly on theaters, the constant issue of outside censorship, and the government never having quite been able to come after them despite definite means to do so), decided to blacklist those ten, who became known as the “Hollywood Ten.” And what happened was, the studios basically had to say they would never hire anyone who was a communist or a communist sympathizer.
So from 1947 on, the blacklist grew, and it had huge repercussions on Hollywood, notably the demise of RKO and the death of John Garfield (who was blacklisted and was under so much stress because of that, that he ended up dying of a heart attack — at 39!). Outspoken Democrats were basically pushed out, and people like Henry Fonda found it very difficult to find work on the screen and stayed on the stage until the whole thing blew over (Fonda didn’t make a feature film between 1948 and 1955). Those who refused to name names were blacklisted, and those who named names got others blacklisted. (Famously, Elia Kazan named names and as a result, wrote On the Waterfront.) And those who were blacklisted (specifically the writers) would start to use fronts to get their work up on the screen. (Dalton Trumbo wrote Roman Holiday and didn’t get credit for it until years later when the blacklist was over.)
The major result of HUAC and the blacklist in terms of the actual films (aside from keeping certain people from making them) was that studios were terrified of stepping out of line for fear of being accused of being communists (calling someone a communist in the 50s was like calling a woman a witch in Salem. Which is why Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible”). There was also a lot of subversion in the films, with many films secretly being about either the threat of communism (The Thing from Another World — “Watch the skies!”) or the witch hunts of HUAC (Force of Evil. Watch that movie. It’s amazing. Thomas Gomez is so good in it). It’s a real dark mark in the country’s history, and its reverberations were felt all over the industry.
So, when you take all of that into account, it makes sense that An American in Paris won this year. When you’re under pressure from the government, what better way to play ball than to sing and dance for them? (I still don’t see why A Streetcar Named Desire couldn’t win. I guess because Kazan named names and it was too closely related? I don’t know. I’m spitballing.)
So An American in Paris wins Best Picture. And that’s all it wins (which is what makes it seem as though it were a compromise). Though it was the first color film to win Best Picture since Gone With the Wind. That’s notable. And after this (until now, anyway), only six more black and white films would ever win Best Picture (four of which came between 1953 and 1960). Best Actor was Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen (talked about here), which was a nice way to get him a well-deserved (and well overdue. I haven’t forgotten about that ’43 snub) Oscar, even though it did come at the expense of Marlon Brando. (Though he’d win two. He came out okay.) Then the rest of the acting awards all went to A Streetcar Named Desire. Vivien Leigh won Best Actress for the film (talked about here), Karl Malden won Best Supporting Actor for it (talked about here) and Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress for it (talked about here). All perfect decisions. And then Best Director was George Stevens for A Place in the Sun (talked about here), which I don’t much understand at all. I get not voting for Kazan, but why not Minnelli? You gave his film Best Picture. It certainly would have helped legitimize that decision. But, it’s not so bad. Stevens was a great director. I can live with it.
So, in all, 1951 is a strong year, outside the Best Picture (and maybe also Best Director) decision. And given the political turmoil, it makes sense that they played it safe here (and next year), despite the questionability of the decision (hell, both decisions).
BEST PICTURE – 1951
And the nominees were…
An American in Paris (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Decision Before Dawn (20th Century Fox)
A Place in the Sun (Paramount)
Quo Vadis (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
A Streetcar Named Desire (Warner Bros.)
An American in Paris — There must be a correlation between explanatory titles and the amount of time I spend on a synopsis. Because that’s the film. Right there. It’s about an American. In Paris.
Gene Kelly is an American painter in Paris who is supported by a high society woman but falls in love with a regular girl. That’s it. That’s the film. It’s a musical. It’s simple, it’s great. It’s a lot of fun. Shouldn’t have won at all, though. It’s nowhere near as good as Streetcar.
Decision Before Dawn — This is an interesting film. It’s weird that I hadn’t heard about it before I saw it.
The film is about the waning days of World War II. It’s pretty clear the Germans will lose. So what the Americans do is recruit German POWs to spy on the Germans. There’s really not that much more to say without a moment by moment retelling of the film. But watch it, it’s good.
Though, as good as it is, it would have been a horrible choice for Best Picture. It wouldn’t have held up at all. It’s much better served being where it is.
A Place in the Sun — This film is one that is considered an American classic that I just don’t get. It’s a good film, but for some reason I just don’t see why it’s great. I don’t know why.
The film is about Montgomery Clift, who is a poor factory worker, working in his rich uncle’s factory. He’s determined to make it on his own, and is in love with Shelley Winters. Then he meets Elizabeth Taylor, who is basically like the Paris Hilton of the town. And they start sleeping together and he falls for her and starts falling into her lifestyle. Though Winters then says she’s pregnant, which throws a monkey wrench in Clift’s plans, since he was planning on leaving her. And now that she’s pregnant, he decides to kill her. So he brings her out to a lake with intent to drown, but can’t go through with it. But then she slips in and drowns anyway (naturally, now that he wants her to live). But then he is caught and convicted of murder anyway. Because that’s how it works.
I don’t know, I just don’t get the appeal of the film. It’s good and all, but — to me it’s just there. I wouldn’t vote for it at all.
Quo Vadis — Ah, the first of the Roman epics. Well, Oscar-wise. This film is basically about the Romans vs. the Christians, and also about Nero burning Rome. So Robert Taylor falls in love with Deborah Kerr and converts to Christianity. The Romans don’t like that, and they’re persecuting the Christians. And Nero gets crazier and crazier, and ends up burning the city. It’s very religious.
The film is good. I don’t like it as much as the non-religious Roman epics like Cleopatra but it is a good film. Peter Ustinov is awesome as Nero. As for it in this category — no way should this have won. No way. This would have been one of the most boring winners of all time. You can call An American in Paris a bad decision, but at least you can sort of see it. This would have made The Greatest Show on Earth seem like a great choice.
A Streetcar Named Desire — You don’t get a synopsis here. You need to have seen this movie. It’s perfect. I still don’t understand why it didn’t win.
My Thoughts: This category begins and ends with A Streetcar Named Desire. Let’s be real here. It’s the only film that should have won.
My Vote: A Streetcar Named Desire
Should have won: A Streetcar Named Desire
Is the result acceptable?: Honestly, no. I said to myself for the longest time, “Well, it’s a fine musical. It’s breezy, it’s colorful, I guess it’s okay it won.” But really, it’s not. Streetcar is such a better film, and there are better Minnelli musicals than An American in Paris and Gigi that didn’t win Best Picture (namely Meet Me in St. Louis and The Band Wagon. Oh, yeah, and there’s that other Gene Kelly film about Rain that didn’t get nominated either, possibly because of An American in Paris having won). So, no, unacceptable. Bad choice.
Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen A Streetcar Named Desire, you’re dead to me.
You should see An American in Paris. It’s a fun, fun film. Definitely worth seeing. Highly recommended. A great musical. And it won. So that doubles your already immense number of reasons for seeing it.
Decision Before Dawn is a great spy film. A nice thriller. I recommend it if you’re a fan of either genre. It’s really strong.
Quo Vadis is also a nice epic film. I recommend it if you like big sweeping movies like Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and The Robe like I do. I love larger than life films so much. Be warned though, it’s religious. But Peter Ustinov plays a mean Caligula. He’s worth seeing it by himself.
And A Place in the Sun is a strong film. An American classic. You should probably see it. It’s pretty close to essential.
5) A Place in the Sun
4) Quo Vadis
3) Decision Before Dawn
2) An American in Paris
1) A Streetcar Named Desire