Saturday, July 26, 2008

Hollywood on Hollywood

Tonight's installment of TCM's The Essentials is the 1952 soundstage melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful, airing at 8:00 PM ET. It's an enjoyable, if not terribly revealing, look at the "seamy" side of Hollywood: what goes on behind the camera.

The subject of the story is troubled producer Jonathan Shields, played quite well by Kirk Douglas. He's alienated all the people he's worked with because ne's not just driven; he's a jerk about it, too. Still, he's desperate for the finanacial backing for his new production, and with the help of his executive partner Harry Pebbel (played here by Walter Pidgeon, who doesn't have too much to do but does it well), gathers three of his closest associates to tell them why they should support this new production.

We don't actually get to learn much about what the new production is, however; instead, the focus of The Bad and the Beautiful is to show us why all these people hate Jonathan Shields' guts. So, we get that wonderfully overworked Hollywood plot device, the series of flashbacks. (It could have been worse, I suppose; imagine if it were a dream sequence.) First up is that of Barry Sullivan, who plays Shields' former producing partner, Fred Amiel. The best part about this section of the story is probably the glimpses of how B movies were made back in the 1930s. Sullivan was adequate, even if he isn't so well-remembered today.

The second sequence is probably the most interesting, involving Shields' favorite actress, Georgia Larrion (played by Lana Turner). Turner's duty here is to show how beautiful the starlets of the day were, and in this she succeeds spectacularly. Perhaps she succeeds too much, in that, like the cast of the previously-recommended The Young Girls of Rochefort, Turner looks glamorous even when she shouldn't. Who cares, though? This is Lana Turner, after all. Kirk Douglas' son Michael tells a story that shows up from time to time between movies on TCM about how he was on the set the day his father had the memorable kiss scene with Lana, and how it unnerved Kirk to see his son in his line of vision when he was kissing Lana. These actors are, after all, professionals; they're just doing their job.

The final flashback is courtesy of author-turned-screenwriter James Lee Bartlow, played by Dick Powell. He's a southern history professor who wrote a book about the Revolutionary War era that was a best-seller because it was liberally sprinkled with sex. (Despite the best attempts of the people enforcing the Production Code in Hollywood, sex has always sold.) Shields brings Bartlow and his wife (played by Gloria Grahame) to Hollywood, with predictably disastrous results.

Even though The Bad and the Beautiful has its flaws, especially when it veers into melodrama, it's still quite a worthy film. The entire cast is enjoyable to watch: Turner's beauty; Dick Powell's professionalism; and Kirk Douglas' meancing nature. Douglas, still relatively early in his career, had clearly made a name for himself playing a string of characters who were slightly (or much more) menacing, from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers to Out of the Past to Champion; even when he was supposed to be the hero, as in Detective Story, he's a deeply flawed hero. There's also a string of fine character actors. Gilbert Roland plays a Latin actor; Leo G. Carroll plays a studio boss; and Paul Stewart plays an assistant. IMDb claims that well-known names like Francis X. Bushman (from the silent Ben-Hur) and Barbara Billingsley show up in uncredited roles, as a eulogist and costume designer, respectively.

The Bad and the Beautiful was part of the peculiar Oscar year of 1952. It won some of the technical awards, such as Art Direction, but was overlooked for the big prize, not even being nominated for Best Picture. That went to the circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth, in what is widely considered a sop to movies that tried to compete with the new medium of television. Gloria Graham did win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Rosemary Bartlow, but even here, this is a bit curious. It's a fairly small role, and not Grahame's best; she was much better the next year in The Big Heat. Further, there was a much better nominee, Jean Hagen in Singin' In the Rain.

The Bad and the Beautiful is available on DVD, so if you miss tonight's TCM showing, you can still catch it any time you want.

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