Armchair Oscars – 1951

Best Picture

An American in Paris (Directed by Vincent Minnelli)
The Nominees: Decision Before Dawn, A Place in the Sun, Quo Vadis, A Streetcar Named Desire

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Directed by Robert Wise)
My Nominees:
The African Queen (John Huston), Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock), A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan)


Before World War II, science fiction movies didn’t have a genre.  It was only after the development of the atomic bomb and the onset of a tense nuclear arms race before filmmakers saw the possibilities.  The vision of the horrifying after-effects of the nuclear fall-out, and the unholy creatures it was likely to let loose, fueled a public who had grown nervous about the very real possibility that we now had the capacity to blow our world eight ways from Sunday.  This was a preposterous notion, something out of the pages of a comic book.  With that, science fiction became the perfect new genre for teenagers.

Most early sci-fi was crude, cheap ten-dollar drive-in fodder about an intergalactic thingamajig from another galaxy that was here to turn us into vapor. Yet in the middle of all the rubber masks and screaming teenies came a surprisingly intelligent science fiction epic to warn us that our rapid pace that could likely bring about our own end.  The Day the Earth Stood Still took all the conventions of the science fiction genre and melded them into a sobering tale of an alien who comes to earth to warn us of our own short-sidedness.

It begins with an alien spacecraft that lands on the mall in Washington and out of the craft comes a humanoid being named Klaatu amid a throng of jittery onlookers and a very wary troop of armed soldiers.  A nervous soldier shoots him in the shoulder which activates that alien’s bodyguard, the six-foot eight metallic being named Gort.  Gort melts an Army tank into vapor but Klaatu manages to deactivate him before he can harm anyone.  Klaatu says that he has a message for all mankind but he will only reveal it at a meeting with all the leaders of all nations in attendance.

Unfortunately, the current political climate won’t permit such a meeting to take place.  Klaatu remains in a hospital bed while his wounds are tended to.  Escaping, he takes refuge in the home of a lonely widow (Patricia Neal) and her son (Billy Gray). The boy introduces Klaatu to “the smartest man in the world”, a certain Dr. Barnhard, who is not a million miles removed from Albert Einstein.  Not taken seriously, it becomes necessary for Klaatu to demonstrate that he is serious.  So he eliminates all electrical power in the world except hospitals and airplanes.  This makes him a security threat and he is now hunted.  As a safety precaution, Klaatu teaches Helen a simple command to be used in the event of his death. The immortal words “Klaatu Barada Nikto” (translation: “Klaatu says it’s okay”) to keep Gort from destroying the world.

It doesn’t take much to see the parables of the story and the world situation of the time. This was 1951, the years just after World War II and right in the middle of The Korean War when relations between the U.S. and Russia had deteriorated and the race to build a bigger, better, more effective nuclear bomb was on.  These were times of fear and confusion, amid the “red menace” and the McCarthy menace.  The time for a film with this kind of message could not have been better.

Here is a movie that prefers story over action, a movie that is surprisingly intelligent and with a relevant message.  In the midst of the cold war when we were revving up the engine of the race for atomic superiority, when the earth lived under the ever-darkening cloud of atomic wars, the message of brotherhood and good will could not have been timelier.

The message is brought home in Klaatu’s final moment before stepping back into the flying saucer. He leaves us with a warning: “It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.  We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”

Loosely based on a 1931 short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, The Day the Earth Stood Still is kind of an enigma, a standard-looking science fiction adventure but with a startlingly sober message. This was 1951 in the wake of World War II, the cold war, the McCarthy witch hunts, here is a film that warns us about the possible cost of our own paranoia.

Best Actor

Humphrey Bogart (
The African Queen)
The Nominees: Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire), Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun), Arthur Kennedy (Bright Victory), Fredrich March (Death of a Salesman)

Kirk Douglas (Ace in the Hole)
My Nominees:
Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen), Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire), Fredrich March (Death of a Salesman), Alistar Sim (Scrooge), Robert Walker (Strangers on a Train)


It aggravates me that when the academy got around to rewarding James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, it was not for playing tough guys but rather for softer roles of nobility.  Bogart won 1951’s Best Actor prize for playing a crusty but goodhearted old salt, Charlie Allnut in John Huston’s The African Queen.  He is one of my favorite actors but I’m uncomfortable seeing him play a sweet guy.  His hard looks made him perfect to play that world-weary guy who carries a gun, doesn’t trust dames and, of course, sticks his neck out for no one.

I am perplexed as to why the best performances of his career in Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, High Sierra and The Big Sleep went unrewarded.  Perhaps, I shouldn’t complain, at least Bogart has an Oscar unlike my choice for Best Actor of 1951, Kirk Douglas who never received a competitive Oscar.  He was nominated three times, all in this decade, but I think his best performance, in Billy Wilder’s bitter Ace in the Hole, was unfairly overlooked.

Kirk Douglas is an actor who can play just about anything. He is an intense actor with the rare ability to change emotions at the drop of a hat.  He outwardly displays what he feels – his rage, his joy, his sorrow – right there in his eyes and in the tightness of his jaw.  He is rugged, with broad shoulders, intense eyes and that legendary chin.  For Ace in the Hole, he plays a wide range of emotions as a man who must travel from boisterously egotistical down to cracking a semblance of humanity that he has previously tried to keep in check.

In Ace in the Hole, he plays Chuck Tatum, a big city reporter who arrives in Santa Fe, New Mexico behind the wheel of his car which is hooked to a tow truck.  He grins and reads the paper as if he’s being chauffeured.  Marching confidently into the office of a small newspaper he displays himself as overconfident and boisterous. He brags to the editor Mr. Boot that he can write, edit, print and sell any newspaper.  So why isn’t he working for a major metropolitan newspaper instead of offering his services to this small town rag? He explains without a shred of shame that he has been booted off the paper in New York, Chicago and Detroit for his drinking and his womanizing. Despite this, Boot takes a chance on him.

We meet him a year later, still working for the paper but bored stiff.  Boot gives him an assignment to cover a rattlesnake competition in a nowhere town.  Stopping in a small trading post he learns that the owner, Leo Minosa, is trapped in an ancient Native American silver mine.  Tatum smiles as he sees the potential for a great story. He talks his way past a smug deputy sheriff and walks deep into the mine to talk to Leo himself.  There, with his leg trapped under a rock, sits poor Leo, who is out of Tatum’s reach by a tight squeeze that, if moved too much, could send tons of rocks tumbling down on top of him. Tatum talks to Leo through a small hole in the rock and as the man relays the story of how he came to be in this predicament, he admits that he thinks it was old Indian spirits angry with him for invading their territory.  All the while Tatum’s eyes dance as he begins to imagine the headline he can get from stretching the story to his advantage.

The next day he posts a picture in the paper along with an over-inflated version of Leo’s predicament. He begins the press machine churning to balloon the story into a national event and soon curious onlookers make their way to the site in RVs to camp out for the event. Chuck has met and is surprised by Leo’s indifferent wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), a heartless ice-cold blonde would couldn’t care less about her husband and is taking his entrapment as an opportunity to leave him. But now she is delighted by the prestige and the chance to make a buck or two helping Tatum package and promote the story.

Tatum hits upon another idea to get wider circulation.  He makes pals with the town’s corrupt Sheriff Kretzer, who seems to have more interest in his pet rattlesnake than in his job, and asks him to keep the other reporters at bay so he can have an exclusive.  This allows him to talk to the head of the rescue crew into rerouting the rescue efforts.  Instead of trying to brace the tunnel from the front, he suggests bringing in a giant drill to dig a hole from the top of the mountain straight down to Leo.  The trick here is that through the front, the rescue crew could easily get Leo out in two days, but with Tatum’s suggestion, the crew would have to work day and night for the whole week.

He eventually gains access to the entire story as the carnival moves in, hundreds of onlookers have made camp outside the cave and the story has ballooned into national news. It is about this time that Tatum begins to lose control of the mess he has created.  Leo is growing weak from his immobility and is on the verge of going mad from the day and night pounding of the drill.  His only ray of hope is that he might get out in time for his fifth wedding anniversary, but the doctor tells Tatum that, despite the fact that the drill won’t reach him for several days, he probably won’t last through the night.

The final scenes are some of the darkest that Billy Wilder ever directed and Kirk Douglas does some of his best work.  Chuck struggles with the fact that he can’t undo the mess that he has created and I admit that I waited for a deus ex machina, for a miracle to save the story and the man’s life.  But this is a far darker film, a far more bitter story, and it would have been ruined by some phony happy resolution.

Douglas plays every scene pitch perfect, never allowing us to have sympathy for him and just when we think there might be a reason to care about him, he pulls the rug out and gives us another reason to hate him.  He creates a character so boisterous, so egotistical and such a spin doctor that it’s amazing just to watch him work the situation.  Wilder was known for featuring characters with outsized personalities but with Chuck Tatum I think he topped himself and found the perfect actor for the job. There is a tone shift in his performance as we see him in the first half of the film with a big, curled smile across his mug, strutting about confident in his own abilities. Then late in the film, we see him under the realization of the disaster he has created, we see him as panicked, working on a way to undo the mess he has created.

Best Actress

Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire)
The Nominees: Katharine Hepburn (The African Queen), Eleanor Parker (Detective Story), Shelley Winters (A Place in the Sun), Jane Wyman (The Blue Veil)

Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire)
The Nominees: Katharine Hepburn (The African Queen), Elizabeth Taylor (A Place in the Sun)


In a career that included only 19 films, Vivien Leigh won two Oscars for playing nearly the same character. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and Blanche Duboise in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire are both southern belles with an appetite for men. Both find that their pursuit of men get them into trouble and both end up paying for their indiscretions. Some have said that Blanche is Scarlett in rags and tatters, as if the return to Tara didn’t work out.

The major difference between Scarlet and Blanche is that Blanche has lost her fighting spirit. While Scarlet had a fierce determination to survive and to win the hearts of men, Blanche is completely unguarded. When we meet her, she is at the end of her rope. She arrives in New Orleans from Auriol, Mississippi to stay with her sister Stella (Kim Stanley) and her brutish husband Stanley (Marlon Brando), claiming that their ancestral plantation home has been “lost,” due to “epic fornications.”

Stanley doesn’t like her. He is a simple guy, a lion who likes his den to stay the way he likes it. Blanche, with her perfumes, paper lamp shades, phony politeness and pretentiousness gets on his nerves. He senses that something isn’t right about her and confirms it with several of the guys he works with who have been through Auriol.

It turns out that he is right about her, she does have a past. Blanche once had a lover who killed himself; She was fired from her teaching job when she had an improper relationship with a teenage boy; She was thrown out of a hotel called The Flamingo because of her sexual dalliances. She has come to her sister’s home because she has nowhere else to go. She has no job and no life back in Mississippi. What doesn’t become immediately clear is that she is beginning to crack up.

While Stanley hates her for her pomposity and pretentiousness (and later, her past), his co-worker Mitch (Karl Malden) is charmed by her. He steps out with her and is on the verge of proposing marriage when he finds out the truth about her past. He turns her away because she is unclean.

Blanche is her own worst enemy. She has a need to be loved but she goes about it in ways that get her into trouble. This has helped her to burn her bridges back home and so she now has no life, no hope, nowhere that she can go. We can see that, in youth she was a charming girl with a pretty smile, wide eyes and a soft coquettish voice. She still carries remnants of that old life, sporting a chiffon dress that makes her look like she’s ready for the prom. She brushes her hair and sings to herself like a girl getting ready for a date. She comes to Stanley and Stella’s place with a trunk full of dresses and pearls and furs, all fancy things, nothing practical, no evidence of a routine life.

The image that she displays is that of the remnants of her teenage years. It may have worked when she was a teenager, but now she is pushing 40 and her refusal to mature feeds what will eventually turns into a nervous breakdown. Blanche’s mind blurs the line between fantasy and reality. When Mitch confronts her about her past, he demands the truth. Her response shocks us: “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.” I don’t think this is true, I think that by this point, her mind is so far gone that she simply doesn’t know the difference between what is true and what she tells everyone is true.

Blanche is one of the saddest characters that I have ever encountered. She is clearly mentally ill and feeds off the half-truths she tells. Unlike Scarlet O’Hara, who fought hard to get what she wanted, Blanche has no ground on which to stand. We see nothing of her past, no flashbacks, she steps into our field of vision in beginning stages of her breakdown.

It is well known that Vivien Leigh suffered from manic depression. She was bi-polar, and we can see that she brought a great deal of what she experience in real life to the role. This is a difficult role to play, because Leigh isn’t allow to let Blanche grow into her madness. She is at the beginning stages of her meltdown from the moment we meet her. In the early scenes, we can clearly see that Blanche’s persona is an act. She speaks in broad strokes, moves in grand gestures and wears her pretenciousness right on the tip of her nose. She has a desperate need to be loved, to be admired and she wears her own image as a mask of what is really going on inside. Without this image, she might no unnoticed and, for her, that would be tragic.

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