Armchair Oscars – 1952

Best Picture

The Greatest Show On Earth (Directed by Cecil B. Demille)
The Nominees: High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, The Quiet Man

Singin’ in the Rain (Directed by Stanley Donen)
My Nominees:
High Noon (Fred Zinneman), The Marrying Kind (George Cukor) , The Quiet Man (John Ford)


For a man who bestrided the world of filmmaking with a “super-size it” attitude and gave us such unforgettable epics as Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments, it is strange that Cecil B. Demille’s only Best Picture win came for an overblown chunk of flapdoodle about the behind-the-scenes antics of a traveling circus.


You can employ your own theories about why the academy was taken in by The Greatest Show on Earth, but I choose to believe that it was because everyone in Hollywood was either in the film or knew someone who was. An even bigger mystery is why the academy chose to completely overlook Singin’ in the Rain, the film generally considered the greatest of all movie musicals. Throughout this history of the medium, I doubt there is a film that is more fun, more lively, more colorful and I don’t remember any single group of actors who seemed to be having more fun.

Most of the fun comes from Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner who, separately, offer two of the most famous (and difficult) dance numbers in the history of film. O’Conner’s Cosmo Brown gives us the gravity-defying “Make ’em Laugh” about his lifelong desire to be a comedian which comes out through acrobatics that have him literally running up the walls. The routine is done with great energy and a rapid pace, leading to a finally in which one of the walls finally gives way. Kelly, meanwhile, gives us the title number, a rapturous four minutes of soaking wet joy that is going to live forever in movie history.

What is different about these dance numbers is that they go far beyond the usual Fred Astaire-style elegance. There was a formality to the numbers that Astaire did with Ginger Rogers, but what makes the numbers in Singin’ in the Rain so special is that they seem to well up spontaneously out of the moment. Donald O’ Conner’s “Make ’em Laugh” comes out of a moment in which he is trying to cheer up Gene Kelly. He begins on a piano then moves through several stagehands carrying props, then onto a vacant set. What is amazing about the dancers in Singin’ in the Rain is that they use the entire room as a prop. “Make ’em Laugh” takes place entirely on a set that contains only the props that are used for the number: a couch, a headless mannaquin and O’Conner’s body. He dances about the set using his entire body, at one point treating his own face like putty. There’s a beautifully choreographed moment when he literally runs up the wall, does a flip and lands on his feet and then does the same thing on the back wall. The payoff of course is that the right wall is made of paper and he simply busts through it. He finishes the number by falling backwards on the floor and, I swear, I am shocked that his stomach isn’t rapidly moving up and down.

The title dance number works the same way. The only props are a city street, a lamp post, an umbrella and a lot of water. The moment wells up out of a moment when Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood and Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy Seldon begin to fall in love. He walks her home and after she disappears upstairs, Lockwood is so overtaken by the rapture of falling in love that he doesn’t hide from the rain. He dances with the umbrella, swings around with it open, twirls it like a cain and, at one point, plays it like an impromptu ukulele. Bounding off the sidewalk, he twirls around the lamp post and we get a semi-closeup of Kelly’s wide, happy smile. But mostly his prop is the water. According to director Stanley Donen, the puddles that Kelly splashes in are meant to look random but, in reality, they were specifically placed where Kelly would splash into them. It was Kelly who decided how this number would turn out. It had been planned to contain the three leads, but he thought it would work better as a solo number and would perfectly capture the rapturous joy as his character falls head over heels in love. What works is that the moment is pure magic.

have always said that the strength of a musical lies, not only in its production numbers but also in its story. So many movie musicals are so concerned with the dance sequences that the story is merely a thin strand of connective tissue to get us from one song to the next. Singin’ in the Rain, like all great musicals, has a story that is worth telling. It takes place in Hollywood in the 1920s during the point of turnover from silent films to “talkies.” This was a point of massive change for the industry that created new stars but also turned those who couldn’t successfully make the switch into overnight has-beens. Dim-bulbed Lina LaMont (Jean Hagan), for example, is in danger of becoming a liability. She may be a top star but she has a voice that is as pleasant as a blender full of nails. To help her out, the studio hires sweet Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds) to dub her voice. Lina is also dumb enough to be convinced that her co-star Donald Lockwood is in love with her on the basis of something she read in a fan magazine. She is afraid that Kathy and Donald are falling for each other so, out of spite, she puts it in her contract that Kathy can only dub her voice. But Lina gets her comeuppance later when Lina is forced to sing onstage in front of a live audience and Kathy stands behind the curtain to dub the singing. That’s when two of Kathy’s friends get the idea to expose Lina by raising the curtain and exposing the deception. Lina is humiliated and Kathy becomes a star, thanks to a proclamation by Donald, in a scene that could only happen in the movies.

Hagen, a brilliant comedian, really steals her scenes as the dumb blonde whose voice is an unpleasant noise but delivers some of the film’s funniest lines: “What do they think I am? Dumb or something? Why, I make more money than – than – than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!” I also loved the repeated scenes as Roscoe Dexter (Douglas Fowley), the frustrated director of her current project “The Dueling Cavalier,” tries time and again to hide the microphone so it will pick up Lina’s voice. He tries hiding it in a bush in the foreground but it only picks up Lina’s voice when she is facing it. Frustrated, he tells her “You’ve got to talk into the mike!” and she comes back, “Well, I can’t make love to a bush!” They try putting the bulky mike onto her dress amid a neckline of roses which picks up her voice but also her heartbeat.

The story of the odd early transition into the sound era really becomes an unexpectedly funny element of Singin’ in the Rain. There are moments that are hysterically funny, such as the moments when large microphones had to be hidden but could only reasonably pick up the actors’ voice is they were standing perfectly still, facing forward. And the problem of having the soundtrack synch with actors’ voices that didn’t make them sound like the actors onscreen and the actors doing the voices were miles apart. This was all true because early sound films, as popular as they were, were still a work in progress. Yet, the film doesn’t necessarily poke fun at those moments. There is an affection for the struggles to get sound onto film but the film plays like a loving tribute to the art of movie making. This is really one of those movies that is in love with the art of making movies.

Singin’ in the Rain is one of those perfect films in which all the pieces just came together. The music, the story, the romance, the comedy, the leads, the supporting actors all just seem to fall perfectly into place. At the time, the major studios had a film per week to get into release, and this film probably wasn’t seen as any more or any less important than any of the other 200 films that were released by MGM that year. The voting academy certainly didn’t think so but time has a way of rewarding films in a way that awards cannot and it would become the most beloved musical of all time. It is a happy, joyful, wonderful experience. This is the film that picks me up when I am feeling down. When I need a boost, all I need is the message buried in the title tune to keep laughing at clouds and singin’ in the rain.

Best Actor

Gary Cooper (
High Noon)
The Nominees: Marlon Brando (Viva Zapata!), Alec Guiness (The Lavender Hill Mob), Kirk Douglas (The Bad and the Beautiful), Jose Ferrer (Moulin Rouge)

John Wayne (The Quiet Man)
My Nominees:
Marlon Brando (Viva Zapata!), Charles Chaplin (Limelight), Gary Cooper (High Noon), Kirk Douglas (The Bad and the Beautiful), Alec Guiness (The Lavender Hill Mob), Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain), Donald O’Conner (Singin’ in the Rain), Spencer Tracy (Pat and Mike)


I like Gary Cooper. He is one of those actors who can convey multitudes without ever speaking a word. I remember his great voice but he was at his best when he did not speak. He had an expressive face and wore what he was feeling around his eyes. He displayed that best, I think, in the later scenes of Pride of the Yankees after he is stricken with a painful ailment he doesn’t really understand. He also displays this expressiveness all through High Noon in which he plays Marshall Will Kane, a lawman who is about to retire to a new life and a new bride when his past comes back to haunt him. An old advisory comes back to town to exact his revenge and he has no choice but to face him. Through his expressive face, Cooper displays an interior conflict. This man is scared to death, but he knows that his confrontation is inevitable.

Gary Cooper won the Oscar twice, first for Sergeant York in 1942 and then again for High Noon. I think he gives a much better performance in the latter film but, for me, neither can overcome my love for John Wayne’s performance in John Ford’s The Quiet Man.

John Wayne would have to wait another seventeen years before he received any love from the academy. That was for True Grit, not his best performance, but I am at least thankful that he was recognized for a western. In The Quiet Man, he gives one of his best performances as Sean Thornton, a boxer who was born in Ireland but went to America and now has returned to his ancestral homeland of Innisfree. He wants to settle his roots there and buys his family’s cottage from the very unwilling widow Tillane (Mildrid Natwick), who only relents to sell him the property when she finds out that the town hothead, Red Will Danahar (Victor McLaglan), wants it for himself. Danaher, a man whose entire personality seems made up of anger, grudges and bitterness, wants to settle the dispute by knocking Thornton on his keister.

Another log is tossed on the fire when Sean is smitten by Will’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara). She is as stubborn and temperamental as her brother, but Sean is in love with her and determines to marry her. He knows that between her temperament and her brother’s feuding nature, getting her to the altar is not going to be easy. So he employs the town matchmaker (and town drunk) Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) to help. When that doesn’t work he cooks up a scheme with Father Lonergan to convince Danahar that the widow Tillane will marry him if he will let Sean court Mary Kate. The widow won’t marry a man with another woman in the house so he agrees to let Sean marry Kate. But the widow won’t be played a fool and refuses to marry Will. Out of spite, Will refuses to turn over his sister’s dowry and Mary Kate won’t consummate the marriage without it, because she feels that it signals that she is in servitude. Attempting to leave Sean, she gets to the train, but Sean shows up and drags her by the wrist all the way through town back to the house.

She accuses Sean of being afraid of her brother, which is untrue. Sean has given up his violent nature when he ended his boxing career after he killed a man in the ring. The good Father convinces him that this fight is not for money or fame but for love, so Sean changes his mind. He and Will have it out, fighting up and down the town for hours until they are both worn out. Beat down, but not out they become friends and Sean returns to the cottage, to Mary Kate and the life of a quiet man.

The first time I saw The Quiet Man, I saw it immediately after seeing John Wayne’s celebrated performance in John Ford’s The Searchers, made just four years later. The two performances show the polar ends of Wayne’s talent and the opposite portraits of a man’s violent nature. Ethan Edwards was a man so wrapped up in bitter hatred that he spends five years on a bloodthirsty quest, not to rescue his kidnapped niece, but to kill her and the men who took her. Sean Thornton on the other hand is a man who has cast off his violent nature and wants to live a quiet life of peace and contentment. The irony is that he has arrived in the middle of a situation that requires him to fight for that contentment. Thornton is a man haunted by his past who sees the future of green pastures and a country cottage. What an irony that he falls in love with such a hothead.

I think that Sean sees Mary Kate as a challenge. She’s a gorgeous woman, no doubt, but she represents the kind of violent, quick temperament that he is trying to leave behind. Yet there is something else that he sees behind that facade, something sweet that can represent a calm life. Their scenes together are tender and slightly erotic. We believe that Sean is passionately in love with Mary Kate even while she resists him, which is visualized in the famous moment he comes into the cottage and grabs her by the hand and kisses her while she resists him. He has a way of decimating her angry facade by simple reason especially when she scoffs that he calls her a saint and later thanks her for cleaning his house.

I know that Wayne’s career was defined by his Westerns (justifiably so) but my favorite John Wayne pictures are the ones that showed his range. He became fodder for impressionists, but there was far more depth to what he displayed on screen and I think he gave his two best performances in the 1950s both with The Quiet Man and The Searchers. They are case studies in how men deal with anger and conflict.

Best Actress

Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba)
The Nominees: Joan Crawford (Sudden Fear), Bette Davis (The Star), Julie Harris (The Member of the Wedding), Susan Hayward (With a Song in My Heart)

Judy Holliday (The Marrying Kind)
The Nominees: Grace Kelly (High Noon), Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man), Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain), Lana Turner (The Bad and the Beautiful)


Matching all the nominees for Best Actress of 1952, Shirley Booth seemed the least likely to have appeared pretentious. She had a humble, self-effacing manner which was probably what got the Academy’s attention. After a lengthy career on stage and on Broadway, for which she won three Tony Awards, Booth made it to the big screen at age fifty-four playing a sad sack in Daniel Mann’s adaptation of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba. The role of Lola Delaney, a sad chatterbox who pines for her lost little dog and endures a loveless marriage to a man she has driven to drink, was a character she played many times on the stage. By the time she got to the film version, she knew the part like the back of her hand, which explains why she seemed so comfortable in the role.

Booth had a sweet face and the soothing voice of a beauty shop gossip, but her subsequent career on screen was unimpressive. I would like to have seen her in more challenging roles, but Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her and stuffed her into small supporting roles of no significance.

In the 1960s, Booth turned to television where she spent five years in her best known role as Hazel Burke, the lovable maid on the series “Hazel.” She was a Tony Winner, an Oscar winner and an Emmy winner but other than her television success, most everything else about Shirley Booth seems to have passed out of common knowledge.

In a way, the same can be said for Judy Holliday who won an Oscar in 1950 for playing Billie Dawn, the dumb blonde whose bullish boyfriend gets her an education at the hands of William Holden in George Cukor’s Born Yesterday. As with Booth, this was a role the Holliday had repeated on the stage a hundred times and also fell under the weight of a series of subsequent films that are all but forgotten today. That’s too bad, because I think that the performance that immediately followed Born Yesterday was even better, yet received no nominations for anything.

The Marrying Kind was also directed by George Cukor (and written by husband and wife Garsen Kanin and Ruth Gordon), but this time the results are far less comic. Holliday plays Florence Keefer who, as the film opens, is in the middle of a divorce from her husband Chet (Aldo Ray). The judge sees something in this young couple that won’t be solved by splitting up and decides to meet with them after the proceedings. From there, they recount their relationship from the beginning: how they met in a park one day, got married, moved into a small apartment of which her mother did not approve, and eventually had two kids. They were constantly struggling to make ends meet because Chet wouldn’t let Florence work, and they had several runs of bad luck.

Chet’s pride wouldn’t allow him to let Florence get a job. One night during a drunken hangover, he comes up with a new idea for ball-bearing skates but, while showing it to a prospective investor, the man falls down and, as a result, throws them out. Later Florence sees that the idea was stolen by a dancer who is now making millions from the idea. Even worse luck comes when she gets a call from a name-that-tune radio contest but gives them Chet’s answer instead of her own which would have been right. They lose $1,200. Later she is informed that her former boss has died and left her a sum of money that they desperately need. She accepts it, but Chet feels that it is a blow to his pride that she has received money from another man for seemingly no reason. Later, their son drowns. Chet gets in an accident forcing Florence to go out and find work, leading to another bruise to Chet’s pride.

What surprised me most about The Marrying Kind is that it is a melodrama where I always assumed it was a comedy (which is how it was advertised). It is far deeper and darker than I would have thought. The things that erupt in Florence and Chet’s life are not any different from what happens to most couples, they are not extraordinary events. As their relationship continues, we begin to understand and completely believe why it eventually deteriorated. The larger performance in the film belongs to Aldo Ray who pulls the relationship down under the weight of his unflinching pride, but look just to his left and you see the best performance in Judy Holliday’s career. She’s a very internal actress, very skilled at conveying emotions without words. There is the moment when her son dies, and she falls into some emotional territory that most actresses wouldn’t touch. There is the moment when they lose the radio contest because she takes Chet’s answer because she didn’t want to hurt him. She is caught between his pride and her own disappointment.

This is the best performance of Judy Holliday’s career. Thanks to her Oscar win for Born Yesterday, she will forever be labeled as the dumb blonde (despite how that film turns out), but watch this film and you’ll see that she is a great deal more. Florence is not an extraordinary person but you see a complete person within her.

Home | What is all this? | Contact Me

2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996 | 1995 | 1994 | 1993 | 1992 | 1991 | 1990 | 1989 | 1988 | 1987 | 1986 | 1985 | 1984 | 1983 | 1982 | 1981 | 1980 | 1979 | 1978 | 1977 | 1976 | 1975 | 1974 | 1973 | 1972 | 1971 | 1970 | 1969 | 1968 | 1967 | 1966 | 1965 | 1964 | 1963 | 1962 | 1961 | 1960 | 1959 | 1958 | 1957 | 1956 | 1955 | 1954 | 1953 | 1952 | 1951 | 1950 | 1949 | 1948 | 1947 | 1946 | 1945 | 1944 | 1943 | 1942 | 1941 | 1940 | 1939 | 1938 | 1937 | 1936 | 1935 | 1934 | 1932-33 | 1931-32 | 1930-31 | 1929-30 | 1928-29 | 1927-28 |

Contact me @