Armchair Oscars – 1956

Best Picture

Around the World in 80 Days (Directed by Michael Anderson)
The Nominees: Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I, The Ten Commandments

The Searchers (Directed by John Ford)
My Nominees: 
The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. Demille)


By the late 50s, Hollywood was fighting the battle of the box.  The new phenomenon of television was keeping audiences at home and so the studios sought to make bigger, grander epics that could only be experienced on a large screen.

The final battle would be called at a draw and for movie history and the spoils of war were some of the grandest epics ever made: Giant, The Ten Commandments, Bus Stop, Forbidden Planet, The Searchers, The King and I, Moby Dick and War and Peace. The Best Picture nominees of nineteen fifty-six were proof that the voting academy was on their side. All took full advantage of the new technology and even if the stories weren’t always up to par, the pictures were as grand as they come.

The winner of the year’s Best Picture was the least of the bunch, Michael Todd’s elephantine adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, created with a DeMille-sized vision to take advantage of the CinemaScope process, whereby anamorphic lenses allowed the process to project a film up to a 2.66:1 aspect ratio, twice as wide as the previous format which had been 1.37:1.

The process worked for what was put on the screen.  Around the World in 80 Days, which follows the punctiliously punctual Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and his manservant Passepartout (Cantinflas) on their celebrated journey around the globe, is a great travelogue that takes us to Spain, England, India, China, Japan, Pakistan, France and the United States but it isn’t much more than that.  Outside of the broader outlines of the character, we never really get to know Fogg all that much or any of the other galaxy of characters he meets along the way.  Todd employed a galaxy of guest stars with recognizable faces like Charles Boyer, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Andy Devine, George Raft, Red Skelton and Shirley MacLaine, some with speaking roles and other just to stand around and be recognized.  Most of these actors are given nothing to do, especially poor Shirley MacLaine who joins the journey after being rescued from a Thugee sacrifice and then spends the rest of the movie sitting to David Niven’s right and is hardly even given a line to speak until the film is nearly over.

The film is fun as light entertainment but it is kind of superfluous, especially alongside more serious epics of the time. I thought, initially, of giving my Armchair Oscar to Cecil B. DeMille’s gigantic biblical epic (and my annual Easter tradition), The Ten Commandments but instead, I’m going with John Ford’s The Searchers, a film that the academy completely ignored. It baffles my mind why the voting academy completely shut out a film that is today viewed as the best western that Ford and John Wayne ever made. I am also baffled by their long-standing unwillingness to reward westerns. Only three westerns have won the Best Picture award, Cimarron, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven and the first two of those films fall into a gray area.

I think my choice is better than any of those.  The Searchers is complex, beautifully photographed and contains a surprising turn in John Wayne’s career.  The film is a Western but it does not draw a clear line between heroes and villains.  Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is a racist, not so much by design but by cause and effect.  He is a racist who hates Indians so much that he defiles the body of a tribal elder to keep him from entering the spirit world.

We meet Ethan Edwards, and learn that he is a war veteran who has been away fighting for the Confederacy.  He hasn’t seen his Sister-in-Law Martha or their children Debbie, Lucy, Ben or the adopted Martin since before the war.  He doesn’t care for Martin, who is part Cherokee, despite the fact that it was he who saved the boy from an Indian raid some years earlier.

Lured away by the reverend Sam Clayton to investigate some cattle that have been stolen from a local rancher, they form a posse (which includes Martin) to find the men who have stolen the cattle only to find the livestock dead, having been killed off by Comanche.  Ethan fears that this was a trap to lure him away from the ranch in order to stage a raid on the family.  They return to find that everyone in the family has been murdered except Lucy and Debbie who are have been hauled away.  Fueled with hate, Ethan reforms the posse and they head out to find the missing girls. The true nature of Ethan’s hatred for the Comanche is exposed when the men come upon a corpse and Ethan puts a bullet in each eye, then explains that without his eyes the man cannot enter the spirit world and has to wander forever between the winds.

He spends the next five years on the trail trying to find Debbie and along in the posse is Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who battles with Ethan to see that he doesn’t kill Debbie when he finds her. He has a twisted logic that “Livin’ with Comanches ain’t being alive.”, a ridiculous statement but to his mind it seems perfectly logical.  So do his actions such as slaughtering a heard of buffalo to cut down on the Comanche winter food supply.
The Searchers is an amazing film because it is positioned at an odd place in history between the holocaust in the 1940s and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and Wayne’s character stands for the evil that bred bloodshed on both sides.  At a time when Wayne was seen as the all-American movie star, here he plays a character who reflects the attitude that many Americans had.

The Searchers contains a lot of subplots (some of them, like the inclusion on an Indian bride, are unnecessary) but the focal point is Ethan Edwards.  Here is a man who stands at the center of this film where the hero should be, he hates beyond reason, hates so much that he is willing to punish the Native American beyond the grave.  Perhaps it is not just the Indian that he hates.  His history reveals that he is a man who has spent the last several years fighting in the Civil War on the side of the south.  He seems to fight a never ending battle against those he sees as subhuman, second-class, beneath him.

The movie never gives a rational reason why (there really wouldn’t be), but his is a brilliant case study on the nature of hate, the nature of a man who spends five years on the quest of revenge not against any individuals but all Comanche and then he strikes out for the blood of the woman he has those years trying to find. He believes that because Debbie has spent years amid the Comanche that her flesh and blood have been spoiled by them. “She’s no better than the leavins of a young buck”, he said and consider that he assumes this about a woman he hasn’t seen for years.

Best Actor

Yul Brenner (The King and I)
The Nominees: James Dean (Giant), Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life), Rock Hudson (Giant), Lawrence Olivier (Richard III)

Danny Kaye (The Court Jester
My Nominees:
John Wayne (The Searchers), Rock Hudson (Giant), James Dean (Giant)


The battle for Best Actor in 1956 came down to a pair of kings. Yul Brynner’s portrayal of King Mongkut of Siam in The King and I and Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of Richard III were the front runners that year and the academy decided that Brynner was more fun. This was the year in which this powerful, commanding actor gave two of the performances for which he would always be identified, both of which were monarchs. Aside from his acclaimed performance in The King and I, he also played the Pharaoh Ramses II in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

There was something appealing about this bald, very theatrical Swiss-Mongolian-Russian actor that caught on with audiences. He was perfect to play kings and commanders, he had the voice, he had the stature, he had the screen presence and he had broad theatrical gestures. He was a lot of fun as The King of Siam, the stubborn King who hires a governess to educate his children.

Yet in this year of kings, I chose a jester.

Brynner would win the only Oscar for which he was nominated, but the great Danny Kaye was never nominated for a competitive Oscar, although the academy did give him an honorary award the previous year for his contributions to the film industry.  Later they would give him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award for his work on behalf of UNICEF.  Whether he won an award or not, people usually smile when they talk about Danny Kaye.  The conversation always inevitably leads to The Court Jester.

Danny Kaye only made a handful of feature films but this was the film that best displayed his gifts.  In this spoof of Errol Flynn swashbucklers, set in merry old England, he plays Hubert Hawkins, a former carnival entertainer who now works for a notorious Robin Hood-like outlaw named The Black Fox.  He gets involved in court intrigue when the infant king has his birthright usurped by the impostor Roderick. Hawkins gets himself involved in a convoluted plot: The phony king finds out where The Black Fox’s camp is located and so the outlaw instructed Hawkins to escort the infant monarch – who bears the royal birthmark, the purple pimpernel, on his posterior – away from the camp.  He and maid Jean (Glynnis O’Conner) elude the king’s men disguised as an elderly wine merchant and his granddaughter. Slipping away, they find shelter in an old farmer’s shack where they are joined by Giacomo (John Carradine) who pronounces himself “King of Jesters and Jester to the King”.  A light bulb goes off in Hubert’s head and he klonks Giacomo over the head, intending to steal his identity and slip into the palace, installing himself in the king’s confidence while planning to let The Black Fox’s forces in order to overtake the throne.

The plot is probably more complicated than it needs to be – what we really want to see is Danny doing his thing.  We want to see his snappy performance of “You’ll Never Outfox the Fox” which he performs to boost morale within the camp.  We want to see his performance of “The Maladjusted Jester”, a performance before the phony king that displays his gift for tongue twisters.  And of course we want to see the famous bit involving two goblets, one of which is poisoned and the other is safe “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!” Ah-Ha but there’s a change in the plan so it now goes “The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.”  We want to see the verbal dance as he explains to the King the business of the duty to the Duke and the Doge and Duchess and the details therein.

With his craft honed in his youth in the Catskills, Kaye is a fanciful presence, a man of merriment who knows how to kid himself.  He spent years perfecting his vocal inflections, his dances, his singing voice, he is the consummate entertainer.  He can change personalities on a dime as in scene in which he is under a spell cast by the witch Griselda (played the invaluable Mildrid Natwick).  When she snaps her fingers he goes into a trance in which he becomes the greatest swordsman of all.  Fighting the evil Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone), he unknowingly snaps his fingers and his mind switches back to the fumbling Hubert then another snap of the fingers and he is again the Hubert the expert swordsman.

I love the way this heavily plotted movie takes time out to give him his moments.  Example is “The Maladjusted Jester” number in which he is thrust before the King to make him laugh, but he has nothing to work with, so he just makes it up.  We know that it is rehearsed and practiced but he makes his act look effortless, this dance of words and of song are flawless. That’s why it always makes me a little sad that he never got the credit for his performance here.  He was a pure joy to watch.  Kaye always said “If you’re not cooking with joy, happiness and love, you’re not cooking well.”

Best Actress

Ingrid Bergman (Anastasia)
The Nominees: Carol Baker (Baby Doll), Nancy Kelly (The Bad Seed), Deborah Kerr (The King and I), Katharine Hepburn (The Rainmaker)

Katharine Hepburn (The Rainmaker)
y Nominees: Nancy Kelly (The Bad Seed), Marilyn Monroe (Bus Stop)

Ingrid Bergman’s name was mud by the time she left Hollywood in 1949 thanks to a scandal involving an affair with director Roberto Rossellini which produced a child out of wedlock.  She was despised by church leaders and so hated by the Hollywood establishment that her name ended up on the Congressional Record as “an influence of evil.”

In nineteen fifty-five, when director Anatole Litvak was preparing a film adaptation of Marcelle Maurette’s play “Anastasia” about businessman’s attempt to pass off a suicidal homeless woman as the legendary long-lost heir of Czar Nicholas II, he suggested Bergman for the lead but was turned down flat by the executives at Twentieth Century Fox.  Despite a long tug-of-war that eventually involved Litvak, Darryl F. Zanuck, Roberto Rosselini (who hated the script) and even Ed Sullivan – who asked his viewers to send letters voicing their opinion on the actress – she got the lead. When Anastasia premiered in December of 1956, Ingrid Bergman’s screen credit drew cheers from the audience.

The film would go on to be a financial success and Bergman’s performance would be lauded as the best of the year.  She won The Golden Globe and top honors from The National Board of Review and the New York Film Critic Circle and of course, the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role.  Yet, despite the public and the academy voters having forgiven her, she stayed home Oscar night and listened to the ceremony on the radio while sitting in the bathtub.

Ingrid Bergman was an actress who could bring life to even the dullest production and that is exactly what she did in Anastasia.  She is a trooper, giving a wonderful performance despite a script and a supporting cast that are giving her nothing.  True, the art direction and cinematography are sumptuous but the movie is as a dry as a bone.  There is never a dull moment with Bergman but watching this film is a lot of work.  I much preferred Bergman’s fellow nominee Katharine Hepburn in, N. Richard Nash’s adaptation of his own depression-era play The Rainmaker, a film that I found irresistible.

Hepburn plays Lizzy Curry, a forty-something spinster living on a ranch with her father and two brothers during the drought in Kansas.  When we meet her she has just come back from visiting relatives to a home she shares with the three men in her life, father H.C. (Cameron Prud’Homme), and her brothers, the overbearing Noah (Lloyd Bridges) and soft-headed Jim (Earl Holliman).  Lizzy is a smart woman with a big heart and a lot of love to give but believes that her plain looks will keep her eternally shackled as an old maid.

She would like to be courted by the town sheriff, File (Wendall Corey), but is so lacking in confidence, that her father and brothers go into town and ask him over for dinner.  He reluctantly agrees but when Lizzy tries to downplay her own intelligence so not to make him feel intimidated, she makes a mess of the whole dinner.  When he leaves, we get a sense of where some of her self-loathing comes from as her brother Noah heartlessly reminds her that she is plain and no man will ever love her.

Onto the ranch comes Starbuck (Burt Lancaster), a fast-talking traveling huckster who makes a living selling a lightening-rod device that is supposed to prevent tornadoes.  He spins pretty words like a concert pianist makes beautiful music. He works his magic on H.C., convincing him that he can end the drought by making it rain – for a meager charge of $100.  Lizzy is on to him and berates him for fooling her father with such a scheme, but then he turns his magic on her, convincing her of her own worth and in the process, falling in love with her.  She is charmed by this man and a tender, but brief, romance ensues.  Starbuck is able to convince Lizzy of the power of her own worth, that she is beautiful and that any man would be glad to have a woman with a heart as big as hers.

The beauty of their scenes together come from the fact that, while we know Starbuck is a trickster, his approach to Lizzy is quite genuine.  He is able to bring sunshine into her life and in her heart that she has kept bottled up for years. When, in the end, it does start to rain, it is as if the dammed up emotion in Lizzy’s heart has come spilling over.  Her drought has ended, just as it has for the land.

I am glad that Hepburn was nominated for this performance; it is one of her best.  As I have mentioned before, I did not like any of the four performances that brought her Oscars because they seem (three at least) to be just dutiful housewives who stand beside their men.  I, too, have chosen Hepburn four times for her performances as Alice Adams in Alice Adams, Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, Jane Hudson in Summertime and now as Lizzy in The Rainmaker.  What these four women have in common is that they all have big hearts but desire the physical beauty or the confidence to be loved on their own merits. They stand for women born without great physical beauty, who have to work a little harder to find someone special.

Through Hepburn’s expressive face, we understand the pain within and the need to express love and to be loved, to feel needed. Of the four performances I have chosen from Hepburn’s career, Lizzy may be the most complete, because she comes full circle and we sense, in the end, that her happiness won’t be temporary.

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