The Bad and the Beautiful

Don’t worry. Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other’s guts.

Seeing as Kirk Douglas celebrates his 100th birthday today I wanted to make a point of featuring one of his movies to mark the occasion. With one of the great movie stars I figured it would be appropriate to choose a movie about movie-making, not only one of the best of that little sub-genre but one of the best Hollywood has produced. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is a carefully crafted piece of work, episodic in structure but with an organic, flowing quality that ensures scenes and sequences segue naturally to provide us with a portrait of a man both shaping and simultaneously being shaped by the cinema. Sounds like a perfect role for Douglas, doesn’t it?

If one wanted to be glib, it could be said the film is the story of a phone call. In fact, it  starts with  a series of telephone calls, three to be exact and each one is rejected with something approaching relish. Three calls to three Hollywood figures, all of whom take pleasure in telling the party at the other end of the line to take a running jump. That guy at the other end of the line is Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), once a big-time producer but now reduced to hearing casual brush-offs across a long distance line. So we’ve got a good hook right here, you do tend to wonder why a man should be summarily dismissed in this fashion. Curiosity is such that we want to know what a man like this has to say, and by the end of the picture those on the screen clearly share this feeling too. In the meantime, we have the build-up, where studio executive Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) tries to persuade the director (Barry Sullivan), the leading lady (Lana Turner) & the writer (Dick Powell) to at least take Shields’ call and give their collective answer on whether or not they are prepared to work with him one more time.  So, this trio gathers in Pebbel’s office while he, through flashbacks, recalls the way their lives and careers became entwined with that of Shields, and why they feel the way they do about him.

 Hollywood thrives on narcissism, it loves to look at itself and can’t resist encouraging us to look at it while it indulges in this introspection. You could say that’s indicative of the all-consuming vanity of the movies, the conviction that audiences will be fascinated by the chance to peek behind the cameras and glimpse the artists and technicians at work and play, that there’s no drama as compelling as the everyday lives of the filmmakers themselves. And I guess they’re right, there’s always been a market for celebrity watching and this has shown no sign of abating any time soon, if anything it’s more intense than ever these days. We sometimes hear about stripping away the glamor but the classic Hollywood exposés didn’t really do that, sure they showed the less savory side of the business and those involved in it but even so they couldn’t help making it look good. As the title of this film suggests, there are some rotten people on screen but they and the world they inhabit remain beautiful and captivating. The Oscar-winning Charles Schnee screenplay focuses on the ruthlessness, the lack of scruples of Shields, the way he’s consistently used and manipulated his colleagues to attain success. Yet, for all that, despite the duplicity and the betrayals, the milieu holds our attention and we’re never allowed to forget that Shields brought success even to those he hurt.

Director Vincente Minnelli clearly enjoyed turning the cameras around since he, and Douglas, would return to the theme 10 years later when they made Two Weeks in Another Town, again scripted by Schnee and produced by John Houseman. He’s always going to be best remembered for his musicals but it has to be said he had a marvelous talent for well-judged melodrama – this movie, the aforementioned Two Weeks in Another Town, Home from the Hill and the dazzling Some Came Running are significant artistic achievements and add up to a highly impressive mini-filmography by themselves.

 Kirk Douglas was second billed in The Bad and the Beautiful behind Lana Turner and earned himself his second Oscar nomination. He didn’t win (losing out to Gary Cooper in High Noon that year) and claims in his autobiography to have been surprised by the nomination, believing his roles in Wyler’s Detective Story or Wilder’s Ace in the Hole were more worthy of such an honor. I think this says something about the way Douglas views his own work, seeming to prefer the more driven and less sympathetic parts. While there is much to dislike about Jonathan Shields, it’s said that Minnelli worked on Douglas to bring out the nicer side of the character and tone down the more explosive and less likeable aspects. Which is not to say he doesn’t explode at any point – he does have two fairly intense, in-your-face scenes opposite Lana Turner, but it probably wouldn’t feel like a proper Kirk Douglas film if they weren’t there.

Lana Turner wasn’t an actress who ever impressed me all that much, meaning she was always someone you noticed in a movie (her looks kind of demand that) but whose roles were frequently less memorable, with a few notable exceptions. I think The Bad and the Beautiful ranks as one such exception. The fact she was playing an insecure, alcohol dependent star was an advantage as it required a degree of fragility and vulnerability that Turner was able to convey successfully. In terms of awards though, the big winner among the actresses was Gloria Grahame, who scooped the Oscar for best supporting actress. Grahame was a terrific screen presence, sexy and credible in just about everything I’ve seen her in. Her part in this film is a small one, confined to the section with Dick Powell, yet she doesn’t waste a moment of the time she has. Powell was fine too as her cynical husband, adding an intellectual spin to the kind of insolence he had down pat by this stage. I generally like Barry Sullivan, he was one of those guys who could be a hero or villain (or even something in between) quite effortlessly. He was good enough as the director who sees his idea stolen but it’s an undemanding and perhaps a bit of a thankless part under the circumstances. And there’s plenty of depth in the cast – Walter Pidgeon, Leo G Carroll, Gilbert Roland and Paul Stewart all make contributions.

 This is a movie where some people like to see if they can pick which cinema personality each of the main characters was based on – Douglas’ lead appears to be a composite of sorts with the characteristics of at least two producers (one of whom is a cult favorite) on view. Of the others, some are pretty obvious (Lana Turner’s part, for example) while others (like Barry Sullivan) are less so. I won’t go naming any names here – it might spoil a little bit of the fun for some and anyway the curious can easily search online for clues/opinions. That’s just trivial stuff though, the movie provides a masterclass in professionalism and polish where there’s next to nothing to fault in the direction, writing, photography (another Oscar there for Robert Surtees) and acting. The Bad and the Beautiful is an extremely smooth and classy piece of filmmaking, Hollywood writing its own lore and having a good time doing it. The film is easy to find and looks good too, at least my old Warner Brothers DVD does. Viewed for the first or the fiftieth time, it still satisfies.

It’s a rare thing to be able to post something on the occasion of the 100th birthday of a living screen legend, a bona fide star of the Golden Age of cinema, and it gives me a real kick to be able to do so on the day Kirk Douglas hits three figures – congratulations to him and may he see many more.

Two Weeks in Another Town

Introspection can be both self-indulgent and revealing, turning the gaze inward in search of some truth that seems elusive in the outside world can bring rewards, perhaps most notably for those whose business it is to present a facade for public consumption. It shouldn’t be all that surprising then that Hollywood, where dreams and illusion are daily spun from the dancing lights of the projector, periodically turns the cameras around to focus on itself. There’s something almost perverse about the industry’s need to pick away at its own glamorous veneer, as though it were prodding us in the ribs and daring us to confront the artifice at its heart. Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) was Vincente Minnelli’s second bite at the hand which fed him, following the previous decade’s The Bad and the Beautiful.

Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) is a movie star, one of that glittering breed idolized and worshiped by so many. Although it’s perhaps more accurate to say the Jack Andrus we see at the beginning was a movie star, a subdued figure strolling ineffectually round the grounds of the psychiatric clinic where he’s staying. The scar on his face, a memento of the events that led him to his current abode, has healed. However, it’s as nothing compared to the raw wounds he still carries around inside. His doctor says he feels Andrus is fit to leave, not necessarily cured but able to leave all the same. And there’s a hint of hope for the future too, a cable from his old director asking him to fly out to Rome for a small part in his latest production. But we’re talking about the movies here, where nothing and nobody can be taken at face value, and the truth is that Andrus is essentially washed up. The director, Maurice Kruger (Edward G Robinson), doesn’t really have any intention of using him on screen. Basically, it’s a ploy, partly as a kind of sop for Kruger’s guilt over his involvement in Andrus’ breakdown. If our star has hit bottom, then the once great director is headed in the same direction, although his decline is slightly more graceful and a little less dramatic. The picture represents something of a last bid for glory for Kruger, and it’s in danger of being derailed by the ruthlessness of his hard-headed Cinecittà producer. Standing between him and the prospect of failure and humiliation is Andrus, the man he first built up and then destroyed. So what does he do? He tosses this one-time star a few crumbs from his table, hoping that the hunger of a starving man will prove his salvation. To Andrus, the vital but seemingly demeaning task of supervising the post-production dubbing is like a slap in the face initially. Still, the lure of the movie business, and maybe more importantly, the chance to prove himself capable of doing anything of worth again is strong. And then there’s the figure of Carlotta (Cyd Charisse), the woman he tried to love and lost his mind over. She flits in and out of proceedings, simultaneously taunting Andrus with reminders of what he’s lost and holding out the promise of new adventures ahead. What it all boils down to is a two-week sojourn in a town where he may either drown in the heady atmosphere or, if he can see through the showbiz smokescreen, have the chance to regain the mastery of his soul once again.

While I still think Two Weeks in Another Town is a very good film, it could potentially have been a great one. Charles Schnee wrote the script from a novel by Irwin Shaw, and the score was provided by the great David Raksin. With Milton Krasner shooting Minnelli’s beautiful nighttime setups just about all the ingredients were in place for a stone cold classic. But then, and ironically mirrored by the plot itself, came the interference from the studio. In his autobiography (The Ragman’s Son, Pan Books 1989,  pp 342-344), Douglas claims the movie was recut and edited when Joseph Vogel became the new head of MGM, stripping out some of the racier and more dramatically satisfying elements. I think that much can be seen in the somewhat sketchy development of a few of the characters. What we’re left with is the core of the story, of a man desperately seeking personal and spiritual redemption and the peace that comes with it. In addition, there’s the unmistakable stamp of Minnelli, the careful framing of whose shots create the kind of tableaux that approach visual poetry on occasion. It would be remiss of me not to mention his masterful use of color – the whole film is drenched in the deep, saturated hues which often characterize his work. Perhaps he falls short of achieving the dramatic and visual intensity of his sublime Some Came Running, but there are moments when he gets within striking distance at least.

Kirk Douglas was making his third appearance in a Minnelli production and he’s well cast in a role that calls for the type of mood swings which range from ebullience through manic intensity by way of brooding melancholy.  While the focal point of the story is on Andrus’ journey of self rediscovery, and the necessary laying to rest of old phantoms along the way, there’s room too for some interesting observations and musings on the nature of the actor, that wearer of masks. A wistful, early morning conversation with a besotted Daliah Lavi sees Douglas reflecting on the contradictory nature of the actor, the retreat from reality and submergence of the self in the character of others which actually runs counter to the overwhelming desire to better understand one’s own sense of being. Ultimately, it’s the reconciliation of these seemingly incompatible urges which lies at the heart of his character’s motivation.

Robinson’s aging director is also notable, both in itself and as a commentary on the corrosiveness of the movie-making business. The essential insecurity of the man is demonstrated though the need to reaffirm himself through his notorious affairs with leading ladies  – which has had such an adverse effect on his relationship with his wife, an exceptionally acidic Claire Trevor – and also his desperation to prove once again his worth as an artist. It’s his fear of losing control, both personally and creatively, which drives him and finally twists his soul towards bitterness and distrust. The person who links (and divides) Douglas and Robinson is Carlotta as played by Cyd Charisse. Apparently a good deal of her part ended up on the cutting room floor, which is a shame as she is very good based on what we do see of her. Whether it was intentional or not from the outset, she comes across as a blend of the enigmatic and the alluring, leaving a trail of emotional devastation in her wake while attempting to seduce her former lover back onto the same self-destructive path. The contrast comes in the form of Daliah Lavi’s Roman ingenue (demurely clad in simple and pure white throughout as opposed to the arch and lurid costumes of Charisse) whose understated charm and innocence helps restore Andrus’ perspective. I was less impressed by George Hamilton’s troubled young star, never feeling all that convinced by the struggle he’s supposed to be waging against his personal demons. In support, there are small parts (virtual cameos in truth) for George Macready and James Gregory.

Two Weeks in Another Town is available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive in the US and there’s also an Italian release available. I have that Italian disc and it presents the film in the correct anamorphic scope ratio. The transfer is good, clean one with no notable instances of damage. Colors are generally well reproduced, something very important in a film such as this, and the image is pleasing overall. The disc offers the original English soundtrack and an Italian dub, and there are no subtitle options of any kind. As for extras, there’s the theatrical trailer and some galleries. Frankly, I like this movie, but films about films always interest me anyway, and I feel it’s a great pity that parts of it were excised at the behest of the studio boss at the time. Nevertheless, the movie that we have available to view, in spite of its imperfections, is never less than fascinating for the peek behind the facade of filmmaking it affords us and also the central story of a man battling to come to terms with himself and the choices he’s made in life. I recommend it.

Kirk Douglas reaches the grand age of 99 today and I thought I’d take the opportunity to post this piece on that occasion to draw attention not only to this great actor’s birthday but also to just one of the countless strong performances he’s delivered over a long career.