Tuesday, June 30, 2015

#1,779. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) - The Films of Kirk Douglas

Directed By: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon

Tag line: "The story of a blonde who wanted to go places, and a brute who got her there - the hard way!"

Trivia: All of the scenes set at Jonathan Shields' studio were shot on the MGM lot, using the studio's actual facilities

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful takes us inside the Hollywood machine, ignoring the glitz and excitement normally associated with the town to instead present it as a place of business, where writers, actors, directors and producers walk a fine line between art and finance, and occasionally stab each other in the back to get ahead.

Three of the most influential artists in Hollywood: director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), all have one thing in common: they despise producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). 

Once, not long ago, Shields Productions was a cinematic powerhouse, winning Oscars and turning out movies that made a boatload of money. Having fallen on hard times as of late, Shields has his head of production, Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) - a man he himself once worked for - contact Amiel, Lorrison, and Bartlow in the hopes they’ll sign on to make his next picture. 

But all three have been burned by Jonathan Shields in the past, and during their visit to Pebbel’s office they recount their experiences with the man, explaining why they can never work with him again.

As film producer and all-around heel Jonathan Shields, Kirk Douglas delivers what I consider to be one of his finest performances, playing the character as both a perfectionist who always gets what he wants and a double-crossing worm who’d sell out his own mother if she stood in his way. At times, he’s a true visionary. Years earlier, when Harry Pebble assigned him and Fred Amiel (both of whom were just starting out) to the B-picture The Doom of the Cat Men, it was Jonathan who decided to scrap the lousy cat-man costumes the studio provided and instead keep their creatures hidden in the shadows. As Jonathan put it, the dark frightens an audience more than anything else (an idea borrowed from Val Lewton, who did this very thing with 1942’s Cat People).

The Doom of the Cat Men proved a success, and Jonathan used his leverage from this to pitch an idea put forward by Fred, who had figured out a way to adapt the best-selling novel “The Faraway Mountain”. Sure, three other studios tried to tackle it and failed, but Fred’s outline was so airtight that it couldn’t miss. Sensing a chance to produce his first important picture, Jonathan pushed hard to get The Faraway Mountain off the ground, and it was eventually green-lit. 

Alas, this was also when Shields started to show his true colors; not only did Jonathan lock Fred out as director, hiring instead the seasoned pro, Von Ellstien (Ivan Triesault), but he took full credit for the screenplay, a move that ended his partnership, as well as his friendship with Fred Amiel. 

Georgia Lorrison and James Lee Bartlow have similar stories to tell about their experiences with Jonathan (both of which are even more heartbreaking than Amiel’s). Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Jonathan Shields set himself up for failure when he ruined his relationship with the three of them, alienating talented people he knew would one day rise to the top of their professions. So, when he needed them, he had to grovel and beg. It was a situation he himself created, and it was costing him dearly.

The Bad and the Beautiful exposes the sometimes ugly underbelly of the motion picture industry, but does it go far enough? If history and the tabloids have taught us anything, it’s that Hollywood is a den of sin, where young starlets fall victim to sex-hungry producers; rampant alcoholism and drug addiction cuts short many promising careers; and shattered dreams lead some young hopefuls to eventually take their own lives. Because the film was made in 1952, these vices are predictably absent (the sequence dealing with Georgia Lorrison briefly touches on a few of the above, yet doesn’t explore them in any great detail). 

What The Bad and the Beautiful does do, however, is show the world that movies are a million-dollar business, and that script meetings, screen tests, and budget proposals matter just as much as what's in front of the camera. It may not vilify Tinsletown entirely, but Minnelli’s film manages to strip away the glamour, and for a movie produced within the Hollywood system, that’s not too shabby.

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