Art Vs Commerce: Musicals, Bible Stories, and Bad Choices (1950s)

1954

Sometimes I kid that acting as we know it wasn’t invented until the 70s. Of course that’s not true.

Apparently it was in the 50s, it just took a minute to catch on.

And The Oscar Goes To…

The film’s in black and white but I doubt Brando had that much lipstick or eyeshadow.

On The Waterfront is one of those movies where everyone knows one scene, even if they don’t know why. The “I could’ve been a contender” speech. And in context it’s an even better moment than you think it is.

So briefly: Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is an ex-boxer who now works as a hired hand for longshoreman union boss/gangster Johnny Friendly, the same gangster who made Terry take a dive and end his boxing career. Between that, pressure from a priest and the sister of a guy Terry helped get killed, and just horrible mismanagement of the union by Johnny Friendly (if you’re going to use a union for crime, try not to openly screw over the membership), Terry begins to think that maybe snitching to the cops about Johnny isn’t as bad as the entire dock and surrounding neighbourhood thinks. Decently compelling story, but there’s one thing in particular I want to drill into.

Hm. How to explain why Marlon Brando seems like an evolutionary leap in film acting. Perhaps this strip from Dave Kellett’s Sheldon will help.

Go to www.sheldoncomics.com to learn why his director is a talking duck and also to enjoy life for a while. He’s the only good Sheldon. But damn, kid, get your hands outta your pockets.

I’ve liked several actors in the project so far, as my Golden Age Avengers list from last time indicated. But Golden Age acting was, well, those first three panels. It’s big, it’s theatrical, it’s entertaining and can even be moving but it’s Acting. Even Laurence Olivier in Hamlet: he was definitely good, but he was very stagey, playing to the balcony when film makes that unnecessary. Marlon Brando is much more naturalistic. Brando is trying to be a person, not a character or a movie star. Sure his method acting used to cause problems on stages (he refused to project because his character wouldn’t talk that loud), and sure late-stage Brando didn’t like to work hard (we’ll talk about that in the 70s), but here he’s nailing it, and that makes On The Waterfront a new kind of good.

Also here’s a Twitter thread.

We found out. It was.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s ranked 13th. Yeah, I buy that, seems right, no notes.

Of course, On The Waterfront was also black and white, so could it compete with a full colour, widescreen musical with an established draw? You know it couldn’t, I’m obviously leading to something, but hey, no biblical times!

The Box Office Champ

The first film in “VistaVision,” because Cinerama and their CinemaScope could go screw, I guess. Technicolor still had an iron grip on colour, but widescreen was anyone’s game.

So here’s White Christmas, from Irving Berlin, starring Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, and Rosemary Clooney. Irving Berlin didn’t exactly win me over with This Is The Army, especially after the actual line of dialogue “I told you minstrel numbers still work,” but the 40s made me a Bing fan, so that’s an enticement.

Army buddies Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) are a musical duo who strike up a friendship with a different double act, the Haynes Sisters, Betty and Judy. The four of them go to Vermont, where they find they’re booked to play at a struggling hotel owned by a former general the lads had served under. They try to put on a show that will bring crowds to the hotel, while Phil and Judy scheme to hook up Bob and Betty.

There are multiple numbers, including Crosby singing the title track twice. Kaye is funny, Bing is still the same old pleasant and enjoyable Bing… although it was very noticeable that eight years had gone by since Welcome Stranger and I wasn’t ready to be reminded of the remorseless march of time just yet… they’re a decent double act. Vera Ellen, who played Judy, is a good enough dancer that they brought in an extra cast member just to be her dance partner because neither Crosby nor Kaye could keep up with her. It’s good fun. Good, simple, pleasant fun.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Certified fresh at 77%. Seems about right.

But Why Not…? Look, I don’t have a lot of complaints about 1954’s choice here, but on the other hand they could have been watching Humphrey Bogart and Aubrey Hepburn in Sabrina, just saying.

Other Events in Film

  • First and foremost… Hollywood wouldn’t notice for a minute, but over in Japan, the world met a certain special someone who the English-speaking world would come to know as Godzilla.
  • Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart teamed up for Rear Window.
  • Another A Star is Born? Already? Dang there are so many of those. This is the one with Judy Garland, believed to be her best performance.
  • This year in Humphrey Bogart Movies I Don’t Get to Cover, in addition to Sabrina, is The Caine Mutiny, of which I know nothing.
  • Kirk Douglas battled a giant squid and inspired six-year-old-me’s favourite Disneyland ride in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

What a nice breath of fresh air 1954 was. The Best Picture was a well-constructed film of substance anchored on what seems to be a game-changing performance, the box office champ was a simple, feel-good musical comedy, what a nice place to be at the halfway point. I bet 1955 won’t be a massive let-down at all.

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