Friday, June 15, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1953

The Contenders:

The Band Wagon
The Desert Rats
The Naked Spur
Take the High Ground!
Titanic (winner)

What’s Missing

I have to admit I was a bit nonplussed by the list of nominations for this year and category because, at first blush, I didn’t have clear memories of all of these films. I have much clearer memories of other films from 1953 that do or may have original screenplays. Three in particular are those that I question—were they based on published stories or stories published after? These three are Pickup on South Street, The Bigamist and Ray Bradbury’s It Came from Outer Space. The deeper I look, though, the three films that am pretty certain would qualify are all foreign, which could be a hard sell in 1953. These are Summer with Monika, Tokyo Story, and (and I know I’m going to catch hell for this) Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I like all of these films well enough, but most of them have some real problems in the screenplay area. What this means is that I’m figuring out which one has the biggest or most serious problem. That’s going to be The Desert Rats despite the fact that I love a good World War II movie, and I especially find the desert campaign interesting. The problem here is that where it wants to go is obvious. I guessed the fate of all of the characters pretty much exactly, and when a film becomes that predictable, we’ve got a problem.

4. On Letterboxd, four of these movies got the same review from me. The one that didn’t was The Naked Spur, which I liked less than the other four. My problems with it were only partly tied up in the screenplay, though, and the problems it has are the same as those of The Desert Rats. I’m ranking it higher only because the problems aren’t quite as severe. There are elements here that surprised me, and that works in its favor. Still, there’s not a lot here that I would recommend without a great deal of reservation.

3. The best part of Take the High Ground! is Richard Widmark. This is not a knock on the film—I like Richard Widmark quite a bit. The problem with the film is that it feels like a milder first half of Full Metal Jacket and it feels like it doesn’t really get much of anywhere no matter how much it wants to. It’s also far too jingoistic for me. That might play with some people, but the “My country, right or wrong” mentality is one that does not fly with me. Because of that, it’s not getting above third.

2. There’s a lot that The Band Wagon does right, and this is me saying that about a traditional musical. Where it loses me is the musical that it wants to put together on the stage. What we get as an audience is a series of good musical numbers, and I’m not going to deny that they are good. What the audience in the world of the film gets is a series of good musical numbers that are supposed to be in a show despite having no relevance to each other at all. That show is supposed to be a take on Faust…so why is there a hoedown in it? Why the singing babies? It’s disjointed, and that’s a problem.

1. What this means is that once again, the Academy has given the statue to the right movie, but, given the nominees, that’s perhaps less impressive than it might sound. I didn’t love Titanic, but at least it tells a complete story and does exactly what it wants to do. It gives us a reason to pay attention even though we know the ship is going to go down. Based on the nominations, I’m fine with this win. Based on all of the movies available, it’s not crossing the stage. There are better choices.

My Choice

I’m tempted to give this to Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, but I don’t know that I could really support that with anything more than the fact that I like Jacques Tati more than most people seem to. The truth is that, given a completely open field, I’m giving this to Tokyo Story. It’s a beautiful story, completely universal, and one that hasn’t aged a day since it was made. It’s timeless in absolutely the best way, and that’s the sort of story that ought to be rewarded here.

Final Analysis


  1. I'll certainly go with you on Tokyo Story! We differ on The Band Wagon. The first time I saw it I laughed until there were tears running down my face. And the Faust fiasco was the main reason for it. (I think the plot was scrapped and the random songs put in a sort of review after Faust bombed.)

    1. My opinion of The Band Wagon is more or less that it's absolutely worth watching, but that it's the sort of movie that requires you turn off your brain and just enjoy the spectacle.

  2. I don't think the Academy screwed up in awarding Titanic but in the nomination process which left out several that should have been there.

    I agree with you that out of the available five Titanic is the best choice. That central story between Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck is full of layers brought out beautifully by the pair. Coupled with the surrounding characters the screenplay does keep the audience involved despite knowing the outcome for the ship.

    But despite my real liking for the film if the field was open to all the films that year my vote would go to Pickup on South Street. You mentioned that you weren't sure if it was original or adapted but as far as I know it was written expressly by one of the Fox writers for the screen and published afterwards.

    It's on my list but I haven't seen Toyko Story so I can't comment on that.

    1. Pickup on South Street, now that I know it's eligible, would make my list of nominations and would likely come in second. Tokyo Story is pretty great.

  3. I will add my vote to the holiday of Monsieur Hulot. I quite like both Tati and the Movie. The winner would still be Tokyo Story.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who appreciates Tati.