Monday, January 21, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong: Best Picture 1952

The Contenders:

The Greatest Show on Earth (winner)
High Noon
Moulin Rouge
The Quiet Man

What’s Missing

This is going to be one of “those” years again. Give me a chance to choose the nominations here, and chances are near 100% that I’m going to dump three of the ones we have. The only times I’m not getting rid of three, I’m getting rid of four. This is especially true when you consider what films were release in 1952. I’m a fan of such films as Sudden Fear and The Bad and the Beautiful, but I’m not sure these earn a nomination from me (although it’s possible). This year includes both the incredible Forbidden Games and Kurosawa’s astonishing Ikiru. But the big miss? Singin’ in the Rain. Oscar, how could you?

Weeding through the Nominees

5. One has to wonder how, given the nominees and the releases from 1952, The Greatest Show on Earth managed to come out on top. To put it lightly, I’m not a fan. Several years ago, I ranked the Best Picture winners, and this just missed being in the bottom-5. It’s too long, completely episodic, and not nearly as interesting as a Best Picture nominee should be, let alone a winner. I’ll grant that the train crash at the end is pretty impressive. But I think it says something that James Stewart played the film in clown white rather than show his face.

4. Ivanhoe desperately wanted to be The Adventures of Robin Hood and really, really wasn’t. The battle sequences are by far the best part of the film. It suffers greatly from having Robert Taylor in the lead, since the man could not possibly be more snore-inducing. Truthfully, the film isn’t bad; it’s just not that interesting, and in a world where you could choose to watch this or Errol Flynn in green tights, there’s simply no contest. Watch it if you think you need to be complete on these nominations, but there does not exist a reason to watch it twice.

3. I could say something very similar about Moulin Rouge. The truth is that it’s again not a bad movie, but one that is perhaps a little too dull to be really in consideration for Best Picture of this or any year. There are aspects of the film that I genuinely like. Jose Ferrer is quite good as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and I like the statement the film makes about his station and why he decided to spend time at the Moulin Rouge. But the romance here is dead on arrival, and since this is from an era that required romance in every film, there’s an issue right away.

2. I like The Quiet Man well enough, but it has some serious issues as well. There are significant issues with the character of Mary Kate and how she both deals with others and is dealt with in return. That said, this is a beautiful film to look at, and one that serves as a counter to the argument the John Wayne was only capable of playing himself, or of playing cowboys and marines. Give me the chance to renominate for this year, and The Quiet Man might make the list, but it might not.

1. Of the five nominees, the only one I am guaranteed to carry over into my own set of five nominations is High Noon. I might get some blowback for that opinion, but I think it’s one of the finest westerns in Hollywood history. And, while it’s not going to win in my world, even if I’m making the list of nominees, it’s not dropping lower than third place. It’s a gutsy story well and efficiently told, and sometimes that’s enough. That it’s one of Gary Cooper’s best roles is just icing. But still, it’s not going to be my pick. It says something for the year when one of the greatest films of its genre can't get higher than third in an open field.

My Choice

Ikiru is a thing of beauty, one of Kurosawa’s most thoughtful and contemplative films. It has humor but also real pathos and depth. But it’s unlikely that the Academy would consider a film from Japan in 1952. They could have just as easily gone with Singin’ in the Rain, which is objectively the greatest movie musical in history. My guess is it wasn’t nominated in part because of the success of An American in Paris the year before, and that’s a damn shame. It’s about as close as you’re going to get to perfection for that genre…or any genre.

Final Analysis


  1. I love Singin' in the Rain so much. It's so much better than An American in Paris! Even as a kid when my film buff mom would make us watch old movies with her, I loved Singin' in the Rain.

    (I wasn't quite so enamored of Brigadoon or The Sound of Music.)

    High Noon is great. I don't like The Quiet Man very much. I've never seen Moulin Rouge.

    I seem to have liked Ivanhoe and The Greatest Show on Earth more than you … but I am utterly baffled that either was nominated for Best Picture.

    Ikiru is one of Kurosawa's masterpieces. I'm so glad I don't actually have to chose between Ikiru and Singin' in the Rain.

    1. One of the joys of this exercise is that I don't have to choose.

      I've got both rated at five stars on Letterboxd.

  2. I’m with you on the line-up being underwhelming in terms of worthiness for the top echelon of the year even if none of them are bad films, but only one belongs here.

    I wasn’t crazy for Moulin Rouge, some of that is my indifference to Jose Ferrer and it moved too slowly, but it is a beautiful looking film.

    Speaking of beautiful films The Quiet Man is another and I know several people who just adore it though I do not. It has its pluses, the Duke’s strong performance among them, but an equal number of minuses. Compared to Ford’s best films it doesn’t measure up.

    Robert Taylor is a stick in Ivanhoe but the cast that surrounds him and the pageantry go a long way to make up for his dullness but you’re right I’d rather watch Flynn in Robin Hood any day.

    I like The Greatest Show on Earth in all its blowsy, garish overblown silliness and there are many Best Picture winners that I like much less but it never should have BEEN a BP winner or even a nominee and that win has damaged its reputation tremendously. I think had it lost it would be considered an entertaining spectacle with a good cast and a typical goofy De Mille story but not savaged the way it is.

    That leaves High Noon which in an open field would be my runner-up but absolutely should have won here. Its allegorical backstory in the blacklist crazy 50’s surely hurt its chances of winning, how ironic that Cooper-a staunch advocate of the blacklist-would win an Oscar for a role in a thinly veiled condemnation of it.

    So after throwing those first four to the curb my list would run this way and in this order:

    The Lusty Men-A powerful neglected Nicholas Ray mini masterpiece with award level work by its three stars-Robert Mitchum (he’d be my winner in Actor), Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy.

    High Noon

    Limelight-A simple and artfully done film. My favorite Chaplin picture.

    Singin' in the Rain-I recognize Singin' in the Rain as an achievement but harbor no great affection for it as a whole. It probably suffered from the win the year before of the insufferable An American in Paris but its exclusion from the nominees is insane. O’Connor and Jean Hagen would be my supporting winners, they’re inimitable.

    The Bad and the Beautiful-It’s got one vignette too many but it’s a well-constructed character study.

    Forbidden Games and Ikiru are two blind spots I really need to catch up with.

    1. The Lusty Men is one I really should watch one of these days. Honestly, the same is true of Limelight, which is one of the larger holes in my viewing.

      The Bad and the Beautiful might make it as my fifth spot if I built my own set of five nominees, with Singin' in the Rain, Ikiru, High Noon, and Forbidden Games in some order 1-4.

  3. I forgot to mention that I think Forbidden Games is another great movie, thoughtful and one-of-a-kind.

    And The Bad and the Beautiful is actually pretty awesome.

    It's been a very long time since I saw Limelight, but I do remember thinking it was quite an amazing achievement, even if I don't remember exactly why.

    1. It's a surprisingly good year if you go past the nominations. There aren't specifically a lot of great movies from this year, but there is a good collection of all-time great movies from this year, if that makes sense.

  4. I actually like Ivanhoe. In my childhood I watched it every Christmas on Christmas day and I can ignore the faults completely. Yet, I doubt it would be a nominee for Best Picture for me neither.
    There is something...wrong about The Quiet Man and a lot of that has to do with stereotypes. The triad I would choose from would be the same as yours: Singin' in the Rain, Ikiru and High Noon.

    1. Experience and memory is always going to change and affect how we see certain things. There are movies of which I am overly fond for similar reasons.

  5. Betty Hutton was so downright awful in The Greatest Show on Earth that it is near the top of my Worst Oscars Ever list. Can't disagree with your pick or with your alternative roster. It's a shame that the Oscar roster doesn't really reflect what a fantastic year for movies 1952 was.

    1. It happens. In fact, it seems to happen just about every year. It's a good reminder that I do these posts not as a celebration of Oscar, but often as a reckoning, and sometimes as a condemnation.