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The Bad and the Beautiful

by Glenn Erickson Nov 19, 2019

One of Vincente Minnelli’s best is this glamorous ‘Hollywood Looks At Hollywood’ exposé of sin and conniving among the actors, directors and producers that make Quality Entertainment for us unglamorous nobodies. It’s overstated and often grossly overacted (Kirk Douglas, front and center!) but still carries a grandiose charm. Lana Turner gets to play an idealized version of herself. Gloria Grahame generates additional heat, and for her trouble walked away with an Oscar. And composer David Raksin contributes one of his most melodic music scores — the main theme is a winner, right up there with his Laura. CineSavant runs amuck critiquing the way MGM’s movie slams Hollywood creatives, while pretending that the studio bigwigs are infallible Gods.


The Bad and the Beautiful
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1952 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 118 min. / Street Date November 19, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gloria Grahame, Gilbert Roland, Leo G. Carroll, Vanessa Brown, Paul Stewart, Sammy White, Elaine Stewart, Ivan Triesault.
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Film Editor: Conrad A. Nervig
Original Music: David Raksin
Written by Charles Schnee from a story by George Bradshaw
Produced by John Houseman
Directed by
Vincente Minnelli

 

By 1950 the Hollywood system was already reeling from the first punches that would bring it down — losing its theater chains, competition from TV, etc. Louis B. Mayer himself was threatened by that upstart Dore Schary, who wanted to make ugly movies about non- Andy Hardy gutter people with gutter morals. The story goes that at a preview of Sunset Blvd., Mayer was so incensed by its bitter, cynical view of Hollywood that he told writer-director Billy Wilder that he should be run out of town for biting the hand that fed him, and that he’d try to get his fellow moguls to help him buy the negative from Paramount so he could throw it in the ocean. According to legend, Wilder answered Mayer with a curt two-word reply starting with the letters F and Y.

With no evidence whatsoever as backup, I therefore theorize that the 1952 hit The Bad and the Beautiful is MGM’s riposte, an epic tale of Hollywood vice and virtue as seen from a front-office point of view. The ultra-glossy, hard-hitting ‘exposé’ might pass for the truth of Hollywood in Women’s Day magazine. About as dangerous as an official press release and confirming the greatness of Hollywood traditions that were already becoming extinct, this is basically a corporate-approved take on Billy Wilder’s film. Fortunately, it’s also a great deal of fun, what with actors chewing the scenery even behind the scenes, writing that assures us that the truth of every character can be grasped in a single cliché, and direction that keeps it all exciting — and occasionally even insightful.

 

It’s rallying time for a trio of highly talented, highly-strung creative people that have all experienced rough treatment, and are wary of taking on projects that might jeopardize their careers. A famous star, writer, and director are called to the studio by executive Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) so he can try to convince them to make another movie with the exiled producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). Through flashbacks we learn that Shields betrayed them all, but is also responsible for their stellar careers. Director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) was fast friends with Shields when they learned the business working on B-pictures, until Jonathan filched Fred’s script and concept and leapt into A production without him. Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), the daughter of an earlier screen great, was a boozing mess until Jonathan turned her into a star. He helped her through her problems by feigning a love relationship — which ended as soon as his film was in the can. And prestigious writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) was wooed from a Southern University to the big-time Hollywood gravy train, only to lose his wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame) to the temptations of tinsel town. Will these three celebrities turn their backs on the most hated man in Hollywood, or acknowledge their debt to him?

Are you aware that studio-staged action and miniature footage shot for John Ford’s documentary December 7th has been presented as genuine newsfilm of the Pearl Harbor attack for almost eighty years?  The reams of simulated behind-the-scenes moviemaking material in The Bad and the Beautiful has also shown up as stock footage, from the crane shot of the starlet sprawled on a bed ( → ) to the montage of film cans being rushed off to a studio preview. Produced by John Houseman with MGM’s highest studio resources, Minnelli’s picture takes an honest stab at unmasking the personal downside of the movie business — up to a point. The highest rank of executive that Charles Schnee’s screenplay is willing to tar and feather is the semi-independent producer Jonathan Shields. The role seems tailor-made for the shark-faced Kirk Douglas. Shields is a go-getting What Makes Sammy Run? type who charms and bamboozles everyone in his path. The sharpie gets his first producing job by running up a gambling debt, no less.

But real studio heads are kept out of the picture — they’re treated as sacred Gods too lofty for vulgar visual representation. The highest echelon we see is that of Walter Pidgeon’s benevolent mid-range executive Harry Prebble, who speaks to the studio heads only on special phone connections (to Olympus?). Prebble spouts mild Goldwynisms (“Give me a show with a kiss at the end and a ledger in the black!”) but he isn’t one of the fools that William Holden suffered in the Billy Wilder picture.

The film’s image of studio politics is incredibly benign, a self-serving fantasy. The moguls and the studios are as stable and unchanging as the Rock of Gibraltar. At the factory level, talent, creative integrity and the quality of one’s work determine all. The higher-ups don’t squash Shield’s career out of jealousy or fear, and our three supplicants are in good shape because Hollywood is Righteous. Writer Bartlow’s literary talent isn’t dissipated in hackwork. Talented workers like Amiel can always find a job. Starlet Lorrison’s loose morals are attributed to her personal problems, not the studio system that kept low-paid women on salary as escorts on demand. It was Louise Brooks who said, ‘Hollywood was invented by men to have access to beautiful women.’

Familiar Hollywood lore is co-opted to lend authenticity to the proceedings. Shields and director Amiel replay the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur Cat People legend of creating movie monsters out of simple darkness. Jonathan Shields is less the sweet, quiet Lewton type, and more of the pushy Stanley Kramer politico type. Lewton loved his B pictures but Shields and Amiel treat them as a nasty ghetto to be ditched as soon as possible, to rise to the power strata with posh addresses and gold cigarette holders. In a nice twist, the story of Lana Turner being discovered in a drugstore is mirrored in a scene she films with the galavanting Latin lover Gaucho (Gilbert Roland). This front office- molded view of Hollywood dispenses career advice for everybody in the Hollywood pecking order. The self-aggrandizing, ambitious Shields is revealed to have serious David O’Selznickian limitations: when he presumes to take on the mantle of director, he lays a fat egg.

The film’s richly enjoyable pulp factor is evident in plot threads that end in the kind of trashy headlines that would be perfect for the cover of Hush-Hush Magazine.

Star finds Producer Lover in Nest with Starlet!
Writer’s Belle Lost in Getaway with Amorous ‘Friend’!

Director Minnelli hypes the subplots nicely, until it’s time for the big Oscar moments, some of which are truly cringe-worthy. Here you’ll find the worst thirty seconds in Kirk Douglas’ entire career, when he grabs Turner and tells her off after the big premiere. It’s not even funny, it’s so bad; you’d think Shields was escaping from a POW camp by chewing his way through barbed wire. I’m rarely impressed by Lana Turner and don’t like most of her work, but a huge fan base regards her as the epitome of stardom, a mass of dreamy creamy talent and loveliness. Strangely enough, her career highlight comes just a scene later, thanks to Minnelli’s delirious one-take on her hysterical fit, spinning out on a rainy road in the Hollywood hills. That scene has a ring of truth. On a big screen it works like gangbusters. Minnelli liked the hallucinatory crazy-car effect so much that he more or less reprised it ten years later for his The Bad and the Beautiful Strike Back 2 Weeks in Another Town.

 

The uncredited cast is fun to watch out for. Little Sandy Descher screams her lungs out as a victim of Shields’ B-picture Doom of the Catmen, readying up for her big role to come in Them!  Kathleen Freeman, Steve Forrest, Madge Blake and Kaaren Verne have nice bit presences. Beaver’s lovely mom Barbara Billingsley has a great four-line bit as a snippy costumer. Most of the dress extras and bits that mill about at movie parties in the same year’s Singin’ in the Rain are here as well, but in B&W: Bess Flowers, Frank Gerstle, Paul Maxey, etc.. Best of all is Ned Glass (Charade, West Side Story) as a weary wardrobe man doing an A+ sales job on his moth-eaten Catman costumes. He may be the highlight of the film.

The movie spends a hundred minutes showing up Jonathan Shields for the complete louse that he is. He lies, cheats, and callously uses the people who believe in him. He deceives and abuses the unstable Lorrison. By sic’ing the promiscuous Gaucho onto the writer’s naïve and susceptable wife, he pretty much guarantees the breakup of their marriage. On paper, this must read like a full condemnation of the take-no-prisoners swine that do whatever’s necessary to scale each rung of the Hollywood ladder. The usual self-justification among the vermin I’ve met, is that they perceive Hollywood as a place without ethics: anyone who enters the game must be prepared to take the hard knocks. If the screenplay acknowledged the verdict of its own evidence, The Bad and the Beautiful might be a visionary statement.

 

The show instead endorses Jonathan Shields and his sleazy methods. He’s what Hollywood greatness is all about — nerve, daring, uncompromising quality. We have to take the uncompromising quality part on faith. Dick Powell’s antebellum epic looks as if it’s supposed to be something like Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. [ Shields shelves the pretentious-sounding The Proud Land, but the property seems to have done all right anyway. In the next year’s The Band Wagon, The Proud Land is playing on the NYC Marquee seen when Fred Astaire’s entering his stage door. His show goes on the road for several weeks, and when returns Shield’s show is still playing! ]

The film insists that ‘good’ things have come out of Shields’ perfidy. Harry Pebbel says the word Pulitzer at least four times. He also calls Georgia Lorrison a tramp (to her face!) more than once, to stress that it was Shields who somehow made a decent woman out of her. From what we see, Shields left Georgia a total mess. If she persevered to maintain her glorious star image, it’s none of his doing. The same goes for director Amiel, even more so. Harry Pebbel says Shields made Amiel a big director, when he actually abandoned him at the B level. Despite what opportunities Shields gave Amiel to perfect his craft, we aren’t told how the director broke into A picture work. Shields wasn’t around for that.

Finally, big author Bartlow is supposed to owe his whole life to Shields, for enticing him into the relatively sleazy realm of screenwriting (compared to his previous status) and weaning him away from a wife who ‘took up too much of his time.’ We’re supposed to believe that Gloria Grahame’s sad Rosemary turns out fine — reincarnated as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Forever Amber– like book. Hollywood was full of great writers that went there to die (Faulkner) or got caught up in the machine (A.I. Bezzerides). This ‘we-made-you, why-aren’t-you-grateful?’ attitude must have brought a tear Louis B. Mayer’s evil eye — even though, when The Bad and the Beautiful premiered, he had already been gone from the studio for a full year.

 

The movie assumes that the making of Oscar-caliber entertainment is the highest possible human aspiration, so elevated that it justifies grinding up people along the way. Shields constantly spouts Citizen Kane- like proclamations of high artistic ideals and lofty goals. It can’t have been a new thing in 1952 to have a producer declare himself above crass moneygrubbing, and talk about his factory output as if he were a maker of Great Art. If Jonathan Shields is modeled after Stanley Kramer, remember that Kramer talked a good line while making two pretentious losers for every classic he produced. Shields’ noble artist act is now such a built-in aspect of Hollywood bullshit, that he should seem much more transparent.

The movie of course makes no mention of labor unrest or the paralyzing fear of the blacklist. Louis B. Mayer’s idea of dedication to the ideals of Art had been a six-day work week and no Unions. Naturally, after a show of denying the louse that ‘ruined’ their lives, the three talents are eager to hear about Jonathan’s new movie idea. They’re hypocrites worthy of James M. Cain, but we just see beautiful people in the thrall of tinseltown opportunity. It’s business as ususal in glamour land.

More evidence of The Bad and the Beautiful being a puffed-up valentine from MGM to itself can be seen in the overhyped opening credits, which herald each star name with a music sting. Billy Wilder mocked this self-aggrandizing style by imitating it in The Apartment, when C.C. Baxter tries to watch a classic movie on television. But hey, the show won Oscars, for Gloria Grahame, writer Schnee, cinematographer Surtees, costumer Helen Rose and four of MGM’s art directors. Kirk Baby Douglas was the only nomination that got bypassed — Gary Cooper won for Stanley Kramer’s western, also pushing aside Alec Guinness, José Ferrer and Marlon Brando.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Bad and the Beautiful is a beautiful encoding of a flawless picture; by 1952 Hollywood had perfected B&W production, just in time for color and new formats to reshuffle the deck. Robert Surtees’ slick camerawork makes bits of the MGM lot look like a Magic Factory. The montage shots of movies in production are quite handsome — Billy Wilder partly reproduced that camera-hovering-over-reclining-star setup in his late-career Hollywood saga Fedora.

Another of the movie’s major pleasures is David Raksin’s smooth-as-silk music score, with its classy main theme for the main titles. Raksin combined this music, along with the scores for Laura and Forever Amber into suites for a powerful record album from the ’70s.

A special extra is a selection of recovered music cues, original Raksin recording sessions that soundtrack aficionados will appreciate. I suspect the guiding hand of Turner special projects whiz George Feltenstein had a hand in this — as far back as the late 1980s he was always busy making sure that original scoring found in the vaults, was brought out for the public. A trailer is included as well.

The other extra is a feature-length docu from 2001, Lana Turner … A Daughter’s Memoir. It’s a slick production that covers Turner’s career from a softening, affectionate point of view. The show tells us that Lana was a naive girl, who had no idea she was going to attract so much attention in a tight sweater. Little of Turner’s allegedly wild private life is referenced. Her relationship with mobster Johnny Stompanato (as celebrated in L.A. Confidential) is addressed, which gives us an opportunity to read between the lines. A fictional re-staging of the famed crime / scandal of 1958, with stand-ins for Turner and Stompanato, drag the show down to the phony standards of reality televison. The narrator is Robert Wagner, so it’s a little weird hearing a ‘softened’ version of a dicey Hollywood mystery, read by an actor caught up in unanswered questions about another Hollywood tragedy.

The Bad and the Beautiful has its over-the-top excesses, but it’s a genuine piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking. Vincente Minnelli’s fans appreciate the WAC’s fine Blu-rays of his Meet Me in St. Louis, Father of the Bride, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Brigadoon, Kismet, Lust for Life, Designing Woman, Gigi, Home From the Hill, Bells are Ringing and 2 Weeks in Another Town. My best guess is that the Minnelli title most desired is his Some Came Running, which now shows in a handsome HD copy on Turner Classic Movies. Will Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Cobweb or Tea and Sympathy arrive first?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Bad and the Beautiful
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent if always true to life in its own fashion.
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, docu, music scoring cues.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 16, 2019
(6134bad)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.