Monday, January 20, 2014

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Director: Vincente Minnelli                            Writers: Charles Schnee
Film Score: David Raksin                             Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon and Barry Sullivan

Ever since Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and tangentially Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, Hollywood suddenly began to see that audiences were interested in what went on behind the glitz. For decades studios had been going to great lengths to cover up the scandals that involved their stars, though newspapers had different ideas and by the fifties most of it leaked through. So now the studios began making up stories that fulfilled that curiosity for the audience, and none was more naked in it’s portrayal of the greed for studio power than Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. Produced by the great John Houseman, the film tells the story, in flashback, of a man who rose from the ranks of B-movie producer to build not only his own production company, but used everyone who ever helped him to get there in the process.

The film begins with Kirk Douglas as the son of a movie mogul who died broke and left him with nothing but a name. Determined to make something of himself in the movie industry and restore his family’s tarnished image. To do this he gathers around himself artists who have been struggling and need a break, first among them director Barry Sullivan. But while the two of them learned their craft together and promises were made about being a team, Douglas turned his back on him the minute he had a chance to move up in the business. Lana Turner plays a lush, the daughter of a famous actor, a Fairbanks/Gilbert type. She’s been doing bit parts, but he makes it a personal project to make her a star. Of course he pretends to fall in love with her to control her, and then casts her aside when he’s done with her. Dick Powell is a writer, and Douglas destroys his marriage to get a script out of him.

It’s a slick, polished production that presents a sanitized version of the type of Hollywood story that looks good on the surface but doesn’t feel very true to life. The faux nature of the stories, screenwriting and films themselves that are portrayed in the film are also vacuous and provide very little for the viewer to hold on to. As a result the story becomes entirely about character. While there is a natural desire to figure out what real life people the characters are based on, this is not Citizen Kane. David Selznick, the obvious model for Douglas’s character, was actually a very different type of person, a family man who thrived within the studio system even though he believed in independent production units. The only character who actually felt like someone else was the director played by Ivan Triesault who was reminiscent of Erich von Stroheim. In the end, though, that’s not really the point.

The basic plot is a good one, and entertaining but only so far as the relationship between the characters is concerned. The stories are told in flashback, with each character narrating how Douglas used them for his own advantage. Walter Pidgeon, who was the producer Douglas and Sullivan started under does a good job. Sullivan, for my money, is the best actor of the lot. Douglas is good, but predictable, and while Turner is much better here than her over the top performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice, she still seems like an odd casting choice, especially alongside the much taller men. One bit of interesting trivia comes when Douglas is in Turner’s room and plays a recording of her famous father. Out of the speaker comes the unmistakable voice of the great Louis Calhern. The Bad and the Beautiful is not a great film, but it is interesting to watch. Like a sweet treat full of empty calories, it tastes good but ultimately fails to be filling.

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