Monday, August 4, 2014

SPELLBINDER: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)


Hollywood films about Hollywood behind the scenes didn’t begin or end with Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), but none has painted a more glamorous/gimlet-eyed portrait or better mirrored the town’s notion of itself at a particular moment. It was mid-20th century, just as the old order - the studio system - was about to collapse. David Raksin, composer of the film’s sinuous score, characterized this cinematic self-reflection as “…an affirmative appraisal, one that captures the spirit of the time and place with cunning eloquence; and when it looks at the scars and wrinkles, it is with a lover’s eye. In 1952 we were still infatuated with our little world…”


"Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other's guts." - Jonathan Shields

A phone rings insistently as Raksin’s brassy, bluesy theme recedes and the film opens. Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), formerly a major Hollywood player now relocated in Paris, is reaching out, through a transatlantic operator, to those who were once his closest collaborators, three people he mentored and exploited on his way up. None will listen to him, not his ex-partner, director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), nor his one-time lover, leading lady Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), or James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), the novelist Sheilds brought to Hollywood to write a screen adaptation of his best-selling book.

After a string of box office flops, Shields is down - and in exile - but not quite out. He’s hatched a new idea for a film but, as his aide, Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon), tells all three when they gather in his studio lot office much later that night, “On the name Jonathan Shields, it's impossible to raise five cents, but on Fred Amiel, Georgia Lorrison, James Lee Bartlow, I can raise two million dollars by tomorrow noon.” No one is swayed. But Pebbel goes on, repeating that he knows they’ll never agree to work with Shields again, adding, “You've done enough for him already, then, vice versa maybe."

A series of three extended, individual flashbacks begins with Fred Amiel’s recollection of meeting Jonathan 18 years earlier at the funeral of his father, Hugo Shields, a ruined movie mogul. The reminiscences end more recently, when James Lee Bartlow discovered that it was Shields who set in motion events that inadvertently led to the death of his wife.  Returning to the present, the transatlantic call connects. Though all three stand up and file out of the room, they pause at an extension phone in an outer office and begin to eavesdrop as Jonathan starts pitching his idea to Harry.

"They're gone. Yeah, I'm sure it's a great idea, but Jonathan..." - Harry Pebbel

When Vincente Minnelli read Charles Schnee’s script, he was immediately taken with the story, observing that “All that one loved and hated about Hollywood was distilled in the screenplay.” He found it “harsh and cynical,” but also "strangely romantic."  Lavishly mounted and meticulously detailed, the films of Vincente Minnelli are a testament to his grasp and mastery of mise-en-scène. For The Bad and the Beautiful, he conceived a bustling company town drenched in gloss and deep shadows (courtesy of Robert Surtees). With the story covering a historical period of 18 years as well as depicting on-the-set movie production, 110 sets were used, 10 of them for scenes within scenes.

"If you dream, dream big" - Jonathan Shields

An impressive cast was assembled to portray an array of characters meant to intentionally resemble real-life Hollywood movers and shakers. Producer John Houseman later admitted that everyone involved with the project was amused by “so much ‘inside’ material full of private and not so private jokes and references.” Jonathan Shields, the brash “genius boy,” recalls David O. Selznick, whose once enviable movie career had already gone into steep decline, but also nods in the direction of Darryl F. Zanuck, who had decamped to Europe by this time, and Orson Welles, Houseman's one-time collaborator. Georgia Lorrison is loosely modeled on Diana Barrymore, John Barrymore’s wayward daughter. Harry Pebbel may be patterned after MGM exec Harry Rapf. Rosemary Bartlow (Gloria Grahame) bears passing resemblance to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s high-maintenance Southern belle wife, Zelda. Henry Whitfield (Leo G. Carroll) and his assistant (Kathleen Freeman) spoof Alfred and Alma Hitchcock. Even minor incidents suggest real-life people and events. Minnelli devised a party scene to include a girl (Peggy King) sitting next to the pianist; she is singing a song but no one listens. This bit of business alludes to something his wife, Judy Garland, was known to do - regularly - at Hollywood parties. The more climactic scene in which James Lee Bartwell climbs the side of a mountain to the site of the wreckage where his wife’s plane has crashed also echoes history; Clark Gable did the same when his wife Carole Lombard’s plane crashed on a mountainside.

Screening The Bad and the Beautiful: Vincente Minnelli, far left, and John Houseman, far right

According to Houseman, a palpable “atmosphere of success” existed on the set of The Bad and the Beautiful from the day shooting began.  Success would follow the film through its previews (only 1 negative review in 160), its premiere and beyond.  It would become one of the top grossing films of 1952 and was the year’s big winner on Oscar night, winning five of its six nominations. The awards won were for supporting actress (Gloria Grahame), screenplay (Charles Schnee), cinematography (Robert Surtees), art/set decoration (Cedric Gibbons, et al) and costume design (Helen Rose). Only Kirk Douglas, who was nominated for Best Actor, did not win. Bizarrely, the film was not so much as nominated for Best Picture, the only film to win so many awards and not be nominated for the top prize. Just as odd, neither director Vincente Minnelli nor composer David Raksin garnered nominations. Oscar politics, no doubt, for without Minnelli and Raksin the film would likely possess too much Bad and not enough Beautiful.

Raksin not only composed but also arranged, orchestrated and conducted his score for The Bad and the Beautiful. Early on, when he had completed his composition, he played it on piano for his friend Andre Previn. Previn was puzzled, later writing that when he first heard the tune it seemed to him that “the harmonies tumbled over one another, and the melody was a snake.” When Raksin later presented the piece to Houseman and Minnelli, he took care to play a recording made with a studio orchestra to better convey the full effect of his music. They didn’t know what to make of it but, fortunately for Raksin, Betty Comden and Adoph Green happened to be in the room at the time and both were dazzled (as was Previn when he heard the orchestral version). Houseman and Minnelli instantly came around.

Composer David Raksin

John Houseman had charged Raksin with composing a “siren song,” a theme that would evoke the special charms of Machiavellian Jonathan Shields along with the dissonant allure of Hollywood itself. Raksin reconstructs and repeats his main theme throughout the picture, and the result is endlessly intriguing. Not only is the music a siren song par excellence, but it also underscores and enhances the bittersweet mood of the entire tale as well as each of the three flashback vignettes within it.

There is more to Raksin’s score for The Bad and the Beautiful than its bewitching main theme, and certain of these musical interludes provide a glimpse into the history of movie music. During Fred Amiel’s flashback, the film follows his and Jonathan’s early assignments on quickie Westerns and B-horror fare, and Raksin offers clever takes on the musical cliches of ‘30s cowboy movies and ‘40s horror films (Roy Webb for Val Lewton, in particular). He also crafted an homage to Max Steiner’s Gone with the Wind score during the James Lee Bartwell flashback. 

The Bad and the Beautiful ends with a legendary and ambiguous final shot: Amiel, Lorrison and Bartlow listen silently and intently as Jonathan explains his movie concept to Harry Pebbel.  This scene leaves it very much to Raksin’s music to indicate an answer to the question the entire audience is mulling at this instant, “Will they work with him again or not?” Raksin thought this a brave gamble on the part of Houseman and Minnelli and considered that this was the moment where the siren song he devised “…either works, or the film ends on an indeterminate note. But together, the image and the music combine to leave us wondering whether the three skeptics are not once again hooked...” Raksin titled this final variation on the main theme "The Spellbinder."


"Look, folks, you've got to give the Devil his due." - Harry Pebbel

David Raksin’s score for the Bad and the Beautiful is one of the most mesmerizing and identifiable movie themes ever. In fact, so intimately intertwined are imagery and music that it's impossible not to be reminded of the score at the mere mention of the movie's title. Raksin scored several other popular films in the course of his long career, including another enduring classic with an equally haunting and recognizable theme, Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944).  Raksin was Oscar-nominated for Forever Amber (1944) and Separate Tables (1958), nevertheless, the Academy badly bungled the music category in 1944 and 1952 when it overlooked two film score masterpieces.

"There are no great men, buster! There's only men." - Lila, bit actress

Georgia Lorrison is one Lana Turner's two best roles (the other is Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice). Under the director’s steady hand (“Minnelli knew exactly what he wanted,” she would remember), Turner gave a fine, emotionally resonant performance as volatile, talented Georgia Lorrison. For the finale of Georgia’s flashback, Minnelli came up with a stunning sequence that put an operatic exclamation point to the end of her relationship with Jonathan Shields. Minnelli shot the scene in which Georgia speeds away from Jonathan’s mansion and into a rainstorm, growing more hysterical and erratic by the second, in a single take.

The staging for the shot was complicated and took weeks to set up. In the end, a car’s chassis was attached to huge springs fastened to a plank platform. Some of the crew handled buckets of water and hoses to simulate rain, others were assigned to push the platform around and set the car in motion. The camera was positioned on a dolly that would provide enough mobility to capture Georgia’s breakdown from many angles.  Lana Turner knew this was her big scene and was surprised when Minnelli, rather than give her specific direction as he normally did, told her, “It’s in your hands.” Drawing on her rocky personal life, at 31 she’d already discarded three husbands and been unceremoniously dumped by Tyrone Power, Turner poured all of it into the scene.


 "Someday, you'll learn to love 'em and leave 'em." - Fred Amiel to Jonathan Shields

Kirk Douglas gained a firm foothold on the Hollywood A-list thanks to The Bad and the Beautiful, and there he remained for the better part of the next two decades. He and Minnelli had worked beautifully together (“I was the teacher’s pet,” he told author Mark Griffin 50+ years later) on their first outing and would collaborate on two more films, Lust for Life in 1956 and Two Weeks in Another Town in 1962. Minnelli, Douglas believed, “was a genius and for whatever reason, that has never been properly recognized.”

~

The Classic Film & TV Café is hosting a Build Your Own Blogathon, featuring 20 bloggers over 20 days. Each successive post links to the previous through a common element. My post on The Bad and the Beautiful links to Rick’s post at the Café on Jubal (1956) through composer David Raksin.  Next up is Christian of Silver Screen Modes, who explores Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956). Our posts are linked by actor Kirk Douglas.


Notes: 

The Bad and the Beautiful is included on every list ever compiled of the top movies about Hollywood. It also bears the distinction of being included among Martin Scorsese’s 85 Films You Need to See to Know Anything About Film

Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth by Lana Turner (E.P. Dutton, 1982)
The Ragman’s Son by Kirk Douglas (Simon and Schuster, 1988)
“The Bad and the Beautiful – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” liner notes by David Raksin (MGM/Turner Classic Movies, 1996)
A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin (Da Capo Press, 2010)

20 comments:

  1. Well Done, Lady Eve - you have done a top shelf film justice. Everyone involved with this film was at the top of their game - and that is saying a lot. I'm not a big Lana Turner fan, but you've got to give it to her here. Thanks for a spotlight on the prolific Mr. Raskin. Elegant and comprehensive as always, my dear.

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    1. There's so much to be said about this film that it's worthy of a book, I think. Love everything about it (with an affectionate nod to the Ned Glass/cat men costume scene). I've never been a big Lana fan, either, but, then, she wasn't offered very many worthy roles. She was great in "Postman" and this one, though.

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  2. Eve, this is one of my favorite films about filmmaking (and I much prefer it over SUNSET BLVD). I'm especially fond of the structure (certainly reminiscent of CITIZEN KANE). And, since it was made in Hollywood, it's fun to imagine who was the inspiration for each major character (reminding me of your roman a clef posts). I love Minnelli's description of it as “harsh and cynical,” but also "strangely romantic." The underrated Raksin composed some lovely film scores. This is my second favorite of his works, with the LAURA being No. 1.

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    1. There are various "Kane" connections - starting with John Houseman, who had a long association with Welles and was involved, though uncredited, with Kane. The original story "Bad/Beautiful" is based on was about a Broadway director (modeled on Jed Harris) and it was Houseman who made the decision to relocate the story to Hollywood and change the main character to a producer. But that's another post entirely. Though I know "The Bad and the Beautiful" isn't regarded in the way "Kane" is, I enjoy watching it far more.

      As much as I love the theme from "Laura," Raksin's theme for this film is my personal favorite...or maybe it's a tie. I do prefer this film to "Laura" (and much prefer the song to the character in that movie).

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  3. Superlative review Lady Eve. Although I know the film well you make me want to see it again.The scene you point out (and provide the clip of) with Lana in the car after the break-up is one of the most memorable in film. In fact the entire film is unique and a work of art, in short, a Minnelli classic. Your emphasis on the Raksin music adds much to understanding its appeal.Thank you for this contribution to the BYOB blogathon.

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    1. You and I are in complete agreement on "The Bad and the Beautiful," Christian.It is, indeed, "unique and a work of art." Minnelli was a true artist, a brilliant filmmaker, and this is one of his best. I've watched the film several times recently and listened to Raksin's soundtrack repeatedly - and I know the next time I watch it, I'll enjoy every second of it all over again.

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  4. As enchanting as a Raksin score. Your insights into a film I have seen innumerable times make it fresh and new. By the end of this film you really feel you know these people, that you have lived a lifetime with them. You know just what will happen. JS is a spellbinder.

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    1. Each of the four main characters in "The Bad and the Beautiful" are so perfectly written and acted it's no wonder we feel as if we know them well by the end of the film. Kirk Douglas really does a fine job of balancing Shields' great charm with his self-serving ruthlessness.

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  5. "The Bad and the Beautiful" is a real classic (a good choice on your part, Eve) and your writing, as always, sparkles and evokes the world contained within the film. The fact that David Raksin wasn't even nominated by the academy is, of course, ridiculous - so what else is new. The score, along with the central theme, is for me as central to the film's success as Bernard Hermann's music for "Vertigo". I'm also now primed to watch the film again - you've set it up beautifully.

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    1. I had been under the mistaken impression that Raksin had not only been nominated but had won the Oscar for his score that year. When I realized he hadn't gotten so much as a nod, I couldn't believe it. Well...Herrmann didn't get nominated for "Vertigo" either...what utter nonsense!

      I appreciate "The Bad and the Beautiful" more every time I see it, and I think it may be my favorite of Vincente Minnelli's films - which is saying a lot. The contribution of Raksin's music to the film's overall excellence can't be overstated.

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  6. Thanks for sharing some intriguing insights into this amazing film. (The comment about Hollywood still being in love with itself in the early 1950s is very telling.) It truly is one of the best films on Hollywood ever made.

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    1. David Raksin's take on Hollywood looking in the mirror via "The Bad and the Beautiful" was dead-on. The film is probably my own favorite film about Hollywood.

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  7. Sadly, I've never been able to appreciate this film as much as perhaps I should. That said, given your insightful commentary, I am definitely going to reexaming that Raksin score- though I can never sway from EWK! (Hey, I made rhyme!) I've always enjoyed the score, but strangely outside the context of the film (yes, odd). Adding the film to my weekend must watch list!

    Well done!

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    1. A friend and I were talking about "Exodus" the other day and we were in agreement that the theme was the most memorable thing about it (well, there is Paul Newman...). But "The Bad and the Beautiful" has so much going for it (I didn't really do the film justice in this brief post), I hope you'll give it another chance and that it works its magic on you this time around.

      I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be able to come up a short, sweet rhyme about my appreciation for Bernard Herrmann, so I won't even try!

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  8. This film and Sunset Blvd. are my two favorite films about Hollywood. I recently re-watched Kubrick’s THE SHINING and found how impressive and important the music was to the success of the film. A good score enhances the mood, the atmosphere and the style of a film. That is exactly what Raskin’s work does here and you frame it beautifully.

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    1. I came across something online a few years ago about the music for "Chinatown." There had been a first score that was scrapped in the end and replaced by Jerry Goldsmith's superb music. The first wasn't bad, but would in no way have enhanced and enriched the film the way Goldsmith's score does.

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  9. Eve, "The Bad and the Beautiful", is one of my favorite films about film making. Along with the films: All About Eve, A Star Is Born and Sunset Boulevard. Please don't make me pick a favorite.. I'm not sure I could.. I always enjoy reading your thoughts on your favorite films.

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    1. Dawn, so great to hear from you! I'm a fan of all the films you mentioned, but I think "The Bad and the Beautiful" may be my favorite.

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  10. The Bad and the Beautiful is one of my all time favorites. A nod to old Hollywood ways and casting couches. I've seen this movie 8 times at a minimum. You can't look away. Kirk Douglas with that harsh scream of agony is one of the best scenes. I miss the old movies where sex was implied but thats all. You had to use your imagination then. They made movies then to make you feel you were part of it not just watching it. Great picture.

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