Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Mal de demi-siècle

For reasons that are best understood by myself, I have felt compelled to take stock of just how far things have come in the last half-century. As far as I’m concerned, this date is the perfect one to take a look from. You got a problem with that?

In the United States, the end of 1952 was more or less the straddling point between a country that had been tested by a Great Depression and a world war and a nation that was embarking on an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. Harry S Truman was president, but he was only a lame duck, waiting to hand over the White House to recently elected Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Academy Awards, which would be celebrating their silver anniversary, were only three months away, and they would be televised for the first time. One of the movies that would be nominated for Best Picture was called, improbably, Moulin Rouge. But it wouldn’t win the Oscar. Neither would the adventure flick Ivanhoe. Other nominees would include a western classic, High Noon, and a little flick close to my heart, The Quiet Man, which tells the unlikely story of a Yank going to Ireland and settling down with a fiery colleen. Movies that didn’t even get nominated included The Bad and the Beautiful, Rancho Notorious, Pat and Mike, and a little musical number called Singin’ in the Rain. Maybe the academy thought they had showered enough honors on Gene Kelly vehicles, having given the Best Picture prize to An American in Paris the previous year.

So, what movie won the prize for Best Picture of 1952? The Cecil B. DeMille produced and directed circus extravaganza, The Greatest Show on Earth. I’ve been reading all about it in a nifty book that was given to me by my nephew, not for Christmas, but for, um, my birthday. It’s called The Academy Awards: The Complete History of Oscar®, and it’s by Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza. Thanks to these authors, I have learned a lot about the Oscars ceremony for 1952.

For instance, when Shirley Booth won the statue for Best Actress in Come Back, Little Sheba, the first nationwide Oscar audience was able to watch her “nearly break her neck as she dashed toward the stage of New York’s Century Theatre, tripped on the stars, and went down hard.” In her acceptance speech, Booth said, “I am a very lucky girl. I guess this is the peak. The view has been wonderful all along the way.” After that, Booth made only four more films, for a career total of five. Most of us remember her mainly for playing the title role of a maid in a long running TV sitcom called Hazel, based on a series of cartoons.

Looking back, it’s amazing that Booth actually won the Oscar, but because of her natural performance, as a hapless woman married to a younger man, she was touted to get the prize going in. Her competition included such legends as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Julie Harris and Susan Hayward.

Kinn and Piazza also tell us that John Wayne accepted two Oscars that night. But neither of them was his. He accepted the Best Actor award on behalf of the absent Gary Cooper for High Noon and the Best Director award on behalf of John Ford for The Quiet Man. With well more than a hundred films on his résumé, Wayne was nominated for an Oscar only twice—for The Sands of Iwo Jima in 1949 and for True Grit (for which he won) in 1969.

The emcees of the night were Conrad Nagel in New York and Bob Hope in Los Angeles. One of Hope’s trademark quips was: “Television—that’s where movies go when they die.”

Other award winners would include Anthony Quinn, Best Supporting Actor for Viva Zapata!, and Gloria Grahame, Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful. The Best Song would be “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’” from High Noon.

So, what does this look back a half-century tell us about how far the movies and the world have come? I have no idea. Did I mention it’s my birthday?

By the way, if this doesn’t get posted to my web site on time, it’s probably because I am drunk.

-S.L., 26 December 2002

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