The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

The shocking conclusion you come to after watching Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell, and Barry Sullivan cavort around in one of these typically self-loathing movies about the movies is that no matter how bad someone hosed you in the past, if there’s a hit picture to be made with them again, no professional or personal vendetta you have against him or her is so great that it couldn’t be put aside for at least the duration of shooting.

As Kirk’s reviled producer John Shields tells Dick’s author James Bartlow, some of the best movies have been made by people that hate each other. That’s a fascinating concept and must make for some fun days at work, but I’m not sure that it adds up to much of anything beyond the film industry’s obsession with itself.

That’s not to say that the all-star cast doesn’t get the job done, because they do. Everyone involved performs admirably and Kirk and Lana in particular stand out, especially in their scenes together. The story, as far it goes, is well presented and gives us an interesting (and often times unsentimental and riveting) mosaic of how one producer’s career intersects at various times with a variety of people, particularly, the aspiring director, the aspiring starlet, and the writer who’s a Hollywood novice.

It’s just that it ultimately doesn’t come together to any kind of satisfying conclusion. I felt like I was waiting for a third act where someone either gets redeemed or their ultimate downfall is dramatized. Instead, the redemption (and that’s actually probably too strong a word – it’s more like some people doing a guy a favor at the urging of Walter Pidgeon. How can you say no to Walter Pidgeon?) is only hinted at as the movie ends and I was left wondering what it all meant.

The Bad And The Beautiful seemed to be building to something as the story of John Shields was parceled out by three other characters in a series of well structured and well paced flashbacks. And after it was all said and done, what had it amounted to? Turner’s, Powell’s, and Sullivan’s characters might work with him again? Maybe that was supposed to show that those three finally understood the business – that it’s not about settling scores so much as the weekend grosses.

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The movie begins with the those three gathering at the office of Walter Pidgeon. Pidgeon plays Harry Pebble, who started as Shields’ boss years ago, became his right hand man, and eventually outlasted Shields in the biz. He’s talked to Shields recently and Shields wants him to get those three to work on his next movie because that’s the only way he can raise the funds for it. Harry acknowledges that each of them has a good reason why they would never work with him again and this provides the framework for us to take a look back at each of their experiences with John and why they hate his guts now.

Barry Sullivan (Planet of the Vampires) is the fledgling director, Fred Amiel, who meets Shields at the funeral for Shield’s father. It’s the sort of funeral where Shields is paying people something like eleven bucks to play the part of the mourners. Hey, once a producer, always a producer, right?

These two hit it off and manage to turn crap assignments like poverty row horror movies into box office successes. Fred wants to make a serious picture though and after selling Shields on it and Shields selling his boss on it, once it’s whipped into shape and ready to begin shooting, Shields ditches Fred for a more established director, bluntly telling Fred that he just isn’t ready to direct a picture of that magnitude.

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The most interesting segment is the one featuring Lana Turner. She’s an alcoholic who is obsessed with her famous dead actor father. She also happens to be a real fox and has screen presence enough that Shields casts her in the lead of his next big movie. Booze problems rear their head and she would have lost the part, but for Shields.

During the filming, she and Shields’ relationship blossoms and by the time the film premieres, she is a bona fide star. An epic falling out between her and Shields the night of the premiere is one of the film’s emotional high points and showcases great intensity from both of them, particularly Douglas.

The final installment is probably the weakest of the three since the falling out between Shields and the writer played by Powell (Pitfall) comes about because Shields accidentally lets slip that he knew about the writer’s wife and the Latin movie star, Gaucho, going off on a doomed plane trip together, when he pretended to know nothing about before. I was never all that convinced that the writer was terribly fond of his wife anyway. Sure, he said he was, but he never showed it and I don’t think Powell managed to show any emotion in the entire movie, other than the obligatory punch he gives Shields at the end of things.

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The movie is as good looking as the stars and the cinematography deservedly won an Oscar, though director Vincente Minnelli wasn’t even nominated, an unpardonable snub considering the way he was able to balance scenes of the organized chaos of a Hollywood set with the more personal encounters between the actors so that the movie never dragged on either front.

At it’s heart, this is Kirk and Lana’s movie, but they’re surrounded by a great supporting cast from the smaller parts (it’s Beaver Cleaver’s mom as a costume designer!) up to the parts like Dick Powell’s doomed wife (Gloria Graham, who won an Oscar as the other blonde in this movie).

Quibbles over the flat ending aside, fans of films about the movie industry and just of great drama will find themselves gladly lost for two hours in old Hollywood. And if you flip the DVD over at the end of the film, you’ll find an hour and half documentary about Lana narrated by Robert Wagner! In the first fifteen minutes alone, they mention her botched illegal abortion! You’ll be gladly lost for an hour and a half in old Hollywood gossip!

© 2013 MonsterHunter

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