Tuesday, December 14, 2010

1951 - A Place in the Sun

December must surely be the busiest month of the year - holiday parties aplenty; my new musical improv group, The Boombox Kids, has performed several gigs around town; I started a new job with a high-end catering company (at which, after working only one event, I have already rubbed shoulders with the likes of Susan Sarandon, Edward Norton and David Lynch); and in a week, Kat and I will be heading back home to Sydney for a brief visit, the first such visit since we moved to New York a year and a half ago.

You will notice there is no poll to decide the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy. As previously discussed, I'll be stopping in L.A. for a few days before I return to New York, so I will take that opportunity to pop in to the UCLA Film Archive for a viewing of two Best Picture nominees that lack home video releases. Thus, 1930-31 is the chosen next year of review.

For now, we begin looking at 1951's slate of Best Picture nominees, starting with...

A Place in the Sun
George Stevens
Michael Wilson and Harry Brown
(based on the novel 'An American Tragedy' by Theodore Dreiser and the play of the same name adapted by Patrick Kearney)
Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere, Keefe Brasselle, Raymond Burr, Herbert Heyes
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
6 wins, including Best Director

George Eastman (Clift), not the photography pioneer, but a poor young man with high ambitions, accepts work in a clothing factory run by his wealthy uncle (Heyes). Despite the company policy prohibiting any fraternising with the female employees, George begins a discreet affair with fellow factory worker Alice (Winters), a mostly sensible and well-meaning girl. Their relationship is strained, however, when George's family connections begin to afford him certain advantages.

At one of the Eastman family's fancy soirées, George meets pretty and confident socialite Angela Vickers (Taylor) and the two hit it off immediately. Soon, George is leading a double life, placating Alice while inconspicuously gallivanting off with his true love Angela. The situation is further complicated by Alice's rather inconvenient pregnancy.

A Place in the Sun is based on the novel 'An American Tragedy', a title that is its own spoiler. Cleverly, though, George Stevens (or someone involved in the film's production) decided not to retain the novel's title for the film, but unfortunately, the opening credits name the source material in large letters, so the damage is still done. Nonetheless, the picture is extremely engaging and Stevens exploits this sense of foreboding brilliantly with the help of the Oscar-winning score (which turns a simple close-up into a chilling insight into the thoughts of a desperate man) and the Oscar-winning cinematography (which adds mystery by keeping the actors' faces in complete darkness during critical moments).

Being the early 1950s, almost the very thought of portraying sex on film was outlawed, and I'm always intrigued by how filmmakers of that era conveyed to their audience that two characters have done the deed. The artistically inventive solution in A Place in the Sun is to depict George and Alice dancing intimately in her apartment before the camera pans to the window overlooking her porch. Night slowly dissolves into morning as the rooster crows ... and George quietly sneaks down the porch steps having spent the night. Scandalous.

Montgomery Clift (pictured) earned a Best Actor nomination for his superb portrayal of George - hunched, brooding and sincere (paving the way for another gone-too-soon George Stevens collaborator, James Dean). Shelley Winters was the film's only other Oscar nominee, garnering a nod for Best Actress for her versatile performance as the downtrodden Alice. Elizabeth Taylor (also pictured) is also worth noting as the vivaciously forward Angela. And Perry Mason fans will be pleased to see Raymond Burr in the courtroom as District Attorney Marlowe.


  1. I love this movie!
    But Shelley Winters was nominated for Best Actress, not Supporting Actress (silly of her!)

  2. Busy, busy, busy Matt. David Lynch, wow. Did you serve him a ladle of creamed corn in his hands. (Twin Peaks reference). I scheduled A Place in the Sun last on my 1951 list, and have already seen two other nominees, so I'll have to move it up.

    As far as 1931, I can get Cimarron and The Front Page on DVD. Turner Classic Movies has Skippy and Trader Horn scheduled for their February "Oscar" month. They are a great resource; there are over 80 Best Picture nominees from the years you have yet to cover, showing in February alone (including all five 1930 nominees back to back. I'll have to record them, since it may be quite a while before you get to that year.) East Lynne is yours to report on, although there seems to be an online site that offers it as a free download, if you sign up.

  3. Fritz - Thanks for the correction! All fixed now. It does seem like a supporting role, though, doesn't it?

    Mike - I'd be wary of any site proclaiming to have East Lynne for download. My understanding is that it has never been released to the public (outside of its theatrical run, of course) either on home video or for broadcast. As far as I'm aware, the only way to see it is on site at the UCLA Film Archive, which makes it difficult to copy.

    Some of the other early nominees have been released only on VHS; others only have a broadcast version, mostly found on TCM ... I really should invest in TCM. It would make life a lot easier..

  4. I agree with you, Matt. I'm leery of signing up for a site I don't know much about. Not to spend too much time on 1931 yet, it does seem to contend for the worst line up of Best Picture nominees ever. A shame considering other films from that year that have stood the test of time (City Lights, M, Little Caesar, Public Enemy, Dracula). We must take the bad with the good, if we want to be completists.

    And yes, if TCM is available, I would certainly sign up for it. My cousin lives in Greenwich Village and subscribes.

  5. My pick is 100% with Streetcar! But It will be interesting to hear what you think.

  6. A Place in the Sun is a classic story told by one classy director. I love George Stevens unobtrusive camerawork, letting the audience figure things out for themselves (including the crucial boat scene). I also liked those long camera dissolves especially the one you mentioned involving the "dancing" all night scene and the one in the courthouse when they found it closed for the Labor Day Holiday and the courtroom bench lingered over the fateful trip to the lake.

    1951 marked the shift to a new wave of screen actors with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift giving us a method acting glimpse into the tortured souls of their characters. And one could easily forget Garbo, when looking at those breathtaking close-ups of Elizabeth Taylor. Not to leave out Shelley Winters, who was heartbreaking in some of her scenes. I do agree with you, Matt, that her nomination as a lead actress was a bit of category fraud. I'd say that Clift was the clear lead with both Winters and Taylor as supporting.

    This would be Anne Revere's last film for over 20 years, as the evangelical mother of Clift. She previously won an Oscar for portraying Elizabeth Taylor's mother in National Velvet. By refusing to name names, she was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ironically, this so-called Un-American was a direct descendant of American Revolution hero Paul Revere.