Oscar Oddities, Part 2

Not all Oscar nominations are for big budget, prestigious studio pictures like Ben-Hur (1959), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Gone With the Wind (1939), and we’re here to offer further proof, as we did in Oscar Oddities, Part 1 (which covered 1999 -1960), that sometimes flukes and unexpected surprises can and do occur. If a poverty row studio like PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) can break into the honored inner circle with Academy Award nominations for a tough little no-budget crime drama like Why Girls Leave Home (1945), anything can happen. 


Ben-Hur was the big favorite this year with nominations in twelve categories (it won eleven of them). It wasn’t, however, a contender for Best Song which left that category open for “The Hanging Tree” from the movie of the same name and “Strange Are the Ways of Love,” from The Young Land, a now, almost forgotten Western starring Patrick Wayne, future Batgirl Yvonne Craig and Dennis Hopper. Based on a real murder case and trial that occurred in California in 1848, the movie questioned the U.S. justice system in cases involving non-English speaking citizens (in this case, Mexicans).  Strangely enough, The Young Land was produced by Walt Disney’s Buena Vista production company, completed in 1957 and then shelved. Columbia picked up the distribution rights and it miraculously earned a Best Song nomination. Can anybody hum it?


Speaking of Buena Vista, there was a time when Walt Disney films, not just the animated movies but the live-action ones too, were frequent Oscar contenders in unlikely categories. For example, White Wilderness won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1958 and The Living Desert won in the same category in 1953 (The latter is particularly amusing since it is as manipulated – scorpions dance to banjo music – and exploitive in its own way as Mondo Cane). Perri aka A True Life Fantasy: Perri, however, was not quite a documentary and not a traditional fiction feature either. The story of a female squirrel and its survival through the seasons, the movie was nominated for Best Music Score by Paul J. Smith, running against such heavy contenders as The Bridge on the River Kwai (the winner), An Affair to Remember, Raintree County and Boy on a Dolphin.


Teenage Rebel – nominated for two Academy Awards? Despite the title, this is not the expected juvenile delinquency expose but a modest character study of a teenage girl going through a difficult period in her life. It was also one of Ginger Rogers’ last films; she appears as the title character’s mother, a divorcee. Teenage Rebel scored two nominations – one for Best Black and White Costume Design and one for Best Black and White Art Direction. In both categories, it was challenged by The Seven Samurai, The Solid Gold Cadillac and The Proud and the Profane.

This was also the year that the low-budget Western Stagecoach to Fury managed to earn an Academy Award nod for Best Black & White Cinematography by Walter Strenge.  This was at a time when most Hollywood movies were being shot in Technicolor or other color processes to compete with television and black and white movies were becoming an endangered species.  Still, this Regal Films release, distributed by Fox, helped exclude other more worthy contenders in the category such as The Killing (Lucien Ballard), Autumn Leaves (Charles Lang), Edge of the City (Joseph C. Brun), While the City Sleeps (Ernest Laszlo), and Attack! (Joseph F. Biroc) to name a few.

Another favorite nominee of 1956 was Julie for Best Original Song (by Leith Stevens & Tom Adair) and Best Original Screenplay. The latter is one of the more hilarious nominations since it is the model for the disaster camp fest Airport ’75, the one where flight attendant Karen Black ends up flying and landing a plane after the two pilots are killed in an accident. In Julie, Doris Day plays a flight attendant with a homicidal husband (Louis Jourdan) who tries to escape from him. It culminates with him stalking her to her job, boarding the plane, killing the pilot and severely wounding the co-pilot in mid-flight, leaving – guess who?  – to land the plane. As usual, Day tends to overdo the hysteria bit whenever she is in suspense mode (Midnight Lace, The Man Who Knew Too Much) but it only adds to the enjoyment here, making Julie almost as funny as Airplane!    

A scene from the delightful French fantasy THE RED BALLOON (1956), directed and written by Albert Lamorisse.

Julie didn’t win any Academy Awards but the film that did snag the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay was The Red Balloon, a charming and poetic children’s film from France which was actually a film short – the running time was only 34 minutes. The screenplay couldn’t have been more than a few pages because it featured little dialogue and told its story through a stunning visual design.


I love Peggy Lee as a singer. The warm, sensual sound of her voice is in a class by itself and her popularity in the fifties was so great that it was inevitable she would be offered movie roles. Yet a film career never really happened for her despite a promising start in her first major dramatic role in The Jazz Singer remake in 1952. She would follow that up with Pete Kelly’s Blues which earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination. I’m extremely fond of the movie, despite its many problems, because of the art direction, the music score and the sheer fun of seeing Lee Marvin, Ella Fitgerald, Jayne Mansfield and Andy Devine in minor roles.

Singer Peggy Lee appears in a rare dramatic performance in the 1955 musical drama PETE KELLY’S BLUES.

After watching it again recently though, I have to say that Peggy Lee’s nomination is absurd and clearly reflects her popularity among the voters, not the quality of her work as an actress. As Rose Hopkins, the much-abused mistress/singer of mobster Edmond O’Brien, she has to go from world-weary to self-destructive alcoholic to madhouse inmate in less than 6 or 7 scenes, and it’s laughable. She might have lost her mind in the end but she could still sing. Yes, she manages a zombie-like rendition of “Sing a Rainbow” when bandleader Jack Webb comes to pay her a final visit in the rubber room.

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

This was also the year that the Best Writing (Motion Picture Story) category included a French film along with the other English language contenders. The movie was Le Mouton a Cinq Pattes (retitled as The Sheep with Five Legs in the U.S.) and it starred the French comedian Fernandel in a provincial farce in which he played six roles. You’d think he would be nominated for Best Actor but no. Instead, you have to assume the Academy members all read and spoke French fluently. Otherwise, how could you judge a screenplay written in French that was running against Rebel Without a Cause, Strategic Air Command, Love Me or Leave Me and The Private War of Major Benson in the same category?


Does a movie with a title like Crazylegs sound like an Oscar contender? A biopix about the life and career of football star Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (who plays himself in the film), this low-budget effort from Republic Studios managed to snag a Best Editing nomination. Admittedly, the challenge here was matching newsreel and stock footage with newly shot material but the film didn’t stand much of a chance against From Here to Eternity (the winner), Roman Holiday, The War of the Worlds, and The Moon is Blue.


The Red Menace invades the Oscar ceremony! In the wake of the House Un-American Activities Committee Hearings on communist infiltration in the film industry, several movies in the early fifties exploited this public fear in such films as The Atomic City, Big Jim McLain and My Son John, probably the most right wing and entertaining of them all. In it, proud parents Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger are slowly led to believe their son (Robert Walker) might be a – gulp – communist, all of which is treated with such over-the-top panic that you’d think he was Count Dracula. Somehow, this nutty fruitcake of a film was nominated for Best Writing (by director Leo McCarey).

This short review by Elliott Stein in The Village Voice perfectly captures the movie’s essense: “By the early 1950s, McCarey had become a raging rightist and active member of the Society for the Preservation of American Ideals. In his most problematic film, My Son John (1951), a small-town couple is shattered by the revelation that their son is a Commie agent. Some of this picture’s gruesome peculiarity stems from the fact that Robert Walker, who appears in the title role, died suddenly before production was completed; the actor’s death scene was patched together from shots “borrowed” from his death scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, made a year earlier. The confrontational ruckuses are charged with lunatic weirdness-for starters, redneck dad smacking Red-agent son on the head with the family Bible. Whatever it thinks it’s saying, My Son John has more to say about American ’50s hysteria than any other film ever made.”


Mickey Rooney has often stated in interviews and in his memoirs about his difficulty in getting film work after his MGM contract expired in 1949. The fifties and sixties were particularly tough times for him but it was during this period that he did some of his most dynamic and versatile acting in movies such as Quicksand (1950), The Strip (1951), The Bold and the Brave (1956) for which he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination and Baby Face Nelson (1957). Although he didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for The Strip, in which he plays a jazz drummer who gets mixed up with mobsters at his nightclub gig, the music is swell – how could it not be with Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and other veteran jazzmen on hand? Rooney even does his own drumming – and he’s not bad. The song, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”, by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and Oscar Hammerstein II was the film’s sole Oscar nomination but it’s a much deserved one.

Another surprise that year was The Well, which was nominated in two categories – Best Film Editing and Best Writing. A low-budget, independent film picked up for release by United Artists, it was years ahead of To Kill a Mockingbird and other films of the sixties in exploring race relations and the tensions that develop in a small town when a little African-American girl goes missing. Co-directed by Leo C. Popkin and Russell Rouse, it features a no-name cast in an effectively tense melodrama that combines a documentary-like visual style with a film noir mood, especially in the first half.  The second half turns into a race-against-time rescue mission – the little girl is trapped at the bottom of a deep well.

The french film poster for A CAGE OF NIGHTINGALES (1947).


How some international films end up in the yearly Oscar race in categories besides the Best Foreign Language film is always a mystery but one that has persisted for years. Take, for example, La Cage aux Rossignols (released in the U.S. as A Cage of Nightingales). This now-obscure French film directed by Jean Dréville and starring Noel-Noel and Micheline Francey was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Story category, running against Kiss of Death, Miracle on 34th Street, Smash-Up – The Story of a Woman and It Happened on Fifth Avenue. Yet, the story – about a bunch of unruly reform school kids who are transformed into angels by a tough-love teacher – has the sort of heartwarming, universal theme that is like candy for Academy voters.


The fact that the PRC film, Why Girls Leave Home, received two Oscar nominations – for Best Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture) and Best Song (“The Cat and the Canary”) – must represent some kind of landmark though it wasn’t PCR’s first time at the ball. And despite the two nominations, it is NOT a musical but a film noir told in flashbacks about a young innocent (Pamela Blake) who becomes a nightclub singer at the Kitten Club and gets mixed up with racketeers, jealous showgirls and an illegal gambling operation. The tagline for the movie’s film poster tells it all: “The VIOLENT, UNVARNISHED TRUTH about the scores of thousands of young girls who recklessly toss away home ties for a life of dangerous thrills! “


This year was unique for the nomination of an obscure international film – Marie-Louise – for Best Original Story. This import from Switzerland told the story of a child’s escape by train from the horrors of WWII and actually won the Oscar, beating out Dillinger, Music for Millions, What Next, Corporate Hargrove? and Salty O’Rourke. It also marked the first Academy Award win for an international film in any category.

White people in blackface! Occasionally you’ll see them on TCM in such movies as The Jazz Singer (both the 1927 and 1952 versions), Mickey Rooney in Babes on Broadway, and Fred Astaire in Swing Time and realize that racial stereotypes in pre-Civil Rights era Hollywood were pervasive and typical of their time. But it still makes one wince, even if it is part of our history and a visual document of how the popularity of the minstrel show (which began during the post-Civil War years) was carried over into Hollywood films after its demise as live entertainment circa 1910. Even so, I doubt we’ll be seeing a revival of Minstrel Man anytime soon. Nominated for two Oscars – Best Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture) and Best Song (“Remember Me to Carolina”), this PRC poverty row musical traces the ups and downs in the life of fictitious minstrel show entertainer Dixie Boy Johnson (Benny Fields). It was directed by B-movie maverick Joseph H. Lewis, who would move into thrillers and film noir territory the following year starting with My Name is Julia Ross.


Here’s a small victory for the horror/sci-fi movie fan. A Best Special Effects Oscar nomination for the low-budget Universal programmer, Invisible Agent, which didn’t stand much of a chance against big budget movies in the same category like Reap the Wild Wind (the winner) and Jungle Book. But was it more deserving of its nomination than The Ghost of Frankenstein, I Married a Witch, Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur, The Mummy’s Tomb or Tarzan’s New York Adventure, all of which were eligible?


The Academy voters missed the boat on recognizing the greatness of The Invisible Man in 1933 which deserved nominations for Claude Rains, James Whale’s direction and the special effects at the very least. But they apparently tried to make up for it this year by nominating The Invisible Man Returns. Although it’s a lesser effort compared to the original, it does have Cedric Hardwicke and Vincent Price. All in all, 1940 was a good year for the fantasy genre with The Thief of Bagdad, One Million B.C., The Blue Bird, Disney’s Pinocchio, and Dr. Cyclops all earning Academy Award nominations.


Let’s hear it for the little guy. The Hollywood minor league Republic Studios got to play Cinderella this year and go to the ball with three Academy Award nominations – Best Cinematography, Best Original Music Score and Best Sound Recording – for the frankly titled Army Girl. A comedy-romance with Madge Evans and Preston Foster that switches gears and becomes a tragic drama in its final act, this little number stood out among the bigger contenders in its categories which included Jezebel, The Buccaneer, You Can’t Take It With You, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Marie Antoinette to name a few.


Stuart Erwin – Best Supporting Actor for Pigskin Parade? For most of his career, Erwin was a B-movie character actor and occasional leading man so if his name is not that familiar to contemporary audiences it’s still a testament to the fact that an underdog can occasionally sneak into the Oscar race. If nothing else, Erwin was in excellent company that year, vieing for the award with Walter Brennan (Come and Get It – the winner), Basil Rathbone (Romeo and Juliet), Akim Tamiroff (The General Died at Dawn) and Mischa Auer (My Man Godfrey).


One of the more intriguing cinematic curios of the early sound era, Just Imagine deserves credit for its attempt to fuse two genres to create a new hybrid – the science fiction musical. Although it was a box office bomb at the time, it managed to garner some positive reviews such as this one from The New York Times: “Fantasy, fun and melody are shrewdly linked in “Just Imagine,” the current attraction at the Roxy. This clever picture is the work of that successful triumvirate, DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, who, it may be remembered, were responsible for the other Fox production “Sunny Side Up.” In this present contribution there are songs and dances, a highly imaginative conception of New York fifty years hence and a Jules Vernesque journey to Mars. This intriguing piece of work has no end of bizarre settings and odd costumes, besides strange glimpses of the Martians.” At the time, the filmmakers were probably aiming for a futuristic film in the grand tradition of Metropolis but Just Imagine gets little respect today from film scholars, most of whom seem to treat it as a silly and unintentional camp riot on the same level as Cat -Women of the Moon. I don’t care. I want to see it anyway. The movie’s sole Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction looks well deserved and it also stands as one of the rare Pre-Code sci-fi movies (the heroine, Marjorie White, is often shown in undergarments or taking her clothes off).


It isn’t any particular film nomination that seems unusually odd for the first official Oscar ceremony but the fact that there were two categories for Best Picture of February 8th – one for “Outstanding Picture” and one for “Unique and Artistic Picture.”  The latter category was discontinued after 1928 but how interesting to ponder what it would have been like if it had prevailed to present day. I can imagine such films as The French Dispatch, The Humans, Jockey and Pig starring Nicolas Cage running in this year’s “Unique and Artistic Picture” category. Of course, the selections for 1927-28 would have been a tough call. Even though F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise won, I also think King Vidor’s The Crowd and Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack’s delightfully quirky Chang are equally deserving of the award.

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