Program Notes: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Movies about making movies often find themselves dishing insider baseball. They’re hugely entertaining to those who work in show business, less so for the average ticket buyer.
But The Bad and the Beautiful is a terrific movie any way you look at it, from the crisp, amazingly fluid black-and-white cinematography to the complex and detailed sound design to the marvelous writing and performances.
And as a look at what makes the movie industry tick, it’s virtually without peer.
It’s one of those films that stands up to repeated viewings, in large part because director Vincente Minnelli (who was just coming off the hit musical An American in Paris and the hit comedy Father of the the Bride) fills his frames with so much movement and visual detail.
Both films are about a ruthless, powerful man being recalled by individuals who knew him well. This protagonist starts out as an eager, ambitious scrambler; then, over time, he gradually alienates all those who care about him with his high-handed tactics and single-minded drive for success.
As with Kane we have several narrators telling their version of events. And like Welles’ movie, Bad... leaves us torn between admiration, disgust, and pity. Just what are we supposed to think about this guy?
More Kane references: Robert Surtees’ deep focus, black-and-white cinematography – marked by an amazingly fluid camera, low angle shots that take in the ceilings, and carefully composed framing – is forever bringing to mind that of Citizen Kane’s Gregg Toland.
And while the character of Charles Foster Kane was clearly based on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, Bad’s relentless Jonathan Shields is widely believed to be inspired by movie producer David O. Selznick. In the film Shields even makes a Civil War epic that recalls Gone With the Wind.
Playing our three narrators are Barry Sullivan as a director who early in his career partnered with Shields in making Poverty Row pictures, Turner as the alcoholic beauty cajoled and bullied by Shields into movie stardom, and Dick Powell as a college professor brought to Hollywood to turn his best-selling novel into a motion picture screenplay.
There are plenty of other terrific performances, too. Like Gloria Grahame as the professor’s shallow Southern belle wife, Gilbert Roland as a sauve Latin matinee idol (many say he was playing himself), and Walter Pidgeon as the cranky, bombastic producer of B pictures who gives most of these characters their start in the biz.
Above all else there is Kirk Douglas, giving one of his best performances ever as Jonathan Shields.
All the essential elements in Douglas’ acting arsenal some into play here, from his physicality to his charm, his cruelty, his fierce intellect.
If the perfect hero of a Vincente Minnelli musical was Gene Kelly, the perfect protagonist of a Minnelli drama was Douglas. The Bad and the Beautiful marked the first time they worked together. It went so well they teamed up again four years later for Lust for Life, the memorable Vincent van Gogh biopic.
Throughout the production Minnelli, Houseman and screenwriter Charles Schnee mined their knowledge of Hollywood for incidents and characters that could be incorported into this behind-the-scenes expose.
For example, one of the fictional Shield’s earliest successes is a cheapie horror movie about cat people in which he never shows his audience the titular villains. Clearly that sequence refers to Houseman’s friend Val Lewton, whose febrile imagination made the low-budget Cat People (’42) a perennial classic.
According to Minnelli biographer Stephen Harvey, The Bad and the Beautiful is “Minnelli’s best sustained exercise in idiosyncratic style – a delirious interplay of light and shadow in perpetual motion, something rarely seen in American movies since the advent of Orson Welles.”
Bad... was a substantial hit and did very well at the Oscars, winning for supporting actress (Gloria Grahame), black-and-white art direction, cinematography, costume design, and screenplay.
In all Douglas would be nominated for three Oscars: Champion in 1949, Bad... in ’52, and Lust for Life in ‘56.
But he would never win an Oscar in competition.
Other films in the series “Vincente Minnelli: A Little Magic”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- May 5: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) Not Rated
- May 12: The Band Wagon (1953) Not Rated
- May 19: Lust for Life (1956) Not Rated
- May 26: An American in Paris (1951) Not Rated
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- May 7: Father of the Bride (1950) Not Rated
- May 14: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Not Rated
- May 21: The Clock (1945) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.