Happy 100th Birthday Kirk Douglas: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (MGM 1952)

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Today is the 100th birthday of movie legend Kirk Douglas! Like Olivia de Havilland earlier this year, Kirk is one of the last living Golden Age greats. Bursting onto the screen in film noir classics like THE STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS and OUT OF THE PAST , he first received top billing in the 1949 boxing noir CHAMPION, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance. Later, Kirk starred in some of the best films Hollywood has to offer: ACE IN THE HOLE, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , LUST FOR LIFE (his second Oscar nom, though he never won the statue), PATHS OF GLORY, SPARTACUS, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. One of my personal favorites is 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

One of those Hollywood movies about making Hollywood movies, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is expertly directed by insider Vincent Minnelli, who knew this material like the back of his hand. Aided tremendously by DP Robert Surtees’s  B&W  photography, with a fine score by David Raskin, Minnelli directs Charles Schnee’s roman a clef screenplay about an ambitious producer who’ll stop at nothing to get his artistic vision onscreen. Classic film fans will have a blast figuring out just who is based on who, some obvious, others not.

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Movie star Georgia Lorrison, director Fred Amiel, and writer James Lee Bartlow have all turned down former mega-producer Jonathan Shields’ request to participate in his comeback film. All three are summoned to the office of studio exec Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon  ), who knows why the trio hate Shields so much. Flashbacks tell us each of their tales, beginning with Amiel (Barry Sullivan), who was an “AD on Poverty Row” making “four-day quickies” when he first encountered Shields. Jonathan’s father was a former studio chief who was so hated by Tinseltown the son had to hire mourners for dad’s funeral, including Amiel. Determined to restore the Shields name to its former glory, the pair begin producing and directing low-budget “B’s” for Pebbel. Given a script for a horror shocker called “Doom of the Cat-Men”, they turn an average potboiler into a masterpiece of quiet terror, and the movie becomes a surprise hit. When Pebbel wants a sequel, Shields pushes to make Fred’s adaptation of the book “The Far Away Mountain”, asking for a million dollar budget. He secures the services of Latin heartthrob Victor ‘Gaucho’ Ribera (Gilbert Roland, basically playing himself), and gets his wish- but there’s a catch. Shields hires big-name German director Von Ellstein, leaving poor Fred out of the picture.

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Next up is Georgia, daughter of the late matinée idol George Lorrison, who Jonathan knew back in the day. Georgia is played by Lana Turner, and she’s absolutely fabulous! The movie star’s daughter is a hot mess, a boozer and a “tramp” with suicidal tendencies working as an extra, but Shields is determined to make her a star. Her insecurities cause Georgia to get smashed and almost stop production on his latest epic, and Shields confronts the drunk and self-pitying Georgia in her apartment, a scene that’s pure Hollywood dynamite! When she confesses her love for him, Jonathan strings her along to get the performance he wants out of her. The preview is another hit for Shields, but he doesn’t show up for the celebration. Georgia leaves the party and drives to Shields’ mansion, catching him dallying with extra Lila (Elaine Stewart). Heartbroken, Georgia flees in tears, vowing never to have anything to do with the man who made her a star again. This is without a doubt my favorite segment of the movie, and Kirk and Lana are terrific together!

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Finally we come to James Lee (Dick Powell ), a college professor whose novel ‘The Proud Land’, a Civil War saga “liberally peppered with sex” is a best seller. Shields desperately wants to adapt it to the screen, with Bartlow writing, but he’s reluctant to go to Hollywood. His Southern belle wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame in her Oscar-winning role) is another matter, and she persuades hubby to fly to the West Coast for two weeks as a courtesy to Shields. Two weeks turn into months as James Lee works on the script, but Rosemary, star-struck and blinded by the Hollywood lights, becomes a distraction. Shields talks him into leaving for Lake Arrowhead so the two can work in peace, getting his randy old pal Gaucho to “squire” Rosemary around town. Tragedy strikes when Gaucho and Rosemary die in a plane crash as they’re heading for Acapulco. Shields tries to keep Bartlow busy with work, but their film suffers a blow when Von Ellstein walks off the set, causing Shields himself to take over the director’s reins. The movie bombs, and it’s soon revealed Shields set up Gaucho with Rosemary, knowing the notorious ladies man would sweep her off her feet, freeing Bartlow to write. The ending finds all three still refusing to work with Shields again, but they all eavesdrop on Pebbel’s conversation with the producer, listening intensely as he describes his latest vision over the phone…

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THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is filled with stars, but Kirk Douglas is the one who shines brightest as the ruthless Jonathan Shields, destroying anything in his path that gets in the way of his artistic vision. He’s the Super-Glue that holds the film together, and at the top of his game. There are so many Familiar Faces in this one your head will spin, like Leo G. Carroll as the Hitchcockian Henry Whitfield, Paul Stewart as Shields’ yes-man, plus Stanley Andrews, Barbara Billingsley (Mrs. Cleaver!), Madge Blake, Vanessa Brown, Francis X. Bushman, Louis Calhern (the voice of George Lorrison), THEM’s Sandy Descher, Steve Forrest, Kathleen Freeman, Ned Glass, Dabbs Greer, Kurt Kaszner, Paul Maxey, May McAvoy, Jeff Richards, Kaaren Verne, Ray Walker, and of course the ubiquitous Bess Flowers !

Winner of five Academy Awards (besides Grahame, the picture also won for Best Art Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Costume Design), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is a must-see for all classic film lovers, and fans of the great Kirk Douglas. Happy 100th Kirk, here’s to a hundred more!!

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Shakespeare in Space: FORBIDDEN PLANET (MGM 1956)

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Well, not quite. FORBIDDEN PLANET is very loosely based on The Bard’s THE TEMPEST, drawing on some of its themes and characters, and putting them in an outer space setting. But the film is much more than that. It’s full of screen firsts, and one of the most influential science fiction movies ever. While watching I was more than reminded of STAR TREK, and wasn’t surprised while doing research that Gene Roddenberry cited it as “one of his inspirations”.

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Today no one thinks twice about movies being set completely in outer space, but FORBIDDEN PLANET did it first. The art and set direction by MGM vets Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan are wonders to behold, shot in beautiful CinemaScope and Eastmancolor by George J. Folsey. The cinematographer began in silent pictures, and carved a niche with big, splashy musicals like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME, and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, earning 13 Oscar nominations in the process. Folsey’s camerawork, along with a battalion of special effects technicians (including Disney animator Joshua Meador), help make Altair-IV a believable world without any CGI (most of you know how I feel about CGI by now!)

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The film follows the adventures of the crew of United Planets ship C57-D, on a mission to find the long-lost Bellerophon expedition on Altair-IV. Commander Adams and his crew are warned not to land by Dr. Morbius, one of the expedition’s scientists. But Adams has his orders, and they arrive to meet Morbius and his beautiful daughter Altaira, along with their servant Robby the Robot (we’ll talk more about him later!) Morbius tells Adams and company the other members of the party were killed, “torn limb from limb”, by some strange, unknown creature. He’s spent the last twenty years studying the ancient knowledge of the Krell, a race of highly intelligent beings who trod Altair-IV nearly 2000 centuries ago. The Krell’s sophisticated scientific advances have given Morbius a superior IQ through their machinery. But something strange is happening again on Altair-IV, as the C57-D’s crew members begin getting picked off by an invisible monster.

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Adams and his men try to combat the thing, but their weaponry is useless against the monster. When Adams and Doc return to Morbius’s lair, Doc tries the IQ machine on himself. It’s power kills him, but before he dies, he uncovers the truth about the monster. It’s a manifestation of Morbius’s own subconscious, a monster from the Id that must be stopped or the crew of the C57-D will be destroyed by it!

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The cast of FORBIDDEN PLANET is terrific, with veteran star Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius leading the pack. Pidgeon made seven films with Greer Garson, including the wartime drama MRS. MINIVER, and was a well-respected actor on the MGM lot. Adams is played by Leslie Nielsen, another serious dramatic actor, that is until 1980’s AIRPLANE! discovered his untapped comic talents. Beautiful Anne Francis (Altaira) starred in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE before being cast in the mid-60s Private Eye cult series HONEY WEST. Warren Stevens (Doc) is remembered best for his many guest shots in episodic TV, while Adams’ second in command Lt. Farman was Jack Kelly, later one of the MAVERICK brothers. Earl Holliman (Cookie) is well known for his Western appearances, and his stint as Angie Dickinson’s boss on POLICE WOMAN. Other crew members include George Wallace (Commando Cody in the Republic serial RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON), Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman on THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN), James Drury (TV’s THE VIRGINIAN), James Best (DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Rosco P. Coltrane), and William Boyette (ADAM-12). Director Fred McLeod Wilcox handles the ensemble well, though he’s better known for directing another MGM star in several films, Lassie!

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Then there’s Robby the Robot. The now-iconic Robby made his debut here, and unlike robots before him, he has a personality and character all his own. Robby’s a servant in name only, he’s more like one of the family to Morbius and Altaira. The erudite robot was voiced by Marvin Miller,  long-time radio actor and film narrator who gained success in the TV series THE MILLIONAIRE. Inside Robby was former juvenile lead Frankie Darro. The diminutive (5’3″) Darro manipulated the controls in the robot costume, uncredited until it was revealed in 2000. Darro starred in a series of Monogram comedy mysteries in the early 40s with black actor Mantan Moreland, a rarity in that Moreland was portrayed onscreen as Darro’s pal rather than the stereotyped subservient role. Robby itself went on to costar in THE INVISIBLE BOY before a slew of TV guest shots in THE ADDAMS FAMILY, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., MORK AND MINDY, and LOST IN SPACE, where he was teamed with the Robinson’s own iconic Robot.

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The score for FORBIDDEN PLANET was another screen first. Bebe and Louis Barron were pioneers in the electronic music world, and the film was the first to feature an all-electronic score. Most filmgoers had never heard such sounds, and the movie’s weird music adds to the feeling of being on a distant planet. Probably the most well thought out science-fiction film of the 50s, certainly the most expensive, FORBIDDEN PLANET stands out among its peers as the greatest space opera of its era. It’s a film that should be seen by not only sci-fi buffs, but by everyone that has an interest in movie history.