Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-Three

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#23 — The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952)
There was a time when Hollywood was all klieg lights and high glamor, at least in its calculated depictions of self. It was lucrative to preserve the myth of happy creative miracles, dreams captured on celluloid for all to enjoy. By the nineteen-fifties, some cynicism was starting to creep in, and filmmakers allowed that their chosen business had a corrosion at its heart. Some of this was surely attributable to the general social shell shock felt in the post-war years, but I think there’s also the slide of Hollywood itself to blame. Besides the fabled stories of starlets being discovered sitting innocently in Beverly Hills soda shops, plucked up by benevolent producers who brought them worldwide fame, there was genuinely a culture in the young industry of folks who simply showed up looking for work and getting a chance to do so, not all that dissimilar from other jobs. By the fifties, the industry wasn’t young anymore and that innocent opportunity had been entirely eradicated to be be replaced by cutthroat tactics. There was also ample evidence accumulated as to how easily the once honored and revered could be discarded.

Even a director as established as Vincente Minnelli knew something about the feelings of being abused by the system, having sustained a major blow when the box office failure of 1948 film The Pirate led the studio to essentially put him on suspension. He was back on solid footing by the time he made The Bad and the Beautiful, thanks largely to the success of 1951’s An American in Paris, but the recollection on hid down time had to still smart. Certainly, this bitter cupcake of a film is rife with the sort of sharp observations that hint at dismal personal experience. Based on the George Bradshaw short story “Tribute to a Bad Man” (originally published in Ladies Home Journal, of all places), the film focuses on the tumultuous and troubling assent of a filmmaker named Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). It’s told in flashback as a movie producer (Walter Pidgeon) tries to convince three former cohorts of the director, whose career is flagging, to lend their clout to a new picture he wants to make. Jonathan previously, separately crossed all three of them, and they think back to the moments of camaraderie and professional trust that inevitably led to betrayal.

Working from a Charles Schnee screenplay that would go on to nab an Academy Award, Minnelli approaches the material with his usual ease and panache. But there’s a touch of subversiveness to his approach. There’s an open acknowledgment of the ugliness of the entertainment business, to be sure, but there’s also the turnabout that serves as the film’s harsh punchline. Those Jonathan has ruthlessly thwarted also owe their later success to him. That cruelty that drives the business is of the wholly codependent sort. No matter how much Jonathan may be hated by those he betrayed, if he’s got an enticing project, the closing moments make clear, all that animosity will be put aside easily enough. In The Bad and the Beautiful, it takes a lot of frantic dancing to stay alive in the movie business, but, Minnelli argues, every last person knows all the steps to the tunes that are playing.