The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) – A Movie Review

“The Bad and the Beautiful” is a film about Hollywood.  Kirk Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, the son of a famous Hollywood producer who has his sights set on following in his father’s footsteps.  Starting out as the producer of B movies for a friend of his father’s, Harry Pebbel (played by Walter Pidgeon), Jonathan finds, befriends and ultimately betrays the best director, actress and author that fate sends his way.  The movie is about this destructive mode of living that Jonathan inhabits.  Along the way we see that Jonathan is both tremendously talented and possessed of enormous personal magnetism.  But these positive traits are set against his staggering disregard for the welfare of the people around him.  Basically, he’s a narcissist.  He also suffers from bouts of clinical depression when he finishes each of his film projects.

The set up for the plot is the actress (Lana Turner playing Georgia Lorrison), the director (Barry Sullivan as Fred Amiel) and the author (Dick Powell as James Lee Bartlow) arriving at the office of Harry Pebbel who is trying to get the three of them to agree to star, direct and write Jonathan’s next project.  His last film was a financial disaster and the only way he can get funding is to have a team of celebrated professionals like them involved.

Harry is the narrator introducing the three vignettes that chronicle Jonathan’s disastrous relationships with Georgia, Fred and James Lee.  Each of the stories features Jonathan catalyzing the creative success that each is capable of but also betraying each of them in a way that is unforgivable.

Fred hands Jonathan the script of a great movie with the understanding that Fred will direct it.  Jonathan manages successfully to get the studio to provide a lavish million-dollar budget for the project but then decides to hand the direction to a more experienced man.  This ends Fred’s friendship and partnership with Jonathan but allows Fred to pursue his own career which ends in him becoming a highly successful director for other studios.

Georgia’s story features Jonathan saving this fragile young daughter of a famous actor who has fallen into a self-destructive cycle of drunkenness and loveless affairs.  He realizes that in order to give Georgia the confidence she needs to succeed he will have to pretend to be her great love.  With Jonathan’s help she finds her acting skills and makes the part and the movie a great success.  But after the film wrap Jonathan goes into his typical depression and when Jonathan isn’t at the opening party Georgia returns to Jonathan’s home to cheer him up.  Instead, she finds him entertaining a starlet in a negligee.  But instead of being embarrassed he becomes enraged that she thinks she can own his affections.  She flees into the night in a torrential rainstorm and we see her driving wildly and almost crashing into the oncoming traffic.  This is the weakest scene in the movie.  Her hysterical screaming while braking the car into a spin strikes me as absurdly comical.  The next day she quits her job and even though she was bound by contract Jonathan lets her out of it.  She goes on to become the most acclaimed, in demand and highest paid actress of her time.

James Lee’s story finds him recruited by Jonathan to write the script for a movie being made from his own best-selling book.  It’s actually James Lee’s wife Rosemary (played by Gloria Grahame with an awful Southern accent) who wants him to stay in Hollywood for the movie work.  But at the same time Rosemary is the greatest impediment to James Lee accomplishing much writing.  She interrupted him at every turn and distracts him with chaperoning her to Hollywood parties.

Jonathan is frustrated by this lack of progress so he arranges for James Lee to accompany him to a cabin in the woods where they can work undisturbed.  But to make sure that Rosemary doesn’t intrude Jonathan arranges for his handsome friend “Gaucho” to keep Rosemary company.  Of course, Jonathan knows Gaucho will make a pass at Rosemary and he also believes she will welcome it.

Sure enough, James Lee and Jonathan make enormous progress and finish the script.  But in the meantime, Gaucho and Rosemary take the opportunity to fly to Acapulco for a love tryst.  They are both killed in a plane crash and James Lee is devastated by his wife’s death and by the knowledge of her infidelity.  Jonathan convinces him to stay on in Hollywood to assist in the production of the movie and this lifts James Lee out of his despair.  But Jonathan inadvertently says something that reveals that he knew about Gaucho’s affair with Rosemary.  But instead of apologizing Jonathan goes on the attack and tells James Lee that Rosemary’s death was her own fault and that she was a hindrance to James Lee’s career.  And the outraged widower punches Jonathan in the face and walks out.  Afterward James Lee writes a book about a woman like Rosemary and the book wins the Pulitzer Prize.  We are led to understand by Harry’s remarks that James Lee’s new understanding of his wife’s hidden desires was what made the book the success it became.

After finishing the reminiscences Harry is going to call Jonathan in Paris and tell him whether Fred, Georgia and James Lee will be willing to work with him on his new project.  As the call is connected the three of them tell Harry they refuse and begin to leave the office.  As they walk into the anteroom, we hear Harry talking on his phone to Jonathan as he begins to hear the details of the new movie.

In the last scene Georgia carefully picks up the receiver of an extension phone in the anteroom and starts listening very interestedly in what Jonathan is saying.  Quickly Fred and James Lee huddle around her eavesdropping with her.  Obviously as much as they despise Jonathan for his selfishness they are fascinated by his talent.

This movie is a narcissist’s love letter to itself.  Hollywood almost prided itself on destroying the people it used up to make its products.  Vincent Minelli was the director and his wife Judy Garland could have been the model for the character Georgia.  And any number of other Hollywood actors, producers, directors and writers could probably have been templates for the characters in this movie.  The only difference would be that the betrayals were worse in real life and the talent of the producer would have been much less impressive.

I’m of two minds about this movie.  It is very well made.  It captures the spirit of the industry it portrays.  But the shabbiness of the people on display revolts me.  Jonathan is never apologetic.  He always attacks his victims.  He always justifies his betrayal.  He is a sociopath.  I guess taken as a cautionary tale it would have value.  Maybe it speaks to the selfishness in all of us.

Pitfall (1948) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

In this film noir Dick Powell is John Forbes, a married man who works as an adjuster for an insurance company.  He lives in the suburbs with his pretty wife Sue, played by Jane Wyatt and his young son Tommy.  Based on the domestic scenes, we see that Forbes is bored with his humdrum existence of work and tame suburban monotony.

One day an insurance investigator, J.B. MacDonald (played by truly creepy Raymond Burr) comes to Forbes with a case that requires him to interview a woman, Mona Stevens played by frequent femme fatale actress, Lizabeth Scott.  Her fiancé, Bill Smiley, has passed along to her gifts paid for with money he fraudulently obtained against his insurance.  During his meeting with Forbes MacDonald indicates that he is lusting after Stevens and will be making a play for her while her boyfriend is in jail.  We can tell that Forbes despises MacDonald but in order to maintain a working relationship with the investigator ignores the crudity of MacDonald’s plan.

When Forbes meets Mona Stevens at her apartment he blandly and uncaringly requires her to surrender her engagement ring and other gifts given by Smiley.  She upbraids him for his callousness and just to show her disdain for his power she tells him about an asset he didn’t know about, a small speed boat that she loves more than anything else.  Now Forbes feels remorse for being such a heel and while going out to see the boat he apologizes and tells her he’ll buy her a drink to show her that he has nothing against her.  The couple go to the dock and at her invitation they go out on the boat and she even allows him to drive it.  They both enjoy the ride and each other’s company.  Afterwards they go to a bar and have some drinks and Forbes tells Mona that he won’t include the boat in his report.  During the scene sexual attraction is on display on both sides and afterwards they head back to Mona’s apartment.  Meanwhile we are shown MacDonald skulking around watching them.  In the next scene Forbes is shown arriving at his home very late in the night and he sneaks into his bedroom where his wife is asleep.  His guilt over betraying her is plain to see on his face.

The next day MacDonald shows up in Forbes’ office and tells him he doesn’t want Forbes interfering with his play for Mona.  Also, he informs Forbes that he has added the speed boat to the list of assets that Mona must relinquish.  Forbes tells MacDonald to stop annoying Mona and not to interfere with his actions either professionally or personally.  Forbes meets with Mona and tells her about the speed boat and MacDonald’s part in it.  Mona volunteers that MacDonald has been annoying her.  When Forbes gets home that night MacDonald is waiting for him in front of his garage and administers a serious beat down on Forbes.  Forbes tells his wife and the police that he had been robbed by strangers.  His doctor tells him he’ll have to stay in bed for a couple of weeks and Forbes tells his job that he has a bad cold.

When Forbes doesn’t show up for a few days Mona calls his office and is informed that he is home sick.  She drives to his house with some soup and there discovers that Forbes is a married man.  She actually speaks to his wife in front of the house claiming that she is looking for a house on a different street.  When Forbes finally gets well, he goes to speak to Mona and she tells him she has discovered his secret.  Forbes admits his deception and apologizes.  Now Mona tells him that Macdonald is pressing his demands for a relationship, hounding her at work and is threatening to tell her fiancé in prison that she is having an affair with Forbes.  Apparently, MacDonald who is a former policeman has connections in the prison.  Forbes promises to fix the situation.

Forbes goes to MacDonald’s apartment and administers a beating that at least matches the one he got from MacDonald.  And he warns him to stay away from Mona and Forbes’ family.  Time passes and Smiley will be getting out of jail.  MacDonald has been visiting him in jail and filling his mind with stories that Mona is having an affair with Forbes.  Smiley shows up at Mona’s apartment drunk and armed with a pistol that MacDonald gave him.  He accuses her of infidelity with Forbes and says he’s going over to his house to settle things.  Mona phones Forbes and warns him.  Forbes arms himself and when Smiley arrives, he pulls the gun on him and tells him to leave or be shot.  Smiley leaves but as soon as Forbes goes back in his house Smiley smashes through a large window in the living room and enters the house.  As soon as he steps foot in the house Forbes shoots him several times.  Forbes pretends that the man is a prowler in his statement to the police.

Meanwhile MacDonald is at Mona’s apartment and listens on her radio to the police channel where they hear about the shooting at Forbes’ address.  When the radio reports add homicide to the message MacDonald calls a friend at the precinct and learns that Forbes has killed Smiley.  MacDonald then informs Mona that with Smiley dead and Forbes entangled with his death and Macdonald’s connections with the police, Mona will have no choice but to go away with MacDonald and be his girlfriend.  As he starts packing her clothes her face becomes bleak and she reaches into a drawer, pulls out a pistol and puts several bullets into MacDonald.

Back at Forbes’ home he is racked with guilt and confesses to his wife his relationship with Smiley’s fiancé and the reason for the break in.  He then wanders off into the night preparing himself for the consequences of his actions.  He ends up at police headquarters and makes his statement to the district attorney and there learns that Mona has shot MacDonald and depending on whether he lives will be indicted for either murder or attempted murder.  No charges will be brought against Forbes but the DA rebukes him.  He says that Forbes’ attempt to conceal his infidelity is responsible for the shootings.  Otherwise he could have called the police and prevented the incidents.  As Forbes is leaving the building, he sees Mona being led away by the police.

As he leaves the building, he sees his wife Sue waiting for him in their family car.  He gets in and as she is driving him home, they discuss their situation.  Forbes is contrite and assumes she will want a divorce.  Sue admits that she has considered it but isn’t sure that is what she wants.  She does think they will have to move to another town and suggests that he asks for a transfer from his company.  When he asks her how she will take up her life with him after the betrayal she admits that things will not be the same but says she is willing to give it a chance.

I find this movie interesting for a number of reasons.  The fact that the adulterous husband avoided all legal consequences and might not even lose his wife was a very atypical ending in 1948.  The Hays Code required that the guilty be punished and that included moral offenses that might not have a jail sentence specified.  Also, the reality of a pillar of the community being bored with his “American Dream” existence was sort of heretical.  But the reality of post-war America is a fitting subject for a realistic appraisal of how men would adapt to a world that no longer needed war heroes but rather expected a boring but dependable “Father Knows Best” husband and dad.  Interestingly, Jane Wyatt who played the wife is best known for her part as the loyal, dependable wife in that show Father Knows Best.  The crisis and resolution of John Forbes’ transgression is handled in a more realistic and nuanced way than what would have been seen in the 1930s and early 40s.  Forbes breaks the accepted boundaries of morality but instead of paying with his life or his freedom he is stuck with his conscience and the knowledge that his wife can no longer believe in him.  One man is dead because of him and an innocent woman will go to jail.  This is much more like what life is really like.  Lots of gray, not so much black and white.  Flawed people living with the consequences of their mistakes and hopefully learning from them.

And on a personal basis, I find the fact that Mona filled Raymond Burr full of lead very satisfying and admirable.  It shows the right attitude.  Interesting movie with nuanced characters and lots of things to think about.  Highly recommended.