US / 118 minutes / bw / MGM Dir: Vincente Minnelli Pr: John Houseman Scr: Charles Schnee Story: “Memorial to a Bad Man” (1951; Ladies’ Home Journal) by George Bradshaw Cine: Robert Surtees Cast: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gloria Grahame, Gilbert Roland, Leo G. Carroll, Vanessa Brown, Paul Stewart, Sammy White, Elaine Stewart, Ivan Triesault.
A love letter to Hollywood—or, at least, a letter expressing a love/hate relationship—with a very noirish cast and some noirish flourishes; it’s occasionally listed as a film noir, although that’s a classification that seems hard to justify.
Movie mogul Harry Pebbel (Pidgeon) gathers together three major figures in the industry in an attempt to persuade them to participate in a new project that the producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas) is trying to float. All three of them have good reasons to tell Shields to get lost because of the way he treated them in the past, and in three extended flashbacks we learn what those reasons were:
• Shields stole from his creative partner, the director Fred Amiel (Sullivan), the first great movie idea the two developed, the filming of the novel The Faraway Mountain, dumping Fred flat;
• in order to get out of her the performance he wanted, Shields conducted a passionate affair, amid pretenses of his love, with neophyte actress Georgia Lorrison (Turner), but then, the moment the movie was finished, dumped her even flatter than he had Fred;
• seeing that writer James Lee “Jim” Bartlow (Powell) was incapable of getting any work done—either on his new novel or on the script Shields wanted him to write based on his previous one, The Proud Land—because of constant interruptions from Jim’s seductive if empty-headed Southern belle wife Rosemary (Grahame), Shields engineered a romance between Rosemary and studio lothario Victor “Gaucho” Ribero (Roland), a romance that ended in tragedy when the plane they took for Acapulco crashed with no survivors.
Yet, as Harry points out to the trio, as dreadful as those betrayals might be, and how painful at the time, all three eventually came out of the experience for the better. Fred is now the hottest director in Hollywood, with a string of successes and awards behind him. Georgia, daughter of the great actor George Lorrison, who drank himself to an early death, was a tramp when Shields discovered her, rapidly drinking her own way to the grave, but is now a major international star who can pick and choose her roles. Jim, for his part, is a Pulitzer Prize-winner, his writing doldrums a distant memory. Even Harry himself, who with Shields’s press agent Syd (Stewart), lost his shirt because of Shields’s self-indulgences, gained from the acquaintanceship: once a schlock producer of quick cheapies like The Son of the Cat Man, he’s now a significant, respected and successful studio head.
So, once again, Harry asks the trio if they’d be prepared to do one last movie with Shields. And once again they turn him down flat. Yet, moments later, we find that they’re intrigued despite themselves, and we can predict that, sure enough . . .
The movie’s working title was Tribute to a Bad Man (a title used a few years later for an unrelated James Cagney Western). The short story upon which it was based was about people’s experiences of a theatrical producer, but producer Houseman realized it would be far more immediate if transferred from the theater industry to the movie business. There was some concern that the movie might be viewed as a film à clef, with Shields standing for David O. Selznick, Harry for Harry Rapf of MGM’s B-movie unit, Georgia for Diana Barrymore and Jim for F. Scott Fitzgerald. To a modern eye, however, the most dominant presence would seem to be that of Orson Welles: not only is the flashback structure reminiscent of CITIZEN KANE (1941)—with George Lorrison’s grandiloquent old estate Crow’s Nest echoing Kane’s Xanadu—but Welles likewise had a tempestuous relationship with Hollywood and its denizens. Two of the directors with whom Shields works, Henry Whitfield (Carroll) and Von Ellstein (Triesault), were supposedly modeled on Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, respectively, although in the former case the resemblance seems tenuous.
The Bad and the Beautiful, which started life as a low-budget artsy project and then “just grew”, took five Oscars despite—oddly—not being even nominated as Best Picture: among the five were recognitions for Surtees’s cinematography and Schnee’s screenplay, while Grahame received the Best Supporting Actress accolade for her relatively small role. (Douglas was nominated as Best Actor, but lost out to Gary Cooper for High Noon.)
On Amazon.com: The Bad and the Beautiful