This is a movie about the movie business and the not so nice people who make movies. But as the main character says, “Don’t worry. Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other’s guts.”
Like Citizen Kane (1941), this film tells its story using flashbacks – in this case to trace the rise and fall not of a newspaper mogul but a ruthless Hollywood producer, Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). His life is seen through the eyes of a writer, a star and a director. Though now down on his luck, Shields has used all of them to claw his way to the top. Its underlying themes are clear from the foreign titles under which it was marketed: in Germany it was The City of the Illusions while the French title was The Bewitchers.
It may be a cool exposé of a cut-throat industry but its director Vincent Minnelli seems also to have a grudging admiration for this monster who nevertheless gets things done (the film’s working title was Tribute to a Bad Man). Kirk Douglas plays the ‘bad’ of the title to Lana Turner’s ‘beautiful’ – though at a deeper level the flashbacks tell a warts-and-all tale of how bad things can eventually create something beautiful.
The film earned six Academy Award nominations and won five of them – Kirk Douglas lost out winning Best Actor to Gary Cooper in High Noon. Nevertheless, Charles Schnee won an Oscar for his script, as did Gloria Grahame (Best Support) for her performance as a ditzy southern belle (right with Dick Powell). Robert Surtees won for his black-and-white cinematography, Cedric Gibbons and Edward Carfagno won for their set design and Helen Rose won an Oscar for best black and white costume design (to convey the long time scale, Kirk Douglas wore 73 outfits in the film – an unusually large wardrobe for a male star!).
Though the director often gets the credit for films, the success here ironically owes much to its producer, John Houseman (left, 1902-1988). A Romanian-born, British-American writer and (later) actor, Houseman’s first Hollywood job was supervising the script of Citizen Kane. He went on to work for David O Selznick (perhaps most famous for producing gone with the Wind) and in The Bad and the Beautiful, Houseman gives a character much like Selznick the kind of treatment that was brought to Charles Foster Kane. Although he minimized comparisons with Citizen Kane (1941), there are clear references, for example, when Shields is referred to as “genius boy,” (Welles’ had been nicknamed “boy wonder”) and when Lana Turner’s character is doing a screen test: the camera slowly pulls back and gradually moves upwards to show a lighting technician admiring her performance. This is very a similar to a camera move in Citizen Kane, in which the camera moves slowly up and ends with lighting technicians assessing the singing of Kane’s wife below (in this case they hold their noses).
One piece of trivia serves to confirm the truth of the film’s portrayal of megalomania. A small uncredited role as eulogist in the film was given to Francis X. Bushman (1883 – 1966), who had been a major star of silent films. In 1915 his salary had been $500 dollars a week and he later starred in the first Ben Hur (1925). He was the first film actor to be dubbed “King of the Movies”. By 1951 however, he could command just $50 a day and had appeared in mainly uncredited bit parts and not at MGM since Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry in 1937. The reason for this long break, he told Kirk Douglas, was because of a visit Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, had paid him backstage after a play. Quite innocently (not to say reasonably) Bushman made the error of asking Mayer to wait until he had removed his makeup. Mayer stalked off in a rage at having to wait for anyone, swearing the actor would never work at MGM again!
Although categorised as drama or romance, it was surprising to see one website call The Bad and the Beautiful a comedy – elements of which can certainly come out in sharp and witty dialogue like this:
Georgia: He was a rat and a drunk.
Shields: Who are you?
Georgia: His daughter.
Shields: I didn’t know he had one.
Georgia: Neither did he half the time.
If it is a comedy then the film bears comparison with the recent film Hail Caesar (Coen Brothers, 2016) that draws on real personalities and events of this period in Hollywood. Viewers and critics of The Bad and the Beautiful have long enjoyed its inside jokes and guessed at who was being portrayed: Shields is sometimes thought to be based on either Darryl F. Zanuck or David O. Selznick (whose father was similar to Shields’). Comparisons can also be made with Val Lewton (B horror-film producer of Cat People in 1942). And then there is Shields’ Svangali like relationship with Georgia (Lana Turner) which is similar to the one Selznick had with Jennifer Jones.
Dick Powell’s character, a Southern novelist and screenwriter, is said to be based on either William Fawlkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose wife, Zelda, died in a fire rather than a plane crash). A British director called Henry Whitfield (Leo G. Carroll, seen centre left) who appears in the film is a clear parody of Alfred Hitchcock. And another director called Von Ellston (Ivan Triesault) seems to be an imitation of Erich von Stroheim and/or Josef von Sternberg. Finally two female singers at a Hollywood nightclub in the film seem to reference Lena Horne and Judy Garland (who was then in the process of divorcing director Vincent Minelli).