Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s: Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful, Singin’ in the Rain

We continue our survey of the twenty greatest movies of the 1950s.

For a complete listing of the greatest movies of the 20, 30s and 40s, click here.

Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, 1951.

Kirk Douglas, Ace in the Hole, 1951.

4. Ace in the Hole, 1951

A hand-embroidered motto, “Tell the Truth” sits as a dusty epitaph on the newsroom wall of an inconsequential Albuquerque newspaper where Kirk Douglas, a cynical New York reporter, hustles a job.

Sent out to cover a local rattle snake hunt, Douglas stumbles on a man trapped inside a cave, and turns it into a “human interest” story that explodes on the national scene and becomes — entertainment.

Leo, trapped in the mine, dying by inches, becomes nothing more than a prop for those who seek to exploit and prolong his tragedy for their own selfish ends. Even Jan Sterling, brilliantly playing Leo’s femme fatale wife, reveals her rotten core when she tells Kirk Douglas: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

More than fifty years after the film’s release—not surprisingly the critics murdered the film and it died at the box office—Billy Wilder’s prophetic vision of an immoral press in collusion with a celebrity hungry culture, is more relevant than ever. The screenplay by Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, and Billy Wilder is studded with brilliance, and implicates everyone in Leo’s suffering. “Why shouldn’t we get something out of it,” says a character. In this single justification, posed as a question, lies the film’s indictment of human greed.

 

5. The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952

Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner, The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952.

Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner, The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952.

Jonathan Shields, Kirk Douglas, is the most hated man in Hollywood. A brilliant producer, a manipulator of screenwriters, directors and movie stars, Shields is a whirlwind of manic energy, a man driven by demons we cannot see, an artist who is part con-artist.

Modeled on the careers of boy genius Orson Welles, and legendary producer David O. Selznik, this glittering melodrama investigates, through a series of complicated, but beautifully structured flashbacks, why three Hollywood a-listers have come to hate Jonathan Shields, even as they owe their brilliant careers to him.

Dick Powell, a serious novelist, is at first scornful and then seduced by Sheld’s invitation to Hollywood. Barry Sullivan is the untried, but gifted director who is given a boost, and then dropped by Shields. And Lana Turner, in her greatest performance, is the damaged, alcoholic actress, who is molded into a star by Shields. Each character learns their trade under Jonathan’s relentless tutelage. And each character loves and is then cruelly betrayed by Shields. Shot in velvety, film noir tones, The Bad and the Beautiful is a love-hate story that perfectly captures the ruthless cocoon which is Hollywood.

 

Gene Kelly is Singin' in the Rain, 1952.

Gene Kelly is Singin’ in the Rain, 1952.

6. Singin’ in the Rain, 1952

Most Hollywood musicals were adaptations of Broadway shows.  But Singin’ in the Rain was written and produced as a movie. Perhaps that accounts for the film’s genius. Singin’ in the Rain masterfully satirizes the panic in Hollywood with the coming of sound.

The film’s acrobatic dance sequences, choreographed by Gene Kelly, and performed by Kelly, Donald O Connor and Debbie Reynolds, are a perfect example of the integrated musical, in which characters naturally express their emotions, and move the story along, through song and dance.

Like The Bad and the Beautiful, Singin in the Rain, looks at Hollywood and etches a particular portrait. But these two films are tonally, at opposite ends of the spectrum. Bad is dark and laden with shadows. Shot in wide screen, with vivid, jelly bean colors, Singin‘ is exuberant, optimistic and an affectionate valentine to the movies and to a particular American genius.

To be continued.

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35 Comments

  1. Posted March 16, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I also loved Green Dolphin Street and read the book after. Van Heflin was was great in it.

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  2. sennacherib
    Posted February 11, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    Oops, jumped the gun on Irma.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. sennacherib
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    A couple more come to mind, Irma la Dulce and Some Like it Hot. The problem is I saw them when I was young so I don’t know if they’ve aged well for me.

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  4. Posted February 8, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Jeanine Basinger had good things to say about Turner’s Bad performance in her book The Star Machine, which made me go out and get it.  I have Ace in my TCM queue, so this weekend’s storm ought to be the perfect time to watch it.
    As DrCarol noted, Ace was based on the story of Floyd Collins.  There’s also a musical, Floyd Collins, written by Richard Rodgers’ grandson, Adam Guettel.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 8, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Christopher:

      The Star Machine is a superb book. I forgot that Basinger wrote about Lana’s performance there. I’ll look it up. Thanks so much for the reminder. And enjoy the movie. It’s filled with sly and inside references to old Hollywood.

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  5. DrCarol
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    Ace in the Hole echoes the real life story of Floyd Collins, a veteran caver who died trying to find a passage from Crystal Cave to Mammoth Cave. 
    http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2010/01/trapped-in-cave-bizarre-floyd-collins.html

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 8, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      Dr Carol:

      Right you are. Thanks so much for this information.

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    • Miranda Rose Smith
      Posted February 10, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      Dear DrCarol and Robert: I was wondering if it was based on the story of Kathy Fiscus, a little girl who died, after falling down a well, in 1949. Her case was the first such tragedy to be heavily and nationally televised.
      Rosalie Sorrels’s album, “Folk Songs of Idaho and Utah” has a heart breaking rendition of “The Death of Kathy Fiscus.” 

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  6. sennacherib
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Another Douglas movie I loved was “Lonely are the Brave”. Now Robert I must complain for the 50s’ have a group of movies that I’m a sucker for. At one time in my life one of the things I looked forward to the Easter season was the Biblical Epics. I would get my necessary whiskey, then it was The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur (that’s right Messala someones back and wants to see YOU), etc. I know they won’t make any list  but boy did I have a good time watching them every year. An aside, every time I see the new fad of projected wire wheels on cars I think of Ben Hur.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 8, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      sennacherib:

      Lonely Are the Brave is Kirk Douglas’ favorite film too. He always said that the character he played in that movie best expressed who he was, or at least, how he liked to see himself.

      The chariot race in Ben Hur is brilliant.

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      • Miranda Rose Smith
        Posted February 11, 2013 at 4:15 am | Permalink

        Dear Robert and Mr. Brandt:
        I love BEN-HUR.
         

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  7. Bill Brandt
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Robert – you might just have answered a question about movies I was asking a friend last weekend.
     
    I saw  it – has to have been 50 years ago – and yet parts were etched in my mind.
     
    A fellow was trapped in a mine – and from simple human interest it eventually became the site of an actual carnival – complete, as I remember, with a Ferris wheel – and when the man died everyone just packed their tents and disbanded,
     
    It was quite a commentary on human nature.
     
    I think this is the one. Couldn’t even remember the actors in it.
     

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 8, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      Bill:

      Ace in the Hole was re-released under the dopey title: The Big Carnival. It’s possible you saw the film under that title. In any case, glad to have helped solve the mystery.

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    • Miranda Rose Smith
      Posted February 11, 2013 at 4:09 am | Permalink

      Dear Mr. Brandt: Perhaps you, or someone on this website, can help me with this. I saw a scrap of a movie, on TV, one year when I was in college. It was a supernatural film. A woman becomes possessed by a demon who makes her chant nursery rhymes. She chants”I have a bonnet trimmed with blue./ Do you wear it? Yes I do./ I will wear it when I can/ Going to the ball with my young man.” Does that ring any bells for any one?
      Another scrap of film that is stuck in my mind, from even earlier: it must have been ’50s horror-science fiction. I was about eight or nine when I saw it and it scared the life out of me. First of all, there are some repeated shots of a rocket moving through space, presumably to burn up the planet, or something equally ominous. On earth, some teenage hoodlums have their car break down in the middle of a desolate landscape. When a man and his wife come along, in a jeep, the hoodlums push their car into the road. When the man demands that they remove it, they throw him and his wife out of the car and drive off. The man finds someone to give them a lift, “It’s urgent and our car was stolen,” and for some reason, a short while later, he has to abandon his wife. She’s standing in the middle of that desolate landscape, crying and saying “I love you.” Anyone recognize the film?

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  8. Posted February 7, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Singin used the Cole Porter song, “Be a Clown” with new words as a Donald O’Conner number called “Make ‘em Laugh.” I don’t think Porter was happy about it. I’ve never seen “Ace in the Hole” but the others are favorites that I watch every few months on DVD.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 8, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      Michael:

      Ace is an amazing film. It’s about a man who is murdered for the sake of headlines.

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  9. Barry
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Re Ace In The Hole
     
    I don’t like this picture and never did. That  people behave this way is irrelevant. You wouldn’t get Clark to play it. As for Bad And The Beautiful. Fine, but Lana Turner is still wanting. Her best, Postman Always Rings Twice. Yes…?

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 7, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Barry:

      Lana Turner’s performance in Postman is quite good, but ultimately it’s a one-note role. She displays far more range and maturity as an actress in Bad.

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      • Barry
        Posted February 7, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        Robert:
         
        I’ve been thinking about this since my submission. Had Cass Timberlane been a better picture then that would surely be her best performance. But, Spencer Tracy is at his most flatulent although not quite like Lee J. Cobb belching his way through a Virginian episode. Her worst is as Milady De Winter. Be that as it may, The Bad And The Beautiful requires a greater range, as you indicated. One note is her speed. In my opinion.

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted February 8, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

          Barry:

          Lana Turner was never a great actress. She was a star, manufactured and packaged. But she has great presence and when the role suited her, she was terrific. Her performance in The Bad and the Beautiful is far and away, the best, most profound work of her career.

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          • Barry
            Posted February 8, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

            Robert:
             
            Everyone is packaged to some degree. Douglas, Roland, Dick Powell, Gloria Grahame, even Elaine Stewart in her small part have it all over Turner. Add, Paul Stewart, Barry Sullivan and Vanessa Brown.  Should you want to see Lana Turner in Soemthing to make you scream, Have a look at Portrait In Black. Or, even worse, Madame X. In The Bad and The…she managed to live through it. Certainly her best part. An undeserving contract star…

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            • Barry
              Posted February 8, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

              By undeserving I don’t mean of her contract but of being cast as Georgia in such a serious project. She is perfectly nice in these Gable films. I also thought her dull in The Survivors.

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            • Miranda Rose Smith
              Posted February 11, 2013 at 4:12 am | Permalink

              Dear Barry: I liked MADAME X. I’ll always be grateful to her for making GREEN DOLPHIN STREET. I saw the film, was curious enough to read the boo, and have loved Elizabeth Goudge ever since.

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              • Miranda Rose Smith
                Posted February 11, 2013 at 4:17 am | Permalink

                I saw the film, was curious enough to read the book, and have loved Elizabeth Goudge ever since.
                CORRECTION: DON’T DELETE.

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  10. Johnny
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Not only was Singin’ not adapted from Broadway, almost all their songs were written years earlier and had been used in previous movies. Green and Comden managed to weave them into the story to make them seem original to the movie.
    And Debbie Reynolds, barely 19 years old and not a dancer, managed to hold her own with Kelly and O’Connor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Johnny:

      Howard Keel was originally slated to play the Gene Kelly role. Let us all be thankful that never happened. Every great movie is a case study in the mediocrity it might have become.

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    • kgbudge
      Posted February 11, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Very fond of Singin’ in the Rain. Though … the “Broadway Melody” sequence was just … bizarre. Okay, they needed an excuse to have Gene Kelly dance with a first-rate dancer, but to me it was an excuse to step out for some more popcorn.
       

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      • Larry
        Posted February 11, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, kgbudge, but I liked the “Broadway Melody” sequence. It was a ballet of sorts presented as a movie-in-a-movie, but it stood alone as a complete story with its own continuity; well-developed characters with desires, foibles, and histories; lessons to learn; and a life-goes-on, enjoy it finale. It’s my favorite musical sequence in that movie, and that’s amidst so many other entertaining numbers. So, the only thing remaining to say to you about this is “Moses supposes erroneously.”

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        • kgbudge
          Posted February 12, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

          Guess I’m going to go on being choosy Caesar.

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  11. K
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    “Ace in the Hole” should be required viewing for journalism majors everywhere. Of course, within the moral context of today’s journalists, it would be considered more a “how to” than a warning. 

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    • Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      K’s comment made me think of a recent idea I was pondering. Why don’t we license journalists? We register about every other type of professional — doctors, lawyers, insurance brokers, real estate brokers, etc. I know it would never fly, but why don’t we push to get journalist licensed? Maybe one of the written questions could be: “Accuracy, impartiality, objectivity and personal integrity are 4 of the benchmarks of the journalism profession is a free society. Explain how you achieve these 4 benchmarks in your journalistic career.”
       
       

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      • Robert J. Avrech
        Posted February 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        Prophet Joe:

        Well, of course, that’s what Communist and all totalitarian regimes do, license and approve chosen journalists.

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        • Larry
          Posted February 7, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

          Exactly! Licensing is supported and encouraged by those already in the business so as to keep out everybody else. With entry restricted, prices increase and quality decreases.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

      • antoineclarke
        Posted March 11, 2013 at 5:44 am | Permalink

        I’m sure the President is fine with extending his executive powers to blacklist anyone he doesn’t feel adored by.
        How that helps media standards is unclear to me.

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