Thursday, May 26, 2011

Top Ten Oscar Travesties of the Golden Age: #2

The #2 Oscar travesty of the Golden Age

High Noon fails to win Best Picture in 1952.

The result of the 1952 Best Picture race was among the first that shocked me when I first learned of it so many years ago. It was 1990, and I had recently seen High Noon at my grandfather's recommendation. I was 18 or 19 and quite taken with High Noon's themes of courage and duty. I was especially impressed with Gary Cooper's performance. His very screen presence captivated me. Thankfully, he won (his second) Best Actor Oscar that year, his second, though Leonard Maltin claimed it was "Cooper's only Oscar" in the old VHS edition of High Noon. I must’ve watched the movie a dozen times or so in an embarrassingly short amount of time and even more so when I became all the more enamored with old cinema in 1997; it remains a favorite today.

One day around the time I had discovered the movie, I was leafing through my Inside Oscar book (the edition with the red cover), I was flabbergasted and in denial when I saw the winner’s asterisk next to the empty entertainment “spectacle”, The Greatest Show on Earth. I was further surprised to discover that a Western had only won Best Picture one time, when Cimarron pulled off the feat in 1930. Anyway, I had seen The Greatest Show on Earth as a child and while it was chock full of notable stars, it was a less-than-memorable two hours. In fact, it’s only memorable if you carry the youthful trauma of having been savagely beaten by angry clowns.

By the way, I happen to like the circus; went to one as a kid.

The Greatest Show on Earth is by no means an awful film; it’s nice, well-made entertainment, like the circus. It’s definitely not Best Picture material and it’s not a work of art, but Demille was due, so the Academy lavished his circus drama with the top prize. It’s just a shame that the more deserving High Noon was denied Best Picture. I’d have an easier time accepting any other nominee winning instead of The Greatest Show on Earth. The other contestants that year were Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, and The Quiet Man. It's a travesty in itself that for fifty-nine years, the Western never won Best Picture. Only 1931's Cimarron pulled that feat; it wouldn't be until 1990 when Dances With Wolves finally earned Oscar's greatest prize. It pains me deeply to think of all the Western films that didn't win, or even worse, never even nominated.

The accepted reason why this won Best Picture is because it was the industry’s tribute to director Cecil B. Demille. I understand that, but why not just give him the Best Director Oscar—it went to John Ford for The Quiet Man—or why not just be content with the Thalberg Award, which is what they also gave him? Did the Academy have to derail Fred Zinneman’s masterwork? They sure did!

Greatest is never remembered as one of the finest motion pictures of all time and it sure isn’t; whereas High Noon, despite the subsequent over emphasis on the political allegory it’s supposed to be (I don’t buy it), is still one of the finest Westerns ever made. The cinematography, direction, music, Cooper, and the entire supporting cast are tremendous. High Noon has achieved immortality among great movies while Greatest is largely forgotten. You’d have to remind yourself that James Stewart was in this and it doesn’t figure prominently in the careers of anyone involved except for them to say they worked with Demille.

High Noon's director, Fred Zinneman, would get a measure of redemption the next year, when From Here to Eternity crushed all opposition, but High Noon losing Best Picture still hurts.


  1. I agree with your comments about The Greatest Show, but I am not in the High Noon camp. Except for a couple of decent performances (Cooper being one) and some interesting Cold War subtext, I find the movie rather pedestrian. It looks to me like an television show, with it's closeups and extremely neat western town. I actually think all the films nominated that year were pretty bland. I know you don't include snubs but surely Singing in the Rain was the best film of 1952.

  2. I thought it would be more challenging if I worked with the proverbial cards dealt rather than picking obvious oversights, and I agree with you regarding Singin' in the Rain.

    Is that the Sherlock Holmes Pub in your profile pic? I was in London back in August and ate there at my friend's behest.

  3. C.K., I absolutely agree with you again. It's unbelievable to me also that "High Noon" didn't win. Many speculate that the implicit criticism of the witch hunts scared off the Academy. This is something I've never seen in the movie myself. Its criticism of collective cowardice seems pretty generic to me and could apply to any of a number of situations. But maybe the Academy was so shaken up by the witch hunts and blacklists that they read more into the movie than was there. Even if they gave the best picture award to the less controversial "Show" as a nod to De Mille, they could at least have given the directing award to Zinneman as a consolation prize, as they have in other years (like when "Brokeback Mountain" didn't win but Ang Lee did). "Singin' in the Rain" was the best movie of the year, but it wasn't recognized as such for a long time. It's a movie whose reputation increased gradually over the years until today it's recognized as a masterpiece. At the time its genre, the musical, probably wasn't considered classy enough (like the Western) to be taken seriously. It's interesting to read of the actors who turned down Cooper's role, including Gregory Peck, who was Zinneman's first choice and would have been a more age-appropriate mate for Grace Kelly.

  4. I agree, Singin in the Rain was the best film of the year but its problem was that An American in Paris won 6 Oscars the year before including best picture. Pity, because Singin in the Rain is the better of the two. As for de Mille, eventually he'll be remembered more for Wilder's Sunset Boulevard than anything else.

  5. Yes, C.K. That is indeed the Sherlock Holmes pub in London. It appears we have many interests in common. If you interested in more of my blathering, check out my sporadic blog at:

  6. Must agree with you that, while it is hugely watchable and a lot of fun, 'Greatest Show' had no business winning the Oscar for best picture, and definitely shouldn't have beaten 'High Noon'! I do think James Stewart is great as the sad clown, but he doesn't get very much screen time. Judy

  7. I also was disappointed when I saw "High Noon" many years ago. I was really expecting an exceptional western/drama, with a huge build-up to the gunfight at the end. Sorely disappointing. The villain and his henchmen were not very menacing; the "gunfight" at the end left a lot to be desired; in the end, the film earns not much more than a B-/C+ in my book. Jose Ferrer should have won Best Actor that year. Cooper was just... well, he was Cooper. While that's pretty cool for the Movie Star magazines, I just don't think he was ever much of an actor.


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