Once Kirk Douglas achieved star status he was quite often associated with the aggressive, self destructive, brash roles thanks to Midge Kelly of Champion, Chuck Tatum of Ace in the hole and perhaps none more exemplar than Jonathan Shields of The Bad and the Beautiful. It’s a trait that he’d be associated with for years both on and off the screen.
“If you dream, dream big.”
This first rate film comes from Producer John Houseman and director Vincente Minnelli and features seven above the title names in the credit sequence. Of the group it’s Lana Turner, Barry Sullivan and Dick Powell who will start the proceedings as they meet in Walter Pidgeon’s office to discuss whether or not they’d be willing to work just one more time with Jonathan Shields, aka Kirk Douglas. The Bad and the Beautiful is a tale of Hollywood and the behind the scenes story of one man’s rise and fall in the movie making factory of Hollywood.
Pigeon is attempting to play peace maker and confronts each of the three stars in his office about the role that Douglas played in their successful careers. This allows each actor’s story to be told via the flashback. First up is Barry Sullivan’s as a writer wanna be director. The pair are young and hungry and wind up working the “B’ unit for Pidgeon’s poverty row output. When the pair come up with a smash hit horror film, they push for a more prestigious production based on a script from Sullivan. With Kirk’s cocky, demanding attitude he gets the production off the ground but willingly knifes Sullivan in the back in favor of an established director that calls to mind Michael Curtiz or Josef von Sternberg in the form of actor Ivan Triesault. Thus ending their relationship.
This whole stanza of the film is pitch perfect and if you know your history of classic horror, then you too must have considered a Val Lewton nod here as Kirk and Barry go about designing their Cat Men film.
I would suggest the center portion of the film is what the audiences initially came to see. Top billed Lana Turner on screen opposite the upstart actor with the cleft chin. Surely they didn’t leave the theaters disappointed. Lana is the drunken bit player making a living on the fringe of Hollywood celebrity. We’ll see that like Douglas, she is the offspring of past Hollywood and is it just me or is there a parallel here to her deceased father who sure has a John Barrymore feel to him. Douglas would like nothing better than to create a star and Lana is it. It begins as a tug of war between what Kirk wants and Lana’s insecurities that turns to a playful relationship and sadly one that leaves Lana used up in the end. Kirk has created his star by the end of the second flashback but revealed his ugly inner self to both her and audiences.
This second stanza of the film is memorable in the careers of both actors thanks to the gothic like scene where Kirk unleashes his fury upon the one who loves him unconditionally. Kirk has now burned the second bridge of one who could possibly help resurrect his career if only Pidgeon can convince Lana to work with Douglas one more time.
The final third of the film is that of Dick Powell’s relationship with the now successful Douglas. Dick is a small town professor who happens to have a successful book on the market that Douglas owns the rights to. Kirk wants Powell in Hollywood to write the screenplay. Powell has little interest in the star making hot spot but his wife Gloria Grahame has other ideas.
“I’m flattered you want me and bitter you got me.” Powell tells Douglas. Kirk who can clearly see the best way to get good work from anyone working for him realizes that it’s Grahame who is holding up Powell’s productivity and he encourages a clandestine relationship between her and another of the star players of the film, Gilbert Roland. Roland who is one of the most likable presences in most any film he ever appeared in is here playing a movie star within the film and one who is catnip to the ladies. Especially the southern belle that is Miss Grahame in her Oscar winning role.
This third of the film will end tragically leaving Kirk in the cold once more, burning up another seemingly solid relationship while at the same time letting his ego get the best of him by taking the reigns of his latest production, directing it personally.
If you love Hollywood history and classic film stars, Bad and the Beautiful is a must see. It came out at a time when the backlot stories were in vogue with audiences having just seen Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve dishing out the dirty side of the goings on behind the rolling cameras. There are plenty of connections or trivia one can make here like the Val Lewton or John Barrymore comments above.
For senseless trivia that you can keep in your back pocket, how about Barbara Billingsley in here for a fleeting moment as is Madge Blake. What’s the connection? Miss Billingsley is of course doting mother to the Beaver, Jerry Mathers while Blake played Beaver’s pal Larry Mondello’s mother. Who cares right? Sometimes I just can’t help myself.
Aside from the seven leading names above the title, the wonderful character player Paul Stewart is in here as Douglas’ press agent and Leo G. Carrol as another director under Kirk’s tutelage stars as well. And did you spot Kathleen Freeman hovering in the background?
Lana may have received top billing but it’s a Kirk Douglas picture, start to finish. Minnelli couldn’t have surrounded him with a better cast of players. The film won five Oscars including, Grahame’s, screenplay, cinematography, costume design and art direction. Kirk would receive the second of his three career nominations here losing out to Gary Cooper for High Noon.
In order of billing, our seven stars.
” I drink what I want, I see who I want.”
“I’m gonna ram the name of Shields down their throats! “
“I’ve told you a hundred times. I don’t want to win awards. Give me pictures that end with a kiss and black ink on the books. “
“Yes, this is James Lee Bartlow… Paris?… Mr. Shields!… is Mr. Shields paying for this call?… All right, put him on… Hello, Jonathan? Drop dead. “
“Jonathan is more than a man: he’s an experience. And he’s habit-forming. If they could ever bottle him, he’d outsell ginger ale. ”
“James Lee, you have a very naughty mind… I’m happy to say. “
“To give truth to a performance, there’s nothing like love. ”