Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Dead End," and William Wyler's Way with Actors

This past weekend I sat down to watch William Wyler's "Dead End" knowing little more than it was one of Oscar's 1937 Best Picture nominees, and therefore required viewing. The film, which takes place over the course of one night, concerns the struggle between the upper and lower classes encased within an inner-city neighbourhood. Gangsters, prostitutes, and teenage delinquents prop up bureaucrats in healthily-detached luxurious apartments, as the two social factions clash, instigating the intervention of local police.

The charms of "Dead End" largely counter its wan misadventures: the rabble of streetwise teenagers and their guardian-of-sorts (a delectable Sylvia Sidney) furrowing a way-of-life for themselves amidst a society that's clearly neglecting them; the way Humphrey Bogart's gangster-character roams around the tenements staking his claim for the place, knowing that he's bigger, better, and worthy of bigger enemies than he entertains. These people are a small-scale impression of how civilisation works, and an undoubted part of the social commentary Wyler et. al are aiming to voice.

I'm not convinced that the film really commits enough to dramatising the social impact (an open-ended resolution for one of the characters emerges as neither here nor there), and it doesn't seem particularly concerned with delving into the motivations of the upper classes in this period either. From many of the films in the Thirties (including "Dead End") you can sense a tangible contempt of high society, but when you stack this project up against more comedic enterprises like "My Man Godfrey" and "Holiday" it doesn't quite cut it. Satire most likely gleaned better results because of the production code: it's harder to get around taboo issues when you're working harder to make a point?

Regardless of the merits and faults of the film I was surprised to learn that, as well as a Best Picture nomination, Claire Trevor managed to get a mention in the Best Supporting Actress category. It was the first of three for Trevor: she followed it up with a winning performance as an alcoholic in "Key Largo" (which also starred Humphrey Bogart), and a final nod in 1954 for William Wellman's "The High and the Mighty." The reward in "Dead End" came for playing a hooker and former love interest of Bogie's, who manages to coax some money from him in her extremely short amount of screen time. Suffice to say, I'm not really on board with this Academy pick, but her flailing dramatics in "Key Largo" - as well as the film itself - are definitely worth a look.

All of this talk of nominations led me to an informative article about William Wyler's penchant for getting Actors nominated for Oscars. Between 1936 and 1968 this happened 36 times, which is the most accumulated by any director by a comfortable margin (Elia Kazan takes runner-up with 25). He has also directed the most acting winners with 13. 

Those are:

Walter Brennan (for "Come and Get It" (1936) (co-directed with Howard Hawks)
Bette Davis (for "Jezebel" (1938))
Faye Bainter (for "Jezebel" (1938))
Walter Brennan (for "The Westerner" (1940))
Greer Garson (for "Mrs. Miniver" (1942))
Teresa Wright (for "Mrs. Miniver" (1942))
Fredric March (for "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946))
Harold Russell (for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946))
Olivia de Havilland (for "The Heiress" (1949))
Audrey Hepburn (for "Roman Holiday" (1953))
Burl Ives (for "The Big Country" (1958))
Charlton Heston (for "Ben-Hur" (1959))
Hugh Griffith (for "Ben-Hur" (1959))
Barbra Streisand (for "Funny Girl" (1968))

    I've seen all but 5 of the 36 (Brennan x2, Ives, Granville, Perkins). Save for Davis, Garson, and Streisand I'm not particularly impressed with many of these, but if you look at the 36 overall, it's a pretty good bunch. Egregious omissions would have to include Ruth Chatterton in "Dodsworth" (who I wrote about a while back) and Terrence Stamp in "The Collector". Both can feel aggrieved considering their co-stars were also nominated. 

    How many have you seen, and which are the best?

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