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Tag Archives: 23rd Academy Awards

King Solomon’s Mines (Nov. 9, 1950)

King Solomon's Mines
King Solomon’s Mines (1950)
Directed by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

King Solomon’s Mines was the first Hollywood production to be filmed in Africa since the disastrous Trader Horn in 1931.

Trader Horn made a tidy profit at the box office, but the actual shooting was fraught with danger, disease, and even death. The leading lady, Edwina Booth, contracted a serious illness that forced her to retire from acting, and she sued MGM, who settled with her out of court.

So MGM was naturally hesitant to mount another massive production shot on location in Africa, but King Solomon’s Mines was a gamble that paid off. Not only is it a beautifully shot, well-acted, and exciting film, it was a massive financial success, and was MGM’s most popular release of 1950.

Stewart Granger

It’s been awhile since I’ve read H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel, King Solomon’s Mines, but this film version felt very different to me from its source material, and mostly in ways that I liked.

The most obvious change from the novel is the gender switch of one of the main characters to allow for a female lead. In the novel, a safari leader named Allan Quatermain is hired by a British aristocrat, Sir Henry Curtis, who wishes to find his brother who went missing while searching for the mythical treasure of King Solomon in uncharted regions of southern Africa.

The film version instead features a character named Elizabeth Curtis, whose husband is missing. She’s played by the red-haired Scottish actress Deborah Kerr.

Allan Quatermain is played by the English actor Stewart Granger. The role was originally offered to Errol Flynn, but he balked at the rigorous location shooting and turned it down in favor of appearing in Kim (1950), an adaptation of the novel by Rudyard Kipling. That film was shot in India, but the actors didn’t have to rough it, and stayed in a resort, where presumably Flynn could continue drinking himself to death in comfortable surroundings.

Meeting Siriaque

The gender switch is an obvious change, but it’s the overall tone of the film that I thought was the biggest shift from Haggard’s novel. The novel is a rousing Victorian adventure story, while the film is much more of a travelogue. In fact, one of the most common complaints about King Solomon’s Mines from modern viewers is that it’s “boring,” and has very little of the type of action they expect from an adventure story.

Which version you prefer depends upon your personal taste, but I personally loved this film. After so many years of “Africa” in Hollywood films being depicted as a jungle set on a sound stage, seeing the actual landscapes of Uganda, Kenya, and the Congo was a revelation. This is a stunningly beautiful film, and Robert L. Surtees’s Oscar for best color cinematography was well-deserved.

King Solomon’s Mines premiered on November 9, 1950, in New York, and went into wide release on November 24.

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Destination Moon (June 27, 1950)

Destination Moon
Destination Moon (1950)
Directed by Irving Pichel
United Artists

The classic era of Hollywood science fiction kicked off with Rocketship X-M (1950), but it wasn’t meant to be that way.

Producer George Pal’s Destination Moon was a lavish Technicolor production two years in the making that endeavored to depict space travel as realistically as possible. Rocketship X-M was a quick cash-in that was shot in less than three weeks with a budget of less than $100,000, which is how it was able to beat Destination Moon into theaters by about a month.

As a science fiction fan, I can’t help but be impressed by Destination Moon. Its dedication to scientific accuracy is admirable, and for 1950, its special effects are top-notch. On the other hand, as a fan of compelling drama, I have to admit that Rocketship X-M has a more engaging script, better actors, and is more fun to watch.

This is the problem with most “hard sci-fi,” which Destination Moon most definitely is. The ideas are fascinating, but the presentation is pretty dry.

The director of Destination Moon, Irving Pichel, understood this, which is perhaps why the second reel of the movie depicts a group of men watching a film strip that explains space travel in a fun and funny way with our old friend Woody Woodpecker.

Woody Woodpecker

Unfortunately, other attempts to inject fun into the film, like a last-minute replacement on the crew named Joe (Dick Wesson), who’s from Brooklyn and provides comic relief by pronouncing the word “work” as “woik,” aren’t as successful.

Destination Moon is based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which I read a few years ago. The basic idea of a mission to the moon carried out by a small crew — as well as a general commitment to scientific accuracy — is retained in the film version, but little else is. Heinlein’s novel was the story of a trio of teenaged boys reaching the moon with the help of their uncle. Once on the moon, they thwart a plot by Germans intent on establishing a Fourth Reich with the moon as their base.

The film version dispenses with the “boys’ adventure” aspect of Heinlein’s novel, as well as the idea of an enemy force already present on the moon. (Although a character in the film does state that the U.S. must reach the moon before a foreign nation is able to establish a missile base there.)

These storytelling decisions all makes sense, since Destination Moon was intended to be a realistic film.

Spacewalk

Even though Destination Moon doesn’t have the same dramatic verve as Rocketship X-M, and even though some of its science is dated, it’s still a tremendously successful science-fiction film, and holds up well today, provided you’re a “serious” sci-fi fan.

Sure, some of the effects look hokey today, but it’s not for nothing that the film won an Academy Award for best visual effects.

Caged (May 19, 1950)

CagedCaged (1950)
Directed by John Cromwell
Warner Bros.

“Pile out, you tramps. It’s the end of the line.”

With those words we are plunged into the dark, unforgiving world of Caged, a masterpiece of the women-in-prison genre from director John Cromwell.

Caged is a tough, tragic, and intelligent film; it’s hell and gone from the cheap, lurid flicks that would define the women-in-prison genre during the exploitation heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.

Not only is Caged a great drama, it’s also a feminist film. Some of the prisoners in Caged are victims of abusive husbands, many of them were forced into a life of crime by their husbands or boyfriends, and all of them are subject to a justice system run by men. Even the woman with the most power in the film, the reform-minded warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), has to answer to the governor and his officious underlings.

Like most prison movies, Caged focuses on a first-time offender, or “fish,” who’s new behind bars and has to learn the ropes. Her name is Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), and she’s serving time for driving the getaway car for her young husband, who was killed during the commission of a robbery that netted a mere $40. “Five bucks less and it wouldn’t be a felony,” says the woman in the prison office who types up Marie Allen’s intake forms. (The arbitrary and sometimes brutally unfair nature of the criminal justice system is a theme that runs through the film.)

Eleanor Parker

Caged wasn’t the first movie to feature scenes in a women’s prison, but as far as I can tell, it was the first women-in-prison film to take place pretty much completely behind bars.

There were movies in the pre-code 1930s that featured scenes behind bars in women’s prisons. And about a year before Caged was released, Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) proudly boasted that its prison sequences were filmed in a real women’s correctional facility. But the prison sequences in The Story of Molly X were a relatively small part of the whole film, and were the kind of violent and lurid exploitation most people normally think of when they hear the words “women in prison.”

Caged, on the other hand, is a great film with great performances. It’s a tragic story about a young woman who barely needed rehabilitation in the first place, and yet has everything systemically taken from her until she is a hardened criminal with nothing but criminality to look forward to when she’s released.

There are plenty of filmed women-in-prison stories that I’ve enjoyed, but I honestly can’t think of a smarter or more affecting one than Caged until the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black came around in 2013. However, I haven’t yet seen So Young So Bad, which was released in theaters one day after Caged. It’s the next film I’ll review, and we’ll see how it stacks up.

Caged will be shown on TCM Friday, February 20, 2015, at 1:30 PM (ET).