Bad and the Beautiful, The (1952): Minnelli Classic Melodrama–Part Three

The film’s most celebrated scene was Georgia’s drive after visiting Shields late at night and finding him with another woman.   Barely stumbling outside, Georgia leaps into her car. Stunned and terrified, she begins to drive faster and faster down the coast highway, until she goes berserk.   Sobbing and screaming, she disregards the steering wheel and oncoming traffic, until she spins out of control and lands on the roadside, miraculously safe.
Instead of presenting the drive as a montage, cutting back and forth between Georgia’s reactions and her car, Minnelli shot the entire drive in one take, cutting only once to show Georgia’s shoe pressing on the accelerator.
Minnelli also dispenses with music, the customary device for such scenes.   The scene’s intensity derives from Lana Turner’s hysterical acting, the striking sound effects, the visual effects of the flashing lights, and the swirling camera movement, which by now has become Minnelli’s distinctive specialty.
To accomplish this effect, Minnelli attached Georgia’s car to a vast turntable on the back lot, which made it rock from side to side. Mounted on a dolly, the camera sweeps in little arcs around Lana Turner, viewing the action over her shoulder, or looking into her face.   As lights rake across the screen, Georgia becomes a blur of white mink and rhinestones.   While screaming, she closes her eyes and releases the steering wheel.  Her cries are punctuated by various sounds: The rain on the windshield, the stroke of the wiper blades, and the horns of the passing traffic.  The car spins and rocks wildly.  There’s more traffic, more horns, then soft sobs, rain, windshield wipers.
After the fade-out, there’s fade-in to a close-up of Georgia at present.   Dressed in a widow’s black, framed by a veil and a dark fur stole, she’s lit by a ring of diffused light. “I told you I’d never work for him again,” she says.
The sequence was so effective that Minnelli tried it again in Two Weeks in Another Town, when Kirk Douglas and Cyd Charisse go for a drive in a red sports car. But the 1962 version is just movieish, lacking the brilliant photography, unceasing movement, and emotional power of the original 1952 sequence.
Albert Johnson pointed out that the “auto hysteria” gains much of its strength from the context: The vaguely dizzying scene inside the mansion raises the stakes by employing “silent movie technique.” The frantic drive provides a cathartic release of tension. Georgia’s behavior is chaotic and violent, and at the same time, she is the epitome of artifice, a movie star sitting in a studio mockup of a car.
While Minnelli produced powerful emotions and sexually charged feelings, he also offered audiences the vicarious experience of being amused and awed at Hollywood’s fabricated magic.   The car scene is a manufactured play of light and sound that’s formally exciting.    The noted critic Andrew Sarris once observed that Minnelli’s art can transform “corn into caviar,” and, indeed, in this instance, it’s the unusual combination of dramatic reality and fabricated art.
Moreover, Minnelli succeeded in creating a dual response.  He makes the viewers feel toward the movie what Georgia feels toward Shields, and at the same time, he encourages the audience to take a more detached and ironic approach.
For the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, The Bad and the Beautiful is no more than a hysterical piece of Hollywood self-analysis, a film that becomes a satire in spite of itself.  As a heavy-loaded glossy melodrama, the film was a piquant example of what it purports to expose: luxurious exhibitionism.   And yet even Kael acknowledged (perhaps reluctantly) the undeniable emotional power of the whole film.
In a memo to Dore Schary, dated July 9, 1952, Houseman raised objections to the film’s title.  He wrote: “Having been lulled and flattered into acquiescing to The Bad and the Beautiful, this morning’s lead in Hedda Hopper’s column has jolted me back into manhood and common sense. Mr. Hughes’ latest pictorial melodrama at RKO is called Beautiful but Dangerous.    I take it that knocks out The Bad and the Beautiful once and for all. I admit that there is much to be said against the words bad man, because of its Western connotations.”  Houseman therefore suggested a meeting between the title department, Minnelli, and Schneee to deliver a substitute for A Tribute to a Bad Man, one that will retain the word Tribute and the irony of the original title.
There were also deliberations on whether to shoot the picture in color, as the norm was becoming, or in black-and-white. Houseman wrote to Schary on January 11, 1952: At the preliminary production meeting, I was shocked at the complete surprise with which everyone greeted my assumption that this picture was to be in color. You will recall that a strong preference for color was always indicated. Minnelli very definitely shares our feeling that color would immeasurably enhance the picture.  As precedent, may I cite A Star is Born and your own Singin’ in the Rain, both about the picture business, in which the use of color for the human story is contrasted with the black-and-white of the film they created. It is not a question of wanting a color picture just for the hell of it.  We all feel it is very much to the advantage, if not essential, to this particular picture.”
Shooting on The Bad and the Beautiful, MGM’s Production number 1581, began with an exterior of the cemetery, scene 7, then the cemetery gate, scene 8, then exterior of Jonathan’s estate, scene 10, and an exterior of a Hollywood club, scene 25.   The four scenes, each taking 1/4 of a day, were completed to Minnelli’s satisfaction.  From that day on, the shoot proceeded rather smoothly.
Previews were held after the second preview, held at the Bay Theatre in the Pacific Palisades, on September 18, 1952, Howard Strickling reported that most of the 160 responses were outstanding or excellent, and only one poor. While Kirk Douglas got the highest scores for his performance, Barry Sullivan and Gilbert Roland received the lowest.
Oscar Record
In 1952, The Bad and the Beautiful won more Oscars–five–than any other picture, including the top winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.