The Rear View Mirror: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

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In this delicious satire by Vincente Minelli, a producer reminiscent of a rather more charming David O. Selznick backstabs his way to the top, only to be shunned by those he betrayed along the way. Equally obsessed with proving himself after his father is ruined, Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) secures a job as a line producer by intentionally losing a game of poker to Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) and offering to work off the debt. His friend and collaborator Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) initially profits from the ruse, as they go on to produce B-movies together, but he is betrayed when the project closest to his heart is taken from him.

When Shields meets the alcoholic bit-part actress Georgia (Lana Turner), he convinces her – and everyone else – he will make her a star. He uses her infatuation with him in order to build her up, only to dump her when she finally has a hit to her (or rather his) name.

An author in the professorial mode, James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), lands in Shields’ clutches when the rights to a bestseller he wrote are purchased by the producer, and his wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame) cajoles him into accepting a writing assignment. In order to rid the author of all distractions, Shields arranges for Rosemary to be swanned around by his star actor Gaucho (Gilbert Roland), with dire consequences.

Despite, or possibly partly because of, Shields’ machinations the three characters manage to succeed in their own right. But then Shields asks them to help him make a film he plans to produce…

Even for casual admirers of Old Hollywood, there is plenty to enjoy in this film. A much-referenced scene in which the brilliant Val Lewton and his smash hit B-film Cat People (1942) is referred to, for example (though Lewton famously resisted the company men, and took great risks for his own people by contrast). Or when Elaine Stewart’s Lila quips, after having been chided that Shields is a great man: “Ha ha. There are no great men, buster. There’s only men.” Grahame shows comic chops as the prototypical Southern Belle blabbermouth, and Douglas is deliciously lupine.

That the film remains firmly on the surface level and never really delves into the motivations of Shields, or the true machinations of Old Hollywood, is not a big handicap. It has a lot of fun with its faux biographical plot, its Easter eggs and its protagonist. And it is well worth watching for that reason alone.

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The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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