And the Best Picture for 1950 Is....

  • Share
  • Read Later
BETTMANN/CORBIS

Henry Stephenson, Olivia de Havilland, and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood

Those who have shuffled in confusion up and down the aisles of a video store, hoping to find an inviting movie, recognize the aesthetic mildew of what might be called Shelflessness.

Shelflessness refers to the short shelf life of movies when the moment of hyped release has passed, the process whereby a film may rapidly be drained of all the vitality and interest that made it seem so urgent when it came out. We wander the aisles, staring disconsolately at titles past their prime — video leftovers, yesterday's gardenias.

The Oscars make me speculate about the shelflessness of the winners. This is a disgraceful and ungrateful habit, akin to looking at a beautiful woman and imagining what she will look like as an old crone. Of course, the point of movies is that, unlike the rest of us, they are not supposed to turn into geezers and crones.

The idea of shelflessness may be a useful critical tool. For example, how do you rate "Gladiator" for shelflessness? A little higher than is comfortable for a Best Picture, I would say. Russell Crowe is one of those actors who is interesting to watch, but, gaudy decapitations aside, "Gladiator" advances unapologetically from cliché to cliché (the "Spartacus"-meets-"Sleepy Hollow" note, the British Romans, the decadent incestuous homoerotic touches dragged in from "Spartacus," "Quo Vadis" and elsewhere) and on the video shelf, is never going to be more than routine escapist entertainment defaulted to when you can't find something else. Same with "Titanic" two years ago. The winner this year should have been "Traffic."

The Oscar show was more pleasant than usual, thanks to Steve Martin, who managed to take some of the usual flash and venal smirk off the evening. Maybe everyone was worried sober by the market. The proceedings and most of the clothes were even unexpectedly dignified. The cameramen, who must have worked for Ed Sullivan in the days of Elvis, were forbidden to show Jennifer Lopez below the collarbone. Stephen Soderbergh, Best Director (for "Traffic") gave a feeling and self-effacing speech about creativity ("the world would be intolerable without art"). Bob Dylan materialized from Australia, geezer indeed, with a fascinatingly cunning, wolfish look in his pale gray eye, like Vincent Price when he's up to something.

I have made a concerted study of movies with great shelf life. For several weeks, my criterion for renting a movie has been that it must have been made at least 50 years ago. I sometimes think that the awarding of Oscars should be delayed for 50 years, just to make sure a movie's got legs.

I offer a provisional list, if not Oscar-worthy, at least engagingly shelfish. I have been in the mood for spirited stuff, which may explain the choices below. Some thoughts:

  • "The Scarlet Pimpernel," which we watched over the weekend. Leslie Howard is wonderful, especially in the fop scenes when he says things like "Damn me!" and "Odds fish!" as he advises the Prince of Wales about the ruffles on his sleeve.

  • "Captain Blood," with the pristine, unblemished Erroll Flynn in his first movie, radiant, animated by pure delight — Flynn before Hollywood and the bottle got him. Olivia DeHavilland: "You speak treason!" Flynn, with a flash of charm: "I hope I'm not obscure."

  • "Northwest Mounted Police," with Gary Cooper, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Preston and an amazingly unlikely Paulette Goddard as a feral vixen of the north woods.

  • "Unconquered." Gary Cooper doing the old over-the-falls-in-a-canoe-but-grab-the-branch-halfway-down routine. Fresh as a daisy.

  • "Drums." An oddment from Alexander Korda in the late '30s; the Raj and Great Game, with Sabu truckling to The Man and, as so often in films of the era, an astonishingly blithe and racist narrative wherein all enemies of the British colonials are mad cult leaders with snake pits and strange gods. The mad cult leaders are played by scrawny Jewish character actors darkened with shoe polish.

  • "Easy Living," with Jean Arthur, Ray Milland and Edward Arnold. Magnificent Depression fantasy that begins with a rich banker sailing his wife's sable coat off the penthouse roof. It lands on Jean Arthur as she rides to work on the upper deck of a New York bus. If the movie were made in modern times, it would be.... "Pretty Woman," wherein, with our fatal literal-mindedness, we turned the poor girl in the Cinderella story into a prostitute. She was Julia Roberts, it is true, but a prostitute all the same.

    In "Easy Living," the girl kept her sweetness and sexual privacy. Like Jennifer Lopez at the Oscars, she was seen only from the collarbone up, so to speak, and the rest was left to imagination.

    Golden Oldies: What movies do you think have the shelf life Lance Morrow describes? We want to hear from you. Tell us your nominations, and why.

  •