Oscar’s epic year: 1956

'Giant,' '80 Days,' 'Commandments' fought for Acad Award

In 1956, moviegoers were awed by a herd of elephantine epics let loose by Hollywood, successfully persuading the public to turn off their novel but primitive black-and-white sets and head for the local cinema for a couple of hours — at least. Confronted with the boob tube’s popularity, the studios greenlit mammoth pics promising what no dingy monochromatic TV program could: larger-than-life adventures in brighter-than-life colors.

The year’s best picture Academy Award nominees — all shot in color, an Oscar first — reflected that trend. Among them were the aptly titled Texas soap opera “Giant,” the star-studded Jules Verne adaptation “Around the World in 80 Days,” Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical spectacle “The Ten Commandments,” the Civil War-era drama “Friendly Persuasion” and — the runt at just over two hours — the Rodgers & Hammerstein Siam-set musical “The King and I.”

Jumbo movies missing out on a nom were King Vidor’s “War and Peace” and John Huston’s “Moby Dick” as well as a foreign entry — Akira Kurusawa’s stunning “Seven Samurai.”

The slate marked a sea-change from recent years’ tighter dramas, including “From Here to Eternity, “On the Waterfront” and “Marty” — one of the smallest-scale best pics in Acad history and, coincidentally, the first adapted from a TV production.

“Around the World in 80 Days” — at just over three hours — wasn’t the longest of the year’s nominees (“Commandments,” at three hours, 40 minutes, holds that honor), but it certainly had the loudest cheerleader — producer Michael Todd, an arriviste from Broadway who assembled an enviable cast, persuading more than two dozen name thesps (from Buster Keaton to Frank Sinatra) to make glorified cameos.

Todd cranked up the publicity machine from the start of production through its premiere and beyond — placing trade-ad updates during production, personally instructing exhibs to treat this not as some simple movie but a Broadway-level event. He even formulated the widescreen process, Todd-AO.

With top honors from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and the Golden Globes, “World” was all but assured of winning best pic well before Oscar night, despite its eight nominations being bested by “Giant” (10) and “King” (nine).

If “80 Days” eventually won five Oscars, including pic — the ultimate validation of Todd’s aggressive showmanship — it has since become a prime example of voters being bamboozled into thinking bigger was better. This notion is enhanced by the complete lack of noms that year for John Ford’s elegiac Western “The Searchers,” arguably 1956’s best Hollywood picture.

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