Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Oscar's Most Beautifully Unusual Win

A film is defined as feature-length if it has a running time of 40 minutes or longer.  That is according to the Motion Picture Academy, and both the American and British Film Institutes.

In 1956 a fanciful children's film with a running time of only 34 minutes was imported from France and released on U.S. screens.  It told a simple story of a 5-year-old boy exploring the streets of Paris with his new friend, having adventures, encountering prejudice, enduring tragedy, and achieving ultimate freedom. 

The film featured beautiful photography of its Parisian locations (many of which no longer exist due to decay and demolition). It had a stirring and lovely musical score.  Not a silent film, it had ambient location sound.

It had no dialog.  And it won the 1956 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Of course, I am talking about Albert Lamorisse's "The Red Balloon."

TCM featured this classic film as part of its "31 Days of Oscar". I knew I had my topic for tonight.

Never before, nor since, has a short subject, or a film without dialog, won an Oscar for Screenplay.  What was it about this movie that inspired such enthusiasm for its writing? 

I tried to find a copy of the screenplay (written, I would assume, in French) and was not successful.  I would expect that it reads soaringly, like a philosophical children's story.

In spite of not having dialog, the film tells a simple but symbolic story about coming of age, about kindness given (and returned), and about mindless hate.  It ends in an image of such benevolence and poetry that I can hardly describe why it affected me so powerfully.

"The Red Balloon" has much action and incident, and it really moves.  The film requires complex transitions between scenes, and some incredibly difficult technical challenges: that balloon is not a computer-generated image.  All of that complexity had to be conceived first and foremost on the page.

In the Screenplay category that year, "The Red Balloon" triumphed over the following nominated films: "The Bold and the Brave" (a WWII battle drama); "Julie" (a thriller starring Doris Day); "The Ladykillers" (an Ealing comedy with Alec Guinness); and "La Strada" (the classic circus tale by Federico Fellini).  An uneven slate to be sure;  but "The Red Balloon" was so charming, so moving and unforgettable, that Oscar had to recognize it.

In the course of the film, little Albert rescues the Red Balloon from where it is tied to a lamp post.  Soon the Balloon follows the boy, exhibiting a "mind" of its own and the mischief of a little dog.  They bond, as they go to Albert's home (the Red Balloon waits, floating loyally, outside the boy's balcony), ride the streetcar "together", meet a little girl with a romantic Blue Balloon, get in trouble at school, get thrown out of a church, and encounter a cruel mob of boys with slingshots. 

What follows is an incredible extended shot, as heartbreaking as the dying swan; and a final, extraordinary image that reduced me to sobs of joy and regret. 

For a long time, I was so mixed in my emotions by the film's finale, that I was not entirely sure what caused this reaction.  I concluded that it was a deep sadness at the end of innocence, the loss of a faithful friend, and the escape from the world of cruelty to that of beauty and grace.  It is the same primal emotion I feel at "The Yearling", or even "Black Swan".

What an extraordinary final image.

I can't recommend this more. 

For those who have seen "The Red Balloon", did the climactic flight seem as profound to you?  

What, in your view, is the most unusual Oscar victory ever?


  1. I meant to watch that last night. Argh!

  2. I will always be grateful to the French teacher who showed us this in high school. It's definitely *the* most unusual Oscar victory I can think of. I will have to do some research and return ;)

  3. Walter, I am grateful to your French teacher too! I am looking forward to your opinion as to other unusual Oscar wins.

    Eric, I hope you can get your hands on this beautiful little film.