'The Big Lift' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m. , KCET brings you the 1950 film "The Big Lift," a war drama starring Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas as two Air Force sergeants during the 1948 Berlin Airlift. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received the original "The Big Lift" back on Apr. 26, 1950.

On-location shooting for "The Big Lift" began in occupied Berlin in 1949, just as airlift operations were winding down. For the past year, the Soviet Union had blocked all the roads and railways used to bring supplies from Allied-controlled West Germany into Allied-controlled West Berlin, in order to get command of resources throughout the city. The U.S. Air Force, the U.K. Royal Air Force and aircrews from other Allied nations successfully fought these efforts by flying in food and fuel in more than 200,000 flights that year. Director George Seaton and his film crew arrived in Berlin just after the Soviets lifted the blockade. For a better understanding, take a look at these maps of Germany and Berlin:

Germany divided, the only three permissible air corridors into Berlin. (Photo: Wikipedia, via Creative Commons)
Sectors of divided Berlin. (Photo: Wikipedia, via Creative Commons)

This drama boasts dashes of documentary treatment. All military roles -- except those played by Clift and Douglas -- were played by actual soldiers and airmen. The crew captured real footage of airlift takeoffs and landings and incorporated newsreel footage of airlift activity into the film. The backdrop is real-life Berlin, in shambles from the air raids of World War II and split by Germany's defeat. Check out this British footage of the airlift efforts:

While Sergeant Danny McCullough's (Clift) romantic escapades through the city with a woman he believes to be a German war widow shed some light into the geopolitics of postwar Berlin, "The Big Lift" is mostly a love story. This likely has much to do with its writer-director, whose previous credits included the musical comedy "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim" and Christmas favorite "Miracle on 34th Street." Apparently of the opinion that Seaton was not the right man for this movie, veteran New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther panned Seaton's handling of the airlift story in a review one day after the film's release.

Montgomery Clift was the talk of the town in Hollywood at the time "The Big Lift" first hit theaters. He'd earned an Academy Award nomination for his role in 1948's "The Search" and starred beside John Wayne in "Red River" that same year. Billy Wilder had cast him as the leading man in 1950's "Sunset Boulevard," but he withdrew to do "The Big Lift" instead. Either in spite of or because of his newfound status as a box office draw, Clift had earned a reputation for being smug and difficult to work with. In fact, it's noted in Patricia Bosworth's 1978 biography of Clift that while filming "The Big Lift," Douglas told the director that John Wayne had warned him that Clift was "a little shit." During their first scenes together, Clift and Douglas got into a tiff and didn't speak off-camera for the rest of the production. This account comes from a Clift biographer, but things appear cordial enough in the photo below."

Douglas gives a memorable performance as an ex-P.O.W. who initially hates all Germans, but grows to appreciate some -- only those that can recognize the virtues of democracy, capitalism and the American way of life.

Incidentally, "The Big Lift" earned one major honor: a nomination at the 1951 Golden Globes for "Best Film Promoting International Understanding." The award has since been retired.

Take a Closer Look Back

"The Big Lift" was released on Apr. 26, 1950, two months before the start of the Korean War -- a time when post-World War II tensions between western nations and the Soviet Union had given way to the Truman Doctrine and the onset of The Cold War. Fear of communism was heating up on the home front, especially in Hollywood. The "Hollywood Ten", those with alleged communist ties who had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to answer questions, were each serving a year in prison. (Here is what one of the ten, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, wrote about the Christmas he spent in prison that year, from the L.A. Times' Daily Mirror. It's both depressing and funny. If you're familiar with Trumbo's writing, that shouldn't be surprising.)

This documentary short, released in 1950, provides a closer look at the "Hollywood Ten." Its director, John Berry, was blacklisted upon the film's release.

Take a look at these circa 1950 photos that highlight the second "red scare" in Los Angeles.

August 1, 1950 -- Councilman Edward R. Roybal speaking about bill to require Communists to register with police in Los Angeles, Calif., 1950, Los Angeles Daily News via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive (Photo: Los Angeles Daily News, via the Los Angeles Times archives)
Atom bomb drill at school in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo: Los Angeles Daily News, via Los Angeles Times Photographic archive)
October 28, 1948 -- Demonstrators picketing Federal Building, one sign reading "Pay Checks Not Loyalty Checks" in protest over investigation of Communism in Los Angeles. (Photo: Los Angeles Daily News, via the Los Angeles Times archive)
Dorothy Healey, long-time activist in the Communist Party USA, at microphone during city council debate on requiring Communists to register (Photo: Los Angeles Daily News, via the Los Angeles Times archive)

Indeed, Americans' fear toward and suspicion of communism was inescapable during the week "The Big Lift" hit theaters. The Los Angeles Times' front-page stories included former President Hoover's call for the removal of communist countries from the United Nations on grounds that they represented a "creeping Red imperialism," a missing witness in a Senate inquiry on alleged communism in the State Department and Bank of America president L.M. Giannini's resignation from the University of California board of regents after the group voted not to require employees to sign a non-communist oath.

However, red wasn't the only color in the new. In L.A., another major watchword was white. Why? It snowed here in April 1950. Sure, it was only .2 of an inch, but by Angeleno standards, that's a blizzard. Check out this photo of a semi-snowcapped Silverlake.


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