For years, I taught a film course at Holy Ghost Prep. Of course I bought film books. It’s amazing but when I took several film courses at Boston College in the 1960s, there were few film books available. A decade later, film was art, taught in colleges, scholarship and film books proliferated. But now it’s time to sell my film book collection. But as I did with my photography collection, I will reread before I sell.
“American Cinema: 1950s; themes and variations,” edited by Murray Pomerance was the the first book I reread. There is a chapter for each decade, with a historical overview, and a short review of major films, followed by analysis of films that represent the decade.
As I read, I list films on Netflix — some I’ve never seen; some I think I should see again. Films of the 50s bridge the traditional Hollywood studio films of the 1940s with the more open 1960s. Male roles were changing — Montgomery Cliff, Marlon Brando, and James Dean were not your typical Hollywood male star. They were hard but also soft; they were nonconformists. Women ranged from Doris Day to Marilyn Monroe. Movies competed with television, so widescreen processes like CinemaScope and VistaVision were developed. There was more location shootings; and rear projection brought locations into the studio. The films and the industry were poised for change.
Films then as now were influenced by current events like the growing black-white tensions of the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communism crusade, HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings that blacklisted movie people — all found a way into the movies. As mentioned above, there was no film scholarship and criticism — university programs, film journals, film as art would come in the 1960s. Filmmakers, like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawkes, Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray were not lionized as film auteurs. Not yet. The Hollywood Studio star system was still cranking out “movies.” The Production Code continued to put limits on what could be shown.
“American Cinema of the 1950s” is a collection of essays. Representative of film scholarship some of the writing is overly academic, too pedantic for me. But it’s interesting to review the films made during the decade. From 1950, “All About Eve,” “Harvey'” and “King Soloman’s Mines” caught my attention. “Sunset Blvd” a Hollywood story demands attention.
In 1951 there was “An American in Paris” (Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing and searching for love in post-war Paris. We recently saw the play produced at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The DVD is currently in the mail from Netflix. “A Place in the Sun” (Montgomery Cliff and Elizabeth Taylor) and “A Streetcar Names Desire” (Brando, masculine issues, Production Code) are both on my list to view again. The year also had Bogart and Hepburn in “African Queen.” The only semester I lived in a campus dorm room at Boston College, I shared it with a Bogart fan. We watched all Bogart’s through the night.
The classic Gary Cooper western, “High Noon” was made in 1952. Who can forget the shoot out. The big movie in 1953 was “From Here to Eternity.” WWII, Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, intrigue, love and passio, the classic Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster beach scene. Also in ’53 was “Roman Holiday.” It was written by Dalton Trumbo (on the blacklist) so an Oscar was given to Ian McLellan Hunter. Trumbo was finally awarded an Oscar in 1993. “Trumbo” (2015) tells the story.
The ground breaking movie in 1954 was Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront.” Dockworker Terry Malloy (Brando) was an up and coming boxer. But Mob-union Dock boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) has Terry throw a fight, and then tries to get him to not testify about Friendly’s control of the waterfront and his responsibility for the death of a longshoreman. The dead man’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and a local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), convince Terry to testify against the Mob. Terry squeals, he is a “stool pigeon.” This is the 1950s, Kazan had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). And Kazan had named names. Critics have written many pages about “On the Waterfront,” Terry, Kazan, and HUAC — you can decide, front page news and how it influenced a film story.
“Marty” (1955) was a romantic drama I remember liking. Marty (Ernest Borgnine) was a mother’s boy, socially awkward, Bronx butcher who falls for Clara (Betsy Blair) at the Stardust ballroom. Marty is forced to chose between Clara and a family that wants to keep him for themselves. It’s Hollywood, Marty chooses Clara. I remember being touched by this movie which won several academy awards. Probably saw it on television.
I did see “Around the World in 80 Days”(1956) in the Bristol Theatre on Radcliffe street. Around the same time, as a 9 years old, I would have been reading Jules Verne novels. Here was one on the big screen — Technicolor, Todd-AO 70 mm cinematography. Hollywood was fighting TV for an audience.
Another feel good film in 1956 was “The King and I.” An adaptation of a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, but also a real story. Anna Loenowens (Deborah Kerr) travels to Siam (Thailand) to teach the children (dozens of them) of King Mongkut (Yul Brynner). The King was determined to westernize his country, but Anna was a bit too liberated, too much. They frequently clashed but of course developed a loving relationship. In real life and in the film it was a love not to be fulfilled. The King would die and Anna would return to England. Last month we saw, “The King and I” at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. It was a great production but I knew the strutting, majestic, arrogance, of Yul Brynner as the King could not be matched. So I watched the movie. Somewhere we have a vinyl recording of the original cast — I need to find it. The music has been swirling in my mind — “You Whistle a Happy Tune,” “My Lord, My Master,” ” Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “I have Dreamed,” “Shall We Dance, “and “Something Wonderful,”
1956 also brought us George Stevens’s “Giant.” Nick Benedict (Rock Hudson) — the past — tangles with Jett Rink (James Dean) — the future — over Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) and the Benedict family fortune and legacy. This is not typical Hollywood like “The King and I.”
They are whistling. It’s a prisioner of war camp. 1957. It’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” It’s British and American pride, a spirit to win. Another film of the period that I saw in the theatre; another academy best picture. A tune and film you can’t forget.
1958 saw “Gigi” and “The Defiant Ones.” I have a good memory of “Gigi” directed by Vincent Minnelli. Paris, love, a bit of intrigue, Lerner & Loewe music, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” — and then Louis Jourdan, Leslie Caron and the hard to forget Maurice Chevalier. It was another Academy winner for best picture and considered by some to be MGMs last great musical. You can read the plot summary on line.
The same year brought us Stanley Kubrick’s “The Defiant Ones.” It’s the 1950s, in the South. Members of a chain gang escape when their truck crashes. John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) are chained together; Jackson is white, Cullen is black. Their distrust and hate turns to friendship as they flee across the country. Ten years later Kramer would direct Poitier and Katherine Hepburn in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Black-White friendship, interracial marriage, films were exploring new territory.
William Wyler’s “Ben Hur” with Carlton Heston was MGMs block buster for the year. I only saw it once in the theatre but scenes are etched in my memory. Who could forget the chariot races? Smaller scale but an important story was George Steven’s “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This may have been my first introduction to the Holocaust. I would see the movie and read the book. And then in contrast there was “Pillow Talk,” a cute romantic comedy with Rock Hudson (didn’t know he was gay then) and Doris Day. I didn’t like either Hudson or Day, would have thought the film silly which it was. But I can enjoy it today in its historical context.
I added about 15 movies from the decade to my Netflix account. Some I’ve seen; others will be a new experience. The first to arrive was “King Solomon’s Mines.” I thought I saw it but had no memory as I watched. It was adapted from a book by Henry Rider Haggard. At times it looked like a National Geographic special — amazing photography of the African landscape, safari wildlife, tribal villages and native dances. Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) hires an experienced, maybe legendary hunter and guide, Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) to find her brother lost in the African interior while searching fot a diamond mine.
Skeptical of a journey with a woman into unfamiliar territory, inhabitated by a savage tribe, Allan agrees because of a huge salary that will help him send his son to school in England. They endure all the hardships Africa can offer, wild animals, snakes, deserts and mountains, and of course, unfriendly natives. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?” Their bearers desert them; they fall in love. They met a wandering Watusi who turns out to be a King traveling to reclaim his homeland. Close to the mines they meet a renegade Englishman, living with a canabalistic tribe. Shades of Brando’s Kurtz in the jungles of Vietnam, check out “Apocalypse Now (1979). They escape and find the tribe, diamonds, the mine, and skeleton of Curtis, but briefly they are trapped in the mine. Think Indiana Jones and ” Raiders of the Lost Ark”(1981). I’m pretty certain Spielberg was familiar with “King Solomon’s Mines.” King Umbopa regains control of the tribe and helps our explorers on the road home. But did they get to take some diamonds, get married, settle down, or keep exploring?
Lot of great films from the 1950s; lots of film books to reread. It’s a good thing I’m retired.
“From Here to Eternity,” 1953