Movie Screen, Time Machine: The 1950s
The 1950s are generally regarded as a time of domestic serenity and prosperity, a golden-age for traditional American values (or for the invention of them, depending on who you ask) and for American family life. The films of the decade tell a somewhat different story, revealing a seething cauldron of conflicting tensions, wild paranoia, and explosive passions boiling dangerously just beneath the surface. Perhaps the turmoil that struck the film industry in the 1950s helped inspire this revelation of America’s inner turmoil.
By 1949, the USSR had The Bomb, and the specter of global nuclear catastrophe began to loom ever-larger in the popular imagination. Joseph McCarthy bullied his way into the national spotlight, and cries of “better dead than red” spread rapidly in his wake. McCarthyism drove the House Un-American Activities Committee to launch an assault on Hollywood, spawning the infamous “blacklists” that devastated some of the industry’s brightest talent. But it was capitalism, not communism, that posed the greatest threat.
At the end of the 1940s, the major studios lost a decade-long anti-trust battle in the courts, and were ordered to sell off the chains of movie theaters that had previously exhibited their films exclusively. This put the studios in competition with each other for screen space, and forced them to share profits with the now-independent theater owners. And by then, the industry was already concerned that their profits were in serious jeopardy in the face of a new threat: Television. By 1954, more than half of the homes in America had a television set. And the overlap between TV owners and the moviegoing public was significant.
From the beginning, movie makers had relied on technological innovation to drive growth, and that was where they turned now, fighting fire with fire. If audiences could get filmed entertainment in their living rooms, the movies would have to give them new reasons to visit the theater: bigger films, louder films, more color, more stars, spectacle. Many of the “innovations” that emerged were mere gimmicks, and didn’t last, but some remained, most notably the ultra-wide screens of CinemaScope, which broadened the canvas of the filmmaking art.
I watched some of those “spectacle” films while I was in the ’50s, epics with large casts and large stories to match the larger screen. I watched teenage movies, a new kind of film for a new kind of audience that was suddenly emerging between childhood and maturity. I watched B-movies, western, sci-fi, adventure, and horror, as well as sexy comedy, war, courtroom drama, and just plain drama. A complex mix for a deceptively complex decade. And I’ll probably do best to leave it at that and get to the specifics:
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Jimmy Stewart is, nominally, the star of this unique little western, but the protagonist is the titular rifle: a “one in one thousand” flawless Winchester Model 1873, a firearm so popular it eventually became known as “the Gun That Won the West.” Stewart wins it in a July 4th shooting contest, but the gun is stolen by his criminal arch-enemy, Dutch Henry, and begins a long journey, passing from owner to owner and leaving a trail of death in its wake, with Stewart in vengeful pursuit. Aside from being a unique narrative device, the film is surprisingly stark in its depiction of the violence of the American frontier, making it an early example of the darker westerns and anti-westerns that began to creep onto the screen throughout the decade. The film’s success led to several more collaborations between Stewart and director Anthony Mann.
The African Queen (1951)
This film, directed by John Huston from a screenplay adaptation by James Agee, has the distinction of Humphrey Bogart’s sole Oscar-winning performance, as coarse WWI-era river boat captain Charlie Allnut. Katherine Hepburn is Rose, an iron-willed British missionary who ends up on board his boat (the African Queen) after German troops burn the small African village where she lives and conscripts the villagers. Rose persuades Charlie to journey down to a lake patrolled by a German gun-boat, which they will attempt to torpedo by rigging the prow with explosives. But first they must survive the perilous journey downriver, in a thrilling adventure shot in color largely on location.
Red Planet Mars (1952)
This ham-fisted propaganda piece is about as terrible as terrible can be by any standard other than “weird cultural artifact.” Scientists establish limited communication with Mars and are surprised to learn that the Martians are devout believers in the Christian God who have built a utopian society thanks to their faithfulness. These revelations send shock waves across the globe, and even the Soviets are caught up in a massive religious revival. But an evil ex-Nazi-turned-communist plots to undo everything with manufactured evidence that the whole thing is a hoax, and the heroic husband-and-wife team of American scientists can only stop him by blowing themselves up with him. And, oops, that’s the whole movie. Sorry. “Belated spoiler warning.” The film’s shocking final image hints strongly that God himself may be a Martian, or at least hangs out on Mars. And that’s just one of many nutty theological implications the story leaves us to ponder, but best not to think too deeply about it. The point is, God and capitalism are good, and communists will do anything to destroy them, thereby ruining things for all of us.
The Robe (1953)
Richard Burton plays Marcellus, the Roman tribune in charge of crucifying Christ, and winner of the titular robe in a dice game. The film (the first ever widescreen CinemaScope release) expands his story to multiple hours, beginning when Marcellus foolishly picks a fight with Caligula and gets himself transferred to Jerusalem, and ending much later, after Jesus’s robe provokes a crisis of conscience and an encounter with the early church. Burton is great as the prickly tribune, but less convincing as a new convert. The movie is quite good, overall, and very attentive to historical detail. If you want to see more like the mega-hit Ben-Hur of a few years later, this is the ticket. Historical fiction like the novel this was based on remains popular today, but big-screen adaptations of them are much scarcer. This movie will make you wonder why that is.
Secret of the Incas (1954)
You probably haven’t seen this movie, which stars Charlton Heston as shady adventurer Harry Steele, but I’ll bet you’ve seen the remake: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sure, this film is quite different (and inferior) in a lot of ways, but the inspiration is utterly obvious. Harrison Ford’s iconic Indiana Jones outfit is practically a facsimile of Heston’s costume in this film, and their personas are strikingly similar. Unlike Raiders, this film takes place entirely in South America, and was the first to film on-location at Machu Picchu. Although it drags in spots, there are plenty of thrills, twists, and exotic locales around every corner. It’s a must-see for Indy fans.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This is the grandfather of all great teen films, unapologetic in wearing its melodramatic, self-absorbed heart on its sleeve. The angst is so palpable, it’s practically a character in the movie. What sets it apart from earlier (terrible) youth films boils down to one thing: James Dean. He is as committed to his role as any actor I’ve ever seen, and he is truly a force of nature in it. The rest of the cast is great, too, but they’re all orienting themselves around Dean. Plus, it was Dean’s status as a rising star that prompted the studio to spring for the use of more expensive color film over black and white stock. This is a great film, and an important film. We should be showing it in high school classrooms alongside texts like The Outsiders and Catcher in the Rye.
Bus Stop (1956)
Even though she’s been dead for half a century, Marilyn Monroe is still practically a household name, one of the most famous women of the 20th century. Far fewer people have actually seen one of her movies, though, making her talents as a performer much less well-known. Bus Stop features one of her few dramatic roles, in a story that transpires on the margins of society, in the rodeo subculture of the western states. Beauregard, an obnoxiously immature and inexperienced cowboy, travels by bus from Montana to Arizona to compete in the rodeo and find a wife. He falls hard for Cherie, a singer at a popular cafe, and pursues her relentlessly, despite her lack of interest, culminating in an outright kidnapping. Matters come to a dramatic head when the bus is snowed in at a stop on the way back. Though its stage origins are obvious, this is a great little film that feels true to the lives of its characters and their region.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick followed the long-standing rule with this film: All WWI movies are also anti-war movies. The First World War is the go-to conflict for showing the brutality, tragedy, cruelty, and pointless wastefulness of war, or at least it was before Vietnam. In this movie, Kirk Douglas plays a French colonel who steps up to defend three men who are to be executed for cowardice. Sent on a suicidal attack, their entire unit turned and retreated back to the trenches. Unable to punish so many, the high command orders men to be selected at random to take the punishment. Shot in stark black and white, the movie pulls no punches in its depiction of the war, or of the heartless and foolish military bureaucracy that drove it.
The Blob (1958)
Some movies just have to be seen to be believed, and it’s hard to know where to start describing this one. Steve McQueen, a few years shy of breaking out as “The King of Cool” in the 1960s, plays a very unconvincing teenager (he was 28) struggling to warn his small town of the threat posed by a rapidly-growing mass of featureless but semi-sentient red Jell-O from outer space. It’s the weirdest of the weird in a pantheon of crazy movie monsters, oozing its way ponderously from scene to scene, devouring unsuspecting victims whole (though they pretty much have to be immobile to get caught). The real threat, if you’re paying attention, is that America’s older generation isn’t paying attention to its youth, a bit of social commentary which, perhaps, redeems the silliness a little bit.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
The AFI named this the greatest American comedy of all time, and they may just be right. Even now, it is still classic, still edgy, and still howlingly funny. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are two jazz musicians forced to dress in drag and join a women’s group in order to escape Chicago after they accidentally witness the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Also in the band is Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), a sexy chanteuse, and both men fall for her. Curtis gains the edge when he assumes a second identity as a millionaire yacht owner (pulling a hysterical Cary Grant impression) to woo Kane, while Lemmon is stuck suffering the attentions of an eccentric Joe E. Brown. Hilarity ensues, in various forms, culminating in the ultimate movie punch-line. There’s no question that this is a must-see.
Coming soon(ish), the Swinging Sixties!