Best of the Decades: 1950s

Paranoia swept through America as the terrible fear of communism brought about the McCarthy era, a nightmare in which a US senator, Joseph McCarthy somehow wielded the power to ruin the lives of hard-working Americans who might have attended a communist meeting or two years before, usually in curiosity to find out what it was all about. It was guilt by accusation and guilt by association and many actors, directors, and writers had their careers destroyed by this man, who routinely ruined lives of artists across the United States. It would take the courage of producers such as Kirk Douglas to break the Black List, hiring writers on it, who for years had been forced to write under another name. The nation watched, fascinated as McCarthy was brought down live on television by the words, “Have you no decency sir”.

Ike was President of the United States and ushered in a time of great prosperity, allowing him to be among the more beloved leaders, though oddly cool and distanced from the people.

Marlon Brando’s emergence changed everything about American acting, and in the years to follow one can see established actors such as John Wayne and Charlton Heston striving to be more realistic in their work. The method was all about the truth, embraced by some actors, ridiculed by others, but said to be secretly practiced by most.

Television became the enemy, yet to this day Hollywood has never figured the answer to fighting the small screen, which is of course…just make better movies. INstead of fighting the one-eyed monster with better films they tried gimmicks such as 3-D, something silly called Smell-O-Vision, and bigger screens thereby creating a need for bigger films, not better, just bigger.

Westerns were the single most popular genre through the fifties, out-producing all others by a six to one ratio, with no less than twenty on TV for prime time, with John Wayne dominating the box office as top star for the fifties. Others genres to do well were musicals, as Hollywood began adapting Broadway musicals to the screen with terrific results.

And the studios realized they had a market untapped, the teen market. So films began being made to reach this particular audience, from the AIP films such as I Was a Teenage Werewollf (1957) through to the Elvis Presley musicals, and finally the Disney live action pictures, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and the classic boy and his dog tear-jerker Old Yeller (1957).

1. THE SEARCHERS (1956)…John Ford’s masterpiece, the finest performance of John Wayne’s career, and a story that broke traditional western standards is The Searchers (1956) dismissed in the year of its release as nothing more than a good western. Greatness would follow. Critics of the time believed it was something special, but it would not be until the sixties that audiences and critics would truly embrace the film, recognizing how Wayne played type, how the film became the first psychotic western. Wayne was indeed cast against type as a hate filled, racist warrior, who goes off on a search to find his kidnapped nieces after the slaughter of his brothers’ family by Indians in a murder raid. For years he searches, finding one, raped and murdered, and finally after many years comes face to face with the other, alive but wife to an Indian. By this time he has no intention of taking her home because she had been defiled by the Indians, instead he was going to kill her. But the one thing he did not count on was finding his own humanity on the search and sweeping her into his arms he whispers to her, “let’s go home Debbie”. Like the Indians he so hates, he is unable to ever be a part of a society and is forever forced to wander, perhaps penance for his crimes. Wayne gives a towering performance in the film brilliantly directed by Ford, set against the stunning backdrop of Monument Valley. The greatest western ever made.

2. ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)…Elia Kazan was gifted in working with actors, he seemed to be able to bring out the very best in them, making them comfortable enough to take chances in their work, both on film and on stage. On the Waterfront (1954) is his masterpiece and one of the greatest performance of Brando’s career. As ex-boxer Terry Malloy he enjoys a cushy job on the docks because his brother is a lawyer to the Mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). However when Terry is used in a murder without knowing he begins to think about his life and the rights and wrongs he has seen, recognizing that his brother has betrayed him in the past, and Friendly has used him for money and gain. Should he give the police what they want and betray his friends? Sound familiar? Many believe Kazan made the film to explain his side of naming names to McCarthy. Maybe, maybe not. What I see when I see the film is some of the finest acting in any American film of the time. Brando is sublime, Cobb terrifying, Karl Malden brilliant, Rod Steiger superb, and Eva Marie Saint perfect. That scene in the taxi cab gets better with each viewing, and let this be a text-book lesson in stunning cinematography to anyone against black and white.

3. SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)…Billy Wilder was fearless. When he set out to make this macabre study of silent screen star Norma Desmond he had the guts to ask Gloria Swanson, herself a faded silent screen star, her career finished, yet believing she had the performance in her.  Swanson read the script and knew at once it was the greatest role of her career, and she responded with the performance of several lifetimes, as the deranged star, she is astonishing. When a young writer portrayed by William Holden hides on her property from creditors, she takes him into her home and bed, commissioning a screenplay from him that will be her comeback, believing she can convince no less than Cecil B. Demille to direct the picture. Lost in the past, haunted by who she was and what she has become, Desmond is in a sad state, something Holden’s character realizes too  late,  paying with his life. Desmond finally gets her close up, when the police and TV cameras arrive to arrest her. A dark and startling film, with Swanson giving one of the greatest female performances ever given, Holden excellent, Eric Von Stroheim superb as her ex-husband/ director now butler, and Cecil B. Demille as himself, gentle and kind, respectful as he witnesses Norma’s delusion.

4. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951)…An acting powerhouse, with all four leads Oscar worthy, and three of them in fact winning, the lone loser (hate that term) being Brando for Best Actor. Vivien Leigh won Best Actress for her damaged Blanche, Karl Malden took Best Supporting Actor for his lonely Mitch, and Kim Hunter won Supporting Actress as Stanley’s pregnant wife who puts up with his abuse because she loves him, and lusts him. Adapted from Tennessee Williams’ groundbreaking play, the challenge for the filmmakers was keeping what had been essential on stage in the film, namely the facts that Blanche was a nymphomaniac with an appetite for very young boys, and that Stanley rapes her at the end of the film. Gently, with great subtle power, Kazan weaves both happenings into the fabric of the film, allowing the actors to stay true to the characters they had created on the stage. The scenes between Brando and Leigh crackle with sexual tension, and Brando radiates a true danger when on-screen, you just cannot take your eyes off the man. A work of art.

5. THE QUIET MAN (1952)…This robust, action filled comedy, set in Ireland, filmed on location tells the story of Sean Thornton (John Wayne), an American prize-fighter who returns to his ancestors home after killing a man in the ring, hoping to find peace and live out his life in tranquility. There he is thunderstruck when he meets Katie (Maureen O’Hara), a delicate courtship begins, and eventually they marry. However Kate thinks Sean less than a man when he refuses to demand the dowrey that is rightfully theirs from her brother, who despises Thornton. Insisting they do not need her brothers dowrey, Sean will not have anything to do with it, until she attempts to leave him, to save his shame. This will all lead to a throw down Donnybrook that the entire town turns up to watch between Thornton and the bull-headed brother. The color in the film is stunning, Ireland never looked so good, and th performances are equally gorgeous, from Wayne’s gentle giant, to O’Hara’s fiery red-head to Barry Sullivan’s drunken buddy of Sean’s. This one lost Best Picture to…are you ready for it…The Greatest Sow on Earth (1952), which simply…wasn’t. How sad.

6. BEN HUR (1959)…Ok, let the howls begin but before the attack comes, read on. This picture was made at a time of silly epics, when scope and size was all that mattered. Samson and Delilah (1949) was big, but as deep as the paper it was written on, while The Ten Commandments (1956) was magnificent, Heston incredible, but terribly written. Director William Wyler agreed to direct Ben-Hur (1959) if he could have a decent story and make the characters what the film was about. Once released the film was hailed as “the thinking man’s epic” because there was real substance here, deep characters and a strong, powerful story of a man’s journey to find Christianity. Making the decision never to show the face of the actor portraying Christ we see only the reaction of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) when he encounters Christ. Sentenced to the galleys of a Roman warship for a crime his Roman friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) knows he did not commit, Judah vows revenge. Destiny will enter his life, saving him from death as a rower when he saves the life of a Roman general who befriends Judah and then becomes a father to him. Offering to adopt Judah, the old man is visibly disappointed when Judah asks that he be permitted to find his family, which the man grants because he loves Judah. He will indeed find his mother and sister, in the valley of the lepers, and will indeed get his revenge on Messala, in the film’s greatest showpiece the stunning chariot race. Say what you like about Charlton Heston, in the right role, and this was it, the man was terrific. Vast in scope and size, with a glance into humanity few epics have ever had. Eleven Oscars for this one, a record equalled in 1997 and 2003.

7. SHANE (1953)…Seen through the eyes of a child, Shane (1953) has a mythical quality that many westerns lack. Shane (Alan Ladd), at the beginning of the film has descended from the mountains (heavens), and enters into a family’s lives when they need him most. A former gunfighter, he is at once idolized by the child, Little Joe (Brandon de Wilde) who will follow Shane everywhere he goes. Hired on as a ranch hand by the Starett family, Shane becomes part of the war between the settlers and the land barons trying to run the settlers off by hiring a well-known gunfighter Shane knows only as Wilson (Jack Palance). Wilson dressed in black, drinking only black coffee, is the sort of villain that when he enters room the dog leaves because the animal senses evil. Shane becomes the hero of the piece of course, an avenging angel in buckskins,  in a bloody way that he does not feel good about the boy seeing. Mortally wounded, he will ride off at the end, riding back into the mountains (heaven again) to die. Beautifully acted by the entire cast, De Wilde steals the movie as the bus little boy who loves his parents but feels something deeper for Shane, something he cannot explain but that we recognize of coming face to face with ones’ hero.

8. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)…If you see the original film before you see Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), when Alex begins to sing the title song while beating and raping a woman, you will get the dark and vicious joke. There is sheer joy in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) something lacking totally in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Movies have come to the age of the talkies, and the silent screen stars are fading. We meet one, blond, beautiful, a vision of loveliness…until she speaks, and then her voice is something akin to an animal being castrated with a spoon. Filled with energy and glorious dance, Gene Kelly tears up the film with his amazing dance sequences, which he both choreographed and performs. Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds are his partners in crime, but the biggest crime about this film is that it was not even nominated for Best Picture in a year that saw The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) win the top prize. Sheer movie making magic, danced with an exuberance never again equalled. You will find yourself smiling all through the film and when it’s over you might feel downright giddy. That’s OK, that is how it is supposed to impact you.

9. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)…Farce is a form of comedy which depends on mistaken identity, which of course leads to many close calls in getting caught. There are elements of the farce and the screwball comedy, ridiculous characters in a realistic situation, in Billy Wilder’s sharp Some Like It Hot (1959). On the run from the mob in the moments after the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, two musicians dress as women and join an all girl band. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis look nothing like women, part of the joke of course, and when Curtis falls hard for one of the woman band players portrayed by the great Marilyn Monroe, there are, shall we say  complications. What happens to Jack Lemmon’s character is far more funny, ending the film with that immortal line from comic Joe E. Brown, “Nobody’s perfect.”  Lemmon and Curtis are terrific, but the film belongs to Monroe who gives her finest performance here. This film is very close to comedic perfection. One of the great American comedies of all time.

10. THE DEFIANT ONES (1958)…Long a producer, High Noon (1952) being among his credits, Stanley Kramer stepped behind the camera for the first time with this powerful study of two convicts escaping from a chain gang, one black (Sidney Poitier), the other white (Tony Curtis) and their mutual dependency on one another, coming to terms with their racial prejudice, knowing they need each other and eventually developing a deep respect, even love for one another. As one sees freedom, knows he can escape, he chooses to jump to help his friend knowing that capture is imminent. Poitier and Curtis were never better than they are in this film, shot on location in the deep south and directed with raw realism by Kramer. It was an eerie foreshadow of what was to come from Kramer, socially aware films for the rest of his career, none matching the brilliance of this first.

RUNNERS UP:

  • ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)
  • THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)
  • A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)
  • HIGH NOON (1952)
  • A STAR IS BORN (1954)
  • MARTY (1955)
  • THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)
  • MOBY DICK (1956)
  • A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957)
  • CINDERELLA (1950)
  • THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1951)
  • BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)
  • EAST OF EDEN (1955)
  • VERTIGO (1958)
  • GIANT (1956)