When movies drew in the crowds
The 1950s produced some powerful films, many still seen as classics today
The film industry faced a crisis in the 1950s, when Hollywood, which had dominated the industry until then, faced serious competition from Britain, France, Italy and Sweden.
Hollywood accepted the challenge, writes Michael Anglo, author of the book Nostalgia, Spotlight on the Fifties, and introduced Cinerama, CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO, and stereophonic sound, as well as 3D films. The following overview of the industry in that period is from the book.
The first “big budget, spectacular film in CinemaScope” was The Robe, with Richard Burton, Jean Simmons and Victor Mature, writes Anglo.
At that time, he says, the British film industry was “in a chronically unhealthy state”. Ealing Studios had to close down. It was known for its comedians, Alastair Sim, Ian Carmichael, George Cole, Terry-Thomas and Margaret Rutherford.
But in spite of their problems, Anglo writes that British filmmakers “stuck to their guns, and the Boulting brothers continued to make films on the international market”.
Anglo says many of the comedies made in Britain lost their subtlety when the Carry On series was introduced. However, these films were popular and appealed to a large sector of the British public.
A popular comedy star of the 1950s was Norman Wisdom. But Anglo says the films he played in were not memorable.
On the other hand, Anglo calls the movie Marty, released in 1955, “a big success for the Americans”. The film starred Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. Both the film and Ernest Borgnine received Oscars.
A disruptive force hit Hollywood when senator Joseph McCarthy launched his anticommunist campaign, which Anglo says caused mayhem in Hollywood. Larry Parks, who played the leading role in The Jolson Story, was one of McCarthy’s victims, Anglo reports.
He cites The Red Badge of Courage (1951) with Audie Murphy as an example of “filmmaking at its best”. The film “gives a whiff of the real stench of war”.
The 1950s was the time for horror movies, “with creepy crawlies, buckets of blood, ghoulies and ghosties”. It was also the time when Bela Lugosi appeared in films such as The Bride of the Monster.
The film Look Back in Anger, with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, “was a powerful commentary on the moody England of the mid-1950s”, Anglo writes.
Room at the Top, with Laurence Harvey and Simonet Signoret, is described by Anglo as having the “authentic industrial Yorkshire atmosphere and a background of corruption that gave it authority and realism”. Signoret received an Oscar for her role in the film, Anglo reports.
He describes Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, as “provocative stuff”. The film revolves around two fugitives, one white and one black. Another such film was The Young Lions, with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff and Dean Martin. It’s described by Anglo “as controversial and abrasive”. It “brought audiences flocking back to the cinema”.
“Blatant and steamy” was how Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was described at the time of its release. It had Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives in the leading roles. Anglo sees the film as one of playwright Tennessee Williams’s “most powerful studies of the Deep South.”
Among the good war films of the period were The Wooden Horse, Stalag Luft III and The Cruel Sea. Anglo describes the latter, starring Jack Hawkins, as “more meaty and gruelling’.
Other war films mentioned by Anglo include The Desert Rats (1953) with James Mason and Richard Burton, Dunkirk (1958) with John Mills and Richard Attenborough and The Bridge Over the River Kwai, produced by Sam Spiegel and directed by David Lean. To Hell and Back, with Audie Murphy, Anglo describes as “unusual”.
He sees Humphrey Bogart as “a giant of the forties”. Two of his films Anglo commends highly: The African Queen with Katharine Hepburn, and The Caine Mutiny.
The 1950s produced a number of Western films, but it was also the time when the low-budget “B” Westerns were declining in popularity with the young cinemagoer. More attractive to them were the new “singing cowboys”, such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Monte Hall, “with their guitars and gimmicky clothing”.
According to Anglo, however, “the cowboy who rode serenely through the forties, the fifties and into the seventies was John Wayne”. Anglo reports that he made his name in Stagecoach in 1939.
Stanley Kramer’s production of High Noon with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly is described by Anglo as “an inspiring masterpiece of the Western film genre”. He believes, too, that High Noon “outclassed the over-rated Stagecoach”. Notable also is the “haunting theme Do Not Forsake Me O My Darling” sung by Tex Ritter. Anglo believes the song is “evocative of the sombre theme of taut drama”.
Another great Western, according Anglo, is Shane, with Alan Ladd, Van Heflin and Jack Palance. Nevertheless, Anglo is not impressed with the story, parts of which he views as “pure corn”. He suggests that the real interest in the film is the “magnificently photographed scenic background”.
Nor is Anglo impressed with the film version of the Broadway musical based on John O’Hara’s Pal Joey. Though Frank Sinatra sang inimitably, Rita Hayworth “just passed muster, Kim Novak was not at her best and the film lacked the punch of the original story”.
Blackboard Jungle (1955) with Sidney Poitier and Anne Francis, and Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, (1955) “influenced impressionable teenagers all over the world”. Anglo says the sullen Dean, whom he describes as “moronic”, nevertheless managed to become someone the youth “could identify with and blow up into a misunderstood folk hero”.
Nor is Anglo complimentary about The Wild One (1954), in which Marlon Brando played the “vicious” leader of a motorcycle gang. Anglo notes that the film “was heavily frowned on by the US and was banned from Britain for many years”. Nevertheless, it has since been shown on television and Anglo points out that “it did not seem to be worth the trouble”.
Somewhat different is On The Waterfront (1954), which Anglo says brought to “shivering life the brutal tyranny of the American dock side”. The film was directed by Elia Kazan and produced by Sam Spiegel. Anglo believes that Brando, with “his slurred speech, [was] ideal for the role of the punchy Terry Malloy”, the protagonist of the film. Other members of the cast include Rod Steiger, who was then a newcomer to the movies, and Lee J Cobb.
Alfred Hitchcock films include Rear Window, with James Stewart and Grace Kelly, Dial M for Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and North By Northwest.
Anglo believes Singing in the Rain (1952), featuring Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner, “is probably one the best musicals ever made”.
Epics such as The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur 1959, though box-office boosters, are regarded by Anglo as “concentrated more on the spectacular rather than on characterisation and depth”. But, he points out, “spectacle alone cannot make up for poor acting or dialogue”. Besides, he writes, “a biblical tale with a strong American accent can be very off-putting”.
And though The Ten Commandments had a strong cast, with Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter and Edward G Robinson, the members did not “display any of their undoubted acting ability”. But Anglo believes “they managed to slip in thin slices of ham into this giant Jewish meal”.
Anglo sees Marilyn Monroe as the pin-up girl and sex-symbol of the 1950s. The image of her with her skirt blown up above her knees became famous all over the world. The movies in which she featured include The Seven Year Itch, with Tom Ewell, Some Like It Hot, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, and The Prince and the Showgirl, with Laurence Olivier.
Anglo regards La Strada (1956) as typical of the Italian neo-realistic school of filming. It shows the talents of Federico Fellini.
It was in the late 1950s that smaller cinemas were showing specialised films such as La Strada, which became the vogue, says Anglo.