Home > Cinema, Film, Hollywood, Movies, Social Justice, society, Writing > 1950s Cinema: An under-appreciated decade of film and ferment

1950s Cinema: An under-appreciated decade of film and ferment


1950s Cinema: An under-appreciated decade of film and ferment

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

I am amused by the persistent myth that 1950s America was somehow this sterile time capsule when the mass consumer population became lulled into a kind of stupor that made them numb or oblivious to reality. Or that it’s a decade when nothing much happened compared, say, to the 1960s. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To portray the ’50s as a big bore or big nothing is as inaccurate as purporting that everyone in the ’60s was active in the counterculture movement, protesting in the streets, experimenting with drugs, et cetera, when in reality relatively very few people did those things. When it comes to social phenomena, most people are observers, not participants. But that’s not to say they’re unaffected by those same forces. They very much are.

The movies of any decade offer a somewhat reliable reflection of whatever is on the minds and in the hearts of artists and audiences during that time frame. The caveat to this is that you will inevitably find what you’re looking for if you examine any decade with a certain predisposition or agenda.

Sure, there was a lot of purely escapist fare released in the ’50s  courtesy the glorified soap operas, big studio musicals, sword and sandal epics and romantic comedies that filled screens. But there were also many pictures dredging up the fears, anxieties, neuroses and complexes over any number of social-political topics. Groundbreaking troubled youth pics, film noir classics, anti-war movies, socially conscious westerns and psychological science fiction flicks were among the genre films to take on sensitive subjects.

The ’50s was full of conflicting social, cultural, political, upheaval and the best film artists mirrored those currents in their work, if not overtly than metaphorically.

The canvas was even richer and deeper when considering the Hollywood films of auteurs like Ford, Kazan, Mann, Zinnemann, Boetticher, Hitchcock in combination with the best foreign films of that decade. The neo-Realists of italy, Bergman in Sweden, Kurosawa in Japan, Wajda in Poland, Ray in India, Bunuel in Mexico and Spain and the French New Wave vanguard of Godard and Truffaut took cinema to new heights of form and meaning.

Here is only a partial sampling of the very real issues that either became full-out movie fodder or that informed dramatic plot-points and throughlines in ’50s-era films:

Rock ‘n’ roll’s advent

The Cold War 

McCarthyism

The Black List

Civil rights

The Korean War 

The Military Industrial Complex

The Iron Curtain

The Space Race

Suburbia

Television

The Baby Boom

The Mob

The Beat Movement

Folk music

Films as disparate as “”The Blackboard Jungle” (Richard Brooks) “Rebel Without a Cause” (Nicholas Ray) and “East of Eden” (Elia Kazan) capture the youth angst Zeitgeist wave.

“Pickup on South Street” (Samuel Fuller) “High Noon” (Fred Zinnemann) “Stalag 17” (Billy Wilder) “On the Waterfront” (Elia Kazan),  “Touch of Evil” (Orson Welles) pand “12 Angry Men” pose the ethical dilemma of choosing to remain silent in the face of corruption or risking everything to stand up for the greater good.

Alexander MacKendrick’s adaptation of Clifford Odets’ “Sweet Smell of Success” presents the moral quagmire that comes with be willing to do anything to get ahead.

Everything from the films of Douglas Sirk (“Imitation of Life,” “The Tarnished Angels,” “Written on the Wind,” “All That Heaven Allows,” “Magnificent Obsession,” “There’s Always Tomorrow”) to Fred Zinnemann’s “From Here to Eternity,” Robert Wise’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Joshua Logan’s “Picnic” and Mark Robson’s “Peyton Place” juxtapose the dull, cold routine of conformity with the hot desires of the human heart.

Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” offers a prescient view of the mass media and general public raising a figure to a position of influence out of all proportion to their gifts and then bringing him down to a terrible fall.

“The Steel Helmet” (Sam Fuller) “Attack” (Robert Aldrich), “Paths of Glory” (Stanley Kubrick) “Men in War” (Anthony Mann) and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (David Lean) show the cruel futility of war.

“No Way Out” (Joe Mankiewicz) “The Searchers” (John Ford), “Giant,” “The Big Country” (William Wyler) and “Odds Against Tomorrow” (Robert Wise) depict the poisonous evil of bigotry.

“South Pacific” and “Sayonara” (Joshua Logan), “The King and I” (Walter Lang), “House of Bamboo” (Sam Fuller) and “The World of Suzie Wong” (Richard Quine) examine race within the arc of interracial relationships that play out in larger contexts.

“Baby Doll” (Elia Kazan), “Anatomy of a Murder” (Otto Preminger),  “Some Like it Hot” and “The Apartment” deal maturely with sexual subject matter.

George Cukor’s “Born Yesterday,” Robert Wise’s “Executive Suite” and Nunnally Johnson’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” critiqued American consumerism.

Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevsrd,” Joseph Lewis’ “Gun Crazy,” Anthony Mann’s “Winchester 73,””Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire,” Mann’s “The Furies,” Fritz Lang’s “Clash by Night,” MGM’s “Forbidden Planet,” Budd Boetticher’s “The Man from Laramie,”Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” “Vertigo” and “Psycho” Budd Boeticher’s “Ride Lonesome” and “Comanche Station,” Sam Fuller’s “Forty Guns”are among a great number of films from that decade that delve into Freudian themes.

The ’50s even produced an unapologetic and uncompromising art film, Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter,” that broaches all kinds of sensitive subjects through audacious use of symbolism and allegory. This masterfully crafted black and white film plays as a fairy tale with its dark themes, evil villain, innocent children in peril and episodes of magic realism. The whole film operates on the level of a fevered dream-state or trance that’s triggered and ended by trauma.

So, don’t ever fall for the notion the ’50s represented a blank slate, cinematically or otherwise. Its screen stirrings are replete with potent content, context and subtext that will make your head spin or at least make you think twice about this supposedly banal, complacent and complicit decade. Yes, there was conformity and consumerism, but when hasn’t there been since the 1920s? But the masses were far from moving in lockstep and thinking alike. Diversity, division and rebellion were present. So were the nascent civil rights, black power and feminist movements. It just took the 1960s for it to more fully come to the surface.

 

100 Greatest Movies of the 1950s

A list of the 100 greatest movies of the 1950s compiled by Digital Dream Door.
Source: digitaldreamdoor.com · Added by Ilsa Lund
 3,339 users · 74,821 views
 Avg. score: 29 of 100 (29%)
 Required scores: 1, 10, 18, 31, 47
 How many have you seen?
1
Seven Samurai (1954)
2
On the Waterfront (1954)
4
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
5
The Seventh Seal (1957)
6
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
7
Rear Window (1954)
8
Rashomon (1950)
9
All About Eve (1950)
10
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
11
Some Like It Hot (1959)
12
North by Northwest (1959)
13
Tokyo Story (1953)
14
Touch of Evil (1958)
15
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
16
Diabolique
17
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
18
The African Queen (1951)
19
12 Angry Men (1957)
20
La Strada (1954)
21
Ben-Hur (1959)
22
Wild Strawberries (1957)
23
The Searchers (1956)
24
High Noon (1952)
25
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
27
The 400 Blows (1959)
28
The Ten Commandments
30
Strangers on a Train (1951)
31
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
32
From Here to Eternity (1953)
33
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday
34
A Christmas Carol
36
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
37
Roman Holiday (1953)
38
Old Yeller (1957)
39
Early Summer (1951)
40
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Page 1 of 3

Next Page

 

Advertisements
  1. January 24, 2017 at 2:59 am

    Awesome post! I truly feel that films are a reflection of the time in which they are made, and can offer a great deal of social commentary. One of my favourite 1950s films is “Ikiru”, and I will share a post I wrote about it on my blog if you would like to read. https://charsmoviereviews.wordpress.com/2016/12/01/ikiru-1952/

    Like

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: