The 50’s, in a nutshell, were about the overall renewed sense of optimism felt around the globe after the previous horrific decade of war, strife and unthinkable atrocities. Although western governments begin to succumb to the second ‘Red Scare’, with Anti-American committee hearings spearheaded by senator Joseph McCarthy, the looming threats due to the Cold War were not yet cemented in the minds of the general public. It was instead a decade of reconstruction for the many, many countries and people that were combative in WWII. Led by newly elected President Dwight Eisenhower America took center stage, being on one of the few continents where no battles were fought, expanding it’s influence though business and trade internationally to both its former allies and enemies in war. Scars from the great war were still being gradually healed, but help was not in short supply. Indeed, if the aftermath of WWII showed something positive, it was that the world was now becoming a smaller and smaller place.
In terms of cinema, Hollywood’s golden era was in full swing. The stars of the screen were bigger and brighter than ever, as newspapers would start to give more and more ink to the film medium (due in part to the Ingrid Bergman and Robert Rossellini affair that surfaced in 1950). Although the advent of television would affect ticket sales with the middle-aged-plus generation choosing to stay home with their T.V programming schedules, their children started taking to the theaters in droves. Change was in the air for the so-called ‘beat’ generation. Rock n’ roll was about to dawn, kids just wanted to have a good time and the movies represented that night out about town. They also, like every young generation, harbored rebellious attitudes towards the ideals and expectations of their parents and generations before them. Their favorite movies and characters began to reflect this aggressive behavior. Film noir was established in the previous decade as the first film genre to be dark and gritty, the 50’s would continue that trend of having movies with ‘teeth’ and real bite. At the same time ‘classical’ romantic hollywood still found audiences upon their release.
When I first started this list I had no idea just how many names came out of this decade. Some of the most influential directors in cinema history made their unique marks on this decade; names like, Ford, Wilder, Kubrick, Kazan, Welles, Hitchcock, Lean, Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and Ozu. The actors roll-call is just as if not stronger, Grant, Stewart, Dean, Taylor, Wayne, Peck, Swanson, Davis, Kelly, Guinness, Holden, Lanchaster, Crawford, and both Hepburn’s. Taking this list to only 50 proved to be one hell of a challenge. Some of the most iconic moments had to be left out, one must understand, as I went for large diversity of moments that echo vibrantly from this important era of film. Otherwise this list would only be made of Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Wilder movie moments.
Before continuing, I would also like to give due credit to Alex Withrow, whose own writings can be seen on his blog ‘And So It Begins’. Without his help with his list of 101 Cinematic Reasons Why I Love the 50’s I wouldn’t have known where to begin with this little project. So, join me on a journey through one of the strongest eras ever in filmmaking. And without further hesitation, let’s start off with a line for the ages…
50). “Well Nobody’s Perfect…”
Billy Wilder could film any script you gave him, as long as it interested him, be it drama, comedy, light-hearted, or heavy. It was never more apparent than in 1959 with his social satire of cross-dressing musicians, gangsters and the most iconic blonde of all-time. The exchange in the boat that closes the film is as iconic an ending and line as any in the decade, and just as screwball hilarious as when it was first uttered. Constantly touted as one of the finest comedies ever made the film is still a laugh riot with early work from Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and of course the voluptuous 50’s sex-symbol Marilyn Monroe.
49). “Gojira!!!”, or “Godzilla!!!” For Any English Speakers
The king of all movie monsters made his first appearance leaving behind a wake of destruction on Japan in 1954. At the time serving as an all-too-real metaphor for the Atomic Destruction of two of its major cities which ended WWII, the mutated lizard struck fear close to home into the hearts of Japanese audiences. Two years later it was released in the states, with re-shot scenes of Raymond Burr, leaving an indelible mark on western pop-culture and sci-fi for years to come. With Godzilla came the birth and subsequent popularity of the monster movie, which couldn’t have come at a better time with drive-in theaters (remember those?) cropping-up all around North America.
48). John Ford’s Filmography
I am going to cheat on this entry by encompassing one man’s entire work in this decade, but I felt he needed more representation on this list as it turned out. In the 50’s the legendary prickly director made 15 features, from the typical westerns to comedies to straight dramas. The most notable were with his longtime go-to-leading man the Duke John Wayne in Rio Grande, The Quiet Man and another movie later on this list. The man helped to establish the western as an influential genre in the early days of Hollywood and Film itself. Cowboys and gunslingers don’t grace our screens as much nowadays as they were 60 years ago (in my opinion the better westerns were made in the decades that followed) nonetheless westerns were crucial to the early interest in filmmaking as popular-art. John Ford is THE name to turn too to thank for that.
47). Kirk Douglas’ At-All-Costs Attitude In ‘The Bad And The Beautiful’
Kirk Douglas’ Jonathan Shields is one movie producer for the ages, if not THE movie producer for the era. The framing of Vincent Minnelli’s melodrama is three Hollywood big shots, a producer (Barry Sullivan), an actress (Lana Turner) and a Screen-writer (Dick Powell), telling the head of a major studio their experiences with Douglas’ at-all-costs character. He wheels and deals right behind their backs, using each of them just long enough to finish a picture he’s sinking money into. Jonathan is a born movie producer, having a natural talent to dangle that carrot right in front of your nose, having the charism that make you follow him through the very pits of hell. In the end, each of his three former ‘friends’ are called in to help Shields make one last great film together. SPOILER: Though he does completely use each of them as a carpenter would use his tools, they each realize without him giving them a flying start (albeit with a rough landing…) they would still be wallowing in showbiz limbo. So they’ll listen to what he has to say… again, and more likely than not be fooled again by the man holding all the cards, but little integrity.
46). Ernest Borgnine’s Well… Earnestness As ‘Marty’
Let’s switch gears to more relatable persons, shall we? If earnestness could be personified it would probably be in the form of the late great Ernest Borgnine’s Marty in the 1955 best picture winner. He had been making a name for himself in supporting roles since the onset of the decade, but it was his turn as the title character in ‘Marty’ that made him a star. Mostly playing morally dubious supporting roles before, it was a seeming out of character for him to play a well-meaning, lonely, sheltered meat butcher. Instead he nailed the part, instilling a relatable desire for companionship. The timid, and desperate Marty really just wants someone to talk to, to the point of desperation. All we can do is root for this underdog all the way.
45). Heston Parts The Red Sea
In the legendary Cecil B. DeMill’s Biblical epic on the Hebrew Exodus out of Egypt, the great over-actor Charlton Heston plays Moses as the almighty’s right-hand man. A landmark in special effects, created by pouring 300,000 gallons of water into a tank and then playing the film backward, it is one of the the most mesmerizing film moments, even to this day. It was also the swan song for the great pioneering DeMill, as he never again directed nor produced a movie afterwards. For nearly 50 years Ten Commandments stood as the highest grossing biblical film epic of all- time, until Passion of Christ in 2004.
44). Hitchcock Goes 3-D For ‘Dial M For Murder’
Nope kids that’s not a typo, James Cameron didn’t invent 3-D. The technique has been around since the early days of cinema, in fact. For decades it was a niche filming gimmick to weasel audience’s money to see less-than-stellar stories on the big screen (Some things never change…). Alfred Hitchcock decided to give the gimmick its best shot at legitimacy with his 1954 thriller starring Grace Kelly. Hitch incorporated the technique heavily in the climatic struggle between Kelly’s character and her would-be-killer. Even without the glasses, Dial M for Murder fits well into the master of suspense’s ouvre. It went to prove that 3-D didn’t have to be gimmicky to succeed, you just need an Alfred Hitchcock in the director’s chair that’s all.
43). James Mason’s Brooding Intelligence As Captain Nemo
In 1954, Disney breathed life into Jules Verne’s classic sci-fi tale of a vengeful submarine Captain with one of their very best live-action adventures, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Casting a pitch perfect James Mason as the brooding submariner, Captain Nemo. His raspy but calm voice fits the character like a glove, a trait that he would continue with his other memorable characters. The film also holds landmarks for special effects (The Squid Battle Alone makes the movie worth it), literary adaptations and set-designs. Including Mason, Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre add great memorable characters to the mix. The role also helped to increase Mason’s profile in America, eventually leading to roles in ‘Bigger Than Life’, ‘North by Northwest’ and ‘Lolita’.
42). Elizabeth Taylor And Montgomery Clift in ‘A Place In The Sun’
In George Stevens romantic ethical drama, Clift plays George Eastman a dirt-poor lonely drifter trying to find work anyway he can. When he does a land a menial job in a California factory run by his Uncle, he takes notice of the a wealthy socialite Angela Vickers, played with great naive energy by Taylor. While working he befriends a female co-worker, Alice (played by Shelly Winters, who always had the worst luck in choosing partners on-screen), and they share an intimate night together. Afterwards he finally gets properly introduced to Angela the two fall head-over-heels for each other. George must decide between two extremes, of the working-girl Alice and the bubbly rich girl Angela, as further complications arrise. Ahead of it’s time in terms of the dark material the unfolding story presents, also all three leads turn in steller work with Clift being the stand-out in a career best performance. The chemistry between the two helps to make it believable the lengths George will go to have a life with Angela. As heartbreaking a romance that the decade produced.
41). Gunfight At High Noon
Gary Cooper stars in the quintessential stand-off gunslinger movie. Newly retired and married sheriff Will Cain is informed that an arch nemesis has just been paroled and is heading back to his town to finish what began years ago. The problem is Cain’s abilities have somewhat eroded over time, he’s not as strong, quick or accurate as he used to be. He is not one ounce less tough, determined or willed though, but he is still just one man against a gang of gun-slingers he needs help. He pleads the townspeople that he has served for years to help him defend their own town, falling to deaf ears at nearly every turn. All for various reasons but stemming from not wanting to stand-up for themselves. SPOILERS: After he successfully defends the town by himself, he looks at all the townspeople he saved, throws his badge on the ground and leaves with his newlywed (played innocently by Grace Kelly, her first major film role) without saying a word. The message is clear: “I didn’t kill those men for you, I did it for myself, I will never do this again for you, thanks for nothing. Have a nice life, stand up for yourselves…”
40). “Klaatu Barada Nikto”
The 1950’s saw a rebirth in interest in sci-fi, in large part due to Robert Wise’s 1951 iconic cautionary tale film. Chronicling the arrival of extra-terrestrial intelligence issuing a warning that the human race must stop with the escalation of arms and violence… or else be turned to ash (I’m pretty sure that there are better ways of promoting pacifism). The now famous words have no official translation, but they are important to the cancelation of the intended destruction of the earth and it’s inhabitants. Now considered a sci-fi staple, it helped to usher a new era of sci-fi filmmaking that would culminate at the end of decade in 1959 with the T.V debut of Rod Sterling’s game-changing ‘The Twilight Zone.’
That’s 11 down with 39 more to go, join me next time for 39-30 where Audrey Hepburn, Federico Fellini and Captain Ahab all make appearances. Quite a crowd in the next entry.