The 1950s were a conflicted and confused time in our history. Having vanquished evil at its most powerful in World War II, the United States emerged as the world’s greatest military and economic super power. While most of the world was rebuilding, we were flourishing, producing goods for the world and fueling the long awaited post depression prosperity that for the better part of 20 years had been longed for. Great value was placed on the “modern” material conveniences that we couldn’t afford in the depression and war years.
We may have been experiencing peace and prosperity, but underneath it all was the uneasiness of the cold war and living in the atomic age. Mass culture at the time emphasized conformity and blandness, and was supported by the paranoia evidenced by the McCarthy hearings and the term, “un-American.” (which , if you really think about it, is in itself just about the most “un-American” term). The threats of communism and the cold war resonated with the public, who had grown up in times of sacrifice and belt tightening, and naturally felt uneasy with the new found prosperity. The result was a mass culture that comforted and reassured people, with music by the likes of Perry Como and Mitch Miller being popular.
The emphasis on blandness and conformity, of course, lead to rebellion in nearly all of the arts. It’s no accident that rock and roll, which has always had at its core themes of rebellion and sex, became immensely popular. In literature, Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg and William Burroughs were leading the “beat generation” to places American literature hadn’t gone before, while novelists like Norman Mailer and James Jones were churning out gritty and authentic accounts of their experiences in World War Two and its aftermath. In theatre, playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were producing their greatest works, and the Lee Strasberg Actor’s Studio revolutionized the art of stage and film acting.
Hollywood, still under strict control of the production code, was especially impacted by McCarthyism, with Joe McCarthy’s famous list of supposed communist sympathizers leading to the House Un American Activities Commission subpoenas and black-listings. As a result, the output from Hollywood was more cautious and conservative than ever before, and more bland and boring. Hollywood instead focused on technological advances such as Cinema Scope and VistaVIsion and advances in Technicolor as reasons to put people in the seats. Big budget Bible pictures (The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, The Robe) with their casts of thousands and wide panoramas were presented as showcases for these new technologies, and they were politically safe. The western remained the most popular genre.
New fears about the atomic bomb and threats from the cold war lead to an abundance of bad, low-budget science fiction films – these films were cheaply and quickly made and prayed upon the public’s fears of radiation, with mutant monsters like The Blob and The Thing and The Creature of the Black Lagoon becoming immensely popular. A few of them, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, tapped into the underlying paranoia of the times.
Rock and roll fueled teenage rebellion, which fueled fears of gangs of teenagers run amok, which fueled a new teenage rebellion sub-genre, with films like The Wild One (with a great Marlon Brando performance)and The Blackboard Jungle scaring the snot out of parents everywhere. There were also attempts to sympathetically portray the teenage rebel as a misunderstood victim of the stagnating culture, such as Nicholas Ray’s expressionistic Rebel Without a Cause, with the great James Dean, in which the adults were portrayed as so physically and morally weak that they were worthy only of contempt.
As the 50s went on, it seemed that popular culture was about to pass Hollywood by. Things were moving fast in music and literature, and Hollywood, bogged down by the production code, its investments in technology, the studio system and its inherent conservatism, seemed unable to keep up with the times and often times came across as anachronistic. Where rock and roll, for example, was dealing directly and bluntly with sexuality, Hollywood was forced to use the same euphemistic language it had been using for the past thirty years. Even the greatest of Hollywood’s directors had to play these games – for example, Orson Welles could only get the brilliant Touch of Evil made by agreeing to cast Charlton Heston (!) in the lead role of a Hispanic detective. John Ford’s western masterpiece The Searchers attempts to deal with serious issues of racism and frontier justice, yet he is only able to imply and insinuate many of the specifics. Alfred Hitchcock made some of his most personal films dealing with his own confused sexuality (Rear Window and Vertigo), but had to rely upon heavy handed symbols to represent his own obsessions.
It’s no accident then that some of the best movies of the decade were made overseas. While Hollywood was struggling to keep up, European cinema was experiencing a renaissance, with Bergman and Fellini at the peak of their powers, and the French new wave auteur movement introducing such giants as Godard and Truffaut.
Here then is my list of favorite films of the 1950s:
13. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), J. Sturges
12. Shane (1953), Stevens
11. Night of the Hunter (1955), Laughton
10. Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder
8. Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock
7. An Outcast of the Islands (1952), Reed
6. The Quiet Man (1951), Ford
5. The 400 Blows (1959), Truffaut
4. The Searchers (1956), Ford
2. The Seventh Seal (1957), Bergman
1. La Strada (1954), Fellini