Landscapes and Horizons: 1950-1960
EXT. DAY. AN ENDLESS BEACH.
Your HOST waves to you from a grassy hill while the camera zooms out, taking in the sweeping panorama of the seascape in the background.
This is one of my all-time favorite decades in terms of film history. After the introspective 40’s, cinema found its optimism again, but it was a more mature optimism filled with plenty of hardship and just as many sweeping triumphs. Plus, we get some of the COOLEST movies of all time ever which were made cooler by the face that screens (and film) got WIIIIIIIIIIDER and movies got BIGGER. The epic, which had its start super early, came back in a big way. Also, the musical returned with a fierce vengeance (which is pretty swell, in my book) thanks to some HUGE legendary names.
Noir would stick around through the decade, such as in Billy Wilder’s iconic Sunset Boulevard (1950).
The tension and atmosphere of the genre would also influence Alfred Hitchcock whose career had no intention of slowing down any time soon. This decade gave us Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958)–which recently ousted Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made–and North By Northwest (1959). For someone whose career has been going strong since the 20’s, this is crazy impressive. We won’t see another director with this kind of staying power again until we get to the 1970s.
Also, in the lower-budget end of things, sci fi edged out horror as the prevailing genre thanks, in part, to the Space Race, culminating in Russia’s awesome launch of Sputnik I in 1957. We get some super awesome films in this genre such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956). The latter featured legendary creature animator/innovator Ray Harryhausen who really started turning people’s heads in this decade.
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), another huge Harryhausen picture also capitalized on the super popular monster movie genre which exploded into being in this decade. The king of all monsters, of course, is Godzilla, and he first shows up as Gojira in 1954 and messes Japan up something fierce, but then he becomes a sort of hero and ends up saving Japan from a bevy of increasingly dangerous foes (the coolest, of course, is Mothra, who’s awesome). Godzilla’s the best ever and if you don’t love him, you’re wrong.
Anyways, the other super cool part of this decade is the introduction of SWEEPING PANORAMAS! CinemaScope is cool because it uses different lenses and bigger film to capture a wider image. It was a rocky process and different studios tried out different technologies (some that worked, others that didn’t) but it was clear audiences responded positively. Part of the reason why this was such a success was that TV was now a thing and was pulling people away from theaters, so CinemaScope (and color, which became much more common in this decade) brought people back to theaters with spectacular visuals they couldn’t get at home. Theaters briefly experimented with 3-D (such as with The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)), but the fad didn’t stick around. CinemaScope, on the other hand, became more than a fad. It became an expectation.
Films like The Ten Commandments (1956), The Searchers (1956), and Ben Hur (1959) used the sweeping scope to its full effect, bringing massive landscapes and huge sets to life. This is also the time when Rodgers and Hammerstein brought their musicals to film starting with the Oscar-winning Oklahoma (1955) which was the first 70 mm widescreen film (technically, State Fair (1945) was their first movie musical, but Oklahoma was the gamechanger). They followed it up with Carousel and The King and I from 1956 and South Pacific in 1958. Aside from becoming hugely popular, these films changed how musicals, and films in general, looked and felt.
It wasn’t just R&H who rode the musical’s meteoric return to form. This is also when we got, among others, Annie Get Your Gun (1950), An American in Paris (1951), which features a MASSIVE ballet sequence at the film’s climax, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Kiss me Kate (1953), and the controversial Guys and Dolls (1955)–which featured an inexplicably singing Marlon Brando. Musicals were bigger than ever, but with more of a soul than the frothy confections of the 1930’s. Decades after this would try (and sometimes succeed, such as The Sound of Music and West Side Story in the 60’s) to outdo the grand musicals of this decade, but they wouldn’t quiiiiiite make it since musicals would sort of fall out of favor with most audiences at the end of the decade (but like they won’t ever go away completely).
This was also the decade when Disney would return to form with Cinderella (1950), which was a huge success and featured a new abstract art style for its backgrounds. Alice in Wonderland (1951)–the best version of Alice in my humble opinion–was a triumph of visual art, but wasn’t appreciated by initial audiences. Peter Pan (1953), on the other hand, was a success both with audiences and critics, as was Lady and the Tramp (1955), the first Disney film released in CinemaScope.
At the end of the decade, Sleeping Beauty (1959) was a HUGELY ambitious work of visual art that pushed the limits of what animated backdrops could be, thanks to the highly detailed paintings of artist Eyvind Earle whose work was showcased with massive 70mm Technorama film. The artwork is gorgeous, but the film was so expensive to make that it nearly ruined Disney. Throw in a lukewarm audience reaction and bland critical reception, and the Disney fairy tale would fade away for the next three decades until the Disney Renaissance would bring princesses back. Sleeping Beauty has since been recognized for its ambitious art style and has become one of Disney’s greatest films.
Outside of animated films, Disney branched off into live-action films in the 40’s (often featuring a mix of animation and live-action), but their releases in the 50’s including Treasure Island (1950) and the AMAZING 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), are still considered classics in their own right.
Another thing that happened in this decade was the rise of teens as film demographics. B movies catered to the teen crowd, as did cult favorites featuring rebellious youngsters such as the iconic James Dean vehicle Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The monster movie craze also hit the teen market with films such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) starring Michael Landon, and The Blob (1958) starring Steve McQueen.
Overall, this was a SPECTACULAR decade. Screens, film, and audience demographics expanded to massive heights and movies weren’t the same since. Television tried to take over, but it instead found its own immovable place in culture alongside movies (though film would end up fighting TV pretty severely in the next decade).
And with that, I will bid you adieu until next week when we look at the 60’s!
Dirks, Tim. Film History of the 1950s
Flaxman, George A. A Brief History of Cinemascope.
Along with IMDb, of course.