When Movies Tell Great Stories: 5 Classics from the 1950s

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Gloria Swanson as Nora Desmond, Sunset Boulevard ©

In the 1950s Hollywood was losing its audience — and its earnings — to television. “Weekly movie attendance declined from 90 million in 1948 to 51 million in 1952… and thousands of cinemas closed.” To recoup financial losses and win back viewers, studios invested in films modeled after the industry’s former successes, but employing the latest technologies, such as EastmanColor, a single-strip film that made color movies less expensive, and Cinemascope, in which anamorphic lenses “stretched” a “distorted image” to fit a wide-screen format that was almost twice as wide as those of previous films. Grand-scale epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments appeared. Countless science fiction films, most based on the genre’s classic literature, created the genre’s Golden Age in Hollywood: War of the Worlds,  The Day the Earth Stood Still,  Forbidden Planet, and Them!

Character- and story-driven films resurged. Some were original, some were based on bestselling novels, and some were adapted from critically and financially successful stage plays, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Guys and Dolls, Sayonara, and Dial M for Murder. Most 1950s films featured powerful storylines, morally ambiguous characters, and memorable dialogue. Though the less expensive EastmanColor single-film technology was available, many directors chose to shoot their films in black-and-white, sometimes using unique or intriguing camera angles, perhaps imitating the classic Noir films from the 1940s. In many of these now-classic 1950s films, actors, screenwriters, and directors took huge artistic risks, creating some of the best films ever made. Here are five of the best 1950s classic films, presented in the order they were released, since they are all of outstanding quality.

Sunset Boulevard

“Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Nora Desmond

One of the best films ever made, Sunset Boulevard stars a boyish William Holden as Joe Gillis, a struggling Hollywood screenwriter whose financial woes accidentally but serendipitously lead him to what he believes is an abandoned mansion. The neglected property is the home of silent-film star Nora Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who’s spent the last 20 years preparing for her great “comeback.” Intent on using Nora as a quick paycheck — by whipping her Salome into a feasible screenplay — Joe soon becomes ensnared in Nora’s celebrity world of wealth, possessions, and material comfort.

Gloria Swanson as Nora Desmond and William Holden as Joe Gillis, Sunset Boulevard ©

Though sexually involved with the older Nora, Joe casually and continually tugs the heartstrings on an ingenue (Nancy Olson) with whom he’s secretly writing another screenplay, and who knows nothing of his relationship with the jealous and emotionally unstable film star. Joe’s actions force all the characters to desperation, conflict, betrayal, and, ultimately, murder.

Gloria Swanson , William Holden, Erich Von Stroheim and Nancy Olson, Sunset Boulevard ©

A poignant hommage to Hollywood’s by-gone silent-film era, as well as an unflinching look at professional ambition, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three, including one for co-writer and director Billy Wilder. Holden shines as the heel-with-half-a-heart, but Swanson’s brilliant and creepily gothic performance as the melodramatically bad Nora is what makes this film such a classic.

Trivia: Gloria Swanson was a real silent-film star, though, unlike Nora, she successfully transitioned into Talkies: all the photographs of Nora on display in her mansion are from Swanson’s own silent films.

Sunset Boulevard is available for rent from Amazon for $3.99 (viewing time once started is 48 hours, and you can watch it more than once for the same cost).

All About Eve

“Fasten your seat belts:
it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Margo Channing

Sometimes Hollywood is at its artistic best when it turns its unforgiving lens on itself, as it does in All About Eve, an intense and brutally honest examination of the Machiavellian ambition in the theatre and film worlds. Bette Davis is New York stage star Margo Channing, who allows a seemingly naïve fan, Eve (Anne Baxter) to “worship” the star while becoming her personal assistant.

Gary Merrill as Margo’s beau Bill, Anne Baxter as Eve, Bette Davis as Margo Channing, All About Eve ©

Soon, Eve is causing dissension among all the characters; Margo, Margo’s longtime companion Birdie (Thelma Ritter), Margo’s beau Bill (Gary Merrill), playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), playwright’s wife (Celeste Holm), and theatre critic DeWitt (George Sanders). Everyone in the film is forced to re-evaluate their own personal lives, their morality, and their relationships after Eve infiltrates their lives.

Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and George Sanders, All About Eve ©

By the time a large number of the characters distrust Eve, however, she is already determined to conquer them all, and she doesn’t care how much damage she causes, as long as she herself becomes a star.

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis (foreground), George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe, and Hugh Marlowe (background), All About Eve ©

Filled with snappy lines and memorable performances, All About Eve was nominated for 14 Oscars, winning 6, including Best Picture. It is the only film ever with 4 Academy Award nominations for women: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for Best Actress, Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress.

Trivia: Marilyn Monroe’s first important film role.

All About Eve is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started). Note: The original film trailer was a faux interview with Bette Davis regarding the fictional Eve. This trailer is a modern one, since may be more interesting to viewers unfamiliar with the stars of the film.

A Streetcar Named Desire

“I have always depended on
the kindness of strangers.”
Blanche DuBois

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire came to Hollywood via Broadway. The production’s theater director, Elia Kazan, brought play to the big screen, using three of the stage show’s original stars: Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as his wife Stella, and Karl Malden as his best friend Mitch.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Kim Hunter as Blanche’s sister Stella, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

When Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) comes to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella, Blanche immediately dislikes Stella’s husband Stanley. The feeling is mutual: Stanley and Blanche clash constantly, causing a rift between husband and wife, and making the marriage erupt in angry, sometimes violent scenes. It is only because Stella is pregnant with their first child that Stanley permits his irritating and condescending sister-in-law Blanche to stay.

Karl Malden as Mitch and Vivien Leigh as Blanche, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

After his buddy Mitch falls for Blanche, intending to ask her to marry him, Stanley begins to investigate Blanche’s implausible stories of her past. As the tensions among the characters mount, Blanche and Stanley are driven to a ferocious confrontation in which each fights desperately for his own survival.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

Nominated for 4 Academy Awards — male and female Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor — A Streetcar Named Desire won three: Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter, and Best Supporting Actor for Karl Malden.

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

Brando, who was nominated for Best Actor but did not win, was relatively unknown to film audiences at the film’s release. The play A Streetcar Named Desire was originally written with only one protagonist: the tortured and delusional Blanche. Brando’s performance as the equally tortured and sympathetic Stanley, a role which he originally “modified” on-stage and subsequently re-created in the film, catapaulted Brando to worldwide attention and critical acclaim.

Trivia: To mimic and symbolize Blanche’s claustrophobia, paranoia, and increasing anxiety, the set of Stanley & Stella’s apartment literally became physically smaller as film progressed, crowding the actors together.

A Streetcar Named Desire is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

On the Waterfront

“I coulda been a contender.”
Terry Malloy

In his first Oscar-winning role (second nomination), Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a former boxer who dreamt of becoming a champion, now working as a longshoreman. Terry exists on the fringes of organized crime since his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the right-hand man of dock gangster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).

Eva Marie Saint as Edie and Marlon Brando as Terry, On the Waterfront ©

When one of Terry’s “favors” to Johnny gets a fellow longshoreman killed, Terry begins to feel the pricks of conscience — a commodity he would prefer to live without. After Terry meets Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the murdered longshoreman, Father Barry (Karl Malden) exploits Terry’s awakening moral principles in an attempt to get him to testify against the members of organized crime on the docks.

Karl Malden as Fr Barry and Marlon Brando as Terry, On the Waterfront ©

Torn between his growing love for Edie and his loyalty to his fellow workers (along with his devotion to his brother Charley), Terry must decide whether it is better to live as a criminal failure than to risk dying an honest man.

Karl Malden as Fr Barry, Marlon Brando as Terry, and Eva Marie Saint as Edie, On the Waterfront ©

Based on a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative articles (“Crime on the Waterfront”) as well as on an original story by Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay, On the Waterfront was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning eight. In addition to Oscars for the co-stars, Brando and Saint, the film won Best Picture, and Best Director for Elia Kazan.

Trivia: Brando didn’t like his dialogue in iconic taxi scene, so he refused to say it. Director Kazan, tired of arguing with Brando, filmed him and co-star Steiger doing the scene improv, resulting in a classic.

On the Waterfront is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

Anatomy of a Murder

“How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?”
“They can’t… They can’t.”

One of the first mainstream films to discuss sex and rape in graphic terms, Anatomy of a Murder caused outrage when it was released in 1959. Jimmy Stewart stars as former prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney Paul Biegler, who’s hired by Army Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara) after he shoots and kills a man accused of raping Manion’s wife (Lee Remick).

Lee Remick as Laura Manion, Jimmy Stewart as Paul Biegler, and Ben Gazzara as Lt Manion, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Despite the fact that it’s Manion who’s on trial for murder, pleading “irresistible impulse” — another term for “temporary insanity” — and PTSD-induced “dissociative crisis,” it’s Manion’s wife Laura who is really on trial, in the courtroom and in the small community where they live. What she wore, whether she was drunk, and if she was provocative to the victim on the night in question occupy more of the trial than does the professional testimony of the psychiatrists who examined the war and combat veteran, who claims he unconsciously reacted with violence to his wife’s attack.

Brooke Adams, George C Scott, and Jimmy Stewart, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Attorney Biegler responds with outrage whenever the Special Prosecuting Attorney (George C. Scott) attacks the character of Manion’s wife, but viewers are presented scenes in which the “bored” and “lonely” young wife, who is undeniably attractive and who flouts society’s conventions by not wearing a girdle under her form-fitting clothes, flirts inappropriately with her husband’s defense attorney. Viewers have even more questions about what actually occurred between Manion’s wife and victim than do the jurors.

Lee Remick and Jimmy Steward, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker (under the pseudonym Robert Traver), which was based on a sensational 1952 murder trial, Anatomy of a Murder vividly examines society’s discomfort with sex and sexuality, as well as with victims of sexual violence. Concentrating on the tendency to blame the victim in sexual assault and rape cases while simultaneously exonerating the victim in murder cases, the film is powerful for its morally ambiguous characters, its strong performances, and its groundbreaking handling of the topic of sexual violence. Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Picture, Anatomy of a Murder is considered among the Top 10 films in the category of Courtroom Drama.

Trivia: Films “explicit” language caused outrage, getting it banned in Chicago theatres. These words were considered especially offensive: bitch, slut, rape, contraception, penetration, sperm, and — believe it or not — panties.

Anatomy of a Murder is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

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Filed under Actors, Classic 1950s Films, Classic Films, Crime Drama, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Movies/Films, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Rape, Review, Review/No Spoilers, Screenplays/Plays, StagePlays

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