By Raquel Stecher
The 1950s is one of my favorite decades for films, but it often gets overlooked. It’s not all Leave it to Beaver wholesomeness as some might have you believe. There were some thrilling and provocative movies that came out of this era. It was a particularly difficult time for Hollywood as it was facing two major competitors: television and foreign film. Households across the country were staying home to watch their favorite shows. Meanwhile, the Production Code, a list of strict rules mandating how films treated sex, crime and other issues of morality, was still in full force. This greatly affected what filmmakers could show on screen. Foreign films were not controlled by this Code and offered stories that were more adult and risqué than what American filmmakers was offering.
How could Hollywood lure audiences away from their TVs and into the theaters to watch their movies? The answer: they had to start taking risks and pushing some boundaries. The 1950s was a great time for subversive films and here are five of my favorites that you can rent on DVD Netflix.
Director Billy Wilder’s nail-biting drama stars Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a ruthless newspaper reporter who will do anything to get the next big scoop. When a man is trapped in a mine, Chuck persuades the rescuers to take a “safer” approach to buy him enough time to turn the story into a media circus. This biting satire has a lot to say about the ethical behavior of the media and the consequences of sensationalism. It’s a story that is just as shocking now as it was then. Douglas’ role fit him like a glove as he was well-suited to play characters with that degree of intensity.
This captivating courtroom drama is one of the most outspoken films of the decade. Directed by Otto Preminger, it stars James Stewart as a defense lawyer representing a military lieutenant accused of murder the man who raped his wife. The film also stars notable actors including Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, and Eve Arden.
The film broke one major rule of the Production Code that states “rape should never be more than suggested.” Highly controversial language was used and some words were uttered for the very first time on film. The film shattered any notion that James Stewart only played mild-mannered characters.
Whenever I want to break someone’s preconceived notions of the 1950s, I show them Baby Doll. Directed by Elia Kazan, a controversial figure in his own right, this dark comedy set in the deep South will get viewers hot and bothered. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, the film tells the story of Baby Doll Meighan (Carroll Baker) a teen in an arranged marriage with the much older cotton gin magnate Archie (Karl Malden). Baby Doll sleeps in another room, in an old crib and sucks her thumb. It’s clear that she hasn’t quite grown up yet.
When rival cotton Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach) arrives in town, Archie burns down his gin and Silva seeks revenge by setting his sights on Archie’s young wife. The scene when Silva seduces Baby Doll on an outdoor swing is one of the hottest scenes in film history. You can bet your bottom dollar that this film caused some controversy in its day. It broke the Production Code mandate that “impure love must not be presented in such a way to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience.”
Not only is The Night of the Hunter one of the creepiest movies all time, it’s one of the most iconic. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, chances are you’re well familiar with the image of Robert Mitchum and the L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles. This was actor Charles Laughton’s sole directorial venture, which is a shame because it’s a masterpiece. Mitchum stars as Preacher Powell, a convict who is after former cellmate Ben Harper’s (Peter Graves) hidden wealth. Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters) falls under the spell of the false preacher, but Powell is no match for Ben’s kids Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and John (Billy Chapin), and old lady Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who takes them in.
This film took a big chance, and broke a cardinal rule of the Code not to depict a minister of religion as a villain. Decades later, this film still sends shivers down audience’s spines.
By the late 1950s, society was evolving and there was no stopping the wheels of change. Topics that were previously swept under the rug were now being explored on the big screen. Based on a true story, director Nunnally Johnson’s film The Three Faces of Eve stars Joanne Woodward as a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. With some strong Biblical symbolism, Eve is split in two: Eve White, a humble housewife and Eve Black, a manipulative woman capable of violence and is promiscuous in a way that would horrify Eve White. Eve works with psychiatrist Dr. Luther (Lee J. Cobb) and from the two personalities comes a third, Jane, who encapsulates both personalities and is where Eve inevitably finds her center.
This film dealt with the topics of mental illness, morality, gender dynamics and feminism. Joanne Woodward won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Eve.
Raquel Stecher has been writing about classic films for the past decade on her blog Out of the Past. She attends the TCM Classic Film Festival as well as other events where old movie fanatics get together to geek out. Raquel has been a devoted DVD Netflix member since 2002! Follow her on her blog Out of the Past or find her on Twitter @RaquelStecher and @ClassicFilmRead, Facebook, and Instagram.