The 1950s are often viewed through a gauzy screen of received cultural memory as a simpler and happier time in America. Maybe not. In fact, the 1950s were an incredibly complicated decade. On the one hand, the economy was robust and the national mood was optimistic. But underneath this sunny picture, the inherent tensions in our society and around the world were building up, leading to the cultural explosions of the 1960s. World War II was over, but the brave new world that came into being in the years that followed was anything but the good old days. Things were tense in the 1950s. Issues of race, the Cold War, feminism, sexuality, and gender roles were barely kept contained under the pressure cooker of a world recovering from a horrifying war. In fact, the British poet W. H. Auden called the era “The Age of Anxiety.”
Despite the 1950s being the apex of the frothy confection that is the movie musical, the rest of the films of the 1950s were saturated with a mutely-spoken tension not seen before or since. Which is not to say that the movies were all grim. The musicals, of course, were glorious escapist fun, and the decade produced a number of brilliant comedies. So here we go, my favorite movies of the 1950s.
My Five Favorite American Movies of the 1950s
Well, this is it, folks: the greatest Western of them all. And one of the best American films ever. John Ford again teamed up with John Wayne to tell a dark and haunting tale of a middle-aged Civil War Confederate veteran who engages in a long search for his niece (Natalie Wood), who has been abducted by a band of Comanches. Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, is one of the least appealing and yet utterly compelling characters ever to appear in American film—a man filled with racial hatred and obsession who fought on the wrong side of two wars…and yet remains gripping to watch. If you’ve never seen this movie, it’s time you rented it. And if you’ve seen it, watch it again.
“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” One of the most famous quotes ever from the movies uttered perfectly by the star of this movie, the fabulous Bette Davis. Davis plays slightly-past-her-expiration date Broadway star Margo Channing, who brings a besotted fan, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) under her wing. The pupil begins to overtake the master in increasingly unsettling ways. This is just a fabulous ‘50s melodrama. It was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and sure is a lot of fun.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green were two masters of the musical comedy. They not only wrote the libretto and screenplay for this masterpiece of the form, they also wrote libretti for “The Barkleys of Broadway” (1949), “On the Town” (1949), and the Broadway musical “Hallelujah, Baby” (1967). This gem was directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and features some of the best-loved numbers from musical comedy history, including the title song and “Make ‘Em Laugh.” If you’ve had a bad week at work, and the kids are getting on your last nerve, here is the movie to watch.
Great premise: two struggling musicians witness the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and decide to hide out in drag as members of a women’s band…which is traveling to Florida for a mobster convention! Great cast: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon. Great director and screenwriter: Billy Wilder. And just flat out funny. Two memorable moments: Tony Curtis imitating Laurence Olivier and, of course, the final joke of the movie: “Nobody’s perfect.” Nobody may be perfect, but this movie certainly is.
Whenever you’re sitting around with friends talking about your favorite romantic comedies, inevitably someone will say, “How about Roman Holiday?” And immediately everyone else will cheer and vigorously agree. A princess (Audrey Hepburn) goes incognito and flees from her royal duties during a visit to Rome. Everyone is looking for her, but American journalist Gregory Peck is the one who has found her and they hang out together until she has to return to her day job. Directed by William Wyler and co-written by John Dighton and “Ian McKellen Hunter,” who was, in fact, blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Pure fun, with a touch of melancholy at the end.
My Five Favorite Foreign Movies of the 1950s
This masterwork by French director Francois Truffaut is the epitome of the New Wave movement in film. In the 1950s and ‘60s, French directors took a different approach to storytelling in film. These directors used film stock that required less light, shot unconventional stories, and used a mixture of quick edits and then long, lingering shots, creating an effect that was like a black and white filmed version of Impressionism. Here, Truffaut tells the story of an adolescent boy, Antoine Doinel (beautifully played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is going through an especially troubled period in a generally troubled life. And that’s about it. There is no traditional story being told here, just a series of scenes from his life leading to an unexplained run on the beach that ends the film. Ambiguously. I love this movie.
Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman is one of the giants of world cinema. But you’ve probably heard that before and seen a scene or two from one of his movies and it looked bleak and depressing. I’ll give you that. Bergman doesn’t make manic, light-hearted comedies. He’s not Billy Wilder. Still, you should watch a Bergman film. They’re relentlessly interesting. And this one, which tells the story of a cranky old retired professor on a not-very-sentimental journey to his Swedish hometown, is actually quite moving. Everyone is unhappy in one way or another in a Bergman movie. The interesting thing about his movies is uncovering the source of each individual’s unhappiness. Definitely worth a rental.
First, I told you to watch Truffaut, then Bergman, and now I’m insisting you check out Akira Kurosawa. Trust me, I’m not trying to punish you. These are all wonderful movies, each gripping in their own way. Set in medieval Japan, this movie tells the same story over and over, each from the perspective of a different character. It’s a samurai movie, but a very unusual one. It also stars Kurosawa’s favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune, as the bandit Tajumaro. Here’s what you do: rent these three movies, watch them all on one weekend, and then next weekend go to a party and talk about them. You’ll be surprised how many people there will have seen these as well, and will love them as much as I do.
Normally, we don’t count British movies as foreign, technically, but this film is set in ravaged and impoverished post-war Vienna and feels utterly non-American, so I’m counting it as a foreign film from the UK. Joseph Cotten is a pulp fiction Western writer, Holly Martins, who comes to Vienna to find his old pal Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Martins gets sucked into a world of betrayal and intrigue, where no one is as they seem. Shot in a spooky black and white with a haunting theme song, this movie is unforgettable. I’ve seen it a dozen times and there’s always something new to discover in it.
This is, in my opinion, the first truly great film about World War II. Centered primarily on a woman, Veronika (Tatiana Samojlova), this Russian film follows her as she searches for a boyfriend who volunteered to fight the invading Nazi army. Veronika ends up spending much of the war with her boyfriend’s family as they are shunted around in increasing levels of desperation during the horrific war. When the war finally ends, Veronika discovers her boyfriend has died. This is a deeply moving film, and the character of Veronika is one of the most fully-realized woman characters in the history of film. It’s a bit off the beaten track, but I recommend you give this movie a rental.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.