By Ann Silverthorn
In the post-war era of the 1950s, the American man had reclaimed his place in both the household and the workplace. Although there was now peace in Europe, in the 1950s America would now go to war in Korea. The citizens had new fears, those of the bomb and communism.
As in the decades before, comfort could be found in darkened movie theaters and, now, on flickering television sets. The film industry was still healthy with an average of 60 million people going to the movies per week. This was down from 80 million in the 1940s, but much healthier than the later nadir of 18 million in the 1970s.
Just as in the post-World War I era, films about the second World War were still popular in the 1950s. Another genre that was ever popular was the western. Themes in both often included morality and corruption. Let’s take a look at some of the notable Academy Award winners of the 1950s.
Speaking of corruption, All the King’s Men, is based on the life of Louisiana governor, Huey Long, also known as “The Kingfish.” The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1950 and won for best picture, best actor (Broderick Crawford), and best supporting actress (Mercedes McCambridge). Sean Penn starred in the 2006 remake of this film, which was based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel of the same title.
A more insidious type of corruption occurs in the delicious 1951 best picture winner, All About Eve. Bette Davis plays an iconic Broadway star, who takes an ingenue under her wing, only to have the young woman metaphorically stab her in the back. A subsequent stage play, Applause, is well-worth seeing, and under the original title, another stage version recently opened in London. All About Eve received 14 Oscar nominations, the most ever at that time and won in six, including best costume (black and white) for Edith Head, one of the most-legendary costume designers, who won another Oscar that year for costume design (color) in Samson and Delilah.
In 1952, An American in Paris was only the third musical to win best picture and it won six other Oscars as well, including in music and cinematography. Neither Gene Kelly nor Leslie Caron, co-stars, were even nominated, but this was a good year Vivian Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden who each won Academy Awards for their roles in A Streetcar Named Desire. Marlon Brando, who voiced the famous, “Hey, Stella!” was nominated for best actor, but Humphrey Bogart took home that award for his role in The African Queen.
Gary Cooper won best actor in 1953 for the western, High Noon, in which he plays a town marshal facing a bunch of outlaws on his own. High Noon also won Oscars for musical score, song, and film editing. With fewer nominations and only two wins, The Greatest Show on Earth took home the best picture trophy that year. The circus movie’s other award, for best writing, went to Cecil B. DeMille.
Best picture in 1954 went to From Here to Eternity, which, if nothing else, is notable for its passionate beach love scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. They were both nominated for best actor and actress, but they didn’t win. Instead, their co-stars, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra, won in the supporting categories. Receiving a total of 13 nominations, From Here to Eternity tied Gone with the Wind’s record of eight Academy Awards.
On the Waterfront also won eight Academy Awards in 1955, and Marlon Brando, who had been passed over two years earlier, won best actor for his role in On the Waterfront, which was directed by Elia Kazan, who also won in his category. This film about the mob and corruption completely eclipsed another Oscar-worthy film, A Star is Born. Although it received six nominations, it did not win even one. So, technically, it should not be included in this post, but it has been granted an exception, because there has never been a more devastating and believably heartbreaking performance, compliments of the great Judy Garland.
A beloved actor, who enjoyed a long career in film and television until his death in 2012, was Ernest Borgnine. He even voiced the role of Mermaid Man in the SpongeBob SquarePants animated franchise. Borgnine won best actor for Marty, which was the 1956 best picture award recipient. In this film, he plays a middle-aged man who is trying to break free from his overbearing mother.
Another notable Academy Award winner at the 1957 awards was a short film, which won for best original screenplay, even though it contains no dialogue. This was The Red Balloon, set in post-war Paris, where a large inflatable comes to life and follows a young boy as they are pursued by a bunch of bullies. A long-time favorite film of educators around the world, if you haven’t seen it, you should.
The 1958 best picture film features a song that you would probably recognize if it were whistled for you. The Bridge on the River Kwai was nominated for eight awards and took home seven, including best picture and best actor for Alec Guinness. He played a POW British Colonel who oversaw his men’s construction of a railway bridge for the Japanese in World War II.
In the final year of 1950s Oscars ceremonies, 1959, the best picture award went to Gigi, and Vincent Minnelli won best directing for that film as well. Gigi was nominated for nine awards and won in all nine, including editing, writing, and music. Interestingly, none of the nominations went to the actors, including Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. Caron had been nominated for best actress in 1954 for Lili and would be again in 1964 for The L-Shaped Room, but she would never take home an Oscar of her own. Chevalier was nominated for best actor in 1930 for The Love Parade and was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1959 for his half-century of contributions to the world of entertainment.