A Hollywood treasure trove

  • Themes: Film

A time of unrivalled innovation, the film industry of the 1950s captured the contemporary turmoil of US society.

1950s Austin driving towards the Hollywood hills.
1950s Austin driving towards the Hollywood hills. Credit: ClassicStock / Alamy Stock Photo

Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties: The Collapse of the Studio System, the Thrill of Cinerama, and the Invasion of the Ultimate Body SnatcherTelevision, Foster Hirsch, Knopf, £25

Hollywood in the 1950s has had a bad press. Compared to earlier decades, its films have been dismissed as dull and insipid, its creative urges supposedly stifled by the conformity of Eisenhower’s America. Foster Hirsch, a professor of film at Brooklyn College, New York, begs to differ. While ‘the (superficial) reputation of the 1950s is that it was bland, stodgy, smug, sexually repressed, and conformity-ridden’, he argues in Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties, ‘the reality was far more complicated – and far more interesting’.

Of course, there is plenty to admire among Hollywood fare of the 1950s. It was the golden age of the western and the golden age of the MGM musical. It refined and developed the film noir genre that had emerged in the 1940s. Indeed, the 1950s was the most productive period of Alfred Hitchcock’s career and all 12 of his features, whether shot in colour or flecked with comedy, fell within ‘the thematic parameters of classic-era film noir’. The decade not only saw Douglas Sirk re-invent the classic melodrama, but the genre of science fiction come into its own, spurred by atomic-age anxieties.

It was also the decade of the Method actor. Between 1950 and 1960 Marlon Brando’s 11 films showed ‘unrivalled range and skill’. Throughout the remainder of his career, says Hirsch, Brando ‘reasserted his status as the greatest actor in the history of American film’ on only three occasions.

A native of California, Hirsch was six years old when the decade began and not yet nine on April 30, 1953, when he was taken to see This is Cinerama! – a film showcasing an immersive three-panel screen process – at the Warner Hollywood Theater. Given that today’s world sets such great store by ‘lived experience’, Hirsch can claim to have seen many of the films he discusses within the pages of his book during their first runs and on a screen that grew larger (and sometimes deeper) in order to stave off the threat from television. (Indeed, in the book’s extended sub-heading, he refers to television as ‘the ultimate body snatcher’, a witty reference to that great science-fiction movie of 1956, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)

The book starts with an account of how the leaders of the various studios – MGM, 20th Century-Fox, Warner Brothers, Columbia, Paramount, Universal-International, Republic Pictures, RKO, and United Artists – responded to declining audiences, technological advances, and changes in business practice. As the result of the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, the five major studios were forced to sell off their movie theatres and once James Stewart’s agent (a young Lew Wasserman, later to become the head of Universal) negotiated a percentage of profits for his client as part of a three-film deal, other stars demanded similar profit participation.

The book is not organised around film genres, which I find to be one of its many strengths. Instead of only discussing ancient-world epics in one bloc, for instance, Hirsch discusses The Robe for its commercial significance as the first CinemaScope film and The Egyptian as an aesthetic triumph of first-wave CinemaScope, while in a later section he discusses the morality of ancient-world epics and how they related to the moral assumptions of 1950s America – homo-eroticism in Ben-Hur, adultery in David and Bathsehba, and the interplay of debauchery and salvation in Samson and Delilah.

Hirsch is plainly a fan of CinemaScope, the widescreen format, pioneered by Fox, which came to dominate the market. (The early CinemaScope movies were the widest: the ratio was later squeezed to accommodate stereophonic sound on the same strip of celluloid.) In the traditional box-shaped screen format, details of set design would have to be pointed out with close-ups. CinemaScope assumed greater sophistication on the part of its viewers. Composition was more complex, as was ‘in-depth’ staging of scenes, whereas camera movement was simpler. ‘For a millennial audience, accustomed to the merciless kamikaze editing and the onslaught of close-ups and of special effects of twenty-first-century blockbuster filmmaking, the early CinemaScope style pursued at Fox might seem punishingly austere; for me it is pure cinema’.

While Hirsch is a sure-footed guide to the highways of Hollywood in the 1950s, it is in his evaluation of the byways, the roads less travelled as it were, where his analysis and perception excel. One of the most successful box-office stars of Hollywood at then time, he reminds us, was the de-sexualized gay leading man Clifton Webb, who starred in a series of comedies about philoprogenitive paterfamiliases.

Also, there were movies being made outside of the Hollywood system. Hirsch writes about the New York school of underground filmmaking, which emerged alongside the ‘Off Broadway’ theatre movement. Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s Little Fugitive, about a boy’s activities in Coney Island over a summer weekend, was shot in documentary style and had a profound influence on French New Wave directors. It was released on the art-house circuit alongside foreign movies.

An altogether different phenomenon was American International Pictures, a new studio that churned out cheap double-bill fillers catering to thrill-seeking teenagers and raised 20 per cent of its production costs directly from small-town exhibitors. Juvenile delinquency, hot-rod racing, and rock and roll music formed one strand of its output – and the mainstream studios responded by making movies about goody two-shoes teenagers starring Pat Boone and Sandra Dee – while the other strand was monster movies in which teenage hormones, marital breakdown, and communist infiltration were the subtexts.

Time and again Hirsch is obliged to say that certain matters then considered acceptable to audiences cannot be justified today and yet remain worthy of our sincere attention. For example, ‘the postwar films on race are, on the one hand, progressive for their time, and on the other, incomplete and pitted with compromise and with racial stereotyping even as they attempt to contest it’. They should not be dismissed, he argues, but studied for what they tell us about changing mores and appreciated for their graceful qualities.

What are we to make of the 1951 Warner Bros movie Storm Warning? Ginger Rogers plays a New York fashion editor who visits her sister, played by Doris Day, in a Southern town where the Ku Klux Klan holds sway. She witnesses the murder of a journalist at the hands of robed and hooded Klansmen, recognising one of them as her brother-in-law, but when called upon to give evidence, she refuses to name him. Thereafter, she is subjected to a vicious public whipping at a Klan gathering in front of a burning cross before she is rescued by the authorities. In the formidable Warner Bros tradition of hard-hitting, socially-conscious crime stories established in the 1930s, Storm Warning nonetheless sidesteps the issue of racist violence and instead depicts the Klan as a gang of fascist bullies who shake down local businesses. On one level, the film represents ‘a vision through a glass darkly of the political tyranny that was inundating Hollywood at the time of the HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] trials and the blacklist’. On another level, Hirsch believes that ‘in depicting a state of mind, rather than launching an explicit denunciation of the racist KKK, the film offers a disturbing vision of an out-of-balance America in 1950’.

As you would expect, there was a cycle of Red Scare ‘operas’, but Hollywood progressives found ingenious ways to address forbidden political themes. ‘The most potent of the era’s political parables are embedded in westerns and science fiction, two genres that both welcome and depend on symbolic displacement,’ says Hirsch, but the challenges of the blacklist are also ‘reflected in ancient-world epics in which newly former Christian communities, perceived as enemies of the state and forced to meet in secret, are spied upon and denounced, their members subject to imprisonment or death’.

In assessing the blacklist, Hirsch is more even-handed than most cultural historians. He finds the posthumous deification of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo unpalatable. The decade’s ‘political repression and the call for consensus also prompted resourceful, encoded counterattacks’.

Some science-fiction movies are analysed in a section about how it was that charmingly creaky special effects were deployed to provide low-budget fare for small-town cinemas and a fantasy-loving, thrill-seeking youth audience, while others are critiqued in the section about politics. Hirsch believes that Don Siegel’s aforementioned ‘pulp classic’ Invasion of the Body Snatchers is ‘two things at once: a right-wing allegory about communist takeover and a left-wing satire of American conformity’. Red Planet Mars, on the other hand, is absurd, but nonetheless ‘attains a true-believer intensity. If you can surrender to it on its own terms… [it] is a full-throttle guilty pleasure’. And The Girl in the Kremlin is ‘primitive beyond rehabilitation, but is it wrong about Stalin?’ Hirsch concludes that ‘it is the perspective of this loony beneath-the-radar film and not the blind faith of radical-left ideologues that was to be validated by history’.

This is why Hirsch’s book is so beguiling. He finds virtues in the most unlikely material, value in places that others might all-too-hastily condemn as being off-limits, and nobility in efforts to grapple, however ineffectively, with problematic issues.

Before Hirsch declares that Imitation of Life is ‘the greatest film of its kind ever made in America’, he puts in brackets the slyly nudging reminder ‘you know by now that I do not understate’. Hirsch is judgmental in the best sense of the word, as any true critic should be, but he resists the temptation to be condescending towards even the most lowbrow of cinematic fare, while as a cultural historian he wants us to understand the significance of small things as well as large.

Despite the challenges it faced, Hollywood in the 1950s ‘released more great films than in any other ten-year cycle in the history of American movies’ and its film culture of this period ‘was and in retrospect remains vibrant, a treasure trove of movies to learn from, argue with, savor, and enjoy’.

This book is the first part of a diptych with a projected sequel about Hollywood and the movies of the following decade. Exquisitely produced, with just the right amount of integrated pictures, Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties is a book for the ages.


Christopher Silvester