Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why the 1950s Is Classic Cinema's Most Important Decade

What is classic cinema's most important decade? I suppose the answer depends on one's criteria. I'd argue that I could make a strong case for almost any decade prior to 1980. However, my personal pick is the most transitional period in movie history. I'm not talking the transition from silent films to talkies, but rather the decade that introduced a new generation of classic stars while the existing ones were still writing their legends. For those reasons--and eight more--I aim to convince you that the 1950s were the most important years for classic cinema.

Cary Grant in North By Northwest.
1. Hollywood's biggest stars were still going strong. Need some evidence? How about the following representive list of classic stars and some of their most famous 1950s films: Cary Grant and North By Northwest; James Stewart and Harvey; Bing Crosby and The Country Girl; John Wayne and The Searchers; Bette Davis and All About Eve; Marlene Dietrich and Witness for the Prosecution; Joan Crawford and Johnny Guitar; Alan Ladd and Shane; and Lana Turner and Imitation of Life. There are many others that could be listed, too. Even stars who were past their peaks had solid hits, such as Errol Flynn in Against All Flags.  

Jack Lemmon became a star in the 1950s.
2 . A whole new generation of classic stars emerged in the 1950s. It's a huge list that includes: Jack Lemmon; Marilyn Monroe; Grace Kelly; Paul Newman; Joanne Woodward; Rock Hudson; Kim Novak; Richard Burton; Sophia Loren; Marlon Brando; Dirk Bogarde; James Dean; and Steve McQueen. Except for a few careers cut tragically short, these stars would grace the silver screen for years to come. 

A theatre of 3D movie watchers.
3. Technology advances reached new heights. Fearing that television would reduce box office receipts, studio executives sought new ways to attract moviegoers. Experimental technology, such as 3D and widescreen, were brought into the mainstream. The popularity of 3D was brief, but significant--even Hitchcock made a 3D pic (Dial M for Murder). While 3D didn't last, widescreen processes--such as Cinemascope and VistaVision--would became the standard for all theatrical films. 

4. Epics made a comeback. You can credit the threat of television for this one, too. The modest-sized television screens of the 1950s worked well for intimate dramas--but not for the sweeping grandeur of historical epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and Samson and Delilah. It was a trend that would continue well into the 1960s. 

Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.
5. International cinema Prior to the 1950s, there were a handful of foreign-language films that crossed the Atlantic, such as 1939 Oscar nominee Grand Illusion. However, that changed dramatically after World War II as Rosselini, Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, and other foreign directors gained worldwide acclaim. 

Novak and Stewart in Vertigo.
6. Hitchcock regained his crown as Master of Suspense. The 1940s were a mixed bag for Hitch, with his successes (Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious) countered by boxoffice duds like The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, and Rope. In contrast, his 1950s output included three of his most acclaimed films: Rear Window; Vertigo; and North By Northwest. Even some of his lesser 1950s films became popular successes (To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much) or eventual cult classics (The Trouble With Harry). 

7. The drive-in theater was born. Well, technically, there were drive-in theaters long before 1950, but their popularity began to soar during the decade. Cinema purists may scoff at the idea of watching movies outdoors, but the drive-ins provided an inexpensive way for families and teens to enjoy a double (or even triple) feature. 

8. The studio system died and the stars become more powerful. Yes, some studios still signed young talent and groomed them for stardom (as Universal did with Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis). However, the days where big stars were bound to their studio had ended. When James Stewart agreed to star in Winchester '73, he took a percentage of the profits and became rich. Suddenly, much of the clout in Hollywood shifted from the moguls to the stars.  

Richard Widmark in Night
and the City.
9. New genres flourished. The "docudrama" that started in the late 1940s with The Naked City paved the way for gritty, shot-on-location dramas like Call Northside 777, The Sweet Smell of Success, Night and the City, and The Set-Up. Western heroes gained psychological baggage as the "adult Western" was born with flawed protagonists played by James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Glenn Ford, and John Wayne. Space travel and the atomic bomb inspired imaginative science fiction films about alien beings (good and bad) and giant monsters (always bad). Britain's Hammer Films revived Gothic horror in bloody color and made stars of Frankenstein and Dracula again.

10.  The studios learned that TV was a good thing after all. In 1957, Universal Pictures released 52 of its classic horror films to TV stations in its Shock! syndication package. No one anticipated the massive appeal those films would have with a whole new generation of viewers. The Shock package also popularized the numerous late-night weekend horror movies hosted by the likes of Vampira. Soon, a sequel set of films called Son of Shock was released. By then, the studios had grasped the importance of television.


  1. I am a child of the 50's when some of the best ever movies were made big budget and shoestring. I have to disagree about all giant monster movies being bad. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Them are still on my all time favourites list.

    1. What I meant was that there were movies about aliens good (Klaatu) and bad (the Body Snatchers). The big monsters were all bad (though I guess the giant ants in THEM were just protecting their colony).

  2. Enjoyed your article. Lots of good points about the 50s.
    I like this decade because my favorite westerns came from that period.

  3. Terrific argument. Gives me pause as I'd never considered all of your points together. I'm still unlikely to let go of my 1940s as favorite, but MAN you had me at Jack Lemmon alone!! Hmmm.


  4. Excellent summation of the decade that has been slowly but surely stealing ground from my entrenched devotion to the 40s.

  5. You always present a good argument, Rick. Though I can't say I think the decade was "classic cinema's MOST important ," I do believe the '50s were equal to the other often more celebrated decades of the classic era (for me, a period that ends to sometime in the mid- late-'70s).

    Hitchcock certainly did regain his "Master of Suspense" crown, and also enjoyed what turned out to be his "golden decade," beginning with "Strangers on a Train" in 1951 and ending with "Psycho" in 1960.

    The only aspect of the '50s you mention that doesn't excite me is the biblical epic, not one of the decade's high points, IMHO.

  6. Fine argument, the 50s clearly have a lot going for it. I seem to have more films from that decade than any other, since most of my favorite westerns, scifi, and many noirs are from it.

  7. I have to agree with you. All points are very good and my favorite fact was the appearance of new talents as Jack Lemmon and Grace Kelly... without forgetting the "older talents".
    But which year would you choose as the best? 1939? Any other? ;)

  8. You brought up some really good points going for the 1950s, and maybe it is the most "important" ( technically speaking ), but quality-wise, I would say the late 1930s and early 1940s were the peak years in Hollywood and most films made after that just seem to be trying to regain the glamour, sophistication, and heart, of the years gone by...especially when it comes to musicals and comedies. I love the 1950s for their epics alone however!

  9. Great comments by all! I think there's difference between "important" and "best" when discussing film eras. I don't know if the 1950s is the best decade--though I think there's a strong argument for it. However, it certainly changed world cinema in significant ways. And I failed to mention how Preminger effectively ended the Hays Code with THE MAN IS BLUE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM. I also omitted how the McCarthy hearings changed Hollywood.

  10. Agreed on nearly all your points, Rick - though I can't help but retain a runner-up spot for the 1960s, in many ways my favorite decade in film.