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Not So Staid

The movie industry was facing oblivion in the 1950s; they coped with it much better than today.

USA Los Angeles Hollywood Studios Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios (MGM) - 1955 Vintage property of ullstein bild

Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties, by Foster Hirsch, Knopf, 639 pages.

Conventional wisdom tells us that few decades in American culture were blander, more innocuous, or less interesting than the 1950s. These were the years of men in gray flannel suits and girls who wanted to be just like Sandra Dee. Yet if that stereotypical view of the 1950s were true, how could the decade have given us countless movie masterpieces, most of them made in the alleged epicenter of conformity, Hollywood during the studio system? These masterpieces, far from playing it safe, were often bold, sometimes radical, and consistently engaged with challenging issues and thorny themes.

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This is the era taken up in a brilliant new book by Foster Hirsch, a gifted, unusually open-minded film historian whose book on film noir, The Dark Side of the Screen, is a classic and whose biography of Otto Preminger ought to be. To his eternal credit, Hirsch sweeps aside the clichés and puts forth an entirely fresh, convincing, and engaging view of the 1950s. This is the best work of Hollywood history since Andrew Sarris’s “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949, published over two decades ago. Appropriately, Hirsch picks up, chronologically speaking, where Sarris left off.

Rejecting received orthodoxy about the decade, Hirsch paints a portrait of a dramatic stretch in American history that was threatened by the Cold War, convulsed by McCarthyism, and held together, just barely, by President Dwight Eisenhower. Ike himself is often underestimated as a colorless political figure, but in Hirsch’s correct reading he was the glue that held the nation together. “The president’s smooth political style, his ability to work both sides of the aisle, his aura of affability . . . were effective ways of guiding the country through one of the most divisive times in its history,” writes Hirsch.

As with our 34th president, the motion picture industry was only smooth and affable on the surface. In fact, the business was coping with eroding audience interest in moviegoing amid the advent of television. It also faced political pressure to conform to the prevailing anticommunist sentiment and comply with the blacklist. This state of affairs resulted in a run of exceedingly good, complicated, and enduring movies.

“As it was fighting for survival, the American film industry in the dying days of the studio system adopted a go-for-broke, let’s-try-anything approach that provided a smorgasbord of offerings, from high-end adaptations of literary classics to down-and-dirty monster movies,” Hirsch writes. In the hundreds of carefully argued, robustly researched pages that follow, he goes through many of these offerings in great depth and detail. 

In the present age, Hollywood seems utterly lethargic, unable to move past its commitment to comic book movies, despite their diminishing returns. At midcentury, by contrast, the studio bosses were remarkably resourceful in coming up with alternate technologies to lure the public from their TV sets. One of the most visually dynamic was the 3-D format, which is often associated with cheesy effects and forgettable pictures but which Hirsch remembers with precision and fondness. “It is a common misperception that the 3-D spectacles used for the first-wave series were cheap, paperweight green-and-red anaglyphic glasses,” he writes. “Not true: the thick glasses we were given then were the equivalent of those handed out for contemporary 3-D.” 

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More important than his correcting of the record about the 3-D glasses is his attempt to even the score on behalf of 3-D movies. Hirsch persuasively defends the artistry of Andre de Toth’s House of Wax (“Throughout, de Toth uses depth of field to support a mise-en-scene of encroaching terror”) and makes a fresh case for Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, which is often wrongly regarded as stagy.

Hirsch examines the industry’s widescreen formats, including CinemaScope and VistaVision, with one eye on the business justifications for such innovations and another on the artistic fruits they bore. He rightly perceives widescreen as encouraging neutral compositions and what he calls a “‘cool,’ less-is-more style of acting.” It’s an imperious format, not an intimate one, but it was tailor-made for directors like the great Otto Preminger, who, with his preference for “long takes and sinuous camera movement,” was a good match for “the objectivity and detachment of early Fox CinemaScope.” 

Even lesser films are given a fair hearing, including fluff like Three Coins in the Fountain. Hirsch recalls the gasp in the audience when a character showed off a huge living room captured in all its glory in CinemaScope. The relatively tedious but undeniably gorgeous The Egyptian “is not on any lists of great Hollywood films,” Hirsch admits, “but as the single finest example of first-wave CinemaScope, a work of formal as well as thematic beauty, it deserves pantheon status.”

Hirsch’s brio in issuing such pronouncements is part of the pleasure of the book. We know we are in good hands because the author seems to have seen everything, studied everything, and considered all arguments when deciding on a picture’s merits or demerits. He is especially tactful in navigating the murky political terrain of the ’50s. Obviously, many of the pictures produced to reaffirm the anticommunist hysteria of the age are facile and forgettable, but that isn’t a foregone conclusion for him. “Artistic quality cannot be measured solely in terms of how any single film satisfies or disappoints politically engaged viewers,” Hirsch writes, necessarily reminding the reader of something most civilized people once agreed about. 

Amid the anticommunist junk churned out by Hollywood, Hirsch takes seriously Leo McCarey’s notorious Red Scare picture My Son John, which he judges to be “an overwrought piece of Christian propaganda infused with uber-patriotic paranoia” but also “a unique period piece that expresses with deeper conviction than any other anticommunist film of the time the fear and loathing with which communism was widely regarded.” The film is anchored by a brilliant performance by Helen Hayes, playing a loving and lovable mother understandably left bereft by her son’s militant communism and general obnoxiousness. Hirsch shares that, when he teaches My Son John in his classes at Brooklyn College, his students invariably ask about the “wonderful” actress who plays the part. 

Hirsch is equally bold when he writes, provocatively, that “the fear and paranoia generated by the blacklist were ‘good’ for movies in two ways”: first, because the mood of suspicion helped birth key works in film noir, sci-fi, and melodrama; second, because it forced filmmakers opposed to the blacklist to communicate their opposition through “allusiveness, implications, and subtexts of metaphor and allegory,” all the stuff of good art.   

While Hirsch makes clear that there were studio releases that went against the anticommunist mania, he doesn’t issue points merely for good intentions. A case in point is a movie called Storm Center, starring Bette Davis as a librarian who declines to go along with the plan to banish Marx and Engels from the stacks. It’s as lame as it sounds. “Unfortunately, it is a bad film, as overwrought and cartoonlike as the most rabid anti-Soviet features,” writes Hirsch, who sometimes must admit that the greatest films simply cannot be placed into political categories, including Don Siegel’s allegorically rich sci-fi picture, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “Can the film be two things at once: a right-wing allegory about communist takeover and a left-wing satire of American conformism?” he asks. “Yes, I think it can, and I think it is.”

At the same time, Hirsch rightly credits Hollywood’s tradition for films that reflected healthy, mainstream liberal sentiments, such as Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon—a picture so canonical that it is perhaps in danger of becoming too familiar and therefore benefits from Hirsch’s robust appreciation. There were many such productions during these years, films that dealt with social issues, humanely, sensitively, and persuasively, or otherwise broke boundaries, including Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow, King Vidor’s Japanese War Bride, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song. Hirsch contrasts his own scholarly, empathetic approach to these films with the “punishing, holier-than-thou activist with an agenda” approach adopted by many film scholars today.

As Hirsch reckons with a seemingly endless parade of films that are each more than half a century old, he strikes an exceedingly difficult balance between taking the films on their own terms and acknowledging contemporary objections to certain attitudes or biases inherent in them. He does not let these objections overwhelm his analysis. For example, the pioneering director Raoul Walsh’s pre-Civil War drama Band of Angels, starring Clark Gable and Sidney Poitier, is described as “the most sustained treatment of slavery” in 1950s cinema, and although Hirsch says it “has something to offend nearly everyone,” he praises it nonetheless: “This ornery, fearless film critical of both Yankees and Confederates represents a lopsided kind of Hollywood progressivism as it sanctions an interracial romance, denounces segregation, and assigns the destiny of postbellum plantation society to a Black man struggling with rage at the injustices visited upon his people.”

Yet Hirsch would rather make a case than mount a defense, and the book is at its best when its author’s enthusiasm shines through. It is a joy to read him describe the films he loves. Vincente Minnelli’s grand musical Gigi is called “the phoenix that rose from the ashes of a studio and a system in disheartening decline,” Alfred Hitchcock’s broodingly personal Vertigo is described as “a treasure trove of self-revelation,” and King Vidor’s adaptation of War and Peace is acknowledged as “the most elaborate reader’s guide in movie history.” Hirsch’s taste is all-embracing: everything from great monster movies, such as Them!, to great melodramas, including the collected works of Douglas Sirk. Of course, there are plenty of pictures that Hirsch doesn’t like—I have the sneaking suspicion that I am far fonder of Howard Hawks than he is—but his genuine admiration for the films of this decade is his best argument for their lasting value. 

In an epilogue, Hirsch reconciles his well-informed enthusiasm with the attitudes of the present moment, in which offending films from the past are continually reexamined and often expelled from the canon. Wait just a moment, Hirsch cautions. “The films of the postwar decade can (and should) be ticketed for the areas where they are deficient, evasive, wrongheaded, dismissive, or insensitive,” he writes. “But instead of issuing a broad fatwa and tearing down the house, how about pointing out what the old-timers got right?” For several hundred pages, Hirsch does just that, and he ends with a memory of seeing a movie made a decade after the end of the glorious, and gloriously complex, period under consideration here—1970’s overstuffed, but not altogether unappealing Song of Norway, starring Florence Henderson as the wife of Edvard Grieg, which, he acknowledges, was “sublimely out of touch” with Hollywood at the time. Maybe it resembled a relic from the ’50s, but was that such a bad thing?

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