This is the fourth consecutive year for which Rick at the Classic Film and TV Cafe has posed an impossible task to celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16. In the past he’s asked us to be stranded on a deserted island with only a handful of films, to choose five stars from the wealth of talent in classic film history, and to choose our classic movie comfort food. None of those were simple endeavors, but this year the task is even more difficult as Rick is asking us to choose just five of our favorite films of the 1950s, one of the most complicated decades in film, to commemorate this important day.
Trying to come up with a definitive five of all of the movies one loves from the 1950s is what I call deliciously torturous. I never mention this decade as a favorite, yet if I were to compile an all-time favorite movies list, this one would be well represented. Now, how did I attack this task? As I do most movie-related things – I went with my gut and grabbed the closest piece of paper to jot down the 1950s movies that came to mind. I didn’t give that initial list a second thought figuring that those are my favorites otherwise I’d not think of them. Or so I tell myself. From that list of sixteen, which you can see below, I chose my absolute five favorites, the ones I cannot live without. As you peruse this list you might notice some movies that are well regarded by the world and others that are well regarded just by me and a few other lucky individuals with extraordinary taste. How important the films are does not play into my final five. I consider myself a low-brow movie fan. That said, you might notice that most of those on my final five are “important” films just because that’s the way it turned out.
5 Favorite Movies of the 1950s
I have to admit that I was stuck on six for quite some time. As I’m sure is the case for most, it was difficult for me to decide which five, but I guess I did it. I also do not believe my list will surprise anyone who has previously visited this blog. I contemplated changing the choices to be more interesting, but that would not have been true. I believe that these five films would make even the most ardent anti-filmer a movie fan. Yes, I made up the phrase “anti-filmer” to describe unlucky individuals who don’t take the time to watch movies.
So, here it is – four I consider among the greatest films ever made and I can watch them on a loop and one brings me absolute joy. In no particular order, here are my five favorite movies of the 1950s:
Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)
Although to me Rear Window is Alfred Hitchcock‘s greatest cinematic achievement and it was hell keeping it off this list, I have to go with North by Northwest as my favorite for this purpose. What we have here is one of my favorite directors and one of my favorite actors at the top of their games each putting together all of the elements that made them. North by Northwest is romantic, humorous, and perhaps the greatest action adventure saga of the master’s career not to mention Cary Grant at the height of his Cary Grantness. Study of either Hitchcock’s or Grant’s careers, two of filmdom’s most important players, cannot exclude this film and it has left an indelible mark on my film-loving life. One also cannot exclude Eva Marie Saint, my favorite of Hitchcock’s blondes and a terrific pairing against Grant in romance and adventure. The bottom line is that North by Northwest is a hell of a lot of fun.
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)
For my money this is Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, which simply does not lose its impact upon repeated viewing. Norma Desmond moves me to pieces. She is one of filmdom’s most iconic characters and Gloria Swanson’s portrayal among cinema’s most legendary. Sunset Boulevard’s visuals are also memorable and the dialogue recognizable to this day. Sunset Boulevard is a miracle that fascinates me. William Holden is wonderful in it, this is my favorite of his performances and he had quite the career. Adding to this film’s fascination for me is the fact that it is about Hollywood and a world I have been enamored with my entire life.
I have to admit it took me some time to figure out what, specifically, about Sunset Boulevard to focus on for this as it is quite difficult to focus on one theme. The film is magnificent in its entirety. This is the quintessential film about Hollywood, portraying the worst of it. It’s not a pretty story. In essence its theme is about selling out or the corruption inherent in Hollywood, about exploitation. You have a has-been megastar of the silent era in Norma Desmond who is “still waving proudly at a parade which had long since passed her by.” Swanson’s Desmond is a pathetic recluse surrounded by images of herself in her former glory who still believes her adoring public is waiting for her return. Her home is a gothic mansion, an extension of her, it too had seen better days. She lives there with her devoted butler and ex-husband, Max who also used to be her director. A strikingly odd figure from the moment we see her on-screen, Norma Desmond is also quite magnificent. The outfits (by Edith Head), the make-up, the face, the eyes. I can’t take my eyes off her. We meet her as Joe Gillis does, as he happened into her house quite by accident. And the rest is a gloriously disturbing feast.
Charles Walters’ Summer Stock (1950)
This is a movie I’ve adored since I was a child, it’s the dessert among main courses on this list. Judy Garland plays Jane Falbury, the owner of a farm, which is turned into an entertainment haven for a troupe of show business vagabonds. Summer Stock was Judy’s last complete film at MGM and the word is she was having a terrible time personally, but she is in great voice and the soundtrack, which includes the iconic “Get Happy” number, is fantastic. Then you have Gene Kelly at the top of his game. Gene performs my all-time favorite of his routines here, the newspaper dance in a barn (of course), which never fails to leave me speechless. All of that make Summer Stock a worthy watch in my book, but the real fun comes thanks to the supporting cast including Phil Silvers, Marjorie Main, Eddie Bracken, Gloria DeHaven, and Ray Collins. Mixing high art by Garland and Kelly with the comedic shenanigans of that cast is just too good to resist. Summer Stock is heavenly music to me. I smile from the opening credits to the very end. My deep connection to this one is why I favor it over the brilliant Singin’ in the Rain.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950)
Here’s another choice from 1950, clearly a magnificent year in film.
All About Eve is one of those movies that grabs you from the onset. The story told here is concise, humorous and timeless told with depth and intrigue. It is clear to me why All About Eve appears on so many great movie lists – it is an unforgettable story with rich characters, fantastic writing and the acting is superb, one of the greatest role for one of filmdom’s greatest actors, Bette Davis. Now, I realize all of that simply spews what everyone says so, why is this one a favorite of mine? Well, once again, I saw this the first time as a wee Aurora and it served to introduce me to the machinations of stardom albeit to the backstabbing side of the aisle. I remember being fascinated by the people in the movie the complications of being a woman in a profession that values youth and beauty above all things. Living life with the understudy always being in the wings is scary. Eve also introduced me to Thelma Ritter in all her Brooklynese glory in addition to the voice of cad-in-residence Addison DeWitt played by George Sanders. These are impressionable and lasting lessons for a young person.
In any case, my fascination for the beautifully constructed All About Eve has not waned as a result of repeated viewings and so here it is. Not because of its record-setting 14 Academy Award nominations, but despite them.
George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951)
Directed by the great, if underappreciated George Stevens, A Place in the Sun is a powerful social drama with universal themes that remain relevant to varying degrees – outsiders searching for the American Dream at all costs, social inequality, class distinctions and such controversial topics as pre-marital sex, abortion and the death penalty. Add to those themes a great script, a beautifully photographed film – stylistically moody with noirish qualities – glamour, passion, deeply romantic scenes, suspense-filled sequences, and a superb score by Franz Waxman (one of the best in film history, as a matter of fact along with… Sunset Blvd. also by Waxman) and costuming by the great Edith Head and this film becomes one for the ages. I learned all about blocking through discussions of A Place in the Sun. Perhaps, however, this film’s greatest asset are the stellar performances of the cast.
Montgomery Clift was recognized by AMPAS with a nod for his portrayal of George Eastman, the downtrodden outsider who longs to be a part of the rich world of his New York relatives. It was a well-deserved honor for a great performance.17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor plays Angela Vickers. To this point Taylor had played only juvenile roles and only at MGM, but she delivers in A Place in the Sun for Paramount a performance well beyond her years, as far as I’m concerned. Taylor brings beauty, of course, and heart and innocence so that it is through her we empathize with George Eastman to a large extent. Angela deepens the tragedy, representing the “what could have been” factor in the film. Then you have Shelley Winters as the ill-fated Alice Tripp. Winters who’d previously portrayed sexy, glamorous women on film, agreed to be photographed as a plain, vulnerable working-class girl, a stark contrast to Taylor’s Angela, which I assume was the intention. Ms. Winters is fantastic in the role. So believable, in fact, that she was typecast for years afterwards. Finally, you have a terrific lot of supporting players here, including Raymond Burr and Anne Revere. I can’t say enough about A Place in the Sun. It just doesn’t miss a beat.
Those are my five. What are yours? Tell us for National Classic Movie Day on May 16. As Rick always mentions, if you don’t have a blog and still want to participate, you can list your five favorite 1950s films on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media on that day. Then don’t forget to visit the Classic Film and TV Cafe and read all of the lists. You may be introduced to new films or gain a bit of inspiration. The idea is to #PayClassicsForward on