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Cinema History, Chapter 4

The 1950s--Focus on American Films

Penguin Drive-In, Manitowoc, WICompiled by
Robert E. Yahnke
Professor, General College,
University of Minnesota

For some reason the 1950s have slipped past our consciousness. They exist in a limbo between the focused efforts of Americans to win World War II and the disappointments and cynicism of the 1960s (the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy). What happened to the 1950s? They were an era of economic growth for the "haves" in America, and an era of renewed separation of the races in this country. Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) signaled the beginning of a new era in race relations in this country. But that act was again only prelude to the tumultuous 1960s. Where were the 1950s?

With the 1950s came the advent of television sets in every home, cinemascope and VistaVision as a desperate attempt by studios to lure viewers back to theaters, drive-in movies, science-fiction films that featured aliens who were substitutes for the Communist menace to the East, and the gradual dissolution of the famed Studio System that had fueled the economy of Hollywood for the past thirty years. Several directors who made their reputations during the Studio Era in the 1940s (Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford) continued to make good films (as well as mediocre ones). But you won't see their names on the next page (The 1960s, Rise of the Director as Auteur). The last vestiges of the Studio System dissolved in the face of new directors, new approaches to acting, and new ideas about the depiction of the real world in films.

The 1950s--Focus on American Films
1950 All About Eve Joseph Mankiewicz
1950 Sunset Boulevard Billy Wilder
1951 An American in Paris Vincent Minnelli
1952 Singin' in the Rain Stanley Donen
1952 The African Queen John Huston
1952 High Noon Fred Zinnemann
1953 From Here to Eternity Fred Zinnemann
1953 Shane George Stevens
1954 The Caine Mutiny Edward Dmytryk
1954 On the Waterfront Elia Kazan
1954 Rear Window Alfred Hitchcock
1954 A Star is Born George Cukor
1955 Marty Delbert Mann
1955 Rebel Without a Cause Nicholas Ray
1956 The Searchers John Ford
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai David Lean
1957 Paths of Glory Stanley Kubrick
1957 12 Angry Men Sydney Lumet
1958 Separate Tables Delbert Mann
1958 Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock
1958 Witness for the Prosecution Billy Wilder
1959 North by Northwest Alfred Hitchcock
1960 The Apartment Billy Wilder
1960 Psycho Alfred Hitchcock
1960 Wild River Elia Kazan
1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance John Ford


In the 1950s some of America's greatest actors played characters who were past their prime, emotionally vulnerable, with fragile egos. Bette Davis stars as an aging actress manipulated by an aggressive younger actress in All About Eve (1950); Humphrey Bogart plays a broken-down alcoholic in The African Queen (1954) and a psychotic naval captain in The Caine Mutiny (1954); Gary Cooper is an aging sheriff who stands down the bad guys one last time (with the help of Grace Kelly) in High Noon (1952); Jimmy Stewart returns to the screen after an interlude as a Western star to appear in two Hitchcock films, Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). In both films he plays middle-aged men who have suffered debilitating injuries psychological and physical). No tough Western hero in these films!

Even the four Westerns in this listing resonate to the theme of an ending of an era as well as a critique of an era. John Wayne, a stalwart of the American Western, appears as a vulnerable and psychologically unstable character in two John Ford Westerns, The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In the former film Wayne loses all but one member of his family to an attack by Native Americans. He becomes obsessed with finding his niece, who has been carried away by the Indians, and is forced to confront deep-seated feelings of racism and miscegenation in his search.

In the latter film Wayne plays a rough and capable Westerner who fast is becoming an anachronism in the changing landscape of the American West. The territory is moving toward statehood, and a new breed of man is required to take charge of it. That man is represented by the ineffectual Jimmy Stewart, who refuses to wear a gun, and who is committed to the ideals of political justice and compromise. John Wayne plays the man who shot Liberty Valance, an evil gunman from the "old school" (compare Jack Palance's portrayal of the gunman in Shane, 1953). But the credit for killing Valance goes to Jimmy Stewart, who had reluctantly picked up a gun and tried to use it against the hardened killer. Of course, John Wayne saves Stewart's life, but loses the woman he loves to Stewart. The latter goes on to be the first governor of the new state. He is remembered as "the man who shot Liberty Valance."

The ending of the film is bittersweet. Who are the heroes? Where is the justice in such experiences? The ambivalence that is at the heart of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is reminiscent of the mixed feelings one has to the town defended by Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952). No one steps forward to help Cooper stand up against the villains, who are set to appear at 12:00 on the main street of town. He faces them alone (but is saved when his Quaker sweetheart shoots one of the bad guys). The two ride off into the sunset after they have thumbed their noses at the town. What kind of Westerns are these? They sound like critiques of the American way of life--not a thing to be taken lightly in the 1950s. Conformity! Support your government! Fight the Communist peril! Defend the American Family! Respect authority! March in step! One, two! One, two!

A fourth Western, Shane (1953), also tells the story of a former gunman who has forsaken that weapon and tried to live a peaceful life. Shane is a former gunslinger who tries to settle down. But conflicts in the outside world find their way to his doorstep, and he is compelled to strap on his guns one more time and dispatch the evil Jack Palance gunslinger (who wears black!). What does Shane do at the end of the film? He rides away from the secure world he had tried to become a part of. "Shane! Come back!" little Brandon de Wilde cries to no avail. Where has Shane gone? To join John Wayne at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or to join Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly after they leave town. If the 1950s were renowned as an era of conformity and stability, then why does the Western genre seem to self-destruct during this era?

What begins to happen during the 1950s is a movement away from the big Studio Film to the little film about believable characters whose conflicts are more inward than outward. In some respects the best films of the 1950s are the ones that forecast the great films on the 1960s. Examples include On the Waterfront (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1954), Marty (1955), Paths of Glory (1957), 12 Angry Men (1957), Separate Tables (1958), and Wild River (1960). These films have in common two important qualities--directors interested in telling small but important stories and fresh actors who bring new dimensions to characterization and emotional intensity.

Elia Kazan, who cofounded the Actor's Studio in 1947, where the "method acting" approach was refined. Kazan brought Marlon Brando, a proponent of method acting, to the attention of the cinema world in the 1951 film, A Streetcar Named Desire based upon the Tennessee Williams play). Brando had performed the role on Broadway. But when audiences saw Brando in On the Waterfront (1954), interacting with the fine actors Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb, the world took notice. Acting in film would never be the same. Brando became his characters. He brooded, he grimaced, he groaned, he mumbled, he sighed--he was the character.

Two other actors who followed in Brando's footsteps were James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Both brought a quality of brooding intensity to their roles. Seeing James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause is a rewarding experience because he represents all the alienated teenagers who were sickened by the deadening hypocrisy and shallowness of 1950s values. His untimely death in 1955 cut short what would have been a promising film career.

Alfred Hitchcock's star continued to rise in the 1950s with three significant films. In Rear Window (1954) Hitchcock recreated a voyeuristic world through the eyes of his Jimmy Stewart character. The character's "rear window" looks out upon the windows of other apartment dwellers, and soon his curiosity with the lives they lead almost destroys him. In Vertigo (1957) Hitchcock again explores some of the dark regions of the human heart--obsessive and self-destructive behaviors, the dangerous power of a man to "remake" a woman in the likeness of his ideal woman, and the complicated deceits that people play out against each other. Vertigo is an unrelenting story that provides little emotional relief before its fateful close.

The 1950s ended with an ominous note with regard to my film-viewing experience.  I was thirteen years old when I saw Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) with my parents, my cousins, and my siblings. I remember that my sister and my cousins Judy and Nona held their hands over their faces during the gruesome shower scene. I watched it with my eyes wide open. I didn't understand much of the symbolism of what I was watching. But I did appreciate the art of it; in fact, I was in awe of what Hitchcock was doing with film technique. Why that shot? Why that angle? Why that order of shots? I didn't know it then, but I was hooked on film.

A last note about a special film during this decade. In 1955 Ernest Borgnine, known for his prior work as a "heavy" (bad guy) in films, played a meek and mild butcher from Brooklyn in Delbert Mann's Marty. The film had appeared on television first (starring Rod Steiger--in his typically understated style of acting). Borgnine brought out the sympathy and the humanity of an overweight, homely man, apparently destined for bachelorhood, who spends all of his free time hanging out with the other guys in the neighborhood bar. I will never forget the litany of, "What do you want to do tonight?" "I don't know. What do you want to do tonight?" Men heading toward middle age with little prospects for emotional commitments to long-term relationships. Dead-ends, lonely lives, wasted lives. Oh, the joy of watching Marty dance with the homely woman and tell her deadpanned, "Hey, you're not such a dog after all."

For the next chapter in this Cinema History
See Chapter 5
Growing Up on the Films of the 1960s

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