The History of Film
The 1950s

The Cold War and Post-Classical Era
The Era of Epic Films and
the Threat of Television

Part 1


Film History of the 1950s

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6


Film History by Decade

Index | Pre-1920s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s
1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s
| 2010s



The Dawning of the 50s:

The 50s decade was known for many things: post-war affluence and increased choice of leisure time activities, conformity, the Korean War, middle-class values, the rise of modern jazz, the rise of 'fast food' restaurants and drive-ins (Jack in the Box - founded in 1951; McDonalds - first franchised in 1955 in Des Plaines, IL; and A&W Root Beer Company - formed in 1950, although it had already established over 450 drive-ins throughout the country), a baby boom, the all-electric home as the ideal, white racist terrorism in the South, the advent of television and TV dinners, abstract art, the first credit card (Diners Club, in 1951), the rise of drive-in theaters to a peak number in the late 50s with over 4,000 outdoor screens (where young teenaged couples could find privacy in their hot-rods), and a youth reaction to middle-aged cinema. Older viewers were prone to stay at home and watch television (about 10.5 million US homes had a TV set in 1950).

Marilyn MonroeIn the period following WWII when most of the films were idealized with conventional portrayals of men and women, young people wanted new and exciting symbols of rebellion. Hollywood responded to audience demands - the late 1940s and 1950s saw the rise of the anti-hero - with stars like newcomers James Dean, Paul Newman (who debuted in the costume epic The Silver Chalice (1954)) and Marlon Brando, replacing more proper actors like Tyrone Power, Van Johnson, and Robert Taylor. [In later decades, this new generation of method actors would be followed by Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino.] Sexy anti-heroines included Ava Gardner, Kim Novak, and Marilyn Monroe - an exciting, vibrant, sexy star.

One of the decade's best comedies was Harvey (1950), with James Stewart as a lovable, eccentric drunk named Elwood P. Dowd whose best friend was an imaginary, six-foot-tall rabbit. Another of the most popular films in the late 50s was Leo McCarey's romantic drama An Affair to Remember (1957), the story of an ill-fated romance between Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant due to an automobile accident, delaying a rendezvous at the top of the Empire State Building in New York City. It was a remake of the director's own tearjerker film Love Affair (1939) with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. The same story would inspire the making of Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle (1993) with leads Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (who had first appeared together in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)), and Love Affair (1994) with real-life couple Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.

The New Teenage, Youth-Oriented Market:

The 50s decade also ushered in the age of Rock and Roll and a new younger market of teenagers. This youth-oriented group was opposed to the older generation's choice of nostalgic films, such as director Anthony Mann's and Universal's popular musical biopic The Glenn Miller Story (1954), starring James Stewart as the big band leader, duplicated in Universal's follow-up musical biography The Benny Goodman Story (1956) with Steve Allen (his film debut in a serious dramatic role) as the talented clarinet player. They preferred Rock Around the Clock (1956) that featured disc jockey Alan Freed and the group Bill Haley and His Comets (singing the title song) and many others (such as the Platters, and Freddy Bell and The Bell Boys) - it was the first film entirely dedicated to rock 'n' roll. It was quickly followed by two more similar films featuring Alan Freed (as Himself) -- Don't Knock the Rock (1956) and Rock, Rock, Rock (1956). Both films argued that rock-and-roll was a new, fun, and wholesome type of music. However, the adult generation continued to regard the new youthful generation (and the rise of juvenile deliquency) with skepticism and fear, as illustrated in the film adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's stage play, The Bad Seed (1956). The thriller demonstrated that evil could reside in a young, cute serial killer (played by Patty McCormack).

American BandstandBandstand first began as a local program for teens on WFIL-TV (now WPVI), Channel 6 in Philadelphia in early October, 1952. In mid-1956, the new host chosen for ABC-TV's American Bandstand was 26 year-old Dick Clark. By the time the show was first aired nationally, in mid-1957, it had became a mainstay for rock group performances.

The rock and roll music of the 50s was on display, along with big-bosomed star Jayne Mansfield as a talentless, dumb blonde sexpot in writer/director Frank Tashlin's satirical comedy The Girl Can't Help It (1956). Marilyn Monroe's foil Tom Ewell starred in the film as the protagonist. It was the first rock and roll film to be taken seriously, with 17 songs in its short 99 minutes framework. Great rock and roll performers included Ray Anthony, Fats Domino, The Platters, Little Richard and his Band (featured in the title song), Gene Vincent and His Bluecaps, Eddie Cochran (with his screen debut) and others. American youth wanted to hear their popular groups in their films that they chose to view, including Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Ritchie Valens, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Gene Vincent, and The Platters.

Sometimes, to appeal to the new juvenile market, actors were miscast, such as clean-cut crooner Pat Boone in April Love (1957), playing a juvenile delinquent who was sent to his uncle's Kentucky farm for rehabilitation. The title song, however, became a big hit for the singer/actor. By the last year of the decade, the youth market in all its forms was worth $10 billion a year. Tragedy also struck in the last year of the decade, when pop idols 22 year old songwriter and singer Buddy Holly, 17 year old Latino singer Ritchie Valens, and 28 year old J.P. Richardson (aka radio DJ "The Big Bopper") were killed in a light plane crash on February 3, 1959 in an Iowa cornfield, while on a "Winter Dance Party" tour. [Both singers were later honored with biopics: The Buddy Holly Story (1978) and La Bamba (1987), and also by Don McLean's 1972 hit song American Pie.]

High School Confidential - 1958Hollywood soon realized that the affluent teenage population could be exploited, now more rebellious than happy-go-lucky - as they had been previously portrayed in films (such as the Andy Hardy character played by Mickey Rooney). The influence of rock 'n' roll surfaced in Richard Brooks' box-office success, Blackboard Jungle (1955). It was the first major Hollywood film to use R&R on its soundtrack - the music in the credits was provided by Bill Haley and His Comets - their musical hit "Rock Around the Clock." The film also starred Glenn Ford as a war veteran and clean-cut All-American novice teacher at inner city North Manual HS (New York), where the students, led by a disrespectful, sneering punk (Vic Morrow), test his tolerance. [One of the other persuasive youths was a young Sidney Poitier.]

Another film, that came later in the decade, that also exploited the new teenage market's non-conformist attitudes, was Jack Arnold's exploitative juvenile delinquent film, High School Confidential (1958), featuring drugs in a high school dope ring, lots of 50's slang words and hep-talk, Russ Tamblyn as an undercover cop posing as a student, switchblade fights, drag races, Mamie Van Doren as Tamblyn's nympho aunt, and Jerry Lee Lewis singing the title song in its opening.

Two Early 50's Youth Films and Their Influential Actors:

Two other youth-oriented actors and their films in the mid-50s would portray the potentially-scary, self-expressive, and rebellious new teenage population.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band1. Marlon Brando: A Symbol of Adolescent, Anti-Authoritarian Rebellion

A young Marlon Brando (1924-2004) was trained by Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio in New York in raw and realistic 'method acting,' and influenced by Stella Adler. He starred in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway (opposite Jessica Tandy as Blanche) in 1947, and would later repeat his work on film in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and receive an Oscar nomination. He also contributed a memorable role as a self-absorbed teen character. He played Johnny - an arrogant, rebellious, tough yet sensitive leader of a roving motorcycle-biking gang (wearing a T-shirt and leather jacket) that invaded and terrorized a small-town in Laslo Benedek's controversial The Wild One (1954) (banned in Britain until a decade and a half later). The film was noted for one line of dialogue, typifying his attitude: "What are you rebelling against?" Brando's reply: "Whadda ya got?" A nasty Lee Marvin led a rival gang of bikers named The Beetles.

[Brando's photo as biker Johnny later appeared on the front-sleeve of the famed mid-late 60s Beatles' album: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Brando's new style of acting would be forever emulated by future generations of actors, including Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, and later Russell Crowe.)]

2. James Dean: The 'First American Teenager'

Giant - 1956James DeanThe anguished, introspective teen James Dean (1932-1955) was the epitome of adolescent pain. Dean appeared in only three films before his untimely death in the fall of 1955. His first starring role was in Elia Kazan's adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden (1955) as a Cain-like son named Cal vying for his father's (Raymond Massey) love against his brother Aron.

It was followed by Nicholas Ray's best-known melodramatic, color-drenched film about juvenile delinquency and alienation, Warner Bros.' Rebel Without a Cause (1955). This was the film with Dean's most-remembered role as mixed-up, sensitive, and defiant teenager Jim Stark involved in various delinquent behaviors (drunkenness, a switchblade fight, and a deadly drag race called a Chicken Run), and his archetypal scream to his parents: "You're tearing me apart!"

Dean also starred in his third (and final) feature, George Stevens' epic saga Giant (1956) set in Texas, and also starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Dennis Hopper. (The 24 year-old actor was killed in a tragic car crash on September 30th 1955 while driving his Silver Porsche 550 Spyder -- affectionately nicknamed 'The Little Bastard', around the time that Giant was completed and about a month before Rebel opened. Dean was on his way to car races in Salinas on October 1st. The crash occurred at the intersection of Routes 41 and 46 near Paso Robles at Cholame, and he died enroute to the hospital.) [Dean's two co-stars in the film also experienced untimely deaths: Sal Mineo (as Plato) was stabbed to death at age 37, and Natalie Wood (as Judy) drowned at age 43.] In his honor, James Dean was awarded two post-humous Best Actor nominations: for his role as rebellious Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955) and as oil-rich ranch-hand Jett Rink in Giant (1956).

Elvis 'The Pelvis' Presley: The King of Rock 'N Roll

Elvis PresleyElvis' first record was That's All Right Mama, cut in July, 1954 in Memphis and released on the Sun Records label. At the time of his first hit song Heartbreak Hotel, singer Elvis Presley made his first national TV appearance in January 1956 on CBS' Tommy (and Jimmy) Dorsey's Stage Show, although he is best remembered for his controversial, sexy, mid-1956 performance of Hound Dog on the Milton Berle Show, and for three rock 'n roll performances on the Ed Sullivan Show from September 1956 to January 1957 - his last show was censored by being filmed from the 'waist-up'.

He was also featured as an actor in many money-making films after signing his first film deal in 1956. His screen debut was in Paramount's Civil War drama Love Me Tender (1956) (originally titled The Reno Brothers), with a #1 single hit song ballad. Jailhouse Rock (1957) is generally acknowledged as his most famous and popular film, but he also appeared in Loving You (1957) (noted for his first screen kiss) and in director Michael Curtiz' King Creole (1958) as a New Orleans teen rebel (acclaimed as one of his best acting roles) before the decade ended. His induction into the Army in 1958 was a well-publicized event. After his Army stint, he also starred in G.I. Blues (1960), in Don Siegel's western Flaming Star (1960) (with only two songs) as a half-breed youth, in the southern melodrama Wild in the Country (1961), and in other formulaic 60's films (i.e., Blue Hawaii (1961), Kid Galahad (1962), and his biggest box-office hit Viva Las Vegas (1964)). By the 70s, his film roles had deteriorated, and although he returned to stage performances and revived his singing career, he was physically on the decline until his death in August, 1977 of heart disease and drug abuse.

Cheap Teen Movies:

Attack of the Crab Monsters - 1957Young people attended outdoor drive-ins that showed exploitative, cheap fare created especially for them in a newly-established teen/drive-in genre. Producer/director Roger Corman (the 'B-movie King'), known for feeding low-budget, short, sci-fi/horror quickies to drive-in theatres and other neighborhood venues in the late 50s, generated films such as:

  • Not of This Earth (1957) [the alien invasion film was remade by Jim Wynorski as Not of This Earth (1988) with ex-porn star Traci Lords in her first post-adult film appearance, in the Beverly Garland role]; originally released as part of a double-bill with Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
  • Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
  • The Blob (1958) featuring Steve McQueen in his first starring role as a high-schooler in a film about a meteorite that oozed a disgusting, gooey substance that ate people
  • A Bucket of Blood (1959)
  • The Wasp Woman (1959)

Other examples included the first rock & roll horror film - Gene Fowler's I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957) (Michael Landon's first feature film), and Ed Wood's debut transvestite shock film Glen or Glenda (1953).

The Threat of Television:

NBC TV LogosFilm attendance declined precipitously as free TV viewing (and the increase in popularity of foreign-language films) made inroads into the entertainment business. In 1951, NBC became America's first nationwide TV network, and in just a few years, 50% of US homes had at least one TV set. In March of 1953, the Academy Awards were televised for the first time by NBC - and the broadcast received the largest single audience in network TV's five-year history. By 1954, NBC's Tonight Show was becoming one of the most popular late-night TV shows.

Dragnet - 1954 With a steep decline in weekly theatre attendance, studios were forced to find creative ways to make money from television - converted Hollywood studios were beginning to produce more hours of film for TV than for feature films. [In mid-decade, the average film budget was less than one million dollars.] And by mid-decade, the major studios began selling to television their film rights to their pre-1948 films for broadcast and viewing. The first feature film to be broadcast on US television (on November 3, 1956), during prime-time, was The Wizard of Oz (1939).

TV stars became cross-over film stars - the first was Charlton Heston. In early 1950, Western cowboy star Gene Autry was the first film star to announce his appearance in a sponsored TV series. The feature-length, color version of Dragnet (1954), with popular detective TV star Jack Webb (serving as director, producer, and star) as dead-pan LAPD Sgt. Joe Friday, was the first film based on a TV show - the then-popular B/W TV show of the same name ran from 1951-1959. It was memorable for its "Dum, de Dum Dum" theme music (that first made an appearance in the Miklos Rozsa soundtrack for the film noir The Killers (1946)), and the disclaimer: "Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."

In the 1955-56 season, the ABC TV show Warner Brothers Presents was the first television program produced by Warner Brothers Pictures, and marked the introduction of the major Hollywood studios into television production. It was a survival tactic for the studios to pioneer in television series production. In the same year, Twentieth Century-Fox Hour played on CBS and MGM Parade on ABC. And later, in the mid- to late 50s, Warner Bros. studios produced more TV shows, such as: their first hit series Cheyenne (1955-1963 with Clint Walker), Maverick (1957-1962, first with James Garner) and 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964).

You Bet Your LifeIn 1956, the studios lifted the ban against film stars making TV appearances. Fast-talking, cigar-smoking, and quick-witted Groucho Marx (of the famed Marx Brothers) brought his popular radio show You Bet Your Life to television (NBC) as a game show in 1950, with a duck that would descend with $100 if one said the secret word. It lasted until 1961 - its theme music "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" was taken from the Marx Bros.' second film Animal Crackers (1930). Other TV shows became popular:

  • the early sitcom I Love Lucy (on CBS, beginning in 1951); its stars Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz had founded Desilu Productions in 1950
  • the family show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (on ABC, from 1952-1966)
  • The Donna Reed Show (on ABC, from 1958-1966)
  • The Honeymooners (from 1951 and after)
  • Lassie (on CBS, from 1954-1971)
  • Gunsmoke (on CBS, from 1955-1975) with James Arness as Matt Dillon
  • This is Your Life (on NBC, from 1952-1961)

One positive side-effect of the growing influence of American television in the 50s was that it was becoming the proving ground for many aspiring directors. Some of the directors who began in TV in this decade were to make some of Hollywood's best movies in the 60s:

Marty - 1955Because of the emergence of television as a major entertainment medium, many studios converted their sound stages for use in television production. Because labor was cheaper abroad, many producers were taking their film production overseas.

Delbert Mann's direction of Paddy Chayefsky's script (initially written as a TV play and produced for NBC Television Playhouse and aired in 1953 with Rod Steiger) for the black and white Marty (1955) about a romantically-insecure and lonely Bronx butcher (Best Actor-winning Ernest Borgnine) who found love with someone his friends called a 'dog'. It was a big winner on the film screen - it was the first American film chosen at the Cannes Film Festival as Best Picture since the award was instituted, and it won four major Academy Awards, including Best Picture from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

King Solomon's Mines - 1950Because television (a small black and white screen) had become affordable and a permanent fixture in most people's homes, the movies also fought back with gimmicks - color films, bigger screens, and 3-D. Bigger and more colorful films and screens, and big scale, profitable box-office epics, such as Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949), the popular Biblical story starring long-haired Broken Arrow - 1950and virile Victor Mature and the beautifully-bewitching Hedy Lamarr with exposed belly-button, and MGM's expensive romantic adventure King Solomon's Mines (1950), filmed on location in Africa, were designed to lure movie-goers back into the theatres. By the mid-50s, more than half of Hollywood's productions were made in color to take Americans away from their B/W TV sets.

Coincidentally, two of the biggest films at the start of the decade, director Henry King's Twelve O'Clock High (1949) about the stress experienced by American bombing units in England, and Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow (1950), an "adult-Western" of the blood-brother relationship between an Indian agent (James Stewart) and Apache chief Cochise (white actor Jeff Chandler), would both become episodic TV series in future years. Along with Samuel Fuller's Run of the Arrow (1957), Broken Arrow was notable for having a sympathetic depiction of the Native American culture and concerns - the first film to be shot from the Indians' point-of-view for many years. This revisionist effort would be followed years later by the politically-correct, award-winning Dances With Wolves (1990).

Film History of the 1950s
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

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