“And I think that, therefore, a lot of the novels being written in our own time, how intelligent and amusing, do not have any lasting power. They do not have that tension, that convincingness of what is absolutely new. They are novels written by people who have too many models, and possibly the same thing is true of the cinema, which is a fair comparison. The first 50 years of the cinema were absolutely great years. Original minds were at work establishing the ways to tell a story. And what is happening now is a copying, a pastiche-ing of what was done by great men.”
–S. Naipaul, PBS Online NewsHour, March 3, 2000
It is a common perception—and true—that the 1930s was a golden age for film in the U.S. The kinks inherent in converting from silent to sound were overcome in quick time, and as a new art, or half-art (there are many silent masterpieces), sound era filmmakers experimented and often perfected various aspects of movie-making. The influx of European filmmakers like directors Fritz Lang, Josef Von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch, escaping increasingly fascistic and censorious Europe, helped immeasurably to produce movies that were entertaining (especially during the Great Depression), a way for immigrants to learn English, and dealt with hot button social issues.
Even after the Production Code was instituted in 1934 to placate citizens or such organizations as the Legion of Decency complaining about violence, sex, and irreligiosity, Hollywood’s best found a way to subvert the Code and make innovative and artistic movies. The final year of the decade was and remains the greatest year in cinema history. Genre variety was on view in Destry Rides Again, Gone With The Wind, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, The Women, Love Affair, Son of Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, The Roaring Twenties, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
World War II quashed the boom. Most Continental markets were closed to U.S. product. Escapism and patriotism were dominant themes.
Little remarked upon was the second golden age in Hollywood that ran from approximately 1948 into the mid-1950s. The late 40s had witnessed a plethora of what became known as film noir, the “dark cinema.” It seems plain that the horrors of WW II caused many filmmakers, some of whom like George Stevens and John Huston, and actors like James Stewart and Clark Gable, who witnessed the war first-hand, to tackle the angst that no one really wanted to dissect or that everyday citizens were generally unaware of. Below the surface of a heady postwar economy that was creating material benefits for a large proportion of the population lay a dark underbelly of criminality which in film noir was home to a plethora of sociopaths.
Naturally not all films or even crime films made up the majority of studio product. But times had irrevocably changed, and especially under Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, issues that were addressed included racism (Pinky), antisemitism (Gentleman’s Agreement, Crossfire), alcoholism (Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, The Lost Weekend), and mental illness (The Snake Pit).
Exclusive of lavish musicals and some westerns, this remained for the most part a black and white cinema, which not only worked for noir but for movies where story counted for more than special effects and on-location shooting.
Without knowing it, mid-century Hollywood had been primed for a new golden age. Depending on your sensibilities and opinion of what constitutes excellence, this period can be dated from approximately The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to On the Waterfront. These movies were models of craftsmanship and include:
A Foreign Affair (Paramount, 1948). Director Billy Wilder’s acerbic comedy-drama filmed in the rubble of postwar Germany.
Hamlet (Rank/Universal, 1948). An impeccable rendering of Shakespeare’s most famous play features Laurence Olivier, who else? He gives an Academy Award-winning performance, needless to say.
I Remember Mama (RKO, 1948). The superb thirties screwball comedienne Irene Dunne was transitioning into more mature parts, and this George Stevens production gave her an exceptional role as Marta Hanson, gently guiding her Norwegian immigrant family through growing pains in early 20th Century San Francisco.
Red River (United Artists, 1948). The definitive cattle drive epic with John Wayne has more compelling scenes than you can shake a stick at and made Montgomery Clift a star.
The Search (MGM, 1948). Montgomery Clift is a U.S. soldier in postwar Germany who takes in a young refugee whose mother is desperately trying to find him. Gut-wrenching. Like A Foreign Affair, it was filmed on location amidst the ruins.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Warner Bros., 1948). John Huston, who’d filmed carnage on the Italian front in WW II, directed the mysterious B. Traven’s novel in which gold-seekers in Mexico confront bandidos and their own demons. Alfonso Bedoya, known as “The Face That Kills,” introduces the much-parodied “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”
All the King’s Men (Columbia, 1949). Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of political corruption gave bulky character actor Broderick Crawford the role of a lifetime and won him an Academy Award. The movie also won Best Picture. “It could have been whole world, Willie Stark.”
Champion (United Artists, 1949). Kirk Douglas scores mightily as a boxer on the rise whose drive to compete comes to a terminal finale.
The Heiress (Paramount, 1949). In another early outing, Montgomery Clift ingratiates himself with the plain but well-off Olivia de Havilland, much to the annoyance of her father played by Ralph Richardson.
A Letter to Three Wives (Fox, 1949). Joseph L. Mankiewicz won Academy Awards for direction and writing this tale of three spouses (Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern) wondering which of their husbands had an affair with mutual friend Adie Ross.
Twelve O’Clock High (Fox, 1949). Gregory Peck scored another triumph and an Academy Award nomination as General Savage, assigned a U.S. bomber group whose previous commander Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) was perceived to have burned out. Savage is a hard-ass but even he must come to terms with the need to send his B-17 crews over Germany with the certainty that many won’t return. The film was nominated for Best Picture. Others serving with distinction in the all-male cast include Paul Stewart, Millard Mitchell, and Philly’s own Hugh Marlowe. Dean Jagger won a Supporting Actor Academy Award, and his character begins the story from the perspective of 1949, when in an intensely melancholic scene he surveys the now-desolate British airfield and lets his mind wander backward in time. Alfred Newman’s score compliments perfectly a flawless movie.
White Heat (Warner Bros., 1949). Thirties era numero uno film gangster returns in rare form as the psychopathic, mother-fixated Cody Jarett. Bullet-ridden at the top of an oil tank, he’s “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
Adam’s Rib (MGM, 1950). Spencer Tracy is an assistant district attorney, Kate Hepburn his wife, defense attorney for the woman (Judy Holiday) accused of attempted murder. Beware the licorice pistol.
All About Eve (Fox, 1950). Again, Joseph Mankiewicz garners directing and writing Academy Awards, and Bette Davis is nominated for playing stage icon Margo Channing, idolized by sneaky wannabe star Eve (Anne Baxter). “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
The Asphalt Jungle (MGM, 1950). John Huston directs the first full-fledged heist movie in which the planning and aftermath are as important as the robbery itself.
Born Yesterday (Columbia, 1950). Judy Holiday won an Academy Award for her definitive dumb—but capable of learning—blonde Billee Dawn opposite William Holden and Broderick Crawford.
Father of the Bride (MGM, 1950). Spencer Tracy is ignored when his daughter (Elizabeth Taylor) plans her wedding. A scene that must rank with the most hilarious in movie history is Tracy’s nightmare in which he arrives late at church and can’t negotiate the aisle due to a rippling floor and his tuxedo being torn from his body. At the altar, Taylor must avert her eyes from a dad making a travesty of her special day.
The Gunfighter (Fox, 1950). Gregory Peck teams up again with director Henry King to star as Ringo, a gunman of renown trying to escape his past. Every young punk (perfectly cast Richard Jaeckel and Skip Homeier) is in pursuit to take his mantle. Millard Mitchell of Twelve O’Clock High is back, with Karl Malden as Mac the bartender.
Sunset Boulevard (Paramount, 1950). Yet again director Billy Wilder creates a masterpiece. Faded, reclusive movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) takes up with young man (William Holden), who becomes her live-in lover. It features the paramount tribute to Hollywood as the insane Desmond descends the stairs between reporters, thinking she’s preparing to make another movie, and marches into the camera and our psyche.
Ace in the Hole (Paramount, 1951). Journalist on the outs Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) sees a return to glory by ingratiating himself with a man trapped in a mine and presenting his story. Trouble is, Tatum may be impeding the man’s rescue. Another exemplary Billy Wilder outing.
Strangers on a Train (Warner Bros., 1951). Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and rich scion Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) discuss knocking off each other’s worst nightmares in a film that for some is director Alfred Hitchcock’s best. Trouble is, Granger doesn’t take Bruno seriously and is in for a shock.
A Streetcar Named Desire (Warner Bros., 1951). Uncouth New Orleans denizen Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) allows his wife to provide temporary residence for her sister Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh), who relies “on the kindness of strangers” but goes off the deep end when Brando forces his attentions on her. Noteworthy in several ways: Brando’s iconic method acting, Leigh’s 2nd Academy Award, Alex North’s jazz score. “Stella!”
Come Back, Little Sheba (Paramount, 1952) As the middle-aged recovering alcoholic “Doc,” robust Burt Lancaster reveled in the chance to play against type. As his frumpy wife Lola, Shirley Booth repeated her stage role and won an Academy Award.
The Lusty Men (RKO, 1952). Brokedown rodeo competitor Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) takes wannabe star Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) under his wing while Kennedy’s long-suffering wife Louise (Susan Hayward) resists temptation.
Viva Zapata! (Fox, 1952). Director Elia Kazan’s second film outing with Marlon Brando is a biopic of the Mexican revolutionary during the early days of the 20th century. Antony Quinn won the first of two Supporting Actor Academy Awards, the second being for 1956’s Lust for Life.
From Here to Eternity (Columbia, 1953). James Jones’ scandalous novel of the peacetime army in Hawaii on the eve of World War II became the movie they said couldn’t be made but turned into a multi-Academy Award winner, including Best Picture. Supporting Actor and Actress awards went to Frank Sinatra and Donna Read. Burt Lancaster, also nominated, holds it all together as Master Sergeant Milt Warden, engaging in an affair with company commander’s wife Karen (Deborah Kerr) and trying to make sure thuggish Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine) doesn’t mess with his platoon.
Executive Suite (MGM, 1954). William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck head one of the finest power casts of all time. In support: Fredric March, June Allyson, Paul Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Louis Calhern, Shelley Winters, Nina Foch.
On the Waterfront (Columbia, 1954). With the assistance of director Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando wins his first Academy Award as Terry Malloy, dockworker by day, boxer on the upswing by night. But mobster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and Terry’s duplicitous brother Charley (Rod Steiger) muddle his chances for a championship bout. Won the Best Picture Academy Award, and newcomer Eva Marie Saint Best Supporting Actress. Brando’s taxi cab conversation with Rod Steiger became a classic: “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contenda! I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it.”