Thursday, May 16, 2019

National Classic Movie Day: 5 Favourite Films From the 50s

Today is National Classic Movie Day. Every year in honour of the day, Classic Film and TV Cafe holds a blogathon. For this year's blogathon the theme is "Five Favourite Films from the Fifties."  To a small degree this was easy for me as my two favourite movies of all time come from the Fifties. Once I got beyond those two films, however, it quickly became difficult. Quite simply, so many great films came from the Fifties that it is difficult to chose only three. Do I pick Singin' in the Rain (1952) or La Dolce Vita (1960)? Mister Roberts (1955) or 3:10 to Yuma (1957)? I finally settled on three more movies, although I have to confess that they might well change if I did this blog post tomorrow!

By the way, I am treating the Fifties as taking place from 1951 to 1960. In the Gregorian calendar there was no year 0. For that reason it seems to me that decades should run from 1 to 10. Released in 1950, Sunset Boulevard is then a movie from the Forties. Released in 1960, Psycho is then a movie from the Fifties! I am telling you all of this because one of my choices is from 1960.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my five favourite films from the Fifties.

1. Seven Samurai (1954): Seven Samurai is not only my favourite film from the Fifties. It is my favourite film of all time. In fact, I consider it the greatest movie ever made. Seven Samurai has certainly had an impact. It was officially remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960), but there have been a number of "unofficial" remakes, from Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) to A Bug's Life (1998).

Of course, while Seven Samurai has been remade numerous times, no remake has ever matched the original. The film benefited from an excellent script by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni. There is never a slow moment in the film, so that while Seven Samurai is a long movie (the original version clocks in at three hours, twenty-seven minutes), it seems like it is much shorter than it actually is. Seven Samurai also boasts great performances from the entire cast, from Takashi Shimura as Kambei, the experienced samurai who is tired of war, to Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, a temperamental rogue who isn't what he seems. Asakazu Nakai's cinematography is incredible, giving us some of the greatest black and white photography ever seen on screen. Bringing all of this together is Akira Kurosawa's direction. I have no doubt that directing Seven Samurai was not easy, particularly given it featured a large cast and complex action scenes that have yet to be matched sixty five years after its release. There aren't many perfect films out there, but to me Seven Samurai is one of them.

2. The Apartment (1960): The Apartment isn't only my second favourite film from the Fifties, nor is it simply my favourite film directed by Billy Wilder. It is my second favourite movie of all time. The inspiration for The Apartment came from Brief Encounter (1945), in which the lead characters try to make a tryst in a friend's apartment. The friend who owns the apartment is never seen, but Mr. Wilder found himself fascinated more by the friend than either of the two lead characters. Unfortunately, the Production Code of the Forties was much too strict to allow for a movie about someone who lends his apartment to various individuals for rendezvous. Fortunately, during the Fifties the Production Code would be relaxed a bit, so that Billy Wilder could finally make The Apartment. Even then, the movie met with some controversy, with some critics condemning its subject matter.

In the end, I think The Apartment surpassed the movie that inspired it (Brief Encounter). It is certainly a romantic comedy, but a very dark one. Indeed, The Apartment includes some material that would be fairly dark even for a drama. That having been said, it is beautifully executed. The screenplay by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond effortlessly blends comedy and tragedy, social satire and drama. The entire cast is in top form. Jack Lemmon is brilliant as nebbish C. C. Baxter, who simply cannot say, "No," when it comes to lending his apartment to his superiors at a major insurance company. Shirley MacLaine is also fantastic as Fran Kubelik, the elevator girl with an inferiority complex with whom Baxter is smitten. Fred MacMurray does a great job playing against type as the insurance company's chief executive and outright sociopath Jeff Sheldrake. Even the supporting roles are played by top notch actors, including Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, Edie Adams, and David White. The combination of an excellent script, a cast in top form, Billy Wilder's direction, and Joseph La Shelle's cinematography make The Apartment one of the greatest films ever made in my opinion.

3. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954): Not counting The Wizard of Oz (1939) and A Hard Day's Night (1964), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is my favourite musical of all time. Much of what makes the movie so remarkable is the choreography by the legendary Michael Kidd. Mr. Kidd had to reconcile the characters of seven backwoodsmen with the dancing that would feature so prominently in the movie. He did so wonderfully, using activities normally performed by backwoodsmen, such as chopping wood, as the basis for the dance. The end result is some of the most spectacular dance sequences in the history of musicals, sequences that display the sheer athleticism of the performers.

While Michael Kidd's choreography is much of the appeal of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, it is hardly the only thing appealing about the movie. The film benefits from incredible songs by lyricist Johnny Mercer and composers Saul Chaplin and Gene de Paul, including "Bless Your Beautiful Hide" and "Goin' Courtin'." Of course, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers features an incredible cast, led by the great Jane Powell. Miss Powell delivered what may be the best performance of her career as Millie, who is strong-willed enough to more than hold her own with seven backwoodsmen and insure they do the right thing. As oldest brother Adam, Howard Keel also delivers a solid performance. Even the supporting actors give great performances. This should come as no surprise, as several of them would soon be famous. They included Russ Tamblyn, Julie Newmar (using her birth name Julie Newmeyer), Ruta Lee (using her birth name Ruta Kilmonis), and Virginia Gibson. The script for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is so good that one could remove the songs and still have a great comedy. Bringing all of this together is Stanley Donen's direction, proving that he was a great director without frequent collaborator Gene Kelly.

4. High Noon (1952): As if Seven Samurai wasn't a clue, I have always been drawn to tales of heroism. It is certainly heroism that lies at the centre of High Noon. The plot centres on Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane, who finds himself all alone against outlaws when the town of Hadleyville refuses to come to his aid. The screenplay was written by Carl Foreman, who was a former member of the American Communist Party and had recently refused to give names of fellow Communist to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He would be blacklisted as a result of this. It is for this reason that some see High Noon as an allegory for McCarthyism. Producer Stanley Kramer saw High Noon in somewhat simpler terms as being about "..a town that died because no one there had the guts to defend it." It would seem that director Fred Zinnemann was accurate when observed that "The story seems to mean different things to different people."

Regardless, Marshal Will Kane has to be one of the most heroic figures ever portrayed on screen. Marshal Kane could easily have guaranteed his survival by leaving Hadleyville. Instead he remains, not because of his ego or any need to demonstrate his manhood, but because he fears what the outlaws will do to the town if he isn't there to defend it. Like the heroes of Seven Samurai, he is willing to sacrifice himself for the needs of others. What makes Will Kane so convincing as a hero is Gary Cooper's performance, reserved and yet brimming with emotion just beneath the surface. Mr. Cooper's performance was aided by Fred Zinnemann's direction, which maximised the building tension as the clock moves closer and closer to, well, high noon. Helping as well is the movie's theme song, "Do Not Forsake Me, My Darling", sang by the legendary Tex Ritter. The song serves as a leitmotif throughout the film. Not only is High Noon one of my favourite films of all time. I consider it the greatest Western ever made.

5. Pillow Talk (1959): Pillow Talk is probably among the first of Doris Day's movies I ever saw, and it remains one of my favourites. It is historic as the first of the "Sixties sex comedies (even though it was released in 1959)." Today there is a tendency for people to view Pillow Talk and its fellow Sixties sex comedies as "sexless." Okay, the sex act never appears on screen in any of the films, but there is plenty of sexual tension and sexual innuendo to be had in them. This is particularly true of Pillow Talk. What is often forgotten today is that Pillow Talk and the sex comedies that followed it were considered quite racy at the time. It is part of the fun of Pillow Talk and its fellow Sixties sex comedies in that they give the appearance of being quite naughty at times, while at the same time there isn't anything truly dirty in the films.

Of course, part of what makes Pillow Talk so good is the chemistry between stars Doris Day and Rock Hudson. The two quickly became friends on the set and would remain very close friends for the rest of their lives. The sexual tension between the two characters is palpable. What is more, Miss Day and Mr. Hudson aren't the only ones who give great performances. Tony Randall is great as neurotic millionaire Jonathan Forbes, who is not only Rock Hudson's college buddy but Doris Day's persistent admirer. Pillow Talk can quite rightfully be termed a "farce", and the screenplay features more than enough cases of mistaken identity, comic misunderstandings, innuendo, and physical comedy to satisfy any fan of the genre. Pillow Talk proved extremely successful at the box office and was well received by critics, so much so that it sparked an entire cycle of sex comedies (many starring Doris Day). It is easy to see why.


Rick29 said...

I love all five of your choices (though you were crafty on THE APARTMENT, which was made in the 1950s and released in 1960). SEVEN SAMURAI is surely one of the most influential Japanese films of its era. HIGH NOON is one of Cooper's best. Rock and Doris are fabulous in PILLOW TALK (and even better in LOVER COME BACK). SEVEN BRIDES is one of the top 3 musicals--all time!

Caftan Woman said...

I return to High Noon every so often. It is a special movie and I agree with that Zinnemann quote. When I showed this to my daughter she was particularly fascinated with Helen Ramirez. I wonder if women back in the day felt the same.

I avoided Seven Samurai for a long time due to its run time, but my Kurosawa loving sister finally convinced me and I swear, I bowed before the screen at the end of the movie. I even started to like The Magnificent Seven because I finally saw their inspiration.

FlickChick said...

Oooh - sneaky - The Apartment is also my second favorite film - but I give you a high five for inclusion. Pillow Talk is also one of my faves - especially for the always wonderful-to-me Tony Randall. All choices are choice!

Virginie Pronovost said...

Ok, ok I must see Seven Samurai!
Great list Terence. I'm glad you included High Noon! This film is just brilliant.

Silver Screenings said...

So happy to see High Noon made your list. It's a good film and an important one, too. And Pillow Talk! That film never gets old.