Film History 101 (Part 6): Changing of the Guard

It was the 1950s.  And in addition to the technological changes discussed in the previous post, the advent of television was forcing management at the major movie studios to rethink their positions. Most studio executives realized that the public wasn’t going to be happy with the same types of movies they’d been dishing out throughout the previous decades. So, they began looking to expand their offerings into more sophisticated fare.

Up until that time, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer had arguably been the most powerful person in town. Under his stewardship, MGM had consistently been the largest and most profitable studio. And Mayer had been amply rewarded.  Amazingly, during the 1930s he was the highest paid executive not just in the film industry, but in the entire country as well. But as Mayer consolidated his power, the studio saw a drop in the variety of movies it produced.  You see, Mayer had a weak spot for splashy musicals and light-hearted fare. He hated anything unpleasant or controversial. So, as the 40s wore on, the studio began to reflect his personal taste more and more. Lassie and Esther Williams  swimming her heart out were two of MGM’s biggest draws. Film Noir, or socially aware films, were a big no-no if a producer wanted a green light from Mr. Mayer.

But as successful as Mayer had been, he was thoroughly despised by his bosses in New York. The executives at MGM’s parent company resented Mayer’s success and the way he ran the studio like his own personal fiefdom. But they couldn’t argue with the revenue reports from the accounting department. So, they kept their mouths shut. This worked fine as long as studio profits continued to climb. But this began to change in the late 40s and early 50s.

As television became more popular, audiences were staying home. And when they did go out, they were looking for more substantive entertainment. Profits started slipping and MGM’s films began coming up empty at the Oscars around this same time frame. Realizing that MGM was losing its grip on both the creative and financial fronts, the executives in New York began to pressure Mayer to change his ways. He ardently refused. Since the studio was still making a profit (even a reduced one), there wasn’t much they could do. Someone with Mayer’s reputation and experience would be impossible to replace outright. But they knew change was needed. So, instead of taking Mayer head on, they tried something different. They sent Mayer a new Production Manager named Dore Schary.

Schary had been a producer and executive at RKO, and he had a specific interest in making “message films.” His goal was to make entertaining movies that also explored underlying themes. Racism, poverty, social causes, and the fuzzy line between right and wrong were some of the things that Schary wanted to address through his films. This ran completely counter to the kinds of movies that Mayer liked. Since the late 30s, MGM had built its trademark around musicals and gorgeous productions that flew in the face of reality. Mayer saw no reason to change. But Schary wanted to break new ground. And, in his own way, he turned out to be just as stubborn as the old Hollywood veteran.

After an initial truce, the arguments began. They soon reached legendary proportions. The front office of MGM began to shake everyday from the screaming matches between the two men. Mayer adamantly refused to commit resources to Schary’s type of pictures, but as Head of Production, Schary had the authority to greenlight and oversee any production he chose. It got so bad that the two could not be in the same room together. Finally, one day Mayer picked up the phone and in frustration called New York. “It’s either me, or Schary!”, he screamed.

This was just what Mayer’s bosses had been waiting for. They fired him on the spot. Mayer then began stomping through the front offices, issuing orders to the executive staff and secretaries. Meanwhile, the New York office was busy making phone calls to these same people….reminding them who ultimately signed their paychecks. Mayer then left the studio he had run for nearly 30 years, and headed straight to his lawyer.

Mayer immediately began legal proceedings to regain control of MGM. But no doubt partially due to stress, his health soon began to fail shortly afterwards. He came down with a blood disorder, and passed away a few years later. His final days were quiet ones. Broken and bitter, his final words right before he died were “Nothing Matters.” No event better encapsulated the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

But Mayer wasn’t the only studio executive who passed away in the 1950s. Over at Columbia, Harry Cohn had run the studio with an iron fist since the 1930s. With a strong authoritarian style, and an eye for frugality, Cohn had built Columbia from literally nothing into a major player in the film industry. But in the process, he had become a leading contender for the title of “most hated man in Hollywood.”

It was Cohn who hired the Three Stooges under a 20 year contract for $20K a year…but refused to give them a pay raise once they were making millions for the studio. Cohn regularly bugged film sets, and had a loud-speaker system installed so he could issue spurious commands depending on what he heard.  His office was also near the studio’s front gate. At 5 PM he loved to hang out the window and scream epithets at anyone he saw leaving 5 minutes early…accusing them of being slackers. The fact that some of them had just come off working a 24 hour shift never seemed to faze him. Cohn also kept a private room just off his office. Many of the starlets hired by Columbia were required to perform favors for him on his “casting couch” prior to being extended a contract.

But Cohn wasn’t all bad.  On one occasion, he was informed that an elderly guard on the studio lot was having health problems and was unable to provide for his family. Cohn stopped by for an impromptu visit, and gave the ailing employee a substantial amount of cash.  Then, Cohn promised to fire him if he told anyone.

During this period, no one could argue with Columbia’s output. It’s films began garnering more Academy Awards than MGM, or the other more established studios for that matter. When Cohn died in 1958, it was a major event in Hollywood. Thousands of people turned out for his funeral. Looking at the large crowd that was gathered, Red Skelton quipped the following to a local reporter: “Just goes to show you. Give the public what they want, and they’ll turn out in droves.”

As the 1950s drew to a close, the studios knew that change was in the wind. Audience tastes had shifted, and there was no denying that the double whammy of television and the loss of exhibition chains had made a substantial impact. MGM, once the standard bearer of the industry, was facing bankruptcy. To save the studio, it’s executives decided to embark on a major gamble. They were positive they had a sure-fire property. It was a remake of one of their most popular silent epics: Ben-Hur.

Ben-Hur was one of the largest productions and most expensive films ever made. No expense was spared. To start with, MGM hired William Wyler to direct the picture. At the time, Wyler was universally acknowledged as Hollywood’s greatest director. To this day he still holds the record for most Academy Award nominations. His films also hold the record for the most total Oscar wins. Ben-Hur took well over a year to shoot outside of Rome.  Special tours were set up for tourists to visit the production while it was underway. Every day tour buses arrived to watch the on-going spectacle. The Chariot Race alone took three months to film, and used 8,000 extras on the largest set ever built. Hollywood’s legendary stuntman, Yakima Canutt, was brought in to oversee the stunts for this one sequence. (If you’ve ever seen Stagecoach with John Wayne…that’s Yakima Canutt who gets dragged along under the team of horses while pulling the coach at full speed. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas re-created the same stunt for Raiders of the Lost Ark when Harrison Ford pulls himself along the bottom of the moving truck in the chase scene with the Nazis. In Ben-Hur, this stunt was also recreated, but with a much more horrifying conclusion as Stephen Boyd’s character meets his demise under the hooves of the stampeding horses.)

The results were worth it. The Chariot Race takes up approximately 8 minutes of screen time, and today, 50 years after it’s release, remains one of Hollywood’s most awesome achievements.  The action, editing, sound, pacing, and staging of the race all work together seamlessly to produce a thrilling cinematic experience. Before the advent of widescreen televisions, Turner Television used to “shrink” the screen to fit into a letterbox format just for this one sequence. The programmers at the network knew that this was special, and obviously didn’t want the television audience to miss any of it.  Way before the advent of CGI, Ben-Hur’s chariot race remains required viewing for Film History 101 when it comes to screen spectacle.

In fact, MGM’s gamble paid off for the entire picture. Ben-Hur made an enormous amount of money, and earned a then-record 11 Academy Awards. (It would be another 38 and 44 years respectively until Titanic and Lord of the Rings tied that record). It was the biggest, and most talked about film in 1959. As the decade closed, Hollywood’s faith in huge, big budget quality productions seemed to have been vindicated. But, it’s funny how things work out. Only three years later Hollywood would embark on another big budget film that used Ben-Hur as a model for success. But this time, instead of saving a studio, the production would come within a hair’s breadth of destroying one…and in the process rock the entire film industry to its core. This troubled production created a ripple effect that would impact how film productions were approved and developed for over a generation to come. That’s next in Film History 101.

But before we get there, here are some other films from the 1950s you might consider checking out:

Singin’ in the Rain – Generally considered the greatest musical in Hollywood history…which is still a tough claim to argue with. Filled with a half dozen musical numbers, any of which on their own would earn a film the title of “classic.” Before CGI, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were wonders to behold in their own right. One of the American Film Institute’s Top 10 films of all time. If that’s not enough, the movie does a better job showing the difficulties Hollywood encountered converting to sound in the late 1920s than any film history book.

Vertigo – A masterpiece of filmmaking from Alfred Hitchcock, and another member of AFI’s Top Ten List. “Vertigo” is one of those rare films that demands multiple viewings.  And each time you walk away with a different experience. It also means completely different things to different people. Younger viewers will focus on Hitchcock’s storytelling and penchant for suspense. But to an older person, it’s about missed chances, doomed relationships, the cruelty of fate, and one’s inability to change their lot in life.  Never has a movie ending been so unsatisfying, but utterly fulfilling at the same time. Hitchcock’s most dreamlike film, it’s aided immeasurably by Bernard Herrman’s haunting musical score.

North by Northwest – Another one of Hitchcock’s best, and an immensely entertaining experience.  There’s never a dull moment as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint criss cross the country chasing, and being chased, by foreign agents. James Mason and Martin Landau shine as ruthless, but completely charming, bad guys. I t all culminates on the top of Mount Rushmore, but with lots of other classic scenes along the way. It also has this great bit of movie dialogue by Cary Grant (paraphrased): ” I can’t allow myself to be killed. I have two bookies, several bartenders, and an ex-wife who depend on me for a living!”

Night of the Hunter – Written by film critic James Agee, this stunning film is the only one ever directed by the actor Charles Laughton. From the opening minute, it grabs the audience in it’s allegorical depiction of good and evil. Robert Mitchum plays a psychotic preacher who travels along the Ohio river murdering for money. One one hand he has the word “Love” tattooed, on the other, “Hate.” (Spike Lee payed homage to the character by having someone with the exact same tattoos in his film ‘”Do The Right Thing”).  Two children realize the danger that’s in their midst, but all of the adults are clueless.  Filled with wonderful expressionist images, the film also has many unforgettable scenes of delicate beauty. Roger Ebert once wrote of it:  “It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores, it holds up… well after four decades.”

On the Waterfront – It’s too bad so many people only remember Marlon Brando today as such a loon. During the 50s, he really shined as one of America’s greatest actors. He’s simply superb in this gritty film, which takes place in the real world. Shot on location and not in some Hollywood studio, it’s definitely not your typical Hollywood fantasy.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – The first of David Lean’s “thinking man’s spectacles”. The climax where they blow up the bridge just as the train crosses it is right up there as one of Hollywood’s most spectacular pre-CGI sequences.

Roman Holiday – Another winner from William Wyler. Audrey Hepburn’s Oscar winning debut as royal princess on the lam in Rome with newspaperman Gregory Peck.  Completely charming…with more than a casual similarity to Notting Hill, as well as a host of other movies which followed.

The Enemy Below – Robert Mitchum again…this time as the Captain of a destroyer in a duel to the death with U-Boat commander Curt Jurgens. Both protagonists are evenly matched, and at times it’s tough to even know who to root for.  If you like submarine movies, we can also recommend Run Silent Run Deep from the same time frame.

The Vikings – A rousing adventure flick, which was filmed on location in the Norwegian Fjords to spectacular effect. Full of great fight scenes, including a memorable siege on an English castle. With Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Ernest Borgnine.

Marty – Speaking of Ernest Borgnine, he’s just great as the homely butcher approaching middle age in this Best Picture Winner from 1955.  Has a lot to say about the dating game, peer pressure, conformity, and how non-beautiful people live their lives. (I guess that’s 95% of us).

Curse of the Demon – One of our all-time favorite old horror movies. Dana Andrews plays a cynical newsman investigating the mysterious deaths surrounding devil worshipper Niall McGinnis. In the original movie, it’s left to your imagination whether the supernatural was really involved. But when the studio heads saw the final product, they felt it was missing something. They wanted to see the “Demon.”  So, the special effects department got a stuffed monkey, added some fangs, put it on a bicycle and shot it motoring down a table top. This then became the demon of the film. It sounds like the makings of a disaster, but for some reason, it completely changes the tone of the movie and puts it into classic status. The audience knows from the get go that Dana Andrews is playing with fire, and that this demon isn’t something to mess with (he does look pretty cool, despite his humble origins).  When Niall McGinnis meets his gruesome end at the conclusion of the movie, it’s completely horrifying, but utterly apropos.  Directed by Jacques Tourneur, one of Val Lewton’s proteges, this movie perfectly blends the genres of film noir and terror.  Highly recommended if you’re into old–but literate–horror movies.

A Place in the Sun – Montgomery Clift gets girlfriend Shelley Winters pregnant, and then meets and falls in love with rich girl Elizabeth Taylor. A great example of the adult themes that Hollywood began to tackle in the 1950s, with lots of wonderful directorial touches. Very watchable and involving as Montgomery has to grapple with temptation and responsibility, as well as some very immoral decisions.

A Night to Remember – Not a Hollywood film, but the best movie version of the Titanic disaster before James Cameron came along. Gripping English film where the emphasis was on facts and details. As such, it’s still riveting, even without the neat CGI effects. (Still technically impressive for it’s day, though).

Some Like it Hot – Gene Siskel thought this was the funniest movie ever made. There’s no denying it’s entertaining. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis join an all girl band to escape the mob…and quickly hook up with Marilyn Monroe –who’s never been better. Full of great moments, double entendres, and sexual satire. There’s a lot to savor here. That, plus one of the greatest ending lines in movie history (courtesy of former silent movie star Joe E. Brown).

Them! – The 1950s was also known as the decade of the BEM (Bug Eyed Monster). There are so many worthwhile films to choose from, but we’ll go with this one to represent the entire genre.  Giant ants are found in the New Mexico desert after the first atomic blast. They then migrate to the sewers in Los Angeles, where they continue to wreak havoc. One of the earliest films to exploit the public’s fear of atomic energy, it has a literate script, lots of suspense, and is extremely well constructed plot wise. Aside from the giant ants themselves (who are just very well done giant puppets), the real star of the film is scientist Edmund Gwen, who gives a great solemn speech at the end about the possible horrors that mankind has unleashed upon the world in “the atomic age.”

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad – Another one of our all time favorites…because it never fails to remind one of what it feels like to be a kid. The first color film made by stop motion master Ray Harryhausen, it’s full of great sequences that bridge the gap between the safety of childhood fantasies, and the dangers of adulthood. Our personal favorite scene is the one where the cyclops rips a dead tree out of the ground and uses it as a giant battering ram to crush the sailors. Thrilling and horrifying at the same time, it’s all perfectly timed to Bernard Herrmann’s thundering score. It’s hard to underestimate the contributions of Harryhausen to film history. Most of the fantasy filmmakers of the 70s and 80s (e.g. Spielberg and Lucas) worship his movies…and it’s no stretch to say that without Harryhausen, there would have never been a Star Wars or Jurassic Park.  Special effects have come light years since Sinbad, but Harryhausen was the first to show that well-done visual effects could be superstars in their own right. Other Harryhausen movies from the 50s include: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 20 Million Miles to Earth, It Came From Beneath the Sea, and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.  All are required viewing for fans of stop-motion animation. (But Harryhausen still had more movies to come in the 60s and 70s….most notably Jason and the Argonauts ).

House of Wax – The first color movie shot in 3-D, and perhaps the best of them all.  Why? Maybe it’s because it doesn’t rely on 3-D effects to tell a good story. And that’s probably because the producers made a major mistake when they hired the director. You see, Andre Toth only had one eye.  He didn’t know what 3-D looked like, so he didn’t go out of his way to put a lot of gratuitous “in your face” shots in the picture.  Vincent Price is excellent too (as always).

Plan Nine From Outer Space – Well, ok, maybe not a movie we recommend you watch, but it’s a hoot if you’re into bad movies. Widely considered the “Worst Movie Ever Made”…this is a true classic in the world of bad cinema. It’s one of those films that exerts a certain kind awe as you marvel at it’s ineptitude. Once seen, it’s hard to forget. Indeed, the laughs keep coming, even after multiple viewings. Just a small sample of the delights you’ll encounter…..the tombstone that bends when one of the actors trips over it…the woman who runs across the street to escape the zombies. On one side, it’s nighttime…but magically becomes daytime when she gets to the other side…the shower curtain in the airplane cockpit…the steering mechanisms obviously made of cardboard…the paper plate flying saucers hanging by visible wires…the gratuitous use of stock footage….the fact that the main couple in the film have the same furniture on their patio as they do in their bedroom…the policeman who keeps scratching his head with the business end of his revolver….and let’s not even get started with the unbelievable dialogue.  Of course, the film is also famous as Bela Lugosi’s final film. He died 2 days into the shoot.  Rather than discard the footage, the director (the infamous Ed Wood) shot the rest of Lugosi’s scenes using his wife’s chiropractor. To hide the clever switch, as well as the fact that the stand-in was a foot taller than Bela, the new actor spends the entire movie with his cape held in front of his face. You may not buy the fact that this unbelievable film was a major “achievement” of the 1950s…but to this viewer, its sheer lunacy has still never been topped. (But there are plenty of other contenders from around the same time period. For laughs, we might also mention The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews).

Of course, this partial list of films from the 1950s barely scratches the surface. Here are some other movies from that decade you might find worthwhile…

Kiss Me Deadly, Forbidden Planet, Witness for the Prosecution, The Searchers, Sunset Boulevard, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Gun Crazy, War of the Worlds, The Seven Year Itch, The Sweet Smell of Success, Paths of Glory, The Ten Commandments, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, and Shane.

Stay tuned…the next installment of Film History is on the way…

 

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