Old Movies          

Hollywood Movies and the 1950’s


by Guy Belleranti

The 1950’s featured great variety and change in the American movie industry. Some was without doubt due to the emergence of television as a main competitor for viewers.

Prior to the early 1950’s, films had been made in an approximate 4 to 3 width and height differential, ie. the picture was 1.37 times as wide as it was tall (1.37:1). This was virtually identical to television’s 1.33 to 1 aspect ratio (1.33:1). However, as television viewing grew in popularity the motion picture industry found it needed to recapture viewers.

So within a few years most films were being made in the far wider aspect ratios of 2.35:1, 2.55:1, and, in a few cases (Ben-Hur in 1959 for example), even 2.76:1. Today, widescreen aspect ratios of 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 are the most common.

Color productions also increased in the 1950’s, and, for a short time, 3-D movies became an experimental fad.

Another change was in the number of theaters. From 1948 to 1958 indoor theaters decreased in number from 17,000 to 12,000. This was definitely not positive for the motion picture industry; however, during this same period the number of outdoor drive-in theaters increased - from fewer than 1,000 in 1948 to close to 5,000 in 1958. So, as with wide screen, the motion picture industry was once again standing out with something different from television.

As for the films themselves, there was more variety than ever. First, there the old standbys:

1) Musicals – An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958) both won Academy Awards as best pictures, and Singing in the Rain (1952) and A Star is Born (1954) are now classified as true classics.

2) Westerns - John Ford directed new and successful John Wayne westerns including Rio Grande (1950), The Searchers (1956) and The Horse Soldiers (1959). Director Anthony Mann, meanwhile, also entered the western field. Five of his 50’s westerns featured the popular, though now grittier, James Stewart - Winchester 73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur 1953), The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955). Mann also directed several other westerns during the decade including Devil’s Doorway (1950) and Man of the West (1958).

3) Alfred Hitchcock suspense films - Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959) among others.

4) Epics – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Ben-Hur (1959) both captured Academy Awards as best pictures.

But new types of movies also came into prominence. The science fiction genre is a great example. Some of the 1950’s most famous: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing from Another World (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Incredible Shrinking man (1957).

New and exciting actors and actresses also lit up the screen. Four examples:

Marlon Brando - made his screen debut in 1950’s The Men. He later starred in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). Brando won a Best Actor Oscar for Waterfront and the movie won best picture.

James Dean - became a teen idol playing rebellious youths in East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). Unfortunately, his life and career was cut short when he died in a car accident.

Paul Newman – Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), The Long Hot Summer (1958) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) were three of his notable 1950’s starring roles.

Marilyn Monroe – became THE sex symbol starring in such movies as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like it Hot (1959).

Finally, the new music, Rock and Roll, entered the movie scene. The Blackboard Jungle (1955) became the first major picture to use R & R on its soundtrack with (“We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” (courtesy of Bill Haley and His Comets).

Indeed the 1950’s were a notable period for Hollywood and the movies.

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