The Magazine

Film in the Fifties

Bad movies, overinterpreted.

Nov 26, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 11 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Movie Love in the Fifties
by James Harvey
Knopf, 464 pp., $35

IF YOU PICKED UP a copy of James Harvey's last book, "Romantic Comedy in Hollywood," you have a notion of what he prizes in movies: wit, skepticism, independence, feistiness, joie de vivre, mystery, and sexiness. In his new "Movie Love in the Fifties," Harvey writes about a decade--a long decade stretching from the noir thrillers of the late 1940s to the early 1960s--in which a newly pious popular culture frowned on the qualities his previous book celebrated.

"Movies in general in the fifties seemed to get blander and safer--like American life in general," Harvey declares. "If you had any doubt that the movies had 'lost something,' as people used to say, the late show could settle them. The wry and intelligent sort of comedy so happily rampant in the thirties had disappeared, surviving only--in a mostly ironic form--in the noir thrillers. But they weren't surviving so well either. Toughness and irreverence, those onetime Hollywood specialties, seemed to be losing out to a kind of national sanctimony."

One form of 1950s movie sanctimony was the traditional piety of flag, faith, and family that the 1960s counterculture would mock into submission. But the cultural voice of the movies in the 1950s was hardly monolithic. The crisply pressed traditionalism of the suburbs was challenged by a competing piety of reformist uplift. Stanley Kramer, Dore Schary, and others produced a cascade of liberal "message films" that sermonized against alcoholism, racial and ethnic intolerance, McCarthyism, the nuclear menace, and corrupt union bosses. These movies were no less earnest and self-satisfied than their tradition-minded alternatives.

And even that 1950s traditionalism itself was not without its ambiguities. This was the era of the sensitive and scene-stealing rebel manchild--the era of Brando, Dean, and Clift. While movies like "The Blackboard Jungle" or "The Wild One" might overtly endorse social conformity and public order, such overt meanings were susceptible to subversion by charismatic young Method actors who, as Harvey observes, made "everyone around them (especially if they were older) seem radically less authentic."

Harvey is not the kind of critic who sees movies as a pretext for opportunistic social criticism. He delights in movies for their own sake, and he favors detailed scene-by-scene, even shot-by-shot, analysis "to follow the movie as it moves and changes and makes its points in front of us." In its grid-search thoroughness, this approach matches the one he used in "Romantic Comedy."

That book was seldom tiresome, because Harvey was writing mostly about movies he liked--and that his readers were apt to like or to think they might like. In "Movie Love in the Fifties," applied to a much higher proportion of bad, mediocre, or forgotten movies, Harvey's fine-grained formalism feels like over-refinement. Entire chapters are devoted to painstaking analysis of movies by Robert Siodmak or Max Oph ls so obscure you won't find them on the shelves of the snobbiest specialty video store in the coolest part of town. Jim Jarmusch couldn't identify some of these movies if Jean-Luc Godard stood in front of him with their titles written on his forehead.

For many reasons, some touched on by Harvey, Hollywood was at an ebb in the 1950s. With the disintegration of the studio system, the patient cultivation of acting and screenwriting talent became more difficult. And Hollywood made some ill-advised responses to the challenge of television, like the flattening, wide-screen Cinemascope format, or the production of lavish historical epics and biblical pageants.

OTHER REASONS are probably to be sought in larger-scale cultural changes. Harvey shrewdly observes that the shallow consumerism and earnest do-goodism of the Eisenhower-Stevenson decade seemed to be mirrored in movies that were either devoid of self-awareness or inflated with self-importance. The end result was too many movies either too dumb or too sanctimonious to laugh at themselves.