Films from the Silent Era

Compiled by Robert E. Yahnke, Professor, General College, University of Minnesota

The Frenchman Louis Lumiere is sometimes credited as the inventor of the motion picture camera in 1895. Other inventors preceded him, and Lumiere's achievement should always be considered in the context of this creative period. Lumiere's portable, suitcase-sized cinematographe served as a camera, film-processing unit, and projector all in one. He could shoot footage in the morning, process it in the afternoon, and then project it to an audience that evening.
        His first film was the arrival of the express train at Ciotat. Other subjects included workers leaving the factory gates, a child being fed by his parents, people enjoying a picnic along a river. The ease of use and portability of his device soon made it the rage in France. Cinematographes soon were in the hands of Lumiere followers all over the world, and the motion picture era began. The American Thomas Alva Edison was a competitor of Lumiere's, and his invention predated Lumiere's. But Edison's motion picture camera was bulky and not portable. The "promoter" in Lumiere made the difference in this competition. For a good description of these historical developments, read Erik Barnouw's Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, 2nd revised edition, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993.

Films from the Silent Era
1915 Birth of a Nation D. W. Griffith USA
1919 Broken Blossoms D. W. Griffith USA
1919 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Robert Wiene Germany
1922 Nosferatu F. W. Murnau Germany
1922 Nanook of the North Robert J. Flaherty USA
1924 The Last Laugh F. W. Murnau Germany
1925 Strike Sergei Eisenstein Russian
1925 Potemkin Sergei Eisenstein Russian
1925 The Gold Rush Charlie Chaplin USA
1925 The Street of Sorrow G. W. Pabst Germany
1926 Metropolis Fritz Lang Germany
1927 Sunrise F. W. Murnau Germany
1929 The Blue Angel Josef Von Sternberg Germany
1930 All Quiet on the Western Front Lewis Milestone Germany
1931 M Fritz Lang Germany
1931 City Lights Charlie Chaplin USA
1936 Modern Times Charlie Chaplin USA

        For the first twenty years of motion picture history most silent films were short – only a few minutes in length. At first a novelty, and then increasingly an art form and literary form, silent films reached greater complexity and length in the early 1910's. The films on the list above represent the greatest achievements of the silent era, which ended – after years of experimentation – in 1929 when a means of recording sound that would be synchronous with the recorded image was discovered. Few silent films were made in the 1930s, with the exception of Charlie Chaplin, whose character of the Tramp perfected expressive physical moves in many short films in the 1910's and 1920s. When the silent era ended, Chaplin refused to go along with sound; instead, he maintained the melodramatic Tramp as his mainstay in City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). The trademarks of Chaplin's Tramp were his ill-fitting suit, floppy over-sized shoes and a bowler hat, and his ever-present cane. A memorable image is Chaplin's Tramp shuffling off, penguin-like, into the sunset and spinning his cane whimsically as he exits. He represented the "little guy," the underdog, someone who used wit and whimsy to defeat his adversaries.
        Eisenstein's contribution to the development of cinema rested primarily in his theory of editing, or montage, which focused on the collision of opposites in order to create a new entity. One of the greatest achievements in editing is the Odessa Steps sequence, in his film Potemkin (1925). Eisenstein intercut between shots of townspeople trapped on the steps by Czarist troops, and shots of the troops firing down upon the crowd. Members of the crowd became individual characters to viewers as the montage continued. Within the editing track the fate of these individuals was played out. A mother picks up her dead child and confronts the troops. Then she is shot. A student looks on in terror and then flees – his fate uncertain. An old woman prays to be spared, but she is killed by a soldier who slashes her face with his saber. When a woman holding her baby carriage is killed, she falls to the steps, and the carriage begins a precipitous decline – shots of the baby crying are intercut with wide shots of the carriage rolling down the steps. To Eisenstein, each individual shot contributed an energy within the editing track that yielded far more than the sum total of shots. In other words, the "combination" of shots through editing created a new entity, based on the expressive emotional energy unleashed through the editing process. 
        Brian De Palma imitated the Odessa Steps sequence in The Untouchables (1987) in a scene where Kevin Costner, playing Eliot Ness, and his companions are waiting to ambush several mobsters. This confrontation is punctuated by the use of the baby carriage plummeting down a long series of steps while the good guys and the bag guys remain in a standoff. A more effective homage to Eisenstein can be seen in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse, Now (1976), when at the end of the film a cow is slaughtered ritualistically by the native people deep in the Vietnamese jungle. Shots of the slaughter are intercut with shots of the Martin Sheen character wielding a machete against the hulking Marlon Brando character, the crazed former American officer who has retreated to the jungle from the horrors of war and has become a sort of deity to the native people in his compound. Coppola was aware of a famous scene in Eistenstein's Strike (1925), when two dramatic scenes are intercut: one of Czarist troops massacre peasants, another of a cow being butchered.
        Although the technology for making movies was invented in 1895, a significant realization of the potential for film as art occurs with the appearance of D. W. Griffith's 1915 full-length epic, Birth of a Nation. In this film Griffith utilized crosscutting (parallel editing) effectively, particularly at the climax, when a number of editing tracks play off one another. He also portrayed battle scenes magnificently, with action in one set of shots moving from left to right, while action in another set of shots moves from right to left. But Griffith's work is diminished severely by the overt racism employed in characterizations and plotting and the positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. As a sidelight, readers interested in films about Griffith should check Good Morning, Babylon (1987), directed by the Taviani brothers. It tells the story of two Italian immigrants who become carpenters on the set of Griffith's epic film Intolerance (1916). The English actor Charles Dance plays Griffith. Other well-known Griffith melodramas include Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920).
        The German directors listed below deserve credit for their experimentation with unusual camera angles and complex stage settings. Two examples of this approach are The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) by Robert Wiene and the nightmare-like Nosferatu (1919) by F. W. Murnau. The latter is also credited with perfecting the use of visual language in The Last Laugh (1924), a film about a lonely old man who is ridiculed by others. Few titles are used in the film because Murnau is able to communicate meaning by virtue of well-placed visual cues. One of the most unforgettable openings to a film is the opening scene from M (1931), directed by Fritz Lang. In that opening a child is shown playing with a ball. These shots are intercut with shots of the child's mother setting the table for a meal. As the scenes progress, it becomes evident that someone is following the child. Meanwhile, the mother completes the table setting. The last shot in the scene shows the ball rolling away. Where is the child? The murderer (M) has taken her. Fritz Lang went on to make films in America in the 1930s and 1940s. Another German director who went to Hollywood is F. W. Murnau. He made his first American film in 1927. The film, Sunrise, portrayed a married man's downfall when he is seduced by an evil dark temptress.
        A last note: the 1922 film Nanook of the North, directed by the American Robert Flaherty, is often credited as the first great achievement of documentary (or non-fiction) film. Flaherty lived among the Eskimos for six months, edited the film back in America, and was lauded for his achievement when the film premiered in New York City. Only a few documentary titles will appear in the lists of films that follow. I hope you will enjoy perusing these lists and consider renting titles you have not viewed before.

Classic Films from the Hollywood Studios, 1934-1946

Compiled by Robert E. Yahnke, Professor, General College, University of Minnesota

Stars powered the American Studio System from 1934-1946. Various studios, such as 20th-Century Fox (1935), Paramount Pictures (1912), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924), Columbia Pictures (1920), and Warner Brothers (1923) held long-term contracts both on directors and stars. A listing of some of the stars under contract to the studios gives some idea of the Studio System's power during these years.
        20th Century Fox: Directors – Ernst Lubitsch, Otto Preminger, Henry Hathaway, and Elia Kazan. Actors – Shirley Temple, Loretta Young, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, and Gregory Peck.
        Paramount: Actors – Mary Pickford, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Alan Ladd, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas.
        Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM): Directors – Eric Von Stroheim, Fritz Lang, George Cukor, Victor Fleming. Actors – Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor.
        Warner Brothers: Actors – Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Peter Lorre.

Classic Films from the Hollywood Studios, 1934-1946
1934 It Happened One Night Frank Capra
1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Frank Capra
1937 Captains Courageous Victor Fleming
1939 Stagecoach John Ford
1939 The Wizard of Oz Victor Fleming
1939 Gone With the Wind Victor Fleming
1940 The Grapes of Wrath John Ford
1940 His Girl Friday Howard Hawks
1940 The Philadelphia Story George Cukor
1940 Rebecca Alfred Hitchcock
1941 Citizen Kane Orson Welles
1941 Maltese Falcon John Huston
1941 Meet John Doe Frank Capra
1941 How Green Was My Valley John Ford
1941 Shepherd of the Hills Henry Hathaway
1941 Suspicion Alfred Hitchcock
1942 Casablanca Michael Curtiz
1942 The Magnificent Ambersons Orson Welles
1944 The Maltese Falcon John Huston
1945 It’s a Wonderful Life Frank Capra
1945 The Lost Weekend Billy Wilder
1946 Notorious Alfred Hitchcock
1946 The Big Sleep Howard Hawks
1946 My Darling Clementine John Ford

        Stars weren't free to seek their own contracts during these years. Often stars would be "loaned" by one studio to another for a particular project with the expectation that such offers would be reimbursed in kind. Stars also worked on more than one picture at a time and often were expected to churn out four or five pictures a year. For instance, Humphrey Bogart starred in 36 films between 1934 and 1942. Casablanca was one of four pictures he completed in 1943.
        A major source of revenue for the studios was their ownership of large theater chains. But in 1949 the studios were forced to divest themselves of these theater empires because of their monopolistic practices. The advent of television in the 1950s, the rise of the director as auteur, and the ability of actors to become "free agents" led to the demise of the old Studio System.
        The four films directed by Frank Capra, noted on the list above, represented a major source of income for Columbia Pictures, the studio who had him under contract. He worked for Columbia for more than ten years, and his films appealed to a broad audience hungry for sentimental stories about the underlying goodness of the common man and woman. Gary Cooper, who starred in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941), was the embodiment of this theme. His tall, awkward, and humble persona created an instant empathy with his audience. He was the quintessential American – a bit naive, inarticulate, and stumbling. But push him too hard and he became determined, focused, and unbeatable. Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1945) has become a holiday classic on American television for similar reasons. Jimmy Stewart plays a halting, bumbling family man who has never set foot outside his small town American setting. But by the end of the film the good deeds he has done for his townspeople are repaid a hundred fold by his neighbors.
        When the English director Alfred Hitchcock made his first American film in 1940 (Rebecca), he joined the pantheon of famous directors under contract by the American studios. His 1941 film, Suspicion, was made for RKO Pictures (Radio-Keith-Orpheum); and the same studio took a gigantic risk by refusing to back down under the campaign waged by William Randolph Hearst to prevent Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles, from ever seeing the light of day.
        But the list of films above is gleaned from thousands of films that were made by the studios between 1934-1946. Most of the films were little more than popular entertainments. These films have become classics partly because they represent some of the best work done by the following actors: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Ray Milland. They also are classics because their directors maintained a consistent style and achieved a vision of their genre – Capra of the sentimental comedy, Hitchcock of suspense, John Ford of the American Western, Howard Hawks of the fast-paced comedy of dialogue.

Classic International Films, 1934-1960

Compiled by Robert E. Yahnke, Professor, General College, University of Minnesota

I didn't discover "foreign films" until I began teaching film in the late 1970s. Upon viewing films like Bergman's The Virgin Spring (1960), Renoir's The Grand Illusion (1936), or De Sica's Umberto D. (1952), I was transfixed by the subtleties of character, the psychological tensions that evolved through complex relationships, the ambiguities of human behavior and interpersonal relationships.
        An entire course could be organized around some of the films in the list below. No wonder I incorporate some of these films in my introductory course. Unlike the production-line films made as part of the American Studio System, these international films were completed by small crews working outside corporate sponsorship. In some respects many of these international films are similar in scope and production to the independent films that came to prominence around the world in the 1980s.
        Perhaps that is part of their charm; they are idiosyncratic, original, and don't depend upon "star" power to make them successful. In other words, independent productions tend to reflect the artistic personality of the director more so than films that have to be accepted by Studio executives.

Classic International Films, 1934-1960
1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much Alfred Hitchcock England
1935 The Thirty-Nine Steps Alfred Hitchcock England
1936 Grand Illusion Jean Renoir France
1936 Sabotage Alfred Hitchcock England
1938 The Lady Vanishes Alfred Hitchcock England
1939 The Rules of the Game Jean Renoir France
1946 Great Expectations David Lean England
1946 Open City Roberto Rossellini Italy
1947 Shoeshine Vittorio De Sica Italy
1949 The Third Man Carol Reed England
1949 The Bicycle Thief Vittorio De Sica Italy
1949 Stray Dog Akira Kurosawa Japan
1951 Ikiru Akira Kurosawa Japan
1951 Rashomon Akira Kurosawa Japan
1952 Forbidden Games Rene Clement France
1952 Umberto D. Vittorio De Sica Italy
1953 Tokyo Story Yasujiro Ozu Japan
1954 La Strada Federico Fellini Italy
1954 The Seven Samurai Akira Kurosawa Japan
1955 Pather Panchali Satyajit Ray India
1955 Smiles of a Summer Night Ingmar Bergman Sweden
1956 Aparijito Satyajit Ray India
1957 The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman Sweden
1957 Wild Strawberries Ingmar Bergman Sweden
1957 The Nights of Cabiria Federico Fellini Italy
1959 Hiroshima, Mon Amour Alain Resnais France
1959 Floating Weeds Yasijuro Ozu Japan
1959 Breathless Jean Luc Godard France
1959 The 400 Blows Francois Truffaut France
1959 The World of Apu Satyajit Ray India
1960 The Virgin Spring Ingmar Bergman Sweden
1960 Winter Light Ingmar Bergman Sweden
1960 The Bad Sleep Well Akira Kurosawa Japan
1960 Jules and Jim Francois Truffaut France
1960 La Dolce Vita Federico Fellini Italy

Many people don't know that Alfred Hitchcock directed films in England before he directed films in America. His first American film was Rebecca (1940); it starred the famous English actor Sir Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock started as a director of well-crafted and well-acted suspense films in the 1930s. Four of his early films are listed in the chart below. Each of the films feature spies and international intrigue. Perhaps the best film is The Lady Vanishes (1938), which features a complicated plot about mistaken identities and characters frustrated because no one will believe their versions of the "truth" – both trademarks of later Hitchcock films.
        The French director Jean Renoir, the son of the famous Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, made two great films, Grand Illusion (1936) and The Rules of the Game (1939). Although both films seem stilted by modern standards of cinema viewing, they have the power to sneak up on a viewer who regards them with patience and attention. In the former the presence of the great French actor Jean Gabin is enough to make the viewing experience a pleasure. Gabin is a hulking figure with an expressive face, whose physical presence on the screen reminds me of the contemporary French actor Gerard Depardieu.
        The classic German director Eric Von Stroheim plays a major role in the film as well; his formality and military bearing are an excellent complement to Gabin's roughness and informality. An interlude between Gabin's character and a young German woman is a welcome interlude to the despair throughout most of the film; and the film's closing scene is one of the greatest in cinema as it provides a release from despair and a hope for a new life for Gabin's character.
        The Rules of the Game exposes the ills of class and privilege and indicts people in those ranks for their insensitivity and needless cruelty. In Renoir and Hitchcock one could not find two more different directors – one who is patient with long takes and slow-paced actions, the other who builds psychological tensions with deliberate and well-timed cuts.
        Italian Neo-Realism flourished in the post World War II years. This movement depended upon filming characters in actual locations (rather than studio sets) and often focused on the lives of common men and women in the difficult years after the end of the war.
        Major films from this period are noted on the chart above. My favorites are two by Vittorio De Sica, The Bicycle Thief (1949) and Umberto D. (1952). The first is an extraordinarily moving document of the desperation faced by a family whose survival after the war depends upon the father's having a bicycle in order to keep his job. The stolen bicycle leads the father and his small son on an anguished journey.
        De Sica's nonprofessional actors are often wooden and one-dimensional; yet the way the camera captures the father's chiseled features infuses the action with a tenderness and sincerity that is compelling. De Sica's use of long tracking shots of row after row of bicycles or bicycle parts adds to the reality of the film experience. De Sica's style suggests that we are present on the streets with the father and the son and are witness to the futility of their search for the stolen bicycle.
        The other Italian director in the chart above is Federico Fellini, who completed three masterpieces from 1954 to 1960. The first was La Strada (1954), a poignant tale about the relationship between a one-man traveling circus strongman (played by Anthony Quinn), and an innocent waif (played by Fellini's wife, Giuletta Masina). The uncouth strongman resists the intimacy and security of this interpersonal relationship, and Fellini is able to exact an extraordinary tenderness from their interaction.
        The Nights of Cabiria (1957) tells the story of a desperate prostitute (again played by Masina), and La Dolce Vita (1960) exposes the brutal and insensitive side of the "good life" lived by spoiled and self-centered men and women who spend their days and nights drinking and carousing wildly. Of the three my favorite is Cabiria, because Masina's character has such spark and tenacity and integrity of character as the lowly prostitute. The combination of spirituality, moral degradation, and a woman's continual search for fulfillment are interwoven against the context of richly detailed and memorable scenes.
        The post-World War II years in France led to another breakthrough in film history, the New Wave, which refers to a series of French films completed between 1958 and 1960. This informal movement was stimulated by the critical writing of Andre Bazin, cofounder of the film periodical Cahiers de Cinema (1951). In his writing Bazin promoted the ideals of the auteur theory; that is, the director is the "author" of the film. Many forces contributed to the development of the New Wave – in some respects it was time for new faces and fresh ideas to be realized.
        Several young French directors stepped forward, including Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean Luc Godard. Francois Truffaut's early films were emblematic of the New Wave. His The 400 Blows (1959) emphasized exterior locales, hand-held camera shots, tracking shots, and long takes, and the film was dedicated to Bazin. In this heavily autobiographical film Truffaut exposes the rawness and frustrations of childhood life. The main character lives on the edge of naiveté and cynicism; he is trapped by family, by school, by society as a whole. His symbolic cage becomes a jail cell by the end of the film. The film's closing scene, with the boy escaping the reformatory and running toward the sea, is one of the most memorable in all of cinema. The closing shot – an unexpected freeze frame – was an original idea in 1959 (although by today's standards it appears dated and even mundane).
        I regard Ingmar Bergman as one of the great directors in cinema history. Five of his early films are listed on the chart above. Each is a masterpiece. I have taught The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960) several times, and each time I learn more about Bergman's ideas and cinematic vision. The powerful presence of Max Von Sydow in each film also adds to their quality. Viewers can't forget Von Sydow's tortured expressions as the knight who has lost faith in The Seventh Seal and the desperate father, who inflicts a perfect revenge on his daughter's killers, in The Virgin Spring, Bergman's autobiography, The Magic Lantern, is well worth reading. He continued to direct films into the 1970s, and in late life has turned to writing screenplays based upon autobiographical materials.
        The first one, Best Intentions, was made into an excellent film by Bille August, a Danish director, in 1992. The film tells the story of how Bergman's parents met and married, and it ends just before Ingmar was born. The second film tells the story of Ingmar's childhood relationship with his older brother. This screenplay was also filmed. Two other directors deserve special recognition. One of first international films I viewed was Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1951). I probably saw it for the first time in 1977. I was astonished with Kurosawa's vision. His story of a rape and murder of a woman is told from the point of view of four different characters (one of whom is the woman's ghost).
        I was familiar with this approach in literature (Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is an obvious analogue); but in film the experience provided an innovative approach. I was overwhelmed with the simplicity of the camera style. Low camera angles on seated characters placed me in the position of a character seated opposite the one on the screen. I was brought into the world of the film through that technique. The characters revealed themselves through the action. I felt a similar response to Ikiru (1951), which focuses on the personal development of a humble and unassuming civil servant who suddenly finds a reason for living when he is diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer. The humanity of this character, and the meaning of his life, is revealed through his interactions with people he willingly serves. The title translates appropriately as "To Live." Kurosawa's style evolved beyond the 1960s.
        Other titles directed by him are listed in later pages of this history. The last director I discovered from this list is the Bengali director Satyajit Ray. In 1996 a retrospective of his films was shown in art theaters across the country. For many it was an introduction to a director who can hold his own with a Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa, or De Sica. I have special affection for three films by Ray. I saw the films on scratchy video copies rented from a video store near campus in 1991. Ray's career as a director was inspired by a viewing of Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief. That inspiration led to a remarkable trilogy of films, Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and The World of Apu (1959). The three films tell the story of a one person in three stages of life: as a child, an adolescent, and a young man. The stories are straightforward, told in realistic style, and restate basic human truths: birth, death, love, loss, faith, despair, loneliness, regeneration.
        In the first a son is born; a daughter dies. The family's home is destroyed by a storm. They leave for the city. In the second the father dies, the mother and son return to live in the country, and the boy grows up to be a good student. But he ignores his Mother and is embarrassed by her. Eventually he is devastated emotionally when he fails to return home from school in time before she dies. In the third a young man marries, his wife bears a child, and then she dies. In despair he becomes dissolute; her family takes his son away from him. At the end of the film he is reunited with his son in one of the greatest closing scenes in all of cinema. Viewers who are patient with Ray's slow-paced cinematic style will be rewarded. He is the master of the metaphorical cut. In one film the death of a parent is accompanied by the sudden flight of birds.
        Students can learn much about the power of editing by careful attention to Ray's style. An excellent resource for studying many of these films, and gaining insights on the influences of international cinema on American films, is the book Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics' Video Guide to Foreign Films, edited by Kathy Schulz Huffhines, San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991 (paperback). The text refers to three waves of films. The French New Wave is treated as a second wave (precursors to that movement are treated in the First Wave section). In the section The Next Wave, films from Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and China are noted. Several sections devoted to recommended films from a variety of countries follows. The book should be required reading for all cinemaphiles.

Cinema History – Chapter 4
The 1950s – Focus on American Films

Compiled by Robert E. Yahnke, Professor, General College, University of Minnesota

For some reason the 1950s have slipped past our consciousness. They exist in a limbo between the focused efforts of Americans to win World War II and the disappointments and cynicism of the 1960s (the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy). What happened to the 1950s? They were an era of economic growth for the "haves" in America, and an era of renewed separation of the races in this country. Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) signaled the beginning of a new era in race relations in this country. But that act was again only prelude to the tumultuous 1960s. Where were the 1950s?
        With the 1950s came the advent of television sets in every home, cinemascope and VistaVision as a desperate attempt by studios to lure viewers back to theaters, drive-in movies, science-fiction films that featured aliens who were substitutes for the Communist menace to the East, and the gradual dissolution of the famed Studio System that had fueled the economy of Hollywood for the past thirty years. Several directors who made their reputations during the Studio Era in the 1940s (Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford) continued to make good films (as well as mediocre ones). But you won't see their names on the next page (The 1960s, Rise of the Director as Auteur). The last vestiges of the Studio System dissolved in the face of new directors, new approaches to acting, and new ideas about the depiction of the real world in films.

The 1950s – Focus on American Films
1950 All About Eve Joseph Mankiewicz
1950 Sunset Boulevard Billy Wilder
1951 An American in Paris Vincent Minnelli
1952 Singin’ in the Rain Stanley Donen
1952 The African Queen John Huston
1952 High Noon Fred Zinnemann
1953 From Here to Eternity Fred Zinnemann
1953 Shane George Stevens
1954 The Caine Mutiny Edward Dmytryk
1954 On the Waterfront Elia Kazan
1954 Rear Window Alfred Hitchcock
1954 A Star is Born George Cukor
1955 Marty Delbert Mann
1955 Rebel Without a Cause Nicholas Ray
1956 The Searchers John Ford
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai David Lean
1957 Paths of Glory Stanley Kubrick
1957 12 Angry Men Sydney Lumet
1958 Separate Tables Delbert Mann
1958 Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock
1958 Witness for the Prosecution Billy Wilder
1959 North by Northwest Alfred Hitchcock
1960 The Apartment Billy Wilder
1960 Psycho Alfred Hitchcock
1960 Wild River Elia Kazan
1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance John Ford

        In the 1950s some of America's greatest actors played characters that were past their prime, emotionally vulnerable, with fragile egos. Bette Davis stars as an aging actress manipulated by an aggressive younger actress in All About Eve (1950); Humphrey Bogart plays a broken-down alcoholic in The African Queen (1954) and a psychotic naval captain in The Caine Mutiny (1954); Gary Cooper is an aging sheriff who stands down the bad guys one last time (with the help of Grace Kelly) in High Noon (1952); Jimmy Stewart returns to the screen after an interlude as a Western star to appear in two Hitchcock films, Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). In both films he plays middle-aged men who have suffered debilitating injuries psychological and physical). No tough Western hero in these films!
        Even the four Westerns in this listing resonate to the theme of an ending of an era as well as a critique of an era. John Wayne, a stalwart of the American Western, appears as a vulnerable and psychologically unstable character in two John Ford Westerns, The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In the former film Wayne loses all but one member of his family to an attack by Native Americans. He becomes obsessed with finding his niece, who has been carried away by the Indians, and is forced to confront deep-seated feelings of racism and miscegenation in his search.
        In the latter film Wayne plays a rough and capable Westerner who fast is becoming an anachronism in the changing landscape of the American West. The territory is moving toward statehood, and a new breed of man is required to take charge of it. That man is represented by the ineffectual Jimmy Stewart, who refuses to wear a gun, and who is committed to the ideals of political justice and compromise. John Wayne plays the man who shot Liberty Valance, an evil gunman from the "old school" (compare Jack Palance's portrayal of the gunman in Shane, 1953). But the credit for killing Valance goes to Jimmy Stewart, who had reluctantly picked up a gun and tried to use it against the hardened killer. Of course, John Wayne saves Stewart's life, but loses the woman he loves to Stewart. The latter goes on to be the first governor of the new state. He is remembered as "the man who shot Liberty Valance."
        The ending of the film is bittersweet. Who are the heroes? Where is the justice in such experiences? The ambivalence that is at the heart of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is reminiscent of the mixed feelings one has to the town defended by Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952). No one steps forward to help Cooper stand up against the villains, who are set to appear at 12:00 on the main street of town. He faces them alone (but is saved when his Quaker sweetheart shoots one of the bad guys). The two ride off into the sunset after they have thumbed their noses at the town. What kind of Westerns are these? They sound like critiques of the American way of life – not a thing to be taken lightly in the 1950s. Conformity! Support your government! Fight the Communist peril! Defend the American Family! Respect authority! March in step! One, two! One, two!
        A fourth Western, Shane (1953) also tells the story of a former gunman who has forsaken that weapon and tried to live a peaceful life. Shane is a former gunslinger who tries to settle down. But conflicts in the outside world find their way to his doorstep, and he is compelled to strap on his guns one more time and dispatch the evil Jack Palance gunslinger (who wears black!). What does Shane do at the end of the film? He rides away from the secure world he had tried to become a part of. "Shane! Come back!" little Brandon de Wilde cries to no avail. Where has Shane gone? To join John Wayne at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or to join Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly after they leave town. If the 1950s were renowned as an era of conformity and stability, then why does the Western genre seem to self-destruct during this era?
        What begins to happen during the 1950s is a movement away from the big Studio Film to the little film about believable characters whose conflicts are more inward than outward. In some respects the best films of the 1950s are the ones that forecast the great films on the 1960s. Examples include On the Waterfront (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1954), Marty (1955), Paths of Glory (1957), 12 Angry Men (1957), Separate Tables (1958), and Wild River (1960). These films have in common two important qualities – directors interested in telling small but important stories and fresh actors who bring new dimensions to characterization and emotional intensity.
        Elia Kazan, who co founded the Actor's Studio in 1947, where the "method acting" approach was refined. Kazan brought Marlon Brando, a proponent of method acting, to the attention of the cinema world in the 1951 film, A Streetcar Named Desire based upon the Tennessee Williams play). Brando had performed the role on Broadway. But when audiences saw Brando in On the Waterfront (1954), interacting with the fine actors Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb, the world took notice. Acting in film would never be the same. Brando became his characters. He brooded, he grimaced, he groaned, he mumbled, he sighed – he was the character.
        Two other actors who followed in Brando's footsteps were James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Both brought a quality of brooding intensity to their roles. Seeing James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause is a rewarding experience because he represents all the alienated teenagers who were sickened by the deadening hypocrisy and shallowness of 1950s values. His untimely death in 1955 cut short what would have been a promising film career.
        Alfred Hitchcock's star continued to rise in the 1950s with three significant films. In Rear Window (1954) Hitchcock recreated a voyeuristic world through the eyes of his Jimmy Stewart character. The character's "rear window" looks out upon the windows of other apartment dwellers, and soon his curiosity with the lives they lead almost destroys him. In Vertigo (1957) Hitchcock again explores some of the dark regions of the human heart – obsessive and self-destructive behaviors, the dangerous power of a man to "remake" a woman in the likeness of his ideal woman, and the complicated deceits that people play out against each other. Vertigo is an unrelenting story that provides little emotional relief before its fateful close.
        The 1950s ended with an ominous note with regard to my film-viewing experience. I was thirteen years old when I saw Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) with my parents, my cousins, and my siblings. I remember that my sister and my cousins Judy and Nona held their hands over their faces during the gruesome shower scene. I watched it with my eyes wide open. I didn't understand much of the symbolism of what I was watching. But I did appreciate the art of it; in fact, I was in awe of what Hitchcock was doing with film technique. Why that shot? Why that angle? Why that order of shots? I didn't know it then, but I was hooked on film.
        A last note about a special film during this decade. In 1955 Ernest Borgnine, known for his prior work as a "heavy" (bad guy) in films, played a meek and mild butcher from Brooklyn in Delbert Mann's Marty. The film had appeared on television first (starring Rod Steiger – in his typically understated style of acting). Borgnine brought out the sympathy and the humanity of an overweight, homely man, apparently destined for bachelorhood, who spends all of his free time hanging out with the other guys in the neighborhood bar. I will never forget the litany of, "What do you want to do tonight?" "I don't know. What do you want to do tonight?" Men heading toward middle age with little prospects for emotional commitments to long-term relationships. Dead-ends, lonely lives, wasted lives. Oh, the joy of watching Marty dance with the homely woman and tell her deadpanned, "Hey, you're not such a dog after all."

Growing Up on the Films of the 1960s

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