5 favorite films from the 1950s

For Classic Movie Day on May 16, Classic Film TV Cafe hosted a blogathon asking movie fans to share their 5 favorite films of the 1950s. I missed the original announcement so it was too late to participate in the blogathon, but I did join others on Twitter by listing my five choices:

“Best of Everything”
“House of Wax”
“Picnic”
“Tarantula”
“Vertigo”

It’s an odd mix, I know. The only common denominator  is that I saw each for the first time as an impressionable kid, so my emotions are elevated with all of these 5 films. I do adore this misfit list that has creature feature/horror, romance, melodrama and masterpiece. Here’s a brief look at why.

Hope Lange, left, and Diane Baker start their new jobs at a publishing company yon the same day in “The Best of Everything.”

“Best of Everything” (1959)

Hollywood in the 1950s knew how to do drama and this Cinemascope soaper is one of the best. (It’s based on the first novel by Rona Jaffe.) I think I could love it simply because Johnny Mathis sings the romantic theme song that is repeated throughout the film.

But there’s so much I enjoy, like watching Hope Lang walk in for her first day on her first job at a New York City publishing company and hold her own with her tough new boss played by Joan Crawford. I’m intrigued by the endless array of women in the typing pool and their distinct personalities. (Did they really have to sit in rows like that and type all day?). I get a kick out of the excitable Diane Baker as the small-town girl who wants to be sophisticated (and doesn’t stand a chance because she’s so darn down-to-Earth). I feel for the aspiring actress (Suzy Parker), desperately in love with the caddish theater director (Louis Jordan – did I mention this great cast?) And I swoon over Stephen Boyd.

There are many characters with interesting, but not always happy, – storylines that the film is easy to watch over multiple viewings – I know from experience!

“House of Wax” (1953)

Vincent Price as a sympathetic character … in a fun house of a movie? Let’s start watching.

Even today when I see “House of Wax,” I feel like a kid eagerly waiting to be frightened by whatever is around the corner or lurking in the darkness.  “House of Wax” never disappoints.

Price plays a sculptor at a wax museum who is nearly burned to death when his business partner sets the museum on fire to collect insurance. He re-opens a museum, lovingly caring for his historical figures and always looking for the woman whose “likeness” he will use for his beloved Marie Antoinette. Here is my full disclosure moment: I know I have a soft spot for this film because of the many times Price speaks of his “Marie Antoinette.” My full name is Antoinette Marie so I pretend I hear his eloquent voice saying my name – just backward. (Yes, it’s weird but give me this simple joy.)

The movie was made in 3-D hence the hilarious scenes of the pitchman aiming his paddleball at the audience. (Try not to laugh the first time the ball comes at your face – I dare you.) The actor playing Igor (!) is credited as Charles Buchinsky, but you will recognize him as Charles Bronson.

William Holden and Kim Novak in one of the popular publicity photos from “Picnic.”

“Picnic” (1955)

I remember sitting cross-legged on the living room floor watching “Picnic” on the Sunday afternoon TV movie. As soon as the opening music started, I fell right into small-town Kansas in the 1950s. The film had an almost fairy-tale feel that was painted in Technicolor. I was enamored by the unfamiliar rural landscapes and swept up in the romance of drifter Hal (William Holden) and the beautiful Madge (Kim Novak) although I identified with her tomboyish little sister. (I was quite young when I first saw “Picnic.”)

There seems to be an innocence and simplicity of life in “Picnic,” but I’ve come to realize upon many repeated viewings that these quiet lives are deeply complex. It’s not all happiness and dancing to “Moonglow.” The “mean” mother was only trying to protect her daughter; the kind neighbor who cared for her invalid mother found her joy in the family next door; the boisterous “old-maid schoolteacher” was a desperate jumble of emotions ready to erupt and reveal the ugly side of vulnerability. (Rosalind Russell should have won an award just for that scene.)

It took me a while to understand that all of these emotions beyond the romantic – good, bad, sad- are why I never tire of watching “Picnic.”

Authorities can’t figure out how to kill the giant “Tarantula” in this B-movie favorite.

“Tarantula” (1955)

As a kid, I got to sneak out of bed and watch giant creature movies on late-night TV with my dad. I’m not sure if it’s the individual movies or the shared experience with him, but this remains my favorite genre.  We love “Tarantula” probably just because it’s about a giant spider and that would freak anyone out.

It has a familiar – and simplistic – creature feature plot: a scientist’s experiments go awry. (That’s all you need as a starting point for these films.) In this case, the scientist (Leo G. Carroll) is searching for a way to create an unlimited food supply. He experiments on animals, enlarging them and then, well, it’s called “Tarantula” for a reason. Watching as a kid, “Tarantula” was both terrifying (a spider big enough to stand over my house!) and fun. Today, it’s all fun.

“Tarantula” was directed by Jack Arnold who had quite a knack for making some of the most famous B-movies of the ‘50s including “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “It Came From Outer Space.” Those were all fun, too, but “Tarantula” still tops them all for me.

James Stewart and Kim Novak are desperately lonely and desperately in love in “Vertigo.”

“Vertigo” (1958)

Bored and confused. That’s what I remember feeling about “Vertigo” the first time I saw it. (In my defense, I was young.) Oh, I loved Jimmy Stewart of course (I was a big fan) and Kim Novak was quite lovely, but I had my problems with it. So, I did what I always do – started reading whatever I could about the film to figure out what I was missing. Today, I know that it is a Hitchcock masterpiece and, ironically, I defend its languid pace to those who think the film is too slow. (What is wrong with them?)

Scottie, a former detective (Stewart) who suffers from a debilitating case of vertigo, is hired by an old friend to help with his suicidal wife. After saving her from a drowning attempt, Scottie gets to know the blonde Madeleine. He is mesmerized by her, but ultimately, is unable to save her. Her death leaves him traumatized. Later he sees a woman who looks like Madeleine, except for her black hair. Her name is Judy and Scottie becomes obsessed, making her over into the image of Madeleine.

There is such a sadness enveloping “Vertigo.” I feel so much for Scottie and Madeleine/Judy. They are lost and desperately in search of love. Judy is so desperate for love, she lets Scottie change her to look like someone else. I think that’s the real reason I love this film – there is such a depth of emotion.

****

That’s it – a quick look at why I chose “The Best of Everything,” “House of Wax,” “Picnic,” “Tarantula” and “Vertigo” as my 5 favorite films of the 1950s. If you haven’t seen these films, I hope I’ve given you reason to check them out. If you do, let me know what you think.

2 thoughts on “5 favorite films from the 1950s”

  1. Hoo boy, you hit my sweet spot with these, every one is more than a gem. PICNIC is an emotional time capsule, over the top in the most entertaining way – the dance, halting, chaste but still deeply sensual – captures the dark belly of repressed Americana in a manor that still resonates. And TARANTULA – nobody could shoot deserts on a budget like Jack Arnold! His INCREDIBLE SHRIKING MAN (with the brilliant script by Richard Matheson) is one of my very favorites of the genre.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Jeffrey. What you said about “Picnic” in one sentence is amazing – you really captured the essence of the film. I need to watch “Incredible Shrinking Man” again – it’s been much too long. In fact, a Jack Arnold marathon would be a great, fun idea!

      Toni

      Like

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