The Ingrid Pitt column: films of the 50s

Hammer Horror legend Ingrid Pitt gleefully recalls innovations such as 3D, Cinerama and damn good scripts. You can't beat the 50s...

Watched Bad Day At Blackrock on the box. Not the best medium for seeing a Cinemascope film unless you are rich enough to have a 50-inch TV. It is a powerful reminder of just how powerful the moving image became in the 1950s. It was the time when writers began to effect how we saw ourselves. The Americans with some squirming soul-searching, the British with a display of frugal and self-deprecating filmmaking and the rest of the world trying to make a mark in an industry that was already been sewn-up in the English language.

The films of the ‘fifties’ still have resonance today. Many of the subjects were anchored firmly in world moving events. A more cavalier look at what happened in the recent world war and what the outcome meant for the future. There was also a new wave of escapism with extravagant Hollywood Musicals and costly costume dramas filched from the Bible. Hollywood was having its own internecine war. The expensive Studio system of making films against the guerrilla tactics of the swift moving freedom of the Independents. A war that the Studios were bound to lose.

Whatever was happening on screen, the political scene appeared at times to be even more dramatically exciting. Senator Joseph McCarthy grabbed international headlines as he pursued a hysterical witch-hunt against anyone he considered to be guilty of un-American thoughts and deeds. What was amazing was that, in the oft acclaimed ‘land of the free’, anyone who fell foul of the malevolent Senator from Wisconsin could be blacklisted and ruined for life on the most flimsy evidence. The turbulent times seemed to inspire Hollywood writers to produce some of the best scripts ever committed to the screen.

It was in the fifties that the movies went head to head with its greatest threat – television. Before then the Studios moguls had dismissed the threat as rubbish and buried their collective heads in the sand. At last they were waking up to the very real possibility that they were about to join the dinosaur. They thrashed about for a belated answer and, in 1952, came up with Cinerama. The trick here was to shoot the scene with three cameras simultaneously and then patch them side by side onto an enormous screen. You could hardly see the joins they claimed. The first was a sort of trailer for what was to come, This is Cinerama (1952). The best was How the West Was Won but this didn’t arrive until the beginning of the sixties. By this time Cinerama had been ambushed by all sorts of hustlers, PanaVision being one of the busiest.

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Still looking for some way of ungluing the audience from the fetish of the small screen, 3D was brought out and dusted down. It had been used as a minor curiosity since demonstrated by William Friese-Greene as far back as 1890 but now it was back big-time. There were a lot of films made but the drag of having to wear the one fits all cardboard spectacles proved to be too much for the ordinary cinemagoer. There were some notable films along the way. Mainly in 1953 it seems. It was fun dodging the ping-pong ball and various other pieces of equipment looming out of the screen in The House of Wax. The third dimension heightened the sense of involvement in It came from Outer Space and you were fully involved in the close-up osculations of Kiss Me Kate.

Another thing the Indies could not match in that moment in time was the exotic foreign locations. It was no longer acceptable to shoot against a green back screen and add the decoration later. Now the audience, when prised off the sofa and denied the frequent ‘tea breaks’, wanted to see the real thing. If it was Rome they wanted to see the delectable Audrey Hepburn smooched against the authentic Three Coins In The Fountain. It had to be Hong Kong for the soaring cho rds of Love Is A Many Splendored Thing while William Holden and Jennifer Jones put together their own version of Madame Butterfly and only Japan would do for the Oscar winning emoting of Marlon Brando in Sayonara (sans the long goodbye) – in wide screen.

20th Century Fox was the first company to shoot a major feature film in Cinemascope. The wrap was called on How To Marry A Millionaire (1953), a full six months before The Robe (1953) was finished but lost out in the rush to be the first released onto the appreciative public. Soon CinemaScope was where it was all happening and the big production houses waded in with films like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), A Star Is Born (1954), Lady And The Tramp (1955) and even had a tilt at cartoons with Mr Magoo (1954). 

There were plenty of others shooting for the wide screen and for a while the cinema held its own against the 14 inch, black and white TVs. The New Medium also encourage the splendour of high-class musical production like An American In Paris and Singing In The Rain among others of equal quality. Fred Astaire, after announcing his retirement in 1946, couldn’t resist the call of dancing feet and stuck on his top hat and white tie to return to the screen. The debate at the time was whether new boy, Gene Kelly was better than Astaire. The consensus of opinion was that Kelly was ‘more muscular’.

It was also the time when the big female stars were lured into the cinema from the stage. In 1950 Bette Davis appeared in All About Eve. That knocked the cork out of the bottle and from then on, although the stage actors still talked down their involvement in the film industry, it was where the big money was and everyone wanted a piece. English-born Elizabeth Taylor, a child actress, went on to become the leading glamour star of the day. Now the accent was on looks rather than ability but to reach the top they needed both qualities. Ava Gardner, Rock Hudson, Grace Kelly, Stewart Granger, Audrey Hepburn, Clark Gable, Doris Day, et al became the icons of the day. Marlon Brando road onto the scene in leathers astride a snarling motorbike in The Wild Ones (1953) and James Dean emoted and grizzled his way onto the screen in Rebel Without A Cause. Marilyn Monroe showed with a breathless, skirt-swirling performance, what the New York underground was really for and Tony Curtis switched character from a nasty little jerk in The Sweet Smell Of Success in 1957 to the bravura performance in drag in Some Like It Hot (1959).

While the American cinema was rampaging around the world screens the British film industry was surviving on comedy and taut, well-written but under funded dramas.  Increasingly the Brits were looking to America for finance and from necessity came a number of highly rated successes.

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For the American producers, working with British companies served two purposes. One, they were getting the authentic backgrounds demanded by the cinemagoers and secondly the Europeans worked cheap. Among some of the best co-productions from this time were the Bogart – Hepburn water-bound drama of The African Queen (1951) and Moulin Rouge with the irrepressible Zsa Zsa Gabor (1952).  The same year saw Alec Guinness having a mental breakdown on The Bridge On The River Kwai. Italy stood in for Greece on Helen of Troy (1956) and Spain was Russia for War And Peace.

It is axiomatic that great films need great Directors. And there was plenty of those around in the Fifties. John Houston left his Texan roots to take on more cosmopolitan subjects, The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The African Queen, Moulin Rouge, Moby Dick (1956).  David Lean did some of his best work in the fifties and early sixties. The Sound Barrier (1952) had Ralph Richardson and Nigel Patrick wrestling with the controls as they broke the sound barrier, turned to Hobson’s Choice to give John Mills a chance to try a strange accent and finished the decade with The Bridge On The River Kwai. Tony Richardson’s Look Back In Anger  (1958) was proclaimed as a revolution in filmmaking.  Carol Reed proved that comedy wasn’t dead with Our Man in Havana (1959) and Orson Welles proved he had a Touch Of Evil in 1958. Robert Wise had a bash at Sci-Fi with The Day The Earth Stood Still in 1951 and switched to a gritty Desert Rats in ’53. Willy Wilder was proving worth his Green Card with Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, while William Wyler countered with Roman Holiday (1953), Friendly Persuasion (1956) and the fantastic Ben Hur in 1959. The list of giant directors of the fifties goes on and on.  Most of them sailed on through the sixties and many of them were still film making in the seventies and eighties.

In Britain a little known film company in England made the first steps towards world renown. On the banks of the Thames, in a converted house, Terence Fisher made The Curse Of Frankenstein in 1957 and followed it with Dracula in ’58 and made Hammer Films an international icon. By the end of the decade the panache was draining from the film industry and the dross of the ghastly sixties was beginning to take hold.

Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.