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Monday, April 18, 2022

Walking The Fifties Plank


Have I Become a Snowflake?

As vines increasingly bear tender grapes, it becomes challenge the more to engage drama as wrought in stressed decade that was the fifties, a period I saw rear-view from television of the sixties, much of it intense as to duck since. Show of hands please for those who have watched Come Back Little Sheba over a past ten years. Not me … from 12/31/68 when NBC premiered it, but ho, I ventured again for this inquiry, and what a difference time and perspective made. More of Sheba anon as other demons were confronted during resolve to revisit a brace of what’s been avoided for fifty going on sixty years. How much easier it is to coast on sci-fi, westerns, comfort stuff. But even within these categories lies anathema. Seven Men From Now I can take for weekly nourishment while High Noon is faint of castor oil, parts great apart from points I yet fail to altogether grasp. What exactly is High Noon saying to us? Toe-dip into earnest fifties pool is in ways like re-approaching people I didn’t much like in school. Vincente Minnelli, a trusted favorite, embarked me upon the river Styx, first stop Lust for Life, about a sad, mad artist who cut off his ear and then killed himself. I like Van Gogh, am fascinated by him, but these two hours are a haul. To watch Lust for Life is akin to staying aboard a stationary bicycle for as long. We are ennobled for having gone the course. How did Metro expect Lust for Life to do anything other than lose money? ($1.9 million in red column) Was 1956, year of The Mole People, a right time to tell Van Gogh’s story? I respect Lust for Life, I admire Lust for Life, but chances are, what with less years ahead than behind, I will not return to it.

Minnelli again for Some Came Running (1958), even heavier hoist (137 minutes), too much spent on Shirley MacLaine, who I had not realized could get on my nerves so. Folks today look at movies like this and imagine life in small towns was hot-wired on hypocrisy and nothing else, the fifties repressed as if we are not. Frank and especially Dean are the only plain-speakers among ensemble of liars and dissemblers. Drama during the fifties was too often a stacked deck, hard to digest now let alone take serious. To laugh is to be better off, or note “irony” via Douglas Sirk. Did he have faintest idea how his work would play for viewership to come? There is Sirk to enjoy, and Sirk I shun, All That Heaven Allows in first category, Written on the Wind of second, Heaven a lovely postcard, scarves and muffs, woodsmen with ax, deer in the snow, Technicolor lush as ever was photographed. Conflicts are manageable, no guns or beatings, insults at the Country Club, Gloria Talbott being mean to mother the only harsh hands dealt. Has Rock Hudson been properly credited for Most Soothing Presence in fifties drama? I get no reflux from my popcorn watching him.

Hudson is again a stabilizing influence for Written On The Wind, though here melodrama begins at boil point (a shooting), then flashes back to characters and cause that we know will break bad and stay so for the feature’s length. Where Heaven relaxes, Wind agitates. Meanness is rife and Stack-as-slap-inclined drunk disinclines me to repeat viewing. Drama is meant to be dramatic, ideally seen once. Those sensible take their single dose and let it be. Dread comes of overexposure. I choose All That Heaven Allows or There’s Always Tomorrow at ratio of four watches to one of Written On The Wind, a personal barometer to take nothing away from Criterion-worthy Wind, but recognition that all of us have triggers and they for most part differ. A moment to bother me may pass others without incident. The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) I enjoy a lot but for an early scene where J. Crawford argues with husband Richard Egan over buying their kid a bike, which latter rides and is promptly run over by a car. Once was my enough, forewarned as forearmed, fast forward my friend for future use. Later era Frenzy (1972) with its strangling of Barbara Leigh-Hunt was made for my remote to skip, odd because Frenzy works otherwise at black-humor, funniest of Hitchcocks for me so long as that scene stays out.

Following are what I stayed up late to see on syndicated TV and never will again: The Strange One, A Hatful of Rain, and Blackboard Jungle, a period where I gave up Shock Theatre for movies more “grown-up,” fitful sleep to follow. What did I know or want to know from heroin addicts, cruel cadets, and crueler Vic Morrow busting up a hapless teacher’s swing platters? I began thinking movies without cyclops were better left alone. If this was what adults preferred, let them have it. Things might have been worse, like growing up on live television drama during the fifties where New York actors yelled at each other across kitchen tables. Having seen samples at You Tube, they play fine as curiosities, Method spiders in a bottle I need not take to heart. Routine for me were fifties features on television, older titles having been banished by VHF channels in their sixties quest for more color. Next day would be the Liberty to what was new, mostly fifties style upended by sixties change. Blackboard Jungle melted into To Sir, With Love (1967), title of which assured us it would not hit so hard. But then came Virginia Woolf and cussing a blue streak. We laughed at Brian Keith’s foul mouth in Jerry Lewis-turned-raunchy Way, Way Out (1966). Good pictures during such epoch seemed one in three dozens.

Actors after the war sought range rather than persona stardom, thus Burt Lancaster pleasing a paid-seat day in The Professionals (1966), then startling on TV as drab or drunk for Come Back, Little Sheba (1952
). I could not trust contemporary favorites to stay a preferred course. Sheba seemed an affront to what Lancaster did best, for instance Vera Cruz (1954) of an earlier afternoon broadcast. Sheba was among hills to climb for purpose of this post --- would I shrink before its onslaught? Barriers that had stood so long had to be overcome --- Shirley Booth, Burt berserk on the bottle for a harrowing third act, and Shirley Booth. She won an Academy Award for this, Lancaster saying years later that Booth was the finest performing talent he ever worked with. We should not confuse any actress with a character they play who talks too much and annoys us, again the obstacle I call “Shirley MacLaine” for elements that make me avoid a movie for life. Refreshing to be proved wrong, in fact revel in it where something worthwhile has been too long misremembered or unappreciated, as was case with Come Back, Little Sheba. Here was story still engaging however “dated” it might seem for some, actors sincere and committed to difficult parts, Terry Moore outstanding where I had not recalled or expected that (she still acts, maintains a fan site and appears at shows, age ninety-three). Sheba's alcoholism theme rings accurate as to my conception of the problem, taking it serious as did another 1952 Paramount release, Something To Live For. Nostalgia for the ’68 TV watch was sentimental overlay to remind me how Come Back, Little Sheba was early instance of mature drama I sat through start to finish. Plenty reward was had for giving it this belated second chance, so question is, which and how many others should be also re-tried?

James Dean was during his brief stardom a vessel for drama played full out. His early death put exclamation mark to unease and conflict part/parcel of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, the pair a foundation for an extraordinary death cult to grow around Dean and sustain a couple years after his 9/30/55 passing. Morbid appetite for Dean as victim and martyr could be sated by combo offer of Eden and Rebel which played from 1956 through much of 1957. Dean was viewed as a teenager misunderstood and dying for it. He’d have much to do with a vogue in pop songs revolved around untimely depart. Autopsy tables were cleared by Eden/Rebel being split up and handed off to syndicated television in 1960 (initial broadcasts in 1961), not seen decently for many years to come. I doubt youth today is much moved by James Dean, not as they were in 1956-57 when Eden/Rebel played as sparks for all-consuming emotion. This was of-the-moment charge that changing times would not abide, let alone seek to recapture. I’d like to have been around to experience impact Dean homages had, observe fans who camped longest at the shrine. Could there be mourners still, like those for Elvis since 1977?

Modern south gothica sank or swam on preparedness to amuse alongside arguing, thus Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor missing my boat with Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) because of situations strident and her too shrill, while Newman at least had funny lines by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. to make The Long, Hot Summer (also 1958) tolerable. Summer was pleasure too for Method … Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa … meets mocking, as in Orson Welles as Southern like no Southerner ever was. Dedicated-enough emoting by Actor’s Studio firebrands make old Vitagraph players look like models of restraint, Summer cast fonts of fun where taken in light spirit. Much in the fifties depend upon weight of sledgehammer that writers wield. Even musicals can be merciless where heated passions are exposed. Could Judy Garland hope to have another Good Old Summertime after ordeal that was A Star Is Born? Here might be another of plentiful reasons there was not follow-up for her along that genre line. Noir too, grim as it could already be, took me to unbearable place that was Phenix City (its Story dated 1955), among few I sternly swore not to see again, and so did not risk mental health by getting it out this week. Farthest along troubling path I’d take was A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), lashing delayed till last, penitent me satisfied that if I could endure this, then so could any fifties drama be borne (Streetcar not watched since … when?).

Sample of What Kept Me at Viewing Bay For So Long

Being tense ride aboard this Streetcar, I even shut eyes when Blanche (Vivien Leigh) turned  the radio back on after Stanley (Marlon Brando) warned her not to. Also when he cleared the table, though relief was had for his not upsetting the cake, as wouldn’t that have been too messy for trial this already was? It is written that Blanche exacerbated Vivien Leigh’s already fragile mental state, an effect similar upon mine. Is even an Academy Award salve for sanity lost? Leigh is good, too good for comfort. Understand Olivia DeHavilland was offered Blanche and said no (Warners-Feldman wanted a star rather than Broadway’s Jessica Tandy). Difference was DeHavilland could play nuts (The Snake Pit) and walk away, whereas Leigh could not. There were other Stanleys on stage, but I don’t know how any could have scored like Brando, as he was not only something new, but had youth and “movie star” written all over him. Had Brando backed off “range” insistence, he might have been undisputed biggest of postwar finds, but to follow Streetcar with Viva Zapata (lost money), Julius Caesar (novelty interest mainly), The Wild One (Columbia cheapie, not helpful), and heaven spare audiences, Desiree. A memorable persona star may well have firmed up if such creation had been fifties possible, On The Waterfront the only ideal casting Brando had in that decade, at least to my reckoning.

Elia Kazan was a great director of films who knew how to open them up for transfer from stage. A Streetcar Named Desire wore me out, but as others still revere it, I must take my weakness into account. Stanley is a jitter-inducing presence, while Blanche tips off being unbalanced early on and ratchets up from there (was this the character or Vivien Leigh?). Streetcar was my Eagle Scout award for fifties odyssey, like sleeping out in woods filled with bears. It is too harrowing to view with tongue-to-cheek or distanced irony, as these characters do demand undivided attention. Those in know tell me Streetcar was and remains the Greatest of All American Plays, which suggests community groups still put it on. The movie had footage and some soundtrack put back that was censored in 1951. A collector supplied it to enhance what we see today. Charles K. Feldman produced and had ownership of the negative. That would make a fascinating story, as Feldman drove his Streetcar first through WB to distribute (1951), then Fox for a reissue (1958), and later (1970) United Artists for another reissue. He then and finally let CBS have Streetcar for television. I’m proud for getting through the gauntlet (via Amazon HD Prime), though maybe I’m cracked as Blanche for sitting alone in the dark room waving off traumatic scenes, Enough, Enough! directed to actors who could not hear me.


Blogger Beowulf said...

I missed most of those serious pictures simply because they had no dinosaurs, aliens, car chases, or other indictors of kid-friendly. I DID NOT miss the horror in FRENZY; hence, I stay away from any showings of it today. I know you like Glenn's site, as do I, but its a land mine of soul-crushing adult films. I avoid the Castor Oil flicks and gorge on the wonder of the majority of movies he opines about. Most of us, by now, can read the signs and stay away from that which will bore or seriously upset us.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Good item today.
There are many dramas which are well worth seeing, but whether or not they are worth seeing again is another question entirely; I myself rarely re-watch dramas - comedies too - unless literally decades have passed and/or I'm watching along with others who haven't seen the film before. I think that dramas and comedies depend on the unanticipated development or line of dialogue for much of their impact on the audience - and with people able and willing to watch old films pretty much constantly now, never the same film twice, it can be very difficult for the writers to keep the audience surprised by the plot developments or jokes presented onscreen.
On the other hand, re-working older material for a current audience can be very effectively done - but it just isn't very easily done. I still wonder why they don't "update" more old sci-fi films but with better special effects, but I guess maybe there just isn't enough money in that niche market for people to take the risk.
That said, the "spectacular" films, like sci-fi or war or fantasy or even musical & dance subjects, I will happily re-watch, just to enjoy the spectacle again, or to hear the songs again, and/or to see if there are visual details I may have missed the first time around.
Some may re-watch dramas or comedies to observe the players more closely, but my experience was that I'd re-watch such things only if there was nothing else of interest on the TV and there was nothing else to do - but those situations no longer obtain very often or at all anymore, now that home video playback from personal movie libraries and streaming and other options for accessing unseen films have become ubiquitous. Who needs to re-watch anything?
I recall that my late parents would never watch a film they had already seen once - they would always insist on something they had never seen before whenever they went out to the movies or when they sat down to watch a film on TV.
I suppose TV reruns must have had some influence on my tolerance for re-watching certain films, too - my parents had become adults in a world without TV in it at all.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Castor Oil flicks! Perfect description. Couples arguing, kids in danger, wives abused... nah, I'll take my entertainment in more entertaining ways.

I saw a Broadway revival of Streetcar starring John C. Reilly, and couldn't figure out why it was supposed to be a classic. It played like a "very special episode" of The Honeymooners. It didn't help that Reilly was the only actor in the show who didn't speak with a New Orleans accent. And when it got to the big reveal of why Blanche went off her rocker as a teenager, all I could think was, "Really? That's it?"

2:11 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

Good show! Some titles titles you might have missed, you passed Minnelli's HOME FROM THE HILL, a Robert Mitchum classic which brought George Peppard and George Hamilton to the front. Please forget all that depressing Kazan barf (except ON THE WATERFRONT)and get to the SECOND HALF of the 50's, when MARLON BRANDO really came into form. His BEST FIVE, in my humble opinion: SAYONARA, THE YOUNG LIONS, THE FUGITIVE KIND, ONE EYED JACKS, and into the 60's-MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY!!Not only in performance, these are certainly 5-star motion pictures, for sure! Also, these 5 BRANDO pictures have rarely been seen by the public, for any kind of a vote. All thru the past, every critic 'en masse' proclaming the First half of the fifties as being ''the best of Brando''. RUBBISH!! Great performance..OK!! for multiple showings???....

7:18 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The 50s is filled with movies that at one point were very celebrated and that mean nothing to me. George Stevens films of this decade are things I don't revisit because I find them too cold. James Dean is quite unremarkable, and I always felt that the surrounding cast were actually better actors than him. The films in wide screen and color feel more obsolete than the black and white films of the previous decade. Even if the cars of the 30s and 40s are old, I prefer them to the ones in the fifties, except for the Ford Falcon. The melodramas are too intense, and some of the suffering people that they display makes them more stupid than some of today's TV shows. I remember seeing many of these in the 70s and the 80s and I don't want to revisit them even if they offer them for free on Tubi.

Something similar happens to me with tangos. I prefer the noisy recordings on master discs (in Argentina, before late 1952) to anything done later on master tapes and eventually in stereo. I feel far more engaged with the sound of the forties.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Was a tango scene in the movie I watched last night - 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE.

7:04 AM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Hey Mike -- Death on the Nile is my favorite Christie adaptation!

It is posts like this make make this blog such an integral part of my life. There is so much casual profundity to be found that it is always a rich and rewarding experience.

I'm deeply conflicted about movies from the 50s (and DON'T GET ME STARTED ON THE 60S!), and this captures some of the thoughts that have passed through my mind, but were never articulated. Bravo.

10:08 PM  

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