Sunday, August 14, 2016

Growing Up in America: American movies in the 1950s


By Rolf Dumke

Movies in the 1950s were an intoxicating and disturbing experience for an immigrant boy. They exposed the psychic underbelly of an America disturbed by Freud, sex, women, and crime; troubled by the Cold War struggle between patriotic Americans and communist traitors; haunted by Ray Bradbury’s and Orson Welles’s impending attacks by aliens from outer space; and unbalanced by the drama in American high schools that created or cemented social barriers, allocating dramatically different life chances among its students.
    But two famous directors with a European background, Billy Wilder from Vienna and Berlin, and Alfred Hitchcock from Britain, were able to make fun of American inhibitions and brush American apprehensions with humor, irony, and fantasy.
    In retrospect, I began to cherish Hollywood movies as an outstanding, signal element of American culture, which has captivated the world. Unfortunately, Wikipedia’s article on eras of American cinema is uninspiring.
    Over the decade of the fifties I saw a number of historically great or notorious American films with my friend Gene, and once with my parents, in the four cinemas of Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, down Euclid Avenue. Our choices were not prescient views of top American films in the second half of the century. We were just lucky to be there when these films were made. Some of the films, especially The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Payton Place, were of questionable value.
    Back then, I was not aware of how great some of these films were, even though I was mesmerized by individual scenes. For example, the following highlights remain clear in memory:

  • Big boulders crashing down into the theater, in loud stereo sound at the beginning of the 3-D film, It Came from Outer Space, and
  • Haunting beauty and danger holding a precarious balance when Julia Adams, the pretty young woman researcher, swims languorously in the lagoon while the monstrous creature follows her in the dark waters below, in the 3-D film, The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Billy Wilder’s films were chock-full of great scenes:
    In The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe, on a sweltering day in New York City, holding down her dress and swaying in delight over an iron grate from which cool air gushes up from a subway below.
    In Some Like it Hot:

  • There is a pyjama party by an all-ladies’ jazz band in a railway couchette sleeping car on a train to Florida, where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are disguised as women, hiding from murderous gangsters. Now they compete, awkwardly handicapped by their attire and roles as women, to court an innocent, if scantily dressed, Marilyn Monroe.
  • Chicago gangsters celebrate an ominous surprise birthday party in a beach hotel in Florida. A huge birthday cake is wheeled into the banquet hall. Lights are dimmed to see the cake’s burning candles and “Happy Birthday” is sung very loudly. Suddenly, a mobster jumps out of the cake with his blasting machine gun and mows down a table-length group of gangsters, all “good fellows,” who are surprised for all eternity. Tony and Jack cower, pale and wide-eyed, under a big, white tablecloth to see a preview of their own demise if they are caught – covered ironically by the sort of white linen they might lie under if they were already in the morgue.
  • The friendly and generous millionaire, Osgood III, falls for “Daphne” Lemmon. He hires a band to play tangos in the hotel bar and they dance energetically all night, Osgood chiding “Daphne” again and again for attempting to lead. “Daphne” looks like she is really enjoying dancing tangos in drag, while keeping Osgood away from his yacht, where Curtis, as the debonair “Junior” from Shell Oil, schemes to seduce “Sugar Kane” Monroe.
  • Remaining unperturbed to the end of the film, Osgood states, “Well, nobody’s perfect,” when “Daphne” rejects his proposal to marry with the shocking words, “But I’m a man!”
In fact, all of the scenes in Some Like It Hot are beautifully overdone, making fun of the people in the film. It is one of the best comedies of American film.

In North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock assembles a series of serious and funny scenes, followed by drama of surreal violence and by scenes of extreme suspension and escape, that make one shiver.
  • In a scene that mixes the normal bidding in an auction with a threat to life of the protagonist Thornton (Cary Grant), a debonair ladies’ man who usually spends uneventful evenings in a hotel bar with other advertising executives in New York City, the inventive Thornton starts bidding like a crazy man at an art auction in Chicago where he is cornered by Soviet spies who have tried to kill him.
  • He bids higher and higher ridiculous sums for a small replica of the Statue of Liberty, making fun of other bidders, looking drunk and confused. The alarmed auctioneers call the police to remove this fool. Thornton/Grant happily escapes into the hands of the law. Which turns out to be the FBI, who pressure him with a trick - they’ll drop a false indictment that he murdered a diplomat in the UN building in New York - to become a counter-spy, a dangerous task,where he will face grave difficulties.
        Thornton/Grant is an innocent who is dragged into ever more deadly activity for the good of the country, and for the pretty Eva Marie Saint, for whom he has developed romantic and protective feelings. The film is about how one becomes a reluctant hero, through patriotism and love, by dirty official pressure and pure accident.
    Hitchcock has created a great satire by making fun of the deadly fallacy of the Cold War, perhaps anticipating its end by Reagan and Gorbachev more than a generation later.
    There are other, more dramatic and famous scenes in North by Northwest where Thornton faces a crop duster whose whirling propeller is about to chop him up, or, fleeing Soviet murderers down the face of Mount Rushmore with Eva Marie Saint, which require more detail later.

My appreciation of Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot and Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest evolved over time to my present adoration. Consequently, in talking about American films, I will try to relate my own, innocent initial reactions to some of the few films that were made in the 1950s, as well as reflections on them by a young immigrant boy from Germany. The films I will talk about were the only American films I saw in the fifties, besides the occasional European films in the cinema across the street from the Cleveland Library. I also provide links to the stories told by the films and to presently available copies on Youtube.

My vivid remembrance of parts of these American films was possible because they were the only American films I saw in the fifties. Movies were expensive. My parents’ disapproval of TV meant that my brother and I grew up without the usual daily consumption of television stories and shows. Thus, these films were an explosion of new impressions, and their memories remain indelible.
    The Loew’s State and the Ohio were especially grand theatres, with oak banisters, deep, comfortable seats, lush red carpets, huge oil paintings on the walls of the entrance halls, excellent sound systems, and big screens. They had wide, deep balconies, where we learned that teenagers could snuggle with their girlfriends, share big bags of popcorn, kiss, and giggle.
    Around a thousand persons could be seated in these theaters. They were often sold out for hits, like Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space (1953) and his The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955), Mark Robson’s Peyton Place (1957), Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), and Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).
    What a comparison to my first film experience, in the late 1940s in Germany, in a cramped, Spartan gym in Brannenburg, Bavaria, where mothers with small children were squeezed in to see Walt Disney’s Bambi! We had all fallen in love with the little, defenseless Bambi and were terrified by the raging forest fire and the shooting of Bambi’s mother, the whole hall uncontrollably weeping out loud.

I will discuss American 1950s movies in four parts, on upcoming successive Sundays:
Part 1. America in 3-D, shaken and stirred
Part 2. Billy Wilder, itchy and hot for Marilyn
Part 3. Hitchcock thrills with North by Northwest
Part 4. US and German postwar movies compared
Links to previous installments in approximate historical order of contents:
Copyright © 2016 by Rolf Dumke


  1. Rolf, thanks! You've only just introduced some 50s films, but you've already "made" me want to see a Billy Wilder film or two again, and definitely Hitchcock's North by Northwest again!

  2. Rolf, your review of these films, in the context of the movie output of the 1950's, has provided me with new insights into them. At least now I know why I always like films by Hitchcock and Wilder.

  3. Morris and William, I first wanted to share my feeling that like jazz, American movies in the 1950s were a great cultural treasure of our new country.

    But in writing my reviews I was surprised by my own strong reactions to those films which reflected past experiences and fears as well as my future good life in the States.