Thursday, February 08, 2018

1001 NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES: PART 5


                The early 50’s was the period when TV really started to flex its muscles. Boob-tube infiltration of American households increased by leaps and bounds. And movie attendance suffered accordingly. Why go out when there was free entertainment at home?  Especially  when movies in general seemed to be undergoing some sort of creative logjam.  For many viewers, a regular diet of familiar genres - presented in the same old ways - was beginning to pall. The puritanical production code was no help either. Attempts to craft franker, more meaningful representations of life were constantly stymied by moral watchdogs, intent on maintaining an arbitrary code of onscreen conduct. And even if something provocative actually made it to the screen, the ever vigilant Catholic Legion of Decency literally threatened parishioners with hellfire should they dare watch a movie on its proscribed list.  For lots of viewers, mainstream movies seemed to be increasingly irrelevant.  A general lack of fresh forms and ideas was causing many to tune out. Of course, TV was guilty of the same kind of mediocrity. But now  many who’d  gone to movies once or twice a week, stayed home in their pajamas and stared at the small screen.   Even the most inspired film-makers found it hard to negotiate the system’s pitfalls and restrictions.  Occasionally an honest-to-goodness masterpiece might emerge, a salmon that had somehow fought its way upstream.  John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle”, for example.  Strangely enough that jet black gem came from MGM, the company that toed the conservative line most slavishly. As a matter of fact, studio head Louis B. Mayer  hated  “Jungle”– wished it had never been made. Louis B. liked musicals and there’s no doubt Metro excelled at making them.  Here was a genre that actually demanded its own fanciful version of reality. Hard-edged social problems need never intrude into the lives of characters who sing and dance their way down the street.  MGM’s early 50’s dramas tended to be complacent, toothless affairs – built to extend Andy Hardy’s sanitized universe into the new era.  People wanting this kind of false reassurance could stick with their TV sets now. The eye-opening doses of candor and creativity on offer in foreign films had awakened  - in the more adventurous – an appetite  for something more substantial than the latest Van Johnson/ June Allyson piffle.   People still went to the movies, of course. Just not in such numbers or with such frequency. Yet, there was something to be said for getting out of the house. And after years of inculcation, movie going was – for many – an addiction they felt no need to overcome. These loyalists still trooped to cinemas as regularly as ever. For Hollywood, the problem was how to lure back the deserters.
                As the 50’s began, the bare-bones Poverty Row westerns that thrived in the 30’s and 40’s were approaching trail’s end. For the most part, though, they didn’t actually disappear - just relocated to TV. Roy, Gene, Hopalong Cassidy and the Cisco Kid all extended their careers – and expanded their audiences - with popular TV series. Production values were still skimpy but the technicians and actors involved were largely the same ones who’d ridden the Poverty Row Range. To them, meager budgets were nothing new; all knew how to stretch a buck. Nor did production deficiencies matter a jot to the millions of kids who watched the shows faithfully.  Clayton Moore as “The Lone Ranger” and Guy Madison as “Wild Bill Hickok” soon joined the party. Familiar locations, familiar sidekicks and familiar good guy/bad guy shenanigans all lassoed the affections of one more generation of kids. On the big screen, though, westerns were now usually color productions, stories marginally more sophisticated,  settings more elaborate. There were plenty of highly entertaining oaters  on offer in the early 50’s. It’s unlikely any audience members emerged from “Winchester 73”, “Westward the Women” or “River of No Return” wanting their money back. For the most part screen westerns played out as they almost always had –as processions of time-honored genre tropes, paraded across the screen with a well-tooled predictability that was comfortably reassuring.  Film-makers crossed their fingers and hoped that color and bigger screens would lure genre fans away from their TV sets, where small scale versions of the same sagebrush plots were playing out nightly. New faces like Audie Murphy, Rory Calhoun and Dale Robertson claimed their spots in the western landscape - while  big male stars of the 30’s and 40’s embraced the genre with encouraging success. James Stewart and Gary Cooper polished up their brands via lucrative forays into the genre; Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea now worked exclusively in westerns. All rode and wrangled in the shadow of the man who now practically defined the genre worldwide, box-office champ John Wayne. To further differentiate big screen oaters from the TV ones (and to attract a wider adult audience), western directors  began to beef up their films with more complex and mature themes. High-brow critics who normally wouldn’t waste ink on a western heaped praise on Fred Zinnemann’s  “High Noon”, a film that pointedly tackled psychological and moral dilemmas. More importantly, the public endorsed it too. A year later, director George Stevens marshaled the basic elements of the genre and executed them – across the board - with a kind of transcendent, once in a  lifetime perfection. The result was “Shane”, as potent now as when audiences first fell in love with it. All these years later, I’ve yet to find a western that’s better.
                Just below the surface of 50’s optimism simmered a genuine feeling of helplessness. It came in the wake of the atom bomb, whose existence – and ramifications - were too big and too ominous to either comprehend or wish away. Technological advances in every field gave the public an increased awareness of science, its possibilities and its threats.  World destroying death rays no longer seemed   just the province of Flash Gordon serials.  The national case of nerves saw itself reflected in a wave of films about new perils threatening mankind’s survival .  Inspired and reinforced by the rise of sci-fi fiction and sci-fi comic books, menacing near-future fantasies took center stage in the 50’s. The genre lent itself to ballyhoo and sensationalism – and was largely aimed at kids who crowded Saturday matinees to gasp at the latest extra-terrestrial hobgoblins. But these movies were often used as Trojan horses to carry political and social ideas - either progressive or reactionary. A mini-trend of Anti-Red films briefly proliferated – ethically suspect but  - in some cases - quite entertaining. In spite of various levels of intellectual dishonesty and paranoia-stoking “patriotism”, not all were as oppressively awful as “My Son John”, where Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger made mugs of themselves for the greater glory of Joseph McCarthy. The anti-communist “Red Planet Mars” (with Peter Graves), one of the few sci fi entries in the red scare sweepstakes, was actually pretty imaginative.
                                          
 Whether sci-fi screenplays preached paranoia or warned against the dangers of conformity, complacency, prejudice or Big Brother,  for the kids it was all about the monsters and the spaceships. Who knew they were really addressing the threats lurking in each of our ids? The 50’s explosion of sci-fi practically characterized the whole decade. Fans look back at it as a golden age, a period critically influential for the genre. Sci-fi films became less prevalent through most of the 60’s. Then came Kubrick’s “2001” – cinematically as much of a breakthrough as the moment that ape tossed the bone into the air and it morphed into a space wheel. The film was stunning – but so different no one quite knew what to do next. Result – it took almost a decade before another major work of English language sci-fi appeared. Then in ‘77 came two: “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters”.  Big though both were, they also proved easier for the public to come to terms with and for other moviemakers  to emulate. Since then, sci-fi’s remained a busy and successful genre - right up into today’s endless assembly line of Superhero movies.  In spite of all the Avatars” and “Inceptions” – all the CGI and technical wizardry (not to mention the level of self-importance that’s crept into so much big screen sci fi), I’d say we’re still waiting for the next “2001” level breakthrough in the genre.
                Noirs continued to thrive in the early 50’s. Director Joseph H. Lewis ushered in the decade with his feverish lovers-on-the run opus “Gun Crazy”, setting the bar sky-high. But superb films like “The Asphalt Jungle” “The Prowler” and “The Big Heat” took up the challenge, adding their own levels of excitement to the noir landscape. Britain proved a surprisingly fertile ground for this kind of film; “Pool of London”, “Hunted” and “The Good Die Young” stand head to head with their best American counterparts. 1953’s “Stolen Identity”, an Austrian-American co-production, owed more to Harry Lime than Philip Marlowe, pitched as it was among the black market intrigues of a dangerous postwar Europe. As a matter of fact, shot on location in Vienna, “Stolen Identity” qualified as part of the mini-genre sometimes called “rubble films”, focused on WW2 survivors doing whatever it took to survive in the bombed out remnants of their cities. “Stolen Identity” received only minuscule American distribution via actors’ agent  Helen Ainsworth. But it’s a little firecracker of a picture. See it and you’ll wonder why leading man Donald Buka never achieved the same kind of connoisseur level prominence as Ralph Meeker or Steve Cochran.
                Entering an Indian summer of accomplishment, the MGM musical produced its finest gems yet. Could anyone have guessed the party was almost over?  “Singin’ in the Rain” is widely considered the greatest of all Metro tuners– even non-musical fans seem to love it. My preferences lean toward “The Band Wagon” and “An American in Paris”.  But films like “The Belle of New York”, “Give a Girl a Break” and “Dangerous When Wet” also stand tall. Not to mention “Show Boat”, "Three Little Words"“Two Weeks with Love”,“I Love Melvin” and  “The Merry Widow” , each teeming with pleasures.  Other studios still pumped out musicals regularly, but lagged behind MGM quality-wise.  Warner Brothers actually matched the Metro level once with “Calamity Jane”; Fox approached it a few times too (“The Farmer Takes a Wife”, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”). Paramount upped its musical game with the fresh as all outdoors “Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick” and the pictorially adventurous “Red Garters”. And “White Christmas”, the studio’s biggest musical hit ever, boasts charms that a million December rebroadcasts have failed to wither. Goldwyn’s “Hans Christian Anderson” benefited from an uncharacteristically toned down Danny Kaye and one of the finest original song scores ever (from Frank Loesser). The British film industry generally shied away from musicals but usually managed at least one terrific one per decade. For the 50’s it was the highwayman musical “The Beggar’s Opera” (with Laurence Olivier doing his own vocalizing). Excitingly filmed in color, it was a decade ahead of its time, painting the kind of gritty, detailed picture of 17thcentury lower class life viewers  wouldn’t  see again till “Tom Jones”. That picture (from 1963) was, of course, a huge hit. Audiences from a decade earlier proved entirely unprepared for such a jolt. And “The Beggar’s Opera” was yanked from theaters in record time. In 1952 divas Zarah Leander and Marta Eggerth, who ruled the German movie musical roost in the 30’s, each turned up – talent and allure pretty much intact  -in vehicles equal to the best  from their heydays. “Cuba Cabana” found Leander in the tropics emanating a kind of Simone Signoret  I’ve-seen-it-all vibe - with just enough energy left over to toss off a few songs in that sultry deep purple style of hers. Eggerth headlined a new version of Franz Lehar’s operetta “Das Land des Lachelns”{Land of Smiles}. It was filmed on location in Thailand and in color -though the few ragged prints available these days are black and white. But it’s still a charmer - and makes one yearn to see it as 1952 audiences did. Foreign-language musicals made little impact on North American audiences. Virtually every Hindi movie was a musical. But, outside of the Indian diaspora, they remained virtually unknown in North America. “Mother India” did manage to snag a Best Foreign Film Oscar Nomination (India’s first) – so at least a few adventurous non-Indians probably watched it. More to my taste, Bollywood-wise, was 1951’s “Albela” which (except for one jarring scene of violent aggression that could have - and should have - been omitted) was an entertaining look at an irrepressible show biz wannabe scrambling for that one big break. Star (and director) Bhagwan Dada was a real force of nature, much in the vein of Zero Mostel. And the picture’s score overflows  with melodic hooks and propulsive rhythms. Songs that few North Americans will probably ever hear. These days there’s no excuse for that:  it’s all there waiting on YouTube and ITunes.
                Till I was about eight, I loved Martin and Lewis, meaning - in effect - I loved Jerry Lewis. At the time it seemed the whole world was crazy about the pair. Last of the giant comedy teams, they dominated the field for about five years. When the two broke up, any interest I had in watching Dean completely evaporated – but Lewis solo pictures were still must-sees. That ended quickly. By the time I was nine Lewis’ antics seemed so dispiritingly juvenile and off-putting, I felt embarrassed – or at least puzzled –that  I’d ever responded to them. That feeling’s lasted. I remain a loyal fan of Abbott & Costello, especially their encounters with monsters and outer space aliens, most of which date from the years when Martin & Lewis were peaking. I retain a fondness for Laurel and Hardy. Crosby and Hope films offer plenty of merriment. Ditto many of the Hope solo comedies. Wheeler and Woolsey can occasionally do it for me. I’m totally at home with the Bowery Boys. Even the Three Stooges hit regular bull’s-eyes. And among the solo comics, W.C. Fields remains sublime. I find Will Hay a frequent riot, Hugh Herbert a personal source of endless mirth.  But I cannot  extract an ounce of pleasure out of watching Jerry Lewis. That attention hogging screen persona of his - emotionally arrested, spastic, maudlin, exhausting -  remains insupportable. When I was six or seven, “Scared Stiff”, the Martin-Lewis remake of Bob Hope’s “The Ghost Breakers” was probably my favorite movie. I saw it again and again (it was constantly revived at kiddie matinees), reveling every time in Jerry’s scaredy-cat antics.  Now I find anything that’s good about the picture hopelessly tainted by Lewis’ taxing presence.  I don’t know if they still love him in France – but I renounced him at age nine the way some people renounce Satan and all his works.  I’ve had occasional relapses and watched some of his solo comedies, including his “masterpiece’ “The Nutty Professor” - and each one’s been an endurance contest. By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed Eddie Murphy’s  80’s remake.  But its pleasures ultimately reminded me just how toweringly unsympathetic Lewis’ onscreen character was. Of his offscreen reputation, the less said the better.  None of which changes the fact that – in the early 50’s - Martin & Lewis were an absolutely undeniable phenomenon.  No look back at the popular cinema of the era can ignore them. It just seems to me that Jerry Lewis mania was a strange, inexplicable virus from which most of the world recovered.
                Many European countries had enacted laws ( tariffs, quotas, blocked funds)  that essentially froze some of the profits made by American movie studios abroad. In effect, said studios could only use money earned abroad if they utilized it for projects  made in those countries – projects which employed largely local talent and pumped money directly back into local economies. Just as well. By this time North American audiences were surely ready to soak up some genuine foreign scenery, not the back-lot versions that had –in many cases – become wearyingly familiar. Hence, MGM made “Quo Vadis” in Italy and Fox’s “The Big Lift” and “Decision Before Dawn” were both German-lensed. Most popular production destination, though, was probably Great Britain, where at least filmmakers didn’t have to contend with a completely foreign language. During this era Disney was a key player when it came to mounting U.K. based productions. And they did it with gratifying success. Mostly they stuck to period adventures, utilizing historic buildings and locales to great advantage. First off was “Treasure Island” – best ever movie version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic. Aside from being a highlight in the film career of child star Bobby Driscoll, it also made British actor Robert Newton a highly recognizable celebrity in America. Mention  Long John Silver and Newton’s version of him is the image that pops up in most people’s minds. Disney also put added shine on the worldwide popularity of British star Richard Todd, casting him as swashbuckling hero in a series of winning historical romances. Best of the bunch was “The Story of Robin Hood” (Todd’s still my favorite screen embodiment of the rob-from-the rich-give-to-the- poor guy – and I love Errol Flynn). The film performed exceptionally well in America (a combination of Disney’s savvy marketing and the high quality of the picture itself). It also provided early American exposure for future star Peter Finch, terrific as Robin’s wicked nemesis.
                The cycle of Maria Montez-style sword and sandtrap adventures continued  – but without Maria. Dark-haired Yvonne De Carlo took up the mantle first. But – for some reason – makers of these exotic  backlot adventures often gravitated in the unlikely direction of redheads when casting their desert princesses. Arlene Dahl, Rhonda Fleming and Piper Laurie all spent plenty of time lounging on peacock divans. Maureen O’Hara starred in so many of these films her family kiddingly dubbed her Maureen O’Sahara . “Flame of Araby” in which she and Jeff Chandler fought and flirted among the minarets was probably the liveliest of the lot. A perfect bang for your buck embodiment of Saturday matinee fantasy, early 50’s style. The swashbucklers that copycatted Flynn and Power also proliferated into the new decade. Modest budget ones seemed to pop up every other week; Universal specialized  in the Ali Baba style desert epics but it was  Columbia that concentrated on vestpocket period adventures where pirates roved, cavaliers capered and knighthood was in perpetual flower.  MGM hit the box-office jackpot with the expensive (but dull) “Ivanhoe”. To their credit, the same studio (in the same year) took an excellent script and  - giving it deluxe treatment all the way - offered the public  "Scaramouche”, maybe the best of the era’s period adventures. Certainly, the epic and beautifully realized swordfight between Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer gave genre fans something to cheer and to cherish.  As mentioned previously, Richard Todd did fine work in the field for Disney in England. John Payne, John Derek, Louis Hayward, Cornel Wilde, Ricardo Montalban and Valentino lookalike Anthony Dexter all joined the fray and - for the most part - performed with affable distinction. Unlikeliest recruit perhaps was screen tough guy Alan Ladd. He signed a deal to make three films in England. And though the inducements may have been tax breaks for the actor and unfrozen British funds for Columbia, results weren’t bad at all. Admittedly “The Red Beret” aka “Paratrooper” was a bit of a snooze but the other two turned out quite nicely. “Hell Below Zero” displayed Ladd in accustomed noirish form – tough and terse. But - in a novel twist - set him down in the midst of a lively war between rival whalers near the Antarctic. In “The Black Knight” Ladd popped up rather unexpectedly - sword-wielding and jousting – as the medieval British title character. If you could get past this decidedly unusual bit of casting, there was much to like here. Lovely British settings, a dash of Stonehenge lore, alluring Patricia Medina, best ever rendition of the irresistible song “The Whistling Gypsy” (beautifully – if all too briefly -performed by Elton Hayes) and plenty of sword clanging action. With so many enjoyable elements on hand, a good time for all was pretty much ensured.
                When DeMille successfully duplicated the European box-office success of “Fabiola” in America with “Samson and Delilah”, he literally launched a thousand Hollywood ships. Producers fell over each other rushing to get biblical and ancient world epics onto the screen. Fox’s “David and Bathsheba” was first out of the gate. Ponderous and painfully reverent, it was still a big hit; the public just seemed to be in the mood for antique spectacles. Sunday school clichés were marched across the screen – but as long as sets were mammoth and costumes provocative, the public was – for the moment - onboard. Poster art often hinted at flaming passions and pagan decadence. But the Production Code made sure what appeared onscreen was considerably tamer.  Still, what they lacked in actual daring content, the best made up for in eye-filling spectacle.  MGM hit the box-office jackpot with “Quo Vadis” in ’51 . And it was bigger than “David and Bathsheba”, though hardly less dull. Even stodgier – and more popular - was Fox’s “The Robe”.  Further proof that if enough pomp, pageantry and star power was splashed across the screen, leaden scripts punctuated with awkward biblical quotes and reverent gazes stage-directed toward the heavens could still be turned into money magnets.  Far more entertaining that same year were a couple of William Castle quickies. “Slaves of Babylon” had a biblical source but jettisoned most of the glassy-eyed piety. Castle was the only director who ever successfully captured the mow- the-men-down sizzle of Linda Christian. Famous for her off-screen oomph, Christian was misused in picture after picture. Under Castle’s direction, she radiated something the censors didn’t know how to put a lid on. 
Slaves of Babylon: Reel him in, Linda
                     
 Castle avoided biblical pontificating altogether when he turned to Pharaonic Egypt for his other ’53 peplum. Reusing standing sets from Columbia’s execrable but expensive “Salome” (with Rita Hayworth), Castle knocked together a tale of Cleopatra(a black wigged Rhonda Fleming) ensnaring William Lundigan and Raymond Burr in her schemes. The result was ten times more fun than any of the big budgeters  it supposedly copied. Also entertaining – but with a mega-budget – was Fox’s “The Egyptian”. Sets were stunning, Color by Deluxe never looked better, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann combined their considerable forces for a knockout background score and Gene Tierney and Bella Darvi absolutely rocked their Nile wigs. Warners’ “The Silver Chalice” offered startling stylized sets. And child Natalie Wood growing up to be Virginia Mayo – an unlikely transition if there ever was one. Though it must be admitted that Mayo (her eye makeup alone worth the price of admission) was more fun than she’d been in years.  Jack Palance, who knew how to gobble up the scenery and make you love it, was even better. Religious elements definitely wound up playing second fiddle. European cinema (which had started this particular wave in ’49) continued to produce excellent black and white peplums. As with most imports, though, these enjoyed only limited stateside release, truncated and poorly dubbed.  “La Regina di Saba”{”Queen of Sheba”} was sleek and stylish. And in the rousing “Spartaco” an amphitheater was picturesquely flooded to accommodate a full-scale Roman galleon swarming with gladiators and lions. Now, that’s entertainment!
                Arthouse markets began to grow in major cities. Patrons there were more willing to tackle subtitles – so they saw foreign films in versions far closer to the originals. These movies often pushed censorship boundaries to the limit. At the same time employing exciting new techniques, not to mention mature ideas  -  the kind Hollywood was still pussyfooting around. French and Italian films continued to hold sway in this market. But a powerful new force emerged when the West – at least the arthouse element of it – discovered the exciting wave of films emerging from postwar Japan. Like Italy, Japan somehow found a kind of creative catharsis in defeat, in the process creating a vibrant new national cinema . Simultaneously contemplative and daring.  Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”  was the first to break out in the west. But it was followed by a long series of compelling titles from Ozu, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa and Kurosawa himself.  Whether displaying the strange splendor of samurai culture or turning examinations of humdrum lives into profound emotional experiences, Japanese cinema delved into areas 50’s Hollywood would never have dreamed of going.  Just one example : "The Eternal Breasts" in ’55  was an unflinching exploration of how one woman deals with a double mastectomy. Not a subject Hollywood’s likely to greenlight even now. And it was directed by a woman.
                The most celebrated weapons used to fight TV and stop audience attrition were technological ones. Cinerama, then 3D and finally Cinemascope. Cinerama with its huge curved screen and trisected image was first to land.  It was touted as a gigantic advance. Maybe.  But it initially required three different projection booths, each projector aiming a different part of the image onto a different part of the screen. The effect was sometimes stupendous – but the space between each of the three images showed as a kind of vertical seam. Audiences were supposedly okay with this; for me, those seams would have been a deal-breaker. Also the picture took on various levels of distortion depending on where you sat. Improved aural technology – a type of Surround Sound – came as part of the package – and certainly heightened the experience.  Yet only a few specially built cinemas could handle the complicated technology necessary to show Cinerama. Technical glitches could be disastrous. The concept of mammoth images certainly coincided with the public’s growing thirst for spectacle. Unfortunately what Cinerama was best equipped to handle were travelogues. For the original Cinerama process, setting up a story with real actors and interaction was just too daunting, full of insurmountable technical dilemmas. So travelogues and documentaries  were basically what audiences got. Each was sold as an event. Marketed like a Broadway show – and meant to run for years.  And strictly in big cities  – as they were the only ones with Cinerama-equipped theaters.  Tickets were high-priced, seats reserved. And a curious public did respond in large numbers. When out-of-towners visited a major metropolis, part of the experience usually involved checking out Cinerama. In today’s world of massive market infiltration, pictures opening in thousands and thousands of theaters simultaneously, the Cinerama model would be unsustainable. 1952’s “This is Cinerama” was a massive hit. And stuck around till the next one “Cinerama Holiday” appeared in ’55. Still, this clearly wasn’t a business model capable of deep market penetration. Like a Broadway show, it was available in unique locations. Unlike a Broadway show it couldn’t be turned into a movie. It already was one. And if travelogues weren’t your thing, Cinerama’s sustained appeal would be limited.  Over the years the process was modified, making it practical for showing in big theaters across the country. But those modifications lessened rather than improved the actual experience. They eventually were able to make real movie movies in Cinerama (“How the West Was Won” in ’64 was among the last of them – and it made money). But they never did manage to get rid of those seams.  Imax is probably the closest current approximation to the Cinerama experience – superior, I’m sure, to its predecessor . And seamless.
                Next process put forward to entice the people out of their homes was 3D.  I’ll quote at length from a piece I wrote several years ago:
“Among the gimmicks Hollywood hauled out to combat audience attrition, 3D remains the one most inextricably linked to 1953. The technique, which provided a pleasantly giddy optical sensation, had been around in some form since the 1800’s. Stereoscopic images, looked at through special viewers, were a diverting novelty in homes across the country. But no one had figured out an effective and commercially viable way to transfer the experience to the motion picture screen. That is, until a tireless Hollywood promoter called Arch Oboler purchased an option on a new Polaroid process called Natural Vision which not only provided 3D motion picture images, but could do it in full color. As far as I can tell, the filming process – cumbersome and time-consuming – involved two cameras shooting scenes from different angles. Theatre showings required a pair of projectors which – perfectly synchronized (and this was vital) – superimposed both images onscreen together. Special polaroid glasses (provided by the theatre}–one lens red, one green - allowed audiences to see a different image through each eye. A trick of the brain enabled viewers to combine the two pictures into one. The resultant separation of background and foreground – startling and quite fascinating – made it apparent that the 2D images audiences had been long conditioned to accept were, in fact, severely limited perspective-wise. And - properly photographed and projected –onscreen objects aimed (sometimes hurled) toward the audience seemed to leap right out of the screen. Hence the 3D slogan "A Lion in Your Lap! A Lover in Your Arms!" The picture that slogan was initially attached to was Arch Oboler’s "Bwana Devil", which he’d convinced United Artists to release late in 1952. It was a routine jungle adventure with no particularly big names in the cast. But audience response to the picture – and more specifically to 3D - was stupendous. Box-office records were shattered in city after city, as people lined up for blocks waiting for a chance to don the red and green glasses. Hollywood execs looked up from their hand-wringing, smelling a solution to the industry’s woes. Immediately studios were falling over each other, announcing 3D projects. Titles previously planned for normal filming were re-tooled as 3D productions. Within six months, the 3D boom was in full swing and initial box-office results were colossal. Warner Brothers’ "House of Wax" with Vincent Price generated the kind of profits usually associated with DeMille blockbusters. A Guy Madison western called "The Charge at Feather River" was held over everywhere. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t a genre that wasn’t suddenly awash in 3D – sci-fi (the marvelous "It Came from Outer Space"), swashbucklers ("Sangaree" with Fernando Lamas and luscious Arlene Dahl), crime thrillers ("I the Jury", a Mickey Spillane slugfest), musicals (the lavish "Kiss Me Kate" from Metro). Martin & Lewis got into the act ("Money from Home"). As did John Wayne ("Hondo") and Hitchcock ("Dial M for Murder"). Assuming the profits would continue unabated, studio heads confidently stated that in future, all films would be in 3D. But there were flies in the ointment. Not the least of which were the technical problems inherent in the proper exhibition of 3D films. Perfect projection synchronization was necessary to assure proper 3D performance. And it was impossible to monitor every showing across the country. Equipment breakdown and projectionist error turned show after show into disasters. For neighborhood theatres, the costs of outfitting for 3D capability were often out of the question. What’s more, even after successful screenings, people were complaining about the 3D glasses – common charges: inconvenient, clumsy, uncomfortable, impractical for people who already wore glasses . And beyond that, there were widespread complaints of eye-strain everywhere 3D was shown. Viewers seated toward the side sometimes grumbled about not getting the full 3D effect. Some people got to the point where they preferred to stay home if they found out a movie they’d planned to see was in 3D. Plus it was still widely perceived as a novelty. And novelties have a habit of wearing off – of suddenly becoming "so yesterday". What’s more, censorship was relaxing. Audience tastes were undergoing a change. The incoming tide of heavy, increasingly frank black and white dramas, the Method acting, the restricted films and foreign art-house items hardly seemed compatible with 3D. Many considered 3D a gaudy huckster’s trick – meant for hyping the visual entertainment value of Saturday matinee potboilers. But unseemly, undignified and thoroughly inappropriate when attached to serious Cinematic Art. No single reason was responsible for 3D’s demise. But the combination was enough to bring the 3D era to a grinding halt. By the end of ’54, the process had been all but scrapped. The final 3D features were sneaked into theatres in flatscreen format. And 3D was quietly swept away to join other cultural dust-bunnies like the charleston and the snood.”
                I think the last film in the initial 3D wave was Universal’s “Revenge of the Creature”(March 1955). Am I the only one that prefers the two “Creature from the Black Lagoon” sequels to the original? Yes, the first one created the template but I think the second (“Revenge”) improves on it and the third, “The Creature Walks Among Us”, is best of all. And I love that title! As an evocation of poetic sci-fi grandeur I’d rank it second only to the same studio’s “This Island Earth” The first two are in 3D; by the time “Creature” emerged in ’56 the craze had evaporated – at least until its unexpected comeback in the 21st century. Today’s 3D is less vulnerable to breakdowns and glitches but it involves a darkening of the image, a distressing muddiness in the colors. And the process still seems better suited to sci fi, fantasy and horror. Remember how many people had trouble coming to terms with Baz Luhrmann’s decision to shoot “The Great Gatsby” in 3D? I find today’s best 3D effects are usually the studio logos. And though the current 3D era has shown a degree of staying power the first one was unable to match, it’s that initial period (from late ’52 through early ’55) that’s still fondly perceived by many as 3D’s real golden age.
                Cinemascope, introduced by 20th Century Fox for their Biblical extravaganza “The Robe”, was  one shiny new technological toy that caught on long-term. Fox also added an aural component – stereophonic sound. For those who’d never been able to attend a Cinerama screening (and millions hadn’t) this was an exciting new addition to the moviegoing experience. In all, Cinemascope offered  a heightened widescreen  experience without the technical headaches. Cinerama was immersive but ultimately impractical. If Cinemascope was something of a compromise, it wasn’t perceived as such. – the results were big enough to impress – and had none of those pesky vertical seams:  there was no 3D element, but that also meant no cumbersome glasses - and it required only one projector. Theaters everywhere could embrace Cinemascope without too much trouble.  It  also seemed compatible with all kinds of films – dramas, comedies, crime stories etc (at very least Hollywood was able to convince us it was). And – in one form or another – widescreen was here to stay. Paramount’s VistaVision and Superscope(initially pushed by Howard Hughes at RKO) claimed to be just as panoramic but Cinemascope was widely regarded as the gold standard. And other companies (including lofty MGM) struck up deals to lease the process from Fox on a regular basis. “The Robe” and Cinemascope  were such massive hits that studio chief Darryl Zanuck announced that – from now on – every Fox film would be in Cinemascope. And he was true to his word – more or less. Fox hooked up with a B picture outfit named Regal Films, agreeing to distribute their movies, mostly black and white westerns and crime stories, under the 20th Century Fox banner. They also agreed to let these little pictures use the Cinemascope process. But Zanuck wasn’t quite ready to have his deluxe process linked to humble B’s. Solution: all the Regal B’s (and there were eventually dozens of them) were filmed in Cinemascope – but onscreen it was called Regalscope).  Cinemascope remained an inseparable part of Fox’s film output for years. It wasn’t till ’67 that the name was quietly phased out (last official Cinemascope release was Doris Day’s “Caprice”). Wide-screen, though –under whatever name – was here to stay.  And it was the early 50’s public that gave the process its first rousing thumbs-up.
                Not everything came equipped with Cinemascope and stereophonic sound. Some film-makers tested the censorship limits with low-budget exploitation films. Sometimes, most of the provocative material was confined to the posters.  But because nearly non-existent budgets forced makers to use whatever was available, these films often do show a pretty unblinking view of life’s seamier side. This was genuine wrong side of the tracks cinema . And some of the films really do manage to catch lightning in a bottle – even if it’s a beer bottle. “Wicked Woman” with insolently sexy Beverly Michaels is positively profound in its tawdriness. Hard-boiled broad blows into town (the roughest part of it) and cuts a destructive swath through the male population. Somehow the combination of pulp fiction melodrama and one-take rawness turns the thing into an almost documentary-like gut punch. Watching the sleazy cat and mouse games between tough, out-for-herself Beverly and pint-sized rooming house lecher Percy Helton (he of the Vicks VapoRub voice, wheedling and obsequious), presents viewers with a kind of coarsely riveting Peeping Tom experience. It’s on YouTube. Check it out.  
Percy Helton: Wheedle, baby, wheedle
                      
With ever so slightly better production values and distribution by Columbia, émigré actor/director Hugo Haas built a small but compelling oeuvre precisely positioned  in this low rent genre. Haas himself was a first-rate actor (he’d been considered a theater great in his native Czechoslovakia before fleeing the Nazi threat ). But, once in America, he had to build his career up from the ground (and in English). Haas used most of the money he earned in character parts to help finance a series of self produced  vehicles about life on the wild side. Burly and middle-aged, but effortlessly commanding, he starred in them – and was always a rock-solid presence. But his ace in the hole was muse Cleo Moore. A genuinely sensual blonde – and a solid actress – Moore tended to make Hollywood’s regulation sex-pots look tame. She gave out an erotic spark that regularly lit up the Haas films, providing a legitimate charge to the sexual currents that ran through his scripts.  Marketed as hot stuff, these movies were not likely to get shown at high class venues. But as a kind of back-room, adults only fare, they sashayed their way through the (early and mid) 50’s like a peep-show blonde on the prowl. “Strange Fascination”, “Bait”, “Over-Exposed”, “The Other Woman” and “Hit and Run” are among the titles. Most of them managed to hit that wonderful sweet spot where trashy meets terrific . Close to real snapshots of a type of 50’s life the big studios usually gussied up or ignored. These films are addictive – and a Haas/Moore Blu-ray Box set remains a prime wish list item for me. Will it ever materialize? 
                Among the era’s new stars were several who became icons of the decade – Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Marlon Brando. Each of them made  big screen debuts in the 50/51 season and by the decade’s midpoint, all were enormous box office draws (and Oscar winners).  Kelly emerged as the latest iteration of the Madeleine Carroll type blonde – self-possessed and inordinately beautiful, There’s a well-known saying that Fred Astaire gave Ginger Rogers class and she gave him sex appeal. Grace Kelly needed no outside input;  the lady had plenty of both. She was certainly the apotheosis of Hitchcock’s fantasy blonde- he used her twice and no doubt would have loved to keep on utilizing her had she not opted for a regal offscreen fantasy of her own.
                Audrey Hepburn brought the European gamine type to the forefront of North America’s consciousness. Though she was actually from Belgium, that voice of hers carried the impression of a vaguely aristocratic but ever so approachable English girl. With a highly individual brand of charm, at once understated and devastating, she took moviegoers by storm - soon outdistancing incidental rivals Leslie Caron and Pier Angeli (both of whom had preceded her to stardom). Without even seeming to try, she emerged as a full-fledged fashion icon – and continues to be one.  Modern audience reaction to her technique remains highly favourable, though some detractors find her style  just a bit arch. Still there’s something timeless about Hepburn, an innate class certainly (but one completely devoid of haughtiness). Above all, she radiates genuine niceness. It’s still hard to think of anyone else who’s that chic and at the same time that endearing. From all accounts, the offscreen Hepburn – devoted mother, tireless UNICEF ambassador and treasured friend - was every bit as nice.
                As I understand it, method acting is a blanket term covering a number of different techniques that all owe something to the teachings of Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavski. American method acting, mainly New York based, generally involved tapping into deep emotions, arising either from one’s own memory or from intense exploration of a script’s subtexts. Always looking for keys to unlock character motivation.  A generation of East Coast theater actors who embraced the Method eventually made strong impressions as Hollywood character players in the 40’s and 50’s. Often adding rich levels of nuance and realism to the films they were in. Method actors are sometimes saddled with the reputation of being difficult. These supporting performers certainly didn’t have the clout to defy directors, demoralize co-stars or hold up productions. Most of them simply applied years of experience and discipline to their movie jobs and did them beautifully. John Garfield was probably the first method actor to achieve Hollywood stardom. But - good as he was – his style onscreen was very much within accepted Hollywood parameters.  Regarded as a fine actor and a genuine movie star, Garfield was never hailed as someone who changed the Hollywood acting landscape forever. Marlon Brando was. His dangerous animal quality had already electrified Broadway (he originated his Stanley Kowalski onstage in 1947). Hollywood was soon at his door. When he left the stage production it continued its long run with an impressive series of replacements – Anthony Quinn, Jack Palance and Ralph Meeker. In Hollywood Brando led the charge for the method. For many he still exemplifies it. Onscreen results over the years ranged from bruising honesty to mumbling pretentiousness. His early 50’s efforts mostly fit the former category. And what Brando brought to films like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” was so extraordinarily jolting that it was effectively a game changer; with a personality that roared off the screen, he brought a new sense of grit and reality to American films. He could be brutal and sensitive at one and the same moment.  At his best, Brando communicated a rawness and honesty that completely over-rode Production Code attempts to declaw him. Audiences and awards bodies responded with awed enthusiasm.  Some prefer  the Brando of “The Godfather” or “Last Tango in Paris”. But to me his most powerful performances come from the 50’s  - “Streetcar” ,”The Wild One”,”The Fugitive Kind” and – above all – “On the Waterfront”. Brando’s mega-success paved the way for more method stars. And this is possibly when method actors picked up that “difficult” reputation. Suddenly several of them were headlining. As stars, they had power – and were in a position to hold up productions, throw tantrums –artistic and otherwise - and generally keep sets in a state of upheaval. Just like non-method divas – male and female – had been doing from the moment they realized they could. It seems unrealistic to think it never happened with the Method brigade, who – after all - worshipped drama. In Brando’s wake came professional boat-rocker James Dean and bristling Paul Newman, American Adonis with a chip on his shoulder. But it’s Brando who’s still credited with giving American screen acting its biggest – and most spectacular - wake-up call.
                Most dazzling new star of the early 50’s – and the one who’s exercised the most lasting effect on the public –was undoubtedly Marilyn Monroe. Hollywood thought they merely had a sexy calendar girl come to life. But that incandescent inner flame of hers, that special aura gradually became more and more evident. It was there from, say, 1950 on, when she captured audience attention on the sidelines of two black and white classics, “All About Eve” and “The Asphalt Jungle”. A searing performance as a mentally unstable working class girl in “Don’t Bother to Knock” startled anyone paying attention. Unfortunately her box-office status was still embryonic  and the film wasn’t a hit. Fox preferred to spotlight her first as a downright bad girl (in “Niagara”, which boasts –among other things – the most stunning Technicolor I’ve ever seen  - the Blu-ray’s a jawdropper), then as a dumb blonde comedienne. She excelled at both, then went on to distinguish herself in musicals (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, ”There’s No Business Like Show Business”) and westerns (Otto Preminger’s radiantly entertaining “River of No Return”). By 1954, public response to all of these films had turned Monroe into the world’s most popular movie star. Who’d have guessed she was destined  to retain that level of fame right into the present day – so many decades after her death. It’s a phenomenon that shows no sign of abating. Monroe remains perhaps the most genuinely loved – and missed – of 20th century movie stars. By the time she gave her final performance in ‘61’s “The Misfits” it was clear that Marilyn Monroe was one of the great screen performers, combining beauty, vulnerability and - startling for someone who’d started out as some sort of fantasy figure - a profound ability to project the truth. Among all its oversights through the years, the Academy’s failure to give Marilyn an Oscar (or even a nomination) remains its most shocking.
And now that you’ve made it this far, remember, it’s all in support of the list that follows – my favorite films of the early 50’s. Here goes: