National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s

Thank you Classic Film & TV Cafe for hosting this Blogathon!

Though it’s tantamount to utter absurdity to try and whittle all my personal favorites of the decade down to five choices (I might cheat a little), this is part of the fun of such lists, isn’t it? Each one is highly subjective. No two are the same. They change on whims; different today, tomorrow, and the next. But I will do the best to make a go of it.

If anything this is a humble beacon — a twinkling five-sided star — meant to shine a light upon my profound affinity for classic movies on this aptly conceived National Classic Movie Day. For those in need of gateway films, these are just a few I would recommend without deep analysis, solely following my most guttural feelings. Hopefully that is recommendation enough. Let the adulation begin!

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1. Singing In The Rain (1952):

Many classic film enthusiasts weren’t always so. At least, on many occasions, there was a demarcation point where the scales tipped and they became a little more frenzied in their pursuits. For someone like me, I didn’t always watch many movies. However, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds were household names even from my earliest recollections.

Singin’ in the rain with the giddy abandon of Don and bringing down the house with gags like Cosmo were childhood aspirations. Kathy, the young hopeful, aspired for big dreams, not unlike my own. They were idols because they made life and the movies — even song and dance — so very euphoric. It took me many years to know this was a part of a musical cottage industry or who Cyd Charisse was (because we’d always fast-forward through that risque interlude). Regardless of anything else, the film effects me in the most revelatory way. You can barely put words to it. You need simply to experience it firsthand.

After seeing it so many times it becomes comforting to return again and again. What’s even better is how the magic never dies. We lost Stanley Donen this year but this extraordinary piece of entertainment will live on for generations to come.

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2. Roman Holiday (1953)

I distinctly remember the first time I ever saw Roman Holiday. It was on an international flight to England. I was young and ignorant with not the slightest idea who Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were. You can determine whether or not I was living under a rock or not. However, what did happen is a young kid was decisively swept off his feet by a film. Those were before the days I gave even a moderate consideration of directors like William Wyler, much less debated or bandied about terms like auteur.

What does become so evident is the chemistry between our stars, hardly manufactured, even as the setting, placed in living, breathing Rome, imbues a certain authentic vitality of its own. Vespa rides are exhilarating. The sites are still ones I want to see and haven’t. And of course, I’ve only grown in my esteem of both Audrey and Mr. Peck as I’ve gotten older.

It’s crazy to imagine my only point of reference for such a picture was Eddie Albert (having been bred on more than a few episodes of Green Acres). Any way you slice it, this is, in my book, the quintessential romantic comedy because it is part fairy tale and it comes with all the necessary trimmings, while still planting itself in the real world. I always exit the halls of the palace feeling rejuvenated. Each time it’s like experiencing wonderful memories anew.

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3. Rear Window (1954)

It’s a weighty task to even begin considering your favorite film but to make it easier on myself whenever the inevitable question is dropped in my lap, I’m quick to reply: Rear Window. The answer is actually quite an easy one. Alfred Hitchcock is as good a reason as any. Add James Stewart and Grace Kelly and you’ve entered the gold standard of movie talent. They don’t come more iconic.

The Master of Suspense’s chilling thriller was another fairly early viewing experience with me and it immediately left an impression. Again, it’s another example of how appreciation can mature over time. Thelma Ritter is always a favorite. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound throughout the picture accentuates this artificial but nevertheless meticulous sense of authenticity.

How Hitchcock utilizes the fragments of music and the supporting characters in the courtyard to comment on these secondary themes of romantic love playing against the central mystery is superb. It’s a perfect coalescing of so much quality in one compelling cinematic endeavor. Even down to how the opening and final scenes are cut perfectly, introducing the story and encapsulating the progression of character from beginning to end. It is pure visual cinema.

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4. 12 Angry Men (1957)

I care deeply about interpersonal relationships and as movies have become more a part of my life it has become increasingly more important for them to hold a microscope to how we interact with one another in the world at hand. For me, there are very few films that channel real human relationships in a meaningful way as effectively as Sidney Lumet’s debut 12 Angry Men. Like Rear Window, it is developed in limiting environs and yet rather than such constraints leading to the stagnation of a story, it only serves to ratchet the tension.

Because the ensemble is an impeccable range of stars spearheaded by Henry Fonda and balanced out by a wide array of talent including a pair of friends from my classic sitcom days John Fiedler (The Bob Newhart Show) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple). However, all of this is only important because the story has actual consequence. Here we have 12 men battling over the verdict on a young man’s life.

But as any conflict has the habit of doing, it brings out all the prejudices, inconsistencies, and blind spots uncovered and aggravated when people from varying points of views are thrust in a room together. it’s an enlightening and ultimately humbling experience for me every time because it challenges me to actively listen to where others are coming from and empathize with their point of view so we can dialogue on a sincere level. It’s also simultaneously a sobering analysis of the gravity of the American justice system.

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5. Some Like it Hot (1959)

I most recently saw Some Like it Hot as part of a retrospective across the globe from where I usually call home. But what a wonderful viewing experience it was. Again, it’s akin to getting back together with old friends. I personally love Jack Lemmon to death and paired with Tony Curtis and the incomparable Marilyn Monroe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hair-brained, raucous comedy coming out of Hollywood.

Billy Wilder is certainly one reason for this and I’ve always come to admire his ability for screwball and often mordant wit. There is arguably no higher watermark than Some Like it Hot and the script is wall-to-wall with hilarious gags and scenarios. Like all the great ones, you wait for a favorite line with expectancy only to be ambushed by another zinger you never found time to catch before.

But there is also a personal element to the picture. Many might know the Hotel Del Coronado in sunny San Diego filled in for the Florida coast and having spent many a lovely day on those very shores, I cannot help but get nostalgic. Not only was this film indicative of a different time — the jazz age by way of the 1950s — it also suggests a very different juncture in my own life. While I cannot have the time back I can look on those memories fondly just as I do with this film…

So there you have it. I gave it my best shot pulling from personal preference and the idealistic leanings of my heart of hearts. I hope you enjoyed my Top 5 from The ’50s!

But wait…


james shigeta and victoria shaw embracing in the crimson kimono

Honorary Inclusion: The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Full disclosure. I know this is cheating but I take any occasion I possibly can to promote Sam Fuller‘s gritty Little Tokyo police procedural. For me, it deserves a special acknowledgment. As a Japanese-American and coming from a multicultural background myself, it was a groundbreaking discovery and an unassuming film with a richness proving very resonant over the recent years. It blends elements so very near and dear to me. Namely, film noir and my own heritage — all wrapped up into one wonderful B-film package. Please give it a watch!

THE END

The Joker is Wild (1957)

Jokerwild.jpgIt required quite the journey to make it to this film, starting out with a different joker entirely. My introduction to comedian Joe E. Lewis happened because of the late, great Jerry Lewis. Revisiting his life and work I made the discovery that the comedian changed his name to avoid confusion with two men. First, Joe Louis the stellar boxer of the 1930s and then Joe E. Lewis the comedian.

I had never heard of the latter and if you’re in the same boat, here is a biopic that gives a little more definition to his life and times. It seems desirable to actually turn back the clock and see footage of the man himself but if anyone has to play him why not have Frank Sinatra and he does a fine job with a performance that finds time to crack the jokes, throw back a few tunes, while still revealing the inner demons that befall even a funny man. Yet again Ol’ Blue Eyes proves he’s an acting talent to be taken seriously.

Lewis’s beginnings were nearly tragic as he found himself under attack by one of Al Capone’s enforcers who slit his vocal chords and left him for dead after he walked out of his current contract to sing at another club. Except he fought back and even with a shaky voice he found his way to burlesque shows and then stand-up comedy followed.

All the while he was supported by his piano accompanist and best friend (Eddie Albert) and even finds time for love or rather it comes to find him in the form of Jeanne Crain. However, with obligations in serving the troops and his own insistence that a marriage would never work, he balks at popping the question only to regret it for years to come.

Soon his alcohol problem is even more of an issue — even affecting his work — and the marriage he got into with one of his precocious chorus girls (Mitzi Gaynor) was doomed to fail from the beginning.  The self-destructive tendencies seem present in this life as they often are for those in entertainment. And far from rewriting the ending to his story, we leave Brown in a very real state. He’s no longer married and he’s still trying to break his habit for the sauce. It’s a very honest place to be and that’s to the film’s credit.

I will forever be a pushover for Jeanne Crain who always plays the most charming romantic roles and here it is little different. Though she’s older, her beauty is still as striking as ever. Furthermore, Mitzi Gaynor slightly subverts her reputation here delivering in a couple of scenes that aren’t simply song and dance showcases.

Meanwhile, Eddie Albert just might be the greatest second banana known to man because he instantly makes his star all the more lovable acting as their faithful foil in all circumstances. He was just so phenomenal in those types of roles building something out of almost nothing.

There’s little left to do but let the lyrics of All the Way carry us away into to the evening with a bit of melancholy:

When somebody needs you
It’s no good unless he needs you all the way
Through the good or lean years
And for all the in-between years come what may

Who knows where the road will lead us
Only a fool would say
But if you’ll let me love you
It’s for sure I’m gonna love you all the way all the way 

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Roman Holiday (1953)

Joe: Today’s gonna be a holiday.
Princess Ann: But you want to do a lot of silly things?
The answer is yes, yes we would!! That is the beauty of this film, which plays out as a lovely jaunt through Italy with two favorites in Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. With Hepburn being practically unknown at this point in time, it made her a wonderful choice to play Princess Ann. She was someone without any prior identifying roles making her young princess seem plausible. William Wyler took a chance on an unknown and he certainly hit the jackpot.
Gregory Peck on his part was always a strong leading man and an All-American type, perfect to play Joe Bradley. However, he also exuded gentlemanliness,s so despite the fact that the princess spent the night in his apartment we know nothing went on.  He had no ulterior motives bringing her to his apartment and even when he arranges to get an article out of her we know that is not who he is.
The film itself consists of wonderfully connected vignettes incorporating the Roman culture and landscape. Princess Ann leaves behind the hospitality of Joe in order to explore a bit before she goes back to her real life. In order to get that major scoop, he tails her and finally invites himself to tag along, so beginning the real fun. Princess Ann gets her beautiful locks cut by a friendly barber and buys some gelato from a street vendor.
 
Soon she takes her first puff of a cigarette, takes in the glory of the Coliseum, rides a Vespa through the hectic streets of Rome, and winds up in police headquarters with some explaining to do.They finish up their afternoon on a more thoughtful note at a wall of wishes originating during World War II.
 
One of the best moments occurs at the mouth of truth, a great stone statue, which you are supposed to stick your hand in before it eats it up. In a moment of sheer fear Princess Ann or Audrey Hepburn, I’m not quite sure who looks on in horror as a screaming Bradley removes his arm and his hand is gone. Up comes the hand from the coat sleeves and the jokes on her. It has absolutely no bearing on the plot but it makes us love Peck and Hepburn even more.
 

To finish off the evening the two companions and Irving (Eddie Albert) cause a ruckus at a dance aboard a barge before swimming away to safety. There Ann finds love and a soaking wet kiss to go with it. But it is at that moment when the laughs stop and the romance begins that everything becomes all too clear. This wonderful day cannot last forever. There is a moment, after one final embrace, when they have to say goodbye for good.

This is not one of those “love at first sight” stories, but it is a different sort of fairy tale where two individuals share an enchanting day together and fall in love. Every Cinderella story must end and so does this one (Anna: At midnight I’ll turn into a pumpkin and drive away in my glass slipper). They must eventually come back down to reality with Princess Ann fulfilling his duties and Joe moving on with his career.
 
Joe’s major newsflash is not a thing anymore. The whole day means too much to him and being the buddy he is, good ol’ Irving understands that. Speaking of Irving, he deserves some discussion. Eddie Albert’s character is spilled on, stepped on, knocked over, tripped, and through it all remains the perfect buddy for Gregory Peck.  Even his little car is a riot, not to mention his inconspicuous tiny cigarette camera and his sly efforts at photography in every type of circumstance. Irving shares a great deal of double talk with Joe which somehow gets past the unsuspecting princess. However, by the end of the film, the princess is also a cohort in their memorable adventure with commemorative photos included! 
 
When Joe Bradley walks out of the grand palace he leaves content knowing that he shared something special. No one else needs to know (aside from Irving) about the fairy tale they shared and that is the beauty of it all. It is just their little secret, their Roman Holiday
 
5/5 Stars

Roman Holiday (1953)

3fd3e-roman_holidayStarring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn with direction by William Wyler, this movie has one of the greatest romances ever depicted on screen. Hepburn is a young princess named Ann on a trip to a foreign country. However, she is constantly bored from the rigidness of her life. On a whim she escapes in the night and finds herself sleepily wandering the streets of Rome. An American journalist (Peck) happens upon the disorientated princess and eventually decides to take her in since she seems lost. Soon enough he figures out just who she is and decides to take her through Rome with a friend (Eddie Albert) so they can get a scoop. Together they take her through the city to explore and secretly take candid photos.

However, Peck soon finds himself falling in love and he cannot bring himself to submit the article. With the thanks of the princess, they are left with the simple satisfaction that they were able to spend the day together. Peck and Hepburn are both wonderful in this one and the story is heartwarming and funny.

I tried to figure out why it is always so enjoyable coming back to this film. Was it the romantic chemistry of Peck and Hepburn, the timeless setting of Rome? Or perhaps is it the direction by William Wyler, the screenplay by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, or the support work of Eddie Albert as Irving? Undoubtedly all of these wonderful occurrences play some part in making this film a classic.

Most of all it struck me that much like Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, this is not just a film. It is quite like a vacation for the audience and we get to enjoy it along with all the main players. We get the privilege of taking part in all the adventure and the laughs. By the end we don’t want it to end but like any holiday we must say goodbye and wait until our next vacation comes around. Thus, it seems that Roman Holiday never gets old because the audience is constantly looking forward to the time away in 1950s Rome with our romantic stars.

5/5 Stars