As I've mentioned before, my favorite films change from day to day, so I've opted to pick five films I truly love in five different genres - comedy, musical, film noir, suspense, and western. My caveat is, if you asked me tomorrow, you might get a totally different list. I'm also going to avoid discussions of films we've previously covered (I'll link you over to a few noteworthy ones within my chosen categories). Regardless, all of these films are remarkable and definitely worth seeing. If there are some with which you are not familiar, get hold of a copy asap. You won't be sorry.
Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) has all but retired when his friends, writers Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray) try to entice him back to work with their latest play. They plan to get Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) to direct it. Cordova, however, has grandiose ideas, including the addition of ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to the cast. With misgivings ("I am not Nijinsky. I am not Marlon Brando. I am Mrs. Hunter's little boy, Tony, song and dance man."), Tony agrees, but conflicts arise as rehearsals begin.
When it comes to musicals of the 1950s, Singin' in the Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951) (justifiably) come immediately to mind. But The Band Wagon (1953) is a film that should always be included in the list of great 1950s musicals. With Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire performing one of the greatest dance numbers in movie history, plenty of comedy, and a love story, it's a film not to be missed.
In 1931, Fred and Adele Astaire (along with Frank Morgan and Helen Broderick) starred in the Broadway play, The Band Wagon. It was a musical revue; this film has nothing to do with it, though I Love Louisa and Dancing in the Dark were both performed in the play. The film has a script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who loosely based the story on Mr. Astaire. He'd tried retirement for a few years, but was coaxed back to star in the very successful Easter Parade (1948); his most recent film, however (The Belle of New York) that had not done well (for more on Fred Astaire and The Band Wagon see this article in The Paris Review). The Martons were based on Comden and Green (though the real-life writing duo were not married), and Cordova was based on José Ferrer, who between 1946 and 1948 produced, directed, and/or starred in 8 Broadway plays - and did 10 more in the next three years! (TCM articles).
Jack Buchanan was not the first choice for Gregory Cordova - Clifton Webb was approached initially; Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price were also considered (AFI catalog). And while Vera-Ellen was at one pointed listed for the role of Gabrielle, one wonders if the failure of The Belle of New York led to her not being used.
The film was well received upon release; the New York Times review by Bosley Crowther was enthusiastic. It was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Story and Screenplay, Best Costume Design (Color) and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. With all the wonderful musical numbers, the one for me that stands out is "Dancing in the Dark," perhaps Mr. Astaire's most romantic number since he and Ginger Rogers graced the screen. We'll close this section with a video of that delightful dance.
Dr. Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) is on vacation in Morocco with his wife Josephine Conway (Doris Day), a well-known singer who retired to take care of their son Hank (Christopher Olsen). They are befriended by Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), a Frenchman who asks way too many questions for Jo's tastes. Bernard is murdered and whispers to Ben that a statesman is targeted for murder. But the would-be murderers have their own plan - snatch young Hank to be sure that Jo and Ben don't contact the police.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a remake of Hitchcock's 1934 film of the same name. The plots are similar, but this version has a lot more nuance. Hitchcock told François Truffaut that "the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional" (Hitchcock by François Truffaut)
James Stewart had already appeared in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Rope (1948); they would work together one more time in Vertigo (1958). Mr. Stewart was attached to the project from the beginning; Doris Day was also Mr. Hitchcock's first choice for Jo, especially since he wanted part of the conclusion to replicate the search for Richard the Lionheart by his troubadour Blondel. (TCM article). Her song, "Que Sera, Sera," won the Academy Award for best song, became her theme song, and was used in two more of her films (AFI Catalog). An excellent dramatic actress, she portrays a strong woman who ultimately refuses to be cowed by the danger threatening her child. Ms. Day's recent passing has already contributed many caveats to her exceptional skills as an actress and singer. This film is further proof that she was a talented dramatic actress.
To my mind, The Man Who Knew Too Much is one of Hitchcock's great films that is often overlooked in discussions of his work. Perhaps because it was not seen for so many years - it was one of the five films that Hitchcock owned and refused to release (including Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry) (Mental Floss article). The highly regarded Vertigo and Rear Window got much praise and viewing when the films finally came back to their audience in the 1980s. This one has just not received as much attention.
If you are ready to watch the master of suspense spin his web, watch The Man Who Knew Too Much; here's a clip of the trailer, with a bit of Ms. Day doing her famous song.
Pregnant and dumped by her no-good boyfriend Stephen Morley (Lyle Bettger), Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) boards a train with only her meager belongings - Morley gave her the ticket to get her out of town. She is befriended by newlyweds Patrice (Phyllis Thaxter) and Hugh Harkness (Richard Denning), who are on route to introduce Patrice - who is also pregnant - to Hugh's family. Patrice lets Helen try on her wedding band while they are in the ladies room; at that moment, there is a train crash. Helen awakens to discover both her new friends are dead, and Hugh's family thinks that she is Patrice. With her baby to think about, and No Man of Her Own (1950), Helen is faced with a massive decision - accept help from the Harkness family, or leave before they realize her deception.
No Man of Her Own is on my list of favorite film noirs, as well as favorite Barbara Stanwyck films. As a woman abandoned by the man she loved, Stanwyck is remarkable (as always). Her ethical dilemma is obvious - the love she has for her unborn child, versus the need to lie to people as kind as Mr. & Mrs. Harkness (Jane Cowl & Henry O'Neill). There is the further complication of her growing affection for Hugh's brother Bill (John Lund). If it is a touch melodramatic, who cares? When you get a performer like Ms. Stanwyck telling the story, you want to watch.
One of the things that really intrigues me is that Helen is clearly an unwed mother, yet there are no recriminations from anyone. Patrice is obviously aware that Helen has never had a wedding ring, and generously lets Helen slip on Patrice's ring. Originally, Helen was to have been a prostitute (AFI catalog), but in my opinion, Helen as a rejected lover makes for a more interesting story line.
When the DVD was released in 2016, the New York Times provided some interesting commentary about the film (Bosley Crowther disliked it when it was released in 1950). The film was based on a Cornell Woolrich story (I Married a Dead Man), it has been remade several times, with versions in Japan (Shisha to no Kekkon (1960)), in France (J'ai épousé une ombre (1983)), in India (Kati Patang (1970), and in America (Mrs. Winterbourne (1996).
This is top-notch Stanwyck - and not one that comes up all the time, so watch for it! This trailer will give you an idea of what to expect.
The beauty of The Quiet Man (1952) is that it is so much more than a comedy. It tells the story of Sean Thornton (John Wayne), who left his home in Ireland as a young boy to emigrate to America with his mother. He grew up with his mother's stories of his former home, their wee cottage, White-a-Morn and the roses that grew outside the house. Sean's life in America was a hardscrabble one, and as that life has become untenable, he retreats to Innisfree, and buys White-a-Morn. As he tries to settle into a country he doesn't know, he finds that his unwillingness to fight brings heartache to him, and to the woman he loves, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara).
The Quiet Man was based on a short story by Maurice Walsh; John Ford acquired the rights in 1937 and yearned to make it into a film (AFI Catalog). Republic Studios finally agreed to make it IF Ford, O'Hara, and Wayne would make a Western (read moneymaker - Republic considered Ford's little film a vanity project that would lose money), so the trio first did Rio Grande. Filmed in Ireland, with various members of the cast's and crews' families working on the film, Ford was also under express orders to bring in a film no longer than 2 hours. But, his final cut ran 2:09 - he showed it to his execs, and stopped the projector at exactly the 120 minute mark. They agreed to the longer time (TCM articles).
For me, the film is important for its portrayal of a strong woman who is trying to maintain her independence in a society that limits a woman's choices. Mary Kate, in hounding Sean to get her dowry, is not asking for money - she's asking for her independence. With his American upbringing, all Sean can see is that what's his is hers. Mary Kate wants "her [own] things about her," for they are what make the house and the marriage all her own.
I could go on for hours about this film. As a child, I would watch it every St. Patrick's Day (and growl when they cut crucial scenes out. Thank heavens for TCM and uncut films!). I've been in Ireland twice, and both times visited Cong, the little village in County Mayo where The Quiet Man was filmed. The Quiet Man is a song of joy about Ireland, and a tale of strength under pressure.
There are some truly remarkable westerns in the 1950s - Shane, The Searchers (1956), Johnny Guitar (1956), among others. But one film that should be in this list is the excellent Westward the Women (1951). The story of a group of 140 women who are recruited by rancher Roy E. Whitman (John McIntyre) as brides for his hands, the film portrays with as much truth as possible the dangers and hardships that faced the pioneers who went west. Leading the caravan is Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), a hard-nosed scout with little faith in the venture.
The women are a tough bunch. There is our star, Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel), a saloon girl who wants a new start. The widowed Mrs. Maroni (Renata Vanni) wants a new father for her son Tony (Guido Marfuti). Patience Hawley (Hope Emerson) has lost her husband and son to the sea, and also wants a chance with a new husband.
Robert Taylor is letter perfect as the man who decries Mr. Whitman's plan as foolhardy, but grows to respect the women in his charge. Early in the film, he speaks to the assembled group. He asks if any can shoot a gun - he's stunned when Maggie O'Malley (Lenore Lonergan) shoots the eyes out of a picture. His regard grows as he sees the women take on more and more responsibility as they struggle towards California.
Regardless of his star billing, this is a film about the women. Hope Emerson especially paints a portrait of a woman trying to begin a new life. She brooks no nonsense from her colleagues or from the men who lead the trail. She's brave and forthright, and you adore her from her first "hokum-smokum". Rose Myers (Beverly Dennis), a young woman pregnant with an illegitimate child is also an interesting character - accepted and loved by the group, with no condemnation of her past indiscretion. As this TCM article notes Westward the Women goes deeper into creating a female vision of the westward progression. These are the Pioneer Women (the film's working title) who would tame the western frontier.
Frank Capra had planned to direct, with Gary Cooper as Buck, but eventually sold the project to William Wellman (AFI catalog), which I believe added a layer of realism that benefited the story enormously. Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review has certainly missed the point of the film; I suggest you take a look at A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 by Jeanine Basinger for further discussion on this very timely picture. In the meantime, take a look at the trailer:
And thus, our Five from the Fifties - there are many more excellent options (I didn't include a film I love, The Girl in White (1954). That's for another day). Just head over to Five Favorite Films from the Fifties and see the other wonderful films that were selected. In the meantime, Happy National Classic Film Day!