One of the most virulent opinions about movies I’ve encountered as a critic—particularly online, where everyone’s a critic—is that popularity is somehow indicative of quality. Consider it the last refuge of the inarticulate: I like what everyone else likes no matter what snobs such as you like. Or more basically: 50 million Spider-Man 3 fans can’t be wrong.
My gut response, sadly, is often the second-to-last refuge of the inarticulate: Yeah, let’s see how long that lasts. Both of us, in other words, are gauging quality through quantity; they’re counting ticket sales, I’m counting years. I assume that Spider-Man 3, silly and effects-laden, is a diversion for our time and no other, and in fifty years, if we’re still watching movies, the only reason anyone’s going to be watching this thing is for nostalgic purposes. I also assume it’s always been thus. If I were to examine the weekend box-office profits—that weekly measure of a movie’s mettle—from fifty years ago, that list would be filled with the relics of a bygone era: once-popular diversions that have long since sunk from view.
So I went looking. Here, according to the March 19, 1958, Variety, are the movies Americans went to see fifty years ago this week:
Whoops. Of the ten films, I knew eight, I’d seen four, and I loved two. These were films admired in their day (twenty-nine Academy Award nominations, twelve wins, including two for Best Picture) and admired in ours (three rank on IMDb.com’s top-250 list, including Paths of Glory at number 43).
Some of our familiarity with the titles on the list is misleading. We recognize A Farewell to Arms and The Brothers Karamazov because of Hemingway and Dostoyevsky, not Hollywood. I couldn’t have told you who starred in the former (Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, it turns out), and I only knew the latter because I was once a Trekkie and the film includes the screen debut of William Shatner.
Eight of the ten, in fact, are based on novels and plays. So the most popular storytelling medium of its time (movies) was fending off attacks from its eventual usurper (TV) by relying on the very forms it usurped (novels and plays). Nice.
That fight against TV—throughout the 1950s, TV-set sales rose by the millions while weekly attendance at the movies dropped by the millions—is all over this list. Everything here is what TV couldn’t be: big and colorful and exotic. CinemaScope and Technicolor abound. There’s almost a competition to see how long they can keep us in our seats: Karamazov is 145 minutes long; Arms, 152; Kwai, 161; and Raintree, 168. Around the World in 80 Days, including overture and exit music, lasts 183 minutes.
But is there anything worse than an epic that isn’t? A Farewell to Arms (number 7) was producer David O. Selznick’s last film, and while he strove for another Gone with the Wind—it takes thirty seconds for the title to scroll imperiously across the screen, to trumpets and drumbeats—he wound up with a sticky melodrama that inverses Bogart’s Casablanca equation: the problems of two people are all that matters, while the crazy, mixed-up world, including, you know, World War I, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, thirty-eight years old and looking older, is miscast as the twenty-one-year-old British nurse, while the presence of Rock Hudson, our most famously closeted movie star, adds unintentional irony. “Shut up about dames,” he says early in the picture. Later, when his dying wife gives him permission to see other women after she’s gone, he stutters, “I—I don’t want them.” So the clues were all there.
Raintree County (number 6) was another epic love story set against the backdrop of war (the U.S. Civil), and it, too, starred a famously closeted actor (Montgomery Clift), and while it’s not a good film, it’s saved from insufferability by Clift, who could act, but who, during filming, suffered a disfiguring auto accident that ruined the career that drugs and alcohol eventually would’ve ruined anyway. The story involves that Hollywood staple, the love triangle: virginal Eva Marie Saint loves Clift, who loves Elizabeth Taylor, who’s Southern and mad in the creepy way of Southern women, relating, as it always seems to, to burning homes and racial confusion. Give credit, though. Three years after the Montgomery bus boycott, and a year after Little Rock, it’s the only film in the top ten raising any kind of racial issues—albeit from the safer historical territory of the Civil War.
We get another love triangle in The Brothers Karamazov (number 2): virginal Claire Bloom loves Yul Brynner, who loves Maria Schell, Maximillian’s sister, who packs more sexual wallop with one smile than most actresses do with all their assets. Oddly, in that virginal decade, both virgins (Bloom and Saint) lose their men. Audience wish fulfillment? The existence of God is overtalked in K—as is the golden raintree in Raintree, and love, love, love in Arms—and eventually His existence is proven through the devil in Albert Salmi.
Search for Paradise (number 5), unavailable on home video, is essentially a travelogue, and so is Around the World in 80 Days (number 4), surely one of the most boring Oscar winners for Best Picture. The Bridge on the River Kwai (number 1), which remained atop the box office for weeks after it won its Oscar for Best Picture in March 1958, holds up much better. Its theme is the madness of war. Who’s more mad? Colonel Saito for not following the rules of the Geneva Convention, or Colonel Nicholson for adhering to the rules too much? The story is like aikido: Nicholson defeats Saito not by opposing his demand to build a better bridge but by building it better and stronger than he ever could. He unmans him by making him irrelevant. Eventually, yes, he loses sight of the proper goal, but you see the logic in his madness. To keep his men thinking of themselves as soldiers and not prisoners they need discipline; building a bridge involves discipline; oh, and if the bridge could last a couple of centuries, longer even than London Bridge? Well, that would be smashing.
Excepting Kwai, these epics, so indicative of their time, pale next to the shorter, smaller films on the list. Cowboy (number 9), which I’d never heard of, is a solid Delmer Daves western about a Chicago hotel clerk (Jack Lemmon) who joins a tough cattleman (Glen Ford) on the trail. During the ride each becomes more like the other. “I have to laugh,” Ford’s right-hand man tells him. “You made this fellow tough. Now you don’t like what you made.”
…And God Created Woman (number 10) is the infamous 1956 French film, dubbed for American audiences, in which Brigitte Bardot appears briefly, glancingly nude. (No naughty bits.) It was condemned by the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, which guaranteed a stampede to the box office, but by modern standards, it’s rather tame. The bigger shock is that it’s not an exploitation film; it’s almost cinema verité. Bardot plays Juliete, an impulsive, selfish free spirit straining against the confines of what her community allows (and, yes, against that dress). She’s in love with the wrong guy, she marries a different wrong guy. “That girl is made to destroy men,” says one older (and undestroyed) man. According to the April 2, 1958, Variety, Dallas police shut down a showing of the film at the Forest, “a colored house,” even though it had played in white theaters in the city. Their unofficial explanation? “It’s too exciting for colored folk.” The fact that Ms. Bardot danced with members of a black band near the end of the film probably didn’t help.
Witness for the Prosecution (number 3) is the first of the two films I love on this list. It has none of the bells and whistles of its day: it’s not long (116 minutes) and it’s in black and white. It just has great acting (Charles Laughton), a good story and witty dialogue (from Agatha Christie), and good direction (Billy Wilder). It’s the only courtroom thriller on the list, but in the ten films, we are shown four trials, and, interestingly, the only defendant who’s found innocent, Tyrone Power in Prosecution, is guilty. The defendants in the other movies, all innocent, are all condemned to death. So much for justice.
Finally, there’s Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (number 8), brilliant in a brisk eighty-seven minutes. It’s our fourth war picture here, and while these pictures all view war tragically (men die, go mad, lovers are torn asunder), Glory is the only one whose critique is systemic. The movie starts with a bad idea: capturing the Ant Hill from the Germans. Everyone knows it’s a bad idea, but via the carrot of promotion (for General Mireau) and the stick of exclusion (for Colonel Dax), it’s put into play. Despite the efforts of the soldiers, many of whom die, it fails. So who’s to blame for this failure? Three soldiers, chosen at random, are put on trial and executed. Even when the unsympathetic General Mireau gets his comeuppance, it’s not satisfying, for we know he’s still a pawn. The bad idea came from elsewhere. From General Broulard? No, he has his orders, too. It just appeared, this bad idea. Like all bad ideas.
Put different commanders in the place of Saito and Nicholson in Kwai and the ending is different, because the ending is dictated by the faults in the characters. Put different commanders in the place of General Mireau and Colonel Dax in Glory and you get the same result, because the ending is dictated by the faults within the system. No wonder it resonates. Bad ideas are still handed down from who knows where; they’re still put into play; soldiers still die.
If the purpose of this article was to create an Ozymandias-like warning to moviemakers and moviegoers—your current glories will soon be lone and level sands stretching far away—I failed. In fact, I demonstrated the opposite. Even in a random week in an unremarkable year, some works stand taller fifty years later.
I also didn’t fail. Compare the 1958 films with our most recent mid-March weekend box office list (March 16–18, 2007):
It reads like a McDonald’s menu. Is anything healthy here? Well, Zodiac, David Fincher’s realistic take on the real-life serial killer in late-1960s San Francisco, and Bridge to Terabithia, a good-kid’s story about love and death and imagination, but that’s pretty much it. Everything else is disposable, infantile, loutish. The one “war movie,” 300, revels in its violence. We don’t debate the existence of God and the Devil; we give them bad lines (Peter Fonda in Ghost Rider). Comic books rather than novels and plays are the adaptation of choice. Love triangles still abound, in Norbit and I Think I Love My Wife, but now, in our slatternly decade, it’s the dull, virginal ones that win. More audience wish fulfillment? Hollywood in 1958 tried to show us how big the world was, but these recent movies feel stunted. Watch The Bridge on the River Kwai and you get the feeling that beyond the Sri Lankan forest the world keeps going. Watch 300 and you get the feeling that beyond what they spotlight, the world doesn’t exist at all. As it doesn’t—it’s all blue screen.
There were tons of forgettable films in 1958, by the way; they just tended not to make top-ten lists. Movies rolled out differently then, playing city to city, and Variety lets us know how they’re doing in which places: “Cattle Empire (20th), nice in Chi, is sluggish in Omaha and mild in Minneapolis.… Sing Boy Sing (20th) is OK in St. Louis.…” These were niche pictures that stayed in niche markets. National pictures, adult pictures, movies that tried to say something about what we were as a country or who we were as a people, wound up playing nationally. We do the opposite today. The niche pictures—horror, comic book, urban comedy—get spread all over the country, while the national pictures, adult pictures, rarely play beyond the niche market of art houses.
How did we get here? The clues were there fifty years ago. The lead story in the March 5, 1958, Variety, reassuring filmmakers that film had a future and it was called the baby boom, begins this way: “If it’s true what the surveys say, that it’s primarily the young people who make up the motion picture audience today, then Hollywood has cause for optimism.” If it’s true what the surveys say… That qualification is almost heartbreaking. Today, that thought about young people is gospel. Beyond it, it’s as if the world doesn’t exist at all.
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