Category Archives: 1950s

Carrie (William Wyler, 1952)

Carrie 3For my money, Carrie is one of William Wyler’s greatest films – and one of Laurence Olivier’s finest performances. Yet it often seems to get overlooked. Maybe it would have more recognition as a classic adaptation if the title of Theodore Dreiser’s original novel, Sister Carrie, had been kept,  which would also have avoided confusion with the horror film of the same name. In any case, I’d definitely urge any admirer of Olivier to see this period melodrama – and, if you are one of the doubters who think he was always too stagy on screen, this movingly understated role should help to change your mind.

Not everyone was sure about the choice of the very English Olivier for the great American role of George Hurstwood, a restaurant manager driven into a downward spiral by his passion for Carrie (Jennifer Jones). But Wyler was convinced the actor’s elegance would work well, and he was right. From the first glimpse of him, about half an hour into the film (wow, Olivier is playing a waiter?)  there is a poignant feeling of this character slipping downwards, falling through the net. This adaptation of Sister Carrie focuses on the central love story, contrasting his decline with Carrie’s rise to fame, which gives it the same kind of dynamic as A Star Is Born. Just as in the various versions of that story, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the character heading for the bottom.

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Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1957)

Witness 1This is my contribution to Power-Mad, the Tyrone Power Centennial Blogathon. I’ve avoided spoilers, as the film’s twists are so important to its appeal. 

Films where an actor is cast against type always have a fascination, and I’ve sometimes thought this would in itself be a great blogathon theme. Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution sees Tyrone Power surprisingly cast in what turned out to be his final role – and is sometimes said to be his best. In a sharp contrast with all the swashbuckling heroes he’s played, here he is cast as a charming drifter and would-be inventor who can’t hold down a job.

Yet, cleverly, the casting does play on his reputation as a matinee idol, since his character, Leonard Vole, is a man who gets women swooning. In particular, one older woman who befriended him – Emily French (Norma Varden). She’s the one he is now accused of murdering. I’ll admit I’ve never been a big Power fan (though I’m hoping to be converted by other postings in this blogathon!) , but I’m definitely impressed by his performance as Leonard, with his worn boyishness and increasing desperation. Vole can’t quite take the murder accusation seriously, but is persuaded that he needs to engage a barrister, and the stage is set for one of the all-time great courtroom dramas.

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Richard III (Laurence Olivier, 1955)

This is my contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy blogs. Please do visit and read the great range of postings for this event.

Richard III 1
For millions who were never lucky enough to see Laurence Olivier play Shakespeare on stage, the nearest we can come is to watch his films of the Bard’s works. My favourite out of his Shakespearean roles is undoubtedly Hamlet – and I’m clearly not the only one, as my review of that film is far and away the most popular posting  ever on this blog. (It’s had nearly twice as many hits as the second on the list, which is my own small testament to the power of Olivier’s performance.)

But Olivier didn’t just take on the role of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragic hero. In Richard III, he also relished playing his villain of villains. To be honest, at first while watching this I found the outrageously over-the-top quality of his portrayal a bit hard to take – as he struts, sneers and shouts and is always many times larger than life. He towers over the rest of the cast just as his own misshapen, spidery shadow looms over him, and his mannered speaking sits uneasily with the more naturalistic speech used by most of the other actors.

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All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

All That Heaven Allows 1This great romantic melodrama from Douglas Sirk shares a lot with his film from the previous year, Magnificent Obsession. It has the same intense Technicolor, combining with music from Frank Skinner to give a dream quality, and much of the cast is the same, including leads Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. However, for me this film is even more powerful than its predecessor, partly because the plot is not so far-fetched – stemming more from the characters without so many exterior twists.

The story of this film can in some ways be seen as a role reversal take on Magnificent Obsession. In the earlier movie, Rock Hudson played a rich character who had to embrace a whole new philosophy and change his way of life for the sake of love. This time around, it’s Jane Wyman who has to follow a similar path. She plays Cary Scott, a well-off but lonely widow who doesn’t have enough to do now that her children are grown up. It looks as if the only life she can have now is one revolving around an empty succession of cocktail parties and country club meetings. When her children visit, they seem extremely keen to consign her to a premature old age (Wyman was still in her 30s here, though the character is clearly older), complaining if she wears a low-cut dress and apparently hoping she will make a “suitable” marriage to the staid, boring Harvey.  Their solution for her loneliness is to order her a TV set, even though she doesn’t want one. The television set and the layers of ornaments all seem like so many ways of trapping her in a gilded cage.

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Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950)

This is my contribution to the Sleuthathon organised by Movies Silently. Please do visit and read the other entries. The film I’ve chosen is controversial because of some plot elements. I won’t discuss this aspect until the end and will give a spoiler warning, since, as so often with Hitchcock, this is a film where you definitely don’t want to know what’s coming in advance! 

Stage Fright 3Jane Wyman stars as young actress Eve, who turns detective to prove the man she loves is innocent of murder. That’s the starting-point for this unusual Hitchcock thriller, also starring Marlene Dietrich and Michael Wilding. For my money, the movie disproves the claim that he couldn’t do comedy, with many hilarious moments from British character greats such as Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell. At times the humour does slow the pace, but it’s all so enjoyable that it’s hard to care – and the tension still builds to an unbearable level whenever the plot calls for it. In particular, the ending of the film is increasingly tense, achieving the same sort of edge-of-the-seat agony as many better-known Hitchcocks.

Hitchcock was keen to work in London at this time because daughter Patricia was at drama school there, and he gave her a small part as a character with the wonderful name “Chubby Bannister”. Despite a mainly British cast, probably with an eye on the US box office, he chose an American actress for the lead role. I’ve just been watching Jane Wyman’s most famous films made with Douglas Sirk, so I was interested to see her in a very different part here. This was made only four years before she played an older woman in  Magnificent Obsession, yet here she is cast as a fresh-faced ingénue who still lives at home with her mother. Well, with her mother (Sybil Thorndike in sublime grande dame form) half the time, and her father (a gloriously grumpy Alastair Sim) the other half.

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Magnificent Obsession (1954, Douglas Sirk)

Magnificent Obsession 6Please note I do discuss the whole plot of this film.  So far I’ve written about a couple of lesser-known Douglas Sirk films. Now I’m on to one of his more famous melodramas, the glossy romance Magnificent Obsession – said to be one of the greatest weepies of all time. I’ll admit I stayed dry-eyed. For me the problem is that the soapy plot is just so far-fetched, even by the standards of this genre, and it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough to go with the emotions. Having said that, lead actors Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson are both excellent, Sirk’s direction is seductively smooth, and there are many great scenes and moments along the way.

One of those is the film’s opening. It is exciting, glamorous – and likely to hook most viewers from the start.  Handsome, rich playboy Bob Merrick (Hudson) is at the helm of a hydroplane which clearly cost a fortune, ignoring warnings from bystanders as he heads out across the lake and piles on speed. In an action film, this kind of sequence would be designed to make the audience marvel at the hero’s daring – for instance, with the pre-credits stunts in Bond films. It has much the same effect in this “women’s emotion picture”, as you find yourself willing Bob to avoid the inevitable crash. Yet, at the same time as demonstrating his courage, it also shows the character’s fatal recklessness and self-absorption – something underlined by the comments of those surrounding him. “Doesn’t that guy have a brain?” “He doesn’t need to, he’s got four million bucks.”

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All I Desire (Douglas Sirk, 1953)

All I Desire 3

Barbara Stanwyck with Lori Nelson

Mention Douglas Sirk, and the type of film that immediately comes to mind is a glossy colour melodrama. However, he did also make some black-and-white films – including this early 1950s production. Like his previous film, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, this is a period piece (it’s set in 1910). Also like the earlier film, it again paints a portrait of small-town America which is deeply nostalgic and wistful and yet, at the same time, clearly draws out the narrowness and judgemental attitudes of the community. At its centre is Barbara Stanwyck, giving a powerful and multi-layered performance.

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