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1950s was a decade of change for the U.S. - cinema was no exception, as it modeled itself to accommodate the social changes U.S. society was going through. Films not only provide entertainment to masses but are also believed to express the general outlook of society by the way it sets and adopts trends. 50s was marked by postwar prosperity, rising consumerism, loosening up of stereotype families, baby boom and growing middle-class. It was the time of reaction to the aging cinema, especially by the freedom loving youth who were keyed up with fast food (Mc Donald's franchised in '54), credit card (first in 1950) and drive-in theaters (Filmsite.org). Young people were fed-up with the conventional illustration of men and women. With growing interest in Rock-n-Roll and break-free attitude prevailing, a social revolution was very much in the offering, and that was to transfer the cinema as well - the audience wanted something radically different.
The conditions that led to 50s and ahead
Beginning of 1950s for the U.S. cinema was not very encouraging; there were problems inherited from the previous decade affecting the initial 50s. Causes of tribulations for the U.S. cinema were multi-pronged - although, the domestic audience produced revenues around $1.75 billion, but an 8-month long strike by Studio Union, combined with post-war inflation, struck the industry hard during the late 40s. The conditions were further aggravated by a 75% protection tax imposed by Britain on U.S. films. This slashed the $68 million worth of revenues to only $17 million a year. But, these and other financial setbacks, in effect, produced positive out-comes as pointed out by Cook. The conditions gave rise to superior script quality and more creative ideas - but perhaps, not to an extent which many would have liked. After the 1948's cinema boom of 90 million people per week which was a record, the cinema industry lost the hype and stood at weekly attendance of mere 51 million by 1952 (Smith, 1996). The change was due to population expansion towards suburban areas from the inner city areas. Also, new pastimes were evolving and the U.S. public was quick to engage themselves in those - like, hunting, fishing, boating, golf, travel and gardening etc. These were seen as active form of entertainment as opposed to cinema and theater - the passive form. Introduction of television fulfilled the cinema-like entertainment at home. These factors had some negative impacts on the cinema - but, Hollywood was quick to rebound. The cinema technology started to develop new and more engaging techniques to attract people - like 3D movies, enhanced sound systems, bigger screens and introduction of CineaScope. American cinema also started to make use of foreign locations like in King Solomon's Mines (1950) - an expensive movie shot in Africa. As the TV was black-and-white, Hollywood rapidly moved towards color production to confirm its edge. By 1955, over half of the films were produced in color (Filmsite.org). 3D was the next thing to arrive in the cinema scene. This is Cinerama (1952) was a 3D project that did business of more than $32 million; although, the success story of 3D didn't last long. It was just 18 months (1952-1954) that 3D survived, but it proved to be an interesting experience for the movie lovers. Becoming obsolete in '54, it was the CinemaScope technology that established itself as industry standard by the same year (Smith, 1996). In words of Cook - 'CinemaScope had virtually saturated the market, with 64.5% of all U.S. And Canadian theaters (p.490)'.
1950s saw realization of social problems such as alcoholism, drugs, juvenile crimes and labor union corruption cases in films (Byars, 1991). And one of the most important trends that emerged in the U.S. films of 1950s as a result was that of noir - hard-boiled cynical and criminal fiction in bleak, sleazy environments. Noir has been termed as mood of 'cynicism, darkness and despair' (Cook, p.467). This was particularly carried on from the last decade and continued its reign on the cinema screen during the whole first half of 50s. Noirs were not simply crime and bloodshed. The idea was to blur the very definite line of 'good' and 'evil' that existed in the decade of 40s, where the hero was an 'angel' and the villain was a 'devil'. Characters in noir films appeared to be more impulsive than being objective in their lust for sex, greed, crime and money. Use of wrong means to do a right thing, dishonest detectives, and shady heroes became the limelight trademark of noir films (Rafter, 2000). Direction-level techniques, especial effects, lighting and camera angels to create engaging scenes was a big breakthrough achieved through production of high-action and high-brutality films. Films such as Out of the Past and Angel Face by Otto Preminger in 1952 serve as good examples to debate on what actually the noir-ism of 50s was all about. Orr (1997) describes the noir of 50s as 'eruption of physical violence or, more precisely, the discourse of law and criminality'. These movies often combined erotic sexism and served as trendsetter for the next genre of movies that was to mark an end to noirs in the later half of 50s. 'Noir' not only portrayed sadist-cum-vicious approach to life through cinema, but also amalgamated sexual desire very 'casually' into the world of crime (Orr, 1997). Popular directors of that time made films that were highly expressive in nature - in terms of violence and crime, both. Names such Michael Curtiz directed Casablanca, John Ford worked on Grapes of Wrath, Howard Hawks made Red River and George Stevens created A Place in the Sun, and movies like Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) started to embed drugs in Crime noirs (Rafter, 2000).
Realism and family values
Realistic depiction of family life was an important aspect of films made in 1950s. Directors wanted their films to reflect the social changes with realism so that the viewers could relate themselves with what they see in cinemas. Family melodramas of 1950s included The Searchers (1956) - the plot revolved around issues of family reunification. Stories of Alfred Hitchcock which were mainly detective and suspense, also continued to show romantic couples having nuclear families. Movies, The Wrong Man (1956) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) were stories of family conflicts and external pressures, showing how, in middle of such tensions, a family could be sustained. But, the U.S. nuclear family was on verge of collapse at that time. Women began to break away and started earring their own living. Inclusion of females in the workforce had significant impact on the way they were represented in films of that time. The ultra right version of 'always at-home' woman (who was strictly a feminist, protected and married in the end) was attacked with full force by the cinema. Films like A Place in the Sun (1951), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and From Here to Eternity (1953) pitched their female characters against the male characters on equal terms. Before 50s, it was mainly the male who dominated stories and central roles - even, films like Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951) which showed women struggling to strive to create their own families, remained overshadowed by the male characters who had tough time accepting their new roles (Byars, 1991). But the stage was set to deviate from the topics that exhibited white-males as the ones facing social problems and solving those, with females showing up in the films as mere objects. The decade of 50s changed, rather turned the concepts around - the 'female freedom' cause took steep leaps as the middle century cinema progressed towards 60s by introducing changing social roles of women. One of these social changes portrayed by movies was of early marriages. Young marriages started to increase at a rate never seen before.
Effects of liberalism & Freud
When the 'family union' was replaced with 'independent family members' as main theme of the films in 1950s, Hollywood was also sensitive (and adherent) to the other social changes budding in that post-war society (Rafter 2000). Apprehensive of the changing values system, rightist rhetoric continued against liberal topics but nearly all of major directors of that time did some work on family oriented melodramas of 1950s (Byars, 1991) to show to the world the prevalent perspective on American life - irrespective of its devotion to the rightists' norms. As the society changed to become more liberal, open-minded and modern, acceptance level of previously off-limits topics and subjects increased (Rafter, 2000). People wanted some change from the trend of 40s and were prepared to embrace transformation - in fact, they were waiting for it. Opposition to sex, vulgarity, and obscenity was at relatively lower levels and Hollywood managed to cash-in on the demand. The U.S. Supreme Court lessened the definition of obscenity in mind 50s and notorious Playboy started in '52. Cinema was sure to be affected with these…[continue]
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