The title of James Harvey’s Movie Love in the Fifties is a tad misleading—the book (published in 2001) casts its net well beyond that decade, embracing both 1940s film noir and movies of the mid 1960s. The usual-suspect auteurist heroes—Douglas Sirk, Nick Ray, Max Ophuls, and Orson Welles—are rounded up in force, with special emphasis on Sirk. Among the book’s liveliest sections are those concerning the rapport of actors and directors—Dorothy Malone and Sirk in Written on the Wind, Joan Bennett and Ophuls in The Reckless Moment, Deanna Durbin and Robert Siodmak in Christmas Holiday. Still, this rambling study is hardly a survey of the movies that defined a period. Harvey revisits the 1950s with idiosyncratic selectivity. Two of the decade’s major genres, the western and the musical, are mostly ignored, while the great science fiction pictures of the era are altogether absent.
MOMA’s 10-film series, coinciding with the paperback release of Harvey’s book, contains no outright rarities, but it does showcase a few infrequently screened films of interest. In Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), Jean Simmons, cast against type, gives the performance of her career as a wealthy and unbalanced Electra figure, a sweet little killer-to-the-bone whose affair with lower-class ambulance driver Robert Mitchum leads to mayhem in a placid Hollywood mansion. This atypical noir, shot largely in broad daylight, builds slowly to a startling finale.
John Cromwell’s The Goddess (1958) and Delbert Mann’s Middle of the Night (1959) were both written by nabob of naturalism Paddy Chayefsky. The former is a savage dissection of the Marilyn Monroe phenomenon, with Kim Stanley as the tormented heroine who sleeps her way to fame in Hollywood but never finds compensation for the love she had been denied as an unwanted child. Although Stanley was a remarkable actress, undeniably more talented than the star she is portraying, she’s incapable of communicating an ounce of Monroe’s charisma. Middle concerns the bumpy romance of elderly widowed clothing manufacturer Fredric March and his young employee Kim Novak. The performances are this deadly earnest picture’s greatest asset; visually, it’s a disaster.
The two first-rate domestic dramas Barbara Stanwyck made with Sirk at Universal are the least written about of the director’s major films. He brings uncommon flourish to the sudsy material of All I Desire (1953), in which Babs is an independent woman who returns to the small-town family she had deserted for a fling on the stage. And There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), which reunites her with her Double Indemnity co-star, Fred MacMurray, is a variation on the previous year’s All That Heaven Allows (the basis for Todd Haynes’s recent revisionist Far From Heaven), with MacMurray in the Jane Wyman role. He plays a beleaguered respectable man in the throes of a midlife crisis, contemplating an escape from his tomblike upscale suburban home and clueless wife. This devastating critique of the bourgeois family is topped by one of the bleakest “happy” endings in American cinema. It’s a pity that Harvey’s book and the MOMA series both neglect a work that for some of us FOFFS (Friends of ’50s Flicks) is one of the great tales of passion of the period—William Wellman’s marvelous Goodbye My Lady (1956), simply the best film ever made about a boy’s love for a dog.