Cinema History – 1915-1969


Films from the Silent Era

The Frenchman Louis Lumiere is sometimes credited as the inventor of the motion picture camera in 1895. Other inventors preceded him, and Lumiere’s achievement should always be considered in the context of this creative period. Lumiere’s portable, suitcase-sized cinematographe served as a camera, film-processing unit, and projector all in one. He could shoot footage in the morning, process it in the afternoon, and then project it to an audience that evening.

His first film was the arrival of the express train at Ciotat. Other subjects included workers leaving the factory gates, a child being fed by his parents, people enjoying a picnic along a river. The ease of use and portability of his device soon made it the rage in France. Cinematographes soon were in the hands of Lumiere followers all over the world, and the motion picture era began. The American Thomas Alva Edison was a competitor of Lumiere’s, and his invention predated Lumiere’s. But Edison’s motion picture camera was bulky and not portable. The “promoter” in Lumiere made the difference in this competition. For a good description of these historical developments, read Erik Barnouw’s Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, 2nd revised edition, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993.

Films from the Silent Era
1915Birth of a NationD. W. GriffithUSA
1919Broken BlossomsD. W. GriffithUSA
1919The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariRobert WieneGermany
1922NosferatuF. W. MurnauGermany
1922Nanook of the NorthRobert J. FlahertyUSA
1924The Last LaughF. W. MurnauGermany
1925StrikeSergei EisensteinRussian
1925PotemkinSergei EisensteinRussian
1925The Gold RushCharlie ChaplinUSA
1925The Street of SorrowG. W. PabstGermany
1926MetropolisFritz LangGermany
1927SunriseF. W. MurnauGermany
1929The Blue AngelJosef Von SternbergGermany
1930All Quiet on the Western FrontLewis MilestoneGermany
1931MFritz LangGermany
1931City LightsCharlie ChaplinUSA
1936Modern TimesCharlie ChaplinUSA


For the first twenty years of motion picture history most silent films were short – only a few minutes in length. At first a novelty, and then increasingly an art form and literary form, silent films reached greater complexity and length in the early 1910’s. The films on the list above represent the greatest achievements of the silent era, which ended – after years of experimentation – in 1929 when a means of recording sound that would be synchronous with the recorded image was discovered. Few silent films were made in the 1930s, with the exception of Charlie Chaplin, whose character of the Tramp perfected expressive physical moves in many short films in the 1910’s and 1920s. When the silent era ended, Chaplin refused to go along with sound; instead, he maintained the melodramatic Tramp as his mainstay in City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). The trademarks of Chaplin’s Tramp were his ill-fitting suit, floppy over-sized shoes and a bowler hat, and his ever-present cane. A memorable image is Chaplin’s Tramp shuffling off, penguin-like, into the sunset and spinning his cane whimsically as he exits. He represented the “little guy,” the underdog, someone who used wit and whimsy to defeat his adversaries.

Eisenstein’s contribution to the development of cinema rested primarily in his theory of editing, or montage, which focused on the collision of opposites in order to create a new entity. One of the greatest achievements in editing is the Odessa Steps sequence, in his film Potemkin (1925). Eisenstein intercut between shots of townspeople trapped on the steps by Czarist troops, and shots of the troops firing down upon the crowd. Members of the crowd became individual characters to viewers as the montage continued. Within the editing track the fate of these individuals was played out. A mother picks up her dead child and confronts the troops. Then she is shot. A student looks on in terror and then flees – his fate uncertain. An old woman prays to be spared, but she is killed by a soldier who slashes her face with his saber. When a woman holding her baby carriage is killed, she falls to the steps, and the carriage begins a precipitous decline – shots of the baby crying are intercut with wide shots of the carriage rolling down the steps. To Eisenstein, each individual shot contributed an energy within the editing track that yielded far more than the sum total of shots. In other words, the “combination” of shots through editing created a new entity, based on the expressive emotional energy unleashed through the editing process. 

Brian De Palma imitated the Odessa Steps sequence in The Untouchables (1987) in a scene where Kevin Costner, playing Eliot Ness, and his companions are waiting to ambush several mobsters. This confrontation is punctuated by the use of the baby carriage plummeting down a long series of steps while the good guys and the bag guys remain in a standoff. A more effective homage to Eisenstein can be seen in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse, Now (1976), when at the end of the film a cow is slaughtered ritualistically by the native people deep in the Vietnamese jungle. Shots of the slaughter are intercut with shots of the Martin Sheen character wielding a machete against the hulking Marlon Brando character, the crazed former American officer who has retreated to the jungle from the horrors of war and has become a sort of deity to the native people in his compound. Coppola was aware of a famous scene in Eistenstein’s Strike (1925), when two dramatic scenes are intercut: one of Czarist troops massacre peasants, another of a cow being butchered.

Although the technology for making movies was invented in 1895, a significant realization of the potential for film as art occurs with the appearance of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 full-length epic, Birth of a Nation. In this film Griffith utilized crosscutting (parallel editing) effectively, particularly at the climax, when a number of editing tracks play off one another. He also portrayed battle scenes magnificently, with action in one set of shots moving from left to right, while action in another set of shots moves from right to left. But Griffith’s work is diminished severely by the overt racism employed in characterizations and plotting and the positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. As a sidelight, readers interested in films about Griffith should check Good Morning, Babylon (1987), directed by the Taviani brothers. It tells the story of two Italian immigrants who become carpenters on the set of Griffith’s epic film Intolerance (1916). The English actor Charles Dance plays Griffith. Other well-known Griffith melodramas include Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920).

The German directors listed below deserve credit for their experimentation with unusual camera angles and complex stage settings. Two examples of this approach are The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) by Robert Wiene and the nightmare-like Nosferatu (1919) by F. W. Murnau. The latter is also credited with perfecting the use of visual language in The Last Laugh (1924), a film about a lonely old man who is ridiculed by others. Few titles are used in the film because Murnau is able to communicate meaning by virtue of well-placed visual cues. One of the most unforgettable openings to a film is the opening scene from M (1931), directed by Fritz Lang. In that opening a child is shown playing with a ball. These shots are intercut with shots of the child’s mother setting the table for a meal. As the scenes progress, it becomes evident that someone is following the child. Meanwhile, the mother completes the table setting. The last shot in the scene shows the ball rolling away. Where is the child? The murderer (M) has taken her. Fritz Lang went on to make films in America in the 1930s and 1940s. Another German director who went to Hollywood is F. W. Murnau. He made his first American film in 1927. The film, Sunrise, portrayed a married man’s downfall when he is seduced by an evil dark temptress.

A last note: the 1922 film Nanook of the North, directed by the American Robert Flaherty, is often credited as the first great achievement of documentary (or non-fiction) film. Flaherty lived among the Eskimos for six months, edited the film back in America, and was lauded for his achievement when the film premiered in New York City. Only a few documentary titles will appear in the lists of films that follow. I hope you will enjoy perusing these lists and consider renting titles you have not viewed before.


Classic Films from the Hollywood Studios, 1934-1946

Stars powered the American Studio System from 1934-1946. Various studios, such as 20th-Century Fox (1935), Paramount Pictures (1912), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924), Columbia Pictures (1920), and Warner Brothers (1923) held long-term contracts both on directors and stars. A listing of some of the stars under contract to the studios gives some idea of the Studio System’s power during these years.

20th Century Fox: Directors – Ernst Lubitsch, Otto Preminger, Henry Hathaway, and Elia Kazan. Actors – Shirley Temple, Loretta Young, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, and Gregory Peck.

Paramount: Actors – Mary Pickford, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Alan Ladd, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas.

Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM): Directors – Eric Von Stroheim, Fritz Lang, George Cukor, Victor Fleming. Actors – Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor.

Warner Brothers: Actors – Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Peter Lorre.

Classic Films from the Hollywood Studios, 1934-1946
1934It Happened One NightFrank Capra
1936Mr. Deeds Goes to TownFrank Capra
1937Captains CourageousVictor Fleming
1939StagecoachJohn Ford
1939The Wizard of OzVictor Fleming
1939Gone With the WindVictor Fleming
1940The Grapes of WrathJohn Ford
1940His Girl FridayHoward Hawks
1940The Philadelphia StoryGeorge Cukor
1940RebeccaAlfred Hitchcock
1941Citizen KaneOrson Welles
1941Maltese FalconJohn Huston
1941Meet John DoeFrank Capra
1941How Green Was My ValleyJohn Ford
1941Shepherd of the HillsHenry Hathaway
1941SuspicionAlfred Hitchcock
1942CasablancaMichael Curtiz
1942The Magnificent AmbersonsOrson Welles
1944The Maltese FalconJohn Huston
1945It’s a Wonderful LifeFrank Capra
1945The Lost WeekendBilly Wilder
1946NotoriousAlfred Hitchcock
1946The Big SleepHoward Hawks
1946My Darling ClementineJohn Ford


Stars weren’t free to seek their own contracts during these years. Often stars would be “loaned” by one studio to another for a particular project with the expectation that such offers would be reimbursed in kind. Stars also worked on more than one picture at a time and often were expected to churn out four or five pictures a year. For instance, Humphrey Bogart starred in 36 films between 1934 and 1942. Casablanca was one of four pictures he completed in 1943.

A major source of revenue for the studios was their ownership of large theater chains. But in 1949 the studios were forced to divest themselves of these theater empires because of their monopolistic practices. The advent of television in the 1950s, the rise of the director as auteur, and the ability of actors to become “free agents” led to the demise of the old Studio System.

The four films directed by Frank Capra, noted on the list above, represented a major source of income for Columbia Pictures, the studio who had him under contract. He worked for Columbia for more than ten years, and his films appealed to a broad audience hungry for sentimental stories about the underlying goodness of the common man and woman. Gary Cooper, who starred in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941), was the embodiment of this theme. His tall, awkward, and humble persona created an instant empathy with his audience. He was the quintessential American – a bit naive, inarticulate, and stumbling. But push him too hard and he became determined, focused, and unbeatable. Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1945) has become a holiday classic on American television for similar reasons. Jimmy Stewart plays a halting, bumbling family man who has never set foot outside his small town American setting. But by the end of the film the good deeds he has done for his townspeople are repaid a hundred fold by his neighbors.

When the English director Alfred Hitchcock made his first American film in 1940 (Rebecca), he joined the pantheon of famous directors under contract by the American studios. His 1941 film, Suspicion, was made for RKO Pictures (Radio-Keith-Orpheum); and the same studio took a gigantic risk by refusing to back down under the campaign waged by William Randolph Hearst to prevent Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles, from ever seeing the light of day.

But the list of films above is gleaned from thousands of films that were made by the studios between 1934-1946. Most of the films were little more than popular entertainments. These films have become classics partly because they represent some of the best work done by the following actors: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Ray Milland. They also are classics because their directors maintained a consistent style and achieved a vision of their genre – Capra of the sentimental comedy, Hitchcock of suspense, John Ford of the American Western, Howard Hawks of the fast-paced comedy of dialogue.


Classic International Films, 1934-1960

I didn’t discover “foreign films” until I began teaching film in the late 1970s. Upon viewing films like Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1936), or De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952), I was transfixed by the subtleties of character, the psychological tensions that evolved through complex relationships, the ambiguities of human behavior and interpersonal relationships.

An entire course could be organized around some of the films in the list below. No wonder I incorporate some of these films in my introductory course. Unlike the production-line films made as part of the American Studio System, these international films were completed by small crews working outside corporate sponsorship. In some respects many of these international films are similar in scope and production to the independent films that came to prominence around the world in the 1980s.

Perhaps that is part of their charm; they are idiosyncratic, original, and don’t depend upon “star” power to make them successful. In other words, independent productions tend to reflect the artistic personality of the director more so than films that have to be accepted by Studio executives.

Classic International Films, 1934-1960
1934The Man Who Knew Too MuchAlfred HitchcockEngland
1935The Thirty-Nine StepsAlfred HitchcockEngland
1936Grand IllusionJean RenoirFrance
1936SabotageAlfred HitchcockEngland
1938The Lady VanishesAlfred HitchcockEngland
1939The Rules of the GameJean RenoirFrance
1946Great ExpectationsDavid LeanEngland
1946Open CityRoberto RosselliniItaly
1947ShoeshineVittorio De SicaItaly
1949The Third ManCarol ReedEngland
1949The Bicycle ThiefVittorio De SicaItaly
1949Stray DogAkira KurosawaJapan
1951IkiruAkira KurosawaJapan
1951RashomonAkira KurosawaJapan
1952Forbidden GamesRene ClementFrance
1952Umberto D.Vittorio De SicaItaly
1953Tokyo StoryYasujiro OzuJapan
1954La StradaFederico FelliniItaly
1954The Seven SamuraiAkira KurosawaJapan
1955Pather PanchaliSatyajit RayIndia
1955Smiles of a Summer NightIngmar BergmanSweden
1956AparijitoSatyajit RayIndia
1957The Seventh SealIngmar BergmanSweden
1957Wild StrawberriesIngmar BergmanSweden
1957The Nights of CabiriaFederico FelliniItaly
1959Hiroshima, Mon AmourAlain ResnaisFrance
1959Floating WeedsYasijuro OzuJapan
1959BreathlessJean Luc GodardFrance
1959The 400 BlowsFrancois TruffautFrance
1959The World of ApuSatyajit RayIndia
1960The Virgin SpringIngmar BergmanSweden
1960Winter LightIngmar BergmanSweden
1960The Bad Sleep WellAkira KurosawaJapan
1960Jules and JimFrancois TruffautFrance
1960La Dolce VitaFederico FelliniItaly


Many people don’t know that Alfred Hitchcock directed films in England before he directed films in America. His first American film was Rebecca (1940); it starred the famous English actor Sir Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock started as a director of well-crafted and well-acted suspense films in the 1930s. Four of his early films are listed in the chart below. Each of the films feature spies and international intrigue. Perhaps the best film is The Lady Vanishes (1938), which features a complicated plot about mistaken identities and characters frustrated because no one will believe their versions of the “truth” – both trademarks of later Hitchcock films.

The French director Jean Renoir, the son of the famous Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, made two great films, Grand Illusion (1936) and The Rules of the Game (1939). Although both films seem stilted by modern standards of cinema viewing, they have the power to sneak up on a viewer who regards them with patience and attention. In the former the presence of the great French actor Jean Gabin is enough to make the viewing experience a pleasure. Gabin is a hulking figure with an expressive face, whose physical presence on the screen reminds me of the contemporary French actor Gerard Depardieu.

The classic German director Eric Von Stroheim plays a major role in the film as well; his formality and military bearing are an excellent complement to Gabin’s roughness and informality. An interlude between Gabin’s character and a young German woman is a welcome interlude to the despair throughout most of the film; and the film’s closing scene is one of the greatest in cinema as it provides a release from despair and a hope for a new life for Gabin’s character.

The Rules of the Game exposes the ills of class and privilege and indicts people in those ranks for their insensitivity and needless cruelty. In Renoir and Hitchcock one could not find two more different directors – one who is patient with long takes and slow-paced actions, the other who builds psychological tensions with deliberate and well-timed cuts.

Italian Neo-Realism flourished in the post World War II years. This movement depended upon filming characters in actual locations (rather than studio sets) and often focused on the lives of common men and women in the difficult years after the end of the war.

Major films from this period are noted on the chart above. My favorites are two by Vittorio De Sica, The Bicycle Thief (1949) and Umberto D. (1952). The first is an extraordinarily moving document of the desperation faced by a family whose survival after the war depends upon the father’s having a bicycle in order to keep his job. The stolen bicycle leads the father and his small son on an anguished journey.

De Sica’s nonprofessional actors are often wooden and one-dimensional; yet the way the camera captures the father’s chiseled features infuses the action with a tenderness and sincerity that is compelling. De Sica’s use of long tracking shots of row after row of bicycles or bicycle parts adds to the reality of the film experience. De Sica’s style suggests that we are present on the streets with the father and the son and are witness to the futility of their search for the stolen bicycle.

The other Italian director in the chart above is Federico Fellini, who completed three masterpieces from 1954 to 1960. The first was La Strada (1954), a poignant tale about the relationship between a one-man traveling circus strongman (played by Anthony Quinn), and an innocent waif (played by Fellini’s wife, Giuletta Masina). The uncouth strongman resists the intimacy and security of this interpersonal relationship, and Fellini is able to exact an extraordinary tenderness from their interaction.

The Nights of Cabiria (1957) tells the story of a desperate prostitute (again played by Masina), and La Dolce Vita (1960) exposes the brutal and insensitive side of the “good life” lived by spoiled and self-centered men and women who spend their days and nights drinking and carousing wildly. Of the three my favorite is Cabiria, because Masina’s character has such spark and tenacity and integrity of character as the lowly prostitute. The combination of spirituality, moral degradation, and a woman’s continual search for fulfillment are interwoven against the context of richly detailed and memorable scenes.

The post-World War II years in France led to another breakthrough in film history, the New Wave, which refers to a series of French films completed between 1958 and 1960. This informal movement was stimulated by the critical writing of Andre Bazin, cofounder of the film periodical Cahiers de Cinema (1951). In his writing Bazin promoted the ideals of the auteur theory; that is, the director is the “author” of the film. Many forces contributed to the development of the New Wave – in some respects it was time for new faces and fresh ideas to be realized.

Several young French directors stepped forward, including Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean Luc Godard. Francois Truffaut’s early films were emblematic of the New Wave. His The 400 Blows (1959) emphasized exterior locales, hand-held camera shots, tracking shots, and long takes, and the film was dedicated to Bazin. In this heavily autobiographical film Truffaut exposes the rawness and frustrations of childhood life. The main character lives on the edge of naiveté and cynicism; he is trapped by family, by school, by society as a whole. His symbolic cage becomes a jail cell by the end of the film. The film’s closing scene, with the boy escaping the reformatory and running toward the sea, is one of the most memorable in all of cinema. The closing shot – an unexpected freeze frame – was an original idea in 1959 (although by today’s standards it appears dated and even mundane).

I regard Ingmar Bergman as one of the great directors in cinema history. Five of his early films are listed on the chart above. Each is a masterpiece. I have taught The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960) several times, and each time I learn more about Bergman’s ideas and cinematic vision. The powerful presence of Max Von Sydow in each film also adds to their quality. Viewers can’t forget Von Sydow’s tortured expressions as the knight who has lost faith in The Seventh Seal and the desperate father, who inflicts a perfect revenge on his daughter’s killers, in The Virgin Spring, Bergman’s autobiography, The Magic Lantern, is well worth reading. He continued to direct films into the 1970s, and in late life has turned to writing screenplays based upon autobiographical materials.

The first one, Best Intentions, was made into an excellent film by Bille August, a Danish director, in 1992. The film tells the story of how Bergman’s parents met and married, and it ends just before Ingmar was born. The second film tells the story of Ingmar’s childhood relationship with his older brother. This screenplay was also filmed. Two other directors deserve special recognition. One of first international films I viewed was Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951). I probably saw it for the first time in 1977. I was astonished with Kurosawa’s vision. His story of a rape and murder of a woman is told from the point of view of four different characters (one of whom is the woman’s ghost).

I was familiar with this approach in literature (Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is an obvious analogue); but in film the experience provided an innovative approach. I was overwhelmed with the simplicity of the camera style. Low camera angles on seated characters placed me in the position of a character seated opposite the one on the screen. I was brought into the world of the film through that technique. The characters revealed themselves through the action. I felt a similar response to Ikiru (1951), which focuses on the personal development of a humble and unassuming civil servant who suddenly finds a reason for living when he is diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer. The humanity of this character, and the meaning of his life, is revealed through his interactions with people he willingly serves. The title translates appropriately as “To Live.” Kurosawa’s style evolved beyond the 1960s.

Other titles directed by him are listed in later pages of this history. The last director I discovered from this list is the Bengali director Satyajit Ray. In 1996 a retrospective of his films was shown in art theaters across the country. For many it was an introduction to a director who can hold his own with a Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa, or De Sica. I have special affection for three films by Ray. I saw the films on scratchy video copies rented from a video store near campus in 1991. Ray’s career as a director was inspired by a viewing of Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. That inspiration led to a remarkable trilogy of films, Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and The World of Apu (1959). The three films tell the story of a one person in three stages of life: as a child, an adolescent, and a young man. The stories are straightforward, told in realistic style, and restate basic human truths: birth, death, love, loss, faith, despair, loneliness, regeneration.

In the first a son is born; a daughter dies. The family’s home is destroyed by a storm. They leave for the city. In the second the father dies, the mother and son return to live in the country, and the boy grows up to be a good student. But he ignores his Mother and is embarrassed by her. Eventually he is devastated emotionally when he fails to return home from school in time before she dies. In the third a young man marries, his wife bears a child, and then she dies. In despair he becomes dissolute; her family takes his son away from him. At the end of the film he is reunited with his son in one of the greatest closing scenes in all of cinema. Viewers who are patient with Ray’s slow-paced cinematic style will be rewarded. He is the master of the metaphorical cut. In one film the death of a parent is accompanied by the sudden flight of birds.

Students can learn much about the power of editing by careful attention to Ray’s style. An excellent resource for studying many of these films, and gaining insights on the influences of international cinema on American films, is the book Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics’ Video Guide to Foreign Films, edited by Kathy Schulz Huffhines, San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991 (paperback). The text refers to three waves of films. The French New Wave is treated as a second wave (precursors to that movement are treated in the First Wave section). In the section The Next Wave, films from Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and China are noted. Several sections devoted to recommended films from a variety of countries follows. The book should be required reading for all cinemaphiles.

Cinema History – Chapter 4

The 1950s – Focus on American Films

For some reason the 1950s have slipped past our consciousness. They exist in a limbo between the focused efforts of Americans to win World War II and the disappointments and cynicism of the 1960s (the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy). What happened to the 1950s? They were an era of economic growth for the “haves” in America, and an era of renewed separation of the races in this country. Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) signaled the beginning of a new era in race relations in this country. But that act was again only prelude to the tumultuous 1960s. Where were the 1950s?

With the 1950s came the advent of television sets in every home, cinemascope and VistaVision as a desperate attempt by studios to lure viewers back to theaters, drive-in movies, science-fiction films that featured aliens who were substitutes for the Communist menace to the East, and the gradual dissolution of the famed Studio System that had fueled the economy of Hollywood for the past thirty years. Several directors who made their reputations during the Studio Era in the 1940s (Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford) continued to make good films (as well as mediocre ones). But you won’t see their names on the next page (The 1960s, Rise of the Director as Auteur). The last vestiges of the Studio System dissolved in the face of new directors, new approaches to acting, and new ideas about the depiction of the real world in films.

The 1950s – Focus on American Films
1950All About EveJoseph Mankiewicz
1950Sunset BoulevardBilly Wilder
1951An American in ParisVincent Minnelli
1952Singin’ in the RainStanley Donen
1952The African QueenJohn Huston
1952High NoonFred Zinnemann
1953From Here to EternityFred Zinnemann
1953ShaneGeorge Stevens
1954The Caine MutinyEdward Dmytryk
1954On the WaterfrontElia Kazan
1954Rear WindowAlfred Hitchcock
1954A Star is BornGeorge Cukor
1955MartyDelbert Mann
1955Rebel Without a CauseNicholas Ray
1956The SearchersJohn Ford
1957The Bridge on the River KwaiDavid Lean
1957Paths of GloryStanley Kubrick
195712 Angry MenSydney Lumet
1958Separate TablesDelbert Mann
1958VertigoAlfred Hitchcock
1958Witness for the ProsecutionBilly Wilder
1959North by NorthwestAlfred Hitchcock
1960The ApartmentBilly Wilder
1960PsychoAlfred Hitchcock
1960Wild RiverElia Kazan
1962The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceJohn Ford


 In the 1950s some of America’s greatest actors played characters that were past their prime, emotionally vulnerable, with fragile egos. Bette Davis stars as an aging actress manipulated by an aggressive younger actress in All About Eve (1950); Humphrey Bogart plays a broken-down alcoholic in The African Queen (1954) and a psychotic naval captain in The Caine Mutiny (1954); Gary Cooper is an aging sheriff who stands down the bad guys one last time (with the help of Grace Kelly) in High Noon (1952); Jimmy Stewart returns to the screen after an interlude as a Western star to appear in two Hitchcock films, Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). In both films he plays middle-aged men who have suffered debilitating injuries psychological and physical). No tough Western hero in these films!

Even the four Westerns in this listing resonate to the theme of an ending of an era as well as a critique of an era. John Wayne, a stalwart of the American Western, appears as a vulnerable and psychologically unstable character in two John Ford Westerns, The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In the former film Wayne loses all but one member of his family to an attack by Native Americans. He becomes obsessed with finding his niece, who has been carried away by the Indians, and is forced to confront deep-seated feelings of racism and miscegenation in his search.

In the latter film Wayne plays a rough and capable Westerner who fast is becoming an anachronism in the changing landscape of the American West. The territory is moving toward statehood, and a new breed of man is required to take charge of it. That man is represented by the ineffectual Jimmy Stewart, who refuses to wear a gun, and who is committed to the ideals of political justice and compromise. John Wayne plays the man who shot Liberty Valance, an evil gunman from the “old school” (compare Jack Palance’s portrayal of the gunman in Shane, 1953). But the credit for killing Valance goes to Jimmy Stewart, who had reluctantly picked up a gun and tried to use it against the hardened killer. Of course, John Wayne saves Stewart’s life, but loses the woman he loves to Stewart. The latter goes on to be the first governor of the new state. He is remembered as “the man who shot Liberty Valance.”

The ending of the film is bittersweet. Who are the heroes? Where is the justice in such experiences? The ambivalence that is at the heart of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is reminiscent of the mixed feelings one has to the town defended by Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952). No one steps forward to help Cooper stand up against the villains, who are set to appear at 12:00 on the main street of town. He faces them alone (but is saved when his Quaker sweetheart shoots one of the bad guys). The two ride off into the sunset after they have thumbed their noses at the town. What kind of Westerns are these? They sound like critiques of the American way of life – not a thing to be taken lightly in the 1950s. Conformity! Support your government! Fight the Communist peril! Defend the American Family! Respect authority! March in step! One, two! One, two!

A fourth Western, Shane (1953) also tells the story of a former gunman who has forsaken that weapon and tried to live a peaceful life. Shane is a former gunslinger who tries to settle down. But conflicts in the outside world find their way to his doorstep, and he is compelled to strap on his guns one more time and dispatch the evil Jack Palance gunslinger (who wears black!). What does Shane do at the end of the film? He rides away from the secure world he had tried to become a part of. “Shane! Come back!” little Brandon de Wilde cries to no avail. Where has Shane gone? To join John Wayne at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or to join Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly after they leave town. If the 1950s were renowned as an era of conformity and stability, then why does the Western genre seem to self-destruct during this era?

What begins to happen during the 1950s is a movement away from the big Studio Film to the little film about believable characters whose conflicts are more inward than outward. In some respects the best films of the 1950s are the ones that forecast the great films on the 1960s. Examples include On the Waterfront (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1954), Marty (1955), Paths of Glory (1957), 12 Angry Men (1957), Separate Tables (1958), and Wild River (1960). These films have in common two important qualities – directors interested in telling small but important stories and fresh actors who bring new dimensions to characterization and emotional intensity.

Elia Kazan, who co founded the Actor’s Studio in 1947, where the “method acting” approach was refined. Kazan brought Marlon Brando, a proponent of method acting, to the attention of the cinema world in the 1951 film, A Streetcar Named Desire based upon the Tennessee Williams play). Brando had performed the role on Broadway. But when audiences saw Brando in On the Waterfront (1954), interacting with the fine actors Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb, the world took notice. Acting in film would never be the same. Brando became his characters. He brooded, he grimaced, he groaned, he mumbled, he sighed – he was the character.

Two other actors who followed in Brando’s footsteps were James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Both brought a quality of brooding intensity to their roles. Seeing James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause is a rewarding experience because he represents all the alienated teenagers who were sickened by the deadening hypocrisy and shallowness of 1950s values. His untimely death in 1955 cut short what would have been a promising film career.

Alfred Hitchcock’s star continued to rise in the 1950s with three significant films. In Rear Window (1954) Hitchcock recreated a voyeuristic world through the eyes of his Jimmy Stewart character. The character’s “rear window” looks out upon the windows of other apartment dwellers, and soon his curiosity with the lives they lead almost destroys him. In Vertigo (1957) Hitchcock again explores some of the dark regions of the human heart – obsessive and self-destructive behaviors, the dangerous power of a man to “remake” a woman in the likeness of his ideal woman, and the complicated deceits that people play out against each other. Vertigo is an unrelenting story that provides little emotional relief before its fateful close.

The 1950s ended with an ominous note with regard to my film-viewing experience. I was thirteen years old when I saw Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) with my parents, my cousins, and my siblings. I remember that my sister and my cousins Judy and Nona held their hands over their faces during the gruesome shower scene. I watched it with my eyes wide open. I didn’t understand much of the symbolism of what I was watching. But I did appreciate the art of it; in fact, I was in awe of what Hitchcock was doing with film technique. Why that shot? Why that angle? Why that order of shots? I didn’t know it then, but I was hooked on film.

A last note about a special film during this decade. In 1955 Ernest Borgnine, known for his prior work as a “heavy” (bad guy) in films, played a meek and mild butcher from Brooklyn in Delbert Mann’s Marty. The film had appeared on television first (starring Rod Steiger – in his typically understated style of acting). Borgnine brought out the sympathy and the humanity of an overweight, homely man, apparently destined for bachelorhood, who spends all of his free time hanging out with the other guys in the neighborhood bar. I will never forget the litany of, “What do you want to do tonight?” “I don’t know. What do you want to do tonight?” Men heading toward middle age with little prospects for emotional commitments to long-term relationships. Dead-ends, lonely lives, wasted lives. Oh, the joy of watching Marty dance with the homely woman and tell her deadpanned, “Hey, you’re not such a dog after all.”


Growing Up on the Films of the 1960s

I was in the first generation of American children to be raised by the television. In my parents’ house the television was on for the game shows and the soap operas in the morning, then on again for the soap operas in the afternoon, and then the Mickey Mouse Club when I got home from school. My brother was in love with Annette Funicello. I was in love with the younger blonde girl with freckles. Was her name Karen? Already films were making their way onto television, and I watched numerous westerns, World War II films (one part entertainment and one part propaganda) and various comedies. I never thought much about the art of any of these films. They were simply diversions or films that trumpeted values I had already been taught to endorse.

I recall a few times when I went to movies with some of my cousins from “Up North”: the first was Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), the story of boxer Rocky Graziano. And who played the title role? Why, Paul Newman – in his second film role! Another was Steve McQueen in The Blob (1958), a perfectly dreadful science-fiction film, and Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) with Debbie Reynolds playing the 1950s ideal woman – chaste, religious, tomboyish, and down-to-earth! The only other film I recall from the 1950s was Ben-Hur (1959), with Charlton Heston. Here was the penultimate film for the 1950s – a Christian story about a man whose life is redeemed by faith. Our whole family went to see this film. Remembering that experience helps me seize upon a theme for the formative years of my film viewing life, the last few years of the 1950s. The films I saw reflected my values and beliefs at that stage of life: they were melodramatic, sentimental, celebrated inspirational religious and spiritual themes, and resolved human conflicts neatly and tidily.

But two films I saw in 1960 should have been a forewarning of things to come. The first was Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. Here was a conflict that lacked neatness and tidiness. Here was a collision of devout faith, religious zealotry, education, common sense, academic freedom, community standards, and so on. The second film was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which I write more about in Chapter 4 covering The 1950’s – Focus on American Films. [The film is not listed on the table below because it is listed on the table in Chapter 4.] Psycho scared me and showed me a world of possibilities unlike anything I had seen before. The Blob was laughable; Psycho was real. The Blob was schlock; Psycho was art.

Growing Up on the Films of the 1960s
1960Inherit the WindStanley KramerUSA
1961Hoodlum PriestIrvin KershnerUSA
1962Lawrence of ArabiaDavid LeanEngland
1962To Kill a MockingbirdRobert MulliganUSA
1963HudMartin RittUSA
1963Lilies of the FieldRalph NelsonUSA
1963Tom JonesTony RichardsonEngland
1965A Patch of BlueGuy GreenUSA
1965The Spy Who Came in From the ColdSidney LumetUSA
1965Dr. ZhivagoDavid LeanEngland
1966Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Mike NicholsUSA
1967In the Heat of the NightNorman JewisonUSA
1967The GraduateMike NicholsUSA
1967To Sir With LoveJames ClavellUSA
1968The SwimmerFrank PerryUSA
1969Last SummerFrank PerryUSA
1969Easy RiderDennis HopperUSA
1969ZConstantin Costa-GavrasGreece


The 1960s were my decade for growing up on film. Films from this decade helped shape my values and challenged me to think and rethink my positions on human relations, world affairs, sex, family values, and all matters pertaining to character and identity. During the decade I saw my share of adventure films and westerns, including The Guns of Navarone (1961), How the West Was Won (1963), The Flight of the Phoenix, (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and True Grit (1969). I also saw my share of inspirational family films (including early Disney greats) – My Fair Lady (1964), Mary Poppins (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Born Free (1966), Camelot (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and Hello, Dolly! (1969). If Julie Andrews was my ideal woman, then I suppose Sidney Poitier was my ideal man. Through his characters he promoted a strong sense of the virtue and heroism available to the individual, despite all odds. Poitier was the first African-American actor to have his work accepted in the mainstream of Hollywood films. I never gave it second thought that my hero was a black man. What mattered to me was his qualities of character: his empathy for the suffering of other people, his sense of humor, his ability to listen, his capacity for tolerance, his determination and fortitude, his capacity for love.

I saw almost all of his films in the 1960s – including Lilies of the Field (1963), A Patch of Blue (1965), To Sir With Love (1967), and In the Heat of the Night (1967). The relationship between the characters played by Poitier and Rod Steiger in the latter film was subtle and revealing. Old conflicts resurfaced – the power of integrity vs. the evil of racism, the value of social justice vs. the bankrupt legacy of segregation. The quiet scene between Poitier and Steiger in the latter’s house is a great example of restrained acting and cross-cultural understanding. What would I have become without the influences of Julie Andrews and Sidney Poitier?!

During my high school years I think my sister and I saw practically every Jerry Lewis film that came out, including The Bellboy and Cinderfella (1960), The Errand Boy and The Ladies’ Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963), The Patsy (1964), and Boeing, Boeing (1965). In every film Lewis played the same homely, bumbling, and ineffectual type. At the same time he was a basically gentle and caring soul – but one who never got the girl. When I saw Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor (1996), I was delighted to see that Murphy had captured the essence of the split between the gentle soul of the overweight professor and the cruel and self-absorbed Buddy Love character – just as Lewis had done so more than thirty years earlier. Murphy’s “imitation” was a sincere form of “flattering” Lewis’ comic genius.

What I learned from the Lewis films was an important lesson about creating character in a film. The Lewis character, although always a compilation of complementary strengths and weaknesses, was beyond a stereotype. The vulnerability of his character was valid and believable. Everyone could relate to his desire for an emotional connection. Lewis’ comedy was rooted in the reality of the lonely person, the misfit, the homely stick-in-the-mud who sat in the corner at dances and watched the clever and handsome partygoers enjoying life to the fullest – and wished he could do the same.

The first film that really struck me as having a force in my self-development was Hoodlum Priest (1961), starring Don Murray and Keir Dullea. I saw the film when I was 14 and I will never forget the scene of Keir Dullea being executed in the gas chamber. What made this film work for me was that I saw the young man’s life from the inside out – and this was a first for me. I came to understand the forces that led him to commit a robbery and then, in desperation, shoot the owner of the store who tries to apprehend him. I was led to these insights through my identification with the main character in the film, a Roman Catholic priest, who was committed to working with ex-convicts in St. Louis. The film was based upon the experiences of a real priest. The film combined a strong spiritual base (the Roman Catholic priest as social worker) with a powerful statement about justice (taking a stand against the death penalty). When I saw Dead Man Walking in 1996 I couldn’t help but think of Hoodlum Priest as the perfect companion film. Here was the first example of a film that helped shape my values.

I had a similar response to the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), starring Gregory Peck. Atticus Finch’s defense of an African-American suspect touched that political-and-social-justice-ethic that was at the core of my being. In three years my values had been shaped and nurtured by three films, Inherit the Wind, Hoodlum Priest, and To Kill a Mockingbird. I believed in freedom of expression, integrity, loyalty, equal justice, equality of the races. I valued the capacity of righting old wrongs, of giving someone a second chance, of commitments to social welfare and social justice. I had seen three great mentors or role models in the three main characters in the films, Clarence Darrow, Father Dismas Clark, and Atticus Finch.

Two other films in the early 1960s represented an interlude of sorts for me. Seeing Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and The Adventures of Tom Jones (1963) were eye opening for me because they openly celebrated sexuality in ways that Tammy and the Bachelor and Mary Poppins never hinted at. I also appreciated the innovative film techniques in The Adventures of Tom Jones – especially the use of fast-motion, the episodic structure of the film, the way music perfectly complemented the humorous tone and fast-paced action, and the way the character looked directly into the camera – breaking that fourth-wall prohibition based on classical theater. This film worked to a great extent because of “how” it was made – another reminder, even to a naive film viewer, that film art was at work in the best films.

As I got older through the 1960s, the conflicts depicted in films became more complex and troubling. From 1963-1965 I saw three films that provided advanced education for my last two high school years. The first was Hud (1963), starring Paul Newman as an amoral and self-centered rancher’s son who seems bent on self-destruction. I had not seen such a character in film before. He was nothing like Sidney Poitier! The main character in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) represented a humorous portrayal of dissolute youth. But Hud was different. He was serious. He was dangerous. His character challenged me in ways I had not been challenged before.

The second film in this two-year period was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), starring Richard Burton. The film was based on a great John Le Carre British spy novel, and everything about the film challenged me and stretched my imagination. Betrayal was at the heart of the plot. I loved the black and white cinematography, the realistic acting, the idiosyncratic characters, the complex relationships, the twists and turns in the plot. Who can I trust? Where do characters find meaning? This film pushed me beyond the melodramas of my childhood and early adolescence and dropped me into adulthood with a thud. I loved it and still remember it fondly. It was the first film I had seen directed by Sidney Lumet, a great American director who empathized with loners and had a strong sense of social justice in his films.

The third film was Dr. Zhivago (1965), directed by David Lean. I had not seen Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in the theater (but see below), so this was the first David Lean epic film I had experienced. What Lean accomplished, I think, was to take a fairly standard soap-opera subject matter (man marries wrong woman, yearns for reunion with right woman, reunion thwarted, and the right couple forever separated) – and infuse it with the panoramic sweep of human history, geography, poetry, all wrapped up by a magnificent musical score by Maurice Jarre. Hud, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Dr. Zhivago were the first films that introduced me to the role of the “director” in making movie magic. Each film had the imprint of its director – Martin Ritt in the first two films, and David Lean in the third. I began to look forward to seeing other films by the same director – an idea that never would have occurred to me before I saw these films. Suddenly films became more than stories or star vehicles or entertainment.

Another word on Lawrence of Arabia. My brother had seen that film in 1962, when I was fifteen. I don’t think he realized that he was watching a film classic. He expected an adventure story along the lines of The Guns of Navarone (1961) – a World-War II action film that told the story of a crew of Americans who destroyed a huge array of German cannons in a remote mountain fortress. Now that was action! The characters were stereotypes – tough, cynical, daring! When he told us about David Lean’s epic film based on the real Lawrence of Arabia, T. E. Lawrence, he laughed about the numerous shots of men riding camels through the desert, accompanied by what he considered was a repetitive sound track that bored him.

I didn’t see Lawrence of Arabia until the 1980s. By then I was ready to appreciate the way the director portrayed the metaphoric qualities of the desert – its physical, emotional, psychological substance. The desert became a character in the film. It was felt by the Bedouins and by the Englishman who was “transformed” by his experiences with the desert peoples. The music, composed by Maurice Jarre, was the desert’s song that had thrilled Lawrence the first time he rode a camel over the dunes. The music was hypnotic, uplifting, passionate – not boring. The story of T. E. Lawrence was an epic story: about a man who reinvented himself, who became a godlike figure to the people he united, a legend. At the same time he was a man who failed to grasp the fragile nature of the union he had forged. In essence, his story was one of failure as much as it was of triumph.

After I graduated from high school in 1965, my parents moved from the country into the city. I lived with them for two years and attended a University of Wisconsin Extension on the edge of town. The one film I most remember from that period was The Graduate (1967). My mother and my sister went with me to the film, and I will never forget the silliness that ensued when the three of us moved after sitting in front of a noisy couple. Upon relocating to a different aisle, the three of us couldn’t stop laughing for some reason.

Finally we got ourselves under control and the film began. In an early scene the college graduate, Ben Braddock, is confronted by his neighbor (a woman married to his father’s partner) in her daughter’s bedroom. The woman, Mrs. Robinson, stands naked before Ben and propositions him. Of course, the poor guy is terrorized by her ruthlessness and only wants to escape her clutches – at least for the time being. I couldn’t stop thinking that here was a film that exposed the fantasies of an adolescent – and yet my mother was sitting next to me in the theater. What was she thinking? I can tell you that she was laughing in all the right places. We had a marvelous time, and seeing this film became an unforgettable experience for the three of us.

The year before (1966) the three of us had seen Mike Nichols’ first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I have no idea why we saw this film. I don’t think my mother or my sister expected a film that was as metaphorically subtle and complex as this one. But the film was important for me because it was the first time I had felt overwhelmed by the characters and their motives. Why was everyone so brutal to each other? What did the title mean? Did the characters played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor really have a son who had died? This film taught me that multiple viewings are required of films – in the same way as multiple readings of a novel or multiple viewings of a play. These two films by Mike Nichols further reinforced my growing understanding that film was more aligned with art than it was with entertainment.

Another film I viewed in the late 1960s reinforced that conclusion. I will never forget The Swimmer (1968), starring Burt Lancaster. He plays a lonely suburbanite who decides one day to swim across the neighborhood from one swimming pool to the next. Soon his behavior begins to seem more bizarre than adventurous. Each encounter with a neighbor provides clues about some traumatic event that he is struggling to resolve through this activity. Seeing this film about a man who loses what is most precious to him made sense to me. Again it reinforced the value of films as stories that challenge individuals to face what is most important in their own lives. What if I lost what was most precious to me? How would I respond? How would I go on?

I saw two films, Last Summer and Easy Rider, as a double feature with my older brother when I visited him in Nevada in 1970. I had recently suffered a major personal loss, and I was staying with him to further my physical and emotional recovery. For some reason we decided to see a double feature on a typical hot summer afternoon. This double feature was the most memorable one I ever attended. Back in 1963 I had seen Lilies of the Field and Hud as a double feature (see above) – but this 1970 double feature (of two 1969 films) was different. Whereas Lilies of the Field provided a complementary vision of faith and values to the cynical Hud, the double feature my brother and I saw was unremitting in its portrayal of betrayal, aimlessness, and rage.

The first film, also directed by Frank Perry (see The Swimmer above), was about four teenagers, two women and two men, who spend the summer together. One of the young women is fat and homely; the other is trim and beautiful. Jealousies and intrigues abound, as I would have expected from the dynamics of the various relationships. What I could not have expected was how all of their repressed feelings of jealousy, dependency, desire, and revenge explode in a bizarre gang rape in the climactic scene. In that scene the two young men rape the fat and homely young woman while the other young woman helps hold her down. That scene still lingers in my mind as a symbol of devastation and hopelessness.

Then came the second feature – Easy Rider. I wasn’t ready emotionally for that film. The characters played by Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson were emotional orphans, lost and self-absorbed. Their cross-country odyssey exposed the underlying tensions in America – hatred of difference, racism, random violence, extreme distrust of democratic ideals. Everything about the film and its characters triggered ambivalence in my response. I admired their free spirits, but I was dismayed at the drug use. The key scene, for me, was the drug-ridden party scene near the end of the film, when at least one of the main characters realizes that he is emotionally at a dead-end.

I understood the feelings of aimlessness and anxiety and longing that led to this cross-country journey on the part of the Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper characters. I was stunned and repulsed by the murders at the end of the film. The film’s ending seemed to offer little that was uplifting, affirming, or of a spiritual component I could relate to.

I was at the end of the 1960s, all right. Sidney Poitier was far down another road not taken anymore. Here I was, looking down a road of cynicism, despair, and hopelessness. I can’t say I “enjoyed” Last Summer and Easy Rider. I can say both were part of my education of life, an education I received through the medium of film.

I saw the French thriller Z, directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras, in 1970, when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. The impact of this film was intertwined with my own individual political development. At that time I was making a 180-degree-turn from political conservative to political liberal – due in part to my disgust with the Vietnam War, but due mostly to my rejection of President Nixon’s policy of bombing of Cambodia in 1970. Becoming more politically aware of the world around me helped me respond favorably to Costa-Gavras’ incredible documentary-like film based upon the political assassination of a liberal candidate for President of Greece in the 1960s. This man was murdered at the order of fascist Generals who were afraid the candidate would open the floodgates of democracy in Greece. The pulsating score, the high-energy editing of a high-speed chase through the downtown and the later assassination, and the gradual revelation of heroic deeds by a prosecutor hand-picked by the Generals all combined to move me emotionally as a viewer. The 1960s ended, for me, as a time of great moral and political confusion. I knew I was in process as a political person, and I knew the stakes were much higher than they were when I was the naive adolescent at the beginning of the decade.