Most movies in the 1950s were shot in black and white, but the color on everyone’s mind was an angry shade of red. With Cold War paranoia gripping the nation — and the blacklist tearing Hollywood apart — sci-fi flicks preached an anti-communist credo (beware of the pod people!). Yet, for all this lockstep conformity, a strain of individuality prevailed, thanks in large part to the New York-trained Method actors (Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift) who spilled their angst in ways audiences had never seen before. And, in too many cases, would never see again.
Jimmy Stewart cuts a back-end deal with ‘Winchester ‘73’: June 7, 1950
When critics call Tom Hanks a modern Jimmy Stewart, they’re not kidding. Hanks owes the $60 million he raked in for Forrest Gump to his illustrious forerunner. Stewart didn’t set out to change the power of movie stars. He just wanted to star in Universal’s Harvey. His agent, MCA chief Lew Wasserman, then negotiated the legendary deal. Unable to afford the actor’s $200,000 salary, the studio agreed to pay him a percentage of the profits for two projects: Winchester ‘73 and Harvey. Similar arrangements had been made before, but never of this magnitude. “It changed the template of the business,” says superagent-turned-supermanager Michael Ovitz. “Now everybody gets a percentage. Lew started it all.” Rank 58
‘Eve’ and ‘Boulevard’ explore the darker side of stardom: 1950
Two masterpieces of dialogue, two jaundiced looks at showbiz, two grande dames at the top of their form, playing female stars terrified of hitting bottom. Who said Hollywood had to be happy? After All About Eve’s Bette Davis told us “It’s going to be a bumpy night” and Gloria Swanson descended that staircase for her final close-up in Sunset Boulevard, no one ever looked at actresses in quite the same way. How did things get so cynical so fast? Blame director-writers Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Billy Wilder, whose films grabbed a combined 25 Oscar noms that year. “I knew Billy very well,” says film writer Budd Schulberg. “He had a remarkably cynical take on Hollywood, which he brought over from Berlin. Even as a young writer he had that snide, sad look at things. And Joe wasn’t much different — those guys had bad attitudes.” Lucky for us. Rank 26
Sci-fi discovers the Cold War: 1951
Ever since Georges Melies’ 1902 fantasia A Trip to the Moon, moviemakers’ love affair with outer space had been about Saturday-matinee escapism. But at the dawn of the ’50s, those interplanetary flights of fancy took a more serious tone: 1951’s The Thing, When Worlds Collide, and The Day the Earth Stood Still — all barely veiled Cold War parables — brought the enemy closer to home. Sure, those flying saucers looked like pie tins, but beneath it all was an unsubtle message. ”The real fear was that an atomic bomb would be used in a war with the Russians,” says John Carpenter, who directed the ‘82 remake of The Thing. ”We’d seen what happened in Japan, and we feared it was our turn.” Rank 83