United States Cinematography in the 1950’s

It is possible that precisely for these reasons the genre most related to the incredible, together with horror, that is science fiction, found in the 1950s a much larger space than in the past. On the one hand, in fact, the atomic danger was a natural theme, on the other the threats of invasion, which that genre had often drawn from the literary sphere, could well be understood as a metaphor for much more likely invasions. On the other hand, the development of science fiction cinema in that decade cannot be explained solely in relation to the political situation. In 1944, the first experimental television broadcast had aired, and in a few years television had become the leading medium of national entertainment. In the 1950s, as a result, cinema entered a crisis. If you add to this the inevitable actor crisis (the stars of the thirties and forties were naturally aging) it is not difficult to understand that a huge turnover was taking shape that involved the entire cinema of the United States. Television had profoundly changed audiences. Half housekeeper par excellence, she had left the cinema in the hands of young and very young audiences for whom a melodrama with Bette Davis or an exotic musical did not have much appeal. This brought Hollywood to the brink of a catastrophic crisis, from which it attempted to recover by investing in areas other than film (Paramount in oil, Warner Bros. in publishing, MGM in the recording and hotel industry, and so on).. An important space therefore opened up for the small independent houses which, independent, cinema ; new american cinema). While the majors limited themselves to proposing new faces that interpret the unease, restlessness and revolt of the younger generations (Marlon Brando and James Dean, first of all), small houses like AIP (American International Pictures), not enjoying a apparatus capable of imposing new and strong personalities, elaborated a policy of low-budget genres on environments and topics somehow familiar to young people and in any case mockingly sensationalist enough to wink at their sense of irony (see youth, cinema). An example, also eloquent in the titles, of such production policies is provided by films such as Sorority girl (1957) by Roger Corman, I was a teenage werewolf (1957) by Gene Fowler, Teenage caveman (1958) again by Corman, High school confidential (1958; Covert Operation) by Jack Arnold.

In the meantime, and for the same reason, Hollywood was doing its utmost to find other reasons for attracting audiences to theaters: the launch of Cinemascope (and then, with less success, Cinerama), 3D and others was in the 1950s. techniques, often little more than freak attractions, whose function was precisely to reinvigorate an interest in cinema that was gradually fading. Perhaps never as in that decade had US cinema returned to its origins as a spectacle of wonders, in an attempt to regain an audience that this time was anything but naive. Thus the horror and science fiction of Corman, which fifty years earlier could have impressed a new audience at the cinema, could not now be conceived and understood otherwise than as a camp,

But Corman and the other independent producers found themselves destined to save national cinema, now in the throes of a crisis that had terms of comparison only in the advent of sound. It was not just an economic question. The independents launched a type of cinema which, in its involuntary inspiration from the simplicity and naivety of its origins, served as a wash and renewal for the whole of American cinema. Also because, a not insignificant element, under their aegis the very young militants were those who would soon become the best names in the industrial rebirth of Hollywood. Corman worked for Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Monte Hellman, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante and many others. Of course, Hollywood was far from dead. However, it is a fact that in the 1950s there was a slow and inexorable decline of at least two once glorious genres, the western and the musical, while other genres, such as drama and comedy, underwent significant involution that significantly removed them from their classic models. Think of the home comedies with Doris Day, a magnificent sign, among other things, of the attempt to restore women to spaces, roles, functions and ideology prior to the war period; think of how much the melodramas, for example, by Mark Robson or, on a higher artistic level, by Minnelli – among the various titles, and respectively, From the terrace (1960; From the terrace) and Home from the hill (1960; Home after the hurricane) – are indebted to the then nascent television soap opera. In short, in Hollywood there was an air of demobilization:

Yet the 1950s were not lacking in exceptional directors and masterpieces. Those were the years of the best Hitchcock, of the last American works by F. Lang, of the great moment of maturation of the Fordian western, of the suffering and baroque cinematography of Nicholas Ray, of the melodramatic explosion of Kazan and Sirk, of the beginnings of an innovative genius such as Robert Aldrich (not to mention the great Wilders and Minnelli). In short, the crisis was certainly not one of intelligence and inspiration. Therefore, it did not have particular repercussions on the quality of the products, but acted above all on the financial aspect of the system and, on a formal and creative level, on the organization of the product. In fact, what would subsequently be defined as the ‘contamination of genres’ dates back to this crisis,

Oppressed by McCarthyist censorship, guarded by religious associations, besieged by the competition of the new television medium, the cinema of the majors saw its land shrink every day: deprived for specious political reasons of the best screenwriters, forced to a chastened description of the world (husband and wife, for example, they could not be shown together in a double bed: the beds had to be strictly separated), unprepared for the radical change of public that the small independent houses were managing to some extent to snatch from him, he tried awkwardly to adapt to the situation. With embarrassment because, if on the one hand he tried to deal with difficult, controversial and gory issues that attracted the attention of the public, young or not, from he could not help but impose restrictions and distinctions that thwarted these attempts. Two examples for all: the censorship on the admission of homosexuality in Serenade (1956; Serenata) by Anthony Mann and in The children’s hour (1961; Quelle due) by William Wyler. But perhaps even more exemplary is the case of A summer place (1959; Scandalo al sole) by Delmer Daves, a paradigmatic work of the kind of response that Hollywood was able to give to adolescent cinema successfully proposed by small independents. Full of the most diverse issues (conflicts based on class differences, alcoholism, the difficulties inherent in divorce, juvenile sexuality and more), the film ends up not covering even one of them exhaustively. And the same young actor promises he tried to cast, Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee.

United States Cinematography in the 1950's