Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book Review: Movie Love in the Fifties

James Harvey's MOVIE LOVE IN THE FIFTIES is the third book read from my Summer Reading List.

The list was created for Raquel's Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge at Out of the Past. I'm halfway to my goal of reading and reviewing six film books by mid-September! Books 4 and 5 are both partway read so I think there's a good chance I will make the goal by September 15th.

Harvey is also the author of another book on my summer list, ROMANTIC COMEDY IN HOLLYWOOD: FROM LUBITSCH TO STURGES, and I suspect I might have been better off starting with that book, as the author clearly has more of an affinity for the '30s and early '40s than the '50s.

MOVIE LOVE IN THE FIFTIES actually covers movies released from the mid '40s through the early '60s, and I found the book worthwhile, but with reservations. I'll get the negatives out of the way first; the biggest is that the author has a negativity toward the '50s ("hollowly triumphalist times") and how the culture and politics of the day impacted films. He is of the belief that movies of the '50s were blander and safer and had "lost something," and he repeatedly disdains their depiction of "normalcy" or what he perceives as conformity.

I also didn't care for the sections on Method actors, which simply held no personal interest for me, or a chapter on Nicholas Ray's BITTER VICTORY (1957), where the plot described was so depressing I finally gave up and moved on to the next chapter.

There were other comments he made which I found interesting to read, though I really couldn't see where he was coming from, such as this comment on Doris Day: "...for all her cheeriness, real gaiety seemed beyond her."

Putting these drawbacks aside, there is much in the book to enjoy, and I did find it worth the investment of time. I particularly liked Harvey's chapters engaging in detailed analyses of OUT OF THE PAST (1947), THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949), IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), and WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956), revisiting the films in my mind's eye and considering his insightful comments. The chapter on THE RECKLESS MOMENT, in particular, made me anxious to see the film again soon and take a fresh look at Joan Bennett's performance. I also read the chapter on CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944), one of the last Deanna Durbin films I need to see, and was intrigued.

The chapters where he surveys various random films reminded me of the books by one of my favorite historians, Jeanine Basinger, such as I DO AND I DON'T, A WOMAN'S VIEW, or especially THE STAR MACHINE, in that he stirred interest in a number of films I've not yet seen; I jotted down some titles mentioned to check out in the future.

I also enjoyed the chatty, conversational comments about movies I've already watched. For example, I liked his comment on PUSHOVER (1954), which I recently saw, calling it "one of those quiet triumphs of straightforward genre filmmaking." And he made a comment about REAR WINDOW (1954) which made me sit bolt upright in startled agreement: he suggests that Grace Kelly's refined character, with her social and financial aspirations, would have been the "other woman" in a '30s film! Yet in the '50s Kelly is the leading lady we should all aspire to be. (Perhaps she does become the bolder '30s heroine towards the end, when she visits Raymond Burr's apartment house...) That was the kind of interesting insight which I felt made the book particularly worth reading.

As with Basinger's books, Harvey's book is not meant for a reader who wants to avoid plot spoilers. He provides detailed examinations of myriad films, which he says are meant to help viewers experience the films "more deeply and sharply and richly."

I should also make note that this is not a book for fans who want to read about '50s Westerns, a topic he largely avoids, other than JOHNNY GUITAR (1954). Harvey writes that he mostly excluded fifties Westerns "because the subject is so large and important: a book in itself." (And I know just the person to write on that topic...)

MOVIE LOVE IN THE FIFTIES is a softcover book from Da Capo Press, originally published in 2001. It is 448 pages, including a very useful index.

Recommended, with the above caveats; those who are interested in Method movies and who share Harvey's negativity toward the '50s may enjoy it more than I did. I hope to review Harvey's book on romantic comedies in the next couple weeks.


Blogger barrylane said...

Just because someone writes a book doesn't mean you have to read it. I don't care for David Thomson's work at all, and by that I mean his personal point of view, but he wrote The Whole Equation -- thisis really about the movies, how they were born, how they were made and the intellectual evolution of our business. The brilliance of the work justifies everything else. In my opinion.

9:24 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Thanks for this review because you've convinced me to avoid reading this book.

This rap of "bland" on the 1950s has been heard for years and is a meaningless cliche and incredibly shallow. I grew up then and it was not like that at all. And the movies made actually reflected its real soulfulness very expressively.

I've spent enough time over the years with all decades to say unequivocally that Hollywood peaked in the 1950s, kind of like a light that flickers brighter before it burns out. It is just an incredibly rich period with so much that is wonderful going on.

I won't comment on specifics too much. It sounds like he doesn't appreciate Doris Day and that's just impossible for me to understand. There were few people that talented before the camera ever. And it's a cop out to not write about Westerns in the 1950s even if it's true it's a big subject because it's just too big a part of 50s movies to "ride around" (to take a famous phrase from the Ranown cycle). I would say, based on my own lists of great movies, that one out of four best 50s movies out of Hollywood was a Western.

Finally, please, Laura, don't let this put you off seeing BITTER VICTORY, which is a Nicholas Ray masterpiece--and he was arguably the greatest American director of the decade, or at least even with John Ford. A movie becomes different in the realization than in a plot description and this one is more than that--it's not depressing at all but beautiful and fascinating.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Raquel S. said...

I think I'll pass on this book. I still have a lot to explore in regards to the 1950s and film and would be worried about 1) the spoilers and 2) all that negativity in regards to the era.

Great review Laura! I like how you were very clear about the positives and the negatives.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to you all for the feedback!

Barrylane -- of course you don't have to read it, that's part of the purpose of my review, sharing my thoughts on the book so that others can decide whether or not it's worth the investment of their own time. Sounds like Blake and Raquel decided not. :) Don't think I've read any of Thomson's books yet, though I've certainly heard of him.

I appreciate the feedback on the '50s from one who was there, Blake! As you know I love the films of that decade and there is so much to enjoy that the author's complaining about the decade gave the book a churlish tone at times, when I thought it should have been simply celebrating movies. JMHO. I'll be curious to see what the tone is like in his book on romantic comedies. My dad has read both books himself and loved the book on comedies but had similar reactions to mine when it came to the '50s book.

It was odd, he expressed admiration for Doris Day, who is one of my favorites, yet then he kept kind of undercutting her.

You know I certainly have sympathy for your comments on the importance of Westerns in the '50s! :)

Thanks also for the BITTER VICTORY feedback, Blake! I have to admit that the plot of that is such it's pretty low on my list, but I'll definitely keep your very positive comments in mind.

Thanks also to you very much for the feedback, Raquel, I'm glad if you found my review helpful! I'd say maybe come back to this book in a decade or so, after you've done more exploring of the '50s and all the great movies of that era, and then you can cherry-pick the good stuff in the book without being influenced by the negatives. :) Thanks once more for the inspiration to move through my big "to be read" stack at a steady pace this summer!!

Best wishes,

8:33 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Llaura --

I think you undercut the book brilliantly and, despite the odd observaation of interst, I willjoin Blake and Racquel in passing on it. I grew up at the same time Blake did, in the fities although I am clearly much older and agree with his observations regarding the period, the films and Bitter Victory.

9:10 AM  
Blogger john k said...

Hello Barry Lane,

If you are out there,I enjoyed your take on STORM FEAR a few threads back
and although we do not agree I was very interested in your input.
We DO however agree that Jean Wallace was very undervalued and for me
she is the best thing about the film.
I guess my expectations were far higher as this was considered a "lost" film
and was amazed when Laura mentioned that it was soon to be shown on TCM
a while back.
Sometimes when you wait decades to see a film your expectations are higher
than they would be normally.
I like the word you use to describe the film as "sensational" at any rate
it has made me want to give the film another go.
What I certainly did not like was seeing the great Dan Duryea play a
wimpy,self-pitying failed author!
In spite of my ramblings on Tobys blog and elsewhere I do like other films
apart from Westerns and Action Movies.I too grew up in the Fifties and
loved the whole Cinema going experience then;huge single-screen cinemas
and loads of revival houses to see films that you had missed first time around.
I recently purchased the Fox Archive MOD of HILDA CRANE a true example of a
Fifties Movie if ever there was one.I enjoyed the unusual pairing of Jean
Simmons and Guy Madison. To me the DVD looks like a lovely widescreen transfer
yet on the packaging it says 4x3 Letterbox.I really do not fully understand
these things...............its my age you know!
Sorry jump back a few I allowed to do this?

6:20 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm heading out the door on a two-day road trip, so just a quick note to say "Anytime," John!

Best wishes,

6:57 AM  
Blogger john k said...

Many thanks Laura,
Have a lovely trip.

7:03 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

John Knight --

When I saw Storm Fear initially I was on a Wilde-Wallace rampage and that made everything better. Lancelot and Guenevere, Maracaibo, Devil's Hairpin and even Beach Red. I thought Wilde's performance, especially in his final scene deserved the highest accolades. Duryea was good in his part and weasels were his specialty although I thought him fine in China Smith. Stay in touch -- I am about to hit Seventy-five and still have the same interests as sixty years ago.

11:46 AM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

I've owned Harvey's "Romantic Comedy" book since 1988; it's one of my favorites for the most part. Haven't read the second edition of the book, so it may be different, but I think that given what I know about your political beliefs, it's only fair to warn you that some of what he wrote may rankle you. It did to me to some extent, whether or not I agreed with his political comments, because I didn't think those thoughts were relevant to what was being discussed. When Harvey remains on topic, he has some cogent things to say. So if you get past his occasional political comments -- most of which are irrelevant a quarter-century after the fact -- it's a fun read.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

John Knight and Barrylane, you've both got me surveying my collection to see which Wilde-Wallace films I have on hand! I did record STORM FEAR when it was recently on and hope to see it before too long.

Vince, thanks for your thoughtful comments on the ROMANTIC COMEDY book, I appreciated hearing your perspective on it. I'm looking forward to checking it out and will post my thoughts here.

Best wishes,

9:52 PM  

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