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An Overview of American Movies of 1958

November 10, 2008 | By

Most movies that were the biggest hits in 1958 in America were social dramas.

The Cold War was the most pressing international problem in 1958. Eisenhower was on the verge of losing the popularity he enjoyed in the national elections two years earlier – the popular discontentment of the public was to reflect itself in the win for Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential elections. The greatest reason that can be attributed behind Eisenhower’s loss had to be his apparent inability to supersede the Russians in arms race, and more significantly, space race.

This anxiety felt in the global affairs had clear impact on the domestic situation in the US. Most telling was a threat to the apparently well organized fabric of social structure. Suspicion and distrust plagued the institution of marriage, that maintained its sacred veneer in a largely conservative American society.

Social Dramas: Separate Tables and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Most movies that were the biggest hits in 1958 in America were social dramas. Separate Tables and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, both big hits of 1958 dealt with the breakdown and suspicion that typified the social life of America during this period.

An Overview of American Movies of 1958

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was the most representative movie of this genre. The movie dealt ostensibly with the Pollit family, and graphically portrayed the breakdown of the family fabric in the face of alcoholism and drug abuse, as well as illegitimacy of relationship, till all is brought to a natural conclusion.

Maggie ‘the Cat” Pollit, portrayed in the film by Elizabeth Taylor, is a beautiful and to some extent wily lady who has dodged a troubled and poverty stricken childhood to get herself married to the wealthy Pollit family. However, she soon finds her married life to be distinctly lack fulfillment. She is all the more enraged with her husband Brick Pollit’s apparent lack of concern about his brother’s attempts to capture the family business from the patriarch of the family, business tycoon ‘Big Daddy’ Pollit. As the atmosphere of mutual distrust and suspicion grows, the film goes on to portray the breakdown of the family rubric in the American West. Alcoholism, distrust and most significantly ‘mendacity’ appear as the dominant motifs of this movie.

Separate Tables was another exploration on the theme of a disturbed family life. Located around an inn in Beauregard, the film is centered around the relationship between Ann Shakland and her alcoholic ex-husband John Malcolm. John is secretly engaged to Pat Cooper. The main plot is linked to a number of sub-plots dealing with Mrs. Raiton Bell who discovered the truth about Major Pollock. She is shocked and so is her daughter Sibyl, who is secretly in love with the Major. As this entire mesh revolves and complicates itself, there seems to be no respite from a situation that has complicated itself beyond redemption, again centered around the breakdown of the social and familial fabric.

Musicals: Gigi and King Creole

Musicals were on the wee side of popularity in 1958. It is therefore ironical enough that the greatest success of the year, that won nine Oscars, was a musical adapted from a Broadway hit. Gigi was the last of the big MGM musical productions under the auspices of the legendary Arthur Freed, that received great popular and critical acclaim.

An Overview of American Movies of 1958

Gigi is set in Paris at the turn of century. It narrates the love affair between Gaston Lachaville, a scion of an aristocratic family. He is rather bored with the high life of the wealthy Parisians and tries to find solace in the company of Madame Alvarez (Mamita), an old mistress of his uncle Honore Lachaille and in particular her daughter, the vivacious and effervescent Gilberte or ‘Gigi’, played by Leslie Caron. Their relationship is filial in the beginning. Gigi is trained in the art and manners of being a mistress or a courtesan. Gigi is a poor student, not quite understanding the implications of being her training. After the training is complete, Gigi comes out to accompany Gaston to a dinner. The moment marks her growth from a girl to a woman. Gaston finds himself uncomfortable at the gaze of following eyes, and realizes to his surprise that he has unknowingly fallen in love with Gigi. He goes to her mother and asks her hand in marriage. The movie has a number of extremely popular songs, including a reject from MGM’s previous production My Fair Lady.

The world of Gigi was far from the real world of America. Reveling in a remote world of Parisian gentry, the movie owes much of its popularity for the escape it provided to most people of middle America. Musicals are not always naturalistic in their depictions of society. The distancing provides a context for the song and dance extravaganzas to be staged. However, the crime nexus of the city, as well as the reigning poverty in much of the Southern states is exceedingly well expressed in another movie of the year, that formally qualifies as a musical, King Creole. King Creole is considered by many as the best movie by Elvis, a list that includes Elvis himself. The storyline was not the strongest one, however in the hands of Michael Curtiz, the movie became thoroughly enjoyable. Curtiz was the director of the legendary Casablanca, one of the greatest Hollywood movies ever made.

King Creole relates the rise of Danny Fisher into stardom from a busybody in a local bar. The journey includes his tip off with local crime lord Maxie Fields, played by Walter Matthau. Carolyn Jones plays Ronnie, a call girl in the city whose end is, in a sense, doomed, being the personal companion to Maxie Fields. The film places Danny Fisher at psychological crossroads on more than one occasion. He has to choose between his High School love Nellie and his new found love interest Ronnie. He has to choose between the fast life of a gangster and the thorny road towards becoming a professional musician. The movie clearly exhibits the crime and prostitution nexus that came to plague most Southern cities. It also has a realistic depiction of poverty, and also counterbalances ambition with deprivation.

The Decline of the West: Man of the West and Cowboy

A shift in the economic scenario was as responsible as the change in the social fabric to provide ready inspiration to a number of movies. It was imperative in the late 1950s, that a global war for ideological, which was imperative to an economic, one-upmanship was about the grasp the world, almost tearing it down the middle on ideological lines. This meant, for America, promoting an aggressive brand of Capitalism with an eye on capturing the global market. Lots of money spent on space research to fuel the space war with Russia was another reason for the government to siphon much money into defense building, and a holistic overhaul of the economic profile of the country.

An Overview of American Movies of 1958

With a clear change in the economic profile, there was a change coming about in certain traditional way of life that once enjoyed great following in the US. The cowboys were the first in the line of annihilation. An improved security system meant that their traditional ways of dealing with travelers to the Wild West, and the rural economy that sustained them had to change a lot. With the attraction attached to that way of life, its box office potential was also declining steadily. Although there were quite a few movies, that could formally be termed as Westerns, released in 1958, most of them dealt actually with the decline of the Wild West. Although Man of the West was concurrent to the older school of Western movies, it was Cowboy that received the maximum amount of critical and viewer attention. Cowboy aptly revealed the breakdown of an older form of life.

Horrors and Crime Thrillers: Vertigo

The genre that ended up swallowing the maximum amount of reels in 1958 was horror. There were a large number of horror and crime thrillers that infested the market that year. The horror releases of 1958 could be divided into two parts. There were movies that were fundamentally social dramas, and on then there were horror movies that were science fictions and fantasies. Vertigo, one of the greatest films not only of 1958 but in entire movie history, was the most influential horror movie released in the year.

An Overview of American Movies of 1958

Vertigo narrates the journey of Scottie Ferguson, the detective of the movie, as he starts spying on Madeleine, the wife of his old time friend Gavin Ester. Madeline has developed a kind of psychological disorder where she identifies herself with the dead Carlotta Valdes. However, Ferguson finds himself to become increasingly attached to Madeleine, despite having an affair with Midge. Ferguson saves her life when she throws herself at the San Fransisco Bay. What follows is a trip to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Madeleine’s suicide, throwing herself from the Bell tower of the Mission San Juan Bau tista. Ferguson’s acrophobia renders him helpless, although he sees the entire scene taking place in front of his eyes and receives a mental shock as a result of that. In fact, he succumbs to nervous breakdown.

In the course of his recovery, Scottie comes across Judy Barton, and starts to identify her with Madeleine. In the course of the movie, Judy finds herself in love with Scottie and writes down the truth in a letter in the form of a release from her guilt. We come to know that Judy is none other than Madeleine, hired by Gavin to act as his wife. He wanted to corroborate his claims of his wife’s suicidal tendencies. She considers herself to be guilty for Scottie’s present mental state. However, she destroys the letter almost as soon as she has written it. However, a jeweled pendant that Scottie sees Judy wearing raises suspicion in Scottie’s mind. It was the jewel that Madeleine said she inherited.

In the climax of the movie, Scottie takes Judy to the same Mission San Juan Bautista, and chases her up the stairs to the Bell Tower. Judy is frightened and she confesses the crime. Scottie is enraged and feels deceived. The emotional surge has made Scottie forget about his acrophobia. As they embrace, a shadowy figure appears at the top of the Bell Tower. Judy is frightened and backs up, slipping off the ledge and plunging to her death. It turns out to be a nun, who says ‘God, have mercy’, and rings the tower bell. Scottie can do nothing but stare down at the dead body of Judy from the ledge of the Mission. He is cured of his vertigo, but the cost was probably too high.

Beneath the veneer of a psychological drama, we find a complete fragmentation of societal coherence that is expressed in this trailblazing Hitchcock classic. It is, at its very foundation, a mesh of distrust, of betrayal and of amorous obsessions that were probably threatening the matrix of American social formation at every moment. The fear is an individualized fear of a social anxiety that has to do with the breakdown of familial values in a sociological vertigo.

Fantasies and Science Fictions

On the international front, there was much more tension than at home. The major issue was the bilateral relationship with the USSR. The Cold War was reveling in exactly this environment of distrust. Threat of biological and nuclear weaponry permeated through the upper echelons of diplomacy to mass imagination. Although the enemy was not always defined – the situation was too amorphous to single out foes – US was still enjoying peace at least in theory – the fear of biological and chemical weaponry was becoming almost endemic among its citizens. What was ostensibly an arms race, took an added dimension as a space race.

Almost all fantasies of 1958 worked on these two basic parameters. One was the dissatisfaction of the general American with his state that was a natural outcome of a prolonged period of peace. A breakdown in the family values was an outcome of the same. The second was an anxiety related to the powers of science if left unbridled. All B-movies of Hollywood were results of this anxiety. Let us first, take a look at two such, almost representative, movies.

The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman was a Bernard Woolner Production, and was presented by the Allied Artists Pictures. 50 foot Woman is a story about an encounter between Nancy Archer and an alien who has arrived from outer space and needs diamond to power his spaceship. Nancy Archer is in possession of the Star of India, a large diamond that she received as a part of heirloom. Her husband is having an affair with Honey Parker, another woman. Nancy’s desire of revenge on her husband is bolstered by a state of gigantism that she arrives at, as a result of radiation from the spaceship that happened during her alien encounter.

In the spate of vengeance, Nancy kills Honey Parker and carries her husband away. A clash with an electric pole kills both her and her husband as the police chase them through the city.

The other movie of the very same year that can be discussed in association with the previous movie is the Alta Vista Production science fiction-horror movie called the Attack of the Puppet People. Directed by Bert I. Gordon, this movie was hurriedly made to cash in on the success of the 1957 blockbuster The Incredible Shrinking Man.

It is the story about a freaky scientist and doll collector Mr. Franz, who changes captives to diminutive size and keep them preserved in his laboratory. Sally Reynolds (played by June Kenney) joins as a secretary of Mr. Franz after initial misgivings. Soon she gets into a roaring affair with salesman and smooth talker Bob Westley. Bob persuades Sally to leave Franz and leave. Bob takes up the responsibility to break the news to Franz, but is nowhere to be found after that.

The truth gets revealed soon enough. Franz has this fear of being left alone after his wife left alone, and has invented this machine that transforms men into half their size. We see that he has already changed four of his friends to half their size, and continues to do it to anyone who wants to leave him. Sally turns out to be his last victim. The prisoners are miniaturized to half their size and then stored in suspended animation in glass canisters. Franz gets afraid of being caught for his misdeeds. However, unwilling to let go, he takes his entire entourage of miniaturized men to his old operation theater, where he has them act out Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde for him in one of the most ludicrous scenes of the movie.

Bob and Sally manage to escape. They reach back to Franz’s workshop and regain their normal size. Franz finds them, but fails to restrain them, as they are regular human beings. He pleads to them to let him go and sympathize with his condition. But his pleas fall to deaf ears. They run for the police station, and Franz’s fate seems to be sealed.

Almost all fantasies of 1958 worked on these two basic parameters. One was the dissatisfaction of the general American with his state that was a natural outcome of a prolonged period of peace. A breakdown in the family values and a chronic fear of isolation was an outcome of the same. The second was an anxiety related to the powers of science if left unbridled. All B-movies of Hollywood were results of this anxiety.
(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Ariktam Chatterjee teaches literature and writes on cinema. He is an avid follower of Western music and in his off time he is a Blues Musician.
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