Mike’s Top Ten of 1952
1952 seems about the right time to address the elephant in the room. There are really only two major historical events that greatly impacted the film industry in the 50s. One we’ll get into in a couple years. Here, we need to address the first one, which is the Blacklist.
After World War II, the biggest threat to the American people was perceived to be Communism. The Soviet Union and America, the great superpowers, the Cold War — all that. America was really nervous about a communist influence seeping into its culture, a big part of which was, of course, Hollywood. Hollywood is generally a liberal place and a lot people had either openly been communists in the 30s or had at least dabbled in it for a while. And now that there was the House Un-American Activities and Joseph McCarthy, it wasn’t good for there to be communists hanging around. So in 1947, the first open blacklist in Hollywood happened. Which is the famous Hollywood Ten. It lasted for about 13 years, famously ending when Dalton Trumbo was credited for writing Spartacus.
But what was prevalent during this period, especially in the late 40s and early 50s, was a great divide in Hollywood. Stars were called to testify, to deny their connections to communism or communist sympathies, while also being called to “name names.” Essentially give up those people who were communists. Which is like being told to snitch on your friends and coworkers and ruin their lives for a “greater good.” And there were people who happily did this (Walt Disney), and others who opposed it (Bogart). But there were hundreds of people whose lives and livelihoods were ruined by being branded “un-American.” John Garfield actually died because of the stress his blacklisting inflicted on him.
It was a huge deal for Hollywood and was reflected in a lot of the films, either openly or not. We’ll get to On the Waterfront in 1954, which was made as a response by Elia Kazan for his decision to “name names.”
Also, side note: all the investigations into Hollywood by the government led to the head of RKO getting out of the movie business, which put RKO in the hands of Howard Hughes, who then settled an antitrust lawsuit the Big Five studios had been involved in (United States vs. Paramount Pictures), which ended up being the first step in the dissolution of the studio system, forcing the studios to sell all the movie theaters they owned.
Anyway, speaking of 1952 specifically — I don’t know if there is a more top-heavy year in the 50s. There are some amazing films here. The top four films on this list are legitimately top 100 of all time material. It’s somewhat weaker below the line than most years, but still, it’s hard to take away from the top of that list.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1952
The Bad and the Beautiful
The Greatest Show on Earth
The Narrow Margin
The Quiet Man
Singin’ in the Rain
11-20: 5 Fingers, Carrie, Come Back Little Sheba, Deadline U.S.A., Forbidden Games, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, Kansas City Confidential, The Member of the Wedding, No Room for the Groom, Springfield Rifle
Tier two: The Belle of New York, Gone to Earth, Hans Christian Andersen, Ivanhoe, The Las Vegas Story, Love Is Better Than Ever, Macao, My Cousin Rachel, O. Henry’s Full House, Ruby Gentry, Scandal Sheet, The Sniper, The Sound Barrier, Sudden Fear, This Is Cinerama, The Turning Point, Viva Zapata!, We’re Not Married!, Umberto D., With a Song in My Heart
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1. The Quiet Man
“What manner of man is it that I have married?”
“A better one, I think, than you know, Mary Kate.”
I love this movie so much.
This was a passion project for John Ford. The only way he got to make this was if he directed a western for Republic, which ended up being Rio Grande. So, as such, they allowed him to take John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and go make this movie. And it ended up not only being one of the three best films of John Ford’s career but also was the only Best Picture nominee Republic ever had.
The film is about John Wayne as an Irish-American boxer coming back to the town where he was born after a traumatic event (he accidentally killed a guy in the ring). He comes to the nice, quiet town of Inisfree and settles down there. He soon falls in love with Maureen O’Hara, who is the sister of Victor McLaglen, a boorish landowner. Because McLaglen wanted the land Wayne is living on, he refuses to let O’Hara marry. So the town devises a plan to let the marriage happen, and all sorts of great stuff ensues.
This movie is so relaxed and wonderful, I can’t even explain the plot. It’s a John Ford movie. A lot of community, a lot of little scenes that don’t string together as much as they build a feeling. The climax of this movie is a fistfight. It’s absolutely wonderful.
It’s one of the most stunning movies ever shot and it’s an absolute masterpiece, through and through. This is one of my three favorite John Ford films. The man has made about two dozen great films, but this one is right at the top for me. Not many are better than this.
2. Singin’ in the Rain
“I’m singing in the rain
Just singing in the rain
What a glorious feelin’
I’m happy again
I’m laughing at clouds
So dark up above
The sun’s in my heart
And I’m ready for love”
What a glorious feeling.
Generally regarded as the greatest musical ever made. And I won’t argue that. This movie is lovely.
It’s about the transition to sound, essentially. Gene Kelly is a silent film star who has to transition to sound. He manages just fine. But his leading lady, Jean Hagen, does not quite have the voice to handle sound. So they use Debbie Reynolds to dub her voice. She and Kelly start a romance, and there’s dancing, it’s wonderful.
The centerpiece Broadway sequence in the film is absolutely stunning, and the titular song and dance is beyond iconic. The whole movie is just perfect. How can someone not love this?
3. The Bad and the Beautiful
“Don’t worry. Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other’s guts.”
The greatest film Hollywood ever made about Hollywood. It’s so amazing. This film holds the distinction of having won the most Oscars without being nominated for Best Picture.
It’s told noir style. Three people, Barry Sullivan, Lana Turner and Dick Powell (pictured above) are called to a studio late at night by Walter Pidgeon. He’s an old friend of theirs. Pidgeon tells them Kirk Douglas, whom they all know and who Pidgeon works for, has a great idea for a movie and wants them all to work on it. They all, in so many words, tell him to go to hell. Douglas has fucked them over and they want nothing to do with them. And then we flash back, one by one, to each of their stories, and show just what happened to them.
Kirk Douglas is a ruthless film producer, who is the son of a very despised man. We first see him with Sullivan, as the two work their way up the bottom of the industry, shooting quickies on the backlots. Until eventually they both try their hands at a prestige picture. Sullivan is meant to direct it, and over time, Douglas ends up wrangling control from him and claiming himself responsible for the picture’s success. Then there’s Lana Turner, a drunk actress who Douglas brings back from obscurity and turns into a major star. He convinces her he loves her because it helps her with her performances. Though he could really care less about her, which she eventually finds out. Then there’s Dick Powell, an author whose book Douglas wants to turn into a movie. He wants Powell to adapt it himself, but Powell wants nothing to do with Hollywood. So Douglas manipulates Powell’s wife into wanting to come to Hollywood and basically engineers it so that Powell writes the script himself, even though the whole ordeal ends in tragedy.
It’s a great movie. One of Kirk Douglas’s finest performances, and just an all-time classic. One of the greatest films ever made and just one of those movies that everyone loves simply because it’s so good.
4. High Noon
“You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you’re honest you’re poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.”
The epitome of the “man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” film.
Subtly about the blacklist and standing up for what’s right even when everyone else around you is hiding, the film is about Gary Cooper as a retiring sheriff, getting married and about to leave for his honeymoon, who finds out a man he sent to prison has just been released and is about to arrive back in town on the noon train. The town tells him to leave and that they’ll deal with it, but he knows that if he just leaves the man will take over the town and undo all the good he did during his time there. So he turns around and comes back, preparing to take on the man. Though, when he returns, he finds that no one else in the town is willing to help him. The entire film takes place in near real time, which adds to it.
The film is a masterpiece. Of the western genre and as a film in general. One of the 100 greatest American films ever made. Even without the subtext of the blacklisting, the film holds up as a perfect entity. Gary Cooper delivers his most iconic performance, and there’s not a wasted moment in the entire movie. One of the five greatest films of the western genre.
5. Monkey Business
“I’m beginning to wonder if being young is all it’s cracked up to be. We dream of youth. We remember it as a time of nightingales and valentines. But what are the facts? Maladjustment, near idiocy, and a series of low comedy disasters. That’s what youth is.”
Howard Hawks. Screwball comedy. Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe, a chimpanzee. Are you not in already?
Cary Grant is a chemist who discovers a youth formula. He gives it to old chimpanzees and pretty soon they’re acting like they’re young again. Though pretty soon his formula ends up in the water fountain, and hilarity ensues.
This movie is an absolute riot. One of the funniest films ever made and one of my absolute favorite Hawks films, which is saying something, since the man has about a dozen classics under his belt.
This is one of those movies you can show all the dumbed-down idiots now who only watch all those terrible comedies they make nowadays and it’ll still get laughs. Even people who refuse to watch anything before 1985 will enjoy this movie. Because funny’s funny.
“If all else fails, there’s always that little home in the country.”
“This is my home, here.”
“I thought you hated the theater.”
“I do. I also hate the sight of blood, but it’s in my veins.”
Charlie Chaplin’s greatest unknown masterpiece. Monsieur Verdoux is criminally underrated and a great movie, but this one — this movie is absolutely astounding. And I know not enough people even know what this is, let alone have seen it.
Chaplin plays a washed up vaudevillian who saves a young girl from suicide. He helps her recover and they become close. He helps her work up the courage to continue her career, while also working up the courage to continue his.
This movie is so beautiful. And it contains the only shared screen appearance of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. They do a bit together and it’s just wonderful. Two legends doing their thing on screen. But even aside from that, the rest of this film is so amazing, and I really, really wish more people see this one.
“How tragic that man can never realize how beautiful life is until he is face to face with death.”
Perhaps Akira Kurosawa’s most touching film.
Simple story: a guy finds out he’s dying and tries to find what his life has meant.
It’s beautiful. They don’t get any simpler or more sublime than this.
8. The Narrow Margin
“What kind of a dame would marry a hood?”
A great, underrated noir. It takes place almost entirely on a train.
Two cops are assigned to protect a mob boss’s widow on a train from Chicago to LA so she can testify against him. So they’re on the train with this woman, waiting to see who is gonna come to kill her. And all sorts of great twists and turns happen along the way.
This movie is so fantastic. 70 minutes long, and it gives you the full experience. This accomplishes more than most films with triple its budget do. This is one of the great films that you probably haven’t seen.
9. Moulin Rouge
“One should never meet a person whose work one admires; What they do is always so much better than what they are!
This is a John Huston-directed biopic of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. (For those who’ve only seen the Baz Luhrmann musical, he’s the guy played by John Leguizamo.)
Unlike the other film with this title, this is not a rollicking good time. It’s a biopic of an alcoholic painter whose most famous paintings came as favors to pay for his bar tabs. He broke his leg as a child and it never healed, so he stopped growing after a certain point. He’s got awful health problems all throughout his life, and even the prostitutes he sees don’t really like him. It’s not a happy film. But it is great.
This is one of John Huston’s most underrated films. No one really goes back to watch this, but it’s great. Most people wouldn’t even suspect Huston made it if they watched it, sight unseen. I really love this one.
10. The Greatest Show on Earth
“That’s all, ladies and gentlemen, that’s all. Come again to the greatest show on earth. Bring the children. Bring the old folks. You can shake the sawdust off your feet, but you can’t shake it outta your heart. Come again, folks. The Greatest Show on Earth. Come again.”
Generally thought of as one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time. Which makes people inclined not to like it. But, take that out of it, it’s a really entertaining movie.
It’s a drama about circus folk. Charlton Heston runs a traveling circus. They go from town to town, and we follow their own personal dramas and watch them perform. It’s a two-and-a-half hour movie and a lot of it is straight up just circus performances. There’s a lot of drama shit going on amongst the performers too. The best of which is Jimmy Stewart as a circus clown named Buttons. He never once appears without clown makeup on. And you slowly find out that he’s actually a doctor who is wanted for murder because he mercy killed his wife. Which is just amazing.
It’s a fun movie. Cecil B. DeMille directing, lots of spectacle. You have Heston, Stewart, Gloria Grahame, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, and basically the entire Barnum & Bailey’s circus show.
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5 Fingers — A Cold War spy film. A really great one, too. Joseph Mankiewicz directed it, and it stars James Mason as a valet to a British ambassador who offers to trade the man’s secrets to the Germans. The British can’t figure out how the secrets are getting out, never once suspecting that the culprit is Mason. Meanwhile, Mason is trying to woo a Polish countess and is using the money as a means to get with her. It’s such a great film. Mason is one of the great, underrated actors who is always great in whatever he does. One of the real gems of the 50s more people need to see.
Carrie — A William Wyler romance starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones. She’s a woman who leaves her family to make something of herself. She meets and falls in love with Olivier, a middle-aged man, only to find out that he is married. And what ensues is a beautiful, but tragic romance. It’s an absolutely lovely film, with great performances by its stars.
Come Back Little Sheba — This film marks the first screen performance of Shirley Booth, which won her an Oscar. It stars her and Burt Lancaster as a married couple. They were once dating, but he got her pregnant and married her because he felt it was the right thing to do. But the child died, so now he’s stuck in a bland marriage. And he’s an alcoholic, to boot. They get by. She sits at home and listens to radio soap operas all day, and he quietly resents his situation, though doesn’t say anything. Things change when they decide to take a boarder into the home, an attractive college student, to whom Lancaster becomes attracted. It’s really great. Lancaster is wonderful, as is Booth. And so is Terry Moore as the student.
Deadline U.S.A. — A Humphrey Bogart noir. Perhaps my favorite of his under the radar noirs. He plays a newspaper editor trying to keep his paper afloat while also trying to expose a famous gangster. The owner of the paper is about to sell it to someone who plans to stop production, meanwhile Bogart’s wife is gonna remarry someone and he really needs something to go his way. So he investigates a murder, which may help take down the gangster and increase circulation enough to save the paper. It’s great. It’s not just one type of movie, which I love. And Bogart is great here. Richard Brooks directed this one. Newspaper movies are almost always interesting. And when you add Bogie and the fact that it’s a noir — what’s not to love?
Forbidden Games — Very famous French film about a young girl whose parents die in a bombing. She meets an older boy and begins living with his family. The pair become great friends and begin building a cemetery behind his family’s property. It’s about these kids coming to terms with all the death and destruction around them because of the war. It’s a beautiful film.
Has Anybody Seen My Gal? — A Douglas Sirk comedy. The first of two on this list. This one’s in color, and is really funny. It’s Charles Coburn, again playing a millionaire, who decides to leave all his money to the family of the only woman he’s ever loved (though she never actually loved him). Though he’s worried the family might not spend the money properly once they get it, so he shows up in the town under an alias to make sure they’re good people. And then he gets comically embroiled in their lives. It’s great. Aside from Coburn, Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson also star in this. This is the first of the Sirk-Hudson movies. I think there are 9 in total.
Kansas City Confidential — Great noir. John Payne is an ex-con trying to go straight who drives a truck for a living. He gets framed for an armored car robbery and sets out to find the people responsible. One of the great down and dirty noirs. Big fan of this one.
The Member of the Wedding — One of my favorite hidden gems of the 50s. This movie is great, mostly due to the incredible lead performance by Julie Harris. This was her first acting role, and my god, does she leap off the screen. It’s based on a Carson McCullers novel (she also wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye). Harris stars as a 12-year-old tomboy whose brother gets married and is about to go off on his honeymoon. She wants to go with him, but is told she cannot. And the film is ultimately about her coming to terms with her own immaturity and grow up. Harris is absolutely incredible in this movie, and I consider this one of the great, unheralded performances in screen history.
No Room for the Groom — This is the other Douglas Sirk comedy of the year. This one’s a much simpler set up. A screwball. Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie get married shortly before he’s due to go back into the army. They plan on a honeymoon, but he ends up getting chicken pox. Meaning she can’t be near him and they can’t fully consummate the marriage. Then he goes back to the army for a year. During this time, she never tells her family she got married. So when Curtis returns, he tries to be alone with his wife, but no one else is having it. Laurie’s mother actually starts working to get her married to someone else. Meanwhile, every attempt of Curtis’ to end up alone with Laurie end in complete disaster. It’s a lot of fun. And I bet almost no one has even seen this movie.
Springfield Rifle — A great western directed by Andre de Toth and starring Gary Cooper. Cooper plays a guy who is dishonorably discharged from the army. Though this is actually a fake discharge, as it’s used as guise for him to go undercover and suss out some cattle rustlers who have been helping the Confederates. So it’s both a western and a spy/crime movie. It’s a nice film to make for a Gary Cooper double feature with High Noon.
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- The Belle of New York
- Hans Christian Andersen
- The Importance of Being Earnest
- The Las Vegas Story
- Love Is Better Than Ever
- My Cousin Rachel
- O. Henry’s Full House
- Ruby Gentry
- Scandal Sheet
- The Sniper
- The Sound Barrier
- Sudden Fear
- This Is Cinerama
- The Turning Point
- Viva Zapata!
- We’re Not Married!
- Umberto D.
- With a Song in My Heart
This Is Cinerama is the first film released in the Cinerama format. Which means — three cameras, shooting at once, providing an ultimate widescreen format. It’s essentially a highlight reel of a bunch of cool stuff shot in Cinerama. The roller coaster at the beginning is iconic. I highly recommend it if you have a giant TV. It’s a fun watch.
Umberto D. is an Italian Neorealist film directed by Vittorio De Sica, about an old man trying to keep his life together. Ultimately it’s about an old man and his dog. But it’s fucking wonderful. One of the great films in history. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Bicycle Thieves, but this might be the one of his that comes the closest. It’s great. Hans Christian Andersen is a musical biopic. It takes extreme liberties with its subject, but it’s enjoyable. It includes a lot of songs and ballet pieces that illustrate many of Andersen’s most famous stories. Possibly Danny Kaye’s most famous role. Ivanhoe is a gorgeous-looking adventure film. It’s an alternate version of Robin Hood, in a way. A knight tries to help get Richard the Lionheart back on the throne. Robert Taylor stars with Joan Fontaine, George Sanders and Elizabeth Taylor. Not quite Robin Hood, but fun. Ruby Gentry is a drama with Jennifer Jones as a woman who marries Karl Malden, who she doesn’t love, yet yearns for her high school sweetheart, Charlton Heston. A solid melodrama.
Scandal Sheet is a terrific noir with Broderick Crawford as the head of a tabloid who creates these giant publicity stunts. One involves a “lover’s ball,” where all the single people of New York can come and find love. There, his wife shows up and blackmails him. He left her years ago in poverty, without any financial help. He accidentally kills her and then begins writing about it for his papers, simultaneously sending his reporter out to investigate, trying to divert suspicion away from himself. Things naturally get worse and worse for him as things go on. It’s awesome. One of the great noir gems. The Sniper is a noir about a guy who goes on a killing spree. And the cops try to hunt him down while also trying to figure out what could make someone do a thing like that. Meanwhile, he sends letters to the cops, begging them to catch him and put a stop to it. It’s a great film, and completely subverts expectations all the way through.
O. Henry’s Full House is an anthology film based on O. Henry’s short stories. Charles Laughton stars in one directed by Henry Koster, about a homeless guy who decides it would be better to get arrested so he’d have a place to sleep. Though no matter what he does, he can’t seem to get arrested. Henry Hathaway directs another one with Richard Widmark as a man who committed a murder. The detective investigating tracks him down, but is unable to arrest him because the two were friends in the past, and the cop still owes him some money. Jean Negulesco directs another one with Anne Baxter as a sick artist who watches a tree outside her window while in bed. She’s convinced that when the last leaf on the tree falls, she will die. Then there’s the Ransom of Red Chief, directed by Howard Hawks. It’s about two guys who kidnap a kid in order to get a ransom, only to find out that nobody wants the kid back. They soon realize the kid may be more trouble than he’s worth. Then there’s the most famous one — the Gift of the Magi, a story everyone knows. Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger star in that one, directed by Henry King. It’s the famous Christmas story of the guy who sells his watch to pay for a brush for his wife, only to find out his wife sold her hair to buy him a chain for his watch. And the two realize that it doesn’t matter in the end, as long as they have each other.
Viva Zapata! is an Elia Kazan-directed biopic of Emiliano Zapata, starring Marlon Brando. And written by John Steinbeck! It’s actually Anthony Quinn who steals the film as Eufemio Zapata, his brother. The Sound Barrier is a David Lean film about the attempts to break the sound barrier. Like a 50s version of The Right Stuff. We’re Not Married! is an anthology film about five couples who find out they’re not actually married. And they all respond in vastly different ways. The ensemble includes Ginger Rogers, Fred Allen, Victor Moore, Marilyn Monroe, Eve Arden, Paul Douglas, Eddie Bracken, Mitzi Gaynor, Louis Calhern, Zsa Zsa Gabor, James Gleason and Jane Darwell. Sudden Fear is a noir with Joan Crawford as a playwright who falls in love with Jack Palance, an actor. Though pretty soon into the marriage she begins suspecting him of trying to kill her.
My Cousin Rachel is a film they just remade. This one has Richard Burton, in his first American performance, and Olivia de Havilland. de Havilland is married to Burton’s cousin. Burton comes to visit his cousin after getting letters about his failing health and his belief that his wife is plotting against him. So Burton shows up, finds his cousin dead, and now is suspicious of whether or not de Havilland killed him. Things get complicated when he begins falling in love with her. It’s a solid gothic romance with two great actors. With a Song in My Heart is a biopic of Jane Froman, a singer no one much remembers anymore. She ends up crippled from a plane crash but manages to overcome her disability in order to entertain the troops during World War II. One of the solid musical biopics of the 50s. Stars Susan Hayward and Thelma Ritter.
Macao is a mystery/noir with Robert Mitchum as an exiled American who helps catch a crime lord in order to right the wrongs of his past. He gets involved with Jane Russell, a femme fatale, and all sorts of adventure and romance ensue. It’s fun. Directed by both Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray. Mostly because Howard Hughes fired von Sternberg halfway through filming. It’s fun. A lot of noir regulars in this, like Gloria Grahame, William Bendix and Thomas Gomez. Love Is Better Than Ever is a rom com with Elizabeth Taylor, directed by Stanley Donen. She’s a dance teacher who falls in love with a guy who doesn’t want to get into anything serious. So she plots a way to get him to marry her. The Las Vegas Story is a fun noir with Victor Mature, Jane Russell and Vincent Price, directed by Robert Stevenson, who would go on to direct Mary Poppins. The Belle of New York is a Fred Astaire musical where he falls in love so hard that it literally allows him to walk on air. It was a huge failure at the time, but it’s so off the wall I found it incredibly interesting.
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