By Alan Hurst
People don’t often cite the 1950’s as a great decade for film comedies because comedies usually took a back seat to all other genres during that decade. In order to combat what was happening with the new tidal wave known as television, movie studios introduced the “bigger is better” coda that would last through to the late sixties. It was the decade of large scale historical dramas, musicals, biblical epics – basically anything where you could fill a CinemaScope screen and get people out of the house to see something they couldn’t see on the little box in the living room.
Films like The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Shane (1953), The Robe (1953), Oklahoma (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), Giant (1956), The King and I (1956), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Ben-Hur (1959) – as well as dozens of others – took advantage of the opportunity to visually overwhelm and, at the same time, try to make the spectacle part of the story. It didn’t always work. For every Ben-Hur there was laughable fare like The Silver Chalice (1954) and The Prodigal (1955) but, more often than not, they made money.
But comedies were still being made and there were some really good ones – and a few great ones. These are my favourites of those released between 1950 and 1959.
The Fuller Brush Girl (1950)
Definitely B movie fare, but The Fuller Brush Girl provided Lucille Ball with the best opportunity yet to show her flare for slapstick and screwball comedy. It was directed by Lloyd Bacon who had been both an actor in silent films and a solid director with hits that included 42nd Street (1933) and Action in the North Atlantic (1943). Here, thanks to a script by former animator Frank Tashlin, we’re treated to a farcical but fun plot that includes murder, mistaken identity, and shady business dealings all directed and performed at a breakneck pace. Ball and co-star Eddie Albert are really put through their paces here, Ball in particular. She’s called upon to imitate a trashy burlesque performer, get stuck on a clothesline, take all kinds of abuse trying to sell cosmetics door-to-door, hang from a bunch of bananas, and get blown out of a ship’s smokestack. But she’s game and the result is a very funny, live-action cartoon.
The Quiet Man (1952)
This is my favourite John Wayne performance and one of my favourite films of the decade. I’m not sure it’s a great film – the characters are a little to stereotypical, the story a little too pat – but it’s a comical gem that gifts us with an idealized look at life in an Irish town in the middle of the last century. Wayne plays a former prize fighter who returns to his birthplace with the hope of buying back his homestead and settling down. He soon encounters the various comical townsfolk, as well as Maureen O’Hara, and he’s smitten. The comedy here comes from leveraging the Irish reputation for both bluntness and sentiment. No one is afraid to speak their mind, and everyone does. John Ford directed with great affection for these people and it truly is the best, most romantic work that Wayne and O’Hara ever did. And it’s also very funny.
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
There is no question that this one is very dated in its basic premise that all women are out to nab a man, preferably a rich one. But if taken as a true period piece, this is a very funny film and provided all three of its stars – Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe – with some of their best comedic opportunities. Showing off conspicuous consumption at its finest, the trio do their best to find the right guy, but ultimately love gets in the way. It’s all very silly, but there’s great dialogue and the three stars play beautifully together. Bacall is the no-nonsense leader of the group, Grable the more down-to-earth of the trio, and Monroe is the stereotypical nearsighted blonde who exists in a perpetual comic haze. Key moments – Bacall shopping for jewelry (“I’ll take that … and that, and that and that and that.”), Grable dreaming of a pastrami sandwich and beer instead of money, and Monroe walking into walls because she won’t wear her glasses. It’s all handled with aplomb. Over the years, this one morphed into camp, but it remains a guilty pleasure that can still produce laughs. Sadly, this was the last good film that Grable ever did.
A great source for comedy in the fifties was the UK (The Lady Killers, The Lavender Hill Mob) and this fast-paced gem was a big hit in England and also did well in North America. Somewhat forgotten today, it’s the story of two couples who participate in a vintage car race from London to Brighton. The humour is a little more adult than usual for fifties American cinema, but there’s real wit and some wonderful slapstick as it tells its story. The breakout star here is Kay Kendall – a gorgeous comedienne who had a brief but brilliant run in the mid-fifties before an early death. She’s sublimely funny as a reluctant participant in the race. With great location photography, a wonderful script and some very funny supporting performances, this is one of the films of the decade that deserves to be rediscovered.
Roman Holiday (1953)
Roman Holiday was the decade’s best romantic comedy and ultimately a real heart breaker. It’s the story of a young princess (Audrey Hepburn in her first starring role) who manages to escape the eyes of her palace guardians while on a royal tour. She ventures off one night in Rome, meets a journalist (Gregory Peck) who sees her as the biggest scoop of his career if he can secretly report on and photograph her adventures around Rome. Of course, they fall in love and post-war Rome provides the perfect backdrop for both the comedy and the romance. Nicely directed by William Wyler from a warm and witty script by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, it allows Peck to be more relaxed than usual and provides the perfect vehicle to transition Audrey Hepburn to one of the biggest starts of the fifties and sixties. Hepburn’s casting here is ideal – she’s probably the screen’s perfect princess, a lovely comedienne and one of the best actresses of the era. Hepburn won her only Oscar for this. Aside from the allure of Hepburn and Peck, it’s impossible to sit through this and not want to immediately head to Rome – it’s as much a love story with the city as it is about its two main characters.
Fresh off her success and Academy Award for Roman Holiday, Hepburn was back with another wonderful comedy, this time directed by Billy Wilder and based on the successful play Sabrina Fair. She plays a chauffeur’s daughter who is in love with the younger son (William Holden) of the very wealthy family her father works for, but he’s oblivious to the young, tomboyish Sabrina. After two years in Paris, Sabrina is back, decked out in clothes by Edith Head and Hubert di Givenchy, looking every bit like the sophisticated Hepburn we’ve come to know. Holden finally notices her, much to the annoyance of his older brother (Humphrey Bogart) who wants Holden to marry someone else for the sake of the family business. The film looks like a fairy tale thanks to the beautifully designed sets and photography, and everyone plays with a light and funny touch, particularly Hepburn and a very charming William Holden. Bogart also does well with a rare comedic role, although he does come across as a little too old to make some of the romantic shenanigans totally believable (there was a 30-year age difference between Hepburn and Bogart). Still, the end result is a film that is head and shoulders above the lackluster 1995 remake.
The Long, Long Trailer (1954)
With the breakout success of I Love Lucy (1951-57) on TV, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz come back to the big screen with The Long, Long Trailer as true superstars, something they had never achieved in their film careers. Playing characters closely aligned to their television roles, the two found a perfect showcase for their talents in Vincente Minnelli’s beautifully photographed film. Although it does rely on some terrific slapstick for a lot of the humour (Ball’s forte and she doesn’t disappoint, particularly in a crazy cooking scene), it’s also a surprisingly honest and funny depiction of newlyweds trying to make their new marriage work while hauling around a massive trailer to a prospective job site for Desi’s character. It was the biggest grossing comedy in MGM’s history up to that point, but it seems to have taken a backseat to Lucy’s success on television. It’s worth a look as a prime example of the MGM factory and Lucille Ball doing what they did best.
It Happened to Jane (1959)
Doris Day’s career had hit a bumpy spot following The Tunnel of Love (1958), probably the worst film of her career despite Gene Kelly’s best efforts as director. She followed it with It Happened to Jane, another box office miss, but ironically one of her best comedies. It’s a charming story about a Maine widow trying to get her lobster business off the ground but she runs into challenges in the form of a nasty tycoon whose railway company thwarts her every step of the way. Jack Lemmon co-stars and helps Doris go head-to-head with the tycoon. Director Richard Quine nicely captures the perfect small-town feel and that’s one of the chief assets of the film. Day and Lemmon are also terrific in nicely judged performances – it’s too bad this was the only time the worked together. They have wonderful chemistry and they’re completely in sync as performers. They’re both supported by a great cast that includes Mary Wickes, one of the treasures of movies and TV from the forties to the nineties. This really is one of the unsung comedies of the decade.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
This is the big comedy of the decade and probably near the top of the list of everyone’s favorite comedy of all-time. It’s still spectacularly funny with dialogue that pushes the envelope of sexual boundaries in a way that wasn’t seen before and quite ground breaking for the late fifties. Billy Wilder’s best film tells the story of two musicians who, upon witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, decide to dress as women and join an all girl band to get out of town. From there the layers of mistaken identity, sexual identity and just plain silliness bubble up to make the era’s best screwball comedy. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are both hysterical, with Lemmon taking the edge by allowing his character to enjoy the charade a little too much (the last line in the movie is perfection). It also has Marilyn Monroe playing the ultimate Monroe character – beautiful, a little dumb, a little wounded, but with just enough street smarts to ensure she doesn’t come across as helpless – one of her definitive performances. But this movie belongs to the men, including Joe E. Brown who is wonderful as Lemmon’s older rich “boyfriend”.
Pillow Talk (1959)
It’s looks naïve now, but in its time, this was considered quite sophisticated fare. Doris Day plays a single, successful career woman not necessarily looking to find a husband – a definite departure for the era – but she’s wooed by a wolfish Rock Hudson, who’s pretending to be someone other than the arrogant guy on the other end of her telephone party line. It’s all very innocent yet still very funny. It presents an ultra-sophisticated view of living and loving in Manhattan with beautiful clothes and apartments but helping provide the home run for this one is four truly funny performances. This was the first teaming of Day and Hudson and it’s clear they’re having a great time – he’s more playful than usual and she’s at the top of her game as a physical comedienne. They’re ably supported by Thelma Ritter and Tony Randall in two scene-stealing performances. Both Day and Ritter received Oscar nominations and the screenplay won, although probably not deserved considering the competition included Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and North by Northwest. Still, it’s a terrific comedy and a nice throwback to the work that Myrna Loy and William Powell were doing in the thirties.
Honourable Mentions: The Mating Season (1951), Pat and Mike (1952),The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), Auntie Mame (1958), and Indiscreet (1958)
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.