Rick McGinnis:

Interim writer, Rick McGinnis, Amusements

Two years ago at a Munk Debate about public trust in mainstream media, journalist Matt Taibbi was repeatedly smeared by his opponent, essayist Malcolm Gladwell, with a charge that he harboured an “affection” for (as Taibbi recalled) “Jim Crow, the ‘50s, and the ‘golden moment’ when media was ‘dominated by white men’.” It was an allegation that Gladwell returned to throughout the night, apparently convinced that there was nothing more damning than accusing Taibbi (who was born in 1970) of wanting to return to Eisenhower’s America.

It must have seemed like a slam dunk for Gladwell, born in 1963, as invoking the ‘50s as a mini dark age has been popular for as long as he’s been alive. And it might have worked if his audience was comprised wholly of baby boomers who have made it an article of faith that – despite being born into an unprecedented period of economic prosperity and social mobility – they were nonetheless victims, resistance fighters against Pat Boone, dress codes, school prayer and jellied salad.

Younger people, some of whom grew up in the world boomers dominated for longer than any other generational cohort, didn’t necessarily share this worldview or its assumptions. (At the end of the debate an audience that had begun opposed by a margin of four per cent to the resolution Taibbi and British writer Douglas Murray represented ended by supporting them by sixty-seven per cent – a presumably chastening defeat for Gladwell and American journalist Michelle Goldberg.)

While I was born just a year after Gladwell, I’ve never really been convinced that the ‘50s were so worthy of contempt; a decade painted as relentlessly conformist, culturally bloodless, and resistant to innovation, the final triumph of the suburban petit bourgeois venomously satirized by Sinclair Lewis in his 1922 novel Babbitt. It was a facile idea, the kind that Gladwell has made a career out of recasting as daring and controversial.

In his comprehensive new book Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties, Foster Hirsch makes a case that this cliché is barely supported by the facts, at least when you examine the American movie business during that decade. He begins by recounting how all the major studios and most of the minor ones were in free fall, starting in 1948 when the Supreme Court ruled that the studios violated anti-trust laws by owning both movie studios and cinema chains.

Conventional movie history imagines the gap between United States v. Paramount and the release of Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider as simply action waiting for reaction, ignoring the inconvenient fact that the generation that made these pictures a hit were either toddlers or yet to be born when the studios were ordered to sell their theatres. The movies they would watch growing up in the ‘50s were, by this logic, created in a limbo – a long, Cinemascope lull like the silence between the firing of a gun and the impact on its target.

It was, according to Hirsch, really a time more like ours – of political polarization, when reputations were stained and careers destroyed, when “those who were accused, and those who did the accusing, were caught up in a roundelay of insinuation and defamation. Jobs were lost, families destroyed, and lives ended as a culture of suspicion and surveillance took hold. Bland? Complacent? Hardly.”

He writes that “political disagreement never carried more deadly consequences. Many wounds inflicted during the era remain unhealed into the present. Important to keep in mind: the seeds of the counterculture revolution that erupted in the late 1960s were planted beneath the deceptively tidy surface of the Eisenhower years.”

Hirsch begins by detailing the business case at each of the major studios and many of the minor ones, mostly telling the story of once-powerful moguls losing their grip on audiences and dying, retiring, or being forced out. He tells the story of the race to close the lead television was taking with innovative technology, from dead ends like 3-D to the war of competing immersive widescreen formats – a melee of processes like Cinerama, Todd-AO, CinemaScope, VistaVision, Technirama, Regalscope, SuperScope and many others, with Panavision triumphing and owning the field until IMAX forced its way into the multiplexes in the last 20 years.

He writes about the evolution of genres, of the social issues that producers, directors, writers, and stars wrestled with onscreen, and of careers that either faded or began in the tumult of the decade. Fans of the best and the worst films produced during the ‘50s will read thoughtful critiques of pictures that boiled and rumbled under that “deceptively tidy surface” – pictures as different as High Noon and The Searchers, Band of Angels and The Teahouse of the August Moon, East of Eden and The Seven Year Itch, The Girl Can’t Help It and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Hirsch warns about judging these movies by contemporary social standards. The best of these pictures wrestle with painful issues using the only language they knew at the time. John Ford’s The Searchers is often attacked for excusing genocide, based on a surface reading of the motivation of its hero, played by John Wayne. This ignores how Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is a strange kind of hero – a man warped by racism and hatred, obsessed with a terrible mission, and ultimately an outcast unable to find a place in civilized life.

It’s a great film not because it asks us to admire Wayne’s character, but to watch him confront his brutal worldview and its consequences in the course of a “torturous revisionist western” which concedes that “full racial reconciliation is a chimera that exists beyond the boundaries of the film’s narrative.” Ford’s picture denied us a neat ending because it understood that easy answers were impossible – a humility that’s as rare now as it was then.

Hirsch concedes how times have changed. Cynics assert that the surest way to an Oscar nomination for at least two generations has been to make a holocaust picture, but for years after the war the major studios studiously avoided films about the Nazi genocide, and that the mostly Jewish men who ran the studios felt that it was “simply too raw, too painful, too recent, to be addressed.”

The suffering of the concentration camps was glimpsed briefly in The Young Lions, and occasionally a character would have a backstory that involved surviving the camps or losing family or a loved one there. The Diary of Anne Frank was as openly as Hollywood could deal with the holocaust, but it gave the audience a break by putting the horror offscreen and focusing on the heroine’s relationship with everyone hiding in the annex.

Hirsch reflects that while “the profound silence of postwar Hollywood with regard to the Holocaust can be seen as cowardly, it can also be regarded as an act of respect, signaling a recognition that, at the time, the subject exceeded the possibilities of visual representation in a commercial medium, as well as an implicit awareness that no film or filmmaker could have been equal to such an immense and sacred subject.”

We’re no longer this circumspect, and despite decades of films about the holocaust, some of them explicit in their exploration of the awful details and unspeakable suffering, antisemitism and holocaust denial have not only persisted but seen a revival, as if these films have made viewers not just jaded but coarsened. The director of a holocaust film, The Zone of Interest, went so far as to state while accepting his Oscar earlier this year that he and his producers wanted to “refute their Jewishness” to protest the hijacking of the holocaust as a justification for Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza, begun after Hamas’ brutal attack on Israeli civilians last October.

Jonathan Glazer’s speech was, to be sure, as awkwardly worded as any political grandstanding at the Oscars, and it had the effect of opening an even wider division in the Jewish community in and outside Hollywood. This would have been impossible to imagine when The Diary of Anne Frank was nominated for eight Oscars and won three.

Hirsch is also willing to dissent from conventional wisdom about the Hollywood blacklist of writers accused of communist sympathies. There’s no denying that the blacklist was an awful violation of First Amendment rights, wholly distinct from real concerns about Soviet infiltration of the U.S. government. But Hirsch speculates that blacklisted directors like Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin likely had better careers in exile in Europe than they would have had in Hollywood, even with the emergence of independent producers in the wake of the collapsing studios.

He even notes that writer Dalton Trumbo, the most high-profile martyr of the blacklist, won two Oscars while fronted by another writer or under a pseudonym that fooled almost no one in the know. The hagiographic 2015 biopic Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston in the title role, is described by Hirsch as “extremist, as unyielding, as lacking in nuance as the fiercest Red-baiting features of the early Cold War period. With knee-jerk liberalism, the film regards Trumbo and his political colleagues as victims and martyrs for whom adulation is the only possible response; about their stubborn allegiance to a brutal foreign government: silence.”

At the end of his book Hirsch notes that TV and the movies are battling each other again, though this time television is the creative powerhouse, producing long form series whose dramatic scope and ambition puts movies to shame. TV has become cinematic while movies shrink in increasingly empty theatres.