Midnight Lace (1960). Let's start with a clunker. This seems to have been a paint-by-numbers attempt by Universal to play along with the trendy thriller genre of the late 1950s-early 1960s. We have a major star, Doris Day straight off of Pillow Talk, paired with an established but newly relevant star, Rex Harrison fresh from My Fair Lady. Secondary characters are played by John Gavin, whom Universal was setting up as a newer model of Rock Hudson, and Myrna Loy and Herbert Marshall for some old Hollywood glamour. This is the old Gaslight story: a woman whose husband attempts to drive her mad. Day had played essentially the same role in 1956's Julie, an unknown and not very good film, but better than this one. Day gives a two-note performance, shifting between her sunny persona and the frightened version of the same, as honed in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Universal contract director David Miller couldn't hold a candle to Hitchcock, and the film is competently shot but no better. The score is by Frank Skinner, who composed the music for most of Douglas Sirk's melodramas. This film shows that his rather overblown scores needed Sirk's purposefully overdetermined filming style to make them work. Here there seems to be simply too much score, and the fact that it lacks melodic or harmonic invention makes it seem even more elephantine. This is set in London but you'd barely know it, since most of the characters other than Harrison are American, especially John Gavin (even though he's playing a Londoner; no gift for accents had he).
Murder By Contract (1958). This one is known by Martin Scorsese fans, as he often brings it up in interviews. It's a very low budget B-movie by Columbia, but a great example of what Scorsese calls 'smuggling'; the filmmakers, led by director Irving Lerner, used budget limitations to make a stylish and taut thriller that touches on weighty and difficult issues. At the centre lies an existentialist hit man played by Vince Edwards, hired to murder a woman who was witness to a murder case. She does not go down easily; the film would almost be a dark comedy were it not so full of existential despair.
Crime in the Streets (1956). Another crime film, directed by Don Siegel and starring John Cassavetes, brilliant but not at all passing as an 18-year-old juvenile delinquent. This was an attempt to even further darken the social problem films of the time like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. There is not much attempt to explain Cassavetes' delinquency, which seems to be the point. Sal Mineo plays a role similar to the one he played in Rebel. Most interesting is Franz Waxman's score. He is working in an Ellington-like jazz idiom, but the unfolding of the score is typically Waxman. The opening credits cue is like a dissonant hot jazz version of the opening of his Sunset Boulevard score.
The Strange One (1957). This one is a real lost gem. Adapted from a successful Off-Broadway play (called End of a Man) that made Ben Gazzara a hot prospect, most of the cast was brought over directly to the screen along with director Jack Garfein. This is very much a 'method' product, with the whole cast coming from the Actors Studio. Gazzara is excellent as a military school bully. In his first sequence, a hazing of new students at the school, he wears a bizarre combination of shorts, knee socks, Hawaiian shirt, and carries a swagger stick. Eventually he gets his comeuppance, but only after wreaking a lot of havoc. The film is clearly a comment on 50s militarism. It isn't entirely successful, but it's stuck in my head more than many of the other films I've watched recently.
My Dream is Yours (1949)
Imagine the following story conference at Warner Brothers, 1949:
–We need a big musical number for the new Doris Day/Jack Carson picture.
–What's it about?
–Day plays a widowed mother trying to become a movie star, with help from Carson.
–So I suppose a big 'Hooray For Hollywood' type thing is in order?
–That's been done. Find a different angle. Remember a few years ago at MGM when Gene Kelly sang and danced with Jerry the Mouse?
–Yes, in Anchors Aweigh.
–It was a big hit. We should have our stars sing and dance with our own cartoons. Bugs Bunny, for instance. Let's work a song and dance with Bugs Bunny into this picture.
–A picture about a widowed mother? Does it fit?
–Sure, kids like Bugs Bunny. Use the kid angle.
–But if the number is meant to be for Doris...
–Put the kid in it, too. Doris and Jack can hold their own.
–So it's Doris, Jack, the kid, and Bugs Bunny?
–It's a goldmine!
–But how does Bugs come into it? I'm not sure it makes much sense...
–Who cares about sense? Get Jule and Sammy to write a hit song around it and the sense will take care of itself.
–Ah, but Jule and Sammy are in New York.
–No problem. Dig some old tune out of the trunk. No one will notice. Even better, find a dead composer, like they did with that guy Schubert in Blossom Time. No royalties!
–Schubert... he worked for RKO, right?
–I don't remember. But he's dead, and no relatives come crawling out of the woodwork.
–How about... oh, what's his name, the pianist. Big deal in the last century. Frank something.
–That's the guy. Hungarian Rhapsody. Stokowski makes a big deal of him at the Hollywood Bowl.
–So we find some trunk tune by Frank List, put some new words to it.
–No, we might as well use that Hungarian Rhapsody. Go with a proven hit and jazz it up a little.
–Good idea. But we still don't have a situation. Why are Doris and Jack and the kid and Bugs singing and dancing the Hungarian Rhapsody? A gypsy number?
–Gyspy numbers were last year. Now it's holiday numbers. White Christmas, Easter Parade.
–Hey, Easter! That's it!
–Easter... bunny... Bugs... Bunny!
–Perfect. But how does it fit into the plot?
–Easy. We set the movie at Easter.
–And we dress Doris and Jack as rabbits.
–Obviously, but why have they got rabbit costumes?
–Yes! A surefire hit!
Here's the proof:
Let's end with Cairo (1942), not a 50s film but a very good example of excellent studio craftsmanship that deserves to be better known. This falls between genres, which is possibly why it is so little discussed: part musical, part comedy, part World War II spy movie, it features Jeanette MacDonald and Ronald Young, each of whom thinks the other is a Nazi spy hiding out in Cairo. There are some very funny scenes, some good musical numbers (especially Ethel Waters singing 'Buds Won't Bud') and some clever in-jokes. MacDonald is playing a version of herself, a movie star who has escaped the Hollywood grind and is enjoying singing in a Cairo nightclub. Young plays a small-town reporter who ends up stranded in Cairo. Adventure, comedy, and love ensue.