Most Influential Films in American Cinema

The 100 + Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema

The 1950s

Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema
(chronological by time period and film title)
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Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema
(chronological by time period and film title)
Title Screen
Film Title/Year/Director/Length/Studio, Descriptions of Influence/Significance

Winchester '73 (1950)
d. Anthony Mann, 92 minutes, Universal International Pictures

  • Anthony Mann's "psychological" western about a man on a dogged quest for a prized gun, the title character - initiated a cycle of more serious-minded western films. It reinvented the western genre, and this landmark film was largely responsible for the renewed popularity of Westerns in the 1950s.
  • It was the first of eight films that star James Stewart made with Mann (five of the eight were westerns, including Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955)).
  • Studio control of stars further eroded (the first major dent in the studios since the advent of the talkies) when James Stewart signed a precedent-setting independent (or free-lance) contract to share in the box-office profits (45% of the net profits) of this film, and for the film version of the stage comedy Harvey (1950). The first-ever back-end deal was negotiated by legendary agent Lew Wasserman.
  • In fact, for all of Stewart's Universal Studios films (including Bend of the River (1952), and The Far Country (1954)), he took no salary in exchange for a large cut of the gross profits -- which turned out to be a very lucrative deal. For Winchester '73 alone, Stewart earned between $500,000 and $600,000. As a result, he earned increasingly high salaries, became a pioneer of the percentage deal (a performer accepted a reduced or non-existent salary in exchange for a percentage of the box office profits), and was the industry's top box-office star by mid-decade.
  • This deal proved to be enormously profitable for Stewart and allowed him greater creative control for future pictures. Stewart's deal soon become the norm and forever changed the studio-agent-actor relationship. It led to the demise of the long-term contract and the studio system.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
d. Elia Kazan, 122/125 minutes, Charles K. Feldman Group/Warner Bros.

  • Kazan's film was a subversive, steamy film classic that was adapted from Tennessee Williams' 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.
  • The visceral film, considered controversial, decadent, and "morally repugnant" challenged the regulatory Production Code's censors (and the Legion of Decency) with its bold adult drama and sexual subjects (insanity, rape, domestic violence, homosexuality, sexual obsession, and female promiscuity or nymphomania). Ultimately, it signaled the weakening of Hollywood censorship (and groups such as the Catholic Legion of Decency), although a number of scenes were excised, and new dialogue was written.
  • It was the first production to come from Elia Kazan’s Actors Studio (founded in 1947), and first presented on Broadway. It was highly unusual to have nine members of the original Broadway cast reprise their roles in the film - including Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden (Vivien Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy).
  • 27 year-old Marlon Brando, in his second screen role and recreating his 1947 Broadway role (premiered on December 3, 1947), delivered an overpowering, memorable, and raw naturalistic performance (an example of the Method approach to acting that he learned at the Actors Studio in New York under Stella Adler) as a sexually-powerful, animalistic, brooding primal brute - Stanley Kowalski.
  • The film's jazzy score by composer Alex North was the first of its kind - earning its place in the history of film music. It was the first all-jazz score ever written for a motion picture.
  • The controversial film was nominated for a phenomenal twelve nominations and awarded four Oscars (an unprecedented three were in the acting categories): Best Actress for Vivien Leigh (her second Best Actress Oscar), and Best Supporting Awards to Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. This was the first time in Academy history that three acting awards were won by a single film (this feat was later repeated by Network (1976)). Humphrey Bogart's Best Actor win for The African Queen (1951) was an upset, since it denied the predicted clean-sweep for the cast of the film, and a much-deserved Oscar for Brando.

Bwana Devil (1952)
d. Arch Oboler, 79 minutes, Gulu Productions/Oboler/United Artists

  • An exploitative jungle adventure film - noted as the first 3-D feature-length, commercially-released color (and sound) film ever made - from an independent studio. [Note: The first feature-length 3-D film was the silent film, The Power of Love (1922).] 3-D technology was employed to try to combat the encroaching competition of television on the film industry. The 3-D effect, however, was unable to fully compensate for the inferior level of most of the films.
  • It inspired a flood of other quickly (and often cheaply made), but sometimes successful 3-D features. The 'golden age' of 3-D was ushered in from 1952-1955, with films such as Robot Monster (1953), It Came From Outer Space (1953), Columbia's Man in the Dark (1953), and House of Wax (1953).
  • There were other short-lived film fads in this decade and afterwards that were designed to tear viewers away from their TVs (i.e., Aroma-Rama, Smell-O-Vision, etc.) and lots of gimmicks from hucksters like 50s B-horror film director and impresario schlockmeister William Castle.
  • It came in the same year as the debut of This is Cinerama (1952), when showmanship and gimmicks like 3-D were used to bring audiences back. Special polarized, 'stereoscopic' goggles or cardboard glasses worn by viewers made the action jump off the screen - in reality, the glasses were unpopular, clunky and the viewing was blurry, although it was difficult (and expensive) for theatre owners to get cinema-goers to give them back.
  • The film featured man-eating Tsavo lions leaping toward the camera and flying spears thrown out of the screen.

Singin' in the Rain (1952)
d. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 103 minutes, MGM

  • One of the all-time best Hollywood musicals that spoofed and satirized the transitional chaos surrounding the end of the silent film era and the dawn of the 'talkies.' Set in the year 1927, it humorously parodied the panic surrounding the troubling transitional period from silents to talkies in the dream factory of Hollywood of the late 1920s as the sound revolution swept through.
  • The joyous film, co-directed by Stanley Donen and acrobatic dancer-star-choreographer Gene Kelly, was a charming, up-beat, graceful and thoroughly enjoyable experience with great songs, lots of flashbacks, wonderful dances (including the spectacular Broadway Melody Ballet with leggy guest star Cyd Charisse), casting and story.
  • It became one of the most-loved and celebrated film musicals of all time from MGM, before a mass exodus to filmed adaptations of Broadway plays emerged as a standard pattern. It was made directly for film, and was not a Broadway adaptation.
  • This was another extraordinary example of the organic, 'integrated musical' in which the story's characters naturally expressed their emotions in the midst of their lives. Song and dance replaced the dialogue, usually during moments of high spirits or passionate romance. And over half of the film - a 'let's put on a play' type of film, was composed of musical numbers.
  • It featured Gene Kelly's heart-lifting, enchanting dance scene during a cloudburst, when he performed a glorious, almost five minute performance of the title song "Singin' In the Rain" - a spontaneous expression of his crazy-in-love, euphoric mood and happiness over his new-found love for Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).
  • This superb film, called "MGM's TECHNICOLOR Musical Treasure," was produced during MGM studios' creative pinnacle. From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, producer Arthur Freed produced more than forty musicals for MGM. The creative forces at the studio in the Freed Unit - composed of Freed, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and actor-choreographer Gene Kelly - also collaborated together to produce such gems as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Pirate (1948), On the Town (1949), Best Picture Oscar-winner a year earlier with director Vincente Minnelli - An American in Paris (1951), Royal Wedding (1951), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Gigi (1958).
  • Surprisingly, this great film that was shot for a cost of $2.5 million (about $.5 million over-budget), was basically ignored by film critics when released and treated with indifference (with box-office of $7.7 worldwide). Although generally considered the greatest screen musical of all time, it had only two Oscar nominations (without a win) -- Best Score and Best Supporting Actress (Jean Hagen).
  • Now, after many accolades, television screenings, and its resurgence after the release of That's Entertainment (1974), it is often chosen as one of the all-time top ten American films, and generally considered Hollywood's greatest and finest screen musical. Great care was made to authenticate the costumes, the sound studio set, and other historical details in the film. The film's title song was paid twisted homage (of sorts) in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) during the brutal rape scene.
  • In the story, vaudeville, silent film actor/dancer Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and co-star actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) were at the height of box-office popularity, but with the advent of sound, shrill-voiced Lina's first talkie The Duelling Cavalier with swashbuckling Lockwood was laughable before studio preview audiences. His aspiring ingenue girlfriend Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) was recruited to rescue their first film - remade as a musical re-titled The Dancing Cavalier, with Kathy secretly dubbing over Lina's voice. The voice-dubbing deception was ultimately exposed, and love blossomed. With marvelous musical numbers including the title song "Singin' in the Rain," and "You Were Meant for Me," "Make 'Em Laugh," "Broadway Melody," and "All I Do Is Dream of You."

The Robe (1953)
d. Henry Koster, 135 minutes, 20th Century Fox

  • In further desperate warfare against television and rival 3-D movies to lure back viewers to theatres, Hollywood developed grander, wide-screen processes, such as 20th Century Fox's anamorphic CinemaScope, first released and seen in Henry Koster's Biblical sword-and-sandal epic The Robe (1953). CinemaScope was one of the first successful widescreen (or panoramic) processes.
  • The film was the first motion picture in CinemaScope to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award.
  • The groundbreaking film was introduced by the studio's head Spyros Skouras, and helped to save the movie industry from the onslaught of its major competitor - television.

The Wild One (1953)
d. Laslo Benedek, 79 minutes, Columbia Pictures/Stanley Kramer Productions

  • This was a landmark film of 50s rebellion by director Laslo Benedek, producer Stanley Kramer, and screenwriter John Paxton. It was the first feature film to examine outlaw motorcycle gang violence in America, and seemed frightening to many average Americans.
  • It was a semi-documentary film, inspired by a real-life incident over the Fourth of July weekend in 1947 in Hollister, California that involved thousands of motorcyclists and other visitors and enthusiasts who roared into the town over a two day period, and overwhelmed the facilities.
  • In contrast to serious, social-minded films of the 50s, this was the first financially-successful "teen film" - it also challenged the strong Production Code in effect at the time. It was directly marketed to youthful audiences. It appealed to disaffected youth (and young adults who didn't fit in) who felt like outcasts from the "affluent" suburban-dwelling families living in the post-war era. One of the film's taglines on its posters stated: "Hot feelings hit terrifying heights in a story that really boils over!"
  • James Dean's disaffected, frustrated youth Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Elvis Presley's anti-hero character in Jailhouse Rock (1957), and even the significant counter-cultural Easy Rider (1969) - plus a spate of exploitation biker films (i.e., Roger Corman's trashy B-film classic The Wild Angels (1966)) - owe their existence to this original, cult classic film.
  • Because of the controversial nature of the film, public screenings were banned in England by the British Board of Film Censors for fourteen years (until 1968) after its release. Even in America, it was feared that the shocking, 'Communist' movie glamorized an anti-social subculture ("motorcycle toughs") in revolt, would set a bad example, and cause impressionable viewers to copy-cat its plot and incite deliquency and riots. In fact, it took many years for pacifist motorcyclists to overcome stereotypes and fabrications promoted by the film.

Blackboard Jungle (1955)
d. Richard Brooks, 101 minutes, MGM

  • This shocking, cautionary tale, urban melo-drama and striking film with social commentary was about education in a violent, inner-city US boys school (the "blackboard jungle"). The school had a number of budding, undisciplined punks and juvenile delinquents with switchblades who terrorized each other and their teachers. It was the first American film to deal with the social problem of teenage delinquency and classroom anarchy in our urban public schools.
  • Sidney Poitier starred as Gregory Miller, a disaffected, inner city young black student, while Vic Morrow portrayed the insolent, delinquent gang leader and class bully Artie West. The main protagonist was the new teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) at North Manual High School who faced resistance from his students and other more experienced teachers.
  • It appealed to large teenage audiences, who often became so involved and uninhibited (i.e., dancing in the aisles) that screenings sometimes led to violence and vandalism. The disturbing film was banned in some US cities for inciting anti-social (and anti-American!) behavior. Theatrical showings exhibited what would soon be recognized as the first evidence of teenage rebelliousness, to blossom later in the decade and future years.
  • It was the first film to feature a rock-'n'-roll song: "Rock-Around-The-Clock" (sung by Bill Haley and His Comets during the opening credits, and used in the film's closing). It was the first major Hollywood film to use R&R on its soundtrack, making it one of the most influential film soundtracks of all time. It inspired the next year's popular R&R film, Rock Around the Clock (1956).

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)
d. Otto Preminger, 119 minutes, Otto Preminger Films/Carlyle Productions/United Artists

  • This socially-conscious film was one of the first attempts by Hollywood to deal with the issue of drug use - its censor-defying, ground-breaking topic. It was the first big-budget cautionary tale about the horrors of drug abuse, and daring as a major Hollywood film to star A-list actors with this story-line.
  • Iconoclastic director Otto Preminger took on the challenging of making this film about drug addiction, as a vehicle for breaking the Production Code's restrictions on portrayals of those addicted to illegal drugs. Preminger knew that he was have to defy and fight the Production Code (and the MPAA), as he had done earlier with The Moon Is Blue (1953).
  • At first, United Artists withdrew from the Motion Pictures Association of American (previously named the MPPDA) when it refused to issue a Production Code seal to its controversial film about drug addiction, starring singer/actor Frank Sinatra in a naturalistic, incredible Oscar-nominated performance as rehabilitated junkie Frankie Machine on a downward spiral as he returned to his life as a drug abuser.
  • The film's success helped to loosen restrictions on such films, and allowed more difficult topics to be explored in the movies. The code was amended to permit portrayals of drugs, kidnapping, prostitution and abortion as well as light profanity (the use of the words 'hell' and 'damn'). Although nothing like more graphic future 'drug-horror' films such as Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For a Dream (2000), it had a significant impact on film-making, especially its scene of Frankie going 'cold-turkey.'
  • The famed graphic designer Saul Bass made his most lasting impact on the movies, with his designs for movie title screens. He was known as the man who invented the opening credit sequence - he incorporated the title screen into the film itself with striking images. He transformed and elevated static title screens into stylized, moving works of art, first most dramatically with his jagged, twisted and deconstructed forearm that moved (a symbol of heroin addiction) for The Man With the Golden Arm (1955).
  • The film was also enhanced by the pulsating, jazz score by Elmer Bernstein.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
d. Nicholas Ray, 111 minutes, Warner Bros.

  • This classic, melodramatic film made James Dean an anti-hero icon for generations to come - this was the second of his three films and the best archetypal 50s film of its kind regarding the generation gap.
  • Director Nicholas Ray's first film in Cinemascope told a story of rebellion and angst in the life of an unsettled, teenaged, new-kid-in-town Jim Stark (Method actor James Dean) who crossed paths with two other alienated, misfit youth - Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) - at a police station in the first sequence. The outcast trio of juveniles formed a strong bond (or "family") against both their insensitive parents (completely unjust, dysfunctional, ineffectual, or callous) and their peers, as they searched for their identities.
  • This reactionary film is considered Hollywood's best 50's film of rebellious and restless youth (and sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll) that spawned many other lesser teen exploitation films in its wake. [Other films that caused the same sensation included the earlier 50s films The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando and Blackboard Jungle (1955).] Other films that arose in the juvenile delinquent subgenre included I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Roger Corman's Teenage Doll (1957), High School Confidential! (1958), T-Bird Gang (1959), and Tony Richardson's British film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962, UK).
  • This film sympathetically viewed rebellious, American, restless, misunderstood, middle-class youth. The tale of youthful defiance, which could have been exploitative (but wasn't), provided a rich, but stylized (and partly out-dated) look at the world of the conformist mid-1950s from the perspective of the main adolescent male character - a troubled teen with ineffectual parents, who faced a new school environment.
  • The film received only three Academy Awards nominations (without wins): Best Supporting Actor (Sal Mineo with the first of two unsuccessful career nominations), Best Supporting Actress (Natalie Wood with the first of three unsuccessful career nominations), and Best Motion Picture Story (Nicholas Ray). It wasn't nominated for either Best Picture (won by the short, unassuming romantic drama Marty (1955)) or Best Director for Nicholas Ray. Ironically, Dean was not nominated for his role in this film (although it eventually became his iconic career role), but was nominated instead for his Best Actor performance as insecure, tortured, neurotic loner and unappreciated son Caleb "Cal" Trask in his first major film role, East of Eden (1955).
  • The colorful wide-screen Cinemascope feature is most remembered for being the film that best presented the talent of top-billed, 24 year-old charismatic cult star James Dean, shortly before his premature death in 1955. It opened at the Astor Theatre in New York on October 29th, 1955, about a month after the death of its star (on September 30, 1955) on a California highway in his sports car.
  • It also served as a springboard for the acting careers of its two other stars Natalie Wood (in her first non-child 'adult' role) and unknown 16 year-old actor Sal Mineo. It afforded a classic, semi-glamorized portrait of three troubled, frustrated, anguished, and identity-seeking teenagers - all outsiders, alienated and outcast from the world and values of parents and adults, who attained maturity through rebellion and tragic circumstances. In the film, Dean formed a friendly bond with the other two characters: Wood as confused teenaged Judy, and Mineo as a strange, adoring boy named Plato - the film's sacrificial lamb by film's end.
  • It has been surmised that Sal Mineo's teen-aged character in the film was obviously gay and troubled by typical problems of in-the-closet homosexuals in the 50s - the film disguised his problems, but hinted at the possibility that he was seeking out Dean's character because he rejected fake machismo.

The Searchers (1956)
d. John Ford, 119 minutes, Warner Bros.

  • A true American masterpiece of filmmaking, and the best, most influential, and perhaps most-admired film of director John Ford. However, the sophisticated, modern, visually-striking film was unappreciated, misunderstood, and unrecognized by critics. It did not receive a single Academy Award nomination.
  • The film's complex, deeply-nuanced themes included racism, individuality, the American character, and the opposition between civilization (exemplified by homes, caves, and other domestic interiors) and the untamed frontier wilderness.
  • The Searchers genre-breaking western tale was the emotionally complex story of a perilous, hate-ridden quest and Homeric-style odyssey of self-discovery (after a Comanche massacre) by John Wayne's character - obsessed Indian hunter Ethan Edwards. In Wayne's first anti-heroic role, he portrayed a bigot and racist - a tragic, lonely, morally-ambiguous figure perenially doomed to be an outsider. It was a role that the actor often described as his favorite. It has commonly been regarded as Wayne's finest-acted performance - and his ninth starring role in a Ford film.
  • Its exploration of the themes of racial prejudice and sexism made it one of cinema's earliest examples of an attempt to portray racism in US-Native American relations.
  • Ten to fifteen years after the film's debut, and after reassessing it as a cinematic milestone, a generation of "New Hollywood" film directors, French film critics and others, including Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Brian De Palma, Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, and George Lucas, praised the film. They traced their own fascination with film to this mythic John Ford western, and in reverence, reflected his work in their own films (e.g., Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1968), and Mean Streets (1973), Lucas' Star Wars (1977), Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, It.), and Schrader's Hardcore (1979)).

The Ten Commandments (1956)
d. William Wyler, 220 minutes, Paramount Pictures

  • Legendary producer/director Cecil B. DeMille remade his own 1923 silent epic -- it was his last film, and his first and sole widescreen feature film. DeMille had his 75th birthday during the production of this film, making him the oldest working Hollywood director at the time.
  • The blockbuster film (3 hours and 40 minutes long) made with VistaVision was produced with an exorbitant budget of $13 million - the costliest picture made to date.
  • A quintessential Biblical epic, it featured the great scene of Moses (Charlton Heston) parting the Red Sea, for which (in part) it won its sole Oscar - Best Special Effects. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, and provided actor Edward G. Robinson with a comeback role after he was unfairly blacklisted in the 1950s.
  • It became Paramount's biggest grossing movie up to that time, and second only to Gone with the Wind (1939). It was the highest-earning live-action film of the 1950s, with The Sound of Music (1965) eventually breaking its streak. Although a blockbuster, the film reverted to melodramatic style, with great actors adopting static attitudes, postures and gestures.
  • For many years, it was an annual event to watch the film on TV at Easter time (and Palm Sunday) or Passover. It remains one of the main sources of American knowledge about the Exodus story.
  • Some reports have claimed (although challenged) that the film mobilized the greatest number of extras ever used in a motion picture - estimates speculated there were seven to ten thousand extras, with approximately 5,000 head of livestock.
  • The film forever stereotyped Charlton Heston (the Moses figure) as a major character in similar epics, such as Ben-Hur (1959), El Cid (1961), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

Shadows (1959)
d. John Cassavetes, 81 minutes, Lion International Films

  • Pioneering independent filmmaker, writer/director John Cassavetes' low-budget ($40,000), controversial, pre-cinema-verité first feature film has often been cited as the start of the independent (or indie) feature film movement in the US with its daring subject matter (about an inter-racial love affair), mostly improvised dialogue, and a non-professional cast and crew. The film was first shot in 1957 (with a16 mm hand-held camera), then screened, re-edited and re-shot in the following years, and re-released.
  • After this crudely-made, grainy film, Cassavetes - who was dubbed "the father of new American independent cinema," turned to studio films for a few years, but then after finding studio films too restrictive, he resumed low-budget, independent filmmaking stretching into the 70s.
  • He returned to his highly individualistic style and realistic, stark cinema verité (with unscripted and often inaudible dialogue, poor lighting, and improvisational character studies in overlong, amateurish and ragged films made with a hand-held camera).
  • Shadows ultimately influenced the development of underground films (Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Kenneth Anger), and other camp-trash directors (John Waters, 'Gore-Godfather' Herschell Gordon Lewis) and many other film-makers (David Lynch) mostly independent of the traditional studio system.
  • John Cassavetes' later film Faces (1968) was the first independently-made and distributed American film to reach mainstream audiences.

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