When Elvis was king, a look back at 1956

In 1956,

Bach: The Goldberg Variations was released;

Five US missionaries were killed by the Huaorani people of Ecuador;

The Winter Olympics were held in Cortina d’Ampezzo;

Elvis Presley released, “Heartbreak Hotel,”

Doris Day’s released her signature song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),”

Morocco and Tunisia declared independence from France,

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed over 500 for the first time,

My Fair Lady opened on Broadway,

Marty was named the best film of 1955

Pakistan became the first Islamic republic,

As the World Turns debuted on CBS,

Grace Kelly married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco;

Rocky Marciano retired without losing a boxing match in his career;

The United Methodist Church allowed women to become clergy for the first time,

The first Eurovision Song Contest was broadcast;

Elvis Presley performed a controversial version of “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show;

The Summer Olympics were held in Melbourne;

Gamal Abdel Nasser became the 2nd President of Egypt;

Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller;

President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act;

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis performed their last comedy show together;

In God we trust” became the US National motto;

Elvis Presley made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show;

The hard disk drive was introduced by IBM;

Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series;

13-year-old chess prodigy Bobby Fischer defeated grandmaster Donald Byrne in The Game of the Century;

Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal;

The Huntley-Brinkley Report debuted on NBC;

Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg was published;

Hungary attempted to leave the Warsaw Pact;

The United States Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling in Browder v. Gayle, holding bus segregation in Alabama was unconstitutional;

Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson for the second time to win reelection as President of the United States;

Floyd Patterson became world heavyweight champ;

The “Million Dollar Quartet” played together in Memphis;

Japan joined the United Nations;

To Tell the Truth debuted on CBS;

Bob Barker made his television debut;

Mel Gibson, Davis Caruso, Imelda Staunton, Bill Maher, Geena Davis, Mimi Rogers, Johnny Rotten, Nathan Lane, Aileen Wuornos, Tim Daly, Bryan Cranston, Dana Delany, Steve Ballmer, Ray Combs, Diamond Dallas Page, Andy Garcia, Lars von Trier, Dan Patrick, Sugar Ray Leonard, Bob Saget, Patricia Cornwell, Kenny G., Joe Montana, Randy Jackson, Anthony Bourdain, Chris Isaak, Tom Hanks, Sela Ward, Tony Kushner, Charlie Crist, Dorothy Hamill, Delta Burke, Jim Neidhart, Bruce Greenwood, Rusty Wallace, Adam Arkin, Joan Allen, Paul Molitor, David Copperfield, Gary Cole, Linda Hamilton, Christoph Waltz, Danny Boyle, Carrie Fisher, Dwight Yoakam, Rita Wilson, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Richard Curtis, Warren Moon, Bo Derek, Dale Jarrett, William Fichtner, and Larry Bird were born;

While Sir Alexander Korda, H.L. Mencken, A.A. Milne, Connie Mack, Fred Allen, Edward Arnold, Jean Hersholt, Jackson Pollock, Bela Lugosi, Alfred Kinsey, Babe Zaharias, Art Tatum, and Tommy Dorsey died.

The following is a list of my ten favorite films released in 1956:

The Killing (1956)

10) The Killing 

Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) plans an audacious final heist, robbing two million from a racetrack during a race. His team includes a corrupt cop, a window teller (Elisha Cook Jr.) a sharpshooter, a wrestler, and a bartender.

The elaborate plan works, but the lover of the teller’s unfaithful wife robs the group at their rendezvous. Johnny survives, but his escape is thwarted by poor luggage choices.

This fun, popcorn movie planted seeds for later heist movies like Ocean’s Twelve (2004), and The Town (2010).

9) The Bad Seed

Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly) slowly realizes her young daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) murdered a rival at school who defeated her in a penmanship competition. Christine desperately wants to protect her daughter, but she’s horrified by what she could do and her actions stem from fear as much as love.

McCormack is chilling as the troubled child (who may have inherited her sociopathy through her mother), Kelly is solid as the confused and bewildered parent, and character actress Eileen Heckart is devastating as the mother of the murdered boy.

Few movies are willing to portray such a blatantly sociopathic character and even fewer show this level of unabashed evil in a child. It’s not particularly subtle, but asks great questions about mental illness and heredity, forcing us to decide if Rhoda is a victim of her illness or irredeemable, questions we haven’t fully answered sixty years later.

8) Tea and Sympathy

Tom Lee (John Kerr) is ostracized at his male prep school for not being manly enough. The wife of his coach, Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr), sympathizes with Tom and, despite the age gap between them, falls in love with him.

His classmates convince Tom to prove his manhood by sleeping with a prostitute. This experiment ends in failure and exacerbates the rift between Tom, his classmates, and his old-fashioned father. Laura finds him after the incident and they share a tender moment. She kisses him and leaves, imploring him, “years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind.”

Both Kerrs (not related) give powerful, memorable performances, and the last scene between them is devastating. The source play by Robert Anderson linked Tom’s struggle with his latent homosexuality, but even though the play’s treatment of alternative sexuality was toned down, this remains a powerful film about what it means to be a man and how we show compassion.

7) The Mystery of Picasso

This mesmerizing film manages to humanize and mythologize Pablo Picasso. For one hour, we get a fascinating glimpse into the artistic process and a wonderful opportunity to watch one of the acknowledged geniuses of the world at work.

Written on the Wind

6) Written on the Wind

The children of oil tycoon Jasper Hadley, Kyle (Robert Stack) and Marylee (Dorothy Malone), struggle to lead normal lives. Their incredible wealth has left them entitled and unable to connect with the world around them.

Marylee is infatuated with Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), Kyle’s childhood friend who works for their dad as a geologist. Unfortunately, Mitch doesn’t return her affections, instead harboring secret romantic feelings for Lucy (Lauren Bacall), Mitch’s wife.

Kyle’s alcoholism and insecurity lead to an assault on his pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry. In the aftermath, Kyle is accidentally killed by Marylee, who initially blames it on Mitch, but relents and allows him to pursue a happy life with Lucy.

This film about a dysfunctional, oil-rich Texan family is a pseudo companion piece to Giant, released the same year. Both explore the ramifications of the extreme wealth thrust upon families as a result of oil prospecting in Texas in the early twentieth century and both feature remarkable performances by Rock Hudson.

The four principals are uniformly excellent, with Malone winning an Oscar and Stack nominated. (I’m partial to Stack because we share a last name, and I grew up watching Unsolved Mysteries).

Hudson’s career never recovered from the revelation he had AIDS and had concealed his homosexuality. Viewers and critics have collectively minimized his significant career, taking his frequent costar Doris Day along for a ride down the memory hole.

Director Douglas Sirk’s films were not particularly well received when they premiered, but his visual style is now consistently replicated in soap operas. You can almost see the Ewing clan standing in the shadows of this lush melodrama, waiting for their turn.

Sirk used his lush, high style to contrast with the absurdity and lowness of the film’s action, pointing out inconsistencies in our national consciousness, highlighting how the surface level glamour of the 1950s concealed a growing existential crisis. Unfortunately, with a rare exception these homages have taken Sirk’s style and neglected his message.


The Searchers

5) The Searchers

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns home to West Texas after years spent fighting (first in the US Civil War and then in the Mexican Revolution). Shortly after his return, his brother is murdered and his two nieces are kidnapped by Comanche raiders.

Ethan quickly finds his elder niece, Lucy, but finding Debbie (Natalie Wood) proves more difficult. When he does find her, she says she would prefer to stay with her abductors. Disgusted, he attempts to kill her rather than see her live as an Indian, but, fortunately, he’s thwarted by one of his cohorts.

Ford’s landscapes are superbly filmed. The majesty, mystery, and splendor of the west is rarely in better hands. The closing scene of Wayne, clutching his injured arm while looking at the vast expanse of the west in front of him has been often imitated but never equaled.

Wayne is often thought of as the embodiment of the morally upright cowboy archetype, but, in many of his films, his character is, at best, morally ambiguous. Ethan is an unrepentant racist, who sees Indians as inferior people and their way of life unworthy of protection.

Despite Ethan’s obvious flaws, we identify with his quest, we want him to find Debbie, and we instinctively know when she doesn’t really mean she [refers to live with the Comanches. We know this because we’ve been conditioned to agree with Ethan’s point of view. The momentum of popular culture teaches us to see Indians as uncivilized. By making Ethan’s ugliness a central conceit of his character, Ford forces us to see our own prejudices and preconceptions. He has no doubt we will identify with Ethan (it’s John Wayne after all), but we will squirm.

Giant (1956)4) Giant

When Texas rancher Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. (Rock Hudson) marries Maryland socialite Leslie Lynton (Elizabeth Taylor), his resentful sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), makes life miserable on their sprawling Texas ranch.

When Luz dies, she leaves a parcel of land to Jett Rink (James Dean), a ranch hand who’s fallen in love with Leslie.  When oil is discovered on Rink’s land, he becomes a wealthy and powerful rival to the Benedicts.

While the 1950s are routinely seen as a volatile time in the history of race relations between black and white America, this film’s treatment of Hispanic workers on the Benedict ranch reminds us American racism was, and is, much more complex.

Two of Dean’s costars from Rebel Without a Cause joined him in this film: Dennis Hopper as Jordy, the eldest son of Bick and Leslie, and Sal Mineo as Angel Obregon, a young Mexican worker on the Benedict ranch.

Her performance in this male dominated film, helped Elizabeth Taylor establish she was more than a former child star and a gorgeous woman, but also an accomplished actress.  After Giant, she embarked on a decade long run of incredible performances in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), BUtterfield 8 (1960), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) .

Rock Hudson is best remembered for a series of light romantic comedies with Doris Day, but he was a capable dramatic actor and he’s great as Bick, whose obsessive quest for a legacy reminds me of Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen.

Many of director George Stevens’ films focused on fractured families including The Talk of the Town (1942), A Place in the Sun (1951), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).

While Jim Stark and Cal Trask were broken, damaged young men, Jett Rink is selfish and spiteful. Yet Dean manages to make him sympathetic, proving his ability to play more than troubled teenagers.

Watching this movie makes me sad because I’m reminded of how many wonderful performances we lost. Had he lived, which iconic roles would have gone to Dean instead? Maybe it would have been James Dean jumping off a cliff with Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) or mumbling his way through The Godfather (1972) as Don Corleone?  

The Ten Commandments

3) The Ten Commandments

The long, epic film has been a constant part of our national consciousness for over fifty years. It still airs yearly around Easter on ABC and consistently ranks among the highest programs of the evening.

Chances are, if I asked you to close your eyes and think of the Old Testament, the first thing you’d see would be Charlton Heston standing on the side of a mountain holding the Ten Commandments; Heston’s portrayal of Moses will be remembered for years to come even after everything else has faded from memory. And this film continues to keep Cecil B. Demille’s memory afloat.

Yvonne de Carlo (best known as Lily Munster) is very good as Moses’ wife Sephora, the terribly underrated Edward G. Robinson is compelling as Dathan (a Jew who rebels against Moses post Exodus), Anne Baxter is wonderful as the conflicted Nefertiti, who loves Moses but feels duty bound to Ramses, and 1956 was a remarkable year for Yul Brynner (in addition to this film he starred in Anastasia, and The King and I).

It’s old-fashioned and historically questionable. It’s stiff and heavy-handed. Yet despite its flaws, this is a wonderful, charming, earnest film which doesn’t try to deconstruct the foundational faith stories of its source material, and has, as a result, endeared itself to millions.

2) Bigger than Life 

When schoolteacher Ed Avery (James Mason) is prescribed the experimental drug cortisone, he experiences relief from his painful back, but suffers extreme side effects, including violent mood swings and a dangerous psychotic episode.

There’s something endearing about Mason’s exaggerated English mannerisms and pronunciation.  In every scene, he’s trying to remind the audience how English he is.

Nicholas Ray is most famous for directing the James Dean vehicle Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but this film is just as good.

It’s amusing to see a young Walter Matthau in a straight dramatic role, but he doesn’t do anything.

This is a great, sympathetic look at addiction, mental illness and the hidden dangers of “miracle cures.”

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

1) The Man Who Knew Too Much 

When Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) learns about an upcoming assassination attempt on a foreign dignitary while vacationing in Morocco with his wife, Jo (Doris Day), their son is kidnapped to prevent him from sharing this information with the authorities.

Jimmy Stewart’s popular image as a wide-eyed everyman was cultivated in a series of beloved films with director Frank Capra: You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but his later work with Alfred Hitchcock is much more subtle and jaded.

Doris Day’s work here shows a great deal more depth than the light romantic comedies with Rock Hudson for which she is best remembered. In the 1950s and 1960s, Day had a large, dedicated following, and still ranks among the highest grossing stars in Hollywood history. However, while other popular actresses of the same era, such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, are remembered fondly, Day’s star has faded as tastes have shifted.

A remake of his earlier 1934 film of the same name, this is Hitchcock’s most playful, lighthearted movie; there’s more humor than typically known for, and it prominently features a song.

“Que Sera Sera,” would become Day’s anthem and a frequent touchstone in popular culture, although few are aware of its Hitchcockian origin.

Much like Day’s career, this film is often overlooked and rarely mentioned among Hitchcock’s best. This misjudgment must be corrected. It’s a great film, made even better because it subverts our expectations. Because it’s so unlike his other work, it provides a unique view into the mind of one of the great artists of the 20th century.

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