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Originally published September 13, 2009 at 12:09 AM | Page modified September 14, 2009 at 10:49 AM

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1959: The best movie year ever?

The year 1959 was the Best Movie Year Ever, claims film writer John Hartl. His evidence? "Some Like It Hot," "North by Northwest," "Ben-Hur," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and other Hollywood gems — plus art-house classics "Black Orpheus," "The 400 Blows" and "Wild Strawberries."

Special to The Seattle Times

Tradition holds that 1939, the year of "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," was Hollywood's most glorious year.

There's even a book about it: Ted Sennett's 270-page "Hollywood's Golden Year, 1939: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration," published in 1989 by St. Martin's Press.

This summer, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne celebrated the 70th anniversary on TCM and at New York's Academy Theater, which screened all 10 of the 1939 movies to be nominated for best picture. (Yes, there used to be 10; that practice ended in the mid-1940s — though it will be revived again in February, when this year's Oscar nominations are announced.)

But not everyone agrees that 1939 comes first. Several years ago, The New York Times begged to differ, offering up 1962, the year of "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Manchurian Candidate" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," as Hollywood's finest moment.

And there's a compelling argument to be made for 1941, the year of "Citizen Kane," "The Maltese Falcon" and "How Green Was My Valley."

Northwest Film Forum is currently celebrating the 40th anniversary of 1969's taboo-breaking output, including "The Wild Bunch," "Alice's Restaurant" and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice."

But my favorite movie year is 1959, the 12-month period when Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger, Jimmy Stewart and William Wyler all hit career peaks. Simultaneously, art houses were flooded with some of the best work from Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray and Alain Resnais.

It was a year that seemed to sum up many careers (several veteran filmmakers directed their last pictures), while anticipating the innovations and disruptions of the 1960s.

For some studios and filmmakers, 1959 marked a turning point. Disney made a fortune on its cheaply made comedy, "The Shaggy Dog," and lost a bundle on its costly cartoon, "Sleeping Beauty." The immediate result: fewer traditional Disney cartoons and more silly live-action comedies.

Otto Preminger had one of his biggest hits with "Anatomy of a Murder," a daring three-hour courtroom drama starring Stewart as a small-town lawyer. In the same year, Preminger also directed one of his most expensive flops: "Porgy and Bess," a fine, faithful adaptation of the Gershwin opera that simply came out at the wrong time.

"North by Northwest," which Truffaut declared the best American film of 1959, turned out to be the ultimate Hitchcock chase machine: a collection of scenes wittily referencing several of his thrillers, while giving Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint the opportunity to forge a playful romantic union.

Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," which is often called the best comedy ever made (most recently in an American Film Institute survey), gave Monroe a rare opportunity to be both funny and touching. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, in drag, were never funnier. And Joe E. Brown immortalized himself with an outrageous last line that still takes audiences by surprise.

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The New York Film Critics' top prize and a record 11 Academy Awards were showered on Wyler's mammoth Biblical epic "Ben-Hur," which won Oscars for Wyler and two of his actors: Charlton Heston and Hugh Griffith. Famous for its chariot race, it benefited from a literate script that was partly the (uncredited) work of Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry.

Meanwhile, the National Board of Review picked a more rigorous religious movie for the top spot: Zinnemann's "The Nun's Story," starring Audrey Hepburn as a conscientious nun who finally can't bear sacrificing her sense of self.

Howard Hawks turned his unhappiness over the politics of one Western (1952's "High Noon") into the basis for a very different 1959 Western, "Rio Bravo." Hawks and his star, John Wayne, must have liked the material. They remade it, under different titles, in 1967 and 1971.

Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of Life" was also a remake, but a much grander and gaudier soap opera than the 1934 original. Both films were based on Fannie Hurst's novel about a mixed-race girl who passes for white; Sirk's version earned Oscar nominations for Susan Kohner (the girl) and Juanita Moore (her mother).

James Mason starred in an irresistibly dreamy adaptation of Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth," while Stanley Kramer turned out a more pessimistic kind of science-fiction movie. His nukes-gone-wrong drama, "On the Beach," killed off every star on its Grade A cast list, including Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire.

George Stevens' somber three-hour treatment of "The Diary of Anne Frank" was the second-most-honored movie on Oscar night, with Shelley Winters winning a supporting award for her work as a Holocaust fugitive and William C. Mellor taking home the prize for black-and-white cinematography. (20th Century Fox has released a 50th-anniversary DVD.)

Art-house hits got more Oscar attention than before. Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" and Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" were nominated for best original screenplay (they lost to the best of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies, "Pillow Talk"). Bernhard Wicki's powerful German war movie, "The Bridge," was nominated for best foreign-language film, and Marcel Camus' carnival-in-Rio musical, "Black Orpheus," won in that category.

Submitted to the foreign-film committee, but rejected, were such classics as Luis Bunuel's "Nazarin," Kon Ichikawa's "Fires on the Plain" and Satyajit Ray's "The World of Apu." All broke with tradition, as did Resnais' meditative love story, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour."

The studios loosened up too, especially as the Legion of Decency and the Production Code gradually lost their censorship powers. There's a world of difference between 1958's bowdlerized movie of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which avoids the hero's sexual ambiguity, and 1959's still-shocking adaptation of Williams' "Suddenly, Last Summer," which deals with cannibalism, lobotomy and the central character's homosexuality.

Writer-director Delmer Daves took advantage of the situation by sexing up the teen soap opera, "A Summer Place," with Sandra Dee transforming her innocuous "Gidget" surfer girl (also from 1959) in one popular film.

Daves also had a success with one of his typically adult Westerns, "The Hanging Tree," starring Gary Cooper as a frontier doctor and Maria Schell as the blinded woman he treats. Also toying with Western conventions was Don Siegel's "Hound Dog Man," a Fabian movie that was mostly stolen by Stuart Whitman.

No account of 1959 could be complete without mention of such satisfying star vehicles as "The Young Philadelphians" (with Paul Newman and Oscar-nominated Robert Vaughn), "The Best of Everything" (Hope Lange and Stephen Boyd), "Look Back in Anger" (Richard Burton), "Odds Against Tomorrow" (Harry Belafonte), "Pork Chop Hill" (Gregory Peck) and "The Five Pennies" (Danny Kaye).

It wasn't all gravy, of course. Frank Capra's "A Hole in the Head" is remembered only for its Oscar-winning song, "High Hopes." If you sat through all three hours of Frank Borzage's final film, "The Big Fisherman," you know the meaning of unwatchable. Equally hard to digest were King Vidor's swan song, "Solomon and Sheba," and the Steve Reeves beefcake epic, "Hercules."

But there was something fresh and genuine about many of 1959's movies, and this frankness often offended the authorities. "Anatomy of a Murder" was briefly banned in Chicago, "Some Like It Hot" was deemed "too disturbing for Kansasans," while the grosses for Jack Clayton's "Room at the Top" soared when it was banned in Atlanta (Georgia's Supreme Court eventually ruled that the ban was unconstitutional).

Film critic Leslie Halliwell wrote that "Room at the Top" was different because it took sex seriously. Arthur Knight, in a Saturday Review piece, praised the picture for having characters who were recognizable, flawed human beings.

"And the effect," he added, "is startling."

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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