Across its 600-plus pages, Foster Hirsch’s ambitious account of Hollywood and the films made there during the 1950s covers the terrain with comprehensive purpose. As he puts it in his introduction, citing L.P. Hartley, it’s “a kind of rescue operation for the film practices of a period moving closer, year by passing year, to the status of a ‘foreign country’” (p. xvii). He explains that they’re in need of salvage because they’ve long been misunderstood. At the same time, he finds a handy metaphor for the social imperfections of the era in the very-widescreen Cinerama process which was introduced in the US in 1952, adding a gleeful reminder that “Cinerama” is an anagram for “American”. The curved screen for the format was made up of three panels, which constituted a problem for viewers because the seams joining them were clearly visible. So they had to pretend they weren’t there. This requirement, he points out, “can be read as a sign of the era’s frayed, imperfect ability to maintain appearances” (p. xiii). The 1950s might be reputed to have been “bland, stodgy, smug, sexually repressed, and conformity-ridden”, but he contends that this is a very blinkered view of what it was like back then. Building on the perfectly reasonable premise that “films reflect the culture that produces and consumes them” (p. xix), Hirsch finds clear evidence for his claim in both the films of the time and the circumstances in which they were made.

He also makes his history something of a personal memoir. Now 79 and a long-term film professor at Brooklyn College in New York (as well as the author of more than a dozen books about film and theatre), he was once a wide-eyed adolescent and his first-hand experience of growing up in the 1950s becomes part of the story he has to tell. The book is punctuated by mostly engaging what-it-was-like-back-then anecdotes, as he and others (mainly actors and producers) reflect on their involvements in the film business.

“I remember where I sat,” he writes at the very beginning, taking us back to 1953 and his first viewing of This Is Cinerama (Mike Todd, Michael Todd Jr., Walter A. Thompson and Fred Rickey, 1952). On a small black and white screen, and in mono sound, as he remembers it, broadcaster Lowell Thomas provides a 12-minute introduction to what awaits; the curtains open wider and suddenly, in full colour and stereo, the audience is plunged inside a hair-raising roller-coaster ride before being whizzed off to a ballet at Milan’s La Scala, and on to other resplendent locations around the world.

Hirsch’s opening not only provides an introduction to one of 1950s cinema’s more spectacular innovations – I had a similar adolescent experience of it at Melbourne’s Plaza theatre in 1958 – but also conjures a fitting parallel for his own project. As he begins his journey into the ’50s, he takes us up-close to the seminal cinema-going experiences of his childhood, before pulling back into a series of wide shots of a much larger canvas, all filtered through the understandings he’s acquired over the years about what’s important in the business of studying film and what isn’t.

The pleasure he’s gained from his research journey is palpable in the way he writes about the films he’s seen and re-seen, although he does get a bit lost in the latter stages. He writes eloquently about the new technologies which were introduced in the 1950s amid the challenges that the post-war arrival of television made to the film industry. He outlines the ways in which these innovations – Cinerama (a relatively shortlived phenomenon), CinemaScope, Todd AO, VistaVision (all having a greater impact), and 3-D (briefly introduced then abandoned, before being renewed years later) – profoundly affected the shape of American films during the ’50s. And he details the costs they brought with them, the problems they created for production and exhibition, and the differing formal aesthetics they imposed on the filmmakers who made use of them.

He’s concise about the impact of the new widescreen processes on how films of the time were viewed, the roll call including The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953), the first in ’Scope, Shane (George Stevens, also 1953, in VistaVision), River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954), and, yes, even Land of the Pharaohs (Howard Hawks, 1955). And, drawing on John Belton’s excellent Widescreen Cinema,1 he’s especially illuminating about how images needed to be framed to suit wider screens, or ones on which illusions of depth could be projected.

As a result of the perceived need to frame the action in wide-shot, he writes (with an implicit nod to André Bazin), “We were free to focus on whatever details within the large image that we wanted to… By contrast, the compulsive choppiness of contemporary widescreen filmmaking practice – the relentless barrage of close-ups, the non-stop camera movement, the assaultive staccato editing – preselects, directs, controls, and limits to an almost tyrannical degree what we are allowed to look at” (p. 158).

Describing himself as “a 3-D aficionado”, he takes note of the process’s “burlesque house style” and the distractions created when “objects and figures piercing the screen remind viewers they are watching a movie” (p. 175). But he also enthuses about the enhancements this trail-blazing technology brings to films such as Bwana Devil (Arch Oboler, 1952), Man in the Dark (Lew Landers, 1953), Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953), and Taza, Son of Cochise (Douglas Sirk, 1954), describing the last as “a visual poem about a displaced people,” although, frustratingly, offering no analysis to support the claim.

Hirsch identifies the collapse of the studio system as the major rupture suffered by the film business during the 1950s, thoroughly and thoughtfully examining the causes and some of the films being made as the studios grappled separately and competitively with the situation. As he sees it, the fate that befell the studios stemmed from a failure to adapt to the changing times. The lack of imagination or sheer bloody-mindedness of those occupying “the rooms at the top” saw them at loggerheads over how best to introduce the new technologies. They were similarly ill-prepared to deal with the 1948 Supreme Court anti-trust legislation which compelled them to divest themselves of their monopoly over exhibition; with the transformation of actors from employees to investors sharing percentages of films’ grosses; and with the incursions into the studios’ affairs by the notorious practices of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

Yet, Hirsch hastens to add, even as they slid towards their demise, all the while offering audiences that all-too-familiar mantra that their various technological upgradings were going to make the filmgoing experience so much better, interesting films were being made. Like 1951’s Storm Warning (Stuart Heisler), which he sees as a potent exposé of the Hollywood mood during the blacklist and assesses as a “haunting and largely overlooked film (that) demands a reckoning” (p. 118). And like The Robe, about a military tribune involved in Christ’s crucifixion, identifying in it a link between the film’s set-upon Christians and those who fell foul of HUAC, and describing it as “a sly, pro-communist allegory, a sneaky, in-house, undercover protest against contemporary investigations of communists in Hollywood” (p. 209).

Hirsch’s commentary about these and several other like-minded films of the era left me wanting to catch up with or revisit them, surely a key goal of any worthwhile film criticism. And it’s the same throughout the book, as he ranges across a wide variety of sometimes-overlapping areas: exploitation movies; films about race; displaced dramas about “off limits subject matter” like the Holocaust or homosexuality; the dominant genres of the time (musicals, westerns, sword-and-sandal epics, noir thrillers, domestic melodramas, Disney animations); and films which star the era’s prominent actors and serve as vehicles for their screen personas.

Hirsch’s overarching mission is to assess their place in the zeitgeist of the time, offering sometimes detailed, sometimes unsubstantiated, but always strongly opinionated views about their significance. His primary interest lies in films that reveal unexpected layers of meaning (like the aforementioned parables about blacklisting and science-fiction films about invading aliens), or that have been ignored or forgotten, or treated with inappropriate contempt or misplaced admiration.

But while he’s by-and-large successful in charting the topography of Hollywood’s dominion, there are crucial letdowns. He’s cannily prepared us for them in his introduction when he points out that, while the past might be more accessible to a historians’ eyes than the puzzlements of the present, they shouldn’t ever hope to be definitive about it: “it’s ‘over with’, in a sense, but not finished, not ever finished” (p. xix).

So, he’s covered his back by indicating that, of course, he knows that he’s not delivering the last word on his chosen topic. Except that his disavowal is belied by the authoritative tone of his writing. And when he gets something patently wrong, it reverberates across the entire book.

There are the little details that leave one frowning, such as his attempt to distinguish between the career trajectories of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford by claiming (on p. 415) that Hepburn “never played a washed-up alcoholic or a wife whose husband wants to kill her.” It’s true that she was never exactly cast in the former role, although she does play a morphine addict in Long Day’s Journey into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962). And husband Robert Taylor was definitely trying to kill her in Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946).

A minor blemish, perhaps, but the worrying signs begin to accumulate when it becomes apparent that he’s unfamiliar with alternative readings of another Minnelli film, 1950’s Father of the Bride. For him, it’s “one of the last wholly innocent domestic comedies… that gives fifties-haters plenty of ammunition for dismissing the period as out of touch.” Alas, this is a case of the author being deceived by appearances. And he goes even further: “The film may not be about anything, but it is certainly for something: American capitalism, family values, the mid-century status quo, (white) class privilege, and the kind of safe, prosperous world ratified by America’s victory in World War II” (p. 547). 

Absent from his assertive tirade is any awareness of the possibility that the film can been read in other ways: say, as an account of the emasculation of a middle-class American Everyman, thinly disguised as a domestic comedy. That is, to borrow Hirsch’s spot-on description of the thematic thread connecting 1950s’ films noirs, it might be seen as a film in which “masculine agency, masculinity itself, is under attack” (p. 486). And the nightmares for Spencer Tracy’s titular father only get worse in the soon-after sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951), as he finds himself betrayed yet again by what he’d once seen as his “blueprint for happiness.”

Hirsch is equally unsatisfying about other Minnelli films he discusses – such as The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Gigi (1958) – missing the unsettling neurotic undertow of the first and the sharp irony of the second, which he bizarrely reduces to “a jovial tribute to femininity” (p. 503). The musical clearly isn’t his forte either: he admires Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952) – who doesn’t? – but thinks that if musicals aren’t light and frothy then they’re failures.

As a result, he’s ill-equipped to deal with films such as It’s Always Fair Weather (Kelly and Donen, 1955), whose key flaw seems to be that it’s not Singin’ in the Rain, and Silk Stockings (Rouben Mamoulian, 1957). In the midst of it all, he appears to have it in for Stanley Donen, claiming (without citing any evidence) that the director was generally loathed and dismissing most of his films without pausing to explain why. In like manner, he tells us he has little time for both Hepburns and Lana Turner, as if his throwaway dislikes deserve a hearing. He’s uncomfortably jocular about Ross Hunter, “a sentimental, decidedly unintellectual gay man with populist tastes, (who) wanted to tell stories about well-dressed characters suffering nobly in well-appointed rooms filled with vases of fresh flowers”. But he’s at his self-indulgent worst on the subject of one of Hunter’s chief collaborators, Douglas Sirk, who, he tells us, “became an auteur only when he ‘discovered’ Hollywood-style melodrama” (p. 522). Hirsch is clearly unfamiliar with Sirk’s work in Germany during the 1930s and appears not to have taken the time to look at all closely at the films he made in the US before 1950 and which, as I have argued at length elsewhere2 are thematically and stylistically consistent with the films he made after. 

His comments about Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959), which, he tells us, he’s seen many times and frequently used in undergraduate classes, provide clear evidence that it’s possible to see a film over and over and still not really get it. He recognizes that this one is doing something different in its stylised way, but fails to grasp that the title not only refers to the Lana Turner character, but also to everybody else. Including Juanita Moore’s housekeeper-come-confidante, trapped by the ideological force of those who have oppressed her race and yet to learn that black can be beautiful.

As Richard Brody points out in his New Yorker review of the book,3 it doesn’t deal with directors, except in passing (and, Sirk and Minnelli aside, often perceptively). Hirsch’s attention is on other matters, although the absence of any substantial commentary on how writers as well as directors were major players in shaping the pathways taken by Hollywood films of the ’50s is a major oversight.

Hirsch’s book has much to recommend it, but it’s hamstrung by its serious missteps. Perhaps the worst can be found by a quick glance at his bibliography, which is dominated by American sources. Don’t get me wrong; US-based writing about Hollywood has often been brilliant, but, just as filmmakers from Europe and beyond have brought a fresh perspective on American subjects, so too has film commentary from elsewhere.

Alas, there’s little indication that Hirsch is familiar with the kind of international work that might have enriched his thinking about how certain films of the ’50s expose “the era’s frayed, imperfect ability to maintain appearances.” There’s no mention at all of the critical writing on the subject that has emanated from Europe – from France, for example, in Cahiers du cinema (with the critics who eventually constituted the Nouvelle Vague) and Positif (home to writers such as Michel Ciment and melodrama expert Jean-Loup Bourget); or from the UK with Sight and Sound, Movie and Screen.

Had he read the late British critic Andrew Britton’s fine book about Katharine Hepburn,4 he might have viewed the actress in a different light. Or had he encountered the same writer’s brilliant article on Meet Me in St. Louis (1945) in The Australian Journal of Screen Theory,5 he might have been more alert to the nuances in Minnelli’s films.

In his discussion about the ways in which films of the ’50s often seem divided, moving towards one kind of resolution but then ending up somewhere else, he might also have gained much if he was familiar with British critic Robin Wood’s pursuit of exactly that thesis in the chapter entitled “The Incoherent Text: Narrative in the 70s” in his 1986 book, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.6 Likewise Ed Buscombe’s exemplary work on the western;7 Thomas Elsaesser’s seminal reflections on melodrama in Monogram,8 and Michael Walker’s in Movie;9 and Margaret Tarratt’s brilliant “Monsters from The Id”, about the horror movie, originally published in Films & Filming.10

And had Hirsch not exclusively relied on the 1971 edition of Jon Halliday’s seminal book-length interview, Sirk on Sirk,11 in his discussion of Sirk, and had he taken the time to look at the revised 1997 edition, he might have avoided some of the erroneous conclusions he reaches about the director and his work. Sirk himself was uncomfortable with the book which had been reconstructed from Halliday’s notes taken during their conversations (as the revised edition makes clear), and which often seems more like a reflection of Halliday’s predispositions than his own.

When film critics are doing their thing, what matters most is not the quantity of films they’ve seen but the quality of the perceptions they’re able to bring to them. For film historians, a familiarity with the sweep of the past and the vast array of films they’re scrutinising is, of course, crucial. But the insights they’re able to offer into them remain equally important and, while it does have much to recommend it, especially in its assessments about the collapse of the studio system and its urgings for further attention to overlooked works, Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties isn’t as reliable as it needs to be.

Next up for Hirsch, he promises at the end of the book, is a companion volume entitled Hollywood and the Movies of the Sixties: Wild in the Streets. Given his limp comments about 1959’s Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon) in this book, the first item on his reading list perhaps should be Alexander Walker’s invaluable 1966 essay on the ’60s sex comedies, “The Last American Massacre: Rock Hudson & Co.”12

Foster Hirsch, Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties (Penguin-Random House, 2023).


  1. John Belton, Widescreen Cinema (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1992).
  2. Tom Ryan, The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions (Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 2019).
  3. Richard Brody, “When Hollywood Was Hip And How It Got That Way,” The New Yorker, 30 October 2023.
  4. Andrew Britton, Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist (New York: Columbia University Press, New York, 2003 – originally published by Movie in 1984).
  5. Andrew Britton, “Meet Me in St. Louis: Smith, or, The Ambiguities,” Australian Journal of Screen Theory, Issue 3, 1977. Both Britton commentaries are available in Barry Keith Grant, ed., Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008).
  6. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
  7. Edward Buscombe, ed., The BFI Companion to the Western (London: Andre Deutsch in association with the British Film Institute, 1989) and Edward Buscombe, Injuns! Native Americans in the Movies (London: Reaktion Books, 2006).
  8. Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations of the Family Melodrama,” Monogram, Issue 4 (1972): pp 2-15.
  9. Michael Walker, “Melodrama and the American Cinema,” Movie, Issue 29/30 (Summer 1982): pp. 2-38.
  10. Margaret Tarratt, “Monsters from the Id,” Films & Filming, Volume 17, Issues 3 and 4 (December 1970 and January 1971): pp. 38-42 and 40-42.
  11. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk (London: Secker & Warburg in association with Sight and Sound and the British Film Institute, 1971).
  12. Alexander Walker, Sex in the Movies (Middlesex, Penguin Books, 1968), pp. 231-251.

About The Author

Tom Ryan’s most recent book is The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions (2019), published by the University Press of Mississippi. His Alan J. Pakula: Interviews will be published in September this year.

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