Fifty Years Ago (1961)

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During my Memorial Day weekend trip this year to the Cinevent Classic Film Convention in Columbus, Ohio, I picked up some old movie magazines from the 1960s.

These magazines included the April 1961 issue of Motion Picture, whose cover featured a loving picture of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Articles included “A Baby All Their Own?”, about Debbie Reynolds and her husband Harry Karl, who were raising Debbie’s children from her marriage to Eddie Fisher—Todd and Carrie (who grew up to stardom in the first Star Wars trilogy).

A satirical piece of fiction by Fredda Dudley titled “How The Sinatra Clan Elected Jack Kennedy” imagines the Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Curtis and others deciding to go into politics, with John F. Kennedy as their pick for president.

“Dino should be Secretary of Labor,” said the fictional Sinatra about Dean Martin. “With nine bambinos, he’ll know what to do until the doctor comes. Janet Leigh ought to be Secretary of Agriculture because she’s the craziest tomato this world has ever seen.”

The magazine included color pinups of Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, George Hamilton, Gary Clarke & Connie Stevens, pop singer Joanie Sommers, and Janet Leigh & her daughters (who included the future movie star Jamie Lee Curtis). The Bulletin Board section reported that Doris Day was the top film moneymaker in 1960 (according to a poll by the Motion Picture Herald), followed by Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Liz Taylor, and Debbie Reynolds.

Old Horizons

My book collection includes copies of the hardcover cultural magazine Horizon, which was published by the same company that published American Heritage magazine. These magazines, which I inherited from my grandparents, include fascinating insights into the art film world of the early 1960s.

“With The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray brings his Hindu trilogy to an impressive end,” wrote Jean Stafford in the January 1961 issue. “The end, however, is as inconclusive as life itself, and one feels that the brilliant director-writer-producer could continue his saga indefinitely.”

In the March 1961 issue, Stafford reflected on post World War II Italian movies in her review of Roberto Rossellini’s General Della Rovere. After praising the neorealism of films like Shoeshine and Open City, Stafford wrote, “In recent years Italy has succumbed to money-making by capitalizing on sex and crime and melodrama, and the results have been largely tasteless; pin-up girls like Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren have taken precedence over Anna Magnani, a vigorous actress who was not prettied up.”

Italian film was also the subject in the September 1961 issue. “Two very important Italian films have come along that face the problem of the decadent upper—or, at least, idler—classes with unremitting honesty,” wrote John Simon. “They are Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura.”

Simon later wrote, “Ultimately, both Fellini and Antonioni overshoot the mark. Antonioni’s picture conveys boredom so minutely that it becomes boring itself. Fellini surrounds what he hoped would be images of hope with so much gloom that they, too, become suspect.”

The November 1961 issue focused on acting, with essays about Susannah York (who died earlier this year) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (star of Breathless, which played recently at the Detroit Film Theatre and Michigan Theater).

In York’s most recent film at the time, Loss of Innocence, she played a 16-year-old schoolgirl. “Seldom has the bittersweet image of youth on the verge of maturity been projected so affectingly,” wrote Robert Emmett Ginna. “There is her shy, searching glance into the thief’s face when she senses the flicker that is his first, almost unconscious response to her femininity; there is the way she descends the staircase, with the measured movements of a girl who would be a woman.”

In the Belmondo essay, Bernard Frizzell talked about the cultural impact of the actor’s performance as a small-time hood in Breathless, the 1959 Jean-Luc Godard film that was part of the French New Wave. “In his loose-limbed walk, his unprepossessing looks, his hard-boiled Parisian accent, and the unrestrained obscenity of his language, he incarnated the image in which an impressive part of Parisian youth sees itself—tough yet tender, inarticulate yet intelligent, outside society but superior to it.”

First Impressions of Classics

I’ve been collecting old copies of Films in Review magazine, which have given me different snapshots of movie history moments in the 1950s and 1960s.

Fifty years ago this month, the November 1961 issue included reviews of two movies that I have enjoyed many times, but which the FIR reviewers found some fault with when they first came out.

“Technically, West Side Story is one of the most interesting motion pictures of the last decade, but emotionally, intellectually and culturally it’s so confused it’s self-defeating,” wrote Henry Hart, who later wrote, “Juvenile delinquency and racial conflict are not airy-fairy subjects, and are not really suited to ballet or musical comedy.”

In a review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ellen Fitzpatrick wrote, “If you really think about this picture, your teeth, and social conscience, will get a bit on edge. Theft from the 5-&-10 is depicted as cute and fey and beyond reproach; purveyors of narcotics are good fellows deserving of nothing harsher than genial satire.”

All fair points, but maybe one proof of the enduring power of these movies is how they transcend their faults, which doesn’t happen with lesser movies. And the reviewers did foresee what would help make these films classics.

“Those who have seen West Side Story in both its stage and film aspects say they prefer the latter,” wrote Hart. “I am not surprised, for film’s greater resources for movement, in both time and space, are here employed with assurance and verve. In fact, the skillful utilization of all the cinematic means is this film’s merit, and creates some of the most effective showmanship you have ever seen.”

After a mixture of criticism and praise for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Fitzpatrick wrote, “I have come to the conclusion it was Audrey Hepburn who got everybody going on all twelve cylinders. She is certainly lovelier than ever. Her recent pregnancy has put some much-needed flesh on her bones, and softened the once gaunt outlines of her face…Furthermore, Miss Hepburn’s acting ability is also better than ever, so I suppose it’s no wonder everyone connected with this picture gave above and beyond the call of duty.”

Recent screenings of these two movies at the Michigan Theater helped me observe the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The opening helicopter shot of West Side Story showed us lower Manhattan before the World Trade Center buildings were built, helping us understand how the WTC changed the landscape of that part of New York City. And Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a kind of love letter to New York City; I saw it at the Michigan on a day when many people were thinking about that city–September 11, 2011.

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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