Comedies in the 50s took a back seat to all other genres. In order to combat what was happening with the new tidal wave known as television, movie studios introduced the “bigger is better” code that would last through to the late sixties. It was the decade of large scale historical dramas, musicals, biblical epics – basically anything where you could fill a cinemascope screen and get people out of the house to see something they couldn’t see on the little box in the living room.
Films like ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (1952), ‘Shane’ and ‘The Robe’ (both 1953), ‘Oklahoma’ (1955), ‘The Ten Commandments’, ‘Giant’ and ‘The King and I’ (all 1956), ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) and ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959) – as well as dozens of others – took advantage of the opportunity to visually overwhelm and, at the same time, try to make the spectacle work as part of the story. It didn’t always work (for every ‘Ben-Hur’ there was laughable fare like ‘The Prodigal’) but, more often than not, they made money.
If people wanted to laugh, the majority stayed home and turned to ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘Make Room for Daddy’, ‘The Honeymooners’, Sid Caesar and Milton Berle on the small screen. Film comedies had a harder time breaking through – they were too ordinary and antiseptic (‘Designing Woman’, ‘Love in the Afternoon’), and often not even remotely funny (anything with Martin and Lewis, ‘The Tunnel of Love’). That wasn’t the case with the thirties and forties and it wouldn’t be the case in subsequent decades. It was a tough slog for about 9 years, but there were some gems that do stand the test of time and they’re worth seeking out. Here’s a look at seven that still resonate and define the best of the decade in comedy:
7. How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
There is no question that this one is very dated in its basic premise that all women are out to nab a man, preferably a rich one. But if taken as a true period piece, this is a very funny film and provided all three of its stars – Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe – with some of their best comedic opportunities. Showing off conspicuous consumption at its finest, the trio do their best to find the right guy, but ultimately love gets in the way. It’s all very silly, but there’s great dialogue and the three stars play beautifully together. Bacall is the no-nonsense leader of the group, Grable the more down-to-earth of the trio and Monroe is the stereotypical nearsighted blonde who exists in a perpetual comic haze. Key moments – Bacall shopping for jewelry (“I’ll take that … and that, and that and that and that.”), Grable dreaming of a pastrami sandwich and beer instead of money, and Monroe walking into walls because she won’t wear her glasses. It’s all handled with aplomb. Over the years, this one morphed into camp, but it remains a guilty pleasure that can still produce laughs.