Americans always have turned to the movies to take their minds off their troubles, but entertainment was especially treasured during the baby boom era. Even as the country celebrated the end of World War II and families joyously welcomed their veterans home, threats still loomed.
People think of the 50s as a very complacent and placid period, but its a very nervous period, says Paul Cohen, a professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., who teaches a course on film after 1945.
To escape their Cold War fears, Americans embraced the larger-than-life characters and stories that unfolded on the big screen. Big-budget musicals such as My Fair Lady thrived, with their sweeping scores and happy endings. High Noon and other good-guys/bad-guys Westerns remained popular popcorn picks, and elaborate epics such as Ben-Hur captured viewers imaginations.
Still, Hollywood didnt shy away from serious topics such as politics, race and religion, and audiences applauded those films, too. If the story drew them in, it didnt necessarily have to be a sunny one. The movies masked what people were really feeling, but expressed it, too, Cohen says.
Heres a look back at the top movies from 1946 to 1964. Most won the Academy Award for Best Picture, with only a few notable exceptions. Together, they paint a picture of Americas multifaceted post-war mood.
The Best Years of Our Lives
To capture the realities of war on film, director and World War II veteran William Wyler cast Harold Russell, a disabled veteran with no acting experience. The film was much more serious than youd expect for that moment, Cohen says. But I think it hit the right chord.
Gregory Peck starred as a journalist who pretends to be Jewish to expose anti-Semitism. Hollywood executives warned producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director Elia Kazan against the controversial subject, but the film was both a critical and commercial success.
After two years of topical hits, audiences went back to the classics. Laurence Oliviers British Hamlet made Oscar history by becoming the first non-American film to win Best Picture. He also was the first person to be named Best Actor who directed himself.
All the Kings Men
This classic film chronicling the rise and fall of a corrupt politician was remade in 2006 with a star-studded cast that included Sean Penn and Anthony Hopkins.
All About Eve
Based on a true story, the film resurrected Bette Davis career. The gravelly voice that made her Margo character so memorable actually was the result of a fierce argument with her soon-to-be-ex-husband that rendered Davis voice hoarse early during its filming.
An American in Paris
Scholars point to the Oscar victory of An American in Paris over the darker A Streetcar Named Desire as evidence that the 50s found Americans longing for lighter fare. Everythings going to be all right is the message of a musical, Cohen says.
The years Oscar went to Cecil B. DeMilles The Greatest Show on Earth, but many thought High Noon, starring Gary Cooper, was robbed. Westerns are about real men asserting themselves in a dangerous world, and winning, Cohen says.
From Here to Eternity
With a title taken from a Rudyard Kipling poem, the film was one of the first bold enough to criticize the military after World War II. Nevertheless, its cherished most for the sand-soaked love scene between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster.
On the Waterfront
Director Elia Kazans movie about a union informant grew from his own decision to call out some colleagues as communists. Critic Roger Ebert has said that Marlon Brandos lead performance changed American movie acting forever.
Rebel Without a Cause
Best Picture was awarded to Marty, but the movie that endured was James Deans star-making role as a disaffected teen. Critic Pauline Kael said it had more emotional resonance for the teenagers of the time than many much better movies.
Around the World in 80 Days
As Hollywood struggled to compete with television, the era of epic films was launched with this adaptation of Jules Vernes novel. It boasted the most extras in film history, including all 6,500 residents of Chinchon, Spain.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Most war movies are either for or against their wars, wrote critic Roger Ebert. [This] is one of the few that focuses not on larger rights and wrongs, but on individuals. The film about POWs building a bridge in Burma took the years top box-office spot.
American in Paris director Vincente Minnelli and star Leslie Caron reteamed for the musical about a Parisian mistress. Written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the score includes Say a Prayer for Me Tonight, which was cut from a draft of My Fair Lady.
The famous chariot race in this epic biographical film starring Charlton Heston took five weeks to shoot. Lifelike dummies were used in dangerous spills, which led to a falsebut persistentrumor that a stuntman was killed on set.
Following Some Like It Hot, the Academy honored director Billy Wilders darker comedy about philandering businessmen. When filming started, Jack Lemmon and I had no idea how the film would end, writes star Shirley MacLaine on her website. And neither did Billy Wilder!
West Side Story
Though Robert Wise and the Broadway plays choreographer, Jerome Robbins, share directing credits, Robbins actually was fired after completing just a few scenes of the tragic romance. Still, his contribution was validated when the duo became the first to share a directing Oscar.
Lawrence of Arabia
Peter OTooles performance as British military officer T.E. Lawrence is legendary, but he was not director David Leans first choice. Albert Finney and Marlon Brando each were sought for the role.
A controversial pick for Best Picture that beat out Cleopatra and How the West Was Won, this bawdy British comedy was nevertheless the top-grossing film of the year, thanks to Albert Finneys hilarious performance in the title role.
My Fair Lady took top Oscar honors, but the surprising popularity of Stanley Kubricks Cold War satire signaled a major cultural shift. Its a comedy about the worst possible nightmare, Cohen says. Its really the beginning of the counterculture, and in many ways it predicts the revolt of the 60s.