The Best Films of 1956

18 Dec

The older I get, the more I like watching films from the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, especially the mid-1950s. I like revisiting my favorites from that period and continually discovering new films from that time, be they westerns, dramas, crime movies, historical epics, musicals, sci-fi, horror, etc. It was a unique period for filmmaking, as Hollywood was undergoing a transition from the studio era, its ironclad contracts and ownership of theaters to one of independent production, independent theater chains, a loosening of the Production Code, more location shooting and greater acceptance by the public of foreign films. The old guard was still turning out exemplary work, as seen in the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and King Vidor, all of whom had gotten their start during the silent era, while younger directors with bolder visions and new stylistic approaches had emerged during and after the war, including Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. In addition, a host of new talent was emerging from television, Broadway and documentaries and quickly finding their way to Hollywood, including Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Delbert Mann, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Robert Altman. These overlapping waves of directors offered an unprecedented talent pool the likes of which Hollywood has never seen since. It’s no coincidence that a group of French film critics developed the auteur theory around this time.

Hollywood had to compete with television for audiences and stepped up its game by making big-budget spectacles like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, WAR AND PEACE and BEN-HUR and employing formats like Cinemascope, 3-D, stereophonic sound, and Cinerama. At the same time, producers were tackling stronger subject matter in relatively low-budget black-and-white films like ON THE WATERFRONT, MARTY, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, BABY DOLL, BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, 12 ANGRY MEN, EDGE OF THE CITY, THE THREE FACES OF EVE, THE DEFIANT ONES and ANATOMY OF A MURDER. On the world stage, major directors included David Lean, Carol Reed, Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Satyajit Ray, among many others.

During this period, Hollywood had also perfected the fine art of making genre films, especially westerns, crime movies and science fiction, three of my favorite genres. Major filmmakers worked in these genres, which were no longer just the province of the “B” movie, and it was not uncommon to see films in these genres in color and widescreen. This was more often the case for westerns, since the bulk of sci-fi and crime movies in the 1950s, regardless of their budgets, continued to be filmed, often quite beautifully, in black-and-white. When I signed up for Amazon Prime earlier this year, most of the films I sought out were previously unseen westerns and crime movies from the mid-1950s and I’m quite happy about these choices.

For this entry, I’ve chosen to single out 1956, since it was 60 years ago and comes smack in the middle of the period I’m talking about. I’ve seen 22 films from 1956 so far this year, nine of them first-time viewings, the most I’ve seen from any single year in 2016. (I’ve now seen a total of 145 films released in 1956.) I’ve decided to pick ten Hollywood films and five Japanese films that I like the most from that year and that stand out as quality filmmaking and engrossing entertainment, each with something daring and innovative that made them different from other works in their genres or other works by the same directors. I re-watched most of them in preparation for this and I’ve listed them in rough order of preference.

THE SEARCHERS

Director: John Ford. Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood. Warner Bros, color, 119 min.

This is one of my favorite westerns and easily my favorite film by John Ford, whom I consider to be one of the five best filmmakers in the history of cinema. It’s a much darker journey into the heart of the westerner than we’d seen in Ford’s earlier western masterpieces, STAGECOACH, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE and FORT APACHE. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran (ex-Confederate) and presumed outlaw, who turns up at his brother’s frontier household three years after the war just in time to get caught up in an uprising by local Comanches. When his brother and most of his family are slaughtered, Ethan embarks on a mission, ostensibly to rescue his youngest niece, Debbie, but secretly on a mission of revenge against the killers of the woman he really loved, his brother’s wife. We get to see a nuanced portrait of frontier life in Texas and the varied personalities of the settlers who sought to create communities there, as well as the Indians who were displaced and disrupted by the influx of whites and Mexicans. The film offers a critical view of Ford’s beloved cavalry who are shown in one scene to have massacred a nomadic group of Indians, including women and children. Ethan’s avowed hatred of the Indians who killed his brother and his family is tempered by the simple fact that he appears to have lived among them and learned their customs and language. Ethan is a complicated figure and one destined to travel alone as the ending makes clear after he returns Debbie to a neighbor family and the door closes, shutting him out of the community. The breathtaking Technicolor cinematography includes frequent backdrops of Monument Valley.

LUST FOR LIFE

Director: Vincente Minnelli. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, James Donald. MGM, color, 122 min.

I’ve seen lots of films about artists and this is by far my favorite, truly capturing the emotional essence of a great artist’s all-consuming relationship to his art, both the excellence it achieves in its results and the toll it takes on an artist’s ability to function in the real world. Kirk Douglas plays the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and with help from a haircut, hair dye, beard and a slight makeup job, he looks enough like van Gogh to enable the production to use van Gogh’s own self-portraits among the many actual paintings borrowed for the film. Based on Irving Stone’s best-selling biographical novel, the film told the whole arc of van Gogh’s adult life, including his tempestuous friendship with fellow painter—and equally volatile personality–Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this film), who rooms with him during van Gogh’s stay in Arles. We see a lot of painting being done amidst splendid recreations of the scenery and farm life that inspired van Gogh, filmed on the actual locations, and we see a lot of actual van Gogh paintings, all underscored by a magnificent soundtrack by Miklos Rozsa. It’s an art lover’s dream. Douglas gives a very brave performance as a man of emotional extremes who had difficulty forging normal human relationships and achieved no success as a painter in his short lifetime, committing suicide by gunshot at the age of 37.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS

Director: Don Siegel. Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan. Allied Artists, b&w, 80 min.

This is one of the most chilling science fiction films I’ve ever seen, telling an escalating horror tale of a doctor’s return from vacation to his hometown only to hear increasing reports of family members claiming their parents/uncles/siblings, etc. are not really them, that they seem to have been taken over in some way. The doctor’s investigation eventually reveals the unexplained influx of mysterious human-sized seed pods that grow duplicates of individuals and replace them, minus any and all human emotion. The only way to avoid the duplication process is to stay awake. Eventually, the doctor (Kevin McCarthy) and his girlfriend (Dana Wynter) are the only ones in Santa Mira who are unaffected and have to flee as the alerted townsfolk follow in hot pursuit. It’s one of the most suspenseful films I’ve ever seen and it creates its horror among everyday people in an idyllic California valley town in broad daylight and familiar settings. The only effects involve the pods and the emergence of the human duplicates and their gradual transformation into the characters they’re meant to replace. It just shows how effective a science fiction horror story can be when told with strong characters, skillful cinematography, concise editing, and imaginative, cost-saving methods. It’s been remade several times, but none of the remakes have been anywhere near as good.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

Director: Cecil B. DeMille. Cast: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Yvonne De Carlo, John Derek. Paramount, color, 232 min.

DeMille made a career out of overblown epics set in a variety of historical settings, including the present-day, but I have always felt that he truly put his heart into this, his final directorial credit, released when he was 75. He really believes in the story of Moses and the vision he was given by God in the form of the Ten Commandments and set out to tell that story to a modern audience with all the cinematic tools at his disposal. He resorts to blatant melodramatics at times (“Oh Moses, you adorable fool”) and relies on a large cast of Hollywood name actors, but I have to confess that it never fails to move me. It was Charlton Heston’s first epic role and he makes the most of it, creating a larger-than-life portrait of the legendary Biblical figure who delivered the Jews to freedom after centuries of slavery in Egypt. The epic production was made on the grandest scale DeMille ever aspired to, with location shooting in Egypt and thousands of extras employed to recreate the Exodus. DeMille himself appears in a prologue to introduce the film and, in a separate featurette made at the time, he recounts the extensive research that went into it. He displays the passion that drove him and it apparently drove the audience, too, since the film was reissued to theaters many times (I saw it twice in theaters, once in 1966 and once in 1972), and has become an annual Easter staple on broadcast television. As much as I enjoy such other spectacles as BEN-HUR, SPARTACUS, EL CID and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, I’ll always have the softest spot for this one.

This is the only Best Picture nominee from 1956 on my list. (The other Best Picture nominees that year were GIANT, THE KING AND I, FRIENDLY PERSUASION and the winner, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.)

ATTACK!

Dir.: Robert Aldrich. Cast: Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin, William Smithers, Richard Jaeckel. United Artists, b&w, 108 min.

This was one of a trio of significant war movies in the 1950s with anti-war content that were made without cooperation from the Department of Defense, the others being Samuel Fuller’s THE STEEL HELMET (1951) and Anthony Mann’s MEN IN WAR (1957). ATTACK! is the only one of the three set in World War II. Jack Palance stars as Lieutenant Costa of Fox Company who loses several men on a European battlefield because of the failure of Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert) to provide support, a result of Cooney’s loss of nerve in the midst of action. When a complaint is lodged with Lieutenant Colonel Bartlett (Lee Marvin), no action is taken because Bartlett is seeking to curry favor with Cooney’s father, a powerful political figure in the men’s home state who can further Bartlett’s political career. Invariably, Cooney displays cowardice in battle again leading to drastic action on the part of Costa and his men. Will there be a court-martial or will Bartlett try to sweep it under the rug?

The film is not about the issues of the war or the depredations of the Nazi enemy, but about corruption in the officer class and its deleterious effect on the men doing the fighting. Director Aldrich always displayed an anti-authority streak in his work, culminating in his WWII epic of eleven years later, THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), in which two of the cast of ATTACK!, Lee Marvin and Richard Jaeckel, lead a squad of military prisoners, several awaiting death sentences, on a suicide mission against a gathering of Nazi officers. Palance gives an intense performance, searing in his hatred for Cooney and contempt for the higher-ups. Every man in Fox Company is a distinct character and not just a type and the actors playing the main members are all excellent: Jaeckel, Buddy Ebsen, Robert Strauss. ATTACK! is shot in stark black-and-white on California locations and backlot sets, making the most of its low ($750,000) budget and creating as realistic a treatment of the war in Europe as was possible. I marveled at the ruins where the final battle is fought and wondered whether they’d gone to Europe to shoot the film. Well, it was a studio backlot tricked up to look battle-torn! One of the best war films I’ve ever seen.

THE KILLING

Director: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook, Marie Windsor. United Artists, b&w, 85 min.

THE KILLING was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature and the first to be made in Hollywood. He was clearly attempting to make a commercial genre feature and used a solid cast of dependable character actors and relied on pulp fiction master Jim Thompson to help him adapt a run-of-the-mill paperback crime novel. The result is one of the best caper movies ever made, with a stunning command of structure, action, and the infusion of character into standard genre conventions. After the bare minimum of time needed to set up the caper and chart the planning of it, the film jumps right to the racetrack and the execution of the robbery of the day’s receipts with the help of two inside men, plus a Los Angeles patrolman and two specialists employed to carry out important supporting actions. The film follows several characters and their concurrent timelines, sometimes doubling back to end at a moment that we’ve already seen. Everything runs smoothly until the boyfriend of the cheating spouse of one of the team shows up to hijack the proceeds to tragic effect.

What makes the film more than just a clever genre exercise is the inclusion of two characters, the cuckolded spouse and his faithless wife, who provide the bulk of the film’s emotional core. George Peatty (Elisha Cook), a clerk at the betting window, is genuinely in love with his wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor), and agrees to participate in the caper in order to satisfy her monetary demands despite her constant belittling of him and complaints about her lot in life. With her honeyed voice and manipulative taunts, she plays him for a fool and he knows it, but he accepts it because he wants to believe she will love him if he finally delivers on his empty promises. The actors play Thompson’s tart dialogue so convincingly that one is thoroughly drawn into their marital charade, knowing it will end badly.  These scenes contain the most heartfelt and honest expressions of human emotion in, perhaps, all of Kubrick’s work. They make a routine caper film a work of art.

FORBIDDEN PLANET

Director: Fred McLeod Wilcox. Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Jack Kelly. MGM, color, 98 min.

This was the first big-budget color science fiction feature made by a major Hollywood studio and the first American science fiction film to be set on a planet outside the Solar System. Drawing for inspiration from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the plot centers on an Earth ship’s investigation into the fate of an incommunicado space colony in the 22nd century, only to learn that one member of the original colony survived, a scientist named Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who has raised a daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), who was born on the planet. Morbius initially resists cooperating with the investigation and demands that the crewmen leave, but the persistence of Commander Adams (Lesllie Nielsen) finally compels Morbius to open up, revealing the existence of the remnants of the civilization of an ancient race, the Krell, and Morbius’ own attempts to understand and master the advanced Krell technology, buried in the interior of the planet, Altair-IV. All of this had tragic results for the space colony and, as Morbius had warned, equally tragic results for Adams’ crew. Unlike most Hollywood science fiction films, this isn’t just a monster movie or an action picture with a sci-fi setting, but is instead a genuine science fiction movie with a serious examination of a cerebral concept. What would an ancient civilization on a faraway planet have been like? What would their technology be like? How could a human tap into it? What would be the results? The film had then-state-of-the-art special effects and production design and most of it is quite effective. Indeed, the trip into the ancient Krell stronghold remains impressive even today.

Also impressive is Anne Francis as Morbius’ attractive, love-starved daughter who’s never known a man other than her father and is suddenly awash in attention from a whole crew of eligible, handsome men. This is also the film that gave us Robby the Robot, a walking, talking, obliging and very resourceful robot creation who comes in mighty handy for most of the characters. Robby would be featured in assorted variations in quite a number of films and TV series in the decades to come. Also, the film’s influence would be seen not just in many other lower-budgeted sci-fi films of the 1950s, but in TV’s “Star Trek,” which premiered ten years after PLANET’s release and was an acknowledged inspiration for Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry.

JUBAL

Dir.: Delmer Daves. Cast: Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger, Valerie French, Felicia Farr, Charles Bronson. Columbia, color, 101 minutes.

JUBAL is the second consecutive film on this list to have a basis, admittedly loose, in Shakespeare. It adapts “Othello” to cattle country in Wyoming as Ernest Borgnine plays a likable rancher with a voluptuous wife (Valerie French) who lusts after Jubal (Glenn Ford), a newly-hired drifter-turned-ranch hand who is eventually promoted to foreman over a jealous cowboy (Rod Steiger) who then turns the boss against his foreman, leading to a violent tragedy. It’s a grand western melodrama with some delicious scenery chewing by Steiger—and what scenery it is as the film was shot in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and includes picturesque backdrops in practically every shot. Charles Bronson is on hand as a friend of Jubal who gets involved in the action as well. There’s a wagon train of Mormon-like religious adherents camped out on the property until they can repair their wagons and get moving. Steiger had tried to drive them off, but Ford had intervened to let them stay. The religious leader’s hot-to trot teenage daughter (Felicia Farr) gets a yen for Jubal and he much prefers her eager puppy love advances to the illicit come-ons of his boss’s wife. Is this a great western on a par with THE SEARCHERS? Not by a long shot, but it’s polished Hollywood entertainment, visually stimulating, well-acted and expertly put together. The kind of thing Hollywood used to do so well.

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS

Director: Fred F. Sears. Cast: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum. Columbia, black-and-white, 83 min.

This is one of three black-and-white science fiction films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen. (It would be followed two years later by Harryhausen’s first color film, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD.) The effects mainly center on the flying saucers themselves and their unusual maneuvers and the destruction they cause, chiefly in the big finale in Washington D.C. (I once saw this at the AFI Theater in Washington and the audience reacted loudly in anguish when any of their beloved landmarks were hit.) It’s an exciting U.S. military-vs.-alien technology thriller with the aliens’ early communication efforts misunderstood and resultant violent response escalating to full-on warfare. Earth doesn’t stand a chance unless the film’s scientist-engineer hero, Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe), and his team come up with a weapon that will neutralize the magnetic fields powering the alien saucers. The aliens capture a couple of men, including Dr. Marvin’s father-in-law, General Hanley (Morris Ankrum), and suck out the knowledge from their brains. There are sequences of destruction leading up to the spectacular finale in D.C., where Dr. Marvin and his team drive trucks laden with some kind of magnetic ray machine that has to be aimed at the saucers to disrupt their drives and cause them to crash into all sorts of well-known sites, including the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Harryhausen’s effects work is intercut with lots of location shooting in D.C., including several shots featuring the main actors, Marlowe and Joan Taylor, as scientist husband-and-wife, on location in D.C. There’s even a shot of them at the White House gates. There are at least seven Harryhausen films I would rank higher than this, but I love this movie and have seen it quite a lot since first catching it on late-night TV when I was in junior high school while staying up late preparing a Social Studies report due the next day. When I finished the report, I continued watching the movie which ended at 1AM, and, miraculously, my parents never got up to intervene.

GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS

Directors: Ishiro Honda, Terry O. Morse. Cast: Raymond Burr, Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarada, Akihiko Hirata. Embassy Pictures/Toho Pictures, b&w, 80 min.

This is the Americanized re-edit of the Japanese classic, GOJIRA (1954), featuring a mix of scenes from the original with newly-shot Hollywood scenes featuring Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin, who is in Japan on business when the giant dinosaur known as Godzilla attacks and rampages through Tokyo, giving Martin the story of his life, although it nearly kills him. Granted, this is a pale echo of the original, but it holds a special place in baby boomer film history because it was the first Japanese film most of us were exposed to, even though it was a curious hybrid, and paved the way for numerous other Japanese monster and sci-fi films to enter the American market. I first saw this film when I was five and it was followed over the years by RODAN, THE MYSTERIANS, MOTHRA, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, all the way up to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 American remake and the 2016 Japanese reboot, SHIN GOJIRA, which I wrote about here on October 15. So I think I’m in a position to argue that this was the film that started it all for me. Raymond Burr’s presence was a huge plus, because he’d become a huge star in between the time this film played in theaters and the time it played on television, having begun his long run as the title character in the CBS legal drama, “Perry Mason,” in 1957, a year before GODZILLA premiered on New York television. For me and millions of others, it was Perry Mason who acted as the sympathetic American agent who opened a window for us into Japanese cinema. I’ve seen the original GOJIRA many times and I’ve seen this one many more times and have even watched them back-to-back and I’m continually impressed by how much of the power of the original comes through in this version. Many of the scenes from the original are presented in their original Japanese, something you don’t get in the standard-issue dubs of Japanese monster films that came in the years afterwards.

Interestingly, the same year that Joseph E. Levine released GOJIRA as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, Toho also released a shortened version of THE SEVEN SAMURAI for distribution in the U.S. under the title, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which would also be the title of the American western remake in 1960 (and again in 2016). This shortened version, losing about an hour of running time, was released in both a Japanese-language version with subtitles and an English-dubbed version. I’ve never seen the shortened version and have never known it to circulate in my lifetime in either the dubbed or subbed version. But I would love to watch the dubbed version to see how it plays. In any event, the two most important Japanese films of 1954, THE SEVEN SAMURAI and GOJIRA, both of which would have a long and steady influence on the popular cultures of two nations which had been at war just nine years earlier, both got released in some form in the U.S. in 1956.

Toshiro Mifune in THE SEVEN SAMURAI:

Five Best Japanese films of 1956

I have a number of Japanese favorites from 1956, two of which I re-watched for this piece and I thought to do a separate list of them, rather than try to intersperse them with the Hollywood list.

EARLY SPRING

Dir.: Yasujiro Ozu. Cast: Ryo Ikebe, Chikage Awashima, Keiko Kishi, Teiji Takahashi. Shochiku, b&w, 145 min.

This is another nuanced portrait of contemporary Japanese life from Ozu, the great director of family-themed dramas. The focus here is on a 30-something husband and wife, still suffering from the death of their only child, and the seams in their marriage that are exposed when the husband (Ryo Ikebe) goes astray and has a fling with a needy and flirtatious young working girl (Keiko Kishi) who is among the group of friends he travels with on the commuter train every morning and socializes with sometimes on the weekends or in the evenings. I felt great sympathy for the wife (Chikage Awashima), who is quite beautiful, intelligent and spirited, but is often cold and sharp with her husband, clearly regretful of her choices and upset at their lot in life and her lack of freedom to make more out of it. Chiyo, the working girl, is fascinating also and is clearly trying to get more out of life for herself by staying single and being more aggressive, sometimes at the expense of others’ happiness. The husband, like a lot of men in these films, is not the most understanding or empathetic of characters, and is often simply buffeted around by fate, letting others make his choices for him. While it’s not as deeply emotionally felt as Ozu’s masterpieces, LATE SPRING and TOKYO STORY, it’s still a thoroughly engaging drama with excellent performances by the whole cast and an intriguing view of Japan eleven years after the war, on the verge of embarking on its “economic miracle.” Criterion Collection.

THE BURMESE HARP

Dir.: Kon Ichikawa. Cast: Rentaro Mikuni, Shoji Yasui, Ko Nishimura, Jun Hamamura. Nikkatsu, b&w, 116 min.

This is a powerful tale of Japanese soldiers imprisoned in Burma at the end of the war and the way one of their number, finally overwhelmed by the senseless deaths of so many of his countrymen, breaks away from his unit and takes on a new identity as a wandering Buddhist monk who takes it upon himself to find corpses of those killed in action and give them proper burials. This causes great anguish for both Mizushima, the monk, and all of his soldier buddies. While he refuses to talk to them once he’s made his decision, he and they find unique methods to communicate their positions, often using songs and pieces of music played by Mizushima on the harp of the title. One of many scenes to use music and song in dramatically creative ways is an extraordinary sequence early on when the men, facing capture by British and Indian soldiers, sing a song about home, to which the British soldiers respond by singing “There’s No Place Like Home,” which has the same melody, therefore defusing the tension and paving the way for a peaceful surrender and the key information that the war has ended. This was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 1956. Criterion Collection.

SAMURAI III: DUEL AT GANRYU ISLAND

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki. Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Koji Tsuruta, Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Okada. Toho, color, 105 min.

This was the third part in the famous Samurai Trilogy, based on a series of novels by Eiji Yoshikawa, in which Toshiro Mifune starred as the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto. In this installment, after quite a suspenseful build-up in the two previous installments and most of this one, we finally get to the sword duel on the beach at Ganryu Island between Musashi and his sometime-ally, sometime-rival, Kojiro Sasaki. This event was as momentous in Japanese historical lore as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is in American western lore. We also see the resolution of the long-standing romantic tension between Musashi and his devoted love, Otsu, who had made it her life’s mission to follow him, despite his insistence on going his own way to perfect his swordsmanship. The three films in the trilogy were among the earliest Japanese films to be shot in color. SAMURAI I was given worldwide release and even awarded an Honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 1955. Inagaki’s films were beautifully shot and elegantly designed and much more conventional in their approach than the samurai films of, say, Kihachi Okamoto or Masaki Kobayashi, and much more accessible to international audiences and critics, although not as wildly popular among hardcore Japan film buffs as something like SWORD OF DOOM would later be. Curiously, neither Part 2 nor Part 3 of the Trilogy arrived in the U.S. until 1967. Criterion Collection.

RODAN

Director: Ishiro Honda. Cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata. Toho, color, 82 min.

This was the third giant monster film from Toho, the second directed by Ishiro Honda, and the first in color. Rodan is a giant pterodactyl who hatches out of an egg found in a mining excavation and flies over Japan causing great destruction with the ferocious wind from its wings. After GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS first aired on TV, this was the first “real” Japanese movie to air on commercial television, with most of it intact, a minimum of reediting, and no American actors inserted, except as voice actors. Granted, it was English-dubbed, but we got to see extensive scenes of Japanese life and Japanese characters unmediated by any overseas visitors, particularly in the early scenes in the mining community, where we meet a number of the characters and we first see creatures from the mine emerge to terrorize the inhabitants before the larger menace of Rodan and its sibling are revealed. This film was a big deal on TV when we were children and I’ve found new things to enjoy in it every time I’ve seen it as an adult. George Takei, the future Sulu on “Star Trek,” has one of his first acting jobs here doing a couple of character voices. Chinese-American actor Keye Luke does other voices and Paul Frees, who would later specialize in dubbing Japanese characters, is also heard on the soundtrack. Rodan eventually emerged as a co-star in several future Godzilla movies, including GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.

ROMANCE MUSUME

Dir.: Toshio Sugie. Cast: Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, Izumi Yukimura, Akira Takarada. Toho, color, 98 min.

ROMANCE MUSUME was the second musical to feature “Sannin Musume,” a three-girl act consisting of postwar pop stars Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri and Izumi Yukimura. The films were excuses to showcase teenage girls having a good time together and singing plenty of songs, some traditional Japanese and some contemporary pop, including several American songs (with a mix of English and Japanese lyrics), all in beautiful Eastmancolor cinematography. Even though most scenes are shot on Toho studio sets, one does get a sense of contemporary Tokyo in the 1950s, newly prosperous after years of hardship and turmoil after the war. In this film, the three girls play high school students who work after school and whose parents are all shopowners, so we get a sense of how ordinary Japanese lived in those years. We also get a look at a wealthier household when the girls visit the grandfather of one of their male classmates, who lives in a western-style house on a large piece of property. The film stresses the delights of female friendship as the girls spend a lot of time together and clearly enjoy each other’s company way more than that of family members or boys. We see them eating together, cooking and preparing food, playing tennis and collaborating at their place of employment, a large Tokyo department store. The girls’ parents all run shops in working-class neighborhoods, so we see the girls frequently in those settings, a noodle shop, a bakery, and a florist shop. Each girl has a male companion, but they’re never seen in any kind of romantic situation. I have yet to see this film with subtitles, but it’s delightful enough without them. I did my best to lay out what the plot might be in both my IMDB review and my earlier blog entry on this film.

There are many more films from 1956 I watched for this piece, some of which I considered including. Call them Honorable Mentions.

TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON:

SLIGHTLY SCARLET:

MEET ME IN LAS VEGAS:

Plus: THE KILLER IS LOOSE, THE BRASS LEGEND, DAKOTA INCIDENT, WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, THE PROUD ONES, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, and…

Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, STREET OF SHAME:

 

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