As stated in Parts 1 and 2, I saw hundreds of films while I was growing up in Iowa. Here are some of the ones I remember from 1954.
I was already hooked on Walt Disney films and cartoons by the time Disneyland premiered on ABC television on October 27, 1954. I didn’t know it at the time, but the television program was produced expressly to finance the construction of the original theme park in Anaheim, California (which I finally visited in the summer of 1970). As such, it was a promotional vehicle for Disney films and TV shows. It was there that I saw features on the upcoming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which would be released that December. I couldn’t have been more wired for this film. By the time the curtain went up at the Vista Theater, I must have been hyperventilating in the seat after weeks of anxious anticipation. I lived for movies; nothing else came close. 20,000 Leagues delivered beautifully. This was a big production in CinemaScope and Technicolor with a great cast of international stars, including Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre. It felt totally believable to me. I loved the design of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine, and still do. I had little awareness then of who did what behind the camera in the films I saw, but learned later that 20,000 Leagues was helmed by Richard Fleischer, an underrated director who made solid films in a variety of genres, such as Armored Car Robbery (1950), The Narrow Margin (1952), Violent Saturday (1955), The Boston Strangler (1968), and Soylent Green (1973).
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I liked knights-in-armor stories and other swashbuckling films. Here are several that captured my attention that year.
In retrospect, these were standard-issue films, with little to distinguish them, though that didn’t stop me from thinking they were great. Prince Valiant, however, is an exception, but only in retrospect. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, except for the climactic sword fight between Prince Valiant (Robert Wagner) and the bad guy, Sir Brack (James Mason). It has a very different style from the way scenes like this were usually done, though I wouldn’t have been conscious of that when I first saw it. It’s not conventionally edited; the takes are longer; there are no close-ups of the participants or reaction shots of the observers, only medium and long shots to cover the action. There’s no leaping about à la Erroll Flynn, nothing heroic. It’s not even thrilling. This is just two guys with broadswords and shields slamming away at each other until one of them drops. It’s like a demolition derby. The scene lasts a hair over three minutes. There’s no music until the final minute, which is also unusual. Films of this period are usually heavily scored. Here’s the scene:
The Robe, which introduced CinemaScope the year before, had been a big hit. No time was wasted making a sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, starring Victor Mature, an actor well suited to the sword and sandal genre.
Here are other films I saw in ’54.
The notable thing about Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is that it was directed by the great Luis Buñuel. Again, this isn’t something I would have been aware of at the time, but knowing he directed it, I’d like to see it now. It seems like such an odd film for Buñuel to have made. The other three above were also made by strong directors; Douglas Sirk for Magnificent Obsession; Samuel Fuller for Hell and High Water; and Anthony Mann for The Glenn Miller Story. Speaking of The Glenn Miller Story, it takes a fairly standard bio-pic approach, but the music is great. My folks loved big band music, so I was primed for this one.
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For the most part, The Bridges at Toko-Ri , adapted from the novel by James A. Michener, is a competent, by-the-numbers war film with William Holden, Grace Kelly, Frederic March, and Mickey Rooney in the lead roles. What makes it stand out from the pack is the ending. *SPOILER ALERT* Holden is a jet pilot stationed on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. He’s shot down after a bombing mission to blow up the titular bridges. Mickey Rooney is a helicopter pilot sent to rescue him. They both end up dying in a sewage ditch, killed by enemy troops. It’s an ending that’s as grubby and unglamorous as any you could imagine. There’s a final scene back on the carrier with the admiral, Frederic March, delivering a stirring speech (“Where do we get such men?”) after he learns of Holden’s and Rooney’s deaths. But it doesn’t change what we’ve just seen. I’m sure at the time I just saw exciting aerial footage, carrier takeoffs and landings, the comic relief of Mickey Rooney, and so forth. I would like to have included the sequence here, but the only clip I could find has poor image quality and is out of sync to boot. Too bad, though this lobby card shows them in the ditch in their final moments.
My love for horror and science-fiction films was rewarded in ’54 with Them! and especially Creature from the Black Lagoon. Giant ants and a prehistoric fish man — what more could a farm boy want?
Arguably the greatest moment in Creature is this scene of the Gill Man swimming beneath Julia Adams, mirroring her movements. It was a powerful stimulus to a young boy’s curiosity and imagination.
When I saw Johnny Guitar, I enjoyed it as a Western, but certainly didn’t have a clue as to how twisted, overheated, and operatic it is. I identified with Ben Cooper’s character, probably because he was the youngest, but then he ended up getting hanged. That was disturbing. The film builds to a traditional climactic shootout, but with Joan Crawford facing Mercedes McCambridge in a butch showdown. Weird. Nicholas Ray’s films have a unique strangeness to them, and this one is no exception. The trailer attempts to sell it as a regular Western, but don’t believe it.
Of the films on my list for this year, Johnny Guitar has stood the test of time the best. It’s not on the same level as High Noon, Shane, The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Thing from Another World, and I don’t love it the way I do those films , but I don’t think it needs any apologies, either.
Please stay tuned for the final installment of this saga. — Ted Hicks