Listen to America: The 1950s

To see the intro to this project, as well as links to other decades, click here.

20) “S’Wonderful,” from An American in Paris (1951)

The first Best Picture winner in color since Gone with the Wind, An American in Paris likewise hearkens back to what weary viewers might have seen as a simpler time. After a decade of Best Picture winners which had to do with war-adjacent normies (Mrs. Miniver, Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives), social conscience pictures (The Lost Weekend, Gentlemen’s Agreement, All the King’s Men), and gloomy literary adaptations with Laurence Olivier (Rebecca, Hamlet), the Academy decided to sidestep those categories for 1951 and get back to fun. Picking a Gene Kelly movie is not unlike picking a Bing Crosby movie, which the Academy had done for 1944, but Going My Way has a far more reserved character than An American in Paris. Heck, the work that Crosby’s inoffensive Father O’Malley does with erstwhile street toughs practically puts it in the social conscience bin. An American in Paris is not merely effusive but totally nostalgic, throwing it back to a pre-Crash Gershwin composition and several of his songs, placed in a Paris where the Nazis ostensibly were but where no sign of them can be seen. There are much more creative interpretations in this film, but “S’Wonderful” is the one that is most carefree and pleasurable, from the name to the irony to the broad smiles Gene Kelly and Georges Guétary wear.

21) “Singin’ in the Rain,” from Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Gene Kelly’s voice was fine, almost wispy, like the hairs on an infant’s head. And “Singin’ in the Rain,” probably the most iconic dance number in American movies, is a dance number first and foremost. No other sequence signifies the joy that makes your brain melt out your ears quite like this one does, and the reasons it does so are in Gene Kelly’s face and feet. His voice is secondary to the number, but that only adds to the joyfulness of the whole piece, almost like he’s too choked up to sing his feelings like other musical performers would. Kelly always sounded better with a second voice to buoy him up, and here the sound of his voice is even more prominent than the sound of his feet. A great singer no, but a heartfelt one indubitably.

22) “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Another performer who wasn’t necessarily a great singer, but whose screen presence doing so was inexorable. Credibly breathy, Marilyn Monroe’s interpretation of the song only adds to the inherent humor of the gold digger plot of the film, and it stands as a marked contrast to “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” Jane Russell is the sole woman in a depiction of beefcake which stands as an early landmark in queer cinema, but here’s Monroe to let straight men know they’re okay too…at least as long as they’ve got buckets of ice. The style of dress she wears here is similar to the type that Rita Hayworth wore for “Put the Blame on Mame,” only this one comes with a great big bow and, of course, is pinker than Henry A. Wallace. Like so much of Monroe’s image, this number is calculated down to the square inch, and thus it makes for a rewarding place to begin thinking about one of our great stars.

23) “The Man That Got Away,” from A Star Is Born (1954)

After two decades or so of having to subordinate her voice to cutesiness (“Dear Mr. Gable”), comedy (“Be a Clown”), dancing (“Get Happy”), or simplicity (“Over the Rainbow”), A Star Is Born gave Judy Garland a way to really cut loose. There are multiple places in this film where Garland is asked to just absolutely let it fly, and it’s breathtaking. That spot at 2:33 where she smacks her hair and lets it fall a little from its neat coif may have been planned, for all I know, but it’s such a brilliant choice, maybe an accident like the false start in The Mamas and the Papas’ “I Saw Her Again.” As for the actual singing, it’s just flawless stuff. Sometimes the right thing on a list like this is to include the best vocal performance from cinema’s best vocalist and not ask many questions.

24) “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” from The Night of the Hunter (1955)

There are wondrously eerie images throughout Night of the Hunter, not least among them the spectacular composition of an entired silhouetted Lillian Gish with a shotgun while a blurry Robert Mitchum waits peacefully and menacingly beyond her front door. But the music, in this context, is brand new. “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” was an old hymn when this movie came out in the mid-’50s, and while there are a number of hymns scattered through the picture, none of them are used to quite this level of effect. Even among the innumerable hymns in the Protestant tradition, there are an awful lot about the ability of God to comfort people during their times of trouble: “Blessed Assurance,” “It is Well with My Soul,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “Trust and Obey,” “Be Thou My Vision.” Yet there are none quite as familiar as “Leaning,” one of the folksier ones of this group, and Night of the Hunter gives us quite the opposite meaning. Nothing could be more discomfiting than to know that a half-crazed felon chasing after two innocent children has found the place where they’ve been taken in, with nothing more to protect them than an old woman with a shotgun over her lap. It’s a horrifying sequence, and even Lillian Gish piping up there doesn’t do much to alleviate the unshakeable creepiness.

25) “Jailhouse Rock,” from Jailhouse Rock (1957)

I was born in the years after “Fight the Power” came out, and so while I appreciate that Elvis may have been a hero to some…you know the rest. But “Jailhouse Rock” is MGM’s answer to Paramount’s Bing Crosby movies. Having been outmaneuvered after the peak of the big band era, they get Elvis here in the 1950s, and if nothing else this is a pretty clear statement as to what made Elvis a big deal at the time. The dancers in this look absolutely terrible. Part of it is the cardboard props they’re given, part of it is the doubled-over choreography, and part of it is that they appear to be from Earth while Elvis is from a much cooler planet altogether. Take those dance moves at 1:10 through 1:30. Everyone else is doing some easy little steps, something which signifies they’re dancing but never threatens to take the attention from Elvis. Meanwhile, his hips just move differently than theirs, and his voice sounds like he can swivel where those men just slide around occasionally. If the point is to make sure we understand that the god of the early years of white rock ‘n roll is different than the mortals, then Richard Thorpe can consider it heard.

26) “Get Along Home, Cindy,” from Rio Bravo (1959)

The best piece of music from this movie is “Deguello,” and the most famous is “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.” But the reason this film is so esteemed has more to do with the charming homosocial bonding between John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, and Ricky Nelson. Nelson takes the lead on this song at a time when he might have been about as popular as Elvis Presley. Walter Brennan picks up next, and he somehow sings worse than you’d expect someone with his voice to sing. And eventually, even Dean Martin, the ’50s crooning answer to Crosby and Sinatra, comes in to sing backup. John Wayne does not join into the song, which I defeats the possibility that we’d ever get a barbershop quartet featuring Brennan and the Duke. (I mean, thank God we never had to hear that, lives would be lost.) Rio Bravo, a work of revanchism in America’s right-wing cinema both great and essential, has to include a younger man to carry on. Wayne and Brennan are craggy, stubbly guys by now. Dean Martin had long since started to move from ladies’ man to lush. It requires the leadership of Ricky Nelson’s smooth voice unadulterated by liquor, cigarettes, or too many hours out on the range. Roger Ailes, Don Imus, Lamar Alexander, and Jim Bakker were born the same year as Ricky Nelson; for all we know the message landed.

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