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Posts Tagged ‘fifties’

Flying Saucers Over the Art Department!

September 13, 2016 | by

How the book designers of the fifties and sixties tackled alien invasions. 

A still from Forbidden Planet, 1956.

It’s impossible to know what sort of cover design will make a book fly off the shelves. Through timidity, this often leads to a certain monotony in covers, especially when they’re genre specific—“If it worked before, it’ll have to work again, eventually.” At times the uniformity is comical: it’s hard for book people of a certain age not to remember, say, the gothic romance subgenre without bringing to mind the same cover that was on every one by the end of the sixties—a woman, at night, dashing (often in a white nightgown) from a darkened mansion in sinister woods. Familiarity bred contentment; every reader knew what to expect when they saw the lady running.

Flying saucers as a phrase entered the modern English vocabulary at the end of June 1947, immediately after the initial sightings by Kenneth Arnold in Washington State—which, as it happened, turned out to be the first of thousands of such sightings. The subject was becoming more popular by the week, and publishing houses such as Henry Holt, Fawcett, and Citadel were quick to recognize the need for books on it. But what kind of a cover should go on a book about flying saucers? At the outset, there was no consensus as to what the saucers even actually looked like: they were described as blinking lights, purple blobs, flying wings, boomerangs, shiny metal balls, floating kerosene lamps, pie plates, hubcaps from an old Terraplane; in photos, during the first ten years, the most popular model resembled either the top of a chicken incubator, or part of the casing of a 1937 Electrolux vacuum cleaner. Read More »

Sorry, Judy

November 23, 2015 | by

Judy doesn’t even deserve this picnic.

I recently had a thought while reading Marjory Hall’s A Picnic for Judy, a YA book from 1955. The premise was promising: a young woman is forced to move with her family to a rambling old inn on a Maine island. Score! I thought. It seemed like it would combine my favorite fifties YA themes: coming of age, pine trees, and redecorating, with setting to rights into the bargain. Yes, surely this would be the sort of book that Betty Cavanna could whip up with her eyes closed—that I find so comforting and fun.

It’s true, I’d had mixed results with Howell before. Her books have been known to involve inexplicable decision-making, mysterious romantic motivations, and leaden dialogue. But with this setup, how could she go wrong? At the very least, there’d be a picnic scene. Read More »

Seeing Red

June 2, 2015 | by

Anticommunism at the movies.


You’re trying awful hard with all this patriotic eyewash.
—Skip McCoy, Pickup on South Street

If you’re feeling polemical, you might argue that all Hollywood cinema is anticommunist: as the central commodity of the culture industry, big studio movies are designed for nothing so much as circulating and producing capital. But if we want to talk Communist with a capital C—you know, where the C stands for USSR—then Hollywood’s anticommunist films are a special and specific genre of flops and farces, a cinematic tradition featuring such classics as I Married a Communist, The Red Menace, Assignment: Paris, and My Son John. (Spoiler: John’s a goddamned Bolshie!)

The fifties saw the heyday of anticommie popcorn flicks. True, the silent era had its Bolshevism on Trial and Red Russia Revealed, and the eighties met with Soviet invasion in Red Dawn and some serious anti-Vietcong violence in the later Rambo movies. But when you wanna see a square-jawed U.S. American call a sweaty creep a commie and slug him in the mouth, it’s the postwar period you turn to. Though most of the era’s anticommunist films were too vulgar and outlandish to survive as anything other than hilarious artifacts—or as evidence of the ever-imperialist, state-serving agenda of the Hollywood apparatus, depending on which side of the bed you woke up on—a few, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street among them, are truly great works of cinema. (Granted, 1982’s Rambo: First Blood—if you excise the last four minutes, when Sly gives a speech crying about how hippies, those “maggots at the airport,” spit on him—is also pretty great.) Both are tense, pulpy noirs, both center around the sale of nuclear secrets, and both take anticommunism more as a genre then a narrative drive. But only one, Pickup on South Street (1953), is being revived this week at Film Forum, in New York. Read More »

The Dark Galleries

May 2, 2014 | by

The noir and gothic films of the forties and fifties often feature beguiling portraits, paintings that possess a strange power; they inspire acts of fraud, forgery, theft, murder, and obsession. Think of The Woman in the Window, Laura, or Vertigo: in the first few scenes of each film, a kind of investigator becomes enraptured with a woman who also appears in a painted portrait—and, often, the twist reveals that she’s not who she seems to be. In Laura, the portrait itself stands in for the woman who’s supposedly disappeared, as Detective Mark McPherson investigates the crime—until, that is, Laura walks into her old apartment, where the detective is sleeping beneath the portrait that so intrigued him. The portrait serves as a kind of false look, or false double, that only can really be appreciated on film.

The artists who created these portraits—usually just large-scale photographs slapped with varnish—typically went uncredited; today most of the portraits themselves have gone missing. In The Dark Galleries: A Museum Guide to Painted Portraits in Film Noir Gothic Melodramas and Ghost Stories of the 1940s and 1950s, the art and film historians Steven Jacobs and Lisa Colpaert have created a guide to an imaginary gallery of these imaginary paintings, which often took imaginary people as their subjects.

What interested Jacobs most was not so much the portraits themselves, but the roles they played in their respective films: they reflected how people thought they should behave in front of pieces of art. The plots of these films often came from classic literature or standard noir fare, but it was film techniques that brought the paintings into more direct conversation with the narrative. Read More »