I was thinking about all the shows and movies that take place in the 1950’s, and there are a lot of them because, well, the 50’s was quite simply The Best Era Ever! So what is more fun to watch than a movie set in the 50’s? NOTHING! That’s what!
Okay, maybe I’m being a little too emphatic. Let’s take it down a notch.
In the 1980’s (and into the 90’s), a big theme for movies was a 1950’s setting. The 80’s were a fun and prosperous time, something like the 50’s themselves. They are, in a way, “Sister Decades”. And, in the 80’s, the 50’s was the romantic throw-back era of choice. Funny enough, these 80’s set in the 50’s movies are now classics themselves, being over 30 years old.
Films Set in The Fabulous 50’s
Undeniably, the most classic 1980’s movie set in the 1950’s is Back To The Future. This movie was released smack-dab in the middle of the 80’s, in the Fall of 1985. If you somehow managed to miss this film, it’s about a teenager named Marty McFly who is pals with a mad scientist who builds a time machine out of a DeLorean. During a test-run, Marty inadvertently ends up in the DeLeoran and gets sent back 30 years to the year 1955. His presence in 1955 causes an upset in the natural flow of history, thus he has to make sure his parents get together so that he can be born later on. It stars Michael J. Fox as Marty and Christopher Lloyd as Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Lea Thompson plays Lorraine, Marty’s mother.
Some of the most classic bits of Pop Culture come from this movie. From the catch phrase “Hello? McFly?” to the Clock Tower, the Flux Compacitor and the DeLorean itself, Back To The Future is recognized as a true classic. For me, the most memorable part of the movie is when a confused Marty first arrives in 1955. “Mr. Sandman” by the Andrews Sisters is playing in the background. Marty is bewildered, looking around. Everyone is dressed in 50’s period clothing. Then the Clock Tower chimes… a man tosses a newspaper into a wastebasket. Marty picks it up and the date reads: “November 5, 1955”… I still get chills just thinking about it!
But even more chilling (at least to poor Marty) is when he meets his teenaged mother in her bedroom and she develops a crush on him as she’s caring for him after a car accident.
Back To The Future was actually a trilogy. The second film (Back To The Future II) has even more meaning today than the first, seeing as we have finally reached “The Future”. Released in the Summer of 1989, BTTF II is a continuation of the first movie. This time, things get more complicated when Marty and Doc travel 30 years into the FUTURE: to the year 2015. They encounter all kinds of history-altering complications and there is even a scene where Marty has to go back to 1955 a second time, thus seeing himself in the scene from when he went back in the first film! The most ironic thing about the second Back To The Future film is that it was made in the 80’s and they were trying to project what 2015 would be like. With some of it, they were on the right track, but with other things… way off! For example, we still don’t have flying cars or clothes that can automatically custom fit us with the touch of a button. The funniest part to me, however, is how in the projected 2015, nobody had a cell phone.
I won’t bother writing about BTTF 3, since it takes place in the Old West in 1885. I guess they did all the 1950’s and 2015 stuff in the first and second ones.
Another movie from the Awesome 80’s that was set around time travel, was Peggy Sue Got Married. However, if you’re going to really split hairs (which my “Type A” personality often causes me to do) this movie was actually set in the year 1960. Even so, it fits into the era and has a real “retro” vibe to it. Kathleen Turner plays Peggy Sue, a woman going through a mid-life crisis who passes out at her High School Reunion. When she wakes up, she’s a teenager again in 1960. It never explains how Peggy Sue actually went back to 1960 or how she returns to 1986. This movie was never one of my favorites, but it’s worth watching for a few retro-laughs. It also has a nice, corny 1980’s ending. Oh yeah and Nick Cage plays Peggy Sue’s husband in one of his first major roles. (As a footnote, let the record show that the character Peggy Sue in this movie is NOT based on Peggy Sue Gerron from the 1957 hit song by Buddy Holly.)
Probably the second most memorable movie that took place in the 50’s was the 1986 film, Stand By Me. Set during Labor Day Weekend 1959, it’s a is coming of age story about a boy named Gordie and his ghastly little neighborhood friends. Stand By Me was based on Stephen King’s novel “The Body”. I saw this movie when I was very young, probably when they still had VHS tapes. I don’t remember there being a huge plot, but the Soundtrack is one of the best of any movie ever. It features “Everyday” (Buddy Holly), “Come and Go With Me” (Del-Vikings), “Whispering Bells” (also by Del-Vikings), “Get A Job” (The Silhouettes), “Yakety Yak” (The Coasters), “Great Balls of Fire” (Jerry Lee Lewis), “Lollipop” (The Chordettes), “Mr. Lee” (The Bobettes), and, of course, “Stand By Me” (Ben E. King) Now that I think on it, I might just have to purchase the Soundtrack off of Amazon or something. As for the movie itself, it’s a Wil Wheaton-River Phoenix-Corey Feldman-Jerry O’Connell Classic. So if you want to see those people when they were youngsters, there ya go. Actually, I do remember my favorite scene… It’s at the beginning when Jerry O’Connell’s character runs into the boys’ club house and is all freaked out and out of breath. He starts to say that he has something to tell them and that he “ran all the way”. Then the other boys start singing “Sorry (I Ran All The Way Home)” by The Impalas. Then they stop and promise they’ll listen to what he has to say. So he starts to tell them again, but they start laughing and singing “Sorry” again… well, see for yourself!
So that’s Stand By Me. An excellent soundtrack from a pretty decent classic movie. Unfortunately, there’s some language in it that would be totally fine if it didn’t take place in 1959, but since it does, it’s historically inaccurate. Which I found amusing, except that people didn’t talk like that back then. No, not even tough guys. And if you’re going to set a movie in the 50’s, it should be true to the era. Just my two cents!
I don’t really need to mention La Bamba and The Buddy Holly Story, but okay: La Bamba and The Buddy Holly Story. Technically, those two movies are biographies about stars who lived in the 50’s, ergo, they are set in the 50’s. I still say that the focus on those two particular icons (Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly) was part of the 50’s Craze that began in the late 70’s. It was the perfect time to tell their stories.
In 1990, Johnny Depp starred in the cult classic Cry Baby, which I never did see. Cry Baby is set in the year 1954 and Depp plays a rebellious greaser. Supposedly it’s good. Maybe I should see it sometime. These days it’s hard picturing Johnny Depp as anything but the eccentric Jack Sparrow, but then again, it’s probably just me.
Finally at the end the 20th century, Pleasantville was released in 1998. This movie is a real mind-trip. It’s not exactly a time travel plot, but more of a Sci-fi Twilight Zone-esque type of thing. It’s about a brother and sister (David and Jennifer) who somehow end up trapped in a 1950’s TV show about a picture-perfect town called “Pleasantville”. Everything in Pleasantville is innocent and perfect to the point of being creepy. There are no toilets, nobody ever argues or disagrees, and the people in the town have no idea what sex even is. They are basically on auto-pilot, living in a black and white, trouble free (but boring) world. But once David and Jennifer start living as the show’s children, things begin to get more complicated. Jennifer has sex with the boy she’s dating, the parents break up, people begin to show emotion, and the town starts to change to color. More conflict ensues and the town of Pleasantville begins to fall to ruin. Basically, I think what Pleasantville is trying to show is that human beings are complex: to be a perfect person in a black and white world is unrealistic. Perhaps they are also showing that the 1950’s lifestyle couldn’t last forever with the ever changing complexity of the world. And overall, the world is colorful; filled with good and bad and maybe that’s what this movie is really about. Although frankly, I am not sure I’m “getting it”. Plus, a young Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire are not my idea of a great film, but once again, it has a bitchin’ Soundtrack! The songs on it include “Rave On” (Buddy Holly), “Be-Bop-A-Lula” (Gene Vincent), “Teddy Bear” (Elvis Presley) and “Dream Girl” (Robert and Johnny).
1950’s-Themed Plays that became Movies
West Side Story the movie was released in 1961, about five years after it debuted on Broadway. Going to see the play is always better than the movie, in my opinion, since I think the movie was pretty lame sauce. Natalie Wood didn’t even sing, her voice was dubbed! And the choreography stinks. But on the up side, the play will always be a classic that takes place in the 1950’s AND was actually written at that time. The songs are as well written as they are entertaining (duh, it’s Leonard Bernstein!), and if the show is choreographed well, it’s a fantastic play to see whether you like musicals or not.
Okay, so this is the part where I get really opinionated…
Grease the movie was released in the Summer of 1978. It was based on the Broadway Musical and starred Olivia Newton John as Sandy and John Travolta as Danny. Unlike West Side Story, Grease was NOT written in the 50’s, it was written in the 1970’s, post Sexual Revolution. The songs and the attitude in the show all reflect this. I highly dislike Grease (both movie and play form) and one reason is that it gives the wrong idea about the what 1950’s were actually like. It gives the impression that the 50’s were one big petticoat and leather-wearing orgy. The provocative Pink Ladies and the overly horny T-Birds were certainly not the “norm” for that time. Girls in the 50’s did not belittle other girls for “waiting until marriage”- all that started later. (The 1957 hit “Wake Up Little Susie” by The Everly Brothers is a good example of what teens were actually thinking back then.) I’d go as far as to say that many misconceptions about the 50’s arise from Grease, which is why I absolutely abhor it. From the misguided “Sandra Dee” to “Summer Lovin'” and the cringeworthy finalé, “We Go Together”, Grease makes me want to puke (and in fact, I believe it has.) The movie is probably worse than any play production, then again depending on the director, maybe not. But at least if you see it as a play, you won’t be subjected to the greaser version of John Travolta. Even worse was the 1982 follow-up film, Grease II, starring Michelle Pfeiffer which is just a complete joke and borders on mocking the 50’s era, rather than paying homage to it. However! There is a silver-lining to every cloud. I think that Grease captures one thing true about the 1950’s era: music, dancing and having fun.
EDIT: In my haste to post this entry, I forgot one more production that falls under this category… Bye Bye Birdie. I think I hate this show more than I hate Grease, if that’s even possible. Anyhow, I’m sure most everyone has heard of Bye Bye Birdie at some point, or even worse, been a part of a production of it. The play first opened on Broadway in 1960. However, it is heavily based on the 50’s (obviously, since it had just become the 60’s that’s all they had to go on) It’s about a young Superstar named Conrad Birdie (seriously?) who is all too obviously based on Elvis Presley. The female lead is a girl named Kim McAfee who runs a Conrad Birdie Fan Club. She and her family get chosen to be on the Ed Sullivan show (“I hope they’re more damn excited than I am.”) which is kind of a sub-plot. Conrad Birdie gets drafted and sent into the army somewhat like Elvis, except that Elvis went on his own accord. Hugo Peabody is Kim’s boyfriend who is jealous of Conrad. The songs are entertaining if you are five years old, and there’s really not much dancing which is pretty lame since it’s set in a time where dancing was one of the main joys that teenagers had. Bye Bye Birdie the movie was released in 1963, starring an over-sexed Ann Margret as Kim and Bobby Rydell as Hugo. Ann Margaret’s portrayal of Kim reminds me of a young Blanche Devareaux from “The Golden Girls”. I suggest if you have to see this show, see it as a play, because Kim might actually be played by an innocent-looking girl rather than a miscast sex-pot. BTW, I do “get” that Bye Bye Birdie is somewhat of a parody on the whole Elvis Obsession, but to what degree, I just don’t know. My patience with musicals has worn completely thin since my theater days, so there you have it. Just one woman’s opinion!
Okay that’s it for movies set in the Nifty Fifties for now!
Please join me next time on “Keeping the 50’s Alive” when we’ll look at all the wonderful TV Shows that were set in the Best Era Ever.
Disclaimer: All photos and media in this post are used in the fair use/public domain context. I do not own any of these photos; the original owners retain all copyrights.
I do not get paid or compensated to endorse any products.
This post revised Jan.15.19