1950s Movies: What Did People Watch?


The movie industry in the 1950s was under attack by a new foe: television. Home theater systems kept people in their homes and the cost of making a blockbuster movie rose sharply in the 1950s.


Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Rock Hudson and Sophia Loren were some of the hottest names in show business.

But it wasn’t just about big stars. Technology was making huge strides. 3-D was being heavily experimented with and color was getting more and more common.

Also families found another place to hang out: the drive-in movie theater. Now people’s kids could be loud and obnoxious in the car and it didn’t matter. Plus it was a great place to try to get to second base with your date.

Let’s go a little deeper into the history of the 1950s movie industry below.

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Movies in 1952

Drive-In Movie Theaters were becoming more popular in 1952

Drive-In Movie Theaters were becoming more popular in 1952

Continued growth of the outdoor drive-in theater and a greater variety and somewhat improved quality of pictures released from Hollywood helped the movie industry in 1952.

By June 1952 the drive-in theaters had increased in number from 820 in 1948 to 3,483 (including Canada). These new outdoor theaters had more than offset the closing of 1,500 mostly obsolete “indoor” theaters during the period 1948-52 and by the end of that period were accounting for approximately 20% of gross motion-picture theater receipts in the United States and Canada. One of the principal reasons for the popularity of the drive-ins was their solution of the “baby-sitting” problem for parents.

The old-fashioned western pictures, once the staple product of the U.S. motion-picture industry, continued to decline in popularity in 1952 and more topical films took their place.

Biographical films were also produced in quantity, with 30 either released or in production at the end of the year, of these, 12 were in the musical category. Historical events were dramatized in a number of pictures, such as the voyage of the “Mayflower” (Plymouth Adventure) and the German siege of Tobruk in World War II (Desert Rats).

The story of a U.S. weather mission to the Gobi desert in Outer Mongolia during the early years of World War II was effectively told in Destination Gobi.

The three top box office successes of the summer period were Cecil B. De Mille’s circus picture, The Greatest Show on Earth, the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy Jumping Jacks, and the English Tales of Hoffmann, a Technicolor adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera.

Samuel Goldwyn released his $4 million Technicolor Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye. In Nov. 1952, it broke a 16-year gross-receipts record at the Criterion theatre in New York city during its first week of showing.

Cinerama, the new three-dimensional motion picture, made its successful debut in New York city, Sept. 30, 1952. A Technicolor film titled “This is Cinerama” was projected on a curved screen 65 ft. wide and consisted of a series of short subjects.

3-D Theater in 1952

3-D Theater in 1952

Another three-dimensional process, known as Natural Vision, made its first appearance. By the end of 1952 there were 19 U.S. companies working on 3-D processes, some (like Cinerama) not requiring the audience to wear special Polaroid glasses.

The U.S. Supreme court ruled 9 to in May 1952 that U.S. cities and states cannot censor or bar motion pictures on the grounds that they are sacrilegious (the picture in question was the Italian film The Miracle, which had been banned in New York state). The Supreme court held that motion pictures come under the freedom-of-speech provisions of the U.S. constitution.

1952 Academy Awards

Best picture, An American in Paris;
Best actor, Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen;
Best actress, Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire;
Supporting actor, Karl Malden in A Streetcar Named Desire;
Supporting actress, Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire;
Best direction, George Stevens, A Place in the Sun

Movies in 1957

James Dean in the movie Giant

James Dean in the movie Giant

For the movie industry 1957 was a nightmare year, with each release a matter of boom or bust and precious little room for near misses. Never before in the history of film had so few pictures grossed so much.

The Ten Commandments brought in $18.5 million while Around the World in 80 Days brought in $16.2 million.

Movie producers were spending more than ever before, but as The Spirit of St. Louis indicated, the mere fact that great deal of money went into the making of a movie by no means guarantees success.

Movie studios became more cautious. A $500,000 flop was a hardship, but a $5 million flop was a disaster.

TV’s free entertainment in American homes created a situation that kept movie companies reeling. It cut down greatly on box office attendance.

There was also a breakdown of the star system. It was once possible to cast a film with Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart or Joan Crawford and predict fairly accurately what the profits would be. But in 1957 the hardy perennials were visibly drooping on the vine.

Of the younger stars, Rock Hudson emerged as box-office champion, while only Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Elvis Presley and Pat Boone were worth their demands.

1957’s best film, The Bridge on River Kwai, won no less than seven Oscars. Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki both won Oscars for their excellent supporting performances in Sayonara.

And who can forget about Sophia Loren? Hands down one of the most beautiful women of all time.

Best Motion Picture: Around the World in 80 Days

Also nominated:
Friendly Persuasion, William Wyler, producer (Allied Artists)
Giant, George Stevens and Henry Ginsberg, producers (Warner Bros.)
The King and I, Charles Brackett, producer (Twentieth Century-Fox)
The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille, producer (Paramount)

Best Actor: Yul Brynner, The King and I

Also nominated:
James Dean, Giant
Kirk Douglas, Lust for Life
Rock Hudson, Giant
Sir Laurence Olivier, Richard III

Best Actress: Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia

Also nominated:
Carroll Baker, Baby Doll
Katharine Hepburn, The Rainmaker
Nancy Kelly, The Bad Seed
Deborah Kerr, The King and I

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Don Murray, Bus Stop

Also nominated:
Anthony Perkins, Friendly Persuasion
Anthony Quinn, Lust for Life
Mickey Rooney, The Bold and the Brave
Robert Stack, Written on the Wind

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Mildred Dunnock, Baby Doll

Also nominated:
Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed
Mercedes McCambridge, Giant
Patty McCormack, The Bad Seed
Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind

Best Directing: Michael Anderson, Around the World in 80 Days

Also nominated:
Walter Lang, The King and I
George Stevens, Giant
King Vidor, War and Peace
William Wyler, Friendly Persuasion


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6 thoughts on “1950s Movies: What Did People Watch?

  1. Rhonda

    My husband & I went to the collector car auto show in Detroit today, March 7,’15, where ‘The Riddler’ award is given sometime on Sunday. We saw so many awesome automobiles today. I came across your site while looking for women’s fashion from the 1950’s because my husband has restored a ’57 Caddi and I want us to dress the part when we take it to auto shows — after all this snow melts away! We’ve restored this 1957 Cadillac Coupe DeVille and it is not shown in the luxury cars section for the 1950’s on your site. I am curious where it fits. It was purchased new by my friend’s father in law in 1957 and had been sitting in their garage for 28 years when we purchased and began restoration. If you can let me know when the Coupe DeVille was introduced into the timeline – we’d appreciate the info. Thank you, Rhonda

  2. John Heister

    Hi I wanted to say your work is very appreciated by me and will help other people as well in the future, thank you for making this site.


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