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Book Review: Movie Love in the Fifties by James Harvey


By Ben Patrick Johnson

LOS ANGELES, 1 April 2002 - When a singer gets to the heart of a song, or an actor plumbs the depths of a particular character’s psyche, his or her performance becomes a joy to witness, regardless of genre.

Likewise, when an author is passionate about his subject matter, his writing takes on a vital obsessiveness that gives it a three-dimensional quality, causing it to leap from the page to grab us, tugging us between the lines of text toward the core of the wordsmith’s intent.

A fine example of this is Movie Love in the Fifties, James Harvey’s new appraisal of mid-century American film. Harvey’s encyclopedic knowledge of his subject matter demonstrates a life-long love affair with cinema. He invites us to see the world of the movies through his eyes, both in wonderment and as a barometer of the cultural psychology of the Cold War.

Postwar America was ripe with repressed emotion that would burst forth a half-generation later in an LSD-hued cultural revolution. Harvey’s 1950s were all about caution and longing. He takes us from the film noir of the late 40s, with its archetypal femmes fatales (Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Bennett), through the safer, blonder heroines who replaced them (Doris Day, Grace Kelly), and on to the crop of restless men (Brando, James Dean) whose cool apathy and disenfranchisement presaged the tumultuous decade that would follow. Along the way, Harvey illustrates master filmmakers Elia Kazan and Orson Welles’ exploration of realism at a time when escapist fare was the order of the day.

Harvey’s prose is passionate, kind, and astute. What could have been a dry, 425-page scholarly thesis or a tear–sheet from People Magazine avoids either extreme, greatly abetted by the author’s wit and intelligence.

He is a keen observer who loves these movies, and he makes us love them, too. And he is such a talented writer that if it was athletics or architecture—instead of cinema—which he placed in the crosshairs, he would likely affect us just as acutely.

Movie Love in the Fifties by James Harvey

Movie Love in the Fifties
By James Harvey
Alfred A. Knopf; 448 pages; October 2001
ISBN: 0394585917

Ben Patrick Johnson is a writer and free-lance journalist in Los Angeles. His novel, The Valley of Smoke, will be published in 2002.

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