Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

What was hot in 1960?

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of two hugely admired, enormously influential European films: Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. We could devote megabytes to a discussion of the relative merits of those films. After enduring …

Sun, Jun 6, 2010, 19:11


This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of two hugely admired, enormously influential European films: Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. We could devote megabytes to a discussion of the relative merits of those films. After enduring a period of critical suspicion, the Fellini picture now seems to have secured its position as a key meditation on fame and its absurdities. Breathless is, perhaps, better loved as a harbinger than for its own ragged virtues; it’s a funky piece of work, but it doesn’t really compare to later JLG masterpieces such as Vivre sa Vie, Alphaville, Bande à part or Pierrot le Fou.

Good grief, children were easy to please in 1960.

Anyway, that is not our mission today. The question is, rather, to do with what was popular — as opposed to acclaimed — in the first year of the decade that swung. The US box-office top ten for 1960 is, actually, a rather fascinating piece of work. Peruse:

1. SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON  ($20,178,000)

2.  PSYCHO ($11,200,000)

3. SPARTACUS ($11,100,000)

4. EXODUS ($8,332,000)

5. THE ALAMO ( $7,919,000)

6. BUTTERFIELD 8 ($7,552,000)

7. THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG ($7,500,000)

8. THE APARTMENT  ($6,680,000)

9. OCEAN’S 11 ($5,650,000)

10.  PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES ($5,369,000)

What we really want to know, I guess, is the following: do contemporary cinemagoers look like morons when compared with their parents and grand-parents? Well, what immediately strikes you about the 1960 list is that it includes a Stanley Kubrick film and an Alfred Hitchcock film in the top five. Moreover, at number eight we encounter not just any Billy Wilder film, but the picture many identify as that director’s very best: The Apartment. The only movie in the equivalent list from 2009 that compares in quality with these releases is Pixar’s Up. (If we look at the worldwide, rather than the US, 2009 chart, then the situation is even more depressing. So let’s not do that. Agreed?)

On the other hand, for all my reservations about 2009 topper Avatar, I’d rather endure another viewing of  that overblown space opera than sit through the stunningly ordinary Swiss Family Robinson again. The film’s bizarre success demonstrated quite how powerful the Disney brand still was in 1960. Even a dead-ordinary live-action drama from the studio — now, shown once a decade on only the most obscure bank holidays — could manage to drag in nearly twice as much as its nearest rival. Just hearing its name, I find myself  propelled back to some miserably rainy afternoon in 1973. I’m so BORED!

Also, it is worth noting what odd, odd movies appear in this list’s obscure corners. Okay, Exodus (endurable) and The Alamo (execrable) — both mild right-wing propaganda — were what we have since come to call Event Films. You had to have an opinion about them, so you’d better give them a brief once over, even if you had no interest in the Texas Revolution or the pre-history of the modern Israeli state. Oceans 11 was useless, but, given how many movie stars turned out for it, you’d feel bad not buying a ticket. Please don’t Eat the Daisies was far from the best of Doris Day’s comedies, but the old girl (as she then wasn’t) always gave good value for money.

No, the real wierdies here are Butterfield 8 and The World of Suzie Wong. Both still turned up on TV quite a bit when I was a kid, but they are almost forgotten now. The former does retain some notability — notoriety, perhaps — as the film for which Elizabeth Taylor won her first Oscar. Based on a useless John O’Hara novel, Butterfield 8 allows Taylor to thrash and bellow as a dissolute woman with an overpoweringly unstoppable sex drive. It’s all too turgid for words.

Suzie Wong could barely be broadcast now. Featuring William Holden as a traveller to Hong Kong, who falls for a hooker with (gawd ‘elp us) a heart of gold, the film features depictions of Asia that veer drunkenly from the patronising to the offensive without ever skirting the real world. I can’t quite recall if Edward Said mentioned the film in Orientalism, but, if you want to save time, a glance at the ghastly thing will clarify the great man’s entire thesis instantly.

What links these two films  is that they are the sort of pompous pabulum that viewers in 1960 erroneously regarded as “sophisticated”.  Call we a moron, but I’d take the honest nonsense of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel — number nine in 2009 — over those highly dubious slices of middle-brow dross.

For all that, this does remain a pretty decent list of movies. It should, however, be noted that this was a very, very slow year at the box-office. Not a single one of these films made it into the box office top-25 for the 1960s. Screenwriter 1960 might very well have argued that the medium was in the last stages of terminal decline.

It would, however, have been a fine wake. That year, The Apartment won the best picture Oscar and La Dolce Vita picked up the Palme d’Or. Not bad. Also released in 1960 were: Rocco and his Brothers, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Shoot the Piano Player, L’Avventura, The Housemaid, Eyes Without a Face, The Magnificent Seven, Village of the Damned and Peeping Tom.

Yes. Not bad at all.

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