Threatened by TV and the beginning of the end of the studio system, the 1950s was the “most turbulent decade in the history of the American filmmaking industry”—at least until 2020, writes film scholar Hirsch, author of Otto Preminger and A Method to Their Madness, among other books. In this dauntingly lavish book, which will impress film buffs but perhaps overwhelm general readers, the author neatly plumbs a wide range of topics. He profiles the ups and downs of some of the major studios, from the powerful Louis B. Mayer’s MGM (called an “industrial compound” by Elia Kazan) to Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin’s United Artists, which “nurtured” Stanley Kubrick. Hirsch deftly discusses many of the studios’ films and the actors and directors who worked for them. Hollywood hoped its new “intoxicating visual and aural pleasures” would encourage viewership: Cinerama, touted by the “intrepid world traveler” Lowell Thomas, 3-D, CinemaScope, VistaVision, and Todd-AO. Hirsch is a “cheerleader” for all of them. “In the race for survival,” he writes, “new content was as necessary as new formats,” and he surveys the studio’s high and low offerings, from fancy upmarket “art” fare to the explosion of exploitation fare (“even the detritus of the 1950s is of greater interest than the ephemera of other periods”) to “thoughtful, well-meaning, and non-exploitative” race films (Black, Asian, American Indian, etc.) and those dealing with antisemitism and homosexuality. Hirsch shows how the films from this era were multifaceted and engaged with the political and social issues of the time. He zeroes in on the careers of famous actors as they navigated the changing scene, from the older ones to the up-and-coming “Method-trained” ones. The author concludes with an insightful overview of the strong noir films of the decade, science-fiction films that featured Cold War political allegories, animated films, documentaries, and the fading musicals, epics, and overwrought melodramas.

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