- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2006

It’s tempting to formulate a detailed, wholehearted argument for the 1950s as the pre-eminent golden age of movie production both domestic and international. There’s no scarcity of distinguished titles in either sector.

Why underrate a body of work that extends from “Sunset Boulevard” and “Singin’ in the Rain” to “On the Waterfront” and “Some Like It Hot” in the Hollywood sphere? This range of examples might be surpassed by imports, from “Rashomon” and “La Strada” to “Pather Panchali” and “The Seventh Seal.”

Given the reverence now accorded film noir, the 1950s could keep doctoral candidates purring forever. Lest we forget, it was the last decade in which black-and-white cinematography predominated, enhancing the atmospheric magnetism of noir.

Considering the reverence that also surrounds such mid-1950s landmarks as “The Searchers” and “Vertigo,” it’s a little surprising that any resistance to the decade’s enshrinement still exists.

Conventional wisdom used to scorn the 1950s for social conformity. This complaint has looked stale and shallow for at least a generation. If a great deal of your moviegoing tastes and partialities were formed during the decade, as mine were, it seems ill-bred to pretend that all those titles you enjoyed were somehow diminished by the supposed complacency of a generation fixated on getting and spending.

Those similarly reluctant to apologize for growing attached to movies during the first complete decade of the Cold War may welcome the tonic effect of programming on Turner Classic Movies in September. TCM devotes Wednesday evenings to a retrospective on William Holden, who emerged and pretty much peaked as a Hollywood star during the 1950s.

On Tuesday evenings, the channel offers a 50th-anniversary tribute to the art-house distribution company Janus Films, whose distinctive, craggy, double-faced logo became synonymous with the discovery of such European directors as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut.

Mr. Holden (1918-1981) was born William Beedle Jr. in southwestern Illinois and raised for the most part in Southern California. A potentially precocious start in the movie versions of famous plays — Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” — failed to result in immediate success in 1940. The young Mr. Holden (his surname was borrowed, with permission, from a L.A. newspaperman) found himself in prolonged servitude to a pair of major studios, Paramount and Columbia, which kept him employed in tandem, usually in Westerns, light romantic comedies and war melodramas.

Off the screen for three years during the real war (he was assigned to public relations chores at an Army base in Texas, where baseball great Hank Greenberg also was stationed), Mr. Holden returned to a double-track treadmill in Hollywood. Despite a virile presence and distinctive voice, he feared he was congealing into a type he mocked as “Smiling Jim.”

He was rescued by Billy Wilder’s need for an ambivalent leading man in “Sunset Boulevard.” Like numerous breakthrough roles, the opportunistic screenwriter Joe Gillis transformed Mr. Holden’s career because another actor had turned down the role. First choice in this case had been Montgomery Clift, who decided it would be a career blunder to portray a young man seduced by a crazed older woman.

It might have been a bum idea for Mr. Clift. Anyway, the vacancy permitted William Holden to transcend Smiling Jim by discovering a splendid balance between devious and gallantly vulnerable attributes.

That combination served him admirably for the rest of the decade, particularly when winning the Academy Award in 1953 for “Stalag 17,” again under Mr. Wilder’s direction, and when portraying an undeluded but still heroic alternative to Alec Guinness in David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

Mr. Holden appeared in 22 movies during the 1950s. It’s fair to say that 14 of them remain durably flattering and entertaining. Ten of this number will turn up on the TCM series, organized around chummy themes: “Bill in the City,” “Cowboy Bill,” “Bill at War” and “Romantic Bill.” There’s a preponderance of ‘50s Bill in the final two programs, which package “Stalag 17,” “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” and “River Kwai” into one evening and then a flurry of “Sabrina,” “Picnic” and “Executive Suite” (not really a romantic vehicle) into another.

The programmers have missed the opportunity to span four decades of Bill Holden in the opening program. The lineup of “Golden Boy,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Born Yesterday” and “Network” is clearly a busted flush. It would make more sense to replace “Born Yesterday” with “The Wild Bunch,” which all fans apprehended as a battle-scarred, overdue comeback vehicle at the end of the 1960s. It hasn’t made the Western evening, either, although a tame follow-up, “Wild Rovers,” has.

What’s that all about?

• • •

Janus Films was founded by a couple of Harvard friends, Bryant Halliday and Cyrus Harvey. The art-film importers had a showcase in Cambridge, Mass., the Brattle, and latter added one in Manhattan, the 55th Street Playhouse. They sold the business in 1966, and Janus is owned by the heirs to that transaction, Jonathan Turrell and Peter Becker.

Much of the company’s inventory is available as part of the Criterion Collection, which specialized in deluxe laser-discs until 1998 and now exemplifies high-end movie restoration and packaging in the DVD market.

TCM’s 50th-anniversary tribute to Janus promises a convenient and satisfying immersion in the quality imports of decades past. For abiding admirers, it will be difficult to resist a pair of classic Bergmans and Fellinis on Tuesday. Then Jean Renoir and Sergei Eisenstein the following week, with Akira Kurosawa and Jean Cocteau in reserve. Sampling a portion of these bills looms as a free ride if you’re catching up with a rich movie heritage.

WHAT: “William Holden” and “Janus Films”

CONTENT: Film retrospectives devoted to the late actor and the film distribution company.

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies cable channel

WHEN: Wednesdays at 8 p.m. for “Holden” and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. for “Janus” throughout September.

Calendar of showings for “Holden”:

Sept. 6: “Golden Boy,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Born Yesterday,” “Network.” Sept. 13: “The Horse Soldiers,” “Texas,” “Escape From Fort Bravo,” “Wild Rovers,” “Rachel and the Stranger.” Sept. 20: “Stalag 17,” “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Invisible Stripes.” Sept. 27: “Miss Grant Takes Richmond,” “Sabrina,” “Picnic,” “Executive Suite.”

Calendar of showings for “Janus”:

Sept. 5: “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries,” “The White Sheik,” “La Strada.” Sept. 12: “Grand Illusion,” “Rules of the Game,” “Ivan the Terrible — Part Two,” “Alexander Nevsky.” Sept. 19: “Rashomon,”“Yojimbo,” “Ashes and Diamonds,” “Knife in the Water.” Sept. 26: “Death of a Cyclist,” “Viridiana,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Orpheus.”

WEB SITE: www.turnerclassicmovies.com

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