1950s Hollywood Comedians found Mirth in Anxious Times
Hollywood comedy took a turn in the 1950s—for the worse, as implied in Wes D. Gehring’s book Movie Comedians of the 1950s. McCarthyism chilled the air, television was on the rise and the old studios reeled under the impact of anti-trust rulings. Maybe there wasn’t as much to laugh about?
Gehring’s latest is the final installment in a trilogy of books examining the “personality comedians” of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. By personality comedians, he means comics with instantly recognizable personae—the Oliver Hardys, Lou Costellos and, emerging in the ‘50s, the Dean Martins and Jerry Lewises. The king of personality comedy, Charlie Chaplin, is a special case as a high-profile victim of the changing climate of ‘50s. Hounded by right-wing critics and the U.S. government, he fled to Europe where he made the bittersweet reflection on his life, Limelight (1952), and the gently satirical A King in New York (1957). His career never rebounded, yet his legacy endured. His “Little Tramp persona remains instantly recognizable a century after he first shambled onto the big screen.
As for the nascent medium small screens, Gehring finds Red Skelton as exemplary. Deeply influenced by Chaplin’s work, Skelton not only transitioned easily to television (Gehring: “He was arguably the first major star to have his own weekly show”) but chucked his movie career and became a bigger star than ever.
Through the ‘50s, many comedians and comedy writers were blacklisted (or feared the possibility), social critiques were carefully encoded in westerns and science fiction, and the clowning of Jerry Lewis provided mirth without insight. Movie Comedians of the 1950s is an interesting examination of humor in a decade of anxiety.