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In Praise Of Drive-Ins And Doris Day

Ten years ago, I discovered a book that gave me so much pleasure, I found I could only read it at one time of the day, in one place and in one season.

Early on a summer evening, I'd light the coals in my barbecue grill, sit back in my favorite chair in the garden and open James Harvey's Movie Love In The Fifties. It generally took about half and hour for the coals to get hot enough, so I read the book in half-hour increments over two or three summers, and I count those 30-minute increments as among the most pleasurable of my life.

I can imagine there might be those who would question how a book called Movie Love In The Fifties — a book whose subject is just what its title promises — could possibly be so ecstatically interesting. But maybe such people don't remember how different films were a half century ago, when movies weren't just giant technological marvels competing to gross the most money on opening weekend.

Movies in the 1950s weren't all pitched to the appetites of teenage boys. They were made for adults, and one of the marvels of Harvey's book is the way he opens up the adulthood of our parents and grandparents through the movies they went to see — movies that not only reflected their adult dilemmas and choices but actually had a hand in shaping the kind of people they became.

That's the key to Harvey's great book: It's not just about the movies; it's about who we were as a country 50 years ago, a country where onscreen relationships — like those between the very white Lana Turner and her black maid in Imitation of Life; Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun; and Janet Leigh and her various bras in Psycho — all tweaked a postwar nation into thinking more deeply about race and sex and fashion.

Harvey manages to make us see how every movement in those movies counted, how much actors counted — and how we relied on each of them for something specific. When he writes about the way Doris Day "embodied our national will to happiness," he deepens the way we think about an actress like Day, showing us the bitter edge behind her highly perfected cheerfulness. "Her eyes look desolate," he writes, and when you watch her movies, you see just what he means.

When it comes to the era's rebels — Brando, Clift and James Dean — Harvey delineates how the girls who flirted with rebels but married the "suits" constituted a code as to what it meant to "grow up." By the end of the book, you come to see that the crazily swirling camera movements in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind represent not a moviemaker's aberration but a clear expression of just how unsettled adults were in that decade. Staid and conventional on the surface, they were actually dizzy with choice.

I can remember sitting in the backseat of my parents' car on long night journeys as a little boy in the 1950s, catching sight of images of Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson and Kim Novak on the drive-in screens that were as ubiquitous then as McDonald's restaurants are today. I thought they were just alluring images in the dark. Harvey has made me realize that, for my parents, those images were important signposts on a long, uncertain path.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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Anthony Giardina
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