The 1950s were a difficult time for moviemakers.
The studios, in their waning days as all-powerful Hollywood engines, were no longer signing stars to long term contracts. People were staying home and watching TV instead of going to theaters. Many stars had gone to Europe to find work and avoid income taxes.
Revenues had fallen, and companies were looking to television to offset losses at the box office. Yet some great films were made.
And good films still did well. But when you recall the top films of the decade there are a few that you might overlook. Ever heard of Zarak? Have you seen a western titled Star in the Dust? Bet not.
And yet both were among the biggest hits of the 1950s –huge grossers. And no wonder. Zarak came out in 1956, directed by Terence Young (who six years later introduced international audiences to James Bond in Dr. No) in wide screen Cinemascope.
The movie was filmed on location in Morocco, and is a windswept adventure tale of an Afghan outlaw coming to the aid of a British officer. The cast is pure Fifties: Victor Mature as the outlaw, Michael Wilding (once married to Elizabeth Taylor) as the officer and Anita Ekberg as a member of a Middle Eastern harem.
One critic on the Internet Movie Data Base summarized things nicely:
They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and more’s the pity. (‘Zarak‘) is hokey, contrived, politically incorrect, and laced with cliches, but it blissfully transports one back to that innocent, popcorn-scented time…when Technicolor images flickering across a silver screen could sweep one into a magical world of harem girls and charging horsemen.
It’s noted that Mature gets flogged twice in the movie, once so vividly that the scene ranks No. 52 on a list published in the book, Lash! The Hundred Great Scenes of Men Being Whipped in the Movies.
Which brings us to Star in the Dust, also released in 1956, starring another familiar Fifties name, John Agar (pictured above).
Agar, mostly forgotten today, was Shirley Temple’s first husband, and proved to be a popular star in the late 40s and 50s. (As an ingenue, Temple appeared in John Ford’s 1948 Western, Fort Apache, opposite Agar).
Their marriage didn’t last long (from 1945 to 1950) but it had the effect of jumpstarting Agar’s career. He is joined in Star in the Dust by a wonderful Fifties cast: Mamie Van Doren, Richard Boone, Coleen Gray and Leif Erickson.
Agar portrays an upright sheriff fighting off local vigilantes eager to string up a hapless crook. The movie to this day has its fans, and is very much a B genre western with higher ambitions.
Zarak and Star In The Dust — proof positive that pretty good “lost” movies came out in the Fifties. Both are worth rediscovering.