The Golden Age of Hollywood is one that will never be forgotten, with the likes of legendary actors James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, and Grace Kelly – to name a few. Classic Hollywood cinema spanned multiple genres from epic Westerns like The Searchers to film noir thrillers like Rear Window.
Despite a stark difference in quality and acting style that are characteristic of the era, films from the 1950s continue to captivate viewers today. These films are ingrained in our memories but we often don’t think about what was going on behind the scenes. These photos offer a rare glimpse of what life was like on the set of classic ’50s films.
Rebel Without A Cause, 1955: Natalie And James Goof Off
1955’s Rebel Without a Cause is the quintessential film about juvenile delinquents and was noted for director Nicholas Ray’s authentic approach. Production was so authentic, in fact, that Ray had all of the supporting cast get into an actual fight as their audition.
Ray was also reluctant to cast Natalie Wood, who was known at the time as a child actress. However, she was later nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the film. Ray also had James Dean improvise much of his role, relinquishing creative control to the point where Dean was the one directing scenes. Dean infamously died in a car crash a month before Rebel came out, adding to the film’s legend.
This isn’t the only example of James Dean playing around on set.
Treasure Island, 1950: Walt Takes His Family On Set
In 1950, Walt Disney Productions made their first live-action adventure film Treasure Island based on the 1883 novel of the same name written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Walt Disney himself is seen in this photo taking his wife and daughter behind the scenes, where they were pictured with a young Bobby Driscoll.
Driscoll was the child actor who portrayed Jim Hawkins alongside Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver. Driscoll was a popular child actor known for starring in Disney films and was even the model and voice for 1953’s Peter Pan. After his career waned in the mid-’50s, Driscoll fell on hard times and became an addict.
Rear Window, 1954: William Visits Jimmy And Grace On Set
Actor William Holden visited James Stewart and Grace Kelly on the set of 1954’s Rear Window. In this behind-the-scenes shot, Holden points out a ring on Kelly’s engagement finger to an exasperated Stewart. In Rear Window, Kelly plays Stewart’s socialite girlfriend who hopes that the disabled photographer will finally settle down with her.
In real life, Kelly has always been enamored with jewelry, as was director Alfred Hitchcock, who introduced the actress to Cartier. After Rear Window, Hitchcock cast Kelly in To Catch A Thief during which time she would meet Prince Rainer III of Monaco, who became her husband.
Giant, 1956: Liz Is Head Over Heels For James
Elizabeth Taylor was literally head over heels for James Dean on the set of the 1956 film Giant. It may look like the co-stars are having fun blowing off some steam during their downtime but legend has it that there was quite a bit of drama happening on set.
Rock Hudson, the other leading man, was very close with Taylor and he worried that Dean was stealing her away from him. Other sources suggest that both Taylor and Hudson were frustrated with Dean’s acting style, which made them dislike the young star. Although that doesn’t seem to be the case in this photo.
Before he was a psycho, one actor coming up was more of a bookworm when the cameras weren’t rolling.
Roman Holiday, 1953: Audrey And Gregory Playing Cards
One of Audrey Hepburn’s most memorable films—aside from Breakfast at Tiffany’s—is 1953’s Roman Holiday. Hepburn earned the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Princess Ann on a visit to Rome and Gregory Peck plays Joe Bradley, the average reporter who whisks her away.
While the film sees the pair gallivanting all over the ancient Italian capital, the two obviously had a couple moments of down time when the cameras weren’t rolling. It looks like the actors spent that time wisely by throwing down on a game of cards.
The Bridge On The River Kwai, 1957: David And Alec Are Amused By Sessue
The British-American epic war film The Bridge on the River Kwai debuted in 1957. The film focused on British soldiers who become prisoners of war at a Japanese camp in Burma, where they are constructing a railway bridge. It stars Alex Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson whose troop is imprisoned by Colonel Saito, played by Sessue Hayakawa.
In this photo, we see Guinness and Hayakawa deep into a conversation with English director David Lean, illustrating how genial Hayakawa the actor was in comparison to his menacing character. The film was shot on location in Sri Lanka.
The Ten Commandments, 1956: Charlton Has A Word With Cecil
Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments debuted in 1956 and the three-hour, 39-minute epic religious drama became the most watched movie of the 1950’s. The film dramatizes the Book of Exodus and the life of Moses, who is portrayed by Charlton Heston in the film.
In this photo, we see Heston intently paying attention to whatever DeMille is focusing on to prove his worth as the lead. DeMille didn’t have much faith in the actor at first and reportedly wrote in his private papers that Heston had a sinister quality. “You believe him. But he’s not attractive,” DeMille wrote in 1950.
This Angry Age, 1958: Anthony Takes A Reading Break
Two years before he took on his most iconic role as Norman Bates in 1960’s Psycho, Anthony Perkins starred in an Italian-American drama called This Angry Age alongside Silvana Mangano and Jo Van Fleet. Perkins played 20-year-old Joseph who, with his teenaged sister, seek liberation from their family’s run-down rice plantation.
The film, which was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, is an adaptation of the 1950 novel, The Sea Wall written by Marguerite Duras. Perhaps that is the very novel that Perkins is reading in this photo, which was taken in Thailand where the film takes place.
Coming up, wait until you see the look on two actors’ faces when they’re told that they will have to sing on camera!
The Seven Year Itch, 1955: Marilyn Films Her Iconic Scene
In this photo, we get a behind-the-scenes look at just how many people were watching when Marilyn Monroe’s white dress notoriously is blown upwards by a passing train as she stands above a subway grate.
Directed by Billy Wilder, 1955’s The Seven Year Itch was based on the three-act play of the same name written by George Axelrod. While actor Tom Ewell reprised his role from the stage production on Broadway, Marilyn Monroe was selected to play his seductive neighbor known only as “The Girl.” This iconic scene was actually shot twice; once on location in the streets on Manhattan and a second time on a sound stage.
Rio Bravo, 1959: Howard Talks To His Leading Men
1959’s Rio Bravo is largely considered director Howard Hawks’ best work, allegedly made to rebut the Stanley Kramer’s 1952 film High Noon. The film stars John Wayne as a Texas sheriff who sets off to help avenge his drunken friend, a fellow sheriff played by Dean Martin. The film also starred teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson as Colorado Ryan.
In this photo, you can see Wayne, Martin, and Nelson taking direction from Hawks who, knowing that he had two musical talents on the cast in Martin and Nelson, had the two actors sing for the film’s soundtrack.
Vertigo, 1958: Alfred Makes Kim Laugh Before A Scene
Here we have director Alfred Hitchcock directing his leading lady Kim Novak for 1958’s Vertigo. Even back then, Hitchcock had a reputation around Hollywood for being a demanding director much to the ire of his lead actors in his other films.
But as evidenced by this photo, Novak wasn’t one to complain. In fact, the actress—who was on loan from Columbia—says she found Hitchcock to be a “joy.” In 2003, she elaborated saying, “[Hitchcock] didn’t make me feel ‘less than.’ He never said, ‘You’re not doing it right…’ So, Hitchcock wouldn’t say anything about my work in the movie but, on the other hand, he wouldn’t complain, either.”
Guys And Dolls, 1955: Marlon And Jean Are Going To Sing
In 1955, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons starred in the musical Guys and Dolls in which Brando plays Sky Masterson. Masterson is challenged by an old gambling friend, played by Frank Sinatra, saying he can’t ask missionary Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) on a date.
The film was produced by Samuel Goldwyn, on the left, and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, on the right. Mankiewicz is telling Simmons and Brando that they will be singing their own numbers for the film. Brando had nothing on Sinatra, who was reportedly upset that Brando was cast as Sky instead of him.
Soon to come, there’s an actor who was rarely seen without a smile. But when he’s on a certain movie set he couldn’t be more serious.
High Society, 1956: Louis Plays For The Future Princess Grace
High Society is a 1956 romantic comedy that was a remake of the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story based on a play of the same name. It starred Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly in her final film role before becoming the Princess consort of Monaco in her marriage to Prince Rainer III.
As Crosby’s character is a jazz musician, the film of course is centered around jazz music and features musical contributions from the great Louis Armstrong, who starred as himself in the film with his band. Based on this photo one might guess that a lot of fun was had when Armstrong was around.
1954: Roy And Dale Show Their Kids The Tools Of The Trade
Roy Rogers has starred in plenty of Western film and television shows throughout the ’40s and ’50s. In fact, Rogers met his wife Dale Evans in 1944 when they were cast in a film together and since then, they’ve been a package deal on screen.
Here they are around 1954, showing their kids what exactly goes into making a Western movie. For how famous Rogers and Evans were at the time, they made a conscious effort to raise their kids outside of Hollywood, opting instead to live on a ranch a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles.
Dream Wife, 1953: Cary Runs Lines With A Furry Friend
In 1953, Cary Grant starred in the romantic comedy Dream Wife alongside Deborah Kerr. The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production was directed by Sidney Sheldon and was about a businessman (Grant) who breaks off his engagement with a U.S. diplomat (Kerr). He does this in favor of marrying the princess (Betta St. John) of the country his ex-fiancée is trying to make an oil deal with.
The film earned $1.2 million at the time of its release and one can suppose it helped that Grant took his role seriously. Here he is reviewing the script alongside his dog who offers his support.
To Catch A Thief, 1955: Jerry Actually Gets Serious
For those who are familiar with the work of Jerry Lewis, it might be a strange sight to see the comedian without so much as a smirk on his face. Later in his career, Lewis got behind the camera and began directing, which explains why he is seen visiting Alfred Hitchcock on the set of To Catch a Thief in this photo.
It’s likely that Hitchcock is pointing out particular camera work to Lewis or perhaps explaining his reasoning behind one of his directorial choices. The lesson likely rubbed off because Lewis’s own mise-en-scene has been compared to Hitchcock’s.
Coming up, two actors had to hate each other while the cameras were rolling but behind the scenes, they couldn’t have been more relaxed in each other’s company.
Alexander The Great, 1956: Richard Rides Off Set
In 1956, Richard Burton starred in the epic historical drama Alexander the Great, as the titular Macedonian general and king. Produced by United Artists, the film featured an ensemble cast that included Fredric March, Claire Bloom, and Danielle Darrieux.
Producers initially sought out Charlton Heston for the lead role but he turned it down for fear that the movie wouldn’t turn out great. Instead, they got Richard Burton, a decision that was criticized because Burton looked too old for the role, despite being only 29 years old at the time.
The Searchers, 1956: The Cast Sits With John Ford
John Ford frequently collaborated with western star John Wayne, so it’s absolutely no surprise that Wayne was cast in the lead role of Ford’s 1956 Western The Searchers. Wayne played Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran who embarks on a search for his abducted niece, who was played by Natalie Wood.
In this photo, Wood is nowhere to be seen but we do have a lovely group shot of Wayne and Ford behind the scenes with actors Jack Pennick, Jeffrey Hunter, and Dolores Del Rio. Ford requested that the film have a “making-of” reel filmed and The Searchers was the first major movie to do so.
Désirée, 1954: Michael, Jean, And Marlon Pose For A Pic
Not many people remember the 1954 historical biographical drama Désirée starring Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons. In it, Brando portrayed General Napoleon Bonaparte, who falls in love and plans to marry Désirée Clary, played by Simmons.
In the film, Napoleon lies to Désirée about his plans to marry her, which pushes her into the arms of General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, played by Michael Rennie. Though it is an interesting love triangle in the film, we see the three actors pose for a picture in real life as three cordial friends.
A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951: Marlon And Vivien Take A Break
Here’s Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh taking a smoke break in between filming scenes for 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, based on Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play of the same name. Leigh played fading southern belle Blanche DuBois and Brando played Blanche’s brutish and temperamental brother-in-law Stanley.
In the film, Blanche and Stanley hardly get along yet this behind-the-scenes photo obviously paints a different picture. The fact that Brando and Leigh seem to be enjoying a cordial moment together is evidence of how renowned they were as actors pretending to hate each other.