By the beginning of 1959, movie admissions in North America had dropped to under 40 million tickets sold per week. This was the worst year for Hollywood since 1922. Considering how many studios were still operating, the fact that only fifteen new films were in production spoke volumes. Efforts were instead being put into producing weekly television series.
Movie studios needed to do something spectacular to get audiences interested in the cinema again. MGM thought the answer was a remake of the silent classic BEN HUR. It cast Charlton Heston in the lead role and sent director William Wyler to Rome to film it. Most of the interiors were done at the Cinecitta studios. It was an expensive endeavor, but after it took home eleven Oscars including Best Picture, it eventually recouped its cost and turned a profit. Other studios would try to emulate MGM’s success.
Hollywood movies that were produced largely on location were nicknamed ‘runaways.’ Until the late 1950s, studio films were primarily shot on sound stages and backlots in the Los Angeles area. If the story’s setting occurred in a different locale, stock footage was inserted. And in rare cases, a second unit with an associate director might be sent to an actual location to film new exterior shots. But by and large, the movies were done with contract stars and studio technicians that were based in Hollywood. Now all of that was changing. A picture like Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT was made down in San Diego.
In addition to location-based films, the studios were trying riskier subject matter in order to compete with television. The Broadway hit about teenage pregnancy, BLUE DENIM, was adapted by 20th Century Fox and featured the young stars from the stage version, Brandon de Wilde and Carol Lynley. Other subject matter was just as sensational and controversial. United Artists produced ON THE BEACH, a harrowing tale about nuclear holocaust starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. It featured Fred Astaire in a dramatic role as an Australian scientist.
The industry was also making suspense thrillers and adventure yarns that emphasized glamorous locations and ultra sophisticated stars. The prime example was Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST which cast Cary Grant as an ad exec mistaken for a spy. On a train out of town, Grant’s character met a woman played by Eva Marie Saint. Of course, complications soon developed, romantic and otherwise. The action culminated in a dramatic climax that took place over the faces of Mount Rushmore.