I came across a list I once made of movies that had been nominated for major Oscars (picture, acting, directing, writing), which seemed to be the best way to manipulate Oscar statistics to most closely approximate a list of notable movies.
I'd also noted which ones I'd seen, and have been filling in gaps of time by watching (from YouTube, which has a lot) some famous early 50s movies I'd never seen before. 3 1/2 of them, and they are:
Sunset Boulevard. The real winner of the bunch. The gothic atmosphere, and outstandingly vivid performances by leads Gloria Swanson (Norma) and William Holden (Joe) - Swanson is playing a grotesque caricature of herself, and why did she agree to do it? - made for an engrossing movie. This despite holes in the plot. When did the swimming pool, which plays such an important part in the story, get cleaned and filled up? It was empty and had rats living in it when Joe arrived at Norma's mansion. This relates to a general inconsistency as to whether Norma is keeping glamorous and up to date - her clothes are - or is a crazy cat lady recluse. Also, Joe is one of those characters so common in old movies who keep abruptly and inexplicably changing their minds. He dumps the (rather insipid) Betty by declaring his satisfaction with being kept by Norma, and then immediately turns around and leaves Norma, saying he's going back to Ohio, the one option he'd ruled out earlier as it would be an admission of failure in Hollywood. WTF does he want? Is he self-destructive? If so, he gets what he wanted.
All About Eve. Another movie about actors, and also so negative I'm astonished they could get any actors to perform it. Bette Davis (Margo) and Gary Merrill (Bill) got married in real life as their characters do in the movie, and a few years later had the same messy divorce that you can see Margo and Bill headed for. The movie seems pretty well performed, but perhaps it's flat writing that made it less interesting than Sunset Blvd. At a party, Margo is being pissy, and her friends say they've seen her like this before; is she getting over it or getting into it? She walks away and then turns around and delivers one of the most famous lines in film history: "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night." But it isn't, not really. And if I started discussing Eve, I'd be here all day, so let's drop it. I should just add that there's a minor, and apparently unnecessary, ingenue character played by a then-unknown washed-out blonde named Marilyn Monroe. I wouldn't have predicted much of a career for her.
High Noon. I recognize that this is an Important Political Message flick, but it's not really a very good movie. The Big Bad is coming to town on the noon train, and marshal Gary Cooper spends a tedious hour wandering around town trying to find deputies to help him fight the guy, but everybody chickens out and he has to face him down by himself. That's it; that's the whole movie. There's a huge lack of context: who is this Quaker woman Coop has just married, and why did they hitch up? If he's so sure the Big Bad is going to be trouble, why can't he do anything about the 3 henchmen hanging around the train station? (And talk about scenes that ought to be suspenseful but aren't: wow.) And even if Big Bad is sure to shoot Coop if he sees him, if Coop skips town - which everyone is expecting him to do - what will Big Bad do then? As far as I can tell from what the townsfolk say, his evil plan is to liven up the saloon and bring more customers to the hotel.
Father of the Bride. I think maybe I should just avoid old comedies. This one was too painfully bad and unfunny to watch.