Twisted Fifties

Andrew Lydon

Talking Pictures alias






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From a male point of view...

Roger Moore as James Bond is one of the few recent throwbacks to the cinema hero of the late fifties. In that cinema male competence dyed its grey hair, doing physical things even teenagers are hardly up to. Young men in that increasingly teenage film audience could not have been too comfortable identifying with such leads (e.g. Grant, Gable, Stewart and Wayne). 

Such popular culture helps sort out what we feel about ourselves and other people. Stars have proven more powerful in this than any films or filmmakers. (E.g. The spell of 'femme fatals' have rarely been overcome by the bleak endings they bring to everybody.) Laura Mulvey explained this in the seventies by reminding us just how much of commercial cinema has been a matter of looking with the eyes of the narrative (he)ro at the female body. But Mulvey did not explore the relations between the men within that point of view, and how they effect the way the female is felt. 

Our fifties young men must have been somewhat humiliated and so react ambiguously and maybe perversely to such heroes. Whether this was subtle or forceful would vary. But with such ambiguity involved in the viewpoint there must have been strange feelings towards any female spectacle. More so when that spectacle exaggerated the childish aspects of the adult female and/or validated desire towards the infantile. 

Deep rooted problem 

Social historians claim World War Two was almost zero hour for womankind. ‘Women achieved economic emancipation!' Family and traditional life were temporarily suspended for millions. This was a chance to be selective about how family life was re-instituted. However, partly because of the rapid baby boom, it was not just the positive that was taken up again. In crucial respects the war was not really afresh start. 

Until the sixties when Roman Polanski emerged, only the Vampire genre recognised 'sex crime' on film. It showed the young abused by a degenerate rural aristocracy - even suggesting assault on young men! In his 'spoof' Dance of the Vampires (1967) Polanski explicitly exposed the horror of Senignorial Privileges (the Lord of the Manor has the right to the virginity of ones daughters). Such a ghost must have reverberated in immigrant communities in the big cities of the US who had recently escaped such countries? Fifties 'Liberal' cinema brushed it under the carpet. (An aspect of what was repressed even Kenneth Anger did not expose.) Decades later in Thatcher's Britain one of our most high profile crime concerns turned out to be child sex abuse. In 1980 it was still unseen. In the middle of the decade it was found to be widespread. In Cleveland it seemed a whole community was involved! Maybe there is even widespread ritual abuse ? Could not this problem have been 'outed' years ago ? The media and other more crucial cultural forces were involved in a conspiracy of silence. Of other cultural forces something now needs to be said. 

...and who created (woman?) 

Western women regularly wearing trousers was part of the Second World War breakthrough. Could this have been sustained as fashion in the post war years? Maybe elements of twenties fashions, with their clear androgynous or bisexual challenge, could have kept up the powerful push for change? 

However the western fashion industry centred on Paris. Fashion moguls with such leanings could not have survived Nazi occupation. It was the Diors with their Edwardian, when not actually Second Empire fashion values that did.(Indeed Dior worked for the industry's negotiator with the occupiers!) 

Dior's 'New Look' emphasized small waists with fulsome skirts.. Thus the industry established the mould for the 'hour glass' figure, which the end of food shortages would fill out. Children's dresses had even more emphasis on the waist and this shape can be seen in the 'bobbysoxer' of late fifties iconography. The teenage look began blurring the differences between woman and child. (It was no accident that the mini skirt should follow - previously just for nippers.) 

Only a massive science fiction/fantasy wave, could have put film in position to set different fashions (see Andrew's article Look Back in Disappointment). However, Hollywood only forked out on SF for the Cold War effort. This would have been the only way to stop the fashion moguls having their way about human mise en scene. (Jean Luc Godard's The Married Woman (1964) is a rare film that makes you aware of this.) Only experimentalists dabbled with this fantastic challenge. Jean Cocteau tried it in Orphee (1949) with the actress Maria Casares. Her almost bullfighting look is attractive but at first makes you think she is a man. 

Fifties Twinkles 

We can now see what cinema actually did in perspective. These style issues under lay the emergence of fifties youth cinema and the declining years of classical Hollywood. They also provoke some remarks on the new popular cinema since George Lucas and Steven Spielberg

Natalie Wood 

The Natalie Wood/Judy character in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is a telling starting point. ‘Judy' dresses expensively as you would expect of a middle class girl of maybe a few years later. She wears make up and dresses to emphasise the figure of the older woman who played her. Yet she is still at school! That is established in the narrative, and then put to one side. (She illustrates another aspect of Classical Hollywood's tendency to have teenagers played by older actors.) (1)   'Judy' is having an unhappy time at home because her father is behaving 'strangely' to her. He does not like the way she comes up to him looking for kisses all the time despite the fact that to him she seems almost adult and it does not therefore seem quite right. 

Brigitte Bardot.'Judy' underlines the blurring of differences between the sexually mature woman and the child. We can see this also in France with the emergence of Brigitte Bardot at about the same time. The year before Dean's death a novel had been published that addressed a 'syndrome' later named after that novel, in which older men seek sexual, erotic and other satisfactions with young, usually teenage, girls. It was probably the most likely time in western history for such a novel. Proper meals plus post war fashion codes created such an opportunity. The old maybe nominal sexual rules were breaking down’s all in Lolita

Film Noir 

The teenager cinema emerged as the era of Film noir was coming to an end. Noir was the style of cinema that probably begun when America entered the war. One of its most discussed features was the dangerous and uncontrollable nature of women - the femme fatal. This has often been noted as coinciding with the war splitting up couples on a long term basis and the ‘occupational independence'. Billy Wilder even developed film comedy during the Noir era. The joint impact of the teenage films and the late noir films reinforced their individual challenge to pre-war distinctions in female sexual availability. 

Wilder can be seen to have crowned the career of one of the most successful comediennes of this era. She was a send up of the femme fatal in most of her roles. Before going into who this was it must be stated that this challenge to one myth can be seen to reinforce another problematic myth. (Richard Dyer has written that she helped men feel better about their sexual frustration. She gave them hope that properly sexual women could be made happy by men like themselves. It laid the blame for contemporary marital frustration at the door of the legions of frigid wives.) But this effect was part of a more complex representation. 
This later star, along with such as Natalie Wood, Bardot and Audrey Hepburn are a marked contrast with the era of the Hayes Code in Hollywood. The Dietrichs, Crawfords, Hayworths, Davises and Katherine Hepburns used earlier styles to suggest adult competence. 

The Icon of Camp Noir 

What I would like to draw attention to in the image of the most striking icon of the era, is the similarities in adopted appearance to the most obvious icon of childhood; Shirley Temple. Look at the characteristic shape of the head as it is presented by the hair style. It would be pointless to repeat here the detailed features of the Monroe image. The voice, the clumsiness, the look, and the wobble, have always been recognised as suggesting a childishness. 

Monroe by Kim Calver.The Monroe persona was very much a deliberate creation, though largely her own. Her own self image became increasingly consciously bound up with her claim to have been sexually abused by a lodger in a foster home when she was eight. Without going into controversial detail, her relationships with men seem bizarre in the degree to which she sought paternalism. It is therefore not a coincidence that Monroe became the icon of this era. Monroe was almost a caricature of trends in the representation of the emerging generation of women. 

Shaping Today's Trends 

We should now give due recognition to the fact that expensive science fiction/fantasy since Star Wars (1977) has given film makers a chance to challenge established fashion. For example, Princess Leia/Carrie Fisher in Star Wars is one of the most forceful female rather than woman's roles in popular cinema. Most SF since Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) draws on costume codes from the immediate past. Lucas' drew on many ages to deliberately challenge the contemporary. In this he takes after Cocteau, but with a family audience. 

By contrast youth cinema since American Graffiti (1973), if not before, has presented the fifties with a nostalgic naive wholesomeness. No doubt, a stick to beat the decadent values of the sixties which are now blamed for so many ills. 

The fashion industry, with the film industry as its propagandist, played a decisive role after the war in the conservative reconstruction of western men and women. In doing so they prevented the necessary questioning of further aspects of the family. This institution can be the site of some of the most twisted of human relationships. The lack of interest in developing SF until it was part of the Cold War compounded this neglect. On top of all this the aging star system gave all this a final twist by aggravating young men's relationship to the world of images.

(See the role of image in contemporary cinema in Nigel Watson's article Girls on Film)


1.  In April 2005 this response was obtained by email from Chuck Shugar:

I just wanted to point out that Natalie Wood was still in High School when she finished Rebel Without A Cause (which started filming March 30th 1955, was in post-production in June 1955, and premiered in October 1955). As a matter of fact, Natalie Wood (b. July 20, 1938) graduated early, at 16 years old, with the Van Nuys High School Class of 1955. She had already gone on to work on the film The Searchers that year, when she turned 17.

She was actually playing a character older than herself in Rebel.

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