Our February 1st recitation covered a good deal of ground, from the rampant social issues throughout the late 1950s and ’60s – in particular, the uprising of a younger generation fighting against the ideals of their parents – to the psychedelic and sexually-influenced films of that era.
The 1950s are often considered a golden age in America, a time of peace and prosperity. But many important disputes were brewing, both domestically and abroad. The decade saw the Korean War and the beginning of the Red Scare, which were portrayed in films like The Manchurian Candidate during Week One. However, our recitation during Week Two focused on some of the domestic problems arising over those years.
We saw a clip from the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, in which a defiant and inebriated James Dean ends up in prison. His motives are unclear, but he is clearly upset by his parents’ inability to listen to him and constant bickering. We discussed how his parents literally and figuratively “look down” on him in the scene – and how it represented two disparate generations: The older generation, who had to fight for everything they had – they overcame the Great Depression, battled Axis soldiers in World War II; and the new, younger generation, with ample free time, money in their pockets, and a great deal of angst.
The class also discussed how the MPAA came into place during the ‘50s, and its influence on Hollywood, which was seeing poor box office results at the time as a result of television proliferation. The invention of the MPAA allowed more freedom and less censorship in films; more risqué pictures (like Rebel) went unrated by the ratings board, and therefore became more young adult-oriented. It was a studio-designed tactic to recapture America’s youth, and it worked well.
We explored the drastic changes in filmic content over just a few years. Perhaps the most striking example was the two Frank Sinatra movies. In 1955’s Guys and Dolls, Sinatra plays a gambler who is also having problems with his fiancée, Vivian Blane. The film is very upbeat, and in the scene we watched, conflict is dramatized in very static, cheerful song and dance numbers. Compare that to The Man with the Golden Arm, released the same year, in which Sinatra plays a heroin addict. In the surprisingly blunt scene we viewed (I was going to say “frank”, but realized I couldn’t escape a pun either way), Sinatra prepared to shoot up horse. Audiences saw everything but the needle’s penetration.
Finally, after viewing a “scandalous” clip of Elvis shaking his hips, we talked about Fuses and Point Blank, as well as the related readings. (I did a recap on the “On Fuses” essay we read, specifically addressing the tactility of the short through its scratches and gender equality roles.) Though the films were very different in subject matter, their innovations in explicit sexual and violent content remain readily apparent, even if they haven’t aged particularly well. (We didn’t have too many fans of either in our section.) We drew connections to Nietzchian concepts and the first and second waves of the feminist movement.
Overall, it was an interesting class. I was actually very surprised that The Man with the Golden Arm clip was so intense – I would not have expected heroin depiction on screen in the ‘50s, especially with Sinatra in a lead role. On a somewhat related note, it seems Sinatra really embraced the social changes of the times (having starred in both The Manchurian Candidate and the aforementioned film), while still maintaining the credibility of a previous generation. I always knew the man was classy – but didn’t know he was so well aware of how to market himself.