Alan Nadel, probably best known for his expert writings on the Atomic Age and American everyday life in the 1950s, has come up with another study of that period.
A time when not just the permanent fears of a hot war or Soviet invasion were present, but also strange (or possibly communist) activities from your next-door neighbor had to be surveyed closely. In case his behavior was somewhat strange, and he showed signs of nonconformism…
Added to this, Nadel argues, that many unwritten rules, laws and social codes had to be obeyed by American citizens – if they wanted to remain within their social group. Consequently producing a nation that was doomed to conformity. As one of the reasons for this self-afflicted behavior and strict codes he identifies, among other things, a deep wish for a return to a life, set of manners and an American society that was rooted in the 1930s and pre-WWII times, all things from proper behavior, gender roles and foreign policies concerned. This longing in the long run only led to suppressed individuality and frustrations on various levels that took hold of almost the entire nation as times, gender roles, political networks and the entire world had actually changed dramatically.
“The common message of postwar film and television … was that America was the happiest place on Earth for those who adhered to strict limitations on what constituted happiness and were also able to believe that institutional justice, authoritarian clergy, dogmatic teachers, and sadistic police were rare to nonexistent.”
Just like the artificial reality of Disneyland, American movies (since 1934 when the Hollywood Production Code was introduced) had to prove that there simply could be no crime in a perfect democracy like the US; if only every citizen adhered to certain basic practices. “Most significant among these were monogamy, heterosexuality acceptance of rigid gender roles, appropriate grooming, mild anti-intellectualism, racial segregation and an ethos of conformity”.
With that information in the foreground, Nadel begins his analysis of some very important American movies from the 1950s. They all have in common that eventually American conformity, a sense of “normal” is threatened, invaded, or endangered in a sense. There is always the intruder figure, that seemingly tries to interest the American citizen for things very “un”-American, hence not conforming to the number of codes and rules mentioned above.
“Achieving normality, however, was virtually impossible. … Most simply, Americans could not become cheerful exemplars of the joys of capitalism by returning to normal life because, from a historical, social, technological, and especially demographic perspective, nothing about postwar America was normal. Rather, huge demographic changes had reorganized and redefined the tenets of mid-century American culture such that its obsession with normality functioned as mantra and myth.”
So at times, Nadel argues, the angst described in many alien invasion movies is not clearly distinguishable in terms of who or what the invader/what the threat is: is it Communism and communist agents or Americans who develop too much individuality and are on their (very wrong) way to escape 1950s US conformity? (As both were either severe criminal and anti-social offenses in those days).
He hence examines Singin’ in the Rain as an allusion to McCarthyism, inasmuch as the movie deals with the transition from silent film to talkie, and the actors are not allowed to speak (their mind) – for reasons of personal safety – but are dubbed, anxieties connected with self-determination and identity when women reflect on their (static) role and sex (in All About Eve), the risks of the American worker when dealing with unions (On the Waterfront) or the new type of the post-war white-collar worker and the effects of the baby boom, which forced women into a mother’s role only and made men the breadwinners again (The Court Jester).
“At the center of this book, therefore, resides the idea that if the mandate for normality in the midst or anticipation of radically reconfigured demographics produced angst, one important way to understand key films of Cold War American culture is through the way that they negotiate demographic anxieties.”
Nadel also sees a number of films from that period as fictional equivalents to real US (foreign) politics and portrayal of (cleverly masked) domestic American anxieties. As in films the countries of Japan Italy and Germany – former WWII axis forces – now became allies in the Cold War.
Tourism and romantic relationships of US citizens with natives of those other countries are instrumental in making them allies for the movie audiences. He furthermore examines some popular books of the times, articles and theories of social communication. His emphasis, however, is on films when he demonstrates his theory of mandatory conformity of the 1950 in the US include the movies Sunset Boulevard, No Way Out, Sayonara, North by Northwest, West Side Story, Roman Holiday and others.
As American society was quickly changing after WWII, with thousands of servicemen attending college on the GI bill, thousands of new schools built and countless suburbs were built to house returning soldiers and their families who would prosper from full employment and cheap loans, also the angst of how this country would change with the new generations of baby boomers arose. Change then, however, was perceived mostly as a negative thing, so here lay one of the main reasons for the angst, namely the inability to maintain morals, standards and gender relations as they existed before the war; which was impossible.
Additionally, there were the now appearing questions of racial demographics, i.e. a growing black middle class and together with that the anxiety that accompanied black-white relationships in public as well as interracial marriage. And how it was paired with juvenile delinquency, both in the movies and in reality.
A very well written book on the conformity/air of normativity of 1950s America that is both portrayed and resented in those movies in greatly different ways.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2018
Alan Nadel. Demographic Angst: Cultural Narratives and American Films of the 1950s. Rutgers University Press, 2017, 268 p.