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Cinematic Reflection of Social Issues: The 1950's

Updated on December 5, 2016
Cinema goers in the 1950's
Cinema goers in the 1950's | Source

On the surface, the l950’s were a calm counterpoint to the global and national chaos of the Second World War. People desperately wanted a time of peace and prosperity that would allow them to regain their equilibrium and confidence in the "American Way". They fashioned a repressed, conformist, status conscious society barely able to contain the seething turmoil of the cold war, threat of nuclear annihilation, and the growing unrest among classes, races, and a disenfranchised youth, that quickly began to boil beneath the surface of society.

Like the foam that overflows from Brando's beer when he slams the bottle onto the bar in The Wild One, McCarthyism flooded the nation with fear of communist subversion and the danger of the immoral disgruntled youth rebelling against the artificial constraints imposed on them by frightened adults. Hollywood perfectly captured this eruption of empty and violent youthful rebellion in three films that fashioned the image of a misfit culture and the troubled nation that spawned them in The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel without a Cause.

The immediate result from the release of The Wild One in 1953 was most notably a sudden boom in sales of all things “biker”. Leather jackets and motorcycles being the most predominant, but at this same time - across America - an underlying ideology was sprung from the film’s social problems. This underlying sentiment of social class, or moreover hometown value was one that became increasingly obvious in a short matter of time. The film is based on events of July 4th, 1947 when motorcyclists rode into the small town of Hollister, California and, for an unforgettable couple of days, riots consumed the entire town along with the people who inhabited it. While the story made headlines and inspired a short-story in Harper’s Magazine, it had little impact on anyone outside of that town; until released on big screen in 1953. The Wild One managed to set an idea of boundaries and lifestyles associated with where a person’s preference lay.

The opening scene of The Wild One makes it easy to see the draw of tough-guy rebels to an anxious teenage audience.
The opening scene of The Wild One makes it easy to see the draw of tough-guy rebels to an anxious teenage audience. | Source

At a time in America when social values were (supposedly) held to the highest standard, the film sets out to sow seeds of fear in an upstanding and righteous society: “This is a shocking story. It could never take place in most American towns - but it did in this one. It is a public challenge not to let it happen again.” Not only does this hook beg the question and introduce a sense of urgency, but it also suggests that society lacks the capacity to prevent the horrific incidents they are about to witness from recurring. The reaction, however, was perhaps opposite of its intention - instead of being detested and shunned, the portrayal of motorcycle lifestyle inspired a sudden sub-culture interested in revolt. The problem of social order versus anarchy became a new genre, reflecting a changing society and threatened “acceptable” social values. The Wild One’s popularity was largely due to 1950’s America and its façade of universal family values and morality. At a time when the US was trying to pull itself from a WWII rut, both self-righteous and marginalized Americans were made to realize that revolution could spring from seemingly nowhere. As he and his boys are guzzling beer and dancing with some of the ladies in the bar, one female dance partner questions Johnny (Brando): “Hey, Johnny. What are you rebelling against?” While tapping out a jazzy beat on the top of the jukebox, he raises his eyebrow and drawls his amorphous response: “Whadda ya got?”

Throughout the The Wild One, the line is presumably drawn between those who storm the town by bike, and those whose small town mentality would remain close minded. But it is not so easy to distinguish between those who share social values and those who are creating social problems.

The viewer is introduced to a character that has spent her entire life in this small town, Middle America. She is a character that crosses that line which had been seemingly set forth beforehand. Kathie is a character who, despite her upbringing, is attracted to Johnny and the free life he chooses to lead. The two characters begin this paralleling lifestyle relationship before Kathie finally crosses the line divulging that she enjoyed taking a ride on his motorcycle. “I've never ridden on a motorcycle before. It's fast, it scared me, but I forgot everything. It felt good. Is that what you do?” This admission is a leak in the social system, she admitted that she is jealous of his lifestyle, of being able to “forget everything.” Ironically, it is at this exact moment in the film when their two worlds collide that Kathie’s affection and yearning for Johnny are misconstrued by townsmen who think he is trying to rape her.

The town’s Ideological State Apparatus, (which is to say, the politics, education, family, any beliefs instilled at a young age) is enforced by members of that community - in this case it is the men who watch the misunderstanding they want to think was rape. Their I.S.A. (ideological state apparatus) takes matters into their own hands as they beat and drag Johnny into the courthouse where they demand his punishment. They explain to the judge that, “they are teaching the hoodlum a lesson their own way - they are punishing him for representing unorthodox freedom”

Every part of this movie is engulfed in social problems and its ideologies. As the movie progresses it sets forth to accomplish a great deal of awareness in the steadfast ways of Middle America, and it reaches new, complicated, and further interesting goals as the plot unfolds. While The Wild One was produced to exploit the misfits who fall through the cracks of a prospering “American Way,” it in turn gives the townspeople a mirror to hold up to themselves. The viewer’s eyes are opened to social problems on a broader scale when the townsmen behave entirely more barbaric and violent than the masses of unruly bikers.

Jamie Farr, Vic Morrow, Sydney Poitier and others as troubled youth in Blackboard Jungle.
Jamie Farr, Vic Morrow, Sydney Poitier and others as troubled youth in Blackboard Jungle. | Source

Less influential but equally as innovative in its own time, Blackboard Jungle is a classic 1950’s film and that was and will surely continue to be followed by a long string of unofficial remakes. Richard Dadier is a decent man, loving husband to a pregnant wife, and an aspiring educator. He receives a teaching assignment in “the jungle” and suddenly we experience along with him what is called in the original 1955 theatrical trailer the “teenage terror in the schools… a fiction, but a fiction torn from big city modern savagery.” Dadier is assigned to one of the worst schools around where every student seems a delinquent, and the only advice he receives from a fellow teacher is to never turn his back on the class.

Today, in the time when school shootings, sexual assault, and drug-use are commonplace, this film loses a lot of its original punch. The story that “could not, would not, and should not be shown” is now rather mild to an audience desensitized to theft, cigarette smoking, and a lack of respect for authority. At the time however, the film acted as a portrayal of idealism in the public school system, and sought to sway the collective assumptions of the masses that kids were in fact the little angels their parents assumed them to be, and that the public school system was doing a fine job.

In the film there is an air of depression, of low self-esteem, of hopelessness and racial intolerance in the classroom. Kids hate their parents, parents and teachers hate their kids, but amidst this lack of civility is Dadier making an effort to instill values on these troubled youth. Little time during the film is actually spent teaching the students, or at least getting them interested in learning something. The majority of the film consists of Dadier having to endure this hostile environment and continue his efforts. While cliché today, this film caused an uproar in the movie-going public on its release. Its portrayal of graphic (for the time) violence – using a newly popular faster frame rate, increasing depth of field and in turn realism – blatant disrespect for authority, and racial tolerance were cause for complaint by many, but what this movie is most memorable for, indeed its largest source of influence, was not what was seen by the audience, but what was heard before any of the action even took place.

Hollywood was beginning to realize that the affluent teenage population could be exploited. Now more rebellious than happy-go-lucky – as previously portrayed in the nostalgic films of their parents – the influence of rock ‘n’ roll erupted… Blackboard Jungle was the first major Hollywood film to use rock and roll on its soundtrack. The opening theme was provided by Bill Haley and His Comets and their musical hit was "Rock Around the Clock." It is difficult to imagine a film today stacked with talented actors and rife with provocative subject matter, where the opening theme song (mild by every current standard) could be one of the main attractions and possibly the greatest source of controversy.

James Dean's role as Jim in Rebel Without a Cause remains one of the most iconic images in American cinematic history.
James Dean's role as Jim in Rebel Without a Cause remains one of the most iconic images in American cinematic history. | Source

Another film which was released in this time period when America was set in its values was the social melodrama Rebel Without a Cause. Where The Wild One increased the awareness of the falsehood of social order, Rebel Without a Cause set forth to open the country to the startling issues of America’s youth, revealing the truth that as long as families do not have structure, communication, and morals, life in the sanctuary of the suburbs will prove to serve as no solution at all.

American youth of the 30’s grew up without jobs, housing, food, or hope for the future. In the 40's they faced a war they would not likely survive that threatened the very order of the world. In the 50's it was “the bomb” and communism hung over the heads of the youth that inspired a sense of futility and frustration regarding the everyday trials of growing up American. Of the numerous issues addressed in Rebel Without a Cause, the most prevalent are the disjunction in the child-parent dynamic and the complications (and tribulations) of in-the-closet homosexuality during this time.

The most prominent representation of the fatherless child is James Dean’s character Jim. While Jim’s dad is physically present in the film, Jim spends the majority of the film repeatedly attempting to coax his father into being the man of the house - the man he knows his father can and wants to be, the man to teach Jim how to become a man himself. Jim’s mother makes it very clear however, that she has control over the household and that her husband is anything but “wearing the pants” in the family.

We first meet Jim in the police station (along with the other main characters, Judy and Plato) and we experience first hand the conflict at home he is forced to endure. It is in this scene, after blaming himself for the trouble his family is having, during an argument between his parents that he cries out frustrated and in desperation his famous line: “You’re tearing me apart! You say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again.”

That outburst sets up Dean’s character for his development into adulthood. As the film progresses so does Jim’s confidence increase in discussions with his parents. Jim later turns to his father during an argument with a look seeking support, to which his father replies, “This is all going too fast for me.” Jim snaps at his father, “You better give me something. You better give me something fast.” His father, still emasculated by his mother, says nothing and in a fit of rage Jim lunges at and chokes his father a bit before storming out of the house. As Jim labors to develop and grow he tries desperately throughout the film, and without success until the very end, to bring his parents along with him.

The relationship between Judy and her father is a little more complex than Jim’s and can be clearly represented in Judy’s red lipstick. The color red serves to represent her wildness (Jim’s takes the form of a red leather jacket) and the lipstick itself a proclamation of sexual appeal. She tells an officer in the station of her father, "He looks at me like I’m the ugliest thing in the world." Her desire to be found attractive by her father displays a preponderance of an Elektra complex. Perhaps having never felt acceptance (as a daughter or a woman) from her father, she seeks his attention (be it negative or positive) through the only manner she knows how. Instead of showing his approval and lavishing her with the concern and affection she yearns for, however, he smears it off her lips and simply calls her a tramp.

Much of Judy’s poor relationship with her father stems from his view of her as a sexual threat and this issue is made very clear. When he tells her she is too old to kiss him she says, "I don’t want to stop," and when she kisses him on the lips, he slaps her.

Plato’s relationship to his parents is interesting as it is the most straightforward commentary on the role of parents in shaping the lives of children. They are simply not there at all. We meet this emotionally disturbed “orphan” following his arrest for murdering a litter of puppies with his mother’s gun. He feels as lost and desperate, if not more so, as the other characters because his absent and divorced parents have abandoned him to be raised by the maid/housekeeper. While speaking with the juvenile officer he declares: "Nobody can help me." Plato’s character embodies a warning, as almost a beacon of depravity, as he teaches us through his sociopathic behavior (and when it’s suggested he was driven to homosexuality) that the only thing worse than bad parenting is no parenting at all.

"Dad, stand up for me." James Dean's character argues with his overbearing mother while his emasculated father looks on.
"Dad, stand up for me." James Dean's character argues with his overbearing mother while his emasculated father looks on. | Source

The issue of sexual orientation affects no character more than Plato. While Jim’s sexuality seems to teeter back and forth, Plato’s character and dialogue consistently display blatant undertones of homosexuality. Plato says to Jim after a show given at the planetarium “What does he know about man alone?” Homosexuality being much too provocative for open discussion at the time – it would be four years before Hollywood’s first onscreen gay joke in the final line of Some Like it Hot - his apparent lack of friends and affinity towards solitude lend further support for the supposition of his sexuality. Even more so, Plato at one point describes almost longingly to Judy his dreams (fantasies) of he and Jim being “best-friends” and of Jim teaching him to do all sorts of things that a father would do for his son. In the end Plato’s death ultimately indicates the demise of the homosexual influence, Jim’s reconciliation with his father, and the reinstatement of the heterosexual paradigm – Jim with Judy and Jim’s father as the head of the household – as 50’s America thought it should be.

The 1950’s saw the emergence of a wealth of films addressing the social issues of the time and with a younger audience beginning to frequent the theaters a shift was made to make films that were relatable to youth and educational to elders. Films like The Wild One sought to increase awareness of social order, those like Blackboard Jungle aimed to inform people of the shortcomings of the public school system, and movies like Rebel Without a Cause spoke to generation of troubled youth who were suffering from lack of love from their parents and feelings of abandonment from society. These films, like many in the decades to follow, not only entertained the masses but held up a mirror directly in front of them spawning such iconic imagery that they still find impact on our culture today.

Sources

Bordwell, David. “Film style and technology, 1930-60”. History of Film Part II Course Packet. Alter, 2005

Ray, Nicholas. Rebel Without a Cause. 1955 Warner Bros.

Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 1950’s” Created in 1996-2005 --- http://www.filmsite.org/50sintro.html

Dirks, Tim. “Wild One (1953)” Created in 1996-2005 ---http://www.filmsite.org/wild2.html

Blackboard Jungle Original Theatrical Trailer. 1995. ---http://videodetective.com/home.asp?PublishedID=5897

Dirks, Tim. “Rebel Without a Cause” Created in 1996-2005 ---http://www.filmsite.org/rebel3.html

Cawelti, John G. “The Evolution of Social Melodrama”. History of Film Part II Course Packet. Alter, 2005

Sklar, Robert. Film: An international history of the medium. (pp. 319-21) © 2003, Second Ed. Prentice-Hall Inc. New Jersey

Benedek, Laszlo. The Wild One. 1953. Stanley Kramer Productions

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