Monday, January 30, 2012

The Decade of Turmoil: Film In the 1950s

All one has to do is examine a time line of films made during the 1950s, year by year, to see the battle lines of gender warfare being drawn out, stars taking sides, casualties mounting and points being scored and lost on both sides, as the mundane daily lives of Americans clearly picked sides until, regardless of how desperately Hollywood was trying to teach Americans lessons of the consequences of what they were doing, America changed forever, from the macro demographics of the work place to the micro politics of each individual family and relationship.
In the 1950s, there are three references to Adam and Eve: in 1950, both All About Eve (winner of Best Picture that year) and Adam's Rib were made (as well as Victor Mature’s and Heddy Lamar’s Samson and Delilah with David and Bathsheba in the next year and Jean Simmons and Richard Burton in The Robe) then The Three Faces of Eve was made in 1957 and for which Joanne Woodward won Best Actress. Likewise, in 1957, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was made, starring Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum, which provides us an idyllic island in the middle of the Pacific war, with an illustration of Adam and Eve on their island.Why is this important? It shows that there was a desperation to re-examine and understand the most basic relationship that there is, that between a man and a woman, and how that knowledge was being used to create a battle plan against dangerous attempts to change the dynamics of relationships.
This is truly a great film; if you haven't seen it, do, it's not only great for Christians to watch, but provides an invaluable insight into the gender debates raging in the 1950s, and I do mean "raging."
There is a fourth film made during the 1950’s referencing the Christian understanding of, not only how God created the world, but the order which establishes the world: East of Eden starring James Dean. When we think of James Dean today, even when we think of the 1950s today, we think of Rebel Without A Cause, but the important fact is, it’s East of Eden which earned more money than Rebel, and earned Dean his Academy nomination (posthumously since he died in the car crash). In East of Eden, Dean's mother plays a prostitute who abandoned her family to own a brothel and made quite a bit of money doing it. But in the middle of all this is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments of 1956, starring Charleston Huston and is still a classic today.
"So let it be written, so let it be done."
Why is this listing of films important?
It maps out the shifts in thinking, the central arguments of what was going on in marriages, families, Churches, the work place, and within individuals in a way regular political history cannot illuminate for us. Two films complimenting each other well, is Roman Holiday of 1953 (for which Audrey Hepburn won her Oscar for Best Actress) and Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest of 1959. In Roman Holiday, Princess Ann is a member of the royal family who wants to step off her pedestal and enjoy life; in North By Northwest, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) has slipped off her pedestal and wants Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) to put her back up there, which he does at the end when they are together.
These are the tensions that women's changing roles created and their own inner battles between their sexuality, religion, emotions, social standing, economic freedom and personal needs were the constant material for films throughout the 1950s. Women represented by Princess Ann in Roman Holiday had been on a pedestal before World War II, and going into the factories to work and being without their husbands and fathers, forced them to adapt to new ways of life. Regardless of what we think, these are facts that we can clearly trace back to films and the ways in which both men and women were being torn apart inside and out. Were women going to continue being women or were they going to start being men? Were women going to continue to be the civilizing force of society and culture or were they going to give free reign to their appetites and do whatever they wanted? That is the question film was asking in the 1950s.
William Wyler's 1953 romantic comedy, Roman Holiday.
The Three Faces of Eve succinctly summarizes the inner-conflict of women in the 1950s; this isn't the story of just one woman torn between being a "self-effacing housewife" and mother, and Eve Black, the fun-loving promiscuous woman, but every American woman: there were career women torn between their economic roles and their desire to have a family, then there were housewives torn by a feeling of responsibility and desire for a professional career and ever greater demands by society, culture and their family. The Three Faces of Eve is based on an actual case, but once it hits the big-screen, we can see how clues hidden in other films here and there were pointing to this exact same phenomena all over the country, in nearly ever family.
Joanne Woodward as Eve Black in The Three Faces of Eve.
Elmer Gantry, from 1960 starring Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon Falconer and Burt Lancaster in the title role, would bring woman back down from her pedestal in a very religious context: while Shirley Jones plays an Oscar-winning prostitute (shocking considering that she had been playing a prim and proper lady in Oklahoma!), Sister Falconer is a devout Christian evangelist, going around and preaching revivals but, in the end, is seduced by Gantry. After her seduction, Sister Falconer holds a revival meeting in a tent and a man comes forward whom she heals of deafness and then the tent burns down, ending her career as a female preacher. The opening of the man’s ears isn’t a sign of power she has gained as a result of being seduced, that she has been given power and liberty in being freed of the bonds of her virginity, rather, the man is the audience, whose ears are now opened to hear the message, not the message Sister Falconer is preaching, but the whole film: women must be protected or society will burn down and they must be protected from men.
Shirley Jones in her Oscar winning performance as a prostitute in Elmer Gantry
To Feminists, this is pouring hot coals over their head: “Protected from what or whom? Women have every right to indulge their sexual needs just like men and anyone who suggests that women should be at home barefoot and pregnant should be mummified because you are so obviously out-of-touch with reality." I think it's reality, though, that supports what I am saying, not only reality in the 1950's, but reality today. The primary difference between Feminists and those propounding a "more traditional femininity" is that Feminists think of themselves first and only in terms of economical and social standing; women who support femininity think of those who depend upon them, their husbands and children, and think of themselves in terms of what they can offer others, the emotional care and nourishment they can provide to individuals and society.
Feminist Gloria Steinem; it's beyond irony that her birthday is March 25, the Feast Day of Mary's Annunciation, but Ms. Steinem probably doesn't know what that is.
There is another major difference between Feminists and the feminine. Like Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins (1964) singing, “Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they are rather stupid.”  Feminists have reduced men to political, social and economic entities (void of humanity and life) just as Feminists claim men reduced women to dumb baby-making machines (non-political entities void of thought and talent). 
Ray Milland and Jane Wyman in The Lost Weekend. His appetite for alcohol is waged against her appetites apparent by her leopard-skinned coat, but they work everything out in the end, because she has faith in him. Feminists would, of course, laugh at this, but being that "help mate" to man, helping him get to heaven, is why woman is at the pinnacle of creation and why she should humbly nourish the love within herself so she can give it to others who are in need of it.
After World War II, the crisis happening with men and their sense of masculinity, their individual and collective identities (best summarized immediately after the war in The Lost Weekend of 1946, the story of alcohol addiction, which won both Best Picture and Ray Milland’s Best Actor Oscar), were bulldozed over by women who were concerned with putting themselves on men's levels, that to Feminists was "equality," but to traditional femininity was being lowered, because woman was created as the pinnacle of all other things; for this reason, (as I have stated elsewhere in my discussion on Irene Adler and Mary Morstan from Sherlock Holmes) films were trying to understand why women would want to go from being a Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, to being Eve Kendall in North By Northwest?
In the middle of all this is a woman not associated with Feminism, known throughout the world for her acting and beauty who made a definite stance, but as been discriminated against by Feminists: Elizabeth Taylor. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958) illustrates in the marriage of Cooper and Mae Pollitt the “hen pecked husband” dominated by his wife, while Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) and her wounded husband Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) show us a broken marriage trying to be fixed, but a marriage of emotional equality and equality in sacrifice.
If we know where we have been, we can see the direction we are going in, and the films Miss Taylor did in the 1950's made their completed statements throughout the 1960s. The epic Cleopatra (1963) intimately portrays the full days of a queen and the lonely nights of a woman, delivering a most succinct message to women of what their choice is (either advance in the political sphere or in the emotional sphere but both at the same time is not possible), but it is a choice, they can’t have it both ways, because then they will end up with neither. Butterfield 8 of 1960, for which Taylor won a Best Actress Oscar, graphically details the insecurity and consequences of the sexually promiscuous woman and the damage she brings to herself, others and society at large when she gives free rein to her appetites (it’s a wonderfully done film and I hope to post on it soon).
Why are the 1950s important? Why should we bother with it?
This summer, Battleship is going to be released. While we could say that there have been a steady stream of alien films since the 1950s, films such as Transformers, Cowboys & Aliens, The Thing, Apollo 18, these films have linked us back up with the 1950s and will build upon the vocabulary established there and it was in the science fiction genre that the gender battle found its strongest weapons and so made its strangest statements that were being made in the great dramas of the day, but were better articulated in the sci-fi shows. Before we can explore film noir, or the big epic films, I will do some of the smaller, sci-fi films and then build upon that. Then, as films continue being released, we will all ready have a solid, stable vocabulary to build upon.
The future is in their hands, what will they choose to do with their lives?