Cultural Tidal Wave

As we have seen in the early post-war period, there were victories and defeats, lessons learned and unlearned, compromises and unintended consequences. But, most of all, there were those who believed in the American Constitutional system and those who didn’t – those who knew that they were making, and would make, American lives Constitutionally better and those who wanted to tear it all down and build something new – something to immortalize their moral relativist view of constitutional democracy.

 “Despite Bill Buckley’s initial efforts, we know that by the late 1950s the progressive/liberal intelligentsia had wormed their way into positions of access to impressionable, post-war minds and had spread the seeds of doubt about America’s venerable institutions – using “guilt” as an emotional motivator – to enough influential Americans in academia (colleges and universities), entertainment (Hollywood movies, New York television and media) and the press/media in all major markets that the movement was now self-sustaining and ready for a breakout into political action. In the following decade, the “60s”, all hell would break loose in American society.

 The legacy of the 1950s, which set the stage for the social and cultural earthquake of the 1960s, can be found in several seminal events. The integration of the armed forces by Truman, the Brown v. Board of Education decision and Eisenhower’s use of the National Guard to integrate Little Rock public schools galvanized the non-violent student activist movement in Nashville and elsewhere that culminated in the “lunch counter sit-ins” in 1960 Greenville, NC and Nashville, TN and the “Freedom Marches” that followed.

 Women in the early 1950s were encouraged to marry and have children right after or within a few years of graduating from high school – a long-standing cultural practice. The media culture of the 1950s presented an image of womanhood which was idyllic, but it did not match the life that real people were living or the career goals that women, who had participated in the war effort [or had filled college lecture halls while their men were overseas fighting for their right to be educated] had set for themselves or their daughters.

 In late 1949, Arthur Miller published The Crucible, a play set in 17th  Century Salem, Massachusetts which explores the themes of the inferior social status of women, mass hysteria, repression of individual freedoms and requirements that citizens monitor the behavior of fellow citizens and inform on those who did not conform to the established religious and social order. Miller’s play, New England author Grace Metalious’ scandalous 1956 novel, Peyton Place (the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day) and the invention of “The Pill” helped sexually liberate women and gave rise to the Feminist Movement, which changed the dynamics between American men and women fundamentally and forever.

 In the 1950s, a new genre of literature appeared where the “protagonist” is the opposite of the traditional hero; in fact, he is called the “anti-hero”. Some key works of this kind are: “Lucky Jim” (1954) – by Kingsley Amis; “Look Back in Anger” (1956) and “The Entertainer” (1957) – plays by John Osborne and “Room at the Top” (1956) – by John Braine.

 Quintessential “anti-hero” actor James Dean was a cinematic reflection of changes in what the social definition of “acceptable” is. The popularity of Dean and his classic performance in the movie East of Eden is a response to young America’s questioning of its traditional values. “On screen and in life, James Dean acted out the restlessness and rebellion that youth in the “status quo” fifties felt but could not express out of respect for their hard-working parents. His passionate and futile confrontations with authority stirred shock waves of empathy in millions of young people who sensed that there was something rotten about things like the McCarthy-Nixon anti-communist inquisition which began in 1949.

 James Dean made only three films during his career (including East of Eden) which ended in 1955 with a fatal one-car crash on a lonely, isolated California road, and sadly his untimely death helped build the mystique which so often enlarges the memory of celebrity icons who meet untimely deaths. Elia Kazan directed East of Eden, a fact which is noteworthy because Kazan was called before the HUAC and testified against some of his Hollywood colleagues. In fact, his testimony permanently destroyed his previously close friendship with Arthur Miller.

 Because of his cooperation, Kazan was not blacklisted and continued to work in films while others saw their careers destroyed or interrupted. Blacklisted writers, directors and others did not begin working again until the 1960s or worked under fictional names.

 East of Eden is John Steinbeck’s re-telling of the Biblical story of Adam, Cain and Abel. It depicts the rivalry of two sons, Aron and Cal, for their father’s love, with Dean as a Cain-like son named Cal vying for his father’s (Raymond Massey) love against his brother Aron; a story which is told in a very small portion of the novel. It was the perfect vehicle for Dean who was a rising matinee idol. Dean’s pouty, moody manner captured the essence of Steinbeck’s troubled teen-ager.

Dean’s East of Eden was followed by Nicholas Ray’s best-known melodramatic, color-drenched film about juvenile delinquency and alienation, Warner Bros.’ Rebel Without a Cause (1955). This was the film with Dean’s most-remembered role as mixed-up, sensitive, and defiant teenager Jim Stark, involved in various delinquent behaviors (drunkenness, a switchblade fight, and a deadly drag race called a Chicken Run), and his archetypal scream to his parents: “You’re tearing me apart!”

Dean also starred in his third (and final) feature, George Stevens’ epic saga Giant (1956) set in Texas, and also starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Dennis Hopper.

The 24 year-old actor was killed in a tragic car crash on September 30th 1955 while driving his Silver Porsche 550 Spyder, affectionately nicknamed ‘The Little Bastard’, around the time that Giant was completed and about a month before Rebel opened. Dean’s two co-stars in the film also experienced untimely deaths: Sal Mineo (as Plato) was stabbed to death at age 37, and Natalie Wood (as Judy) drowned at age 43. In his honor, James Dean was awarded two posthumous Best Actor nominations: for his role as rebellious Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955) and as oil-rich ranch-hand Jett Rink in Giant (1956).

Of course, youth culture existed well before the 50s however, teenagers became a distinct group from adults in the ‘50s due to the influence of television. The ‘50s decade also ushered in the age of Rock ‘n’ Roll and a new, younger market of teenagers from now-affluent families. This youth-oriented group was opposed to the older generation’s choice of nostalgic music and films.

 Rather than their parent’s preference for the popular wartime “big band” sound backing classically-good singers, they preferred songs and movies like Rock Around the Clock (1956) that featured disc jockey Alan Freed and the group Bill Haley and His Comets – it was the first film entirely dedicated to rock ‘n’ roll. It was quickly followed by two more similar films featuring Alan Freed (as Himself) – Don’t Knock the Rock (1956) and Rock, Rock, Rock (1956).

 These latter films argued that rock-and-roll was a new, fun, and wholesome type of music. However, the adult generation continued to regard the new youthful generation (and the rise of juvenile delinquency) with skepticism and fear, as illustrated in the film adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s stage play, The Bad Seed (1956). The thriller demonstrated that evil could reside in a young, cute serial killer (played by Patty McCormack).

 During the decade, a connection between youth culture and consumer culture had developed. A distinct set of commodities aimed at teenagers appeared; three such commodities were the teen film, teen clothing, and teen music. James Dean, blue jeans and Elvis Presley were marketed toward the young to overwhelming success.

 Hollywood soon realized that the affluent teenage population could be exploited, now more rebellious than happy-go-lucky – as they had been previously portrayed in films (such as the 1940s Andy Hardy character played by Mickey Rooney). The influence of rock ‘n’ roll surfaced in Richard Brooks’ box-office success, Blackboard Jungle (1955). It was the first major Hollywood film to use R&R on its soundtrack – the music in the credits was provided by Bill Haley and His Comets with their musical hit “Rock Around the Clock.” The film also starred Glenn Ford as a war veteran and clean-cut All-American novice teacher at an inner city high school where the students, led by a disrespectful, sneering punk (Vic Morrow), test his tolerance. One of the other persuasive youths was a young Sidney Poitier. {Morrow would also die tragically, on a movie set in 1982.]

 Another film, that came later in the decade, that also exploited the new teenage market’s non-conformist attitudes, was Jack Arnold’s exploitative juvenile delinquent film, High School Confidential (1958), featuring drugs in a high school dope ring, lots of ‘50’s slang words and “hep-talk”. Starring Russ Tamblyn as an undercover cop posing as a student, switchblade fights, drag races; a voluptuous Mamie Van Doren as Tamblyn’s nymphomaniac aunt and Jerry Lee Lewis singing the title song in its opening.

A young Marlon Brando (1924-2004) was trained by Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio in New York in raw and realistic ‘method acting,’ was influenced by Stella Adler and became a symbol of adolescent, anti-authoritarian rebellion. He starred in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway (opposite Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois) in 1947, and would later repeat his work on film in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and receive an Oscar nomination.

He also contributed a memorable role as a self-absorbed teen character when he played Johnny – an arrogant, rebellious, tough yet sensitive leader of a roving motorcycle gang (wearing a T-shirt and leather jacket) that invaded and terrorized a small-town in Laslo Benedek’s controversial The Wild One (1954). The film was noted for one line of dialogue, typifying his attitude: “What are you rebelling against?” Brando’s reply: “Whadda ya got?” A nasty Lee Marvin led a rival gang of bikers named “The Beetles”.

A third influential anti-hero was Elvis Presley – ‘The King of Rock ‘N Roll’. His first record was That’s All Right Mama, cut in July 1954 in Memphis and released on the Sun Records label. At the time of his first hit song, Heartbreak Hotel, he made his first national TV appearance in January 1956 on CBS’ Tommy (and Jimmy) Dorsey’s Stage Show, although he is best remembered for his controversial, sexy, mid-1956 performance of Hound Dog on the Milton Berle Show, and for three rock ‘n roll performances on the Ed Sullivan Show from September 1956 to January 1957 – his last show was censored by being filmed only from the ‘waist-up’.

He was also featured as an actor in many money-making films after signing his first film deal in 1956. His screen debut was in Paramount’s Civil War drama Love Me Tender (1956) (originally titled The Reno Brothers), with a #1 single hit song Jailhouse Rock(1957) is generally acknowledged as his most famous and popular film, but he also appeared in Loving You (1957) (noted for his first screen kiss) and in director Michael Curtiz’ King Creole (1958) as a New Orleans teen rebel (acclaimed as one of his best acting roles) before the decade ended.

His induction into the Army in 1958 was a well-publicized event. After his Army stint, he also starred in G.I. Blues (1960) and as a half-breed youth, in the southern melodrama Wild in the Country (1961), and in other formulaic 60’s films. Although he returned to stage performances and revived his singing career, he was physically on the decline until his death in August 1977 of heart disease and drug abuse.”

Another interesting and important phenomenon affected the youth of the 1960s, but began in the late 1940s primarily in the New York City area and the San Francisco area, curiously the homes of Columbia University (NY) and the University of California at Berkeley (CA).

It is the story of disaffected “Dealers” (as in FDR’s “New Deal”), trying to find new relevance, and disaffected drifters trying to lose their relevance. This curious confluence of the denizens of Greenwich Village and Morningside Heights on the East Coast and North Beach and the Oakland Hills on the West Coast had a profound effect on post-war America and, in many ways, sent us into the cultural ditch where we now find ourselves. These proponents of “counterculture” provide a direct link between the social progressives of old and the cultural liberals of today.

“The deeper philosophical aspects of the post-war counterculture were not particularly revolutionary. Most of its themes had surfaced much earlier in American history. In the 1840s, transcendentalists retreated to Brook Farm to look for the truth in nature and pursue lives far removed from the materialism, meaningless work, and corrupted values of mainstream society.

Henry David Thoreau cultivated this ethic more privately and retreated to the woods just outside Concord, Massachusetts, (but close enough where he could go home on weekends to do his laundry) where he wrote the classic prescription for discovery of self and truth within nature – On Walden Pond in 1854. His observation that most “men live lives of quiet desperation” would aptly summarize the conclusions of cultural critics a century later. And the following Thoreau phrase would provide 1960s counter-thoreau

culturalists with a slogan for individual self-realization: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

In the 1850s, advocates of “free love” blasted the hypocrisy of contemporary marriage and urged people to give their emotional and sexual feelings free rein. Inspired by Charles Fourier’s doctrine of “passional attraction” and Emanuel Swedenborg’s idea of “conjugal love,” these reformers argued that the passions were essentially good and ought to be indulged rather than denied. [It provided a delicious undercurrent during the Victorian Era in Europe and the United States.]

Both physical illness and psychic dissatisfaction, they said, stemmed from society’s demand that our instincts be repressed. The application of these ideas was far ranging – but the most notorious implication was that individuals were entitled, even obliged, to pursue their romantic and sexual passions to their natural ends. Divorce, polyandry, polygamy were all possible and legitimate outcomes.

Fifty years later, a loosely connected group of authors, artists, and architects undertook the elaboration of more authentic forms of expression – ones that broke free from the stuffy conventions and material complacency of Victorian culture. They celebrated “real experience” and urged people to rediscover the primal essences lying buried beneath Victorian politeness.

Victorian architecture was scorned as overly and soullessly ornate, and Victorian parlors were mocked as perfect expressions of a culture obsessed with material goods and physical comfort. Contemporary work, equated with the emerging legions of white-collar clerks, was described as emasculating and unfulfilling. As an alternative, these cultural critics celebrated the craftsman who worked with his hands, produced something real, and invested his entire being—his creative intellect, his physical labor, even his soul—into his work.

The American Craftsman style, or the American Arts and Crafts movement, is an American domestic archetectural, interior design, landscape, applied arts and decorative arts style and lifestyle philosophy that began in the last years of the 19th century. As a comprehensive design and art movement it remained popular into the 1930s. However, in decorative arts and architectural design it has continued with numerous revivals and restoration projects through present times.

The American Craftsman style (along with a wide variety of related but conceptually distinct European design movements) developed out of the British Arts and Crafts movement going on since the 1860s.

Libertarian socialist William Morris founded the American movement as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution‘s perceived devaluation of the individual worker and resulting degradation of the dignity of human labor. The movement naturally emphasized handwork over mass production, with the problem that expensive materials and costly skilled labor restricted acquisition of Arts and Crafts productions to a wealthy clientele, often ironically derided as “champagne socialists”.

While the American movement also reacted against the eclectic Victorian “over-decorated” aesthetic, the Arts and Crafts style’s American arrival coincided with the decline of the Victorian Era. The American Arts and Crafts Movement shared the British movement’s reform philosophy, encouraging originality, simplicity of form, local natural materials, and the visibility of handicraft, but distinguished itself, particularly in the Craftsman Bungalow style, with a goal of ennobling modest homes for a rapidly expanding American middle class.

During the 1920s, a new batch of critics emerged to condemn the moral and cultural emptiness of American society and its institutions. Sinclair Lewis mocked “Main Street” and lampooned the materialism and mania for success of America’s “Babbitts” – George Babbitt being the main character in Lewis’ book by the same name. H.L Mencken attacked the moral smugness and intellectual shallowness of the “booboisie,” and a whole group of cultural critics fled to a decimated Europe where they claimed to find a less materialistic and intellectually sterile society.

Another group stayed at home and toured working-class and minority communities where they hoped to find more authentic expressions of the human spirit. Most famously, they frequented Harlem where they drank, smoked, and snorted (cocaine) on their way to what they believed were more vital, less repressed, forms of existence. Next time: The Beatniks.


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