Women in America went to work after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry into World War II, and many of them decided that they liked it; American men took it upon themselves in the 1950’s to attempt the enforced repression of that desire to remain at work. Until America joined the war to fight the dreaded Hun (and the Japanese) in the latter part of 1941, women as a rule really hadn’t had much of a choice in terms of vocation. Women basically had the choice of becoming a wife and possibly mother, or, if they desired to enter the work force, taking a job in one of the male-approved female jobs such as secretary or nursing.
With the depletion of male work force into the service from 1941 to 1945, women all over the country got a taste of what it was like to work in a variety of jobs ranging from factory worker to professionals. Working actually became something of a patriotic duty for women; they took on jobs at the factory or office so that a man could be allowed to take up arms and protect America. The icon of the American woman’s liberation was Rosie the Riveter and Hollywood applauded the working woman throughout the films of the early 40s. The only problem was that once the men came home and got their jobs back, many women were not expressing the jubilation of going back home that was expected.
The opening words of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar reference Ethel Rosenberg, an intelligent, educated woman who dared to express unpopular beliefs and suffered the ultimate repression: execution. It’s not difficult to imagine that many women in the 50’s felt the same fear at expressing some of the unpopular beliefs they were coming to feel. The body snatchers who invaded American via the movies could be read as either the communists or the communist witch-hunters depending on which side of the argument you stood on. That linkage to witch hunting must have made many a woman’s blood run cold; after all, a witch is by definition a woman and even though McCarthy was mainly going after men, that didn’t stop Ethel from being executed alongside Julius. The forced conformity that marked the 50’s cannot but be linked to the Red Scare as the search for any sign of liberal thought was a valuable weapon in the fight to suppress women’s newfound liberation following the war.
Another method of suppressing unhealthy liberal thought-a cottage industry in the 50’s-was to demonize sexuality, of course. Few would argue that the 50’s were an extraordinarily repressive era, but that doesn’t mean there was no such thing as sexual imagery. While television was incredibly tame, the films of the 50’s in some way were the most sexually charged since the pre-code 30’s. Of course, even in the movies the message that only bad girls had sex was recurrent. A solid Richie Cunningham-type 1950’s young man would never have had anything to do with a bad girl. He may have fantasized about Marilyn Monroe, but he would have brought only Doris Day home to meet mother. That sexuality was being presented in a confusing way in the 50’s can be illustrated through an analysis of one of the most famous movies to come out of the decade, A Place in the Sun.
Although Marilyn Monroe is the quintessential “bad girl” and sex symbol, she was also relatively non-threatening and she never really seemed to have to pay the price for transgressions. After all, most men dreamed about a wife who looked like Marilyn even if they wanted her to act more like Doris in public. But the fact that A Place in the Sun was so hugely successful among young audiences is a good indication that sexuality was heavy on their minds. Tellingly, the title of the original novel on which this film was based, An American Tragedy, had to be changed because the author was a liberal-a socialist yet-and by changing the title they hoped no one would make the connection.
The changes in the title were not the only changes made. Shelley Winters plays a not completely nice girl who manages to land a way-out-of-her-league Montgomery Clift. But poor Shelley is a lower class worker and just can’t compare to high class Elizabeth Taylor. (At this point in Taylor’s career, few could.) When Shelley turns up pregnant and a hindrance to the real love story, she winds up dead at the bottom of a lake. Her death is presented somewhat ambiguously-Monty clearly wants her dead, but there’s strong evidence her death was an accident. Nonetheless handsome Monty winds up receiving the same fate as the Rosenbergs, and poor Liz winds up with fate even worse: Catholic school. Lesson learned: Good girls don’t, bad girls die, and sex turns even the most handsome and trustworthy of men into homicidal maniacs.
There is another lesson that can be learned from this movie, too, one that both young men and women of the 50’s doubtlessly appreciated. For young women, the message could be that it’s okay to not be fulfilled by going to parties and wearing pretty dresses and being seen and being pretty. Those things don’t really matter, and they don’t make you less of a woman because they don’t make you happy. Liz Taylor has to learn the hard way that looking fabulous in a party dress doesn’t bring a happy ending. A lot of young woman in the 50’s had to learn that the hard way, though not necessarily in a way as hard as pretty little Elizabeth.
Young men could have learned from this movie that poor people can be just as phony as rich people. That phoniness isn’t distinctly an upper middle class thing. The explosion of rock and roll and the creation of television personalities and the continuing dominance movies were all essentially how-to manuals for learning behavior. Holden Caulfield’s disdain for entertainers in Catcher in the Rye is acute and on target because phoniness has to be learned; it is not an intuitive trait. But neither is the ability to be phony. The most phony character in the movie is the one played by Montgomery Clift, and he is likely the character of whom Holden would most have expected authenticity and a sense of the genuine because of working class upbringing.
The greatness of the movie is that despite being made during one of the most stiflingly conformist decades in American history-perhaps second only to this decade-it manages to turn convention on its head. Even though Monty may not have been an actual murderer in deed, he was definitely one in spirit and few murderers in movies made during the 50’s were as good looking and personable as Montgomery Clift. And even though she’s rich and beautiful and lives the good life, it’s not hard to expect that the trauma of her first love is going to haunt Taylor’s character for the rest of her unhappy life.
The greatest feat of upending conformity might rest in the fate of Shelley Winters’ character, however. Though she allows herself to get pregnant by engaging in pre-marital sex, she is still admirable. After all, she works at a thankless job, she wants to keep her baby instead of going to some back alley butcher, and, most importantly, she wants to get married to the father of her child. In any other movie she’d be the heroine. But guess what?
In this movie she is the villain! Winters is the bad guy, the harpy and shrew who just doesn’t have enough class to step aside and let poor Monty and Liz ride into the sunset together. She has the gall to die under mysterious circumstances and before you know it Raymond Burr is chewing scenery and nearly hitting Monty with a canoe oar in the middle of the courtroom.
How confusing must this have been to young minds of the 50’s? Yes, Winters had unprotected sex before marriage. But she is in no ways a slut. She was in love. And, oh, by the way, didn’t Monty share responsibility? If anything, he was the slut! But instead of being presented as a cad, he was given those incredible close-ups alongside Taylor and presented as everything young men in the 50’s could desire to become and everything young women simply desired. Heck, even though he is related to the family that owns the factory where he and Winters work, he starts at the bottom and works his way up. He’s the American Dream come true.
Did I mention he was executed for murder at the end? Very confusing.
Conformity became fashionable in the 50’s after the topsy turvy non-conformist gender roles made not only possible but necessary by World War II. Once the genie was out the bottle, it became very difficult to put it back. Politicians from Eisenhower to McCarthy-and that’s not a really big jump, I realize-vainly tried to keep the clock from turning even if they couldn’t quite make the hands go backward. For a time they succeeded. But that clock was a ticking time bomb.
The explosion of nonconformity in the 1960’s was set in motion by those Japanese planes that attacked Pearl Harbor. A movie like A Place in the Sun being made in the 50’s seems almost impossible in retrospect; describe it as I have done without the names of the actors and most people would probably guess it was made in the 70’s. But the fact that it was made, and that Elvis burst onto the scene in the 50’s and that Marilyn Monroe was just as popular as Doris Day is a testament to the fact that though many in power in the 50’s tried desperately repress subversive thought and liberal and progressive movements, progress was being made anyway.
It gives one hope for these troubled times which, when looked back upon, will probably be seen as far more repressive than the 50’s ever were.