To understand the structure of American culture, you can look at old Hollywood movies. It’s like an archaeological dig with a music track supplied. Starting at the beginning of the twentieth century and moving through the decades, movies show us trends for men and women, from dress to body language. The stories reveal values and roles.
A thorough analysis could obviously fill volumes. I’d like to just sketch a few observations.
A hundred years ago, it was generally believed that formality and class protected all of us—men, women, young and old— from uncivilized brutality. Movies often reflected this. The higher the class of the woman or the man, the fewer challenges to their dignity or authority, but also the more obligation they had to behave well and lead by example. Charlie Chaplin, dressed as a little tramp, made us laugh when he couldn’t even walk in a dignified manner. He behaved as informally as a child, so he was funny when he tried, and failed, to win the love of a woman or gain anyone’s respect. Buster Keaton was another silent film star whose lack of formality in dress and manners was instantly recognizable as funny, under-classed and juvenile.
During the same early years of movies, the talented acting Barrymore famaily, John, Ethel and Lionel, often portrayed upper middle-class power and style. Mature adults were supposed to understand that rules and manners dictated you never insult the dignity of anyone who understands and obeys the same rules, or you pay. John played leading roles where he bowed and saluted woman and they bowed and saluted back. The Barrymore’s theatrical world was one where a man who even hinted at assaulting a woman was so vile, shooting him was barely satisfactory. But the appropriate mates for formal, respectable people would have to be people who could match them in class obligations. Without those obligations or rules, society would not have standards for anyone to emulate.
As the twenties turned into the thirties, movies added sound, more cameras and better sets. Women expressed the new consumer taste for informality by, for instance, reducing their layers of clothes. Ginger Rogers’ underwear was shockingly visible beneath her sheer dresses as she swirled around some public dance floor with Fred Astaire. She traded barbs with him instead of salutes and bows. The Great Depression made classy formality look misplaced, as middle-class families now needed everyone to get any job available. Poverty, or even the threat of it, was a great leveler.
More and more, women and men toyed with class and manners in the movies. Rosalind Russell, Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis snapped sarcasm at men like Cary Grant and Clark Gable, who did the same thing back. Formality was shown as brittle at best. Jimmy Stewart’s charm came from being the boy next door; a naive young boy from middle America with native smarts. He mumbled and shuffled, unfinished and unworldly. His mate had to be just as folksy; maybe Donna Reed.
The Second World War’s devastation smacked down the whole world. It wasn’t enough that so many millions died, but our faith in hierarchical order and manners seemed to die, too. During the war, Humphrey Bogart’s famous movie, Casablanca focused on how the main character, a tough American regular guy, outmaneuvers and outshines the arcane and tortured formality of Nazi officers. After the war, the United States emerged a superpower as Hollywood’s Film Noir reflected the dark, fed-up mood of social realists. Sociopathic movie criminals weren’t so different from some of those well mannered—usually foreign—thugs that the war proved slaughtered with abandon. Manners were phony in movies and men and women had to treat each other cynically or disrespectfully; or hearts were broken or, worse, people were murdered.
The fifties brought still more leveling with movie antiheroes. If cool people were cowboys or angst-filled suburban high schoolers, as in “Rebel Without a Cause”, manners, formality, and rules were not cool. The befuddled parents in that movie were fairly useless. And John Wayne and many others told us in western after western that survival was a never-ending battle of the lone individual against raw nature and encroaching, sissified civilization. Weapons on his hip to keep people away, John Wayne left us in the last frames of “The Searchers” to ride into the sunset by himself on the flattest, driest landscape on earth; no humans in sight. The rule of the gun was the only rule.
And yet, the middle-class was doing so well, economically. Many sixties movies wanted us to believe in our better selves again, as all the same middle-class. Along with movies, Hollywood now catered to everyone at once, everywhere, through commercial TV. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore might act like teens at a stay-over, but they were simply appreciating their suburban bliss. Neither of them was formal or particularly adult because in a normal world everyone’s the same age and class. It’s just that universal happiness got so easily jeered at through the deeper revelations of anti-establishment movies; acclaimed ones like, “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy”. In those movies, there was a hierarchy; a decadent one. Wealthy people were either absurdly selfish or absurdly dysfunctional. So, serious movies of the sixties celebrated mocking even the notion of social rules and obligations.
It turns out Woodstock might be the final answer. The documentary made in the late sixties about three days of sex, drugs and rock and roll, was a huge hit. It proved, once and for all, that all we needed was to take off our clothes and everyone was the same. Nature wasn’t raw, it was filled with butterflies, as long as we didn’t pave it over. The only rule was to disallow any rules. Rules and formality were the enemies of humankind. Hierarchy of any kind was evil. We had to get ourselves back to the garden, said Joni Mitchell.
Apparently, the garden was polluted because seventies Hollywood proved leveling had to be heavily enforced. In a very popular series of “Dirty Harry” movies, Clint Eastwood pointed the largest gun he could hold at seemingly endless degenerates. His anger was aimed at both hierarchy and prolonged middle-class adolescents from Woodstock Nation. Middle-class people desperately needed protection from rapists and murderers and the pathetic relics of the hierarchy were no longer strong enough physically or morally to protect anyone. Emphatically a regular guy, Clint dressed way down in clothes that could have come off a homeless person. The doctors in the very popular movie and TV series, MASH, dressed down, too, and showed how little tolerance cool people should have for any formal rules, even to the point of publicly humiliating a woman they deemed pretentiously formal. In the Boston movie theater I was in, the audience applauded that scene; both men and women cheered.
Television grew in size and influence in the seventies and eventually, movies became absorbed by multi-media international corporations. Hollywood continued the celebration of everyone being the same age and class. Beginning with “American Graffiti”, “Hair”, and “Saturday Night Fever” and morphing into television shows, music tracts pumped out teen pop music forevermore.
As the rich grew richer and the wage gap widened in our society, movies and TV seemed to demand the same informality for those with power, as those without. If the super-rich looked and behaved like the rest of us, everything must be fine. In many ways, the three top TV shows in the nineties demonstrated this. In the sitcom Friends, Chandler’s wealthy background is as dysfunctional as any and he is everyone’s equal in manners and prospects. His friend, Phoebe, who grew up parentless and homeless, is really no different from Chandler. In the sitcom Frazier, the main character and his brother Niles, who are Ivy League professionals, are ridiculous snobs. They fail at almost everything because they’re too psychologically damaged to be regular guys. Everyone in the sitcom Seinfeld is of the same age and class.
I’ll stop my archaeological scratching there, but again advise anyone interested in twentieth-century American history and culture to watch old movies and TV shows. They reveal a lot about how we got here.
The main, emphatically resolved question asked in twentieth-century Hollywood was this: Does a more formal, rule-based behavior empower us as women and men, or do informality and leveling set us free? Hollywood, more and more, promoted the latter view.
What’s your take on what you just read? Comment below or write a response and submit to us your own point of view or reaction here at the red box, below, which links to our submissions portal.