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CineAction (1999) - A Domestic Trilogy




In some ways my project is a familiar one: The themes I shall examine in three Hitchcock films — heterosexual relations, the family, the oppression of women — were treated throughout his career. What distinguishes three of his 1950s films — The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Wrong Man, released in succession between 1955 and 1957 is the specificity of the treatment: Each deals with the post World War II nuclear family. The statistics that emerge from this period and confirm the 50s as the definitive family values era are fairly well-known but statistics on marriages (94.1% of men and 96.4% of women of this generation married)(1) and births (25.3 per 1000 women in 1957 compared to 18.4 during the Depression)(2) tell only part of the story, for not only did everyone marry and reproduce, they followed remarkably similar patterns in numbers of children produced (in that distinguished documentary on the nuclear family, Martha and Ethel, one mother notes that "We had big families ... no one had small families") and even spacing of births. That the postwar economy was stimulated by this domestic orientation is evidenced by the 240% jump in sales of household goods(3), the decade's biggest boom in consumer spending. Sixty percent of the population attained middle class income levels(4) and most families were able to realize the American dream of home ownership, with a noteworthy increase in single family ownerships(5) (and with the rise in highway construction during this era, the Dream became increasingly a suburban reality). Americans directed their energies into constructing the paradigm of the 50s nuclear family as if mimicking univocally the claims of one survey respondent when she said that marriage (but this clearly holds for the entire nuclear unit) gave her a "happy, full, complete life ... "(6)

But the 50s nuclear family was an aberration and its most lasting legacy might prove to be its symbolic function as representative of an era's apparently successful synthesis of economic and social stability with personal fulfillment. As Stephanie Coontz notes of this era:

In fact, the "traditional" family of the 1950s was a qualitatively new phenomenon. At the end of the 1940s, all the trends characterizing the rest of the twentieth century suddenly reversed themselves: For the first time in more than one hundred years, the age for marriage and motherhood fell, fertility increased, divorce rates declined, and women's degree of educational parity with men dropped sharply. In a period of less than ten years, the proportion of never married persons declined by as much as it had during the entire previous half century.(7)

As she goes on to note the postwar populace that embraced the 50s nuclear construct recognized it as a new invention and approached it as such. The experiment was in fact made possible by a unique confluence of artificial factors (that is, not in themselves necessitating the formation of nuclear families) the primary one being the postwar U.S. economy, which enjoyed an enormous international advantage when the European industrial powers had been decimated by the war. The economic stability of this period made possible various forms of government patronage, from housing loans (through the Federal Housing Authority) to new highway construction, salient factors directing the populace into the suburban nuclear paradigm.(8)

Although it provided the basis for their formation, the postwar economy does not totally explain the 50s nuclear family (after all, the postwar 20s saw a popular challenge to social conventions). The war itself provides further explanation. As with the Great Depression, World War II provided the opportunity for radical social and political transformation. Three demonstrable realizations of this potential become particularly resonant in the postwar years: The brief allegiance of the U.S. and Soviet Union, the dramatic influx of women into the wartime job market and the military and, finally, the growth of gay consciousness made possible by the social interaction of a large cross section of gays and lesbians in the military (a process hitherto restricted to America's metropolitan areas).(9)

War may have provided the impetus for social change but a massive challenge to ideological norms would be postponed until the 1960s. The immediate postwar era provides ample evidence instead of the attempted reversal of wartime political and social transformations: HUAC's Hollywood and State Department investigations, the return of women to domesticity and a "pink collar" labor force, the systematic persecution and dismissal of suspected gays and lesbians from the military and the civil service. The immediate response of the populace to the wartime emergency had been an attempt (backed by a wide range of cultural forces) to reinforce ideological norms (as is suggested by the dramatic increase in marriages early in the war)(10). 1950s conservatism can be viewed then as a similar response to a new emergency: the possibility of death on a global scale as a result of nuclear anihilation. But it is also a response by powerful social and political forces to roughly two decades of social upheaval, the most immediate being the undermining of political, gender, and sexual norms as a result of the wartime emergency. The 50s family is the fulcrum for the first full scale, national attempt to enforce a rigid code of political, sexual and gender behavior, the chance of success enhanced by the opportune confluence of comparative political and ...

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(1.) Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound, (BasicBooks, 1998)

(2.) Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were (BasicBooks, 1992)

(3.) ibid., p.25

(4.) ibid., p.24

(5.) ibid., p.24

(6.) May, op.cit, p.29

(7.) Coontz, op.cit, p.25

(8.) ibid., p.77 78

(9.) I have relied upon two fine film documentaries, Before Stonewall (Schiller, 1985) and Coming Out Under Fire (1994, based on the book by Allan Berube) for information on what ultimately cannot be revealed by statistics: The experience of lesbians and gays in the military during World War II. Although only the latter is centrally concerned with gays in the military, both documentaries (through interviews and personal testimonials) reveal the war as a contributing factor to the creation of the later Gay Liberation movement and hence to a modern gay/lesbian identity. The gay/lesbian experience of recognizing "others like themselves from other parts of the country" was the inevitable result of the formation of "the largest armed force in U.S. history", which included exclusively female units.

If, collectively, the WW II veterans interviewed regard their wartime experience with decided ambivalence, this perhaps derives from the military's response (contradictory at best) to their presence. On the one hand, midway through the war, military policy banning sodomy was amended to a ban on homosexuality itself. Male and female personnel could now be discharged for their suspected sexual identity rather than for a specific sexual act. As an example, however, of progressive utilitarianism (or utilitarian progressiveness) for a time the military attempted to accommodate a gay presence. For example a WAC sex hygiene film (excerpted in Coming Out) not only addresses the possibility of female camaraderie finding "sexual expression" but suggests treating the matter with "understanding".

As noted this liberalism did not survive the war. As an example of postwar reaction the State Department adopted the military's eventual policy banning homosexuals. And in 1953 Executive Order 10450 extended this policy to all federal jobs.

(10.) May, op.cit, p.59

(11.) The crucial influence of capitalism upon the American family can be derived from these comments made by the late Andrew Britton on the war's effect on American capitalism, the specific institution of concern being the Hollywood studio system

"What the war did was to impose an extradordinary hiatus in the development of American capitalism: it postponed by about ten years that general social process in terms of which the Hollywood studio system was already becoming archaic and anomalous even as its characteristic institutions were being consolidated. We may describe this process as a movement towards an economy based on individual consumption and social relations characterised by the dispersal and atomisation of persons, who are located in "the home" and constructed as "consumers" by a variety of discourses and practices ... "("A New Servitude" CineAction #26/27, Winter 1992, p.35); The postwar development of commercial television as well as the government's attacks on Hollywood (both the dismantling of its internal capital structure as well as the investigation of its personnel), an institution whose product depended upon social relations both communal and external to the home are suggestive in terms of a postwar drive toward "atomisation". Widely promoted by sociologists and psychiatrists, the nuclear family is the central figure of this schema and the effect of the nuclear family as a form (that is, Americans dispersed into ever smaller consumer units) upon the economy has been noted. The dissolution of extended family ties is the inevitable byproduct of this social process.

(12.) Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited (Columbia Univ. Press, 1989, pp.358 70)

(13.) Certainly the star that comes closest to embodying a prototype of American manhood during the classical era is John Wayne. Interestingly, during this period, Wayne's stoicism takes on those qualities of neurotic obsessiveness more associated with the Stewart persona, a result no doubt of the era'a crisis of manhood to which Deborah Thomas alerts us. Thus the Stewart neurotic of Rear Window, Vertigo and the Mann westerns finds his twin in the Wayne of Red River and The Searchers. Even here however a distinction must be noted. The emotionalism that is a recurring aspect of the Stewart persona is completely foreign to Wayne. If Wayne's obsessive drives are thwarted, it results from a confrontation with an equivalent physical or moral force (Red River) or, barring that, from a change of heart that has none of the connotations of emotional collapse evidenced by Stewart's last minute change in say The Naked Spur. The crucial issue is the relationship of the persona to the values of domesticity. As is evidenced by The Searchers the values Wayne represents are antithetical to the home and hence the Wayne persona is closer to myth than Stewart, who has generally internalized the values of home. It is his association with the domestic sphere, however denied, that determine Stewart's distance from the myth and define him, in this respect, as the un-John Wayne.

(14.) Douglas Pye, "The Collapse of Fantasy" (Cineaction #29, Fall 1992,pp.75-81)

(15.) Wood, op.cit, pp.364 65

(16.) Rear Window presents an even more complex relationship between Stewart and the double. Lars Thorvald is of course the film's obvious double figure, the film climaxing with a classic confrontation between hero and doppelganger. But as critic Tania Modleski has noted (The Women Who Knew Too Much, Methuen Inc., 1988) equally strong parallels are established between Stewart and Mrs. Thorvald, their physical incapacity being only the most obvious. The narrative can be read as an account of Stewart's hysterical denial of otherness. The inconclusiveness of the evidence suggesting Mrs. Thorvald's death only helps support this: She must be dead for Stewart to establish decisively his difference, that he (unlike she, by virtue of her vulnerability to Thorvald) possesses the Phallus, a conviction made magnificently untenable by Hitchcock when Stewart becomes (like Mrs. Thorvald) a victim of Lars Thorvald's violence.

(17.) To my knowledge, the late Mr. Britton never wrote on Harry. Therefore the reputation of this estimable writer should in no way be subjected to criticism due to any conclusions I have drawn from this one comment he made regarding Harry.