The History Channel Presents The Fifties. The History Channel.
Reviewed by Philip J. Landon
Published on (November, 1998)
The press release for <cite>The Fifties</cite>, the mini-series recently aired by the cable History Channel, promises viewers "the most in depth documentary series about the era which bridged the end of WWII with the New Frontier." It is certainly the longest, the most ambitious, and the most entertaining documentary account of the era. In adapting David Halberstam's 1993 best-seller <cite>The Fifties</cite> for television, directors Alex Gibney and Tracy Dahlby have preserved Halberstam's view that beneath the deceptively placid surface of the 1950s--with its emphases on economic security, social conformity, and upward mobility--there ran counter-currents of dissent and rebellion, of ideological struggle, and of social discontent which burst to the surface during the turbulent 1960s. <p> Although Halberstam's more complex reading of American life in the 1950s may be familiar to students of the period and can be found, for example, in Stephen J. Whitfield's excellent introduction to the political climate of the 1950s, <cite>The Culture of the Cold War</cite> (1991, 2nd ed. 1996), and in Elaine Tyler May's influential analysis of middle-class family life, <cite>Homeward Bound</cite> (1988), the era has been popularized as an age of innocence and prosperity during which traditional family values, civility, and old-fashioned patriotism flourished. This nostalgic image of the 1950s may owe more to reruns of Father Knows Best, to films like Back to the Future (1983), and to a longing for a simpler and less fragmented America than to historical reality, but it has captured the popular imagination and, in turn, helped shape contemporary social and political discourse. The History Channel offers its millions of viewers a much more balanced interpretation of the era which gave birth to the Cold War, rock-and-roll, the civil rights movement, suburbia, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. <p> The series is made up of seven segments beginning with a two-hour episode, "The Fear and the Dream" which opens with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the end of the Second World War and lays out some of the cultural and ideological conflicts and contradictions which would define the next fifteen years: it traces the sustained economic expansion which financed the baby boom and the birth of the Levittown; it covers the beginning of the Cold War, the development of the hydrogen bomb, Senator Joseph McCarthy's hunt for communists in government, and the Korean War. The episode ends with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won the presidency by convincing the voters that he could conclude a stalemated war abroad and end the divisive political battles at home. <p> Each of the subsequent episodes is devoted to a topic which identifies an aspect of 1950s that belies the decade's reputation for bland conformity. "Selling the American Way" traces the rise of television as the nation's most powerful advertising medium and explains how that medium served to sell consumer goods and politicians to the American public, as well the ways was used to conceal some of the darker aspects of the Eisenhower Administration's foreign policy. "Let's Play House" examines the difference between the idealized portrait of domestic life seen in television sitcoms and the discovery that home life, no matter how comfortable, left breadwinners unsatisfied and housewives even more unsatisfied. The first indications of the coming sexual revolution are the subject of episode four, "A Burning Desire." It covers the revelations of the Kinsey Report and the public reaction to them; the cultural significance of Marilyn Monroe, the reigning sex symbol whose image helped Hugh Hefner to establish the Playboy empire; and the development of the "pill" that would give women far greater sexual freedom. <p> The demand for equal rights by black Americans is the subject of "The Rage Within" the fifth episode of the series. As might be expected, it covers some familiar material: the murder of Emmett Till which drew national attention to the plight of blacks, the Montgomery bus boycott which transformed Martin Luther King into a national figure, the decision to make segregation in public schools illegal, and the southern resistence to that decision which led a reluctant the President to send the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock in order to enforce the law. It also covers the often reluctant acceptance of black sports stars exemplified in the careers of The Boston Celtics' Bill Russell and the Atlanta Braves' Willie Mays. The increasing visibility of American Black culture is further evident in the work of two of the decades most influential figures: Jack Kerouac and Elvis Presley, the focus of episode six: "The Beat." Both men incorporated elements of black music into art forms which subverted the prevailing cultural norms and aroused the ire of cultural critics. And both appealed to a younger generation less and less willing to conform to the approved social roles of the 1950s. <p> The final hour of the <cite>The Fifties</cite>, "The Road to the Sixties" opens by recounting the popularity of finned cars and fast food chains, using them as examples of the decade's trend toward the conspicuous consumption made possible by continuing economic good times and encouraged by massive advertising campaigns urging self indulgence. Then "The Road to the Sixties" describes the sudden awakening from national complacency when the Soviet Union launches Sputnik and Castro rises to power in Cuba. The Fifties concludes with the country choosing a new national leader, John F. Kennedy, who envisions a New Frontier where America will reclaim its technological superiority and live up to its responsibilities as the leader of the Free World. <p> Although the opening and closing segments of the series mark very clearly what the series defines as the 1950s (actually the decade and a half beginning in 1945 and ending in 1960), each of the five intervening episodes constitutes a self-contained unit with its own narrative unity and chronology. Structuring the series in this way serves two purposes: it allowed the filmmakers to focus on events which were taking place simultaneously (e.g. the civil rights movement, the new domesticity, the career of Elvis Presley, evolution of a television culture, the growth of McDonald's fast food empire), and it made each episode understandable to the many viewers who were not likely to be in front of their television sets for six consecutive evenings. <p> The most effective episodes are those in which the visual images speak for themselves and depend very little on the mediating voice of the narrator. Footage of the devastating nuclear explosions in Nevada and at the Bikini Atoll followed by shots of grade-school children being encouraged to protect themselves from an atomic attack by ducking under their desks do not need a narrator to explain the horrors of nuclear war and the pathetic inadequacy of the country's "civil defense" policies. Likewise, the images of Elvis performing on the Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle television programs are enough to reveal why his popularity upset parents and filled the arbiters of public morality with fears about the nation's moral health. <p> "The Rage Within" stands out as one of the most illuminating and moving episodes because, as John Chancellor points out in an interview, advances in television technology made it possible for crews from network news programs to record the inherently dramatic clash between black civil rights activists and supporters of segregation. The striking contrast between the American Dream and the plight of black citizens is captured, early in the episode, by an image of working-class blacks standing patiently in line in front of a huge billboard advertisement featuring an idealized white family of four speeding along in a new car. The caption, in letters several feet tall reads, "No way like the American way." Equally moving (and appalling) is the interview with H. C. Strider, Sheriff of Sumner, Mississippi during the trial of Emmett Till's murderers. The very embodiment of old-time racism, he blames the NAACP for stirring up the ordinarily contented blacks of his Delta town. Some of the sequences are more familiar but equally impressive, such as Elizabeth Eckford passing hecklers to reach Little Rock's Central High School or Martin Luther King giving his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Carefully selected and gracefully edited, "The Rage Within" offers more than a picture of the civil rights movement during the 1950s; it recreates the emotional climate of the era. <p> Woven into the various episodes are many examples of 1950s popular culture; movies, novels, television programs, and music serve to illustrate and to comment on the decade's social and political currents. Ralph Ellison's <cite>The Invisible Man</cite> (1952) and Louis Armstrong's music figure prominently in "The Rage Within." "The Fear and the Dream" offers Don Siegel's <cite>The Invasion of the Body Snatchers</cite> (1956) as a film which reflects the threat to freedom and personal identity posed by both Soviet communism and suburban conformity. Micky Spillane's brutal, commie-hating protagonist, Mike Hammer, becomes a popular hero suited to "mean times." And a scene from Mark Robson's <cite>The Bridges at Toko-Ri</cite> (1954), in which a pair of doomed fliers (William Holden and Mickey Rooney) wonder how they wound up in a muddy ditch in North Korea, symbolizes the country's disenchantment with the Korean War. <p> At times, however, <cite>The Fifties</cite> strains too hard to establish connections between popular narratives and historical events. In "The Fear and the Dream" General Douglas MacArthur, after being sacked for insubordination by President Truman, is compared to the protagonist of <cite>High Noon</cite> (1952) who tosses away his sheriff's badge in disgust at the cowardice of the townspeople he has served. The solitary, stoic Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in Fred Zinnemann's classic western has nothing in common with the vainglorious General, who was welcomed home by cheering crowds and an admiring Congress. Conversely, some unintended juxtapositions result in surprising insights. "The Fear and the Dream" is followed by "Selling the American Way; which traces the rapid growth of both television and the advertising industry. It contains segments of an film designed to convince corporate executives of the power of television as an advertising medium. We see a distracted housewife transformed by a giant television screen into a true consumer. As she stares at a box of paper tissues on the screen the housewife's hand moves toward a shelf and grasps a box of the same tissues. Her movements and facial expressions bear a striking a resemblance to the pod people in <cite>The Invasion of the Body Snatchers</cite> (A resemblance made all the more disturbing by the knowledge that market researchers like Ernst Dichter and advertising executives like Rosser Reeves deliberately tried to create a buying public in the image of the entranced housewife). <p> In the other episodes, sequences from popular narratives are put to work illustrating aspects of the 1950s which are important but intrinsically less visual. "Let's Play House," which examines the secrets and the discontent hidden under the surface of domestic lives devoted to "togetherness" and middle-class respectability makes its point by invoking writers who insisted on looking beneath the pieties of the new domesticity. The most impressive section is devoted to Grace Metalious, the author of <cite>Peyton Place</cite> (1956), a novel which exposed the dark underside of the small New Hampshire town where she lived. It was so popular that a film version appeared the next year, followed eventually by four sequels and a television series. <p> The small-town scandals of <cite>Peyton Place</cite> are balanced by interviews with Betty Friedan (<cite>The Feminine Mystique</cite>, 1963) and Sloan Wilson (<cite>The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit</cite>, 1955), writers who chronicled the suburban domestic life of young businessmen climbing the corporate ladder and their wives, whose horizons have narrowed to children and kitchen appliances. Their discontents are illustrated primarily with scenes from the Hollywood adaptation of Wilson's novel, which focuses on the middle-class and upwardly mobile Rath family. While the Raths may exemplify the disappointments awaiting those who achieve the American Dream, they are more 1950s myth than 1950s reality. Very few families ever enjoyed the Rath's material well-being. The discontents which haunted most families originated in their failure to share the Dream which advertising and the mass-media held up as the reward awaiting all deserving Americans. To many of us who grew up in the lower-middle and working-class families and came of age during the 1950s, the tribulations of the Rath family seemed both delicious and desirable. <p> In a documentary so full of material about the culture of post-war America, it may be unfair to ask for more, but some of the omissions deserve mention because they suggest ways in which <cite>The Fifties</cite> perpetuates the very myths that it proposes to deconstruct. Neither the series nor Halberstam's book offers more than passing glances at working-class life. Both suggest that economic prosperity had turned the country into a middle-class society. During the 1950s this assumption was reflected throughout the popular culture and affirmed by scholarly studies of the period, from David Riesman's <cite>The Lonely Crowd</cite> (1950) to John Kenneth Gailbraith's <cite>The Affluent Society</cite> (1957) and Daniel Bell's <cite>The End of Ideology</cite> (1960). Working-class status was regarded as a transitional role which individuals passed through on their climb into the middle class. However, as Richard Parker pointed out in <cite>The Myth of the Middle Class</cite> (1972), even during what <cite>The Fifties</cite> press book describes as "America's golden years," only a small percentage of children born to working-class parents ever attained genuine middle-class status. <p> Those who failed to make the transition for themselves or their children tended to become invisible or were transmuted into social deviants. Three selections from <cite>The Fifties</cite> illustrate this phenomenon. Aside from interviews with a pair of retired workmen who helped built the first Levittown, the only workers shown at industrial jobs are blacks who have moved to northern cities from the rural South. The one lower-class character who appears in the selections taken from popular narratives is a character in <cite>Peyton Place</cite> who rapes his daughter. Finally, Elia Kazan's <cite>The Wild One</cite> (1954) is used to illustrate the rebellious spirit stirring in the hearts of the young. But conflict between the respectable townspeople and the bikers, led by Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin, has its origin in class as much as generational differences. In Nicholas Ray's <cite>Rebel Without a Cause</cite> (1956) leather jackets are the hallmark of the students whose language and aspirations mark them as lower-class adversaries of the film's conspicuously middle-class hero, Jimmy Stark (James Dean). <p> Also invisible in <cite>The Fifties</cite> are the towns, the cities, the entire regions which, like members the working class, found themselves left behind by the social transformations of the 1950s. The corollary to the booming suburbs were the increasingly impoverished cities they surrounded. Regional economies and the cultures they sustained went into decline as national corporations commanded an increasing share of the country's economic pie. During the late 1950s a joke heard among undergraduates in Springfield, Massachusetts was that Western Massachusetts' greatest export was educated people. It exported me and every friend who managed to get a college education. I am not recalling these aspects of 1950s America out of any nostalgic longing. Life in most New England mill towns had all the stifling aspects of <cite>Peyton Place</cite> and none of the town's entertaining scandals. Nor do I want to imply that the History Channel series is weakened by what is missing from its portrait of America during the years following the Second World War. The wealth of material is woven into a narrative that is as interesting to watch as it is informative. <cite>The Fifties</cite> may not be the last word on the 1950s, but it is a good introduction to a very complex period of American history. <p>
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Philip J. Landon. Review of , The History Channel Presents The Fifties.
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