The advent of a youth subculture in the fifties did not occur by accident. As pointed out by Thomas Doherty, teenagers’ new social position was “…carefully nurtured and vigorously reinforced by the adult institutions around them. In the marketplace and the media, at home and at school, the teenager was counted a special animal requiring special handling.”(1) When I look at pictures of young people before the fifties whether they are at school or at social gatherings – what I see are pictures of older people wrought young. True, I see younger faces and thinner bodies. But, by and large, I also see the same clothes worn by their parents, the same shoes, and the same hairstyles.
If I could hear their music I would no doubt hear the same music listened to by their parents. I remember clearly “Our Hit Parade” – a top TV show of that era with Snookie Lanson, Julius LaRosa, Giselle MacKenzie, and Dorothy Cullen. Parents and children would gather together in front of the old black-and-white Philco to listen to the same top songs, eagerly awaiting the show’s climactic moment: the Number One Hit in the Nation (for everyone that is, young and old alike). Would it be “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window”? “A White Sport Coat and A Pink Carnation”? “Love Letters in the Sand”? (Pat Boone was a particular favorite of mothers and daughters.) Or, perhaps, that hit among all age groups, a demonstration that Disney, even back then, knew all the right buttons to press: “Davey Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier”?
Imagine such a show today, with Mom and Dad, Junior and Sis, all dressed alike, all listening to the same top hits. If we ever could return to such a homogeneous world, the marketers and ad people would no doubt gnash their teeth and cut off their ponytails. No, we are told today who we are through our possessions, whether we have them or merely want them. And the more niches there are, the more possibilities there are for sales. Clearly something happened between then and now to create this separation of subcultures. And, as Doherty pointed out, this separation started in the fifties and was indeed “carefully nurtured and vigorously reinforced.”
We all like to know who we are, young and old. We all like to belong. We have these issues whether or not they are manipulated by Madison Avenue and Hollywood. Teenagers, however, are especially concerned with identity and belonging. As their bodies grow faster than their senses of identity, teenagers look in the mirror and around them to see who they are and with whom they belong. In “Imitation of Life” Sarah-Jane is confused. Whereas her mother Annie is dark-skinned African American, Sarah-Jane is so light-skinned that she can, as does, easily pass for white. In fact she spends almost the entire movie trying to reconcile this basic identity conflict. After Sarah-Jane and Annie are taken in by aspiring actress Lora (who employs the mother as a domestic and nanny) and her baby-doll daughter Susie, whom Annie rescues at the beach, there are a number of scenes that center on this conflict:
Six-year-old Susie shows Sarah-Jane her doll collection and, in all innocence, offers her the black one, Sarah-Jane throws it against the wall.
A few months later when Annie turns up at her school in a rainstorm to bring her a coat and umbrella, Sarah-Jane is mortified and violent.
Years later, as a teenager, Sarah-Jane is dating a white boy. When he finds out about her “secret,” he not only dumps her, he beats her up.
While Sarah-Jane and Annie are playing out their mother-daughter game, Lora (Lana Turner) and Susie (Sandra Dee) have their own version. Lora, obsessed with fame, fails to notice that her own daughter has become a miniature doll version of herself. Sixteen-year old Susie won’t go to bed until she’s properly “wed” to the saintly, pipe-smoking father figure and photographer, Steve Archer. In an ironic twist on the relationship between real life and its imitation, Susie’s “wedding” a few years later transforms itself into a graduation ceremony which just happens to take place at Lana Turner’s real-life daughter’s exclusive private school.
There is an additional conflict in identity one that has more meaning in the fifties to women than men in “Imitation of Life.” After all, that film is more a “woman’s picture” than either “American Graffiti” (guys picking up girls, drag racing, etc.) or “Dead Poets Society” (set in all-male boarding school). That conflict in female identity is between motherhood and career. In “Imitation of Life” the director Sirk continually draws parallels between the “good” mother, Annie, and the “bad” mother, Lora, in their relationships with both their daughters and their careers. Like Lana Turner, Lora has an acting career and is frequently out of the house. Like Lana Turner, Lora also sends her daughter to a boarding school. And like Lana Turner as much as was allowed under the censorship of the Hays office there is the suggestion of relationships between the unmarried actress and men who cross her path. Annie, on the other hand, is the consummate housekeeper, and she is very concerned about her daughter.
Did America in the fifties approve of a woman choosing a career over a man, especially one like Charlton Heston? Let’s consider “Lucy Gallant” (1955). In this film Jane Wyman, playing the woman of the title, agrees to marry Charlon Heston. But on one condition: she won’t give up her store. In fact she wants to make her dress shop bigger and better. “I’m going to give them [the local women] an opportunity to celebrate the way they like to, buying clothes,” she predicts.
Of course Charlton Heston, who, among other accomplishments during the fifties received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, would have none of that. When he asks the Lucy character who’s going to run her store after they get married, and she replies “I am,” he intones: “I thought being married is a full-time job. What about kids? How are you going to manage that? Move the maternity ward into the store?”
In 1955 there one was only one possible way for them to get married. Lucy had to come to her senses. Her store burns down, and Heston lends her the money she needs to pay off the bank. Wyman, older now and wiser – recognizing he need of being rescued by a man – finally tells Heston she wants to get married. This exchange follows:
Who’ll mind the store?
(End of movie.)
Another film set in same time period that deals with relationships is “American Graffiti.” The relationships in this film are all about teenagers – their relationships with each other, and with the adults that hover on the periphery of their lives. “American Graffiti,” made on a modest budget by a novice director, became
…a watershed of the modern American cinema, one of the most influential films of the 1970’s. The American film industry had suffered a serious identity crisis during the 1960’s, desperately trying to adapt to a more radical consciousness, particularly among younger audiences, and still remain in touch with the traditional values inherent in any large industry. There were indications as early as 1971 that the industry might do well to abandon its awkward struggle for “relevance” and look instead to the past for filmic material. Historical settings, of course, had always been common in the movies, but most often in generic terms – the distant past of the costume epic, for instance, or the stylized worlds of Westerns of gangster films…The desire for a return to simpler times, when moral alternatives were clearer and life in general seemed (at least in hindsight) much better was supported by the national disillusionment over American involvement in Vietnam.(2)
In “American Graffiti” the kids get their identities from three sources: their cars, their music (Wolf Man Jack is the only sympathetic grown-up) and whom they hang around with. The movie opens with Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock around the Clock” blaring from a car radio. Rock music from various radios in various cars continues non-stop for the entire film. George Lucas, master American mythmaker, and only 23 when he directed this film, knew something about teens and music. The way he used music as an emblem of teen culture was a clear acknowledgment of the powerful new (in 1962) relationship between the newly exploited youth subculture and rock and roll. As Albert Auster and Leonard Quart put it:
…the fifties saw the development of a distinctive youth culture accompanied by a new (though derived from black rhythm and blues music) form of music: rock and roll. For many older Americans rock music was too loud and overtly sexual, and often sounded merely like aimless noise. However, at its best and most innovative (for example, the rock of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley) the music had an energy, freedom, and earthiness that offered an undefined sense of a new life style, which vividly contrasted with 1950s conventionality. [In “Dead Poets Society” two of the Welton students are careful to hide their home-built radio tuned to a nearby rock station from their housemaster. The fact they even have a radio is of immediate interest to the occasional girls who come into their lives.] Of course, by the late 1950s much of rock music’s class and regional identity had been bleached out and transformed into the mass-produced, bland sound of Frankie Avalon and his clones.(3)
Indeed, rock and roll, by its very nature, was considered dangerous during its early days in the fifties. For the first time music crossed over racial boundaries, with integrated audiences listening to music taken from both black and white music traditions and performed by both black and white artists. Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations were considered so dangerous to the delicate sensibilities of the fifties adolescent that the TV censors would only show him from the waist up.
But there was a more serious, almost political, side to this new teenage music. True, most of the songs dealt with such teen concerns as love, sex, cars, dancing, and having a good time. Yet scattered among the good times we could see the early stages of a rebellion against mainstream, Organization Man, Man in the Grey Flannel Suit America. This rebellion might be subtle, with its emphasis on rhythm, or more overt like the refrain to the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak” (1958), familiar to any teenager and his/her parents:
Kid: Yakety yak, yakety yak.
Grown-up: Don’t talk back!“
More seriously, the Robins’ “Riot in Cell Block Number 9” (1955) was a song describing poor conditions heading to a prison revolt. The Silhouttes’ “Get a Job” (1958) reflected a mounting recession. (I remember Eisenhower’s wistful motto from the same year: “You Auto Buy Now.” This was only three years after the famous “What’s good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A., parodied in the musical hit “L’il Abner” with “What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the U.S.A.) Similarly Bareet Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” (1959) became a classic depiction of the growing post-war obsession with consumer goods.
“American Grafitti” is more than just a sound track, however. It focuses on character development. The story takes place in a small Northern California town (from Lucas’s own youth) in 1962, the day before two of its main characters – high-school king Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) and honor student Curt Henderson (Richard Dryfuss) are scheduled to fly off to college. Other characters include John Milner (Paul LeMat), the local drag-racing champion; Terry Fields, or “Toad” (Charlie Martin Smith), Vespa-driving nerd and Milner’s friend; and Laurie (Cindy Wiliams), Steve’s steady girlfriend and high school queen. While 1962 is not technically in the decade of the fifties, the life styles and values portrayed in “American Graffiti” are synchronistic with the 1959 dates of the other two films.
In California in1962 your identity is the car you drive. As the blond bards of California the Beach Boys suggest: “She’s a hot-stepping hemi/with a four on the floor.” Or perhaps: “She’s my little deuce coupe/You don’t know what I’ve got.” On the other side of the street: “She’s got a competition engine/with a four on the floor.” Without a doubt the car is the essential teen-age metaphor. Look, there’s Steve McQueen screeching through “Bullitt” in a Mustang 305. Look again, and there are Tod and Buz blasting down “Route 66” in their hot Corvette. (Although where they put their luggage – they always wore cool clothes – in a two-seater car with no truck is beyond me)
To define the characters in “American Graffiti,” therefore, according to the laws of the day, I herewith present a list of the cars they drive (Please note that in keeping with 1962 California car mythology one of the drag racers has to drive a Ford, his rival a Chevy. It is certainly no accident that “Bullitt” drives a Ford and Tod and Buz a Chevy. Compounding the climactic drag race at the end of “American Graffiti” was the fact that Laurie, temporarily upset at Steve, is riding shotgun in the ’55 Chevy.):
John Milner (insider tough guy with a heart of gold) – is inadvertently saddled with the childish thirteen-year old Carol (Mackenzie Philips), whom he treats with grudging gallantry
Souped-up 1932 Ford, a “deuce coupe”
(“She’s my little deuce coupe
You don’t know what I’ve got.” Outsider (mean-spirited) tough
guy (Harrison Ford) Souped-up black 1955 Chevy Bel-Air
(“She’s got a competition engine
With a four on the floor.”)
(All-American boy) White 1958 Chevrolet Impala convertible
(“She’s real fine
My four-speed, dual-quad, Positraction
Citroen 2CV, the French “flivver” Juvenile delinquent gang member Candy apple red 1939 Mercury coupe
Nondescript American 4-door sedan Mysterious beautiful blonde
(Seems to whisper “I love you at Curt through the window.”) White 1955 Ford Thunderbird
(“We’ll have fun, fun, fun now
‘Til daddy takes the T-Bird away.”
Terry Fields, “Toad”
Vespa motor scooter Debbie unattached dumb blonde (Candy Clark)
No car There is more to life with teenagers than cars and music, however. Teenagers also find their identities in group affiliations, whether in 1962 California, 1959 Connecticut (“Dead Poets Society), 1959 New York City (“Imitation of Life”) or the Michigan, or South Africa, of today. Here, then, are the adapted results of a recent survey conducted by Ricardo Machine and Darin Martin where teenagers from two distant locations Troy, Michigan, and Florida, South Africa rate their own sense of youth subculture groups.4 The designations are the teenagers’ own (Kids are always creative with their names). I have adapted the descriptions.
Florida, South Africa
: Shy, anti-social, aloof. Enjoy intellectual discussions. Like computers and the Internet.
The Jolly Jammers:
The youngest end of the group (ages 12 and 13). Act younger than their age. Tend to show off. Don’t know when to keep quiet.
: Like heavy metal music. Dress in black. Divorced from reality. Isolated from other subcultures. Rebel against any form of authority.
: Laid-back. Go with the flow. A generally closed group, creating its own styles. Set apart with its own set of signs and codes. Acceptance based on physical appearance. Sports-minded.
: Imitate the styles of whoever is most popular.
: Like weird music. Into drugs, especially speed and ecstasy. Wear flashy clothes and like to show off.
: Feel superior to others. Connected by good looks and/or wealth.
: Very laid back. Totally out of touch with reality, either with or without drugs.
: Do not find acceptance among their peers.
: Excel in academics.
: Athletic types, considered generally to be dumb. However, this group also has the most prestige.
(also called geeks): Dress in the fashion of the fifties.
: Identified by cosmetics and clothes. Body piercing, tattoos, weird hair, grungy clothing.
: The only group identified mostly by attitude.