Today, compared to forty years ago, we are overwhelmed by choice from the Internet to our personal relationships with all its possibilities for opportunity and disillusionment. These possibilities apply not just to baseball, as in the case of Stan Musial and Ernie Banks, but to all our other important relationships as well.
In the fifties the divorce rate was one percent. In the fifties, for whatever reason, people stayed married. Corporations stayed married too – to their communities. Let us consider one case: the Lennox Corporation, which features the ghost of its founder, David Lennox – complete with his workman’s coveralls – prominently in its TV ads.
In 1895 David Lennox invented and started making his new type of steel furnace in Marshalltown, Iowa. Through the years the Lennox Corporation prospered as a manufacturer of boilers and, later, air conditioners. Although the Lennox Corporation could have improved its profit margins in the fifties by moving to a location where labor was cheaper, the company stayed faithful to its hometown sweetheart, Marshalltown, Iowa. Finally, however, in the late seventies the Lennox Corporation, like so many of the rest of us realized that “The times, they are a changin.’” (Bob Dylan, 1961)
Accordingly, even as much of the country moved from the Rust to the Sun Belts, the Lennox Corporation moved its corporate headquarters to Dallas. However, the move was not complete: its production facilities stayed home in Marshalltown. Finally, though, in 1993, the Lennox Corporation tempted by ever-growing choices even as it made record profits threatened to move its factory out of the little town it grew up in. But there was a happy ending to this corporate domestic drama. Dear old Marshalltown somehow was able to ante up $20 million to keep its one industry from straying. And to celebrate the Lennox Corporation started using the ghost of its founder as its TV pitchman.
This explosion of choice, whether facing the Lennox Corporation or perpetual comic-book teenager Archie Andrews, is in large measure the function of technology that did not exist in the fifties. There were no birth control pills back then to lessen the consequences of back-seat romance. There was no instantaneous communication by computer. While some families had TVs, there might be only one or two channels you could watch. Technologically, anyway, life was simpler.
What choices were available to the teenagers in the three movies we are discussing? In “Dead Poets Society” there is very little choice. Rather, the young men of Welton are expected to follow close, narrow career paths, even as their daily routines are highly structured. We need only compare the restrictions of the dark, wooden, imitation Gothic Welton campus with the noisy, colorful, diverse interior of the public high school on the other side of town.
In “Imitation of Life” both daughters, Sarah-Jane and Susie, have little choice as to their life paths, and both, in their own ways, rebel. In “American Graffiti” the subject of choice is the central dilemma for the two central characters: to go away to college (with all the possibilities for the future that entails) or to stay home (with all the certainty that entails).