Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Themes of "momism", Communism and Conformity in 1950's American Cinema

As the 40's reached their end and post-war America neared completion of its transition to the peacetime socioeconomic environment of the early 50's, new concerns began to preoccupy the minds of the American people. Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty associated with the changing shape of the social and political situation that the country was facing began to permeate the collective consciousness of the American population. With the defeat of Axis, creating a vacuum of ideological opponents, and with the emergence of the Soviet Union as a seemingly equal yet diverging superpower on the international political landscape, it would seem only natural for the USSR to have been the prime candidate for filling this vacuum in the United States. Diverging political ideologies, however, are not enough to paint a whole nation as an enemy, as it was not enough for the Nazi ideology to paint Germany as an enemy until the US was actually attacked (the fact that they were actually attacked by Japan, was not an issue, since Japan was allied with Germany at the time and the US already had plans for an offensive on Germany and Italy, according to the "Plan Dog Memo"[1]). Without actually being at war with the Soviet Union, America began to slowly paint this picture of their enemy based on paranoia and the post-war psychology of having to live in a world that, unlike that of the 40's, had no clear enemy or a clear war to fight.

This gradual process of demonization of the USSR leading to the general anxiety and paranoia of the 50's, was fuelled by two major themes observable in motion pictures produced in America at the time. The first theme, namely the concept of "momism", coined by Philip Wylie to refer the excessive attachment to one's mother and conversely the over-protectiveness of thereof[2], but more broadly to the general attitude of "playing it safe" instead of the more risk-taking attitude that Wylie professed, would be a major theme in the psychological justification of the USSR's demonization in the US. The second element was the actual presence of the USSR on the international political stage and the power struggle that ensued following the defeat of Germany, the split of Europe and the technological advancement that gave birth to nuclear warfare, which positioned the Soviet Union on the same international superpower level as the United States. Combined, these themes, present in one form or another throughout 1950's American cinema, would contribute in shaping American society's view of Communism, the Soviet Union and inadvertently but perhaps more importantly - their view of themselves.

Examining four of the decade's motion pictures, namely My Son John (1952), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), will help to understand these themes and further show how they were conveyed, as well as how they contributed to shaping American society's view of itself at the time.

Returning to the concept of momism, Wylie talks of the mother being (as opposed to quoting) Thomas Jefferson and becoming the "American Pope"[3], referring to the increased importance and influence of the mother figure in the American male's life. He concludes that this eventually leads to "young men" fighting for security, as opposed to freedom, while "the enemy explodes uranium, plutonium, hydrogen", exclaiming: "But where's man's freedom?"[4] This search for freedom in the face of momism is perhaps best exemplified by James Dean's Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, who is not afraid to get in a knife fight with the local bully or take the risk of dying in a car crash to defend his pride. Similarly, he is rejecting his dad's complacency (representing Wylie's "fight for security") and rebels against his mother's treatment of his dad (suggesting at some point that his dad should use violence against her to solve their problems). But while Jim's mother is not exactly the "self-righteous, hypocritical, sexually repressed, middle-aged woman" that Wylie describes[5], she does indeed seem like a woman that lost the preindustrial woman's household functions and got men to worship her[6] as is seen when Jim's dad is bending down with an apron to clean instead of her. John's mother in My Son John, further fulfils this image, as she is hardly able to hold her "household functions" due to her physical/mental state. Her confinement to the house (as Wylie would have suggested for a solution to momism) only furthers her problems, most likely being the cause for them to begin with[7], and causes her to eventually leave the house in search for her son, thus furthering her role as an active participant in her son's eventual exposure as a communist. But while this conforms to Rogin's idea of the mother being the "polar opposite" of communism, the opposite of the subversive in the family[8], and even despite Wylie's own equating momism to "McCarthyism"[9], momism was ultimately seen as leading to communism.

My Son John, Rogin claims, implies that "John has become a communist… because of the liberal ideas and sexual availability of his mother"[10]. In this sense, My Son John placed the threat to the free man "less in the alien Communist State than in his loving mother"[11]. Further, considering the case of homosexuality with Sal Minelo's Plato from Rebel Without a Cause, caused no doubt by his lack of a father and despite his mother's non-presence, but nevertheless due to the momistic treatment he gets from the maid, which, due to the perceived national weakness associated with "sexual transgressions", again places momism as "leading down the path to communism"[12].

This same view, placing the threat not so much externally, in the Soviet State, but rather internally, was also shared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers where anybody you know in your little town could be a threat (much like Soviet spies, but more importantly like American communists) and while "danger might come from without… what needs to be defended against is the wish from within"[13]. But while Invasion of the Body Snatchers worked as a "Red Scare" film, it also worked as a "protest against pressures for political conformity"[14], not only because the initial ending had the main protagonist, actor Kevin McCarthy, sharing the name of Joseph McCarthy, yelling "you're next" but also because the alien pod invasion was similar to the "unnatural, menacing, even alien…bloblike growth of the postwar, self-replicating suburbs"[15].

This concern with the loss of independence but more importantly the loss of the desire or even the idea of independence,[16] was one that was explored by Mills in his 1956 The Power Elite, which described the man in the mass society without the transcending view allowing him to observe and evaluate what he is or he isn't experiencing[17]. This in turn leading to, according to Mills, a unified and organized elite that has power over the "drifting set of stalemated" middle class and powerless lower-class[18]. This idea is explored to a certain degree in Sweet Smell of Success which presents the image of the corrupt top elite embodied by Burt Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker and his media conglomerate, which grants him almost absolute control, even above the law (using his corrupt policemen). In this portrayal, communism isn't so much an actual threat, but rather yet another extortion device used to discredit an honest American (Martin Milner's Steve Dallas), which, despite not saying that the threat of communism isn't real, places it in a position where the consequences of being deemed a communist are actually worse than actually being one. As such, the fear and anxiety become not the prospect of being invaded (ideologically or otherwise) by communists, but rather of losing your place in society for being associated with them by a member of your own society. Portraying this in a film might have gone over several of the guidelines in the "Screen Guide for Americans", which served as a McCarthyist production code, though treated more as suggestions rather than actual rules. Specifically, the sections forbidding to "smear industrialists,"[19] "wealth"[20] and "success"[21] would have been in violation, all 3 of which are accomplished in the portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. As such, the film functions as a critique of the elite, of american society and its ideals and strives for a liberation of Mills' mass society man from his binds of conformity (most obviously exemplified by Steve's attempt to break free but more importantly by Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco's various attempts to stand up to J.J) as well as the difficulties encountered when such non-conformity is attempted.

In conclusion, 1950's America under the apparent threat of momism and communism, through film, managed to explore issues that were germinating under the surface of the power politics at play, both on the international and national levels. As such, these films constitute a unique view into 1950's America and into how certain issues were expressed, both overtly and covertly.

[1] Ronald H. Spector, Eagle against the sun : the American war with Japan, (New York: Free Press, 1985), 65.

[2] Philip Wylie, Generation of Vipers, Newly Annotated By Author, (New York and Toronto: Rinehart & Company, 1955. First Published, 1942), 197.

[3] Ibid., 207.

[4] Ibid., 217.

[5] Michael Paul Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 242.

[6] Ibid., 242.

[7] Ibid., 243.

[8] Ibid., 240.

[9] Wylie, Generation of Vipers, 196.

[10] Rogin, Ronald Reagan, 251.

[11] Ibid., 252.

[12] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 96.

[13] Rogin, Ronald Reagan, 266.

[14] Ibid., 266.

[15] Ibid., 266.

[16] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 323.

[17] Ibid., 322.

[18] Ibid., 324.

[19] Ayn Rand, Screen Guide for Americans." In Journals of Ayn Rand, David Harriman ed., (New York: Dutton, 1997), 358.

[20] Ibid., 359.

[21] Ibid., 360.


Sweet Smell of Success. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. United Artists, 1957.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

My Son John. Directed by Leo McCarey. Paramount Pictures, 1952.

Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Rand, Ayn. "Screen Guide for Americans." In Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman, 356-366. New York: Dutton, 1997.

Rebel without a Cause. Directed by Nicholas Ray. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1955.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directed by Don Siegel. Allied Artists Pictures, 1956.

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle against the sun : the American war with Japan. New York: Free Press, 1985.

Wylie, Philip. Generation of Vipers. Newly Annotated By Author. New York and Toronto: Rinehart & Company, 1955. First Published, 1942.

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