Saturday, October 17, 2009

Movies as a register of social change (also known as the cigarette post)

There are worse ways of getting an inkling of how certain aspects of daily life in the U.S. have changed in the last 60-odd years than to watch a "serious" movie from the 1940s. (Of course, another way is to have been alive yourself in the 1940s, but some of us weren't born yet.) In this case the movie happened to be "Mildred Pierce" (1945), for which Joan Crawford won an Oscar for best actress. First off, in this movie everyone smokes constantly. Second, the language has that kind of clipped, slightly stilted inflection that you also hear in, for example, Bogart movies of the period, and the actors seem to be boxed into a fairly narrow emotional range, even when the script calls for them to really emote. (Bogart and Bergman managed to break out of the box in "Casablanca," but if you've seen the movie and its famous last scene several times -- and who hasn't? -- you may well agree with me that that's mostly due to Bergman.)

Anyway, back to "Mildred Pierce": 1) as I said, everyone smokes all the time (and drinks); 2) the police don't read suspects their rights (because the Miranda decision was twenty years in the future); 3) the only African-American character given any substantial camera time (and not much at that) is a female servant with an artificially high voice; 4) the themes are pretty much timeless ones (love and money, basically) but they are handled in a way that shows, among other things, Hollywood's timidity at the time about depicting sex.

Interestingly, the war (I mean World War II of course) is only a very oblique presence in this movie: in one scene there are a few men in sailors' uniforms; in another there is a passing reference to manpower shortages; and that's about it. By Hollywood standards of the time, and notwithstanding Crawford's performance, I think this is probably no better than an average movie. A film like "Double Indemnity," for example, from I think roughly the same period, is quite a bit better.

But the most obvious thing, and the one to which I keep returning, is the cigarettes, because they are ubiquitous in the movie and because I happen to hate cigarette smoke. Even within my own lifetime, this is one aspect of daily life that has changed quite dramatically. When my parents had company over when I was a child, there were at least a couple of ashtrays in the living room; not only did my father smoke, but it was assumed that at least a couple (maybe more) of the guests would be smoking. Nowadays one can still see people smoking in bars, on the street, or occasionally in their cars -- and soldiers in the field often smoke, or so media images suggest -- but when was the last time you were in someone's house for a social occasion and saw someone smoking? It really has become, to a large extent, unusual and frowned-upon behavior (to which I say: thank goodness).

Well, I seem to have diverged somewhat from my original intentions in this post, but hey, this a blog, man. Deal with it. Oh, and put out that cigarette, do you mind? Thanks.


Anonymous said...

We wuz there. Still possess a sterling silver cigarette box (a1940 really beautiful wedding present)which was filled up for "company" as part and parcel of our hopitality.Our ashtray supply is abundant, only a conversation piece for more than thirty years now.

LFC said...

Thanks for the memories. I bet that, if it hasn't already been done, some clever curator somewhere will do an exhibition of cigarette boxes, ashtrays, lighters, and related objects.

And hey, if a curator happens to be reading this, I get an "idea" commission: shall we say 30 percent? :)