Sunday, February 7, 2016

Ready for a '50s Close-up

Today was a cultural lesson in Hollywood, then and now.

Don't talk to me about "Madmen" or any modern production as being authentically of the era it mimics, because they aren't. The underpinnings of interpreting the present ensure that a 1956 movie nails the era in a way that a 2016 film about the 1950s could never hope to.

The first was "The Girl Can't Help It," a 1956 musical with Jayne Mansfield that I sought out (today's Movies and Mimosas feature at Movieland) because I love the '50s details.

You know, milkmen delivering glass bottles, an ice man delivering blocks of ice, a newsboy (the kid couldn't have been more than 8 or 9) hollering on the street corner (as opposed to, say, being in school). Ancient history.

But it's also witnessing the post-war buy-in to the Eisenhower notion of the American dream.

When a woman shaped like Jayne (40DD-22-36 and she can barely walk upright) proclaims, "Being domestic is one of my favorite past times. I just want to be a wife and have a lot of kids but everyone figures me for a sexpot. No one thinks I'm equipped for motherhood," it feels a little like a propaganda campaign.

What I hadn't anticipated was what a seminal music video this film was. I'm not kidding, this is the film Lennon and McCartney credited with inspiring them to pursue music. Everybody who was anybody in the nascent rock and roll era - besides Elvis - shows up to sing a song.

People like Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Platters, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and that's just the ones I knew. Add in the Treniers, Eddie Fontaine, the Chuckles, Johnny Olenn, Nino Tempo and Abby Lincoln, all new to me, and it was practically a documentary about early rock and roll sandwiched into a splashy '50s musical. Very unusual.

The times, they were a-changin' and in this case, with color by DeLuxe.

I walked right back to the Bowtie later to meet a friend to see the Coen Brothers latest, "Hail Caesar!" appropriately set in Hollywood in the 1950s.

Complete with Hollywood tropes of the era - ensemble dance numbers a la Gene Kelly (albeit with very un-'50s-like strong gay overtones), synchronized swimming spectacles in the style of Esther Williams and posse, stunt-oriented singing cowboy flicks and, naturally, the prestige picture of the title - something is lost in translation because none of the actors look or act like they would have back then.

You watch an old '50s musical and, sure, the star is a looker, but the hoofers in the chorus aren't necessarily. You see faces with character, imperfect and distinctive. Not so in 2016. Everyone is cast as if their looks matter most, definitely not the case in real '50s movies.

And don't get me started on the fashion, which had none of the ironclad undergarments and subtle detailing it should have.

Which is not to say I didn't enjoy "Hail, Caesar!" because what's not to enjoy about the Coens poking fun at big budget Hollywood back when it still took itself so seriously?

It wasn't so much a laugh-out-loud movie as constantly poking fun at a bygone time, complete with overbearing gossip columnists, starlets caught in compromising situations and Communist kidnappers (because it was high Red Scare era).

But there was no blond bombshell (no, indeed, Scarlett Johansson does not count), no evocation of the simpler time that existed and no average-looking people in the cast.

You wanna know what the '50s were like, kids? Watch a movie made then and marvel at how far we've come in some ways.

And then if you're a woman, thank your lucky stars you missed it.


  1. I saw Hail Caesar! as well. What I found interesting is that the 'stars' were pretty ridiculous off-screen but when the cameras were rolling they were great, even Clooney in his big scene (until he blew his lines.) Hobie, the supposed 'bad actor' was a genuine person off-screen (what a charming date scene!) Lots of philosophy in this movie but it will take at least a couple more viewings for me to be able to process it all.

    Re; 50s fashions: Eddie Mannix had a really great suit.

  2. The first thing I said to my friend when the lights came up was that I'd need another viewing to fully take it in. We're in complete agreement about the date scene - and I have to admit I never saw it coming! Up until then, Hobie had seemed so one-dimensional.

    I admit, I know less about men's fashions of the 1950s than women's. While Eddie's suit was great-looking, I wonder whether men really wore unvented suit jackets in that period. Do you know?

  3. I don't really know, it just caught my eye. I saw an interview with Josh Brolin and he said that he he liked that suit so much he wanted to buy it!