Academic journal article CineAction

Domestic Trilogy (the Man Who Knew Too Much; the Trouble with Harry;`/The Wrong Man)

Academic journal article CineAction

Domestic Trilogy (the Man Who Knew Too Much; the Trouble with Harry;`/The Wrong Man)

Article excerpt

In some ways my project is a familiar one: The themes I shall examine in three Hitchcock films--heterosexual relations, the family, the oppression of women--were treated throughout his career. What distinguishes three of his 1950s films--The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Wrong Man, released in succession between 1955 and 1957 is the specificity of the treatment: Each deals with the post World War 11 nuclear family. The statistics that emerge from this period and confirm the 50s as the definitive family values era are fairly well-known but statistics on marriages (94.1% of men and 96.4% of women of this generation married)(1) and births (25.3 per 1000 women in 1957 compared to 18.4 during the Depression)(2) tell only part of the story, for not only did everyone marry and reproduce, they followed remarkably similar patterns in numbers of children produced (in that distinguished documentary on the nuclear family, Martha and Ethel, one mother notes that "We had big families ... no one had small families") and even spacing of births. That the postwar economy was stimulated by this domestic orientation is evidenced by the 240% jump in sales of household goods(3), the decade's biggest boom in consumer spending. Sixty percent of the population attained middle class income levels(4) and most families were able to realize the American dream of home ownership, with a noteworthy increase in single family ownerships(5) (and with the rise in highway construction during this era, the Dream became increasingly a suburban reality). Americans directed their energies into constructing the paradigm of the 50s nuclear family as if mimicking univocally the claims of one survey respondent when she said that marriage (but this clearly holds for the entire nuclear unit) gave her a "happy, full, complete life ... "(6)

But the 50s nuclear family was an aberration and its most lasting legacy might prove to be its symbolic function as representative of an era's apparently successful synthesis of economic and social stability with personal fulfillment. As Stephanie Coontz notes of this era:

In fact, the "traditional" family of the 1950s was a qualitatively new phenomenon. At the end of the 1940s, all the trends characterizing the rest of the twentieth century suddenly reversed themselves: For the first time in more than one hundred years, the age for marriage and motherhood fell, fertility increased, divorce rates declined, and women's degree of educational parity with men dropped sharply. In a period of less than ten years, the proportion of never married persons declined by as much as it had during the entire previous half century.(7)

As she goes on to note the postwar populace that embraced the 50s nuclear construct recognized it as a new invention and approached it as such. The experiment was in fact made possible by a unique confluence of artificial factors (that is, not in themselves necessitating the formation of nuclear families) the primary one being the postwar U.S. economy, which enjoyed an enormous international advantage when the European industrial powers had been decimated by the war. The economic stability of this period made possible various forms of government patronage, from housing loans (through the Federal Housing Authority) to new highway construction, salient factors directing the populace into the suburban nuclear paradigm.(8)

Although it provided the basis for their formation, the postwar economy does not totally explain the 50s nuclear family (after all, the postwar 20s saw a popular challenge to social conventions). The war itself provides further explanation. As with the Great Depression, World War 11 provided the opportunity for radical social and political transformation. Three demonstrable realizations of this potential become particularly resonant in the postwar years: The brief allegiance of the U.S. and Soviet Union, the dramatic influx of women into the wartime job market and the military and, finally, the growth of gay consciousness made possible by the social interaction of a large cross section of gays and lesbians in the military (a process hitherto restricted to America's metropolitan areas). …

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