June 3, 2012
Last week, while watching the crime movie Bonnie and Clyde on Turner Classic Movies, the Nineteen Thirties seemed like a very long time ago. It was a time of old-fashioned cars that could be jumpstarted in a heartbeat, banks had no Federal insurance against robbery and failure, and the simple act of crossing a state line often protected criminals from prosecution.
Then it occurred to me that the action in the movie, set in 1931-34, took place approximately 35 years before the film was released in 1967...and that 45 years have passed since that day when the 10-year-old me went to see it in the theater with my friends.
After allowing myself a few minutes to feel ancient, I started thinking again. A 10-year-old in 1934 might have read newspaper accounts of how Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were killed in a shootout on a lonely road in Louisiana, then gone off to the movies, paid their dime, and seen an afternoon of flicks like It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, Imitation of Life (the original version with Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers), or Manhattan Melodrama (the last movie John Dillinger saw before he was gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago on a hot July night that same year). That same 10-year-old would have been 43 years old when Bonnie and Clyde was released, and in those 33 years had seen the Dust Bowl, the attack on Pearl Harbor, four long years of the war effort, the atomic bomb, the postwar baby and building boom, the rise of Communism, the birth of rock and roll, the civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassination. But what stands out most of all to me are all the social changes that went on in that time...rising hemlines, working mothers, escalating drug use, cohabitation, the Pill.
That 43-year-old may have found it shocking how much life had changed in their lifetime. Well-dressed women and men never went out without a hat on their heads (and I don't mean baseball caps). Going to a casino called for elegant dress, not shorts and gym shoes (think of James Bond sailing through a casino in his tuxedo). Women who worked outside the home were either single mothers, just out of school or newlyweds before the first baby came, empty nesters, or old maids. Many people still distrusted banks and kept their money tucked between their mattress and box spring. Good girls tried to hold out for marriage before having sex, and it was terrifying for them and shameful for their families if they didn't and became pregnant. Wearing pants to church (for women, that is), was unheard of. It took real skill for married folks to limit the sizes of their families. The rise of nudity in films made drive-in movies, visible from the road, had to be careful what films they showed.
Sometimes I think the world has changed more in terms of lifestyle in the period between the 1930s and the 1960s than it has in all the years since, during which most changes are related to technology, not social mores.
What do you think?