The Week of the 1950s

by Dr. H - October 27th, 2010

This week gives only the barest flavor of the rich culture, politics, and new developments in postwar America that happened in the late 1940s and the 1950s. On Monday we mapped out some key terms and concepts: Cold War, Containment, (Second) Red Scare, McCarthyism, Fair Deal, and what’s happening in the 1950s with Gender Roles, Labor, Popular Culture, and Literature/Art.

For Wednesday, we’ll explore the influence, look, and emerging technology of the pervasive medium of television in the 1950s. We will likely screen and discuss a number of short clips from this list and you might enjoy checking out the rest on your own:

1951, “Duck and Cover” – not a TV production, but a short educational film that millions of American schoolchildren saw to learn about the threat of nuclear attack (9:15)

Leave it To Beaver,” Season 1 (1957), Episode 29, introducing the iconic & perfect Cleaver family: the wise parents Ward & June, and the earnest good sons, Wally & “the Beaver” (6:04)

Somewhere That’s Green,” sung by Ellen Greene, from the feature film musical Little Shop of Horrors (1986), a nostalgic 1980s tribute to sci-fi films of the 1950s; in this scene the main character Audrey (a battered floozy) imagines leaving the dismal city and moving to the suburbs to live a Levittown American Dream as a June-Cleaver-esque housewife. (4:25)

Popular kids shows of the 1950s included Westerns like “The Lone Ranger,” a masked man and his faithful (nonwhite) sidekick fight crime & Indians in the Old West. (2:49)

Two Ford Freedom” – a 1950s filmed commercial for Ford, in which a housewife explains the ease and benefits of owning a second car. (1:39)

Undated commercial for Brylcreem, a men’s hair product – showing the use of catchy musical jingles in this era. (1:00)

The fabulous, glamorous, ultra-feminine TV star Dinah Shore pitches for Chevrolet (her show’s sponsor) in this 1952 commercial, “See the USA in Your Chevrolet,” that not only advertises the new model of car, but also the gleaming new interstate highway system just being dreamed & built in the 1950s. (1:33)

Speaking of women on television, this unusual game show/ reality show had women competing for the honor of being “Queen for a Day” based on who had the worst, most depressing and most pathetic life. It’s a fascinating look at America’s underclass, argues one scholar, in years when everyone on TV seemed to be white and wealthy. This particular clip also contains a commercial for “Rinso” and was filmed in Kinescope from a live broadcast. (2:49)

Another classic sitcom of the 1950s, “I Love Lucy,” which was innovatively filmed in Hollywood rather than sent out live from New York–which meant it has been successfully syndicated on TV ever since. In this episode, Lucy attempts thrifty housewife skills and (as usual) fails miserably to great comic effect. (4:49)

One unusual TV star of this era was a Catholic bishop from New York named Fulton J. Sheen, whose program, “Life is Worth Living” was a huge surprise hit on Sunday evenings. His “chalk talks” and sermons attracted Protestants and Catholics alike with his easy wit, self-deprecating humor and grand religious regalia. In this clip (filmed before a live studio audience), Sheen rails against godless Communism. (2:51).

Before TV went west to Hollywood, anthology drama series modified Broadway-type plays for the small screen. A classic of this genre, filmed live, was 1953 Philco Playhouse’s “Marty,” about a lonely young working man looking for love in a New York City dance hall. (Part 1 of 7, 8:27)

Talk about a pop-culture mashup: Elvis Presley and Debra Paget on the Milton Berle Show in 1956 – a prime-time variety show which bridged to the old early 20th century live vaudeville entertainment and was a something of a forerunner to the Tonight Show and SNL. (2:32)

A (poor-quality, alas) clip from a 1955 episode of the drama series based on the life of Herbert Philbrick, an FBI agent charged with infiltrating Communist subversive cells, “I Led Three Lives.” (3:57)

Edward R. Murrow’s CBS news program “See It Now” for March 9, 1954 in which the eloquent journalist directly takes on Senator Joseph McCarthy. Film/television scholar Thomas Doherty calls this moment “an act of showstopping oratory” that changed the course of American history. (2:03)

Finally, on Friday the 29th, we’ll follow the politics of the presidential elections of 1948, 1952 and 1956, and trace the development of the “liberal consensus” in American politics and culture, and the emergence of a viable (and permanent) African-American civil rights movement in the 1950s.

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