By Ann Silverthorn
When I decided to write a post about how 1950s domestic life was portrayed in film, I pictured a plethora of movies that depicted families with mom in the kitchen and dad going off to work every day. After all, women, who had entered the workforce when men went off to World War II, were back in the home by that time.
According to the old book I turn to for quick 20th Century historical data, The Columbia Chronicles of American Life, “Women were offered the rewards of glittering new homes (stocked with new appliances), surrounded by other new homes, and the companionship of neighbors… For those for whom this was not enough, there were the newly marketed tranquilizers whose sales were astonishing.”
Researching movies from the 1950s, I found war movies, westerns, adventure films, and just a few that might have featured domestic life as more than just a backdrop. I found a few more made long after the 1950s. Neither of these depicted domestic life in glowing terms.
It was in 1950s television, when the number of TV sets in the home grew from six million in to sixty million, that domestic life was featured and idealized. By the end of the decade, televisions were found in approximately nine out of every ten homes. Television shows in the 1950s portrayed family life in those idyllic treatments that we associate with the immaculate picket fence home.
Starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor as parents, the mother’s role in Father of the Bride is to handle the details of the wedding and present the bills to the very confused father. This is a feel-good family film, which was remade in 1991 with Chevy Chase playing the role of the dad.
The Penmark home is supposedly ideal, with a happy housewife, a successful husband, and a beautiful eight-year-old daughter. Something is a bit off with the girl though, and her mother becomes suspicious that she might be raising a cold-blooded killer.
Based on a Tennessee Williams play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1955, this story takes place on a plantation in the mid-1950s. Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman star as a couple troubled by alcoholism. The family is crisis mode, trying to keep the truth from the family patriarch (Burl Ives) who doesn’t know that he is dying.
FILMS MADE ABOUT THE FIFTIES
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite a decade after Titanic, but unfortunately, this new story is just as much of a shipwreck. As in many 1950s households, the desire for perfecting domesticity is high, as is the effort put into creating the illusion of perfection.
The themes in Far from Heaven might not have made it to the big screen in the 1950s. Another seemingly perfect household is turned upside down when the husband has an affair, and in that era, it’s unthinkable that it’s with another man. When the wife (Julianne Moore), finds comfort from the gardener, who is an African-American man, racial tension compounds the domestic disruption.
This coming-of-age film stars Reese Witherspoon as Dani, a young teenager living in a small Louisiana town and navigating her relationships with her own family and members of the opposite sex. When Dani realizes that she and her older sister have fallen for the same young man, there are many lessons to be learned by both.
Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were a real couple playing “themselves” along with their sons David and Ricky. Ozzie, a bandleader, could be counted on to give advice as his family faced the challenges of life in the 1950s, and Harriet could always be found in the kitchen ready to offer a sympathetic ear or a slice of pie.
Some of the best dinner table scenes can be found in Leave it to Beaver. The table was always nicely set, and the kids had great table manners as they sipped their milk from gleaming, heavy-bottomed glasses. The home was spotless and the kitchen well-organized. The parents got along well, and the only problems they had were helping Wally through the ups and downs of his teens and trying to keep Beaver from getting into too much trouble.
The Donna Reed show featured the Stone family. This was the first family sitcom to feature the mother as the main character. Donna Reed, who had starred in It’s a Wonderful Life, developed this sitcom, which lasted well into the 1960s. Her character was unflappable in pearls as she dealt with the everyday suburban life and the troubles of her pediatrician husband and two children.