Sunday, August 21, 2016

Growing Up in America: American Movies in the 1950s (Part 1)

America in 3‑D, shaken and stirred

By Rolf Dumke

It Came from Outer Space (1953). This was the first American film I saw with my friend Gene in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. We went because of Gene’s enthusiasm for the new 3-D film technology and my interest in Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, which I had just read, after my local librarian’s nudge to read Verne’s adventure stories rather than the Black Stallion girl’s books.
    I was an undiscriminating, voracious reader of both literary trash and good stuff, and I am grateful to the librarian of the small branch of the Cleveland Library on Superior Avenue, above E. 55th Street. She saved me from aeons of lousy books which I would have spontaneously read on my own, or from losing my interest in books after an indiscriminate binge.
    Verne wrote incredible science fiction stories in the middle to late 19th century. (Wikipedia on Jules Verne.) His stories presaged some of mankind’s later astounding technical innovations, like the rocket space shot to the moon, A Trip to the Moon; like balloon travel, Around the World in Eighty Days; like submarine exploration, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.
    As a result, I was eager to face the aliens from outer space, landing in beautiful and remote Arizona at night. Innumerable stars glimmered in the great sky above, implicitly raising the probability that other intelligent beings might live somewhere in our universe.
    From the back porch of a secluded house in the countryside, a young astronomer and his girlfriend see a comet streak through the sky and hear it crash nearby. 3-D makes us part of this incredible scene, especially when the astronomer scampers down the crater made by the comet’s crash and sees a shimmering vehicle in the debris below. But then it is dramatically covered by a landslide, huge boulders crashing down the crater to the astronomer and into the theater’s audience.
    We felt mortally threatened in Row 10, screaming aloud, ducking, like the rest of the packed audience in the dark theater, attacked by 3-D and blaring stereo sound. It was an unforgettable experience – followed by an unforgettable headache from my 3-D spectacles.
    The following trailer gives a dramatic impression of how boulders from the crash of the meteor/spacecraft were hurdled into the viewers of the cinema, with all of us ducking and screaming!

    Besides the dramatic 3-D effects, my only memory of the film was the peculiar activity of the townspeople “replicas” that were used by the aliens to get repair parts for their crashed space craft. They were identical in shape to the original townspersons but strangely different, and the town began to see them as dangerous outsiders, killing a few of them.

Being an immigrant from a foreign culture, with a foreign language and a still imperfectly spoken English, made me and my parents “aliens” in America. Sometimes we were received with suspicion and resentment. This was especially true for German immigrants, who, at times, were thought to be dangerous Nazis.
    After WWII, German identity in America was besmirched with Nazi crimes. Unfortunately, this was a price that one had to bear for living in this country. When we moved to Chippewa on the Lake, I was soon hounded by neighborhood kids. Interestingly, when I finally said “Yes” to the charge, “You’re a Nazi,” the harassment stopped. They were nonplussed; there was no fun if you could not embarrass your opponent. The neighborhood kids became friends, and my life as alien ended quickly. Apparently, I was a smart young cock who liked double-edged humor, indulged in sarcasm toward the boys for their stupid charge, and engaged in irony by “confessing” it. They liked it.
    The harassment in the States wasn’t so intimidating compared to what I had received in Bavaria for being a piggy Prussian and an amoral Protestant, or in Berlin, where, while visiting my grandmother, and before I learned the local slang, I was beaten up by neighborhood kids for being a stupid Bavarian. I had been a greater “alien” in Bavaria than I was in the States.
    Later, in my senior year at Shaw High, a half-dozen potential students for Yale were invited by the Cleveland branch of the Yale Alumni Association to their fall dinner party. The rest of our group felt intimidated by the tony atmosphere of the dinner, in a handsome mahogany-studded hall in a downtown hotel. They felt alien. As a result, none of them actually applied to Yale. For me, their intimidation was stupid. The social distance they felt from the presumed American upper class seemed almost trivial to me, with my postwar experiences in Germany. I was the only student who “dared” to apply, after a hearty, long interview with a group of Cleveland alumni.
    There was also a peculiar similarity between the wish of the film’s aliens to go home after their crash on earth and the German immigrants’ strategy to return home after a half decade in the States, in order to assess their chances in the old country and decide whether to remain in Germany or to return and stay in America. During our trip to Germany in 1957 my parents felt somehow out of place in that tightly regulated country. They had changed and felt alien in their own country. The generosity of Americans and the freedom of the country had infected them. They wanted to stay, buy a house in the suburbs, and became sponsors for other German relatives who immigrated to the States in the following years.
    From our family’s knowledge, the ones who failed in the States went back to the more supportive German state. The more successful Germans stayed in America. Thus, the immigration experience was a tough screening process that selected the more robust, healthier, and more successful persons over those with a less robust mental make-up, problematic health, and poor work experience. In the postwar era, as in previous times, immigration was speeding up the process of social Darwinism, with America winning more robust and enterprising persons.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The incredible tension that this film created was especially targeted at American audiences, which had been exposed to many films of Esther Williams, the pretty and aesthetic Olympic swimmer. She was either swimming and diving into pools, lakes, or the ocean in Florida, or skating on water skies and windsurfing, or, especially, engaging in complex choreographies of water dancing, surrounded by a symmetric, large group of pretty girls, all with nose clips.
    This was a clean, wholesome view of many young, curvy, and wet bathing beauties, which drew a dedicated audience for a raft of boring films that, endlessly, repeated athletic swimming scenes, all without the slightest attempt to tell an interesting story. Esther Williams was a wholesome, wet American pin-up girl.

    However, I did find on Youtube one interesting short scene, “I have a dream,” in Esther Williams’s film Jupiter’s Darling, in which she dives into a swimming pool and swims between submerged Greek sculptures of gods. They are slowly brought alive by a cupid’s charm and begin to move and dance with her. With Jupiter she performs a fine, slow underwater ballet. They swim around each other, mirror the other’s movements in an entrancing underwater romance. But cupid’s charm is only fleeting. Minutes later the gods become immobile again.

    Now contrast that with the dramatic movie clip below, from the film The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This is an incredible, beautiful underwater ballet with Julie Adams and the monstrous alien creature stalking her from below and mirroring her movements while she exuberantly and innocently swims and dives above, unaware of the danger in the muddy shadows of the lake. The aura of her beauty protects her from harm.

    This thrilling scene mesmerized Americans, now afraid for their beloved Esther, who also might be threatened by an alien. My initial impression of the film was precisely the fascination and terror that this swimming scene created. The creature, who mindlessly killed male members of the investigative team of divers and scientists, was fascinated by her beauty and plays with her in a fine underwater ballet, before possibly devouring, despoiling, or killing her. For an impressionable boy, it was a great story of beauty and the beast.

In my earlier aquatic experiences in Bavaria I recall only three dreadful episodes:
    The first episode was almost capsizing in a small ferry across the Inn River, which was swollen and choppy with the icy waters of the spring flood. Here I was a powerless participant, fully knowing that the ferryman’s stupidity to forget to untie the rope to the dock before it pulled hard on the ferry could mean our death in the icy water. The dread here was in being a helpless victim of presumably competent adults, damned to watch the event happen to its terrible end.
    In dangerous events, time seems to me to slow down to almost slow motion, giving me all the time in the world to consider what to do and imagine possible results. Fortunately, the ferryman’s friend found the answer. A few strokes of the back of a long ax knocked out the post at the back of the ferry from which the rope leading from the ferry to the dock was tied, while a rope from the front of the ferry was attached to a pulley on which a steel cable ran across the river between two masts, one on each side. Thus, our ferry had briefly been pulled into an almost horizontal position, immovably fixed to both shores and almost flooded by the waves of the rapid stream. Then the lucky strike by the ax liberated us!
    The second episode happened a few months later, in June. I was alone, running around the sandy beach of a creek flowing into the still cold water of the Inn River. The sandy banks – hollowed out by the swift stream – suddenly collapsed under me. I was shocked and breathless from the icy water. When I opened my eyes, I saw a couple of meters down into the green water. I had to swim, for the first time in my life! Recalling a recent cruelty of local farm boys, who tried to drown little kittens up on the same creek, I copied the kitties’ response, rapidly moving paws down and up to swim to the other side and save themselves. It worked! I instantly learned to swim. Dread followed by exhilaration! Self-confidence was tried and confirmed. This was a well on which I could draw for the rest of my life.
    The third episode was swimming in a small lake in the summer whose water was clogged by snaky, rope-like algae anchored to the muddy lake bottom. It was dangerous, as the tendrils clung to one’s legs, coiled around them, and inhibited swimming. One had to paddle with one arm, while the other hand pulled off the encoiling tendrils.
    The town’s top teenage swimmers tried to show each other up, in front of all the town’s kids, to see how far and how long they could swim in this lake. The winner was adored by giggling girls. One early afternoon I tried to swim in the snaky pond, to see for myself how I would fare. It was a big mistake! Soon my legs were entwined by slick long strings of algae, and it took a long time for me to reach the shore again. This dreadful episode was caused by my overconfidence and stupidity. Wise restraint was the lesson!
    I never experienced the languorous beauty of swimming well and fast, and later on I became addicted to Esther Williams – as America was addicted, decades ago.
    You can forget the rest of The Creature from the Black Lagoon – the water ballet in the lagoon (see YouTube video above) is its core.

Still to come:
Part 2. Billy Wilder, itchy and hot for Marilyn
Part 3. Hitchcock thrills with North by Northwest
Part 4. US and German postwar movies compared
Links to previous installments in approximate historical order of contents:
Copyright © 2016 by Rolf Dumke


  1. I enjoyed the trip through time. I found the part of your family going back to the Old Country and feeling out of place interesting. If I may I would like to refer to it in an article later.

    1. Ed, In retrospect, my parents's decision to stay in the States and buy a house in the suburbs of Cleveland rather than purchase a renovated apartment house for 8 families in West Berlin has to do with "social embeddedness" in the States and a feeling of strangeness in postwar Germany after a half decade of living in America. The fear of a Russian take-over was also important.

      The historical research on return migration from America by Germans starts with Guenter Moltmann's 1980 article in Central European History.
      There is a profound book by Rudolph Vecoli and Suzanna Sinke, eds., on A Century of European Migration, 1830-1930, U. Illinois Press with a concluding chapter by Vecoli, where he states that returning to the "old country" was the original strategy of most immigrants and the "normal, expected behavior. What has to be explained is not the decision to return, but the decision to remain" (p11).
      Read Walter Nugent's review, with the same title, in The Annals of Iowa 53, (1994), which is online.
      The feeling of a new social embeddedness in America was important for our family's decision.


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    1. (I miscalculated the school years in my first attempt at a comment. Drawing a chart, I established that my first-grade year was 1948-49, not 1947-48.)

      I have been trying to remember whether I saw either of these two films, but I can't confirm it either way - that I did or I didn't see them.
          May 1953 (release month for It Came from Outer Space) would have placed me at the end of fifth grade, at an elementary school out in the country west of Petaluma, California. And March 1954 (release month for Creature from the Black Lagoon would have placed me still, I think, in the Mt. Whitney Lumber Company's village of Johnsondale, California, where I attended all but the final couple of months of sixth grade.
          Petaluma probably got It Came from Outer Space by May or June, but my mother & father may well have been uninterested in a 3-D movie, or preoccupied by whatever forces motivated our brief move to Johnsondale that summer.
          Johnsondale likely didn't get Creature from the Black Lagoon until after we left to return to Petaluma, and Petaluma may already have said good-bye to it by the time we resettled there, in the same house on the same chicken-egg farm we had left. In any case, it is quite possible that my parents would NOT have wanted to drive "all the way" into town for another 3-D movie.
          So, it is quite plausible that I did NOT see either film. At some point in my life, however, I did become aware of the name (and I suppose the image) of Esther Williams.