I do the blogging for a local gallery chain. We carry a lot of Charley Harper pieces (as in, the most in the world). Nine months ago, this would have meant absolutely nothing to me. Even though I’ve moved (mostly) in and (occasionally) out of the art world for the bulk of my adult life, I had barely heard of him before starting this gig. Back in “the day”-in this case the 1950s onwards-he did a lot of illustrations for a magazine called the Ford Times, which I had definitely never heard of. Even though I love old periodicals. (I think I can be forgiven for not reading old copies of a lifestyle magazine put out by the Ford Motor Company, right?) Anyway, I will try to wrap this up in a neat, figurative bow because, well, this is a diversion piece. As we know, in my universe, that constitutes a few sentences and a photograph or two. Moving on….
I met a delightful old man yesterday afternoon. After he found out that I sometimes write about Charley Harper, he gave me this excellently preserved copy of the Ford Times. Although I have seen most of the prints made from these illustrations, I had never seen the magazine before. I had no idea that it was so small! I thought that it was a full-sized periodical.
He didn’t just gift me with any Ford Times issue, but one that featured some of the images I have written about. I love the flying flamingo in the background of the top illustration.
This layout makes me want to go camping, badly. But only if I can have that awesome car and the sweet tent, which actually makes setting up camp look fun! This story alone made my day (I’m weird like that). Thank you, Mr. Old Man! Your gift is in good hands.
Quintessential fifties, very Mad Men.
You’re a rare one.
Ha, that is what my family has been saying for years! Oddly, the fifties is very far from being my fave decade of the last century. I’m not even sure if it cracks my top five.
Many decades have their appeal, each with a different sort of excitement and a naivety, which can can only be seen from the next decade. I like the lines and colours of the fifties. It was also the beginning of the beatnik era which, if you listen to Tom’s words in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was a greater success than the sixties, which failed. The beatniks didn’t fail, they were smart enough to adopt the same elements of thought but didn’t foolishly try to impose them on a generation. It was also the period, In England too, when the conservatives started having fun. It was the time when the cocktail party became respectable and replaced the tea party. It was the beginning of a new found individual freedom, a deep mistrust of church and state, found in the wake of the second World War; the war by which the human race had already become accustomed to Freud’s idea of Thanatos, which he postulated at the end of WWI.
More drunken ramblings from a man who missed the age which might have invited him in.
I, too, enjoy the lines and colours of the era (mid-century modern is my friend). There is a lot to like/abhor/distrust/respect about any decade. I just have a deeper affinity with other times (which are, quite by design, the eras I cover the most in my real world writing). I am a student of the Beats, which is the subject for another day or rant or twenty articles. Although the seeds were planted earlier, the confluence of writers and work that we have come to know as the Beats/Beat Generation did blossom during that decade, a decade which also marked the death of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Unfortunately, I am far, far too tired to write eloquently on this or any subject right now. Perhaps after I have had a few stiff drinks, in an effort to prop myself up in front of the keyboard to finish my deadline work, I shall come back and polish these thoughts.
No polishing needed. I’m not sure there every really was a Golden Age. It was merely the lack of a savvy audience which allowed it to be tinted by tinsel. The actors were treated badly, writers held to contract and their work never used. How many great novelists went to Hollywood and ended up alcoholics who never wrote one more good thing. I think the Golden Age of anything is a dubious concept, a superficial label. Certain eras do look rosier when you look back, and think, ah, the gilded age, the freedom they had to be this or that. But there was lots of insidious and abusive stuff going on under it all. Nothing holds under scrutiny. Even the writing of Henry James and Evelyn Waugh was ingrained with the oppression of one class over another.
Ah, but that depends on what is meant by the term The Golden Age of Hollywood. Within the above parameters, of course it seems superficial. We all know at this point-as most people did even then-that the Hollywood movie making machine was a myth at worst, mostly illusory at best. Very few people in 1915, for instance, fell for the absurd press campaign surrounding Theda Bara. Her name is an anagram for ARAB DEATH! She was born in the shadow of the pyramids! She shuns sunlight! The press agents, the public (and Theda Herself) realized how ridiculous it was. They were all in this game of illusions together, because it was mutually beneficial. There was a tacit agreement between the public and Hollywood. Hell, there still is. Becoming cynical about pop culture and entertainment whilst still enjoying its benefits is not a late 20th/early 21st century phenomenon. It could also be successfully argued that most performers, directors and others involved in the behind-the-scenes creation of films during the first 50 years of film-making in Hollywood-even those badly used, the worst case scenarios-would have done it all over again even were the results the same. (With, I would say, the novelists being the major exception.) Too many have said so to believe otherwise, and the casualties have been piling up for 95 years. But I digress. The meaning behind my original point is a simple one: The Golden Age of Hollywood is so called not because of the studio system, the publicity machine, the gorgeous pin-ups or even the performers. It was-and remains-golden because of the bottom line, the end-product: the films themselves. I’m enjoying this debate; I will happily be back when the ball is returned to me. Until then, I have a few John Gilbert movies to re-watch (no, really). Ta-ra!
I accept all of that, and I’m fully aware that the Golden Age places something in the context of time, but my worry, albeit not as strenuous as one might suspect, is that people believe in the Golden Age of things. All things. People have a propensity to believe the past was somehow better and listen to say, Billie Holiday, think how glamorous and romantic the era was. But they don’t know she died handcuffed to a hospital bed, under arrest for heroin possession which was probably her lover’s doing, that she grew up in a brothel and was turning tricks at a young age, and could hardly get work anywhere because she was a black woman. I understand the Golden Era as an expression which references a specific time, but I do think that people somehow feel that it means life was better then; and in someways it was. I use it myself, I think of literature having a golden age, and movies. Einstein says something about people should look for what is, not what they think ought to be (at least I think that’s it), and I see and hear lots of people digging into the archives, but for romance of eras which they seem content adopt at face value. There is romance in heroin, ruin and death too, but that takes effort to appreciate; and only makes the non-dancers dance. Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers’ film about the Golden Era of Hollywood, in part, is romantic in its own way.
There’s all sorts of stuff to be observed here: people’s inherent desire to believe every age and day was somehow better than the one in which we live. But for all the litigious stuff that we complain about and all the enduring crimes against decency and humanity, this stuff has been going on forever. But it’s the eras which have more closely influenced modern consciousness in which I’m interested. I’m on pseudo-sabbatical in South Africa, and the press is calling everything this and that, it illustrates the horrors in a sensational fashion, and they are horrors, some of them, for sure, but there is the inescapable idea that these horrors would be worse, were worse in the days when we never heard about them. Things in Golden Eras were swept under the rug, now they come quickly into daylight and it’s easy to intuit, from casual attitudes, that people make the mistake of thinking: because they see more, that it was better yesterday.
Sure we had Billy Wilder, et al, and great, it just that it’s easy to believe the Golden Age was indeed golden. And it’s too easy to take the films as a historical document of the past; add into this the idea that history is written by the winners, and I have occasional pangs of worry that I’m confusing ancient, atavistic philosophical pain with the idea that the world I live in isn’t better than than worlds of decades gone before.
Look, I know what you’re saying, and I agree. I’m tempted by the image of innocence or the erotic or exotic which hadn’t yet succumbed to the new mercenary poison, the refinement of cynical commercial manipulation, but you can only argue one side at a time.
John Gilbert, I don’t know, but enjoy.
“Human nature being what it is, trivial and surface manifestations of revolutionary exuberance will always have a fascination for the average reader.”-Douglas Goldring
Actually, I agree with what you are saying. I think that we are approaching the subject from not at all mutually exclusive and even sympathetic standpoints; we are using different words and perspectives to get there. I understand the reluctance to generically label things, as it affords the subject a sheen that was never really there. Personally, when I use terms on this blog such as The Golden Age of Hollywood (which is the only time I use the phrase The Golden Age….) it is as shorthand: it transports the average reader to a specific time/place/state of mind without me having to burn words in explicating what I mean (not that you would be expected to know this). I do realize that for many people it is a nostalgic trope, albeit one that they probably do not give much thought to beyond the “things were better back when_______” variety. Most of my real-world writing revolves around silent cinema or dead (mostly female) writers and creative types; I spend most of my time dissecting literary, creative and film culture of the 1880s-1930s, so I actually devote a fair amount of word space to dissecting deep-rooted myths. (I am quite nakedly willing to state that I am more captivated by the bloody rawness of the human experience than in any glossy myth. I find the real beauty of any historical period to be in the magnificent failures, in the lives lived imperfectly but passionately. Of course, that presents its own treacherous kind of myth albeit one that I, by personality and experience, am more in harmony with.) Thus, my sympathy and agreement with your wider standpoint. For me, it is simply a matter of time and place.
A John Gilbert silent movie festival in my sitting room is always a grand time. Even-especially?-when it is so-called work.
I’m sure there’s a Charlie Sheen joke in there, because he’s not really here either, is he? I understand about the shorthand, I would and do use it myself, as I’ve said, but it was merely the impetus for the conversation. I’m also, in my own way, trying to mine the brutal truth of existence. I’m trying to do this by being authentic, as far as is possible, in most of the poetry I write. First thing I sacrificed was any kind of formal structure, free verse is the thing. But, as with fiction, truth and authenticity aren’t the same thing. Somebody said, I can’t recall who: “Fact may be stranger than fiction, but fiction is truer.”
I’m not trying to dissect other lives though, I’m trying to dissect myself for the pleasure of others; and as means to own some kind of philosophical validity within myself. If we read to know we’re not alone (a C.S. Lewis idea, and I’m not a fan, but credit where it’s due), then it’s writer who put their honest, most personal and sometimes shameful selves out there, that I want to read. Ironically, the writers who are willing to embarrass themselves are the ones who embarrass themselves least.
There’s a poem of mine, published by UNDERGROUND VOICES, called GONZO AUTOBIOGRAPHY, in which I write about the problem of trying to be honest in ink.
Anyway, I’ve enjoyed this conversation.
I’ve enjoyed it, too. Intelligent, nuanced, respectful conversation is not the most commonplace occurrence on the internet. You are welcome back any time. I’m especially interested in your most recent response. There is a lot to consider in those few sentences, most of which I agree with. I’ll be giving it some thought in the coming days, I’m sure. Thanks for the opening of perspective.
I look forward to your thoughts. Feel free to drop in on MM anytime. There is some prose up there.
Thank you! I’ll definitely stop by MM soon to get to know it better.