Nostalgia fads usually start to build at 20 years, peak at 25, and sputter out around 30, give or take. They don’t consist merely of middle-aged folks reminiscing about their youths, since middle-aged folks by themselves are in no position to start fads. For that you need the participation of the currently young. The young, of course, dig all that old material as laughable “camp.”
This has been the case as long as I remember. In 1972 Bette Midler went to #8 on the charts with her cover of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. As the 1970s progressed, 50s nostalgia took hold and went completely over-the-top, exemplified by Happy Days, Grease, and “50s nights” at bars and clubs (the drinking age was still widely 18 then, so music clubs had a younger crowd than today). Austin Powers aside, the 60s revival that followed was more muted, perhaps because the young were irked that the Boomers were spending all their money on themselves. The 70s revival consisted mostly of That 70s Show and platform shoes – no one was much interested in bringing disco back. The current 80s revival is much broader, helped by all those Brat Pack and teen horror movies. The 90s should reappear shortly. It can’t be long before a Nirvana-mania tribute band opens on Broadway.
I can’t help noticing, though, that the 40s never quite go away completely. Nostalgia may no longer be an appropriate word, since 85% of the population was born after the 1940s. Yet, aspects of the decade remain forever fashionable in a retro way: the movies, the music, the clothing styles, the cars, the sports figures, and “Golden Age” science fiction. References to them crop up again and again in odd places in decade after decade: Paul Simon, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?”; the first season of the Wonder Woman TV series; the movies Swing Shift, A League of Their Own, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forever Young, and so on. In Blast from the Past, the dance sequence is in Club 40s. In 2011, Captain America (see my July blog Limited) did a big box office. Even an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess was set in the 40s.
Why do the 40s linger so, especially in the US? I think it’s because 1940s America is how we still would like to see ourselves – because in fact we don’t anymore. It is worth remembering that the real 1940s, as opposed to the pop-culture image of them, were a deeply flawed time in the US. Yet, in the characters of the time there seems to be a moral compass that is notably absent today, and which is attractive. Very evident in 40s movies is a conviction that, for all our faults, when push comes to shove, we are the good guys, as when the far from perfect Rick Blaine does the right thing in Casablanca. The conviction is long gone now, and we miss it. The world war and its aftermath were the dominant reason for the Zeitgeist, of course, even though the war wasn’t the cliffhanger on this continent that it was for a time in the UK and Russia. There are plenty of 40s villains, to be sure, both fictional and all-too-real. Film noir is full of them, but they know they are villains. They don’t make excuses, and thereby they also show a form of moral clarity commonly lacking today.
Then there is simply the matter of style, whether low-life or high-life. Who wouldn’t want to be more like Philip Marlowe or Vivian Rutledge (The Big Sleep)? Well, if you wouldn’t, there are more wholesome (and rather noble) alternatives available in films such as Since You Went Away (1944). The 40s had another element that wasn’t blatant, but which permeates the era’s style. 1940s veteran (and army veteran) Gore Vidal asserts that the Sexual Revolution usually attributed to the 60s really took place in the 40s – the 50s were a temporary backlash. It shows, even though the Hays Code kept it subtle. Vidal himself did his bit in this regard, publishing The City and the Pillar in 1946.
There is no denying that in innumerable ways our society is vastly better today than is was 70 years ago. Yet, we feel something missing – a spirit perhaps – that at least appears to have been present then. As long as that something stays missing, the 1940s will continue to draw us. They certainly are present in my DVD collection, and if a Club 40s opens near me, I’ll go to it for a drink, even though I never did learn to jitterbug properly – or improperly for that matter.
Before Jessica Rabbit Was Peggy Lee