The Fabulous Fifties: An era of identical pink pressboardsuburban houses filled with smiling, apron-clad housewives. All the men wear slippers and fedoras and smoke pipes, all the girls are teenaged and wear poodle skirts, and all the boys are cute, freckle faced scamps with slingshots in their pockets. Parents sleep in separate beds and only kiss each other on the cheek.
Anyone who isn't any of these characters are either greasers, Beatniks, gas-station attendants, or Elvis (who, in this era, wouldn't be caught dead in a rhinestone jumpsuit). With the possible exception of the gas station attendants, everyone on that list is a direct threat to the upright morals and values of the era and will not be afforded a spot in the basement bomb shelter when the Reds drop The Big One. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement stride across America, slowed down only by the occasional Corrupt Hick. The birth of rock 'n' roll took place in this era, to the horror of Moral Guardians, which also showed a resurgence in popularity.
At least that's the popular view of the real Fifties. In media, there are three versions of The Fifties. The first is the Fifties Fifties, i.e. how the time was portrayed in many works that were actually made then. In this version, The Fifties were a suburban paradise where everyone was always happy, either forgetting the badevents that happened during the last decade or reminiscing the prosperoustimes of previous decades, and there were no problems except for all those juvenile delinquents running around. Unless the local college had some commies spreading un-American values or the flying saucers are landing. The fifties uptightness was linked to real world social anxiety and atom-bomb jitters, after all. Don't expect the civil rights movement to show up. Hell, seeing actual black people is a bit of a crapshoot. The Fifties Fifties are now a popular subject of The Parody.
The next version is the Nostalgic Fifties of The Seventies and The Eighties. By that time, there were a huge number of adults nostalgic for the "simple times" of their youth and Hollywood obliged. The biggest difference between this version and the Fifties Fifties is that the rebellious teenagers are now the heroes. We learn that all the teenagers back then liked to hang out at the local Malt Shop, where a jukebox played Nothing But Hits. The girls were only Seemingly Wholesome and both sexes were experiencing their own Coming Of Age Stories while necking down at the Drive-In Theater and watching Robot Monster.
Finally, there are the Historical Fifties of The Nineties and the Present Day. The Nostalgic Fifties are now starting to die out, replaced by other decades as there are becoming fewer and fewer writers in Hollywood who remember the Fifties... and many of these writers are the children of those former "rebellious teens", and take a somewhat more jaundiced view of their parents' upbringing. Therefore, the time period, as portrayed by Hollywood, is becoming more the textbook version. Films about The Fifties today tend more to deal with the political issues of that era (civil rights, McCarthyism, etc.) and less with its teen culture. Which is not to say it is necessarily any more accurate of course, merely that the decade is now filtered more through a political/ideological lens than a nostalgic one and teenagers aren't the only people that matter.
For a glimpse of what (some) Americans actually living in the Fifties thought of their world, read the Time Travel stories of Jack Finney. His heroes are generally lonely, frustrated, unhappy bachelors eager to escape from their conformist gray-flannel-suited world, usually into The Gay Nineties.
Note that Film Noir was a major genre during the Fifties (though more so in the late 40s/early 50s) that doesn't easily fit in with any of the mainstream versions of the decade listed above. This includes modern noir set during the Fifties like L.A. Confidential or The Black Dahlia.
One of the longest cultural "decades"- in many ways its tropes cover the period from V-J Day to the Kennedy assassination, 1945-63, with a shift in trappings in about 1955-57 as TV ownership reached a tipping point, tailfin cars got REALLY wild, Rock & Roll started getting serious radio play and the first wave of Baby Boomers reached Junior High.
Interestingly, the decade has triggered highly contradictory reactions among people who do not remember it well since the 1970s. Fifties cars are still admired aesthetically (in some areas, you can still find them on the street), Fifties clothes are enormously popular for costume parties, and Fifties music (at least, the sort that doesn't sound like holdovers from the Forties) will probably never be thought unfashionable. In addition, many seem to view the decade, with much sadness, as a forever-vanished idyllic time that was infinitely more conservative and family-friendly (although this is not what people actually living through the decade necessarily thought). At the same time, the 1950s is often treated as a sort of historical Butt Monkey - an all-purpose dartboard on which anyone who is irritated by social repression - especially if it concerns sex - can feel free to take out their frustrations. (Whenever you hear of someone described as having "Fifties values," it usually isn't a compliment.)
But those who wish to Flanderize an entire decade should know that the 1950s were actually marked by great strides forward in social progress, sexual and otherwise. And in any case, they were a lot less repressed than the eras that preceded them. The decade was also a period of relative stability and unprecedented optimism, both probably enhanced by comparison since the period was bracketed by the horrors of World War II and the upcoming turbulence of The Sixties. This was particularly prevalent in the US, which had not only triumphed in the war but, more importantly, was just about the only major nation to come out of the conflict with its infrastructure intact. With no rebuilding to do, the focus was on innovation; there was a strong belief in the prospect of limitless progress through science and industry, which led to a lot of gee-whiz science fiction that's now covered with Zeerust. It's no coincidence that the ultimate embodiment of optimism, Disneyland, opened in 1955, with its cornerstone of Tomorrowland, promising a "great big beautiful tomorrow." Compare Aluminum Christmas Trees.
Roughly speaking, the political decade of fifties began with the start of The Korean War in 1950 and ended with the escalation of the Vietnam War in the early 60's. Culturally speaking, it started with the start of I Love Lucy in 1951 and ended with the release of Psycho in 1960, or arguably with the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
For more information, see our handyswell Useful Notes page.
See Also: The Roaring Twenties, The Thirties, The Forties, The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, The Nineties, Turn of the Millennium and The New Tens.
Fifties slang. If you want to talk like it's the Fifties, be sure to use these words:
"Swell" - Say this a lot, especially if you're a teenage girl and you're talking about something you like (usually a boy). Be sure to say it in an extra cutesy and/or sweet way. The more affected it sounds, the better. ("Oh, that's just swell!")
"Dreamboat" - If you're a girl, use this word to refer to your crush.
"Baby" - If you're a guy, this is what you call your girlfriend. Be sure to add the word "hey" before it whenever you address her, or start with "hello", but the second syllable should be of much lower tone. If you're The Big Bopper you can elongate both words. This is a great way to cover up if you can't remember her name (after all, all girls back then seemed to have names like Peggy Sue or Mary Lou, so it's easy to get them mixed up). If that doesn't work, call her the name of a candy, confection or anything else that tastes sweet. Fifties girls like to think that they remind you of what causes cavities.
"Dolls/Dames" - Girls/women collectively. If you happen to be a private detective, use it whenever you can justify it.
"Get with it, kid" - What you say to a square.
If you're a dad, call your teenaged daughter "Kitten" and your preteen son "Sport".
Babies Ever After: The post-World War II Baby Boom continued unabated throughout the decade. People born in the second half of the decade only stopped being called "Baby Boomers" when people noticed that they, largely immunized from polio at birth, with TV in their homes from earliest living memory, too young to go to Vietnam with their adolescence well into The Seventies and at the start of The New Tens still a decade or more from retirement with kids just starting High School, are really a generation unto themselves.
Cut And Paste Suburb: Technically the proliferation of standardized housing started in The Forties when all those veterans came home and started housekeeping, but The Fifties is when this trope really came into prominence.
Opera Gloves the Fifties were the very last era in which gloves were considered a standard part of a woman's outfit. Everything after that was either a special occasion (like a fancy dress ball or a wedding) or fetish-wear.
Pimped-Out Dress: From poodle and circle skirts to cocktail dresses to evening wear made by world-class designers like Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel, etc., it was a decade of high fashion.
Pretty in Mink: It seemed every housewife wanted a mink wrap. A common accessory for teenage girls going to dances was a white fur shoulder wrap, especially white rabbit with two puff balls on either end.
Red Scare / Mnogo Nukes: You really don't understand the Red Scare hysteria of this period until you get the "bomber gap": the perception that the Soviets had thousands of nuclear-armed bombers ready to unleash fiery death on American cities.note The U.S.S.R. had 200 strategic bombers, tops, in all. Their missiles weren't much better.
Retro Rockets: The design theme for the whole decade, fins and all.
MAD originally started as a comic book, with it's first issue debuting in August, 1952. It later converted to a magazine format by issue twenty-four in order to appease Harvey Kurtzman and keep him on as editor.
Matinee (1993) features MANT!, a Show Within a Show. It is a thinly-veiled expy of 3-D / Smell-O-Vision novelty maestro William Castle. WARNING: Not responsible for any occurances of sudden death by FRIGHT!
Despite that most cartoon studios were in decline during this decade, Looney Tunes reached its heyday under the direction of Chuck Jones, as their most acclaimed shorts came out in the Fifties (though only 3 years into the next decade and the studio would be shut down).
MGM was another cartoon studio that was still going strong through most of the Fifties, though they began to cut more corners and use more Limited Animation as time went on, to the point where the later Tom And Jerry shorts look a lot like Hanna-Barbera's 60's television work (they were both done by the same people).
The version of 1955 seen in the Back to the Future films has elements of both the Nostalgic Fifties and the Historical Fifties, but seems to generally lean more in the direction of the Nostalgic Fifties.
The Last Picture Show is bit more complicated than some on this list, in that it is both a rather bittersweet version of the period and one set unusually early (in 1951) which means it predates a lot of the standard decade tropes like rock 'n' roll or B-Movies. It's also set in a Dying Town in rural Texas, placing it at some remove from the middle-class "mainstream" of the era. (The teen characters listen to country and western songs and watch cowboy flicks!)
The Porky's movies were a particularly sex-crazed version, or maybe just riding the coattails of a Seventies trend.
Though the decade is never properly defined, Fido is set in a kind of alternate-history Fifties where a Zombie Apocalypse nearly wiped out humanity approximately twenty years before, and survivors live in fortress-like Stepford Suburbias surrounded by zombiefied wasteland.
It's a very Troperrific rendition, complete with the protagonist's bratty younger brother who is obsessed with The Lone Ranger and carries around die-cast pistols everywhere, "the Love Interest in poodle skirt" who his best friend is afraid to ask out to the dance, and the love interest's "abusive greaser ex-boyfriend".
Stand By Me (set in 1959 and featuring an all-star soundtrack) attempts to do the same thing (mark the transition from The Fifties to the Sixties, from Innocence to Experience) on a smaller scale, reflecting the coming of age of four Maine Oregon youths (and the youths of director Rob Reiner and author Stephen King).
School Ties is set in the fifties, as evidenced by the 'uncivilized' rock music the kids listen to (that to a modern ear sound extremely boring, but to their contemporary audiences were quite wild). Also there's the rampant antisemitism for that special period touch.
"American Pie", the song written by Don McLean in 1971, is in part a nostalgic look back at the more innocent Rock & Roll music and culture of his youth in the 1950s... and, of course, memorializing Buddy Holly's plane crash in "The Day The Music Died."
Blacksad. A Furry Comic about a feline private detective. The series features a Film Noir-influenced version of the 1950s. But the storylines feature interracial violence, racial discrimination (based on fur color), the Red Scare, and McCarthy-style persecution of leftist intellectuals.
The Hour. Set in 1957-58 Britain, the Suez Crisis is the backdrop for season one, and the Cold War/Space Race is the backdrop for season two. The fashion runs the gamut from Marnie's stereotypical skirts and pearls and Hector's grey flannel suit to Lix's Katherine Hepburn suits and Freddie's beatnik look.
Mafia II plays in the 50s. It does however also show the dark sides of the 50s beyond Suburbia, like racial segregation, corruption, black market, slums, and mafia. But hey, at least you can encounter every 1950s stereotype known to man:
the charming housewife returning from her local Piggly Wiggly (after visiting the opium house),
the friendly next-door neighbour with the tie and the suitcase who scratched your car the other day,
the friendly gas station attendant after robbing him and blowing up his petrol pump,
the greasy radio host who ends every sentence with "folks" and promotes cigarette smoking,
the no-nonesense, deep-voiced radio host who will piss off commies and promotes family values,
the old grumpy hag who runs the local diner and still has problems with fitting her hair net,
The Silver Age of Comic Books began in this period, following the red-baiting and obscenity hysteria fueled by the publication of Dr. Frederick Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, which helped end the E.C. Horror Comics catalog that had supplanted superhero comics through most of the 1950s with grotesque and Weird Talesfrom the Crypt. The only E.C. comic to survive was...
Lenny Bruce, the infamous comedian who broke free of "obscene language" taboos in the 1950s, got his start doing stand-up comedy in strip clubs in the heart of Los Angeles' middle-class suburban mecca of San Fernando Valley in the early 1950s.
Bob & Ray, who themselves fit into the Historical Fifties as a result of spoofing the media conventions inherent in the Fifties Fifties.
The Golden Age of Hollywood wound down during the Fifties, drifting into formulaic musicals, Hays Code-approved thrillers, and big production numbers, leading to more adventurous directors refining their technique in romantic films and character dramas.
On The Waterfront, a film that established the Hoboken of Joisey trope, immortalizing the town where Frank Sinatra grew up as a seedy place of gangsters and palookas and shattered dreams, verges on Film Noir. "I coulda been a contender!"
Little Shop Of Horrors is set on Skid Row in an indefinable period between the early 50s and the Motown era. Elevated trains rumble overhead and working-class men stumble to work in grey flannel suits. The hero and heroine dream of escaping to the pastel suburbs.
Audrey: I'll cook like / Betty Crocker / And I'll look like / Donna Reed!
The Hudsucker Proxy is set in the same indefinable period, in a sort of comic-book version of the Mad Men universe. Pneumatic Tubes are, in this version of an art deco metropolis, the dominant means of communication. The film centers around the creation of the classic '50s icon the hula hoop.
The Godfather (set 1945 to 1955) and The Godfather Part II (mostly set 1958 to 1959) are set in the Fifties and are rich with period detail, but the focus is so removed from conventional depictions of the decade that is difficult to pigeonhole them.
Film Noir in general (see above) was inspired by the depression and urban decay of the prewar and postwar years, especially in the years 1945-1949. Which is what prompted many Americans to abandon the city in the first place...
Bill Bryson's The Life And Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, an autobiographical and historical account of 1950s and early 1960s America, when he was a child.
Lolita was not only written in the 1950s, it was set in Nabokov's idea of a typical American community and helped inspire the later concept of "dark pathology hidden behind a facade of '50s conformity".
Time Out Of Joint by Philip K. Dick is a deconstructiveMind Screwdriver of an apparently realistic novel, written in 1959 and apparently set in 1959, but as the book goes on, the characters find apparent anomalies, such as ancient and water-damaged magazines with the previous year's date and featuring a photograph of a supposedly famous actress called "Marilyn Monroe" who they've never heard of, etc. Gradually it becomes clear that the year is 1998, and a war is going on between Earth and its plucky underdog colonists on Mars. The hero is actually a senior military stategist who's suffered a psychotic breakdown; the military machine wants him to continue his war work, so they've preserved his stability by building a "Fifties" Fifties small town just like the town he grew up in, complete with friends and neighbours (some of whom have been given Fake Memories), where he and nearly everyone around him thinks that he's just playing and winning a newspaper competition, but in fact he's predicting Martian attacks.
The Honeymooners was made in the fifties, but it's far from "suburban paradise": it features a married couple, who live in a crappy, cold-water walk-up apartment, can't afford a TV or a vacuum cleaner, and fight all the time. This was, of course, typical for many Americans at the time.
Dragnet was a Police Procedural that ran from the late Forties through the Sixties. While there is Fifties conformity scattered throughout the series, the show is not completely clean, showing the ugly side of society as they solve each week's crime. Was somewhat made in response to the negative view of the police force during the time period.
The Fallout series not only is a throwback to 1950's sci-fi, it also have many parodies of that time period — such as a virtual reality 50's simulator with kids and adults repeating those same phrases at the beginning of the page.
The Iron Giant is mainly a deconstruction of Fifties alien invasion movies, but it also has large dollops of nostalgia (the director was born in 1957, the year the movie was set) and delves into some of the issues of the day, particularly Cold War paranoia, as personified by Kent Mansley.
Moral Orel has no set time period, but its characters are blatant 50's stereotypes, a lot of 50's architecture and technology is present, and there's an omnipresent theme of hiding away your sins and mistakes.