If you wanted to demonstrate a change in the way people think about the world, you might compare Happy Days, the TV sitcom that ran from 1974-1984, to Revolutionary Road, the 2008 movie.
I watched Happy Days as a teenager. I watched Revolutionary Road on a plane yesterday evening. Both the sitcom and the movie are set in the 1950s.
Happy Days depicts the era as idyllic. You might guess as much from the title alone. Even Fonzie was portrayed as a nice guy — not the knife-wielding thug that he would have been in real life.
Fast forward to 2008, and a fresh take on the 1950s. The era is now regarded as a kind of living hell.
Kate Winslet plays a woman who loves her husband and her kids but who, nonetheless, is profoundly unsatisfied by life as a suburban housewife.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays her husband, mostly as a grade “A” asshole. Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler have several screaming fights during the movie. Frank often says cruel things to April, and comes very close to beating her on a couple of occasions. Meanwhile, Frank diddles a young woman from the secretarial pool, to enliven his own boring existence.
Or merely to remind himself that’s he’s still a man. Because April isn’t the only Wheeler who is bored and unfulfilled. We see footage of Frank catching the train into the city, with hundreds of other men dressed just like him (jacket and tie, plus a fedora), on the way to workplaces that are all indistinguishable from one another. On his 30th birthday, Frank bemoans the fact that he ended up in the same mindless office job as his father.
April remembers when Frank dreamt of bigger things. She proposes something radical — revolutionary, even. ("Revolutionary Road" is, ironically, the name of the very conventional suburban street the Wheelers live on.)
Quit your job, honey, April tells Frank. We’ll sell the house and move to Paris. I’ll work instead of you. We’ll live off my income plus our savings plus the proceeds from the sale of the house. You’ll study, and read, and think. You’ll have all the time you need to figure out what you want to do with your life.
It’s a crazy idea, and the viewer immediately thinks, This is going to end very badly.
Maybe. But the movie’s perspective is summed up by Frank, who describes suburban existence as “hopeless emptiness.”
Frank is talking to the only character in the movie who agrees with their scheme to bugger off to Paris. That character is on leave from a psychiatric hospital, where he has undergone dozens of electroshock therapy treatments. He responds, Lots of people recognize the emptiness, but it takes real courage to acknowledge the hopelessness.
Thus one lunatic encourages two other lunatics in their fantastic idea. Except — from the movie’s perspective, the lunatics are sane, and the sane people are lunatics.
But let’s return to our comparison. Happy Days represents one extreme: the 1950s were 100% wholesome and everyone was happy all the time. Revolutionary Road represents the opposite extreme: the 1950s consisted of people wasting their lives in unthinking toil, like ants. The move imagines that smart people (particularly women) were tormented to the point of madness because they saw the truth very clearly but could not escape their lot in life.
Now imagine that you had to choose between those two interpretations of the 50s: which one is a closer approximation of historical reality?
I’d pick Happy Days.
It’s always a mistake to judge a historical era from the vantage point of some later historical era. If you want to evaluate what life was like for suburban couples in 1950s America, you have to imagine what it was like as viewed through their eyes.
You can’t project yourself back in time, as if (for example) a liberated, powerful woman from 2008 jumped into a time machine that transported her back fifty years or so. You have to imagine yourself being born into that society: socialized from your first breath to believe that a woman’s role was to get married and have babies and keep house.
I don’t think Marion Cunningham (a Happy Days character) was a complete fantasy. I suspect that the majority of women, and men, were reasonably happy in their limited, socially-determined roles.
Look a little further back, to the first half of the 20th century. Remember that World War I was soon followed by the Great Depression, which was succeeded in its turn by World War II.
People began to breathe easy again in the 1950s. Families were wealthier than they had ever been before: they could even afford new-fangled, labour-saving appliances for the home!
That’s the kernel of truth that inspired Happy Days.
There’s also a large kernel of truth to Revolutionary Road. We now know, for example, that a lot of domestic violence occurred in the privacy of those suburban homes. Women had virtually no legal recourse against their husbands. Divorce wasn’t an option.
Thus I’m at least partially sympathetic to April Wheeler’s character in Revolutionary Road. But she doesn’t represent Every(1950s)woman. She represents only a minority of women, whose intellects and ambitions were wider than their socially-prescribed role.
It’s certainly false to write off the whole society as “hopeless emptiness”. At that point, the author, and the makers of this movie, demonstrate profound historical short-sightedness. Happy Days, for all its rose-coloured glasses, sees history more clearly.