I’ve been enjoying a number of films on cable of late, many set in the 40s and 50s or reflecting other 20th century periods. Some are classic – All About Eve, for example – with the iconic Bette Davis and a very young Marilyn Monroe.
At least, what makes it to cable from abroad frequently falls into that category.
My morning browsing led me to a new French language film, Populaire, set in the late 1950s. The story follows a young woman who wishes to become a secretary (apparently of exceptional caliber), in a decade that remains fascinating to many.
Who isn’t nostalgic for the relative political calm (before the storm), the more clear-cut gender roles, the obvious entertainment icons, and the style of the period?
These were the days of post-war prosperity, white gloves and pearls at the neck, and everything – with a “proper” place.
I’m Typing As Fast As I Can
As this review of Populaire on The Atlantic reminds us, this is before Mad Men, and the tensions growing in the early 60s.
While I wasn’t sitting primly poised to type in that era, the description of this film brought a smile, as I imagined the clackety-clack-clack of typewriter keys. Like generations before me, in the late 60s and early 70s, I was expected to – and did – learn secretarial skills in school. I took pride in my 90 WPM and the squiggles of my Gregg shorthand – stenography as a metaphorical life skill, as a means to make a living, as one of the few “expected” channels for a woman to earn her keep – along with teaching or nursing.
Naturally, those careers would precede becoming a wife and mother, which assumes that a husband is “providing” while the woman tends to domestic duties.
Impressions of the 1950s
As the review of Populaire suggests that it will be thoroughly enjoyable “light” fare, the very thought of the 1950s brings to mind images of Gidget and Moondoggy – the original movie came out in the late 50s – not to mention pony tails, sock hops, and poodle skirts.
I can dig out old black and white photographs of my parents from those years – their faces so bright and shiny, the pearls at my mother’s neck reminding me of her proper upbringing – yet I recognize how those days appear calm and predictable on the surface, yet remained exclusionary and restrictive for so many who now have a voice.
Was this a time of innocence, or simply an impression of innocence? Would we trade those “certainties” for the complex options at our fingertips in the 21st century?
La dactylographie – in case you’re wondering – is typing, en français.
My 90 words per minute plummeted of course, but I still managed to land in the range of the respectable high 70s. I recall those days fondly, and even through a mist of 25+ years, I know them to be months of both adventure and complexity.
We may occasionally like to drift into a reverie of seemingly simpler times, rewriting history through selective memory. But going back is never an answer, even if it were possible.
Still, those typing skills have served me for a lifetime. Who knew that a half century later, we’d all be living at keyboards of various types.
Image of Marilyn, publicity still, public domain. Image of Underwood Typewriter, Wiki, Public Domain.
© D. A. Wolf
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