Dreamboats, Petticoats and Rebels Without a Cause: The 1950s Suburban American Dream


“Suburbia…is a manifestation of such fundamental characteristics of American society as conspicuous consumption, a reliance upon the private automobile, upward mobility, the separation of the family nuclear units, the widening division between work and leisure, and the tendency toward racial and economic exclusiveness.”- Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier

White picket fences and impeccably arranged flower beds line a winding suburban cul-de-sac; children frolic in the enriching, clean summer air while their parents mingle with their neighbours at the poolside oasis. The men boast over their latest conquest in consumerism as the women battle for the role of domestic goddesses, with pinnys and polka dot dresses they’re nearer Suzy Homemaker than anything real.

This fabled scene of idyllic, or ideal, tranquillity epitomises 1950s America dream- the beginning of the modern world we take for granted so openly. The birth of contemporary advertising and cheap goods marked the emergence of mass consumption that drove a nation to the suburbs, the breeding ground for the perfect family nucleus. The moving picture lapped up this vision for the future, the home’s latest gizmo, the television, reinforced the ideal for living through I Love Lucy and advertisements, the latter comically unacceptable in their gender stereotyping. This harmonious vision of the everyday 1950s existence was too good to be true, unsurprisingly it was, as women remained repressed, civil rights were a mere pipe dream and many lived in fear of an impending disaster from nuclear holocaust or a communist invasion. Closer to home tensions simmered between the generational clash; a youth, driven by liberating rock ‘n roll, emerged disgusted by their parents old fashioned wartime principles. Cinema, crippled beyond repair by television in the ‘50s, has revelled in endorsing this unnerving portrayal of happiness only to shatter it and expose the insecurities, prejudices and violence buried below the surface.


Even in the 1950s American film was aware of the absurdities and imperfections of the suburbs, the most famous example being James Dean’s career making role in Rebel Without a Cause. While rather dated and overblown in Technicolor, Dean’s Jim Stark still impressively portrays the first murmurings of discontent amongst the angst ridden teenagers- he sees no value in the materialistic society, fails to relate to his parents contradictions and refuses to conform into the societal pigeonholes forced upon him and his peers. The best indictment of the unsettled youth, on and off screen, came courtesy of renegade actor Marlon Brando in The Wild One– as Johnny Strabler, leader of The Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, he famously answers “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” with “Whaddaya got?”. Elsewhere the cynical side of cinema reared its judgemental face, questioning everything from communist witch hunts in On the Waterfront, the honourable masses in High Noon and the fear of conformity in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The latter is an intriguing disembodiment of societal expectation and the masking of expressionism.

As society changed so did cinema, traditional American values were challenged with the emergence of Bonnie and Clyde and New Hollywood, or the Hollywood Renaissance, in the ‘60s. Although mainstream cinema has become relatively conservative in recent years, just examine the last 10 years of Blockbusters, an obsession with distorting the ‘50s suburban dream into a grotesque fantasy of horrors persists.

Annex - Brando, Marlon (Wild One, The)_10

At one extreme lies the surreal disfigurements of David Lynch, Blue Velvet his most visceral and unflinching attack on the greenbelts, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, on the camp side yet a fine example of the white middle class distrust of outsiders, and The Stepford Wives, perhaps THE dystopian suburbia. At the other end, heartbreak and the adulterous longings for fulfilment exist, usually lingering in unsatisfied professional husbands. Despite being replicated ten times over on the big screen; Revolutionary Road, American Beauty and The Graduate, the most complete and engrossing break down of the family nucleus is television’s Mad Men, just ask Don Draper.

An extension of James Dean’s alienated youth in small town America has made some of the most enduring and relatable films for people my age (22), often they perfectly summarise the ambiguities faced by teenagers venturing into the big bad world. This blogs namesake, The Last Picture Show, is a superbly powerful drama of existential sadness in small town America from Peter Bogdanovic. American Graffiti, Diner and Grease adopt a similar message with a lighter tone alluding to the paradoxical tensions of resenting the tedious conformity around the identical houses and the fear of leaving into the unknown, better the devil you know. A couple of forgotten, stylish 50s based dramas continue the trend; firstly the gang filled self-destruction of Rumble Fish, notable for Mickey Rourke looking normal, even handsome, along with Pleasantville, a metaphorical duel between colour and saturation, conformity and expressionism.


The unspoiled, pitch-perfect delusion of the 1950s American suburban life has always fascinated me personally without ever explaining itself. Maybe there’s a yearning to be enclosed in a society where everything fits into place or perhaps it’s the excitement of rebelling for an actual reason, or not in Strabler’s case, that gets my heart racing. The appeal is probably as simple as that it never rains in those dreamy, sun drenched streets. Modern society blossomed out of the 1950s, although what we live in now seems like a reworked, tedious and well-trodden version, the thrills of discovering life for yourself coupled with the emergence of thundering rock ‘n roll, sexual liberation and mass consumption only endorse the original times. Imagine the joy of being genuinely shocked and excited by Billy Hayley’s original rocking call to arms.

On the other side of the coin the disclosure of the hidden desires and less than sanitary side of suburbia is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago, society and humanity hasn’t changed as much as the technology that’s characterised our generation. The aesthetics of the ‘50s American Dream rightfully remains an attractive and endless bank of narrative source for filmmakers, the country’s loss of innocence in the period the lasting appeal. As the 1966 film Seconds masterfully shows, suburban anonymity is a seductive danger, you know deep down that it’s too good to be true yet you continue to revel in the hopeful and futile dream that resides down revolutionary road.