restricted access 1963: Movies and the Little Soldiers of the New Frontier
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1963 Movies and the Little Soldiers of the New Frontier JOE McELHANEY This is a pivotal year in the history of civil rights: among the most important events were the highly contested first registration of Black students at the University of Alabama, the shooting death of Medgar Evers by white segregationist Byron de la Beckwith, and President John F. Kennedy’s submitting of a civil rights bill to Congress, all in June; the March on Washington culminating with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August; and the explosion of a Ku Klux Klan bomb at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls on 15 September. It is also the year in which Sidney Poitier became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for a leading role (for Lilies of the Field). But African Americans were not the only ones engaged in ideological and political struggle. The same year that saw Gloria Steinem publish an exposé of her experiences working as a bunny at the Playboy Club in New York gave birth to an epochal moment in feminist history with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. And in the most scandalous (if ultimately rather chaste and sentimental) best-selling novel of the year, John Rechy’s City of Night, a gay hustler begins his career by working in Times Square. Nevertheless, if we are to isolate one event in American history which marks that entire year, symbolically destroying the mythology of the early 1960s and laying the foundation for the years to follow, it would certainly be the Kennedy assassination on 22 November. The exhaustively analyzed 8 mm film of that assassination, captured by Abraham Zapruder, has assumed an extraordinary status, not so much for the power of the motion picture camera to bear witness to a cataclysmic historical event (it had been doing that since its invention) as for the source of the images themselves: the amateur. However, there is another image from the Kennedy assassination that is almost as powerful and perhaps even more iconic: that of the three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin as it is carried through the streets of Washington. While frequently reproduced as both a 89 still photograph and documentary film image, the film image of this moment makes clear what the still photograph does not: that his mother is clearly stage-managing this gesture of her son as she whispers instructions to him and then gently prods him forward to perform the rehearsed salute. That it does not diminish the emotional impact of this gesture as we see the strings being pulled here by Jacqueline Kennedy (if anything, it intensifies the gesture’s emotional power) may be seen as a touchstone for some possible ways for thinking about American cinema of the year. The Kennedy administration was strongly defined by images of not only the youthful glamour of a young president and first lady, but also by images of two very young (and frequently photographed) children, Caroline and John Jr. This was the first White House in modern American history in which preschool children played a major literal and symbolic role, particularly for an administration self-consciously proclaiming that it embodied the vision of a New Frontier. (The president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had eight children.) The administration’s official historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., would later write that Kennedy was the first president since Franklin Roosevelt “who had anything to say to men and women under twenty-five, perhaps the only President with whom youth could thoroughly identify itself” (Schlesinger, Thousand 740). Furthermore , and in marked distinction to the Eisenhower years, this was a highly theatrical White House in which the Kennedys assumed movie-star like status and in which there were also strong ties to the world of Hollywood and show business. PT 109, a film about Kennedy’s World War II adventures, starred Cliff Robertson as Kennedy; movie star Peter Lawford was the president ’s brother-in-law; another star, Gene Tierney, had been a former girlfriend of Kennedy; and Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Angie Dickinson, Marilyn Monroe, and Judy Garland likewise had strong personal connections with the Kennedys. But this was also an administration that forged ties with the world of “high” art: the Kennedys publicly expressed their devotion to art and invited artists and writers to the White House. According to Schlesinger, Kennedy believed that “the...


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Subject Headings

  • Motion pictures -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Motion pictures -- United States -- Plots, themes, etc.
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