(You will find that a common theme of mine is frustration with this present culture that thinks that by erasing the past they can fix today’s problems. But if we erase the past, we might miss some amazing accomplishments!)
Please don’t forget that there were good and smart people in our past!
Originally Published 202.04.07
There is a tendency in this culture to condemn the past because people were not as socially “enlightened” as we are now. Yet, you can find plenty of examples of people trying hard to make profound statements back in the day, and yet too often, these go unnoticed in our time.
During this pandemic, I spend some of my decompression time sitting and watching shows or movies that act as “comfort food” of the mind. Episodes of Star Trek or Cheers are excellent for this, but they can only take me so far. Lately, I have been turning to old movies that were old even when I was coming of age, and yet they are still some of my favorites. One such flick is from 1954 titled…
For those of you who do not remember this movie, here’s a synopsis: A couple of crime scenes in New Mexico lead the investigators to discover a nest of giant mutant ants! Their nest is in the proximity of Alamogordo, the site of the first atomic tests. Two young queens escape the nest before it is destroyed, and a team of law enforcement, military, and scientific types track the two. One sets up shop on a transport ship out to sea (which is promptly destroyed by the Navy), and the other nests in the storm drain system below Los Angeles. This is a classic Cold War-era monster movie with 1950s special effects!
Like I said, this is comfort food for my mind during this pandemic exile.
But when I watched it again a couple of weeks back, I picked up on a couple of details that were pretty darn interesting; some may say cutting edge! Remember, this was a movie from 1954, and yet one of the lead characters working alongside James Whitmore (Shawshank Redemption, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Planet of the Apes), James Arness (The Thing, Gunsmoke), and Edmund Gwenn (Miracle of 34th Street, The Trouble with Harry), was Joan Weldon. Joan Weldon is not a household name, but the character she plays in this movie jumps off the screen and grabs you; Weldon plays Dr. Patricia Medford. You read it right; “Dr.” Pat, as we like to call her, is a Ph.D. scientist dispatched to New Mexico from Washington, D.C., to work alongside her father to investigate these giant carnivorous ants. This was 1954!
Why was this so cutting edge? In 1950, only 24% of women earned a Bachelor’s Degree, and less than 10% ever moved on to receive an advanced degree. By 1980, nearly 50% achieved a Bachelor’s Degree and almost 33% beyond that. As of 2015, 57% of women earned their Bachelor’s Degree, which has outpaced the male of the species since 1981!
There were also a considerable number of uncredited characters in this movie. One was a Child Psychologist caring for the little girl who was an eyewitness to these gigantic brutes who killed her parents (it is her scream that gives the movie its name: “THEM!”). The doctor, played by Ann Doran (not a household name either), is also a woman. Another female professional with an advanced degree. This was 1954!
My point is that two career women in significant roles in a 1954 cold war-era monster flick were pretty out of sink with the worldview of the day. Now it has become commonplace for women to hold advanced degrees. (Baby is a little over a year from being called “Dr. Baby.”
Sadly, another thing I noticed which provides a contrast to the professional women in the movie was the complete (COMPLETE) absence of African American characters. What are the chances that you would not see a person of color on the streets of Los Angeles or in an Army battalion in 1954? There was not one character, not even extra, of color; an illustration of the Hollywood philosophy of the day and shows us how far we have come. And we still have so far yet to go.
Lastly, there was a big discovery on this latest round of watching THEM! This revelation has nothing to do with the other topics, but it was huge, just the same. After all these years, I discovered an uncredited character who had a few lines and was on screen for less than 30 seconds. I thought he looked and sounded familiar, but could not quite place him. Here is a pic of his only appearance in the movie. Do you know who this is?
Look closely. This young man is about 23 years old, and most people would not get to know him for another dozen or so years. If you guessed Leonard Nimoy, you are correct. Who would have thought that Mr. Spock was a staff sergeant long before he was a commander!
But I digress!
Today, boys and girls, the moral of our story is to watch and appreciate even the old stuff because some good and thoughtful people lived in that “un-enlightened” past. If we think we are better than them, maybe we are not as “enlightened” as we think.