Far From Simple: Nostalgia for America's Turn-of-the-Century Small Town in Film and Television 1940-1963

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Until the late twentieth century, the American small town at the turn of the century was popularly conceived as the quintessential nostalgic object: an "ideal" moment of lost "innocence," albeit one never existing in reality. This conception is belied, however, by my study of its representation in film and television from 1940 to 1963. In fact, I argue that the turn-of-the-century small town served different functions at different times; moreover, these texts vary widely in the way they produced "nostalgia" for their common setting. In the immediate post-war period, Hollywood represented the past as anticipating the present and in fact as its inferior; in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE SAINTED SISTERS, SUMMER HOLIDAY, and EXCUSE MY DUST, the turn-of-the-century small town valorizes twentieth-century technology, particularly the automobile, while the 1895 town in WAIT TIL THE SUN SHINES, NELLIE is eager to become a mid-century city. Similarly, I demonstrate that in ON MOONLIGHT BAY and BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON, the past is modernized via Doris Day's presentation in costuming, performance, and singing style as an entirely contemporary figure. I contend that by 1960, however, the past is set off as pleasurably different from the present; this valorized turn-of-the-century small town was marketed as a site of play and consumption in Walt Disney's POLLYANNA and Main Street, U.S.A., while it became an unattainable lost utopia in Rod Serling's time-travel fantasies in THE TWILGHT ZONE, such as "A Stop at Willoughby." My examination culminates in an extended analysis of THE MUSIC MAN and the multiple nostalgias it contains and provokes. I then trace the rarity of the turn-of-the-century small town in American film and television since the mid-1960s and the effect of British "heritage cinema" on its configuration when it reappeared in the mid-1980s television production of Horton Foote's STORY OF A MARRIAGE. I conclude by addressing questions of the aesthetics of nostalgia in popular cultural representation and propose an approach to further nostalgia studies that recognizes the distinct categories of nostalgic production illustrated in the screen fictions examined here: expressed nostalgia; idealized "inauthentic" past; and meticulously re-created past.

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  • 08/14/2018
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