Thursday, June 1, 2017

Joel Dinerstein's "The Origins of Cool in Postwar America"

Joel Dinerstein is the author of The Origins of Cool in Postwar America (2017), American Cool (2014), Coach: A Story of NY Cool (2016), and Swinging the Machine (2003). He is a Professor of English at Tulane University and has taught a course on "The History of Cool" for 20 years.

Dinerstein applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Origins of Cool in Postwar America, and reported the following:
Page 99 is a great intro to The Origin of Cool's themes and history, and theory. It kicks off a section analyzing This Gun for Hire, a surprise box-office hit from 1941, and one of the very first film noirs. This is part of my analysis of noir cool, a distinctive quality of the genre that I define as a certain stylish stoicism in its best actors and cinematography. This Gun for Hire also marked the debut of Alan Ladd, a postwar icon and one of the few true precursors of James Dean. It was the first film that paired Ladd with actress Veronica Lake. Reviewers noted Ladd's combination of toughness and vulnerability (the keynote of postwar masculine cool) while Lake's slow-burn sexuality that had men yelling out her name in movie theaters. The source novel was written by acclaimed British novelist Graham Greene and the screenplay co-authored by the noir master, W.R. Burnett.

Many reviewers identified a "strange" new mood to the film and its emotionally reserved young couple: they were groping for the word "cool" to identify the film's detached, low-key emotional mode, but only African-American jazz musicians then used the term. Contemporary film scholars today nearly always invoke the word "cool" to describe both Ladd and Lake. One biographer described Ladd this way on page one:
His aura was one of great cool, of a forceful, masculine presence with a strong undercurrent of violence and heavy sex appeal… That's how the fans who went to the movies in the 1940s saw Alan Ladd. He was aloof, self-sufficient, occasionally lonely, and sometimes outside the law.
The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther nearly captured the appeal of cool in Alan Ladd's for a younger generation and I quote it at length on page 99. Crowther often watched films with swing-era youth since a given program included a band and a movie. Crowther referred to Ladd's performance as that of a "sympathetic rebel" since he projected a "gangster toughness combined with a touch of pathos." A decade later, this combination was the stock-in-trade of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Elvis (on stage and screen), and as well to Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, and Neal Cassady. Crowther considered the attraction of this new kind of cool: "Do they see in him their own insecurities, a sympathetic rebel against the problems and confusions of modern youth? And do they find vicarious pleasure in his recourse to violence?" Rebellion was the keynote of postwar cool, with the threat of violence hanging in the background.

The word "teen-ager" had only just been coined and was not yet in common usage before World War II. But once you have teen-agers, the conditions are set for the importance of cool. I define cool as the process of negotiating an individual identity in modernity through the use of popular culture. Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake were two iconic figures that provided models for teen-agers of the 1940s. Ladd and Lake made seven films together, as successful in their way as Astaire and Rogers or Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland before them.
Visit Joel Dinerstein's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Origins of Cool in Postwar America.

--Marshal Zeringue