Column: Did 1950s television plant any seeds?
Updated 5:12 pm, Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Recently I have been watching re-runs of popular TV shows I grew up with and I’m surprised to find that little flowers of fairness popped up and flourished in that wasteland of sexism and racism and homophobia that was the black and white popular TV of the 1950s.
Take the black and white TV western Dick Powell’s
One episode called “The Promise” has a new doctor in town who is mocked for
taking care of people who were called the “squatters” or Mexican immigrants who
farm land on the outskirts of that town. When the racist mayor of the town asks
one immigrant farmer his name, the doctor says, under his breath, “Twenty
years, 20 years and you still don’t know how to ask a man his name in his own
Wow. That’s advanced thinking for the late 1950s.
Is this a harbinger of the modern imperative for bi-lingualism? Remember George Bush running for president and giving speeches in Spanish?
A “Death Valley Days” episode called “The Lady Doctor” has a husband who is frustrated because his wife uses her medical knowledge as the daughter of a doctor to heal local town folk.
At one point she treats a local ailing Native American chief for food poisoning, risking her life and her husband’s farm if the chief doesn’t recover.
Her husband demands that she spend more time as a homemaker and less time as a healer, until the day that he turns up with a broken leg himself, which she is able to set properly.
Suddenly, the husband appreciates the value of “the lady doctor” in a very personal way, and the episode ends with her husband cooking supper on one leg ( and burning it) while she runs off to deliver a local farmer’s baby.
Is this the first house husband in no less than the 1950s Death Valley Days?
Another Death Valley Days episode has an Army officer in 1875 shot by the arrow of a Native American for trespassing on land agreed in a treaty that white men will not enter.
He is brought to the Native American camp for a trial by the chief who will decide if he is to live or die. The tribe members who captured him want him killed.
When he enters the chief’s dwelling, the chief stands alone with his back to the camera and the man.
Turning to face the camera, the chief is revealed to have black, not red, skin.
He escaped from slavery in 1857, and knew nothing of the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation. To save the Army officer from being killed if he is released on treaty land, the chief offers to escort him back to land protected by the
though he erroneously thinks he risks being captured as an escaped slave
The episode ends, with the wounded Army officer asking the chief what year he escaped from slavery and realizing that the escaped slave-turned-chief did not know he was a free man, thanks to Abraham Lincoln.
The Army soldier asks to shake the hand of the free man saying, “Nobody can take your freedom from you ever again” or similar words.
In retrospect it confronts surprisingly two sad realities in American history: treaty violations in agreements with Native Americans by whites and the plight of people who escaped enslavement.
It is worth noting here, that in another Death Valley Days episode, Sammy Davis Jr. appears as a black Union soldier. This was the 1950s, long before Davis was famous, long before TV tried to make amends for its predominantly white view of American culture by including blacks as central to television plots.
Am I trying to clean up 1950s TV’s wasteland of sexism, racism and homophobia?
I’m just surprised to discover in these re-runs a few flowers blooming that predict the revolution of the flower children of the 1960s and 70s.
Even the comedy “I Love Lucy,” which refused to use the word “pregnant” on camera and insisted that Ricky and Lucy sleep in separate twin beds rather than a single marriage bed, has its moments of liberation.
Don’t ignore the elephant in the Ricardo’s apartment: I Love Lucy was multi-cultural.
Ricky was Cuban. He spoke Spanish, and he was successful. And the dizzy Lucy of TV was Lucille Ball , the brains behind the highly successful
production company DesiLu, which grew from their “I Love Lucy” TV show.
And there’s an elephant in Dick Powell’s of
a radioactive one. Zane
Powell died of cancer at age 59 and may have contracted that cancer directing the movie “The Conqueror” at
St. George, Utah
nuclear testing site of the 1950s. Actors John Wayne and Susan Hayworth were
also in that movie and also died of cancer. U.S.
And let’s not forget the other TV series where racial and sexist inequalities had brief moments in the sun, Death Valley Days.
It had as a narrator a future president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor, and tried to end nuclear proliferation, surely a danger that threatens all races.
What’s my point?
American TV was trying. It didn’t give birth to the gender and racial revolutions of the 1960s and 70s , but it may have seeded them.
Here and there.
Paul Keane grew up in the
Mt. Carmel section of . He lives in Hamden where he retired after teaching
English for 25 years. Vermont