How Hollywood Adopted the Beat Rebels


By David Sterritt

Southern Illinois U Press

320 pp., $29.95

Post-World-War-II America was a less contented place than might have been predicted. Economic prosperity, military superiority, and domestic abundance did not assuage concerns about racial inequality, juvenile delinquency, and deadening suburban uniformity. As David Sterritt points out in his perceptive new book, "Mad to Be Saved: the Beats, the '50s, and Film," artistic culture became a terrain upon which the American condition was explored and contested.

For those who have prized Sterritt's film reviews in The Christian Science Monitor, "Mad to Be Saved" is a fine opportunity to profit at length from his insights.

The so-called Beat generation, a heterogeneous mix of young people, artists, writers, and intellectuals in the 1950s, shared a sense of disaffection from mainstream American values. In the face of national optimism, the Beats fostered a sense of the absurdity of life and the alienation of the individual from society.

Offering no systematic political blueprint, the Beats nonetheless maintained a vaguely subversive criticism of society that was eventually engaged in popular media like film. As Sterritt attentively describes, Hollywood often responded mockingly to Beat concepts like sexual freedom and anti-consumerism. Nevertheless, social observations phrased through Beat values made up a significant portion of American experimental and mainstream films in the '50s.

Although they did not risk formal innovation, Hollywood filmmakers took up many of the themes and subjects found in Beat poetry and literature. One such film is the 1957 musical "Funny Face," starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. In that movie, the Beats and existentialists are fancifully combined in the comic Parisian empathicalists, who hang around sipping coffee and spurting ragged, anti-authoritarian poetry. As Sterritt observes, the Beats are clowns in "Funny Face," not serious creative artists. Still, their very presence in a Hollywood production signals the fact that in the late 1950s the Beats had voiced a critique of social conformity that needed to be addressed.

Television also took up themes in Beat thinking. Jack Kerouac's famous 1957 novel, "On the Road," was followed by spinoffs capitalizing on the idea of an American odyssey. Chief among them was the television series "Route 66," in which two young men roam America in a 1960 Corvette. Like the Beats themselves, the show, which ran from 1960 to 1964, was never expressly explicit about what kept its protagonists, Buzz and Todd, on the road. Rather than a specific goal, the protagonists evinced a continual personal unrest and soul-searching.

Perhaps the most familiar television Beat was Maynard Krebs, the whimsical, goateed, work-averse companion of the show's namesake in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," which premiered in 1959. Not a character in the original Max Shulman stories, upon which the program was based, the sweet-tempered Maynard shifted from charming insouciance to sharp criticism of the dull lives pursued by other characters. As Sterritt points out, Maynard is not given full credibility in the show. He is not a genuinely norm-breaking Beat, but in the emerging derogatory parlance of the time, a beatnik - the humorous triumph of style over substance.

* Mary Warner Marien teaches art history at Syracuse University.

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