Small Towns are Smile Towns
There once was a time when movies celebrated peculiarly American traits, circumstances and settings. Small town America, as it appeared in the films until the Sixities generation seized the arts, was close to heaven on earth.
Small Town Girl, a 1953 MGM musical, is a classic of the genre. It is not a particularly distinguished movie by any means. The songs are unexceptional (including the unmemorable "Small Towns are Smile Towns,"), and the acting is, well, what you'd expect from a mid—1950s musical. To musical fans, the movie is really notable only for Bobby Van's tour de force dance, when, over the course of only two long shots, he hops his way through his little community.
But the movie is an unabashed representation of an American small town as an idyllic, orderly, kind—hearted place. That paradigm is really the movie's fulcrum. The opening shot is of a small white church. The camera travels inside to disclose full pews, and a chorus of demure, beautiful girls, led by the golden voiced Cindy Kimball (Jane Powell). The sound of a speeding car interrupts this scene's serenity, shocking the church—goers. A police siren swiftly follows, to the assembly's great satisfaction.
Subsequent events reveal that a spoiled rich kid, Rick Livingston (played by Farley Granger), raced through town while eloping with famed Broadway star Lisa Bellmount (Ann Miller). The fair and firm small town judge — who happens to be Cindy's father — sentences spoiled Rick to thirty days for public endangerment. Naturally, Cindy and Rick fall in love. Less naturally (at least to a modern movie goer), Rick also falls in love with small town living.
Small Town Girl isn't unique in picturing the reverence Hollywood once had for small town America. The practically iconographic It's a Wonderful Life presents healthy small towns as places of tremendous humanity and joy (while acknowledging that this health rests on the contributions of people of good will). Pollyanna presents the flip side of this premise. There, the angelic Pollyanna moves to a damaged small town and returns it to good health by reminding it of optimism and compassion. The Music Man too presents a small town that just needs a little push in the right direction to become a little all—American paradise.
This is not to say that early Hollywood always placed a halo around its small town portrayals. There were lots of pictures that painted small towns as places where emotions boiled and exploded (Kings Row and of course Peyton Place). It's just that these soap opera portrayals were not the only images Hollywood beamed out about small town living. Hollywood as a whole was reflecting diverse attitudes toward small town life.
Contrast that with Hollywood's approach to small towns in the last thirty years.
I can't think of any positive portrayals (although I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong), but can readily think of numerous movies portraying small towns as sinkholes of despair, depravity and repression. Many of them, unsurprisingly, have been huge critical successes. A short list would include The Last Picture Show, about the despair that characterizes small town living; Far From Heaven, about the racism, homophobia and despair that characterize small town living; and American Beauty, about the homophobia, depravity and despair that characterize small town/suburban living. Even Pleasantville, a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of 1950s America, makes it clear that it's pleasant only when modern values are grafted onto it.
One wonders, of course, which Hollywood small town portrayal is closer to reality. My own experience would actually incline to the halcyon small town image in the older films. I live in a small town that is about a half hour drive from the big city. My small town really is a "smile town," despite being populated heavily by urban refugees. Children (or grandchildren) are the center of most residents' lives; the streets are safe, clean and pretty; the schools are good; the crime rate is minimal; flags come out on July 4th; and people are friendly and helpful. Sure we have our pathologies (alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, etc.), but they don't set the tone for the community.
I had the chance a while ago to discover how different things are just a few miles away. My son belongs to a music group that functions in a large urban area, but has suburban satellites. He trains with one of those satellites. In the days leading up to performances, all of the satellite groups descend on the urban center for final rehearsals. I got to audit one of those rehearsals the other day and was struck by the differences in boys.
There are many similarities of course. When you gather 50 boys in a rehearsal hall, you're going to have the twitchiest, wiggliest group of people you've ever seen or even imagined. If there's a secret to perpetual motion, it can be found in that room. That's a boy thing, though, and not a problem.
What was a problem, at least to my eyes, was attitude. Without exception, the little suburban boys were respectful. Their bodies may have been wiggling, but their attention was on the teacher. Most of the urban boys were also respectful, although many had more of an edge than my local crew. There was, however, something in that rehearsal hall that I haven't seen in my little community: out and out disrespect. These kids had completely internalized urban attitude. They were "cool" — and cool means rude. I was shocked.
One can't dismiss my observation simply by saying that my suburban sampling was too small to compared to the urban group. That is, it's not enough to say that the larger the group, the more likely it is that there will be acting out. Acting out doesn't bother me. I move in kid circles constantly, and some acting out is normal, whether in the classroom, on the soccer field, or in the playground. What wasn't normal to me was the acquired attitude of disrespect and hostility. And no matter how large the group of boys I see in my little community (and how naughty some of them are), that attitude is missing.
This difference between the City and the Town is especially interesting given that the parents in my community are all good, card—carrying liberals. They tend to be non—disciplinarian parents, with spanking being one of the big taboos. They are not united by religious, political or social conservatism. Yet, somehow, they've managed to raise their children with a small town ethos that includes respect and honor.
Perhaps living in a community that looks like a movie set for a loving Hollywood depiction of small town America does affect us, leading inexorably to parenting expectations that mirror those imposed on fictional small town characters. All I know is that I'm grateful to live a Small Town Girl life, and not an American Beauty life — a sentiment I suspect that, while rejected by Hollywood, is shared by many denizens of America's small towns.