Yes, dear reader, that probably means you. Especially if you have “reactionary” or “curmudgeon” in your username. Or if you’re Henry.
Today a new film called “Dear White People” opens. Set at an elite college campus, the film includes a prepped-out black protagonist and assorted other characters who look like this:
Every so often I get these little obsessions. The athletic ones drag out for years, and things like the taste for late 19th-century French chamber music are lifelong.
But every so often something cultural piques my interest, and I’ll spend a month or so furiously reading books and watching movies. I think last year’s was on the concept of cool and hip, for which I read half a dozen critical studies. The latest was triggered by Chris Sharp’s wonderful work this summer during Batik Week. I found myself inspired to revisit America’s pop fascination with Polynesia in the 1950s. Being a native Californian who took a couple of family vacations to island destinations as an impressionable teenager, this wasn’t my first time in these waters.
I stocked up on rum and ordered a big tiki coffee-table book. Then I ordered John Michener’s “Tales Of The South Pacific.” Then I started watching nearly every movie set on an island I could find, from “Mutiny On The Bounty” to “Blue Lagoon.” Once I reached “Return To Blue Lagoon,” things were clearly winding down.
This was all supposed to stop with the end of summer, but there were plenty of warm days in September and the rum and movies lasted until the third week of the month. The finale was Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” which I hadn’t seen in many years. Halfway through it I started to get the feeling I knew one of the main actors from something else. It was his voice more than his face. The little grey cells kept quietly cranking until suddenly I got a vision of the actor sprinting not across a sandy beach, but a campus quad.
Sure enough it was John Kerr, star of 1956′s “Tea & Sympathy,” which we wrote about in the first year of Ivy Style.
I did some quick googling and it turns out Kerr was destined to play Ivy prepsters. In “Tea & Sympathy” he’s a prep school kid, and in “South Pacific” he’s a fresh-faced Princeton grad. Kerr just had that look. Then again, the casting was a form of destiny: Kerr had attended Harvard as an undergraduate. But even after roles in films as big as “South Pacific,” he looked on to other things. He enrolled in UCLA law school and passed the California bar in 1970. He died last year at the age of 81.
It’s cool and windy now and the rum is gone. I have no idea what the next mini-obsession will be, but as always I’ll keep you posted of my findings. — CC
Actor James Garner has died at the age of 86. In 1963 he donned 3/2-roll suit to play opposite Doris Day in the Atomic Age sex comedy “Move Over Darling.” Garner is pictured above in the book “Hollywood And The Ivy Look.” Click here for the New York Times write-up. — CC
What goes best with seersucker?
A couple days ago I participated in a little forum banter, pointing out that in my opinion the ubiquity of the Ivy League Look during the heyday can sometimes be overstated. What’s more, once certain items became so mainstream they certainly ceased to have any direct connection to the campus and Eastern Establishment, even if therein lay their origins. Case in point, picture John Travolta as a juvenile delinquent in “Grease.” Sure he wears penny loafers to the big dance, but they’re black. And he has grease in his hair.
Kind of like the guy above.
By chance last night I was browsing the streaming Netflix titles and ended up watching “Inventing The Abbotts.” Filmed in 1997 and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Billy Crudup, the movie is set in a small Illinois suburb and contrasts two middle-class boys brothers with three sisters from a rich family.
In the scene depicted above, Phoenix’s character shows up to a big lawn party, complete with orchestra, dolled up in his best. The costume designer has him in a white buttondown with nice collar roll, but look at the rest of his outfit: atomic-flecked ’50s sportcoat, equally radioactive Main Street necktie, and penciled-on sideburns in homage to Elvis.
Is he dressed Ivy simply because it’s 1957 and he’s wearing a buttondown, or is it more accurate to simply say he’s dressed like a suburban ’50s teenager?
Oddly enough, both Phoenix’s character and his brother end up attending the University of Pennsylvania, where their deceased father had gone. But in post-enrollment scenes the boys show virtually no sartorial development, still clad in the same pointy-collared, double-flap-pocket sport shirts and gabardine casual jackets. Was this oversight on the part of the costumer, or a deliberate decision to show that they were still small-town guys?
As a final note, I was starting to doze off when I looked up and could swear my high school was right there on the screen in high definition. I leapt to the computer to check, and sure enough “Inventing The Abbotts” was filmed at Santa Rosa High School. I was even in town at the time and don’t recall any local hoopla, which I do when it comes to “Peggy Sue Got Married” with Nicolas Cage and Kathleen Turner, which had filmed on campus the summer before I started.
Other scenes in “Inventing The Abbotts” were filmed in Petaluma, about 15 miles farther south toward San Francisco. That’s where George Lucas shot “American Graffitti,” another movie whose setting is contemporary to the Ivy heyday and shows buttons on collars, trim haircuts and penny loafers.
In other words, basic early ’60s Americana. — CC