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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Century of Film Chronicles American Angst

HOLLYWOOD -- For the century that movies have existed, the images on America's screens have mirrored its citizens' anxieties and apprehensions as the nation convulsed its way through the often bloody, always tense "American Century."


Sometimes the fear has been expressed subtly, as when 1930s movie monsters gave Depression-era viewers horrors that eclipsed their own. How could empty pockets and empty stomachs seem quite as bad when Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were on the prowl?


Sometimes that fear is uncomfortable in its directness. In "The Lost Weekend"(1945), Ray Milland played an alcohol-saturated writer whose dark two-day journey through New York City marked the first time Hollywood focused on alcoholism.


Many themes unrecognizable in their own time are hard to miss decades later.


Lon Chaney, the 1920s' "Man of 1,000 Faces," specialized in anatomical horrors. With elaborate apparatus and makeup, he transformed himself into a double amputee, a grotesque vampire, an wizened old man, the hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom of the Opera.


Some critics today see Chaney's efforts to mutilate himself for audiences as a reflection of wartime mutilation not yet processed by American psyches.


Indeed, many films of the 1920s were influenced by a German movie, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," an eerie, expressionistic tale about a murderous sleepwalker that was released a year after World War I ended.


By 1930, as talking pictures made their debut, a social cataclysm would change how American anxiety was depicted -- the Great Depression.


On one hand, upbeat musical extravaganzas of the Astaire-Rogers variety attempted to distract viewers' from the economic horrors taking place outside theater doors.


Even contemporary writers worried whether such upbeat portrayals would document the era's anxiety. In "Since Yesterday," a 1939 social history of the nation, Frederick Lewis Allen says most movies of the censor-happy age showed "hardly a glimpse of the real America."


But the horror was there, masked in fantasy. It came of age in 1931, when Universal Pictures unearthed two icons: Lugosi as "Dracula"and Karloff as "Frankenstein." Here were the twin horrors of unrestful death and mechanical supremacy, put before American movie audiences for the first time in talking movies. The shocks seem tame today, but scenes of vampires emerging from coffins and monsters fashioned from corpses' body parts were terrifying concepts for 1930s audiences -- enough to give censors pause.


America had another war to worry about by 1940. Many World War II-era movies were either diversions -- murder mysteries -- or jingoistic war epics that mirrored the war effort itself.


The war's end made the American public hungry for something more real. Societal problems -- or fantastic results of such problems, in science fiction's case -- began to dominate the screen.


Many postwar movies dealt with simple lives turned complicated -- fear of the city, of juvenile delinquents, of a society that had terrifyingly, irrevocably entered a new era.


Typical was "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1956), which starred Gregory Peck as Tom Rath, a suburbanite and war veteran coping with the postwar pressures of family, money and a new Madison Avenue PR job.


A genre known as film noir emerged, a brooding, sexuality-laden style that featured detectives, criminals with five-o'clock shadow and conniving femmes fatale. It seemed an outgrowth of the war -- a realization that reality didn't live up to the dreams of GIs coming home. Pessimism ruled film noir's dank alleys. In one genre classic, "DOA" (1950), Edmond O'Brien discovers at the beginning of the film that he has been fatally poisoned and has just hours to find his killer.


Alongside film noir, two other genres came into their own in the repressed 1950s -- Westerns and science fiction.


Westerns ceased to be pure shoot-'em-ups and evolved into moral quandaries starring heroes who could no longer fix the world by drawing their guns the fastest -- another indication of life's growing complexity.


Fifties science fiction had so many anxious subtexts that going to the theater often resembled a session with a psychiatrist.


Studios offered spacemen both benevolent ("The Day the Earth Stood Still") and malevolent ("Earth vs. the Flying Saucers") and nuclear destruction ("The Day the World Ended")


The newly harnessed power of the atom begat science-gone-mad thrillers about giant ants ("Them!"), giant army colonels ("The Amazing Colossal Man") and a man who shrinks to microscopic size after passing through a strange, presumably nuclear cloud ("The Incredible Shrinking Man").


"The great anxiety that most adults have experienced since 1945 is nuclear holocaust," says Donald Reed, a historian and president of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. "No Count Dracula can inspire as much fear as the end of the world."


Part of the fascination hinged on the conservative, McCarthyist culture of the early Cold War. In "Invasion of the Boby Snatchers" (1956), a California doctor discovers all the people in his small town are being replaced with look-alike alien pods.


Celluloid rebels matured in the decade that was the eve of the 1960s. Juvenile-delinquent movies such as "Rebel Without A Cause" and "Blackboard Jungle" (both 1955) seemed precursors to the imminent counterculture movement.


The 1960s saw much change in film: Unhappy endings became more common and, often, the bad guys won -- or at least became protagonists. Society was more open and anxiety less repressed. The distrust in government hinted at in much 1950s sci-fi emerged completely in the 1960s, as did sex and the sudden realization that, with the birth-control pill, a sexual revolution was at hand. In the 1970s, with the Vietnam War in full swing and a corrupt administration in power, the cynicism fully kicked in. "Network" (1976) depicted a television business so obsessed with viewership that it would do anything -- a somewhat twisted fantasy then, perhaps nearer to reality today.


Nuclear anxiety wouldn't go away, either. Life imitated art when "The China Syndrome" (1979), about a nuclear power plant emergency, was released just weeks after a similar crisis took place at Three Mile Island, a plant in central Pennsylvania.


Ronald Reagan's 1980s produced a different sort of tension entirely. Technology was coming into its own with all its unanswered questions. Divorce, environmental problems, mass media's increasing frenzy, late Cold War nuclear jitters -- film after film dealt with every American anxiety available. "Red Dawn" (1984) even forced a small western American town to endure a Soviet invasion.


And filmmakers began, finally, to deal with Vietnam. After only two major films about the war in the late 1970s -- "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" -- populist, America-first Vietnam films such as "Rambo" and "Missing in Action" emerged. "Rambo," about a Vietnam vet returning years later to save POWs, seems a typical kind of 1980s film: a backlash to the moral ambiguity of the previous two decades.


By the mid-1980s, with Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (1986), Stanley Kubrick's stylized "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) and "Born on the Fourth of July" (1988), the genre had taken on a decidedly violent bent, as if graphically depicting the war's carnage might somehow act as an American catharsis.


Today, Americans worry about technology and its relationship to the body ("Terminator 2," "RoboCop," "Total Recall"), about a violence-driven culture that makes killers admirable rebels ("Pulp Fiction") and about terrorism ("Die Hard," "Speed").


People worry about race ("Do the Right Thing"), and white men, often personified by Michael Douglas, worry about losing their toehold ("Fatal Attraction," "Falling Down" and "Disclosure").


But perhaps the most body-related anxiety of the modern age -- AIDS -- was not dealt with in a major Hollywood film until 1993.


"Philadelphia" starred Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett, a promising Philadelphia lawyer fired after his employers learn of his illness. He sues, wins and dies in a narrative many gay activists said didn't go far enough.


This year, AIDS angst took a more oblique form in "Outbreak," an action-thriller about an obscure but lethal African virus threatening to spread. Weeks later, the Ebola virus in Zaire did almost exactly the same thing. And then there's the megahit Academy Award-winning "Forrest Gump" (1994), about a simpleton who wanders through modern history's pivotal events carrying a message: Ignorance equals purity. It is a message that could only be produced in an anxious, overloaded culture.