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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Hitchcock, Violence, and Juvenile Delinquency

Netflix has become the highlight of evenings in our house. Except for the PBS News Hour and, on Sundays, Masterpiece Theatre, we seldom watch anything “live” on TV anymore. Instead we make cocktails, turn out the lights, and really focus on something worthy of home theatre atmosphere.

Lately we’ve been running the Alfred Hitchcock series of our youth -- which we rarely saw when we were young. My family didn’t have a TV in the era when Hitchcock was popular, and hubby’s parents preferred mysteries like Perry Mason, which were much more mild than Hitchcock fare. Perry Mason with hamburgers was their Saturday night staple.

So I’m culturally behind in that I’m only now fully realizing what a cinematic genius Alfred Hitchcock truly was. In Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he produced and directed weekly television triumphs for the decade between 1955 and 1965. Netflex has about a hundred of them.

Hitchcock used the sophisticated accent of his native England for his droll introductions and conclusions, but his work was based in Hollywood. He directed actors to use an accurate accent for many varied geographical settings, and with occasional dry humor in frequently macabre settings, some of his productions had all of the profundity of Shakespeare plays. In my opinion, the modern man exceeded the Elizabethan with surprise endings that were nonetheless logical.

Most of us know his movies, especially Psycho, but in case you’ve never seen the black-and-white TV series, one of the things that makes it unique is that every episode has different stars. This is key to making each story different from the last, as there are no stereotypes to become predictable. Although they feature only white people, settings vary from rural to urban and characters range from simple to highly cosmopolitan. Murders are conducted without gore or even much highlighting, and occasionally there’s an episode without a murder. The cops, too, differ with each one, and the result is a freshness worthy of full attention.

My point in writing about Hitchcock, though, is a little broader. I want to think further about my thoughts as we watched an episode that was titled “Number Twenty-Two.” It starred Rip Torn. I always thought that weird name was a Hollywood creation, but instead it was a tradition in his Texas family. They had Czech roots and award-winning actor Sissy Spacek is his cousin. Rip Torn was nominated for Emmys and Oscars and still is active, but his recent press has been about arrests for drunk driving and other behavior unsuitable to a man in his 80s.

Born in 1932, he was twenty when he played the 20-year-old protagonist in “Number Twenty-Two,” the number assigned to him in a New York City police line-up. The line-up’s purpose was to identify the thief who hit an elderly candy-store owner in the head with a plastic gun while stealing $12 from the cash register. Instead of a criminal’s usual attempt to divert blame, this young hoodlum is proud to have committed the robbery. He arrogantly insults his jailors and brags about what a big shot he will be at the local pool hall after this first arrest. His only fear is that the police may reveal that his gun was a toy and that $12 is a misdemeanor, not a felony. In the last of the line-ups, however, he learns that the victim died and he will be executed.

So why am I writing about this? It’s because the drama offers an opportunity to connect some generally unexplored dots.

* * *

The chapter I wrote on children didn’t make it into my American Women and World II, which was published in 1990. It would be too much trouble to find it now – it’s probably in a plastic container in the garage and not even findable on a disc, which modern computers won’t accept anyway.

A bit about wartime children did make it into the book, though, in the context of child care centers that many defense plants created so that mothers could work. The nation’s pundits took a completely illogical and contradictory view of working mothers: on the one hand, wartime factories desperately needed their labor; on the other hand, children would go to hell in a hand-basket without fulltime mothers at home. Virtually every expert predicted a rise in juvenile delinquency because of working mothers.

“Juvenile delinquency” itself was a new phrase, created to describe a new phenomenon. Despite extreme poverty during the Great Depression of the previous decade, crime did not rise in the 1930s. Instead, young criminals such as Bonnie and Clyde flourished during the faux prosperity of the Roaring Twenties, when prohibition of alcohol made illegal activity even more attractive to the young and rebellious.

But after dropping in the Depression, youthful crime soared in the 1940s, the decade of World War II. Observers noticed the change in children’s lives, especially their exposure to violence, which was setting the stage for later trouble. One educator wrote:

On December 8, 1941, children who arrived at school were very much affected… A major adult crisis left them confused and frightened…

Father wanted to enlist, or feared being drafted… Brother went off to war… Mother rushed into a war job and was always tired and irritable…

In one newspaper, sixty motion-picture theaters advertised war films. Six comic strips dealt with war and spies. Eight cartoons derived their humor from war. The radio offered a nearly continuous succession of thrillers…

This was new, as television still was rare, and most children had little exposure to deliberate violence. The unreality of adult explanations can be seen from a Ladies Home Journal anecdote: after her parents grimly explained the horror of war, a little girl responded, “And can women play, too?”

All too many kids went off to war thinking it was play, and many of their younger siblings never really got over thinking of war as play. Kids, especially boys, were encouraged to act out their world with rubber guns and cap pistols that killed Japs and Nazis – and brandishing a gun while playing cops and robbers brought the same ego enhancing rewards.

The boy that Rip Torn portrayed as a 20-year-old in the 1950s would have been about ten years old in the 1940s, during the war. But when the nation was consumed with rising juvenile delinquency in the postwar era, almost no one looked back to that worldwide violence as an explanation. Few noted that although father came home and mother left her job, many families had irretrievably changed. Young parents who left Indiana or Idaho to work in California plane factories or in Texas shipyards never went home again, and their children grew up without the stability of grandma and grandpa.

More than that, though, the children of the 1940s and 1950s (and I’m one of them) were America’s first generation to see war and revolution and violence in general as the norm, not the exception. World War II soon morphed into the Korean War of the 1950s and then the Cold War of the 1960s and the heat of Vietnam in the 1970s – when the children born in the ‘40s and ‘50s rose up strongly enough to say no more, at least not with soldiers who were forced to fight.

And in the same era, the birth control pill went on the market and never again would families be the size of those in the 1950s. Feminism began to equalize parenting, and today’s boys have far better models in their fathers. The peaceniks are winning, as Americans demonstrate less and less willingness to go to war.

This is not to say that World War II shouldn’t have been fought – it had to be after we let fascism rise to the point that it did – but instead to say that we should do as President Obama is doing: emphasizing diplomacy over violence, targeting selected bullies, and avoiding all-out war. But most of all, we must change attitudes so that kids do not grow up to seek glory in meanness.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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