“The American Century”. In early 1941, the famous publisher Henry Luce wrote an essay with that title in his then-influential periodical Life Magazine, urging America to enter World War II. The phrase became part of Luce’s legacy and after the War came to signify America’s military, economic, and cultural dominance. Think Rome in the century after Christ’s birth or Britain in the 19th Century.
From 1945-2000, American cultural influence internationally was no less impressive than American militarily or American economic hegemony. It manifested itself in three major areas - Broadway, rock and roll, and movies. The recent deaths of four personages, who heralded the heights in those fields during the 1940’s, 1960’s, and 1980’s, recall The American Century as a cultural phenomenon.
The deaths of Celeste Holm and Joan Roberts recall the era when Broadway was an integral part of the culture America exported. Ms. Holm (“I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No”) and Ms. Roberts (“Surrey With The Fringe On Top”) were the last surviving stars from the original production of Oklahoma, the 1940’s blockbuster. The two women were part of Oklahoma’s amazing run of over 22oo performances, an unparalleled success at the time (still in the top 25 ever).
Oklahoma marked the groundbreaking first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. The show was also a phenomenal success on the West End, became a high school and summer stock standard, and was made into one of the most successful film adaptations of a Broadway play. Over the next two decades, Rodgers and Hammerstein became the Lennon and McCartney of Broadway (or more accurately, Lennon and McCartney became the Rodgers and Hammerstein of rock). They followed Oklahoma with such international hits as Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music.
At the height of the Vietnam War in the summer of 1967, a new rock song filtered through the radio like an intoxicating drug, beckoning young people everywhere, enticing them to come to San Francisco. The song was San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair) and the singer was Scott McKenzie, a winsome young man with a beautiful voice. McKenzie died recently, but his iconic song remains the signature theme of the Summer of Love. It was also featured prominently in the movie Forrest Gump, and sung by Czech protestors during the Prague Spring.
Nor was the song just a “flower power” anthem. Before he died, McKenzie said in an interview, “When we go to Europe, I spend a lot of time in East Germany and talk to people there who tell me how much the music means to them and that it was freedom music to them. They were visited by the secret police, the Stasi, who told them to renounce their membership in fan clubs and stop listening to the music or they’d go to jail…And then in South America, the same thing was true. The music was considered revolution music..For Vietnam vets, it was what kept them going, in a lot of ways, for years, dreaming of coming home. They still come up to me. I carry a bronze star that a vet gave me, a combat patch that a vet gave me. I’ve talked to two POW’s who told me how much it meant to them… I didn’t have any idea I was gonna sing a song that would mean that much to anybody. But I did. And that music is in the hearts of millions of people all over the world, and it represents freedom and dying for freedom, or doing what they thought was right and now they think it’s wrong. It goes very, very deep into our collective psyche”.
The day after Scott McKenzie died, film director Tony Scott committed suicide. Scott, an English émigré who started out in British television commercials, specialized in action films when he arrived in Hollywood. His magnum opus was the top-grossing movie of 1986, Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis.
Artistically, Top Gun was not a great movie but it was an important one culturally, because it tapped into the American spirit at the critical juncture between Vietnam and 9/11. The movie captures the mood of a confident, idyllic America as the Cold War is ending. In it, America’s moral authority is unquestioned, the military is glamorous, and there are no evil villains.
As with every successful movie today, Top Gun spawned video games and promoted product placement, especially Ray-Ban sunglasses. The fighter jet stunts, bronzed bodies, and technopop soundtrack made it the perfect American export film and audiences around the world loved it - to the tune of over $150 million. Like Oklahoma and San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair), Top Gun was a prototypical example of America’s postwar cultural influence.
Today, during the presidential campaign concerns have surfaced about American exceptionalism and whether America is still a leader. Our dominance, economically and militarily, is certainly not what it was fifty years ago. Perhaps even our cultural influence has waned internationally.
But to understand what “The American Century” was once about, consider the work of Celeste Holm, Joan Roberts, Scott McKenzie, and Tony Scott.
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