Monday, August 10, 2009

Mad Men at the Movies 1.1

A truism: In New York City, people are often engaged in the arts. They talk movies, theater, books. One of my favorite things about Mad Men, Matt Weiner's fascinating series about the men and women of "Sterling Cooper" a mid level Manhattan ad agency, is how it references the arts of the 50s and 60s. In most filmed entertainment, other arts are generally only used in facile ways to underline themes, tell contemporary (and instantly dated) jokes or crudely reference an era. Mad Men weaves them in as smartly as the rest of its period details (costuming, sets, politics) to steep you in the world the characters are actually living in or the world they wish they were living in.

With Season 3 debuting this weekend it's a good a time to begin looking at the series' cinematic shout outs. It's also a sneaky way to work a great television series into The Film Experience. Even for you film buffs who've never seen an episode, I hope you'll enjoy these funny, telling or throwaway references to movie stars and cinema. Most episodes of "Mad Men at the Movies" won't be this wordy but I have to lay the groundwork. It's the pilot episode.

1.1 "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"
Twelve minutes into the premiere, creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is exercising in his office when Salvatore the art director (Bryan Batt) enters to discuss an account.

Salvatore: Oh look at you, Gidget. Trying to fill out that bikini?
Don Draper: Summer is coming.
I'm guessing this isn't the first time a gay man called another man "Gidget" in 1960, old school queens loving feminizing monikers as they do. The funny thing about the scene is that Salvatore hasn't even come out to himself and isn't in with the gays. He comes by it innately -- nature not nurture. The weird thing about the scene, in the larger context of Mad Men, is that Don Draper rolls with the girlish ribbing. He's a smidge more lighthearted in the earliest episodes. TV shows (even great ones) always take time to "settle".

Gidget, starring Sandra Dee, opened in April 1959 a year before this episode takes place. It was so popular that it spawned multiple sequels, imitators (see the beach party genre) and a mid60s TV series starring Sally Field. "Gidget" and "Sandra Dee" quickly turned into those sorts of names that also double as adjectives in the common vernacular. Consider Grease's "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" musical ribbing.

Salvatore's reference becomes funnier the more you think it over. Don is doing the exercise motion I personally remember girls doing in the late 70s (or was it early 80s?) while chanting "I must. I must. I must increase my bust. The bigger the better the tighter the sweater, the boys depend on us". I searched for the etymology of that rhyme and kept coming back to Judy Blume's "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret?" though surely the rhyme precedes that 1970 bestseller? Why else the reference to tight sweaters, which seem to place it in an earlier decade. Gidget herself is considered a flat chested (despite Sandra Dee filling out a swimsuit just fine) tomboy.
She acts sorta teenage, just in-between age
Looks about four foot three
Although she's just small fry, just about so-high
Gidget is the one for me

A regular tomboy but dressed for a prom
Boy, how cute can one girl be?
Although she's not king size, her finger is ring-size
Gidget is the one for me
James Darren, Sandra Dee and Cliff Robertson "The
Big Kahuna" in Gidget (1959)

As you may have gleaned from this post, I can't get enough of Mad Men. Even Gidget would have loved it it's so swell. "Honest to goodness it's the absolute ultimate!"

other Arts references in this episode:
<--- Cinema: A stripper at Pete's bachelor party does a weak Marilyn Monroe
Broadway: My Fair Lady (both verbally and musically "On the Street Where You Live")
Books: Bambi, A Life in the Woods
Magazines: Reader's Digest
Television: The Danny Thomas Show (also known as Make Room For Daddy)

Special thanks
To the Lipp Sisters at Basket of Kisses (a great Mad Men fansite) for providing a starter list.


Neel Mehta said...

I enjoy the tiny morsels we get (though few and far between) exploring the Sal/Don dynamic. They understand each other in an unspoken, professional way.

While I don't believe there's a sexual component there at all, I would like to think Don's outsider mystique would make him at least gay-friendly. It's possible that Don knows more about Sal than Sal does.

Deborah said...

Don has reason to grow darker:

Anonymous said...

I finally watched Mad Men thru the reruns marathon and omg it's a great show! I love the atmosphere and the general feel of the show.


Have any of you seen Gidget?

CT said...

I love-love-LOVE this new series idea.

Mad Men is amazing, but it's difficult to keep up with the period pop culture references.

Count me on board!

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen "Mad Men" and mean to, but I have seen "Gidget." I'm a sucker for the sweet, innocent girl overcoming seduction plans just because she is so sweet.

As for the poem, it was around way before 1970. I remember it as

We must, we must, we must develop our bust.
The bigger the better, the tighter the sweater, the boys will follow us!

susannah said...

I have a thing for 1950s movies that reflect the [stereotypes of the] era. Gidget is one of my all-time favorites.

The whole premise of the movie: this teenage girl would rather hang out with the surfer boys - to surf, no less - than go with her bombshell high school girlfriends to catch a man is pretty cool. I suppose there's a pretty good message - that being yourself will make you attractive to the person you like - but mostly it's just fun, 1950s beach movie goodness. And it's got Sandra Dee, James Darren, *and* a pre-toupee Cliff Robertson. Not a bad-looking fella, if I do say so.

Deborah said...

Nathaniel, you totally have to tell them that even though it's your post idea, I did all the scuttwork. ;)

Ben said...

I really love the idea of this series. Every time I rewatch an episode of Mad Men, there's always a reference I've missed before and need to scurry to look up afterwards.

It's doubtful that Don would have quite so much of a reaction to Sal's sexuality as some of the other characters might. Most of Don's anger is directed at those that challenge him head-on (i.e. Pete, Roger trying it on with Betty). He can be reckless and cruel but he's also quick to see people's merits, if only as an opportunity to exploit them somewhere down the line. Argh, this post would need to be 10 pages long to do justice to the complexity of the Mad Men characters.


DEBORAH -- my apologies. I meant to thank you for the starter list... (just edited to do so)

though if any theater blogs or literature blogs want to do a companion series, i'm helping them out there with added cultural references. I am also planning to mention all the actress referencing outside of actual movies. Wheeeee

Christine said...

"Gidget" is kind of disturbing. The men in the film are obnoxious, bordering on a date-rapey-level And if you continue the Mad Men reference game, you HAVE to talk more about Frank O'Hara"

"Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern."


Mason Mahoney said...

I was waiting for you to do a Mad Men post because I've wanted to say this since watching the show: January Jones all done up as Betty looks just like Austin Scarlett.

It makes me love her all the more :)

Katey said...

I think Don's lightness continues into season 2, at least with Roger (before he starts resenting him and all that-- but that's later). He and Sal don't have those kinds of interactions again, because I think Sal settles as kind of a subordinate. But yeah, Sal and Don definitely have some kind of connection-- deep secrets they're dying to keep hidden.


MASON -- hilarious observation. You're right.

Anonymous said...

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Unknown said...

thanks Jetx i was looking for a site where i can watch the show and know more about it. i followed your link and it is great. i just love this show.

sanserif said...

Anyone know what music is playing in ep 1.1 outside on the street of the doctor's office? It sounds like a Bond movie theme like Goldfinger or something. I looked at the season one CD song list, but it wasn't included.