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Basil Dearden’s Violent Playground (1958): Masculinity, Class, and Sentimental Politics

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender book series (PSRG)

Abstract

Christian Krug argues that the British ‘Social Problem film’ Violent Playground (1958) showcases competing but relational models of masculinity in its exploration of working-class juvenile delinquency. These include a performative model, tied to the material body and potentially transgressive, and a conformist one which is more aligned with the requirements of a larger social body and the object of social discipline. Scrutinizing Violent Playground’s ‘sentimental politics’, which works at the intersection of ideology and affective corporeality, Krug’s critical reading foregrounds the film’s attempts to emotionally interpellate the audience by teaching it to ‘feel right’ about its unruly males. Dominant masculinities are posited but remain ideological vanishing points, however, and the film also features other, contingent, bodies that complicate this ideological project.

Keywords

  • Masculinity
  • Sentimental politics
  • Working class
  • Ideology
  • British film
  • Affect

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Cf. Messerschmidt (2018) for current terminological distinctions between ‘dominant’ and ‘hegemonic’ masculinities.

  2. 2.

    For the 1930s and 1940s, cf. footnote 4; for the 1950s and early 1960s, cf. Clay (1999). The 1990s provide another prominent example of (white) working-class men ‘in crisis’, with British films such as Brassed Off (1996) or The Full Monty (1997), e.g., Monk (1999). As early as 1991, Tania Modleski argued that it is precisely this perpetuity—cycles of crisis and resolution—which serve to consolidate male power (7). The phrase becomes problematic when it is instrumentalized for populist purposes (Kappert 2008), but also if ‘crisis’ is taken to imply a normalcy where ‘masculinity’ remains largely unchallenged from within (e.g., alternative, competing masculinities) or without (other genders, but also seemingly unaffected by social structures and intersecting categories of difference).

  3. 3.

    Consider how in contrast, New Wave films (and Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy) often showcase generational conflicts between an older and younger working class and frequently feature sexuality, pregnancy, and abortion. Violent Playground, on the other hand, poses problems that concern both former and future generations—the absence of both Murphy parents, Johnnie’s ‘a(hetero)sexual’ body threating the reproduction of relations of production, the petty crime of his younger siblings as representatives of the “next lot” (01:08:07) of the working class—but the ideological solutions it offers firmly focus on the here and now—and they embrace the logic of melodrama. The fact that Truman, the chosen ersatz-father, turns out to descend from a line of shepherds (i.e., has been a shepherd all along) is significant in this respect. The solution the film offers revolves around (self-)recognition, forging emotional bonds, and realigning social positions accordingly.

  4. 4.

    Kathryn and Philip Dodd (and many others) have argued that John Grierson’s celebrated documentary films of the 1930s, such as Industrial Britain (1933) or Coalface (1935), (homoerotically) depict such fetishized male bodies as heroic figures—a strategy which they partly attribute to a perceived ‘masculinity in crisis’ after World War I (1996, 45; cf. my second footnote).

  5. 5.

    The overt symbolism of this construction is easily decipherable. In the broadest of strokes, the film admonishes that if the next-generation working classes fail to labor along, logistics and retail will be affected—and the whole social body will suffer accordingly.

  6. 6.

    Both ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions’ are thus eminently social, with ‘emotions’ more overtly conventionalized (as in ‘emotional regimes’), and ‘feelings’ purportedly more ‘personal’—even though, as the phrase ‘feeling right’ already indicates, they both retain normative elements. They are distinguished from ‘affect’, which I take to denote, in Brian Massumi’s words, a pre-personal intensity, an “ability to affect and be affected” (outlined in his “Notes” to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, 2019, xv). This notion of affect, which is not limited to individual bodies, allows “moving and being moved” (Chandler 2013, 177)—and, as James Chandler argues, is central to the language of sentimentality.

  7. 7.

    The term ‘emotional realism’ is now associated with Ien Ang’s seminal analysis of soap operas (1985, 41), but it was already used in the 1960s by British film critics, cf. Lowenstein (2005). Lindsay Anderson, a prominent director within the Free Cinema movement and the New Wave films, in 1957 similarly called for an “emotional socialism” in theater and film production, cf. Lacey (1995, 34).

  8. 8.

    While Dearden’s films have very occasionally been discussed in terms of an underlying sentimentality (most notably in Wells [1997], who equates sentimentality with nostalgia in order to place Dearden’s films in a comic tradition), my use of the term is markedly different and stresses its political dimension.

  9. 9.

    According to Andrew Spicer, the young, upper-working-class men that came to dominate cinema audiences towards the end of the 1950s preferred American male heroes offering “fantasies of empowerment and success for male cinema-goers estranged by the middle-aged, middle-class orientation of British film producers” by presenting what a preference survey of British audiences undertaken in 1955 called “‘models of mobility aspiration’: an ‘attractive, virile and ambitious hero, pursuing a combination of personal and social aspirations against a hostile environment’” (1999, 85–86). In Violent Playground, middle-aged British film producers Dearden and Relph offer these elements in Johnnie’s futile attempts at upward mobility (symbolized by being refused entry to the Grand Hotel) and the dangers emanating from his Americanized friend “Slick”, who carries a machine gun in his guitar case.

  10. 10.

    This trope is explored in more detail in New Wave films, most famously in Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), where juvenile delinquent Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) also has a talent for running which grants him a privileged position at the borstal he is sent to, and in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), where miner Frank Machin (Richard Harris) seeks social advancement by joining a rugby team, channelling his aggressiveness in a socially legitimate form. However, in both films such athletic activities by working-class men are mere pet projects of more powerful, patronising middle-class men—the borstal’s governor and a Wakefield captain of industry.

  11. 11.

    Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) is the best-known example of a sustained, almost allegorical use of windows doubling for the cinema screen. Partly because the introduction of widescreen formats (such as CinemaScope) changed its aspect ratio (i.e., its geometry), the screen had become an object of meta-reflexive attention by the mid- to late 1950s. Changes in the aspect ratio affected a film’s potential for intimacy (a point producer Michael Relph was keenly aware of in 1957; cf. Burton and O’Sullivan 2009, 129), and any discussion about a film’s sentimental politics, specifically if those involve the audience, also needs to consider cinema as a dispositif—something I can only sketch here: Whereas widescreen formats allowed for more peripheral vision—which arguably complicates Neo-Marxist concepts of subjects being interpellated by the cinematic apparatus, cf. Belton (1992, 185)—, Violent Playground was projected in a more narrow format (1.75:1), which, while ‘wide’, kept focusing the audience’s gaze more firmly, thus benefitting the didactic impetus of their Social Problem films.

  12. 12.

    The sentimental responses of cinema audiences in the late 1950s are difficult to gauge in historical hindsight (and there is an obvious danger that current affective responses are projected onto the film), even though the decade saw the first empirical attempts to study audience reports about the tears shed in cinemas (cf. Harper and Porter 1996)—including Dearden and Relph’s The Blue Lamp (1950).

  13. 13.

    Cf. the special number on “History of Early Modern Masculinities” of the European Review of History (2015), specifically Joseph Campana’s programmatic essay on “Distribution, Assemblage, Capacity: New Keywords for Masculinity?”.

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Krug, C. (2022). Basil Dearden’s Violent Playground (1958): Masculinity, Class, and Sentimental Politics. In: Dexl, C., Gerlsbeck, S. (eds) The Male Body in Representation. Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-88604-2_4

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