“Today’s active man” looks a little too much like he’s doing a screen test for the part of Count Zaroff in a remake of The Most Dangerous Game.
In the next commercial he’ll be out on his private island hunting Edie Adams and the guy who walks a mile for a Camel.
No, I’m not talking about Ernie Kovacs. Watch the ad.
Ok, for this morning’s adventure in amateur semiotics: It’s interesting that Dutch Masters was selling packaging as much as cigars and I’m also wondering whether there was ever a world in which a lawyer or an accountant or an insurance agent lit up a cigar in the middle of a meeting with a female client who appears to be in mourning---she’s dressed formally and all in black; she’s either a widow or a spy, but if she’s a spy then the lawyer/accountant/insurance agent would be offering her a cigarette instead of reaching for a slim-down pack of stogies for himself, wouldn’t he?
But back to Count Zaroff there by the fire in his cabin with his dog and his gun.
This probably aired in 1957 or 58 and the optics were most likely dictated more by budget and scheduling than by the artistic choices of the mad men who came up with it. The actor’s wearing whatever was in stock that looked enough like hunting gear to get by in five seconds of screen time and the important thing would have been pockets. The pitch is that the Slim-Down 5 Pack fits in any sized pocket, so today’s active man can carry his Dutch Masters cigars with him in his shirt and the lawyer/accountant/insurance agent can slip them into the breast pocket of his suit coat, and what more do you want out of a cigar than that it’s not broken when you reach for it when you’re out hunting or back in the office getting a client to sign on the dotted?
So maybe the makers of the ad didn’t have time to notice or care that the ideal of today’s active man they were presenting was a middle-aged militarist with no use for the company of women, family, or even other active men.
Even allowing for the way the fashions, hair styles, and habits of expression, carriage, and demeanor made people of that generation look older to our eyes---take a close look at Kovacs himself, he’s not even forty at the time, and the other night I watched an episode of Burn Notice in which the guest star was the actor who plays Harry on Mad Men and it took me half the show to recognize him because he looked at least ten years younger, which is a testament to how good the designers of Mad Men are at capturing the look of the period---“Today’s Active Man” appears to be a good decade older than I’d have thought was the target audience, men in their thirties not in their late forties or early fifties. Did Uncle Bob smoke more cigars?
And the reason I call Uncle Bob a militarist isn’t the fetishistic way he’s handling his shotgun. It’s that he appears to be wearing a uniform. This is twelve years after World War II. I suppose that’s long enough for vets to have grown nostalgic for the way they looked and felt in their combat fatigues, although as I said Uncle Bob here looks a little old. If he served in the War it was because he was already in the Army when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Considering that a lot of those men, the ones who took office jobs when they came home, had exchanged one uniform for another and become the men in the gray flannel suits, it’s easy to imagine that remembering the days when they were truly active men and went to work risking life and limb without ties and with their collars open might have seemed like a dream of heaven, provided they could remember those days without also remembering the blood.
And of course that’s one of the pop psychological truisms about that generation of men, that they were able to repress and compartmentalize their memories of the war to the point that when it came time send their sons off to what should have struck them as an unspeakable and purposeless and immoral parody of what they’d gone through they not only did it stoically if not gladly but when those sons came home broken and angry they offered them no sympathy. And they weren’t much more empathetic with their daughters, remaining emotionally detached, at best, remote for the most part, and cold and uninterested too often, mentally alone in the hunting cabins in their heads with the doors locked against intrusions by demanding women of all ages.
This was one of the original themes of Mad Men.
Don Draper is a veteran of the Korean War but that’s only so that the character can be in his early thirties in the early 1960s. In all other respects he’s a pop psych classic World War II veteran as husband and father. Of course, he has other issues and his main reason for not wanting to be reminded of his experiences in his war is that the defining moment of his life was the moment when another man died so he could be reborn.
Draper has compartmentalized and repressed so many of his memories, and along with them all attendant feelings, that none of his life seems real to him.
It shouldn’t matter that he created that life on the basis of a lie. Self-reinvention is as American as apple pie.
Dick Whitman’s reinvention of himself as something other and better than an orphaned farm boy began when he ran away from home to join the Army. The mortar round that killed the real Don Draper just speeded up the process. You can argue that, thanks to the GI Bill, a great chunk of that generation, the World War II vets and their younger brothers who served during the Korean War and the early part of the Cold War, reinvented themselves at the same time as Draper and just as drastically, although without resorting to the name change and the total estrangement from their pasts.
So the once and never to be future Dick Whitman shouldn’t have to feel that his life as Don Draper is such a total fraud that he can’t commit to it.
He feels that way---he is that way, uncommitted to being Don Draper---because he can’t feel the other way. What he feels is an absence of feeling. He can’t feel the reality of his life as Don Draper so it’s no wonder he “feels” free to leave that life behind any time he wishes and, often, when he doesn’t wish it---he regularly drifts away from it into another sort of life despite his best intentions. He’s not emotionally anchored anywhere. His escapes from Betty and the kids and from Sterling Cooper are no more real to him than the life or lives he’s escaping.
This is a way of saying Don lives as if in a dream. To him the world exists not outside himself but only inside his head. That’s what makes him like the World War II veterans of pop psychology and pop cultural iconography. They are so cut off from their real lives of family and work that they might as well be living in dreams. They are at home only in the solitude of the hunting cabins inside their heads.
And this, my friends, is called riffing on a theme. It’s not meant to be an analysis of that ad because I don’t have a clue as to what the people who came up with it more than fifty years ago were thinking and seeing at the time. “Today’s Active Man” appears to me to be wearing a uniform and because of the period it’s from I automatically think of World War II and I’m off to the races.
But I’m not sure that people back then would have seen what he’s wearing as a uniform. The Mannion guys and I have been watching Ken Burns’ The War and one thing I’ve noticed is that in the film clips and photographs of American soldiers and Marines when they’re not in combat or on parade is that they look to be barely in uniform.
America did not have much of a military tradition when we entered the War. The standing Army was astonishingly small. (I’ll do the google search for the actual numbers later, unless one of you want to do it for me.) We had to put a million troops in the field overnight and had to equip and outfit them as best we could with what was available and it would have made sense and been most efficient to just adapt whatever was on hand that could do the job. In the case of combat uniforms that would have meant using the patterns and features of standard work clothes. After all, what was a solider doing but manual labor?
Looking at black and white photographs or films of soldiers without their helmets, ammunition belts, and field packs, you might find it hard to differentiate them from pictures and films of factory hands or construction workers until you picked out the faces of the women in the latter.
Combat fatigues were standard work shirts and work pants dyed olive drab.
Even the way pants were tucked into boots was the same for soldiers and civilians. Combat boots were only work boots with black and brown polish, which is why they were worse than useless for long marches, winter fighting, and jungle warfare.
These days combat fatigues aren’t even called combat fatigues. They are called ACUs. Army Combat Uniforms and they are undeniably uniforms. Never mind the camo. Soliders in ACUs have distinctly different silhouettes than any civilians. Up through the Vietnam era, soldiers wore their clothes like everybody else. Now nobody wears clothes like a solider except to look like a soldier. And up through the Vietman era it didn’t take much in the way of personal modification to make their uniforms not uniform, which infuriated Patton and which I can’t help suspecting was part of the reason for the redesigns in the 1980s that have resulted in a look that to my eyes, trained by old war movies, is more reminiscent of Rommel’s Afrika Korps than Patton’s Third Army even when his troops were dressed according to his regulations. The idea was to have an army of professional warriors who looked like professional warriors and not like carpenters and spot welders and definitely not like hippie college kids.
In other words, I’m looking at the guy in the ad from the wrong one of two possible points of view. I see a guy dressed up as if he thinks he’s in a war movie, but maybe I ought to be seeing a guy who when he was younger could have been in one of those photographs and films in the War, wearing a uniform that wasn’t much of a uniform. Adopting that point of view might bring me closer to the view of people watching the ad when it aired at the time. They might very well have not noticed anything about the way he’s dressed except that he’s not wearing a suit and tie and focused instead on the fireplace, dogs, and log cabin walls.
I see a guy who if he was around today would be volunteering to patrol the Mexican border of Arizona but they saw a guy who was conspicuously not in an office.
I’d have thought that in 1957 “Today’s Active Man” would have been actively playing tennis or golf or taking his family to the beach or otherwise actively engaged doing something that put him in the company of a pretty youngish actress model who might be a wife, a daughter, a girlfriend, or just a pal. But market research might have shown that men who were active in that way didn’t smoke cigars. (Jack Kennedy was four years away from being President.) I’m too focused on the gun and the dogs and absence of human company, male or female, when all Dutch Masters wanted my grandfathers---who were both around 50 in 1957---to see was the absence of bosses, customers, and paperwork, not to mention lawn mowers, broken washing machines, and cars whose engines were making funny noises.
Oh, and pockets.
Tricky to read ads out of the context of the times in which they were made. Tricky to read them within that context too. For instance, I’m not even going to try to figure out what either Kovacs or Dutch Masters thought they were doing with this one:
I came across both of these because I watched Our Man in Havana last night and I wanted to post a clip of Kovacs in that. Casting him as the corrupt and vicious Cuban police captain known as the Red Vulture struck me as inspired until I remembered how often Kovacs the absurdist, iconoclastic comedian appeared in movies playing establishmentarian authority figures straight. Still, he was great choice for Captain Segura.