Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Mad Men & Scientists

What's in a soap? Would a certain award winning American television series created by Matthew Weiner smell as sweet by any other name? What is this thing called Mad Men and have we analysed the cr*p out of it yet? Cynicism aside, as a child of the '70s, born far, far away from Madison Avenue geographically and culturally, I cannot be but fascinated/ shocked/ absorbed by Mad Men. Even now that I have looked beyond the style and the music, pondered the historical period and the fact that my parents' generation came of age in the same, strange, post-war mixture of excitement about and terror of tomorrow - even now this series continues to put its spell on me.
Christina Hendricks in Mad Men
Image from ephemerist

A note to an ex-colleague: I forgive you. In 2008, during tea break, you rolled your eyes at me when I asked "What's Madman?" to catch up with the general flurry of a conversation that was going on all around me. I forgive the eye rolling. I still resent having to go and google it later that day because you didn't answer verbally...

If you, reader, are still in the mollycoddled cave of escapist antitellyism, as I was a few years ago, you will have heard about the series by now if you read the papers, or anything, really. And you, too, may have been amazed to hear that the lifestyle Don Draper and his colleagues follow is not the slightest bit snazzed up: no, like many of the ad campaigns shown in the series, the life is for real (4real? Excuse me, I haven't quite caught up with the times yet). A book by one of the original ad men of Madison Avenue, Jerry della Femina, goes into much detail about the booze, the fags and the, er, ladies. (Read his German interview with the paper Die Zeit or the Guardian article if you're interested, but not so keen as to buy the book).

Doris Day in Lover Come Back (1961)
Image via Daily Mail

But memory is a funny creature, wriggling imperceptibly like a kitten to squeeze events and their meaning into every nook and cranny of the imagination and make them fit. If only we knew what the '60s ad machinery looked like from a closer perspective, say, the '60s... I had hankered after an alternative perspective for, oh, probably days when I came across Lover Come Back, a comedy starring Rock Hudson (woo hoo!) and Doris Day, first shown on a big screen near you in 1961. The plot is as simple as it is (I would soon discover) annoying: Rock Hudson's Jerry Webster is an ad man who lives the life (yes, indeed) we know from Mad Men: smokes, drinks, kissies and more. On his way to work on a rainy NYC day he splashes Doris Day's Carol Templeton, and out-of-work computer operator [note: the movie is worth seeing for its technicolor take on ginormous machines and the girls who work them]. Jerry sends one of his minions to apologise, mix-ups happen, and in an annoyingly "that's what we all wanted" sort of way, eventually, boy gets girl (and girl gets idiot). Twee fun for the whole family, perhaps. But read on.

Image from Wikipedia

Just like Mad Men, Lover Come Back caught my brain more than I had anticipated, thanks to the figure of a scientist hired by Jerry to develop a product; any product, in fact, that will go with an ad campaign he already created (without a product at hand) to impress a busty blonde. Its name is "VIP", and the nobel prize winning scientist is hired to create something fabulous that will go by this name. Incidentally, the '60s social perception of scientists is not far off the stereotypical media image we all have etched into our brains from countless photos and movies: white lab coats, glass vessels with colourful, steaming liquids, explosions, and of course the mad scientist himself: unkempt, uncouth, uncanny. Eventually he comes up with a mint which intoxicates three times faster than alcohol. Both Carol and Jerry try it and end up in bed together, waking up to a surprising morning - and (luckily?) married the previous night, as the certificate on the bedside table tells us viewers as we stare in disbelief. Marriage annulled and drunken love birds separated by many miles, Carol finds she is pregnant. When Jerry finally finds out she is mid-labour, and they both agree it's the best thing to get married again. Happy end? I won't drink to that.

Mad chemists in Lover Come Back
Image from

As the short closing credits crawled across the screen (of course, the movie was made when opening credits carried all vital information and reading speeds were not what they are today, or perhaps when people really bothered readint who actually made the film) I was, nevertheless, at peace with myself and the movie: just like scientists do not work chaotically amidst colourful bangs and stinks, and just like modern day ad agencies do not create genius out of cancer-inducing orgies, no woman would be happy to get the boy who splashes her, undermines her professional career, thinks he can buy her, knocks her up in drunken stupor, and marries her just because she is carrying his child. Phew. Or is it? Please don't say anything now. I think I'll go back to watching the comparatively cheerful version of the advertising industry, circa half a century ago, that is Mad Men...

No comments: