Hookup Culture on the 1950s Silver Screen

“Your record shows that whenever a girl gets serious, you run,” private detective Claude Chavasse (Maurice Chevalier) tells middle-aged playboy Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) in the 1957 movie Love In the Afternoon.

Nobody knows Frank Flannagan’s “very objectionable, and quite immoral” record of sexual exploits better than Claude Chavasse who, at the outset of the movie, is hired by a Frenchman suspicious that his wife is involved in an affair with the American womanizer. Monsieur Chavasse knows that Flannagan has had affairs with dozens–perhaps even hundreds–of women from Paris to London to Rome, Vienna, Madrid, and beyond. He knows about Frank’s tryst with twin sisters in Stockholm, about the Venetian Francesca Del Corso, who tried to commit suicide after Flannagan used her up and skipped off, and to his deep sadness, Monsieur Chavasse also comes to learn that his own daughter, Ariane (Audrey Hepburn), has fallen for Flannagan’s wiles.

To hold Flannagan’s interest, Ariane (who is less than half of Flannagan’s age—and really looks it, which is off-putting) feigns sexual experience so as to appear in the same league as him. She crafts elaborate stories of her numerous lovers—of the red haired algebra teacher, the banker from Brussels, the chauffeur of the banker from Brussels, the Alpine guide, the Canadian ice hockey player—to make Flannagan jealous. And it works. Flannagan becomes so jealous that he makes a visit to detective Chavasse to learn about this elusive mistress of his who only visits him in the afternoon, and whose evenings are reserved for her myriad lovers.

Though he hadn’t known it before Flannagan showed up to consult him, Monsieur Chavasse realizes at once that Frank’s girl in the afternoon, his “thin girl” (Frank doesn’t know her name), is none other than Chavasse’s own daughter. Crestfallen, he tells Flannagan that “she’s very serious, so you’d better start running.”

“It’s a little different this time,” Flannagan counters.

“How little? Instead of the usual two weeks, it will last four weeks, or six weeks?”

“I don’t see that it’s any of your business,” Flannagan snaps back, still oblivious to the father-daughter relationship between Chavasse and his lover.

“Give her a chance, Monsieur. She’s so helpless. Such a little fish. Throw her back in the water,” Chavasse implores.

What’s left unsaid in this snippet of dialogue is that Monsieur Chavasse is willing to bless the relationship between this skirt-chaser and his daughter if Flannagan merely admits to caring for Ariane. Monsieur Chavasse sincerely believes—and he invites the audience to believe along with him—that a lifelong philanderer is capable of complete lifestyle transformation over night.

And so when—spoiler alert—Flannagan makes the decision to leave Ariane, but at the last minute changes his mind and captures her in a long, passionate embrace as the movie credits roll by, we as the audience are supposed to believe that the couple live happily ever after, having found true love.

I don’t buy it.

Is it realistic to expect that people who have engaged in the hookup culture their entire adult lives can switch abruptly to a life of marital fidelity?

Loyalty, fidelity, chastity—these are difficult virtues to attain. But they’re all the more difficult in today’s hookup culture, which Frank Flannagan would have been right at home in (though his charm would have been wasted in a culture where a $3 frozen yogurt outing or a game of beer pong counts as a legitimate date).

In 2008, Naomi Schaefer Riley commented in the Wall Street Journal on a survey that revealed that approximately 19% of married men and 13% of married women under the age of 30 had admitted to cheating on their spouse. “So what is going on? Why is there so much cheating?” Schaefer Riley asks. She continues,

All of the scholars I spoke with point to the higher median age at which young people get married as the most likely explanation. Since 1950, the age of first marriage has risen to 25 from 20 for women and to 27 from 22 for men. “It’s more common for people to be hooking up or having relationships with multiple partners” before marriage, says Prof. Laumann.

And that’s just it. As hooking up becomes more and more commonplace within the culture at large, fidelity to one partner becomes ever more atypical. Why shouldn’t the same rule hold for individual behavior as well?

So to Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn’s characters, I’ll buy “happy for now.” But happily ever after has got too much stacked against it.

Diane Ellis Scalisi is the lead editor of Ricochet.com

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