Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Clark Gable had one and William Powell. Cary and Gary didn’t nor did Spencer Tracy.Gable and Powell (the Thin Man) had neatly trimmed mustaches and Charlie Chan was a master sleuth with a Fu Manchu. Aside from the aforementioned, good guys were mostly clean-shaven, particularly in Westerns. The sheriff looked as if he’d just walked out of the barber shop while the no-good rustlers had tell-tale stubbles.
Hair has long been a signifier. Ask Richard Nixon who lost to Kennedy in 1960 by the shadow on his face. Until the mid-eighties, or so it seems, we knew the crooked politician, serial killer or white collar embezzler by the frequency of his shaves. Now we have flipped. The grizzled look connotes a hard-earned, no-nonsense authenticity while the guy without a hair on his face or out-of-place on his head is as phony as a Dick Cheney smile.
The history of hair is the history of our country. Our founding fathers had clean chins. Evidence of manhood crept in with encroaching sideburns, then mutton-chops, followed, a generation later, by well-trimmed beards. Lincoln famously grew one on advice from an 11 year-old girl who suggested he grow a beard. He was actually elected, smooth-faced but grew a beard for his inauguration. This started a trend. All but two presidents over the next 50 years sported facial hair. The exceptions being Andrew Johnson and William McKinley, and look what happened to them.
Democrats have never had a properly bearded candidate. Maybe they were too busy splitting hairs over their platform. The last occupant of the oval office with a mustache was William Howard Taft in 1912. Charles Evan Hughes, whom Teddy Roosevelt called Wilson with whiskers, lost by a whisker to Woodrow Wilson in 1916
Had Thomas Dewey shaved in the two forties’ elections he might have prevailed but by then Gillette and Schick razor blades were advertising clean chins along with Burma Shave. Five o’clock shadows had a negative grip on the national psyche and remains so in the political sphere.
Interesting that Darwin, Dickens, Marx, Freud and Einstein were hirsute as were Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne and Hemingway proving something but I forget what.
Groucho Marx was also elected president but that was of Fredonia. He and Charlie Chaplin made a joke of the Hitlerian mustache well before Hitler. I believe the two or three day growth became a fashion statement as we came to embrace the anti-hero In movies. A little Macho, a bit of grime, a dash of insouciance all add up to being real. Anything less suggests a choir boy or repressed and conformist character. The movie-going public is trained to recognize these signs just as they know a man with a bow tie is either an intellectual or a Fred Astaire impersonator.
Peggy prefers me freshly mowed having been raised in those days of Dick Powell and early Orson Welles. But I use an electric razor and usually shave while on the stationary bike without a mirror. I never know what decade I’m wearing on my face.