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Projections of Passing - Postwar Anxieties and Hollywood Films, 1947-1960

Projections of Passing

Postwar Anxieties and Hollywood Films, 1947-1960

By N. Megan Kelley
Hardcover : 9781496806277, 288 pages, 43 b&w illustrations, April 2016
Paperback : 9781496834546, 288 pages, 43 b&w illustrations, May 2021

How the cinematic act of passing embodied, exacerbated, and sometimes alleviated American fears


A key concern in postwar America was “who's passing for whom?” Analyzing representations of passing in Hollywood films reveals changing cultural ideas about authenticity and identity in a country reeling from a hot war and moving towards a cold one. After World War II, passing became an important theme in Hollywood movies, one that lasted throughout the long 1950s, as it became a metaphor to express postwar anxiety.

The potent, imagined fear of passing linked the language and anxieties of identity to other postwar concerns, including cultural obsessions about threats from within. Passing created an epistemological conundrum that threatened to destabilize all forms of identity, not just the longstanding American color line separating white and black. In the imaginative fears of postwar America, identity was under siege on all fronts. Not only were there blacks passing as whites, but women were passing as men, gays passing as straight, communists passing as good Americans, Jews passing as gentiles, and even aliens passing as humans (and vice versa).

Fears about communist infiltration, invasion by aliens, collapsing gender and sexual categories, racial ambiguity, and miscegenation made their way into films that featured narratives about passing. N. Megan Kelley shows that these films transcend genre, discussing Gentleman's Agreement, Home of the Brave, Pinky, Island in the Sun, My Son John, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Rebel without a Cause, Vertigo, All about Eve, and Johnny Guitar, among others.

Representations of passing enabled Americans to express anxieties about who they were and who they imagined their neighbors to be. By showing how pervasive the anxiety about passing was, and how it extended to virtually every facet of identity, Projections of Passing broadens the literature on passing in a fundamental way. It also opens up important counter-narratives about postwar America and how the language of identity developed in this critical period of American history.


"Meticulously researched, vividly written, and amply illustrated with crisp digital frame enlargements, N. Megan Kelley's Projections of Passing takes the reader through the facets of collective angst that classic Cold War Hollywood problem films so lavishly represented. Racial passing and civil rights, homosexuality, gender ambiguity and changing roles of masculinity and femininity, and Communist and extraterrestrial infiltration—all add up to worries about identity, authenticity, performance, and the gnawing question of whether the notion of normalcy in an age of conformity was an illusion. "

- Werner Sollors, author of Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature and coeditor of A New Literary History of America

"What's most impressive here is the historical sweep of this volume, which deals not with a closed set of films, but makes new discoveries in cinema history by crossing through artificial genre boundaries to create a series of new and revealing connections between different forms of cinema. This is not only a completely new way of looking at the concept of ‘passing’ in cinema studies, but it is also a lively, accessible text which will be useful not only in the classroom, but also as recreational reading. Anyone who is interested in the history of motion pictures and in the social changes they mirror and create will be fascinated by this book. The research alone is prodigious—truly stunning, reflecting many, many hours in the archives and in the writing of the finished project. This is a fresh, original, and absolutely riveting book. "

- Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, professor of film studies and author of numerous volumes