You are on page 1of 8

Breslin 1

The Spouses Who Knew Too Much:

A Study on Gender Roles in The Man Who Knew Too Much

The 1950s were a time of great change in America due to the end of World War II. After

the men returned from war, the working-women of the 1940s returned to their households and

became mothers and housewives again. Their husbands had once again become the heads of the

household and therefore complete authority over the family. They would generally have two

children, live in a nice suburban house, and attend church (Miller et al.). This was the ideal

American lifestyle that citizens strived to become a part of. However, it allowed the country to

become slave to specific gender roles that most husbands and wives rarely stepped out of. In his

1956 remake film The Man Who Knew Too Much, director Alfred Hitchcock challenges these

gender roles through the main characters of Ben and Jo McKenna (James Stewart and Doris Day

respectively). The film revolves around the McKennas, a vacationing American family whose

son Hank (Christopher Olsen) is kidnapped in Marrakesh because his father Ben has discovered

a plot to assassinate a high-ranking Prime Minister from an unnamed European country. This

eventually leads his parents to London where they attempt to save their son as well as stop the

assassination before it is too late.

Despite the highly suspenseful plot, screenwriter John Michael Hayes believed that the

key focus of the film was not the kidnapping but the development of the highly troubled

marriage of the McKennas (DeRosa). Therefore, both Hayes and Hitchcock challenge the

different gender roles of the 1950s throughout the film by presenting the couple’s individual

struggles concerning Jo’s trouble to break free from her sole role as a housewife as well as Ben’s

need to be the dominant and controlling male at all time. While many aspects of these challenges
Breslin 2

are quite subtle, they are still very poignant in terms of presenting a psychological look into the

mind of the 1950s American family.

When we first meet Jo McKenna at the beginning of the film she seems to be quite

happy. She and her family are laughing and enjoying themselves on a bus ride in Marrakesh. She

has everything a woman of this period would love to have: a husband with a great job, a nice

son, and a good amount of money to allow them to travel to faraway places. However, is she

really happy? Throughout the first half hour of the film, we gradually see that the answer is no.

In many ways, she represents the dissatisfaction with the institution of marriage in the 1950s

(Greven). According to Melody Miller’s statistical study “Motherhood, Multiple Roles and

Maternal Well-Being” women in 1956 (coincidentally the same year The Man Who Knew Too

Much was released) thirsted for a sense of fulfillment. Most housewives at the time did not have

anything, other than their families, to keep them going. Therefore women who were involved in

more social groups and clubs were generally happier. However, due to her husband’s dominating

masculine authority, Mrs. Jo McKenna does not appear to be involved in any social groups or

clubs (Smith). Her one and only duty in life is to be a good mother and housewife, but she

clearly wants more than this.

We first get a glance at her desires when she and Ben are at dinner with the Draytons and

the couples begin to talk about Jo’s music career. Mrs. Drayton recognizes Jo as a famous singer

who used to perform in the London theater scene. This leads to a conversation amongst the two

couples as to why Jo no longer performs. We begin to see Jo’s dissatisfactions when she states,

rather directly, that she wants them to move to New York because there are better job

opportunities with more money for Ben as well as Broadway shows for her to perform in.

However, due to Ben’s controlling and male-dominant way of thinking, he has decided where Jo
Breslin 3

lives and what she can do with her life. He even corrects Mrs. Drayton by telling her that they

are “Doctor and Mrs. McKenna” when she asks if she is “Jo Conway, The Jo Conway?” One

could argue that because of this scene, as well as several others, Ben has essentially taken away

Jo’s identity. He has taken complete dominion over Jo’s life and she has yet to actually do

anything about it. However, in the second part of the film, Jo appears to fight back. Author and

educator David Greven even states that the majority of the film deals with Jo attempting to

“wrestle back her own identity.”

Therefore, throughout the film Hitchcock gradually empowers Jo to overcome her

struggles and become an individual again. At first she attempts to find something other than

singing to keep her occupied. David Greven believes that the scene in which Jo asks Ben when

they are going to have another baby acts as one of these “distractions” from singing, as Jo is

attempting to distance herself from her troubles of identity. She is attempting to immerse herself

in the world of homemaking. However, Jo cannot escape the fact that she is not getting any

gratification out the role of a housewife and therefore acts depressed and distant. Because of this

distant attitude, several critics at the time did not appreciate Doris Day’s colder and less maternal

portrayal of Jo. She would have been referred to as a “refrigerator mother” by several doctors at

the time (Greven). A refrigerator mother was a term coined by Dr. Bruno Bettelheim for mothers

who were not quite “motherly” and did not nurture their children properly. In fact they even

believed that this caused autism in their children. However, referring to Jo in this way

retrospectively makes total sense. Hitchcock wanted Jo to express conflict over her feelings of

motherhood and Day’s performance really helps bring the audience into the character’s psyche.

Greven also points out that Hitchcock is not demonizing motherhood in this film as he has done

in some of his other films such as Notorious (1946) and Psycho (1960) but instead sympathizes
Breslin 4

with her as well as the psychological struggles of motherhood in the 1950s. This was a very

serious issue that is handled quite well by Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes

because, according to Miller’s study on 1956 housewives, many women at the time succumbed

to mental illness due to their anguish and depression. In fact, Hayes has specifically stated that

this film allowed him the chance to adequately write about the side effects of marriage on

women subjugated by their husbands (DeRosa).

To further express the oppression of women of the time period, Hitchcock changed the

ending sequence from his original 1934 British version (Mackenzie and O’Hara). In the 1934

version, the mother (named Jill in this version) saves her child by shooting one of the terrorists

from a far distance since she is an expert marksman. However, in the 1956 version it is Ben who

saves Hank from Mr. Drayton. Because of this change, one could argue that Hitchcock is making

a point on cultural differences in terms of gender roles, with England being more accepting of

crossing gender barriers than America. In England, shooting is a common hobby amongst both

genders. Therefore, in the British version, it is quite fitting that Jill is an expert shot and saves

her child with a rifle. However, in the American version it would be considered madness to have

a woman handle a gun, not to mention fire and kill someone with it. Naturally, it is the husband

who becomes the savior. Despite this setback, Jo is still able to play a significant role in the

rescue of her son by doing what she loves to do: singing. Her singing causes Hank to whistle

along, allowing Ben to locate him quickly. Researchers Gina Mackenzie and David O’Hara state

in their article “The Vision of Hitchcock and James” that this scene, as well as the Albert Hall

sequence, greatly exemplifies the power of the female voice as she is finally able to do what she

does best. She saves both the life of her son and the life of the Prime Minister using her voice. It

is unknown whether anything will change in Jo’s life (the family will still probably live in
Breslin 5

Indianapolis, keeping Jo from her dream) but at least in terms of the film’s plot, Jo is able to

reaffirm her identity and become who she wants to be, giving herself the fulfillment and

enjoyment that was sorely lacking in her life at the beginning of the film.

Similar to Jo, Ben faces his own challenges with gender roles specifically concerning his

endangered masculinity. Several factors attribute to his feeling of declining manhood, but this

feeling does not truly begin until Hank is kidnapped. Before this occurs, Ben seems very

confident in himself and his control over his life as well as the lives of his wife and child as most

heads of household were in the 1950s. His dominion over Jo is quite evident throughout the

opening half hour of film such as in the already mentioned scene in which he corrects Mrs.

Drayton, saying “Doctor and Mrs. McKenna” as well as the fact that he is in possession of both

his and his wife’s passports when the couple is questioned by the French authorities. While it

may be a minute detail in terms of staging, Ben is visibly in possession of his wife’s passport,

clearly adding to the idea that Ben has taken over Jo’s identity as he literally holds it in the palm

of his hand. His supremacy over his son’s future can is also seen on several occasions, most

explicitly when he says, “He’ll make a fine doctor” when Hank is singing with his mother. By

speaking this line, Ben is really saying something along the lines of “You can sing with him

now, but he is going to grow up to be a manly doctor and not a performer.” In fact, according to

Steven DeRosa, there were even more arguments between the couple in the original script

concerning Hank’s future in show business and the fact that Ben adamantly wants him to become

a doctor. However, according to David Greven as well as the scholar Murray Smith, Hank’s

kidnapping makes Ben realize that he is no longer in command of his family’s life, which causes

him to panic. Therefore, throughout the rest of the film, Ben lets his emotions take charge,

expressing his male aggression. Murray Smith argues that as the film continues through Ben’s
Breslin 6

quest to regain his manhood, his dominating traits become more troubling, making him

potentially less sympathetic. Similarly, according to his interview with Francois Truffaut,

Hitchcock also believed that Jimmy Stewart greatly captured the character’s intensity. He even

believed Stewart was the only actor who could have pulled it off, stating that had Cary Grant

played Ben the character would be much different, possibly in a more comedic way (Truffaut).

Through this emotional intensity, Ben tries to regain control in several ways. For example

he attempts to regulate his wife’s emotions when he forces her to take tranquilizers as he tells her

the news of Hank’s kidnapping (Graven). Ben does not come out and tell his wife that their son

has been kidnapped, but instead wants to sedate (literally) her emotions. He wants to reassure

himself that, while he may not be in control of his son at the moment, he is still in complete

control of his wife Jo. Graven believes that Ben also tries to affirm that his decision is always

right, despite the fact that Jo is usually the one who makes the right decisions. For example, Jo

thinks that the Draytons and Bernard are suspicious but Ben constantly says that they are

completely normal. This is proven wrong as the plot unfolds. Louis Bernard is the reason why

they are involved in the espionage and the Draytons are directly responsible for their son’s

kidnapping. Similarly, he is so sure that “Ambrose Chappell” is a person and even goes to

Chappell’s taxidermy shop in search of Hank, while Jo is the one who knows the truth that

“Ambrose Chapel” is actually a church. According to Greven, this scene involving Ben’s visit to

the taxidermist shop also externally represents the male domination of the 1950s. Surrounded by

stuffed wild animals, Ben engages in a testosterone-fueled fight with the employees, representing

the aggressive behavior of the 1950s male and his compulsive need to come out on top.

According to Steven DeRosa in his book Writing with Hitchcock, Ben was, in an original

draft, to tell Chappell of his situation. A sympathetic Chappell would then tell Ben about the
Breslin 7

“real” Ambrose Chapel. However, this was changed in order to exemplify that Jo’s feminine

intuition overpowers Ben’s male dominance. Between the kidnapping of his son and his inability

to adhere to his idea of his loss of control, Ben becomes an emotional wreck, especially after this

scene, and continues with his aggression until he is able to prove his manhood at the end of the

film. He accomplishes this by physically overpowering Mr. Drayton and saving his son from

danger, thus reassuring himself of his identity as a father. Therefore, by the end of the film, Ben

is a partially changed man. While he still psychologically believes that being a man means

asserting one’s dominance over others, he has realized that he cannot control every aspect of his

or his family’s life and that anything, including a kidnapping, can stand in the way of life.

Marta Figlerowicz explains in her article “Timing and Vulnerability in Three Hitchcock

Films” that The Man Who Knew Too Much, in a way, acts itself as an orchestra, with the

different characters being a part of the ensemble. All the major players, specifically Jo and Ben,

come together during the actual orchestral scene at Albert Hall. It is here that both Figlerowicz

and Greven say that the family unit finally comes together to team up and do something heroic

together after being separated and divided for most of the second half of the movie. With this in

mind, the McKennas have overcome their own psychological obstacles concerning identity and

gender roles at this point in the film and have come together as a family. While they may not

have completely become the perfect family, both parents have individually become enlightened.

Jo has learned to become her own individual while Ben has realized that he cannot control

everything in life just because he is a man. Alfred Hitchcock may have been known as “The

Master of Suspense” but this 1956 film greatly shows that he was also able to masterfully handle

existential ideas of family and gender roles.
Breslin 8


DeRosa, Steven. Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John

Michael Hayes. New York: Faber and Faber, 2001. Print.

Figlerowicz, Marta. "Timing and Vulnerability in Three Hitchcock Films." Film Quarterly 65.3

(2012): 49-58.

Greven, David. "Cruising, Hysteria, Knowledge: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)."

European Journal of American Culture. 28.3 (2009): 225-244. Print.

Hitchcock, Alfred, John M. Hayes, James Stewart, Doris Day, Bernard Herrmann, D B. W.

Lewis, and Charles Bennett. The Man Who Knew Too Much. Universal City, CA:

Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2006.

Hitchcock, Alfred, Charles Bennett, D B. W. Lewis, Edwin Greenwood, A R. Rawlinson, The

Man Who Knew Too Much. New York: The Criterion Collection, 2013.

MacKenzie, Gina M, and Daniel T. O'Hara. "The Vision of Voice in James and Hitchcock: An

Experiment in Reading." Boundary 2. 37.3 (2010): 167-77. Print.

Miller, Melody L., Phyllis Moen, and Donna Dempster-McClain. "Motherhood, Multiple Roles,

and Maternal Well-being: Women of the 1950s." Gender & Society 5.4 (1991): 565-82.

ProQuest. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

Smith, Murray. "Altered States: Character and Emotional Response in the Cinema." Cinema

Journal 33. (1994): 34-56. Film & Television Literature Index.

Truffaut, François, Alfred Hitchcock, and Helen G. Scott. Hitchcock. New York: Simon &

Schuster, 1985. Print.