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Hollywood Helps to Reveal How We Continue to Be Cleaned by Capitalism

On my long flight home yesterday from the Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Hong Kong I watched the charming 1957 Billy Wilder movie “Love in the Afternoon.”  I’d never before seen this movie (which is surprising because I adore Audrey Hepburn).

In this movie, which is set in mid-1950s Paris, Audrey Hepburn plays the daughter of a French private investigator (played by Maurice Chevalier).  Hepburn’s character – who still lives with her widowed father – falls madly in love with an American businessman/playboy visiting Paris (played by Gary Cooper).

Chevalier’s character one day infers, not with displeasure, that his daughter is in love with someone (although at this point in the film the Chevalier character doesn’t know who his daughter’s love interest is).

And from what fact does Chevalier’s character – by profession a shrewd detective – cleverly draw this inference?  Answer: his daughter’s hair-washing.  Specifically, as Hepburn’s character is seen washing her hair in the Parisian apartment that she shares with her father, the father says to his daughter “In the past three week you’ve washed your hair seventeen times.”  The clear implication is that such hair washing is unusually frequent and, therefore, is evidence that the daughter is working especially diligently – that is, that the daughter is incurring additional costs – to make herself attractive.

I wonder how many of my female (or, for that matter, male) students at George Mason University in 2014 routinely wash their hair less than 17 times over the course of 21 days – and then bump that hair-washing frequency up to 17 days as a notable means of making themselves more attractive to potential lovers.  I’m guessing very few.  I’m guessing, in other words, that most of my students wash their hair at least 21 times in any three-week period, and that they do so regardless of the current states of their romances.

We Americans today are wealthier not only than were the French in 1957 but also than were Americans in 1957 (and, let’s not forget, Americans in 1975!).  So we can better afford more personal hygiene.

I know, I know: perhaps it’s not an economic thing but, instead, a French thing.  Those Gauls just aren’t as committed to bodily cleanliness as are we Americans.  And perhaps some independent factor called “culture” explains this difference between Americans and the French.

Or perhaps this cultural difference is the consequence of the fact that the costs of personal hygiene have long been lower for Americans than for the French.  (Does anyone here – someone who knows France better than I do – have any information or informed opinion on whether or not the frequency of hair-washing by young Parisian women today is still normally less than 17 times within three weeks?  [I’m guessing that this frequency is close to 21 times in three weeks.])

And to bolster my point that economics explains why the Hepburn character in 1957 washed her hair so infrequently (by our standards), consider the way that she was washing her hair.  I’m unable to find a video clip or photo of this scene from the movie, but she’s washing her hair in a small sink – which itself is in a small bathroom – and using a water faucet that is quite primitive by what even I know are Parisian standards today.

Compared to today, it was noticeably more costly, even as recently as 57 years ago in an industrialized and advanced economy, for middle-class folk to practice many instances of personal hygiene – practices that we today take for granted.  And it should be noted (although it rarely is) that such unnoticed improvements are a testament to one way that markets help to improve health care – in this particular case, preventive health care).


Apropos nothing: another movie that I watched on my flight home is the 1959 Hitchcock thriller “North by Northwest.”  Unlike “Love In the Afternoon,” I’d seen “North by Northwest” at least a dozen times since George Selgin first turned me on to it nearly 30 years ago.  It’s long been one of my favorite films.*  Yet each time I watch it I grow more impressed with it (and, I’ll confess, also more tongue-on-the-floor taken with the young Eva Marie Saint).

* I especially love the way Cary Grant tells the character played by Leo G. Carroll “I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me.”

UPDATE: When, in 1987, I starting flying internationally, there were no movie selections on the flights.  There was only whatever movie was played for the entire cabin.  Passengers could watch that, and only that, movie – and could watch it when, and only when, it was played by the cabin crew.  Now, of course, even for passengers in coach class (and even for flights of even just modest distances) each passenger can choose from among multiple viewing options what to watch and when.  In my economy-class flights to and from Hong Kong recently, I could choose (on each flight) from among more than 350 viewing options – about 250 of which were movies, old and new and of all genres.