Thanks to boredom and Amazon Prime, I watched a rather weird movie from the 1930s tonight. While it was only 55 minutes long, it somehow seemed much longer because it was so packed with… all kinds of levels of stuff.
The title is The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair, and while the content is exactly what it says on the tin, there are so goddamn many moving parts in that tin that this is one worth watching in depth, mainly because it’s a case study in how propaganda can be sometimes wrong, sometimes be right and, really, only hindsight can excavate the truth from the bullshit.
While it seems like a feature film telling the fictional story of the (snow-white but they have a black maid!) Middleton Family from Indiana who goes back east ostensibly to visit grandma in New York but, in reality, in order to attend the New York World’s Fair of 1939, in reality this was nothing more than a piece of marketing and/or propaganda created by the Westinghouse Corporation, major sponsors of the fair, poised on the cusp of selling all kinds of new and modern shit to the general public.
Think of them as the Apple, Microsoft and Tesla of their day, with solutions to everything, and the World’s Fair as the biggest ThingCon in the world.
Plus ça change, right?
But there’s also a second, and very political, vein running through the family story. See, Dad decided to bring the family to the fair specifically to convince 16 year-old son Bud that, despite the bad economic news he and his older friends have been hearing about there being no job market (it is the Great Depression, after all) that there are, in fact, glorious new careers waiting out there.
Meanwhile, Mom is hoping that older daughter Babs will re-connect with high school sweetheart Jim, who had previously moved to New York to work for (wait for it) Westinghouse. Babs is having none of it, though, insisting that she doesn’t love him but, instead, is in love with her art teacher, Nick.
1939: No reaction.
2020: RECORD SCRATCH. WTF? Yeah, this is one of the first of many disconnect moments that are nice reminders of how much things have changed in the 82 years since this film happened.
Girl, you think you want to date your teacher, and anyone should be cool with that? Sorry, but listen to your mama. Note: in the world of the film, this relationship will become problematic for other reasons but, surprise, the reason it becomes problematic then is actually problematic in turn now. More on which later.
Anyway, obviously richer than fuck white family travels from Indiana to New York (they’re rich because Dad owns hardware stores and they brought their black maid with them) but are too cheap to spring for a hotel, instead jamming themselves into Grandma’s house, which is pretty ritzy as well and that says grandma has money too, since her place is clearly close enough to Flushing Meadows in Queens to make the World’s Fair a daily day trip over the course of a weekend.
But it’s okay — everyone owned houses then! (Cough.)
And then it’s off to the fair, and this is where the real value of the film comes in because when we aren’t being propagandized by Westinghouse, we’re actually seeing the fair, and what’s really surprising is how modern and familiar everything looks. Sure, there’s nothing high tech about it in modern terms, but if you dropped any random person from 2020 onto those fairgrounds, they would not feel out of place.
Well, okay, you’d need to put them in period costume first and probably make sure that if they weren’t completely white they could pass for Italian or Greek.
Okay, shit. Ignore that part, let’s move along — as Jimmy, Babs’ high school sweetheart and Westinghouse Shill character, brings us into the pavilion. And there are two really weird dynamics here.
First is that Jimmy is an absolute cheerleader for capitalism, which is jarring without context — get back to that in a moment.
The other weird bit is that Bud seems to be more into Jimmy than Babs ever was, and if you read too much gay subtext into their relationship… well, you can’t read too much , really. Watch it through that filter, and this film takes on a very different and subversive subplot. Sure, it’s clear that the family really wishes Jimmy was the guy Babs stuck with, but it sure feels like Bud wouldn’t mind calling him “Daddy.”
But back to Jimmy shilling for Westinghouse. Here’s the thing: Yeah, sure, he’s all “Rah-Rah capitalism!” and this comes into direct conflict with Nicholas, who is a self-avowed communist. But… the problem is that in America, in 1939, capitalism was the only tool that socialism could use to lift us out of depression and, ultimately, create the middle class.
There’s even a nod to socialism in the opening scene, when Bud tells his dad that the class motto for the guys who graduated the year before was, “WPA, here we come!” The WPA was the government works program designed to create jobs with no particular aim beyond putting people to work.
But once the WPA partnered with those corporations, boom. Jobs. And this was the beginning of the creation of the American Middle Class, which led to the ridiculous prosperity for (white) people from the end of WW II until the 1980s.
More on that later, back to the movie now. As a story with relationships, the film actually works, because we do find ourselves invested in the question, “Who will Babs pick?” It doesn’t help, though, that the pros and cons are dealt with in such a heavy-handed manner.
Jimmy is amazing in every possible way — young, tall, intelligent, handsome, and very knowledgeable at what he does. Meanwhile, Nicholas is short, not as good-1ooking (clearly cast to be more Southern European), obviously a bit older than Babs, and has a very unpleasant personality.
They even give him a “kick the puppy” moment when Babs introduces brother Bud, and Nicholas pointedly ignores the kid. But there’s that other huge issue I already mentioned that just jumps out to a modern audience and yet never gets any mention by the other characters. The guy Babs is dating is her art teacher. And not as in past art teacher, either. As in currently the guy teaching her art.
And she’s dating him and considering marriage.
That wouldn’t fly more than a foot nowadays, and yet in the world of 1939 it seems absolutely normal, at least to the family. Nowadays, it would be the main reason to object to the relationship. Back then, it isn’t even considered.
The flip side of the heavy-handed comes in some of Jimmy’s rebukes of Nicholas’ claims that all of this technology and automation will destroy jobs. While the information Jimmy provides is factual, the way his dialogue here is written and delivered comes across as condescending and patronizing to both Nicholas and the audience, and these are the moments when Jimmy’s character seems petty and bitchy.
But he’s also not wrong, and history bore that out.
Now this was ultimately a film made to make Westinghouse look good, and a major set piece involved an exhibit at the fair that I actually had to look up because at first it was very easy to assume that it was just a bit of remote-controlled special effects set up to pitch an idea that didn’t really exist yet — the 1930s version of vaporware.
Behold Elektro! Here’s the sequence from the movie and as he was presented at the fair. Watch this first and tell me how you think they did it.
Well, if you thought remote operator controlling movement and speaking lines into a microphone like I did at first, that’s understandable. But the true answer is even more amazing: Elektro was completely real.
The thing was using sensors to actually interpret the spoken commands and turn them into actions, which it did by sending light signals to its “brain,” located at the back of the room. You can see the lights flashing in the circular window in the robot’s chest at around 2:30.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the 1930s if the robot didn’t engage in a little bit of sexist banter — or smoke a cigarette. Oh, such different times.
And yet, in a lot of ways, the same. Our toys have just gotten a lot more powerful and much smaller.
You can probably guess which side of the argument wins, and while I can’t disagree with what Westinghouse was boosting at the time, I do have to take issue with one explicit statement. Nicholas believes in the value of art, but Jimmy dismisses it completely, which is a shame.
Sure, it’s coming right out of the Westinghouse corporate playbook, but that part makes no sense, considering how much of the world’s fair and their exhibit hall itself relied on art, design, and architecture. Even if it’s just sizzle, it still sells the steak.
So no points to Westinghouse there but, again, knowing what was about to come by September of 1939 and what a big part industry would have in ensuring that the anti-fascists won, I can sort of ignore the tone-deafness of the statement.
But, like the time-capsule shown in the film, there was a limited shelf-life for the ideas Westinghouse was pushing, and they definitely expired by the dawn of the information age, if not a bit before that.
Here’s the thing: capitalism as a system worked in America when… well, when it worked… and didn’t when it didn’t. Prior to about the early 1930s, when it ran unfettered, it didn’t work at all — except for the super-wealthy robber barons.
Workers had no rights or protections, there were no unions, or child-labor laws, or minimum wages, standard working hours, safety rules, or… anything to protect you if you didn’t happen to own a big chunk of shit.
In other words, you were management, or you were fucked.
Then the whole system collapsed in the Great Depression and, ironically, it took a member of the 1% Patrician Class (FDR) being elected president to then turn his back on his entire class and dig in hard for protecting the workers, enacting all kinds of jobs programs, safety nets, union protections, and so on.
Or, in other words, capitalism in America didn’t work until it was linked to and reined-in by socialism. So we never really had pure capitalism, just a hybrid.
And, more irony: this socio-capitalist model was reinforced after Pearl Harbor Day, when everyone was forced to share and work together and, suddenly, the biggest workforce around was the U.S. military. It sucked in able-bodied men between 17 and 38, and the weird side-effect of the draft stateside was that suddenly women and POC were able to get jobs because there was no one else to do them.
Manufacturing, factory jobs, support work and the like boomed, and so did the beginnings of the middle class. When those soldiers came home, many of them returned to benefits that gave them cheap or free educations, and the ability to buy homes.
They married, they had kids, and they created the Boomers, who grew up in the single most affluent time period in America ever.
Side note: There were also people who returned from the military who realized that they weren’t like the other kids. They liked their own sex, and couldn’t ever face returning home. And so major port towns — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, Boston, New York, Miami, New Orleans — were flooded with the seeds of future GLB communities. Yes, it was in that order back then, and TQIA+ hadn’t been brought into the fold yet. Well, later, in the 60s. There really wasn’t a name for it or a community in the 1940s.
In the 60s, because the Boomers had grown up with affluence, privilege, and easy access to education, they were also perfectly positioned to rebel their asses off because they could afford to, hence all of the protests and whatnot of that era.
And this sowed the seeds of the end of this era, ironically.
The socio-capitalist model was murdered, quite intentionally, beginning in 1980, when Ronald fucking Reagan became President, and he and his cronies slowly began dismantling everything created by every president from FDR through, believe it or not, Richard Nixon. (Hint: EPA.)
The mantra of these assholes was “Deregulate Everything,” which was exactly what the world was like in the era before FDR.
Just one problem, though. Deregulating any business is no different from getting an alligator to not bite you by removing their muzzle and then saying to them, “You’re not going to bite me, right?”
And then believing them when they swear they won’t before wondering why you and everyone you know has only one arm.
Still, while it supports an economic system that just isn’t possible today without a lot of major changes, The Middletons still provides a nice look at an America that did work because it focused on invention, industry, and manufacturing not as a way to enrich a few shareholders, but as a way to enrich everyone by creating jobs, enabling people to actually buy things, and creating a rising tide to lift all boats.
As for Bud, he probably would have wound up in the military, learned a couple of skills, finished college quickly upon getting out, and then would have gone to work for a major company, possibly Westinghouse, in around 1946, starting in an entry-level engineering job, since that’s the skill and interest he picked up during the War.
Along the way, he finds a wife, gets married and starts a family, and thanks to his job, he has full benefits — for the entire family, medical, dental, and vision; for himself, life insurance to benefit his family; a pension that will be fully vested after ten years; generous vacation and sick days (with unused sick days paid back every year); annual bonuses; profit sharing; and union membership after ninety days on the job.
He and the wife find a nice house on Long Island — big, with a lot of land, in a neighborhood with great schools, and easy access to groceries and other stores. They’re able to save long-term for retirement, as well as for shorter-term things, like trips to visit his folks in Indiana or hers in Miami or, once the kids are old enough, all the way to that new Disneyland place in California, which reminds Bud a lot of the World’s Fair, especially Tomorrowland.
If he’s typical for the era, he will either work for Westinghouse for his entire career, or make the move to one other company. Either way, he’ll retire from an executive level position in about 1988, having been in upper management since about 1964.
With savings, pensions, and Social Security, he and his wife decide to travel the world. Meanwhile, their kids, now around 40 and with kids about to graduate high school, aren’t doing so well, and aren’t sure how they’re going to pay for their kids’ college.
They approach Dad and ask for help, but he can’t understand. “Why don’t you just do what I did?” he asks them.
“Because we can’t,” they reply.
That hopeful world of 1939 is long dead — although, surprisingly, the actor who played Bud is still quite alive.