JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

In spite of the prosperity proclaimed by President Hoover in the beginning of his term, the Stock Market Crash in October 1929 triggered the most devastating crisis in the history of the United States.

During his second term, Bush’s administration was faced with financial problems emerged in June 2007 and the consequent meltdown of 2008 caused the worst U.S. financial crisis since the 1930s.

Hollywood directors such as Ford, Wyler, Capra, LeRoy and Vidor articulated a narrative countercurrent reflecting social values after the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is Ford’s main contribution to shaping the filmic model of the U.S. home.

From a different perspective, Frank Capra presents in It’s a Wonderful Life! (1946) a vision of the family home as the cradle of future, anonymous heroes committed to social justice.

Ford’s characters assert themselves as re-founders of homes: collective heroes of a Virgilian kind, journeying like Aeneas and his countrymen to a promised land. The Grapes of Wrath tells the exodus of a family of Oklahoma farmers ...

... The Joads take to the road to escape poverty and begin a new life in California in the years of the Great Depression.

It’s a Wonderful Life! tells the story of the personal breakdown experienced by George Bailey, a husband and father who has never set foot outside Bedford Falls, sacrificing his own hopes and dreams so as to look after friends and neighbors through his work at the Building & Loan company.

 

George provides funds to owners too poor to avail of loans from the local bank: he builds homes.

George Bailey’s frustration in Capra’s Christmas story repeats the disappointment incarnated by other New Deal, Capra heroes such as Longfellow Deeds (Mr. Dees Goes to Town 1936), Jefferson Smith (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 1939) and John Doe (Meet John Doe 1941). In this frame, the portrait of Hoover on the wall at Building & Loan magnifies the local panic in Bedford Falls during the Depression.

 

The drama is set in motion when an unexpected twist of fate of Bailey’s business prompts him to set his principles aside and leads him to contemplate suicide.

 

 

From Hoover to Bush Jr. —
home and crisis scripts
in U.S. social cinema

by Antonio Sánchez-Escalonilla

In their respective accounts of U.S. cinema in the 1930s, Ross and May highlight the role of Hollywood directors such as Ford, Wyler, Capra, LeRoy and Vidor who, supported by their producers, articulated a narrative countercurrent reflecting social values in the aftermath of the Great Depression. During the years of New Deal and the 1940s, this school of thought and feeling within the Hollywood industry sought to empathize with the suffering of ordinary people. As Ross asserts, this tendency backed a multicultural approach to cinema that fostered

“a new, inclusive democratic ethos which heralded the equality of all citizens and called for cooperation between previously hostile groups of elites and outsiders” (Ross, 2002: 128-129).

May also argues that by backing such an approach several producers distanced themselves from the studio system, prompting them to reformulate dramatic archetypes and even to revise national myths. They

“created a language for what did not yet exist: a pluralistic producers’ democracy rooted in hostility to what President Roosevelt called the new ‘money changers’ and ‘feudal lords’ of industry” (May, 2000: 97).

This new cinematic output emerged in opposition to the classical or conventional film narratives of the 1920s. At the height of an unprecedented crisis in U.S. history, it re-shaped a significant number of social standards and symbols—in particular, the collective image of home.

In cinema the Great Depression awakened social consciousness through narratives of crisis. And this tendency, in my opinion, is still valid in how film narratives reflect social conflicts during periods of economic convulsion. During their second term, the Bush-Cheney administration faced financial problems that emerged in June 2007 and a consequent meltdown in 2008 that triggered the worst U.S. economic crisis since the 1930s. Seventy years later, in the aftermath of another financial downturn, “independents” within the film industry in the United States have once again begun to address narratives of households in crisis, as seen with directors such as Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, Jason Reitman and Tom McCarthy. These four filmmakers made feature fiction films between 2006 and 2010 that fit narrative patterns laid down the above-mentioned narrative countercurrent that emerged in Hollywood during the New Deal.

The “independent” aspect of certain films produced in the 1930s is not mirrored exactly in “Indiewood,” the present-day hybrid phenomenon of indie productions and major Hollywood studios. However, in their respective historical periods, both cinematic movements have explored narratives of economic crisis by means of alternative production formulas, beyond exclusively commercial concerns, so as to offer U.S. viewers a set of portraits and reflections on social life. Currently such distinguished independent-minded productions as Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006), The Visitor (Tom McCarthy, 2007), Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009) and Win Win (Tom McCarthy, 2011) all depict households in crisis by drawing on visions of domestic life that were formed in the 1930s and consolidated in the 1940s.

In this article, I intend to explore the scope and enduring validity of home as setting and theme in cinema. It is fundamental to filmic narratives of crisis in light of its ties to the history and identity of the United States. Both in the 1930s and in the late 2000s, a threat to or the destruction of the home functions as a succinct dramatic premise for screenwriters and filmmakers. It is especially so if the filmmaker’s goal is to portray from a critical perspective the conflicts that the victims of the economic crisis are caught up in, especially families—whether long-established in the United States or newly-arrived to its shores. My analysis here is specifically framed by the work of Capra and Ford, two pioneering directors whose creative accounts of menaced homes still echo in the films produced by contemporary filmmakers. In our time, Dayton, Faris, McCarthy and Reitman and their screenwriters also depict the lives of ordinary people, whose homes are threatened by the interests and insensitivity of political and financial leaders.

Like Ford and Capra but seven decades later, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris also depict the lives of ordinary people whose homes are threatened. Their film Little Miss Sunshine (2006) shows an amazing connection to The Grapes of Wrath. In Up in the Air Jason Reitman tells the story of Ryan Bingham in 2009, with the economic crisis in full swing. George Clooney plays a character who’s the antithesis of Capra’s George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart).
In The Visitor (2007) Tom McCarthy depicts the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. The trauma is still an open wound and the economic meltdown looms in the near future.

McCarthy returns in Win Win (2010) to a thematic already explored in The Station Agent (2003): a gathering of disparate characters engaged in the attempt to rebuild their homes.

John Ford: exodus from home on Route 66

According to Selcer, the concept of home is more than a commonplace; it is a fundamental cornerstone of national collective memory. Of all the archetypes reflected in cinematic narratives, none has proven so powerful or so lasting:

“During good times in our history, it has been a symbol of everything good in American life. During the bad times, its status has been used as a yardstick for the decline of America” (Selcer, 1990: 55).

Indeed, Mackey-Kellis holds that during one such period of hard times, the 1930s economic Depression, the domestic archetype was reformulated as the “myth of the lost home” (125-160), a re-imagining spurred on by real dramas of family life: mortgage payments, repossessions and unemployment. By depicting social poverty, the cinema of the New Deal underscored the link between home and the re-foundation story, historically associated with the emigrant, a figure with a vital role in the foundation of the United States (127). Home in contemporary cinema has new connotations, especially at an historical moment when the United States and Europe, which share certain narrative criteria and social concerns, are facing the consequences of an economic crisis that, like the 1929 crash, has had a global impact.

Among filmmakers associated with narratives of crisis, John Ford and Frank Capra have shaped the filmic model of the U.S. home, especially in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Both directors frame the characters’ search for home and their endeavor to re-build it in relation to three tropes: the family, epic struggle, and the United States as a domestic space. Ray (1985: 185) holds that this threefold frame mirrors the three pairs of traditional binary values in U.S. literature and mythology:

  • adventure/domesticity,
  • worldly success/ordinary life, and
  • individual/community.

In relation to this shared threefold framework, the main characters in Capra’s comedies tend to be individual heroes in the mould of Odysseus; they want to return to home and homeland, unchanged and untouched. In contrast, Ford’s characters, in both dramas and Westerns, assert themselves as re-founders of homes. They are collective heroes of a Virgilian kind, journeying like Aeneas and his countrymen to a promised land.

According to Shindler, the image of home discloses Ford’s historical perspective, encapsulated in

“the relationship of man to the soil, the importance of the family as a bastion of love in a hostile world, and the action of those individuals who are forced by age, temperamental instability or economic vicissitude to fight a hopeless battle” (Shindler, 1996: 80).

On the other hand, Capra depicts provincial heroes struggling against the venality of city-life in New Deal United States, and his films frame such heroism in relation to two fixed standards:

“First, they exalted the dignity of the individual by emphasizing his uniqueness as a person, the value of his friends and the rewards of his steadfastness […] Second, they restored a sense of patriotism that the nation as a whole had left in abeyance in 1929” (Shindler, 1996: 95).

The Grapes of Wrath, Ford’s outstanding contribution to narratives of crisis in Hollywood, tells the exodus of a family of Oklahoma farmers, the Joads, during the Great Depression. They leave their property behind to escape poverty and to begin a new life in California, “the land of milk and honey.” In a ramshackle van, three generations of an Okie family tag onto the convoy of caravans travelling along Route 66 across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, almost half the span of the country, only to face terrible disappointment at the end of the road. In California, the promised land barely affords an inhumane form of life in collective confinement, with migrants subject to constant police supervision. In adapting Steinbeck’s novel, Ford extrapolated from the domestic upheaval experienced by the characters in the drama to embrace the suffering of the nation as a whole during the Great Depression when families were driven into uncertain exodus across the country. However, the film also contrasts the failure of the American Dream with the renewal of hope that accompanies the Joads in their decision to take to the road. Success in life, as well as an acute survival instinct, guides the family over the course of their journey. And in this context the third generation of Joads is depicted (Tom, Rosasharn, and two children), who undertake the journey in a spirit of innocent enthusiasm.

“California. The land of milk and honey.” Through Tom and Ma Joad, Ford articulates a social discourse ... ... and reconstructs the three aspects of the domestic archetype: family, struggle, nation. The domestic is extrapolated into the communal, and Ford reads from the Joads’ home into the U.S. home.
Ma Joad is the head of the household. Gallagher says that patriarchal power in the Joad clan appears to die with Grandpa: “What is actually happening is nothing less than the transformation of the Joad family from a patriarchy rooted in the earth to a matriarchy uprooted on the road." … ... “Once on the road, the men have a tendency to wander and finally run away altogether either via drink or via distance. The women of the family must then hold the fort and save the children as poverty and unemployment destroy the authority of the paterfamilias.”
The Joads face terrible disappointment at the end of the road. ... ... The promised land barely affords an inhuman form of life in collective confinement, subject to constant police supervision.
The failure of the American Dream is contrasted with the renewal of hope that accompanies the Joads in their decision to take to the road. “We are the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever.”

Through the characters of Tom and Ma Joad, Ford articulates a social discourse and reconstructs the three aspects of the domestic archetype (family, struggle, nation) in the film’s ending. The domestic is extrapolated into the communal. Ford reads from the Joads’ home into the U.S. home.

The mother’s strength is presented as a cornerstone of the family’s survival in a time of domestic crisis. In the end, Ma Joad overshadows the father-figure, who seems weak and wavering in the face of the adversity afflicting his older children. Tom fails to find a decent job and Rosasharn, who is caring for their newborn child, is abandoned by her husband. Gallagher interprets such a rise of the mother-figure in the home as a shift brought about abruptly by the economic crisis. He notes that patriarchal power in the Joad clan appears to die with Grandpa:

“What is actually happening is nothing less than the transformation of the Joad family from a patriarchy rooted in the earth to a matriarchy uprooted on the road […] Once on the road, the men have a tendency to wander and finally run away altogether either via drink or via distance. The women of the family must then hold the fort and save the children as poverty and unemployment destroy the authority of the paterfamilias” (193).

The preeminent role of Ma Joad as the head of the household is clearly revealed at the film’s end in the final conversation with her eldest son. Although she initially confesses to Tom her fear that the experience of prison might have compromised his moral integrity forever, their words at the leave-taking articulate the reasons that led him to leave home behind and fight against injustice:

“I’ll be everywhere, wherever you look. Wherever there’s a fight so human people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there too.”

Shindler considers this scene a kind of redemption:

“the ending of the film, as conceived by Ford is similarly religious in feeling. Seated together on an empty bandstand, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) tells his mother (Jane Darwell) that he has learned from the death of Casey, the preacher, that he must exchange his natural family for a greater family: the American people” (77).

As this exchange discloses, the struggle to preserve home opens out from the domestic sphere to encompass the country as a whole, offering a more hopeful vision than the ending to Steinbeck’s novel. The novel comes to a close with Rosasharn breastfeeding a dying man in an abandoned barn. Although the film likewise ends on a maternal note, a different tone is struck in Ma Joad’s final remark to her husband, which takes on twofold significance because of the content of the speech and its speaker. The mother of the clan, whom Ford wanted to have the final word in the script (Wagner 156-157), asserts the victory of society over the evils stemming from the Depression:

“We are the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa. We’re the people.”

Capra and the American Dream:
Pottersville versus Bedford Falls

In allegorical terms, Ford underscores the close parallel between the domestic home and U.S. society as the national home, and he highlights the notion that the strength and virtues of the former are crucial to the recovery of the latter during times of crisis. From a different dramatic perspective, Capra presents a similar vision of the family home as the cradle of future anonymous heroes committed to social justice in It’s a Wonderful Life. This Christmas tale echoes the literary work of Dickens and the paintings of Norman Rockwell. It tells the story of the personal breakdown experienced by George Bailey, a husband and father who has never set foot outside his home town, Bedford Falls, sacrificing his own hopes and dreams (travels, adventure, career, job offers, even his honeymoon) so as to look after friends and neighbors through his work at the Building & Loan Company. George provides funds to owners too poor to get loans from the local bank: in other words, he builds homes. The drama is set in motion when an unexpected twist of fate, which could see him end up in prison, prompts him to set his principles aside and even leads him to contemplate suicide.

George Bailey’s frustration repeats the disappointment incarnated by other New Deal, Capra heroes such as Longfellow Deeds, Jefferson Smith and John Doe, as well as characters from earlier times, such as the altruistic banker in American Madness (1932) who battles against the tycoons on Wall Street. Nevertheless, at a deeper level, Bailey’s personal crisis in It’s a Wonderful Life reflects the rebellion of the little man against his own impotence in a struggle that seems already wholly lost: the defense of domestic values. In despair, Bailey curses his concern for his neighbors and even the family he has founded, thus breaking the bond between the two connotations of the image of home: the domestic and the national.

In presenting the threefold binaries of adventure/domesticity, worldly success/ordinary life and individual/community, Ray argues that the victorious individual adventurer has always prevailed over the idea of home in the U.S. imagination. However, Ray notes,

It’s a Wonderful Life attempted to correct this imbalance […] George was a Victor Laszlo who wanted to be a Rick Blaine, a Good Good Boy desperately trying to be a Good Bad Boy, who seemed to get the most of the glory and the most of the fun. The goal of It’s a Wonderful Life was to liberate George, and the audience, from the frustrations caused by this desire, which the film identified as mistaken” (Ray, 1985: 186-187).

Capra’s vision of the domestic archetype also addresses the worldly success/ordinary life dichotomy by setting up a contrast between Pottersville and Bedford Falls. The former stands for the corrupt United States of the Great Depression. It is a hellish, obverse vision of Bedford Falls, for which Bailey’s love is renewed through the intercession of the angel Clarence, his ghostly visitation at Christmas. However, Bailey’s conversion is not sparked by the social decadence seen in his nightmare. Rather, he is moved by the real disappearance of his home and family. Pottersville involves the destruction of domestic and national homes. As Ray points out,

“the overt intent of It’s a Wonderful Life was to acknowledge George’s dilemma and then solve it, to reaffirm the American Dream by showing that the conflicts between opposed values were illusory. To succeed, the film had to demonstrate that a domestic, responsible, ordinary life contained possibilities for adventure, heroism, and success” (Ray 1985: 199-200).

It’s a Wonderful Life comes to a close with the generous response of the small owners supported by the Building & Loan Company, who are willing to repay Bailey’s debt by means of their own modest contributions. By that time, Bailey has returned to Bedford Falls. Re-united with his nearest and dearest, he recovers his heroic qualities and the happiness he had lost. The small-owners’ gesture, inspired by Bailey’s generous example in former times, is a sign of the importance Capra attributes to altruism and personal solidarity in his narratives of the crisis. At the same time, it also highlights the preeminence of the people over individualism, as Tibbets argues:

“It is typical of Capra and the times that the final answer lies with the listeners and not with the prophet” (307).

Bailey’s personal crisis reflects the rebellion of the little man against his own impotence in the defense of domestic values. The local hero curses his concern for his neighbors and even his own family. Ray argues that the victorious individual adventurer has always prevailed over the idea of home in the national imagination: “George was a Victor Laszlo who wanted to be a Rick Blaine, a Good Good Boy desperately trying to be a Good Bad Boy, who seemed to get the most of the glory and the most of the fun.” ...
... According to Ray, the goal of It’s a Wonderful Life is to liberate George, and the audience, from the frustrations caused by this desire, identified by Capra as mistaken. This liberation is granted by the angel Clarence and his ghostly visitation at Christmas. Frank Capra’s vision of the domestic archetype addresses the worldly success/ordinary life dichotomy in the contrast between Pottersville and Bedford Falls. Pottersville stands for a hellish vision of Bedford Falls that involves the destruction of two homes: the domestic and the national.
Bailey’s conversion is sparked by the real disappearance of his home and family. The overt intent of It’s a Wonderful Life is to solve George Bailey’s dilemma and reaffirm the American Dream by showing that a domestic, responsible, ordinary life contains possibilities for adventure, heroism, and success. Capra’s film comes to a close with the generous response of the small owners supported by Building & Loan, who are willing to repay Bailey’s debt by means of their own modest contributions. This gesture of the small-owners is a sign of the importance Capra attributed to personal solidarity in his narratives of the crisis, and also it highlights the preeminence of the people over individualism.

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