Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hell Bent for Election (United Auto Workers, United Productions of America, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After watching a spectacular dance sequence from the feature The Seven Little Foys — a 1955 biopic with Bob Hope as Eddie Foy, Sr. and, in this one clip, James Cagney reprising his role as George M. Cohan from Yankee Doodle Dandy and doing an incredible dance duet (Cagney said in his autobiography that his one regret about his career was that he hadn’t got to do more musicals, and here he dances up a storm and Hope keeps right up with him; it’s easy to forget that Hope began as a dancer as well as a comic, and he was good enough on his feet that his star-making role in the 1933 stage musical Roberta was played by Fred Astaire in the 1935 film version) — Charles and I ran a quite remarkable political commercial from 1944 called Hell Bent for Election, produced by the United Auto Workers (who then had a much longer and more complicated name — “United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers of America”) as what appears to have been an independent campaign for the re-election of Franklin D. Roosevelt for President and for the Democrats generally.

It’s a fascinating film for two reasons: first, it’s done in a beautiful state-of-the-art cartoon style — the director is Charles M. Jones, better known to cartoon buffs as Chuck Jones, who didn’t create the character of Bugs Bunny for Warner Bros. but did make many of the best cartoons with Bugs and the other characters in the Warners stable; the songs (including the Roosevelt campaign anthem “Gotta Get Out and Vote,” which I’ve heard elsewhere in a stunning broadcast recording by lifelong Democrat Judy Garland — who campaigned for Roosevelt in 1944 and Kennedy in 1960 and got savaged by the Right-wing journalists and columnists of her time!) are by Ballad for Americans and “The House I Live In” composer Earl Robinson with lyrics by E. Y. Harburg from The Wizard of Oz; and some of the people who later became stalwarts at the United Productions of America (U.P.A.) animation studio, including designer and storyboard artist John Hubley, were involved in the project. Actress Karen Morley was credited with “assistance,” and later quite a few people involved in this movie, including her, Harburg and Hubley, would be blacklisted. (That’s why Ira Gershwin, not Harburg, got to write the lyrics for Harold Arlen’s songs in the 1954 A Star Is Born.)

The cartoon’s premise is that there are two trains running and heading for Track 44, a state-of-the-art diesel streamliner with Franklin Roosevelt’s face and a sorry-looking toonerville trolley with the face of his Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey. Only one train can take the track, and it’s up to union worker Joe (a tall, strapping blond with muscles to die for) to resist the attempts of a caricatured capitalist (who looks something like the little man on the Monopoly cards) to lull him to sleep so that Dewey’s train, not Roosevelt’s, gets on the track that will carry him to the White House. The situations and their staging rival anything Chuck Jones did for his commercial employers, and the other fascinating thing about this cartoon is to note just how little, at least on the Republican side, the arguments have changed. When the caricatured capitalist was cavorting on screen and a narrator was expressing his and the Republicans’ point of view — lower taxes, less regulation, dismantling the social safety net, and a freeze on workers’ wages while big business makes more money — the sentiments are those of any Tea Party meeting or Right-wing talk show today.

The sad part of watching this 1944 film in 2011 is how far the Democrats have fallen, from forthright advocacy of retirement security, unemployment compensation, education and health care for all, and responsible regulation of the business sector in the public interest to nibbling away at all those things and essentially accepting the Republican point of view that we have to coddle the business sector, deregulate it, give it tons of money via tax cuts and expect working people to pay for it, only doing all this not quite so quickly and brutally as the Republicans want to do it. Charles pointed out that if Obama and his people were to use the arguments in this film in his re-election campaign, he’d score an easy victory — but of course he won’t — and I wondered what the kids in the Occupy encampments would make of this film and the evidence in it that once upon a time one of the two major parties in the U.S. was publicly identified with an agenda so radical it’s considered totally beyond the pale of mainstream politics today.