Sunday, March 11, 2018

Life in the Thirties (McGraw-Hill, Pennsylvania Public Libraries Film Center, 1959; edited from “Back in the Thirties," NBC-TV, December 30, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Life in the 30’s was a pretty typical McGraw-Hill educational film — it was originally an hour long but we just watched the first half (it was split between two reels and the reels were uploaded separately) — and though its credits promised something about 1930’s culture (one of the opening graphics was of a white guy playing a clarinet, and he was obviously supposed to be Benny Goodman) it was almost exclusively a political history of the decade, or at least its first half (it broke at the point of Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide re-election in 1936), from the Great Depression hitting the U.S. to the Bonus March and the U.S. military suppressing it (ironically the forces that crushed the Bonus March were led by General Douglas MacArthur, whom we’d just seen in American Guerrilla in the Philippines depicted as a great hero!), FDR’s first election, his “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” inaugural speech (oddly just read by the narrator, Alexander Scourby, rather than shown in FDR’s own voice, though later we do hear Roosevelt’s real voice in one of the Fireside Chats and also hear the actual voices of National Recovery Administration head General Hugh Johnson and Roosevelt’s 1936 election opponent, Kansas Governor Alf Landon), the bank holiday, the NRA (back when those initials had a much more positive connotation in American politics than they do now) and the other alphabet-soup agencies with which the Roosevelt Administration and the Democratic Congress tried to put people back to work, and what the narration called the “demagogues” who tried to bring democracy down. This was the one part of the film Charles took exception to, because it lumped Huey Long and Francis Townsend in with Gerald L. K. Smith and Father Charles Coughlin as “demagogues” when their politics had little in common at all (and it was Townsend, more than any other individual, who was responsible for Social Security; though his old-age pension plan was so impractical even progressive economists at the time opposed it, it was so popular Roosevelt and the Democrats in Congress felt pressured to come up with a workable alternative that would accomplish the same thing: an end to senior citizens living in poverty). — 3/10/18


Last night I screened for Charles the second half of Life in the Thirties — the word “Thirties” is spelled out in the title even though the download we had from, based on a 16 mm print distributed to public libraries by McGraw-Hill, was labeled “Life in the 30’s.” The movie didn’t turn up on under that title and I later found out why: the version we were watching was a 53-minute cut-down from a 1957 NBC-TV special called Back in the Thirties, originally shown December 30, 1957 — at a time when a lot of people who would have had living memories of the 1930’s were still alive. The emphasis, especially in the cut-down version we were watching, was on the politics of the era; the first half had ended with Franklin Roosevelt’s massive re-election victory in 1936 and the second actually back-tracked a bit to the repeal of Prohibition in December 1933 as well as covering FDR’s infamous clashes with the U.S. Supreme Court (there’s a marvelous clip from FDR and another from Will Rogers making fun of the Supreme Court’s determination to invalidate almost everything the Roosevelt administration and the Democratic Congress tried to do about the Depression) and his humiliating defeat on his so-called “court-packing” plan. 

Roosevelt wanted to expand the Court to 15 justices so he could appoint the new ones and he’d have people sympathetic to his program; while the expansion failed, a judicial reform bill did pass Congress, and among other things it did was raise the pension for judges who retired, so attrition and the length of his Presidency eventually allowed FDR to pack the Court after all — and in the meantime the court’s “swing vote,” Justice Owen Roberts, started voting to uphold the New Deal legislation, starting with the Robert F. Wagner Act of 1935 that guaranteed collective bargaining rights to labor unions, and it was called “the switch in time that saved nine.” (I referenced this in a Zenger’s blog post in 2012 after another justice named Roberts, current Chief Justice John Roberts, switched sides at the last minute and voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and Anthony Kennedy saw the decision he’d written as the court’s official opinion became the leading dissent instead.) There was an inevitable segment on the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. and the execution of Bruno Hauptmann for that crime, and there were a few bows towards the culture of the period, including a segment on radio with a nice film clip of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony on one of its first broadcasts, and the radio engineers that were broadcasting it sitting in front of far more meters than anyone doing a live broadcast or a recording session would use today even though modern recording technology is far more sophisticated than anything that existed when Toscanini started his broadcasts in 1937. Alas — and this was a problem that ran through the entire hour-long film — there was a very bad wow and flutter throughout the soundtrack, with the maddening result that the narration by Alexander Scourby and the various film clips that featured people speaking were clear but the music was annoyingly inconsistent and the speed fluctuations so bad that during Toscanini’s segment it was almost impossible to tell just what piece he and his orchestra were playing. (This also affected most of the film’s underscoring — famous songs from the actual 1930’s arranged and conducted by Robert Russell Bennett — but at least most of those tunes, though sounding so ghastly it got hard to keep watching this, were recognizable.) 

There was also a segment on swing music — though it was represented by a cacophonous blast of sound from a studio orchestra that had virtually no audible resemblance to what was actually popular in the 1930’s — and a brief depiction of the Lambeth Walk, just about the only British dance (as well as its accompanying song, one of the greatest hits of the time) that crossed the Atlantic and became popular in the U.S. as well. As the film wound down it returned to politics and started covering what was happening overseas, with Mussolini and Hitler proclaiming their dictatorships the wave of the future, Mussolini showing his country’s war chops by invading “defenseless Ethiopia,” the Spanish Civil War (depicted as a when-elephants-fight-the-ground-gets-trampled struggle in which the poor Spanish people got caught in a proxy war between Germany and Italy on one side and Russia on the other), the big Madison Square Garden rally of the German-American Bund (in which Bund Führer Fritz Kuhn’s goon squad beat up a counter-protester who tried to heckle — “Just like a Trump rally!” I inevitably proclaimed), and the New York World’s Fair of 1939, which presented a dream vision of peace and international cooperation just as the rest of the world was about to start World War II. The commentary by Richard Hanser — “based on an idea of Henry Salomon,” according to the credits — naturally savored the irony that the 1930’s started with depression and ended with war, and given that this was a product of the late 1950’s looking back on the 1930’s it’s not surprising that the overall political message of the film was that wonderful capitalist democracy successfully beat back the challenges of both Fascism and Communism. — 3/11/18