This summer I am once again presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six movies. The general theme this year is Middle America and the Movies. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the Hudson website for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, July 1st with a screening of On Moonlight Bay of 1951, adapted from Booth Tarkington’s "Penrod" stories by Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson and directed by Roy Del Ruth. It stars Doris Day, Gordon MacRae, Jack Smith, Leon Ames, Rosemary DeCamp and Mary Wickes. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.
My apologies to those of you who weren’t here, but once again I feel the need to back up a little and say a few words more about last week’s movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, by Orson Welles. Someone brought up the comparison last week with Edith Wharton’s novel (if not Martin Scorsese’s movie) The Age of Innocence, which I thought a rather shrewd observation. Not only did Age of Innocence win the next Pulitzer Prize for fiction, two years after Booth Tarkington’s Magnificent Ambersons did (no prize was awarded in 1920), but both novels look back on the monied American upper classes of a generation earlier by making express or implied comparisons with their European counterparts decidedly to the advantage of the latter. As the Countess Olenska says to Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, "It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country."
Edith Wharton’s point about upper class innocence, to which I shall return in a moment, is a more subtle one than Tarkington’s about upper class foolishness, but they are not all that different in the end. Her characters exist in almost complete isolation from the booming, burgeoning city of New York within which their little world exists unto itself, and they take minimal notice of those around them. Tarkington’s Ambersons, by contrast, are seen as undistinguished from the life of his "Midland city" except by their own foolish pride in being Ambersons. But both authors proceed from a position of intellectual and chronological superiority to their characters and therefore strike a condescending note that is at least an echo of that which was being sounded by a seemingly very different kind of American fiction and social thought during the same period.
Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence in 1921 because the Trustees of Columbia University overruled the decision of the Pulitzer jury in favor of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, the first of his numerous novels mercilessly satirizing and ridiculing the small town America of what his admirer, H.L. Mencken, called "the booboisie." Lewis’s poor opinion of Main Street America only increased with the years until, in It Can’t Happen Here of 1935, he professed to see the germ of an American fascist movement in the Elks Lodges and Rotary Clubs of the small towns and cities of Middle America. One such was Muncie, Indiana, the contemporaneous subject of the classic study Middletown by the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd. They agreed with Lewis, finding in Muncie’s conformity, as they said, "the possible seeds of an eventual coercive control which in Europe goes under the name of fascism." The contempt of such "intellectuals" for the "middlebrow" — both words came into common use at about this time — was also influenced by European modernism, or such echoes of it as reached these shores in, for example, Orson Welles’s film which, as we noticed last week, announces its modernism by calling our attention more to the artist and his technique than to his subject.
With tonight’s film, On Moonlight Bay, directed by Roy Del Ruth and based on Tarkington’s Penrod stories — a very different kettle of fish from the Ambersons — we leave behind that sense of freshness and originality, that feeling of being on progressive culture’s leading edge, that modernism produced even in the mutilated version of Welles’s film. In fact, if you had the six movies in this summer’s series placed side by side and were asked to take part in one of those psychological tests which require you to say how one of them is different from the rest, the choice would surely fall on tonight’s film, On Moonlight Bay — and not just because it is a musical. No, our discussion of the three movies we have seen so far should make it apparent that what is missing is the dark side of the moonlight bay, a darkness which the first two movies in our series put into an optimistic perspective and about which The Magnificent Ambersons remained more ambiguous. That darkness will also be apparent in the next two movies, but just for tonight we leave it behind, in order to delight in a merely charming portrait of the supposed period of American "innocence."
Actually, there is a sort of dark penumbra hovering around the edges of this film, though you have to look closely to see it. The story is pretty much just boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-again, but at the end the boy, William Sherman, played by Gordon MacRae, goes off to fight in the First World War, and we all know how horrible that experience turned out to be. At least we do now. Yet in the shadow of the horrors of World War II, when this movie was made in 1951, it seems to have been possible to recapture some of the sense of eager patriotism with which the boys of 1917 are said to have signed up to fight. This is done partly through music, as William leads his comrades in a couple of British (or Irish) songs made popular by the war, "It’s a Long Way to Tipperary" and "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag" — the ultimate expression of determined cheerfulness — which could not then or now have been sung in Britain without irony.
Here, if anywhere, is surely what the Countess Olenska would have considered Americans’ copying another country — and being more enthusiastic about it than the other country itself could have been — yet there appears to be no hint of the criticism or skepticism that would have been more or less routine in Hollywood a decade or two earlier or later. America’s patriotic fervor seems somehow to have survived not only its admittedly briefer experience of the trenches but the Second World War as well. Thus the off-screen war in On Moonlight Bay comes to appear to us like the off-screen and long-ago naughtiness of Leon Ames’s George Winfield — in Aunt Martha’s telling anyway — which is meant as an explanation and apology for his son’s naughtiness in the final scenes of the movie. Boys will be boys, in other words, whether in war or in peace. It’s nothing to get all worked up about, and William’s own confidence in his eventual return from the war is never undermined or called into question by the film-makers.
Nor is war the only bad thing, at least as we are likely to see it, which the movie makes light of. Its central theme is not Wesley Winfield’s pre-programed naughtiness but that of his sister Margie, played by Doris Day, who is still a baseball-playing tomboy at an age well past puberty when girls were once supposed to lose interest in such things (if they ever had any) and instead start looking for a mate. Much of the film’s comedy comes from her harried father’s complaints about her not being girlish enough and then, when she does become girlish, about her excessive interest in a boy with advanced ideas he does not approve of. "Why didn’t you stick to baseball?" he moans. Not only must Margie be socialized, and very pointedly so, as what a young woman (or, as they used to say, a young lady) was expected to be at the time, but William Sherman’s revolutionary ideas about how marriage is outmoded and banks ought to be blown up have to be knocked out of him by what is represented as a similar and natural process of maturation. "I was just going through a phase," as he later assures Margie.
Here, as in the case of "boys will be boys," the relevance and validity of long-established folk wisdom about the contrasting ways boys and girls were supposed to behave is affirmed and appears triumphant in the unequal struggle with those new ideas about such things which were just emerging at the time the film is set and which became fashionable for a time in the 1920s and 1930s. When Aunt Martha, played by Esther Dale, is confronted by William’s alleged insistence that he doesn’t believe in marriage, she replies briskly that, "No man believes in marriage — until a woman traps him into it!" That has the double virtue in the eyes of a presumptively conservative audience of being both funny and what can still, in 1951, be an effective way to belittle the critics of marriage — where have they all gone in the last decade, I wonder — by implying that their supposed principles are just an excuse for the sort of promiscuous behavior that used to be thought typical of unprincipled men and unspeakable women.
I think we can safely say that neither the war nor the well-established social role of women as wives and mothers would have seemed to a contemporary audience like anything dark or evil lurking behind the smiling exterior of small-town Midwestern life in the teens of the last century, but there is something that might well have seemed so. And that, too, is something that the film goes out of its way to make light of. In one of the film’s comic episodes young Wesley, played by Billy Gray, goes to the movies, where he watches and is deeply impressed by a three-reel silent film that turns out to be a temperance tract, tracing the downfall of a middle-class businessman, much like his father, who succumbs to the temptation of strong drink. This, we remember, was supposed to be taking place in 1917, the same year when the Eighteenth Amendment was submitted by the Senate to the states for ratification and a little over two years before, as a result, Prohibition became the law of the land.
At the time this was seen by many of the most advanced thinkers as being at least as progressive a measure as the enfranchisement of women, which had to wait until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Alcoholism was as serious a social problem as the country faced in those days, and it didn’t cease to be so when Prohibition came by consensus to be regarded as unworkable and was repealed by the 21st Amendment. Repeal came in almost coincidentally with the Roosevelt administration in 1933 and helped to reinforce the sense of hopefulness and liberation from irksome restraint that FDR managed to impart to much of the country during the Depression. By 1951 the problem, having been acknowledged as insoluble, had therefore ceased to be a problem, and the once mighty temperance movement, along with the sort of moral earnestness on which it had relied, had become a joke.
It seems to me that there must have been at least a hint in these and the scenes which followed of an awareness that moralism about relations between the sexes was also headed (as, indeed, it turned out to be) in the direction of permissiveness, though of course there is no suggestion that sex outside of marriage is ever seriously considered by anybody, not even the anti-marriage William Sherman, in 1917. The assumption that Margie would not herself be going to the University or pursuing a career but instead expecting to be the wife of someone who did is treated by the film as as much a matter of course as George Winfield’s moving his family to a more "refined" neighborhood, as he tells us at the beginning he has, in order to give her a better chance to "meet some nice, refined young man" as a candidate for her husband. The use of the word "refined" would very probably have carried overtones of an anachronistic class-consciousness to the movie’s original audience, but it is hard to find any note of criticism in it either. The desire for refinement is just one more of the old-fashioned attitudes that the movie looks upon with a benign indulgence.
On the other hand, I think it is possible to detect a certain irony in the way that George Winfield’s quest for refinement results in Margie’s falling under the influence, in his view, of a quasi-Bolshevik. George Winfield, however out of touch he may be in other ways, already claims to know "what they teach them in college," so he presumably should not be surprised that, where he has hoped to find the refinement of the educated classes, he has found instead dangerous political views that threaten his family and his way of life. I suspect that it is really the Indiana University of 1951 — the year of William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale — rather than 1917 which the film-makers have in mind here, but either way their movie is resolute in its optimistic assumption that such political views are, as William Sherman later says, no more than a "phase" he was "going through" — yet another instance, perhaps, of boys being boys.
Hence his commencement address stresses the fact that he and the rest of the class of 1917 have "changed our ideas as often as our wardrobe" — but that this was only because they had "open and inquiring minds." That, too, was very much an idea of 1951 rather than 1917. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. had written two years earlier in The Vital Center, the Communism that had been fashionable a generation earlier was "if anything, a passing stage" or a "disease" which had sometimes afflicted those on a too-zealous "quest for modernity." Like the authors of On Moonlight Bay, he was prepared to regard it as a "phase" to be grown out of at maturity. And maturity proclaims itself, in the Hollywood version, by William’s enlisting, along with all his chums, in the newly forming American Expeditionary Force bound for the trenches, as well as by proposing marriage to Margie.
You will doubtless have picked up already on the salient fact about this movie’s historical context, which is that it coincided with the height of America’s post-war anti-communist backlash, a period now often characterized by the epithet of "McCarthyism." The movie industry was of course one of the targets of federal investigations seeking there — and often finding there — Communists and other "subversives," something about which the industry itself was by 1951 in its brief defensive phase. This was marked by redundant representations of patriotic themes, incidents and characters designed to reassure people of Hollywood’s belief in "Americanism" — a word which for many people would have carried associations with the sort of old-fashioned middle-class, Middle America that On Moonlight Bay was perhaps just a little too eager to celebrate.
Small wonder, then, that the movie also takes the time to make light of the sort of communist ideas that really were prevalent in Hollywood, if not entirely harmlessly, in the previous two decades as little more than an adolescent "phase" that lots of even the most refined American boys and girls were going through at the time and that could now, like Prohibition and the temperance movement, be treated as a joke. If you detect, as I do, a false note in this otherwise attractive and sympathetic portrait of pre-First World War America, already vanished by the time the film was made, I think it is at least as much on account of this political disingenuousness as it is on that of its depiction of the period itself.
It must be admitted, however, that the condescension toward the past of The Magnificent Ambersons is not entirely absent here either. This is where the myth of American "innocence," so beloved of the progressive tendency even today, continues to serve it well. As Sherwood Anderson ruefully put it in Winesburg, Ohio, that ur-Text of left-wing criticism of the too-unrefined American heartland: "Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence is gone forever." It’s essentially the same innocence, though with added brutality, that Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence is about. I think you can see it, too, in many of the Westerns of the same period as On Moonlight Bay, wherein the film-makers seek to elicit sympathy for a way of life which was just then on the edge of collective memory but which had disappeared, and was known to have disappeared, in reality.
Of course, you can see how such nostalgic wallows would suit the progressive book, since it reassured people that they were, as the progressives of today are fond of saying, "on the right side of history." Nor did they need to be triumphalist about it if they could allow that the old ways had a certain charm about them, even if — perhaps especially if — they were dead and gone. In the end, I think we may be tempted to decide that On Moonlight Bay is not so different from the other five films in the series after all, except in its resolute refusal to look at anything which might be considered seriously critical of the honest folk of Middle America, at least those of a generation earlier. That may not have been doing them any favors, but it does make the movie easier to enjoy as the kind of escapist romp that we have grown used to since its time. Or rather not that kind of escapist romp, since it is an escape not into the merely fantastical but into an idealized version of a world that once, one supposes, really existed.