Philadelphia (1993)

In the movie Philadelphia, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a lawyer with a prestigious law firm.  In the opening scene, he successfully defends a client against what he calls a “nuisance suit,” as “an example of rapacious litigation.”  And so, if you did not know anything about this movie beforehand, you would correctly suspect that before the show is over, he will be bringing suit against someone himself.  And when he does, the lawyer whom he accused of bringing a frivolous lawsuit against his client, ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), ends up being his attorney.  In particular, the partners of the law firm he worked for say that they fired Beckett for incompetence, but Beckett claims they fired him because he had AIDS, which he concealed from the partners in addition to concealing the fact that he was gay.  Beckett explains during the trial that he decided not to tell the partners he was gay when he heard them telling crude jokes about homosexuals.  Those who produced this movie made sure that the jokes were not funny, lest we get confused and start sympathizing with the partners.  Actually, the movie never makes it clear exactly what happened regarding Beckett’s firing.  Beckett believes that someone figured out he had AIDS and sabotaged his work in order to justify dismissing him for incompetence, but we never find out for sure.

This movie is contemporaneously set in the early 1990s.  It was a transitional period.  During the 1980s, when AIDS was first identified, there was no treatment.  I remember seeing a lot of people whose bodies were ravaged by that disease.  The sight of them filled one with pity and dread (we see examples of such at the clinic where Beckett goes to have his blood monitored).  The dread was especially acute, because at the time, no one knew how contagious it was or what the vectors of transmission were.  Was it airborne?  Could it be transmitted by mosquitoes?  We knew that blood and semen could transmit the disease, but we also wondered about saliva and sweat.  By the 1990s, however, research had pretty much established that AIDS was caused by HIV and that blood transfusions, dirty needles used by drug addicts, and unprotected sex, especially between two men, were the primary methods of transmission.  Today, we seldom hear the word AIDS.  Instead, we speak mostly of HIV, because treatment has advanced to the point that we no longer see those pitiful victims that looked like the walking dead.

And so, the aversion to touching or being around AIDS victims, a perfectly rational fear in the early 1980s, came to be regarded as manifestations of ignorance and bigotry by the 1990s.  If someone was known to have AIDS, it became almost obligatory to hug him, as a way of demonstrating that one was enlightened on the subject.  And so, throughout this movie, we see Beckett being hugged on numerous occasions, more than you would normally see in a movie.  And we see other people trying to put distance between themselves and Beckett, whom we are supposed to regard as wrongheaded, if not morally bankrupt.

Before taking Beckett’s case, Miller asks a doctor about AIDS.  When the doctor assures him that HIV cannot be spread by casual contact, Miller is skeptical, pointing out that we are still learning new things about the disease every day.  Actually, this is a good point, though the movie allows it to die with this scene.  If even today someone did not want to hug someone with AIDS, just in case doctors turn out to be wrong, I would not blame him.  But the movie would.

In fact, the movie is completely one-sided in this matter.  Beckett is almost righteous in his disregard for people’s fears.  There is a scene in a library where a librarian, realizing he has AIDS, suggests that he move to a private room to continue his research, but Beckett refuses.  People in the immediate vicinity begin moving away.  In another scene, when he tells his family about his plans to sue, he is holding a baby, feeding it with a bottle.  The mother offers to take the baby back, and we suspect she is nervous but too polite to insist.  Beckett seems oblivious to the possibility that she might be worried and continues to feed the baby.

Even if the people in the library and the mother of the baby are being foolish in their fears, that does not mean that Beckett is in the right to refuse to accommodate them.  For example, my mother was a little superstitious, and she used to think it was bad luck to put money on the table.  As a result, I never put money on the table in her presence, even if she was visiting me in my apartment and it was my table.  Despite the fact that she was the one who was foolish and I was the one who was rational, it would have been rude of me to plop some money down on the table.  By the same token, no matter how irrational people’s fears of contracting AIDS through casual contact may be, Beckett should have been sensitive to those fears and allowed people the distance they needed to feel comfortable.  But this movie does not recognize any such obligation on Beckett’s part.

The issue of the case was whether the law firm illegally fired Beckett because he had AIDS or was fired because of incompetence, which would have been legal.  Therefore, the question of how he contracted the disease was irrelevant.  Nevertheless, we are not surprised that the question arises as to Beckett’s behavior, whether he contracted AIDS through reckless actions on his part.  A woman who had once worked for the partner who first noticed Beckett’s lesion is brought on the stand to testify on the part of the plaintiff (Beckett).  She had had AIDS too, but she told her employers.  The point is that the partner would have realized what the lesion meant from his experience with her, in which case knowledge that Beckett had the disease by at least one of the partners would be established, a necessary condition of proving that that was the real reason for Beckett’s firing.

Under cross examination, it turns out that she contracted the disease when she was given a transfusion after giving birth.  In other words, she got AIDS through no fault of her own.  That the occasion was when she had a baby even associates the event with motherhood.  You couldn’t want a more saintly innocent victim than that.  So, we know what is coming:  the old blame-the-victim strategy.  Sure enough, when Beckett gets on the stand, he is asked about whether he had ever been to the Stallion Showcase Cinema, a gay pornographic movie theater where men in the audience sometimes have sex with each other.  Beckett admits to having been to the theater three times in 1984 or 1985, and that he had sex with a man in the theater one time.  He also admits that he knew about AIDS at the time and that his actions could have endangered Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas), the man he was living with at the time and still is.  The point of the defense is that Beckett is not an innocent victim, but someone who contracted the disease in rather seedy circumstances in full knowledge of the danger to himself and his lover.

Of course, the attitude of the movie is that it is wrong to blame the victim, but let us note that the movie also lacks the courage of its convictions.  It establishes that Beckett was and still is in a monogamous relationship, as it were, and that he just had a moral lapse one night.  In other words, the movie did not have the courage to make Beckett a man given to promiscuity, a “degenerate” who had had anonymous sex on innumerable occasions in movie theaters and restrooms for over a decade.  That would really have tested us.  Instead, the movie is saying that it is wrong to blame the victim, especially when the victim, while not being totally innocent like the woman who had a transfusion, is almost innocent.

After much testimony from various witnesses, the case is turned over to the jury for deliberations, if you can call it that.  All we hear is one man, presumably the foreman, telling the other jurors that the case for the defense does not make sense.  That’s it.  No one has a dissenting view.  In fact, no one else says anything, except to mumble agreement.  The closest thing we get to a dissent is when the jurors are being asked one by one how they stand on the issue, and juror number ten says, “I disagree.”  This is not supposed to be a jury movie, of course, like Twelve Angry Men (1957), where an Ed Begley character could express bigotry toward homosexuals or where a Lee J. Cobb character could reveal that his prejudice stemmed from the fact that his son was gay, before finally coming around to the proper verdict.  But surely they could have done better than what we got in this movie.  Alternatively, if time simply did not permit, it would have better to leave out the jury-deliberation scene altogether.  Needless to say, the jury finds in favor of the plaintiff, as if any other verdict in this movie was remotely possible.

Midway through the trial, Miller comes over to Beckett’s place to go over the testimony Beckett will be giving on Monday.  Instead, Beckett wants to talk about the opera music that he has playing.  Like most people, including me, Miller does not much care for opera.  Beckett explains what the opera is about and what emotions are being expressed through the singing.  The intensity of his performance is bizarre.  I don’t know.  Maybe if you are dying from a dreadful disease, you can get a little more worked up about things than the one normally would, but it all seems to be a bit much.  While his overwrought description of the aria was going on, I could not help but think of the movie Pretty Woman (1990).  In that movie, Julia Roberts plays a streetwalker who ends up being the girlfriend of a corporate raider played by Richard Gere.  He takes her to see an opera, presumably the first one she has ever been to, and we see her crying during a particularly moving scene.  In other words, in both movies, a major character practices a form of sex that many regard as deviant and likely to spread disease.  And in both movies, these characters are deeply moved by an opera, as if to say they have such great souls that they can appreciate art in its highest form with a passion that we philistines can scarcely imagine.  It just wouldn’t have been the same if Beckett had been listening to N.W.A., explaining to his lawyer with great emotion, “And here is the part where he gets his sawed off shotgun and they have to haul off all the bodies.”

Lifeboat (1944)

Lifeboat is a movie made during World War II, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  It begins with a freighter that was on its way from America to England, having been sunk by a German U-boat.  The captain of the U-boat gave orders to fire upon the lifeboats, after which the U-boat itself is sunk.  One lifeboat manages to survive, and one by one it is populated by British and Americans of all walks of life. Finally, Willi (Walter Slezak), a German, is pulled aboard.  Some, such as a John Kovac (John Hodiak), who worked in the engine room, want to throw the German overboard, while columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), radioman Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and industrialist Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) (i.e., a woman and two weak men, appeasers all) argue successfully that they should let the German stay.

As the movie progresses, we see that while the British and Americans share what they have with the German, he conceals from them that he has a flask of water, some food and energy tablets, and a compass, by which he tries to steer them away from Bermuda and toward an area of the ocean occupied by German ships.  He further conceals that he was the captain of the U-boat.

Of particular interest is Gus Smith (William Bendix), who has been wounded in the leg. When we find out that he loves to dance, we know right then his leg is doomed.  Sure enough, it becomes gangrenous.  As it turns out, Willi was a surgeon before the war and says that he can amputate.  We get the sense that he enjoys the idea of removing Gus’s leg, much like the sadistic doctor in King’s Row (1942), who unnecessarily amputates the legs of Ronald Reagan.  Gus does not want to have his leg removed, saying he’d rather die than live with one leg, because he is afraid that he will lose Rosie, the girl back home whom he loves.  He fears that she might not want to marry him if he comes back without one of his legs, especially since she loves to dance as much as Gus does.  To make matters worse, Gus has a rival, Al Magaroulian, whom Rosie used to date, and who is also a good dancer, even though fallen arches have kept him out of the war.  Gus is afraid Rosie will go back to Al if he has his leg removed.  But eventually he relents, and Willi performs the surgery with no better anesthetic than brandy.

Later in the movie, while everyone is sleeping lethargically from dehydration, Gus catches Willi sipping a drink of water from his flask.  To keep Gus from telling the others about the water, Willi pushes him overboard.  When the others awaken from hearing Gus’s cries for help, they realize Gus has drowned, and they ask Willi why he didn’t do something.  Willi does not, of course, tell them that he pushed Gus overboard to keep him from talking.  Instead, he tells them that Gus voluntarily jumped overboard, and that he thought it would be best not to do anything about it:

You can’t imagine how painful it was to me.  All night long, to watch him turning and suffering and nothing I could do for him….  The best way to help him was to let him go.  I had no right to stop him, even if I wanted to.  A poor cripple dying of hunger and thirst. What good could life be to a man like that?

It probably didn’t help that earlier in the movie, when the passengers in the lifeboat were voting on whether to throw Willi overboard, he heard Gus vote to toss him into the ocean.

Then the other passengers find out about the water and food that Willi has been concealing.  They attack Willi, both the men and the women, forcing him overboard and to his death.  But one person does not take part in the attack.  It is Joe “Charcoal” Spencer (Canada Lee), an African American.  The idea seems to be that killing Willi is essentially a lynching, something that Joe would be sensitive about and find repugnant. He even tries to stop the nurse, Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), from participating in the killing, though she breaks away from him.

More likely, the true motivation was external to the film, in that those who made the movie were afraid that theaters in the South would have refused to show a movie in which a black man takes part in the killing of a white man, even if that white man is a Nazi.  In fact, earlier in the movie, when they were voting on whether to throw Willi overboard, Rittenhouse asks Joe how he wants to vote. Joe asks, “Do I get to vote too?” When told that he does, he says, “Guess I’d rather stay out of this.” This too was probably to placate the South, which would have bristled at seeing Joe get to vote right alongside white people.  Instead, southern audiences were undoubtedly pleased to see that this Negro knew his place.

One of the women brought aboard the lifeboat has a baby that drowned.  Eventually, they decide to give the baby a burial at sea. The passengers know that a prayer is in order, but are not sure which one. Rittenhouse says that any prayer will do, and he begins saying Psalm 23, the one that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd….”  However, Rittenhouse begins to falter after a couple of lines. But then Joe picks up where he left off, for he knows the entire thing by heart, and finishes it reverently.  One might suppose that the movie is depicting this as something admirable, but it is actually condescending.  African Americans in the old movies were always allowed to be more religious than white people, not because they were better than white people, morally speaking, but because their lesser intelligence made it possible for them to embrace their simple beliefs with an unquestioning faith.  In movies like The Green Pastures (1936) and Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959), it is clear that their religious notions are naïve and childlike, something white people approve of in black folks with an affectionate smile, but would be incapable of taking seriously themselves.

After they kill Willi, they realize that he was the only one who knew enough and had strength enough to row them to safety. Rittenhouse says, “When we killed the German, we killed our motor.”  But Joe says, “We still got a motor,” as he looks up toward the heavens.  Rittenhouse is dismissive when he realizes Joe is talking about God.  Here again, religion enters the movie through an acceptable vehicle, through a black man, while the white people remain skeptical, thereby retaining their dignity.  All this is a prejudice of the movies I’m talking about here, not necessarily how things were in real life.

Joe is only one of two people on the boat that is married, the other being Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), the woman with the dead baby. That leaves the way open for romantic possibilities.  Sparks ends up proposing to Alice, who had been having an affair with a married man and was miserable on account of it.  She accepts his proposal.  Kovac seems to be angry at the world, especially at Rittenhouse, who is a capitalist, while Kovac is a prole.  And he resents the fact that Connie is high class.  Little by little, she loses the symbols of her wealth, her mink and her diamond bracelet, for example.  As a woman stripped of such adornments, she might be suitable for Kovac.  Finally, it turns out that she is from the same side of the tracks as Kovac.  She uses her lipstick to put her initials on his chest, right alongside all the other initials of women tattooed on his torso.  We wish Sparks and Alice happiness with their marriage.  As for Kovac and Connie, they’d better just make it a fling.

Eventually, there is another sea battle, and it becomes clear that they will soon be picked up by an Allied ship, but not before they pull another German aboard who proves to be just as bad as Willi, though he is weak and soon overpowered, leaving the survivors to wonder, “What are you going to do with people like that?”

Yes, Nazis are evil, but are we all that good?  Consider Willi’s justification for letting Gus drown.  The lie that Willi thinks will be an acceptable justification for “allowing” Gus to drown is actually repugnant to the other survivors, who listen to his words in horror. And we who watch this movie are likewise repulsed by Willi’s callous remarks.  But now let us ask ourselves why those who made this movie (John Steinbeck, Jo Swerling, and Alfred Hitchcock) put this into the story.  We already knew Willi was evil before he killed Gus. When Mrs. Higley tells Willi he killed her baby when he ordered the lifeboats to be fired upon, Willi is so bored that he yawns and lies down to get some sleep.  She becomes so distraught that she drowns herself. But if a murder on the lifeboat was needed to really drive home the point that Willi was evil, it was not Gus that had to be killed.  It could have been Connie who saw Willi sneaking a sip of water.  When she confronts him, he snaps her neck and dumps her overboard.  That would certainly make it clear that Willi was evil!  But I suspect people would have hated that movie.

The point is that those who made this movie had a special reason for killing Gus off beyond making it clear that Willi was evil, which was overdetermined in any event. They did it to make those in the audience feel better, believing that the audience would have been uneasy if the movie had ended with Gus still alive in that lifeboat.  (It is for a similar reason that the mother with the dead baby had to commit suicide, because it would have been depressing to still have her alive at the end of the movie too.)  Sure, Rosie might not have cared about Gus’s leg, marrying him anyway because she truly loved him.  In a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Hollywood could make sure that things would turn out that way.  In that movie, Cathy O’Donnell marries Harold Russell, despite the fact that both of his forearms have been replaced by prostheses, and despite the fact that her parents wanted her to break off the engagement.  But in real life, we know things do not always work out that way.  Rosie and Gus were not even engaged.  Instead of being like O’Donnell, Rosie might have tried to put a good face on the situation for a couple of months and then broken up with Gus and gone back to Al Magaroulian.  Since this movie is limited to what happens in and about that lifeboat, Hollywood could not guarantee a happy ending for Gus and Rosie, leaving the audience with dark forebodings as to what will happen when Gus gets back home.

Furthermore, the movie even indicates that Rosie will not remain true to Gus.  When Kovac and Connie try to convince Gus he needs to have his leg amputated, he refuses, saying he doesn’t want to live with just one leg.  (In a way, he is in agreement with Willi.)  Connie gives Gus a long, sentimental talk about how women are, how Rosie would be heartbroken to find that Gus allowed himself to die because he didn’t have faith in her.  Gus finally seems persuaded, but Connie turns away, saying, sotto voce, “God forgive me.”  By this we are to understand that she knows Rosie will not stick with Gus, and we know we are supposed to agree with her assessment.

And so, rather than leave the audience suspecting that Rosie would desert Gus, which would have been depressing, those who made this movie killed Gus off, allowing the audience to leave the theater feeling much better about the movie than if Gus had lived.  You might even say that Gus’s death was necessary for there to be a happy ending.  But does that not imply that those who made this movie were essentially in agreement with Willi when he asked, “What good could life be to a man like that?”  If they were right in their assessment of the audience’s reaction to an ending in which Gus is still alive, then does that not imply that the audience at that time felt the way Willi did?  Of course, there is a big difference between saying a man is better off dead and saying that the death of that man made the story better.  But both stem from the same sentiment.

And so, just as the audience gets the consolation of religion through Joe, while not being guilty of indulging in his silly superstitions, so too does the audience get the benefit of evil through Willi, while not being guilty of consciously wanting it.

A Thousand Clowns (1965)

I saw A Thousand Clowns when it was released in 1965, while I was in my second year of college.  It is one of those movies that praise nonconformity, making the case that it is wonderful to be a free spirit, defying convention, and living life to the full.  Other well-known movies in this nonconformist genre are You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Auntie Mame (1958).  These movies make me say to myself, “Thank God for conformity!  Otherwise, life on this planet would be unbearable.”

Jason Robards plays Murray Burns, the nonconformist of this film.  His nephew Nick (Barry Gordon) lives with him in an apartment.  Murray glories in not making much sense, but the fact is, the world he lives in does not make much sense either, because it is a fake world, written to suit the purposes of the story.

When the movie opens, Murray and Nick are out on the street in New York City, early in the morning.  Murray starts hollering at the people in the apartment buildings that they need to clean their windows.  Later in the movie, Nick says that Murray hollers all the time:

He hollers.  Like, we were on Park Avenue last Sunday, and it’s very early in the morning.  There’s no one in the streets, see, just all these big, quiet apartment houses, and he hollers, “Rich people, I want to see you all out on the street for volleyball.  Let’s snap it up!”

And Nick is right.  Murray talks loud and hollers throughout the movie.  He is not content merely to be a nonconformist in his own quiet way, but feels compelled to put his nonconformity on full display for the benefit of the whole world.

Murray makes fun of the people who are going to work in the morning, which he refers to as a “horrible thing.”  He used to have a job working for a guy named Leo, writing jokes for a children’s show called Chuckles, the Chipmunk, but he quit and has been receiving unemployment checks for five months. Nick mentions that in school he wrote an essay on the benefits of living on unemployment insurance, which has precipitated an investigation to see if Murray is fit to have custody of Nick.

Let’s stop right there.  First of all, people who get laid off can receive unemployment checks, and so can those that quit for a good cause, such as a medical condition.  But you don’t qualify for unemployment benefits if you simply got tired of working and quit.  Second, social workers do not take children away from their homes because the person taking care of them is receiving unemployment checks.  The whole point of unemployment insurance is to allow people to have something to live on, which includes taking care of their children, until they find another job.

Nevertheless, two social workers, Albert Amundson (William Daniels) and Dr. Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris), come calling on Murray to see whether or not Nick should be taken away from him and put in a foster home.  Amundson is a typical character in a nonconformist movie, someone who is anal, who thinks everything must be in its place, and that everyone must act in strict accordance with his sense of propriety. And as the world never manages to live up to his rigid standards, he always seems to be on the verge of losing control of himself.  The movie needs such a character to convince us that conformity is bad, so nonconformity, by default, must be good.  In other words, if Amundson were your typical social worker, a fairly normal person, we would conclude that Murray was wrong to act the way he does.  By making Amundson so ridiculously uptight, the movie hopes to persuade us that Murray’s way must be the right way.  William Daniels, who plays Amundson, is perfect for this kind of role, if such a role is required, which is the case here, unfortunately.

After Murray talks loud and acts crazy in front of Amundson and Markowitz for fifteen minutes, with Nick doing the same, we eventually get the serious reason why Nick is with Murray.  When Nick was five, his mother abandoned Nick, leaving him at Murray’s apartment.  No one knows who the father was.  Normal social workers would be glad that a relative is taking care of Nick and would probably want him to have legal custody, because that is preferable to putting Nick in a foster home. But not so in this movie.

And then, just to add to the absurdity of it all, Nick does not have an official name.  The explanation given is that since Nick was a bastard, his mother decided not to give him a last name.  And since she didn’t give him a last name, she didn’t want to give him a first name either.  As I mentioned above, this is a fake world.  If an unwed mother refuses to name a child, the name will be assigned by the state, typically giving the child the mother’s maiden name, and picking a common first name to complete the process.  The only way her child could avoid having an official name would be if there were no birth certificate.  So, what did his mother do, have him under a bridge?

Dr. Markowitz is a fairly normal person and thus more like a typical social worker. However, she was engaged to Amundson, and they quarrel while at Murray’s apartment.  He leaves without her, and she becomes hysterical.  But soon it is that she and Murray fall in love.  And you know what that means.  She wants him to give up his nonconformist ways and get a job.  And the principal reason why Murray should do this, according to the movie, is emphasized over and over again, that only by getting a job can he retain custody of Nick.

Amundson returns the next day to explain the situation to Murray:

Late yesterday afternoon, the Child Welfare Board made a decision on your case. Now, uh, the decision they’ve reached is based on three months of a thorough study.

Since Murray has been receiving unemployment checks for five months, the investigation apparently started two months after he quit his job.  Boy, that Child Welfare Board is really on top of things!  Amundson continues:

Our interview yesterday was only a small part of that.  Quite thorough.  I want you to understand that I am not responsible personally for the decision they’ve reached….  Months of research by the board and reports by the Revere School show a severe domestic instability, a libertine self indulgence, a whole range of circumstances severely detrimental to the child’s welfare.

Amundson informs Murray that it is the board’s decision to remove Nick from his home and find a place for him where he can lead a normal, wholesome life, even though he admits that Murray loves Nick:

Now, I believe that you are a danger to this child.  … I wish this were not true, because it is obvious you have considerable affection for your nephew.  It shows in your face, this feeling.  Well, I admire you for your warmth, Mr. Burns, and for the affection the child feels for you.

Meanwhile, all over the city, children are being physically and sexually abused, but it appears the Child Welfare Board won’t have time to get to them.  They’re too busy worrying about Murray’s bohemian life style.

The most reasonable spokesman for conformity is Murray’s brother, Arnold (Martin Balsam).  He tries to explain to Murray the virtues of conformity, with special emphasis on the fact that the state will take Nick away from him if he does not get a job.  But while he goes on at length trying to persuade Murray to go back to work, the one argument that never seems to occur to him or anyone else in this movie is the one that is the most obvious:  eventually the unemployment checks will stop, and with no source of income, Murray will be evicted from his apartment, and he and Nick will have to live under that bridge where presumably Nick was born.  The steady drumbeat of how the state will take Nick away from Murray, if he does not get a job, is supposed to distract us from the main reason people have jobs, even if they do not have a child to take care of, which is that they need a paycheck.

The way this movie is oblivious to the need for a job, for the simple reason you need money to live on, reminds me of a guy I knew in my senior year of college.  When I mentioned something about having to find work after I graduated, he dismissed my concerns with disdain, saying, “You don’t have to work. That’s just what you’ve been brainwashed to believe by the establishment.”  He said this without irony, as if the fact that he had been sleeping on his friend’s couch for the last six months was a permanent option, and one available to us all.

Auntie Mame is similar to A Thousand Clowns in that both movies involve someone who has custody of a nephew, but at least Mame has enough money to live independently when the movie starts.  It’s a whole lot easier to be a nonconformist when you’re rich.  The family members in You Can’t Take It with You, on the other hand, are not rich, but they are contemptuous of ordinary work, just as Murray is. They have the philosophy that everyone should just do what he wants to do, and somehow enough money can be made doing whatever that is to get by.  But they are like that guy I knew who slept on his friend’s couch, for they are supported by Jean Arthur’s character, the one person in the family with a real job.

Just as Amundson is supposed to make conformity look repulsive in this movie so that we will side with Murray in his refusal to conform, so too are the jobs Murray is offered so repulsive that we are supposed to side with Murray in his refusal to go back to work. But he lives in New York, and there are more jobs in that city than those that have something to do with producing a television show. Nevertheless, Murray agrees to go back to work for Leo, writing material for Chuckles, the Chipmunk.  But Arnold warns him that he won’t be home free just because he has a job:

Now, my agency lawyer gave me all the facts.  The most the board will allow you is a probationary year with Nick, a trial period, and the board’s investigators are going to be checking up on you every week, regularly:  checking to see that you still have your job, checking with Leo on your stability, checking up on the improvements in your home environment.

They will be watching his every move!

So, there is little for Murray to do but take that job and marry Sandra, allowing him to retain custody of Nick.

In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, which was published in 1986, Danny Peary remarks that the movie, once a cult hit, no longer holds up:  “Today its sellout conclusion, in which the nonconformist lead character willingly sacrifices his way of life because of familial responsibility, doesn’t sit well.”  He suggests that the movie The Kid (1921), a Charlie Chaplin movie, had a better resolution.  But for this movie to have an ending like the one in The Kid, that would have required that Nick’s mother turn up, having become a wealthy woman somehow, ready to regain custody of Nick and, presumably, to let Murray sleep on her couch.

But more to the point, the movie is no longer the cult hit it once was, not because of the “sellout conclusion,” but because people no longer buy the premise.  I’m sure that guy I knew in college, who was contemptuous of the notion of having to work for a living, wore out his welcome, sleeping on his friend’s couch, and eventually had to face the cold, cruel world that expected him to get off his butt and get a job. Society no longer puts up with nonsense like that once you turn thirty.  He and a lot of other idealistic hippies may have loved A Thousand Clowns while being supported by their parents or managing to sponge off others, but found that it lost its charm when they ended up having to go to work to pay the bills just like everyone else.

Insignificance (1985)

Insignificance imagines how four cultural icons, referred to as the Professor (Michael Emil), the Actress (Theresa Russell), the Senator (Tony Curtis), and the Ballplayer (Gary Busey), obviously corresponding to Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio, might have met and interacted.

Early in the movie, Einstein and Marilyn are in the same hotel room together, and by using a bunch of props that happen to be available, like balloons and flashlights, she gives a lively demonstration of her understanding of relativity theory, much to Einstein’s delight.  Presumably, this scene is supposed to warm our hearts that Marilyn, whose screen persona was that of a dumb blonde, was actually smart enough to grasp the essentials of Einstein’s theory.  And, by extension, it is supposed to make us feel smart in the bargain, for what Marilyn is saying is easy to understand, so those watching the movie who have little familiarity with the theory are flattered into thinking they understand it too.

Unfortunately, Marilyn has it all wrong.  That is to say, Terry Johnson, who wrote the script for the play and the screenplay for the movie, got it all wrong.  Johnson, by way of Marilyn, makes a mistake not uncommon for someone making his first attempt to understand the idea that a clock moving at a high rate of speed will run slow, according to Einstein’s special theory of relativity.  If, as a clock on a spaceship moves away from the Earth, it sends a signal back to Earth every second, it will appear to be running slow, because each successive signal has farther to travel.  But it doesn’t take a genius like Einstein to realize that you have to take into account the spaceship’s speed and distance from the Earth.  In fact, allowing for that speed and distance in recording the signals coming from the clock is something any second-rate physicist would know to do.  Actually, it is probably something that would occur to a liberal arts major.  The time dilation predicted by Einstein’s theory, however, is an actual slowing down of a clock that can be observed even after you allow for the extra time it takes for each signal to reach the Earth.

As a result, the movie’s attempt to show how smart Marilyn is completely fails.  It reminds me of the gaffe in The Wizard of Oz (1939), when the Scarecrow tries to show how smart he has become once the Wizard has given him a diploma.  He supposedly enunciates the Pythagorean Theorem, but he botches it so badly that he enunciates a formula that is not true of any triangle that has ever existed.

In the case of The Wizard of Oz, however, one’s enjoyment of the movie is not impaired by the Scarecrow’s mistake even for those who are aware of it.  Insignificance, however, would not have been much of a movie even if Marilyn had gotten Einstein’s theory right, and the fact that she didn’t only makes things worse.

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

In a small town in Arkansas, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) works for her uncle, the owner of a local radio station, as a roving reporter doing a program called “A Face in the Crowd,” where she interviews plain, ordinary folks.  When the movie opens, she has decided to go to the county jail to see if there is anyone of interest there.  Because Sheriff Big Jeff Bess is sweet on her, she has no trouble getting access.  After several inmates turn away from her attempts to get them to tell a story or sing a song, the sheriff suggests the new guy with the guitar, arrested on drunk and disorderly.  When the deputy goes over to wake him up, someone hollers out, “Better watch him.  He’s mean.”  Sure enough, when the deputy kicks him, the inmate, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), turns around with a face full of hate.  He softens up, however, when he sees Marcia.  Still, he refuses to cooperate until he knows what he will get out of it.  The sheriff promises to let him go in the morning.  Suddenly, Rhodes becomes quite charming.  As he picks up his guitar, Marcia, speaking into the tape recorder, talks about how she majored in music at Sarah Lawrence College, where she learned that the real American music comes from the bottom up.  “When George Gershwin played in New York,” she says, “it was black tie, but the real beginning of it was by folks that never owned a tie.”

We might call this populist music, which comes from the lower classes and is somehow more authentic and genuine than the elitist music that comes from the scions of well-to-do families, who study at musical conservatories, learn to read sheet music, and acquire a theoretical understanding of the subject.  Furthermore, Marcia limits this observation to American music, because part of the ideology of America is the belief that anyone with talent can make it, there being no class barriers to hold him back.  Another part of that ideology is a faith in the common folk, those that never owned a tie, to determine through the democratic process what kind of government they will have and who shall preside over it.  It is this ideology that underlies what follows.

Continuing with her introduction, she nicknames him “Lonesome Rhodes.”  He tells her he needs to warm up first, and in doing so, puts on a great performance, which Marcia secretly tapes, and which turns out to be quite a hit when played on the radio.  His ability to be great in an unscripted, unrehearsed, spontaneous manner dovetails nicely with Marcia’s populist theory of music.

Marcia is so fascinated with Lonesome’s performance that she has failed to ingest the crucial information provided to her and to us right at the beginning, that he is mean and selfish.  But that is not the worst of it.  People who are consistently mean and who always want to know what’s in it for them are easy to deal with.  You simply avoid them.  But the way Lonesome switches to a completely opposite personality (the one we usually associate with Andy Griffith) in an instant, becoming charming, friendly, and funny, is what makes such people unnerving.  These are the kind of people we should really avoid, but often fail to do so because their affable side is so appealing.

Part of Lonesome’s appeal is his ability to speak to the cares and joys of ordinary people, especially working class, to whom he shows great affection.  Eventually, he becomes so popular that he is offered a spot on the Grand Ole Opry by a theatrical agent who compares him to Will Rogers, saying that Lonesome is not merely someone who can sing catchy songs and tell funny stories, but someone with power.  He accepts the offer, taking Marcia with him, as his “girl Friday.”  As they board the train, he waves goodbye to his fans in that little town in Arkansas, turns around and says, “Boy, I’m glad to shake that dump.”

Now, a lot of us make an effort to get along with people, sometimes pretending to like them more than we actually do.  But most of us keep our actual feelings to ourselves, perhaps revealing them only in quiet moments at night, while talking to a close friend.  But there is something detestable about someone who smiles one minute and sneers the next, who feigns affection for someone, only to express utter contempt for him as soon as he is out of hearing.

Marcia is stunned by Lonesome’s remark.  He assures her he was just joking, saying, “You ought to know better than to believe everything I say.”  The irony is that he is actually giving her good advice, but only if she reverses its intended meaning.  She smiles, thinking that she should not believe him when he says something that sounds mean, when, in fact, it is when he is being nice that she should not believe him.

His first night on the set, he brings out a poor black woman whom he found wandering the street late at night because her house burned down and she and her children had nowhere to go.  He asks everyone to send in fifty cents to help out.  The plea turns out to be wildly successful.  This scene drives home the point that he could be a force for good, if he wanted to, but his real motive is manipulative, just a way of making himself popular.  In fact, later in the movie, he calls an African American waiter a “black monkey.”  But at least the woman got herself a new house.

The success of his show leads to businesses wanting him to advertise their products.  His methods are unorthodox, but vastly more successful than the usual kind of commercial.  As he becomes increasingly successful and popular, even having a ship and a mountain named after him, he starts having an affair with Marcia.  She is in love with him, but he continues to fool around with other women, and a wife even turns up.  He promises to get a quickie divorce in Mexico, but then comes back married to Betty Lou Fleckum (Lee Remick), a seventeen-year-old majorette.

During all this, we see that there are two kinds of people.  On the one hand, there are the poorly educated, working-class people who are all taken in by Lonesome’s shtick; on the other hand, there are the well-educated, sophisticated members of the professional class who merely see him as someone that can be useful to them.  Marcia is a bit of both, her mind clouded by having fallen in love with him.  In other words, this is an elitist movie.  While it primarily is telling the story of a man that is dangerous because of his powers of persuasion, its subliminal message is that it is the lower classes that are dangerous, because they are the ones who fall for Lonesome’s act, and they can vote in elections just like everyone else.

This danger becomes manifest when General Haynesworth gets Lonesome to consult with Senator Worthington Fuller on his presidential campaign.  Along with a bunch of big shots, they watch a boring, platitudinous presentation on film.  Fuller admits, “I know that’s not what the American people want to hear, but I think I know what’s best for them.”

Now, Fuller certainly has an elitist attitude, but it is not the same elitist stance as that of the movie, a stance that is represented by Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), a writer assigned to Lonesome, but who doesn’t have much to do, because Lonesome never works from a script.  In other words, we normally associate elitism with liberalism and progressivism, with the Democratic Party.  But it would be a very different movie if Senator Fuller were a Democrat.  That is to say, it would be a very different movie if Fuller were hiring Lonesome to help him push a liberal agenda, say, advocating desegregation, universal health care, and more aid to education.  And it would be different in a bad way, at least from the standpoint of the leftwing orientation of this movie, for it would put liberals in a bad light, showing them to be cynically employing a huckster like Lonesome Rhodes to manipulate the public for their own political ends.  Therefore, it is essential that Fuller be a rightwing conservative.

Actually, the word “elitism” so strongly connotes liberalism that the term “conservative elitism” almost seems to be an oxymoron.  There is such a thing as a conservative elitist, of course, but he is referred to by other names, Rockefeller Republican, Wall Street Republican, establishment Republican, or simply moderate Republican.  A major difference is that liberals are more comfortable with the idea that educated professionals should run the government, whereas conservatives tend to have an anti-intellectual philosophy in which the ordinary man is best suited to run things.  As a banner displaying one of Lonesome’s quotes says, “Nothing is as trustworthy as the ordinary mind of the ordinary man.”

When Fuller appears on Lonesome Rhodes Cracker Barrel Show, designed to showcase the senator in a way to make him acceptable to just plain folks, Lonesome asks him what his opinion is on the subject of “more and more and more social security,” understood in the broad, generic sense to include not only Social Security proper, but also welfare and unemployment insurance.  Fuller answers that people worry too much about security, protection, coddling from the cradle to the grave, which weakens the moral fiber.  He talks about how Daniel Boone never needed unemployment insurance or an old-age pension.  All he needed was his axe and his gun.  And so, Lonesome Rhodes is the means to getting the gullible yahoos in the audience to elect a man like Fuller, who promotes the rightwing agenda of dismantling the welfare state.

As noted above, Mel represents the movie’s elitist liberal standpoint, but in an understated way.  We never hear Mel express a political opinion.  We simply observe that he is not taken in by Lonesome, who is the subject of the exposé he is writing, Demagogue in Denim, and he does not like Fuller, saying, “He has the courage of his ignorance.”  Since Mel’s positions are unstated, it is easy to identify with him, because we can just fill in the blanks with our own views.  Marcia thinks that Mel is going too far, that Lonesome is still basically a decent country boy who is overwhelmed the powerful people that surround him.  In addition to representing the liberal elite, Mel also plays the role of the nice guy whose frustration is that girls, even the nice ones, always seem to go for the scoundrels.  In other words, he is in love with Marcia.

The threat of a Fuller presidency becomes even greater when Lonesome says Fuller will make him Secretary for National Morale, effectively making Lonesome the power behind the throne.  Marcia finally realizes how dangerous Lonesome is.  In the control room during a live broadcast of the Cracker Barrel, after Lonesome has been talking about guns, God, and family in connection with Senator Fuller, Marcia turns the stage microphone back on after the show is supposedly over, and people across the nation hear Lonesome refer to them as morons and idiots, saying they are so stupid that he can make them believe anything.

This is not the typical open-mic situation, in which a politician is caught making an injudicious remark when he did not realize the microphone was picking up what he was saying; and which the newspaper headline compares to “Uncle Don,” the host of a children’s radio show, who supposedly referred to his young listeners as “the little bastards” after he thought the show was over, although that story is now thought to be apocryphal.  Unlike those situations, this is no accident.  America is saved from Lonesome and a Fuller presidency by a deliberate act of will, by Marcia’s intervention.  In other words, now that Marcia is of the same opinion as Mel, she too represents the movie’s political point of view, that it is the liberal elite that must save America from being taken in by rightwing populism.

Mel tells Lonesome that he will probably be on television again after a cooling-off period, because a lot of people have short memories, but it will never be the same.  Soon there will be someone else that reminds them of Will Rogers.  We even see a scene in which Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa), who helped Lonesome hustle his way to the top as his New York agent, has a new client ready to step in and take Lonesome’s place.  Actually, this is the one weak spot of the movie.  A man like Lonesome comes along once in a lifetime.  And even if DePalma’s new client were just as talented as Lonesome, the public would not be ready for anyone even remotely like him for a long time.

At the end of the movie, Mel tells Marcia, who feels guilty for having been the one to create this Frankenstein monster, “We were all taken in.  But we get wise to him.  That’s our strength.  We get wise to him.”  In other words, liberal elites like Mel and Marcia get wise to him, but it is up to them to protect the gullible public from themselves by writing books like Demagogue in Denim or by turning the sound back on to reveal the real person behind the façade.  Or by making movies like A Face in the Crowd.

Theoretically, there is no reason that Senator Fuller could not have been a Democrat.  Lonesome did not believe in anything but himself, and so he would have been just as glad to ask Fuller, “What do you plan to do about poverty in this country?” to which Fuller would reply, addressing the sorts of issues appropriate for 1957, “We need to end racial discrimination, guarantee health care for the elderly, and provide federal aid for education.”  And then, Marcia, being a far right conservative, horrified at the creeping socialism that this would entail, turns on the microphone while Lonesome is insulting his audience, thereby ruining Fuller’s chance of being president and all but guaranteeing the election of a Republican.

In general, Democrats would probably not have liked such a movie.  First, it would have suggested something hypocritical and manipulative about elitist Democratic politicians.  Second, there would have been nothing frightening to Democrats about the senator’s political agenda.  Of course, that hypothetical agenda was eventually enacted, but we have to imagine ourselves as being in 1957 when the movie was made.  And third, the hero (Marcia) would have been a conservative Republican.

But would not this version have been most pleasing to the people on the right?  After all, Republicans go to the movies and buy tickets just like Democrats, so it would seem that money could be made catering to their attitudes and values.  And just as liberals would not have cared for my imagined, right-wing version, I suspect conservatives didn’t care for the left-wing movie that actually exists.

One explanation is that Hollywood is predominantly liberal in its politics, something conservatives are always claiming.  But movies with a conservative slant do get made from time to time.  After all, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was made into a movie in 1949, which is actually quite good.  And since that movie also starred Patricia Neal as a Rand heroine, espousing her own version of the will to power right along with the men, her persona would have been just right for the conservative version of A Face in the Crowd that my imagination has conjured up.

Perhaps the problem is that the left-wing agenda that I imagined for a liberal Senator Fuller just would not have been as scary to conservatives as the right-wing agenda of the senator in the actual movie.  And it needs to be scary for dramatic purposes.  So, let us imagine something a little scarier, something suitable for present-day politics.  Fuller could come out and say that we need to repeal the Second Amendment, declare a second amnesty for illegal immigrants, and provide federal funds for abortions.  I think that would present a more frightening specter of liberalism for the conservative audience, who would cheer when Marcia turned on the microphone and saved the day.

As there are enough conservatives in this country to elect a Republican president, control Congress, elect conservative governors and state legislators, there are enough conservatives to buy tickets to see a conservative version of A Face in the Crowd for it to make a profit.  And a lot of us Democrats would be perverse enough to buy tickets too, for the sheer masochistic thrill of it all.  And the way Hollywood is not shy about producing remakes, with alterations to suit the times, the movie is ripe for another treatment.  I feel certain that we will never see a remake of this movie, at least not the conservative version that I am thinking of, but as to what this feeling of certainty is based on, I cannot say.

Perhaps we liberals really do control Hollywood after all.

The Believer (2001)

The Believer is based on a true story about a Jew who became an anti-Semite.  His reasons for hating Jews are fascinating but difficult to discuss. Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), the Jewish anti-Semite in this movie, is able to reveal his reasons for hating Jews and give further reasons for what to do about them because he is a Jew.  But as I am not a Jew, my repeating what he said in a review almost seems to be off limits.  It is a variation on the old principle, “I can criticize my family, but you cannot.”  It is the same as when a black comedian is able to get away with using derogatory words to refer to African Americans because he is one, while a white comedian would be pilloried for using those very same words.  Nevertheless, the ideas advanced in this movie may actually provide insight into anti-Semitism and thus are worth understanding, even if those are ideas are repugnant.

As the movie opens, we see Danny working out with dumbbells, making it clear that strength is important to him.  His head is shaved, and on his arm, we see a tattoo of the triskele, a three-sided swastika.  What we hear, however, is a flashback to a time when Danny was a young boy in school.  The teacher is telling the story of when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  The teacher asks the class what the meaning of the story is, and a boy gives the standard answer, that it was “a test of Abraham’s faith and devotion to God.”  Then the teacher calls on Danny, noting, somewhat derisively, that as usual Danny has something to add.  Danny replies that it is not about Abraham’s faith, but about God’s power:  “God says, ‘You know how powerful I am?  I can make you do anything I want, no matter how stupid.  Even kill your own son, because I’m everything and you’re nothing.’”

The scene changes to a subway station, where we see a teenager wearing a yarmulke.  He looks down as he walks, as if he is afraid to look anyone in the eye.  He gets on the subway, sits down, and opens a textbook, with his shoulders squeezed together, as if trying to make himself as small as possible.  He wants for all the world to be left alone.  But it is no good, because Danny sees him.  Filled with hatred, Danny begins stepping on the boys shoes, until the boy gets off the train.  Danny follows him knocks the book out of his hand.  The boy just stands there meekly.  Danny picks up the book and sees that it is a textbook from an institution that teaches Orthodox Judaism.  Danny hits the boy, knocking him down, and then starts kicking him.  As he does so, he alludes to the story of Abraham, asking the boy if he thinks this is a test, if God is going to provide a ram instead of him.

Then he tells the boy to hit him.  “Do me a favor.  Why don’t you fucking hit me.  OK?  Hit me!  Hit me!  Hit me!  Hit me!  Fucking hit me, please!  You fucking kike!”  At first, this sounds like the standard act of a bully, sticking his chin out, daring someone to hit him, after which he intends to beat him up.  But it is more than that.  Danny really wants the boy to hit him.  And that is because what Danny hates about Jews is that they won’t fight.

At this point, we must stop and ask the obvious question:  Is it true that Jews won’t fight?  The answer would seem to be “No.”  The Old Testament is full of stories about Hebrews fighting.  The history of organized crime in America includes Jews like Bugsy Siegel, Arnold Rothstein, and Meyer Lansky, who didn’t get where they were by being afraid to fight.  More respectably, of course, there are the Jews of Israel, whose willingness to fight is beyond question.  However, as important as it is to note this discrepancy between what Danny believes and the facts, let us simply continue with what Danny believes for the moment.

Danny locates a fascist group on the internet headed by Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), and he and three of his friends attend a meeting, where Zampf is comparing the good old days with the way things are now, which is bad.  He says that is why he is a fascist, because only a fascist government can straighten things out.  When a man asks about race, Zampf says this isn’t the time for that, even though he did make reference to all the black faces one now sees in the neighborhood.  Danny interrupts, saying that race is central to problem, that the modern world is a Jewish disease, the disease of abstraction.  And the solution to that disease, he says, is “killing Jews.”  Zampf objects, saying that it will be Germany all over again.  “Isn’t that what we want,” Danny replies, “Germany all over again, only done right this time?”  Later in the movie, when one of his neo-Nazi friends suggests that the holocaust was a hoax, Danny replies, “If Hitler didn’t kill six million Jews, why in the hell is he a hero?”  As far as Danny is concerned, if Hitler didn’t kill all those Jews, then he was a “putz.”

Danny says that people hate Jews, but then qualifies it:  “The very word [Jew] makes their skin crawl.  And it’s not even hate.  It’s the way you feel when a rat runs across the floor.  You want to step on it.  You just want to crush it.”  So, it’s a kind of hate arising out of disgust.  Danny says, “You don’t even know why.  It’s a physical reaction, and everyone feels it.”  But as we have already seen, from the example of the Jewish boy he bullied, as well as the example of God and Abraham, it is the refusal of the Jew to fight back Danny believes is the cause of that feeling.

In another flashback to that day in the classroom, we hear another student point out that Abraham never killed Isaac, because God provided a ram as a substitute.  First, Danny argues that Abraham really did kill Isaac on that day, just as God wanted, but that the story was changed later to make it more acceptable.  Then Danny points out that even if the traditional story was the correct one, once Isaac raised his hand with the knife in order to plunge it in, he had already killed Isaac in his heart.  Abraham, Danny continues, would never have been able to forget that and neither would Isaac.  Furthermore, he says, the whole Jewish people were permanently scarred.

One of the people at the meeting headed by Zampf was a free-lance reporter, Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles), who is doing research on right-wing groups.  When Danny started speaking, he could immediately see that there was something special about Danny’s ideas.  He manages to get Danny to agree to an interview.  Guy asks Danny to elaborate on his remark at the meeting to the effect that the modern world is a Jewish disease.  Danny begins, “In this racialist movement we believe there is a hierarchy of races.  You know, whites at the top, blacks at the bottom.  Asians, Arabs, Latins somewhere in between.”

Conspicuous by its absence is the place of the Jews in this hierarchy, even though it is supposedly an answer to the “Jewish disease” question.  It is almost as if the Jews cannot be ranked with the rest because they are qualitatively different from the others.  Guy presses Danny about the Jewish disease.

Danny begins by using sexuality as an example.  He asserts that Jews are obsessed with oral sex because a Jew is essentially female.  “Real men—white, Christian men—we fuck a woman.  We make her come with our cocks.  But a Jew doesn’t like to penetrate and thrust.  He can’t assert himself in that way, so he resorts to these perversions….  So after a woman’s had a Jewish man, she’s ruined.  She never wants to be with a normal partner again.”  When Guy asks if that means the Jew is a better lover, Danny says it does not.  “I said he gives pleasure.  That’s actually a weakness.”

This notion that a Jew is essentially female goes with his views that Jews will not fight, because physical fighting tends to be a masculine trait.  As for this last remark that giving pleasure is a weakness, it is interesting that Danny’s girlfriend, Carla Moebius (Summer Phoenix), whom he met at the Zampf meeting, told Danny she wanted him to hurt her just before they had sex, and the next morning she had a bruise on her mouth.  I guess she is his kind of woman.

Danny continues, saying that the Jews control the media and investment banks, and “they carry out in those realms the exact same principles they display in sexuality.  They undermine traditional life and they deracinate society.  Deracinate.  Tear out the roots.  A real people derives its genius from the land, from the sun, from the sea, from the soil.  That is how they know themselves.  But Jews don’t even have soil.”  Guy makes the obvious objection that Jews in Israel have their own soil, their own country, but Danny responds that the Israelis are not Jews.

If we balked at the notion that Jews will not fight, Danny’s declaration that Israelis are not Jews seems preposterous.  However, this is not the first time I have heard this claim.  Most notably, Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative is, not surprisingly, a book about the importance that territory plays in the behavior of many animals, including man.  He argues that Jews are not a race the way Caucasians or Negroes are, but are a group of people distinguished by their lack of territory.  Once they acquired territory, the citizens of Israel ceased to be Jews.  According to Ardrey, people in Israel are different in every way from the Jews of the Diaspora:

It is not just physique.  It is posture, a manner of walking, a manner of speaking, a manner of thought.  The “Jewish personality” has vanished, replaced by that of the Israeli, a being as confident, as resolute, and as willing to do battle as a roebuck on his wooded acres.  You go to a party in Tel-Aviv and someone asks the inevitable question, “How do you like Israel?” and you answer, “Fine.  But where are the Jews?” And the party goes off into the greatest laughter, for it is the nation’s joke.  [p. 286]

The fact that Ardrey and Danny are in agreement does not mean they are right, of course.  But the point is that as bizarre as Danny’s claim that Israelis are not Jews seems to be, it is not unique to him.  If it is an instance of the no true Scotsman fallacy, it is apparently a common one.

Danny continues with this line of reasoning: “Notice the Israelis.  It’s fundamentally a secular society.  They no longer need Judaism because they have soil.  The real Jew is a wanderer.  He’s a nomad.  He’s got no roots and no attachments, so he universalizes everything.  He can’t hammer a nail or plough a field.  All he can do is buy and sell and invest capital, manipulate markets.  And it’s, like, all mental.  He takes the life of a people rooted in soil and turns it into a cosmopolitan culture based on books and numbers and ideas.  You know, this is his strength.”

When Danny said at the meeting that the Jewish disease was the disease of abstraction, we may not have understood what he meant, but the above quotation gives us a fuller sense of what he was driving at.  He continues:  “Take the greatest Jewish minds:  Marx, Freud, Einstein.  What have they given us?  Communism, infantile sexuality, and the atom bomb.  In the three centuries it’s taken these people to emerge from the ghettos of Europe, they’ve ripped us out of a world of order and reason, thrown us into class warfare, irrational urges, relativity, into a world where the very existence of matter and meaning is in question.  Why? Because it’s the deepest impulse of a Jewish soul to pull at the very fabric of life till there’s nothing left but a thread.  They want nothing but nothingness, nothingness without end.”

The reporter is awed by the intricate weaving of ideas that Danny puts forth, but then asks him how he can believe all this when he is a Jew himself, something he discovered in the course of his investigations.  Danny becomes angry, threatening to sue Guy if he publishes that.  He sticks a pistol in Guy’s mouth and says he will kill himself if he prints that.  His anger is in part that he is ashamed of being a Jew, but it is also in part that he is still struggling with his Jewishness, with his affinity for the Jewish race.  His threat to commit suicide is a harbinger of what is to come.

In the earlier scene where Danny tried to get the Jewish boy to hit him, I argued that this was more than a bully’s dare.  It was, in a strange way, a desire to help the boy, to get him to fight.  Danny hates the Jew, but he also loves the Jew.  This struggle against his Jewishness becomes clearer as the movie progresses.

After deliberately provoking a fight in a kosher restaurant by making fun of the dietary laws, Danny and his friends are ordered by the judge to undergo sensitivity training.  They listen to some survivors of the holocaust tell their stories.  A man tells of how a Nazi soldier bayoneted his three-year-old son right in front of him.  While Danny’s friends are sitting around with looks of insolence on their faces, we see, just barely, the moisture in Danny’s eyes.  He is clearly distressed by the story.  He berates the man for not fighting back against that soldier.  As he does so, his hands move across his face, as if to surreptitiously wipe the tears away.  A Jewish woman argues back, saying he would have been killed.  Danny replies that death would have been better than surviving with the memory of having done nothing.  Again the woman challenges that, quite effectively, pointing out that it is easy to talk like a hero, but braver men than Danny were broken by the Nazis.  Danny gets up saying that he and his friends have nothing to learn from the holocaust survivors, that they should be learning from Danny and his friends, to kill your enemy.

Throughout the movie, Danny has done more than talk about killing Jews.  He has been planning something, either an assassination or a bombing.  He and his friends break into a synagogue and begin trashing the place.  As they start to plant a bomb, someone discovers a Torah Scroll.  Danny becomes protective of it, while his friends want to desecrate it.  After they spit on it, tear it, and stomp on it, Danny carefully rolls it back up.  Somewhat later, as he carefully and lovingly tapes the torn part of the scroll back together, he fantasizes about being the Nazi soldier who bayoneted the child.  I’d say this guy is pretty mixed up.

When the bomb fails to go off, a Rabbi on television explains that the power cell in the timer gave out thirteen minutes before it was set to explode.  He goes on to say that once again God intervened to save the Jews.  He begins elaborating a kind of mystical doctrine in which God has thirteen attributes, the highest of which means “nothingness without end.”  When we heard Danny say, in the interview with Guy, that Jews want nothingness without end, many of us might have thought this was just part of his strange theory, but this statement by the Rabbi indicates that much of Danny’s thinking is based on his scholarly knowledge of Judaism.

At the Zampf meeting, Danny had talked about killing Ilio Manzetti, a Jewish investment banker.  One of his friends, Drake (Glenn Fitzgerald), who is a sharpshooter, asks Danny if he wants to kill a Jew, who turns out to be Manzetti.  When Manzetti walks out of the synagogue, Danny aims and shoots, but misses.  Drake accuses him of doing it on purpose.  Then he discovers that Danny is wearing a prayer shawl beneath his shirt.  “Fucking kike!” he exclaims.  “I knew it.”  They fight over the rifle, and Danny shoots Drake in the leg and gets away.

There is another flashback to that day in school when Danny gave his interpretation of the meaning of God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, which in some ways recapitulates the story of the Jew, his child, and the Nazi soldier.  As noted above, Danny had maintained that what really happened that day was that God did not substitute a ram at the last minute.  And just as Danny insisted that the Jew should have fought back against the Nazi, even if it cost him his life, so too does Danny think that Abraham should have fought back against God to protect Isaac.

Picking up where the last flashback left off, Danny continues, “The whole Jewish people were permanently scarred by what happened at Mount Moriah.  And we still live in terror.”  When a fellow student says that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Danny replies, “Fear of God makes you afraid of everything.  All the Jews are good at is being afraid, at being sacrificed.”  Someone asks if he even believes in God, to which Danny replies, “I’m the only one who does believe.  I see him for the power-drugged madman that he is.  And we’re supposed to worship this deity?  I say, ‘Never!’”  The teacher tells a student to go get Rabbi Springer to remove Danny from the class.  He then turns to Danny, saying that if Danny had come out of Egypt, God would have destroyed him in the desert with all those who worshipped the Golden Calf.  “Then let him destroy me now,” Danny replies defiantly.  “Let him crush me like the conceited bully that he is.”  He looks up, as if at God in Heaven, and says, “Go ahead.”  We next see Danny running from the classroom, going down the stairs, symbolically suggesting his descent into the world anti-Semitism, into hate, into Hell.

Carla’s mother, Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), and Zampf have decided to launch an intellectually serious fascist movement, and they want Danny to give speeches to help with the fundraising, rather than get involved in assassinations or bombings, because, as Lina says, they already have enough thugs.  He likes the idea, but he is disturbed both by the idea that he is an intellectual and by the idea of fundraising, presumably because he thinks of intellect and money as Jewish concerns.  In fact, he is so disturbed that he rushes outside and throws up.

Carla follows him outside, and starts kissing him.  Kissing someone who has just vomited is disgusting, and nothing like it has ever been seen in a mainstream movie before or since.  In the interview with Guy, we recall that Danny said that oral sex was a perversion, and sexual perversion is something Danny associates with Jews.  We have already seen that Carla likes Danny to hurt her during sex, and on a previous occasion, she invited him to her room, telling him to come to her window at midnight.  When he got there, she was humping on Zampf.  While Danny watched, she looked right at him and had an orgasm.  So, we have masochism, exhibitionism, and scatology (of a sort).  Presumably this represents another conflict of emotions for Danny in his sexual relationship with a perverted Gentile girl.

Danny gives a speech in front of a handful of people, most of whom admit to being anti-Semites.  Danny begins by posing a question as to why we hate the Jews.  “Do we hate them because they push their way in where they don’t belong?  Or do we hate them because they’re clannish and keep to themselves?  Because they’re tight with money, or because they flash it around?  Because they’re Bolsheviks or because they’re capitalists?  Because they have the highest IQs or because they have the most active sex lives?”

His audience is undoubtedly confounded by this, because he makes it clear that the reasons people give for not liking Jews are inconsistent.  He continues, “You want to know why we hate them?  Because we hate them.  Because it’s an axiom of civilization, that just as man longs for woman, loves his children, and fears death, he hates Jews.  There’s no reason.  And if there were, some smart-assed kike would try to prove us wrong, which would only make us hate them more.  And really, we have all the reasons we need in three simple letters:  ‘J,’ ‘E,’ ‘W.’ ‘Jew.’  You say it a million times, it’s the only word that never loses its meaning.”  Danny’s views seem to vacillate between giving reasons for hating Jews, such as that they won’t fight or they like abstractions, to saying that the hate is more fundamental than the reasons, which really don’t matter.

In the next scene, we see Danny talking to an investment banker who is willing to give a thousand dollars to the Zampf group, on account of an article that Danny wrote.  He advises Danny to forget about all that stuff about the Jews, not because the banker disagrees with Danny’s anti-Semitism, but because it just doesn’t play any more.  “There’s only the market,” he says, “and it doesn’t care who you are.”  When Danny says that people still need values and beliefs, the banker replies, “No, they don’t.  Not the smart ones.”  The banker agrees to give Danny as much as five thousand dollars, but adds, “When you fall off this horse, come see me.  I could show you how to make a lot of money.”

Danny says, “You’re a Jew.  You may not realize it, but you are.”

The banker shrugs.  “Maybe I am.  Maybe we’re all Jews now.  What’s the difference?”

And so, this banker is Danny’s opposite number.  Whereas Danny is a Jew who has become an anti-Semite, this investment banker is an anti-Semite who has become a Jew.  In a similar way, Carla, who has figured out that Danny is a Jew on account of his obsession with Jews, is becoming Jewish herself, learning Hebrew and wanting to observe the Sabbath.

Danny runs into some old friends of his, who are Jewish, and he is invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with them at a synagogue.  When he gets there, he gets into a heated argument with Avi (Judah Lazarus), with whom he used to argue all the time at school.  Avi accuses Danny of being a fascist, saying he thinks “Jews are wimps.”  When he says Danny is a Jewish Nazi, Danny replies that Avi is a Zionist Nazi, that Zionists acts like Stormtroopers.  A woman standing nearby asks, “And you hate them because they’re wimps or because they’re Stormtroopers?”  It is the very thing Danny warned about in his speech, the contradictory reasons people give for hating Jews.  In fact, there are cross-currents of inconsistency running back and forth through this movie too numerous to mention them all.  And the inconsistencies point back to Danny’s more fundamental point, that the hatred of the Jews is irrational, and reasons are something people struggle to come up with to make sense of their hatred.

The speech that Danny gave making this point was to an audience casually dressed, who appeared to be working class.  But following the scene at the synagogue, Danny is back at Lina’s house, which is filled with well-dressed people, “right-wing money,” as Lina puts it.  She has hopes that Danny’s speech will be what it takes to really get the movement going.

Danny gets before the crowd and begins singing a Jewish prayer.  He then explains why he did so:  “Who wants to destroy the Jews?  Who wants to grind their bones into the dust?  And who wants to see them rise again?  Wealthier, more successful, powerful, cultured, more intelligent than ever?  Then you know what we have to do?  We have to love them.  ‘What!  Did he say, “Love the Jews?”’  It’s strange, I know.  But with these people, nothing is simple.  The Jew says all he wants is to be left alone to study his Torah, do a little business, fornicate with his oversexed wife.  But it’s not true.  He wants to be hated.  He longs for our scorn.  He clings to it, as if it were the very core of his being.  If Hitler had not existed, the Jews would’ve invented him.  For without such hatred, the so-called Chosen People would vanish from the Earth.  And this reveals a terrible truth and the crux of our problem as Nazis.  The worse the Jews are treated, the stronger they become.  Egyptian slavery made them a nation.  The pogroms hardened them.  Auschwitz gave birth to the state of Israel.  Suffering, it seems, is the very crucible of their genius.  So, if the Jews are, as one of their own has said, ‘A people who won’t take “Yes” for an answer,’ let us say ‘Yes’ to them.  They thrive on opposition.  Let us cease to oppose them.  The only way to annihilate this insidious people once and for all is to open our arms, invite them into our homes, and embrace them.  Only then will they vanish into assimilation, normality, and love.  But we cannot pretend.  The Jew is nothing, if not clever.  He will see through hypocrisy and condescension.  To destroy him, we must love him sincerely.”

It is clear that this is not something that Danny has believed all along, but has only recently concluded as the last, logical, inexorable step in his philosophy.  If it is the essence of the Jew to be hated, as Danny has claimed, then only love will destroy him, will deprive him of the very thing he needs to be Jewish.  It also represents the synthesis of Danny’s own psychological struggle, the fact that he both hates and loves the Jew.

Danny has always been more than just the typical anti-Semite, has always taken things beyond what his audience is used to, starting when he was just a student in school; but this speech is so paradoxical and confusing to his audience that he starts losing them.  Guy, the reporter, moves forward through the crowd, for he is the one person in the room who is able to follow Danny’s reasoning.  He asks Danny if this destruction of the Jew through love would not make the Jew more powerful than he already is.

Danny answers, “Yes.  Infinitely more.  They would become as God.  It’s the Jews’ destiny to be annihilated so they can be deified.  Jesus understood this perfectly.  And look what was accomplished there with the death of just one enlightened Jew.  Imagine what would happen if we killed them all.”  With that, Danny suggests they accompany him in the Jewish prayer with which he began.  But, of course, the people in the room are leaving bewildered.

Lina is furious with Danny and wants him out of the organization, but she is interrupted by Zampf to come look at a news report that Manzetti has been assassinated.  Danny has been bothered for some time that he only talks about killing Jews but has never actually killed one.  He knows Drake was the assassin, and what really bothers him is that others suspect Danny did it, rubbing it in that it was not him.  And so, he reverts to hate.  And because the newspaper shows a picture of him as a boy and reveals that he is Jewish, his hatred becomes suicidal.

Danny and his friend plant a bomb in the pulpit of a synagogue timed to go off during Neilah, a service for Yom Kippur.  His friend tells him that the pulpit has been reinforced, which will inhibit the outward blast, but Danny says that all that matters is that the pulpit be destroyed.  Because Danny earlier said that he intended to daven, to recite the liturgical prayer at the service, it is beginning to look as though Danny intends a mass-murder-suicide.  When he arrives at the synagogue, he not only sees the people he was arguing with on Rosh Hashanah, but also Carla, who refuses to leave the service.  As he sits behind Carla, he again imagines himself as the Nazi bayoneting the child, but also imagines that he is the child’s father, who then attacks the Nazi, effectively struggling with himself as both Jew and Nazi.

Danny davens as he said he would, but as the clock approaches the designated time, he has a change of heart, telling everyone about the bomb and to get out of the room.  He remains at the pulpit, recalling the day in school when he defied God to destroy him.  And then the bomb explodes.  In the last moments of his life, he sees himself back at school as an adult, only this time climbing the stairs instead of descending.  His teacher tells him that maybe he was right, that Isaac was killed on Mount Moriah, but then was reborn in the world to come.  But Danny keeps ascending without really knowing toward what, toward nothingness.

Lean on Me (1989)

Before the movie Lean on Me begins, there is a prologue.  This one, however, is not exculpatory, just a statement to the effect that what we are about to see is a true story.  When the movie proper starts, we see Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) teaching class at Eastside High School in 1967. His students are intelligent, well-groomed, and well-behaved. The boys wear dress shirts with neckties.  He quits because the teachers union has sold out to the school board or something vague like that. Twenty years later, he is the principal of a grade school, where gum stuck under the desk is what passes for a discipline problem.  Back at Eastside High, however, the situation has become so bad it makes the one in Blackboard Jungle (1955) look like the Blackboard Tropical Rainforest. The students are the meanest, most vicious bunch of high-school hoodlums ever displayed on the big screen.  So, whereas in Blackboard Jungle, there was a contrast between two different schools at the same time, here the contrast is between the same school at two different times.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention one more difference:  much like the good school in Blackboard Jungle, all the clean-cut, intelligent students in Eastside High in 1967 were white; most of the students in the school twenty years later are black, many are brown, and a mere handful are white.

When I first started watching this movie, I wondered if the movie had been produced by the Ku Klux Klan, because it comes across as a racist’s worst nightmare, a depiction of what happens when you let those that aren’t white take over. But since the story is true, I guess those were the facts, and the people making the movie just went with it. And it helped that Clark was African American himself, which offset the racist implications. And while we are on the subject, you know that grade school with the bubblegum problem?  All those children were white as well.

Anyway, when Clark is asked to become the principal to help improve the students’ test scores, I wondered how he could possibly do anything with them. Well, I don’t want to take anything away from Clark, but not only does he have a bunch of burly security guards with him when he arrives, but on the second day, he also expels all the troublemakers. Anybody could straighten out a school with dictatorial powers like that. Think how much Dadier could have accomplished in Blackboard Jungle if, backed up by his own goon squad, he could have expelled West and his gang on the second day of class. And teachers that don’t do exactly what Clark tells them to do are suspended or fired at will.  By the time he is through, this school doesn’t even have a bubblegum problem.  In the end, the remaining students, who are still mostly black and brown, are seen to be basically good students that end up doing well on their test scores.  This counteracts any suggestion there may have been that the problems with Eastside High was that the students were no longer white.  But if the movie has ceased to be an argument for white supremacy, it has now become an argument for fascism.

Toward the end, a girl tells him she is pregnant, and he tells her he will talk to her about it later. We never hear that conversation or find out what she did about it. That way those who are pro-life can imagine her keeping the baby or giving it up for adoption, and those who are pro-choice can imagine her having an abortion. Hollywood has always known how to have things both ways.

The Godless Girl (1929)

In The Godless Girl, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Judy (Lina Basquette) and Bob (Tom Keene) are high school students. Judy is a militant atheist, who holds atheist rallies, accompanied by a monkey as a prop, whom she refers to as our cousin. Bob is a Christian fundamentalist who leads a bunch of like-minded Christians on a raid on one of those meetings. A mêlée breaks out, during which a girl accidentally dies. Bob and Judy are sent to a reform school. After enduring much brutality, they escape and fall in love. While bathing in a river, Judy admires the beauty of nature, made no less beautiful by a naked Judy, and she thinks how she might almost believe in a God who created it. Bob, on the other hand, recalling all horrors of the reform school, says there is no way he can believe in a God who would allow such things to happen.

So far there is balance between the two. But notwithstanding the fact that this is a pre-Code movie, I knew that it would be required that Judy pray to God before the movie was over. I thought of San Francisco (1936) and The Spiral Road (1962), where the atheists in those two movies end up getting on their knees and humbling themselves before God, and so I braced myself for the inevitable.

They are captured and returned to the reform school. Bob is handcuffed to the bench in his cell, but Judy is handcuffed to a pipe above her head, forcing her to stand with her arm extended upward. Within the movie, the difference between the way Bob and Judy are handcuffed seems to be just a matter of chance. But from outside the movie, it just did not make sense, since handcuffed like that she would not be able to use the bucket, but would have to foul her pants when she needed to defecate. Actually, having handcuffs on prisoners while locked in their cells does not make much sense anyway. I suspected there was a reason this was put in the movie, but I could not figure out what. Soon all was revealed. A fire breaks out in the reform school, and Judy is forgotten about as the flames close in around her. In desperation, she prays. It is a conditional kind of prayer, not exactly expressing full belief, but more importantly, because of the way she is handcuffed, she cannot kneel. She thus retains her dignity, literally standing tall, and thus figuratively as well.

After Judy is saved by Bob, they rescue the brutal guard, whose dying wish is that they be pardoned, and so they are. As they ride away from the prison, Bob curses the foul place, but Judy says that it was where they learned to believe and let believe. It is not clear exactly what each believes at this point, but they will clearly tolerate each other’s views, whatever they may be. More importantly, because we were not treated to a vulgar display of humiliation and self-abasement on the part of Judy, this is a movie an atheist can enjoy, regardless of what Judy may or may not believe in the end.

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

You Can’t Take It with You is one of those movies that show how wonderful it is being a free spirit, defying convention, and living life to the full.  It is premised on the profound insight that a goddamn job won’t make you happy.  A movie of this sort, however, must overcome a difficulty.  There are basically only two ways to avoid work, either by being rich or by depending on others for support.  As most of those in the audience work for a living by holding down a regular job, they will have a tendency to resent those that do not.

As a rule, we do not resent the rich per se, but only the idle rich.  No matter how much money a man might have, as long as he can be thought of as working in some manner or other, his wealth does not disturb us.  We might even imagine that he works harder than we do, putting in hours far beyond the traditional forty-hour work week.  It is only the rich that make no pretense at all of working, either because they just laze about all day, or because they party hard all night, that make us acutely aware of the unfairness of it all.

An example of the idle rich may be found in the movie Auntie Mame (1958).  The title character, played by Rosalind Russell, is financially independent when the movie starts, and she is free to live an unconventional life.  Then she loses it all when the stock market crashes, forcing her to have to hold down a few jobs, none of which she is suited for.  But then a rich oil man, played by Forrest Tucker, falls in love with her and marries her.  Then he dies, leaving her all his money, allowing her to go back to living life to the full.  The movie has many more complications, and I haven’t even mentioned her nephew, but no matter.  You get the idea.  If you have enough money, you don’t have to work, and if you don’t have to work, you can do your own thing.  In praising nonconformity in this way, the movie is essentially telling us we ought to be rich, as if we never thought of that before.  She clearly has advantages the rest of us don’t have, and she even looks down her nose at those who are not fortunate enough to be rich, saying, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

As for the freeloader, who depends on others for his support, it’s bad enough that we have to work while he does not, which is sufficient to cause resentment all by itself, but he does so at our expense.

An example of the freeloader is Uncle Murray in A Thousand Clowns (1965), played by Jason Robards.  He ridicules all the people in the city that go to work every day, while he collects unemployment checks, which are funded through the taxes paid by those that employ the very people he has contempt for.

Both Auntie Mame and Uncle Murray have a nephew.  It was important that the young relative in each case be a nephew rather than a child of their own.  We would look askance at someone who got married, had a child, and then decided to enjoy living unconventionally.  Once you have decided to have children, your days of being a free spirit are over.  But both Auntie Mame and Uncle Murray had custody of a nephew thrust upon them, so we can hardly blame them if they try to combine their duties as a guardian with their refusal to conform to the norms of respectability.

It was also important in each case that the young relative be a nephew rather than a niece.  A teenage boy exposed to such disregard for convention is no cause for alarm.  But the audience might have misgivings about letting a girl grow up in that environment, for there is the sense that girls need more protection and care than boys.

You Can’t Take It with You attempts to steer clear of either the Auntie Mame or the Uncle Murray solution to avoiding work as ordinarily understood.  It does so with limited success.  In fact, the difference between the movie and the play on which it is based is evidence of the tension that arises in trying to go between the horns of that dilemma.  First we’ll examine the movie, and then we’ll consider the play; because more people have seen the former than the latter.

The Movie

The movie begins on Wall Street, where Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) arrives in his chauffeur-driven, Rolls Royce limousine in front of a building with a plaque on it displaying the words “Kirby and Company.”  He has just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where he testified before the “Securities Commission.”  He is serious and abrupt as he moves with brisk determination into the elevator, on his way to his office on the top floor, where people are waiting, as per his instructions by telegram.  He takes a minute to greet his son Tony (James Stewart), whom he has recently made vice president in the firm, telling him he almost sent for him because he might have liked the White House.  Before getting down to business, he orders a bicarbonate of soda on account of digestion problems he has.  He is one of the industrious rich, the opposite of the idle rich referred to above.

He tells his associates that there will be no interference “from the powers that be.”  The way is clear for Kirby and Company to become the “largest individual monopoly in the world,” controlling “every type of war material.”  He continues, saying, “With the world going crazy, the next big move is munitions.  And Kirby and Company will cash in on it.”  One of his subordinates comments with wry amusement, “A war wouldn’t be possible anywhere without us.”

Because it can be a challenge to make the audience sympathize with characters in a movie that flout the work ethic, those that do believe in work are often portrayed as being unlikable, making it impossible to identify with them.  By default, we are forced to side with the ones that don’t want to work.  That is what is going on here.

Anyway, the only thing standing in Kirby’s way to having a complete monopoly in war material is a man referred to as Ramsey.  He owns factories that make bombs and bullets, and he refuses to allow his business to be absorbed by Kirby and Company.  But Kirby has been buying up all the property surrounding these factories, twelve blocks worth.  Once he owns it all, Ramsey won’t be able to sell his munitions because he won’t be able to move stuff in and out of the factories.  He’ll have to sell out to Kirby.  I don’t suppose I have to mention that this is absurd.  Just because you own the all the property in a neighborhood, that doesn’t mean you own the streets.  But this a Frank Capra movie, and his movies are full of nonsense like this.

The only thing holding up Kirby’s scheme to buy up all the surrounding property is Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), who refuses to sell.  Kirby’s real estate agent Blakely tells him Vanderhof’s house is only worth $25,000.  (Adjusted for inflation, the house is worth over $450,000 in today’s dollars.)  He says he’s offered him $50,000, but he still won’t sell.  His associate, Mr. Hughes, says Vanderhof isn’t interested in money.

When Blakely is informed by a receptionist that Vanderhof has arrived, Hughes asks, “How did you get him to come here?”  We never get an answer to that question.  But while Vanderhof is just standing around, he goes over to a Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek), who is busy adding columns of figures.  Vanderhof asks him why he is doing that, and if he wouldn’t rather be doing something else.  Poppins admits he likes to invent toys, and he surreptitiously shows Vanderhof a bunny that rises out of a hat and then drops back down while music plays.  Vanderhof says that is what Poppins should be doing all the time.  Poppins says, “Some day I am going to do nothing else.  Some day, when my ship comes in.”  Vanderhof invites him to quit his job, come live at his house, which is full of people who just do what they want to do.  There he could work on his gadgets.

And now Poppins asks the big question, the question that hangs over this movie:  “But how would I live?”  Vanderhof answers, “The same way we do.”  Poppins persists, “Well, who takes care of you?”  Vanderhof replies, “The same one that takes care of the lilies of the fields, Mr. Poppins.”  This is an allusion to Matthew 6:28, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his listeners not to worry about food and clothing, for the Lord will provide.

Blakely interrupts all this, offering Vanderhof a check for $100,000 for his house.  That’s over $1,800,000, adjusted for inflation.  Even if we stick with that original estimate of $25,000, which is, to repeat, over $450,000, adjusted for inflation, we must admit that it sure was nice of God to have provided the Vanderhof family with such an expensive house.  Anyway, Vanderhof shows no interest in the offer, telling Blakely that his eye twitch would probably go away if he took a vacation and went fishing.  Then he leaves, with Poppins chasing after him, having decided to become a lily.

When they arrive home, Poppins is introduced to the rest of the household.  There is “Grandpa” Vanderhof’s daughter Penny, who writes plays, and her husband Paul, who works on fireworks in the basement with a Mr. De Pinna, who used to be their iceman, but chose to become a lily too some nine years earlier.  There is Penny’s daughter Essie (Ann Miller), who makes and candy.  She is married to Ed (Dub Taylor), who delivers her candy to customers.  He also plays the xylophone and likes to print stuff up on his printing press.  Essie takes ballet lessons from a Russian named Kolenkhov.

I noted above that it was important that neither Auntie Mame nor Uncle Murray had a son, but were responsible only for a nephew.  In this case, Grandpa has a daughter, but she is in her early fifties.  In fact, there are no young children in the house at all.  Had there been, say, a fourteen-year-old girl living in that house, the audience might not have been so accepting of the environment she was being raised in.

Jesus didn’t say anything about God providing servants to cook and clean for you, but the lilies in this household have Rheba, a black woman, who is their cook and maid.  After all, being able to do just what you want to do does not include having to cook your own meals and clean your own house.  Fortunately for the white folks in the house, the Rheba hasn’t picked up yet on the idea that she should just do whatever she wants, otherwise she might forget about cooking and cleaning and just play the banjo.

Rheba is engaged to Donald (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson), who is on relief.  Now, we’ve already had one explanation as to how the members of this family can get along without having a real job, which is that the Lord will provide.  But Donald has a more realistic solution, which is to live on the government dole.  “I ain’t done nothing,” he says, “but I’m sure tired,” to which Rheba replies, “You was born tired.”  In the play, he complains that every week he has to stand in line for half an hour in order to get his relief check.  He thinks the government ought to be run better than that, because waiting in line like that breaks up his whole week.

Most of those in the Vanderhof house could apply for relief, if they had a mind to, but they are white.  As noted above, people don’t like freeloaders, those that are able to avoid work only because they are being supported by others, in this case, ordinary taxpayers.  The movie allows this for Donald because he is black, since the audience of 1938 expected no better from the “colored folks.”  He provides a little humor as the shiftless “coon.”  Had the white people in the house been on relief and having a good time at the expense of those that work for a living, people in the audience would not have been amused.

Of course, if this movie were made today, Donald would have to be white.  Having one white guy in this household depicted as being a lazy, welfare cheat could be funny.  But cast an African American in that role today, and the audience would definitely not be amused.  Rheba could remain black, since it is almost obligatory to have a miscegenous couple in a movie like this nowadays.  And while we are at it, I suppose it would be better to have Essie be a man, so that he and Ed could be the gay couple.  But I digress.

There is one more member of the Vanderhof family yet to be mentioned, and that is Essie’s sister Alice (Jean Arthur).  She is Tony’s secretary.  They are in love and want to get married.  We learn from Alice that “Grandpa” Vanderhof used to have a regular job, but one day he quit.  (In the play, it says that Grandpa is seventy-five years old, and he quit that job thirty-five years ago.)  He could have been rich, she says, but he wasn’t having any fun.  After he quit his job, he started collecting stamps.  He’s now an expert, she says, and he gets paid to appraise collections.

In addition to this source of income, there are hints, here and there, that the activities pursued by others in the house also bring in some money, though we have to wonder how much.  Paul and De Pinna sell their fireworks on the Fourth of July.  Essie makes and sells candy, but she doesn’t want to open a shop, because it would interfere with her ballet lessons, the cost of which may well offset whatever revenue she brings in from selling candy.  Penny writes plays, but we don’t hear about any of them having been performed on stage.  At one point, Ed remarks that his income from the previous year was $85.  Adjusted for inflation, that would be just over $1,500 today.

Adding it all up, we find it hard to believe that enough money is brought in to pay the bills, although that is more believable than the idea that God will provide for them like the lilies in the field.  As noted above, however, Alice is a secretary.  And while her income does not seem as though it would be enough to support the rest of her family, the movie would collapse without her.  While her relatives are engaging in activities that just look like hobbies, we are able to suspend disbelief and convince ourselves that they do bring in a little income with their stamps, plays, candy, and firecrackers, but only as long as Alice is there as the fundamental breadwinner.  But now the movie is teetering on making the rest of the family look like freeloaders, taking advantage of someone that works for a living.

When Tony and Alice are on a date, she tells him about how wonderful Grandpa is with his philosophy of just doing what you want to do, which is a whole lot more fun than holding down a job.  With feelings of regret, Tony tells of how in college he and a friend of his dreamed of figuring out how photosynthesis works, although no one in a Frank Capra movie would ever use a fancy word like that.  But then they graduated, and now his friend is selling cars while Tony has ended up being a banker.  He also mentions that his friend’s wife just had a baby, which as noted above, forecloses a lot of options when it comes to doing what you want rather than holding down a job.  Neither of them is very happy, but neither of them has the courage to do what Grandpa Vanderhof says they should.  But while this conversation is going on, we keep waiting for Tony to ask Alice, “So, why don’t you do what you want to do instead of being a secretary?”  But neither Tony nor anyone else in the movie asks her that question.  I might more easily believe that Mr. Kirby enjoys the prospect of becoming a war profiteer than I could ever believe that Alice is a secretary because that is what she loves doing more than anything else, because it’s so much fun.

Speaking of income, an Internal Revenue Agent shows up one night to talk to Vanderhof, because their records show that he hasn’t filed an income tax return for twenty-two years.  A ridiculous argument ensues between the two, in which Vanderhof says he hasn’t paid his taxes because he doesn’t believe in them.  He doesn’t think he would be getting anything from the government that he cares about.  The Internal Revenue Agent is flustered, as if the IRS has never come up against someone like that before.  After the agent leaves, Tony, who has arrived halfway through this conversation, tells Vanderhof that he might get into trouble for not paying his taxes.  Vanderhof allays his fears, saying, “No, not me. I was only having fun with him.  I don’t owe the government a cent.”  So, it looks as though appraising stamp collections is not as remunerative as Alice led us to believe.

Because selling fireworks on the Fourth of July would not bring in much income for the entire year, Poppins suggests promoting the Russian revolution as an occasion for celebrating with fireworks.  Ed says he can print up flyers to go in the boxes of candy that Essie sells, saying, “Watch for the Revolution.  It’s coming soon” and “Get your Red Flag from Sycamore.”  “Sycamore” is Paul’s last name.

Because Alice is just a secretary, Mrs. Kirby disapproves of her son’s plans to marry her.  She is such a snob that she makes Mr. Kirby seem like a halfway decent fellow.  As a result, Tony and Alice decide that the two families should meet to see if they will get along.

At this point, the Kirby’s are not aware that Alice’s family lives in the house that Mr. Kirby wants to buy, nor are those in the Vanderhof home aware that it is Mr. Kirby that is trying to buy their house.  Grandpa tells Alice that he doesn’t want to give up the house because it reminds him of Grandma, who still seems to have a presence there.  Moreover, when Grandpa goes outside to give the neighborhood children some of Essie’s candy, his neighbors tell him that their landlords have already agreed to sell their property if Grandpa does, the result being that they will be forced to leave their businesses and homes.  Grandpa assures them that he will not sell.

Anyway, the two families need to meet, but instead of bringing his parents over for dinner on the night he and Alice planned, Tony purposely pretends he got mixed up on the night of the dinner, bringing them over the night before.  His idea is so that his parents can see Alice’s family as they really are.  It is a disaster.  It looks as though the wedding is off.  But before the Kirby’s can leave in a huff, G-men come in through the door to arrest Ed for advocating an overthrow of the government with those flyers he’s been printing up.  While they are trying to explain that it’s all just to sell fireworks, those same fireworks accidentally go off in the basement, and everyone, including the Kirbys, are taken to jail.

The all end up in night court.  Mr. Kirby has four high-priced lawyers defending him, but the courtroom is packed with Grandpa’s friends.  Mr. Kirby begins to have doubts, to wonder if Grandpa is right, that it is more important to have friends than money, because you can’t take it with you.  Of course, it is one thing to tell Mr. Kirby, who is a man of great wealth, that he should retire and start having fun.  If he does so, he will simply be like Auntie Mame, someone who is able to be a free spirit because he is rich.  But you have to have enough money to pay the bills before you can spout that philosophy, which we haven’t yet convinced ourselves is true of Grandpa and his family.

As a result of the hearing in night court, Alice becomes fed up with Tony and his family.  She breaks off the engagement, quits her job, and leaves town, saying she just has to get away from it all.  Tony comes over to the Vanderhof house, trying to find out where she went, but they won’t tell him.  Everyone is sitting around moping.  I know I’m being a butt about this, but I couldn’t help thinking that they were depressed because their chief source of income had disappeared right along with the person that used to provide it.  Why, they might even have to get rid of the maid and start cooking their own food and cleaning up after themselves!

They get a letter from Alice saying how much she misses them, so Grandpa decides to sell the house and move everyone to where Alice is so they can all be together again.  It’s a sad situation, on account of the memories of Grandma and the situation regarding the neighbors, but it has to be done.  Once Mr. Kirby owns the house, he puts the final squeeze on Ramsey, bankrupting him, financially and emotionally.  After telling Mr. Kirby that he will die a cold and lonely death, Ramsey collapses and dies of a heart attack.

As a result, Mr. Kirby realizes Grandpa is right and sells the house back to him, which is fine with Grandpa, since Alice has returned and agreed to marry Tony.  Even Mrs. Kirby shows signs of coming around to the idea.  They are now one big happy family.

The Play

You know all that stuff about Mr. Kirby wanting to become a war profiteer with monopolistic power, trying to force Ramsey to sell by buying up all the property around his factories, but Grandpa Vanderhof doesn’t want to sell because he can feel Grandma’s presence, and how the neighbors are depending on him not to sell so they can continue to have homes and businesses in the neighborhood, but he decides to sell anyway so they can live with Alice?  None of that is in the play.

All three acts of this play are set in the Vanderhof house.  Act I is the night that the Internal Revenue Agent comes over, after which Tony arrives to take Alice out on a date.  As we are introduced to the household, there are the same hints that they might make some money selling candy and fireworks, but we have the same misgivings as to whether they provide enough income to pay the bills.  Instead of the $85 Ed made last year in the movie, in the play his income for the previous year is even less, $28.50.  Adjusted for inflation, that is like $525 today.  We learn that Grandpa likes to collect stamps, but there is no indication that he makes money appraising stamp collections.  What he really likes to collect are snakes, but there is no suggestion of any income resulting from that hobby.  It is Donald’s job to collect flies and bring them with him to feed the snakes when he comes to see Rheba.  So, once again we figure that Alice must be the principal breadwinner of this family, especially since there is no reference to the “lilies of the field” or the notion that the Lord will provide, aside from some routine remarks thanking God for their good fortune when Grandpa says grace.

Act II is the night that Tony, accidentally on purpose, brings his parents over to meet Alice’s family.  Before they arrive, De Pinna comments on how surprising it is that he came to this house eight years ago to deliver the ice, saw what was going on, quit his job, and has been living there ever since.  Grandpa remarks that the milkman did the same thing for five years before that.  When he passed away, however, they had trouble getting a death certificate for him, so they just buried him under Grandpa’s name, Martin Vanderhof.  More on this later.

In reading the play after having seen the movie, we find it surprising to see that the Kirby’s are really not so bad.  As already noted, Mr. Kirby is not aspiring to be a monopolistic, war profiteer.  As for Mrs. Kirby, she does not come across as the disapproving snob that she was in the movie.  They are what you would expect from a bank president and his wife:  perhaps a little stuffy, perhaps a little superior in their attitudes, but not the caricatures depicted in the movie.  To a certain extent, we sympathize with them.  We are supposed to be delighted by this crazy household, when in reality, none of us could stand being in that living room for more than a few minutes.

When Mrs. Kirby says she is into spiritualism, Penny insults her by saying it is fake and that believing in it is silly.  Then Kolenkhov demonstrates his wrestling skills by throwing Mr. Kirby to the ground, breaking his glasses.  These two incidents were in the movie, but there the Kirby’s seemed to deserve this ill treatment.  Here, we can almost admire the Kirby’s for their restraint.  Then Penny insists on playing one of those games that can embarrass people by getting them to reveal things that are personal.  I refuse to play such games myself, but the Kirbys go along with it, much to their regret.  After that, they politely try to excuse themselves and leave.  I can’t say that I blame them.

At this point, the G-men enter the house, looking for Ed, on account of the circulars he has been putting in boxes of Essie’s candy.  Only in the play, the circulars say things quite different from that in the movie:  “Dynamite the Capitol,” “Dynamite the White House,” “Dynamite the Supreme Court,” and “God is the State; the State is God.”  This last is often attributed to Trotsky.

In the movie, we thought the G-men were silly for getting all excited about circulars that said things like “Watch for the Revolution.  It’s coming soon.”  But distributing circulars like those printed up by Ed in the play would be a criminal act, and we would expect the government to take them seriously.  Moreover, when the G-men find a basement full of gunpowder, they reasonably suspect that the men down there were planning on blowing up those government buildings mentioned in the circulars.

As a matter of fact, the play is full of references to the Russian revolution and communism that were minimized in the movie.  Kolenkhov is always talking about how terrible things have been in Russia since the revolution, sneering at the Five-Year Plans.  Like himself and his friend, the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, cousin to the Czar, she and others had to flee Russia, especially when Stalin rose to power.  She is now reduced to working in a restaurant where the manager does not like her because he is a communist.

In reading the play, therefore, we can’t help but wonder if there is a political message underlying it all, with the Kirbys representing capitalism, and the Vanderhof family representing communism.  In Act III, on the day after they have all been released from jail, Mr. Kirby tells Grandpa that he is opposed to the marriage because Grandpa’s philosophy is un-American, and he does not want Tony to come under its influence.  When Tony asks what is wrong with Grandpa’s philosophy, Mr. Kirby answers, “Matter with it?  Why it’s—it’s downright Communism, that’s what it is.”

Consider Karl Marx’s slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”  Now, it was part of Marx’s theory that the state would eventually wither away.  In such a world, there would be no one to tell the individual what he should do.  As a result, his “ability” would naturally express itself in an activity he found congenial.  Are not those making up the Vanderhof household members of a commune, one in which each person is acting according to his ability in some endeavor he enjoys?

Mr. Kirby’s assertion that Grandpa’s philosophy is un-American because it is communism is not in the movie.  Instead, we have a scene in which Grandpa makes a suggestion as to what kind of play Penny should write:

Why don’t you write a play about “ism” mania?…  You know, communism, fascism, voodooism.  Everybody’s got an “ism” these days….  When things go a little bad nowadays, you go out and get yourself an “ism,” and you’re in business.

Penny says that it might help one of the characters in her plays to have an “ism.”  Grandpa agrees:

Yes, it might at that.  Only give her Americanism.  Let her know something about Americans:  John Paul Jones, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Edison, and Mark Twain.

Needless to say, Lee’s name would be left off this list if the movie were remade today.  It was probably put there to appeal to Southern audiences.  But Grandpa is just getting started:

When things got tough with those boys, they didn’t run around looking for “isms.”  Lincoln said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”  Nowadays they say, “Think the way I do, or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.”

Well, isn’t that nice?  More soldiers died in the Civil War, over which Lincoln presided, than in any other war in America’s history.  In fact, the number of men that died in the Civil War is just slightly exceeded by the total number of deaths in all the other wars America has fought combined.  And since it was a war in which Americans fought one another, you might say that it was the most American war of all, the one most representative of “Americanism.”  But to hear Grandpa tell it, it is only recently that people have decided to go to war with those they disagree with.  And it’s all because of those “isms.”  In other words, any notion that the Vanderhof household is un-American and represents communism has been squelched by this revisionist spiel.

In the end, Tony admits that he read some of the letters Mr. Kirby wrote to his father in which Mr. Kirby wanted to be a trapeze artist.  Later on, Mr. Kirby wanted to play the saxophone, but he says his father knocked those silly notions out of him.  Tony says he is not going to let that happen to him, so he’s quitting his job at the bank.  Grandpa makes Mr. Kirby realize that he hasn’t been happy working on Wall Street all these years.  As a result, Mr. Kirby no longer disapproves of the marriage, and he agrees to stay for dinner to get to know Alice’s family better.

All right, so where are we now?  As noted above, there is no talk about the lilies of the field in this play, of the notion that somehow the Lord will provide.  And we still find it hard to believe that the hobbies of that Vanderhof family bring in enough money to pay the bills.  Moreover, now that Tony and Alice will be getting married, she will be moving out of that house, so no longer will her salary as a secretary be contributing to the support of the rest of them.  In fact, she has already quit that job.

The solution to this mystery is provided early in the play, but in the chaos taking place in the Vanderhof living room at that moment, it tends to get lost.  The ridiculous argument between Grandpa and the Internal Revenue Agent is just like the one in the movie with one notable omission.  Instead of Grandpa telling Tony later on that he doesn’t owe the government a cent, Grandpa admits to the Internal Revenue Agent that he owns “property,” though we are not told what sort.  It might be real estate, stocks, bonds—we just don’t know.  But the income from that property, which he has been receiving for thirty-five years, since 1901, has amounted to between $3,000 and $4,000 per year.

Let’s take the average, $3,500.  Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to about $66,000 per year.  Since no taxes have been paid on any of this money, it is the equivalent of having $66,000 per year in after-tax income.  Let us assume that this income represents a 5% return on the property that generates it.  That means the property is worth $1,320,000.  Combine that with the value of his house, adjusted for inflation, and Grandpa has a net worth of $1,770,000.  Now, we don’t know why Grandpa only acquired this income-producing property in the same year that he quit his job, but we’ll set that aside.  The point is that Grandpa has moved into the Auntie Mame category, someone who can be a free spirit because he has the wherewithal to afford it.  And the rest of the family, Alice aside, are like Uncle Murray, freeloading off Grandpa and Alice.

It is understandable why this was omitted from the movie.  All of Grandpa’s philosophy strikes us as facile when we become aware of his income and net worth.  Better to let us imagine that the members of Grandpa’s family are like the lilies of the field, eking out a living from their hobbies, as unrealistic as that might be, than to find out that money can buy happiness after all.

But will Grandpa be in trouble now that the IRS is wise to him, forcing him to pay back taxes with penalties?  Remember that contrived story about the milkman they buried using Grandpa’s name, Martin Vanderhof.  Well, Grandpa provided the IRS with a death certificate with his name on it, telling them he was only Martin Vanderhof, Jr.  So, as far as the IRS is concerned, Vanderhof’s debt to the Treasury Department died with him.  In fact, Grandpa says the IRS has even decided he is due a refund.  Mr. Kirby wants to know how he managed to pull that off, presumably hoping to evade taxes himself.  I’m not sure what the IRS will do when they see that the supposedly deceased Martin Vanderhof is still receiving that income from his property in the years to come, but that will be after the play has ended, and the audience has gone home, after which such implications fade away.

I suppose it might be argued that the Production Code required this change when the play was turned into a movie, since it forbade allowing criminals to get away with breaking the law and living happily ever after.  But if that were all, the movie could have had Grandpa agree to pay the back taxes.  The real reason for the change is to avoid having us find out that when Grandpa says, “You can’t take it with you,” he actually has plenty of it to leave behind.