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Wednesday, January 6, 2010


The American film director, Frank Capra, made a number of movies during the Great Depression that captured perfectly the populist anger of America's small town common folk at fat cats, city slickers, and big time politicians. Among the best were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the 1936 classic, Mr Deeds Goes to Town. Sentimental old lefties like me love those films, because they capture a rebellious, progressive spirit that, for an historical moment, seemed to have a chance of transforming America from a rapacious capitalist state into something very like a seedbed for socialism.

This morning, as I was making the bed, I turned on the television set and switched to TCM -- Turner Classic Movies -- just in time to catch the last few minutes of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The plot line is not important to this comment -- you can Google it easily enough, if you have never seen it. The boffo ending is a scene in which Deeds, who is accused of mental incompetence because he wants to give an unexpected twenty million dollar inheritance to thousands of poor families so that they can have their own family farms, is vindicated in front of a courtroom of his boisterous working class supporters, to the dismay and discomfiture of a group of city slickers in suits and ties.

My first reaction, as I watched the scene, was a tingle of that old time socialist feeling, a nostalgia for my early years when popular culture was sympathetic to the progressive ideals of my grandfather. But then, a troubling thought cropped up in my mind and would not go away. If you abstract from the specific content of the film, and just feel the emotion being expressed in that scene, you could be watching a rightwing Tea Party demonstration from this past summer. Both the movie sequence and the demonstrations breathe with the same resentment of the high and mighty, the same anger at the smug condescension of the haves and their contempt for ordinary people, the same belief that there are simple solutions for complex problems, and the same frisson of not yet quite open violence hovering on the edges of the scene. It was that anger [mobilized by what was once called a "traitor to his class"] that helped to elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I do not for a moment mean to suggest that there is the slightest substantive connection between the progressive thrust of the Capra movies and the reactionary politics of the Tea Baggers. But the feeling tone, the emotion, is virtually identical. And that fact scares me, because in Nazi Germany and elsewhere we saw what those feelings could produce.

The complex logic of American electoral politics being what it is, the populist movement on the right that has been spawned by Obama's election may actually result in Republican losses, rather than gains, in the next two election cycles. I will blog about that at a later time. But it would not surprise me at all if this movement turns violent.

I mean, let's face it. When you watch Mr Deeds, which characters in the movie do you and I actually look and sound more like, Deeds' supporters, or the fat cat bad guys?


Maciek said...

Dear Mr. Professor, Thank You for an answer my question and for the New Year's wishes. Last days I was very busy, and I couldn't read "The Philosophers Stone" so regularly, like I want. Now, I want to wish You, and all Readers and Commentators of the blog, all the best in the New Year (belated, but sincerely).
The story of Your Family was very interesting for me, especially because I come from the town (Lodz), where - before the second war - the Jewish population was one of the biggest in Poland. When I hear my mother's telling about Lodz those times, I always imagine Lodz as an multicultural, and colourful town, where lived together German, Russian, Jewish, Polish and Gypsy people (I know that this is an idealized vision, but I like to think so about my town.).Apart from the multicultural character (or maybe because of that), it was one of the biggest centers of the socialist and anarchist movement in Poland, where in 1905 took the place a lot of revolutionary struggles against the Czar's and capitalist regime.
I have to watch this films of Frank Capra; I like film of polish woman-director, Agnieszka Holland, "The story of one bullet" (pl.: Historia jednego pocisku), on motives of the story of Polish socialist, Andrzej Strug.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dear Maciek, thank you so much for that fascinating comment. I will look up Andrzej Strug on Google and see what it tells me. My grandfather was a leader of the Socialist Party in New York City in the years 1900 - 1930, and was even elected to the city government in 1917.

Ann said...

My father's family is also from Lodz....thank you for the history!

Maciek said...

Mr. Professor, thank You for this information, which is very interesting for me. I am ashamed that I know so little about American socialist movement. I know better a history of anarchistic movements in the USA, and now have to read more about socialists. I have personal reasons to know better this topic, because before the second war, parents of my father were both members of PPS (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna - Polish Socialist Party). My Grandparents belonged to the wing, leading by Jozef Pilsudski. During the war, they were members of Polish "underground army" and then, prisoners of war in Concentration Camp in Ostroda, where - in the end of war (1945) - they were killed by Nazis (in this context, it is deeply true (however cynical), what Hegel wrote: history is not a domain of happiness.) However, I am happy, that Ann can have warm feelings for Lodz. Ann, You probably know, that the man, who invented original Jeans trousers for cowboys in the USA (I don't remember the name now), was from Lodz too (!!!) So, we have an "American reason" to be proud of Lodz.

Ann said...

Do you mean "Levi Strauss"?

Maciek said...

I meant Wrangler (model 13 MWZ), and I have found an old article on this theme. The name of this inventor of jeans trousers from Lodz was Bernard Lichtenstein (am. Ben Lichtenstein, or "Rodeo Ben"), he owned a little shop and sartorial studio in Philadelphia. He was born in house at Krótka Street in Bałuty District of Lodz, and he has arrived to Philadelphia in 1937.