My Mother Made Me a Commie

My mother and I watched lots of old movies in the 1950s on a tiny TV screen in our tiny winterized screened in breezeway.  My mother knew all the supporting players by name.  Her own sisters had been MGM contract players.  She was never political and always voted Republican except for George McGovern.  But without her knowing it, the movies we watched left a deep impression on me.  They reinforced the idea of “getting in other people’s shoes whether they were worn out with holes in the bottom or velvet ones studded with pearls. I could feel for the “down and out” while coveting the lacy ball gowns, crystal goblets, and fox furs. It nurtured my love of contradiction that persists to this day.

The economist, Milton Friedman, was right in one respect. He once said, “When a crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas lying around.” This statement became the basis for Naomi Klein’s frightening book “The Shock Doctrine.” In it, she chronicles the ways his followers jammed his free market ideas down the throats of citizens in various countries when a crisis, man made or natural, occurred. Some of the ideas lying around during the 1930s and 1940s that produced movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) were often anti-capitalist, labor friendly and surprisingly saturated with feminism.  I watched “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” (1947) this past Christmas. It’s about a hobo who occupies (YES, Occupies!) a rich man’s mansion every winter when the rich guy goes to his winter home in Virginia.   The hobo wears his clothes, smokes his cigars, and drinks his wine. Year after year nobody noticed anything awry.

One day on his daily stroll through Central Park. The hobo happens upon a homeless WWII vet (YES, veterans are always treated like crap even after [1]“the good war”.) Against his better judgment the hobo takes in the veteran. The daughter of the rich man runs away from her snooty college and decides to hide in her father’s mansion. She overhears the hobo confessing that he’s a hobo to the vet. She decides to pretend to be poor so she can stay there too and cuz the Vet is cute. Turns out that the vet has a bunch of ex GI buddies and their wives and kids who also need housing, so, somewhat reluctantly, the hobo takes in all of them. The vet and his buddies then hatch a plan to purchase an army barracks and turn it into communal housing. Well there are many more complications when the rich man (who started out poor) comes back to New York to look for his missing daughter. When they finally meet, the spunky girl confronts her father. She tells him that she doesn’t understand why they should have big empty houses when there are people who need them. Then she convinces him to disguise himself as a bum and join the merry band of people inhabiting his mansion. And soon her divorced socialite mother joins up disguised as a poor cook.

Other movies of that era also have spunky females like Barbara Stanwyck in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) who writes a Martha Stewart-like column in a NY newspaper about her Connecticut stately farm. Truth is she’s a poorly paid journalist who lives in a one bedroom flat in NYC.  “Holiday Affair” (1949) is about a war widow raising her son and trying to find a good father while trying to maintain her dignity and independence. “My Man Godfrey” (1936) is my favorite film. Filmed at the height of the Depression, it opens with a bunch of rich people going on a scavenger hunt. One of the “items” they must find is a “forgotten man”. So they go to where all the homeless are shacked up tin order to find one. And audiences loved these stories of people struggling together in an often dog eat dog world. They still do if given the chance. “The Devil Wears Prada” is in this tradition, but not quite as subversive as the old movies.

Besides giving people work on sewer systems and dams in the 1930s, the WPA funded writers, artists and photographers. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have another WPA type deal in order to have writers and artists come up with other ideas.  Margaret Thatcher once famously said about financial capitalism  aka Milton Friedman’s“free market” that “there is no alternative,” referred to as TINA.  But there must be.  There were other ideas not so very long ago.  Time to dig them up and repot them.  We need to  “imagine” a better world that we can actually Occupy rather than watch on the TV.  I was lucky to watch old movies with my mother.  No, she didn’t make me a Commie, but she did help make me a Contrarian.

[1] “The Good War” was the name of the 1985 book by Studs Terkel. It is composed of first hand accounts of veterans of World War II.

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2 responses to “My Mother Made Me a Commie

  1. That’s what they told me.

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