by George Lipsitz
Cut, no. 12/13, Dec. 1976, pp. 24-27
Hollywood films of the 1940s present complex and contradictory images of workers and work. (1) They portray workers as unhappy, fatalistic, and self-destructive but mutually supportive, creative, and honest at the same time. They depict wage labor as dangerous, degrading, and alienating but also as necessary, satisfying, and socially useful. Although sympathetic to workers, they invariably offer escape to small entrepreneurship as the ultimate path to happiness and success.
Designed as entertainment and expressing the corporate fantasy of a small group of screenwriters, directors, studio bosses, and their financial backers, these films make no claim to historical truth. Indeed, the working world that they present omits any reference to unions, strikes, class struggle, or assembly lines. They ignore macro-social conflict and pose only individual solutions to collective social problems. Yet to focus on what Hollywood films do not show belabors the obvious. Such an approach ignores the intriguing and effective presentation of reality that they do contain. The omissions tell us much about the limits of art when it is controlled by capitalist monopolies. But the content of these films illumines the complex relation between the events of everyday life and their representation on the screen.
At the very least, Hollywood films of the 40s expressed prominent attitudes and ideas about work, which viewers could accept or reject on the basis of their own experience, but which nonetheless imposed a framework for discussion. At most, they employed the appearances of day-to-day reality to impose a false consciousness that divorced decisions about work from their social context. In either case, filmmakers tried to establish artistic and political credibility with their audiences and presented images of work remarkably consistent with those found in firsthand accounts, public opinion surveys, oral history, and sociological studies of the same period.
The contradictory images of workers and work in these films reflect the dilemma of a society unable to reconcile its articulated commitment to freedom and dignity with the hierarchy and discipline of its productive process. Despite deficiencies in representing macro-social conflict, and despite the failure to pose anything other than individual solutions to social problems, Hollywood films of the 1940s do offer much insight into the work processes, attitudes toward work, and aspirations of the working class at that time.
SATURDAY'S CHILDREN (Warner Brothers, 1940) dwells on the ill effects of alienated labor. An office worker remains glum on a beautiful spring day, knowing that he won't see much of it from his desk. A bill collector on company time sharply threatens his own brother-in-law over an unpaid bill but immediately reverts to a warm personal relationship with the relative at six o'clock when he is on his own time. An elderly bookkeeper, despairing over his dull, repetitive and pointless existence, attempts suicide in the hope that the insurance money will bring happiness to his children. In THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (Warner Brothers, 1940) a truck driver’s wife expresses relief when her husband loses his arm in an accident because it will force him to give up driving and spend some time at home. The process by which people subtly turn themselves into instruments of labor pervades films about work. The depiction is never more vivid than in FLOWING GOLD (Warner Brothers, 1940) when unemployed oil workers pin signs on themselves reading “taxi” and carry customers piggyback over muddy streets for a fee.
Wage labor not only alienates but injures. A young man in STEEL AGAINST THE SKY (Warner Brothers, 1941) defends his hostility to work on the grounds that a lifetime of construction labor left his father “all busted up.” In TRUCKBUSTERS (Warner Brothers, 1943) and THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT lack of sleep and monotony dull the reflexes of truck drivers and result in fatal accidents. In FLOWING GOLD and STEEL AGAINST THE SKY oil drillers and construction workers fall from high ledges, attempt to perform their jobs in inclement weather, and try to avoid being crushed by falling objects. Hot wires and thunderstorms combine to maim electrical linemen in MANPOWER (Warner Brothers, 1941) while falling trees incapacitate lumbermen in KING OF THE LUMBERJACKS (Warner Brothers, 1940).
Firsthand reminiscences and sociological studies about work in the 40s closely correspond to the portrayal of the alienation and dangers of work in motion pictures. Paul Romano emphasizes that workers at the time felt that wage labor was “hard on the body and harder on the mind,” (2) whereas Stan Weir recalls that the “alienation and indignities of work constituted the primary motivation for trade union organization.” (3) Sociologist Charles Walker surveyed workers during the 40s and found that those questioned consider working conditions and their effect on health to be of the greatest importance. (4) Lloyd G. Reynolds and Joseph Shister, in a similar study, concluded that unsafe working conditions were a major source of worker dissatisfaction and that workers wanted more variety and interest in their jobs. (5)
Hard work and alienation hardly exhaust the dramatic possibilities of the industrial process. Sensitive directors like Raoul Walsh, Lloyd Bacon, and A. Edward Sutherland brilliantly convey the awesome power and potential of industry through collages composed of towering bridges, speeding truck wheels, churning generators, and expansive power lines. These collages introducing films about workers establish the social role of the working class and grant it an importance transcending individual lives.
Workers also bask in the reflected glory of the products of their labor. Implicit in the drama of these films is the necessary and virtuous activity of workers providing the energy, food, transportation, and shelter the rest of society requires. During the war years, defense production adds more luster to workers’ accomplishments. Aircraft workers in WINGS FOR THE EAGLE (Warner Brothers, 1942), merchant sailors in ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC (Warner Brothers, 1945), and munitions workers in TENDER COMRADE (Paramount, 1943) and GANGWAY FOR TOMORROW (RKO. 1943) not only sacrifice to produce needed goods but play an essential role in the struggle against fascism.
Even considered apart from their products, workers in most of these films have an admirable sense of purpose and responsibility. In HIGHWAYS BY NIGHT (RKO, 1942) a wealthy scientist becomes a truck driver, in part to find out how “ordinary people” live. After weeks of physical labor he expresses admiration for his fellow workers, telling them, “You do things for yourselves, you solve your own problems.” The workers in these films exude the sense expressed by Chester Himes in his 1946 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, where the hero, a black shipyard worker, says,
Awed by the majesty of industrial production, impressed by the social contributions of labor, and excited by workers’ responsibility and sense of purpose, Hollywood filmmakers still realized the powerlessness and low prestige of wage labor. In WINGS FOR THE EAGLE an aspiring engineer resists his wife’s entreaties to work in a defense plant because he doesn't want to “jump in there with a bunch of retired farmers and dimwits.” A truck driver in TRUCKBUSTERS prefers the perils facing an owner-operator to employment for a large company because he doesn't want to become a “dumb wage slave.” In THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT a driver working for a large company boasts that he gets paid every Saturday, and an owner-operator retorts, “You get ordered around every other day.” Contemplating the dangers of his job, a merchant seaman in ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC concludes that “a guy has to be muscle bound between the ears” to have the job he has. At the same time that they praise the process and products of labor, these films present those who perform it as somewhat stupid, condemned to always follow someone else’s orders, and trapped in an unrewarding and unsatisfying role in life.
The camaraderie and support of fellow workers partially compensates for the oppressions of working class life. Workers lack money, social prestige, and control over their own labor, but they do enjoy a close, supportive community with other workers.
A foreman in FLOWING GOLD protects a worker unjustly accused of murder and later joins with his work crew to buy an oil well and drill it on a shared profit basis. In JUKE GIRL (Warner Brothers, 1942) migrant workers unite to help a small farmer market his crops, asserting that being neighborly is all you can do in this world. Four women defense workers set up a cooperative household in TENDER COMRADE and evenly divide their incomes with each other and with the woman they hire to keep house. In both TRUCKBUSTERS and THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT truck drivers pool resources to defend fellow drivers against collectors from finance companies. The need for teamwork on the job creates an atmosphere of mutual trust and support among work crews of electrical linemen in MANPOWER, lumbermen in KING OF THE LUMBERJACKS, construction workers in STEEL AGAINST THE SKY, and factory workers in WINGS FOR THE EAGLE. In ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC sailors use peer pressure to control undesirable behavior and to reward group solidarity.
The importance of primary work groups in films of the 40s corresponds to their importance in firsthand accounts and sociological studies. Matthew Ward, Weir, and Romano emphasize the positive contributions of group solidarity in making work bearable. (7) Walker found that team spirit in work groups was crucial to both successful production and to worker morale, asserting that “the group, not the supervisors, was the most powerful disciplinary force in the mill.” (8) Reynolds and Shister observed that relationships with fellow workers were responsible for much of the satisfaction workers received from their jobs and that one of the most highly prized goals was favorable recognition from other workers. (9)
While group solidarity appears as the greatest positive resource of working class life, it fails to obviate the drawbacks of the job or fill the need for love and self-esteem. The primary work group makes work bearable, but workers seek fulfillment of emotional needs in the home and the family, which emerge in these films as idealized sanctuaries from a hostile world.
The aggressive and competitive world of work stands in sharp contrast to the idyllic paradise represented by the home lives of workers in JUKE GIRL, TRUCKBUSTERS, KING OF THE LUMBERJACKS and ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC. While the work world is primarily a man’s world, the home represents the woman’s sphere and conveys the values associated with women in most Hollywood films: warmth, loyalty, devotion, and romance. Yet, though envied for its soothing qualities, the home ultimately does not escape the pressures of the outside world.
A merchant sailor in ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC goes off to sea because as long as there is a war on he feels that “we can't sit around and hold hands.” The war also disrupts idyllic home lives in TENDER COMRADE and PRIDE OF THE MARINES (Warner Brothers, 1945). The outside world intrudes on the home in ways other than war. In WE WHO ARE YOUNG (MGM, 1940) a loving couple find that outside financial pressures and the burdens of installment buying create tensions in their relationship. Family obligations lead an accountant in SATURDAY'S CHILDREN to surrender his dreams of recognition and success. The family’s very stability makes it both a refuge and a trap. Lacking immunity from outside pressures, the family cannot provide happiness by itself.
Other sources echo Hollywood’s assessment of the tension between the home sphere and the work sphere. Novelist Ruth McKenney portrays marriage as an escape from social responsibility in JAKE HOME, the story of a coal miner and union organizer. (10) Beth McHenry and Frederick Myer detail these same tensions in a novel about life in the merchant marine, Home Is the Sailor. (11) Merchant sailor Charles Rubin’s autobiography, The Log of Rubin the Sailor, concludes with Rubin leaving the sea to settle down with his wife. (12) Sociologist Alvin Gouldner attributed a decline in union activism in the late 40s to the demands of the home sphere. (13)
Perhaps aware of the limits of the primary work group and the home sphere, Hollywood filmmakers turned to the promise of social mobility as the resolution of the difficulties of working class life. For workers, the most obvious advancement involves becoming a foreman, and Hollywood films explore that possibility thoroughly.
In FLOWING GOLD. MANPOWER, STEEL AGAINST THE SKY, and WINGS FOR THE EAGLE, foremen heroically supervise production while retaining the loyalty and affection of their workers. Each previously established himself as part of the work crew and differs from his former peers only in increased responsibility. These foremen have good reasons for wanting to increase productivity. In FLOWING GOLD workers are to share in the profits from an oil well. In MANPOWER they try to restore electrical service to the public. In STEEL AGAINST THE SKY and WINGS FOR THE EAGLE increased production helps the war effort.
When foremen try to increase production for reasons of profit, they appear as villains hostile to the interests of workers. In JUKE GIRL a foreman in the employ of a large packer engages in criminal activities and exercises tyrannical power over the workers. When a previously admired foreman in KING OF THE LUMBERJACKS tries to speed up the work, his crew fells a tree near him as a warning to change his behavior.
Unless the circumstances can be carefully tailored to present a favorable image, foremen make unlikely heroes of working class drama. They possess no more freedom than hourly employees and represent the boss in the work group. Contemporary audiences probably identified more with the presentation of foremen in JUKE GIRL and KING OF THE LUMBERJACKS. A public opinion survey conducted for Fortune magazine in 1947 indicated that whereas most workers hoped to get a better job, over 50% expressly did not want to become foremen. The same survey revealed that workers believed that in general, ability led to promotion but that they would not be promoted regardless of their ability. (14) Reynolds and Schister found the same attitudes in their surveys. (15) A 1943 article in Public Opinion Quarterly disclosed that companies were having difficulty convincing workers to become foreman. (16) Ward recalls that his happiest days at work occurred when the foremen in his plant went on strike. (17) Alexander Saxton eloquently sums up these attitudes about foremen in his novel Grand Crossing, when a foreman advises,
The real heroes and role models of these films are small businessmen and workers who appear most laudable when they are most like small entrepreneurs. Working for their own benefit, free from supervision, and exercising more creativity than wage laborers, small businessmen embody Hollywood’s ideal of the productive and free citizen.
When an avaricious capitalist tires to drive a small competitor out of business in FLOWING GOLD, the small businessman unites with his workers to form a cooperative, and they drill the well together. In JUKE GIRL a monopolistic packer tries to eliminate the competition of a small farmer, but the packer finds his plans thwarted when migrant workers help the farmer get his crops to another packer. In one unforgettable scene, a migrant worker (played by Ronald Reagan) points to the packer and shouts,
In HIGHWAYS BY NIGHT, TRUCKBUSTERS, and THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, truck drivers fight to save their small businesses (their trucks) from the predatory instincts of large corporations. A merchant sailor in ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC explains that he decided to go to sea because he had a small business for years and that by helping to defeat Hitler he could guarantee the future of that business.
Even films that do not explicitly concern small businessmen attempt to express their concerns. Most films about work in the 40s describe independent outside work (lumberjacks, truck drivers, oil drillers, construction laborers) rather than assembly line labor. These workers are not their own bosses, but they are so far removed from their supervisors that it seems they control their own work.
In many ways, these movies are only incidentally placed in working class settings and primarily describe the goals and ideals of small businessmen. Workers must sell their labor power in order to live, and the great risks involved in struggle impel them to see battles through to the end. Few workers have the luxury enjoyed by Casey Dorgan in TRUCKBUSTERS when he assures his brother,
He means “selling out” in the literal sense of selling his trucks to the monopolists with no intentional connotation of the later meaning of the word—to betray one’s ideals. However, in practice, selling out their business would mean selling out their friends, their hopes for independence, and the cause they were involved in, so both meanings actually apply. Yet coincident to the petty bourgeois ideals expressed in these films lies a rebellion against work, hierarchy, and alienation.
Hollywood’s idealized portrayal of independent, non-supervised work and small business corresponds to aspirations expressed in public opinion polls and sociological surveys. A 1940 public opinion poll conducted for Fortune magazine found that 50.7% of those responding wanted to own their own business and thought they night try it within five years. (19) Reynolds and Shister found that workers preferred outside jobs with little or no supervision and that given their choice of jobs, many would choose to own a small business. (20) Walker’s study found that workers valued independence and control over their lives and work above all else. (21) Eli Chinoy’s survey of auto workers found that many nurtured the hope of owning a farm or small business, a viewpoint consistent with Romano’s descriptions of his fellow workers. (22)
Although these films rarely connect the events of everyday life to a larger social or political context, they brilliantly dramatize the effects of social change on ordinary people. Much of the dramatic tension in these motion pictures stems from their exploration of traditional institutions as they were transformed by the chaotic world of the 1940s.
Defense production immediately before and during World War II introduced new methods of organizing work and brought new workers into production. The work speedups depicted in STEEL AGAINST THE SKY and WINGS FOR THE EAGLE demonstrate the human costs of defense mobilization as well as its accomplishments. TENDER COMRADE shows the entry of women into the industrial work force, whereas GANGWAY FOR TOMORROW explores the decisions of five people from diverse backgrounds to become workers. As new workers enter production, others leave to join the armed forces in TRUCKBUSTERS, WINGS FOR THE EAGLE, and TENDER COMRADE.
The war also disrupted family life. Husbands enter the armed forces in GANGWAY FOR TOMORROW, risk death in ACTION IN THE NORTH and return disabled in PRIDE OF THE MARINES. Wives learn to live without men and become workers in WINGS FOR THE EAGLE and TENDER COMRADE.
Changes in production and family life coincide with new patterns of consumption. WE WHO ARE YOUNG details the evils (and tremendous lure) of installment buying, a theme presented in TRUCKBUSTERS and THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT as well. A way to obtain desirable goods, installment buying also involves a new form of dependence. One driver in THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT tells another,
Installment buying also leads to altered consciousness about the law. Finance company collectors clearly have the law on their side, but workers continually defy them. In TRUCKBUSTERS a reporter jokes that killing a collector should be justifiable homicide. And in THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT drivers take action to prevent the unjust although legal seizure of their trucks by a finance company. This view of law extends beyond installment buying and collections. When two drivers in THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT force a freight agent to pay money he owes them, he protests that taking other people’s money is against the law. One of the drivers answers that if that were the case, the freight agent would have been in jail long ago. Although workers maintain a general commitment to law and order, they are not confident that it will be administered fairly in their particular cases.
The worker-small business alliance against monopoly in FLOWING GOLD, TRUCKBUSTERS, JUKE GIRL, and HIGHWAYS BY NIGHT reflects another important change during the war years: the growth of monopolistic big business. In TRUCKBUSTERS wealthy truck line owners attempt to take advantage of a wartime freeze on production of new trucks to corner the market and force owner-operators out of business. Although the owner-operators turn back that particular challenge, the film’s indecisive ending makes it clear that the large truckers will profit most from the trucking boom.
That Hollywood film studios, themselves highly concentrated monopolies offering huge returns on investment, should present (and profit from) a critique of monopoly power underscores the powerful cooptive forces in commercial culture. Even rebellion against the system becomes just another commodity, packaged in a form that renders its particular content meaningless. Rebellion sells as well as submission. Neither leads to action when expressed by the hierarchical mechanisms of Hollywood, which leave the audience passive and powerless.
Hollywood’s greatest ideological impact lies not in plots and story lines but in the hidden assumptions and features of life on the screen. Thus we see in films the plethora of consumer goods, the isolation of individuals, and a subtle censorship, which narrows the range of ideas and lifestyles available for consideration. Yet Hollywood’s power is also a weakness. As long as real needs are unmet, films cannot convincingly offer completely escapist fantasies; they must address the problems of their audience. Even by attempting to co-opt antisocial attitudes, films give them legitimacy and stimulate aspirations, which can only be genuinely fulfilled by social change. The more the films show of day-to-day life and its problems, the more opportunity Hollywood motion pictures present for people to reevaluate their own lives. It is clear that in showing resentment against the growth of monopoly, these films were speaking to widely held attitudes at the time.
In an article published the same year that TRUCKBUSTERS was released (1943), Mary Heaton Vorse reported that workers felt a special bitterness at the enormous profits reaped by industry because of the war. (23) C. Wright Mills wrote in 1946 that the war effected a transition from small entrepreneurship to “monopolies augmented by an enlarged white collar work force.” (24) Geoffrey Perett’s history of the U.S. during World War II points to the gains made by large corporations at the expense of small ones because of the benefits of government contracts and policies. (25)
Hollywood films about work in the 40s described the alienation and indignities of work precisely at the time that war production required speedup and greater productivity. The films offered a satisfying picture of the solidarity of the primary work group as the war disrupted the work force, drawing workers into the military and new workers into industry. They presented the family as a potential refuge while the war was breaking up families and war production offered new roles for women. They showed the evils of installment buying at a time when it was more popular than ever. They depicted the rewards of unsupervised outside work when the number of inside supervised factory jobs increased tremendously. And they idealized small business ownership and its resulting independence at a time when it was becoming less and less feasible.
Hollywood did not present these goals uncritically; it often showed their limitations. Yet as the war changed traditional institutions, traditional values became increasingly inappropriate, and Hollywood was unable to offer convincing alternatives. What Hollywood viewed as the ugly side of working class life, trade unionism, was on the upsurge, even in the studios themselves. With all the films’ positive reference points destroyed by their own inadequacies or by the war, it is not surprising that Hollywood abandoned working class films after 1945 and expressed social realism in film noir. That genre showed a basically hostile world, overpowering, overwhelming, and unaffected by human will.
The working class films of the 40s did not show the reality of working class life. That reality was incredibly more complex and more threatening to the established order than Hollywood films could tolerate. Themselves expressions of subjective judgments about workers and work, these films reflected and reinforced popular attitudes. Of course, the film industry’s own monopolistic position and economic interests precluded some ideas from representation on the screen.
Excised from public view in the movies was
These and many other real life examples of the drama of the 40s never found their way to the movie screen. Yet to the extent that these films accurately reflected and reinforced popular attitudes, they reveal much about that period.
The commitment to unrealizable values expressed in these films contained the seeds of socially explosive contradictions. Those who attributed their frustrations to the war experienced profound disillusion when peace only perpetuated wartime conditions. Those who remained committed to abstract values, like law and order or freedom, with no expectation of realizing them in their own lives, internalized hypocrisy and cynicism as a way of life. Those who sought fulfillment of those ideals and were disappointed became resentful of others who could be portrayed as obstacles to happiness and they were contemptuous of themselves for not succeeding. Whereas these films ignored political solutions to the oppressions of day-to-day life, trade unions and left political parties of the 40s themselves ignored the aspirations for nonalienated social relationships implicit in the concerns expressed in films and surveys. No alternative vision challenged Hollywood’s picture of day-to-day life, but Hollywood’s success failed to resolve the deep contradictions of the society that produced it. The basic contradiction expressed in Hollywood films of the 40s between the ideal of independence and the reality of wage labor remained unsolved on film, as it was unsolved in real life, and as it remains unsolved today.
In The German Ideology Karl Marx writes:
This concept has been expanded in the 20th century by Antonio Gramsci and others to define ideas as part of the ruling mechanisms of society that create a hegemony of bourgeois ideas, forcing workers to internalize ideas that are not in their class interests. Certainly the film industry, with its financial backers, censorship, control over distribution, and resistance to popular control, functions to strengthen the ideological hegemony of bourgeois ideas. Yet like other kinds of power, ideological hegemony is subject to popular resistance. People still evaluate what they see on the basis of their own experience. And even bourgeois filmmakers have long recognized the necessity of showing people some truth about their lives. A revolutionary art would incorporate Hollywood’s grasp of the issues of everyday life with a vision of a better society and of a social movement capable of realizing that vision.
1. I have examined only a limited sample of these films, mainly Warner Brothers and RKO pictures. Where possible, I have read scripts of motion pictures I did not see. I would like to thank Stanley I. Kutler for helpful criticisms on the first draft of this article.
2. Paul Romano, Life in the Factory (Detroit: Facing Reality Press, 1947), pp. 1-5.
3. Stan Weir, “Class Forces for the Seventies,” Radical America, Vol. 6 No. 3, May 1972, pp. 39-40.
4. Charles Walker, Steeltown (New York: Harper Brother, 1950), p. 67.
5. Lloyd G. Reynolds and Joseph Shister, Job Horizons (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949).
6. Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (Garden City: Doubleday. 1946), p. 11.
7. Matthew Ward (Charles Denby), The Indignant Heart (New York: New Books); Weir, “Class Forces” and Romano, Life, passim.
8. Walker. p. 69.
9. Reynolds and Shister.
10. Ruth McKenney, Jake Home (New York: Ha rcourt Brace, 1943).
11. Beth McHenry and Frederick Myers, Home is the Sailor (New York: International Publishers, 1948).
12. Charles Rubin, The Log of Rubin the Sailor (New York: International Publishers, 1973).
13. Alvin Gouldner, “Attitudes of Progressive Trade Union Leaders,” in American Sociology. Vol. 52, No. 5, 1947, p. 389.
14. Fortune, Vol. 35. No. 5. May 1947, p. 10.
15. Reynolds and Shister.
16. Mary Heaton Vorse, “Public Opinion,” in Public Opinion Quarterly, 1943, p. 444.
18. Alexander Saxton, Grand Crossing (New York: Harper Brothers, 1943).
19. Fortune, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1940, p. 20.
20. Reynolds and Shister.
21. Charles Walker.
22. Eli Chinoy, Automobile Workers and the American Dream (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). Romano,Life, p. 6.
23. Vorse, p. 447.
24. C. Wright Mills, “Competitive Personality,” in Partisan Review, Vol. 13. No. 4, September 1946, p. 433.
25. Geoffry Perrett, Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 262.
26. Karl Marx, The German Ideology (New York; International Publishers, 1970), p. 64.