New England Pastoral

I’m finally finishing up an article I’ve been working on for a while, but instead of revising it, my mind is inexorably turning to the next one. While I was looking over my beast of a dissertation, I think I finally figured out how to turn the first chapter into an intelligible, useful, and provocative story that furthers my broader problematic.

The epiphany came, in part, because I was re-watching one of my favorite “Cultural Front” movies, 1940’s The House of the Seven Gables. Produced as a B-movie by Universal, the film transcends its low budget, and even more remarkably, its heavy source material, as a well-paced, smart, and at times, melancholy, little film.

My classification of the film as a Cultural Front product—to borrow from Michael Denning’s terminology to describe the literary, artistic, and intellectual output associated with the Popular Front’s rank and file and its “structure of feeling”—is one that I suppose I will have to make a case for in my writing. For now, I’ll just share an important scene that appears early in the film:

(Vincent Price is great, no? I love the “Hail to thee” line.)

In short my analysis of the film will suggest that embedded in its story is a kind of proto-Hofstadterian critique of Lockean property-rights liberalism and an argument for shedding “tradition” and “heritage” where its based in such philosophies/worldviews. If you watch the entire film, which I recommend you do, you’ll see it goes on to explore in a side-story the role of Northern financial capital in the slave economy of the mid-18th century too.

The screenplay is written by Lester Cole, who would go on to be blacklisted and imprisoned as one of the “Hollywood Ten.” In his autobiography, Hollywood Red, Cole takes credit for inserting the abolitionism storyline where it did not appear in the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel (172). According to Cole, filmmakers were political in the pre-blacklist era, simply because all films are political. “An escapist ‘entertainment’ is political to the degree that it denies the existing social realities,” he argues, and proceeds “I sought to inject such reality when the subject called for it,” not with heavy handedness, but by ensuring that “feelings were represented in the attitudes of the characters” (159).

Cole (né Cohen) grew up in a Yiddish socialist household, and the director of the movie, Joe May (né Mandel) was an exile from Nazi Germany. So this project seems to beg a question: What do I make of the filmmakers’ outsider consciousness on this film that ostensibly serves as a critique of New England myths? And on a more basic level, how do scholars of Hollywood continue to weigh the impact of Popular Front era filmmakers working in mass industrial cinema? The specific biographies of the filmmakers aside, I do intend to do show how the film, along with others such as Body and Soul, Petrified Forest, and the films of another exile, Fritz Lang, employed a particular Popular Front perspective, one that, contrary to the popular ideas about the Cultural Front, eschewed Jeffersonianism for a more outsider or cosmopolitan perspective.

Although its a bit tangential to where I want to take the article, I’m curious about something I’ve never stumbled onto before: the use of New England as a meaning-laden signifier in the pre-World War II era. In addition to House of the Seven Gables, the movie The Devil and Daniel Webster used a New England setting prominently. That film, also a work of the Cultural Front, nevertheless invoked the symbol of New England in a very different way, as a populist agrarian idyll, where the traditions of its farmers were compatible with the Grange movement that was seeking to organize there.

Then there’s this funny article that I happened upon in the Saturday Evening Post from 1936, titled “Too Much Service,” which finds in New England more than anywhere else the traditional values needed to combat the “undue service” offered by the New Deal. Its author argues “it is axiomatic, in New England, that such paternalism results in men and women who are lacking in initiative, judgment and moral principles.” Historic New England, it appears, was seen during the tumult of the Great Depression as a bulwark against the ideas of radicals in New York, much like the West was thought to work the same way.

Anyways, Vincent Price’s character didn’t buy it. He tells his love interest, that they are to escape New England for New York, where people “look ahead, not backwards,” and where men were building skyscrapers “four and five stories tall.” (It was the mid-nineteenth century.) Workers there, he says, were “reaching towards the heavens instead of digging into dusty archives,” and that there was “music in those people.” Surely his lines, written by Cole, were the product of over-romanticizing and idealizing the working class and its labor. But I’d trade less archives for more music.