Home Town Story, 1951, director Arthur Pierson, numerous editions
A big business propaganda film released through MGM but made with the backing of General Motors, Home Town Story (1951) is unexpectedly interesting viewed from the perspective of fifty-five years. It is written and directed by Arthur Pierson who as an actor played second lead in movies of the 1930s. The studios also used him as a rehearsal director.
In the 1950s he worked in television as a director and producer. But he was also on Broadway in the 1930s and, most significantly for this picture, played a lead in Ayn Rand’s only successful play The Night of January 16th.
Home Town Story is about a war hero, Blake Washburn, who is elected to the Senate (apparently the state legislative Senate) on the strength of his war record. He turns out to be somewhat of a hothead and embarrassment and is turned out by the voters in the next election, being defeated by the son of a local factory owner. Embittered, he returns home to take over the family newspaper, which he uses for campaigns against business in the hope of turning the voters against corporations and recovering his political career.
The direction, photography and editing is good. (I would prefer a sharper picture, though with these old movies one never knows when the problem may be deterioration of picture stock or bad transfer to DVD.) It is the plot and, most of all, the dialogue that constantly reminds us that this is a propaganda film. The music feels too pushy and also adds to this effect. This, of course, weakens it as propaganda.
There has always been a great deal of political slant to Hollywood films, but usually incidental to the story. The sympathy for Democrats was palpable throughout the 1930s. It was probably good business for the studios, as the Democrats were certainly winning the elections, and the supporters of that party were probably even more heavily represented in the movie going part of the public. But also, many of the movie industry people were inclined to the left for a variety of reasons.
By the date of this film somebody figured something had to be done to try to get the point of view of business before the public in a sympathetic way, but forced efforts like this one don’t work.
To illustrate, take one of the most ham handed sequences from the movie. Washburn first tries to go after MacFarland motors on environmental grounds, but finds out that they are not doing any polluting. Then he starts a campaign against excessive business profits, and this takes hold with the public, increasing newspaper sales. We get a few scenes of people approving of the editorials they are reading. Then we get a sequence of two utility company employees in a truck.
—I think this paper’s going overboard taking cracks at our company.
—Whadya mean, ‘Our company.’
—Why don’t you do something for that sour stomach of yours. They treat us alright, don’t they?
—Oh, pipe down.
—Stop at the foot of the hill. I’ll put that sign back.
—Why bother? Nobody comin’ up here to Copper Hill.
“DANGER ROAD CLOSED – SLIDE AREA”
The truck disappears up the road trailing dust.
Cut to a scene of a school bus loading children for an excursion to Copper Hill.
On thing is piled on another: the sour expression of the anti-business guy, underlined by the other’s “sour stomach” comment, the lack of concern for doing his job, even when that endangers others, and bad English besides, tells us what sort of person is prejudiced against business.
Sometimes the touch is lighter. When Washburn shows up at the MacFarland plant the workers are coming off their shift. A shot of the plant gate makes the point that big business also means many jobs, and no comment needs to be added.
The friendly executive they came to interview mentions that his fifth child was born since he last met the reporter; big businessmen are people too:
“How are the kids?”
The good guy, second lead in the film is the reporter, played by Alan Hale, Jr. of Gilligan’s Island fame, who constantly questions the purpose behind Washburn’s stories. (This is also overdone.) This leads to a dialogue highlighting press selectivity in the choice of what news is fit to print.
—I’m just going after facts and printing them.
—Like the time you want out for some facts about the MacFarland factory?
—I didn’t find out anything.
—You found out the factory was not polluting the river. That was commendable. You didn’t print that.
But it is not just the heavy handed presentation that weakens a propaganda movie.
Washburn reads in the news that Ohio has passed a law against dumping factory waste in rivers. He wants to investigate the MacFarland factory hoping to find that they have dumped waste in the White River, so he can campaign for a similar law in his state. (Evidently that would be Indiana. Hoosiers used to be Hollywood’s favorite Middle America people.)
But Washburn is hypocritical. What industry at the time most polluted rivers? Wasn’t it the manufacture of paper for newsprint? Isn’t Washburn’s newspaper business the big generator of pollution, if not locally, than nationally? But a propaganda picture for big business can’t make that point.
When Washburn finally settles on a print campaign against big profits, it is an opportunity for MacFarland to come to his office and give him a talk about how everyone profits from a business transaction. Customers only buy if they think they will be better off as a result. MacFarland says that he is not an economist, and that this is just his little theory, but of course it is basic economics.
Most interesting, for me, was the secondary didactic theme of the film. One supposes that at this time sexual harassment was not a big item on the corporate agenda. Yet Pierson goes to considerable effort to work it into the movie, using the unwelcome advances of the Alan Hale’s character, the reporter Slim, to the newspaper’s secretary. Otherwise the good guy in this movie, Slim won’t leave Iris (Marilyn Monroe) alone, even though she has a fiancee and gives Slim no encouragement. No sooner does he arrive at work – late – than he is after her.
The sweater made three movies. Monroe also wore it in The Fireball and in All About Eve.
—I always treat men with respect, then they treat me with respect, Mr. Haskins.
—Is that a proven theory, or something you’re just trying out?
Later in the movie Pierson runs them through this sequence again, with added touches.
Slim arrives at the office passing a sidewalk ogler eating his lunch outside.
Inside Slim sees Iris.
—Iris, when are you going to get rid of that truck driver boyfriend of yours?
Maybe General Motors wanted to illustrate the proper way to deal with office pests. If so, it doesn’t persuade. In the movie, Iris’s theory, far from proven, doesn’t work. When we first meet Slim he is pestering the chef in a restaurant with his culinary requirements. He is presented as a sort of bon vivant. Iris, far from being willing to dump her boyfriend for him tells him that her boyfriend is not a truck diver but the owner of several trucks; that is, unlike Slim, he is becoming a businessman. The message may be that it is a businessman that the really discriminating girls go for, but it gets lost in the buildup of Slim’s annoying behavior. I suspect that this theme is more an interest of Pierson than of GM, more Ayn Rand than public relations. On the other hand, Pierson is a man who married a co-worker, namely the opposite lead in the play The Night of January 16th.
There is also a love story woven into the movie. Washburn is engaged, but too obsessed with his career to marry. He has to learn a lesson there too. But this adds little to the story. Maybe it is because I have been watching too many 1930s movies, but the women in this one seem boring.
It ends happily for everyone. Washburn goes though an easy reformation, and never really looses the girl. It feels cheap and unsatisfying. It would have been a better movie had he persevered in his obsession, lost her in a angry scene, and ran for office again only to lose. But that would have been a movie too much about people and not about big business where everybody wins.