Published June 29, 2010
This summer James Bowman is presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of “The Pursuit of Happiness.” The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to www.eppc.org/thepursuitofhappiness for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, June 29th with Christmas in July (1940) by Gregory La Cava, starring William Powell and Carole Lombard. Before showing the film, Mr. Bowman spoke for a few minutes about the movie as follows.
Last week, in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey, we got a pretty good idea of at least one Depression-era American outlook on the question of the Pursuit of Happiness. The frenetic pleasure-seeking of the irresponsible rich was contrasted with the decency and dignity of “Forgotten Man” Godfrey Smith, played by William Powell, who has to teach the frivolous and self-absorbed Bullock family a better way to live and enjoy their money. But the fact that Godfrey turns out to be one of the blue-blooded Parkes of Boston and was himself brought up in wealth and privilege makes this rather a lesson in noblesse oblige, given by old money to new, than a practical approach to ambition and success designed for ordinary folks. Tonight's movie, Preston Sturges's comedy Christmas in July, based on his own play A Cup of Coffee, takes us down among what the BP chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, recently called the “small people” of the same era — but it turns out they are small people with big ideas.
This is typical of Sturges, who again and again came back to the theme of ambition and success and himself clearly had a lot of both. His best-known film, Sullivan's Travels, is about John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a rich and privileged Hollywood director of comedies, like Sturges himself, who is determined to make a great and serious art film — to be called Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? — about the poor and downtrodden of the earth and, like William Powell's Godfrey in My Man Godfrey, determines to go among them and live like one of them himself. But his experience is very different from Godfrey's. The poor in that film are not romanticized and sentimentalized as they are in La Cava's, and the brutality of their existence, both moral and material, finally convinces the hero that he should give up his high-falutin' artistic ambitions and stick to comedy. “There's a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he says in the end. “Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
Sullivan's original purpose in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? — not to be confused with the Coen brothers movie of the same name whose borrowing of it from Sturges was a typical post-modern joke — was meant to show “the problems that confront the average man,” but the average man was much less likely to be one of the tramps of Sullivan's Travels than someone like Dick Powell's Jimmy MacDonald in Christmas in July, a movie that had come out a year earlier, in 1940. Jimmy is a low-level book-keeper with the J.B. Baxter coffee company of New York and is engaged to be married to Betty Casey, played by Ellen Drew. Betty lives in the same tenement on the lower East Side, along with a rich ethnic mix of first and second-generation immigrants, and works in the same company uptown as a secretary. Together, their income totals $40 a week, we are told, but both have widowed mothers to look after and couldn't possibly afford to live on Jimmy's income alone if they married and Betty got pregnant, as of course they expect she would.
Though Jimmy tells Betty that men, unlike women, never think of anything but money, it is clear to us from the start that, to him as much as to her, it's not just money he is thinking about but what they used to call “a start in life” — the chance to marry and have a family — which was very far from being something that Mr Svanberg's “small people” could take for granted at the time. Jimmy is also in a hurry, however, because he believes in himself and his ability to succeed in business on a much grander scale than that necessary just to marry Betty. In particular, he believes that he can win a slogan contest being mounted by a rival coffee company, Maxford House (“Grand to the Last Gulp” is its current slogan) whose first prize is $25,000. Depending on how you calculate it, in terms of purchasing power, average income or per capita GDP, that would be worth somewhere between 15 and 40 times that amount in today's money, or between 375,000 and a million dollars.
There are also a host of lesser prizes, the whole list of which is lovingly recited by the Maxford House announcer, played by Franklin Pangborn — whom you will recognize as the master of ceremonies for the scavenger hunt from My Man Godfrey — at the beginning of the radio show to which Jimmy and Betty are eagerly listening in the opening scene on the roof of their tenement. The pleasure he takes in dreaming of so much “sugar,” as he puts it, stands for that of the two-million-plus contest entrants who, like Jimmy and Betty, are hoping to be made suddenly rich. In order for the plot to be set in motion, however, Preston Sturges takes a characteristic risk by unexpectedly and most implausibly delaying the highly anticipated announcement of the contest-winner, even when the radio show is already on the air, by making the jury, dominated by William Demarest's irascible holdout, Bildocker, proclaim itself to be deadlocked.
There is another risk in the feebleness of Jimmy's slogan — which is, “If you can't sleep at night, it isn't the coffee; it's the bunk” — and the fact that neither Betty nor his mother (Georgia Caine) nor Dr Maxford himself, played by the Sturges stalwart Raymond Walburn, can understand it. Sturges himself calls attention to the slogan's incomprehensibility again and again, and part of the joke is that Jimmy has been playing the intellectual. For coffee's supposed soporific qualities, he has taken some newspaper's version of the word of a Viennese doctor — the idea of which, based on Dr Freud, was itself a bit of a joke at the time — over the voice of common sense. This, as he is brutally reminded by Betty (“it's a well-known fact”) and his mother ( “everybody knows”) ought to have told him that coffee keeps you awake. The flim-flammery of advertising seems to be taken for granted here, but, rather touchingly, Jimmy seems really to believe not only in the prize-winning efficacy but also in the truth of his slogan.
I shall have more to say about this in a moment, but first let's consider the question of what is to be made of the following speech by Mr. E.L. Waterbury (Harry Hayden), Jimmy's immediate superior at the J.B. Baxter coffee company, who is reproving him for taking his attention away from his job and giving it instead to daydreaming about that $25,000. “I used to think about $25,000 too,” says Mr Waterbury, “and what I'd do with it.”
That I'd be a failure, if I didn't get a hold of it. And then one day I realized that I was never going to have $25,000, Mr. MacDonald. And then another day… uhh… a little bit later — considerably later — I realized something else, something I'm imparting to you now, Mr. MacDonald. I'm not a failure. I'm a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of one per cent were successes and all the rest were failures. That wouldn't be right. I'm not a failure. I'm a success. And so are you, if you earn y
our own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye. I hope you win your $25,000, Mr. MacDonald. But if you shouldn't happen to, don't worry about it. Now get the heck back to your desk and try to improve your arithmetic.
In the context of the film, we might be tempted to look at this as ironic, like something that Sturges's moralizing director John L. Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels might have come up with. Sturges's well-known aversion to cant, to say nothing of his own earning power in Hollywood at the time, would never have allowed him to pretend that it was better to be poor than to be rich, but that's not quite what Mr Waterbury is saying, and there is a kind of open-hearted genuineness about Mr Waterbury's simple credo which disarms any attempt to sneer it away. It is also echoed in the climactic and unexpected speech of Betty Casey, Jimmy's long-suffering fiancée, to Mr Baxter (Ernest Truex) on Jimmy's behalf. Betty tells Baxter that Jimmy belongs in the new office he has mistakenly been given. This is just because, says Betty,
he thinks he has ideas. He belongs in here until he proves himself or fails and… then… someone else belongs in here until he proves himself or fails and somebody else after that and somebody else after him and so on and so on for always. Oh… I don't know how to… put it into words like Jimmy could, but… all he wanted, all any of them want is a — is a chance to show — to find out what they've got while they're still young and burning, like a short cut or a stepping stone. Oh, I know they're not going to succeed, at least most of them won't, they'll all be like Mr. Waterbury soon enough, most of them, anyway. But they won't mind it. They'll find something else, and they'll be happy, because they had their chance. Because it's one thing to muff a chance once you've had it… it's another thing never to have had a chance.
To my ear, this is the voice of the author speaking. Failure, he thinks, is irrelevant to happiness. So long as you've had your chance at the sort of spectacular success that that $25,000 represented to Jimmy. It ultimately doesn't matter if you've missed it if you can still be happy as Mr Waterbury is happy, just paying your bills and looking the world in the eye.
But let's not kid ourselves about how difficult it is to believe this. Jimmy's own success makes Mr Waterbury's and Betty's moral outlook appear just the tiniest bit sentimental and false. Moreover, the weakness of Jimmy's slogan as well as the one that Baxter's advertising men like better about their allegedly “blue-blooded” coffee, “It's bred in the bean,” makes it hard to escape the impression — and this is something common to the films of the period, including My Man Godfrey, which we saw last week, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which we will be seeing next week — that success, like wealth itself, is capricious and as likely to light upon the undeserving as the deserving. Yet it is also true that luck or “hap” is etymologically buried in the idea of happiness — something which we often forget nowadays when we take that notion so seriously but which, I think, Jefferson would have been at least dimly aware of when he first wrote the pursuit of it as an American entitlement into the Declaration of Independence.
And that's really the point being made by both Betty and Mr Waterbury. It's not enough to be clever and industrious; you've got to be lucky as well. That's why, even if good luck makes you a success, bad luck doesn't make you a failure. My favorite line in the picture comes when Jimmy and Betty are walking disconsolately back to their office after learning, as they think, that all their brightest hopes, recently raised so high, have suddenly been dashed and a black cat crosses their path. Quickly, they ask the janitor, a black man, who is the only person on the premises at that hour, if the cat represents good or bad luck. “That depends on what happens afterwards,” says he in a triumph for Sturgesian common sense.
The capricious nature of success is especially well represented by its association with advertising, as it will be again in the movie we'll see in two weeks' time, Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House. It's also part of the American way to take less of an interest in the product than the salesmanship. We believe in selling the sizzle and not the steak, which is what produces our ambivalent love-affair with the con artist and the flim-flam man. I wish I had the time and the opportunity to show one of those great musicals from the 1950s and 1960s, The Music Man or How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, so that we could look at that subject in more detail, but the Cliff's Notes version is that the American Dream always tends to make room for the salesman who believes in himself and his product — which very often is himself — even when, or especially when, it is hard for anybody else to believe.
Even when he thinks he has won the contest, Jimmy is pleased not only by the money, whose greatest pleasure comes from being given away to his friends and neighbors, but by the needful confirmation of his belief in himself. This is what he says to Dr Maxford: “You see, I used to think that maybe I had good ideas and was gonna get somewhere in the world, but now I know it. And that's what I want to thank you for, Dr. Maxford, even more than the money.” The same supposed confirmation of Jimmy's good ideas is what induces Mr Baxter to offer him his dream job when he thinks he has won. “They're still the same ideas, aren't they?” says Jimmy when he finds out that he hasn't. But Baxter, who thinks that winning the contest is proof that “you have a genuine talent for slogans” and thus a kind of “commercial insurance,” replies that “I didn't hang on to my father's money by backing my own judgment, you know.” It's a curious inversion of Jimmy's brash confidence. At least some guys who get rich, or stay rich, do so like Mr Baxter, by a lively sense of their own limitations.
I remember when I was teaching English in England and the number of argumentative essays or persuasive speeches one saw in the textbooks that were retailed with greater or less skill by the youthful essayists and speakers one taught on some such subject as “Advertising: a Force for Evil?” — with or without a question mark. It was widely supposed in Britain that advertising was a form of lying, only it was worse than lying because it didn't just deceive people. It forced them to spend money they didn't have for goods and services they didn't need, and all for the enrichment of some corporate fat cat who cared nothing for them except in their role as potential consumers. There was something disreputable about the very name, “consumers” — as if consuming things in general were like the specific act of consumption known as buying your own furniture: that is, something that only the lower orders and the nouveau riche would do.
Though the American educational system was worse than the British in many ways, I don't remember reading or writing those kinds of essays when I was at school, though maybe American children do now. The popularity of the TV series “Mad Men” is as great as it is partly because it reacquaints us with our sometimes reluctant but always passionate national love-affair with advertising, that magical, mystical art by which fortunes are made or broken and whose promise remains for us still what it was for Jimmy MacDonald: the key to happiness. Both the mysteriousness and the mysticism of Jon Hamm's Don Draper and his fabulous creativity on the TV show demonstrates a much more serious approach to the subject than Preston Sturges's in Christmas in July, but you can see the later attitude in embryo her
e in 1940 in the idea shared by both these entertainments that the kind of creativity rewarded by the advertising business, even a creativity of mere sloganeering, is like John L. Sullivan's and Preston Sturges's light-hearted comedies, its own reward.
Ironically, perhaps, British advertising was and is some of the best in the world, and one of the plot lines of “Mad Men” has to do with how overwhelmed the new British head of the American firm, Sterling Cooper, feels by the superior social status he and his trade enjoy in America as compared with Britain. It drives a wedge between him and his wife, who retains the disdain of the British upper classes and those who would ape them for both her husband's business and his adopted country. He, by contrast, feels a sense of liberation which ultimately leads to his siding with his new American colleagues rather than the London head office when the former strike out on their own after major changes are proposed in the existing corporate structure. The pursuit of happiness for Americans always wants to go with being, in some sense, our own boss even when (like Jimmy) we remain locked into a corporate structure. Maybe that's just another way of saying that the American Dream really is a dream — an illusion — but it is also a dream like Jimmy's that, however improbably and paradoxically, we know will come true.