Tuesday, January 13, 2015

History Told Through the Three Stooges

I am a great fan of the Three Stooges. Their earliest films were made in the 1930s, and most of the characters they played were working class men struggling to make a living and occasionally interacting with the wealthy in ridiculous ways. In an era when Hollywood answered the Great Depression with glamorous movie stars and movies like “Gold Diggers of 1933” (the opening song is “We’re in the Money”; the film is well-worth watching for the Busby Berkeley dance choreography), the Three Stooges must have provided a hilarious satirical depiction of ordinary life for the average moviegoer.

Not long ago I purchased a DVD set of all their short films from 1934-1942. Watching them in order over a period of a couple of months, it occurred to me that you could teach a class on the Great Depression using the Three Stooges as the foundation. Because they often portray workmen, the Stooges are often in people’s homes, particularly kitchens, and I was struck by the difference in kitchen appliances over the course of these few years. In one of their famous films, “An Ache in Every Stake” (1941) they are ice deliverymen; even in 1941 people still had iceboxes. The ovens start out looking like modified woodstoves. By the last film of 1942, “Sock-a-Bye Baby” they are in a kitchen with an electric refrigerator and fancy gas stove, and the kitchen looks gleamingly modern.

There are also references to the New Deal, including a visit to the Oval Office where the Stooges thank President Roosevelt.

There are plenty of shots of the Stooges in the street, which provides another fascinating historical viewpoint. Of course there are the vintage cars and trucks, the streetcars, and even horse-drawn vehicles. I also like to look at the shops. In “Half-shot Shooters” (1936) there’s a shop window with car tires attractively displayed against draperies—cars were still an exciting new thing. In “False Alarms,” (1936) in which the Stooges are firemen, there’s a Max Factor make-up store near the fire station, and a small grocery is called “Safeway Stores,” probably the forerunner of today’s chain.

It seems to me you could do this with film in general; you could design a fascinating 20th century history course using bits of film to illustrate different aspects of life. Not only could you show the clothes, kitchen appliances, cars, businesses, and forms of social interactions, but you could also illustrate the cultural assumptions that the filmmaker—and his audience—was unaware of.

For example, just recently I watched “It Happened One Night,” from 1932. The male and female protagonists—both single—are thrown together into a situation in which they have to spend the night alone together in a motel cabin. The cabin has two single beds, and the man hangs a clothesline between the beds and drapes a blanket over it to provide privacy. He jokes that this is the “wall of Jericho.” The obvious reason for the wall, to people of the time, was that this situation was an almost unthinkable breach of propriety and the blanket was absolutely necessary to maintain the woman’s honor. The couple end up marrying (of course), and the film ends with the woman’s father receiving a message that the “wall of Jericho is coming down.” The cultural assumption that sex is only acceptable in the context of marriage is once again affirmed. But how would a young person see that today? Those assumptions would seem hilariously old-fashioned.

Another example is a documentary about Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the U.S. in 1959, a PBS program called “Cold War Roadshow.” What was shocking to me was the aggression that Americans showed him. In public appearances he was asked inappropriate, combative questions, like “why didn’t you oppose Stalin more forcefully,” or “what did you mean when you said, ‘we will bury you’” (anyone who knows anything about communism would know that was meant in economic terms). Khrushchev was misunderstood over and over again, even after his eloquent impromptu speeches in response to the provocations. When, after three or so days of these questions, he gets to L.A. and is asked about the “bury you” quote again, he gets frustrated and angry. And then all the media can talk about is his “temper tantrum.”

From the Americans’ point-of-view, they were not being rude, they were forcefully opposing the nation’s top enemy, the dangerous head Communist. An archival clip of a CBS news reporter at the beginning of the program expresses the cultural assumption eloquently:
We must realize that the goal of Soviet leaders is domination of the world by communism. They intend to use all means, economic, propaganda, perhaps even military, to reach this goal. Total war requires total defense.
Interestingly, when Khrushchev stopped in Iowa to visit a farmer who shipped hybrid corn to Russia, things changed. All of a sudden he could be around ordinary people and the response on both sides was warm and enthusiastic. Not only is this documentary great for exposing some Cold War assumptions, it is also a delightful collection of footage of American people, cities, and landscapes from 1959. There were movie stars at the L.A. event, including Marilyn Monroe who is interviewed about her impressions of Khrushchev.

This concept, enjoying history through film, has greatly enhanced my pleasure while watching films. Now, even if I don’t particularly like the film, I can enjoy it because I watch the background for interesting tidbits of culture and history. And this doesn’t have to mean old films—Richard Linklater’s new film “Boyhood” is fascinating (on many levels besides this) because you can watch the change in technology over the 12 years the film took to produce.

Update: I'll add films from time to time as I see something relevant.

1. "A Night at the Opera," Marx Brothers. In the famous contract scene between Groucho and Chico, it becomes clear that Chico can't read or write. This was once not-uncommon to meet someone who couldn't read.

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