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Middle Class Life in the movies


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Just finished reading a great article about Hollywood's perceptions of "Middle Class" life in the movies. by Chrissy Clark of APR's Marketplace team:

 

http://www.marketplace.org/topics/wealth-poverty/middle-class-through-hollywood-lens

 

There's an audio link too if you want to hear it.

 

I found it fascinating and quite remarkable. It made two early references to middle class (Marty) and upwardly mobile middle class (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) and I thought,

 

What classic movie do you think does' the best representing the average American family home and environment to you and why?

 

I am reminded of the home of Homer Parrish in BYOOL, and Dorothy Gale's farmhouse in Wizard of Oz.

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This is a great thread idea.

 

Sometimes I wonder why an interesting thread topic like this, chock full of possibilities for discussion about both cultural / social history and classic film, ends up on page 2 with nary a reply.

 

I must admit, I only noticed it now, when I was scrolling around looking for another thread.

But then this caught my eye.

 

Anyway, I don't want to derail it before it's even got started by complaining that no one responded to it. Maybe it was timing, maybe nobody else saw it either. Because I'm sure if they had they would have posted on it, it's such a luscious thread topic. (Can I say a thread topic is "luscious" ? )

 

Anyway, I've got two good ones for starters:

 

If you're talking about "middle class" in the early 1900s, *Meet Me in St. Louis* is a good choice.

I know that family seems a lot richer than what we think of as "middle class" now, what with that big house and a servant and all, but I think a lot more people could afford that way of life back then, people who would have been regarded as middle class. Upper middle class, maybe.

 

The other one I thought of is Teresa Wright's family in *Shadow of a Doubt*. In fact, they're so typically middle-class, they're having an article about themselves as the "typical middle class American family" written for a middle class ladies' journal.

Of course, they're not, really, that's just a ploy for the detectives to snoop around Joseph Cotten's room. But Mrs.Newton doesn't know that. Remember the cake baking scene? I always have to laugh at her indignation that the "journalists" won't wait for her to beat the eggs or something.

 

Anyway, I think one reason Hitchcock rightly felt this type of family was effective in the film is because their lives seem so safe, so unlikely to be harbouring a criminal. Yet they were !

 

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Being the "Gearhead" that I am, my first thought of "Middle Class Life" in the movies, but specifically to the Post-WWII era, was of George Lucas' American Graffiti....especially if one lived in a part of the country where people didn't have a public transit system to rely upon.

 

(...in other words, I'm gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that people born and bred in NYC, Boston, Philly and a few other locales back east might not feel the same way about this as this ol' SoCal boy here does...yep, as the tagline went to that flick, "Where were YOU in '62?", IF you were a denizen of one of those eastern cities, you probably WEREN'T 'there"!) ;)

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There were, and still are, such a wide range of income levels and home sizes for "middle class" families.

 

A lot of the families in films lived in large 2-story houses and many of the fathers were doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc, while in real life many middle-class homes were smaller and fathers often had simpler jobs, and, often, blue-collar jobs.

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I think an excellent point to bring up here, Fred. Yep, the idea of an all-encompassing "Middle Class" is pretty much a misnomer in many ways.

 

If one would include into that economic scale the "Working Class" category, which I've always thought should be included into it, then I think it would be hard to generalize what a "typical" Middle Class household would be...and at any time in our history.

 

(...btw, ever notice that whenever a film's synopsis calls the characters involved "of Working Class", you can almost BET dear ol' Pop is EITHER gonna be portrayed as a drunk or at the minimum some guy who has a quick temper?...talk about your "stereotype" here, EH?!)

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I read the article, and I don't think Hollywood folks have a clue about what is middle class in the year 2013. Then the article itself says something incorrect - that consumer spending drives the American economy. This was true in 1980, not today. Spending somewhere in the world drives the stock market which is comprised of multinational corporations. None of them care at all whether or not Americans have money to spend as long as somebody somewhere spends money on their products.

 

I watch lots of precode and early sound, and two 1929 films that deal with the middle class pretty well are "Idle Rich" and "Wise Girls". In "Idle Rich" the daughter in a middle class family marries her wealthy boss. The girl's family lives in a cramped hot flat in NYC. The daughter's job was secretary even though she was a college graduate. Her dad gets laid off because his boss says he is too old and wants young blood. They still do that today but they'd never come out and say so!

 

"Wise Girls" shows retirement as it existed in 1929. The dad in the family is a retired businessman with two daughters. They seem to have a pretty nice house but no mansion - 2 stories, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. There's no such thing as social security so dad is nervous about having enough money to last the rest of his life, plus in those days unmarried girls lived with their parents until marriage. If they never married they never moved out and they were the family responsibility forever.

 

I got Warner Archive copies of both of these as a blind buy. I don't think I've ever seen them on TCM. If you are students of "the middle class" through the ages, I'd recommend these two to at least cover how average people lived right before the Great Depression.

 

Afterwards, it really gets difficult. Precode usually covered people that were not average families, and after the code films were not allowed to discuss the Great Depression and its effects.

 

 

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Possibily *It's A Wonderful Life* would represent a middle class family. They did have help in the home and maybe that wasn't typical in real life, middle class homes, but seems to have not been so uncommon in the movies about middle class familiies.There was a hard working father, a mother who stayed at home tending to the house, and 2 sons that had to have jobs after school for extra spending money. A close knit unpretentious family.

 

Another might be the *Andy Hardy* series. Although dad was a judge, mom stayed home and Andy was always short on pocket cash. He had his old beat up car that he constantly worked on. They represented the typical middle American, middle class family as far as Hollywood's vision of middle class values.

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The Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake series of Blondie movies seemed to be typical middle-class family in terms of lifestyle and choices.

 

Ann Sothern's series of Maisie movies took her into some middle-class family homes.

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lavender, All I'm hearing in my head right now after your mentioning of It's a Wonderful Life is George telling his father after he's realized he's made a faux pas by telling his dad about that "shabby little office" his dad works in, and then saying to his father, "Ya wanna shock, Pop?! I think you're a great guy!"

 

(...and of course the caper being when Annie the maid then immediately responds with, " 'Bout TIME one you lunkheads SAID it!")

 

LOL

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Atticus Finch and his children live a middle class life in *To Kill a Mockingbird* (Miss Maudie and Dill's Aunt Stephanie likely do as well).

 

William Holden and June Allyson in *Executive Suite*

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> Atticus Finch and his children live a middle class life in *To Kill a Mockingbird* (Miss Maudie and Dill's Aunt Stephanie likely do as well).

 

Isn't there a scene in which Atticus' daughter asks him if they're poor and he more or less responds affirmatively? After all, several of his clients are paying him in barter, what with the Depression going on.

 

One thing that hasn't been brought up so far in the thread, I think, is the movies of the 50s and 60s set in suburbia, such as *No Down Payment* or *Divorce, American Style*.

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>Isn't there a scene in which Atticus' daughter asks him if they're poor and he more or less responds affirmatively? After all, several of his clients are paying him in barter, what with the Depression going on.

 

I was thinking about that too. But I would say that in very small towns in the South, during the depression, most people did not have a lot of money to pay attorneys. The same for store owners, bankers, etc. Not much money circulating in small towns back then. But a whole lot of people who had grown up in small towns, still liked to live and raise their kids in small towns.

 

Atticus' educational level put him in the middle class. In modern times I think he would have a newer bigger house.

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I think Hollywood mostly got it right, regarding the middle classes, and the way some of the upper middle-class families behaved similar to the lower middle-class families. For example, the father in Father Knows Best was a doctor and they lived in a 2-story house in an expensive neighborhood, but they acted pretty much the same as lower middle-class families.

 

I can compare this to real life because when I was in high school I went to the homes of kids in several different income levels of the middle class. I did notice some slight differences, but not too many major ones.

 

I would say the family in Meet Me in St. Louis was an upper class family, just based on the size and newness of their big house. That was a very expensive house. Just think of building one like that today. Its a multi-million dollar house today.

 

Summer-exterior-512x384.jpg

 

This is Mr. Martinis new low-cost small house in It's a Wonderful Life.

 

30_big.jpg

 

And here is the same house today. Still small, but much more expensive today, yet still middle class.

 

image.axd?picture=itsawonderfullifehouse

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Maybe it's just my taste in movies, but in looking over my DVD collection it seems as if two classes are wildly overrepresented: The upper / leisure class and the lumpenproletariat / criminal class. The middle class, even taken in the broadest sense, doesn't get nearly as much play, I guess because its lives on the surface seem relatively devoid of money-centered drama, not to mention fancy dress balls, photogenic houses, and gratuitous murders. And as others have mentioned, once the Breen code slammed the doors shut, honest representations of middle class family life became harder and harder to come by, since the financial squeeze that the Depression put on the middle class was taken almost entirely off the table.

 

But there were still a few movies that did depict middle class life in various parts of the country and at varying points along the income spectrum. Obviously not all of them were of equal quality or have the same angle, but the central characters were all placed squarely in the broader middle class. The five in boldface are those that seem to me to most put the problems and conflicts of middle class family life at the heart of the drama. If I had to choose the best of the lot for concentrating on that central theme, I'd go with Roughly Speaking, which IMO is one of the most underrated dramatic movies ever.

 

Mildred Pierce, at least at the beginning of the movie before Crawford's restaurant took off

A Letter to Three Wives

*Since You Went Away*

*The Best Years of Our Lives*

*Roughly Speaking* (Rosalind Russell & Jack Carson)

My Son John (Helen Hayes & Dean Jagger)

A Raisin in the Sun (Sidney Poitier)

Breaking Away (the main character's family)

All My Sons (Edward G. Robinson)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Rebel Without a Cause

*It's a Wonderful Life*

Christmas in July (Dick Powell)

American Madness (Walter Huston)

The Bride Walks Out (Barbara Stanwyck & Gene Raymond)

Trouble Along the Way (John Wayne & Donna Reed)

Men in White (Clark Gable & Myrna Loy)

*Make Way For Tomorrow* (Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell)

A Stolen Life (Bette Davis & Glenn Ford)

Tomorrow Is Forever (Orson Welles)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Taylor & Burton)

King's Row

I Can Get It For You Wholesale

Picnic (Roz Russell)

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Very interesting the responses I have received here. Most revealing is the perception of what middle class is, depending on one's background, geography and maybe personal history.

 

I am curious as to the definitions some have of middle class. Many reference to movie settings I would say are definitely Upper Middle class, of career professionals (doctors, lawyers, executives, business owners) and many shared the idea of the "working class" as being factory workers, policemen, clerical. union workers. I grew up in a "first ring-post war" suburb, and always thought is was a true middle class arrangement-- a three bedroom, one bath house with a minuscule kitchen and detached garage, though not every house had a garage. Everybody else lived in very similar if not identical housing.

 

the houses in town for the most part were not mansions either, but something very much like the Adam's home in *Alice Adams*, and we get a chance to compare with the folks on the other side of town, including business owner Mr Lamb, and his mansion.

 

Someone mentioned the family home in *Breaking Away* (1979). That is to me a perfect reference point to middle class life. Another one is Ralphie's family home in *A Christmas Story*. That's middle class. Someone wrote about Father Knows Best (Jim Anderson was a owner of his Insurance business), yet I would remember that being an ideal, not a middle class situation. The Honeymooners were middle class. But then, they were two very different parts of the country as well.

 

It would seem that I thought I was middle class, but there are upper middle class who thought my family wasn't, but working class.

 

Maybe that is why the change in movie settings nowadays and what Hollywood perceives is middle class is all about. It could be the middle class today are too dreary to watch in a drama or a comedy, where now there is usually a family's oversize home with granite counter tops and curved driveways in the valley. Maybe Hollywood can not imagine a public's interest in a movie character earning 45K in a good year, and living modestly. But many more real life do just that, rather than earning 250K and living in 3,500 sq ft.

 

Another movie mentioned is *No Down Payment.* That is an excellent example of pressures of the suburban lifestyle, middle class striving very hard to appear upper middle class.

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What the movies called "middle class" was considered "upper middle class" in my neck of the woods. Lately, thanks(a LOT, pal!) to Jeff Foxworthy, "blue collar" seems to refer to a lower class of "****" morons, when actually, while growing up, "blue collar" referred to those who worked in mills and factories and made up the lion share of consumerism. Movies usually made these people( read that MY people) look un or undereducated, beer swilling, crude talking, baby making, shabby dressing, ill mannered and tasteless dregs of society. I've always sort of resented that, but understood that Hollywood had a way of NOT getting everything right!

 

 

Sepiatone

 

 

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I have just been watching *How Green Was My Valley*, and it has struck me for the first time, the subtext of the miners and their union fight and pay was all about raising them to the middle class status in this Welsh mining village. And they succeed, in that Angharad Morgan is considered a worthy enough woman to marry above her social station, without scorn from either the wealthy or the working class.

 

I too find the embrace of ignorance, bigotry and small-mindedness as noble qualities a bit disconcerting, even more so when Foxworthy started his red-neck routine as satire and sarcasm, yet is taken as a point of pride to remain hostile to an enlightened approach to the world around them. This is a common challenge, not only with the division of the "city mouse vs. country mouse" mentality, but a strong line in the sand concerning difference of wealth, with the opposing nature of earning a wage, vs. the accumulation of wealth through family or connections.

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>I have just been watching How Green Was My Valley, and it has struck me for the first time, the subtext of the miners and their union fight and pay was all about raising them to the middle class status in this Welsh mining village. And they succeed, in that Angharad Morgan is considered a worthy enough woman to marry above her social station, without scorn from either the wealthy or the working class.

 

Very coincidentally here Char, I also thought of that John Ford film after Sepia said what he said about Hollywood very often portraying the Working Class in a less than positive light. Yep, Donald Crisp's patriarchal character and indeed his whole family in that film IS portrayed as being very noble and fair-minded.

 

>I too find the embrace of ignorance, bigotry and small-mindedness as noble qualities a bit disconcerting, even more so when Foxworthy started his red-neck routine as satire and sarcasm, yet is taken as a point of pride to remain hostile to an enlightened approach to the world around them. This is a common challenge, not only with the division of the "city mouse vs. country mouse" mentality, but a strong line in the sand concerning difference of wealth, with the opposing nature of earning a wage, vs. the accumulation of wealth through family or connections.

 

And of course this passage of your post reminds me of back in the day when Norman Lear's "All In The Family" was a big hit, and yet there seemed to be a whole lot of people in this country at the time who didn't realize that Archie Bunker was in most cases a character to be laughed AT and not laughed WITH.

 

(...aah, but then again and as you know, Anti-Intellectualism has deep roots in this country of ours)

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Okay, I must get back to my work, but let me respond-

>Dargo wrote: And of course this passage of your post reminds me of back in the day when Norman Lear's "All In The Family" was a big hit, and yet there seemed to be a whole lot of people in this country at the time who didn't realize that Archie Bunker was in most cases a character to be laughed AT and not laughed WITH.

>

>(...aah, but then again and as you know, Anti-Intellectualism has deep roots in this country of ours)

Lear started People for the American Way as a response to the increasing calls of the downward ideals of Americans, and the lack of outreached community and increasing division of cultures without respect to their uniqueness and contribution to American life.

 

How does one take pride in their culture without denigrating another? Actually, very easily, if one is willing to open their eyes to improvements for all, including themselves, in the process.

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Fans of TCM and classic film have an invaluable time machine with which to compare the expectations and mores of the present: our access to feature films from the 1910's onward!

 

Subject to the usual caveats; that feature films of yesteryear presented an idealised vision of middle class homes, lifestyles and communities. Maybe the houses depicted were a wee bit big, the apartments a tad too stylishly furnished, the women's clothes a bit fashionable and the "colored" help solicitous- but it had to look somewhat believable to some extent. Judging how believable takes discernment and knowledge of what living standards and wages actually were back then for different classes of workers and professions.

 

The lifestyle in these films had to have some basis in reality for some occupational groups. The home that Judge Hardy lived in, as depicted in those MGM films, was close enough to real life possibility then for a successful small town lawyer or judge. (But not to a working class person). There were (and still are) small town communities in America were you find a street of homes that resemble Jimmy Stewart's Bedford Falls. It was a fictional portrayal, but not totally divorced from any and all reality. That film was trying after all to provide an atmosphere with a common touch.

 

 

These films depict America before globalisation, outsourcing, offshoring, and deindustrialisation balanced by the fact that there was a depression going on throughout the 30's. These are complex economic trends and variables to assess over time as they affect the middle class.

 

Another stark point of contrast between these old films and today's realities is that the lifestyle depicted was maintained by one wage earner (the husband). Today "hubby" would have to earn well into the six figures to keep up what passed for middle class appearances in these old films! (Which included a big house, support of a wife and multiple children.) Such portrayals were the norm in old movies and TV shows well into the 1970's. When assessing such a development over a period of say,80 years, we have to take into account that jobs for women were very limited- confined to mostly lower paying work. (That's one reason why ambitious women in old movies were often shown as stage struck and eager to become show biz people- as the entertainment field was just about the only legal profession where a woman could achieve riches and independence on her own.) Employers were also free to to preferentially hire men as well as pay men more, as it was not yet against the law to do so.

 

 

That many middle class homes in old films depict black maids, cooks and gardeners is also an interesting issue. Factually and historically, it was quite true that a successful small business owner or professional could afford to hire such help then, as the wages to them were quite low and the help often retained on a live in basis. (The houses were big.) There was indeed a low wage labor pool to draw from- and the minimum wage act of the 1930's very deliberately excluded servant help. Such functions today are usually performed by other ethnics, and usually for rather well to do households.

 

 

 

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Interesting story about Shadow of a Doubt. Hitch and Thorton Wilder wanted

the physical environment of the movie to be very realistic, so they went to

the town to find a house that would likely be owned by the bank teller father.

They were about to settle on one, but Wilder thought it was too grand to be

owned by a bank teller. They did a little checking and found out that the person

who did own the house had a job similar to that of the father.

 

 

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Perhaps the average bus driver in 1950s Brooklyn made a middle class

salary, but Ralph Kramden never seemed middle class. Just about every

article about the show mentions that small apartment and its threadbare

furnishings. It looked as if they might be squatting there instead of renting.

That doesn't take away from the greatness of the program, since much of

it revolves around Ralph's attempts to strike it rich, but this guy was just

getting by. Maybe he spent all his disposable income on jelly donuts. Norton

likely made about the same amount as Ralphie boy, but his apartment looked

a lot better.

 

Ricky and Lucy's place seems to be middle class to me. The Mertzes didn't

own a luxury building and the Ricardo's apartment is comfortable, but it's hardly

a showcase.

 

 

 

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Very good points, John, especially about the Ricardos and their brownstone. They were middle class, at least until they made it to Connecticut.

 

The bank teller doing so well does not surprise me. Considering the amount of funds entrusted to their daily work, it makes good business sense not to create an environment of need for a bank worker.

 

Preston Sturges could understand middle class, like Capra did. Sturges' *Miracle of Morgan's Creek* is an example of a middle class town life. Betty Hutton and Diana Lynn living with their dad, William Demerest. Then, there was a remake with Jerry Lewis, *Rock A Bye Baby*. And again, a quiet, middle class existence; simple but not lacking in necessities.

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Of course there are different levels of middle class, and in fact I think the whole class thing is on a sliding scale, with no clear dividing lines.

 

The Kramdens might have been lower middle class while a bank teller might be upper middle class.

 

But I've covered news events where these two groups would meet at parties and club conventions, and they would all try to blend in with one another. For example, Mr. Kramden would try to be very polite and act high class, while a bank teller might try to sound kind of "folksy" like a "good ol' boy" when he talked to Mr. Kramden.

 

In fact, I knew some members of a bottle collecter's club and they were quite a mixed group. One came driving up to the meetings in a big new Cadillac, while others came driving up in beat-up old pickups, but they all had their hobby in common and they got alone just fine, but only socialized in matters concerning their collecting hobby.

 

A lower class family I would imagine as being one where the husband didn't have any kind of job, or was missing, and maybe with more kids than they needed, and in a much older apartment than the Kramdens.

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