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Middle Class Life in the movies


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I had a boss one time, a TV station owner/manager, who always went to work in an old car and wearing old suit coats that were obviously frayed at the cuffs of the sleeves.

 

Years later I saw him go to a function at the local Country Club and he arrived in a tuxedo, driving some big fancy car.

 

This guy was very friendly and folksy to all his workers, and I liked him a lot. But I finally realized that his work coats were props, to wear at work so we would not think he was a rich guy, so we maybe wouldn't ask for a raise. :) I always suspected he had a better suit coat in his car which he probably put on when he went out to lunch with other businessmen. I always suspected he switched cars when he got into town to go out to lunch with some other upper class business men. I later found out he was worth several million dollars. :)

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They moved on up to the burbs, just like so many others. I was a bit

skeptical that a mere bank teller could afford that house, a bank vice-

president maybe. In the end, it's not very important to the story, just

an interesting sidelight. I did laugh at the banker's reaction to Uncle

Charlie's indifference to money. He looked like he was about to faint.

 

I enjoy these middle-class, small town films, because they're a familiar

environment and it's fun to see their take on something much of the

audience knows about first hand. Hail the Conquering Hero is another

one set in that small town, middle class mileau that is so recognizable.

 

 

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>Fred wrote: This guy was very friendly and folksy to all his workers, and I liked him a lot. But I finally realized that his work coats were props, to wear at work so we would not think he was a rich guy, so we maybe wouldn't ask for a raise. I always suspected he had a better suit coat in his car which he probably put on when he went out to lunch with other businessmen. I always suspected he switched cars when he got into town to go out to lunch with some other upper class business men. I later found out he was worth several million dollars.

That would be a good premise for a movie.

 

My favorite upper class guy was the WIENIE KING in The Palm Beach Story. Then again, Rudy Valle's character is the most benevolent asset class rich guy around.

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Sepia, I equate "blue collar" with the British term "working class," which is used with pride in England, as "blue collar" is here. Ralph Kramden certainly qualifies. These days, blue collar workers sometimes earn more than middle class people, for example, plumbers often earn more than college professors. So it's not an economic distinction.

 

 

 

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To me your average bank teller is likely on the lower rung of the middle

class, just as they are on the lower rung of bank employees. Nothing

against bank tellers, they perform a needed function, but I don't think

their pay is that high. I guess Ralph Kramden could be considered lower

middle class, but he's way down there, judging from that apartment he

has and the furnishings in it. I think most people have a fairly good idea

of what the economic range of the middle middle class would be. There

is also the idea that middle class refers more to values than to income,

that it is more a certain way of looking at the world than making a certain

amount of money. This way even the poor can be said to be middle class.

 

It's kind of sad or funny or both that someone would go to those lengths

to fool people about his actual financial situation. There are also those

people who live modest lives and then when they die it's discovered they

were millionaires. Those stories pop up in the news every once in a while.

 

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I was once a stockbroker who brokered in an office with a gentleman who drove

a Honda Accord, never wore french cuffs, suits were not tailored but nice as he

could be and he made over a million a year and would sit down with you and the

folks at the favorite local eatery.

 

Jake in the Heartland

 

 

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> {quote:title=misswonderly wrote:}{quote}

>

> 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 !

>

This was one of the first films to jump to my mind, as well. Supposedly, Hitch said it brought murder back into the home - where it belonged! :)

 

Another movie to mention is The Mating Season. Thelma Ritter's in peak form as John Lund's hamburger stand-owning mother who (through Three's Company-style misassumptions) ends up posing as hired help to her posh new daughter-in-law Gene Tierney (a diplomat's daughter). There is plenty of social contrast, not the least between down-to-Earth, plain spoken Ellen (Ritter) and Tierney's snobby mom (a perfectly bitchy Miriam Hopkins).

 

Ellen McNulty and her late husband ran their aforementioned burger joint, and their son worked his way through school, which she's plainly proud to mention ("She know you're from college?"). I love watching her crawl into the back of a bus to keep Lund from finding out she hitchhiked out to Ohio. And the way Lund's rich boss is won over by her Jersey charm. He's a good guy, by the way, so it's not a simple matter of blue collar = good/ white collar=jerk (though his son does his very best to fulfill the stereotypes!).

 

A really good movie (and Tierney is mind-numbingly breathtaking). TCM hasn't played it for a while, but you can stream it if you're an Amazon Prime member.

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Thanks, Nora, I'll have to keep my eye out for *The Mating Season*, which I've never seen.

 

I just thought of another movie about an upper middle class family - *Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House*,

Yes, it's one huge house that family is building. I can't remember what Cary Grant does for a living in it.But there are plenty of scenes where he's doing a double take when he finds out the cost of the latest luxury feature he's being asked to add to the plans.

Myrna Loy really gets into this...It's so funny, that scene where she's explaining her colour scheme ideas to the decorator, and keeps specifying exactly what shade she wants.

 

So, is Mr. Blandings' family middle-class? I guess a lot of us would say they were rich - maybe lower upper class? It's a careful balance between Mr. Blandings trying to keep a hold over some of his rapidly disappearing money, implying that they simply don't really have that kind of money, and yet, the luxuries do seem to get integrated into the house.

 

Of course, even people who are financially well-off get worried when they see bills they hadn't anticipated piling up.

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> {quote:title=misswonderly wrote:}{quote}

> I just thought of another movie about an upper middle class family - *Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House*,

> Yes, it's one huge house that family is building. *I can't remember what Cary Grant does for a living in it*.But there are plenty of scenes where he's doing a double take when he finds out the cost of the latest luxury feature he's being asked to add to the plans.

He's an ad exec. Remember? - If you ain't eatin' Wham - you ain't eatin' ham!

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How could I have forgotten that, Nora? They say that damn slogan all through the movie !

 

Hey, Cary was an early "madman" ! Can you imagine him in that show? B-)

 

Well, my understanding of admen, or madmen, is that they were /are pretty well paid. So despite Cary's going into shock every tme sweet Myrna showed him a fresh bill, perhaps they could be regarded more as "upper class -ISH" than humble middle class.

 

"Wham" must have been a sly joking allusion to "spam", back when it merely meant canned meat.

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> {quote:title=misswonderly wrote: ... }{quote}despite Cary's going into shock every time sweet Myrna showed him a fresh bill, perhaps they could be regarded more as "upper class -ISH" than humble middle class. ...

Great topic -- especially because MR. BLANDINGS is one of my favorite movies.

 

I'd call the Blandings family upper middle class. The movie itself provides some of the specific details.

 

The tiny apartment they live in when they're still in Manhattan doesn't seem like one that a rich or upper class person would live in. Granted that Manhattan has always been expensive, but it was less so in the 40s, and it doesn't seem like someone who's rich or upper class would be living in such a small space.

 

And at the beginning of the movie, Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) says in his introductory narration that Jim Blandings makes "about $15,000 a year."

 

I ran that figure through an inflation calculator, which said that $15,000 in 1948 dollars is about $144,000 in 2013 dollars. That sounds like an upper middle class income -- someone making $144,000 today definitely wouldn't be considered rich or upper class, at least not where I live.

 

I've also seen figures for the average 1948 income in the U.S. that range between about $2900 to a little less than $5000 per year. So, while making $15,000 per year in 1948 probably didn't make Jim and Muriel rich, they were pretty comfortable compared to most people (until they went into so much debt for the "dream house," anyway).

 

But Jim and Muriel were very unusual in 1948, having both gone to college (as the movie makes clear), so it's not surprising that they'd have a larger income than even other middle class people. Many solidly middle class people who owned their own homes in those days -- I think of my own grandparents -- only had a high school education. In 1948, the GI Bill, which eventually sent a huge number of people to college and thereby raised their comparative incomes, hadn't had its full effect yet.

 

I remember reading somewhere, though, that somebody pointed out when MR. BLANDINGS was released that even with a $15,000 income, the Blandings family probably couldn't have afforded the house in the movie. That sounds right to me. On the IMDB page for the movie, it says that the actual house that author Eric Hodgins built and used as his inspiration for his "Blandings" novels recently sold for $1.2 million -- which would probably be beyond the reach of someone making $144,000 today.

 

(By the way, I'd recommend Hodgins' novels, MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE and BLANDINGS' WAY, which are available used. Very humorous -- anyone who has gone through the process of building or buying a house can probably relate to the stories.)

 

Edited by: BingFan on Jul 1, 2013 12:22 PM

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I've read both books, Bing. They are good, but I found BLANDING'S WAY a tad "darker" than it predecessor.

 

 

Another factor could be region. Some guys I worked with, for example, retired and moved to the south, where their pension dollars go a lot further. Had they remained up here in Michigan, they'd just be getting by. One guy informed me that in the small KY town he moved to, the folks there consider him "well off".

 

 

Sepiatone

 

 

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> {quote:title=Sepiatone wrote:}{quote}

> I've read both books, Bing. They are good, but I found BLANDING'S WAY a tad "darker" than it predecessor.

>

> Another factor could be region. Some guys I worked with, for example, retired and moved to the south, where their pension dollars go a lot further. Had they remained up here in Michigan, they'd just be getting by. One guy informed me that in the small KY town he moved to, the folks there consider him "well off". ...

>

Yes, BLANDINGS' WAY was definitely a bit darker -- I remember being surprised by that difference when I read it right after the rather whimsical (or should I say "WHAMsical"?) first book. But I enjoyed it nonetheless.

 

You're right about the region they lived in being a factor. Had Jim and Muriel Blandings instead lived in/near a larger city in, say, Minnesota or Ohio rather than New York and then Connecticut, their $15,000 would have gone much farther. Heck, in those places, 35 acres (more or less) would have cost a fraction of the top-gouge Connecticut price in the movie, and the cost of building the house would likely have been much lower, too. They might have approached upper class in a less expensive place -- but then, Jim's advertising salary probably wouldn't have been so high.

 

The cost of living does vary quite a bit according to region these days. If I lived in one of the midwestern states of my youth right now, rather than in the Washington, DC, area, we'd probably have a much larger house and more property, although I'm not complaining! And I knew two co-workers here in DC who both, by coincidence, retired to Iowa (one because of a spouse's job and the other to take over a family farm), and they expected to be quite comfortable on their retirement incomes there, something that's challenging here on the high-priced East Coast.

 

It's interesting to know that both Eric Hodgins' original house and the house used in the movie have survived all these years -- although neither is occupied today by a middle class family.

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They usually get caught eventually. The person that is living way beyond

their means shows up in a lot of these true crime TV shows. They are

about to be uncovered and become homicidal.

 

Maybe Connecticut hadn't been "discovered" back in the 1940s and land

and housing was a lot more affordable than it is today.

 

 

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> {quote:title=misswonderly wrote:}{quote}Now I'm curious. Since I probably won't be reading either of those books any time soon, if ever, I'm not worried about spoilers.

> Why is the second Blandings book "dark" er ? What happens in it? anything really bad?

No, nothing really bad. Jim has doubts about his career in advertising and considers buying a country newspaper -- his new "dream" seems to focus on becoming a crusading local publisher. In the end, there's a serious question about whether he and Muriel will stay in their "dream house." While the first novel was a very whimsical look at buying/building a house, the second book is a much more conventional novel, with both drama and comedy, and even a bit of satire.

 

To tell the truth, it's been almost 20 years since I read "Blandings Way," and I can't remember every detail, so I looked for an on-line review just now that might give you more details than I can. Oddly enough, I not only found one, but the reviewer even used the term "darker" to describe the book, just like Sepiatone and I did -- here it is in case you'd like to read it.

 

http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/%E2%80%98blandings%E2%80%99-way%E2%80%99-%E2%80%93-the-sequel-to-%E2%80%98mr-blandings-builds-his-dream-house%E2%80%99-is-darker-but-just-as-funny-as-the-novel-that-preceded-it/

 

Edited by: BingFan on Jul 1, 2013 4:45 PM

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Thank you very much, BingFan, I did read it.

 

Something that caught my attention was, I saw that the 2004 edition includes illustrations for the book by the great American artist and children's book writer, William Steig.

 

This is getting pretty off topic, I know, but I love William Steig's work. He has written and illustrated many truly great children's picture books including Sylvestor and the Magic Pebble and Shrek, which was written as a picture book first, and only later became the now famous animated movie.

 

Sylvestor and the Magic Pebble is an exceptionally imaginative, funny, and also rather alarming story, as fascinating for adults as for children.

 

Sorry, I realize this is way off the topic rails.

 

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Didn't the Blandings family have a full-time maid, as did many families in classic films? These families are immediately excluded from being middle-class. In most classic films, the families were either upper class, upper middle class, or working class. Not much MIDDLE middle-class.

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I've always thought of the middle class as much a state of mind and set of values as a yearly salary range. Those values and the mindset have changed over the years, but basically it amounts to "Good Old American Values" from the 50's--Mom and apple pie and church on Sunday and he who does not work does not eat etc etc...The characters in The Philadelphia Story skate around the idea that the differences between the upper class and the middle class arise as much from ideas and values as money. (For example, George is appalled and scandalized that Tracy might possibly have gotten drunk and fooled around with Mike while engaged to him...and even MORE upset that it "on the eve of our wedding!" In contrast, Dexter is much more sympathetic over Tracy's behavior)

 

 

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Speaking of middle class now days, Barbara Ehrenreich talks about a book on what the pursuit of the American middle class consists about these days. Especially about the work as career, as opposed to a job, and skill sets vs. personality.

 

Very interesting and I can identify with the experience.

 

 

 

In the classic movies, the leaders of a community were business or society leaders (good or bad), and the middle class valued education and skills (often having a crisis, which they handle personally). Now watching current movies, the skills and education values matter very little, and status is a given for the middle (seen as upper middle) class.

 

Our current crop of movie heroes are the example of the exceptional model of character with fantasy qualities (ie., Man of Steel), and our middle class characters are often portrayed not as models, but as victims needing rescue. If there are middle class protagonists, they somehow do it without having to report for a job, or are the owner of a company and write their own rules.

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Yeah, and often, too, those "middle class" families in today's movies seem to live a more "well off' and livelier lifestyle.

 

 

Truth is, what many consider to be the middle class these days was never represented accurately in movies or TV in times past. I don't recall well dressed kids living in a nice, clean, solid looking house with good amenities say anything like, "When's Dad going to get home from the Plant( mill, shop, worksite, quarry)?" It was always, "When's Dad going to get home from the OFFICE?"

 

 

While most ACTUAL middle class Dads sat around reading the paper after work in a simple shirt and slacks or jeans, TV and movie Dads relaxed with the evening paper still wearing a SUIT.

 

 

While actual Dads did yardwork in beat up old dungarees or jeans and wore ragged old sweat stained shirts, TV and movie Dads wore POLO SHIRTS and HAGGAR slacks( I saw a movie where EDWARD G. ROBINSON was mowing the lawn in a TIE!).

 

 

While most real Moms did housework in simple blouses and dowdy slacks, TV and movie Moms(with the exception of Mary Tyler Moore) did housework in print dresses and pearls! AND well coiffed hair.

 

 

So I think it's safe to say that classic movies did NOT represent the "middle class" accurately.

 

 

Sepiatone

 

 

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