Wednesday, May 20, 2020

You Can’t lick the People: Individual and Collective Struggles in the Films of Frank Capra

A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.
— Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) The Prince, 1513
In 1939 the American director Frank Capra released Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film that was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning for Best Original Story and turned James Stewart into a major star. Stewart plays Junior Senator Jefferson Smith in Washington who launches into a a filibuster talking non-stop for 25 hours and reaffirms American ideals of freedom. Capra’s depiction of manipulating elites is carried out in fine detail as Smith quickly learns the ropes on the Senate floor. This representation of the upper echelons of society is the common link between all of Capra’s major films of the 1930s and 1940s.

Capra exposes the negative behaviour and manipulations of society elites and tries to educate people into ways of dealing with these problems through solidarity and political means. Although Capra’s own politics may have been more conservative I will argue that Capra was in a very difficult position that meant he had to resort to an almost Machiavellian approach of appearing to do one thing but actually doing another. This made Capra’s films very progressive for their time and few directors have managed to do the same since, except, for example, the English director Ken Loach. Through the use of various different types of plot lines Capra turned cinema into a progressive socio-political vehicle for encouraging societal and community unity. I will look at some of Capra’s main films to explore how he achieved this while at the same time struggling to maintain his career against conservative political forces who were not happy with his popularity. I will also look at Capra’s films in the broader historical context of progressive Enlightenment ideas and aims.

Frank Capra circa 1930s

Enlightenment traditions

In this series of articles I have been examining the effect of Enlightenment and Romanticist ideas on modern culture. The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that emerged in Europe during the 17th to 19th centuries arising out of a European intellectual movement known as Renaissance humanism. Enlightenment ideas centered on reason and science as the basis of knowledge and promoted ideals of progress and liberty.

How did Enlightenment artists and philosophers do this? They tended to focus on the psyche and conditions of everyday life, including poverty, oppression, injustice, and desperation, for example, the writers Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Voltaire (1694-1778) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797).

These traditions continued on to the nineteenth century with Auguste Comte (1798–1857) in France and John Stuart Mill (1806–73) in England, and by liberal (Mill) and radical Karl Marx (1818–83) social theories. Enlightenment ideas of progressive change crossed all the arts and could be seen in literature, music, art, poetry, architecture and theatre where they would have definite effects on form and content. The new art of cinema in the twentieth century was no different. Directors like Capra used cinema to highlight poverty and injustice, but also the positive social effects of individual acts of courage.

Capra used some of the techniques later developed in the Italian Neorealist cinema of the 1940s and 1950s such as a definite social context, a sense of historical actuality and immediacy and a documentary style of cinematography.

Capra’s main films Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), American Madness (1932), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Platinum Blonde (1931), State of the Union (1948), Meet John Doe (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), all show a commitment to progress and social change. Capra depicts two separate social worlds which rarely come together except to show how different their values and moral systems are. Their relations are depicted two main ways:

(1) Failed attempts to corrupt a good man [Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Platinum Blonde (1931), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Meet John Doe (1941), State of the Union (1948)]

(2) Working class solidarity or victory [American Madness (1932), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Capra’s themes – (1) Failed attempts to corrupt a good man
Capra liked to show individuals who are human and have their own problems yet are courageous and morally upstanding. These individuals are bullied, offered well-paid jobs or the chance to retire wealthy but refuse to sell out their friends, class and/or family.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
There are many scenes in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington where Capra shows how corruption and collaboration with the media push through the agenda of corrupt elites on the make. Capra uses an almost documentary style of having characters explaining in detail how they operate while at the same time giving out lots of information on how progressive-minded individuals can resist.

Smith is working on a bill to authorize a federal government loan to buy some land in his home state for a national boys’ camp but the proposed campsite is already part of a dam-building graft scheme included in an appropriations bill framed by Taylor and supported by Senator Paine. Paine is concerned about Smith’s reaction to all this and suggests they drop the bill. Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), responds:
We can’t drop it now, Joe. We bought the land around this Dam and we’re holding it in dummy names. If we drop it or delay it–we are going to bring about investigations, and investigations will show that we own that land and are trying to sell it to the State under phoney names. No, Joe, in my judgment the only thing to do is push this Dam through–and get it over with.
In the meantime, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), who was the aide to Smith’s predecessor and had been around Washington and politics for years explains in detail to Smith how the system in the Senate operates:
Yes. House. More amendments–more changes–and the Bill goes back to the Senate–and *waits its turn on the calendar again*. The Senate doesn’t like what the house did to the Bill. They make more changes. The House doesn’t like those* changes. Stymie. So they appoint men from each house to go into a huddle called a conference and battle it out. Besides that, all the lobbyists interested give cocktail parties for and against–government departments get in their two cents’ worth–cabinet members–budget bureaus–embassies. Finally, if the Bill is alive after all this vivisection, it comes to a vote. Yes, sir–the big day finally arrives. And–nine times out of ten, they vote it down. (Taking a deep breath) Are you catching on, Senator?
Capra even goes so far as to have Smith (on the directions of Saunders) give direct quotes from the Senate Manual itself:
Uh–Mr. President–you and I are about to be alone in here, sir. I’m not complaining for social reasons, but it’d be a pity if the gentlemen missed any of this.(Then, referring to his manual–in a business-like tone) Mr. President–I call the chair’s attention to Rule Five of the Standing Rules of the Senate Section Three. “If it shall be found that a quorum is not present, a majority of the Senators present–,” and that begins to look like me–“may direct the Sergeant-at-arms to request, and if necessary *compel* the attendance of the absent Senators.”(Then-stoutly) Mr. President–*I so direct*.
As the filibuster starts to attract the reporters attention Taylor ups the ante and grabs the phone:
Hendricks! Line up all the papers in the State! Don’t print a word of what Smith says–not a word of any news story coming out of Washington! Understand? Defend the machine. *Hit* this guy! A criminal–convicted by Senate–blocking relief bill–starving the people. Start protests coming. Wires. Buy up every minute you can on every two-watt radio station in the State. Keep ’em spouting against Smith! McGann’s flying out–be there in five hours. Stop your presses–yank out the stories you got in ’em now–and get going–*get that whole State moving*–!

Senator Jefferson Smith pursues his filibuster before inattentive Senators

Meanwhile, in another documentary-style verbatim moment Smith reads out the United States Declaration of Independence:
–certain Unalienable Rights–that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness–” (Finishing with a flourish and putting the book down) Now, that’s pretty swell, isn’t it? I always get a great kick outa those parts of the Declaration–especially when I can read ’em out loud to somebody.
Of course, The United States Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and the irony of his namesake reading it out loud in the Senate was not lost on the audiences of the time. Thus, in a few short scenes, Capra shows how the Senate is manipulated, the power of the media and how filibusters work.

Platinum Blonde (1931)
Capra’s film Platinum Blonde shows an ordinary person thrown into a rich millieu as a vehicle to show the lives and attitudes of society elites. Stewart “Stew” Smith (Robert Williams) an ace reporter for the Post meets Anne (Jean Harlow) the sister of a rich playboy Michael Schuyler (Donald Dillaway) he is sent to report on. Stew falls for Anne and they get married. However, while Anne tries to turn him into a ‘gentleman’, his workmates make fun of him:

“Conroy: (singing) ‘For he’s only a bird in a gilded cage, a beautiful sight to see—'(he waves his hand) Tweet, tweet – ha, ha—”

Eventually Stew has enough of his new valet and being pressurised into behaving according to the social norms of the upper class. He refuses to conform and gives it straight to Anne:
“Stew:  Yes, I’ll tell you – for the same  reason I’ve never wanted to go out with those social parasites, those sweet-smelling fashion plates. I don’t like them. They bore me. They give me the jitters.
Anne’s Voice:  Do you know you’re talking about my friends?
Stew:  Yes, I’m talking about your friends, and they still give me the jitters.”
He eventually decides to leave Anne and refuses to take money (she offers him alimony) which depicts his incorruptible nature and his working class allegiances.

Theatrical release poster

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), the co-owner of a tallow works and part-time greeting card poet inherits 20 million dollars from his late uncle, Martin Semple during the Great Depression. Semple’s scheming attorney, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille) tries to get Deeds’ power of attorney in order to keep his own financial misdeeds secret. However, Deeds is not easily manipulated and fends off all greedy opportunists. His sincerity also charms minder Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) and star reporter Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) who writes popular articles about him with the nickname “Cinderella Man”. When Deeds meets a dispossessed farmer (John Wray) who comes at him with a gun, he calms him down and decides to give fully equipped 10-acre (4-hectare) farms free to thousands of homeless families. He is taken to court but wins over the people and the judge in the end.

Meet John Doe (1941)
In Meet John Doe Ann Mitchell, a newspaper reporter, prints a letter from a fictional unemployed “John Doe” threatening suicide on Christmas Eve in protest of society’s ills. The letter gets much attention and Ann is rehired to exploit the fictional John Doe. She gets John Willoughby, a former baseball player, hired to play the role of John Doe. Ann then writes a series of letters exposing society’s disregard for people in need inspiring ordinary people to start “John Doe clubs” with the slogan “Be a better neighbor”. This philosophy develops into a movement. Willoughby himself becomes inspired by the movement which the newspaper’s publisher, D. B. Norton decides to manipulate to have himself endorsed as a presidential candidate. After Norton exposes the letter fraud John decides to kill himself as the original letter had stated (by jumping from the roof of the City Hall) but the people change his mind when they tell him that they planned to restart the John Doe clubs anyway. As John leaves, the editor Henry Connell turns to Norton and says, “There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!”

Walter Brennan, Gary Cooper, Irving Bacon, Barbara Stanwyck, and James Gleason in Meet John Doe

State of the Union

In State of the Union Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury), Republican newspaper magnate, plans to make her lover, aircraft tycoon Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), president, a power which she can then manipulate. Matthews’s wife Mary agrees to support him in public because of his idealism and honesty. Matthews is a powerful speaker and appeals to ordinary people and their trade unions (“audience was full of cheering union men”) He is a progressive:
I’m going to tell them that the wealthiest nation in the world is a failure unless it’s also the healthiest nation in the world. That means the highest medical care for the lowest income groups. And that goes for housing, too. […] And I’m going to tell them that the American Dream is not making money. It is the well-being and the freedom of the individual throughout the world from Patagonia to Detroit.
Elite manipulation of the economy itself is indicated:
Now, look here, Jim, you know just as well as I do that there are men at that banquet who’ll be rooting for a depression, just so they can slap labor’s ears back.
Capra exposes elite methods of divide and rule (“They’ve carried hatreds around for centuries. The trick is to play on these hatreds, one nationality against the other, keep them voting as blocks.”) and shows how the people can get their voice heard on the monopolised media:
Ladies and gentlemen,this is a paid political broadcast. Paid for, not by any political group or organization,but by thousands of public spirited citizens who have taken this method of insuring that their voice,the voice of the people shall be heard.
When Matthews discovers the political manipulations going on behind his back, “He steps to the microphone before the cameras, and confesses to the American people. While promising to seek bipartisan reform — and challenging the voters to vote — he denounces as frauds both his backers and himself and withdraws as a candidate for any political office.”

Capra’s themes – (2) Working class solidarity or victory
In these films the main theme is the machinations of elites to gain control, monopolise and increase profits. The developing awareness of ordinary people that they will be the ones most affected if these plans are successful forms the basis of solidarity action.

Theatrical poster

American Madness

Set during the Great Depression, the Board of Directors of Thomas Dickson’s bank want Dickson (Walter Huston) to merge with New York Trust and resign. Dickson refuses as he believes that the merger will exclude many of his ordinary clients in the drive for profits. When the bank is robbed of $100,000 different aspects of this morality story relating to extra-marital affairs, gambling and staff loyalty are played out. As word of the robbery gets out a huge crowd of clients arrive panicked about their savings and a run on the bank starts. However, the long held policy of Dickson to help people when they were down produces positive results as favours are called in. Clients who did well arrive at the bank holding up wads of cash declaring that they were depositing money, not taking it out. This action of solidarity with Dickson calms the queues and people start putting their money back in or going home thus saving the bank from the vulture Board of Directors.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
38-year-old George Bailey postpones his plans to tour the world before college to sort out the family business, Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan. George’s father suffers a stroke and dies but the board votes to keep it open, provided that George runs it. George marries Mary Hatch but they end up using their $2,000 honeymoon savings to stop a run on the ban and it solvent. George sets up Bailey Park, a housing development financed by the Building and Loan, in contrast to his competitor Henry F. Potter’s overpriced slums. Due to a mistake by his forgetful uncle a large sum of cash goes missing which threatens the future of Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan. George becomes desperate and contemplates suicide. However, an angel appears on the bridge he is about to jump off and shows him what the town would have looked like without his efforts.

This idea is a stroke of genius in the film as the angel shows him that his town Bedford Falls has been renamed Pottersville, “a seedy town occupied by strip clubs, swing halls, and cocktail lounges” thus depicting the reality and desperation of many places in the United States at the time. George has a change of heart and begs the angel for his life back. He runs home to discover that the townspeople had rallied and donated enough money to save the bank.

In 1946 Frank Capra released It’s a Wonderful Life, a film which is still shown every year in cinemas and on TV thus maintaining its popularity. Yet when released it performed poorly at the box office mainly due to the sheer quantity of films released that year. Despite the rough start the film went on to become voted as one of the best films ever made. Though often perceived as a sentimental movie, a more recent analysis describes the story line as “a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people.”

The individual and the collective
In these films Capra operates on two levels (sometimes at the same time) — the individual and the collective. He exhorts the individual to stand strong in the face of extreme pressure, and shows the power of collective action, even if it does take some time to form. However, this is an important point in itself as changing beliefs and ideas lead to a new understanding and self-awareness within the group. The success of collective action then gives the group a feeling of self-worth and power which becomes an important element in future struggles. In a way, Capra takes on a similar role as Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), the author of the 16th century book The Prince. While many would see Machiavelli as a self-serving immoral opportunist writing a book advising elites on the craft of ruling and exploiting the exercise of power, this may not have been the case. Erica Benner writes:
Just a year before he finished the first draft of his “little book”, the Medici swept into Florence in a foreign-backed coup after spending years in exile. They were deeply suspicious of his loyalties, dismissed him from his posts, then had him imprisoned and tortured under suspicion of plotting against them.
She notes that “Machiavelli’s writings speak in different voices at different times” and that “Francis Bacon, Spinoza and Rousseau – had no doubt the book was a cunning exposé of princely snares, a self-defence manual for citizens. “The book of republicans,” Rousseau dubbed it.”

Oil painting of Machiavelli by Cristofano dell’Altissimo

Benner describes the benefits of seeing Machiavelli in a positive light:
His city’s tempestuous history taught Machiavelli a lesson he tries to convey to future readers: that no one man can overpower a free people unless they let him. […] Citizens need to realise that by trusting leaders too much and themselves too little, they create their own political nightmares. […] So what can citizens can do to preserve their freedoms? For one thing, they can train themselves to see through the various ruses in the would-be tyrant’s handbook. Machiavelli’s The Prince describes most of them, in ways that mimic their disorienting ambiguity.
Capra, like Machiavelli, shows in detail how elites manipulate in many different ways, through friends, bought-off individuals and their use of the media. Capra also shows people the negative effects of trusting their leaders too much and how they can resist being overpowered by developing awareness and solidarity.

However, Capra, like Machiavelli, also experienced suspicion and rebukes from the elites he was depicting. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington had been attacked as a film that showed America in a bad light, the sort of things that “unfriendly” people were saying “in and out of America” about “the institution of these United States”. [1] The film State of the Union was criticized by the Hollywood columnist Lee Mortimer of Hearst’s New York Daily Mirror as:
stuff slipped through the customers by one of the oldest dodges in the game, ‘Sure I’m against communism, but -‘ The big ‘but’ here seem to be a deep-seated dislike for most of the things America is and stands for … The indictment against this country, its customs, manners, morals, economic and political systems, as put in the mouths of Tracy and Miss Hepburn, would not seem out of place in Izvestia [Russian newspaper] [2]
The implications of being anti-American and pro Soviet Union were very serious for Capra as they attracted the attention of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) which could lead one to be black listed and effectively unemployed. As Capra himself stated:
Courage made me a champion … But the world was full of ex-champions. [3]
Capra urged respect for American traditions of free speech and political dissent invoking the names of Jefferson, Paine, Emerson and Thoreau and tried briefly to organise a petition of support for Hollywood writers, including the ones he had worked with who had been subpoenaed and black listed. However, this fell through and Capra abandoned the protest. (Capra replied to criticism by saying he was a Catholic and wanted to present a Christian doctrine). As it happened Capra was never criticized by name in the hearings “nor were [his] films such as Mr Deeds and Mr Smith“. [4] As Capra saw his colleagues being forced out of Hollywood he “set about purging his work of any elements he could anticipate that anyone, anywhere, present or future, might find ‘un-American”. [5] Sadly, this action resulted in his later films becoming ever more saccharine and innocuous.

The 1930s and 1940s were an extraordinary time for progressive cinema and Frank Capra became one of America’s most influential directors. He won three Academy Awards for Best Director from six nominations and was active in various political and social activities in the industry. His social realist depictions of society depicting the conflict of groups with very different economic and political agendas is a far cry from much cinema today.

[1] Joseph McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1992), p.422
[2] McBride, Frank Capra, p.547
[3] McBride, Frank Capra, p.543
[4] McBride, Frank Capra, p.542
[5] McBride, Frank Capra, p.543

 Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at Read other articles by Caoimhghin.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Neoliberalism, Climate Change and the Future of Architecture


What is the future for architecture in these times of climate change and economic crises? Should sustainability and affordability be a major factor in the design and development of future buildings? What about aesthetics? There are many individual examples of modern buildings today that have positive aesthetic qualities, but can major future problems, like climate change, be resolved by individual efforts? Or will it take the role of the state with grand visions for the future? While architecture may not seem to be an important issue compared with unemployment or poverty, it is one of the most important of the arts in terms of longevity, function and expense. And its meaning can go beyond mere buildings to symbolism of the state and national values.

The question of aesthetics is complex as modern architectural design is “caught between the diminished architecture of the 99% and the austere architecture of the 1%”, while at the same time architecture is pulled between popular opinion of what is good design and elite views that often contradict.

It is also well know that the production of cement is polluting. Therefore, many architectural projects now emphasize sustainability, like housing schemes to be built from cross-laminated timber and powered by renewable energy, bricks made of recycled construction waste, schemes that will be carbon neutral and function off-grid, plans for the world’s first wooden football stadium, and other housing schemes that will be made from sustainably harvested local wood and save 100s of megatons of carbon in the process.

However, no matter how sustainable these projects are, there is no escaping the aesthetic values of design which will ultimately sustain the building into eternity or see it eventually blown up to the smiles of hordes of ill-wishers.

So why is design so important for something which is ultimately functional? Is it because we have to look at these buildings for a very long time once they are constructed? How do we decide what is beautiful and why?

The whole history of architecture is riddled with controversies. Often what is considered beautiful now was criticized during its own time. Buildings have been knocked down and blown up in many different kinds of situations. Indeed, some have even been rebuilt exactly as before under controversial circumstances or post-war.

Today the debate still goes on about aesthetics and architecture with functional styles overtaking decorative styles only to be overtaken by decorative styles again. What determines these changes? Do political and economic systems play an important role in the kind of aesthetics which become preeminent? And if so, why? Did socio-political-economic systems such as hierarchical feudalism, industrialized capitalism, or state socialism play important roles? Does Neo-liberalism today? How relevant have the opinions of the users and builders of these edifices been?

Maybe more than all the other arts, architecture has been highly affected by the conflict between Enlightenment and Romantic ideas ever since the Italian architect and designer Brunelleschi visited Rome to study the ancient ruins of classical Roman architecture in 1432. The Romantic reaction to Neoclassical architecture materialized later in the form of Neo-Gothic architecture from the 1740s onwards.

Renaissance architecture

The rise of the bourgeoisie in the form of the Medicis in Italy guided a major change in architecture from the Romanesque and Gothic styles of earlier times to the new Renaissance designs based on ancient Greek and Roman architecture. The earlier medieval styles had been largely used by feudal kings, and bishops of the powerful Catholic church for their castles and cathedrals. Gothic had grown organically out of Romanesque designs over time, for example, the small roof on medieval belfries became taller and thinner until it was eventually incorporated into the belfry as a Gothic spire.
The revival of Classical learning in Rome went along with Renaissance humanism and the development of science and engineering. It is interesting to note that Brunelleschi’s first architectural commission was the Ospedale degli Innocenti (1419–c. 1445), or Foundling Hospital, designed as a home for orphans. His next project was the Basilica of San Lorenzo the location of the tombs of the Medici family who sponsored the church – rather than castles or cathedrals.

Brunelleschi, in the building of the dome of Florence Cathedral (Italy) in the early 15th century (1296-1436), not only transformed the building and the city, but also the role and status of the architect.

The study of the ancient ruins in Italy (Rome and Pompeii) and Greece (Athens) led to a clearer understanding of the difference between Greek and Roman architecture and subsequently to consciously Greek, Roman and Greco-Roman hybrids of Neoclassical design.

This knowledge was expressed in the Renaissance style, a style which was consciously brought to fruition through learning and a desire to revive the ideas of the ‘Golden Age’. The humanistic learning of the time set forth a positive conception of man (in opposition to the ‘fallen man’ of the established church) and was seen in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (7 CE), where he describes the lost Golden Age as a time in which nature and reason were aligned and produced naturally good men:
“The Golden Age was first; when Man, yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted Reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear.”
This view reflected the new learning that man could have an optimistic view of the future and control nature to create a better life for all. In Renaissance architecture, “symmetry, proportion, geometry and the regularity of parts”, would reflect a more dignified mode of existence combined with concepts of equality, citizenship and republican organization of society. Renaissance architecture depicted “orderly arrangements of columns, pilasters [rectangular columns] and lintels [horizontal supports], as well as the use of semicircular arches, hemispherical domes, niches [shallow recesses] and aediculae [small shrines] replaced the more complex proportional systems and irregular profiles of medieval buildings.”

Palais des études of the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1830

Neoclassical architecture

By the mid eighteenth century Renaissance architecture developed into full blown Neoclassicism and became an international style as it was adopted by progressive circles in other countries particularly for the design of public buildings. The Neoclassical style incorporated many decorations such as mascarons [symbolic faces], cartouches [oval or oblong designs], festoons [wreaths or garlands], corbels, various leaves and branches, rustications [contrasting textures], trophies, horns of abundance, lion heads and female faces or from other applied arts. An important form of Neoclassicism was the Beaux-Arts architecture which originated in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, particularly from the 1830s to the end of the 19th century. It was very popular in the United States from 1885 to 1920, and its very last, large public projects included the Lincoln Memorial (1922), the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (1937), and the American Museum of Natural History’s Roosevelt Memorial (1936).

The most important aspect of Beaux Arts architecture, aside from its study of Greek or Roman models, was its sculptural decorations which (aside from its balustrades, pilasters, festoons, and cartouches) included “statuary, sculpture (bas-relief panels, figural sculptures, sculptural groups), murals, mosaics, and other artwork, all coordinated in theme to assert the identity of the building.”Neoclassicism also influenced city planning as “the grid system of streets, a central forum with city services, two main slightly wider boulevards, and the occasional diagonal street were characteristic of the very logical and orderly Roman design” as well as highlighting important public buildings.

The growing secularism and the rise of evangelicalism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not go unnoticed by philosophical movements associated with Catholicism and high church or Anglo-Catholic beliefs. The influence of Romanticist medievalism and anti-industrialism could be seen in the Gothic Revival that began in the late 1740s in England. Figures like the conservative architect, Augustus Pugin, believed that Christian values were being destroyed by Classicism and industrialization. These reactionary ideas took on political connotations:
“with the “rational” and “radical” Neoclassical style being seen as associated with republicanism and liberalism (as evidenced by its use in the United States and to a lesser extent in Republican France), the more spiritual and traditional Gothic Revival became associated with monarchism and conservatism, which was reflected by the choice of styles for the rebuilt government centres of the UK Parliament’s Palace of Westminster in London, the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, and the Hungarian Parliament Building.”
However, by the beginning of the twentieth century the “academic refinement of historical styles” was beginning to be perceived as the architecture of a declining aristocratic order. The move away from Gothic decoration could be seen in the Modernist architects favouring of functional details over historical references. Their designs exhibited and revealed functional and structural elements such as steel beams and concrete surfaces.
Modernist architecture

As Romanticism changed into Modernism, the Romantic interest in the medieval and feudal craft form of production changed into its opposite as formalism and an anti-human aesthetic took its place instead. Modernism, in its dismissal of tradition, rejected classical notions of form in art (harmony, symmetry, and order) and, like Romanticism, rejected the ‘certainty’ of Enlightenment thinking. Modernism emphasized form over political content and rejected the ideology of Realism and Enlightenment thinking on liberty and progress.

The Bauhaus school building in Dessau, Germany, 1919

The epitome of this style in architecture became most developed in the Bauhaus art and design movement that began in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. It was a style which “championed a geometric, abstract style featuring little sentiment or emotion and no historical nods”, an austere aesthetic which threw the baby out with the bathwater:
“The Bauhaus style of architecture featured rigid angles of glass, masonry and steel, together creating patterns and resulting in buildings that some historians characterize as looking as if no human had a hand in their creation. These austere aesthetics favored function and mass production, and were influential in the worldwide redesign of everyday buildings that did not hint at any class structure or hierarchy.”
The Bauhaus style (also known as the International Style) was consciously cosmopolitan in its ahistorical designs and principles of mass production. Many Germans of the time had been influenced by the cultural experimentation that was happening in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution, particularly Constructivism which had originated in Russia beginning in 1913.

Constructivist architecture

Constructivism was a form of Modernist architecture that developed in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s. It emerged out of broader art movements movements such as Futurism and Suprematism. Russian Futurism was a movement of Russian poets and artists who rejected the past and celebrated “machinery, violence, youth, industry, destruction of academies, museums, and urbanism”. These ideas were based on Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s (Italian poet, editor, art theorist) Futurist Manifesto, which was written and published in 1909.

Marinetti wrote:“We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill”, and later, in 1919, co-wrote the Fascist Manifesto with Alceste De Ambris. Suprematism was “characterised by basic geometric forms, such as circles, squares, lines and rectangles, painted in a limited range of colours”.

Thus we can see that Constructivism grew out of the highly individualistic, anti-historical, nihilistic, pared-down forms of Modernist art, typical of Romantic ideas.

Intourist Garage by Konstantin Melnikov, 1933  

By the end of the 1920s, Constructivism was the dominant architecture of the Soviet Union. Gradually a reaction to Constructivism started with a combination of Art Deco influenced Classicism and elements of Constructivism. However, in 1932, a major competition to design the Palace of the Soviets was won by Boris Iofan in a style which became known as Stalinist Architecture or Socialist Classicism.

The move away from Constructivist pared-down forms and back to decoration and craft could already be seen in Europe and America with the introduction of Art Deco influences from the mid-1920s. Art Deco buildings featured a lot of surface decoration around windows and doors, and especially around the tops of skyscrapers. This decoration was done in low relief and combined many geometric patterns and figures.

Thus the move to Classicism was not surprising as criticism of Modernist austerity took hold. The major projects of the time, skyscrapers, the Moscow Metro and apartment blocks, were all designed with Classical features that included much art and craft elements. These included sculpture, friezes, mosaics, molding, stucco, carved wooden panels, frescoes, bass relief, and carved wooden panels. After the death of Stalin the ‘luxurious’ style of Socialist Classicism was replaced by Khrushchyovka, the name given to a type of low-cost, concrete-paneled Modernist building style supervised by Nikita Khrushchev.

The central square. Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, Moscow, 1935
(Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva, abbreviated as VDNKh or VDNH)

By the late 1960s Modernism was falling out of favour in the West with many Modernist apartment blocks being eventually blown up. The harsh lines of Modernist architecture did not age well and something more artistic was in demand. The austerity, formality, and lack of variety in Modernist architecture was generally criticized for having no relation to architectural history, street plans, or the culture of individual cities. This also led to the re-introduction of craft and historical design elements into a new architectural philosophy called Postmodernism.

Postmodernist architecture

Unfortunately, Postmodernism, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, relativism, irreverence and parody, and a general suspicion of reason, was not not too different from the subjectivism, relativism  and general suspicion of reason in Romanticist and Modernist ideas. Postmodernist architects approached architecture with eclectic non-contextualized ideas resulting in diverse aesthetics, colliding styles, and form for its own sake producing some very self-indulgent designs. Asymmetric forms were one of the trademarks of Postmodernism as large buildings were broken into different structures and forms, ‘Camp’ humor was used on the basis that something could appear so bad that it was good, and the theatricality of absurd and exaggerated forms were common. As a style Postmodernist architecture has been criticized as vulgar and populist.

The Dancing House, Prague, Czech Republic, 1996

However, this diversification of styles subsequently led to varieties of architecture that reflect global political, economic and environmental issues with differing attitudes towards Neoliberalism, climate change, sustainability. These diverse architectural styles reflect the triumph and wealth of the 1%, but they also reflect the growing anxiety around climate chaos and they reflect those who want to design and build a better society into the future for all.

Neoliberal architecture

The influence of free market Neoliberalism on architecture globally has been critiqued by Douglas Spencer as “refashioning human subjects into the compliant figures – student-entrepreneurs, citizen-consumers and team-workers – requisite to the universal implementation of a form of existence devoted to market imperatives.” Spencer believes that the architecture of neoliberalism “serves mechanisms of control and compliance while promoting itself, at the same time, as progressive.” It does this through the social processes these “buildings enforce – displacement of the poor, privatisation of public space, the decimation of social housing.”

Reflections at Keppel Bay apartment complex in Keppel Bay, Singapore by Daniel Libeskind (2011)

It is not surprising that the Neoliberal privatization of the public housing stock on behalf of plutocrats could lead to a push for the privatization of all public space (including Hyde Park in London as suggested by one architect), just as when in the 18th century the aristocracy gradually enclosed the commons. As Bertrand Russell wrote:
“Each enclosure required an Act of Parliament, and the aristocrats who controlled both Houses of Parliament ruthlessly used their legislative power to enrich themselves, while thrusting agricultural labourers down to the verge of starvation.” [1]

Sustainable architecture

Other forces were concerned with the negative aspects of untrammeled capitalism and the environment. The desire to bring architecture in line with other ‘green’ movements since the late 1980s has led to the concept of sustainable architecture:
“Sustainable architecture designs and constructs buildings in order to limit their environmental impact, with the objectives of achieving energy efficiency, positive impacts on health, comfort and improved liveability for inhabitants; all of this can be achieved through the implementation of appropriate technologies within the building [and] making the space and materials employed completely reusable.”
Indeed in the United States “a vast ecosystem of green commerce has grown” up around sustainable architecture “spurring sales in products ranging from solar panels to low-VOC paints and low-flow toilets. “Green building is now a $1 trillion global industry,””

Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) is an environmentally friendly housing development in Hackbridge, London, England 2000–2002.
BedZED is in the London Borough of Sutton, 2 miles (3 km) north-east of the town of Sutton itself. Designed to create zero carbon emissions, it was the first large scale community to do so. The distinctive roofscape has solar panels and passive ventilation chimneys.

However, this still leaves the problem of aesthetics, as the Neoliberal designs are highly individualistic architectural enterprises generally in post-modern states which do not have, or desire to have, ultimate control of the ownership or design of such projects.It is the public realm where the state does have the most control, despite Neoliberal desire to reduce it to nothing. The public realm generally refers to “those areas of a town or city to which the public has access. It includes streets, footpaths, parks, squares, bridges and public buildings and facilities.”

The public realm is a contested realm where aesthetics are lauded or criticised according to the inclination of the state or the desires of the public but at least broader integrated planning designs can be implemented, unlike Neoliberal ideology which “maintains that ‘the market’ delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.” Neoliberalism also “sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations [and] redefines citizens as consumers.”

Such ideology tries to naturalise the logic of capitalism by redefining people in its own image. However, it also reflects the power of elites and their political and economic grip on society as a whole. Styles of art and architecture in society also reflect elite hegemony. This can be seen in the very expensive apartments of luxury condominium towers (designed by ‘starchitects’) that have very little relationship with their urban neighbourhoods.

It can be seen in the designs of skyscrapers for expensive hotels or headquarters of multinational companies. Contemporary designs for concert halls and art museums have had their praisers but also critics of some overwrought designs such as architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff’s comment on the Denver Art Museum that: “In a building of canted walls and asymmetrical rooms—tortured geometries generated purely by formal considerations — it is virtually impossible to enjoy the art.” Frank Gehry’s business school building at the University of Technology Sydney has been described as “a creased building […] which resembles a “squashed brown paper bag”.

Like the earlier Modernist designs of the Bauhaus, contemporary architectural design can be austere and alienating (or in some cases just asinine) reflecting the confidence and egoism of wealthy elites. It also reflects the economics of our time as the wealthy get to decide the individualistic designs of their residences, work places and entertainment centres much like the aristocracy of the eighteenth century.


It has been suggested that the world’s most popular architect is Antoni Gaudí (if measured by ticket sales for the Sagrada Família in Barcelona). As Edwin Heathcote notes, “It is not an accident that Gaudí is also the most obsessively decorative architect of modernity.” Ornament and decoration in architecture has been a popular aesthetic throughout the centuries. Heathcote also writes:
“Ornament is not essential to architecture but people continue to like it. Perhaps architects need to begin thinking why, after their best efforts to educate them otherwise, they still do. Perhaps the people are right and it is indispensable.”
Is it because people appreciate ornament, reflecting their love of applied arts and crafts, and respect for the skills that go into making them? We must not forget that decorative arts form an important part of national museum exhibitions around the world. As with any art it can be hard to understand what is popular and why, and what is considered alienating or ‘human’ in architecture. But it does seem that the Greeks and Romans hit on something in their combinations of art and architecture that has struck a chord with many people over time. As Rebecca Solnit writes:
“Italian cities have long been held up as ideals, not least by New Yorkers and Londoners enthralled by the ways their architecture gives beauty and meaning to everyday acts.” (Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking)

[1] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (Unwin, London, 1984)  p 611

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Routine Myth Maintenance: Tarantino and American Exceptionalism

(Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is a 2019 comedy-drama set in 1969 Los Angeles and features a large ensemble cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The story centres around veteran actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), star of the 1950s Western television series Bounty Law, and and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is worried that his career is in decline and is reticent to take advice to travel to Italy to make Spaghetti Westerns. Cliff Booth also struggles to get work in Hollywood due to rumors that he murdered his wife on a boating trip.

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino re-emphasizes many of the bugbears, cliches and and myths of US elites with his checklist portrayal of misogynist violence against women, negative depictions of Chinese, Mexicans and Europeans, and the negative association of cult-following hippies with youth opposition to the Vietnam war. And all this happens during a period of much political activity and public demonstrations against the Vietnam war which is barely noticeable during the length of this film.

1937 Louisville, Kentucky. Margaret Bourke-White. There’s no way like the American Way

Dalton gets a big opportunity when he is cast to play the villain in the pilot of Lancer, a new American Western series broadcast from 1968 to 1970. He tries hard to toughen up for his new cowboy role yet fluffs his lines and has a minor breakdown in his trailer. The softer side of Dalton is also still visible when he shows concern for a child actress he has thrown on the floor in a ‘tough’ acting scene. Following in an old cinematic tradition Cliff appears to be Dalton’s doppelganger or alter ego as he represents the tough side of Dalton off screen. Within the film they merge on screen as they play one character when Cliff plays Dalton’s body double. The reality of Dalton is that off screen he is shown to be a sensitive and anxious person, particularly about his declining fame.

Dalton’s new role also shows that the cowboy as a symbol of the tough American individualist undergoes changes from old style hero to gritty realism, while also being caricatured in Spaghetti Westerns.

The fact that Dalton plays a famous hero cowboy role during the 1950s but becomes a tougher character in Lancer in the 1960s mirrors the changing perception and role of the USA, which changes from a simple positive force post WW2, to a more complex position during and after the Vietnam war.

Because many of the veterans and demonstrators against the Vietnam war became hippies and were fundamentally opposed to state warmongering, Cliff dislikes all hippies. Tarantino then portrays the hippies in the film as cultists who blindly follow their violent leaders.

Cliff discovers that hippies have taken over the farm where earlier cowboy movies where filmed during Dalton’s heyday, and they seem to do nothing but laze around all day watching TV. This ruination of such an important site of American cowboy symbolism only confirms Cliff’s negative attitude towards them.

Bruce Lee, portrayed in the film by Mike Moh

Mexicans and Chinese
The negative portrayal of Mexicans and Chinese as somehow ‘lesser’ beings is stoked up in two other scenes from the film. In Hollywood, Cliff gets thrown off a set after a scene when he provokes Bruce Lee into a fight. Lee is depicted making ridiculous cat wailing noises as he enters into a fight with Cliff, reminiscent of the worst Kung Fu movie cliches and turns the scene into a comedic parody of Bruce Lee’s own films. Cliff smashes Lee into the side of a car leaving a huge dent as if it was a superhero movie without superheros, symbolically demonstrating the ‘natural’ strength and power of the Westerner without the tutoring of Eastern martial arts. The unspoken supremacy of the white male is also depicted as Cliff shields Dalton from Mexican workers who might see him crying. The tough male hero cannot be seen to be upset before lesser mortals.

Women and Europeans
The final scenes of absolute brutality and misogyny depict Cliff slamming a can of dog meat into a female hippie’s face, then slams her face into the mantelpiece and then onto the marble floor are only equaled by the scene of Dalton roasting her alive in the swimming pool with a flame thrower from an earlier film set. Clearly Dalton has got his ‘toughness’ back after being ‘impoverished’ by his European wife and sacking his alter ego Cliff.

The effete men of Europe are represented in his depiction of Roman Polanski and the European distortions of the cowboy genre which Dalton eventually agrees to act in. Following the Italian director Sergio Leone’s success, many Spaghetti Westerns were filmed at Cinecittà studios and various locations around southern Italy and Spain between 1964 and 1978.

Like in Inglourious Basterds (where Tarantino has Americans assassinate Nazi Germany’s leadership), Tarantino gives an alternate history of the Manson Family murders when the members decide to instead kill Dalton as a representative of Hollywood which had ‘taught them to murder’ according to the ‘hippie’ logic of one of the Family members, Sadie. This symbolically turns the anti-Vietnam peace-loving hippies into the perpetrators of violence, creating more right-wing prejudice against them.

Classical Hollywood
The greatest irony of Tarantino’s nostalgic view of Classical Hollywood is that Hollywood of the time followed a code of ethics agreed by the filmmakers themselves (which would have rejected Tarantino’s movies outright). During the Classical Hollywood period American toughness was tempered with respect for women, the body, foreign nationals and countries. This code of ethics, called the Motion Picture Production Code, was applied to most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1934 to 1968. It had a quite comprehensive set of guidelines, a selected few of which are described here:
"Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:
– The illegal traffic in drugs;
– Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;[…]
That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
– International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
– Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
– Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
– Third-degree [torture] methods; […]."
Thus we can see that one of the reasons why the Classical period was so successful is because of its upstanding and humanistic approach to the narratives of the time. People (and their political, cultural and ethnic backgrounds) were treated more respectfully within the films and the audiences were spared the gross bone-breaking, blood spurting violence of many films made since the relaxation of the code. Directors like Tarantino have turned cinema into a modern gladiators’ ring where the audience catharsis of thumbs up or thumbs down prevails.

Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name in a publicity image of A Fistful of Dollars, a film by Sergio Leone.

Tartantino’s modus operandi is to play up successful features of American culture while at the same time re-writing aspects of American history that ’embarrasses’ the political right or doesn’t fit into its over-embellished image of itself. Also in its negative depictions of other nations, women and ethnic groups (the negative portrayal of Native Americans is implicit in the cowboy genre), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood props up  the ideology of American exceptionalism.

Tarantino has produced and directed a classic of Trumpean cinema in that it reasserts the primacy of the American way of life married to conservative Republican values.


Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas Visions: Children and the Importance of Redemption

 The Factory

“And such should childhood ever be,
The fairy well; to bring
To life’s worn, weary memory
The freshness of its spring.
But here the order is reversed,
And infancy, like age,
Knows of existence but its worst,
One dull and darkened page;—”

by Letitia Elizabeth Landon – The Vow of the Peacock and Other Poems  (1835)  

(A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life)


Two girls protesting child labour (by calling it child slavery) in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade.


The idea of a child-centred Christmas is taken for granted now but in Dickens’ time it was not so assured. A high child mortality rate, child labour, poverty and, a colder, more utilitarian attitude towards children prevailed.  Dickens’ own childhood experiences were bad as he was set to work long hours in  Warren’s Blacking Factory while his father and family languished in a debtors prison. Dickens wanted to write a pamphlet about children but decided a dramatic story would be more effective. His book, A Christmas Carol, while sales were slow initially, went on to become hugely successful and influential, and has never been out of print since.

Dickens at the blacking warehouse, as envisioned by Fred Barnard

In the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life (directed by Frank Capra), children are associated with family scenes around the hearth but are shielded from potential financial disaster. It’s a Wonderful Life also performed poorly at first, yet has also become a Christmas staple.
The theme of redemption is important to both narratives and both stories turn on the idea of a change of heart for the better by the adults. This change affected the lives of the children in each story yet the children were not aware of the dangers they were in. Thus the concept of childhood as ‘the fairy well’ was well developed, and the ‘freshness of its spring’ being considered a jewel that only grows more beautiful with age.

In this essay I will look at some similarities between the two stories and at what has made for their enduring appeal.

A Christmas Carol

While many differing ideas seem have fortuitously come together for Dickens during the writing of A Christmas Carol the focus on children seems to have been the  most important. Literary influences are given as The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon by Washington Irving and a Douglas Jerrold essay from an 1841 issue of Punch, ‘How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas’.
In The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon Irving writes:
“It was the policy of the good old gentleman to make his children feel that home was the happiest place in the world; and I value this delicious home-feeling as one of the choicest gifts a parent could bestow.”

Child labourers, Macon, Georgia, 1909

Dickens was very aware of the tragedy of child workers and legislation being introduce to improve their conditions at the time. The idea of social unity that Dickens utilises at the end of A Christmas Carol is expressed in another passage by Irving in The Sketch-Book, as we hear echoes of the medieval hall resounding to the sounds of the fun organised in the ancient midwinter tradition of the Lord of Misrule, with children once again to the fore:
“After the dinner-table was removed the hall was given up to the younger members of the family, who, prompted to all kind of noisy mirth by the Oxonian and Master Simon, made its old walls ring with their merriment as they played at romping games. I delight in witnessing the gambols of children, and particularly at this happy holiday season, and could not help stealing out of the drawing-room on hearing one of their peals of laughter. I found them at the game of blindman’s-buff. Master Simon, who was the leader of their revels, and seemed on all occasions to fulfill the office of that ancient potentate, the Lord of Misrule, was blinded in the midst of the hall. The little beings were as busy about him as the mock fairies about Falstaff, pinching him, plucking at the skirts of his coat, and tickling him with straws.”
Once again the innocent fun of the children is emphasised.  However, in Jerrold’s essay ‘How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas’, a different kind of father is described, one for whom image is more important than feeling. Mr Chokepear is described as “he himself declares, he is ‘the best of fathers’ — the most indulgent of men”, yet he receives the wishes of a happy Christmas “from lips of ice.” He is the best citizen and best Christian but for one thing:
“We have said all CHOKEPEAR’S daughters dined with him. We forgot: one was absent. Some seven years ago she married a poorer husband, and poverty was his only, but certainly his sufficient fault; and her father vowed that she should never again cross his threshold. The Christian keeps his word. He has been to church to celebrate the event which preached to all men mutual love and mutual forgiveness, and he comes home, and with rancour in his heart—keeps a merry Christmas! […] Gentle reader, we wish you a merry Christmas; but to be truly, wisely merry, it must not be the Christmas of the CHOKEPEARS. That is the Christmas of the belly: keep you the Christmas of the heart. Give—give.”
Dickens is concerned with genuine Christian ideas of Christmas in A Christmas Carol and not hypocritical ones for show only. Therefore, Scrooge is given the opportunity to redeem himself in a genuine way and this genuine transformation means he will be welcomed into the Cratchit’s house and the house of of his nephew for Christmas celebrations.
Thus Dickens was interested in the idea that the bosses should have a genuine change of heart and not a false annual display of good cheer for their friends. Dickens himself was interested in giving practical help to poor children as well.

Coal tub – “A succession of laws on child labour, the so-called Factory Acts, were passed in the UK in the 19th century. Children younger than nine were not allowed to work, those aged 9–16 could work 16 hours per day per the Cotton Mills Act. In 1856, the law permitted child labour past age 9, for 60 hours per week, night or day. In 1901, the permissible child labour age was raised to 12.”

In 1843 Charles Dickens became involved with  with the London Ragged Schools Union and donated funds for their upkeep. They were established to provide free education, food, clothing, lodging and other home missionary services for poor children.
As Claire Tomalin writes:
“From his own deep self he drew the understanding that a grown man may pity the child he had been, and learn from that pity, as Scrooge does. It was also his response to the Ragged School he had visited, and the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission he had read a little earlier, which showed that children under seven were put to work, unprotected by any legal constraints, sometimes for ten to twelve hours a day, inspiring the scene in which the Spirit of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two stunted and wolfish children, calling them Ignorance and Want.” [1]
Of course, while the children may be the focus of Dickens’ Christmas main story, they must not be aware that they are, thus retaining the sacred concept of childhood. Therefore in the narrative the children are affected only indirectly through the changed habits of the adults. This was Dickens’ strategy – to show that the cruelty of the world and the preciousness of childhood could exist side by side. Thus the adults could change their realm, positively affecting the children’s realm, without the two realms interacting with each other, as happened in Dickens’ own childhood. Dickens’ story also added to the growing belief in the importance of childhood not only for children but also for stable adults as Scrooge was shown to have had a lonely childhood himself.

Ignorance and Want from the original edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843

Many film versions have been made of A Christmas Carol from Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost (1901) to A Christmas Carol (2018), a contemporary retelling of the story set in Scotland.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Another popular film with Christmas visions is Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Almost one hundred years after Dickens’ novel was published, Capra’s film shows a very different kind of vision of society. Rather than the atomised society of the poor in Dickens’ London, Capra shows a community being pulled and pushed in different directions by individuals with very different objectives. George Bailey faces off Henry F. Potter who is trying to take over the town with cheap, exploitative housing schemes and by buying up everything of value in the town.

As Bailey faces bankruptcy of the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan through the forgetfulness of his uncle (mislaying a lot of money), Potter seizes the opportunity to destroy Bailey’s bank and take over the town completely. When Bailey arrives home distraught he has angry words with all of his children. They become very upset and burst into tears as they have no idea what has come over their normally loving father.

As a result of this disaster, Bailey wishes he had never been born and is shown a vision of what the town would have become had Bailey’s community spirit and camaraderie with his clients not existed: a mean place, decadent and aggressive with no community feeling or community spirit (like Scrooge, mean, aggressive with no community feeling or community spirit). After the negative scenario he experiences, Bailey rushes home to his wife and apologises to each of his children in turn for his earlier outburst thus keeping the adult and child domains separated, while the adults sort out adult problems.

Unlike Scrooge, in It’s a Wonderful Life the individualist money-pincher Potter is not considered important enough to go through the process of redemption (while he is portrayed as a Scrooge type figure), because  the poor are now portrayed as existing in a community which can ultimately defend itself from Potter’s attacks: by coming together and using collective action to help Bailey. They look to each other for help and not to the rich bankers.

Although both Scrooge and Bailey lend money, Scrooge gives out money to benefit himself while Bailey gives out money to benefit the community. In the earlier ideology of A Christmas Carol, the wealthy must look after or take pity on the helpless poor. However, while Scrooge must save himself, the community saves Bailey.

George Bailey (James Stewart), Mary Bailey (Donna Reed), and their youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) in It’s a Wonderful Life.

In A Christmas Carol the poor are everywhere but have no real consciousness of their poverty and struggle against poverty despite the odds. In It’s a Wonderful Life the poor are depicted as belonging to a community but gradually grow more conscious of their weak position and unite to defend themselves.

They develop a growing consciousness of the power of the community to use collective action to fight back against those who would keep them poor. As a result, rather than being solely concerned with their own money and future as was shown earlier in the film, they see the importance of community for their own self-protection just in time, and turn up at Bailey’s house to lend, give, donate any money they have to save the bank and their own future. Thus in It’s a Wonderful Life, its the community that redeems itself.

Both Dickens’ book and Capra’s film carried radical messages for their time. Only two years after A Christmas Carol, German philosopher Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845, a book written during Engels’ 1842–44 stay in Manchester, important as the city at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Engels believed that Carlyle was the only British writer who had taken account of the poor and so was not yet familiar with A Christmas Carol. Meanwhile Marx saw Dickens as one of a few ‘splendid’ fiction writers in England, “whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

While It’s a Wonderful Life depicts the benefits of a community uniting, it was declared suspect by an unnamed FBI agent who watched the film as part of a larger FBI program aimed at detecting and neutralizing Communist influences in Hollywood. The agent believed that ‘communists’ used two common tricks to ‘inject propaganda into the film’, as Kat Eschner writes:
“These two common “devices” or tricks, as applied by the Los Angeles branch of the Bureau, were smearing ‘values or institutions judged to be particularly American’ – in this case, the capitalist banker, Mr. Potter, is portrayed as a Scroogey misanthrope – and glorifying ‘values or institutions judged to be particularly anti-American or pro-Communist’ – in this case, depression and existential crisis, an issue that the FBI report characterized as a ‘subtle attempt to magnify the problems of the so-called ‘common man’ in society.'”
The organization handed over these incredibly vague results of its investigation to HUAC (House of UnAmerican Activities) which could have led to McCarthyist Hollywood witch hunts. However, the HUAC decided not to follow up on the smears.


In both A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful life, a common theme is the idea that people can change for the better and have a happier life by questioning their own selfish values and motives and by realising that there are greater forces at work which must be reckoned with for survival. Scrooge’s isolation from friends, family and employees led him to fear a lonely death and Marley’s fate. Bailey’s customers also realise that looking after number one might allow them to get by on the level of their own petty concerns, but when something seriously threatening to their homes and families appears on the horizon they are able to club together to prevent the worst. Ultimately it is the children who benefit as the adults unite and solve problems rather than sharing the burden with their children, and in the long term that also makes for a more stable community.

The idea of sheltering children from the cruel world, rather than throwing them head first into it, is still an important issue in the world’s poorest countries today where around one in four children are believed to be engaged in child labour.

On an individual level and on a community level these two stories have everlasting appeal because they are still relevant today. The continuing political, financial, and climate crises of the 21st century mean that the need for individual self-questioning and/or community action will never cease to be important, and maybe even be life-saving as the new century wears on.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 

[1] Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking: London, 2011) p149