Small-Town America: Hollywood Imagery in the 1940s

In the 1940s, the traditional ways of depicting small-towns prevailed along with some more innovative ones. However, few of the experimental films, such as Our Town,” Shadow of a Doubt,” The Magnificent Ambersons,” enjoyed wide popular success, compared to the appeal of the more mainstream films. For example, The Grapes of Wrath” or Jean Renoir’s The Southerner” had a much more limited appeal than Sergeant York” or The Yearling” (1946).

All four films dealt with farmers and their commitment to the land,
yet the superior Grapes” or Southerner” lacked the more conventionally observed ideas and sentimental values that York” and Yearling”

The timing of these films’ release was also crucial to their relative success. Sergeant York” suited perfectly the nation’s mood: The movie reflected dominant ideology in July 1941, just several months prior to America’s entry into the War. The transformation of Sergeant York from a conscientious objector to a war hero articulated the feelings of many Americans who initially had been reluctant to fight.

Farming as a social issue lost its immediacy with the passing of the Depression. After the War, Hollywood’s concern with farmers declined. The success of State Fair” (1945), a remake of the l933 version, had more to do with its music and production values than thematic issues.

In the 1940s, Hollywood produced a cycle of movies about the home front during the War. Tortilla Flat” (1942), The Happy Land,” The Human Comedy” (both in 1943), The Fighting Sullivans” (1944), A Medal for Benny” (1945), were all set in small towns. Serving as morale boosters, they stressed traditional values: family unity and sacrifice for the nation.

Set in Ithaca, California, the protagonist of Human Comedy,” for instance, is Homer Macauley (Mickey Rooney), a Western Union messenger whose task is to deliver death telegrams. Because Rooney was then at the height of his popularity, some people saw the film as just another episode of the Andy Hardy” series. Dealing with loss of innocence and initiation into adulthood, Homer is another restless small-town boy, who has never been anywhere else, but hopes to go “some day, to all the great cities in the world.”

However, like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life,” chances are he will never set a foot outside town. In the first scene, a baby trips and falls, but immediately gets to his feet and goes on. This image serves as the movie’s central symbol: the Macauleys (standing for everyman) refuse to be stopped by life’s disasters, little or big.

Human Comedy” revolves around a “typical” American family, in a “typical” small town, during “atypical” times. The Macauleys belong to Frank Capra’s “inspirational little people,” though lacking the latter’s charm or eccentricities.

Style and Content

As a group, small-town films of the l940s were more stylistically innovative than films of the previous decade. In Magnificent Ambersons,” Orson Welles qualified the deep focus device with the disorienting rhetoric of expressionistic angles and ostentatious camera angles.

In contrast, middle-range shots and deep focus are associated with realism, because they offer viewers the illusion of natural perspective and approximation of reality. For example, Best Years of Our Lives” aimed to reflect the image of a stable world with real spatial relationships.

However, the divergent styles of these movies suited their different thematics and ideologies. Magnificent Ambersons” deals with a changing (declining) social order, whereas “Best Years of Our Lives” is concerned with the adjustment of war veterans to a pre-existing world, one still believed to be able to embrace and absorb its dissident members.

Individual Vs. Community

In movies of the 1940s, the community’s interests are considered to be superior to those of the individual. Continuing the tradition of the Depression, individuals are expected to forego their self-interests in the name of family and town. As was noted, despite darker tones, It’s a Wonderful Life” still maintains that the family should serve as the primary source of identity, and that career goals should be submerged to collective goals, be they familial or communal.

This is why even Preston Sturges’s anarchic and irreverent comedies and William Wyler’s social problem films end similarly, with the successful restoration of the social order and the integration of eccentric individuals into the core of their communities.

The dominance of classical Hollywood narrative was evident in most films of the 1940s. It’s a Wonderful Life raises important questions concerning the validity of the nuclear family as source of identity, the small town as desirable place to live, and capitalism as a market system, but, at the end, the narrative restores and revalidates all three of them.

Nonetheless, the restoration of the patriarchal order and the rule of the town over its individual members are not” completely satisfactory, revealing ideological cracks in the system and its credibility. In “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), an otherwise upbeat slice of Americana, there are dark undertones that threaten to undermine the unity of the nuclear family. Indeed, the 1940s would be the last decade that small-town films presented such an optimistic view of the community as a legitimate moral center.

Women in Small Towns

The only strong parts for women in small-town films of the decade were in rural dramas (The Grapes of Wrath,” Sergeant York), in which they function as matriarchal figures and expressive leaders of their families. But compared to the women’s stronger roles during the Depression era, small-town films in the l940s begin to hint at the decline in the position of women, manifest in their subjugation to domesticity, playing mostly wives and mothers.

Few of the 1940s films such as Beyond the Forest,” with Bette Davis as a dissatisfied, alienated housewife, feature a strong heroine, though even Davis’ heroine, under pressures of the time’s ideology, is subordinated at the end to the patriarchal order. This trend will become even more prevalent in small-town films of the 1950s and 1960s.