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Hollywood And The Middle Class: Selling Dreams Of 'Somewhere That's Green'

Actors Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Sidney Poitier appear in the 1961 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's <em>A Raisin in the Sun</em>.
John D. Kisch
Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images
Actors Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Sidney Poitier appear in the 1961 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

We don't call Hollywood a "Dream Factory" for nothing. Have a vision of the sort of place you'd like to live? Tinseltown can bring it to life, whether you're thinking along the lines of Walt Disney's Main Street, Andy Hardy's Carvel, Idaho, or the "Somewhere That's Green" envisioned by skid-row resident Audrey in the satirical musical Little Shop of Horrors:

A matchbox of our own
A fence of real chain link
A grill out on the patio
Disposal in the sink
A washer and a dryer
And an ironing machine
In a tract house that we share
Somewhere that's green

Little Shop, set in the 1960s, used those lyrics to gently mock notions of suburban middle-class bliss that had been a Hollywood staple since the days of silent films.

Remember Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, for instance, where the Little Tramp and a down-and-out Paulette Goddard looked at a suburban house and imagined themselves inside? In their imagining, street-dwelling ragamuffin Goddard is pert and prosperous, in an apron with hair done smartly, surrounded by chintz curtains, flowered carpet and nice furniture. Charlie is the man of the house, reaching out the window to pluck an orange from a tree, grapes from a vine.

Their every want can be satisfied with no fuss. Such is the magic of this middle-class land of plenty, in fact, that he grabs an empty pitcher, places it under a cow in the back yard, pats her flank, and she fills the pitcher with milk as he and Goddard sit down to a sumptuous steak dinner.

It's as they're cutting into the steaks that there's a dissolve and the vision disappears. Their stomachs growling woke them from the dream.

"We'll get a home," says a freshly determined Little Tramp on a title card, "even if I have to work for it."

And that's the rub: working for it. It's also why we don't often see middle-class folks at home in movies. They're off working in places that filmmakers delight in making far more glamorous than home. Think Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who, in most of their movies, played kids who danced for a living. That's hardly a recipe for wealth, but you'd never guess from their surroundings.

In Swing Time, Fred was flat broke and encountered Ginger as a dance instructor in an expansive dance studio. She didn't know she was about to be laid off, but Fred did, so to make her boss take a fresh look at her, he pretended to be a talentless dance student she'd just taught a new step ... or six. As the boss looked on, they punished the floorboards in a tap dance number worthy of — well, of Fred and Ginger. And to the surprise of absolutely no one in the movie audience, she kept the job.

Still, as in almost all their movies together, we barely see these two at home. We see them living what was then termed a "white telephone" existence in hotels, in nightclubs and at the estates of rich patrons. Yes, there were breadlines on the street, and yes, like us, they were just working stiffs. But on screen, they got to live large.

Later, and especially after World War II, middle-class movies could be more frankly about work, struggle and upward mobility. Where Chaplin was striving to get into the middle-class, and Fred and Ginger wanted to stay in it, Gregory Peck's character was urged by his wife, played by Jennifer Jones, to rise out of it in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The year was 1956 and she wanted a bigger house. He, recalling a then-recent Great Depression, just saw bigger bills and the possibility that he'd someday be making less money. Jones was having none of that.

"You've got to believe" she told him, "that things are going to get better."

That belief in upward mobility for the middle class was hardly omnipresent in the post-war years. Prejudice meant that many people had their dreams, as Langston Hughes memorably put it, "deferred." Among them was a discontented chauffeur (played by Sidney Poitier) who at 35 was still living with his wife and child under his mother's roof in A Raisin in the Sun.

... wealth, for the most part, is not a good thing in movies. Think Bond villains with their palatial lairs, or predatory Wall Street bankers ...

"Sometimes, it's like I can see my future just stretched out in front of me," he keens to his mother. "My whole future: a big, blank, empty space."

And that leads him to lament the example he's setting for his young son. "I've got nothing," he shouts. "Nothing to give him but stories."

Stories, let's note, is what Hollywood has to give, and Tinseltown's stories tend to be peopled by folks who are not troubled by such everyday concerns as mortgages or credit card debt. Partly, that's to simplify storytelling. You don't want the audience worrying about how the characters will pay their bills if a film is dealing with some other major theme: love, death, whatever. So in comedies and romances, it's easier to just make the characters well-off. And in dramas, if they're not well-off, then that's the point.

Later in that same scene from A Raisin in the Sun, the family matriarch, played by Claudia McNeil, asks Poitier, "Son, how come you talk talk talk so much about money?"

"It's life," Poitier responds.

"So now money is life," she fumes. "Once upon a time, freedom used to be life, but now it's money?"

"Mama, it was always money," he counters, "we just didn't know it."

"No, no, no, something's changed," she responds, launching into a speech that knocks him back on his heels:

"You're something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity, too. Now here come you and Beneatha [his sister] talkin' about things we ain't hardly ever thought about, me and your daddy. You ain't satisfied or proud of nothin' we done. I mean that you had a home and that we kept you outta trouble 'til you was grown, and that you don't have to ride to work on the back of nobody's streetcar. You're my children, but how different we've become."

That generational shift speaks to what is perhaps the biggest concern of middle-class parents: They have sacrificed so their children can have it better than they did. And wouldn't you know, the kids have different ideas about what's important in life. John Hughes wrote movies about teenagers (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles) that captured the way high-schoolers thought about wealth and class distinctions — Molly Ringwald worrying about dating a guy from the other side of the tracks in Pretty In Pink, for instance. Even as his rich friends are hassling him about dating a girl who doesn't have their economic advantages, she is sneering at those very advantages.

"He drives a BMW," she snorts to her father, as if that, in itself, were disqualifying for a boyfriend.

Public schools, of course, can be great equalizers as they bring together students from various social backgrounds. And something similar can be said of the sort of cinematic neighborhood melting pot where different ethnicities get thrown together. In Gran Torino, for instance, director/star Clint Eastwood plays a grumpy war veteran who is less than thrilled that Asian émigrés have moved into his neighborhood. And though he ends up allying himself with them, he is annoyed to the point of being offensive when they first try to thank him for scaring away gang members. Their eventual alliance across ethnic lines is hard-earned.

Both Spider-Man and Captain America are "suped"-up versions of our middle class selves.
/ Courtesy of Film Frame
Courtesy of Film Frame
Both Spider-Man and Captain America are "suped"-up versions of our middle class selves.

Part of what pulls these disparate neighbors together — and does the same thing in films by John Sayles and others who make movies about communities — is that these folks, although not impoverished, are stuck where they are, lacking the wherewithal to move.

Wealthier folks could simply change their circumstances. But wealth, for the most part, is not a good thing in movies. Think of Bond villains with their palatial lairs, or predatory Wall Street bankers, or the over-privileged frat boys in collegiate comedies. To be rich is often to be reviled in everything from action-adventures to superhero flicks. Imagine the Man of Steel taking on a bricklayer — it's far more likely his rival will be a crazed gazillionaire with a flair for the dramatic.

Superheroes, in contrast to super villains, tend to have a common touch (and yes, I know Batman's a billionaire; exceptions prove the rule, right?). Superman grew up on a farm. The Flash is a police department drudge. Captain America started out as a struggling New York artist, which may be why in his latest movie he doesn't have much use for rich guy Tony Stark, but does offer grudging admiration for that spunky teen in the Spider-suit.

"Ya got heart kid, where ya from?" he wonders mid-brawl.

"Queens," gasps the Spider-kid, struggling under a heavy load Cap's forced him to shoulder.

"Brooklyn," nods Cap with a half-smile.

One melting-pot borough, to another. He can identify.

And because most movie patrons grew up middle-class much the way the two of them did, we can identify, too. These men in spandex are, after all, "suped"-up versions of our best selves, courtesy of the Hollywood Dream Factory.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.