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Movies and Mass Culture Close

Sarah Grochala | Nov. 11, 2015
A crowd of men and women standing outside a movie theatre. It is the 1920s. The cinemas is showing a silent movie with John Barrymore in it.

The American industrialist Henry Ford is famous for inventing the Model T Ford, the world’s first affordable mass produced car. The Model T Ford was not Henry Ford’s most astonishing invention.

In 1914, Ford shocked the world by announcing that he was raising the rate of pay in his plants to $5 an hour. This more than doubled his workers’ wages. At the same time, Ford decided to limit the number of hours that his workers were allowed to work. Initially, he limited his workers to six eight hour shifts from Monday to Saturday, which he further reduced in 1926 to five eight hour shifts from Monday to Friday. In doing so, Ford invented both the modern conception of the working week and the idea of leisure time.

The reasons that Ford raised his workers ages and limited their working hours were twofold. Firstly, he realised that, in order to retain the best workers in a highly competitive industry, he needed to offer them the best working conditions. Secondly, he understood that, in order make the mass production of goods sustainable, he needed to create a mass market for those goods. He needed to provide his workers with the both the time and the money to spend on the goods that he was making. He recognised that the mass production of goods requires a mass market to consume those goods. The workers who made his cars, also needed to be able to afford to buy his cars.

As many employers followed Ford’s lead, the average American found themselves with both more time and more money on their hands. As Dan Hutton points out the American worker of pre-Depression era had never had it so good. Homes were filled with sleek appliances and consumer durables, all the products of mass production. The American worker, now, not only needed to think about how to spend their wealth, but how to spend their newfound leisure time as well.

The rise of mass production coincided with the rise of mass culture. Mass culture gave American workers new ways to use their new found leisure time. The new appliances that became common in the American home included the telephone, the radio and the record player. By 1922, there were 600 radio stations in the US. Record sales boomed. The big success story of the entertainment industry, however, was the movies.

By the early 1920s, most American towns had a movie theatre and most Americans went to the movies at least once a week. A night at the movies in the 1920s involved more than just a single film. Audiences were normally treated to one or two live acts, an animated cartoon, at least one a live action comedy short such as Laurel and Hardy, a newsreel, at least one ‘novelty’ short such as a travelogue and finally the main feature film. In the 1930s, movie theatres started to phase out live acts and showed two feature films instead of one during an evening’s program – one A movie and one low budget B movie. By 1929, the audience for movies had reached an average of 90 million people a week and some estimates suggest that the average American spent 83 cents out of every ‘entertainment’ dollar on movie going. When the silent movie star, Rudolph Valentino died in 1926, 100,000 people lined the streets of New York to pay their respects at his funeral.

In The Glass Menagerie, Tom’s description of his daily routine reflects that of many American workers at the time. In the daytime, he goes the warehouse to work. At night, he goes the movies. The movies offer him an escape from the monotonous nature of his existence: ‘Adventure is something I don’t have much of at work, so I go to the movies’.

Even though the movies offer Tom an escape from the drudgery of his everyday life, he recognises that there might be something pernicious about the mass culture that he consumes on a nightly basis. He complains to Jim that: ‘People go to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everyone in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them!’ He feels that his lifestyle has somehow made him passive and incapable of living his life to the full.

Sigmund Freud would agree with Tom’s observation that spending too much time at the movies stops people from moving. He argues that the kind of person who enjoys spending time watching imaginary people doing imaginary things is the kind of person who lacks the will to do anything of importance in the world. They long to be the hero of their own real life drama but the lack the will to actually do it. Watching a movie allows them to identify with an imaginary hero instead. If they acted on their own desires in the real world, they would run the risk of causing themselves suffering. In the movie theatre, however, they can live out their desire to be a great man or woman in safety for two reasons. Firstly, because someone other than themselves is doing the actual acting. Secondly, because the whole thing is imaginary and so there are no lasting consequences. The opportunity to live through the imaginary heroes of movies erodes their ability to act in the real world.

The philosopher Theodor Adorno argues that mass culture operates primarily as a way of controlling the working classes. The invention of leisure time was problematic for the ruling classes. After all, what if the working classes decided to use their leisure time to put together a revolution and to fight for the right to a better life, just as workers were doing in Russia around the time that Ford invented his new working week? Like Freud, Adorno argues that mass culture – cinema, radio, popular music, dance halls and later television – offers the illusion of freedom rather than real freedom. For Adorno, the freedom they offer is simply the freedom to choose which film to see, which record to buy, which programme to watch or listen to. Consuming mass culture supports the capitalist system as mass culture is a mass produced commodity like the cars that Henry Ford mass produced in this plants. When a consumer spends their money on going to see a movie, they are feeding capitalism by creating a mass market in the same way that they do when they buy a new mass produced car. High art, Adorno argues, offers people the opportunity to rethink their world and to discover ways in which they might be able to act to make it a better place. Mass culture, in contrast, only provides people with easy amusement as relief from the mundane nature of their workday and refreshes them so that they are able to work again the next day: ‘It is sought as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again’.

Karl Marx stated that ‘religion is the opiate of the people’. It is the solace offered to people to compensate them for dullness of everyday life. In 1925, the Soviet film maker Dizga Vertov identified that mass culture had taken over religion’s role: ‘the film drama’ he stated ‘is the opium of the people’. By 1957, the American broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow shifted the blame again. ‘Television’ he declared ‘is the opiate of the people’. If we were to rethink the phrase for our contemporary world, we might well identify the internet as the modern opiate of the people, the thing that eats up our free time and prevents us from doing something more interesting instead. At the end of The Glass Menagerie, Tom makes a decision not to go to the movies but to start moving instead. Maybe we would all do well to take a leaf from his book.