#24) The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (1939)

#24) The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (1939)

OR “Capital Punishment”

Directed by Robert R. Snody

Written by Reed Drummond and G.R. Hunter

Class of 2012

This is a revised and expanded version of my original “Middleton Family” post, which you can read here.

The Plot: In this Westinghouse sponsored industrial film, the Middleton family of Indiana arrive in New York to see all the technological wonders on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair…well, at least the Westinghouse exhibits. Father, Mother, son Bud, daughter Babs, and Grandma (Harry Shannon, Ruth Lee, Jimmy Lydon, Marjorie Lord, Adora Andrews) witness such marvels as an electric dishwasher, a time capsule to be opened in 5000 years, a voice-command robot named Elektro, and a new invention called television. But all of this takes a backseat to a love triangle between Babs, her hometown sweetheart Jim Treadway (Douglas Stark) and her art teacher/Communist boyfriend Nicholas Makaroff (George J. Lewis). What follows is pure capitalism baked inside a love story baked inside more capitalism.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a vibrant documentary record of the fair’s technological achievements and the heartland values of America”, though admits that the film is “[b]oth charming and heavy-handed”. An essay by professor and 1939 World’s Fair expert Andrew F. Wood echoes this sentiment, calling the film “more a time capsule of corporate propaganda than cinematic excellence.”

But Does It Really?: “Middleton” is an interesting little curio on this list. Anyone expecting a standard industrial short will be surprised by this film’s openly pro-Capitalism, anti-Communist agenda, complete with a story arc that dominates the film. Still, there’s enough enjoyable bits of ’30s culture throughout, and a thorough documentation of what Westinghouse had to offer us in 1939 (all in Technicolor, no less). “Middleton” is an interesting encapsulation of an optimistic country coming out of a decade-long depression, blissfully unaware of the impending darkness of another world war. A yes for “The Middleton Family” on the NFR, but definitely do your homework before viewing this.

Shout Outs: Quick references to such ’30s pop culture/NFR mainstays as Mickey Mouse, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Frankenstein’s Monster.

Everybody Gets One: Marjorie Lord’s career was just getting started when she played Babs Middleton. While primarily a stage actor, her most famous role would be as Danny Thomas’ second wife on “The Danny Thomas Show” in the 1950s. Fun Fact: Marjorie Lord is the mother of Oscar nominated actor Anne Archer.

Wow, That’s Dated: We’ll get to the more heavy-handed dated aspects as we go, but for now we’ll settle on such then-topical references as the WPA, Dick Tracy, Barney Google, and the Dionne quintuplets.

Other notes

  • World Exhibitions (alternatively known as Expositions or Fairs) started appearing in major metropolitan cities throughout the 19th and early 20th century, typically as large demonstrations of new technology. The first official World’s Fair was the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, with America hosting their first in Philadelphia in 1876 (the aptly named Centennial Exposition). Fairs in Chicago, San Francisco, and St. Louis followed, and New York’s 1939 fair would be the Big Apple’s first. Among the companies with exhibitions at the ’39 fair was the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, who commissioned Audio Productions Inc. to make a 50-minute film about their exhibit. The fair opened on April 30th, 1939, with “Middleton Family” being filmed on location that June.
  • Watching this movie is like watching an episode of “The Twilight Zone”: it all looks like normal life, but something is definitely off. There’s a lot of talk about how wonderful progress is, with immediate dismissal of any contrarian talk. This is all incredibly odd when being viewed through a modern lens, but try to remember its intended audience: Americans coming out of a Depression, fearful of machinery replacing manual labor, with Communism’s popularity starting to take a nosedive.
  • Harry Shannon is giving me some Lee J. Cobb vibes. If Shannon looks familiar, you may be remembering him from his brief yet important role as Charles’ father in “Citizen Kane“.
  • The Westinghouse Time Capsule (along with its 1965 counterpart) is still buried in Flushing Meadows Park, though it is now predicted that the capsules will be underwater in 6939 due to climate change.
  • The guy playing Jim is no actor (this is Douglas Stark’s film debut), but he does have the unenviable task of delivering corporate talking points as naturally as possible. Hey, at least he memorized his lines.
  • Every line uttered by Bud in this movie was followed by me saying, “Shut up, Bud.” Jimmy Lydon is the textbook bratty younger brother in this, so…good job?
  • While Westinghouse did have an early display of television technology at the World’s Fair, it was the RCA exhibit that showcased this new breakthrough front and center (they even televised the fair’s opening ceremony). This may explain why TV is barely mentioned or featured in this film.
  • Man, Nick is such a jerk. I get that we’re not supposed to sympathize with a Communist, but did you have to make him so repellent? He doesn’t know who the Marx brothers are! Pinko!
  • “Funny how a man with facts can break down an argument.” Very important to remember. Also, shut up Bud.
  • If the capitalist rhetoric is too much for you, stick around for Grandma’s appreciation for electrical engineers and how they improved life for housewives. “They signed our Emancipation Proclamation.” Hoo boy.
  • Easily my favorite part of this whole movie, Elektro the Moto Man. I love everything about this robot: his art deco-by-way-of-Frankenstein aesthetic, the unnatural way you have to speak to utilize his voice command, and the fact that the first trick he demonstrates for an audience is smoking a cigarette.
  • Man, the love triangle really takes over the last third of this film. They’re not even at the Fair anymore. Bring back the smoking robot!
  • Shoutout to Georgette Harvey, cast here in the thankless role of Elvira the maid. Harvey was part of the original Broadway cast of “Porgy and Bess”, and unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of Mammy in “Gone with the Wind“.
  • Among the countless exhibitions the Middleton Family missed out on at the fair by only seeing the Westinghouse building: the fair’s iconic Trylon and Perisphere, General Motors’ Futurama (a look at the cars of 1959!), the first presentations of nylon fabric and the View-Master, over 300 pieces of art by the “Old Masters”, the Jewish Palestine pavilion which introduced what would eventually become Israel, Billy Rose’s Aquacade, and the Nimatron, considered the first digital computer.

Legacy

  • “Middleton” was released in October 1939 (one month after World War II began in Europe) and was one of the few industrial shorts to get a major theatrical release. “Middleton” was made available for free to any theater that wished to play it on the bottom half of a double bill.
  • The New York World’s Fair ran from April to October 1939, and then re-opened for the same period in 1940. Upon its closure in October 1940, most of the fairground was demolished, though Flushing Meadows would go on to host New York’s next World’s Fair 25 years later.
  • World Fairs have never really gone away, but they have evolved into World Expos (as well as Specialised Expos). At the time of this writing, Dubai is hosting the delayed Expo 2020, with the next World Expo being held in Osaka, Japan in 2025.
  • Audio Productions Inc. would go on to make several industrial shorts for the next 30 years, including two that would be spoofed on MST3K: 1947’s “Body Care and Grooming” and 1948’s “The Chicken of Tomorrow”. At some point Audio Productions folded, with their catalog falling into public domain, allowing for easy access to “The Middleton Family”.

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