- New Deal Cinema and the Politics of Sympathy
In her insightful new book Hollywood Melodrama and the New Deal, Anna Siomopoulos explores how 1930s and 1940s US popular cinema mediates popular anxieties about the unprecedented expansion of federal power during the New Deal. Deftly moving between readings of Gabriel over the White House (1933), Bullets or Ballots (1936), Fury (1936), Stella Dallas (1937), The Emperor Jones (1933), Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and The Killers (1946) and expositions of welfare-state theory by 1930s intellectuals and public figures, her work offers a compelling and precisely contextualized account of how state policies shape cultural productions and vice versa.
At the book’s heart is Siomopoulos’s careful delineation of a homology between New Deal presidential rhetoric and Depression-era cinema. On the one hand, much of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s popularity rested on his use of melodrama to generate sympathy for the Great Depression’s victims and support for New Deal programs. This rhetoric helped “offset the advanced rationalization of new government bureaucracy and . . . justify the encroachment of the state into the private lives of U.S. citizens” (2). On the other hand, Depression-era films gave expression to public fears and fantasies about FDR’s policies; their melodramatic conclusions, [End Page 683] however, ultimately endorsed New Deal ideology. In particular, both FDR and 1930s and 1940s cinema used melodrama to affirm a conventionally liberal individualism in ways that helped undermine public support for more radically redistributive social policies.
In developing this argument, Siomopoulos enters into a long-standing debate about the ideology of melodrama. For Lewis Mumford and other mass-culture critics of the 1930s, melodrama was a conservative form that reinforced existing social hierarchies. In the past forty years, beginning with the work of Peter Brooks, critics have challenged this assessment. Brooks highlighted melodrama’s origins in the French Revolution, describing it as a potentially revolutionary genre; more recently, critics like Linda Williams have argued that melodrama plays a crucial role in establishing sympathy for marginal social groups. Siomopoulos’s position more closely approximates Mumford’s than Brooks’s or Williams’s. Drawing her subtitle (“public daydreams”) from Mumford’s work, she argues that “Hollywood melodramas of the ’30s and ’40s maintained their resemblance to private daydreams— individual fantasies with no public valence—at the same time that the melodramatic conventions of these films consistently supported New Deal public policy” (4). For her, the politics of sympathy that Williams discovers in Hollywood melodrama is precisely the problem with these films; both presidential rhetoric and Depression-era cinema draw on the language of sympathy in order to perpetuate individualistic solutions to economic crisis. Both FDR and Hollywood melodrama focus on “private individuals rather than public movements and on private solutions to public problems” (5). In criticizing this politics of sympathy, Siomopoulos draws on Hannah Arendt; compassion, she complains, “is not a critical or rational enough emotion upon which to base social justice because it responds to suffering with simple, self-evident solutions” (66–67). Sympathy promotes individual acts of charity rather than systemic social change.
Unlike Mumford, however, Siomopoulos carefully highlights the ideological contradictions that run through her chosen films. Her readings all follow a similar pattern; she shows how the films mediate Depression-era dissatisfaction with the New Deal but then affirm New Deal policies in their final, melodramatic scenes. Gabriel over the White House, for instance, released shortly after FDR’s first inauguration, registers public fears that FDR would expand the powers of the presidency for corrupt personal gain. The film draws a series of analogies between an ineffective president (Judd Hammond, played by Walter Huston) and [End Page 684] his archnemesis, a mafia crime boss; both are equally ruthless and equally dedicated to private consumption. However, after a Road-to-Damascus-style conversion, President Hammond learns to channel his gangster-like energies toward the public interest, morphing into a benevolent dictator who increasingly resembles FDR. Interestingly, Siomopoulos suggests that this filmic tension between critique and affirmation of New Deal ideology...