18 May 1951
Marilyn’s Silly Secretary Trilogy, Movie No. 1
Released to just a limited number of movie theaters in 1951, Hometown Story began its tortured life as a simple television commercial; but the movie’s producers later enlarged and expanded it into a sixty-one minute rank, propaganda movie, a pro-capitalist, message movie financed by General Motors Corporation. GMC was aided and abetted by another capitalist organization, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and that studio’s horrible rascally evil boss, Louis B. Mayer, a republican Richie Richman. That is all some persons need to know. It must, therefore, be a totally boring and rotten movie; only it isn’t. Arguably, the movie’s only real claim to fame is that the cast includes Academy Award winner, Donald Crisp, the Skipper of Gilligan’s Island, Alan Hale, Jr. and, of course, a twenty-four-year-old, Marilyn Monroe.
Blake Washburn is a neophyte politician who spent a two-year term in the state capital as a senator, but his re-election bid was unsuccessful; so he is returning to his hometown, and he is not happy. The son of local businessman and entrepreneur, John MacFarland, defeated Blake’s re-election bid; and Blake believes dear old dad used his influence and power, his abundance of money to buy the senate seat for his son, Robert MacFarland. In Blake’s opinion, MacFarland does not have the public’s best interest at heart. How could he? MacFarland is wealthy. Embittered by his re-election defeat, when confronted and mocked by a group of men who campaigned for his opponent, Blake punches one of them in the mouth. Apparently, Blake has an odd propensity for settling disagreements with his knuckles, a propensity that found its way onto the senate floor. During a conversation with his girlfriend and fiancé, Janice Hunt, Blake recalls: I worked hard as senator. Because I happened to step on some toes they kicked me out. Janice correctly observes: Getting into fist fights on the senate floor is not the way to get things done. While Blake might want to return to the state senate in two years, he just might find himself in the state penitentiary before the next election, unless he learns to control his temper and his fists; but for his defeat by the MacFarland family, however, Blake intends to extract a pound of flesh.
Mother and baby sister, Katie, greet Blake with hugs and kisses and he presents a puppy to Katie. She immediately names him Rad. Later that day, the defeated politician assumes control of the Herald, a small newspaper owned by his retiring Uncle Cliff, who counsels mister bitters to tell the people the truth, counsel Blake does not intend to follow. Instead he decides to crack down on the MacFarland factory, prove the MacFarland’s are water polluters. Blake discovers, much to his disappointment, that the MacFarland Factory does not discharge pollutants into the river. Still, he intends to warn the people about the unsavory nature of big business and business men who falsely get their sons elected to public office. He intends to find a crusade.
One morning as Blake arrives at the Herald, three of the town’s citizens have gathered outside. They are discussing a press release attached to the storefront glass. It reads: Chicago: Metro Manufacturing Co. today announced a record profit of $200,000,000. The company’s annual statement said that the past year was the best in its history. As the bystanders talk, Blake eavesdrops. He has found his crusade and unleashes an editorial campaign criticizing excessive profits. He questions why companies need to profit millions. He demands to know where the money actually goes. Soon, he targets the local businesses and corporations and ultimately gets around to accusing Senator MacFarland of incompetence, of being dishonest and allowing a few, select corporations, MacFarland Manufacturing among them, to constantly drain the resources of our state and give nothing in return. Eventually, Blake’s malicious campaign begins to concern the newspaper’s one reporter, Slim Haskins, and Janice. Janice becomes so disgusted by Blake’s editorials against MacFarland that she ends their engagement; and when Blake’s attacks are questioned by Slim, fisticuffs result. Blake gets knocked on his behind just as Mr. MacFarland appears at Blake’s office door.
The purpose of Mr. MacFarland’s visit is not to complain, argue or defend his son. He admits that he has closely followed Blake’s editorials about profits. The businessman agrees that profits are news and should be reported by a newspaper. Then he makes an interesting statement: I’m interested in profits, both for myself and the customer. Suggesting, as his statement does, that the customer also makes a profit on each product purchased confuses Blake. Mr. MacFarland explains a simple, pet theory that he has developed, not as an economist but as a businessman, which he calls Profits To The Customer. In his opinion, the customer’s profits are the services or benefits received from each product purchased and these benefits must provide a value that exceed the product’s purchase price or the customer will not buy the product. He provides a few examples; but Blake is both incredulous and disinterested.
Janice, Blake’s former fiancé, is also Katie’s teacher and she takes her class on a field trip. Katie brings along her puppy. Teacher and students don’t intend to visit a dangerous spot but they do because a negligent employee of Fairfax Valley Light and Power Company failed to replace a fallen warning sign. Rad gets free and goes to investigate a hole in a nearby hillside. Baby sister follows. The hole turns out to be the partially closed entrance to an abandoned mine. While searching for Rad, Katie becomes trapped because some old, weakened shoring fails and the roof of the mine collapses on her.
Blake, the police, the entire population of the town, it seems, get involved in trying to rescue Katie from what everyone fears is certain death. Some heavy equipment in the form of a bulldozer opens the buried entrance. Mr. MacFarland arrives with Dr. Johnson from his plant. The rescuers locate Katie and remove her from the mine but she is severely injured. Dr. Johnson examines the injured child and concludes that she needs surgery within two hours or she will not survive. In Capital City, nurses prepare the operating rooms while Mr. MacFarland, who happens to be a pilot and owns an airplane, flies Katie to the hospital. Surgeons and a vital piece of equipment, which just happens to have a MacFarland motor, save Katie’s life. I’m positive that I don’t need to tell you how the movie ends, so I won’t; but for those that are concerned, the rescuers also saved the puppy, Rad.
Most reviews of this movie, and there aren’t very many apparently, focus on the use of plot manipulation to promote a message. If I might be allowed to quote Eric Nash, one of three brothers who comprise the Three Movie Buffs:
Don’t get me wrong. I fully understand that the very greatness of The United States of America is derived from our capitalist society. Socialism does not encourage success. It attempts to maintain a status quo at best. However, this movie is so adamant about it’s (sic) capitalist message that the plot becomes secon-dary.
Alright. I’ll concede that our mildly political drama features a strained, even manipulated, plot; but, isn’t the message espoused by most movies like Hometown Story more important than their plot? Fundamentally, the plot must be subordinate to the message in most, if not all, message movies. There are many examples I could cite to prove that message movies are, in fact, a formulaic lot, proving that plot is more often than not manipulated to validate the message. But subordinating plot to message does not necessarily make a movie boring or poor. In the case of Hometown Story, subordinating plot to message is not what delivers it into the realm of movie boredom and poordom. It is the movie’s ugly capitalist message.
Most will object to equating corporate profits to the benefits received by the customers who purchase a corporation’s products, as espoused by Mr. MacFarland and his pet theory. Benefits received are not, after all, real folding money, won’t pay the mortgage or the light bill, won’t buy groceries or tennis shoes. Mr. MacFarland suggests that Blake should look around him at all the advancements made by humanity, the development of automobiles and telephones and everyday household appliances. They are all the result of profits, he says. Agree with Mr. MacFarland’s pet theory or not, there is an underlying truth to what he says, albeit an unpopular one.
But the navel of the movie is this: big business and big profits are not bad; in fact, they are good. Perhaps if Arthur Pierson, who wrote, produced and directed the capitalist propaganda for General Motors and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had not presented big business in such a heroic manner, certain contemporary reviewers would not find the movie’s message payoff, as contrived as it might be, that objectionable or offensive. But then today, it is easy to offend anyone and everyone without really trying.
I’m not really sure what all the fuss is about or why it’s so heinous for a movie to espouse a message favorable to business; but Mark Gabrish Conlan, writing for Movie Magg in 2008, condemned
Hometown Story as a dull piece of conservative propaganda that more or less successfully masquerades for a good chunk of its running time as a dull piece of liberal propaganda … It’s easy enough to imagine a remix (so to speak) of this script that would move its politics from Right to Left: the MacFarland factory really is polluting the river (the decent guy who tells Blake it isn’t is either lying to save his job or, perhaps better, doesn’t know himself because his higher-ups are ordering the dumps at night while he’s not there to stop them, and falsifying the records so all appears to be in order) and at the end Blake thanks MacFarland for his help saving Katie’s life but also tells him that doesn’t excuse his company’s sloppiness in allowing the danger to exist in the first place. (In the film as it stands, Pierson clearly blames the disaster not on the company but on two lazy proletarians who can’t be bothered to re-hang the “DANGER” sign across the highway leading to Copper Hill.)
I didn’t realize that Mr. MacFarland owned the abandoned mine. I guess I missed that part of the movie, just like I missed the part when Katie named her puppy, according to Mr. Conlan, Rags and not Rad; but even so, Mr. Conlan obviously believes that moving the movie’s politics from right to left would at least make it less dull, its politics less muddled and the message obviously more acceptable, at least to him.
Perhaps presenting the liberal-leaning Blake as a hypocrite, like the movie frequently does, is not totally fair; but Blake does admit this: he wants to increase the circulation of the Herald in order to make it more profitable. Why are profits for the Herald good; but profits are bad for MacFarland Manufacturing? Blake wants to emulate what he condemns.
When Blake decides to expose MacFarland Manufacturing as a water polluter, but then discovers the opposite to be true, he does not print anything about the factory’s laudable behavior. Blake intends to provide the people with his version of the truth. He intends to influence public opinion, not necessarily by actually lying, but by providing selected facts and omitting others, by manipulation. Besides, Blake is not acting out of any real sense of altruism or real concern for water pollution. His actions are borne out of his anger and a petty need for revenge; and of course, he wants to prove that the people, the entity he is obligated to serve by providing them with the truth, made a mistake by voting him out of office; and by exposing their mistake, he believes, they will return him to the state capital.
When Blake visits the MacFarland’s factory, he fails to see all the automobiles in the parking lot, all the employees leaving and entering because of a shift change, all the jobs that the factory provides, all the families it supports, the people who purchase Blake’s newspapers. Without MacFarland Manufacturing, could the Herald employ those people? Who, then, would provide Blake’s profits?
The employee of the Fairfax Valley Light and Power Company, who refuses to replace the fallen danger sign, is a man who agrees with Blake about big business and profits; the employee also wants Blake and his politics returned to the state senate. I don’t think it’s totally fair to associate malingering or dereliction of responsibility with Blake, the government and the liberal political left, as the movie does with that scene. Neither do I think it’s totally fair to associate the destruction of America’s future with the government and the liberal political left, as the movie does with the collapse of the mine on Blake’s baby sister, who, of course, represents the future and because of her gender, in more ways than one. And I don’t think it’s totally fair to contend, as the movie does metaphorically, that large corporations, the products corporations manufacture and their profits, capitalism if you prefer, will save America and must be allowed to fly with the proprietors in the cockpit in order to save America’s future. No, I don’t think those associations are totally fair; but they are damn close.
Finally, much of the dialogue and commentary contained in Hometown Story about corporate profits could be lifted from contemporaneous political debates. In 1951, Americans were debating the need for huge corporate profits. Americans are still debating that same issue today. In the sixty-nine years since Hometown Story was released, the political landscape in America has not changed much, if at all. And that, in and of itself, is a sad message. Equally sad is how Blake’s method of manipulation has become business as usual, a practice rather prevalent today. In fact, actual lying by the main stream media is commonplace in 2020 America, not only by journalists, but by elected officials as well. Sad indeed.
While Hometown Story is not a masterpiece and slightly ham-handed, the movie is interesting when set against the current political climate in America. Certain sections of the dialogue are better than average and the acting is better than merely decent, not the best, certainly, but not the worst, either. Alan Hale, Jr. delivers a bright, lively performance as the hometown paper’s reporter, Slim Haskins; Donald Crisp is convincing as the elder and benevolent capitalist, John MacFarland; Jeffrey Lynn delivers a passable performance as the bitter politician, Blake Washburn; and Marjorie Reynolds is attractive, appealing and sympathetic as Blake’s honest but suffering fiancé, Janice Hunt. Then, of course, you get a few scenes featuring Marilyn at the tender age of twenty-four. And as we all know, any scene that includes Marilyn is worth watching.
Once again, Marilyn’s character, Iris, is simply not essential to the plot or the development of Hometown Story. Not only that, I’m not sure if she is actually Blake’s secretary or simply a receptionist that also functions as a secretary for any employee who might need secretarial help, like her I just wanna-be-your-boyfriend co-worker and newspaper reporter, the not so mild mannered, Slim.
Iris Martin, as Marilyn portrays her, is a serious young woman who is disinterested in and even annoyed by Slim’s flirtations; and she refers to all the men who work at the paper as Mister. She is very formal to say the least, most certainly because Iris is acutely professional; and she already is encumbered by a boyfriend. Even so, her scenes with Slim are humorous and provide some comic relief to an otherwise slightly sour movie. Her best line follows an inquiry by Slim about how long she has to work for the Herald before she stops calling him mister. She answers: I always treat men with respect, then they treat me with respect, Mr. Haskins. Slim wants to know: Is that a proven theory or something you’re just trying out? Those of us who are Marilyn Overwhelmed know the answer to that question, at least as it relates to the way Marilyn was treated by most of the men in her life.
One unusual element of Marilyn’s character in this turn as set decoration is her lack of sexual exploitation. Sure, Iris is a beautiful, sexy gal. Slim is interested in her because of those two qualities; but Iris is not developed as an overtly sexual draw like Roberta in Love Nest or Joyce Mannering in Let’s Make It Legal. Admittedly, she appears to be using two matched spaghetti colanders as her brassiere but that was the style of that era, a style that some misguided female loons, Madonna for example, have tried to revive, unsuccessfully thank goodness.
Hometown Story was Marilyn’s final movie for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and without her presence, it would have passed quietly into oblivion long ago. Her next picture would also be another brief sojourn into the murky world of big business and secretarialism: As Young As You Feel.