Friday, April 11, 2014

The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair (1939)


Not a sci-fi flick per se, but a reliable snapshot of what tomorrow might bring, this film is chock full of political admonishment to the Roosevelt White House, infusions of anti-Russian sentiment, and a liberal dose of good-old American ingenuity. The Westinghouse Company's 1939 advertising film, The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair is a decent zeitgeist capture of the commercial atmosphere in prewar America. Shot in Technicolor, the film's clean and well-constructed production values illustrate the cultural changes that would be incorporated into a nation soon to enter the defining conflict. Automated washing machines, dishwashers, diodes, electrodes, and even a smoking robot take a turn on the stage to inject a sense of productivity and hope in a country still reeling from the depression. There are no alien invaders spying on a consuming public here, but rather highlights of technological breakthroughs designed to make a better life for the citizenry.


A Lesson From Elektro - The Moto-Man!

Produced in 1939 by the Westinghouse Company, The Middleton Family at the New York Fair spends a great deal of energy highlighting the relationship between know-how, hard work, and the perceived spread of socialism in the modern age. In order to pull this off, daughter Babs, played by actress Marjorie Lord, best known for her role as Kathy on the long running Danny Williams show Make Room For Daddy, has thrown over high school sweetheart and all-American engineer Jim Treadway for her leftist art teacher who spends more time ripping apart modernity than rationallizing and explaining his concerns. To add fuel to the fire, the new beau has touches of ethinic stereotyping, starting with his mannerisms (he dresses poorly), his profession (an art teacher? Really?), and even his name - Nicholas Makaroff. In 1939, having a Russianesque/Zionist leaning surname was not going to win a person any favors. The film also takes pot shots at President Roosevelt's social improvement programs, as viewed throughout the commenting eyes of disillusioned son, Bud. At one point, he tells his father, played by Harry Shannon , why he had little hope for a good job in the future. "What opportunities? Say, do you know the motto of the last graduating class? WPA, here we come."


The Inside Scoop

1939 was arguably the most successful year for the World's Fair, drawing an estimated 45 million visitors before closing the door in 1940. Highlights included the introduction of the idea for a Jewish state with the Jewish Palestine Pavilion, 10 years before the creation of Israel. DC comics produced two comic books for the event, 1939/1940 New York World's Fair Comics, and that title would evolve into the classic long running Batman/Superman team-up title, World's Finest Comics. The Twilight Zone episode, Odyssey of Flight 33, presents a sky view of the fair, though the pilot incorrectly identifies the location as Lake Success, Nassau County.

Worth Watching For...


Aside from the political feather rustling exhibited in the film, three scenes stick out as the most telling of prewar technological advancements. At one point, there is a competition between Mrs. Modern and Mrs. Drudge to see who can clean and dry dishes the fastest. And of course, just like the visitors to the original Westinghouse Pavilion, it's important to watch Elektro, the Smoking Robot be put through his demonstration. Electro, the smoking robot; and the Westinghouse time capsule. Still prominently on display in New York, the capsule is designed to be opened in the year 6139.



Primarily, the Westinghouse film is a fantastic time capsule in itself, offering a look back at one of the greatest commercial displays of prewar America. Clothing styles, attitudes, gadgets, and common every day experiences are meticulously cataloged for a consumer's enjoyment. Once a viewer realizes it's best to let science take over, the world can only improve from there.



Notable Quotable
 

Bud: Yes sir, it's just what this family needs. An artist. Maybe now we can get the house painted for nothing.


Critical Stats


The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair (1939) was produced by the Westinghouse Electric Company and Audio Productions Inc., and distributed by the Modern Talking Picture Service and Westinghouse Electric. Directed by Robert R. Snody. Filmed on location in Huntington, Long Island, NY, and the Westinghouse Pavilion, 1939 World's Fair Grounds. Starring Marjorie Lord, Jimmy Lydon, Ruth Lee, and Harry Shannon. Released January, 1939. Technicolor. Run Time 55 Minutes.