Friday, 1 July 2011

The Melting Pot

I'm watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This is the mid-century vision of America as the New World. There are homely Swedish men and women running a café pub at the far frontier; there's the educated lawyer from the Deep South - played by James Stewart; there are the second-generation Irish like the hero played by John Wayne; there are the schoolkids, a mix of Mexican and Irish and Swedish.
It was the 1940s and 1950s in Hollywood, the time when America was 'assimilating' a horde of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. Some - maybe most - of these films were propaganda. "If de big shots in Vashington don't do like we vant, den we don't vote for dem no more, by golly by gosh", as one of the children says in Liberty Valance.
Jimmy Stewart's character, a down-home lawyer, is trying to explain to local people that "if big ranchers north of the Picketwire River win their fight to keep this territory in open reign, then all your truck farms and your corn, the small shopkeepers and everything, your kids' future, it will all be all over, be gone".
The villain is Liberty Valance, "a no-good, gun-packing, murdering thief" (in an early scene, the interestingly-named Liberty wins the"dead man's hand" in poker with two pair, aces over eights". He is a right bollocks: whipping nice Jimmy Stewart almost to death in an early scene where he (Liberty, that is) robs a stage coach.
But everyone including the fat caricature of a town marshal, is afraid to tackle him. In an iconic scene, Ransom Stoddard wipes out the headline he's been using to teach literacy to the children and adults of the frontier town, "Education is the basis of law and order".
All this idealism is all in my eye when you look at 'Pompey', the one black character in the film - the name is typical of the Greek and Roman names given to slaves, in much the way that we name our dogs - who is referred to by John Wayne (the erect penis of the movie, as 'Tom Doniphon', obviously Tom Donovan, a standard Irish name - as "my boy, Pompey".
Pompey is superbly played by Woody Strode; his presence is a silence that draws the eyes. His dark presence subverts the obvious messages of the film, about the 'melting pot' that was a standard trope of American education in the 20th century.
Because this 'melting pot' included the Irish - who came from near slavery in their own country to America, armed only by their ability to use networking to gain political power; the Scandinavians - whose sheer hard work won them modest wealth; the Mexicans, whose position was that of the Irish in Ireland, to be mocked, to be powerless.
So much for the caricatures; the French were sweaty-faced seducers, cowardly at the last; the English were pompous asses; the Germans were wholesome. (In Casablanca, an elderly German Jewish couple discuss the time as they wait to emigrate to the Promised Land of America, practising their English on each other: "What watch, liebchen?" "Two watch." "Such much?")
The Spanish were proud aristocrats. The eastern Europeans were honest but sly peasants. The Chinese were smiling eccentrics. The Italians loved their mamas, but would knife you in a moment.
The exception to the Melting Pot was the Americans who had been there longer than most of the other immigrants; the unintending immigrants from the shores of west Africa who fuelled the enrichment of 18th- and 19th-century America, the black slaves and their descendants.
The screenwriters of the 20th century, leftists to a man, somehow failed to see these people as part of the melting pot. It was silently agreed that black people weren't really, umm, sort of, umm, human.
Wikipedia's piece on the former football star and decathlete Strode raises the eyebrows. He was "close to" director John Ford, it claims; in fact, he spent four months sleeping on the director's floor as his caretaker.
The tone in which characters address 'Pompey' in Liberty Valance is educative for the viewer; Goddard's attitude is stern and scolding as Pompey stammers his way through a text, where he has lovingly helped others who strove for literacy.
Pompey's character is almost an extra, but the effect of his silent appearance is like a paper cut on a sore: a running cut that is scarcely there, but by its force draws blood.
At the end of the film, as the golden lawyer walks off with the girl, Wayne as 'Doniphon' insists that Pompey be served at the bar, and teetotal Pompey refuses and brings Doniphon home, Doniphon throws the oil lamp into the wooden wall of his home in a tantrum, and Pompey runs in to carry him out and then rushes to save the farm stock, the horses corralled near the fire.
Some time later, "founder, owner, editor - and I also sweep out the place" - like a modern blogger - Dutton Peabody (played by Edmond O'Brien, born Eamon Joseph O'Brien) is nominating Goddard to represent the territory in Congress while Doniphon, now a pathetic drunk like the editor and the marshal in the earlier incarnation of the film,lurks at the door.
As the lawyer walks out, Doniphon stops him and retells the story - to save the woman he loved: "You taught her to read and write - now give her something to read and write about".
We see the lawyer and the gunman squaring off, and behind them Doniphon calling on Pompey, who throws the shotgun into his hands, and Doniphon shoots and kills Liberty Valance.
In the film, an aged Jimmy Stewart (hair powdered white) tells the story to journos, who throw away their notes, saying: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".
He pets the arm of an aged Pompey - whose white side-hair now makes him seem all Uncle Remus - and goes on to leave politics, leaving Pompey behind, echoing like a sore tooth in the conscience of the white audience.
And what for the black audience? I can't speak for them.