In 1939 Paramount pictures created a screen adaptation of the WP Federal Theater Production, One-Third of a Nation. The movie’s storyline deviates significantly from the stage play. It is an excellent view into the spirit of the age during the New Deal. The film opens with a fire. A little boy – Joey – is badly injured. Joey has a much older sister – Mary – who is easy-on-the-eyes, intelligent, and extraordinarily confident. Throughout the film she is the voice of the New Deal. A well-intentioned but clueless millionaire playboy – Peter – stops to help. He is aghast to learn about the conditions of the “firetrap” tenement buildings. It turns out, of course, that he is the owner.
There is a public inquiry into the fire. Mary persuades Peter to tear down the tenements and build…affordable housing. Mary describes low-rent apartments with amenities like grass fields and “real playgrounds with handball courts.” Mary promises repeatedly that the children will no longer have to play in the streets (I picture Jane Jacobs storming out of the theater and pounding away at her old-timey typewriter).
As the story unfolds, every possible social ill is connected to slum housing conditions. Conversely, it is implied that the plebeians on the East Side would thrive if only they had new apartments. Juvenile delinquents will be transformed into boy scouts by grass athletic fields and playgrounds. Prostitutes would give up their trade and find legitimate employment. Young couples could get married and start families. Eventually, Peter partners with the City to build public housing. His family objects, and that provides the conflict of the story. Meanwhile, poor little Joey argues with the tenement house (the talking building feature does carry over from the play). The house taunts him and mocks his dream of a happier life. Out of desperation, Joey starts a fire, and then dies. Joey’s death provides Peter the fortitude to implement his plans. The final scenes show the tenements coming down; then happy youths play on “real playgrounds.”
The all White cast is striking to the contemporary viewer. Although the 1940 Census shows that almost 90% of the American population was White; the setting is New York City. Nearly 28% of the population of New York was foreign born at the time. The Great Migration was well underway, and more than 6% of the City’s population was Black. Yet there’s not a single non-white face in the entire film (with the possible exception of a waiter near the very end of the story). There’s a character named Rosen with a vague accent whose family is killed in the fire, but precise ethnic identities are obscured throughout the story. Still, as a guy named McCarthy, I enjoy the Irish-American-ness of the neighborhood. The accents and dialogue are wonderful, exactly how I imagine working class 1930s New Yorkers. It’s also important to see depictions of the general level of poverty among all Americans, including White Americans, during the 1930s. The film – with a strong dose of hyperbole – forcefully communicates the idea that social conditions experienced by poor people are intimately tied to their physical environment, not their own culture or behavior.
How can we communicate that message effectively today? How can we show people that their own well being is tied to housing, and that their housing choices are largely shaped by public policy? Almost all Americans whose families were in the country during the 1930s are descended from people who experienced real grinding poverty. The nation’s housing policy transformed our society for the better, but some were categorically excluded. How do we use that to create a unifying “we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people” message?