Anti-nationalist sentiment – The Pursuit of Happiness (1934)

First up, thanks to all of you who sent notes of encouragement after last week’s lengthy discussion of Alzheimer’s. It’s not an easy road to travel, but since when was life ever easy? It’s good to know how many people I have in my corner.

pursuitNow on to the blog I started writing two weeks ago, a group of thoughts about a movie I watched even more weeks ago, almost by accident. It’s old. So old that, if you search it on IMDB, it doesn’t even show up on the initial list of possible films, even if you type its exact title. It was made in 1934, and I discovered it because I was watching some films with Joan Bennett on YouTube. (Not a lot of Joan Bennett’s films are available on NetFlix streaming!) I was watching Joan Bennett films because I was reading a biography of the Bennett family, which was recommended by Lara Parker in her latest book, which I reviewed recently. All this discussion of her early film work got me interested in seeing some movies. That’s the way my mind flows. One thing to the next.

I watched Bulldog Drummond with Ronald Colman, and For Me and My Gal with Spencer Tracy. I’d heard of both, and they also featured actors I liked. But YouTube recommended, as it is wont to do, another film with Bennett, The Pursuit of Happiness. I’d never heard of it, nor of its male lead, Francis Lederer. Only I had heard of him. See, Mr. Lederer, born Frantisek Lederer in Czechoslovakia in 1899, worked as an actor until he was 100 years old, and was a frequent television guest star as late as 1971. I know I saw him in Night Gallery, Mission Impossible and That Girl, but he always played the heavy or the wacky European supporting character, so I didn’t remember him.

Lederer was a good-looking guy, and, despite his fairly pronounced accent, found roles as a romantic lead in American films when he was young. In The Pursuit of Happiness, his accent did not sound out of place (to American ears) as a Hessian draftee sent to Colonial America to fight on the side of the British during the American Revolution.

I found this film refreshing for many reasons, not the least of which being that I’m just not a fan of nationalism as a concept. This film thumbs its nose at nationalism, and I like that. It also pokes fun at Puritanism, and has a good bit of fun with human mating customs, which, in any age, are pretty laughable. And yet it dates from 1934, not a time I guess a lot of people would associate with any kind of forward-thinking ideas, since it’s on the far side of the 1940s, when the message of most American movies was one of extreme patriotism, and the Hays office had a firm lock on the morals of the film industry, at least on the morals that were portrayed in the films. Interestingly, it is not a pre-code film. The Hays Office (formally known as the Production Code Administration), led by Joseph Breen, required pre-approval for all films released after July 1, 1934. The Pursuit of Happiness was released almost three months later, so it went through Breen’s grinder.

But let’s not confuse terminology here. I said that Pursuit thumbs its nose at nationalism, and is unlike the films of the 1940s, which were largely very patriotic in tone, in support of America’s participation in World War II. Nationalism and patriotism are not the same thing. To be a bit of extremist, one is wholesome, but can be manipulated by those who follow the other, which is insidious.

Patriotism is defined as “love or devotion to one’s country,” 1 whereas nationalism is defined as “a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries.” 2 Sound like the same thing? Note that nationalism injects a belief in one’s country’s superiority, which sounds like chauvinism. George Orwell’s take on the difference was:

Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.3

 To me, patriotism, based on the latin word “pater,” or “father,” suggests love of your heritage, your history, your traditions, your countrymen and countrywomen, whereas nationalism suggests love of a government or a state. As Orwell suggests, sounds like a lot of collectivist bullshit to me, suppressing the individual for the good of the state. Then what good is the state?

You love your father, parents or family, and you try to get along with them and be at peace with them as long as the relationship is not harming you. If the relationship is harming you, you have the right to break free of it. The same applies to patriotism or your relationship to your country. Your government exists to protect your rights and property. In return for doing that, you will be expected to pay some form of taxes or give some form of service. That may include putting yourself at risk in case the nation needs to be defended. That does not mean the nation has the right to put you at risk in order to profit. Too often, nations have done exactly that: a few in power stood to profit, and so many were put in the line of fire in a battle which had nothing to do with their individual interests.

This is the situation in which Lederer’s character, Max Christmann, finds himself at the beginning of the film. A Hessian scholar with no interest in a military career, he finds himself drafted, essentially sold into slavery to the British, in order to fight against the American Colonial forces during the Revolutionary War. He has no hatred for Americans, and no loyalty to the British. Once his country has betrayed him by making him a slave, he has no loyalty to it either. He gratefully accepts an offer from George Washington, posted on fliers all over the countryside where he is supposed to be fighting, to give Hessians who defect a homestead and asylum.

In World War II and even today, Lederer would an unlikely romantic lead at this point. He’s a defector, a deserter, and he’s one of the enemies of the power that would become the United States. Not many films even today would treat so lightly a man who showed so little regard for governments or politics. Indeed, even the most liberal-minded entertainments now seem to want to drill into our heads the idea that we must respect politics, else we’re not good citizens.

But Christmann wants what most of us really want: to be left alone. To start is own farm, to marry the woman he loves, to live.

The movie isn’t deep, don’t get me wrong. Once Max has made his choice, after surrendering to the lovely Prudence Kirkland (Joan Bennett), the plot quickly devolves into poking fun at the mating customs of America in the 18th Century, with much discussion of “bundling” and “bundling boards.”

Lederer and Bennett have wonderful chemistry, and Charlie Ruggles, as Prudence’s wise-but-drunken father, is a joy to watch.

Doubt you’ll find it on Netflix. Me, I found it one YouTube.


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