Double Indemnity: Bits of America in 1944

Posted on December 20, 2011. Filed under: American history | Tags: |

It seems that each December we look at a movie here at the HP, beginning with the 2008 defenestration of the horrid Bing Crosby movie Holiday Inn. This year we turn our attention to Double Indemnity, the classic 1944 movie starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. There’s no moral problem with DI; we’re taking a look here at the interesting and intriguing glimpses into everyday life in the U.S. in the 1940s that it provides.

One must admit to turning it on about a third of the way in, so that’s where our comments begin.

The two main characters, Walter and Phyllis, are plotting to murder Phyllis’ husband.  They meet in a Los Angeles grocery store—the big new market, according to Walter. It’s interesting that it’s not a chain: “Jerry’s Market” is written on the outside in cursive signage. The next decade would see the birth of the chain-store era. This grocery store is fascinating. There seemed to be no produce at all at Jerry’s. Everything, but everything, was in boxes or cans, and all of the boxes and cans are white with black letters. I didn’t see a single picture on any packaging, which certainly is not representative of packaging in general at the time—we all know the lovely, full-color images that were the mainstay of advertising from the late 19th-century on (and which are so popular as poster art today). Perhaps Jerry’s black-and-white world was a sign of daring modernity in 1944.

The signs on the isles that I could see were: CAND BEANS, CAND MILK, DRY BEANS, BABY FOOD, and MACARONI. Beyond the unusual abbreviation of “canned”, which I haven’t seen anywhere else, I was intrigued to see that the macaroni aisle was half bags, half cans. I have never seen canned macaroni, but it reminds me of a movie from the late 1930s I saw wherein a character said she was running to the market for a can of potato salad.

 Each one of these items takes up an entire aisle; I have never seen an entire aisle of a grocery store, even a large one, devoted entirely to canned beans or baby food or any other single item. In the second grocery-store scene a store worker appears with a feather duster, dusting all the cans and boxes. Another store worker is seen with a large cart with a crate on it that is overflowing with black-and-white cans, ready to stock the shelves.

One last note on the grocer’s is that of course Walter smokes the whole time he’s in Jerry’s Market.

Interesting housing notes: Walter refers to “my apartment house”, which makes me wonder when people stopped adding “house”; and Phyllis’ mansion has an enormous garage door that slides open horizontally on a track, which I’ve never seen, and moves smoothly enough to be opened with one hand.

Personal notes: Walter, a bachelor, wears a large gold band on his wedding ring finger. I know that wearing a wedding ring on the left-hand ring finger is a very new tradition in the U.S., mostly cemented at exactly this time: WWII. When men went to war, their wives or girlfriends or fiancees wanted a symbol of their commitment, both to ward off other men and to show their pride and love. Thus the engagement ring was born, and the wedding ring became universally accepted. So it’s odd that Walter is wearing a ring on that finger, and not a seal or class ring but a very wedding-type band.

Phyllis shows up at Walter’s office wearing a mourning veil after she helps kill her husband, and every time she speaks or exhales the fabric puffs out; the hazards of wearing a veil. Finally, when Walter takes Phyllis’ step-daughter for a fun jaunt at the beach, he is wearing a full suit and tie and hat, and she is wearing a dress suit. Back to the days when formal wear was rarely inappropriate.

Miscellaneous: When Walter’s boss is listing all the data they have on suicides, he says they have data “by race, by color…”. Clearly the antebellum distinctions between people whose skin was one “color” but whose race was defined by the old alchemy of percentages (what “percent” black or Asian or Native American or Eastern European, etc.,  you were compared to what percentage white) were still in play.

Finally, if you haven’t heard Fred MacMurray, who will always be remembered by most people as the affable, a-sexual father on My Three Sons, grind out the words “Shut up, baby” before he kisses a woman… you are probably well-off.

Until next December!

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