Although the 1930s are primarily remembered for the rise of right-wing politics across Europe, including the increased popularity of the British Union of Fascists (see blog posts here and here), there were of course also activists on the left of the political spectrum. Although the Labour party served in the opposition rather than the Government from 1931 until the outbreak of the Second World War, the 1930s saw the start of some social reforms, particularly in housing and medical care.
In 1937, the Co-op sponsored a short film designed to encourage viewers to question some of the tenets of capitalism and free markets. This information film, Mr Smith Wakes Up, would have been shown in cinemas as part of a mixed programme of features, newsreels and cartoons. Advertisement films from the period were often also lengthy and designed as mini-narratives, making them quite close in appearance to this short film. Mr Smith Wakes Up, however, does not aim to sell goods but rather to influence people’s political thinking.
In Mr Smith Wakes Up, we are introduced to William and Elizabeth, a middle-aged and fairly wealthy couple who live in a nice suburb in a house called ‘Utopia’. Their house is worth a couple of thousand pounds and all the other people in the area are of the ‘better class’ which William defines as them being ‘mostly on the stock exchange.’ The vast majority of houses sold in 1930s Britain were worth less than a thousand pounds, so it would have been immediately clear to the contemporary viewer that William and Elizabeth are well-off. They also still keep a parlour maid and a cook, despite the ever-increasing servant problem significantly raising the cost of keeping servants.
William and Elizabeth are unexpectedly visited by Mr Smith, a friend of their son who had been to Africa. We never learn Mr Smith’s first name or which part of Africa he is from. By his own accord, he has come to the ‘great civilization’ of Britain to learn how it is set up, so that he can take it back to his tribe which he himself describes as ‘very primitive people’. For the remainder of the film, Mr Smith asks William and Elizabeth about how things like housing, medical care and food distribution are arranged in Britain. William consistently takes the position defending capitalism and the free market, whereas Elizabeth acknowledges that there are problems with wealth distribution in the country.
When discussing housing, for example, Mr Smith asks if all people in England own their own homes. William admits that this is not the case, but that the working classes can live in rental homes on ‘nicely planned’ housing estates. His arguments are accompanied by shots of one such an estate. Elizabeth then points out that there is still a housing shortage and that the new estates may lead people to have long and expensive commutes. She also raises the prospect of slums, which were still commonplace in pre-War British cities. The audience is duly presented with shots of slum housing, followed by images of very skinny children being examined by a doctor, when Elizabeth points out that slum living makes people ill.
Later on in the discussion the three actors discuss food distribution, re-armament and the ‘cost of living’. Wages have risen, but so have the costs of food, housing and heating, meaning many people are still struggling to make ends meet. In phrases that will sound very familiar to viewers in the early 2020s, William argues that people need to economise more, while Elizabeth points out that for large, low-income families there is nothing left to economise on.
Unfortunately, there are no opening credits preserved to the film so it is not possible to identify the actor playing Mr Smith, but it is safe to presume he was either born in Britain or one of Britain’s overseas territories in the Caribbean. Like American actor and activist Paul Robeson, who was often forced to portray stereotypical African tribesmen, the character of Mr Smith supposedly comes straight from an African rural tribe. At the same time, he also wears a very smart suit and overcoat when arriving at Utopia, and his English is flawless. Although his skin colour causes some consternation when he first arrives at the house, Mr Smith is accepted because he is able to pass as a gentleman, and he does not criticise any aspect of Britain. He even praises the food available in Britain as superior to African food, which stretches credibility.
At the end of the film, Mr Smith states that a nation should give its people food, health and protection. The preceding discussion has made clear to him that Britain is failing to provide this to all its citizens. His voice is accompanied by idyllic scenes of African tribes working and playing together. He argues that African tribes do not go to war as long as there is sufficient food available; and that if they do go to war, their methods of combat are more equal than those of Western nations. Nonetheless, he remains grateful for what William and Elizabeth have ‘taught’ him, and takes his leave.
After he has gone, Elizabeth looks in on the kitchen. Cook is just packing her bag to go home, and decides to take left-over meat to cook for her husband, as otherwise it will only go to waste. Elizabeth indulgently smiles and lets her take the food, and then tells the parlour maid she can go up to bed even though the washing up has not been completed. From her position of privilege, Elizabeth generously allows her staff these luxuries. William sits in the study pondering whether ‘peace and plenty’ are as adequately provided for in Britain as he had assumed. There is no indication, however, that either will take any further-reaching political action as a result of their conversation. Instead, their actions stay on the personal plane.
Despite the leading role of Mr Smith, and the film’s sympathetic portrayal of ‘African’ culture, it is clear that its target audience is white. Contemporary audiences for Mr Smith Wakes Up were unlikely to have recognised themselves in William and Mary – cinema viewing remained largely an activity for the working- and lower-middle classes, who were more likely to already be sympathetic to the left-of-centre views the film espouses. Although the filmmakers may have wanted to encourage people like William and Mary to re-consider their political views, it is doubtful whether many wealthy people would have seen the film or taken any notice of it. Although Mr Smith Wakes Up gives modern audiences insight into the socio-political debates and concerns of the late 1930s, it possibly was not effective in generating political change at the time it was created.
Mr Smith Wakes Up is available to view on YouTube.