Thursday, January 10, 2013


The economic debate -- or rather, non-debate -- in Congress for seemingly the past triple eon has made Americans feel they've been dragged the roots of Hell. If you were conspiracy-minded, you'd probably think that Satan himself was behind the whole mess.

You'd be in good company, for in 1942 that's exactly what was implied when MGM released the short, Inflation. In just 15 minutes, audiences were given a crash course on the then-current economic crisis -- what inflation was, how it grows and how you, the American public, could put an end to it. And if you didn't pitch in, it was because you, the American public, were in the grips of the Devil himself. Literally.

It doesn't take much to amuse Satan.
The Devil makes his entrance proving he enjoys a good time as much as anyone, roaring with laughter as the
Axis-invaded nations go up in flames. But his fun is interrupted by a phone call from Hitler. The Fuhrer demands that something be done about America's gung-ho spirit. Not to worry -- the Devil, with the help of his sexy Executive Assistant, has just the thing to wreck the USA, just the way it did Germany in the early 1930s. Tainted sauerkraut, you  might think? Bad folk dancing? A shortage of blood sausage? No: inflation!

"We can't afford it -- let's buy it!"
Up on earth, Joe Smith has decided to blow his paycheck by taking the little lady on a spending spree. Four dresses and a fur coat later, Joe's ready to splurge on some new duds for himself. (In typical detached-from-reality movie manner, Joe, a construction worker, hankers for a top hat, walking stick, six ties and a bunch of jackets.) Just as he's ready to purchase a new radio, Joe's brought down to earth when President Roosevelt's dulcet voice comes over the air. With the ease of a Harvard professor, FDR explains the new economic facts of life: Quit spending so much! Joe decides he's done enough damage to the checkbook for the day.

The Devil is only momentarily discouraged before bouncing back. He and his assistant go to earth to personally drive American consumers to the dark side. Soon, people are buying silk stockings on the black market. Hoarding food. Cashing in War Bonds to buy cars. Toasting marshmallows without a permit. (I made up that last one.)

We're not talking preparing for the
Macy's parade, bub.
That does the trick. The Devil gleefully prepares Hitler for what's going to happen next to these greedy Americans.  Goods will disappear and prices will skyrocket, causing a Depression worse than America has just experienced. Wounded soldiers will never receive medical supplies. Mass hysteria will break out like a bed bug infestation on the Lower East Side. And all because you wanted an extra can of Crisco, you traitor.

Finally noticing the audience, the Devil generously invites us to move to his bailiwick: "You know, we have a lot to offer here. Parades. Guns. Racial superiority, heel-clicking, heil-calling. And the joy and glory of slaving and dying for a fuhrer."

Well, it's hard to turn down a solicitation like that -- how do we sign up? "Complain about taxes," he advises, "beef about price ceilings and wages and rents." (Welcome to New York!) "Do these things and you and I will get together much faster. Do these things and oblige my friend." He nods to the phone, where we hear Hitler screaming, "Sieg heil! Sieg heil! Sieg heil!" Per usual with long distance, the landline makes for a better connection than a cell.

He's one hell of a dresser.
Long-time character actor Edward Arnold plays the Big Evil Guy himself. As with Alan Mowbray in The Devil with Hitler, the Devil dresses in formal attire and is the most cultured, well-mannered guy on the block.  Too, he possesses what can only be called a wicked sense of humor -- speculating that his new guests, German soldiers, will enjoy some warmth after fighting on the freezing Russian front.

And talk about articulate! When speaking to Hitler, the Devil makes sure to pronounce the "L" in "Adolf." If he ever wanted a career change, he could easily be a narrator on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's podcast tours.

In Hell, every room's a smoking room
Despite the movie poster atop this page, it's not at all clear that Hitler is really pulling the strings. The Devil, in fact, appears to be humoring his freund Adolf, letting him think that he's running the show.  But it's the Devil's chain-smoking assistant (played by Vicky Lane) who comes up with the whole inflation gag. To the Devil's credit, unlike many bosses he's open to suggestions. And if I had an assistant like her, I'd be open to anything. (Insert Bob Hope growl here.)

Despite the overall fantasy concept of Inflation, Mr. & Mrs. Joe Smith's shopping spree unwittingly captures a true-life marriage situation. See, the wife has no problem with Joe buying her a closet worth of new clothes on the installment plan. But as soon he starts treating himself to a couple of things, suddenly he's spending too much. Atta girl! You get yours and to hell with hubby! 

The only thing we have to fear is
profit itself.
Good thing the president sets them straight. In the calm, measured tones of someone who never had to look at a price-tag in his life, FDR explains that the cost of the war will mean higher taxes, wage and price controls, fewer goods and "heavier taxes [to] keep personal and corporate profits to low, reasonable rates." Just what counts as "reasonable," he never explains. What would you consider a reasonable profit for you, dear reader?

Esther Williams onland --
I didn't recognize her
with her clothes on.
As with other studios, MGM used its short subject department as something of a farm league for their newly-signed players. If they made a good impression, they'd get bumped up the B-movies. A few more hits and it was the A's. Inflation was no different, introducing swimmer Esther Williams (as Joe Smith's clotheshorse wife) to the movie-going public. She has a great moment at the electronics store, trying to convince Joe that the radio they currently own is good enough. No; the new one, he says, has better "pick-up." She quietly mutters "pick-up" with an exhausted shake of her head and roll of her eyes, like countless wives who just don't get their husbands' obsession with the latest gadget.

I sadly admit my grasp of economics is so poor that I learned more from Inflation than I had in my entire life. Other people are quick learners. Like Al Gore. The New York Times reported that the former Vice-President was eager to sell his laughingstock cable network Current TV to Al-Jazeera by December 31, 2012. Otherwise, he'd have had to pay higher taxes on his -- ahem -- reasonable profits.

Al Gore, deliberately avoiding paying higher taxes at the cost of the nation's good? The devil you say!

For another example of Hollywood's take on the close, personal relationship between Hitler and the Devil, see my previous movie post here.

1 comment:

Erin Gage said...

where could/did you buy this movie?

please email me!
Esther Williams was my grandmother and this is the first movie she ever made!