They came from Indiana to New York in 1939 to gaze in innocent wonder at the glorious future foreshadowed by the multiple attractions of the World’s Fair. Their ecstatic expressions in this image suggest they may be witnessing the Assumption of the Virgin – well worth the long journey from Indiana. Muncie, Indiana was well known as America’s social barometer and led by Robert and Helen Lynd, social scientists had recorded an immense amount of detail about family life and employment in a city that became known as Middletown America. By selecting Indiana as the Middleton’s home state Westinghouse Electric Corporation intended to underline the association of their project with the aims and aspirations of the statistically average American. Studies of Munsonians and Middletown continue to the present day.
Westinghouse’s origins were in railroad brake and signal technology but the business expanded to include all manner of electrical engineering and in designing the Westinghouse Pavilion they planned to reveal the full extent to which their products were part of a new world of labour-saving devices and consumer goods. In addition to a dazzling display of gadgetry and electronic wizardry there was a robot (Elektro the Moto-Man) in attendance to impress the visitors, all in the shadow of the Singing Tower of Light. The budget was stretched to include a 55 minute feature film (The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair) shot in Technicolor with a cast of professional actors. Generating publicity came first but a major objective was to address popular misconceptions about capitalism and new technologies. Six years of FDR and federal intervention in the economy had put big business on the defensive, inspiring the screenwriters to prepare a scenario in which the un-American critics of capitalism were comprehensively squashed by good-old all-American common sense and optimism. It may not be the most subtle example of corporate film-making but no opportunity is wasted to communicate the ideological message.
The Middleton family (Mother, Father and bumptious youngster, Bud) have arrived in New York for the World’s Fair. They are reunited with elder daughter Babs at the Grandmother’s home in suburban New York. Babs has been studying art in the city and come under the malign influence of her teacher (Nicholas Makaroff) who has turned her head with anti-materialist rhetoric and talk of Abstract Art. At the Westinghouse pavilion the Middletons meet up with Babs’s high school sweetheart Jim Treadway who works there as a guide. Jim is an articulate ambassador for Westinghouse and explains the wonders of Westinghouse to his captive audience and genially bats away any hints of scepticism. Battle is joined when Jim meets Nick, with Babs as the prize. Nick is a notably grumpy dissident, sneering at the “Temple of Capitalism” and complaining about the impact of automation on employment. With arms folded defensively, Jim drops the mask of affability and gives Nick a serious lesson in the facts, quoting well-rehearsed statistics to undermine his every argument.
Despite all this Nick continues to press his affections on the ever-loyal but increasingly conflicted, Babs. Later, as they relax together in contemplation of some of Nick’s abstract art, Babs is moved to request a definition of abstract form. Nick explains, “Abstract form is the essential substructure, in short the fundamental rhythm underlying our conceptions of spatial limitations. Do I make myself clear?” Nick is emboldened to offer Babs what he claims is a priceless ring that has been in his family for generations – when she hesitates he accuses her of being provincial. Under duress she accepts, but Nick’s clumsy amorous advance is firmly repelled – the writing’s on the wall. See it for yourself at the Prelinger Archive.
In a tortuous conclusion, Nick’s dishonesty is exposed when the ring is shown to be a $2 piece of costume jewellery purchased in a novelty emporium. The Middletons celebrate Nick’s humiliation and the triumph of capitalism by returning to the Westinghouse pavilion, where Jim and Babs embrace and collectively direct their gaze toward the Singing Tower of Light, overawed by the scale of transformation promised by Westinghouse technology. Aside from the ideological conflict the best entertainment is provided by the dishwashing contest between Mrs Modern (with her Westinghouse Dish Washer) and Mrs Drudge (chained to her sink, exhausted and vanquished) and the performance of Elektro the automatom who can count to five and smoke a cigarette. Babs is unimpressed, “All he lacks is a heart.” Jim glowers in the direction of Nick, “He’s not the only one.” Unsurprisingly it all takes place in a universally white world with African-American characters confined to positions of service.