Sunday, May 08, 2016

Marilyn Monroe and the Real Value of Profits

An obscure 1951 film that fell out of copyright gained some new life in the home video market simply because a then practically unknown Marilyn Monroe had a small supporting role.

DVDs of Home Town Story, written and directed by Arthur Pierson, are sold with big photos of Monroe on the cover, as though it is a “Marilyn Monroe movie.” It isn’t, but even if a few thousand people are induced to buy it for that reason, that’s a good thing, because the film has an important lesson about business and economics.

The actual marquee star of the movie (which runs a short 61 minutes, more like a TV teleplay than a feature film) is Jeffrey Lynn, who plays Blake Washburn, a small-town newspaper publisher who has just lost his seat in the state senate to the scion of a local manufacturer, John McFarland (played by veteran character actor Donald Crisp). Monroe plays a secretary at the newspaper and appears on screen for no more than five minutes.

Washburn is bitter about his campaign loss and, when he takes over the newspaper from his uncle, he embarks on an editorial crusade against big business, in particular railing against the profits made by large industrial corporations. His sometime foil in this is reporter Slim Haskins (played by Alan Hale, Jr., best known as the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island), who tells his boss to tone down the rhetoric.

While I watched Home Town Story, I initially thought this would be a typical left-wing agitprop piece from the early Cold War era, where the crusading newspaper editor would be the hero and the capitalist businessman would be the villain.

I was wrong.

About halfway through the movie, the whole tone of the film changes as business owner John McFarland shows up in the newspaper’s office. He wants to talk to Washburn about his editorials and offer an alternative point of view. Here’s the dialogue from that scene (which can be watched in full on YouTube):

McFARLAND: I’m interested in profits, both for myself and the customer. My main reason for coming here was to see if I could perhaps interest you in printing something about a pet theory I have. I call it “Profits to the Customer.”

WASHBURN: What do you mean?

McFARLAND: As I say, it’s my own private little pet theory. It’s very simple, not very complicated. You see, I’m not an economist, I’m just a businessman. I have to make a profit to stay in business.

WASHBURN: Sure, we all know that.

McFARLAND: I make a profit on every electric motor I sell but the customer must make a larger profit, because if he doesn’t, he won’t buy my motors and I’m out of business.

WASHBURN (incredulous): The customer must make a profit?

McFARLAND: That’s right … Yes, the customer must make a profit. For example, you have some typesetting machines out there. The manufacturer who sold them made a profit on them. But your paper would never have bought them in the first place if they couldn’t deliver something beyond their original cost. They must continue to work for your paper to be worth more to you than you paid for them. As a customer, that’s your profit.

WASHBURN (skeptical): My profit?

McFARLAND: Yes, you sell your newspaper to a man for five cents. He gets news, advertisements, and all kinds of information for his home and business. He gets service beyond the value of his five cents. As a customer, that’s his profit. The same story for everything else: the light bulb, the refrigerator, the telephone. For this, we pay a few dollars a month. Our profits are enormous in steps alone. In case of an emergency, it’s value can’t be estimated.

SLIM HASKINS: That’s a different slant from what we’ve been printing.

WASHBURN, after a long pause: As you say, that’s just a theory. But you can’t deny that you are a big business.

McFARLAND: In your editorials, you’ve been insisting that because a thing is big, it’s bad. It takes bigness to do big things. Our industries turned out equipment for our armed forces in a remarkably short space of time. It was a big job and it was well done. It helped us to win the war and preserve our country. That’s what American industry with its bigness was able to accomplish. Was that bad, Blake?

The last fifty years, we’ve come a long way. It used to take a week to get a letter across the United States. Now we do it in one day. The difference in time alone could affect the happiness of a family. It might even mean a matter of life and death.
In my time, I’ve seen advances in industry that have added twenty years to the average span of life. My father died in the old country at the age of forty, an old man. His work was absolute drudgery, slavery, on his own farm from five o’clock in the morning until eight o’clock at night. But because I live in America, I feel like a young man, and I’ll be 65 in April.
WASHBURN, irked: Why are you telling me all this?

McFARLAND: Well, I thought perhaps you might be interested in both sides of this profit question, and print something else for a change.

WASHBURN, steaming: Mr. McFarland, I don’t tell you how to run your plant, so please don’t tell me how to run my paper. I’ll print my own conception of business profits. Good day, sir.

McFARLAND: Well, I just thought I’d come in and talk – which I have.

Remember, Blake, when this country was first discovered, there was nothing here. Now look around you, everything you see is profits. Our transportation, communication, household appliances, medical equipment. Notice them sometime, Blake. They’re the real profits.

The plot soon turns to a school field trip, where Washburn’s young sister is trapped in an abandoned mine. With the help of equipment made by McFarland’s factory, and because McFarland has a private airplane he offers to Washburn to take the girl to a hospital in Capital City, the little girl’s life is saved. As a topper, as the girl is wheeled out of surgery, McFarland notices the motor operating a respirator helping the girl breathe: “Hmm,” he says quietly. “That’s one of ours.”

As a result, Washburn’s next editorial has a different approach.

“You know, Slim, seven hours ago, John McFarland with a pet theory I didn’t think was worth printing. Theories have a funny way of becoming facts.”

Curious about the writer and director of Home Town Story, and wondering where he might have come up with the ideas that inspired the film, I did a bit of research.

Arthur Pierson only directed two other feature films. Most of his work was in television, and he ended his career as an executive at Hanna-Barbera, the animation company best known for producing The Flintstones and The Jetsons.

Something early in Pierson’s career stood out, however. It turns out before he became a director and screenwriter, he was an actor. Between 1929 and 1940, he appeared in eleven Broadway plays.

In fact, in 1935, he was in the original Broadway cast of The Night of January 16th, written by Ayn Rand.

Now, you don’t suppose that Arthur Pierson, Hollywood director, got some of his ideas about business and profits from the Goddess of the Market herself, do you?

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