Carnegie Mellon University

Black Marketers and Other Bad Actors: Narratives of Economic Citizenship in American Film, 1945-1955

Author: Elizabeth Heffelfinger
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2004

This dissertation, “Black Marketers and Other Bad Actors: Narratives of Economic Citizenship in American Film, 1945-1955,” examines “reconversion narratives,” film narratives that came to define the emerging economic, political and cultural sensibilities of postwar culture.  Pedagogical at heart, reconversion narratives instruct citizens in the workings of the postwar economy and the social relationships that should obtain if the national economy is to thrive, and more importantly, to triumph against the threat of alternative economic programs, specifically Communism. 

Utilizing the critical methodologies of cultural studies, film studies and American studies, this dissertation analyzes a variety of fiction and nonfiction films from independent and Hollywood studios, government wartime labor recruitment agencies, and educational and industry filmmakers.  The evidence of reconversion narratives can also be found in political and economic tracts, conference publications, advertising and public policy discourses, foreign policy dictates, directives and memorandum, and educational journals. These films demonstrate how reconversion narratives imagine an economic democracy in which relationships between workers, employers and consumers are negotiated: social benefits accrue to those who successfully manage the demands of productivity, and taxpayers, businessmen and laborers determine their place in a stable system of mass production and consumption. 

First, I analyze Hollywood films of the wartime-to-postwar transition period. These films resolve the social crisis of reconversion by representing stable family relationships that privilege traditional gender roles.  Nonfiction films have a different goal.  These films imagine the public sphere of work and politics as a place without women, but use the rhetoric of “family” to remind veterans of their role as productive citizens and providers.  Next, I explore the contribution of nonfiction films to narratives of national regeneration.  Economic education films reminded American citizens that free enterprise ideology was a guiding precept in securing the nation’s future prosperity. The first two chapters detail films’ response to a domestic crisis: the postwar reconversion from a wartime, planned economy to the free market utopia promised to 1950s consumers.  In the final two chapters, I analyze how foreign policy decisions concerning the Marshall Plan and the American Occupation of Germany impinge on domestic culture.  These foreign-and-domestic intersections taught Americans how to wield their newly acquired economic and military power.  In the conclusion, I explore the current administration’s war in Iraq and its evocation of the Marshall Plan to understand how reconversion narratives make sense of contemporary nation-building projects.