Thursday, April 23, 2009

The "Super" Market

Despite this intriguing scene from “Double Indemnity” (1944) (see blog post on the film here) where Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck discuss their nefarious plans in a supermarket, this bastion of American society doesn’t seem to have too great an importance in the films of the 1940s through 1950s, when supermarkets actually were a business idea building momentum to the point they became a social force in a new suburban society.

Jerry’s Market on Los Feliz appears to be one of the very early small, self-service markets, located in urban areas unlike the later suburban freestanding supermarkets with acres of parking lot.

By the time we have this scene with Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak from “Strangers When We Meet” (1960) (see blog post on the film here) which, since it takes place in suburbia, a supermarket scene could hardly be avoided, the venerable supermarket had hit its stride. A bit more grand than Fred and Barbara’s hangout, but nothing like the extravaganza SuperStores and Big Box and Bulk Outlets on the horizon for another generation.

The supermarket actually began in the early 1930s by Michael J. Cullen, who opened a barebones enormous self-service grocery store in Queens, New York. The store, and his resulting chain of them, were called King Kullen. Apparently this was the first movie connection with supermarkets, because name was supposed to be a parody of the name King Kong.

Most areas of the US did not really get supermarkets until the 1950s, but heard about their wonders like they might have heard about TV and atomic power long before the advent of these other post-war features of our lives.

Another early Hollywood connection to supermarkets comes in the form of this very first Mighty Mouse cartoon. “Mouse of Tomorrow” (1942) pre-dates Mr. MacMurray’s and Miss Stanwyck’s date in the supermarket by two years, and explains the origin of the Mighty Mouse, which had to do with a supermarket.

So new were the idea of self-service markets, that the word “super” used to describe the market sounded terribly new and terribly funny. We don’t even think the word “supermarket” sounds funny today, but in its earliest days, it seemed absurd referring to a grocery store as something “super.”

It is the conjecture of this cartoon that if it is such a “super” market, it must sell “super” products. A mouse, one of many in his little mouse community, is terrorized by nasty cats. He escapes into a supermarket, where shelves piled high with cans tower above the little guy. It is a frightening new world. When he eats the “super” soup and “super cheese” and washes with “super soap”, he is transfored in a “super” mouse, or, Mighty Mouse.

For more on the history of supermarkets and the heyday of the suburban discount stores, have a look at this really fun website: Pleasant Family Shopping. Maybe you’ll recognize your hometown store as it was back when.


Raquelle said...

Great post! I always love seeing Supermarkets in films. I remember some hilarious scenes in Yours, Mine and Ours (1969). Plus I love the scene in A Patch of Blue (1965) when Sidney Poitier's character takes a neglected blind woman on her first shopping trip to a supermarket.

I also never thought of why the word "super" had been added. Very interesting.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Raquelle, thanks for your input. I remember those scenes you mention. By the late 1960s we can see the supermarket has shed its place as an icon of a bold new world, and has become a normal, everyday place to go. I wonder if anybody else can come up with some supermarket scenes. I'm not sure there were many.

Sebina said...

I didn't know this stuff, so what a great read :)

John Hayes said...

I second Raquelle-- great post. Love the way you can weave cultural history into your film posts-- really well done. Some of my earliest memories involve the Super Duper & the A&P in Bellows Falls, VT. They both gave stamps, which my mom collected diligently.

Mighty Mouse is always welcome!

Laura said...

I love this, especially as my grandfather owned a small chain of grocery stores in Southern California a few decades back. (He was the head of the CA Grocers Association at one point...I would guess in the early '60s.)

When I see a market or drugstore in a movie I always find myself looking around trying to absorb all the interesting details, reading the labels on the products, and so on. (There's an interesting little military base market in '53's SABRE JET, and TENSION with Audrey Totter has a great drugstore...drugstores seem a lot more common than supermarkets, as I can think of numerous films featuring drugstores, and I'm sure you can, too.)

I have mixed feelings about the TV show MAD MEN but one of the things I have liked was a peek at a '60s grocery store which reminded me of my earliest childhood days.

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Sebina, John and Laura. I especially appreciate your info on the markets of Bellows Falls, VT, and southern CA. I think you're right, Laura, we are more apt to see drugstores in the old movies than grocery stores. I'm going to be on the lookout for the stores in those movies you mentioned.

And I agree, John, where would we be without Mighty Mouse? (I especially love the later ones that are opera/mellerdramer parodies and he's a tenor.)

Laura said...

Funny thing, I was recording WHO'S BEEN SLEEPING IN MY BED? with Dean Martin earlier tonight, and the first sequence is Dean cutting the ribbon on a new grocery store! It was so "California in the '60s," including the little Van De Kamp's Dutch windmill sign on the side of the grocery building. I was hoping that he'd go inside, but no such luck. :)

The great site you linked, Pleasant Family Shopping, has a photo of a Safeway with a windmill sign, but the windmill seems bigger than most I remember. (A comment there indicates they varied in size.) As the blog states, these windmill signs were a fixture on all So. CA grocery stores until sometime in the '70s.

My maternal grandfather (not the grocery store owner, who was my dad's dad, but the doctor with the recording unit I referenced in another recent post) always had a stash of Van De Kamp's Molasses Cookies in the cookie jar. A fond memory.

Thanks for starting me on this trip down memory lane!

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

This is great stuff, Laura. These are the kind of stories I love. Funny that you should run into a grocery store scene in the next movie you saw. We'll probably all be noticing more of them now.

That "Pleasant Family Shopping" site is really something. It's so much fun. How funny that so many of us, who have never met, are connected by the same memories.

Van de Kamp's Molasses Cookies. Oh, yeah.

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