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.