It Can’t Happen Here is possibly the most important movie that was never made. It did have a cast: Lionel Barrymore was to be the star, playing the lead role of the crotchety small-town newspaper editor Doremus Jessup. The plot told of an America in the 1930s where democracy was eroded into fascism in the wake of a populist and powerful figure elected to the presidency. It was a kind of alternate universe dystopian story -- of the kind we are living out today.
The script, based on the best-selling novel by Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, was by Sidney Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who had already adapted Lewis’ book Dodsworth for Hollywood, released in 1936. Everything pointed to a most important smash hit for Hollywood with It Can’t Happen Here, and for M-G-M, which slated the movie to begin shooting in 1936.
Others in the cast were to include Basil Rathbone, Walter Connolly, and Virginia Bruce. J. Walter Rubin was to direct.
The sets were built. But then something curious happened. The movie was canceled in February 1936. While it is uncertain on whom to pin the fault for pulling this film out of production, according to the introduction of the 2014 edition of the novel by Michael Meyer, it seems that the Hays Office had a hand in it because they did not wish to offend foreign film distributors in Germany and Italy, or their governments. Their governments, at the time, were fascist. It Can’t Happen Here was an antifascist message of warning.
But it was not a tale of warning against Germany or Italy, or indeed, any European country. The victim and chief offender in the story was the United States of America. Hence the title It Can’t Happen Here.
But, of course, it can, it has, and it may continue to appalling degrees, with the right kind of complacence.
Some of the blame for not continuing with the film was also laid at the door of studio head Louis B. Mayer, not necessarily for wishing to avoid offending foreign governments by painting fascism as a bad thing, but for the amount of money that would be lost if those foreign markets decided to boycott the movie.
The novel continued Sinclair Lewis’ body of work of examining what he felt was the corruptive hypocrisy and choking materialism of middle-class America, in works such as Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth. It Can’t Happen Here, however, took a sharp turn, a more imaginative and dystopic view of what was down the road, rather than what we recognized with familiar comfort as everyday life in the U.S.
The story takes place in a small town in Vermont. Doremus Jessup is the editor of the local paper, in his early 60s, married with one young son and two other grown children, and friends and colleagues and neighbors who are all affected by a strange new political upheaval in the land. The genius of the book is it portrays fascism as something that happens to a country slowly, very slowly, and with surgical precision, until the victims – its own citizens – are too helpless to do anything about it once they have recognized the crisis.
This is the template for fascism in every country. The most startling aspect of this book is that there is so much to reflect upon that is relevant today.
Doremus Jessup is acidic. He is not one to raise the call to alarm, and though we see the coming turmoil through his eyes, because, being a newspaper editor, he is observant, we see that much of the fault of not preparing for and warning people about the encroachment of fascism falls upon people like him. They are educated, but they have adopted the bemused attitude that morons may shout a little but will never carry the day, that intellectuals are protected in their own cocoons by their education, and that double-edged sword that damns us as a country – the belief that our own system of government is so perfect that it will protect us against anything, that we are so superior a people that we would never fall for a pack of lies. That the founding fathers set this nation on autopilot and that we don’t have to do anything to help steer the course.
But Doremus Jessup does observe the follies happening around him. Rather than protest, he smirks, and that is the extent of his indignation. He fluffs off much of what he sees as insignificant because the ultra-right-wing people coming into power in local, state, and national government are fools who admire bullying strongmen. Eventually, he is moved to call them out, not in angry tones, but in a merely dismissive attitude. He scoffs, “Remember our Red Scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the OGPU were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won, the Pope would illegitimize their children?...Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?... Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how truckloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings?... Why, wherein all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!”
A populist figure runs for the presidency. His name is Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, and he is low on intelligence but he has a great big mouth and a certain degree of charm for those who hate progressives.
Windrip’s campaign promises include several points. One of his planks is that “all Negroes shall be prohibited from voting, holding public office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching in any class above the grade of grammar school, and they should be taxed 100 percent of all sums in excess of $10,000 per family per year... Negroes shall, by definition, be persons with at least one-sixteenth colored blood.”
Another campaign promise, “All women now employed shall, as rapidly as possible, except in such peculiarly feminine spheres of activity as nursing and beauty parlors, be assisted to return to their incomparably sacred duties as homemakers and mothers.”
We see where this is going. As fairytale fantastic as this sounds, it still echoes the idiocy and meanness of the farthest right-wing Trumpanzees of today’s political climate. They have insidiously taken their inch; they hope eventually to forcibly to take their mile.
Windrip touts himself as the hero of “forgotten men”, he glories in big rallies where he is the center of attention, and he accuses the press of lying. His fans and supporters, encouraged by his message, heap hatred upon the intellectual “elite” and they take out their hatred on blacks and on Jews.
Doremus Jessup’s family is torn, with a grown son attracted by the new fascist government and rising in its ranks, and his courageous daughter rebelling against the new order in whatever method possible with the new underground resistance.
When President Windrip is disappointed that Congress fails to pass his whacko campaign promises into law, he declares martial law and takes over sole control of the government, with the help of his colleagues in office who have been waiting for such powerful coattails to ride. And still, there are people who think it can’t happen here.
“The most liberal for members of the Supreme Court resigned and were replaced by surprisingly unknown lawyers who called President Windrip by his first name.”
A group of right-wing vigilantes who call themselves Minute Men make up his private army and are used to put down public protests. With little hope to overcome the fascism in their government, many people attempt to escape to Canada, as does Doremus and his family, but fail. Eventually, Doremus is sent to one of the new concentration camps for resistors. The descriptions of his experiences in the camp are chilling and vivid; he is subjected to beatings and sick torture.
Across the nation, opposition groups are kidnapped and arrested, journalists foremost among them, for they are the vanguard of freedom in any republic. Doremus’ greatest sin, which he comes to acknowledge himself, is that, as a member of the free press, he did not take this threat seriously, or have the courage to speak out about it when he finally did see the trouble.
“The charity of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of big business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work,” he realizes. “It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups, who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”
The media who surfed Trump’s campaign as a ratings-grabber failed their responsibility of due diligence in a time of impending crisis, which they should have foreseen and faced.
One of the thugs who raids Doremus’ home upon his arrest finds many volumes of the works of Charles Dickens. One of the dumbbell vigilantes, looking for proof of Doremus’ lack of loyalty remarks, “That guy Dickens—didn’t he do a lot of complaining about conditions – about schools and the police and everything?” I had to smile at this; it reminded me of a comment left on my post about A Christmas Carol back in December by a reader who felt that my political views were “quite extreme” for writing about the “Dickensian” lives of the characters in A Christmas Carol, and for the IMPEACH TRUMP banner across the top of this blog that will remain as long as he remains in office. Apparently, there is, indeed, something in Dickens to rile the right and put them on the defensive.
How the characters in the novel, It Can’t Happen Here adapt to the new order, how they escape it, and how they resist, are compelling subplots to the main story, which is always in the background – that it can’t happen here. That is the greatest irony of the book, the irony on which the story is pegged. It does happen here in the story. It can happen here in real life. Even under a progressive president like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we saw concentration camps for Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.
Eventually, the dictator Windrip is a deposed by another dictator – as we’ve examined before in our series on fascism in America, fascism is always and inevitably cannibalistic. Fascists will always sell out each other.
The movie which was not made did have a second chance with the possibility of Lewis Stone playing Doremus Jessup, but M-G-M again decided not to go through with the project. It was adapted for the stage in 1937 by the Federal Theatre Project, which was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration – a federally funded program to keep alive vital theatre in America and to employ thousands of theatre professionals. It was disbanded in 1939 when Congress cut its funding. However, the play opened in over twenty different productions simultaneously in eighteen different cities on
October 27, 1937, and was a smash hit.
October 27, 1937, and was a smash hit.
The Berkeley Repertory Theater, of Berkeley California, produced the play in a timely offering in the fall of 2016, just before the November election.
It should be produced again. It should be produced for television for a mass audience to see. It should be made into a major motion picture. I wish we could have seen Lionel Barrymore in it.
For Hollywood, It Can’t Happen Here is unfinished business.