In Reaching for the Sun, William Wellman explores modern man’s enslavement by his own inventions
Adapted from Wessel Smitter’s novel F.O.B. Detroit, Reaching for the Sun follows Russ, a backwoods clam-digger who moves to Detroit to work in a car factory so he can afford an outboard motor for his boat.
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With the American economy recovering under the New Deal and workers getting back to the factories, it would seem that a more fundamental anxiety about the industrial age resurfaced in Hollywood cinema. Fordist production of the previous decades had vitiated the skilled workforce, reducing the factory employee to a tiny cog in the production machinery — an awareness that was heightened by the brief favour socialism enjoyed in the country in the late 1930s. Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) responded most famously to this alienation of the worker by satirising the principles of industrial management. The Paramount production Reaching for the Sun (1941) takes a less jovial route, exploring the theme within the framework of romantic comedy and marital drama.
Adapted from Wessel Smitter’s novel F.O.B. Detroit (1938), Reaching for the Sun follows Russ (Joel McCrea), a backwoods clam-digger who moves to Detroit to work in a car factory so he can afford an outboard motor for his boat. He plans to get back to the countryside as soon as he purchases the motor, but just as his roommate and colleague Bennie (Eddie Bracken) had warned, he falls in love, marries and has a child in the city before he knows it. Obliged to toil at the factory to support his family, but also facing the opposition of his wife Rita (Ellen Drew) who wants to continue living in the city, Russ finds his dream of moving back to the woods slipping away from him.
Russ is first presented as an innocent idealist living in harmony with nature, untouched by the harsh realities of industrial life. He lives for his clams, whistles at birds and deer. There’s not a resentful bone in his body: when he sees another clam-digger making a bigger haul with his motor boat, he simply tilts his head, as though to say “lucky man!”. McCrea’s towering stature bestows a rich dialectical quality to the character. Despite his lumberjack-like build, Russ is a gentle giant who gets knocked down repeatedly by Herman (Albert Dekker), his romantic rival at the factory. He keeps his hands close to his body even when he’s agitated. When he punches through a door in a rare fit of rage, it’s an evidently clumsy blow, made against his natural instinct.
Rita, in total contrast, is a world-wise city girl, a waitress and a taxi dancer who ribs Russ’ Southern-boy courteousness (“What will you have, or is that too personal?”). She has no abiding relation to nature: she doesn’t want to move to the countryside and falls into a brook the only time Russ takes her there. When they relocate to a new house, Rita points to a sorry excuse for a tree, telling Russ she picked this spot because she knows how much he loves nature: “The man said in the spring it has leaves and everything.” Just beyond this tree is a construction crane moving about its limb ominously.
The central theme of Smitter’s book, reprised as a secondary motif in the film, is modern man’s enslavement by his own inventions. “A machine geared to a man is one thing. A man geared to a machine is something else.”, writes the author. When we first see Russ in the film, he wedges out a truck stuck in the mud using a pair of logs. But the initial temptation of an outboard motor gradually brings him in contact with bigger and bigger machines. His first fight with Herman is with bare fists, the second with crowbars and pliers, and his final battle takes place through gigantic machines the two men operate. In the latter skirmish, Russ and Herman are barely visible, having become ghosts in the machines.
The film’s primary focus, however, is the machine that modern life as a whole is. Director William Wellman and scriptwriter Leslie River displace the immediate socio-industrial thrust of Smitter’s story on to an existential plane. Their Russ is a Thoreau-like figure wanting to live away from community in self-sufficiency, but who is caught in the rigmarole of social life, his personality gradually hollowed out by everyday grind. When Rita blasts him for obsessing over his outboard motor, he pensively tells Bennie that, without it, “I’ll be like everyone else”.
The machine thus comes to represent the life Russ dreams of, the identity he tries to hold on to. But, like the car in Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958), it is also a physical entity that supplants Russ’ human relations. Just after he purchases the motor, Russ carries it gently like a baby wrapped in rags. He addresses it with a “she” and nurtures dreams for it. In a humorous scene, he and Bennie try to get the motor started in their boarding house, just as two bumbling men would handle an abandoned baby. The machine competes with both Rita and Russ’ real baby for his attention and resources; at one point, it lies next to him on his marital bed, after Rita and her baby have left the house.
A contemporary New York Times review regretted such a comic treatment of the subject, criticising the way the film strips away the socio-political import of the book. While this may be a fair objection, it should also be noted that the light touch of the film does not imply frivolity of intention. Producer and director Wellman, who retired early from filmmaking to spend more time with his family, often made pictures about characters who had to make hard choices between professional and personal lives. He recognises the modern apprehension at the heart of the story. His success lies in finding a form that registers this hefty idea without letting it overwhelm the narrative.
A number of scenes in his film function on a register that is neither wholly comic or dramatic, an ambivalence that works in its favour. In a reconciliatory exchange, Rita inquires how important she is for Russ. Russ tells what she wants to hear, but when she asks “more than the outboard motor?”, he goes silent in a manner that’s both poignant and funny. In another sequence, Russ and Bennie attend a class for to-be-fathers where they are to learn how to handle newborns. It’s a broadly comic scene about changing gender roles, but Russ’ reaction to the idea of washing a baby’s bottom, a mixture of fear and worry, is the opposite of what such a comic scene demands. Towards the end, just after Rita has left with the baby, Russ receives a laudatory certificate from the class for being the best father — an ironic moment that’s tragic even if Rita and the baby were with him.
This heartfelt angst about the costs of domestic life is complex and unresolvable, all the more why the film’s ending seems so ridiculously contrived. Where Smitter’s novel leaves Russ hopelessly crippled after an industrial accident, he not only gets artificial legs in the film, but is able to move to the countryside with Rita and the baby. While there’s little reason to suspect that Wellman, known for his obstinacy and independent spirit, had to compromise, the postcard picturesqueness with which this tacked-on happy ending is filmed — Rita tossing a steak and singing a folk tune in the country house — can’t possibly be taken at face value. Considering that Wellman shows a large banner at the car factory reading “Quality First” (and not “Safety First”) just after Russ’ accident, we may suppose self-parody at work. It may be that a country on the brink of a great war simply needed to believe in such happy endings.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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