History on Film: The Politics of Love on the Dole (1941)

All movies can be read as political texts, and with Love on the Dole (1941), this is especially true. Not even five minutes in, we have been ushered into a sympathetic view of the working-class struggle in post-war Britain.

Protest signs 2
The movie opens with a prologue that presents rural 1930s Britain as a bleak place where the people, perhaps unreasonably optimistic, want merely “to live decently in the face of overwhelming odds” (00:01: 47). Using descriptions like “darker pages of our industrial history” presents the bleakness of life in particular for working-class people (“industrial”) as fact. Setting the story in a real place and presenting all this in the form of a prologue of scrolling text recalls newsreel footage a viewer of the film when it was released would be quite familiar with. These choices confer credibility to the story, inclining the viewer to align with the filmmaker’s presentation of history.

 

Two very strong images are highlighted within these first five minutes before any real dialogue has been spoken that articulate the doom and struggle of the time. The film opens with a crane shot lowering us into the town barely visible through the thick industrial smoke. A bird’s eye view of the people makes them look so small (read: vulnerable) in the nearly identical flats. Low-key lighting continues as the next sequence opens inside a home, lending the air of gloom we were promised in the prologue. We are made to pay special attention as the camera zooms into a close-up of a newspaper held close to the fireplace. We are given just enough time to read the headline, “Trade Boom is Coming: Latest Figures Show Big Swing to Better Times,” before the paper alights, flames ripping the text apart before the entire thing is tossed into the fire in order to add vital heat to the cold home. The next person we see is a man oppressed in soot, covered so thickly with the stuff of his labor that we can barely make him out. These are all intentional, subtle (and intentionally subtle) choices that conspire to bring our mercy to the side of the poor working people of Hanky Park.

Screenshot from

Of course, the film goes on to explicitly state the people’s struggles to eke out a living in this dark world made hard by war where police “keep the peace” by violently disrupting unemployed workers peacefully demonstrating to get the bare minimum. But more than those overtly political scenes, I wanted to point out how every choice in the mediated image that is a film is political. The art of narrative film is manipulation, whether through continuity editing or in the shot scaled perfectly to extract maximum sympathy from the audience.

 

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