In 1939, Joseph Losey became a walking emblem of what is still a relentlessly paradoxical and fitful accomodation between the imperatives of art and progressive ideas. He was at that time a stage director who could cite as accomplishments a tour of duty with the Federal Theater Project's Living Newspaper series; awards from the National Child Labor Committee and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union . . . both bestowed for his 1938 staging of Francis Faragoh's child labor melodrama Sunup to Sundown (which, despite this honorable amen corner, ran seven performances); a stillborn attempt to produce Ernest Hemingway's hideous Spanish Civil War play, The Fifth Column; and little else. Attendant to this, he had been occupied since 1937 as Production Supervisor for the Progressive Education Association's Experimental Film Project (his sole involvement in motion pictures to that point). To call him a committed man of the Left, in short, would be to understate the matter.
It is terribly odd, then, that the first film to bear the name of this future Blacklistee, Pete Roleum and His Cousins, was a deliberate work of propaganda produced for and financed by America's Petroleum industry for exhibition at the legendary New York World's Fair of 1939. Like all such works, its primary message is simple (if immodest): We . . . you, me, and everyone not reading this . . . would be nothing without Oil companies. Oil molds life as we know it; it makes the wheels of civilization turn with deceptive ease; it is as necessary to human existence as sunshine, or oxygen. With a panoply of animated oil drops (created by one of the early masters of stop-motion animation, Charles Bowers) preaching an industrial evangel that makes the average George Pal Puppetoon, by comparison, look like a Santiago Alvarez newsreel, Losey evinces a shift in values so drastic as to invite dark retrospective speculation about blackmail, extortion, moral compromise, all kinds of horror. Why else would this man, who would go on to direct such films as The Boy With Green Hair and The Assassination of Trotsky, leap head first into the hip pocket of Oil interests?
As usual, the answer is no less prosaic (and no less sinister) than a substantial payday. He was paid $10,000 out of the film's rather lavish $115,000 budget for this 15-minute Technicolor shill job and, personally, I find it hard to begrudge him a nickel of it. By his own account, none of the early work he had done in theater or film (with the exception of this, and his work on behalf of the Progressive Education Association . . . an organization which received its funding from the John D. Rockefeller Foundation) brought him more than a pittance. The life of a hardcore Progressive, staging dramas about social blight that won prizes given by Labor Unions, may have been . . . great. On paper. And it was certainly noble. But unless your name was Orson Welles, and you had enough of an instinct on how to turn a WPA poverty gig into something that eventually paid off (if only for a time), then the weight of that Great (and still ongoing) Depression was no less heavy on your shoulders than it was on any out of work mill-hand or any ex-banker reduced to pawning old suits and selling apples on 79th street.
I wish I could say that Pete Roleum and His Cousins is a slyly subversive film; a feast of subtle, undermining touches that reflect Losey's own anti-capitalist bent. It's not (according to Losey's biographer, David Caute, there is some evidence that the filmmaker in fact excised potentially ambiguous lines from the script). This is as straightforward an encomium for a multinational industry as one could ever dread. But it is an engaging piece, nonetheless.