by Melany Su
In the 1920s, Americans witnessed the development of modern consumerism—marked by mass production, urbanization, and new fashion trends—a development that created a sharp divide between young and old populations. The youth embraced their newfound freedom of self-expression and satisfaction of ownership. The older generation, on the other hand, did not quite welcome “The Roaring Twenties” with open arms. Parents were concerned that the youngsters whose lives they had shaped no longer seemed bound within the family unit, but rather were drifting off into the unfamiliar realm of the modern marketplace. While parents bewailed the inevitable loss of control over their children, directors produced films that would assuage their anxiety. In the 1925 film Body and Soul, director Oscar Micheaux assures his audience that despite the deepening divide between the young and the old created by consumerism, reconciliation is possible.
Centering on a mother-daughter relationship, Body and Soul depicts the generational divide within a working-class family in the small town of Tatesville, Georgia. A devout Christian, Martha toils incessantly as a laundress, hoping to secure her daughter’s dowry to Reverend Isaiah Jenkins, a supposed minister who is actually an escaped criminal. Aware of Jenkins’s true identity and decidedly in love with young inventor Sylvester, Isabelle soon finds herself in a heated argument with her mother. When Jenkins forces Isabelle to give him her family savings—unbeknownst to Martha—Isabelle flees to Atlanta, where she barely survives. Martha joins Isabelle after a few months, only to witness her daughter’s death. She determines to turn in Jenkins, but the impostor’s earnest plea evokes her pity, and she forgives him instead. In the end, however, she wakes up from a trance and discovers, to her relief, that she was only dreaming. She not only consents to Isabelle and Sylvester’s marriage, but also pays for their new home with her savings—which Jenkins has not taken hold of after all.
At the beginning of the film, Martha and Isabelle’s relationship shows no evidence of any generational conflict. Before any dissension erupts between them, a few intermittent shots illustrate the peace between the mother and daughter. In one scene, feeling empathy for her mother as she works late into the night, Isabelle offers to iron clothes for her. Martha only smiles and pats her daughter on the back, insisting that she return to bed. Past midnight, however, Isabelle finds her mother asleep in her chair, too exhausted from work. Glancing at the clock, she shakes her head in concern and wakes her mother up. Caressing her fondly, she says, “It is late, mother, and you are tired. Won’t you please come to bed?” Martha returns her daughter’s inquiry with a smile of gratitude, and they walk back to their bed, arms around each other.
Soon, however, Martha’s and Isabelle’s contrasting ideas about modern consumerism provoke dissension between them, leading them to clash on other issues, including religion and marriage. Though lured by modern consumerism, Martha refuses to embrace it openly. On the one hand, Martha enjoys buying, owning, and displaying fine items, such as her dress of “genuine satin with lace trimmings.” On the other hand, her desire to buy things clashes with her obligation to save for what she deems more worthwhile: her daughter’s marriage to the honorable Reverend Jenkins.
An analysis of one contemporary advertisement illustrates the type of conflicted desires that Martha’s generation might have felt. Lord and Taylor’s advertisement for spring dresses was targeted to the older generation who were hesitant to participate in acts of liberal consumption. Interestingly, the advertisement displays five models, none of whom call to mind the typical housewife. Rather, they epitomize the twentieth-century woman described in Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg’s book Domestic Revolutions: a Social History of American Family Life: “A slender, boyish form [that has] replaced the large breasted, wide-hipped, nineteenth-century feminine ideal” (111). Showing off their bobbed hair and high heels, they pose majestically for their portrait, one even reclining leisurely on a bench. The advertisement describes the dresses as having been “selected for their practical features and smart style touches, representing the well-known makes of ‘Dix,’ ‘Queen’s,’ ‘La Mode,’ ‘S. E. B.,’ and ‘L’Aiglon.’” In showing off these brand names, Lord and Taylor anticipates the older generation’s hesitation to buy them and therefore justifies the purchase by highlighting the dresses’ worthwhile qualities: the dresses are described as being made “of serviceable and dependable materials, daintily finished.” These are “workaday dresses for the housewife or quite suitable for porch and sport wear.” Such language assures the housewife of attractive, yet justifiable, products.
As a working-class laundress—not a housewife—Martha’s resistance to consumerism is even more extreme. Martha is guided by church authorities rather than store advertisements. According to Paula S. Fass in The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s, “the traditionalists looked to church authority to stop the world from changing, and to control, not express, human needs” (45). In Body and Soul, however, the figure of church authority, Reverend Jenkins, is proved to be a fraud, and Martha, the epitome of such traditionalists, falls prey to his deception. While her mother resorts to religion for protection from the threats of modernity, Isabelle does not rely on blind faith—especially after having been assaulted by Jenkins. Initially, her discernment fails to open her mother’s eyes, for Martha perceives Isabelle’s dissenting opinion as a threat to her authority, another weapon of the rebellious youth. When Isabelle identifies Jenkins as the ultimate cause of their suffering, Martha immediately scolds her for accusing “that good, godly man,” even before hearing her daughter’s explanation. Micheaux exaggerates Martha’s admiration of Jenkins by transforming it into idolism. When the Reverend comes to her house, she welcomes him with complacent nods and incessant handshakes. She then makes him a comfortable seat, brushes off his coat, and even kneels down to wipe his shoes.
Isabelle, by contrast, prefers the concept of the “companionate family,” in which “husbands and wives are ‘friends and lovers,’ and parents and children are ‘pals’” (Mintz and Kellogg 115). While Martha conceives of a husband as the one who assumes sovereignty over the household, Isabelle prefers Sylvester, a timid, meek man of few words. She speaks of her fiancé as an empathetic equal: “I made myself feel that Sylvester would understand my helplessness and forgive and help me.” Peering anxiously through the door, Sylvester hesitates to enter the house and steps in only after his financée’s urging. Standing quietly next to Isabelle as she introduces him to her mother, he ventures a few shy glances at Martha, as if weighing his prospects of winning her approval. Martha, however, attacks him with a persistent, piercing glare. Instead of retaliating, Sylvester—with his head hanging—quietly leaves.
Martha’s image of the husband as the superior partner epitomizes Mintz and Kellogg’s description of “old style” family ideals, a set of beliefs based on “sexual repression, patriarchal authority, and hierarchical organization” (113). On the contrary, the younger generation in the early twentieth century adopted the concept of the “companionate family,” in which “husbands and wives would be ‘friends and lovers’ and parents and children would be ‘pals’” (115). No longer would “rigid social pressures or religious conceptions of moral duty” unify couples, but rather “mutual affection, sexual attraction, and equal rights” (115). Positioning herself between her mother and her fiancé, Isabelle introduces the new ideal of companionate marriage to her mother. Martha, however, rejects Sylvester (and therefore companionate marriage) outright.
Although their clash of opinions creates an inevitable chasm between them, Martha and Isabelle find that they depend upon each other. The ambitious youth lacks self-sufficiency—she is unable to survive on her own in Atlanta—but more importantly, the stubborn mother lacks discernment. When Isabelle bursts into tears after her tête-à-tête with the reverend, Martha convinces herself, without suspecting Jenkins, that eating the same food every day must have exhausted her “baby.” Unable to find her savings after returning from the grocery store, Martha falsely blames Isabelle for hiding it. Her failure to detect the overarching predicament shows her shallow understanding of her child and blind faith in a man she does not know well. Micheaux suggests that ignorant, resolute parents who hold to outdated traditions severely handicap their youngsters. When the elder acts indiscriminately and fails to recognize the dangers of blind faith, the child suffers the consequences.
At the same time that it illustrates the younger generation’s dependence on their elders, Body and Soul urges its older audience members to break away from their traditional customs. Eventually, Martha reconciles her belief that the ideal husband must be a man of religion. Instead, she accepts a modern hero: Sylvester the inventor. Furthermore, when she no longer perceives consumerism as a threat, Martha gives in to her desires and buys a new home. With Isabelle’s help, Martha becomes reconciled to modernity, as she reveals to the audience by wrapping her arm around Sylvester within the last second of the film.
While acknowledging a generational divide, Body and Soul assures its audience that the young and the old can restore their relationship. Interestingly, the same inquisitive, innovative nature that leads young Isabelle to rebel against authority also liberates her mother from her rigid mindset. Only under the influence of her daughter’s discernment does Martha realize her flawed judgment. Ultimately, Martha embraces consumer culture, a tendency one would more likely expect from the youth. Thus, Body and Soul suggests that the rise of consumerism that initially divides the young and the old also has the potential to unite them in the end.
Fass, Paula S. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford, New York: Oxford UP, 1979. Print.
Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: a Social History of American Family Life. New York: Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan, 1988. Print.
“The January Showing of New Morning and House Dresses.” New York Times. Jan 4, 1920. p. X3. Print.
Body and Soul. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. Perf. Paul Robeson, Mercedes Gilbert, and Julia T. Russell. Micheaux Film Corporation. 1925. Film.