There are a lot of movies that proudly claim to be based on a true story. They tend to be dramatic and somewhat somber like Schindler’s List, or The Imitation Game. 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is not one of those movies. It is a fantastic escape with stunning visual effects combined with a dark and risque tone. On the surface, the film has about as much to do with the real world as Godzilla or The Little Mermaid. It just so happens that the main plot point faithfully retells the story of real world events that took place in 1940s Los Angeles.
For the unfamiliar, Cloverleaf is the shadowy antagonist of the film. Judge Doom, the sole stockholder in Cloverleaf, framed Roger Rabbit so that he could buy out Toontown and demolish it for a huge freeway – so that everyone could drive their own cars to work. When Doom explains his plan and vision, the protagonist Eddie Valiant thinks of it as a dumb idea. Of course, the American audience knows that despite the film’s ending, Doom’s plan is exactly what ended up happening, with Doom’s promise of “no more traffic jams” being the cruelest of jokes in the script.
Although it may seem logical to believe that bigger roads should lead to less congestion, drivers know that traffic has grown as roads have grown, continuing traffic jams at a more or less constant rate. This observation led to a 2009 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research which established the “Fundamental Law of Road Congestion”. The report found that the ratio of traffic and road size is maintained at a 1 to 1 ratio, whether lanes are added or taken away. Building bigger roads will never solve the problem with traffic congestion.
Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom delivers his vision in a two minute scene filled with stunningly prophetic exposition, and yet immediately after his speech the audience is whisked right back into the action. Doom is revealed as the toon that killed Eddie’s brother, then dies. Many popular and beloved cartoon characters simultaneously decide that it would be a great idea for them to all crowd into a room that was soaked with the only substance capable of destroying them which had been rinsed off for about 15 seconds. Then the will of Marvin Acme is conveniently found, and everything is just great! The freeway plot has been thwarted and Toontown is saved.
Except it wasn’t thwarted. In the real world, Doom’s Cloverleaf Industries plan went through, the streetcar line was bought out and dismantled. Toontown wasn’t demolished, but houses along the 23 mile stretch of the Pasadena freeway sure were. That one freeway inspired the construction of a vast network of freeways in the Los Angeles area that broke ground in 1947, but as of 2004 was only 61% finished, filling the area with numerous roads to nowhere. The audience was left to ponder that reality, which contrasts with the otherwise overwhelming joy and triumph of the story. I believe the filmmakers were going for a bittersweet effect on the audience. The ending was too neat, too tightly wrapped up, too “hey guys, lets all get a cameo in while we can”, too naive. Los Angeles had changed drastically since the 1940s, and not for the better. The freeway network is notoriously awful, traffic is a total nightmare, and pollution is out of control.
Cloverleaf Industries was based on the real-life General Motors front company National City Lines, which along with subsidiaries Pacific City Lines and American City Lines, gained control of streetcar companies in at least 46 cities across the United States. National City Lines bought out the Yellow Car transit system in LA for the sole purpose of dismantling the electric track infrastructure and replacing the streetcars with buses. It planned to build a freeway and highway infrastructure in the city, and eventually across the country.
While some have argued that the switch from cheap, electric streetcars to highways and freeways and buses was inevitable, thanks to the massive growth in population that began after World War 2, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. Starting at the beginning of the 20th century, an infrastructure of electric rail lines was built throughout the U.S. and Europe. There was a time when streetcars were a crucial ingredient of city life, used by millions of people on a daily basis. But that standard changed between the 1930s and 1950s. Cars started entering the roads, wear and tear built up, and the utility companies which owned the lines were forced to sell by the Public Utility Holding Company Act (or PUHCA) of 1935.
Europe, meanwhile, chose to repair, maintain, and update much of its electric rail infrastructure, while America neglected, abandoned and dismantled almost all of its in favor of personal vehicles and buses.
To be fair, it wasn’t just GM, its “big highway” co-conspirators, and its front companies who were responsible for the downfall of electric mass transit in America… at least not directly. You see, the real trouble began on the legislative level, at least ten years before National City Lines was formed in 1938. GM would have not been able to purchase any of the mass transit lines that it did if utility companies hadn’t been forced to sell off control of the transit lines thanks to the PUHCA act of 1935. This act forced utility companies that had built and owned streetcar businesses to choose one industry or another. Previously discounted electric bills were not offered to those that bought the public transit systems, and since fares were generally stagnant regardless of inflation, profit margins grew uncomfortably tight. PUHCA transformed a healthy, privately built and maintained public service into a business nightmare. When National City Lines started offering to buy out these networks across the country, the previous owners were too relieved to ask questions.
GM apologists still refer to PUHCA in support of the idea that GM only stepped in to help put an end to an industry that was on its last legs already. However, even they admit that GM used lobbying power to sway legislation in its favor during the years leading up the overt action of monopolizing transit to dismantle it.
The significance of that lobbying pressure should not be dismissed, but rather included in the evidence. Mass transit bled out over decades thanks to stagnant fare prices, periods of labor unrest as well as the requirement that companies perform maintenance on not just the tracks, but the surrounding roads as well. There was no government help, no modernization, and no reform for electric street cars, just lopsided legislation that literally paved the way for America to be a country that primarily got around in personal vehicles. General Motors destroyed a privately built public transportation network through lobbying power and the monopolization of transit. It then used further legislative influence to shift the burden of building the network of roads that it needed onto the backs of the taxpayers themselves. “Big highway” (as in GM, Firestone, and Standard Oil along with others) managed to manipulate its own customers to pay for not just cars and gas but the very roads we drive on.
Although General Motors didn’t frame any cartoon rabbits for murder, it has undoubtedly guided the way that Americans get from point A to point B for a long time.
Even though GM was charged with conspiracy to monopolize mass transit in 1949, it suffered minimal consequences for being caught with its hands in the cookie jar. Originally it was acquitted, but the charge was upheld in a retrial in 1951. The fines were minimal, no one went to jail, and 5 years later GM got everything it could have hoped for with the American Highway Act of 1956, which set aside $25 Billion for 41,000 miles of new roadway across the country. To put that into context, there were 45,000 miles of streetcar track in America before the system was allowed to crumble. The new highways didn’t even spread as far as the streetcars once had.
Although General Motors didn’t frame any cartoon rabbits for murder, it has undoubtedly guided the way that Americans get from point A to point B for a long time. Whether it is the electric streetcar or the electric car, GM’s vendetta against alternative transit has been ongoing for almost a century. Many American cities are working hard to rebuild Streetcar lines and light rail, because public transportation is a basic service that needs to be nourished and supported in the interest of the people. Likewise, the efforts of Elon Musk and others are helping us to shift away from the oil dependence that has shaped the course of world events in recent years.
Perhaps the public relations division of GM has been too effective in crafting our perception of this company. It seems unending traffic jams and accidents, car payments and repairs, job losses and government bailouts aren’t enough reasons for the public to demand transportation reform, or to recognize GM as the Disney villain it seems to be.
Maybe that was the point of Judge Doom. I now imagine GM as Christopher Lloyd sadistically murdering a harmless cartoon shoe to make a point. In my mind that shoe has a name. His name was EV-1 (the original electric car, first manufactured then destroyed by GM).
When I first saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a child, Judge Doom terrified me. Every scene he was in felt especially dirty and heartless. I had nightmares of murderous cartoon red eyes poking out at me as Doom approached with saws for hands to finish me off. Judge Doom represents one of the purest expressions of evil to me in film, because he does not attack teenagers. He attacks the dreams and joy of small children, and he does it for personal gain.
In a way, Roger Rabbit is the child in all of us, and Eddie Valiant is the jaded adult in all of us.
One of the harshest realities to face when we grow up is that some people with a lot of money and power tend to like making decisions for the rest of us. These people will use their resources along with whatever means it takes to get what they want, and a lot of innocents tend to get hurt along the way. Judge Doom represents that cold reality, that force of corporate and government control over our lives perfectly. I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that Judge Doom represented both government authority gone wrong and corporate authority unchecked. The boot that steps on the face of humanity forever according to George Orwell is, in a sense, the boot of Judge Doom.
In a way, Roger Rabbit is the child in all of us, and Eddie Valiant is the jaded adult in all of us. By learning to work together, they were able to defeat the villains. It was Eddie rediscovering the importance of joking around and making the weasels laugh themselves to death which helped him expose and defeat Judge Doom. This correlates to the need in modern adults to rediscover our belief and desire to make the world a better place (which we had as children). Once we learn to combine the power, wisdom and resources of adulthood with the forgotten optimism of childhood, there is no stopping us from thwarting the real world Judge Dooms and living happily ever after.