University of Colorado Denver film professor
The cliché holds that Hollywood responded to the Great Depression with movies that avoided the subject of hard times—which is exactly not the case. In one way or another, just about every American film of the Depression years is about money.
The great gangster films of the early ‘30s, “Little Caesar,” “Public Enemy” and “Scarface” (for instance) are about getting money, especially by such unorthodox means as bootlegging or murder. Backstage musicals like “42nd St.” or “Dames” are about the desperate need for money and employment, and are also about the inequities of social class. In “Gold Diggers of 1933,” Ginger Rogers sings (in both English and Pig Latin) “We’re in the Money” wearing a necklace of coins. The Astaire-Rogers musicals are based on Astaire’s need for money. Even the screwball comedies are about needing or getting or mis-valuing money— “It Happened One Night,” “Easy Living,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Bringing Up Baby.” Even in the straight dramas of the time, the Depression is certainly the elephant in the room.
So, here are a few suggestions for older films that have pertinence today. All are on DVD.
“I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933) is a tough-minded and engaging film about a man (Paul Muni) unjustly sentenced to a chain gang. He escapes and then unfortunately trusts the state government to live up to a deal. The picture is based on a true story and royally PO’d the state of Georgia, which claimed that its chain gang system was good and fair. You may be surprised at the anger in the film and its unalloyed sense of injustice, but such things were possible in the pre-Code period, the years between 1930 and 1934 when the censorship document called The Hollywood Production Code went into effect
In “Swing Time” (George Stevens, 1936), Fred Astaire plays Lucky, a small-town hoofer and a gambler who forgets to show up for his own wedding but appeases his angry (and money-oriented) prospective father-in-law by promising that he’ll return with $20,000 to marry the young woman. Then Lucky meets Ginger Rogers and does everything possible to stay below the $20,000 mark. But what the film is really about—the Astaire-Rogers stories are idiotic—is music and dance. The story tells you little, but the thrilling, elegant dancing embodies the developing complexities of the love between the two incomparable dancers and the yearning of the audience for stability and prosperity.
I came upon “The More the Merrier” (George Stevens, 1943) because my friend Beth’s mother, a reliable witness, called this film the greatest of all screwball comedies. It comes from the end of the Depression and the beginning of World War II, with a story based on the housing shortage in Washington, D.C. A public-spirited young woman (Jean Arthur) with a two-bedroom apartment decides to rent out the extra bedroom. Mr. Dingle (Charles Coburn) barges in, takes the room, and then ups and rents half of his half of the place to a young man (Joel McCrea) walking down the street with a large airplane propeller on his shoulder. And then you know that there’s not a chance in hell the woman will marry her stuffy fiancé, Mr. Charles J. Pendergast. That’s where the film begins— it’s both daft and exquisite.
Simply, “The Grand Illusion” (Jean Renoir, 1937) is one of the greatest films ever, one of the greatest anti-war films ever, by perhaps the greatest director so far. It’s a war movie with no combat scenes, and it simultaneously looks back to World War I and forward to World War II. The story follows several French officers who have been captured by the Germans and are ferried from one prison to another, because they keep trying to escape. No film has a better understanding of the workings of social class or the futility and waste of war.
“Sullivan’s Travels” (Preston Sturges, 1942) looks back several years to the depths of the Depression. A Hollywood director, Sullivan (Joel McCrea) has grown rich on films with titles like “Hey, Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants in Your Plants.” Now he wants to do a serious film about current social problems. Against everyone’s advice, he gets a tramp’s duds from the costume department and sets out into the world of riding the rails, getting fed in missions and sleeping wherever he can. Fortunately he meets Veronica Lake because, in his own words, Sullivan can’t even get out of town. Some of the most clever dialogue in the movies.
Howie Movshovitz, a film professor in the College of Arts & Media, also reviews films on Fridays on Colorado Public Radio.