Tuesday, January 20, 2009

And you thought we have it bad: Depression era movies at New York's Film Forum

Fiction films aren't documentaries, but they can nonetheless be a powerful window onto the past.

Case in point: Breadlines & Champagne, Film Forum's February 6mdash;March 5 line up of movies made during the Great Depression. The series is peppered with newsreels and timely cartoons, but what's really amazing is the mainstream Hollywood features. It's a cliche that Hollywood responded to the misery and deprivation of the Depression by churning out frothy entertainments that, for a couple of hours at least, took ordinary people's minds off the fact that they were unemployed, broke and had little reason to believe that things were going to get better any time soon. And like most cliches, it didn't get to be one without being at least partly true.

But let me tell you, there are some pretty stunning surprises lurking in the most unexpected places. The lavish Gold Diggers of 1933, a parade of Busby Berkley musical numbers, ends with a sequence in which desperate, impoverished women (including streetwalker Joan Blondell and African-American housewife Etta Moten, who's got a voice that won't quit and isn't played as any of the stereotypes common at the time), sing about the men who were used up and thrown away by a society that only cared how hard they could work or fight, not what happened to them (or their wives, girlfriends and mothers) after they'd done their duty.

The first half of this clip may strike you as a little slow, but stick it out for the expressionistic WWI scenes, followed by some flat-out Berkely spectacle built around soldiers and homeless men rather than leggy chorines. The chorus, "Remember my forgotten man," alludes to a 1932 campagn speech in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of "the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid."

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt later asked Moton to sing "Forgotten Man" at FDR's birthday party in 1934, making her the first black woman to sing in the White House.

Gold Diggers is showing on March 1, on a double bill with Footlight Parade.

The series also includes Frank Borzage's Man's Castle (1933), in which footloose tramp Bill (Spencer Tracy) invites destitute Trina (Loretta Young) to share his Hooverville shack in Central Park (for those unfamilair with the term, a Hooverville was a shanty town and yes, there was one in Central Park), warns her that he's a ramblin' man and gets her pregnant anyway. Yes, it's a romantic fairy tale, but it's a fairy tale shot through with painful reality. Just as My Man Godfrey (1936) is a screwball comedy. But it's a comedy in which which madcap heiress Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), playing scavenger hunt with her obscenely rich friends, impulsively hires the homeless hobo (William Powell) she finds in an East River garbage dump to be her dysfunctional family's butler. Can you say, "the unfortunate make great accessories?"

Sure, bum "Godfrey Smith" is really a wealthy Bostonian financier who went to pieces after a failed love affair and found redemption among homeless men who somehow maintained their dignity and human decency in the face of poverty and societal indifference. And yes, he eventually rescues the socialite's clueless family from financial ruin, hires his out-of-work friends to staff the glitzy riverside night club he names "The Dump" and marries the fundamentally decent, if flighty, Irene. But let me tell you, the scene in which "Godfrey" takes his old friend Tommy Gray to the squalid "village of forgotten men" and tells him that "the only difference between a derelict and a man is a job" packs an emotional punch.

Man's Castle will be shown on February 7th, 8th and 9th, while Godfrey is scheduled for February 14th, Valentine's Day, on a double bill with Mitchell Leisen's Easy Living.

The complete schedule will be posted on Film Forum's site soon.

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