A city sidewalk in a ratty side of town. A guy in a shabby suit slouches near a lampost. When another man strides briskly by and tosses aside used cigarette, the guy lunges to recover the butt before it goes out. A tough-looking bottle-blonde observes this and saunters over to the guy. She pulls out a cigarette of her own and beckons him to let her light it off his fag. He does so, and then she takes the cigarette out of his mouth and gives him his own.
A small act of kindness to a guy who's down and out. Why would a jaded, cynical gal like that do something like that for a complete stranger?
Because he reminds her of her Forgotten Man.
The other week I happened to catch the tail end of Gold Diggers of 1933, a frothy musical about showgirls trying to land millionaire boyfriends; happy-go-lucky escapist fare set on the Great White Way. Then we get to the last seven minutes.
Musicals of that era, especially the ones choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley, often ended with elaborate production numbers which rarely had much of anything to do with the movie's plot. In fact, the reason so many of them were set backstage on Broadway was so that the characters could move periodically from the story to dazzling spectacle and dancing girls without having to worry about making any sense. In the case of Gold Diggers of 1933, the cognative whiplash between the movie's happy ending in which the showgirls share champagne with their new fiances, and the musical number which follows, a paean to the vast army of the unemployed, is enough to make your eyebrows twist right off your skull.
After the opening encounter with the cigarette, the chorine leans against the lampost. "I don't know if he deserves a bit of sympathy," she says as she watches the guy walk away. "Forget your sympathy, that's all right with me." And over the orchestration, she declaims the lyrics.
Remember my forgotten man?She delivers the verse in a hard-boiled tone, as if daring the audience to call her a sap. But that's just the beginning.
You put a rifle in his hand
You sent him far away
You shouted 'Hip-hooray!'
But look at him today.
The music comes up, and the camera pans over to a black woman in a nearby tenement. For the first time we clearly hear the song's melody, a haunting bluesy tune, which the singer belts out in a haunting voice, as the camera lingers over other women nearby who have forgotten men of their own.
Who is the Forgotten Man? It's a term I've encountered in the pop culture of the day, and I'd sort of gathered it meant some kind of a homeless tramp; which is sort of accurate as far as it goes.
Strangely enough, the term was originally used to mean almost the exact opposite. It first appeared in an essay which could have been written by a conservative today, complaining that the do-gooders who want to provide relief for the poor and unfortunate have forgotten about the taxpayers who will have to bear the burden of paying for this charity. Shortly afterwards, Franklin Roosevelt appropriated the phrase in one of his "Fireside Chats" and gave it a different meaning:
These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.The song in the movie makes the point that this poor and unemployed man, forgotten by society, was in many cases a soldier who had risked his life in the service of his country. We see another vingette in which a cop prods a derelict sleeping on the sidewalk. The cop seems about to run the bum in for vagrancy, when the chorine intervenes and directs our attention to the medal on the guy's threadbare coat. The guy is a veteran, and maybe a hero.
And here the number gets surreal.
Curtains part and the music picks up a martial tempo and we see a column of marching soldiers, lined by cheering, flag-waving crowds. If this movie had been made less than a decade later, these marching troops would have escalated into an orgy of patriotism, and that's what I was expecting. But instead, the scene subtly shifts. The same troops are marching, but now they march in simulated rain, with grim, determinded faces. We see wounded among them; their relentless march now limps, and their faces are not determined as much as weary. And then the scene shifts again: the men are still marching, but no longer in uniform; now they are trudging in breadlines, a huge army of the unemployed.
The number ends in Busby Berkeley fashion with an elaborately-staged tableau. That's what Berkeley did. If Shakespeare wanted to make a statement about Unemployment, he would have written a play or a sonnet; Edward Hopper would have made a painting. Busby Berkely did a production number. This one is visually inspired by German Expressionism.
It's weird, and in places over-the-top; and yet overall it's a moving number that stays with you. I don't know why they put such a serious, high-minded number into an otherwise light film; perhaps the studio felt a need to admit the existence of the Great Depression outside the world of champagne and showgirls.
And so Berkeley reminds us that the poor and hungry of our country aren't leeches to be scorned or nobodies to be ignored; they too have contributed to our country and our society in ways that perhaps we have forgotten. And that message is a good one to remember.