Before I even started the series on the New Deal, I'd been thinking about a movie diary about the Depression. Tonight's topic is movies about that time, movies made during that time, and even a bit of parallel tangent about the mental health kind of depression. I'll get into the main event below the fold, the 1930s.
But first, an opening short to describe Off the Map, a small movie made locally in Taos County a few years back (thanks for the active Film Commission, Governor Richardson.)
If anyone's seen the British series The Darling Buds of May - it deservedly launched Catherine Zeta-Jones's career - there's a similar premise here. Taxman looks for an unconventional family because they haven't been paying any taxes. He is bewitched at the first sunset and stays, abandoning his previous life with barely a second thought. The story is told through the memories of a grown woman. As a young girl, it was the summer her father was depressed. Delightful story, all in all. Highly recommended, if you can find it.
OK. On to the main event. The Great Depression. They talk about it on TV news sometimes; it was a great period for Hollywood. Pre-television, movies were a bigger player in the public culture, along with radio and magazines - Saturday Evening Post with its Norman Rockwell covers. Knowing that Margaret Bourke-White took the cover picture for the first issue of Life magazine helped get me on Jeopardy™. But I'm off topic before I even begin!
One of my all-time favorite movies is post-modern before its time, Sullivan's Travels, directed by the great Preston Sturges. As a publicity stunt, a Hollywood director on the rise decides to go out amongst "the people." He earnestly yearns to make movies that tell the truth about the rough conditions abroad in the land.
It's a publicity circus, and fails rather spectacularly. There's some good comedy along the way, including and absolutely hilarious chase scene. But then, he gets knocked on the head, forgets who he is and thrown in jail, convicted of murder.
The only joy in the life of the prisoners is when they get to see comedy movies. He gets his memory back, gets out, and swears to never make anything but comedies ever again.
This was the golden age for the screwball comedy. Here's a few:
- My Man Godfrey about a spoiled rich girl who brings a down-on-his-luck guy home from a scavenger hunt, and hires him as a butler. Carole Lombard died at age 34 in a plane crash; a very promising career ended way too early.
- A Night at the Opera has that classic Marx brothers stateroom scene. No matter how many times I see it, it always makes me laugh. And the bit about the contract's pretty good, too.
- Bringing up Baby (1938) - Couple of the best (Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn) at their best.
- Mae West has a fun time in She Done Him Wrong with WC Fields & Cary Grant.
- Another great screwball comedy is from Frank Capra, It Happened One Night (1934), with Claudette Colbert & Clark Gable.
It was an amazing year for movies, comedy or not. Amongst others, it was the year when Jimmy Stewart starred in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. The Wizard of Oz entranced audiences with its color. And it's worth watching Dorothy and Toto keeping in mind that Kansas was one of the worst-hit Dust Bowl states. There's lots more great 1939 movies, but I really ought to get this diary up, so I'll stop here.
I described that recent graphic novel movie with Gerard Butler as Busby Berkeley, but brutal. I imagined the casting - for matching chests and quads - as being like how they said Berkeley cast his chorus lines and swimmers. This has a nice collage of his human kaleidoscopes:
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
John Steinbeck, a Woody Guthrie song, and the FSA photographs featured in several previous diaries in this series are all personified by Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in this absolute classic. This was the kind of movie Sullivan wanted to make. Almost more true than anything in the newspaper about the Dust Bowl and the Okies forced into migratory farm work.
- Bonnie and Clyde (1968) was a breakthrough in cinematic tone. And the edit of the death scene at the end is notable for being slower than real time. Desperate times make for desperate people, and there were other famous infamous outlaws caught the public's imagination during those years, like Pretty Boy Floyd. This movie had interesting timing so far as its rebelliousness goes. (Kinda the same movie cohort as Easy Rider.)
- More forgettable, from that same time, is They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) - another tale of desperation set in a dance marathon. Directed by Sydney Pollack.
- O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) is the Coen Brothers version of The Odyssey set in the 1930s south. Homer gets a writing credit.
- To Kill a Mockingbird ()1962) is one of the earliest looks at race relations in the South, complete with implied lynching.
Here's a brief clip taken right after the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were killed. This is from the movie:
I only scratched the topic. So have at it folks. Movies of the Depression era (I didn't even get to the WPA documentaries like about building the Hoover Dam). Movies about the Depression era. And, if you must, movies about being depressed. I'm more in the mood for Busby Berkeley myself.
Previous entries in the New Deal series: