Then and Now
By HENRY P. RALEIGH
ART TIMES June 2009
THERE ARE STILL enough of us around to make the younger generations uncomfortable. Now, there are precious few benefits for being a senior citizen save for discounts on goods you have little use for any longer. Still, I’ve noticed a satisfying up-grade in my social status. A certain new found cachet, you might say, for having grown up during the Great Depression. You see, this puts you in the position, your tender age notwithstanding, of claiming to be an authentic eye-witness to what things were like in those dismal days and to offer up sly, unsettling comparisons to the present economic uncertainty. Well, those younger folks may have no interest in your old war stories, but when hanging on their jobs and heavily mortgaged homes by the skin of there teeth, a casual remark as, ‘You know sonny, those block long lines of job applicants at job fairs looks an awful like the soup lines in my day’, does grab their attention.
I can’t say I actually saw a soup line nor did I spend my pre-teens on a Dust Bowl farm still we had Movietone News that obligingly laid out all this grim stuff at every Saturday matinee. True enough, 30’s kids had little concern for real estate busts and bank failures- there was plenty of that around (and some nice comparisons can be made here, too)- yet the most indelible sense of the Depression years and never to be entirely forgotten, came through the Hollywood films of that period. This may seem surprising considering the studios steered clear of any direct reference to the conditions of the moment, preferring for the most part and with obvious justification, ‘escapist’ films – fluffy musicals; vaudeville- like comedies (this was the heyday of the Marx Brothers); historical/ adventure (“Charge of the Light Brigade”, “Mutiny on the Bounty”); educational bios (“The Story of Louis Pasteur”. “The Life of Emil Zola”); gangster films invariably set in the 20’s (“The Public Enemy”, “Little Caesar”); sophisticated romantic comedies (“Bringing up Baby”, “The Awful Truth”). We saw them all, the studios controlled the theater chains and showed what pleased them- no Cineplex’s around providing choices.
The most ‘escapist’ of this Hollywood fare were the Astaire/Rogers films in which, for a dime, you might lose yourself in the bright, airy, Art Deco, black and white wonder world. Astaire and Rogers, Grant and Hepburn, Powell and Loy existed in an enviable land that we could never inhabit. Even the Marx Bothers did their shticks in palaces, resort hotels, colleges, race tracks and cruise ships. Escapism had its perverse side for it unintentionally made a pointed and perhaps painful contrast to the dreariness of the times and the brownish interiors of heavy, stuffed furniture covered in antimacassars that most of us actually lived in. Only the gritty crime films that came out of the Warner studio displayed sets that gave a glimpse of the way things looked. The interior scenes in the 1938 “You Can’t Take It With You” came pretty close, probably because it was a story of a pack of poor but happy eccentrics. “My Man Godfrey” in ’36 played off an elegant wealthy family against a crowd of shanty-town squatters kept discretely, however, in the background. It was decidedly rare to find even a hint of the Depression in films of the period although now and then something could be slipped in. “Gold Diggers of 1933”, a typical back stage musical, included the dirge-like Remember My Forgotten Man and the satirical We’re In the Money among its numbers. In “The Petrified Forest” of ’36 a couple of off-hand lines refers very obliquely to the Depression- only in a re-run twenty years later did I pick up the reference.
American films did everything possible to dodge around the Great Depression and the avoidance did much to underscore the bleakness of a decade that would end in movie theaters with the joyous “Wizard of Oz”. The brutality and hopelessness of the Depression years wouldn’t be seen on screen until “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940. 30’s films seemed to teach us there were two classes of people, the untouchable rich and the rest of us. From the latter came the movie gangster, an ambitious rebel who, after all, wanted what we wished to have only to be shot dead, hung or electrocuted for his efforts. The war would shortly push aside such things along with the Depression itself.
That was then and this is now and on the face of it there is an eerie resemblance as any old geezer will tell you at the drop of his NRA poster. Hollywood tried being an au courant with the Iraq business and that proved poor box office so its not likely the current economic woe will inspire any more attempts to confront reality then it did in the 30’s. The summer of 2009 film line-up is like all previous summers- the usual slew of franchise sequels (Transformer, Star Trek, Terminator, X-Men, Harry Potter); dysfunctional families (“Fireflies in the Garden”, “Post-Grad”); up-dated re-do’s (Taking of Pelham 123”, “Land of the Lost”, “Night at the Museum”; alien invasions, teen comedies, horror. World War II is re-visited but not up-dated (“Inglourious Basterds”) along with Woodstock (“Taking Woodstock”) and John Dillenger (“Public Enemies”). Maybe these little excursions back to the past are the beginning of a new wave of escapist films. “Drag Me to Hell”, in which a bank executive forecloses on an elderly lady and suffers the curse of a demon, shows promise and n a somewhat bizarre fashion so does the re-make of the 1976 Sayles brothers documentary “Grey Gardens”, a true-to-life riches to rags tale in the midst of the play ground of the wealthy – and, by the way, if you’re interested , there are some really neat multi-million dollar mansions on the market there at attractive bargain prices.