"They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?"
– 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' by Yip Harburg, 1930
This new two-part blog was inspired by reading Jean Edward Smith's excellent FDR biography. Before that, my knowledge of the 32nd POTUS had largely been filtered through the prism of cinema, so I thought it'd be fun to write about how FDR and his times were shown on screen as events happened. Part 1 features morphine addiction, a communist binman and a man being shot in the dick.
PART 1: FORGOTTEN MEN (1932-3)
The 1930s was an incomparably fascinating and fertile time in movie-making. A period of upheaval and revelation, of strictures, compromises, and hedonistic last hurrahs, and of brilliant new voices. It was also a time of radical politics, economic collapse and societal rejuvenation, and, perhaps more than at any other time, America had a responsive cinema, in dialogue with its national identity. Sometimes, it even had a campaigning one. And it rarely shied away from depicting social unrest in a way that seems almost unthinkable in today's mainstream cinema.
That national identity was shaped by one man more than any other: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, who on 4 March, 1933 inherited a country on its knees, and lifted it up by the force of his personality, and by a policy programme of unprecedented radicalism.
In this two-part blog, I’ll look at the way the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal and the president himself were depicted on screen. Won’t that be fun? (Yes.)
1. ‘It is not the object of the producers to take sides’
Joseph Breen, the reactionary, anti-Semitic Hollywood censor. He said of the studio moguls: “Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.”
In 1927 the movies learned to talk, and by 1932 Hollywood had fully mastered the new medium, following a tricky transitional period (to my mind, there were no great ‘talkies’ until King Vidor’s Hallelujah! in 1929, and hardly a deluge after that). Two years later, the Hays Office, led by Nazi sympathiser and joyless prude Joseph Breen, began to properly enforce the ‘Production Code’ censorship restrictions it had drafted in 1930, after unbearable pressure from the Catholic League of Decency (bloody Catholics). That meant, infamously, that showing a “man and woman in bed together” was now forbidden, but it also ripped the teeth out of social justice filmmaking. Though there’s nothing in the rules permitting progressive narratives, aside from a reference to “special care” now having to be shown in dealing with national institutions, scripts had to be passed by Breen before production started, and he was not a liberal man (as I said, he was a Nazi sympathiser).
Before the establishment wrestled back control, though, was an explosive two-and-a-half years of “pre-Code” movies: both a last hurrah for the more sensual(/exploitative) elements of Hollywood, and a white-hot birth for a nascent, doomed movement of vital political cinema, inspired by the hunger and hopelessness of The Great Depression, and alive with the anger of the dispossessed.
Ring Lardner Jr., the communist screenwriter, who later refused to 'name names' to the HUAC during the red scare. "It was a question of choosing to be a 'hero', or a shit," he said memorably.
The lefties didn’t have it all their own way. While many of the most influential writers and directors were liberals, socialists (John Ford, Howard Koch, Lillian Hellman, Donald Ogden Stewart) or communists (John Howard Lawson, Ring Lardner Jr., Dalton Trumbo), the big studios were run by wealthy moguls who were invariably Conservative Republicans (the ‘progressive’ Republican wing did still exist, but not in Hollywood). The powerful producers were on the right too: tubthumping defends of capitalism like Irving Thalberg, the boy genius of MGM, and there was a cabal of leading actors and directors – including Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Sam Wood, Norman Taurog and Cecil B. DeMille – who later formed the backbone of the red-hunting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA).
As a result, the overwhelming number of Hollywood movies were extremely safe, either explicitly championing reactionary values, embedding them into a palatable, escapist narrative or simply ignoring the political climate altogether (while Eddie Cantor’s musicals could occasionally engage with the national picture in their framing devices or glib asides, Fred and Ginger’s transcendent trifles were almost entirely oblivious). The exception, as always, was where money could be made.
Irving Thalberg, the literate, brilliant producer who in 1934 pioneered American 'fake news' to swing a gubernatorial election.
In 1932, the novel and play Cabin in the Cotton (October 1932) made it to the big screen. Though it ends with a workers’ co-operative being formed thanks to the oratory of cotton-pickers’ son Richard Barthelmess, it’s one of the cagiest movies you’ll ever see, stoutly arguing the case of Southern planters, immediately qualifying any radical statement, and explicitly saying in its prologue that it wouldn’t be taking sides (that's where the quote in the heading comes from). It took Roosevelt’s election a month later to convince Warner Bros – admittedly the most earthy, socially-conscious and immigrant-friendly of the big studios – that there was a new mood flooding the country, and that by riding that wave they could start raking in big box office receipts. But first, let me take you back to the dog days of 1929.
2. ‘The big parade of tears’: The Great Depression on film
On Tuesday, 29 October, 1929 – ‘Black Tuesday’ – the American stock market crashed, precipitating the sharpest and most ruinous Depression in its history. ‘Hoovervilles’ – temporary encampments of homeless people living in cardboard boxes and makeshift huts – had bred in all major cities, breadlines of starving citizens snaked around blocks outside ad-hoc soup kitchens, and the President had just called out the National Guard to shoot unarmed veterans pleading to receive their WWI bonus ahead of time. A quarter of American adults were out of work, and that atmosphere of hopelessness, of privation, of deprivation and desperation permeated the national consciousness. By 1932, the height of the Great Depression, it had also reached the screen.
The Roaring Twenties (1939), arguably the greatest of the ‘30s gangster classics, has two fantastic montages fusing newsreel and new footage (edited by Jack Killifer), which bring to life the boom and bust of the 1920s – culminating in the crash – like little else. They also include that footage of gangsters throwing two grenades through a shop window that is in every gangster montage of the 1930s. That punchy, dynamic epic summarised the period from 1918 to 1933 with a stunning verve, but did so in retrospect. There are innumerable fascinating and bizarre films that portrayed the Depression as it was happening.
Like the extraordinarily flavourful Union Depot (January 1932), above: a rich, tough tapestry of early '30s America, masquerading as a melodrama, in which down-on-her-luck dancer Joan Blondell is easy prey for a limping, porn-obsessed sexual maniac (George Rosener) until dirty-faced vagrant Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. arrives on the scene. This minor classic boils an entire era down to 66 mesmerising minutes.
"The weather's getting fine/The coffee tastes like wine/You happy hobo, sing/'Hallelujah, I'm a bum again!'"
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (February 1933) is one of the period's great curios: a spectacularly misguided comedy-musical-cum-drama about supertramp Bumper (Al Jolson), who gives up his post as the “Mayor of Central Park” for the love of a good amnesiac (Madge Evans), while tangling with a communist binman called Egghead (played by former silent clown, Harry Langdon). Written by Ben Hecht and S. N. Behrman, with songs and rhyming dialogue by Rodgers and Hart, it was a notorious flop on release, as workers who were being laid off in their millions didn’t equate their homelessness and deprivation with freedom, though seen today it’s joyous, subversive and, ultimately, heartbreaking.
Herbert Hoover famously insisted that jobless men had taken to selling apples on the street because they’d decided it was a good career move, but Damon Runyon and Robert Riskin saw this burgeoning industry for what it was. In Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (September 1933), written by the pair, May Robson plays Apple Annie (above), a downtrodden old woman who lives in a barely-lit flop house, drinks too much and sells fruit out of a basket to survive – at least until her daughter comes to stay, and she turns to benevolent gangster Warren William to help put up a front.
Capra's torn-from-the-headlines American Madness (August 1932) had been confrontational rather than whimsical, depicting a liberal bank president (Walter Huston, more of whom later!) who stands up for the little guy against corporate greed, only for a robbery – shot in eerie Expressionist style – to force a run on the bank (foreshadowing Capra's It’s a Wonderful Life), and his marriage to head for the rocks. It suffers slightly from a familiar problem with Riskin’s work: he sees himself as a liberal, but views ordinary people as stupid and easily manipulated, but it has a progressive view of both capitalism and convicts, and argues passionately that when financial institutions put profit before people, everything goes wrong.
Top: American Madness; bottom: Gold Diggers of 1933
Two brilliant ensemble dramas, spearheaded by Warren William as a rascally, amoral businessman, warned of the dangers of rapacious and unforgiving capitalism, if having rather too much fun doing it. In both Skyscraper Souls (July 1932) and Employees’ Entrance (January 1933), William relentlessly pursued virgins, lied as easily as breathing, and delighted in destroying his business rivals, as a sort of Jordan Belfort of the Hoover era. Proper radical heroes were a fixture throughout the decade, though: the near-mythic screwball comedy My Man Godfrey (1936) discovered its hero down and out in a Hooverville, before moving into a mansion to put a spoilt family in their place.
The 'urgent populism' of Heroes for Sale.
Heroes for Sale (June 1933), one of the most fiercely politicised films of the era, used its hero as an emblem of the Lost Generation. Tom Morris (Richard Barthelmess) misses out on war hero status, gets hooked on prescription morphine, loses his job to his own invention, is jailed for trying to stop a riot, and then gets tagged as a Red and run out of town. Its treatment of communism is pathetically shallow and trivial, but its sequences of drug addiction were the most harrowing put on screen until The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955, while the scenes of broken-down tramps squatting on parkland, eating anything they can lay their hands on, are as valuable and resonant as any depictions during this era.
Heroes for Sale referenced one of the defining photographs of the day (by WPA photographer John E. Allen) in this gut-punch of a sequence.
A less impressive addiction drama was The Wet Parade (March, 1932), a fundamentally confused treatise on Prohibition, though it works as an insightful picture of the national debate around this crucial issue, which threatened to define Roosevelt's first campaign, if not as a movie.
"This depression is so bad I want to have an affair with a murderous gorilla."
The most vivid depictions of the Depression are in two unlikely films: the groundbreaking monster movie, King Kong (March 1933) – in which penniless orphan Fay Wray is first glimpsed stealing food in a bid to not starve to death on the streets of New York, and agrees to the ill-fated trip out of desperation – and an apparently innocuous Busby Berkeley musical, Gold Diggers of 1933 (May 1933). I’ve written at length about how original, ambitious and jaw-droppingly daring its closing number is, but it’s worth restating. For most of its running time, Gold Diggers of 1933 is a standard crowd-pleaser. Though its first half has numerous wry references to poverty, it is primarily a light-hearted musical about having the chutzpah to ride out the Depression (Warner’s key leading men of the period. – William Powell, Lee Tracy and James Cagney – all played ‘go getters’ using their wiles to stay afloat in this crumbling world). And then:
with the daft plot neatly tied up, Berkeley suddenly drops the big one: a climactic number that runs for almost seven minutes and seems to encapsulate an entire generation's experiences ... Men on a downward spiral that begins at the front and ends at the soup kitchen; an army of heroes deserted by America.‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ (envisioned as a 'Big parade of tears') borrowed the words of FDR’s great April 1932 speech, who had spoken of the need for America to put its faith in “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid”. Here was a crystallisation of the Depression experience, from parade to patrol to poverty to protest, the number’s finale becoming almost a religious spectacle (though one shot by Eisenstein), as Joan Blondell and the army of the dispossessed – arms to the Heavens – seem to glimpse some higher power coming to deliver them.
3. Visions of a new America
The previous year, Lee Tracy (above) – usually cast as a cynical, motor-mouthed go-getter – had starred in an early prototype for Frank Capra’s great piece of political wish-fulfilment, Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The film, Washington Merry-Go-Round (October 1932), was released a month before FDR's election and found Tracy’s idealistic yet jaundiced young senator pitching up in DC, where he is first suckered and then sickened by the festering corruption he sees all around him (epitomised, obviously, by Walter Connolly as a crooked politico in the pay of bootleggers). There was a transparent hunger for an administration that cared.
The form that administration should take, though, was still up for grabs, at least in some quarters. Gabriel Over the White House (March 1933), an absolutely batshit political fantasy financed by notorious media mogul William Randolph Hearst – the primary inspiration for Citizen Kane – but devised by maverick producer Walter Wanger (who later made a prison reform picture after being sent to jail for shooting a romantic rival in the dick), stated the case for benign dictatorship, or just fascism.
Played by Walter Huston, President Judson Hammond is a journeyman politician (patterned after Herbert Hoover) who has a car accident and awakens from his coma a changed man (thanks apparently to divine intervention), proceeding to purge his cabinet of business interests, nationalise beer production, cut unemployment and, oh yes, invoke martial law, before forging everlasting peace through a process of nuclear brinkmanship. Hearst was a registered Democrat (though he disliked FDR personally), but the film does look suspiciously like totalitarian propaganda.
The answer to a nation's prayers: Walter Huston with superpowers.
A more uplifting alternate vision of America was offered by Turn Back the Clock (August 1933), a virtually-unknown time-travel drama in which tobacconist Lee Tracy is allowed to relive 20 years of his life, rising to political prominence as he confronts the major social issues of the day:
Wild Boys of the Road (September 1933), directed by Heroes for Sale's William Wellman, is one of the last and loudest yells of the Depression era, but also one of the most hopeful. An angry, bristling and uncompromising portrait of teenagers brutalised by the Depression, hopping freight trains only to find yet more privation and suffering, it anticipates Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (and was used itself in an award-winning ‘90s documentary about Depression-era itineracy, Riding the Rails) in its portrayal of desperate people forced to wander aimlessly away from their homes and happiness in search of a living, and takes precisely no prisoners. In one scene, Frankie Darro and his mates engage in a pitched battle with police at a Hooverville. In another, they beat an attempted rapist to death, with the movie’s apparent blessing.
At the film's climax, they meet a sympathetic judge (Robert Barrat), who – just when the teenagers fear they will be jailed for miscreancy – instead advocates leniency and, pointing to the logo of a blue eagle on his wall, says: “Things are going to be better now... all over the country.” That eagle was the logo of Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, and the symbol of the New Deal.
Coming up in Part 2: FDR-on-film, fake news and philosophy.
Thanks for reading. I wrote about cinematic presentations of Abraham Lincoln here, incidentally. You'll find it a little narrower in focus and a bit more silly, but only a bit.