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NYC's Film Forum showcases movies of the Great Depression

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February 1, 2009


*In Hard Times, the Hoi Polloi Stay in the Picture*



MOVIE stars are supposed to be people who stand out from the crowd, and that is harder in some times than in others. In the Great Depression there was an awful lot of crowd to stand out from. ?Breadlines & Champagne,? a monthlong, 50-film series of movies from that era, at Film Forum in Manhattan, is lousy with stars: Mae West, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Ginger Rogers and two guys named Tracy (Spencer and Lee) are among the luminaries on display, and you can see the sweat on all of them. As this series, which starts Friday, demonstrates, they ? like everyone else who was lucky enough to be employed in those grim years ? had to work pretty hard to make an impression.


Unhappy times are here again, but in the movies of the 21st century the crowds are often computer generated. What strikes you as you watch the romantic comedies, gangster melodramas and earnest social-protest pictures of the ?30s is just how many real, live people the filmmakers packed into the frame. Even the musical numbers seem dangerously overpopulated. (The musicals here, ?Footlight Parade,? ?Gold Diggers of 1933? and ?42nd Street,? were all choreographed by wacky, grandiose Busby Berkeley, who put so many dancers onstage that they had to be photographed from vertiginous heights, approximating the perspective of God looking down on the multitude of his creation.) Movie after movie in ?Breadlines & Champagne? features scenes in which great masses of human beings converge in one too-small place and, more often than not, get a bit hysterical.


In Frank Capra?s fascinating, rarely seen and aptly titled ?American Madness? (1932), for instance, a rumor about the dubious solvency of a bank causes a panic and then something like a stampede, as hundreds of depositors rush to withdraw their money, all at more or less the same time. Although the sequence is remarkable on its own terms, in the context of this series it seems like, well, business as usual.


You start to anticipate the mob scenes, and few of these pictures disappoint. William A. Wellman?s beautifully shot ?Wild Boys of the Road? (1933) has a terrific battle between railroad policemen and a veritable army of teenage hoboes. Ernest Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper?s ?King Kong? (1933), of course, has thousands of awestruck New Yorkers snarling traffic and screaming at the big ape. And the plot of practically every one of the several screwball comedies ? Roy Del Ruth?s ?Blessed Event? (1932) and Victor Fleming?s ?Bombshell? (1933), both starring motor-mouthed Lee Tracy, are two of the livelier ones ? turns on some tabloid scandal that gets the whole town talking. Or rather, shouting. The Depression was not, it appears, a time when people were timid about giving voice to their opinions.


Maybe the most satisfying and certainly the funniest of these crazed-mob sequences occurs about halfway through Mitchell Leisen?s speedy, head-splittingly complicated ?Easy Living? (1937), written by Preston Sturges. A fight in an Automat accidentally results in all the tiny coin-operated windows popping open at once, and the patrons, who had looked so quiet and dignified moments before, go into a literal feeding frenzy. One civic-minded customer thoughtfully ventures out into the street and announces, ?Free food!? The passers-by don?t need to be told twice.


Watching the rowdy, eventful, insanely populous movies of the ?30s, you can?t help marveling at what a strong presence the public is in every one of them: it?s as if private life hadn?t been invented yet. As tough as the times are, nobody has the leisure or, especially, the space to brood. Even when people aren?t thronging the streets in a collective frenzy, they live (the non-swells, anyway) in disturbingly close proximity to one other, in stifling tenements, as in William Wyler?s 1937 ?Dead End.? And several of these movies place their characters in closer quarters still, in the shantytowns of ?Wild Boys of the Road? and Gregory La Cava?s ?My Man Godfrey? (1936) and, most evocatively, Frank Borzage?s lovely drifter?s romance ?Man?s Castle? (1933). The people of the Depression era, anxious, industrious and (sometimes) hopeful, seem unable to get away from one another no matter how hard they try.


And except for the gangsters and some of the more obnoxious rich, most of them don?t really try very hard. There is, if not safety, at least some comfort in numbers, in the knowledge that there are millions of folks huddled together in the same leaky boat ? all reading the same newspapers, gazing up at the same movies, dreaming about the same stars. The beauty of the Film Forum series, in a way, is that alongside the established classics like ?King Kong? and Capra?s ?It Happened One Night? (1934) and Howard Hawks?s blistering ?Scarface? (1932) there are so many profoundly ordinary movies: terse, unpretentious little melodramas and cuckoo farces that manage to say their piece in 75 minutes or so and then shuffle off the stage before they get the hook. (The running times are brief enough to allow several triple bills.)


The silver screen of ?30s Hollywood wasn?t wide: it was squarish and cluttered, and even the stars had to fight for their share of the available space. ?Breadlines & Champagne? shows how the good ones succeeded in clearing some breathing room for their outsize personalities, but it also shows how limited that room usually was. There were crowds of people in there with them, or just out of sight and waiting for their opportunity to bust in. It was a tight frame, and we were all in it together.

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Some of us who are NYC-based have been discussing getting together for a couple of the screenings (personally, I might as well move INTO Film Forum for the next month). If anyone is interested in joining us for a screening, let me know. I'm going over the schedule tonight to decide what I plan to see, then emailing the couple of people who I've talked to.

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Ooooooookay, I just made my Film Forum list and it looks like I am going to try and see 31 movies there in the next month (there are several double and triple features). The early 30's (along with the mid-40's) are my favorite periods in film, and I just can't pass up the chance to see Jean Harlow or Joan Blondell on the big screen, some in brand-new prints. And Busby Berkeley choreography on the big screen can't be beat!


I'm sure something will cause me to miss a screening here and there, and there are a couple of double features where I'm really only interested strongly in one of the films, but I'll get to most of 'em.


I'm PMing my list to the NYCers who I've talked to already, again, it would be fun to meet others from the boards (a couple of us get together occasionally). Shockingly, my non-TCM friends are not terrifically interested in seeing 31 movies that are 70+ years old, hehe.

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I sure would love to go to Film Forum again to see some of the movies they'll be showing. Unfortunately I can't due to the short notice as I live in another state. But I did get to go twice in the last three years for a few of their festivals and it was awesome. I went for their respectives on "Paramount Pre Codes" and "Fox Pre codes" in July 2005 and December 2006 respectively. They showed several rare films. During Paramount's festival there I went primarily to see Clara Bow but also got to see W.C. Fields and Miriam Hopkins. Among the rare gems they showed was "Kick In" Clara's last Paramount film in which it was said during filming she suffered a nervous breakdown. The film was a failure at the time and tanked at the box office. It had not been shown in more than 70 years when it was finally dusted off and restored. The print was of pristine quality and Clara's performance was top rate. More can be read about the film and user's comments in the Internet Movie Database but I will say I wish they would release this film on DVD as it's one of the earliest forms of "film noir" popular in the late 40's. During Fox's Pre Code festival I saw many other rare gems such as "Goldie" with Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy and "Hoopla" Clara's last film. Twentieth Century Fox rarely if ever shows any of it's Fox films so this festival was especially appealing.

What I also loved about these festivals were the people. It was so exciting to be talking with other old film lovers as myself. I don't have anyone here in my city who enjoys these films as much as I do so it was a treat to discuss many aspects of the films and their stars with other old movie lovers. I was also very impressed by the diverse group of people there. There were people of all ages; from college students to golden agers and everything in between. It was very heartwarming to see that these films appeal to such a wide age range, not just to older adults.

If anyone has a chance to go and see these films on the big screen I would sure encourage them to attend. Not only will they enjoy these films but they'll also enjoy the company of other old movie lovers.

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