From DENNIS HARTLEY
I’ve sure been hearing the “D” word an awful lot lately. They say that in times of severe economic downturn, people crave pure escapism at the movies. I say, screw that. I wanna revel in economic downturn, ‘cos there’s something else “they” say as well: Misery loves company. So, with that in mind, and in the spirit of a little cinematic aversion therapy, here’s my Top 10 Great Depression Movies. Study them well, because there’s yet one more thing that “they say”: Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.
Berlin Alexanderplatz– When you think of the Great Depression in terms of film and literature, it tends to vibe America-centric in the mind’s eye. In reality, the economic downturn between the great wars was a global phenomenon (not unlike our current situation); things were literally “tough all over”. You could say that Germany had a jumpstart on the depression (economically speaking, everything below the waist was kaput by the mid 1920s). In October of 1929 (interesting historical timing), Alfred Doblin’s epic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story Of Franz Biberkopf was published, then adapted into a film in 1931 directed by Phil Jutzi. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that the ultimate film version would appear as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 hour opus. It’s nearly impossible to encapsulate this spiritually exhausting viewing experience in just a few lines; I’ll just say that it is (by turns) the most outrageous, shocking, transcendent, boring, awe-inspiring, maddening and soul-scorching film I’ve ever hated myself for loving so much.
Bonnie and Clyde– The gangster movie meets the art film in this 1967 groundbreaker from director Arthur Penn. There is much more to this influential masterpiece than just the oft-mentioned operatic crescendo of violent death in the closing frames; particularly of note was the ingenious way that its attractive antiheroes were posited to directly appeal to the rebellious counterculture zeitgeist of the time, even though the film was ostensibly a “nostalgia piece”. Our better instincts may tell us that the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were nowhere near as charismatic (or physically beautiful) as Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, but we don’t really care, do we? (Is it getting warm in here? Woof!)
Bound for Glory-There’s only one man to whom Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen must bow before-and that’s Woody Guthrie. You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of America’s premier protest songwriter/social activist. David Carradine gives one of his finest performances, and does a very credible job with his own singing and playing. Haskell Wexler’s outstanding cinematography earned him a well-deserved Oscar. The film may feel a bit overlong and slow in spots if you aren’t particularly fascinated by Guthrie’s story; but I think it is just as much about the Depression itself, and perhaps more than any other film on my list, it succeeds as a “total immersion” by transporting the viewer back to the era.
The Grapes of Wrath– I’m stymied for any hitherto unspoken superlatives to ladle onto John Ford’s masterful film or John Steinbeck’s classic source novel, so I won’t pretend to have any. Suffice it to say, this probably comes closest to nabbing the title as THE quintessential film about the heartbreak and struggle of America’s “salt of the earth” during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take (real or imagined) comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get over the next few months (years?), Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “be there…all around, in the dark.”
Inserts– This 1976 sleeper from director John Byrum has been dismissed as pretentious dreck by some; it remains a cult item for others. If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once all co-starred in an “X” rated film, would you believe me? Dreyfuss plays a has-been Hollywood directing prodigy known as “Wonder Boy”, whose career has peaked early; he now lives in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets in pornos that he shoots in his crumbling mansion. Bob Hoskins is memorable as the sleazy “producer”, who is also looking for investors for his scheme-an idea to open a chain of hamburger joints (his nickname is “Big Mac”). The story takes place in 30s Hollywood, and as a wallow in the squalid side of show biz, it would make a great double bill with The Day of the Locust.
King of the Hill– Steven Soderbergh’s exquisitely photographed film (somewhat reminiscent of Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon) is a bittersweet rendering of A.E. Hotchner’s Depression-era tale about young Aaron (Jesse Bradford) who lives with his parents and kid brother in a decrepit hotel. After his sickly mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is sent away for convalescence, his kid brother is packed off to stay with relatives, and his father (Jeroen Krabbe) hits the road as a travelling salesman, leaving Aaron to fend for himself. The Grand Hotel-style framing device (offering glimpses of the mini-dramas unfolding in each room, here suffused through a child’s innocent perceptions) gives you an effective microcosm of the day-to-day struggles of those who live through such times. The film is full of wonderful little moments of keen insight into the human condition. The great ensemble includes Karen Allen, Adrian Brody, Elizabeth McGovern and Spaulding Gray.
Pennies from Heaven (Original BBC version)-I’ve always preferred the original 1978 British television version of this production to the Americanized theatrical version that was released several years afterwards. Written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), it is rife with the usual Potter obsessions: sexual frustration, marital infidelity, religious guilt, shattered dreams and quiet desperation…broken up by the occasional, completely incongruous song and dance number (I really would not want to be in his head, ever). Bob Hoskins is outstanding as a married traveling sheet music salesman in Depression-era England whose life takes some, erm, interesting Potter-esque turns once he becomes smitten by a young rural schoolteacher (Cheryl Campbell) who lives with her widowed father and two extremely creepy brothers. Probably best described as a film noir musical?
Sullivan’s Travels-A unique and amazingly deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and hard-hitting social drama that probably would not have worked so beautifully had not the great Preston Sturges been at the helm. Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he decides to hit the road with no money in his pocket and “embed” himself as a railroad tramp (much to the chagrin of his handlers). He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into much more than he had originally bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. Years later, the Coen Brothers smugly co-opted the title of the fictional “film within the film” here: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – “Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa!” This richly decadent allegory about the human condition has to be one of the grimmest and most cynical films ever made. Director Sydney Pollack assembled a crack ensemble for this depiction of a Depression-era dance marathon from Hell: Jane Fonda, Gig Young (who snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Susannah York, Bruce Dern and Red Buttons are all outstanding; Pollack even coaxed the wooden Michael Sarrazin (the Hayden Christensen of his day) into showing some real emotion. Adapted from Horace McCoy’s novel.
Thieves Like Us-This loose remake of Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film noir classic They Live By Night is the late Robert Altman’s most underrated film, IMHO. It is often compared to Bonnie and Clyde, but stylistically speaking, the two films could not be farther apart. Altman’s tale of bank-robbing lovers on the lam (Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall) is far less flashy and stylized, but ultimately more affecting thanks to a consistently naturalistic, elegiac tone throughout. Carradine and Duvall really breathe life into their doomed couple; every moment of intimacy between them (not just sexual) feels warm, touching, and genuine-which gives the film some real heart. Altman adapted the screenplay (with co-writers Joan Tewkesbury and Calder Willingham) from the same source novel (by Edward Anderson) that inspired Ray’s earlier film. Ripe for rediscovery.