Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), released during the worst period of the Great Depression, is, paradoxically, joyful and fearless. It is not, however, a sample of those fantasy type films so prevalent during the Depression meant to lift the nation’s spirits and take away our troubles; on the contrary, it mocks and accuses and deals with the sin and hypocrisy of wealth disparity with a sly grin and a sneer.
This is our entry in The Fabulous Films of the ‘30s blogathon sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA).
The movie is rife with risk taking in terms of story and camera technique, and is so avant garde a piece today’s viewers will ultimately scratch their heads in wonder. But it is not a movie to disparage, idolize, or even analyze. It defies close examination by virtue of its freewheeling and utterly unconcerned posture with what we think.
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! stars Al Jolson, and here is about the only area where the film does not take a risk. He was a top star of vaudeville, records, radio, and movies back in the day, and if we find his eye-rolling, blackface shtick ridiculous or offensive, we must still credit the man with enormous success and fame. But here, there’s none of his usual manic overacting, no blackface, no shtick. He is a likeable leading man, and even a romantic hero—who spurns our admiration with mocking even as he earns it.
Frank Morgan, who made a career of elderly scamps plays—who’d have thought it—a leading man and handsome lover with a mistress whom he drives to a suicide attempt with his paranoid accusations of her unfaithfulness.
This is also a buddy picture, and Jolson’s best pal is Edgar Connor, a diminutive fellow ex-vaudevillian, and rare example of a black man being best pals with a white man.
Harry Langdon, silent screen comic destroys his former innocent baby-like persona and becomes a disgruntled, disgusted, and loudmouthed communist.
Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart wrote the tunes, and more. On several occasions in this movie, the dialogue is spoken in a burst of rhyming couplets.
If these oddities weren’t enough, there is the delightfully flippant manner in which the movie deals with the crisis at hand: the Great Depression.
The bums, or hoboes, who occupy Central Park in New York are a mob of unrepentant shirkers standing on the edge of society and refusing to join the rat race. They like their indolence, and some are outright thieves. Harry Langdon rebukes them for their laziness and says everyone should work, but hates the prevailing capitalist society that brands them as failures even more. He calls a troop of mounted policemen converging on them “Hoover’s Cossacks.” He hates everybody, but works diligently as a street cleaner, picking up trash, like Sisyphus rolling back the stone.
Society gets its knocks in this film. Another scene shows the laying of a cornerstone at a new public school, and the pompous officials being ragged by the blasé construction workers perched on girders.
An assembly of schoolchildren close the ceremony with “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and as they sing, the camera, strobe-like, flashes on their faces in close-up on each face to the beat of each phrase of the song. These are not prettied up Hollywood moppets; they’re regular scruffy kids with suspicious expressions at the unfamiliar camera right in their faces. It’s a fascinating and even disorienting look into our future—which our children represent. Where is this society taking us? Where are we taking these kids? And it’s funny. There is no point made in this film, however serious and thoughtful, that is not also funny.
We get a tracking shot of business being done in the interior of a bank. At the beginning, two wheeler-dealer types are discussing a transaction of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then the camera moves us along and two others speak of less money, hundreds. Deals are made and agreed upon. Money changes hands freely. By the time we get to the end of the shot, a poor schmuck is standing at a teller window and asking to cash a check for $5. The teller shakes his head. They don’t cash checks for that small amount.
Incidentally, both Rogers and Hart get cameos in this movie. They’re in a scene with Frank Morgan, who kisses babies like a good politician, and they’re in the bank.
Frank Moran is the mayor of New York, a rakish, somewhat corrupt official, but charming as heck, whose good friend is Al Jolson, the “mayor” of Central Park. Their paths will crisscross throughout the movie.
Mr. Morgan’s lady friend, played by Madge Evans, attempts suicide by jumping off a bridge, but Al Jolson saves her. She has suffered amnesia, and with no ID on her (her missing wallet becomes an intricate part of the plot), Jolson has no idea where she belongs. She is helpless, and he becomes a romantic hero by finding her a room to stay in, and by (gulp!) taking a job to support her.
It’s all very childlike, how he brings her trinkets and takes her to the merry-go-round. She is an innocent, transformed from the hardened mistress of a politico, and quite charming as she beams over Jolson’s attentiveness to her. She begs him not to leave her alone, because she is frightened. In a very warm, romantic scene, they watch from her window a dancehall across the street. We see the neon sign in a blur, and the figures of dancers in the lighted windows, and hear the music, the lovely tune, “You Are Too Beautiful.” Jolson takes her in his arms and dances with her, and sings the lyric. She melts into his embrace, her face truly beatific in her happiness.
Morgan, meanwhile, is distraught that she has gone missing, and begs Jolson to help him find her. Jolson discovers, heart breaking, that his girl and Morgan’s are the same. Nobly, he takes Morgan to her, and the shock of seeing him snaps her out of her amnesia. At once, Jolson is a stranger to her, and she begs Morgan not to leave her, with the same words she pleaded with Jolson.
Al Jolson stands, framed by the window, watching his happiness slip through is fingers, and we see the neon sign from the dancehall across the street clearly, mockingly: “LOVELAND.”
He smiles only a very little, with self-deprecating resignation, and with something else—a wish for this woman to be happy. His moment of stillness, for this usually frenetic performer, is a beautiful and most moving piece of acting.
Our troubles are not forgotten in this movie, let alone solved, but we share the burdens of others and somehow that lightens the load for us. But we have to be tough. You never know when life is going to kick you in the teeth while you’re waiting for that bowl of cherries.
At the end of this bitter decade, Clark Gable famously shocked the nation by saying he didn’t “give a damn” in Gone with the Wind. Here, much earlier, those worst hit by hard times say it in spades.
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! is on DVD, and occasionally shown on TCM.
Have a look at the other great entries in The Fabulous Films of the ‘30s blogathon.
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I'll be sending out advance copies of my Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. tomorrow, and will email them in PDF form (which you can read on your computer) to any blogger who wants to review the book in June. Please email me at: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com
....so I can email you the book.