Hollywood has the reputation of producing fantasy films during this period to take us away from our troubles, but really there were just as many hard-hitting and bravely realistic films that unflinchingly examined the perils of everyday life among a population with 25% unemployment.
“It is what it is” is a saying common today, and this is the attitude adopted by the characters in this movie with the foreboding title. They see things the way they are and they scramble to survive. It was the worst year of the Great Depression, but the presidential campaigns of Herbert Hoover versus Franklin D. Roosevelt get no play in this story, nor any mention of “someday this will all be over”. Nobody’s waiting for someday; we’re just waiting out today, and yet this is not a movie of weary acceptance, but of vigor, humor, and if there is little optimism, there is at least a belligerent refusal to succumb.
Pat O’Brien plays a bank clerk in a large New York City bank. He opens the vault in the morning in a long sequence, a process of many steps, while fellow tellers wait to enter and remove rolling steel cases with all the money in it. Director Frank Capra uses this imagery masterfully. They laconically talk of $25,000 transactions for the bank, but when O’Brien asks a fellow teller if he can borrow ten bucks, he is told, “Sorry, pal, didn’t you ever hear of a Depression?”
The scene is both an ironic image of water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink—which must have driven poor audiences crazy, and also sets up the plot of the story. The bank will be robbed, and Pat O’Brien will be the prime suspect.
Sterling Holloway, with that slow and sticky as honey Winnie the Pooh voice and the impossible mop of hair as his trademark is another teller. He self-importantly milks his story, being the one who discovered the vault had been broken into and a guard killed. Black humor is the order of the day. Later Holloway tells O’Brien, “I’ll be seeing you in the breadlines.”
Photo from Stars of the Photoplay, 1930
But this is no gangster movie; it’s a message film, as so many movies during the Depression and distinctly about the Depression were message films. Walter Huston is the bank president, who built this business from nothing. Though he has a board of directors, it’s his bank. He picks and chooses his deals, he loans to people he trusts rather than who have a good credit rating. He is no airy optimist who sees only good in people; he can spot a no-good person in a minute. He is stubbornly independent, and this makes his board crazy. They are trying to take power from him and merge with another bank.
“Talk is you’re too liberal,” his chief antagonist accuses him in an angry moment.
“Yes, and I’m going to going to continue to be liberal.” he answers. When he rolls off a list of names of small businessmen he’s made loans to—to the chagrin of the board of officers—it reads like a who’s who of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”: Manny Goldberg, Tony Rosario, Joseph McDonald, Alan Jones. The script writer is pointedly including an ethnic smorgasbord as a demonstration of Walter Huston’s lack of bigotry as much as his fiscal liberality.
“Character. It’s the only thing you can bank on, and it’s the only thing that’ll take this country out of the doldrums,” he says.
Sometimes in movies of this period, the big businessman is portrayed as a bad guy, and sometimes as a pie-in-the-sky dreamer of well-intentioned but almost moronic innocence. Huston is neither. He’s a savvy banker, and a great guy who treats his employees like pals, and even rescued Pat O’Brien from his life as an ex-con, trusting him with handling the bank’s money in his teller’s job—but Huston is not a man without fault. He is impatient, brusque with those who oppose his solitary command, and so intently focused on his business that he neglects his adored wife. This will lead to trouble.
Interestingly, pretty nearly all the action in this movie takes place in the bank. It is a marble temple of columns and mahogany, where a large staff, from male tellers in suits to the secretaries, receptionists and telephone operator, and uniformed guards, are on the payroll and serving the public with polished shoes and brave smiles. Not an ATM in site. It’s gloriously opulent in architecture, décor, and human service in a way banks now are not. It lends confidence as much as money.
The head cashier, played by Gavin Gordon, is involved with gangsters, to whom he owes $50,000 from gambling losses. To square things with them, he agrees to fiddle with the timed lock on the vault so they can sneak in, in the middle of the night, and rob the bank. To plan his own alibi, he cozies up to Walter Huston’s neglected wife, played by Kay Johnson, takes her out for the evening, and brings her back to his apartment. She is more interested in a fun evening with someone to talk to, not an affair, and when he gets too amorous, she is embarrassed and backs away. At that moment, Pat O’Brien interferes. He suspects their relationship and wants to protect the boss who gave him a second chance.
Photo by Ruth Harriet Louise from Stars of the Photoplay, 1930
There is a tense scene of confrontation, and a gun drawn, but both O’Brien and the wife leave, neither realizing the bank is about to be robbed in five minutes. O’Brien, by virtue of his criminal past, will be accused of orchestrating the job and he will not confess to the cops where he was when the job went down—getting his boss’s wife away from a dalliance in other man’s apartment.
A dual plot of the bank’s solvency runs along with the news of the theft the next morning, and a scene that steamrolls through the rest of the movie concerns the public’s trust of the bank. A few come to make transactions, and when they notice the cops doing their investigation, rumors spread of the bank’s insolvency. More and more people spread the gossip on the phone and in whispered, then screamed conversations on the street. A full-blown panic occurs, and a mob of customers floods the great marble lobby of the bank, a sea of bobbing heads and urgent, angry shouting. Lots of extras got work that day. It’s an exciting, fast-paced sequence of events. Capra doesn’t just film the mob as an inhuman mass—he picks out the individuals and never fails to show us inside the soul of the common man.
An elderly woman begs for her money, fearful of going to “the old ladies’ home.” No social safety nets (this is before FDR). She’d be lucky to get into an old ladies’ home. The only other alternative was a Hooverville in a park or under a highway bridge.
Mob mentality is ugly and stupid, and frightening. The bank’s board of directors, though understandably horrified, nevertheless are pleased to use this as an opportunity to pry Huston from his seat of power. They wait for him to fail, so they can sell their shares of the bank and complete the merger.
Pat O’Brien endeavors to rescue his boss. He shouts two conversations at once into two candlestick telephones to alert the small-time businessmen who have loans with the bank to come and help. He and his girlfriend, played by Constance Cummings, who also works at the bank, man the phones like election campaign workers.
Finally, the cavalry comes in the form of the aforementioned small businessmen: Manny Goldberg, Tony Rosario, Joseph McDonald, and Alan Jones, and all their like who got their loans from Walter Huston. It’s a It’s a Wonderful Life ending with the men pushing their way through the chaos and announcing in defiant voices that they are depositing thousands of dollars, that they will put their faith in Huston.
The panic is over. The board of directors have a change of heart, as armored cars arrive and guards carry in sacks of money. People cheer as at a football game, and leave in relief.
But Huston’s troubles are not over. Though Pat O’Brien stubbornly will not tell the cops he has an alibi for the time of the robbery—because it would implicate the boss’s wife and shame his benefactor—nevertheless the cops put two and two together and go after head teller Gavin Gordon. There is a chase in the bank, through employees’ lockers in the cloakroom. Gordon has a gun.
But the news about Huston’s wife gets out, and Huston is devastated, on the brink of suicide. His wife attempts to console him.
Pat O’Brien is exonerated. The panic is over, but, just as in the days after the stock market crash of 1929, the time has come to settle in, calm down, and figure out what to do next.
The ending is less exuberant than we might expect ordinarily, but it is more comforting. Pat O’Brien keeps his job, he and his girl will marry, and Huston has patched things up with his wife. He is not going to neglect her anymore, but will start on a second honeymoon and travel to Europe on the great liner, the Berengaria.
A footnote that the movie does not refer to, but that we may note here, is that the R.M.S. Berengaria, as we noted in this previous post, sailed from London to New York that very week of the great stock market crash in October 1929. It was the first ship to have a special salon for trading stocks over the shortwave radio. Millionaires passed the time during the sea voyage keeping up with the news of their investments.
They left England millionaires, at least. They docked in New York, paupers.
Huston’s bank evidently weathered the Crash. The movie ends with another long, ponderous sequence of Pat O’Brien carefully opening up the vault for another business day. Shoulder to the wheel, literally.
Tomorrow, Turner Classic Movies is presenting a day of Debbie Reynolds films to commemorate her passing and celebrate her movie career. One of those films will be Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Come back next week for a discussion on the recent big screen showing nationwide of Singin’ in the Rain.
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.
Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.