Thursday, September 13, 2018

Our Daily Bread (1934)

Our Daily Bread (1934) exemplifies three remarkable aspects of many Depression-era movies:  First, that they fearlessly cover current events, defiant of reprisal for being seen as taking social or political sides; second, in showing the audience the dismal world they already knew too well while trying to entertain them; and third, that there is great optimism despite the challenges the characters face in their grim realities. It is both this unflinching realism and this hearty optimism that Depression audiences related to, appreciated for not being talked down to, and from which they took courage.

The opening credits with the legend “Inspired by Headlines of Today” pre-dates the WPA Federal Theater “living newspaper” series of plays, and touts with unfailing promotion President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act—we see the NRA “we do our part,” with the "blue eagle" emblem in the corner. This logo appeared on many films of 1934, and Americans certainly saw it on placards in store windows and in hometown parades where marchers formed the shape of the blue eagle. The National Recovery Administration was one of FDR’s first “alphabet soup” New Deal programs that tried to establish codes of fair business and labor practices, meant to help workers by setting minimum wages and maximum weekly hours as well as minimum prices for products. All the fanfare of its introduction gave a boost to FDR’s New Deal, and conversely, the following year in 1935, when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared that the NRA was unconstitutional, brought conservative vilification of FDR as being dictatorial. (However, though the NRA was brought to a halt, a lot of its components found their way into the National Labor Relations Act/Wagner Act, which gave strength to unions.) 

The workers were largely for the NRA and many small businesses supported it, though a lot of businesses were not in favor the regulations involved. Indeed, many of those businesses displayed the NRA blue eagle in their window to avoid being boycotted. Not a lot of people had a lot of dollars in the Depression, and so the dollar became political, and the workers used whatever leverage it gave them whenever they could.

So what is socialism and what is democracy and when is it called dictatorial powers?  It all comes together, maybe inadvertently, in Our Daily Bread and probably sets up what has been an argument since the movie came out as to whether it is a left-wing film. The director, King Vidor, was a conservative and his viewpoint for this story about homeless unemployed people getting together on a farm and feeding themselves was a way to show that people didn’t need, and perhaps should not rely on, the government for help.

Just as we mentioned in Gentlemen Are Born (1934), our intro to this series on Depression films, in our reference to the earlier 1920s series how many of the 1920s influences led to, even as they contrasted, the Depression, King Vidor actually saw this movie as a sequel to his wonderful silent film The Crowd (1928) which we discussed in this previous post. The two main characters, John and Mary Sims, who we saw struggling to keep up with the fast pace of life in the 1920s are now down and out in the 1930s with new problems. It’s an interesting concept. Too bad he didn’t revisit John and Mary in the 1940s and 1950s as well, aging and showing us what life was like for common folk throughout the course of the twentieth century.

Unfortunately, James Murray, who played John Sims in The Crowd, did not accept the assignment King Vidor offered in this time. Murray was battling alcoholism and did not sign on for the film, and would die tragically in 1936.

Playing John and Mary this time around are Tom Keene and Karen Morley. Tom Keene is handsome and energetic, but he lacks the depth of James Murray, who was a superb, natural actor. Karen Morley is more successful, particularly in a couple of scenes where they first see the crops and she marvels with wonder at the young shoots, a vast field of tiny fingers of life and the promise not only of a crop, but of survival. There is something miraculous, to be sure, about watching plants grow and it strikes this city couple especially powerfully.

Another scene where Karen Morley stands out is her suspicion over her husband’s infidelity. Karen Morley appeared in several films in minor roles in the 1930s and ‘40s, but unfortunately, her film career ended in 1947 with the communist witch hunt and when being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee she refused to answer their questions. She was blacklisted. Interestingly, in 1954 she ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of New York as a member of the American Labor Party. She would appear in plays and on television in later decades.

The film begins with Tom Keene and Karen Morley dodging the rent collector in their apartment building. It brings to mind the line in the song “We’re in the Money” that goes “…and when we see the landlord we can look that guy right in the eye.” 

Not today, though. They avoid him like the plague. Keene has been out looking for work all day and he replies to his wife, “Same old story—one hundred guys and one job.”  He doesn't seem too upset about it, tough.  He's almost amused.  He hocks their possessions to buy food. This evening he takes a ukulele and brings it to the butcher and trades it for pretty scrawny chicken. An obliging butcher, to be sure. One is struck by the happy-go-lucky attitude of Tom Keene’s innocent John Sims.

Karen Morley’s uncle shows up for dinner and they want to impress him. Just as in The Crowd, the character of John Sims has a reputation of being a bit flighty and not being able to stick with things, and Uncle looks down on him. They ask him for help. Uncle is played by Lloyd Ingraham, and he actually provides a way out for them. He owns some property, a rundown farm that is currently vacant, and the bank is scheduled to take it over shortly. He allows them to go to the farm and run it as best they can until the bank takes over. At least it will be a roof over their heads and they won’t have to worry about the landlord throwing them out this summer. They take up the offer with enthusiasm, and like babes in the woods, the city slickers head for the country.

The farm is, indeed, pretty run down, and neither of them really knows how to survive in this environment, but luck is with them. A poor Swedish farmer, who lost his farm to the bank in Minnesota, is puttering down the road with his family intending to head west to California. But he’s run out of gas. The kindly Swede is played by dear, sweet John Qualen, whom we know from a hundred roles of playing pretty much the same character. Probably the most powerful and most poignant version of this gentle man reached its most heartbreaking impression in his marvelous scene in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) as the farmer who stoops and scoops up a hand of dry earth that the bank is going to take over and he tearfully vents his bitterness.

No bitterness here, John Qualen is full of acceptance of his fate, jokes, and is more than willing to help out the struggling young couple if they allow him to park his broken-down truck on their farm and share the work.

The idea of people taking over an abandoned farm, even city folk, is not something that was made up for this movie; it was something fairly common in those days. One example, done on perhaps a bit larger scale, this occurred in central Massachusetts during the Great Depression. There were four towns called Prescott, Greenwich, Enfield, and Dana, and the Commonwealth was taking over all of them by eminent domain to build a very large reservoir in their place.  The towns were clustered in a spot called the Swift River Valley.  Over a period of nearly twenty years, farms and businesses and properties were slowly bought, people were evicted, and construction began culminating in one of the largest public works projects and the largest man-made reservoir at the time. During the thirties, the state allowed people to rent one of the farms which the state had purchased from the original owners, and rather than leave the land vacant until they were ready to bulldoze the property, they allowed people to rent the farm for five dollars a month.

These renters knew their tenancy would be temporary and there was no question of their ever settling down here permanently, with the construction of the reservoir going on in the Valley, but five dollars a month was an amazingly low price for place to live. If one was able to grow some crops, even a small kitchen garden for their own use, that was truly something to be grateful and it bought them some time. You can read more about how this happened, in my novel Beside the Still Waters which is about how the people who lived in the four towns in the Swift River Valley experienced the destruction of their communities and how the last generation of kids grew up there. (The book, print and eBook, is available at Amazon, and the eBook is also available at Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.)

John Qualen shows Tom Keene how to plow and plant and they come up with the idea of living in a sort of co-operative community “where money isn’t so important.” It is this suggestion of a commune and the lack of the importance of money that perhaps branded this movie as carrying a socialist message.

Tom Keene puts up a line of signs on the highway kind of like Burma-Shave advertisements inviting men to join the co-op, specifically men with trades to help. Many stop at the farm and we see that people from all walks of life are encountering desperate times. One gentleman has no trade; he is a first violinist and he begs to stay. Though he isn’t going to be much help for farm work, Tom Keene takes pity on him and lets him stay. Later on, we see he is giving violin lessons to the children of the farmers, thereby earning his keep.

One rough, angry fellow insists he’s going to drive the tractor and that’s all. He doesn’t say much but he shoots a daggers at people with a glare that warns everybody to stand back. He is Louie, played by Addison Richards (who ended up doing a lot of TV in the 1950s). Later in the story, we will find out that he is a criminal on the run from the police.

An undertaker is allowed to stay even though they do not particularly want his services, but he ends up providing them anyway and his introduction is a moment of black humor.

They pool their resources, whatever money and any supplies they have. They talk about how they want to run their co-op. They exchange ideas about that, voting down both a democratic government and a socialist one; instead they appoint Tom Keene as their boss. He will be the sole arbiter of their community.

Is their salvation to be found in dictatorship? For some people and some countries, that was certainly their choice.

The relief of having a place to stay and work to do is wonderful, and these downtrodden men and their families come to life with new vigor. They build small shanties all over the property where they will live. Nobody calls it a Hooverville, but that’s what it is. There are carpenters and cobblers and tailors among them, but enough mechanics and farmers so that there is some chance of success in their agricultural endeavor.

The shanties they build, though they are makeshift (one guy has a car door for his front door. We see him rolling down the window in one comic scene) reminds me of the so-called tiny houses that one hears about in the news these days.

Director King Vidor reiterates his conservative declaration of this not being a socialist or, perish the thought, a communist endeavor not only by having one person in charge but also by having one fellow lead the others in a mass prayer, thanking the Lord for their deliverance. “There’s nothing for people to worry about, not while they’ve got the earth. It’s like a mother.”

Even the title, Our Daily Bread, is obviously a line from The Lord’s Prayer.

And to prove they are at least somewhat egalitarian, a Jewish tailor, whose name is Cohen, shows us that he feels right at home among these apparently nondenominational Christians.  His wife, played by Nellie V. Nichols with her heavy Brooklyn "Molly Goldberg" accent, gives birth to a baby. We see no African-Americans or other non-whites in their midst, the people who were really most downtrodden and received the least federal aid during the Depression, but we must assume that Director Vidor was indeed sticking his neck out making this movie even without them. The studios rejected it and he produced it himself with his own money.

Trouble is afoot, however. It’s time for the bank to foreclose and there is a sheriff’s sale of the farm. The fellows get together and bid for the house. The bank hopes to raise over $4,000 but the highest bid is $1.85. The guys will not let anyone bid higher. A lawyer among the fellows (there’s all kinds of trades here) says this is legal and the bank must accept the bid for a $1.85. Chagrined, the bank accepts the bid, and the fellows turn the property over officially to Tom Keene to run on their behalf.

More trouble comes in the form of a loose dame. Wouldn’t you know it? Another city girl named Sally played by Barbara Pepper, passes through with her father, who unfortunately is ill and dies. The undertaker among them goes to work, plying his trade. We are not told where they bury him. By the tomatoes, possibly.

Miss Barbara Pepper is young, all alone, and they take pity on her and she decides that she’s going to stay as well, perhaps open a beauty parlor. I’m not sure how many utopian communes need a beauty parlor but Miss Pepper certainly has moxie. She is also lacking in morals. We see this because she smokes, wears heavy makeup, and she listens to jazz records on a wind-up Victrola. There’s nothing like bluesy bass and the wail of a saxophone to indicate a lack respectability.

Louie, the criminal, sees that she is making eyes for Tom Keene and he tells her to lay off because the boss is married. The criminal has more morals than she does. In what is probably my favorite line of the movie she feigns insult and replies, “My gosh, aren’t you anticipatory.”

More trouble, probably the farmers’ worst trouble in the Great Depression:  Draught. They are running short of food and they may not make it until harvest. Louie does probably the most noble thing of anybody. He brings his wanted poster to John Qualen and asks him to go with him to town to turn him into the cops for the $500 reward so that the commune will have money to buy food.

Qualen refuses. He doesn’t question Louie’s decency, despite the wanted poster, and he’s not a rat.

But Barbara Pepper is. Louie goes to her next and she agrees to go into town to turn him in. The check is written out to Mrs. John Sims, which was very clever of Louie to make sure the check went to Mrs. Sims so that Barbara is not able to cash it. She needs Tom to go with her, and maybe to go away with her.

At first Barbara tries to woo Tom Keene, sticking the check provocatively in her bodice, hoping to run away with him on the money. Though he seems interested in her, he is still at this point more devoted to his wife and even more devoted to the commune. He is thrilled with the money when she finally shows it to him and he buys all the food and supplies they need. In a kind gesture, they suggest that they take a picture of the full storehouse and send it to Louie in prison with their thanks. I bet Louie would’ve liked that.

But the drought gets worse and the crops need water.  The word DROUGHT is scrawled in big, angry letters across the screen.

Tom Keene is buckling under leadership responsibilities. Karen Morley tells him, “Let them think you’re not worried. Let them think you know more than they do.” Apparently, that’s how bosses govern. He wants to run away when trouble comes.

Karen Morley has it out with Barbara Pepper, tells her to leave her husband alone but the floozy replies, “This dump will never amount to anything.”

There’s a very intense scene between the husband and wife, without words. They are eating at their table and he glances at her over the rim of his cup and it is an indecipherable glance. He is thinking about running away with the floozy, mainly because he just wants to run away. His look is not of guilt or sheepishness; it seems that he is on fire with a sense of purpose and determination. We almost see that she is reading his mind but she will not try to stop him. His look of intensity makes it seem as if he is daring her to stop him, waiting for her to say something. She will allow him to make up his own mind and see where it takes him.

He leaves her.

He takes off with the floozy in her jalopy but he keeps seeing Louie like Hamlet’s ghost in his imagination, thinks of Louie’s sacrifice and he starts to feel badly. He is nervous, he stops the car and wants her to drive but when they stop, he hears the sound of a pumping station pumping water.  Apparently, the reservoir in the hills above the farm is filling with water again.

John is excited. He gets an idea and he runs away from the floozy to go back to the farm.

Just as the commune has brought out the humanity in Louie, it saves Tom Keene’s marriage, curiously not because of his devotion to his wife but because of his need to succeed at the farm.

He goes to the men and suggests that they dig a long ditch from the reservoir in the hills down to the fields that will allow the water to flow down and feed the crops. They will have to work day and night to do it and it is all hand work with picks and shovels.

This is the climax of the movie. It is stirring, the scene for which the film is probably most remembered. There is no dialogue; the men gather to carve out a cross-country course from the hills down to the fields. They begin with the picks and behind them are men with shovels and they work together almost like a prison chain gang. It is tough work. We hear the rhythmic thumping of the picks slamming into the hard earth. Behind them, the men with shovels scraping away the loose dirt. Together, they seem like a slow-moving caterpillar eroding the land, crawling down the hill.

Running ahead of them, men clear away rocks and brush and cut down a tree or two. When it’s nighttime, the women come with torches and light the way and the men still work. The men work with a slavish rhythm. This is a scene about manpower and self-sufficiency. We see them lifting rocks. Dragging trees. They construct a simple span over a dry culvert, a crude aqueduct that will allow the water to flow over it. When it threatens to fall apart, they hold it up with their bare hands. At one point, when the streaming water does not take a turn in their course, a man throws himself into the mud and turns the direction of the stream with his body. It is man conquering nature, more brawn than engineering.

The water is let loose and it flows down from the highland to the fields. When the water finally barrels into the dry, thirsty crops, there is a jubilant chorus of voices in song, and the men and women and the children wallow in the mud for joy. The very last scene shows Tom Keene in a clean set of farmer’s overalls, his wife beside him sitting atop a hay wagon, and in the back, a very satisfied, grinning John Qualen.

The film was picked by the Library of Congress as part of the National Film Registry in 2015 for “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.”

Probably the weakest aspect of the film is that the message takes precedent over the story. The characters are really types and not fully fleshed-out people, and so instead of presenting a statement on the condition of man through the simple actions of the characters, the characters are dwarfed by the idea. It’s very difficult to create a "message film" without making it burdened by the message and this is where the movie could have been stronger. It did not do well at the box office, but it remains a very important film from that troubled year of 1934 and tells us so much about what people endured and what they feared and what they hoped their triumph would be. 

Was it socialist or fascist?  Certainly, rugged individualism played a minor role to the greater comfort of belonging to a community that cared. In these scary times, nobody really wanted to go it alone.

Come back next Thursday when younger people, without family or community to help them, leave home and face the Great Depression on their own in Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Wild Girls of the Road (1940).
See part one of this series:

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Gentlemen Are Born - 1934

The next five weeks we're going to be discussing six films of the Great Depression almost a kind of bookend to the series we started earlier in the year about the 1920s and how in different ways that era parallels our times. We see no such parallel with the 1930s, at least not yet, and hopefully, if we do not see the darker aspects of the 1930s, we might still benefit to look back at the remarkable optimism and courage of those times.  That is what stands out in many films from that era. It was not the same kind of propagandist cheerleading that bolstered our morale and sense of purpose during World War II films; it was more down to earth, a smile and a wink from a fellow sufferer that told us we were all in the same boat and that if there weren’t too many lifelines, there was still sympathy to humanize the shared experience.

Though we may have a tendency to look upon classic films of that era as somewhat innocent and naïve, in some respects they were head and shoulders above us for being able to look at life through their times with a sense of humor and a sense of fatalism that was not nihilistic (as it tends to be in our day) but optimistic, that they could be self-deprecating and humorous even in the throes of their problems.

The films we’re going to cover are Gentlemen Are Born (1934), Our Daily Bread (1934), Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Wild Girls of the Road (1940), One Third of a Nation (1939), and Make Way for Tomorrow (1937).

Gentlemen Are Born (1934) follows four recent college graduates and their quest for work and a place in society which is currently in the depths of the Great Depression. The tone of the movie is at turns lighthearted and silly, and grim and horrifying. It is a modern fable from headlines.

The four pals graduate from an all-male college and though they have different ambitions and different personalities they are a team, and we see them lined up first in their caps and gowns on graduation day, reverently singing their alma mater. Franchot Tone aspires to be a journalist. Ross Alexander aspires to be an architect. Robert Light will enter his father's company as an investment broker. Dick Foran, who is the athlete of the bunch, wants to get a job in coaching.

They are told in the commencement speech to “make of yourself what you choose, for our land is still a land of opportunity." It is the worst days of the Depression but there is still room for hope because this is America.

Two of the fellows, Franchot Tone and Ross Alexander, rent an apartment together in New York City for five dollars a month. Jane Darwell, the comical and disapproving landlady, will charge them five dollars together and not apiece "times being what they are."

Of all the fellows, Robert Light has the easiest time getting a job, he just slides right into his wealthy father's investment firm. His father, played by Henry O’Neill, is a serious but likable fellow and he makes a crack that was typical of that era about trouble in finance "It's a sure sign they are heading for the 40-story drop to the pavement." He means it as a joke but this was an era where many in finance did commit suicide, escaping the mountain of debt, either by throwing themselves out the windows of their skyscrapers or in other ways.

Franchot Tone has trouble getting a job, pounds the pavement, but finally one newspaper will allow him to work “on spec,” that is to submit freelance stories for which he will be paid if they like them. Ross Alexander gets a part-time job at an architecture firm filing blueprints and otherwise being an errand boy. It's not a great job, but he thinks he has his foot in the door and he is the most optimistic of the bunch. He is not only happy, he is almost giddy, and that is perhaps because he has his girlfriend Trudy played by Jean Muir, a delightful, dimpled lass who offers to get a job to help him make do, and they have their plans to get married as soon as possible. Most recall Jean Muir’s fame as being the first actress to have her career destroyed by Red Channels and an accusation of being a communist, which she denied. She is fresh-faced and engaging, and when she arrives in the city to be close to her boyfriend, she becomes the roommate of Ann Dvorak, a librarian looking for someone to help pay the rent.

Miss Dvorak gets linked up with Franchot Tone when the couples go out on double dates, but there is no real attraction between them. She chummily accepts but needles Tone into staying out later with her so that Ross and Jean can go back to the apartment the girls share and “play house.”  A charming and diplomatic phrase the writing staff must have chuckled over. 

The foursome pools their meager resources for spaghetti dinners and breakfast gatherings at the girls’ apartment, which has become their headquarters. Their camaraderie sustains them and they seem to want little else at the moment, even if their dreams are big.

Dick Foran, a big, booming, lovable palooka, who will later go on to singing cowboy roles, has the worst time of all the fellows in landing a job. No university or school will hire him for a coaching position. He tries to get day labor work.

Margaret Linsday is Robert Light’s sister, a Park Avenue debutante with very little woes except for what to wear, and is dodging wealthy suitors her mother, played by Marjorie Gateson, picks out for her. Franchot Tone is very interested, but her father warns him that his daughter receives a $200 a month allowance and he earns $20 a month. It doesn’t seem like a match is possible there, but Margaret Lindsay is a free-thinker, so she dates Franchot for a lark.

Dick Foran eventually gets a job getting beat up in the fight ring for $10. Ann Dvorak and Franchot Tone agonize watching him being beat up. They take him back to the girls’ apartment and the gang has another impromptu party and Ann Dvorak and Dick Foran fall for each other. She sews a button on his jacket and cooks pancakes for him and in the Depression, this is what substitutes for wooing with expensive gifts.

Ross Alexander and Jean Muir do get married and have the baby right away (really right away), a simple marriage by a JP in the girls’ apartment. No expensive bridal gown or “destination wedding” for these kids. And yet, they’re happy.  Who’d have thought that could be possible without spending tens of thousands of dollars?

Ann and Dick would like to marry, but he can’t get a steady job and is down on himself. “Twenty-three years old, six-foot three, college education, broke." Finally, he is offered a job driving a truck temporarily for a department store for the Easter holiday rush, but he is demeaned by the helpful advice, “You don't want that kind of a job—you have a college education."

He replies, hat in hand, "Listen, there's a thousand college graduates in the city who would kiss your feet in gratitude for any kind of a job."

Anybody ever been there?  Me, too.

Ann's got job worries of her own, now.  Her stern lady library boss fires her, first in the suspicion that she is living with a man, and second, because she confesses that she is married to the man. You just can’t win. In that era, female librarians and often female teachers were required to resign their jobs if they married. These were the standards of the day; there was much to overcome but this was a time when the parameters could only be stretched so far and one had to be very creative to learn to live within them. Since there was no wedding scene or mention of one, we have to wonder was the scene edited out, or is Ann lying and are she and Dick really living together?  Another neatly inferenced and sidestepped issued. Since the poor guy’s starving, it would be no wonder she’d take him in even if she wasn’t in love with him.

But nobody’s immune from the Great Depression, which is like another character in the story.  Robert Light, who seems to have it easy going right to work for his wealthy father, actually has a horrific problem on his hands. Unknown to him, his father is involved with a bank failure. Almost as if his father’s joke at the beginning of the movie is a premonition, his father deals with the shame of his problems by committing suicide by jumping out of his office window. Someone shouts that he has “pulled a Brodie.” This is a reference to Steve Brodie, who allegedly jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886.  Though Brodie survived, the slang term was applied to those committing suicide by jumping.

Franchot Tone was assigned to interview Mr. O’Neill and arrives at the moment of the tragedy. He lies to his editor by telling him that the man fell out accidentally rather than jumped; he is compromising his journalistic integrity, losing a great scoop, to protect his shocked and grieving pal, Robert Light. He will also have to break the news to Light’s sister, Margaret Linsday.

It is a fast-paced movie where the scenes keep jumping, and we go back to Dick Foran, who opens his pay envelope – these are the days when people were paid in cash. And that includes a discharge notice because he was only hired for holiday work. Some of the drivers are involved in stealing from the store and one gangster tries to get rough with Dick Foran, but Foran and Ann Dvorak run from him. Meanwhile, Jean's baby is coming too early and she has to be rushed to the hospital and Foran loans Ross Alexander the only money he's got to get there. While the baby is being safely born, a son, Foran gets mixed up in a fake hold-up, and running away from the police, he is shot and killed. Again, poor Franchot Tone goes to cover the story and ends up instead covering it up, reporting that Dick is an unknown man with no identification. His shock and struggle for self-control is moving.

Though his friend Ross Alexander is over the moon about his new baby, Franchot has become sullen, morose, and philosophical. He wants to know how his friend will live with the added expenses of raising a child.

Ross Alexander replies, "We'll get along somehow. Everybody does."

"And in seventeen years after working and wearing yourself to death, you'll have enough, if you're lucky, to send him to college. So what." His friend suggests they don't need money to be happy and Mr. Tone tearfully spurts out that their friend Dick Foran was killed. "What for? What did he do? They shot them down in the streets like a dog because he was hungry."

We hear that Ann Dvorak is gone back to her family in Des Moines so we don't know how she took the news about her husband/lover, but rich girl Margaret Lindsay comes back. It’s a shame to lose Ann Dvorak at this stage, because she is, and always was, such a strong performer. Miss Lindsay has that polished glamour that’s required to make her the lead female in this picture, but she’s not as interesting as Ann Dvorak.  

Margaret Lindsay had earlier decided to marry a rich boy to pay back the debts in the aftermath of her father’s scandal, but now she’s going to let her mother and brother fend for themselves and marry poor guy Franchot Tone. He jests that she’s out of her element, "You never spent the summer in the city, have you?" and describes how hot and dirty and noisy and claustrophobic it is. (We’ll see a little more of that in our later movie when we cover One Third of a Nation.)

She compromises by stating that she will wait until he can afford to get married, and presumably they will live on his salary. The movie ends with the fellows and their girls singing the alma mater from college, as Franchot Tone is still philosophical and more chagrined than despondent now when he responds, smiling, "We weren’t kidding ourselves much a year ago, were we? When they gave us the diplomas, we thought we had a passport to the universe. The world was our oyster, all we had to do was open it... I just got out today. I forgot I had a post-graduate course coming to me whether I liked it or not." He counts his blessings that he has a crummy apartment, the job, a suit of clothes and, mostly, her. "They can't stop me now, honey."

They are adults; with the exception of Margaret’s and Robert’s tycoon father who commits suicide in the face of financial ruin, none of these young people have families hovering over them, telling them what to do.  They are the caretakers of themselves, and each other.

The attitude that they are stronger for their trials is an optimism they would need during the Great Depression because they had little else, and we would do well to remember to count our blessings from time to time, to keep our dreams high but to keep our living modest when times are really bad. It's easier to say than to do, especially in our world when there is so much to distract us, so much we are told we need and so much we think we want, and so very hard to keep up in a world where incomes are lower and the cost of living is higher. In many ways, the Great Depression’s resultant social programs were revolutionary so that many conservatives argued that they were leading us to communism, but many historians argue that they kept us from communism because they were a safety valve in a dark and potentially dangerous time. Come back next week for Our Daily Bread (1934) and a Hollywood that was sometimes amazingly fearless in chronicling its own era.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

An interview with author David C. Tucker - Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record

We continue our look at the new book on Gale Storm this week with an interview with the author, David C. Tucker.  Please see last week's post for our review on Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record.

JTL: You first researched the work of Gale Storm (and interviewed her) for your 2007 book The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms. What made you want to take up Gale Storm as a full-length book project?

David Tucker: Before I wrote that first book, I knew less about her than most of the other women I profiled. But as I watched her shows, and researched her career, I was captivated by her charm and talent. Interviewing her only added to that, and kept me thinking about her even after The Women Who Made Television Funny was finished. A full-length book gave me the opportunity to explore her film career in depth, which wasn’t possible the first time. Although she had passed away by the time I began the newer book, I was lucky to be able to speak with her daughter, two of her grandchildren, her stepdaughter, and people like Linda Wood, who as a little girl loved Margie on TV and persuaded her father, a record executive, to offer Gale Storm a recording contract.

JTL: Gale wrote her own autobiography I Ain’t Down Yet, which revealed her battle with alcoholism.  Having read your book, I’d like to read her memoir as well.  Personally, though I enjoy biographies of entertainers, and especially value autobiographies as lending insight into their careers, I am inevitably disappointed that the greater part of these celebrity bios are devoted to little more than a cursory view of their career achievements.  Much of these books dwell on anecdotal material, which though entertaining (and as with Gale’s struggle with her disease, inspiring), is not always very useful to the serious film fan.  I found myself in reading many books on film stars to be annoyed that a film I wanted to know more about was dismissed as “and then he did this.”  Then a full chapter on the next divorce or scandal.  Your book, Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record is a detailed career record fans can turn to for the most meticulous chronicling of her work.  Many serious classic film and television fans are extremely knowledgeable and compile their own informal hobby lists that would be the envy of professional keepers of baseball box scores. What is your opinion and your approach to writing about your film star subjects and Gale Storm in particular?

David Tucker: I wrote Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record with the aim of complementing and supplementing the memoir she wrote. While that book is a great read, it focuses largely on her recovery from alcoholism, which had received much publicity at the time it was published. I wanted to cover her film and television career in more depth, including the B movies, which are often given short shrift in books. So there is an essay on every film she made, with behind-the-scenes details and a critical analysis. Likewise, there’s an extensively researched section on her work in television. Since her own book came out in the early 1980s, there was also a need to explore the last three decades of her life. Those later years included, among other things, her life as a widow after Lee’s death, her second marriage, and her final professional performances. On the personal side, it was exciting to meet and befriend her niece, who shared not only great stories with me about the family, but also rare photos of Gale’s parents and sisters.  

JTL:   I note that you credit in your acknowledgements section a thank you to fans who provided material -- films and memorabilia from their own collections.  When I was writing about Ann Blyth, I found her fans to be invaluable for sources of material that just could not be found elsewhere.  I still hear from fans wanting to share their treasures, and I’ve made a couple wonderful friends among them.  What was your experience in the hunt for film and television video, radio and recordings, lobby cards and various memorabilia and how did private collectors help you?

David Tucker: Gale had a very close, loving relationship with her fans, and they were incredibly helpful in preparing the book. People who didn’t really know me would send me DVDs, tapes, and memorabilia, so that I was able to see as much of her work as possible. Ron Baker, who co-founded her fan club, is a walking encyclopedia of Gale’s life and career, and he couldn’t have been more generous or helpful. Even Gale’s own daughter said he knew far more about her mother’s career than she did. 

JTL:  Also, as regards the challenge of collecting material for research, I’ve read where Boomers were big collectors and the older Boomers are now downsizing, but younger generations are less interested in collectibles (putting a dent in the income of some collectibles dealers).  Do you have an opinion on what will happen to all this material, these posters and 16mm films and such?  Will estate sales draw out other collectors or will they just be a glut on eBay?  Or perish the thought, left in landfills?

David Tucker: Some of it, inevitably, will be lost. But I like to think that my books help to preserve not only information, but also high-quality reproductions of rare lobby cards, film stills, and other memorabilia. My publisher’s books stay in print for long periods of time, and they can be found in the collections of many libraries and archives. Even after the original illustrations deteriorate, hopefully this will allow future generations to see them. I also plan to donate some of these original materials to archives, where they can be professionally preserved, and that’s something fans could consider doing as well.

JTL:  I enjoyed reading your book on Gale Storm very much.  Like most Baby Boomers, I’m familiar with her most from reruns of My Little Margie.  (I seem to remember there was a child character on the 1970s sitcom soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman who was addicted to My Little Margie reruns.) While, as a fan of classic films, I was aware of her career, but did not know the wide range of genres in which she performed -- noir, westerns, musicals, and I am delighted to discover her discography in recordings and Soundies. I really knew nothing of her recording career. “I Hear You Knockin’" quite surprised me, and the YouTube video I checked out -- I must say, a knock-out. Do you have a favorite film of Gale’s? A favorite record?

David Tucker: Many people love It Happened on Fifth Avenue, of course, which was also one of her favorite films. I love it too, and recommend it to anyone, especially as a holiday treat. But, as you say, most people don’t know the extent of her film work. Her noir films of the late 1940s and early 1950s (Abandoned, Between Midnight and Dawn) are a revelation if you haven’t seen them. I’m also quite fond of G.I. Honeymoon, a little-known Monogram comedy from 1945 that really gives you an early glimpse at the type of characters she would play in her television series. As for her music, I especially loved her singing on Oh! Susanna, where she did beautifully choreographed musical numbers that really showcased her talent.

JTL:   I’m delighted that you covered her experience in summer theatre, another aspect of an entertainment career that is often neglected in biographies.  There is the usual “Have you retired?” question when a star flies under the radar in the film industry -- but not to fans who loyally flocked to summer theaters to see their favorites.  Interestingly, Gale did not start in theatre, but came to it rather late in her career.  Many studio-trained stars were uneasy, even terrified by going on stage.  How do you think she made the transition, and did she enjoy the challenge of stage work?

David Tucker: Although she had made a few stage appearances earlier, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it really became a major focus of her career. She had some nerves, as anyone would, but it doesn’t seem to have been a difficult transition for her. Gale had acted in front of a camera for so many years, doing shows that were filmed without a studio audience, that she found it exciting to hear live, spontaneous reaction when she performed. She was also heartened to realize that people still remembered and loved her, and would eagerly buy tickets to see her on stage. 

JTL: Radio, too, often goes unmentioned, but since Old Time Radio (OTR) is so much more easily discovered and shared in our Internet era, it is easier for a film star biographer to hear these shows to write about them. Gale’s career as you note, as did so many others, actually began on a radio contest, which sent her to Hollywood. What is your opinion on her versatility? Did you start writing about Gale as a fan, or did you become a fan through writing about her?

David Tucker:  Although it certainly wasn’t funny at the time, in later years she could laugh at the fact that her RKO contract, which was the grand prize in the radio contest, petered out so quickly. An executive there told her that she didn’t have what it took to become a star. Gale had more determination than people realize, and she proved him wrong, as he himself later admitted. I originally saw and admired her work on My Little Margie, but there is much more to her career. Researching this book really showed me that, along with being a talented comedienne, she was a fine dramatic actress, and is underrated as a singer. 

JTL:  A large section of your book is devoted to detailing episodes of My Little Margie and her second successful series, The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna. You mentioned that Oh! Susanna never made it to DVD (I believe at least the first season of My Little Margie is on DVD) and, except for some episodes shared by collectors, there are only a few up on YouTube to give us a taste of what that show was like -- an early Love Boat, with Gale as a cruise director and the wonderful ZaSu Pitts as her buddy.  How do you think these two different series compare in illustrating her many talents?

David Tucker:  have a special fondness for My Little Margie, because to me it represents pure, unadulterated fun -- no messages or underlying meanings, just the biggest laughs possible. Margie is a great character who enjoys life thoroughly, and reminds us to do the same. When she did The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna, there was an effort by producers and writers to let her character mature a bit, although she was still quite the schemer. I think both series show that she had comic abilities that were largely overlooked in her film career, and the second show has the marvelous bonus of integrating her singing talent. 

JTL:   Gale worked for many of the smaller studios in Hollywood.  I expect if that radio contest had sent her to MGM instead, she’d have been plunked into musicals for probably her entire career and not done the wider range of work she experienced. What do you think were her greatest strengths as an entertainer, and how do you think working at the smaller studios served her?

David Tucker: I think she has innate charm and likability that come out very clearly in her performances. Although she could, and did, play some fine dramatic roles (such as Abandoned), her sense of fun is a major factor in her success. Being at the Monogram studios meant she was a big fish in a very small pond. While there wasn’t much star treatment at a Poverty Row studio, she had the chance to play a variety of roles. She also demonstrated that she could do good work on a tight schedule, which made her a natural to transition into a weekly TV series. 

My thanks to David C. Tucker for joining us today, and I hope you visit his interesting blog and read his new book, Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record (McFarland, 2018).

Sam H.!

Congratulations, Sam!  And thank you to everyone who entered the contest.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Review of Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record by David C. Tucker

Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record by David C. Tucker is a pleasant career review of a charming lady whom most readers will remember as an icon of television’s Golden Age, but whose films remain little discovered by even many classic film fans.

This is the latest in a collection of books about classic TV and film figures by Mr. Tucker. He was fortunate to interview Gale Storm for a chapter in an earlier book – The Women Who Made Television Funny (2007). Expanding on her life and career for this book, Tucker gives us a detailed chronicle of her work. Her film career took her to various studios where she appeared in many genres. (Her strikingly meteorological name was bestowed on her, along with a studio contract, as a radio talent show contest prize.) I would guess classic film fans may remember her most from the Christmas favorite It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947).

What her film work in westerns, noir, and dramas may have lacked in terms of opportunities to do comedy or musicals (she had a terrific singing voice), television provided ample opportunities for both. Her first series, My Little Margie (1952-1955) allowed her to cut up splendidly, and her second comedy series The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna (1956-1960) – allowed her to sing as well. Both series episodes are detailed in the book.

Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record is published by McFarland. It is thorough and interesting and includes interviews and many photos.  It is a fine tribute to an actress whose range of accomplishments may surprise you. Next week we’ll have an interview with author David C. Tucker about his book.

Speaking of singing, have a look below at Gale Storm’s live TV performance of her song “I Hear You Knockin’” – that earned her a gold record.

For more on Tucker’s books, please see his blog here.

The author provided a review copy for purposes of this review post.

To continue our celebration of Ann Blyth's 90th birthday, I'm giving away a present to one lucky winner: Your choice of either a paperback version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. (mailed to you), or the audiobook version narrated by actress Toni Lewis (sent directly to your email for download to your computer, iPad, or phone). Just send me an email saying you want to enter the contest. I'll draw the name of the winner out of a hat next week on Wednesday, August 29th.

Good luck! 

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