Thursday, September 27, 2018

1930s Then and Now Part 4 - One Third of the Nation (1939)

One Third of the Nation (1939) is a window on the world of the late 1930s where the view is clear only because some of the grime has been rubbed off the pane with our fist, allowing us to look out. Some of what we saw then, we see today. The clothes and the speech may be out of date, but the problem isn’t, and neither is the desperation.

Classic film buffs recall 1939 as a marvelous extravaganza, an abundance of well-made and well-loved films, running the gamut between The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind and a list as long as your arm of other Oscar nominees. One Third of the Nation is far down in the pack; it doesn’t sparkle much as a social message film with its lukewarm hero and a pat ending and the heroine that seems to drift emotionally (which may echo our national malaise after a decade of Depression). It is not as well-remembered, perhaps, as the giants that the studios produced in that year, but its roots are legitimate and its theme has lasted and it is more relevant today than most of the most beloved films of 1939.

It began as a stage play, one of the experimental works produced by the Federal Theater Project in 1938. Written by Arthur Arent, it was part of the Living Newspaper series which dramatized conditions of the day, this one with a message of the common man versus the big men, including the landlords, about the slum conditions in New York City, how they came to be, how they are maintained, and who profits from them.

Along with its New York run, the play was produced in several other cities across the nation and garnered a great deal of publicity and praise, except by congressional conservatives who were offended by its message. Conservatives were not fond of funding the Federal Theater Project as they regarded it as an incubator of left-wing ideas and dangerous messages—dangerous to them, one presumes—but though it’s been reckoned that actually something like less than 10 percent of its play productions had a left-wing message, nevertheless, Congress decided to quit funding the Federal Theater Project in 1939, and that exciting experiment that kept writers, actors, and directors working during those terrible years in the Depression and that spawned such important works, was killed.

The title of the play, adapted for the movie in 1939, comes directly from the line in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural address in January 1937: “I see one-third of the nation ill-house, ill-clad, ill-nourished... The test for progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

We’re still grappling with that idea.

The movie’s plot diverges a little from the stage play in that it has a less experimental presentation (except for a few scenes when the boy has a conversation with the firetrap tenement that he lives in, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Instead, it follows a more conventional line of the damsel in distress, a hero who comes to her aid, and a happy ending.

The film opens on the East Side of New York with kids playing in the streets, turning on fire hydrants and being chased away by the cops, overshadowed by tenements. We get inside views of one particular building with the walls falling apart so that we are able to see the exposed lathing, of trash in hallways, of railings that need to be repaired. A fire starts in the basement of this tenement building. It quickly spreads and its residents attempt to escape in all directions, stumbling out of doors, scrambling out of windows, from fire escapes that will not hold their weight, screaming. A crowd gathers in the street, the fire department arrives, and we see a line of dead bodies already covered on the sidewalk waiting for the morgue.

As the fire rages, at the top of the building we see a boy climbing a fire escape to try to reach the roof because he is blocked from getting to the ground. The ladder on which he is clinging breaks and he falls to the ground. It is a sickening scene, and through the crowd his sister rushes forward in horror. She is played by Sylvia Sidney, fresh off her gig in a similar environment in Dead End (1937).  Miss Sidney had the chops to play fearless dames, but her sophisticated appearance, maybe just her distinctive beautiful eyes set wide in her porcelain face, left her an aura of glamour no matter what setting.

In the back of the crowd, we see a man in an automobile and his snide, wisecracking best friend, rubbernecking at the tragedy. Leif Erickson plays the hero of the piece, and Hiram Sherman is his pal who, not even before the movie is half over, we want to strangle for his smug, sophomoric arrogance. It was Sherman’s only film, then he went on to a lot of TV and theatre. It’s interesting to note that a lot of players in this movie had few movie credits, but had more career traction in TV and theatre.

Leif Erickson reaches Sylvia Sidney as supposedly helpful people are picking up her brother, who is unconscious, probably suffering from head and neck injuries, and handle him like he was a sack of potatoes.  If nothing else, our ideas about first aid have certainly changed for the better over the decades.

Erickson offers to drive him to the hospital and Sidney is very grateful and goes along. She thinks he means that they will take her brother to City Hospital which is for poor people, but he is taking him to the better Surgeons Hospital. Appalled, she asks “Isn’t that just for swells?”

Leif Erickson is rich. He tells her not to worry, and it is not until after the operation when they find out that her brother will survive but will be crippled that she discovers that Erickson has paid all the bills. She is grateful, of course, but intends to pay him back, though she has no idea how.

She is furious at the slumlord who owns the building but will not repair it or keep it maintained. She asks Erickson “Isn’t that murder? Shouldn’t a man like that be in jail?” Erickson agrees, but he will soon learn from his trusted family business manager that he owns the firetrap building. A large slum area of New York has been in his family’s possession for decades.

Mr. Erickson is not the only man in Sylvia Sidney’s life these days; Myron McCormick plays Sam, her longtime beau she cannot marry yet because they have no money. She says of him smiling, “He's sort of left, if you know what I mean.” Sam does not appear to be an agitator or an anarchist, but he is an intelligent and fearless thorn in the side of Erickson and anyone will he thinks makes a profit off other people’s misery.  Miss Sidney’s remark tells us that, like many of the poor, she has no political convictions, and is only concerned with the landlord that won’t fix the light in the hall or the boss that won’t offer a raise; her social concerns are largely about herself.  McCormick seems airy to her because he sees the big picture; Sylvia’s driven by her own personal needs.  The very rich and the very poor aren’t always too far apart in ideology.

There is a brief inquiry with Otto Hulett playing the assistant DA, and Erickson manfully stands up and takes responsibility, against the expressed wishes of his business manager played by Percy Waram and his obnoxious sister, played by Muriel Hutchison. They are intent on protecting the family name and the family dough.

At one point in the hearing, one of the tenants is questioned about the conditions of the building, but it is difficult for him to give an objective report because he lost his wife and children in the fire and he is too shocked, too broken up to want to even discuss the matter. He is an immigrant and whimpers “My little babies.” He is gently told that he can go now.

He looks up astonished, “Where?”

It seems that the rich family of Leif Erickson is legally off the hook because this tenement was built before 1901 and therefore it does not need to adhere to new safety regulations. We are given an insight to the inefficient and bungling bureaucracy which allows this system and we get facts and figures almost like a docudrama in parts. We are told that such firetraps where low-income people live are not rare in the city, that there are over 67,000 of them.

Sylvia Sidney is angry and wants Leif Erickson interrogated on the stand, and he is only too happy to discuss the situation because he has thus far been ignorant about what kind of property his family owns. He has never really been involved in the business. His business manager, Mr. Waram, explains that Sylvia Sidney’s family would have to pay more – mother, father, younger brother, and herself all live in a one-room apartment – which goes for $10 a month rent. If Erickson did all the repairs and upkeep that she demands, they would have to be charged at least $25 a month rent.

Such rents for 1939 actually seem remarkably low for a city like New York. Other towns certainly, but I would’ve thought New York, even its most rundown apartments, would have charged at least $30 a month.

Nevertheless, we see that Sylvia Sidney’s situation is compounded by the fact that she is kind of the Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner of the group. (For those of you familiar with the old comic strip, Winnie supported her mother, her younger brother, and her shiftless father, which is why she was called the Breadwinner.)

I have a Winnie Winkle coffee mug on my desk that I keep pens in. It was a gift. I always had a soft spot for Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner.

Her father played, by Charles Dingle, whom most probably remember as the conniving elder brother in The Little Foxes (1941), is not working and it seems inferred that he is not looking too hard, either.

Erickson comes to Sylvia Sidney’s tenement to see what conditions are like for himself, runs into her boyfriend Myron McCormick, who slugs him and when Erickson falls through a rotten railing, it occurs to him that the place really is a rattrap.

The film takes an interesting turn when her young brother is released from the hospital. He looks hale and hearty, but he walks with crutches and he will for the rest of his life. He is played by Sidney Lumet.

This was young Sidney Lumet’s only movie, though he did small roles in one TV show and a bit part in a movie many decades later, but we know him best as the director of over eighty films. He was certainly a talented filmmaker, but just from this one film he seems a very talented child actor.

We see the slum through Lumet’s eyes more than anyone’s. His friends welcome him home but then they are cruel to him because he is a "cripple." They tease him, they won’t let them play their games; he is too slow for them and the boy begins to spend a lot of time on his own. He sits on the pier watching the other boys swim in the river, he broods outside on the steps of his building. He does not want to go into the building on his first day home, he stays out until quite late because he is afraid and depressed. We know the fire has left him emotionally scarred and he does not want to enter a building which he knows he can be trapped in at any time, especially now that he is not able to walk easily and less able than before to escape in an emergency.

But his anguish is more than that. His troubled soul is absorbing the despair of this neighborhood and the people who live in it, in that building that has seen so many generations of despair. He talks to the building. He tells the building that he hates it and in his imagination the building talks back to him with an eerie voice.

He tells the building, “Look what you done to me.”

The building taunts him and gloats that it has made victims of its residents for decades. We have a brief foggy flashback to the 1870s when the building was younger, but no less dangerous. We see people in clothes of the time period, a doctor’s visit and the whispered dreaded word: Cholera! The screams of the dying from cholera and their terrified families, which was very common in the nineteenth century in crowded buildings with poor sanitation. The factory town I grew up in had a cholera epidemic, and maybe yours did too.

Lumet threatens the building, “I’ll get you some day. I’ll get you – just wait.”

The scenes with Sidney Lumet staring up at the building, he stares directly into the camera – are haunting and unnerving, his piercing, fevered expression of a child half-crazed with the superior knowledge of someone who knows personally how grim the stakes are. For a kid without a whole lot of screen experience, he’s pretty impressive.

Unfortunately, there are no resources to help, medically, emotionally, not from the city, not from charities, not from his own family. The real burden of poverty is that one is essentially alone.

Leif Erickson struggles with his conscience. Sylvia Sidney struggles with the idea of paying him back for the hospital bill. Erickson’s family struggles with trying to distract him away from what they regard as his naivetĂ©.

At last Erickson wants to make a move to tear down the houses in that section and put up new housing – we assume he means for the selfsame low-income residents, but historically in such cases, usually it’s to gentrify the area and jack up the rents.

Sylvia Sidney believes that he is going to give them a shiny new neighborhood and she is thrilled, and her young brother Sidney Lumet taunts the building, his worst enemy, “They’re gonna tear you down. How do you like that, old stinkpot?”

Unfortunately, Erickson has to humor his sister and he confesses to Sylvia Sidney that it will take time to put these plans into motion. Her disappointment in Erickson is such that she loses all hope and rants to her little brother about her desperation and how things will never change. It is a cruel thing to do to a young boy who is obviously emotionally and psychologically brittle, but nobody is paying attention to him

It puts him over the edge and he sets fire to the building. It goes up like a torch and another crowd gathers and the firemen come and the same old scene is repeated. This time, the building kills the kid brother.

In the dim, gray aftermath, Myron McCormick commiserates and Erickson answers, “The time may come when men like you all realize that men like me are human beings, just the way that I’ve begun to suspect that you are.”

The building is torn down, McCormick and Sylvia Sidney plan to pool their resources as best they can and get married, not wanting to wait any longer. Erickson may be the hero of the piece but he’s not going to play Prince charming to Cinderella and take her out of the ashes, literally. He's still going back to his own kind.

We have a montage scene of new buildings being constructed with playground areas. We are meant to understand that the people living in them will experience a kind of poverty Shangri-La, with the cleanliness and privacy and community spirit with all of them pitching horseshoes and raising their children in the sunlight. It’s not suburbia – nobody predicted suburbia yet – but for a city dweller in a firetrap tenement, it might very well have seemed like the next best thing to paradise. At least the producers thought so.

One segment of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Monument in Washington, D.C. is devoted to his “one third of a nation” speech.  It is depicted here above in this photograph in the collection of the Library of Congress.

The bronze statues by George Segal, are titled The Rural Couple and The Breadline located in Room Two of the memorial.

We have another legacy: Today, one of the main reasons why people continue to struggle financially and even live in poverty are the cost of healthcare and the cost of housing. We have revisited young Sidney Lumet’s nightmare on a much grander scale. Though most of us who enjoy classic films enjoy the nostalgia of them – we spend a lot of time looking at the furniture, the clothes, the music, the speech expressions as evidence of a long-ago world – for those who are not fans of classic films it is probably more important not to concentrate on these things, but to concentrate on the heart of the message, on the emotion of the story, and thereby finding in these, whom they might regard as hokey characters, a lot more in common than they thought possible.

Come back next Thursday when we conclude this series on the 1930s and their messages for today with Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), and an elderly couple whose retirement has left them helpless, homeless, and dependent on grown children. Take a look at those spinning headlines – they’re from today.

1930s series:
Part 1 - Gentlemen Are Born (1934)
Part 2 - Our Daily Bread (1934)
Part 3 - Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Girls of the Road (1940).


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The 1930s - Then and Now - #3 - Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Girls of the Road (1940)

Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Girls of the Road (1940) are vivid portrayals of the youthful perspective on the worst years of the Great Depression. The teens and the young adults facing the national economic crisis probably understood little of its causes and were helpless to change the course of the deeply troubled economy.  While feeling the same brunt of the calamity as their fearful parents, this generation that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would later say “has a rendezvous with destiny” when World War II began could still show resilience and optimism that their elders no longer possessed.

Wild Boys of the Road, directed by William Wellman, is a message film, as many films during the Great Depression with “the times” as its topic inevitably had to be, but the story is well told, vigorous, and without the preaching nature, except for perhaps the last ten minutes, as a film like Our Daily Bread (1933) which we discussed last week here and which was made in the same year.

Wellman was a master at shooting stories full of dramatic action, and this pretty simple tale of teens following the well-worn, desperate trail of hoboes to find work because they cannot find jobs in their own town, has moments that are fiercely compelling.

The start of the movie couldn’t be more deceptive. Frankie Darro has the lead as Eddie and Edwin Phillips plays his best pal Tommy. They are a couple of high school sophomores going to a dance. Their girlfriends are giggly and sweet and inconsequential to the story and we lose them at the beginning of the picture. Somehow, they don’t belong to the rest of what’s going to happen to Frankie Darro and Edwin, and by the end of the picture we can’t imagine these boys ever going back to those girls. They indeed have traveled a long way and they will never be who they were when they were just a couple of kids going to a high school dance.

It is an evening of white trousers and dark coats and ties, of tentatively waltzing to “The Shadow Waltz” (a hit that year in Gold Diggers of 1933 discussed here, and it’s fun to note the string of songs played in the background in this movie, including “Pettin’ in the Park” at the dance, and “We’re in the Money.”)

Darro drives an old broken-down jalopy with witty sayings and phrases on it, just as apparently all his friends do, and though his romance with his girl is innocent we can see by the verbiage on the car that he is the all-American boy, with the hormone-driven predatory attitude for high school girls. This makes his later empathetic relationship with Dorothy Coonan, a hobo girl they meet on the top of a boxcar, all the more poignant.

Note the box of Lux soap in the storeroom at the high school.

These early scenes could be right out of one of the Andy Hardy movies, and after the high school frolics when we are told that Phillips must find work because his widowed mother has only a roomer in their home for income, and Darro learns his father has just lost his job, we might think Andy Hardy is going to rush to the rescue and put on a show or collect bottles or do something to help his folks.

Grant Mitchell, his dad, acknowledges with brave humiliation that as a middle-aged man it’s going to be very difficult for him to get hired again. Darro shows sensitive concern and we have a long sequence where he manfully sells his beloved jalopy for $22 and gives the money to his dad. It’s a nice thing to do, and Darro is not an aw-gee-shucks kind of actor; he is actually quite a good, sublimely subtle dramatic actor who understands the intimacy of the camera (as well he should, having been in silents since a small boy) and we believe him. There is something a little bit more Dead End Kids about him than Andy Hardy, but even though he is fearless and smart mouthed, he is still an innocent.

A couple of months go by and Phillips has not found work, and neither has Darro’s dad. Phillips decides that he’s going to head for the open road because it will be one less mouth for his mother to worry about and she can manage for herself on the money from the roomer.

Darro comes to the same conclusion, that it is futile to find a job in this town and both boys quit school.

They really don’t know what they’re getting into, of course, and so it really starts as a boy’s own adventure. They bring a bag of sandwiches and a hop a freight. Their first rough encounter is with another teen hobo who hauls off and slugs Darro, who is amazed and somewhat appalled to discover that the bloody nose was given him by a girl, named Sally. It’s a funny bit when he tries to continue a conversation with her and he keeps his arm up to guard himself because she’s a very good fighter.

Sally, played by freckle-faced Dorothy Coonan has left home as well. (About six months after this film was released, Miss Coonan would marry Director Wellman, some twenty years her senior, would leave her film career and become the mother of seven.) Her mother has died and she has decided to go live with her single aunt in Chicago so that, like Edwin Phillips, there will be one less mouth to feed at home.

It sounds like kind of a maudlin phrase, “one less mouth to feed,” but it was an extremely common sentiment not just during the Great Depression but certainly before that in the many ages of destitute families and not enough food to go around. Many older children were put to work early or simply just put out of the house.

So many teen boys joined Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps for just that reason, to save resources at home and not be a burden.  My father did.

The duo becomes a trio and there is something very goodhearted and tender in the way that Darro and Phillips relate to Dorothy Coonan. We have seen Darro’s high school girlfriend and his girl-chasing sentiments painted on his jalopy, but his reaction to Dorothy is sometimes protective and at other times a genuine equal partnership, and we sense that he cares about her and needs her as much as he does Edwin Phillips. It is a friendship without sexism and they have an odd mixture of the sense of responsibility of adults and the innocence of children.

They arrive in Chicago and Sally’s aunt, played by the wonderful and versatile Minna Gombell, welcomes them into her apartment and feeds them a very large chocolate cake about the size of North Dakota. There is a player piano in the apartment playing some kind of bluesy tune, which is a signal to us that all is not right; and indeed, there is a man and a woman sitting at a table drinking. While the kids are in the kitchen chowing down, the cops raid the place and take the three grown-ups off. The kids beat it out the window. Apparently, Auntie is involved with a pretty rough crowd even if she seems very nice.

They are back on the road and the longer they travel, the more hoboes they meet:  Young people like themselves, older men, other girls all dressed to disguise themselves as boys for safety, African-American kids, and always in every train yard a crowd of mean railroad cops with clubs.

We get our moment of pre-Code salaciousness when one girl hobo played by Rochelle Hudson, tarries alone in a boxcar at a fire to dry her sweater. She pulls it off and sits in her bra to warm by the fire, when a brakeman played by Ward Bond sees her and he gets fresh. When the kids later come back for her they see her disheveled, terrified, and we discover without so many words that Ward Bond has raped her. “He put his hand over my mouth so I couldn’t scream!”

As we know, this line and this situation is the least “dated” thing about this movie. It’s happened before, it’s happening now. Perhaps we have become too cynical about hearing those words, having heard them for generations.

But the young hoboes are angry and shocked enough so that when Ward Bond reappears, they beat him up and they even shove him off the moving train.

Another freight yard and more cops. The adventure is wearing thin and soon it will become dangerous. As they scatter away from the police, Edwin Phillips runs and sickeningly smacks his face into a sign. Dazed, he stumbles and falls on a railroad track. He is barely able to crawl away from an oncoming train, but not before it plows over his leg.

The kids fetch a local doctor, who amputates the leg right there in the hobo jungle.  That may be a little hard to believe, but Phillips and Darro cry together, and that makes it real.

We next see another hobo jungle and Phillips with a crutch. He can’t hop freights very well anymore and he suggests splitting up and letting the other two try their luck. They won’t part from him. Darro even breaks into a medical supply store and steals an artificial leg for Phillips, but it is not the right size and it is useless. More cops come to flush out the hobo jungle, this time literally with water hoses.

The map tells us they eventually make it to New York City and another hobo camp in a garbage dump. I don’t suppose it’s the same garbage dump that William Powell lived in when he was a “forgotten man” in My Man Godfrey (1933) in the same year, and which we discussed here, but the hobo dumps certainly were crowded those days.

Their luck is about to change. Darro is offered a job operating an elevator in the city, at $12 a week, and it is touching that he plans to keep the trio, his little family, together. He says that they will go to a cheap rooming house and rent two rooms – very chivalrous of him – and they will find Dorothy Coonan a job doing housework and Phillips doing a job selling newspapers. They are thrilled, the three of them. Hope has returned and they are joyful.  There is only one drawback: Darro will need a new alpaca jacket as part of his work uniform and it will cost him at least three dollars to get one. He goes panhandling and mistakenly gets involved in the robbery of a movie theater. Kind of neat that a James Cagney movie is actually playing on screen when the melee breaks out.

A cop finally nabs the three of them and they get taken to juvenile court. It looks like the end of the road.

A kindly judge played by Robert Barratt allows Darro to explain himself, and Darro gets a nice dramatic bit where he spews out his hopelessness, his anger and cynicism about the system and we think this young man does not have an optimistic bone in his body anymore. He is almost looking forward going to jail because it can’t be any worse than being on the street.

The judge promises help to the three of them. He will place Coonan in a nice home where she will do housework in exchange for her board, he will make sure Darro gets his elevator job, and he acknowledges that Phillips will be a little harder to help but that he will do something. When the kids are taken away after the judge has dismissed the charges, the judge looks at a portrait photo on his desk of a round-faced well-fed son named Billy and he thinks to himself, there but for the grace of God goes my kid.

The idea of “there but for the grace of God goes my kid,” also occurs to Howard Hickman in Girls of the Road (1940), who plays the governor of an unnamed state. It’s made seven years later, but though the employment rate has improved, the Great Depression still has its tentacles wrapped around the country. The governor’s daughter, who is also his secretary, is played by Ann Dvorak , whom we last saw in the first film of this series, Gentlemen Are Born (1934). They have just heard some statistics about teenage girls taking to the open road looking for jobs or being kicked out of their own homes, girls from 14 to 24 years old who are runaways. The movie starts with headlines and speeding cars and a collage of scenes where we see girls in perilous situations, which mostly involve being lured away by creepy men and being sexually compromised. Or murdered.

Ann Dvorak, who is a college girl, dresses with chic sophistication, and has a responsible and curious nature, wants to know how they can help these girls who live on the road. The girls are destitute, but they are treated as criminals. As she is typing up the report for her father, she suddenly changes her mind and types a farewell note to him. She is going on the road undercover.

It’s probably not a terribly challenging role for someone of the caliber of Ann Dvorak, but she has an authority on camera, she commands attention in her scenes, and it is a chance for her to look beautiful and confident.

Standing on the roadside all dressed up and wearing a snappy beret, (see our previous post on movie berets here), her first few minutes of life as a hobo are her first encounter with a leering guy who picks her up in his car when she thumbs on the highway.  He immediately puts his move on her. She immediately escapes and is observed by the cynical Helen Mack, a gum-chewing girl hobo with a backpack, typically, dressed like a young man, who takes her to a cluster of girl hoboes huddled in a shack with a fire.

One girl, played by Marjorie Cooley, pitifully carries a dress box with her wedding dress as she is going to be married next Tuesday and is traveling to the city where her fiancé is working.

Jerry, played Ann Doran, is a bit of a thief, stealing from the other girls whenever she can. Lording over all of them is the sinister and malevolent Lola Lane. Cops show up before long and drive them out, they are taken to jail and hosed down after a mini riot over food.

Ann Dvorak and Helen Mack develop a friendship and they look out for each other, though Mack is slow to trust anyone. Ann Dvorak earns Mack’s respect first when she faces off with a sheriff, with her knowledge of the Bill of Rights, and gets him to back down. Mack responds, “The Bill of Rights, when they wrote that they didn’t have paved highways and girls walking on them.”

Mack also sheds some knowledge about what it is like to live on the road and she is, in a sense, Ann Dvorak’s mentor. She says when a man loses a job he can still get along and that with a shave he can get another one, “a girl can’t.”

Though we may note that many of these girls look pretty well made-up for people who’ve been on the road for months, Helen Mack’s wry philosophy is a shorthand way of looking at difficulties that women had versus men on the road and that it was, indeed, more difficult for them. A woman who is unkempt is likely to be more judged and assumed less fit for the limited job opportunities open to her at that time than a man would be. Moreover, there is a very real, and undiscussed, subject of how does one cope with menstruation? Without sanitary supplies, or the means to buy them, a young woman might be unable to work certain days of the month and might miss opportunities because of it.

They move from freight yard to hobo jungle and back again and all the while Ann Dvorak broods, watches, and interrogates her fellow female hoboes. At one point, cops force them to get on a train to get out of the county—nobody wants to be responsible for them. Helen Mack doesn’t want to get on the train; she is tired of life on the road and just wants to stay put. As the train slowly pulls in and looms over them, its boxcars are teaming with forlorn men not allowed to get off, but forced to keep moving.

Helen Mack gets into a shoving match with a cop and inadvertently pushes him off the train. He’s fine, but Helen and Ann both leap from the train and head for the woods. Helen Mack suggests they separate but Ann Dvorak won’t let her fend for herself.

They hitch a ride on top of the truck and end up at an auto court and truck stop. Because Ann has $200, she pays for a cabin for them for the night and for one night they have baths and food and a place to sleep and things are looking up until Ann Doran arrives, having stolen Marjorie Cooley’s wedding dress. They take the dress back, but let her stay. But during the night Miss Doran takes off with everything they have and they really are on the skids now.

They eventually arrive at yet another hobo jungle, all-female, run by Lola Lane on a small lake.

We are introduced to new girls; one of them says she is the eldest of seven and just like Edwin Phillips in Wild Boys of the Road, she has left home so that there will be one less mouth to feed. She does not panhandle but she is learning to work in a beauty parlor and gets work from town to town, hoping one day she can settle down.

Mack makes a retort, “Send it in care of Lincoln Highway, U.S.A.”  The Lincoln Highway was one of the first paved major transcontinental routes, opened in 1913, a historic road that, like Route 66, fell on hard times and seemed to express the desperation of a nation during the Depression. Immortalized in songs, films, novels, and a board game, The Lincoln Highway expressed the vigor and optimism of public works of an earlier age.

The girls are fractious and though they try to pool their resources, they fight with each other and grow more dismal in their hopelessness. A trucker tries to help them; he has found Marjorie Cooley dazed and not seeming to know where she is, and he brings her to the hobo camp instead of the hospital because he’s afraid the cops would think that he ran over her.

Marjorie Cooley dies in camp and they bury her and hold an awkward funeral. Her epitaph carved in a wooden sign says “Irene. Died on the road.”

Reminds one of Grandpa Joad who died on the road in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and they put his name in a small box and put it in his jacket, in case he was ever to be found.

How many bodies were there that died “on the road?”

They lay wildflowers at her grave and Lola Lane, shrugging off her bad girl image, starts a plaintive chorus of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. They all join in and it is a long, slow, lulling sound until it is broken up by police sirens getting closer.

The cops raid again, but this time the governor of the state, Ann Dvorak’s dad, is with them because Ann has finally been traced to this place. Like the judge in Wild Boys of the Road, he is appalled by the condition of these women’s lives and he makes a vague promise to help. At the end of the film, a government-run camp is being constructed for the women where they are told they can rest and plan to start over and find courage.

It seems like a contrived ending, tacked on because we like happy endings, but government programs were certainly the saving grace of the Great Depression. That era is something so far back in our dim memory that many people today likely have no concept of how important it was that the government seemed to care. It was spending on public works and on social programs that saved the country during those bleak and frightening years. It is also hard for us to imagine a world where social programs and safety nets were brand-new and were untried. We may well imagine how despised they were by the more well-off in this country because we know how earnestly and savagely they are trying to remove them today.

Though government-funded public works projects were important tools to revive the economy and put people work, most of the food relief programs were actually privately run and not subsided by the government—and malnutrition was a leading factor in the rejection rate of around 45 percent of prospective Army recruits during World War II.  They had grown up during hard times.  The healthiest of the recruits were former Civilian Conservation Corps boys.

It’s one of the apocryphal stories of the Great Depression that a teacher in one government health study had told a sick-looking little girl to go home and have something to eat, to which the child replied, “I can’t. It’s my sister’s turn to eat.”

They’ve been called The Greatest Generation, those kids, the ones who had the rendezvous with destiny. Fortunately, the films of that era caught a glimpse of that, lest we forget.


The lack of affordable housing and the devastation that medical expenses can have for struggling families is another Depression-era story that has relevance today. Come back next Thursday for One Third of the Nation (1939) with Sylvia Sidney.



Thursday, September 13, 2018

1930s - Then and Now - #2 - 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 Girls of the Road (1940).
See part one of this series:

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