In 1974 the economy of the United States was arguably at its weakest point in forty years, with sharp and sustained rises in commodity prices, unemployment and interest rates, and with the leading economic indicator of the time, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, meandering well below its all-time high of 1,000 which it had reached in 1966 — eight years earlier — and had not even come close to matching since (and wouldn’t reach again until 1982). Ten years of an undeclared war in Southeast Asia had kept the American manufacturing sector from plummeting with the rest of the economy, but even that had now come to an end. The war may have been hell, but not many were dancing in the streets in peacetime in the U. S. A., in 1974. In this toxic economic environment, Metro Goldwyn Mayer the one-time “Tiffany’s” of Hollywood Movie studios celebrated its Golden 50th Anniversary.
In commemoration of its founding in 1924, MGM had re-discovered its back-catalog or rather its vaults, and released a film, “That’s Entertainment,” a compilation of clips from MGM musical films beginning with “The Broadway Melody” (1929) to “The Boyfriend” (1971), although one could count on one hand the number of worthwhile musical films the studio made since the late 50s. “That’s Entertainment” was promoted as not just the feel-good movie of the decade, but was sold on the proposition that the good old days really WERE better. There may have been a kernel of truth in this, but in American film there now existed something better than mindless nostalgia. American filmmaking was in something of a renaissance, one that may have begun earlier, but had gained momentum ironically with the crumbling of the studio system, and abandonment of the production code in the mid-sixties. (And it was still more than a decade away from the creative breakdown that commenced with the blockbuster mentality of the late seventies and early eighties.)
The social, political and economic turmoil of the 1960s and 70s gave American filmmakers, with few exceptions never a politically conservative group, an especially rich, if very dark vein to mine, and in it those American filmmakers found creative inspiration. The image of economic and social upheaval of the 1930s had a near-mystical resonance with audiences of America in the late 1960s and 1970s, as audiences sought some sort of historical or psychological reference point to help explain the current state of the nation.
American film of the nineteen-thirties was a particularly compelling reference point for both audiences and the filmmakers of this later period. The first creative flowering of sound film combined with the rough honesty of pre-code treatment of subject matter seemed to resonate with timeless truths long forgotten in the abominable sixties and the stagflationary, dreary seventies. But the original filmmakers and audiences of the nineteen-thirties had their own useful fantasies, whether in the exaggerated exploits of gangsters and crooked politicians or in the imagined lifestyles of the impossibly rich and fabulous. There seemed few limits to these imaginary lifestyles, high and low, that were depicted on-screen in the decade of the Great Depression.
Now you may ask yourself, Why the “pop-history” lesson? Well, because my interest in what later came to be called “classic movies” began in the late 60s and early 70s, when I discovered “old movies,” as they were called then. I discovered gangsters and bootleggers, pimps and gun “molls,” snarling punks played by Cagney and tart-tongued blondes like Blondell and impossibly cool grace of Astaire, the sweet hotness of Ginger, and overpowering sexuality of Claudette Colbert as a Cleo who might believably conquer Caesar after being rolled out of a rug, and then have a roll with Marc Antony just for the hell of it. These early talkies were so improbably strong, had such balls, they had me wondering “What the heck happened?” Where did they go in the forties, fifties and even into the mid-sixties? The movies I went to as a child were still products of a “Code,” of which I had no knowledge until much later. But in the newer films I was seeing, from the mid-Sixties onward, there was a palpable change.
I made the connection back then that the films I was watching in theaters and the “old movies” on the late, late show, the Warner Brothers epics, all had little in common with what I had known of movies made in the fifties and early sixties. But the first time I actually saw the two eras — the thirties and sixties — mashed together was in “Bonnie and Clyde” (WB, 1967, directed by Arthur Penn). From the opening credits with old black and white photos, the getaway cars and machine guns, the inept cops, the kill or be killed mentalities of the heroes (who were now being referred to as anti-heroes, as if the gangster-hero characters played by Cagney, Robinson and Bogart had never existed on-screen before), the connection was obvious. Modern filmmakers seemed to have watched the same old movies I had.
There is a sequence early in “Bonnie and Clyde” where the first bloodletting violence occurs on-screen so abruptly, so awful in its loudness, and so chaotic and disorienting and unexpected — as Clyde shoots squarely in the face the bank manager who jumps up on the side running board of their getaway car in an insane attempt to “stop” the thieves. This horrific shot is followed soon after by a jump cut to the oddly silver-blue of the screen of a darkened movie theater with a tinny soundtrack, “We’re in the Money,” sung and danced by Ginger Rogers and chorus girls wearing nothing but coins, a mocking of the misery of the Depression and of the audience watching, thieves and murderers now among them. The audience reaction — the real theater movie audience watching Bonnie and Clyde — was nervous laughter throughout most of this brief scene, as Clyde berates the tearful C.W. for his ineptness as their getaway driver which Clyde blames for his “having” to kill the banker.
I probably saw “Bonnie and Clyde” four or five times before I first watched “Gold Diggers of 1933,” the source of the laughter and irony and dark humor of that theater scene in the later film. In the meantime I had seen much of the gangster genre that may well have inspired if only in small part both the filmmakers of “Bonnie and Clyde” and the real Clyde Barrow. I discovered the great Warner Brothers gangster epics, and jaw-dropping WB and RKO black and white and silver musicals of the early to mid thirties that were truly a world apart from both the blood and explosions of late sixties movie violence and equally far from the reality of the Depression of the nineteen-thirties.
What follows is my take on the film within the film of “Gold Diggers of 1933” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” with captions kept at an absolute minimum:
Below, the optimism of the “Gold Diggers” chorines provides a stark contrast . . .
. . . a stark contrast to the mood of Clyde and C.W. (Michael J. Pollard) in the dark theater lit by the blue-sliver screen and the girls of “Gold Diggers.”
Oblivious to their distraught state is Bonnie, who is intent on enjoying the movie — she scolds Clyde and C.W. for making too much noise about that thing that just happened with the bank and the killing and . . you boys just keep it down, OK?
. . . and Bonnie sinks back into her seat with a look of rapture and in a near-orgasmic state (which, for her, Clyde has yet to accomplish . . .)
The Sheriff’s Department is about to change the mood of the cast of “Gold Diggers” as he busts the show for non-payment of debts,
. . . and to reclaim “property” not paid for, which is an excellent opportunity for the Sheriffs deputies to cop a few free feels . . . Deputy: “This has to go back.” (The extremely underrated/overlooked) Aline MacMahon reponds to the tug on her ass: “That’s as far back as it goes!”
With her “coins” being stripped off, Ginger asks plaintively: “Can’t you at least leave something for car fare?”
Ruby Keeler, perennial player of the innocent character wonders “how can they do this?” Below, the perpetual cynics, Blondell, Rogers and MacMahon, give her the answer she doesn’t want to hear . . .
. . . (Ginger): “It’s ‘The Depression,’ Dearie!”
Bonnie is inspired to arrange her far less showy “coinage” ala “Gold Diggers,” as she warbles “We’re in the Money,” and Below, attempts a few halting dance moves, poses that she enhances with skillful use of cigarette and smoking nostrils . . .
[To be continued as a series of posts about Hollywood’s depiction of America during “The Great Depression” in Pre-Code films of the period.]