31 August 2008

The Forgotten Man and Some Memorable Films

I was browsing some of my bookmarked blogs when I checked in with Sunset Gun for the first time in too long. Author Kim Morgan had a recent post about three of her recent obsessions. I've taken the liberty of quoting number three verbatim. In fact, here it is now:

"3. Goldiggers of 1933 (1933) I can never get enough of this sexy, subversive picture. Though 1930’s Warner Brothers is renown for social dramas like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang or the brilliant Wild Boys of the Road (you must track this down -- an under-seen masterpiece) and classic gangster films like Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson and Public Enemy with James Cagney, they also provided some of cinema’s greatest musicals. My favorite being Gold Diggers of 1933, directed by Fugitive helmer, Mervyn LeRoy and more importantly, choreographed by that mad genius, surrealistic artist Busby Berkeley. With a take on what Americans love most -- money -- the film showcases a bizarre-o number of the famed song "We're in the Money" wherein a comely Ginger Rogers sings it in both English AND Pig Latin. (My God, how I love Ginger -- The Major and the Minor alone). Amazing for its ability to be light fluff, fantastically inventive in terms of set design and costuming and seriously relevant, Goldiggers proves that musicals aren’t mere escapism. And by the time Joan Blondell ends the film with the haunting "Remember My Forgotten Man," in which soldiers from World War I are shown in bread lines, you'll again remember that even the oldest of musicals had something to say. Absolutely sublime."

As I wrote in my comment to this post I can't remember the last time I agreed so totally with something (hell, I disagree with myself half the time). All the movies she mentions are absolute classics (yes, I think the Major and the Minor (1945) is a classic). If you've never heard of our seen Wild Boys of the Road (1933) I'm sorry to say that like many of director William Wellman's early films, it is not yet on DVD. TCM shows it, but too infrequently. It's an unflinching look at some Depression Era teens who take to the rails in an effort to find work and thus support their families and it is superbly told.

Also in 1933 Wellman directed two other outstanding films, Midnight Mary and Heroes for Sale. Heroes is another tough look at the depression featuring one of the most haunting endings in cinema. I first saw it on the big screen at the Pacific Film Archives when they were showing a series of Pre Code films. People who are at all aware of the too brief era (1929-1934) when when Production Code wasn't enforced, assume that movies then were just a bit racier. Yes sex was a topic but so too were social issues. In addition to the aforementioned films, Mayor of Hell (1933) (pictured above), and two other LeRoy films, Five Star Final (1931) and I Am A Fugitive from A Chain Gang (1932) are great examples of Hollywood's willingness to tackle social themes until the production code Nazis assumed power. Incidentally, Warner Brothers was well ahead of other studios in releasing such films.

One could argue that Wellman's Public Enemy (1931) belongs in this category too. It certainly was the forerunner, along with LeRoy's Little Caeser (1931), of gangster films to come. (I'll have a post just about Public Enemy coming soon).

Notice how many of these films were directed by Wellman or LeRoy? Yet today it seems that only true cinephiles have even heard of them. Again it would help if more of their films were on DVD -- let's get on this people.

Like Public Enemy was more than a gangster film, Gold Diggers of 1933 was not just a pretty musical. As Morgan indicates in her post, the Forgotten Man song is a pwowerful conclusion to a Depression Era story. Indeed this, the original and far and away the best of the Gold Diggers films, combined dance, song, romance, laughs and commentary. No explosions or chase scenes though.

Gradually more and more pre code films are appearing on DVD but I reiterate the word gradual. Meanwhile we've always got TCM.

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