The photo above was taken in New York City in 1932, during the nadir of the Great Depression, as a long line of men, jobless and/or homeless, wait for a free dinner at a municipal boarding house. And if you're familiar with the music of that era, you know the subject title are the opening words from the Depression anthem, "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" Here's Bing Crosby's definitive version; it spoke for the desperation of many Americans in 1932:
Many of us have parents or grandparents who lived during those dreadful days, so we can hear firsthand the stories of their struggles. And certainly there are many differences between the plight of 2009 and that of 1932. But with the drastic change in the public mood from just a year ago at this time, there may be an artistic silver lining of sorts...or so says one of the nation's more esteemed film critics.
More than anyone else, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle has generated renewed interest in what has come to be known as the pre-Code era, that period between 1929 and mid-1934 when Hollywood, harnessing its sudden new voice and learning the freedom that came with it, made some of its toughest and most honest films. His books, "Complicated Women" and "Dangerous Men," are must-reads for anyone interested in this remarkable half-decade.
But LaSalle isn't just a historian; he writes effectively on contemporary cinema, and I recommend his blog, "Maximum Strength Mick" (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/mlasalle/index?blogid=38).
In Friday's Chronicle, LaSalle wrote, with a sense of what goes around comes around, that "The Depression has clues about coming films" (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/04/17/MVA3171QM2.DTL). "Are great movies guaranteed in an economic meltdown?" he writes. "Not exactly, but like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, I'm basing my projections on Great Depression models."
He cites as an example the "We're In The Money" song and dance from "Gold Diggers Of 1933." Pure escapism from Busby Berkeley, right? Not exactly. If you've seen the film, he notes, "The police come in and bust up the rehearsal before the dance is even over! The backers have all gone broke, and all the costumes have to be returned."
So what can we expect from movies over the next year or two, given the lag time from writing to production? This, says LaSalle:
* Anti-authority themes. Yesterday's plutocrats are today's AIG and Citigroup.
* Shady heroes. Not necessarily villains or anti-heroes, but folks who will occasionally break the rules...even if they're the good guys. Back in the early thirties, James Cagney made such portrayals an art form. In "Virtue," perhaps Carole Lombard's best pre-Code film if you take "Twentieth Century" out of the mix, she is somewhat shady as the one-time streetwalker Mae.
* Social protest dramas. So, what will be our "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang"?
* Political themes. Last year, we mentioned "Gabriel Over The White House" (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/138321.html), but it wasn't the only film of its time to explore politics. Many other movies discussed topics of the day, such as Prohibition ("The Wet Parade").
* Zaniness, harshness, strangeness. LaSalle tells of a '32 film called "Parachute Jumper," starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the protagonist -- one who smuggles heroin in a small plane. According to LaSalle, "The comedy ends with his shooting down government patrol planes guarding the Canadian border -- and he's the good guy."
LaSalle adds, "In the coming months, comedy will become even harsher, and the usual moral markers that make up our movie formulas will vanish. Good guys won't be good guys, and bad guys won't be bad guys. There will be confusion -- the kind of confusion that sometimes leads to fresh, focused thinking and rich, complex filmmaking."
I hope he's right -- of course, one major difference between 1932 and today is the nature of the film audience. Back then, just about everyone went to the movies (well, when they had some spare change available); today, moviegoing is largely the domain of teens and twentysomethings at the mall. If there is cynicism, it will probably be bolstered with the unsubtle vulgarity this audience demands.
Please check out his article, with hopes that we'll see you at the movies, and not at the unemployment office.