Posted by moirafinnie on July 29, 2009
There do seem to be a few hopeful signs of life in the economy lately. This is despite the recent flurry of talking heads who have had a field day comparing today with the era of 80 years ago.
Maybe it is feeling awfully 1929ish for some of us. Since I’ve already gone through a quiet tailoring of my own expectations, thanks to several rides on our society’s never-ending carousel of economic mobility, I set my cap at a rakish angle and decided to enjoy my personal freedom from the burden of luxury some time ago. Consequently, I am always curious about the alternating airs of despair and elation and hope heard in movies of the 1930s.
No matter what this new world brings, I suspect that many of us will inevitably turn to classic movies to look for some sense of perspective on this experience. So, if you are ready to don that hopeful, brave mask, let’s breeze through a look at a unique movie, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) that was made by people who were surfing on the crest of an economic tsunamis–classic Hollywood style.
Last time there was a real Great Depression, the movies offered several examples of behavior to deal with the reduced circumstances faced by millions. Turning to movies as an affordable escape from reality, what did audiences find?
Intrepid girl wing walkers in their scanties hanging onto airplanes while flying down to Rio and Fred and Ginger gliding across a gleaming white art deco sound stage. Sympathetic and violent miscreants unwilling and unable to curb their anti-social tendencies and their tommy guns toward an unjust society, (Scarface, Public Enemy, I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, etc.). Con men and women fleecing the rubes and the wealthy–and usually teaching them to like it, (High Pressure, The Mind Reader, Hard to Handle, etc.). Cynical, crusading reporters exposing the rot–and the heart–beneath society’s crust, ( The Front Page, Libeled Lady and let’s not forget those groundbreaking feminist movies devoted to the exploits of Torchy Blane and Nancy Drew).
Director William Wellman brought some of the more realistic and memorable portraits of the era to life in the extraordinary Heroes For Sale (1933) and Wild Boys of the Road (1933). Gregory LaCava put an audacious, funny face on the situation in My Man Godfrey (1936), and of course, Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley brought down the house with their take on Gold Diggers of 1933.
A sub-genre of Depression era movies were those that espoused the “joys of poverty”, extolling the power of romance and even song as an antidote to despair. Sure, John Maynard Keynes and even Milton Friedman might find these cinematic answers to those unpaid bills fairly insipid, but these curios are sometimes touching and often entertaining too.
Several films adopted an indifferent attitude in the wake of macroeconomic woes affecting the lives and dreams of their characters. Frank Borzage explored this theme repeatedly in such movies as Man’s Castle (1933) and Little Man, What Now (1934), with characters espousing the belief that “[w]hen people have nothing, they behave like human beings”, as the footloose bum Spencer Tracy tells his girl, Loretta Young in Man’s Castle. Many of those movie bums who knocked on the back door of a Depression era home might just be looking for a fair shake and a bite to eat, but a few movies went so far as to glorify the life of a hobo, including Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), which had more than its share of talent and expectations.
The subversive mini-genre enshrining the drifters among us may have had its roots in Charlie Chaplin‘s sweet-natured, feckless Little Tramp, but the French seemed to have pointed the way toward talkies with a bit of an edge about human nature and the political climate in the period, with René Clair’s delightfully anarchic À nous la Liberté (1931) and Jean Renoir’s salty look at the corrosive effect of a bohemian Michel Simon on a bourgeois household in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) .
Leave it to the Americans to take it one step further, (though with some decidedly mixed results). As a matter of fact, there were a flurry of hobo-as-hero movies around this time. There’s the pre-code Union Depot (1932-Alfred Green) with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. at his early, scruffy best as a guy on his uppers and down to his last, aided and abetted in his roustabout adventures around a busy urban train station by a relatively innocent if clear-eyed Joan Blondell and hapless Guy Kibbee.
The appealing Blondell also took up with an equally penniless Wallace Ford in Central Park (1932-John Adolfi), though that film veered away from the underlying destitution into a knockabout programmer with broad comic overtones. Still another movie, Pennies From Heaven (1936-Norman Z. McLeod) romanticized the experience of being on the bum even further, (with no connection other than musically to Dennis Potter‘s brilliant seventies mini-series and the later Steve Martin movie). During the course of several tuneful, if meandering sequences, highlighted by Louis Armstrong’s knockout presence, free spirit Bing Crosby reaches out to help the gamine Edith Fellowes and her delightfully vague guardian Donald Meek, despite Crosby’s laissez faire slogan that “I envy nobody and I’m sure nobody envies me.”
Another, less well known film along these same lines was One More Spring (1935), a lovely little gem from Fox directed with some tenderness by Henry King from a Robert Nathan novel. Featuring a character of a former antiques dealer Warner Baxter, an unemployed actress (Janet Gaynor) and a concert violinist (Walter King) as three desperately poor souls who set up housekeeping together surreptitiously in a maintenance shed in Central Park. The movie even features a crestfallen businessman Grant Mitchell contemplating suicide, an inevitable theme in a grim situation.
All these American movies, along with Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, shared an interest in documenting palatable aspects of life on the edge of poverty and finding ways of facing despair. They softened their material more than a little bit for already chagrined audiences, but sometimes featured a bit of real bite. In each film, with differing degrees of sentiment and box office success, (mostly negative), disparate characters form an improvised family unit, often against their better judgment. They are drawn to one another by a brief moment of pity for another person struggling to survive, or the promise of a payday, a chance to eat, and ultimately, an admission of need for one another. What makes Hallelujah, I’m a Bum distinctive among them are several problematical but intriguing creative ingredients in this movie that make it work on some level, part of the time:
The Economic Reality:
Well, if it starred mega-star Al Jolson, the answer seemed to be “perhaps” at best. After his third flop in a row for Warner Brothers, the singer seemed ready to honor a contract with United Artists. That contract and the troubled movie began when Jolson and Joseph Schenck, wrote their agreement on a paper bag that had held their lunch while the pair of high rollers sunbathed on a Palm Springs roof one bright day in 1928. The portents for musicals, especially those starring The Jazz Singer seemed less sunny to many by 1932 when Hallelujah, I’m a Bum began production. Numerous concepts and re-writes had been ordered, originally hired composer Irving Caesar and his songs had been jettisoned, casting changes had occurred, and three directors had worked on the project. By the time the movie was completed it had gone through the titles Happy Go Lucky, Heart of New York, (which became the film’s retitled release name in the ’40s), The New Yorker and The Optimist before borrowing the final title (a new song using an old song title) from a legendary, light-hearted anthem of the Wobblies, the radical union known as the International Workers of the World.*
The film makers even had to change the final working title to Hallelujah, I’m a Tramp for the British market, re-recording the title song as well, since “bum” had a rude connotation in the English idiom that was unacceptable at the time. During all this, Jolson was still making demands and pulling down a remarkable salary, adding to the then staggering production costs of over an estimated million dollars. When the Oscar-winning Lewis Milestone finally took over as director and began working with Rodgers and Hart, the movie may have already had an air of impending doom.
One relatively latecomer to the project, composer Richard Rodgers, was leery of Hollywood in general, Jolson in particular, and the topical material as well. Yet, since Rodgers and his talented writing partner lyricist Larry Hart were Hollywood’s darlings for the moment, and Hart had a deep awe for Al Jolson, they signed on after much of the originally photographed film was scrapped, agreeing to begin again.
Rodgers later wrote that he felt that since homelessness was not a matter of choice for most people, he was always unsure “that many people…thought it was something to laugh about.” However, it may have appeared that anything was possible for Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who were riding high after turning out the exquisitely rendered Love Me Tonight (1932) at Paramount under the adroit direction of Rouben Mamoulian. Successfully experimenting with the use of their original music, rhymed dialogue and song as well as sound effects on film, Rodgers and Hart became Hollywood’s darlings for the moment when that Chevalier-MacDonald film became a hit in what many now regard as one of the best movie musicals. Their next original project for the movies, The Phantom President (1932-Norman Taurog), was less successful, though the songwriting team continued to use rhythmic dialogue throughout the movie. The film’s limpness may be due in part to George M. Cohan‘s discomfort in a Hollywood where he felt that few knew or cared about his storied theatrical achievements. The truth is, Cohan also did not enjoy working on a project that he could not creatively control as well. He reportedly tried to incorporate his own songs into the score, but the often tepid film remains fascinating, simply because it offers us one of the few times we can see this legendary performer, (and the stiff-legged dancing style imitated with such verve by James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy).
Adding Hart’s rhymed dialogue to two thirds of the picture, using the Ben Hecht and S.N. Behrman script, the songwriters created a whimsical romantic musical about a New York- based hobo, Bumper, (Al Jolson) who is such a blithe spirit and exuberant proponent of the laid back life without care, he is regarded as “the Mayor of Central Park” by his peers. He is able to float above any petty class concerns, palling around with the real mayor of New York, (played by Frank Morgan in that brief jealous lover phase of his career). Bumper’s life centers on his relationship with the adoring denizens of the park, including his close pal Acorn (African-American performer Edgar Connor who is not given a great deal to do, other than grin) though he deigns to be friends with a sanitation worker who spouts some Marxist rhetoric, but who comes off more prissy than radical . The street cleaner is called Egghead and is played by silent comedian Harry Langdon, whose main contribution to the oddness of the proceedings is his labeling of mounted policemen in the park as “Hoover’s cossacks”. Sunday, a carriage driver is played by Chester Conklin, who had appeared with both Mack Sennett‘s Keystone Kops and Charlie Chaplin. None of these actors is allowed to outshine the star for a moment. As you can see in the following clip, Jolson is the focus of his Merry Men (and a few women) who occupy the park. This glimpse also gives you a feel for the Eisenstein-influenced montage effects and the highly mobile camera work that Milestone and his cinematographer Lucien Andriot brought to this fascinating, if rather odd material:
The story meanders quite a bit when Bumper finds a purse with a thousand dollars and when he becomes a wage slave, after initiating an ill-fated love affair with an amnesiac he has saved from suicide by drowning, (played by the under-utilized Madge Evans, with a decoratively blank face and elegant form like an elegant art deco sculpture). His fey lady love is, it is later revealed, the misunderstood mistress of the mayor(–though I preferred her when she played the fey “Angel”, child of nature taken in by Jolson). Taking a job in a bank to provide “Angel” with the necessities of life, the philosophical Bumper transforms himself into wage slave in a bank, and eventually relinquishes her to the mayor, after her memory is restored (in one of those “only in the movies” scenes that reinforces her mechanical character). Interestingly, there is never a moment when it is suggested that “Angel” actually look for work to support herself.
The adventurous United Artists film that resulted from all the talents involved had three quarters of the film with either spoken or sung rhythmic cadences, with lyrics and much of the dialogue flowing from the pen of Lorenz Hart, and some pretty melodies from Rodgers. Several of the tunes, especially the lovely “You Are Too Beautiful”, and the opening song, “”I Gotta Get Back to New York” are truly enjoyable and imaginatively staged. Jolson and his sidekick Connor‘s trip back (from a “vacation”) to the Big Apple is part of a delightful opening sequence, and the melodic “You Are Too Beautiful” is sung to Evans by a restrained Jolson in a quietly beautiful moment as the pair watch an Edward Hopper-like scene of silhouetted couples dancing in an adjoining building.
Yet other musical interludes, such as the “Kangaroo Court” song, seen below, when Bumper’s fellow bums put him on mock trial for going to work, are well staged, but the songs are generally not memorable, especially when compared to Rodgers and Hart’s notable contributions to the American Songbook up till then, which included “Lover”, ” Spring Is Here”, “”Isn’t It Romantic” and “Manhattan” prior to this score. More significantly, the seriousness of country’s situation and the levity of this musical approach to poverty, despair and survival makes the story seem more removed from an overwhelming reality–though that was perhaps the film makers’ goal. While I realize that looking for shreds of realism in a musical is a bit like watching film noirs for the cogent plots, in this movie, the circumstances seem forced a bit, despite the talent on display.
I must admit I kept being reminded of the similarity between this strangely sentimental kangaroo court and the grim one formed by the circle of underworld characters in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Do you think that Milestone was influenced a bit by the German director?:
The film, which opened to a resounding critical and popular thud in 1933, would prompt Richard Rodgers to later reflect that “[w]e tried to keep the score relatively light, but we were defeated by the theme.” Surprisingly, they weren’t, in my view, defeated by Al Jolson.
For many present day classic film fans, Al Jolson–especially in blackface–is painful to watch most of the time. I’m one of those who is repulsed by them, which is hardly surprising, but my ambivalence about Jolson is also a reaction to his overall intensity, that “love me or I’ll die!” attitude when it comes to performing. Perhaps minimalist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe concept of “less is more” was never something that “Jolie” knew or could adapt to on film. Born Asa Yoelson was born in Seredzius a Jewish village (or schetel) in Imperial Russia in 1886, he was already in his forties by the time he made his film debut. The man’s large talent reportedly was matched by an equal amount of insecurity masked as arrogance, and he didn’t seem to be able to translate his theatrical style to the cooler medium of film.
Those now bizarre, ghastly blackface routines make him seem so alien though he was hardly alone in adopting this theatrical technique to the movies. Sure, many films and exceptional film stars, from Myrna Loy, who was justifiably ashamed by her appearance in the quasi-silent, Ham and Eggs at the Front (1927), to James Cagney in Here Comes the Navy (1936) to Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936) and Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942), featured embarrassingly non-ironic blackface routines, (often presented as alleged “homages” to the great tradition of African-American performers). But as offended as modern-day viewers are by such antics, few of us realize that minstrel shows have deep roots in American theatrical tradition.
Jolson‘s performances, aside from the moments when his apparent naked “need” to be loved by the audience, seem devoid of conscious malice and have considerable artistry when singing, though his acting was so broad that you can’t quite believe he was a real person, since all his tics and gestures seem geared to reach the back row of a Broadway house–and can be painfully broad in the revelatory glare of the camera. The good news is that Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) was a step forward for Jolson as an actor First, he eschewed blackface, as he’d done once before in Say It with Songs (1929), but he also gave a likable performance, almost devoid of the insistently needy mannerisms of his earlier work. When the camera moves in under Milestone‘s deft hand, particularly in the quieter scenes between Evans and Jolson, the viewer sees a pain and sensitivity in the performer’s eyes that is not readily apparent in his other movies most of the time.
Faced with the failure of this film which was a departure for him, the following year, Jolson returned to his familiar form. On the set of Wonder Bar (1934), a nightclub film replete with pre-code innuendo and an amusing cast that included a lively Delores Del Rio, Dick Powell and Kay Francis, the star singer dominates the proceedings. The movie is highly enjoyable for the singer’s sometimes sly eye-rolling and mocking asides, as well as sheer bravado and singing talent, but, true to his own increasingly out of date instincts, Jolson returned to the screen with what remains one of the more egregious blackface routines. Not surprisingly, this was one of the last of the performer’s leading roles on film, who would appear in supporting roles by the end of the decade. Jolson’s fame would be renewed when he returned to prominence via his wartime appearances and the two biographical films that featured Larry Parks performing his alleged life story in the forties.
Jolson uses his steamroller personality to make something as odd as Wonder Bar (1934), work, despite the relatively hackneyed material, which includes the ghastly “Going to Heaven on a Mule” number seen below. Despite his clinging to this bizarre theatrical tradition of blackface, there is still something beguiling about Jolson‘s style.
This rarely seen film, which faded from public view for many years after its initial failure, despite the many talented hands involved, has re-emerged critically since the 1960s, when no less than Pauline Kael praised it as a “graceful romantic comedy” with elements that were “stylized, sophisticated and lyrical”.
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), which is available on DVD, will be broadcast on TCM on Oct 8th, 2009 at 9:45 PM ET. Judge for yourself if this musical experiment works.
* The title song of the movie Hallelujah, I’m a Bum is derived from a song that was allegedly found scribbled on the wall of a Kansas City jail cell by “One-Finger Ellis’, an old hobo, who was recovering from an overdose of rotgut whiskey for a night in the jail. The song, by the time of this movie musical, had become identified with the “The Wobblies”, the radical labor organization known as I.W.W. by the early years of the 1900s. You can see the original words to Hallelujah, I’m a Bum here.
Barrios, Richard, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, Oxford University Press, 1995.
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