Daily Archives: October 14, 2009

Films of and about the Great Depression

A mix of contemporary and contemporaneous films from and about the Great Depression, in no particular order:

Of Mice and Men (Malkovitch and Sinise as Lenny and George)

Cradle Will Rock (A love letter to the Federal Theater Project, starring Bill Murray, John Turturro, et al)

Our Daily Bread and Other Films of the Great Depression (The title film was produced in 1934, and additional material includes a set of documentaries: California Election News Nos. 1 &2, which were produced by MGM to undermine Upton Sinclair’s bid for governor. Also, The Plow that Broke the Plains, The River, Power and the Land, and The New Frontier.)

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (from the novel by Horace McCoy, starring Jane Fonda)

Pennies From Heaven (Steve Martin tap dances and obsesses over lipstick)

To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Duvall plays Boo Radley. Greg Peck as Atticus Finch.)

The Grapes of Wrath (The classic film. Released in 1940.)

The Education of Little Tree


Thomas Hart Benton (K. Burns doc.)

Bonnie and Clyde (interesting how many Hollywood films of the 60s focused on the 30s)

Mudhoney (Russ Meyer’s version of the 30s and the film that named the band)

The Land (a US Agriculture Dept. doc. of the Depression circa ’41)

PBS’ series The Great Depression

Goldiggers of 1933 (the Buzby Berkeley extravaganza!)

Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson as Rico, a thug on the rise to power)

Duck Soup (crucial viewing  if only b/c it suggests the revolutionary conditions of the US. “All Hail Freedonia”! offers a window into Jewish theatrical traditions, older 19th century forms and newer (musical in particular) ones. Harpo’s incipient insanity is a nice contrast to the brooding tone of most Depression texts. Chico, et al provide insight into the construction of ethnic ‘types’ and Groucho’s non sequiturs can be seen as a kind of vaudevillean Dada. A lot of insurgent content gets through because of the musical-comedy form.)

The Public Enemy

Dead End (Lillian Hellmann’s screenplay. Joseph Cotton as the proletarian hero. Bogie almost looks younger than 40 here. Other young-Bogie flicks: Petrified Forest and High Sierra.)

Scarface (there’s no chainsaw in the shower sequence, but this is essentially the same story as the Al Pacino version which was transposed to Miami and generally enraged most Cuban Americans)

King Kong (cutting edge fx and fear of the black masculine primitive)

Freaks (do not see sober)

I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (based on actual events and the cause of some reform in prison conditions [though notably chaingangs are a staple again in the South])

Smart Money

Ironweed (based on a William Kennedy novel. stars Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Life on the downslope.)

Road to Perdition. (Jude Law uglies up for dramatic effect in this adaptation of Max Collins’ graphic novel.)

O Brother Where Art Thou? (The Cohen bros. comedy based in part on Homer’s Odyssey)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen’s homage to 30s cinema-going).

Dogville (Lars Von Trier, one of the most interesting working directors in the world, directed this harsh story of small town life in the Great Depression)

Brother Can You Spare a Dime? (fantastic doc. from the 1970s which uses newsreel and film footage to describe the Great Depression)

Dinner at Eight (an ensemble comedy of manners. Jean Harlow and the Barrymores)

She Done Him Wrong (one of Mae West’s best films, though when I watched it recently I had a much greater sense of her place w/in fin-de-siecle cultural production– not just that the setting’s 1890s but her act is mainly v-ville.)

It Happened One Night (Clark Gable shirtless! Claudette Colbert’s fabulous gams!)

Ruggles of Red Gap (hilarious)

My Man Godfrey (Wm. Powell is one of my favorite dead actors)

The Awful Truth (Cary Grant, Irene Dunne)

His Girl Friday (ahh, the diction of patriarchy)

Red Dust (Hard lovin, boozin and fightin with Harlowe and Gable on a rubber plantation in Indochina. Gable, just before he gets shot: “sure I’m drunk. That’s why I’m telling you the truth.”)

Fury (Fritz Lang, dir. Spencer Tracy stars in this tale of mob violence and rough justice)

Lost Horizon (Frank Capra’s orientalist dream of utopia)

Satan Met A Lady (the first film version of The Maltese Falcon, played as a comedy, with Bette Davis as the Brigid O’Shaughnessy character, an improvement over Mary Astor in the 1941 Bogie film though still not as I envision her from Hammett’s novel.)

Of Human Bondage (no, not that kind of bondage. Based on the book by Somerset Maugham. Bette Davis does an outstanding performance as a slatternly tea-room attendant to Leslie Howard’s glum Philip Carey)

Bureau of Missing Persons (another Davis vehicle, this is a kind of police procedural [stories from the files of the BMP] with a narrative of Davis as the fatal woman.)

Libeled Lady (totally screwball: Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Wm. Powell, and Jean Harlow [who is fantastic]. Tangled affections and romantic twists among the wealthy.)

Boystown (features an irritatingly irrepressible Mickey Rooney and a beatific Spencer Tracy. One of the most interesting things about it is Rooney’s blackface turn, but that’s just a momentary tangent to the primary story of Father Flanagan’s unflagging belief that “there are no bad boys”.)

Strange Cargo (a penal colony flick. Clark Gable and Joan Crawford brave the jungles and high seas to escape to Cuba.)

Blood & Sand (Tyrone Power performs the rise and fall of an illiterate Spanish bullfighter.)

The Great Zeigfield (a 3 hour musical extravaganza with massive sets and women dressed like hood ornaments, even a minstrel performance by Eddie Cantor which is simultaneously appalling and compelling.)