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I finally made it over to the Pacific Film Archive's Pre-Code film series last night. It was a double bill of Warner Brothers films originally released a week apart in June 1933, both of which have a lot to say about depression-era society: Heroes For Sale starring Richard Barthelmess, and The Mayor of Hell, starring James Cagney.
Edith Kramer was on hand to introduce the films, and she pointed out that the Warner studio of this era was famous for pulling storylines for its movies out of the latest newspapers. Thus their films gained a reputation for having a "real-life" feel to them, as opposed to (though I'm drifting from Kramer's point and over-generalizing) the dreamy confections of Paramount or the glamorous, middlebrow-oriented efforts of MGM. Sometimes, I feel, it makes Warner films seem a little unfocused, as if there was uncertainty about exactly how to combine the latest news stories. But one advantage is that the audience can get a running start at understanding a character if he or she seems to be just like someone we've read about in a newspaper; it's another weapon alongside the star persona and the stereotype in helping make characters quickly relatable so we can get on with the story. And though one might think it would make it harder for the films to hold up to modern scrutiny, there are so many pre-code Warner films that are perfectly enjoyable today, from Gold Diggers of 1933 (playing the PFA at 5:30 this Sunday) to Doctor X to Five Star Final to Night Nurse that the notion falls apart.
Though on a first pass neither Heroes for Sale nor the Mayor of Hell holds up quite as well as those four films, they both are well worth a look if you're interested in film and/or politics of 1933. Both films allow the viewer to dream about an alternative to the kind of democracy found in the "real world". Former legionnaire "Wild Bill" Wellman directed Heroes For Sale, which probably explains why the opening scenes of cowardice and betrayal on the battlefield of World War I feel particularly unglamorous. Richard Barthelmess (who six years later got to play the coward-makes-good role in Only Angels Have Wings) comes back from the war a morphine addict, thanks to a stay in a German P.O.W. hospital. He gets a job in a bank, thanks to the officer who took credit for his war heroism. But his addiction gets the better of him and he is forced to go into rehab, even though he knows the stigma of it will break his mother's heart. Upon release he makes a fresh start working at a laundry, where he helps introduce a labor-saving device that eventually loses him a job, along with most of the factory's employees. Wrongly accused of leading a full-scale worker's revolt, he lands in jail and eventually on the road as a tramp trying to make his way through the Great Depression.
It's a lot of plot to cram into 70-something minutes. I didn't even go into the family he starts with Loretta Young, the "female best friend" role played by Aline MacMahon, Robert Barrat's knee-jerk communist character and his sudden transformation, and of course the ending which brings the story full circle. It's too much to really process in one viewing really. But I did want to comment on a fascinating aspect of the Barthelmess character in the second half of the film: his place in the boxcars and under the bridges of the American countryside is not the result merely of bad luck or bad character; on the contrary, he takes a moral stance to join the downtrodden as a sort of penance for his previous ambitiousness. Thus we have, despite Robert Barrat's cartoonish portrayal of a socialist, a real socialist message at the heart of the film.
The Mayor of Hell is even richer with political significance, as well as with stereotyped characterizations. James Cagney's standard gangster character is plopped down in a reform school. The group of boys we follow into the school are portrayed in the spirit of Our Gang (at least one of the kids is played by a former member of the Hal Roach troupe, Allen "Farina" Hopkins), though just enough older and meaner to make for a drama rather than comedy. The headmaster (Dudley Digges) cuts corners, cooks the books, and intentionally breaks the spirit of his charges. When Cagney gets appointed Deputy Commissioner as a political favor, he expects it to be a source for more gravy until he falls in love with the school nurse (Madge Evans), whose copy of a book called "Fundamental Principles of Juvenile Government" inspires him to reform the school based on an idealized democratic model. The youths select their own mayor (the brainy kid), police chief (a brawny kid with an Edward G. Robinson affectation), and treasurer (the meek Jewish kid, of course). Everything works swimmingly until Cagney gets drawn into the world of his criminal connections in the city, and in his absence democracy breaks down into fascism followed by violent revolution.
Though the film has a scapegoat in the form of Mr. Thompson the headmaster, its clear that, just as the cringe-worthy stereotypes of the boys' parents pleading for their children at juvenile court shows the family to be ineffectual in the face of youth crime, so too is the state unequipped to deal with it. It is corrupt and over-authoritarian. The only hope for social change is pinned onto Cagney the benevolent gangster, a man who can fix the system by moving around its traditions and laws. Though it seems naive that the delinquents so neatly accept Cagney's program for change (though the film acknowledges the importance, and the difficulty, of having the youths' self-appointed leaders buy in first), it's clear that the film is suggesting this method of revitalizing American government and democracy. And it's fascinating that the impetus for reform comes through a woman. The message, of course, is that men are corrupt but some can become uncorrupted through love.
Whew! Wrote more on those than I'd expected to. But before I go, I have some good news and some bad news. First the bad news: I've been informed (by separate sources) that, not only has the Red Vic's Midnights For Maniacs series I mentioned in a previous entry been cancelled, but also that neither the Four Star nor the Presidio will host midnight movies this year either (counter to long-standing rumor). Looks like the last few chances for midnight movies this summer are all at the Bridge: Barbarella on July 30, Teen Witch August 6, Showgirls August 12-13 and the Underground Film Festival August 20.
The good news: the schedules for the Asian Film Festival to be held August 11-21 at the Four Star and the Presidio are floating around the city. Pick one up and let me know what you're excited to see!