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The Times They Are a Changin’ Back: The Top 10 Old Depression Films for the New Depression

As Barack Obama steps in and tries to rescue the country from itself, practically every pundit worth his salt is equating Obama with Franklin Roosevelt, who took over the reins of government at the height of the Depression in the 1930s and ultimately turned the country around (although it took World War II to really set things straight). But things are different now in our New Depression era — there are no breadlines because the bakeries have closed and no soup kitchens because the soup costs too much to make. There are similarities, however: The movies of the mid-1930s for example. Watching them during these troubling times gives you great insight — not to the Depression era of the 1930s but to the Depression era of 2009. Here’s our list of the best movies of 2009… made in the ’30s:

1. Gabriel Over the White House (La Cava, 1933)
One of the biggest hits of 1933 but relegated to the bowels of obscurity today, Gregory La Cava’s totalitarian fantasy is just the thing for Barack Obama to look at to give him some cutting edge ideas on the most effective ways to run a country in the grip of a new Depression. Walter Huston plays a political hack elected as President (sound familiar?) who could care less about rampant unemployment, housing foreclosures, mass starvation, and political corruption until a car accident renders him senseless and comatose. In this vegetative state, Huston is visited by the angel Gabriel and comes out of his coma infused with a messianic zeal to right the wrongs of the body politic. So when he asks Congress for a $4 billion stimulus package (money was worth more back then) ‘to stimulate buying power’ and is refused, Huston dissolves Congress, declares martial law, and sets up a benevolent fascist dictatorship to do the work that needs to be done. If Obama sees this film and acts upon it, 2009 should be a very interesting year.

2. Duck Soup (McCarey, 1933)
Since the government of the United States looks like it is being run by the Marx brothers, you may as well get to the source, the anarchic and subversive Marx brothers’ political romp Duck Soup. A few years ago at a Senate hearing investigating the Iraq War, a Senator commented on the Bush administration’s disregard for the facts by actually quoting Chico in Duck Soup: ‘Who ya gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?’ Here, Groucho plays a corrupt political hack running the government of Freedonia into the ground. When things get bad, he suckers the nation into his way of thinking by toting out patriotism. Grab a gun and end the economic downturn. Sound familiar? Freedom fries, anyone?

3. American Madness (Capra, 1932)
Frank Capra’s first Capra-esque ode to miraculous optimism is, like all Capra films, mostly about the pessimism inherent in us all. Walter Huston plays populist bank president Thomas Dickson, a man who believes in micro-credit, lending money to people who need it in a 1930s version of the Grameen Bank. But when Dickson’s fat cat board of directors get wind of a bank loss, they try to wrest control of the operation from Dickson, and all hell breaks loose, culminating in Dickson’s beloved depositors going into riot mode to withdraw their funds. Dickson’s defense of his business practices to the venal bank CEOs and his cry for the banks to stop hoarding money could have been transcribed from a contemporary Senate committee hearing… only in today’s climate there is no Dickson to speak on the behalf of the poor depositors who have lost their credit and their dignity.

4. Dinner at Eight (Cukor, 1933)
George Cukor directed this film version of the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber comedy at the height of the Depression in 1933, the whole shebang shot in Hollywood while at the same time a special session of Congress in Washington was hammering out the New Deal relief legislation. Status seeker Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) is throwing a dinner party for a collection of rich hoi polloi (Marie Dressler, Wallace Berry, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore) but, like a group of AIG executives, they are all a bunch of crooks and phonies. Give MGM credit for fashioning an all-star film of wit and high comedy about bankruptcy, ill health, economic ruin, and suicide.

5. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Capra, 1936)
It took Frank Capra to have a nervous breakdown in order to hatch this tale of pure American schmaltz concerning Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a greeting card writer from the small town of Mandrake Falls, who inherits $20 million and, at the behest of a group of nefarious lawyers and businessmen, heads to The Big City, where he is mocked and humiliated and, after an unemployed man breaks into his mansion and threatens his life, decides to give away his fortune to the poor rather than provide a bailout to big business interests. As he explains, ‘It like I’m out there in a big boat and I see one fellow in a rowboat who’s tired of rowing and wants a free ride, and another fellow who’s drowning. Who would you expect me to rescue? Mr Cedar — who’s just tired of rowing and wants a free ride? Or those men out there who are drowning? Any ten year old child will give you an answer to that.’ Of course, Deeds is then locked up in the mental ward and dubbed screwy.

6. The Gold Diggers of 1933 (LeRoy and Berkeley, 1933)
Producer Ned Sparks tries to convince actress Aline MacMahon to get on board his ramshackle Broadway musical production by telling her about the theme of the show: ‘The gay side, the hard-boiled side, the cynical and funny side of the Depression. I’ll make ’em laugh at you starving to death, honey. It’ll be funniest thing you ever did.’ Busby Berkeley’s lunatic and bitter phantasmagoria could certainly be interpolated to the massive closures of Broadway shows at the start of 2009 and the collapse of arts funding for theaters nationwide. Berkeley ends his bubbly tribute to economic collapse with the startling ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ production number, featuring army veterans without jobs, suicidal wives, and bread lines — with the only person managing to hold a job being the local whore (Joan Blondell). Even the opening number ‘We’re in the Money’ ends abruptly with a sheriff busting into the dance and foreclosing on the production.

7. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, 1939)
Dust bowl foreclosures, starving families, desperate people searching for their do-re-mi. 2009 ain’t the Dust Bowl times, thank God, but who knows what the future holds: For one thing, California is no longer the Garden of Eden. Although John Ford’s film came out at the end of the Depression era, the values still hold up in today’s era of tanking real estate prices. Muley Graves’ unrequited desire to shoot somebody when told to vacate his home by a finance company stooge is probably being played out today in the locked doorways of Las Vegas condos and Florida real estate developments. The ghost of Tom Joad lives on.

8. Heroes For Sale (Wellman, 1933)
Bleak cynicism is writ large in William Wellman’s dark Depression nightmare. Richard Barthemess in Tom Holmes, a war hero whose heroism is stolen from him by a pal who takes all the credit. Tom ends up in a hospital where he becomes addicted to morphine, racking up a $200 a day habit. He is sent to a drug farm to dry out, gets a job in a laundry, is arrested for inciting a riot, and ends up a bum on a freight train. When Tom gets hold of money, he wants to share it with the poor workers and is slapped down for his troubles and most of the people he runs across stab him in the back. Tom’s innocence becomes repellent — especially when he comes across a reformed Communist. ‘You used to hate the capitalists,’ Tom remarks. ‘That was before I made money’ is the retort. All you folks at Walter Reed take heed.

9. Hallelujah I’m a Bum (Milestone, 1933)
Lewis Milestone directed this subversive Rodgers and Hart musical, written by the cynical pen of Ben Hecht and delivered in rhyming dialogue. This Communist allegory concerns an army of homeless people who happily live off the fruits of nature in Central Park post-capitalism with the philosophy of ‘don’t worry, be happy.’ Al Jolson plays a roving bum who is the mayor of the homeless and silent film comedy star Harry Langdon is a rabid Trotskyite garbage man. You can’t get more incendiary than an Eisensteinian montage of poverty set to the tune of ‘America’ or a pre-Godard tracking shot of bank customers inside a gigantic bank edifice of the empyrean realm. You happy hoboes sing, ‘Hallelujah, I’m a Bum’ again.

10. Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936)
Chaplin goes nuts on an assembly line, grapples for food to keep from starving, can’t hold a job, and gets arrested for being a Communist ring leader. The best time he has is when he’s in jail and is disappointed when he has to leave. He takes up with a street urchin (Paulette Goddard), and they create an ersatz nuclear family in a shotgun shack. The way things are going we should all look forward to this. But we should also look forward to the hope Chaplin offers. With despair all around, we need each other more than ever. When Chaplin walks into the sunrise at the end of Modern Times, for the first time in the closing scene that ends most of his films, he is no longer alone at the fade out. Now he has someone with him.

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