Tag Archives: The Great Depression

Happiness Ahead (1934)

Dick Powell must have accomplished one of the more remarkable mid-career transformations of any actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I still experience a sense of cognitive dissonance whenever I try to think of the boyish, endearing, and dulcet tenor as the wry cynic of hard-boiled noir. He’s convincing in both manifestations, but it’s hard to think of him as the same person.

Happiness Ahead is squarely in the boyish tenor mode of his early years at Warner Bros. The film was released in 1934, around the time the Production Code was more strongly enforced, so there is little to set this film apart as a pre-code film, but it is simple, unpretentious fun.

Joan Bradford (Josephine Hutchinson) is the rich daughter of a wall street tycoon who is bored with her stuffy life and the financial pragmatism of her mother. Her father (John Halliday), however, is sympathetic to her feelings, especially since he worked his way up from newsboy. Her mother wants her to marry an equally rich man, but Joan rebels and goes out on the town to mingle with the masses.

At a Chinese nightclub, she meets Bob Lane (Dick Powell), office manager at a window washing firm and they are instantly attracted to each other. Bob and his party of friends think she’s poor and out of work (the women of the group even offer to help her find a job), so Joan decides to set up an apartment and pretend to be a working class girl like them, fearing knowledge of her wealth would change how they interact with her.

In a way, she’s trying to have the best of both worlds. The camaraderie and unaffected  pleasures of the working classes (roller skating rather than opera and polo) with the wealth to be able to afford to do and live however she chooses (she even rents a piano in her apartment so she can have her new friends over for a party). However, she doesn’t know exactly how to live as a working class girl. She forgets to turn off the lights in her apartment when she leaves (something no person counting their pennies would do) and is nonchalant when one friend breaks the window in her apartment kitchen. In various ways, the film contrasts the way the rich and the poor live, though it seems to want to have it both ways, too. The film ends up like a reverse Cinderella tale for Dick Powell’s Bob.

He works in the office, as well as a window washer (trying to inspire the men, who are being threatened by a rival window washing company – a side-plot that hovers on the periphery of the film). He has a scheme to go into business for himself and he has his sales pitch down pat. And once the misunderstandings that naturally arise when Joan’s deception is discovered are cleared up, you know that his association with her father will bring him unexpected wealth.

The film is a musical, with all the songs sung by Dick Powell (with one duet with Frank McHugh). None of the songs are especially memorable or became standards, but they are pleasant and were composed by Allie Wrubel (who is best remembered for composing the music for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”).

The film also has Warner Brothers’ usual array of character actors: Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins, Jane Darwell. I was a little surprised to see Jane Darwell’s name at the bottom of the cast list, but I don’t think she really achieved wide recognition until she played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve seen her play a motherly sort so often, it was interesting to see her play the sour and irascible landlady in Happiness Ahead.


Posted by on April 19, 2017 in Movies


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Made For Each Other (1939)

downloadI can now be counted as an unabashed fan of Carole Lombard. The first movie I ever saw her in was My Man Godfrey and she was a bit much for me and I stayed away from her films for years. It was my loss, though. The more I see her films, the more brilliant she seems. She combines luminous beauty and depth of feeling with brilliant comic timing and energy.

Made For Each Other is an imperfect movie about the travails of a recently married couple, but allows Carole Lombard to showcase the range of her acting. She plays Jane Mason, the wife of John Mason (James Stewart), who is a lawyer and lives with his mother. The film begins with them just married, crazy in love, and planning to go on their honeymoon to Europe.

But life does not proceed exactly as planned. It’s the depression (the boss wants everyone to take a cut in salary), they live in a small apartment with his querulous and critical mother (Lucile Watson) and John is passed over as a partner by his boss, Judge Doolittle (Charles Coburn). Things become even more strained when they have a child.

Part of the trouble is that John is somewhat meek and disinclined to assert himself, something that Jane takes him to task on (she is definitely the bolder one). She wants him to appreciate his own worth. In some ways, the beginning of the film reminds me of Vivacious Lady, which James Stewart made the previous year with Ginger Rogers and Charles Coburn. In that film, James Stewart is a professor who meets, falls in love with, and marries Rogers all within the space of several hours (just like Made For Each Other), but is too timid to tell his father (Charles Coburn) and generally needs to have his spine stiffened. But Vivacious Lady is purely a comedy. Made For Each Other begins much like a comedy, but veers into melodrama territory by the end. The ending, in particular, is improbable.

But Carole Lombard is a delight as Jane. She absolutely adores John and a large part of the charm of the film is how invested Stewart and Lombard makes the audience in their story, despite its improbabilities. Lombard also demonstrates her excellent comic timing, especially in her interactions with her step-mother, who is never quite satisfied with anything Jane does. Her patience, but also her frustrations, all seemed very believable and it is an interesting look at people trying to get along in a small space. I would have enjoyed more of that and less of the ending race to fly some serum to New York to save their baby from pneumonia.

imagesOkay, apart from the ending, there is one thing I thought was distinctly odd. What is with the string of maids? How are they affording a string of maids (who all give notice for various reasons)? John laments at one point how their marriage is a mistake and how he’s turned Jane into a household drudge because she’s now having to take care of the apartment. My grandmother was married, had five children, took care of the house and frequently worked (at night, so she could be home with the kids). No maid. She never thought of herself as a drudge. She told me people simply did whatever they needed to do. And this was the ’50s, when there was no depression. Hollywood’s idea of how working people lived is certainly curious (my grandmother always gets a laugh whenever she sees a Hollywood “middle-class” family with a housekeeper).

I did find the relationship between Jane and Lily interesting (Lily is their last maid, played by Louise Beavers). In nearly all ways, it is a stereotypical role for Beavers. However, the dynamics stuck out to me. Jane has been looking for work and she and Lily sit down together on the bench and talk. Lily is given dialogue that is stereotyped in the extreme (using watermelons as a metaphor), but the body language and mutual friendship tells a different story. In many films, there can be a tone of condescension used when addressing a black character, but Lombard speaks to Lily just as she would a friend. Even the hug they share when Lily stops by their apartment on New Year’s Eve seems genuine and unforced, like they are really happy to see each other. Oddly enough, Jane’s struggles with poverty has give her common ground with Lily and made them equals in a certain way.

It’s something you see occasionally in depression era films (and WWII films). The sense that the national tragedy or struggle has equalized people to a certain extent. Everyone is fighting the same battle. True unity, the suggestion is, often comes from tragedy and shared struggle. Even the overwrought ending reinforces this. The struggle to save the baby at the end resolves all tensions and troubles, leading to reconciliation and prosperity.

This post is part of “Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel Blogathon.” Reportedly, Stewart and Lombard got on extremely well and Stewart said that Carole Lombard was the only person he knew who could make swearing ladylike. Thanks to In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for hosting!



Posted by on January 18, 2017 in Movies


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Romance in Manhattan (1935) – A Fairy Tale

11223225_oriRomance in Manhattan is a little known, but endearing film starring Ginger Rogers and Francis Lederer; a fairy tale romance that still manages to touch on depression era highlights (highlights that are actually still highlights of today): illegal immigration, strikes, unemployment, a single woman raising a child.

Karel Novak (Francis Lederer) is from Czechoslovakia and has come to America to become a farmer. He believes that the entry fee is $50, but it was recently raised to $200 to keep immigrants from coming in and taking jobs from people already struggling to find work. But Karel has worked years to come to America and knows that if they send him back it will be years more before he can return. In desperation, he jumps ship and swims ashore to New York.

Initially full of wonder and excitement about the new country, soon he’s starving, until a chorus girl helps him out. Sylvia Dennis (Ginger Rogers) doesn’t even bat an eye to find a hungry and disheveled man partaking of the chorus’ donuts (probably not an uncommon sight during the time), and instead offers him more as they sit and talk. Like all Ginger Rogers’ characters, Sylvia is street smart, but warm on the inside. He is naive, eager, enthusiastic and extremely grateful to her and the two of them feel drawn to each other almost instantly. When he won’t take any money from her, she lets him sleep on the roof of her apartment and her younger brother gets him a job as a newspaper boy.

But Sylvia is under a bit of pressure herself. She is the sole guardian of her brother Frank (Jimmy Butler), who keeps skipping school so he can work selling papers, and several members of the school are concerned that Sylvia is not able to raise him properly and want to send him to an institute for orphans. When the show she’s in closes, the pressure mounts. Meanwhile, Karel moves up from being a newspaper boy to a taxi driver and what money he is not giving to help Sylvia he is saving so he can pay the entrance fee and become an American citizen.

Karel loves New York and Sylvia is trying to figure out why

Karel loves New York and Sylvia is trying to figure out why

But even his job evaporates when the taxi drivers go on strike. The school women are concerned that not only is Frank still skipping school, but she has no work and appears to be living with a man and the judge agrees to send Frank to the institute. He says that if Sylvia were to be married, that would be a different thing.

Karel, of course, is desperate to help her, but is powerless because he has no money and is not even a citizen. What he really wants to do is marry Sylvia and so he goes to a lawyer, Halsey J. Pander (Arthur Hohl), who says he can make Karel a citizen, but really plans to turn him in to be deported and collect a reward. Meanwhile, Karel returns to work even though the strike is not yet settled.

And despite all these bleak circumstances the film remains upbeat and optimistic, even though the situation is so bad we need a deus ex machina (a police deus ex machina) to resolved everything.

Francis Lederer and Ginger Rogers are an adorable couple. Lederer began work in German theater and then German silent films (Pandora’s Box) and Romance in Manhattan is one of his earliest films in America. He never became a star and actually seems to have played quite a few villains (and Nazis…though he’s not actually German), but is probably best remembered by classic movie fans as the playboy Jaqcues Picot in Midnight with Claudette Colbert.

Ginger Rogers is clearly not yet the star she would become in the late 1930s and early ’40s. The film largely belongs to Lederer rather than her. She is a bit softer in this one, not quite as sassy as in her later films. But she’s always a joy to watch in anything she made in the 1930s and I have a goal to watch every one of her films in that decade.

I’m always delighted to see Donald Meek in any role and in Romance in Manhattan he plays a much put-upon minister (which feels like I role I’ve seen him in before). J. Farrell MacDonald is the very Irish Officer Murphy, who befriends Karel, though there are a large quantity of very sympathetic policemen around. The wedding at the end is one of the more unusual that you will ever see in a film.

What Romance in Manhattan ultimately is is a fairy tale of urban life, immigrants (Officer Murphy still has his Irish accent) and the depression. Very sweet and enjoyable.

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Posted by on February 1, 2016 in Movies


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