Sunday, July 25, 2010

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Great Depression

This clip from Torch Singer (1933) starring Claudette Colbert is a wonderful encapsulation of a certain level of Depression entertainment which affirms just how hard things are, and how you can change them if you just seize hold of your opportunities. This was the dominant economic mythology of the era, and it may have helped America survive it.

It also confirms that sometimes the only way to be a mother is to reject full-time motherhood. Poor Claudette is lumbered with a baby which she is pressured by the nuns to surrender, so she becomes hard-boiled Claudette--don't miss the last minute or so of this clip as you see her moving up the entertainment ladder from gin mill to swanky Broadway club. When she suddenly substitutes for a would-be children's radio entertainer, she re-connects with her inner Mommy, which takes her on the road to reclaiming her child.

Which introduces another theme of this movie--how radio permits the creation and adoption of a fabricated identity. And the anonymity works both ways. When Colbert tries to find her daughter by reaching out to all the girls with her name, her search takes her to a little black girl in a slum. But the film sidesteps both minstrel humor and condescension, and Colbert immediately masks her disappointment at not finding her girl and goes ahead and has a lovely visit with the girl.

As one might expect, the film provides a reunion for the parents, who now see that they could indeed make a life together and all is neatly resolved, but after all, stories do have to have ends. Most people wouldn't be satisified with same s***, different day as the ending of a movie. But I can't help suspecting that that is exactly how Depression filmmakers would have liked to end their films. (And how, in the case of I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Heroes for Sale, they did end the film.)

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