Migrant Mothers & Gold Diggers

(the first of three installments)

I was watching Gold Diggers of 1933 the other day… (NB: the subtitle of this blog is “rants and reflections of a middle-aged homosexual”; if you’ve read this far, you’ve given up any right to act shocked or disappointed that this very first post is about a movie musical).

And while movie musicals as a group leave me a little cold, this depression-era wonder opened my eyes in many ways. Hollywood in the 1930s must have been an interesting place. But because of its influence on the perceptions and opinions of an entire generation, I suspect Hollywood helped to make every town in America an interesting place for a collision of political ideas and ideologies.

I’ll torment you with more about Gold Diggers of 1933 in later posts. But for this one, I’ll focus on a particular item that caught my interest.

The Mother of Remember My Forgotten ManAt right is a still from the movie’s big musical finale, “Remember My Forgotten Man.” As the still suggests, this particular piece of Busby Berkeley brilliance isn’t quite the visual confection his name usually brings to mind. LIke those other numbers, this one starts as a believable stage production and then slips into the realm of pure movie-making. And, like those, it makes breathtaking use of the camera’s ability to transport the audience far away from where they sit in the theater. It’s exhilarating and inspiring.

Rather than invite the audience to forget the Depression, Gold Diggers is all about the Depression: evading the landlord, stealing milk from a neighbor’s fire escape, and piecing together a single outfit suitable for a job interview from the closets of several different girls. All that entertains its audience with wit and a healthy dose of cynicism. But this big finale goes much darker in its tone and its message.

“Remember My Forgotten Man” is Berkeley’s inspired paean to those boys who spent their youths plowing the plains or fighting in France, only to face police harassment while they stand in bread lines a few years later. This is pretty strong stuff for any popular entertainment, never mind a Hollywood movie. And it seems reasonable to guess that a studio wouldn’t risk their considerable investment in a movie with that kind of message unless it thought American audiences were going to receive it well.

So would this movie be asking audiences to consider a new point of view on the plight of poor and working classes? Or might it just be building on an attitude that was already prevalent and popular?

The reason I bring all this up is that the woman above calls to mind another image from the same era.

Migrant Mother, Dorothea LangeAnyone who’s ever seen American images of the Great Depression is familiar with Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” (left). Lange took the photo in 1936 while working for the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Published first as illustrative support for an article in a San Francisco newspaper, the image struck a resonant chord with contemporary audiences, just as it seems to do today.

And it’s no wonder. The composition is really fine: a gently sloped triangle of figures in which the backs of the children’s heads focus our attention on their mother’s face. The expression on that face suggests tremendous, restrained emotion. But it leaves those emotions entirely undefined, open to each viewer’s own personal projection. She’s a kind of dust bowl Mona Lisa. But more to the point, she’s just plain beautiful. That photograph has become more than a document of one person’s experience. For an entire culture, it’s come to represent a chapter in the collective American experience.

Icons are symbols. They represent something larger than facts and details. They contain whole ideas; they encapsulate points of view, ways of seeing.

Photographs, on the other hand, are documents, immutable and impersonal encapsulations of pure, unemotional facts … unless they’re works of creative invention, of course. And that duplicity about what a photograph can mean has plagued its images from the start.

I won’t go into too much detail here. But understand that the photos the FSA produced during the Depression riled a great many people, mostly those who denied that the country was experiencing any sort of popular crisis. The fact that government dollars were funding what detractors believed to be pure propaganda for FDR’s New Deal policies was gasoline for the fire. It was bad enough that the FSA wanted to help destitute farmers relocate to fertile land they could plant collectively (Socialism); now the government was spending tax dollars to indoctrinate the masses into its ideology (Socialist Propaganda).

Plus ça change … and all that. OK: back to Gold Diggers.

What’s interesting in the similar sensibility shared between these images is that the movie predates the photo by some three years.

The “Forgotten Man” number isn’t just about the men, but about the women they left alone when things fell apart. Our narrator — the star of the number — is Joan Blondell playing a streetwalker who sings about the man who used to love her. From her closeup, the camera takes flight to show us images of three other solemn and solitary women, before moving into one of those impossibly elaborate visual displays that involves hundreds of players.

The Forgotten Women

The iconic women figures of "My Forgotten Man"

The issue here isn’t whether Dorothea Lange saw Gold Diggers of 1933 and tried — consciously or otherwise — to recreate the sensibility of its images in her documents of real people. The point is only that they share a pretty specific visual treatment for creating icons out of these images of solitary women. And, what’s most interesting, is that it seems this iconography was already a part of the collective pop consciousness before Lange even made her photos. She was tapping into a widely popular point of view about life in those Depression years, a view popular enough that a movie musical had tapped into the same visual zeitgeist three years earlier.

Some months back, the New York Times ran one of Errol Morris’s brilliant essays on the hubbub around those FSA photos when they first began to appear in contemporary newspapers. What fueled (and continues to fuel) anger was the idea that these weren’t pure historical documents. The photographers, it seemed, “tampered” with what they put in front of their lenses. In some cases, the photographers cheated by moving items to make a better case for the arguments they intended these photos to support … or to create more pleasing compositions. In others, the FSA cheated by allowing the photographs to appear with misleading captions. Whatever the details of the misdeeds, contemporary and present-day detractors cried (and continue to cry) “foul.”

As a culture, we seem to place a lot of importance on photographic (and cinematic) images. On the one hand, we look to them as some sort of perfect capture of the pure truth placed before the camera (barring, of course, any manipulation of that truth or in the image later on). On the other hand, we invest these images with a kind of nostalgic emotion. They color our recollection of things past and even shape our understanding of the present.

Faro and Doris Caudill, homesteaders, Pie Town, New Mexico; Russell Lee; October, 1940After imagining the Depression in tones of sepia or black and white, how jarring it is to see images of Depression America in Kodachrome (as in the Library of Congress’s 2004 issue, Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939-43, Harry N. Abrams).

After listening to the military death toll in Iraq continue to climb; after hearing all the details of how our President managed to avoid any active service duty during the Viet Nam war, how very reassuring it must have been to see images of George W. Bush in a flight suit, landing on an aircraft carrier to declare the Iraq War a “Mission Accomplished,” at least for those desperate enough to accept reassurance despite all reason.

George W. Bush arrives in a flight suit aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, May 1, 2003And how amazed I am to realize how deeply pink the popular American consciousness had turned during those bleak years of the Great Depression. So pink was it, indeed, that a popular movie musical and a government-funded photography project would plug into the same visual vocabulary to connect with the same popular groundswell of enthusiasm for government intervention on the behalf of the homeless, disenfranchised and hungry.

More on Gold Diggers of 1933 next time.

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