Remember My Forgotten Man

(the last of three installments)

While Gold Diggers of 1933 certainly lifts the spirits, it isn’t the sort of feel-good movie one might expect from 1930s Hollywood. It doesn’t deny the Depression. Instead it shows us three fast-talking, hard-boiled show girls coping pretty well with the period’s bleak economics. (Well, two fast-talking, hard-boiled show girls and Ruby Keeler, who always seemed to me a little slow in the wits department.)

And the backstage comedy ends happily for all three:

Keeler gets to marry her boyfriend, Dick Powell.
Powell’s snooty brother, Warren William, falls for Joan Blondell and proposes.
And Aline MacMahon snares Guy Kibbee, their family lawyer.

But then we experience a big shift of tone and focus as we move from the happy ending in our characters’ lives to the movie’s big musical finale.

Sure, it’s a bit dark as big movie musical numbers go;  but it’s also exhilarating. We’ve moved away from hard-boiled humor into a really grim portrait of American society. But that portrait sets your pulse to racing with the beat of its march, its swelling choruses, startling camerawork and imagery.

Gold Diggers of 1933

In case you weren’t paying much attention to the presidential campaign of 1932, the reference here — the “Forgotten Man” — is to the speech FDR gave that year to lay out the spirit of his political platform. His Forgotten Man is the one at the bottom of the economic pyramid, the “infantry of our economic army.” Like this musical number, FDR makes careful reference to the mobilization efforts of the World War and to the American farmers on whose backs rests a large part of the national economy. But the movie shifts the meaning of that phrase to focus on the women left behind when we forgot those men.

In the opening, Joan Blondell plays a lonely streetwalker who reaches out affectionately to a hobo. As she speaks the lyrics to the song, we understand that she arrived at this lot when left behind to fend for herself.

And once he used to love me;
I was happy then.
He used to take care of me.
Won’t you bring him back again?

‘Cause ever since the world began
A woman’s got to have a man.
Forgetting him, you see,
Means you’re forgetting me,
Like my forgotten man.

She seems to be on a real theater stage: stark, even Expressionistic in its styling, and a bit claustrophobic. The camera hardly moves.

But when Blondell finishes her reading, the camera comes loose from its moorings and rises up to Etta Moten, framed in a window and singing a soulful rendition of the same lyrics. It pans across the building to show us two more solitary women.

These two, along with Moten and Blondell are the only single figures on which the camera spends much time. Their faces are the first focus of our interest and empathy. And their importance in the frame shifts the meaning of the song for us: it may talk about the Forgotten Man, but the women left behind in his absence are the real hook for our emotions.

The Forgotten Women

The visuals still feel plenty stark and melancholy; this is a Blues song, after all. But as the camera pans across the building’s windows, we lose track of where the edge of the stage might be. The scene is quietly opening up the closed space of the theater. The picture we see may seem bleak; but the way we see it is inspiring.

Blondell Rescues the HoboAs Moten sings above, a cop in the doorway below starts to rough up a second hobo. Blondell intervenes: she grabs the cop’s arm and draws his attention to the war medal behind the lapel he holds in his fist. Properly embarrassed, the cop retreats from the very two types — a prostitute and a bum — who would have been at his mercy in most any other movie scenario.

With a sudden break in the narrative, the number shifts into big-production mode. The style moves from stark to pure metaphor, replacing the sparse set pieces with black space as if to locate it outside of any real place. Gone is almost every pretense that this musical production could be taking place on a Broadway stage. The story it tells isn’t a happy one. But the way it tells that story — quick-cut shots from impossible angles, big choruses, huge crowds, a stage that spreads further than the eye can see — turns that story into a call to action. It’s exciting. It’s inspiring. And, caught up in it as we are, it doesn’t even seem strange that this is the subject of a big Hollywood musical number.

Gone, too, are those individual characters, like Joan Blondell and Etta Moten. Crowds become our main characters: first a crowd of Dough Boys, replaced by a crowd of wounded soldiers, and finally an endless bread line. It sounds a little high-brow, but it works. All these figures, shot from extreme camera angles against a black background, create sharp-edged graphic compositions. The men become at once abstractions of an idea and abstractions of pure shape and movement, set to the marching beat of the music. What’s not to like?

The Forgotten Men

Finally, the number builds to its climax. Silhouettes of Dough Boys marching through a semi-circular set piece. Beneath them, the mass of out-of-work heroes, returned from the war. And to either side, the legion of women left behind. Right there in the center is our street walker, no longer a character in a musical number, but elevated to the role of the Spirit of the Depression.

Forgotten Man FinaleIt’s just astounding that a movie musical could end on such a note. It’s astounding that a major studio would risk its box office receipts to a message that might not play well in the heartland. And it’s most astounding of all that no one seemed to bat an eye. In fact, the New York Times‘ review of the movie made only passing reference to the number, focusing instead on the comic talents of some of the cast members.

Such was the birth of the 20th Century American liberal ideal.

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