“We can’t help but roll our eyes at a woman who would rather wear holes in her shoes looking for a ‘good honest job’ than roll around in money and mink.”
Volume three of TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood presents a set of six films, all directed by William Wellman and all soundly focused on Depression-era economics. We get not one but several tales of middle-class salts reduced to Dickensian poverty, crime, drug addiction, etc. America’s safety net for these poor sods is riddled with hypocrisy and loathsome opportunists, leering men and exploitative bosses. Representatives of the emerging New Deal — the good fairies of the depression-era mythos — come along toward the end (à la Grapes of Wrath), to make a quick speech and hand out some hope. It’s a time marked by sudden poverty striking all walks of life, but it’s before the Red Menace, the A Bomb, the Joe Breen-enforced Code. Communists are still just eccentric intellectuals on the Lower East Side, and “forgotten men” back from the Great War have found work as bootleggers or else starved with their ideals in the gutter. Pounding the pavement in search of nonexistent work, that’s just for the chumps. Hunger and cold erode the social morality of all but the most masochistic and self-righteous. Those smart enough to have not put their money in banks or stocks carry on, wary of the gold diggers and scroungers all around.
I want to limit this essay to examining two examples from the set that represent the two polarities at work here: the women’s picture (Midnight Mary) and the social awareness picture (Wild Boys of the Road). The first disc in the set carries combinations thereof, a robust love triangle involving railroad men (Other Men’s Women) and a variation on the shaggy mail order bride story, with George Brent as a farmer, for some reason (The Purchase Price). The second disc pairs Midnight Mary with Frisco Jenny (almost the same plot), and the third links Boys with Heroes for Sale, a saga of a junky war vet struggling to make ends meet and romance Loretta Young all while staying annoyingly Richard Barthelmess.
Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is one of the most absorbing, clear-eyed, unsentimental pieces of social realism that pre-dates Grapes of Wrath (1939). It’s the Over the Edge (1979) of the Depression, telling the tale of the “children of the forgotten men” — boys (and some well-concealed girls) who leave their starving families behind — so as not to be a burden — and ride the rails in packs, hurling rocks and eggs at the railroad bulls who try to stop them, beat them, and in one case rape them (a very intense pre-Code moment). Frankie Darro begins the film with a slogan-covered jalopy, supportive high school chums, and loving middle-class family. Believably and painfully he loses all that to the Depression, and eventually (and believably) becomes the rogue leader of some 100+ strong, wild-eyed children living and starving on the rails, in shanty towns and on the streets. He’s one little Piggy short of being Lord of the Flies, but buoyed by an innate sense of group support and the dim remnants of middle-class decency. And you care every second of the way because Darro is neither a simpering Freddie Bartholomew type, a blubbering Jackie Cooper type, nor a snickering Dead End Kids type. He’s just a smart kid trying to do the right thing, and looking after his own.
As average (middle-class) American viewers, we’ve been conditioned to think of a class system existing in the movies, if not in real life. The poor might rise to nouveau riches in the course of a film and then sink down and bob back up, or stay down, but we’re not used to seeing middle-class people just like us lose their shirts through no fault of their own and become homeless street urchins, for keeps. Watching a postwar Italian neorealist film like Bicycle Thieves, for example, is a lot easier because the characters depicted are peasants from the get-go; cultural differences make it seem like “It will never happen to me” and if you gave these people enough to live on they’d probably lose it all within a matter of hours (as when the main character throws away his seat at a free church luncheon only to squander his remaining dollars on a restaurant meal a few moments hours later, or the way mom wastes money on a fortune teller to find out if they’ll ever have any money). But Wild Boys shows kids who start out like any one of us — they’re smarter and maybe even braver than we would be in the same situation — and that just enhances the nightmare element. They’re hyper-alert to any chance, but there’s just no chances coming.
Wild Boys of the Road devastated me, frankly. I realized it never once occurred to me growing up that my family might one day lose all its money and I’d end up homeless. Wild Boys shows just how easily that could happen, especially prior to the implementation of things like welfare, unemployment insurance, and social security. Every choice little Frankie Darro (above) makes is logical, courageous, and even heroic, but it only gets him deeper and deeper into the muck, because the country has failed him. It simply couldn’t be timelier in our post-Madoff age.
On the steamy sex side of the Forbidden Hollywood theme park waits the rather dorky Midnight Mary (1932), starring Loretta Young doing the dimwitted martyr bit: a good working girl, she’s starving and prostituting herself, but would rather give a $50 bill to the Salvation Army than keep it if it’s possibly “ill-gotten” (need I even add that this movie comes from MGM?). The plot mechanisms bend and wheeze to accommodate both the prurient interests of the audience and the moralizing of the pre-Code code (the Will Hays “pretty please” as opposed to the Joe Breen iron fist). And frankly, Loretta Young doesn’t have the range to do both; as a result she comes off a bit loony, a bipolar hussy trying to be both street smart and a hand-wringing moral martyr. Maybe I’m just shy because I once married a girl just like that, and it took me years to figure out her tricks; but I did, and now I’m wise to every one of Midnight Mary’s.
With a few exceptions (such as Jean Harlow pics like Red Dust and Red-Headed Woman), MGM was the king of preachy sex films like this, wherein the heroine acts “immorally” only so she has something to emote over later; never enjoying her sins beyond the first casual indiscretion. Once out of the church-sanctioned pair bond, the MGM gold digger drifts around like the hungry ghosts of Zen mythology, ever trying to wring some enjoyment from the tawdry life around her; eyes glazed with self-loathing as she dances with her mobster keeper. The reason Young falls for gangster Ricardo Cortez seems solely so she can shoot him later, to save the life of her rich D.A. paramour (Franchot Tone), whose name can’t be tarnished by standing trial, blah blah. Better she should die in the electric chair than cause her man one night of bad sleep (unless it’s over her, of course). Meanwhile, it’s Cortez who seems to really love her, and he’s much more badass. Mary’s a social climber, ultimately, and the idea that hard work and a clean nose will help you marry your way up is the real bunk here, not the notion that crime pays. Interestingly, the Code keeps the social climbing illusion and dismisses the crime element. “Audiences don’t want to be depressed by reality!” was the reasoning behind the move from melodrama to frothy comedy musicals in the dawn of the Code. The real-life equivalent would be trying to convince a starving man that a picture of food is better than directions to the restaurant.
Think about it and you understand. Imagine hordes of starving people looking into a restaurant window at rows of cakes and hanging meats. On a fundamental level, to a passing bushman, let us say, this makes no sense. Here is an abundance of food separated from the masses by only a sheet of glass, and obediently they starve before it. This is not the question of a dog learning not to eat its master’s scraps. This is a dog learning to starve while the dog dish of his brother is overflowing. No dog that hungry would fail to eat it anyway, but man will starve rather than “steal” that which his hunger demands, righteously thinking he’s doing the “right” thing. With social programs in place since the New Deal, we’ve not had to deal with this issue, but that’s not to say it won’t come again and doesn’t bear thinking on. Midnight Mary is a classic example of this: even starving she wants to know whether the money that bought her the food was stolen or earned legit.
But again, the sole reason Young lands a keeper like Tone is so that while professing her love she can realize she’s about to be pinched and immediately self-sacrifice her happiness by pretending she never loved him, so as not to ruin his reputation (since he’d invariably try to clear her and cause a scandal). Oh MGM, didn’t you have any other plot in your arsenal? We’ve seen this same sacrificial gesture before — an old saw even at the time of Dumas’ original Camille, and in two previous Forbidden Hollywood entries, Waterloo Bridge and A Free Soul. But it’s apparently so common for the time that one wonders if audiences in the Depression just had no short-tem memory.
But it’s clear that Wellman also thinks these tropes are old hat. Even in Midnight Mary (right), the whole idea of killing your gangland lover to protect your pious, jerk-off D.A. illegitimate son or “true love” is just a formality for the director, just something to get our poor heroine up in the witness box. The daytime “respectable” version of the nightclub stage, the witness box is the one place women could sit “above” the censoring remarks, interruptions and condescension of men.
But even with this undivided attention, the women sabotage their own best interests. The bottom line to all these martyr-arcs is that a lot of the problems could have been avoided if the woman was just smart enough to keep a low profile. Doing the “wrong” thing is sometimes not only smarter but spares lives and fortunes as well. The idea of dying to protect the reputation of some square but well-meaning dolt who never went hungry a day in his life strikes us now as nothing short of absurd — self-righteous masochism carried over and beyond the bridge of rationality.
Needless to say, there’re endless variations to this tiresome self-sacrifice, including the child out of wedlock, the child out of wedlock who grows up to be D.A. (Mary’s companion film, Frisco Jenny), and the father of the child is the D.A., but the heroine thinks it belongs to her first husband, who was supposed to have died in the war but didn’t. Generally the mom chooses to live in squalor rather than tell the rich ignoramus papa it’s his child. By 1933 these ladies didn’t even need a reason; it was just what one did. If the rich father went slumming to find you and fell down on his hands and knees, then maybe you would throw yourself over a bridge and leave him the child in a will, maybe if he was lucky. Going back to him required even more sacrifices, such as his giving away his fortune or going blind. Oh how these ladies loved to suffer! And one really can’t blame the studios. If women didn’t flock to this same tired plot over and over, they might have tried some other approach, but why change a good thing? Eventually these sorts of women viewers would stop going to the movies, watching soap operas at home instead, and later Oprah, and sacrifice of rich husbands who don’t know you had a baby out of wedlock would transmute into Oprah-style confessions.
Further hampering the success of Midnight Mary is the hick humor of Andy Devine (who’s always yawning and sneezing without covering his ugly mouth). We wonder why a slick operator like Franchot Tone’s gallivanting playboy can’t find a decent wing man; lugging Devine around, he might as well not even go out at all, like bringing your church lady grandma. At any rate, the natty bunch of mobsters are all terrific, especially Ricardo Cortez as the main brains of the outfit; he’s like a combination wax dummy and pre-Method mobster. I admire a man who can be suffused with rage and about to choke his mistress, then just freeze like a wax dummy while she goes into her monologue.
Just in looking at these two films you can see the width and breadth of information that the enforcing of the Code would prohibit in 1934. Even if you deplore Midnight Mary’s choices, you can still respect how Wellman gives you the room to do so. We’re not necessarily meant to see her as a legitimate martyr as opposed to just a stubborn self-righteous masochist. But from the Breen mandates onward, there could no longer be any ambiguity about whose side Hollywood was on: the class system would be more rigid and secure; no hard-working average guy who kept his mind clean would ever have to spend an entire movie being sucker punched by the hypocritical American dream — à la Wild Boys (above) or its companion film, Heroes for Sale — but neither would he want (or get) to move into high society (at least to stay). No girl who wanted to work for peanuts in the secretarial pool instead of wearing mobster fur coats would ever need to worry about getting the rich guy at the end; her future was even “better” than diamonds — she’d get to raise the kids and scrub the floors! Our eyes wide with shock at America’s crumbling social order, we were given blindfolds: crumbling averted!
But in these early films our eyes were still allowed to be wide open. This was a serious situation, and for the time being the country was still largely run by adults. America was dead on its feet and the only way to keep democracy alive was a little “experiment” in socialism. The rabid conservatives of Catholicism and Capitalism would soon work hard to wipe the New Deal from the public consciousness, but we should remember that before the FDR-sanctioned work programs, the whole notion of America being able to “take care of its own” through some alchemical mix of patriotism and hysterical blindness was just a joke to be sneered at by anyone with half a brain who went to the movies and saw searing exposés of American hypocrisy like Wild Boys of the Road or Heroes for Sale. Watching Midnight Mary in today’s light, we can’t help but roll our eyes at a woman who would rather wear holes in her shoes looking for a “good honest job” than roll around in money and mink.
Watching this stuff today can get one feeling kind of sick and weak in the knees, realizing that but for the grace of FDR we might be a third world country, and how out of its way the Code went to make sure we forgot all about that asap. Gone would be the vivid explanations of crime and sexual politics, the understanding that hard times and hunger made these people lawbreakers and that we could become just like them with a few strokes of a banker’s pen. In place of this fear and outrage the Code would give us guilt and sorrow, with children elevated to the status of saints and parents condemned to death for even the minutest breach of the holy marital contract.
Of course, you can argue either way: maybe the alterations the Code performed on reality worked to allay a lot of our base instinctual fears. The psychotically cheerful face of the Code insured that everything would always be all right. No matter how many women had to die for their marital transgressions, at least we knew one thing would never die: America, God-fearing and “free.” But in movies like the ones on this invaluable set, we learn that America the Beautiful is actually far from indestructible. At times, the whole country’s been mere inches from complete collapse. And if it happened before it can happen again; in fact, if history has taught us anything, it’s that such repetitions are all but inevitable.
If director Wellman continually shows a relative lack of sophistication (compared to, say, Edmund Goulding or George Cukor) as far as the night clubbing, bon mot-tossing rich — he’s brilliant where it counts, in capturing the dynamics and minutiae of hand-to-mouth living. The man behind Night Nurse and Public Enemy, two major classics of the pre-Code genre, Wellman’s morality comes from the heart, not the Code book, and when the morals are iffy, as in Midnight Mary, you get the idea that Wellman — though obviously not allowed to deviate from the script — isn’t buying it, and is giving hip audiences room to feel the same. Where Wellman’s morality is active is in the big emotional pay-off of Wild Boys, which is genuinely devastating and earned through blood, sweat, and tears and cinema, not any fancy talk or posturing.
Of course, in the post-Code world this sort of hard-hitting journalistic drama would need to be pruned and tweaked until it was as bloodless and safe as an evening with grandma’s church group. Maybe that’s what the public thought they wanted — as in the turn from social conscience films to “put on a happy face” musicals — but it’s not what they needed. Seeing these films during their original Depression-era release, with your last nickel, you might not feel stardust and tinsel, but you might weep with the realization that you weren’t alone in your poverty, and there was no shame in standing in breadlines all day. If Frankie Darro could take it, so could you. Americans who prided themselves all their lives on earnings and work ethics needed to know it wasn’t their fault they were starving and unemployed. They needed to know America understood their suffering and was on its way to help, and Wellman gives them that with Wild Boys on the Road.
Wellman’s films in this set aren’t much “fun” in that sense; at times they are even painful to watch. But you come away nourished from having witnessed something rare, and that would never come again — the truth! We need these films now, more than ever. It’s been seventy years or so since they first appeared, and history has repeated itself. The story must again be told, the right way. Joe Breen is dead, ding dong! Put away your happy face and let’s get Dickensian, like it’s 1929.