seen @ "Summer On the Hudson Movies Under the Stars," Pier 1, Riverside Park, New York, NY
I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that the Great Depression wasn't a lot of fun to live through. We've all seen pictures, read stories, about American life in the 1930s; how the federal government, led by President Franklin Roosevelt, went to extraordinary lengths to revive the nation's economy after the stock market crash of 1929. It doesn't look all that appealing. Small wonder, then, that Hollywood sought to lift people's spirits through movies, especially now that they had sound to go with images.
Spectacle - whether it's glitzy, glamorous musicals then or computer-generated action flicks today - has always been a strong palliative in Hollywood movies to get us through hard times. For example, I've written before about how I saw Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back the first weekend after 9/11 and how good it felt to laugh again.
On the other hand, I lived in Columbus, Ohio in 2008 when the recession settled in, and while I felt its effects, it didn't necessarily change my choices in entertainment much. I remember seeing films like Incredible Hulk and The Dark Knight, but I also saw much more serious fare like Frozen River and Milk because I knew they were exceptionally good movies. Spectacle didn't really play a factor in those cases. I wasn't looking for a escape from reality so much as I was looking for... if I had to give a name to it... a way to make sense of reality. To better understand why the world was in the shape it was, although this isn't something I would've been able to articulate at the time, I don't think.
Also, things didn't seem quite so hopeless for me in 2008. Barack Obama's presidential campaign was all about restoring hope to the American people, and it's what led to his euphoric victory after eight dreary and devastating years under George W. Bush. I had a skill, my cartooning, which led to a regular gig, and even if it was a poorly-paid one, it kept my spirits up. And I had good friends to lean on, beginning with my roommate. Therefore, I never felt the need to lose myself in the spectacle that the movies provided. Maybe I would've felt differently about them if I had lived through the 1930s, which, after all, was a more extreme state of affairs.
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Which brings us to Gold Diggers of 1933. (They couldn't have just called this "Gold Diggers"? The 1933 part makes me think this was part of a franchise.) What must it have been like to see a movie this gaudy, this lavish, this off-the-wall silly in 1933, especially sitting within an old-school movie palace on a 50-foot screen? Given the times, how spellbinding was it to see beautiful women scantily dressed in outfits made to resemble coins singing a song called "We're In the Money"? What did they make of future superstar Ginger Rogers singing a few verses in friggin' Pig Latin? (I wish I hadn't been spoiled by that scene. Months ago, someone - maybe on the TCM Message Boards, I don't recall - posted a YouTube link to that clip and I watched it, jaw plummeted due south.) Did they notice that those Busby Berkeley-choreographed numbers could never possibly be recreated on any stage, even though it's supposed to be part of a Broadway show within the film's context?
I mean, this is spectacle taken to ludicrous lengths, even by today's standards. One has to admire the audacity that drove director Mervyn LeRoy and choreographer Berkeley to just plain not give a damn and create visuals like these, but I suspect it was the Depression that must have spurred them to be this over-the-top - and yet the movie doesn't completely ignore reality; the final number, a song called "My Forgotten Man," is clearly an acknowledgment of all the forgotten men in society who were victims of the times, yet even this is presented on as grand a scale as the other numbers.
I'm not sure whether Gold Diggers was meant to be hopeful or simple escapist entertainment. I guess it comes across as a little bit of both. I mean, I doubt that I would've walked away from this in 1933 thinking, "Oh boy! If I can trick a rich woman into a loving marriage, all my problems will be solved!" but I definitely would've felt better about life for a little while. Seeing it in 2013, I liked it a lot, as a relic from a long-ago era in American history. I just wish I could better put myself in the mindframe of a 1933 moviegoer. I think it would better help me understand what forces went into making a film like this, which is so distinctive, so unusual, and so very unlike anything made today.
It felt so good seeing this at Riverside Park. When it hasn't been raining (I had been rained out of two other outdoor movies prior to this), it's been sweltering hot here in the big city, and those Hudson River breezes were a welcome relief. It was so breezy, in fact, that the movie organizers had a hard time keeping the inflatable screen up at first. Throughout the film, the wind rippled over the screen, and as a result, it gave the image an almost dream-like quality. You know how sometimes, in old movies, whenever they go into a flashback or a dream, there'll be this effect where the image ripples and shimmers? Watching the film last night was reminiscent of that - and given the subject matter, it wasn't exactly inappropriate.
The film was almost ruined for me by a chattering older couple behind me. They seemed excited to see Gold Diggers, to their credit, and during the opening credits they merrily oohed and aahed at the names of the stars, but once the film began in earnest, I had to ask them to keep it down, and they did. However, towards the end, the woman got on her cell phone to call someone, and she was no longer making an effort to be quiet. The dude next to me shushed them once, and just as I was about to do the same, the two of them got up and left. For all their excitement about seeing the movie, they still ended up leaving early. Still, in all fairness, Riverside Park is far removed from the street, never mind the nearest subway station, and it was getting late.
By contrast, there was an old woman directly behind me who was much nicer. She was clearly dispirited when I returned to my seat as the hostess began to introduce the film, me being so much taller, so I asked her if she could see. She said she could, it was no big deal, but as it turned out, I could barely see from behind the dude in front of me, so I moved to the left into the aisle a little bit. This pleased the old woman behind me, and she thanked me, even though technically I did it more for myself. Afterwards, she thanked me again. Nice way to end the night.
Look for pictures of Riverside Park to go up on my WSW Facebook page.