The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Partners:
Related Items
On This Site
  • Slide Show

  • Photo Galleries

  • Celebrating A Century Index

  • Tell Us Your Story

  • Millennial Survey

  • Millennium Milestones
  •  
        Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable
    Glamorous socialite Claudette Colbert's drive to prove her independence met its match in Clark Gable's street-smart reporter in "It Happened One Night" (1934). Both won Oscars. (File)
    Page Two
    The Little Guy as Hero
    Continued from preceding page

    People think you get away from the Depression in the movies, but Hollywood knows there's hard times and unrest, and they don't just show it in the newsreels.

    When Mickey Mouse first came along in "Steamboat Willie" he was a mean little pest, and now Walt Disney is making him the common man, a hero like the common man in the murals the government artists paint in post offices. The little guy as hero. That's a change, all right.

    In the "Thin Man" movies, they make William Powell a pal with every working stiff in the city – he stops to gas with the iceman, the news butcher, the local pickpocket before he goes off to drink martinis someplace with white telephones and Myrna Loy sliding around in a bathrobe suitable for a coronation. Witty as hell. You walk out of the theater wanting to not give a damn like that.

    She says: "I read you were shot five times in the tabloids."

    He says: "It's not true. He didn't come near my tabloids."

    Here's the power of the movies: You read that John Dillinger and his gang pretend to be a movie company on location in front of a bank in Sioux Falls, S.D. The whole city gawks while inside, the pretend actors clean out the bank.

    The FBI guns Dillinger down outside a movie theater in Chicago. You hear the coroner sent part of his anatomy to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, it was that big.

    You hear a lot of stories:

    You hear about a smart guy, out of work. He starts an employment agency and takes the first job he was supposed to fill.

    The stories about stockbrokers jumping out windows on Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929: the suicide rate was higher right before the Crash than after it, but nobody wants to hear it.

    Everybody's brother-in-law knows a banker who works as a caddie at his old country club.

    In 1931, Cameroon, in West Africa, sent New York City a check for $3.77 to help the starving. Immigrants are going back to Europe by the shipload. Makes you feel bad.

    When Roosevelt closes all the banks in 1933, you hear about one lucky woman who overdrew her account the day before.

    In Deming, N.M., the Southern Pacific yard dicks drive so many hobos off the trains, the town has to hire a constable to drive them back on.

    On the Grand Concourse in the Bronx they have a poorhouse for the rich, the Andrew Freedman home, a mansion, so when the rich lose their money they don't have to live like the poor.

    Eleanor Roosevelt is out visiting the poor and she sees a boy hiding a pet rabbit. His sister says: "He thinks we are not going to eat it. But we are."

    Babies go hungry while farmers in Iowa dump their milk trying to get the price up to where they can keep producing milk so babies won't go hungry.

    Herbert Hoover himself believes that "many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples."

    The apple story is enough to make you think the Reds are right.

    In 1930, right after the Crash, Washington State has a bumper crop of apples. Too many to sell. So instead of dumping them, they give them to vendors on credit.

    Next thing, men are lined up in Wall Street, wearing homburgs and selling apples, 5 cents apiece. There are so many of them they start cutting prices on each other. At the same time, the growers get greedy – raise the prices and don't cull the rotten ones. Pretty soon, you can't make any money in the apple business, and it's all over.

    The feeling is: damned if you do, damned if you don't. Like playing the Irish Sweepstakes. Lots of gambling now: bingo, punchboards, slot machines, the numbers.

    Some people say communism will save us. Guys in black hats and leather jackets at the union meetings. They know how to organize, they know what they think, but you wonder if they could sell apples any better than anybody else. People are scared of the Reds. A witness tells the House Un-American Activities Committee that out in Hollywood, Shirley Temple is "a stooge of the Reds" for sending money to the Spanish Loyalists. A little girl!

    They say J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI will save us from the Reds, the Nazi spies, the gangsters. The kids love him, running around in their Junior G-Man badges.

    They say Roosevelt will save us. He comes on the radio in the Fireside Chats, not like Father Coughlin yelling about Reds and Jews. Just talking. "My friends," he says. Like he knows you know he knows how you feel. He doesn't have it all figured out like the Reds or Huey Long. He'll try anything until the Supreme Court knocks it down. The problem is, things don't get much better. He said in 1932: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He's still right.

    And science will save us. You go to the world's fairs in Chicago and New York and learn how technocrats will build things out of plastic and beryllium bronze, the World of Tomorrow. Diesel trains. Television. No class struggle because science solved all the problems. You never have to sweat out a toothache. Modern management. All you need is brains, not courage. You wonder, though: Is that the American way?

    What you know for sure is, whoever's running things right now, it isn't you.

    First it was the trusts and the railroads that took control of your life, then Wall Street and advertising, and now it's Roosevelt's Brain Trust and the alphabet agencies – NRA, PWA, WPA, CCC, CWA. They prove everything with numbers and polls; 37 percent of housewives spend 22 percent more hours blah blah ...

    Everything's scientific. You don't just get married, you go to college and take a course in "modern marriage." Half the babies in the country are born in hospitals. A mother isn't supposed to feed her baby with her own milk. It doesn't have enough of the vitamins they've discovered now. Science turns into a fashion. White tile and stainless steel, waitresses wearing white uniforms. Progress.

    One day the out-of-work salesman and his wife down the block are gone. Not a word of goodbye.

    The machinist gets a job in an airplane factory, making bombers.

    When your nephew comes to the breakfast table, he swings his leg over the back of the chair, like Clark Gable in "It Happened One Night." Or Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy movies with Judy Garland.

    Men don't wear tops on their bathing suits anymore.

    Girls wear saddle shoes and apron dresses. They drink Cokes in drugstores. The soda jerk thinks they all have a crush on him, his white paper hat cocked to one side.

    If you want to show your social consciousness, you don't have a "cleaning woman" anymore, you have a "cleaning lady."

    How is vaudeville going to stand up to movies and radio? What will Milton Berle do for a living?

    Modern furniture gets crazier. You see a picture of a bedroom in Hollywood with these reading chairs only Ming the Merciless could be comfortable in, and a laminated wood bed you could put on a Mayan funeral barge, everything tapered – table legs, lamps, vases.

    You hear stories that Roosevelt, the British and the Jews are trying to get us into a war.

    Huey Long gets shot dead in Baton Rouge.

    There's a feeling you hardly notice after a while – a shabby feeling, dust and phone wires, a cold spring wind, things exposed ...


    Page 1   |   Page 2   |   Full Text

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar