I have previously discussed the importance of "pre-code" (1929-1934) films in helping us to understand life during a depression. Beginning today (October 1), Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is presenting a month-long look at many films from that period, as well as subsequent films that examine life during that era.
The festival kicks off with King Vidor's utopian socialist classic about displaced and discarded workers forming a farming cooperative, "Our Daily Bread", "The Grapes of Wrath", and this writer's personal favorite, William Wellman's 1933 gem, "Heroes For Sale" (screening tonight at 12:15am Eastern, 9:15pm Pacific). You can read about how analogous this film is to millions of today's American lives in my column Living in the New Depression.
Of course, many of the films from the Depression era are pure escapist fantasy. But inevitably, behind the glitzy production numbers lay back-stories of desperation; "Gold Diggers of 1933", best known for Busby Berkeley's over-the-top production numbers — with the priceless attraction of Ginger Rogers singing an entire verse of "We're in the Money" in Pig Latin, while wearing little more than a large coin — also depicts the backstage lives of struggling performers, sharing beds (for economics, not sex), sharing one good dress in three shifts, and splitting a tin of fish three ways for sustenance. They are gold-diggers because they are dirt poor.
Over the subsequent 75 years, there have been hundreds of films about the thirties, but TCM has selected the cream of the crop of these as well; Sidney Pollack's "They Shoot Horses, Only", Peter Bogdanovich's "Paper Moon", and Hal Ashby's "Bound For Glory" amongst them.
Take a look at what is on their schedule this month. Even factoring in the inevitable glamour added by Hollywood, this is a magnificent opportunity to learn a thing or two about how one gets through hard times — and perhaps it offers an eye-opening lesson to those who think this is as bad as it gets. It was once - and might yet be again — worse. After all, those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. If the economy is already thus doomed, at least we should revisit how Depression era artists reflected their times.
Link to TCM essay on Depression Films (including list of films and schedule).