“The Big Shots aren’t little crooks like you. They’re politicians.”
If Karl Marx baked a birthday cake and laced it with marijuana, the results would probably be very similar to You and Me (1938), a delicious grab bag of a movie which combines humour, film-noir, romance, musical numbers and a social message all to delightful – and dizzying – effect. But what did Paramount expect when they asked Fritz Lang, the German director best known for his Weimar-era expressionist films such as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), to direct a romantic comedy?
The film tells the story of two ex-cons, Helen (Sylvia Sidney) and Joe (George Raft) who are trying to keep on the straight and narrow by working at a department store. The two fall in love and get married but Joe – believing he’s found the sweet and squeaky-clean “good girl” of his dreams – doesn’t know that Helen is also an ex-convict and she’s determined that he isn’t going to find out. The sub-plot involves Joe’s friends, also ex-convicts working in the same department store, trying to rope him into a scheme to rob the store.
Fritz Lang may have had a reputation of being humourless and difficult but You and Me is perfectly charming and often very funny. The former due to the chemistry between its two attractive leads, Sidney and Raft, and the latter thanks to the comedic chops of character actors Warren Hymer, Roscoe Karns and George E. Stone who play the hapless gangsters-turned-retail salesmen who strong-arm bratty rich kids into getting their parents to buy them “Goosey gander” rocking chairs (“Listen sweetheart, all the little kiddies like the Goosey gander rocker and you’re gonna like the Goosey gander rocker or I’m gonna ring the Goosey gander rocker around your fat little neck!”) and hawk can-openers to society ladies under the promise that “it works great at opening safes, I should know!”.
Interestingly, Raft, Hymer and Stone all played hard-core gangster roles in such notable Pre-Code films as Scarface (1932, Raft), Midnight Mary (1933, Hymer) and Little Caesar (1931, Stone). By contrast, in this Code-era movie, their gangster characters here are more cuddly than criminal, lovable rather than loathsome.
Although it is often described as a musical, there are only a handful of music numbers in You and Me, and only one is actually sung by main members of the cast. The film opens with a voice-over song, the Song of the Cash Register, which declares “You cannot get something for nothing and only a chump would try it!” This musical number plays over department store images of furs, jewellery, cars and fine wines. “You speak of things that money cannot buy?” the off-screen singer asks sardonically, “For instance, can you name a few? JUST TRY!” the voice sneers as the song proceeds to explain that the all-mighty dollar is a requirement for beauty, romance, education, nutrition – “even vim and vigour and good health you have to buy!”. The expressionism here – thanks in part to Charles Lang’s stunning cinematography – made me think of the starving children working in the vast orange fields of the Grapes of Wrath: fields of plenty available to only a few.
The movie’s climax, in which Helen attempts to explain to her gangster co-workers that “crime doesn’t pay” is both bizarre and whimsical; reminiscent of the kangaroo-court scene in Lang’s M (1931) but lighter and much more screwball. Crime doesn’t pay, she explains, not because “you get caught by the law and punished, because sometimes you’re not” and not because “it kills something decent inside of you cuz a lot of you wouldn’t care about that” but because crime “doesn’t add up in dollars and cents! You can’t make any real money stealing!” Standing before a chalkboard in the toy department, she teaches the men that after they pay for the get-away cars, bribe the watchmen, buy their tools and guns, hire a mouthpiece (lawyer) and give the boss his cut, they’d be left with just $113.33 each.
“But sister,” George E. Stone’s character asks, “now you ain’t tryin’ to tell us that the big shots don’t make any more than that?” “The big shots aren’t little crooks like you,” Helen calmly sneers in the film’s best line, “They’re politicians.”
This scene – and the movie as a whole – equates capitalism with the criminal underworld.
If capitalism is a crime, the film seems to say, than as consumers, “you and me” are complicit.
Written by Heather Babcock, 2020