We’re (Not) in the Money: What Covid-era Filmmakers Can Learn From Pre-Code Depression-era Movies

“He’s just the kind of man I’ve been looking for: lots of money and no resistance.” Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee in Gold Diggers of 1933

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the pandemic themed HBO Max movie Locked Down in which writer John Jurgensen posed the question: does anyone want to see on screen what they experience every day? After all, as Jurgensen points out, Covid-19 themed productions such as the TV Show Connecting…and the movie Songbird both flopped with audiences and critics alike.

“Man, I can’t wait to watch all these movies being made about the pandemic – said no one ever!” my friend Natasha recently texted me. “Maybe a movie about dogs in the pandemic would be more interesting.”

Both the conversation with my friend and Jurgensen’s article got me thinking about all those movies made during another crisis: namely the Pre-Code films created during the early years of the Great Depression.

But weren’t Depression-era movies all about glitzy escapism, you may ask and you’d be partly right: the most enduring films of the 1930s are the flashy musicals, the screwball comedies and the Universal monster flicks. However a closer look at these films reveal more grit than glitter: after all, remember that it was a stolen apple that led the impoverished waif Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to Skull Island in King Kong (1933), arguably the most famous of all Pre-Code movies.

Childhood Derailed: William A. Wellman’s gritty drama Wild Boys of the Road (1933) told the story of working poor kids riding the rails in search of employment.

There’s nothing glamourous about a tummy rumbling and yet hunger pains are the catalyst for the plot of many a Pre-Code movie. The showgirls in the flashy Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1933 complain of “starving in bed”, while in the hard-hitting prison drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) a fellow inmate asks the wrongly convicted James Allen (Paul Muni) how he landed in the slammer. “For looking at a hamburger,” James replies. (Not so incidentally, both films boast the same director: Mervyn LeRoy.)

If hunger was the catalyst for a Pre-Code film’s story, unemployment was the catalyst for hunger. In social dramas like Heroes for Sale (1933) and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), children and grown men alike hopelessly ride the rails in search of work. JOBLESS MEN KEEP GOING, reads a sign in the former film, WE CAN’T TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN. In Midnight Mary (1933), impoverished Loretta Young wears out her shoes pounding the city’s sidewalks in a bleak yet gorgeously filmed sequence. In the gangster film Blondie Johnson (1933) Joan Blondell begs for help from a welfare agent who curtly rejects her application. Demoralized, “Blondie” looks around hopelessly at the other welfare applicants awaiting their fate. The camera pans over tired, rain drenched souls in broken shoes and threadbare clothing; all the stuffing yanked out of them, their bodies slumped over, like Capitalism’s discarded toys. These are the faces of the Great Depression and the images bring to mind the work of photographer Dorothea Lange. Interestingly, theatres during the 1930s shied away from showing newsreel footage of breadlines and poverty, yet stark realism was a staple of many a Pre-Code movie.

“How do you live?” “I steal!” : A movie poster for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Moviegoers however had enough gloom and doom in their everyday life; test audiences for Midnight Mary (1933) complained that there were too many scenes of Loretta Young in rags so MGM added a scene where Mary’s gangster boyfriend takes her shopping and buys her a fabulous fur coat. Movies such as Dinner at Eight (1933) and Grand Hotel (1932), with their A-list casts, gowns by Adrian and extravagant Art Deco sets, laid truth to MGM’s claim that they had “more stars than there are in Heaven.” Yet even in these types of “escapist” movies, the Depression managed to rear its ugly head: when Lionel Barrymore loses his pocketbook in Grand Hotel, he cries out helplessly “Every hour costs money! You have to buy everything and pay cash for it!” At the end of Dinner at Eight, Barrymore (again) reveals to his high society wife (played with gusto by Billie Burke) that he’s lost their fortune. “We’re broke,” he says simply. “Oh, but everybody’s broke, darling!” Burke jubilantly replies.

Of all the Pre-Codes, Gold Diggers of 1933 is arguably the most successful at combining glamour and realism. The movie opens with Ginger Rogers singing “We’re in the Money” but when she starts warbling the song in Pig Latin, we know she’s only being tongue-in-cheek. At the start of the film, fetching showgirls Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ruby Keeler are out of work; snatching milk, scratching at fleas and reminiscing about sugar daddies past. It doesn’t take long however for our gold diggers to hit pay dirt in this glitzy Busby Berkeley musical sex-comedy romp. How do they do it? By putting on a show, of course!

Movie characters escape the Depression by putting on a show; audiences escape the Depression by watching the movie characters put on a show = sheer brilliance.

Even so, you don’t have to dig too deep to find the nugget of social commentary under Gold Diggers glitter: the film explodes in a burst of righteous anger with its boot-stomping finale “Remember my Forgotten Man”, in which Busby Berkeley, Etta Moten Barnett and Joan Blondell pay tribute to the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” .

The popular escapist fare of the early 1930s proves that crisis-era films work best when the crisis is only the backdrop to the main story.

Maybe it’s time for a Gold Diggers of 2021?


(Written by Heather Babcock)

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