Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Forgotten Man, Still Forgotten?

If you've never seen the delightfully paradoxical "Gold Diggers of 1933", a "pre-code" gem already shown in Turner Classic Movie's 31 Days of Oscar, you need to be sure to watch the next time it's on. It's highly entertaining and is for the most part escapist fluff about a group of Broadway showgirls trying to make it through the depression without compromising their virtue, well not too much anyway.

An elaborate scene from Gold Diggers of 1933

The movie uses the time honored concept of showing a production within a production, and involves the tribulations of  Broadway show producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) who is in desperate need of an "angel" to back his idea for a musical about the Depression. The song writing boyfriend (Dick Powell) of one of his usual cast members (Ruby Keeler) just happens to be the wealthy scion of a conservative Back Bay family who has strayed to "The Great White Way" to seek personal fulfillment as a composer. When Barney's splendid idea for a show that highlights the plight of the "forgotten man" loses its backer, Brad Roberts (a.k.a. Robert Treat Bradford) comes through with the cash which puts into motion hilarity, confusion, and finally love for more than a few of the cast members. (for a detailed look at cast, crew, and plot go to the excellent The Gold Diggers Wiki )

Gloriously marching off to war!

 What amazed me so much the first time I saw the film though was the complete about face its tone and meaning take during the stunning last number, "Remember My Forgotten Man". While 7/8 of the movie is highly entertaining  but essentially lighter than air 1930s musical nonsense, the last few scenes are devastating. Busby Berkeley, who choreographed and staged the film, was inspired by the Bonus Army March of 1932 and made use of what he had seen and felt as the inspiration for the "Remember my Forgotten Man" number. So what was essentially a boy-meets-girl-going-through-the-usual-tribulations movie, becomes a damning musical indictment  on the state of WWI veterans during the Depression.

The glamour of battle disappears

When I last saw the film, I got to wondering exactly how far we've come in honoring our "forgotten men",service people returining from Afghanistan . When we watch classic film I think we are sometimes amused by their datedness. (it's actually a big part of their charm) The quaint nature of classic films may be why in some ways we may pat ourselves on the back for just how far we've come. But how far have we come when it comes to caring for and genuinely honoring our vets? I think that the small improvements in job offerings and medical benefits over the past few years have certainly helped, but when I see the statistics of suicide and  mental illness, augmented by  low income fueled by rising veteran unemployment  I fear we have our own generation of "forgotten men". Celebrating returning service people when they come back from war is highly deserved and important, that recognition is such a turnaround from the way in which our returning Viet Nam vets were treated, but after the local news crews leave and all of the hoopla has ended how much better off are some of these men and women than the "forgotten men" of the post WWI era, or any previous era? We know so much more now and have so many more resources at our disposal than did the people of the 1930s that we shouldn't ever have to ponder this topic, yet sometimes it seems we are all too willing to let those who have served fall between the cracks once service to their country has ended.

The ultimate reality of war

To be sure the enormity and import of this subject might be better served in a venue other than a movie blogathon as noble a project as this is. (by the way,  thanks to my host Aurora, @citizenscreen)   I suppose my point is that, at the very least, a daffy musical from the early 1930s got me looking into and recognizing  a subject we should all care deeply about. In essence this is just one more example of the power of film. So, see it if you haven't and watch it again if you have. Enjoy the light-hearted snappy banter and terrific score, and  then  feel the utter despair of the "forgotten man".

The final scene staged expansively by Busby Berkeley