Down in the Dumps

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Even during the Great Depression, there was a class of people who continued to live and party lavishly. We see them in movies made in the 1930s — those glamorous women in their shiny ballgowns escorted to fancy supper clubs by fashionable men and living in luxurious apartments staffed by multiple servants. There always seem to be those who land on their feet in tumultuous times.

In subtle ways those movies gave capitalism a bad name, the financiers always portly and overfed, the women either haughty or ditzy, and those of the poorer class demonstrating the most compassion and wisdom. But these movies also demonstrated that resourcefulness, innovation, self-reliance and, yes, a healthy dose of capital could solve most problems within the 90 minutes or so of a screwball comedy, while lifting the spirits of the moviegoers with the price of a ten-cent ticket. Revisiting those old movies can lift us out of the Depression many Americans are experiencing right now. So if you’re “down in the dumps,” here are a couple of movies that are sure to make you crack a grin — and deliver a powerful message in favor of capitalism too.

There always seem to be those who land on their feet in tumultuous times.

My Man Godfrey is such a film, featuring a Park Avenue family helmed by financier Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette) who finds it easier to pay for his daughters’ foibles than to correct them. As the movie opens, his competitive daughters Irene (Carole Lombard) and Cornelia (Gail Patrick), together with dozens of other wealthy young socialites, are raising money for an unidentified cause célèbre by sponsoring a posh scavenger hunt (a fine excuse for an elegant party). The pièce de résistance on their list is a “forgotten man,” one of the unemployed thousands who were down on their luck and literally down in the dumps.

Cornelia’s limousine is the first to arrive at the dump, where she discovers Godfrey (William Powell) and offers him five dollars to come with her as her forgotten man. She is so completely self-absorbed that she has no idea how utterly insulting her demand is. To her, Godfrey is not even “forgotten,” because he was never known — never existed on the outside of her elite and privileged realm.

Irene, by contrast, speaks to Godfrey as she would to any person, induces him to come with her to the party as a way of striking back at Cornelia’s insensitivity, and offers him a job as the family butler.

Godfrey’s manners are impeccable, and it soon becomes apparent that he is the person with true class, even if he doesn’t have money. Cornelia is cool, aloof, and suspicious with the new butler, while Irene falls head over heels in infatuation with him. Mrs. Bullock (Alice Brady) is dizzier than Irene and more socially unaware than Cornelia, and Brady plays her with delightful affection. Mr. Bullock blusters and complains, but he is almost proud of how careless and profligate his family are — it demonstrates his great wealth. The Bullocks thrive because they have money, but they couldn’t make it in the world to which Godfrey has fallen.

As the wealth pie expands, even those pearls can be reclaimed.

But fall they do, and Godfrey saves the day. What I love about this movie, and what raises it above the level of simple romantic comedy, is that capitalism saves the day too — whether screenwriters Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch intended it that way or not. The proceeds from a pawned string of pearls become the catalyst for a saved fortune, a reclaimed dump, a successful business, dozens of jobs, and even a housing unit for those forgotten men who are no longer down in the dumps.

The more traditional message is that the hoarding of wealth by those insensitive socialites led to inequality and the Depression, but in reality the jewels represented capital that could be liquidated and put to better use — as it is in the movie. And as the wealth pie expands, even those pearls can be reclaimed.

A similar point is made in the 1948 film The Inside Story, also featuring Gail Patrick and also set during the Depression, but far away from the glamour and glitz of Park Avenue. The residents of a small Vermont town are feeling the effects of both the Depression and a bank holiday. Cash is scarce, everyone is living on credit, and people can’t pay their debts. The local economy is at a standstill.

It’s a screwball comedy with a conscience and a sound economic message, for those who can see it.

A traveler leaves a thousand dollars in a hotel safe, and the inkeeper mistakenly thinks the money has come from his debtors. When he uses the money to pay off his own debts, he begins a chain reaction of debt-paying that stimulates the economy and puts everyone back to work. Along the way a broken marriage is repaired, a delayed wedding is put back on track, an artist is redeemed, and, as with the pearls, everything is restored to its rightful owner. The Inside Story is funny, fast-paced, and satisfying — even if the title is totally unmemorable.

My Man Godfrey has been described as “a screwball comedy with a conscience,” and it is. But it’s more than that. It’s a screwball comedy with a conscience and a sound economic message, for those who can see it. The film garnered Oscar nominations for writer, director, and all four acting categories, but not for Best Picture. Go figure. It’s included on numerous “must see” lists. I’d like to wring the costume designer’s neck for those floppy bangs on Carole Lombard, but I suppose it adds to her ditziness and helps her look more like the teenager she’s playing. I don’t really buy the romantic ending, and I doubt that William Powell did either (he and Lombard had been married in real life, and he probably knew where the relationship was headed). But despite those minor flaws, it’s a terrific film.

Rent it today on YouTube, Amazon, or other streaming platforms. But avoid the colorized version. It’s interesting from an artistic and technical standpoint to see how director Gregory La Cava used shades of gray for the costumes to create the sensation of color in this beautifully shot black-and-white film. But in the colorized version, the faces are often only partly colorized, often creating a ghastly, cadaverous look. Stick with the original!

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