Their issues are simple. Equity. Fairness. Adequate food and decent shelter. A job with a living wage. Who am I talking about? I could be describing “The 99%,” the folks in the “Occupy” movement who have protested against the monied class of late. But movies that embody all of their concerns were created over 70 years ago. The first of the three I will discuss, Modern Times, ranks 78th on the American Film Institute’s list of the best American films ever made. And most of it is silent.
Charlie Chaplin’s comedy character, “The Little Tramp” — still said to be the most famous human figure in movie history — is a working man put-upon by a bottom-line-oriented, self-interested management. He works at an assembly-line on a mind and body-numbing job. He is the donkey upon whose back the higher-ups ride their way to great wealth. When they want more productivity, he is put in a machine that will reduce his lunch hour and force-feed him his food, until the machine goes awry.
It sounds grim, I know. But that scene is hilariously funny, because Chaplin’s object is to mock the rich men and women who believe that everything is fine so long as they remain on top of the world — the world of the 1930s Great Depression, in which 25% of the U.S. population is unemployed and 25% underemployed.
Soon Chaplin’s comic everyman character is driven over the edge and literally into the gears of a giant machine of which he becomes a moving part. It is one of the most famous and inventive scenes in movie history.
Although you might not notice it, a good part of the film has to do with food, getting it and eating it, an unfortunate daily preoccupation in a time of bread-lines; a society that lacked a social safety net. And there is a good deal of haughtiness displayed by the upper-class, who treat the unlucky with considerable disdain, as if they all deserve their sorry state. Sound familiar?
Chaplin’s co-star is his wife, the beautiful Paulette Goddard, who plays a young woman forced to steal to get a bite to eat for herself and her sisters. Her efforts to make her way through to a better time inspire the tramp’s own.
This movie gave the audience for Chaplin’s graceful pantomime a first opportunity to hear “The Little Tramp” speak, or actually, sing. The nonsense song he creates is a masterpiece of movement, facial animation, and shy humor.
Chaplin’s tramp appeals to us because of our identification with the good-natured underdog, his desire to help others no matter how downtrodden he is himself, and to share whatever he has. He often outsmarts those more powerful than he is, something nearly everyone wishes he could do. And, without words, he makes us laugh and conveys a human tenderness well beyond the capacity speech.
Chaplin wrote the music for this film, including the wonderful tune “Smile.” Despite the difficulty that the two stars have in finding jobs and a place to live, they strive to maintain an upbeat, can-do attitude toward their woes. In the end, though their future still is not clear, they have both their optimism and their relationship intact. A better day is surely ahead as Goddard and Chaplin, arm in arm, walk toward the horizon to the strains of Chaplin’s famous tune. Modern Times is a movie that treats grave social and economic problems, but somehow manages to make us smile.
Another great film, but much darker in every sense, is The Grapes of Wrath, a 1940 movie directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. It is based on the best-selling John Steinbeck novel of the same name. The political message is much like that of Modern Times, as are the parallels to today. The story recounts the journey to California of the Joad family following the loss of their “Dustbowl” home in drought-stricken Oklahoma. They find that the economic life of a migrant farm worker is no less desperate than the Depression-era poverty back home.
While the Joads receive help from kind souls along the way, they also encounter those who will take economic advantage of them. The family members inhabit a world where they are told that “A red (a communist) is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we’re paying twenty-five.” Although most captains of industry might not use those words today, some of them can be every bit as ruthless in their attitude toward employee wages. This movie ranks 23rd on the American Film Institute’s list of best American films.
A terrific book on the history of the 1930s “Dustbowl” is The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. It describes the environmentally tragic decision to cultivate the grassland in large parts of America’s Great Plains, ultimately stripping the earth of its top soil and causing dust storms that were felt as far away as Chicago and New York City. Those conditions led families like the fictional Joads to look for work in California. Again, the much milder drought conditions of today recall events of our parents’ and grandparents’ and great grandparents’ lifetimes.
A particularly sobering 1932 quotation comes from Hugh Bennett: “Of all the countries in the world, we Americans have been the greatest destroyers of land of any race of people barbaric or civilized.” Bennett would eventually take over the federal government’s attempt to stabilize the blowing soil.
Finally, you can view a 25-minute late 1930s documentary film about the “Dustbowl” by Pare Lorentz called The Plow That Broke the Plains. The music is by an important American composer and music journalist, Virgil Thompson. Even better I expect, will be Ken Burns’s four hour, two part documentary, The Dust Bowl, which will premiere on PBS on November 18 and 19.