I have been AWOL for a couple of weeks. Truth be told I have had the flu and been wallowing in screwball comedies. You know those preposterous post-Code 30s and 40s farces that have you laughing but not without some guilt? The story lines are pretty uniform. A down-and-out meets rich girl or guy, and ain’t the rich just so nice? All outcomes endorsed by Dr Pangloss.
To a cynic like me though movies such as My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, Bringing Up Baby, Sullivan’s Travels, Palm Beach Story etc. are essentially reactionary. Social inequality is disturbed yes, but the resolution re-establishes the status quo and affirms wealth and privilege as fine and dandy.
Even the down-beat musical comedy Gold Diggers of 1933 has a compromised ending. The dark expressionist finale with studio rain must have struck audiences at the time as totally out of left field. But does it redeem the cosmetic resolution of the narrative, which offers up a soppy romantic reconciliation where rich guys are swell, and conspicuous consumption is just fine? Hollywood likes to poke fun at the rich, but forgives privilege in the flutter of an heiress’s eyelashes. Capra, La Cava, Sturges, Hawks et al are all apologists for the conventional wisdom.
Where I am headed with this? Well, hidden away in the extras on the Criterion DVD of My Man Godfrey, is a 4½ minute un-credited newsreel item from the early 30s, with a theme etched in acid – a day at the office – and the narrator to my ear is black. Some background. In My Man Godfrey a dizzy socialite adopts a homeless man from the city dump as her protégé by employing him as a butler. She falls for him and in the wash-up they marry on the site of the dump, which is now a ritzy night-club owned by the former butler, and where the once homeless are now employed as menials. You get the picture?
Well, it seems the movie dump was inspired by a real hobo village. You are now ready to view the newsreel: