Cinematic Cities: A Day at the Office in Depression New York – Hollywood not

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:

3 thoughts on “Cinematic Cities: A Day at the Office in Depression New York – Hollywood not”

  1. Ha Tony! Having just two weeks ago again seen MY MAN GODFREY on the big screen (a VERY big screen in fact–the Jersey City Landmark Loews’ 60 footer) I well remember this famous early scene, and can well understand how the inspiration came down here. This is the first time I laid eyes on the newsreel though, and much appreciate this fascinating embellishment. As to your opening paragraph, while I am admittedly in large measure a fan of the screwball sub-genre (GODFREY is actually one of my absolute favorite early comedies) I also respect those who admit they are allergic to this kind of thing, which does require a certain suspension. You may call yourself a cynic, but it hardly takes such a person to find this staccato madness more an annoyance than a comedic revelation. To each his/her own I say.

    Your opening paragraph? Classic.

    Sorry to hear you were under the weather, and happy you are back now.


  2. Thanks, Tony, for your refreshing and perceptive comments on the screwball genre. I agree that these films, while offering momentary escape, are “essentially reactionary.” I have seen all these films countless times and will return to them. However, I can no longer view them without being reminded that they work to recapture their protagonists back into the normalcy of the status quo.


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