Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rich People and Theorists: Will Recession Affect Movies?

Before this evening's entry, I have to mention that as guest blogger I wrote today's post at Kate Gabrielle's Silents and Talkies as a birthday to tribute to Steve McQueen. Silents and Talkies is only a few months old, but it is already one of the best movie blogs around. Kate Gabrielle does a really good job with its posts, with every one accompanied by one of her paintings, pen and ink drawings, or pencil sketches. I recommend it highly!
The current recession and even the Great Depression have apparently been on the minds of many bloggers of late. A while back Serena Whitney did a post on "How to Save Money on Movies during the Recession" at her column at KillerFilm. Katie Richardson at Obscure Film Classics wrote a similarly, if more humorous post entitled "Tips from the Classics in These Tough Economic Times", drawing upon classic films from the Great Depression for tips on how to survive this depression. In Out of the Past Raquelle examined the effect of the Great Depression on movies of that era in a post titled "Food from the Great Depression," even cooking a recipe she obtained from the series of videos entitled Great Depression Cooking with Clara. Movie bloggers have certainly taken notice of the current economic woes.

It was in replying to Raquelle's post that I pondered whether or not the current recession would have an impact on movies being made now. As both Katie at Obscure Film Classics and Raquelle at Out of the Past both ably demonstrated, the Great Depression had an impact on the movies of that era. Raquelle cited the rather insubstantial meals which characters had in both Our Blushing Brides and Gold Diggers of 1933. In her article Katie cited a number of different films ranging from Bed of Roses to Public Enemy to Man's Castle. In the Thirties and even into the early Forties the movie industry certainly took notice of the hard times and incorporated into their films.

Indeed, the Great Depression is pivotal to some of the most famous films of all time. Fans of classic horror films will recall that in King Kong unemployed actress Anne Darrow (the great Fay Wray) was so desperate for food that she was actually going to steal an apple from a street side grocer. Producer Carl Denham, seeking a star for his latest film, actually gets a meeting with her simply by paying for the almost stolen apple and buying her a meal, which she eats as if she has been starving (which she probably has). In the classic screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, socialite Cornelia Bullock (Carole Lombard) hired a homeless man, Godfrey (William Powell), as the family butler. Of course, Godfrey wasn't always a derelict...

Other films would go even further in incorporating the Great Depression into their plots. The plot of Harry Beaumont's Dance, Fools, Dance is set in motion by the Stock Market crash of 1929. In Our Daily Bread down on their luck workers from the city seek to make a living by setting up a farming community based on the economic philosophies of Edward Gallafent. Almost every movie in the gangster cycle of the Thirties, particularly Angels in Dirty Faces, took into account the poverty of the era as a cause of crime. Of course, perhaps no other film delved as deep into the economic woes of the time as The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford and based on the novel of the same name by John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath followed an Oklahoma family who lost their farm through a combination of the ongoing Depression and the concurrent Dust Bowl. While the United States economy had somewhat recovered by 1939 (when The Grapes of Wrath) and 1940, there were still enough people struggling to get by that in Sullivan's Travels director John Sullivan wanted to chronicle the plight of the downtrodden so much that he would even make himself one of them (here I must note, the title for this post comes from Sullivan's Travels).

Here it must be pointed out that the Great Depression was not the only period of economic unrest in the United States. Those of us over the age of thirty five probably remember the recession of the Eighties. Although nowhere as severe as the Great Depression, the recession of the Eighties was one of the worst economic periods in the history of the Untied States. Unemployment was wide spread, farm foreclosures were at a record high, and homelessness was even on the rise. Curiously, however, very little notice was taken of the economic woes of the time in the films of the day. The Farm Crisis was recognised in a few films of the era. Country, released in 1984, followed a family in danger of losing their farm to FHA loans and the effect that has on the family. The River, also released in 1984, mined much of the same territory, although natural disasters played a much larger role in that film.

The movie Wisdom was not only based in the Farm Crisis, but in the crisis faced b y other Americans unable to pay back loans and mortgages. In the movie unemployed John Wisdom makes himself a Robin Hood figure, going from bank to bank and destroying loan and mortgage records. Raising Arizona also faced the economic crisis of the Eighties head on. In the film Hi (Nicholas Cage) falls victim to the economic hardships of the era, all the while his wife Edwina (Holly Hunter) wants to have a baby. Raising Arizona makes no bones about laying the fault of the recession of the Eighties at the feet of the presidential administration of the time--at one point in the movie Hi says, "I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno. They say he's a decent man, so maybe his advisors are confused." The science fiction movie They Live also dealt with the recession of the time, only homeless construction worker John Nada (Roddy Piper) learns its true cause (as well as that of pollution, greed, and a number of other modern woes) have produced by aliens in an effort to control our world! The cult classic Repo Man also takes into account the economic hardships of the time.

During the Great Depression it is actually hard to find a movie that was not somehow affected by the economic woes of the era, even if it was only in minor ways. This can be contrasted by the films made during the recession of the Eighties, which for the most part refused to acknowledge that any economic hardship was taking place at all. It is then difficult to say how this the movie industry will deal with the current recession. Will they portray it realistically in films as the movies of the Great Depression did? Or will they entirely ignore it as most films of the recession of the Eighties. It is difficult to say which path the movie industry will take. My own hope is that they will acknowledge the economic hardships of the time. In fact, I would think that if they do not, then audiences will find it hard to believe in any movie set in the present day. After all, how can the average movie viewer accept a film where everything is fine when he or she might go home to only a meagre meal and worrying about the mortgage? As to whether the movie industry will tackle the current recession, I suppose we will have to just wait and see.


poppedculture said...

I don't see there being much chance of Hollywood reflecting the recession, at least in the mainstream. Just look at the success of movies about Iraq.

Tinseltown is all about the escapism - who wants to pay to see what they can get at home for free?

Raquel Stecher said...

Thank you so much for this post Mercurie! It was excellent and I thank you to for mentioning my site.

The Depression era movies were all about good stories and I feel we've gotten too far away from that. Will contemporary audiences be okay with just a good story or do they need all the fancy packaging and special effects too?

I really hope that now is for the Indie films to shine. Low-budget films, with great stories that really speak to people.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I think you may just be right about Hollywood, Jeremy. While the Great Depression was reflected in Hollywood films during the Great Depression, it is notable that in the Eighties only a few movies acknowledged the recession, and those were made by outsiders like the Coen Brothers and John Carpenter.

Raquel, I do hope that the recession gives independent films a chance. Indeed, I think if the recession is acknowledged anywhere on the big screen, it's going to have to be in the indies.