Down and Out in Hollywood: Musings by David Thomson…

It's the 1930s all over again. Or is it? Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Duplicity (2009). Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive and Universal/Everett/Rex Features
It's the 1930s all over again. Or is it? Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Duplicity (2009). Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive and Universal/Everett/Rex Features

About every other week, there’s an article assessing the current financial crisis and the way that Hollywood, in the past, stepped up to the plate and upped its ante with quality films that worked as a salve for the suffering masses. The question now is whether or not it has the power to do the same now. Today’s Guardian features an Opinion piece by none other that David Thomson, my cineaste du choix, and in his unmistakable rhapsodic prose, spells out why any notion of a re-birth of Hollywood’s glory days is far from likely. OK, fine: impossible. Owing to the fact that, as Thomson puts it, that “the dream and the things that fed the dream” are no more.

Give it a read and tell us what you think:



The Great Depression ushered in American cinema’s golden age for an escapism-hungry public. With the economy darkening again, is another renaissance on the cards?

By David Thomson

Everyone thinks numbers now: the Dow Jones has gone down by close to 3,000 points in about eight months; the US unemployment rate has gone over 8%, and every expert fears it will go higher before anything gets better. Even the suicide rate among financial experts has jumped.
Actually, I made that up, but if they read this they may start jumping. And the American box office – that is to say, the amount of money exchanged for movie tickets – is up by a steady 15% over the last year. It’s not that we don’t study or respect history any longer – rather, it’s that our patience is very short. And history, famously, takes its time. So the new generation of movie experts – the bloggers, the instant pundits – have jumped to the optimistic conclusion that the one good thing about this new depression (Our Depression, they call it) is that the phenomenon of people going back to the movies will lead to new and magical set of films like those made for the 1930s.

To quote a great line of the late 1920s, “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so!” (The final line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.) More or less, the picture business as it now exists takes heart in that 15% increase, and starts looking for Frank Capra, Astaire and Rogers, Howard Hawks, William Powell and Myrna Loy, the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Cagney and Grant, and so on. At its most rugged, the business notes the stunning surprise of Slumdog Millionaire and argues: look, there’s a film about money, success and happiness, so let’s do it again – let’s make Mr Deeds Goes to Town, My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

Whisper it softly: they are all dead, not just the stars of those films, but the people who wrote and directed them, and – for the most part – the shadows in the dark who went to see them. The first reason to doubt this stupid premise is that the 1930s was founded on a marriage between the public and the pictures in which audiences still loved the make-believe and believed in love stories and had very few alternatives in the way of entertainment. So they relished the idea of a story that was a metaphor for easier times than anyone was really enjoying, just as they were amused by gangster pictures that held a sardonic view of banks, cops and authority – so long as the splendid gangsters knocking them over satisfied censorship by dying at the end.

The audience was still surprised and delighted by what you could do with talk, music and sound. When sound arrived in 1927, there were prophets of gloom who said the beauty of pantomime was over. It was, too, but it was replaced by fast-talking wit, under-acting, double entendres, gunfire, screams, mood music and the sheer enchantment of Astaire beginning: “Some day, when I’m awfully low … ”

That’s from Swing Time (1936), and the lyric does seem to say, of course you’re low, but try to dance. It relies not just on Fred and the radiant black-and-white smartness of the films he made with Ginger, but also requires the melody by Jerome Kern and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Alas, no one now is writing silly love songs like that, and few people in Hollywood would begin to know how to make a musical. The innocence of that age is gone, no matter that innocence, hope and a smile were key ingredients in the fight against very hard times in the 1930s. And just as it takes a couple of years to get a movie into the pipeline, so we’d need at least as many decades to breed fresh Kerns or Fields.

All right, you say, set the musical aside; but surely we could do romantic comedies again? Don’t we have the actors? Don’t boys and girls get together still? Can’t we recapture the fun of It Happened One Night, Twentieth Century, The Awful Truth or His Girl Friday (which is 1941 – but in America the 1930s went on until Pearl Harbor)? In the current box-office upswing, some critics have said that Duplicity is the most encouraging film on view, because it is like a 1930s screwball comedy, and it does offer Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as people it would be so easy to love.

Well, wait a minute: first of all, Duplicity hasn’t contributed to the new upsurge very much. Reviews were bright and promising, but audiences were not impressed. A lot of them found all that talk hard to keep up with – we’ve lost the habit for swift dialogue, a thing that needs writers and players, to be sure, but audiences, too. And while Duplicity was an interesting throwback, it had a great flaw. It’s about two lovers who are rival secret agents. The writer-director Tony Gilroy (he wrote the Bourne pictures and directed Michael Clayton) handled the rapid exchanges very well. But at the crucial moment, when love has to break though the chatter, he was lost, along with his players (most notably Julia Roberts). You see, he doesn’t do love, or trust or commitment. He believes in intrigue and duplicity, but not the abiding heart, because he’s part of the generation that flinches from sentiment and replaces it with tricky action. Gilroy is a promising director, but I’m not sure that he has it in him to settle for that very old-fashioned aim – to move people. So Duplicity feels like a work-out; 90 minutes of aerobics to keep the ageing stars looking young. Our films are ads for advertising, whereas so many of the best pictures of the 1930s were tributes to life and to truths of the heart that survived amid poverty, loss and hardship.

In fact, in the 1930s, that survival was a close thing – and it may prove to be a close call now. In the first years after the Wall Street crash (1931-33), the movie audience declined. It was only by about 1934-35 that the business came back, and by then it had sound with actors and writers wildly excited by the new opportunity to make movies worthy of the age. A whole generation of writers and directors had felt that silent movies were staid, stupid and very limited, compared with theatre, the novel and journalism. But after 1927, they saw that movie really was going to be as vital to America as the best popular songs. In the 1930s all the great stars were at work, along with all the best songwriters. From 1932, let’s say, until 1945, Hollywood was at its best, and that best includes not just the stars, but Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, John Ford and writers such as Sturges, Robert Riskin, Jules Furthman, Dudley Nichols, Norman Krasna, Sidney Howard, Ben Hecht and so on.

So far, alas, the distinguishing demerit of the current box-office surge has been that we, the idiots, are lining up to see some awful pictures – and the audience takes it for granted now that little worthwhile opens in the first half of the year. Most new films are at the extremes established by the young audience – from brutal to fatuous. So nothing so far suggests a revival of standards from the 1930s.

Could it happen? It might if this depression lasts – but who would trade 10 years of downturn for better pictures? Such an experience could eat away at inflated contracts and hollow careers (for there is so little affection for movie stars today). The next best way to go is to encourage writers, but the sad truth is that the finest writers now are making television and doing very nicely. The second-best screen has long since surpassed the achievement of the big screen, and is doing it at budgetary levels that make mainstream movies look like absurd monsters. After The Sopranos, its creator David Chase opted not to do a movie but to make another TV series – on the history of Hollywood (a horror story about the family again!).

The movies might do very well making black comedies about the corrupt fiscal system that led to the current collapse – more Madoff’s Millions and less Ocean’s Fourteen. A new political toughness is in order, reassessing some of the crimes of the eight years of George W Bush. But does America or the business system called entertainment have the nerve to be so forthright? In the 1930s, the gangster film was often veiled social criticism of how the country was working. Does anyone really expect that Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (with Johnny Depp as Dillinger) will be like that – or will it be one more rhapsody over gangster style and charm?

It is also possible that America is as effectively over as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or United Artists – I mean finished as the America of the age of empire (the country that came to power with the second world war, singing the songs from the movies and acting out their cliches). No, I don’t say that America cannot emerge from this depression – eventually. But I’m not sure it can come back with the old adolescent self-confidence, or the belief in its old code – the Bill of Rights shuffled into Roosevelt’s New Deal and John Wayne’s walk. More and more Americans are coming to see that the dream and the nation work no better than the same things in other countries. So you don’t have to try to believe that you’re the greatest country on earth. There is no such thing. And if that’s true, then there’s no point in rekindling the movie genres of the 1930s – not when you can rent the real thing on DVD – because, at the bottom of it all, the dream and the things that fed the dream (the movies) are retired.

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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

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