The wealthy, as depicted in the mass media, almost always accumulated their money ("ill-gotten gains"?) in some underhanded or slightly suspect way. Or else it was inherited. And in either case, it was clearly undeserved and unearned. There just wasn't very much interest in publishing stories of self-made men, who prospered, like the heroes of Alger and Standish at the start of the century, through the application of pluck, perseverance and honest hard work. A catchy label is always helpful in more clearly establishing a desired identity for any group, and the press came up with a fine one: "The Idle Rich."
In the films, the rich girl-poor boy romance, or vice versa, was extremely popular all through the Thirties, as we became tremendously class conscious in this supposedly classless country. And invariably the wealthy half of the pair, and his or her family, turned out to be the less thoughtful, practical, considerate and nice. Poverty, you see, brings out the best in a person.
Rich young men were played by rather foppish, foolish, weakling types like Robert Montgomery, while the poor heroes were portrayed by more solid, feet-on-the-ground fellows like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Tracy won his first Academy Award of the Thirties for straightening out a rich man's spoiled youngster (Freddie Bartholomew) in Captains Courageous; Gable got his Oscar for straightening out a rich man's spoiled daughter (Claudette Colbert) in It Happened One Night. Gary Cooper fought the good fight for the little man, against the forces of evil wealth and power, in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (by inheriting a few million himself and throwing the Haves into an absolute panic with plans for spreading the wealth around to a number of Have-Nots, and winding up in a sanity hearing for his trouble) and again in Meet John Doe (by threatening to jump off the top of a building, when evil Mr. Moneybags, played by Edward Arnold, became too much for him). Having apparently learned nothing from Coop's chilling experience (it was a subzero December night when he climbed out on that roof to jump), Jimmy Stewart took on the same all-powerful adversary in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (in both pictures dirty Arnold was trying to use his millions to buy his way into the White House, but in this one he even had his own SS-like motorcycle police corps).
A typical example of a romantic movie made during the Depression (and there are dozens upon dozens to choose from) was something called Holiday, starring Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and a pre-Dr. Kildare Lew Ayres. Cary played a handsome, unassuming, high-principled, philosophical pauper, who fell in love with a beautiful, self-centered, cold-as-ice rich girl, played by we've no idea who. Lew Ayres portrayed the wealthy, foppish, foolish, weakling brother, who might have turned out as well as Cary, we soon realized, if only he hadn't been born rich. As it is, he's an alcoholic. What else?
The wealthy father was a domineering egomaniac, who kept his children under his thumb, or tried to. (Edward Arnold was apparently busy elsewhere when they made this one, because the tyrannical old man was ably played by someone else, whose name we also don't recall.) Katy played a second daughter who, by some unexplained miracle, had managed to escape the evil taint of Daddy's moola.
The conflict in the film develops over Daddy's insistence that he will consent to the marriage only if Cary agrees to come to work for him as a vice president in one of his corporations. Miss Rich-bitch sides with Daddy, of course, but Cary realizes that if he consents, he will surely be corrupted and destroyed, no doubt winding up like the wealthy, foppish, foolish, weakling Lew Ayres, or worse. And he doesn't even care for a cocktail before dinner.
At this point, it would be legitimately argued that this movie is less concerned with a conflict between the virtues of acquiring or not acquiring money than with the more basic question of whether a man should give up his individuality, independence and integrity in exchange for a soft, secure and purposeless life. Obviously, the only thing for Cary to do is to tell the old man to shove it, which is exactly what he does. But here's the rub—and this is what makes this particular picture an especially interesting example of the philosophical content of Depression-day film fare. Why did Cary turn down the old man's offer? (And it should be mentioned, he thought long and hard before finally deciding to turn it down at picture's end.) Exactly what was Cary weighing this executive position in Daddy's firm against? Did he have a plan for going into business for himself? Did he prefer to work his way up in another company of his own choosing? Did he have the driving urge to become a doctor—to heal, to save lives, to get an M.D. movie series of his own going before Lew Ayres sobered up and latched onto the Dr. Kildare gimmick at Depression's end? Maybe he wanted to build bridges or skyscrapers? Or would he heed the call of politics and help Junior Senator Jimmy Stewart take care of power-mad Edward Arnold? Forget it. Cary had worked just long enough to save up enough money to buy a small boat. He was in his middle 20s and he figured that work could wait for at least 12 years. He planned on bumming around the world in his boat for the next dozen annums. Honest. That's it. And that's exactly where he was headed at picture's end. Naturally, Katherine Hepburn knew a good thing when she saw it, so when her sister bowed out, she tagged right along after Cary—leaving the purposeless life with the wealthy family for a purposeless life with a boat bum. No doubt she made the best decision under the circumstances (boat bum or not, Cary Grant is still Cary Grant), but one can't help wondering why the makers of this movie, like many of their brethren during the Depression, felt obliged to preach a philosophy that said, in essence, the best thing in life is sitting on your ass. Actually, we don't wonder at all. Since a major part of the country was forced to do little more than sit on its ass through much of the Depression, it was just good box office to give them movies that said that loafing and doing nothing with your life is really desirable. Why, look, Cary Grant is doing it by choice—he's passing up several million dollars and marriage to Rich-bitch, who the movie would have us believe he loved—right up until the last couple of scenes anyway—and all so he could loaf. The public liked that sort of soothing syrup, and so the movies gave it to them, and so did the magazines, and the newspapers and radio.
A majority of the movies made during the Thirties were musicals, comedies and other forms of escape entertainment exploiting the public's desire to avoid the realities of the times. And when a realistic film was made, it usually was depressingly downbeat. No point in being overly optimistic about this world in which we struggle to survive.
Initiative, ambition and the accumulation of wealth were not the only virtues made light of or actually ridiculed during the Depression. Education, intellectual achievement, science and the arts took their knocks, as well. By Depression's end, the press had even come up with a suitably negative label for excessive intellectualism and academic accomplishment: "Egghead." In place of Picasso, we were given Norman Rockwell and in place of literature, the Reader's Digest.
No general truth is without its exceptions and no time is without its virtues. The Thirties did witness the positive emergence of greater concern for one's fellow man and the immense strides made in the labor movement, but even these worthwhile accomplishments had their negative aspects, for they further de-emphasized the individual in favor of the group. And concern for the collective many is not always the same as concern for each and every separate member of society taken as the single person, with his individual hopes and dreams, desires and aspirations.
Legitimate interest in the welfare of the average man became subtly transformed into an idealization of the average man. To be an average guy, a part of a group, one of the gang became a pretty good thing to be. "Mr. Average Man" was someone with whom everyone could identify, and who wouldn't be proud to be considered "Mr. Average American"? But just a generation before, no American worth the name would have settled for the notion of being an "average" anything. His aspirations were a good deal higher than that. For there is something far better than being just average, and if most of us aren't aiming for that something better, then the very average itself will drop lower and lower, along with our aspirations.
During the Depression, concern for the Common Man turned into deification of the Common Man, and of common ideas and common taste. Who needed an education? Wasn't common sense what really counted? There was no room in the Thirties for the uncommon act, the uncommon accomplishment, the uncommon mind or the Uncommon Man.
There are very few great heroes in the Thirties, where there had been many in the Twenties and before. (The single notable exception was F.D.R., who existed less as a hero during this time of trouble than as a truly national Father Figure.) And the temper of the times may be most clearly appreciated when we consider that during the Depression, and thereafter, we not only failed to recognize and acclaim the Uncommon Men we'd most acclaimed a decade earlier.
Charles Lindbergh was the greatest single hero of the Twenties. He had gained an even greater hold on America's heart in the early Thirties through the tragic loss of a child in a world-famous kidnap-murder. But when he returned from a visit to Germany late in the decade and expressed the unpopular view that we should avoid a war with that nation, because her armed might would prove too much for us, his ideas were not considered the honest, if inaccurate, opinions of a sincere and patriotic American, they were damned as being little short of treason. The Lindbergh Beacon, atop the Palmolive Building in Chicago, was promptly renamed and the "Lone Eagle" was really alone from that time on. The public never forgave him. But was it a single unpopular opinion they were unwilling to forgive, or the fact that he'd been an uncommon hero to them in the first place?
Charles Chaplin is unquestionably the greatest comedian the world has ever known. He was beloved all through the Twenties, not only in America, but everywhere. He made some of his most delightful feature-length films in the Thirties, but the U.S. began to cool toward the little tramp. They didn't like Chaplin's politics. Born and raised in London's slums, he'd always been a bit left-of-center politically, but he was certainly no active Communist, as some suggested. The public didn't care much for his personal life either. The U.S. government actually brought criminal charges against him for violating the Mann Act, because he transported a woman, with whom he was having an affair, from one state into another—a "crime" that, in these days of more easily accessible and less expensive transportation, probably over half the adult male population of this country has committed. And despite the fact that the Mann Act was passed to cover white slavery, as clearly stated in the law, and the "immoral purposes" referred to therein, in connection with transporting females over state boundaries, is prostitution. Chaplin was acquitted.
The spurned female, who had helped the government with that case, then filed a paternity suit against Chaplin, claiming him the father of her illegitimate child. He lost that case, despite the fact that blood tests proved conclusively that the child could not possibly be his. Neither the public nor the press ever forgave Chaplin for these breaches in good conduct. Yet Errol Flynn, who was involved in maternity and rape suits at about the same time, was secretly admired by most and generally considered to be a lovable scalawag. Charles Beaumont, in his article, Chaplin, published in Playboy (March 1960), commented on this paradox: "Flynn, even when he was consorting with girls young enough to be his granddaughters, could do no wrong. Chaplin could do no right." And Beaumont also suggested a possible reason for this double standard: "Perhaps because he [Flynn] did not add to these [his affairs] the affront of genius."
One of the greatest actors of our time, and as much responsible for the early worldwide popularity of movies as any other human being, Charles Chaplin was never given an Academy Award. His last two pictures to be released in the United States (Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight) were generally panned here and did poorly at the box office, although they both won praise and prizes in Europe. Badgered by the public, press and the U.S. government (the then Attorney General of the United States, James P. McGranery, called him an "unsavory character" and ordered Immigration authorities to hold a hearing to determine whether Chaplin was an undesirable alien), he was English and had never taken out citizenship papers, an "affront" for which America would never forgive him, Chaplin finally chose exile in Switzerland in 1945.
We feared that the memory of Charlie's genius was fading, for almost nothing complimentary had been written about him in any large-circulation magazine in the previous half-dozen years, so we asked Charles Beaumont to write an article on Charlie, the talent, as distinguished from Chaplin, the man. Beaumont's article began: "High on the list of America's pet hates is a man who, over a 30-year period, gave this nation—and every other nation throughout the world—a gift valuable beyond price and beyond estimation the most desirable and most difficult to receive: the imperishable gift of joy."
Beaumont continued: "An anti-Chaplin campaign was begun, calculated by its emphases and omissions to present a single image of Chaplin, so hateful an image that some European critics concluded that it was a classic admission of guilty conscience....
"Not content to destroy the man, the columnists proceeded to attack the man's work. Learned students of the cinema, such as Hedda Hopper, began to have second thoughts about the "so-called Chaplin masterpieces." Were they really as funny as they were cracked up to be?
"Only a few months ago, a logorrheic Hollywood TV personality was asked why he persisted in slamming Chaplin. 'I'll tell you,' said the personality. 'I've got nothing against the guy personally. What he does is his own business. I'm sick of hearing all this stuff about what a great comic he was. You see one of his pictures recently? They're pathetic. Stupid. What's funny about a little schmo who looks like Hitler and acts like a queer? I'll tell you a great comic. Joey Frisco. There's a great comic....'
"So now even Charlie—as distinct from Chaplin—is under attack. It would be comforting to think the Little Fellow isn't in danger, that nothing so magnificent could possibly perish, but other magnificent things have perished, and at the hands of men. Why not Charlie too? Film doesn't last forever, and memory fades. And though we speak of a wonder that held the world enchanted for three generations, the wonder has demonstrably begun to dim. The young in America today do not know Charlie at all, except as the monster the press has built, and that is sad. Unless they live in the few great cities of the nation [in which some few Chaplin films are still shown], they don't know Charlie, either. And that is tragic. For the artist and his art, separable as they may and must be, are of vital importance to the cultural and moral development of America. If we allow ourselves to forget what we had, then we shall never understand what we lost, and that will make us poor indeed.