High Museum of Art: Films

Revisiting the Depression on Screen by Linda Dubler

by Eleanor Ringel Cater

Now that some of us are experiencing the worst depression since THE Depression, I figured I’d offer up some thoughts on a few more-or-less contemporary films set during the period. (Currently on view at the High is the exhibition, American Scenes: Art From the Depression Era, works from our permanent collection.)

In the new movie, Amelia, starring two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank as famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, there’s a brief glimpse of a soup line as she cruises by in her expensive car. She’s on her way to make another commercial (for which she’ll be paid big bucks). She says something like, “Oh, those poor men.” The movie is similarly superficial, and not just about the Thirties.

Annie had much more luck on stage than on screen, but the movie version isn’t all that bad. Unfortunately, the TV version is more often shown. It’s an entertaining, very old-fashioned musical, with Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks and Carol Burnett as the comically villainous Miss Hannigan. They give the picture more than enough professional gloss to overcome John Huston’s (!) apparently disinterested direction. Annie‘s real problem is numbers — not just the much-publicized production costs, but the elephantine production numbers, which are all show-stoppers — as in stopping the show dead in its tracks. But when the screen is cleared of the zillion dancing clowns and butlers and maids and Rockettes, this story of the blank-eyed orphan (Aileen Quinn) who finds happiness – if not a compatible hairstyle – with billionaire Daddy Warbucks (Finney) is pleasant enough. A good kids’ choice, if nothing else.


Nicholson and Streep in Ironweed

Though riddled with flaws, Ironweed‘s overall effect is poignant and powerful. Provided, that is, you’re willing to sit out its two-hour plus of sepia-toned seediness. Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson at the top of his game) is a former ace ballplayer, now boozed-up bum, who has returned home to Albany, the city he fled decades ago after accidentally killing his infant son. Based on William Kennedy’s best-seller, the picture is essentially a couple of days in the lives of a couple of lost souls (Meryl Streep, equally good, plays Nicholson’s flophouse mistress). True, the movie moves at a snail’s pace, but the stars are both phenomenal, showing us a sodden spiritual sadness – a kind of DTs of the soul. And you have to admire a movie made during the feel-good Reagan years dares to be a bummer about bums. Both stars were Oscar-nominated.

Do you have a favorite?


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This isn’t a film, but I am in love with the (no longer airing) HBO series Carnivale! It’s so dusty and mysterious. It is steeped in reality as much as it is in fantasy. I miss it!

For actual movies, I have always enjoyed Bonnie and Clyde, O Brother Where Art Thou and I’m not sure if this counts, but Cradle Will Rock.

Comment by hmablogmaster

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