Grace under pressure: the 1930s represent the first great social drama that’s still remembered by many Americans. Of course, you don’t have to belong to that club to enjoy these films, whether your goal is to share the decade’s escapist tendencies (movies made then routinely limned a Roaring Twenties, tux-and-gown lifestyle) or to love the sun-drenched fad of semi-naturalistic movies about the Depression made after Bonnie and Clyde.
An overproduced Oscar bid for both director Sam Mendes and star Tom Hanks, the gangster saga Road to Perdition (based on a Max Allen Collins graphic novel) about a mobster and his son taking revenge on his own clan is rather stale, but again, the money spent on recreating a rainy, sepia 1930s pays off.
This peculiar movie musical, derived from a Dennis PotterBBC series, brings the 1930s back in a unique way: with the original popular recordings of the day, straight off the old, scratchy records, lip-synched by Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and others as they live out a pathetic tale of economic destitution in a mythical studio-set city that, during the song sequences, frequently turns into a glitzy fantasy realm. And then back again: the undulation of sky-high oldies and dour “reality” in Pennies from Heaven is disarming and fascinating.
Peter Bogdanovich’s grim comedy about the Depression, in which Tatum O’Neal’s raw-mouthed orphan latches onto Ryan O’Neal’s fumbling, Bible-hawking con man (more out of hope for love, home, and a sense of belonging than for loot), has a formidable period thrust. The glowering black-and-white cinematography, the desolate midwestern towns, the exhausted faces of the poor, the empty Kansas skyline—every frame ofPaper Moon makes you feel like you landed in 1936 without a nickel in your pocket. It’s largely forgotten now, but it justly received acclaim back in 1973; the sorely missed Madeline Kahn practically steals the movie in a mere twenty minutes, but she lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Tatum, who remains the youngest winner ever of an Academy Award.
If you’ve been wondering why in this day and age, when Hollywood seems to be doing nothing but recycling old movies, no one has thought to remake Topper, consider this: it’s essentially a story in which driving drunk at breakneck speed around dangerous curves with your feet on the steering wheel of a convertible is seen as not just funny, but also as a paradigm for living the good life. Party animals George and Marian Kerby (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, bouncing screwball dialogue like Ping-Pong champs) become ghosts because of such antics, and they soon learn they’ve got a pretty short resume for applying for residence in Heaven. They set out to do a good deed: loosening up repressed bank president Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), who is henpecked by his propriety-conscious wife and who leads as dull a life as you can imagine. A kind of morality-tale act of retribution on Roaring Twenties hedonism, Topper is also completely 1930s in its battery of platinum blondes in slinky sequined evening dresses, men in tuxes and top hats driving roadsters, bankers in fedoras, and dancing in nightclubs.