What was 2020? Pt 5
“When 12 million unemployed men and women were riding the rails, selling apples, standing in soup lines and the feeling was ‘prosperity is around the corner,” The Great Depression was in full swing.
Hollywood became a state of mind.
Hollywood was the great diversion, but also the great ambition.
And Hollywood kept the momentum going with the glamorization of the gangster motif, the ultimate activist of the free enterprise system. The tough guy, the criminal who was made simply because of his brutally cruel circumstances to survive, by stealing, by holding up a bank as there was no food and only desperation and the common Joe could relate and understand and identify. One would side with the gangster coming up from the gutter! Cause that was where “we” (the masses) were all at!
This NO MAN became a hero in the 1930s American landscape.
The sweet life of the super rich was portrayed as the ideal state and social realities were dealt with “obliquely and romantically.”
The social victim and the outcast were the tragic heroes as personified in such classic films such as:
I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG.
YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE.
One such actor whose representation was actually quite real was GEORGE RAFT.
The HELLS KITCHEN kid came from a humble background. He grew up avoiding the gangster life, by dancing and entertaining his mother. He was the fastest CHARLESTON dancer, won contests and danced his way towards Hollywood. But along the way, in the early days of Prohibition, he hustled around with OWNEY MADDEN, and underworld gangster BUGSEY SIEGEL.
Raft during these years, experienced the poverty, along with the judgment, the ridicule and the humiliation. And he would let that propel him towards fame and fortune.
He had his fair share of real-life gangster exposure and this ended up staining his career throughout his life, no matter how classy and sophisticated a life he curated. But it also became a double edged sword.
His acting life as a gangster melted and merged into this real life and the public only threw him into the worst dirty corner, maligning him at every chance they got.
“The 1930s guy had pluck and nerve and guts, but he was antisocial.”
“For him there was a strict moral code which allowed one to kill but not slap a woman.
To rob banks, but not speak ill of your mother.
To be ruthless in achieving success.
It stated you could be innocent and corrupt as part of this American mythology.”
When you think of social inequality and rank injustice, to be born poor and how to get out of that swamp?
These movies were all about this conundrum.
How to pull yourself up, by any means necessary.
That included robbery, racketeering, illegal betting rings and booze running during prohibition.
The dream of shifting from one social class to another, this was part of the benefits found in the “American Dream.” Upward mobility.
But, the achievement of a higher status is accompanied by anxiety about fulfilling new requirements and expectations.
For George Raft, class had a precise meaning.
Class was wealth and a security to never fall again, as he had as a child.
To be insulated from disaster, which had all to do with money and its acquirement.
Luxury also was part of his vision.
He was sensitively aware of his social origins, the stigma, the judgments and his anxiety to overcome them affected him throughout his life. His love life, his relationships with women, one could say was always tainted by his sense of “worth” “value”? How he actually “saw” himself when in the midst of a woman he truly loved, not just desired? He adored Norma Shearer, but in the works that I read it was clear he had a deep, innate self deprecation. He was also stuck in a marriage that was more of a “financial scheme” by a woman who tricked him and would never ever give him a divorce, even though they were done from the beginning. Something that haunted him, the guilt he had, the 2nd guessing of women, and he ended up frequenting various “ladies of the evening” as his companions throughout his life. He was haunted til his death… with this sense of “worth.”
He always dressed sharply, to the point, his hand-made suit, tailored precisely, his shoes, gloves, and accessories. He loved perfumes. He wafted in luxury. And this made him feel immortal. No one could touch him.
And one can sense this with Hollywood in general in the 1930s.
He was exceptionally at every instance groomed to perfection.
He made comments about this in his biography. And the public noticed.
And he wanted them to notice.
Luxury and money was safety.
We can see this theme during the 2020 Covid crisis.
We see this in the gossip websites, where Hollywood Justin Bieber can travel all over while others are told to “shelter in place.”
We can observe the “us vs them” phenomenon.
Money can buy you safety from the COVID?
Who is valued?
Who is looked at as “worthless.”?
Deep questions in America with horrific answers.
Back to the 1930s.
While all around, the dust bowl, utter hopelessness was the reality.
Again, the fantasy of the movie palace was the saviour.
Storytelling. The pictures. The costumes. The glamour. The stars. To make-believe. To dream. To divert from the horrors.
Along with this came the morality, personal conflict of trying to do good, without stealing, while in total desperation to keep a roof over your head and pay the rent on time.
With Covid, we are seeing this desperation in full force.
Millions out of work.
No jobs to be had, as all are in lockdown.
And 8 months of rent is due?
Evictions coming around.
Robbing shops has heightened.
Burglaries, stealing and shoplifting are up.
Daily, we hear heartbreaking stories of women shoplifting DIAPERS!!!
And why not? The government has turned its back on the common person. What else is there?
Seriously? I ask you?
But the 1% is living it up!
I ask you: how long will this go on? How long? Look at Russian. Oligarchs having raped and pillaged the Russian resources and economy, like raping and pillaging the people of Russia and look where they are? How many Russians are living an EQUAL AND JUST LIFE? No pensions for older folks. Poverty. Where is the middle class? Rich and poor. Where is the in between? Apathy and helplessness and hopelessness because if there is uprising, millions will be put away for life? Is that it?
Meanwhile back in the GREAT AMERICAN DREAM WORLD, tthe prison population is draped in COVID with no help whatsoever. Inmates are dying! Old men who can’t pay a fine, are being JAILED because they cannot pay the bail and the fine!!
And these people are BEING INFECTED while in jail and these small municipalities in ST. LOUIS and all over in “small town” America and in the BIG CITIES are still jailing people for PETTY VIOLATIONS!!
THIS MAKES ME WANT to BULLDOZE THESE PRISONS.
This makes me so angry!!
Barbaric landscapes in 2020.
We can see PAUL MUNI, in “I’m a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.”
He plays a WW1 vet who struggles to find work, gets caught up in a robbery and is unfairly sentenced.
He escapes inhumane punishment, but is constantly in danger of being caught. The social commentary of the film caused major eruption and from what I read, made government changes in actual prison reform in the South. But I wonder.
These films are about WHITE characters.
These are WHITE stories.
There is hardly any talk about the “other” American.
What was BLACK America like if this is what was happening to White poor people?
The diversity of America was there.
You didn’t have to look far.
And the horror was hidden from us.
Just like the stories of BLACK AMERICANS, was hidden, sent over to the side, not to look at the dirty WHITE lawmakers and their policies of “drinking fountains” “back of the bus” and mostly “NO VOTING.” Along with LYNCHING, everything was kept silent. (We don’t need more evidence now with the amazing film coming out about BILLIE HOLIDAY and how they shut her down and literally destroyed her for singing STRANGE FRUIT, yes, about LYNCHING!! Lee Daniels amazing THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY!)
And so much more outrage and injustice, forgive me for not going on and on because I wish I could spend more time on this subject.
And so, Hollywood hid it. Ignored it and manipulated it.
Ok, that is my rant.
We forget this.
We keep the myth of Hollywood alive.
These films are so familiar to me, but after a while, I’m not able to watch them so easily.
As an aside: I wish someone could fill in the blanks.
I wish there were films in the 30s, that had a black main character, with his family, the issues going on, the life that was being led.
The typical day to day, not some macabre circus act that was put on to enlarge a grotesque stereotype designed specifically by white Hollywood moguls and their racist default. All institutions played this death game. Only a few went out the way in the 50s to start changing that … but that is for another post.
When I look at the Paul Muni film, I can see 1000 of such stories of present-day frame-ups, on the innocent black lives being incarcerated as the man who stole $50 from a bakery and after 3 strikes he got life imprisonment! So tell me what has changed here?
The system is just as corrupt, if not worse!
Back to the focus of poverty.
The focus was on climbing up from the poverty.
How to be a “Good man” and “live a moral life,”while not having money?
And yet the audience would side with the “gangster” as the focus was on how not to be a bum and a down and out “good for nothing” while trying to make a “decent” living. The 1930s man seemed to engage in the concept that he was a flawed victim of his circumstances which was driven by a destiny he had no say in. Free will was not an option.
No matter what you do, you always fail.
This nihilism, seemed to express the Depression.
The down and out hobo, never got a break.
“Brother can you spare a dime”.
Professor Sabine Haenni speaks of the gangster, such as Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy: “Gangsters were portrayed as an integral part of mainstream, middle-class society, where the gangster began to look ‘potentially respectable,’ as though criminality was simply another route to upward social mobility. In this new context, said Haenni, “Every American could potentially be a gangster.”
And I add, it seems the INSTITUTIONS / AUTHORITIES who refuse to give any financial help to the poor and struggling and WORKING POOR who cannot pay the rent after being paid pennies, are provoking people to steal, to shoplift and to become the “criminal.” It is as if THEY WANT IT!
As I ponder on this concept, for Covid America, where having a secure medical plan must mean you a wealthy / secure human being, as the majority of Americans are health care insecure and food insecure. I think of 2 million BLACK / POC in jail as a profit making prison system, maybe this concept that being a gangster is one of the legitimate options when it comes to making a living in an America that has 4 families having more wealth than millions of Americans.
So it feels criminality is curated into the system here.
Does the government want people to steal, by not giving them a social safety net? Especially if they are in on the fiscal profit making prison system, who gets a cut of that?
We can see Raft as the gangster who never wanted that role.
So much so that he rejected role after role, that would place him as
“the bad guy.”
He wanted to be loved and accepted, and did not want to represent that “tough guy.”
But the perversity of the situation was that the audience rooted for him as the gangster. They embraced him as “bad guy” evocation and loved him as that. But, he would give up juicy role after role, that Humphrey Bogart snapped up and only moved higher and higher in appeal with the movie-goer! He tried to play “nice guy” but the viewers were bored. His career slowly went downhill. Basically, the audience HATED him as a GOOD GUY!! Truth be told!
The transgressive gangster is the tragic hero. The bad guy trying to get it right. Like a Tony Soprano. We hate to love him, but we do. That is part of its appeal. Those in between spaces of humanity, when we watch him with his kids and his wife, and he becomes an “everyman” and we relate.
At the same time we want the gangster to succeed.
“He is what we want to be.” “What we are afraid we could become. As the hunger for wealthy, money, power is seductive. It is no longer about ‘survival’ after the first success. “
“Failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is – ultimately – impossible, and the resolution of this dilemma by the gangster’s death makes us feel safe.” He also argues that the gangster is doomed because he is under the obligation to succeed and claims that he is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become. The author gives us the reasons for the inevitable failure of the gangster. These are the very conditions of success.” Robert Warshaw
We need someone to blame.
We need an excuse.
I found this just the other day after I wrote this section of my article, to confirm what Warshaw is saying:
An article written by Emily VanDerWerff on Vox:
But why is it so difficult to make a great antihero drama? … The simple answer is that great antihero dramas aren’t just about the bad choices their characters make — they’re about the good choices the characters don’t make, too. We want to see Tony Soprano kill his enemies and do whatever he wants, because we want to live vicariously through him. But on some level, we also don’t want him to do the bad thing, because we know it will only damn him further.
“You’re all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So – what’s that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide… how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem…I tell the truth even when I lie.”
To conclude this is a quote from the recent BBC production of THE LUMINARIES where the main character who has been forced to service the miners of gold in New Zealand talks about the men who take in her services:
“You keep saying men have a great hunger for beauty.
But that is not what they want.
They come here because whatever ugliness they feel, they want me to feel it worse.
Every man wants his whore to feel unhappy.
I am exactly what they want.”
It is a remarkable scene and all telling.
As the action takes place in the 1800s in a miserable gold mining area.
The misery is palpable as everyone wants their treasure and only a few will find it.
The rest will succumb to sickness, to madness, etc.
Do we, does the gangster, does the criminal, want us to feel what he does?
The misery. The mayhem. The inner turmoil of guilt, of resentment of the guilt, when he lies, when he steals, to survive, amidst the flush of fury, enraptured by this untamed audacious uprising?
I wonder about this today with COVID. This was found in THE GUARDIAN.
Trump will soon leave office. But the ingredients of homegrown fascism remain. Dale Maharidge
The stark title is the least part of changing the song. I also came away from my recent cross-nation reporting tour convinced that the 2020s are going to be this century’s 1930s. The stock market – fueled by low interest rates and a record three-fourths of a trillion dollars of borrowed money – is by one metric overvalued more than any time since 1929. Amid this, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University fears as many as 30 to 40 million people face being thrown out of their rental homes when the various moratoriums end, which seems destined to create an unprecedented wave of homelessness.
It’s not that difficult to grasp meaning. Just look to the past. I’ve long been a student of the 1930s – fascism was on the rise in the US throughout the Great Depression. It’s something that never went away; it’s part of the American DNA. Many of the 74 million who voted for Donald J Trump in 2020 would be quite happy with authoritarian leadership. They aren’t going to vanish with the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
ps: I’m not saying TRUMP is the gangster that we hate to love and we need to feel sorry for him but champion at the same time. No, I don’t think he is like a TONY SOPRANO. But the quote from THE LUMINARIES says alot. A man in power, wants to take the whole thing down. i.e. Hitler, Trump….. destroy it all if he cannot have what he wants.
And what does he really want? Is it to smear everyone with his own self-hate and self-worthlessness feces to make it dirty and feel dirty? To make everyone feel what he feels?
It is a horrible, infantile image. But I sense it to be part of this one celled amoeba membrane of an ORANGE organism who was just the president of the US for 4 years. And just disappeared into the crevices of his dung heap.
But just like I started this article about HOLLYWOOD 1930s escapism, why not, get away a little bit and think back on the gorgeous GEORGE RAFT sauntering down Hollywood Blvd and weep on where we are right now.