May 25, 2009

The Pre-Code View of World War I

Early Depression-era Hollywood made a fortune uplifting downtrodden audiences with upbeat musicals and racy comedies--before the enforcement of the production code put a damper on some of the fun--but the period was not all sweetness and light. Some of the most effective movies that touch on World War I came from this period, before Hollywood put a gloss on war, and while the Lost Generation was still fresh in the collective memory. I decided to share some of these titles in observance of Memorial Day. These are solemn, downbeat movies, but they are also inspiring in their gritty honesty and emotional power.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) One of the most famous World War I movies is an epic, but also intimate story of young soldiers who lose their patriotic enthusiasm when faced with the horror, mayhem and boredom of trench warfare. All Quite on the Western Front has retained its power for generations, partly because it does not soften its bleak world view.

The Eagle and the Hawk (1932) A smaller scale, but potent WWI drama about a pilot who collapses under the strain of the war. This fast, dark story is as much about camaraderie and loyalty as it is about the emotional distress caused by war.

Heroes for Sale (1933) This is one of the most powerful pre-code examinations of post-war life for traumatized veterans. In its cynical world view, soldiers are not even necessarily loyal to each other, making the transition to civilian life even more lonely and confusing. One of the hugely underrated Richard Barthelmess’ best performances.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) Paul Muni stars in another gritty drama of a veteran’s struggle to return to society. Desperate for money, he tries to pawn his medals, only to find that the shop owner already has accepted more than he can sell. He shows him a pile of medals, and with that one image shows the struggles of many men.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) This is above all a musical of the depression. While accepting the reality of empty stomachs and unpaid rent, it also uplifts with silly songs, romance and elaborate production numbers. It touches on World War I in its final number My Forgotten Man. The darkly beautiful, expressionistic sets and emotional plea for struggling veterans so impressed studio head Jack Warner that he moved it from the middle of the movie to the end, where its passionate drive gave the closing scenes a powerful edge.

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