The first Great Depression inspired a golden age in Hollywood. As the lean times persisted, it turned out one of the last things people were willing to give up was their entertainment. And with Bijou tickets at 15 cents a pop, 60-70 million Americans, about half the population, went to the movies every week.
The studios responded with an occasional film that addressed economic realities directly, like John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. But mostly, they churned out screwball comedies, extravagant fantasies and musicals.
Some were pure escapism; others aspired to more. They might model particular American strengths – courage and charisma plus vulnerability leading finally to triumph. Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Fred and Ginger; there was always an element of inspiration, of optimism belying – or defying – the times.
Last night Ellen and I watched Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York, which came out in 1941, just before Pearl Harbor. (I’ve been on a Hawks kick: Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, Rio Bravo.) Howard Hawks was, according to essayist and Telluride Film Festival regular David Thomson, “the greatest optimist the cinema has produced.”
Sergeant York, while not Hawks’s greatest film, is certainly one of his most optimistic in terms of simple human goodness. It is the true story of a turkey-shooting Tennessee marksman, Alvin Cullom York, who went from being an ignorant, though not unintelligent, hell-raising sharecropper, to Christian pacifist, to conflicted Army draftee, to the most-decorated American military hero of World War I, and back again to unassuming backwoods farmer.
Gary Cooper plays York. He is corny enough to be a hillbilly cliché (and far better looking than the real Alvin York, apparently), but so sincere and honest you cannot help but believe him. As you believe Walter Brennan as Pastor Pile (garnering his fourth Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and just about everyone else in the splendid cast.
After his conversion, York accepts the literal Bible truth, “thou shalt not kill.” The U.S. gets pulled into WW I, and he applies with the pastor’s help for exemption as a conscientious objector. He is turned down by his draft board and enters the Army unsure of what he will do, ultimately, in combat. The Army is aware, too, and an understanding officer (when was the last time you saw one of them in a movie?) gives York leave to come to his own decision. He also gives him a book of U.S. history, which he describes as “the story of a whole people’s struggle for freedom, from the very beginning until now.”
Cooper/York spends a night alone on a Tennessee hillside with just his hound dog and his Bible and decides finally to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and “to God what is God’s” – and go back to the Army.
The scenes depicting York’s heroics in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918 are reputed to be true to the facts. In one morning, with his platoon devastated around him, he picked off 28 German soldiers with 28 shots, silenced 35 German machine guns and with his seven remaining comrades took 132 prisoners. He said later that he was able to kill in order to prevent much greater killing. Hawks and Cooper made it believable.
Sgt. York was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre. He got a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and countless offers to sell his story and endorse products. But he wanted to go home to his mother and his fiancé and work a little piece of bottom land until he could own it. And that’s what he did.
Critics charged that Sergeant York was patriotic propaganda, delivered just as the U.S. was steeling itself for entry into WW II. Hawks was no doubt under pressure to produce a pro-war film, and the country no doubt needed a shot of historic idealism. Because he was a master at every genre he attempted, Hawks ended up making a superb morality play, rich in detail and humor and real characters, to go along with the message.
Maybe Ellen and I were receptive to it because of Barack Obama’s message of idealism and responsibility. Or maybe we are just starved for movies that lift us up.
Hollywood hasn’t quite caught up to the requirements of the times. This year’s Academy Award nominees are mostly very dark: The Dark Knight, Doubt, The Reader, Changeling, The Wrestler.
And then there’s the unlikely fantasy Slumdog Millionaire. Maybe it is the first post-crash hit of a New Optimism.