Thursday, May 21, 2015

For Memorial Day, remember the forgotten men

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So, we all know who Busby Berkeley was, right? Those of us who treasure those old 1930s musicals know he was the king of the lavish production number with lots of pretty girls—numbers designed to lift the spirits of a nation suffering from a binge of laissez-faire capitalism, yes?

Well, he was certainly that. But, as anyone who has seen many the two big "Gold Diggers" films of 1933 and 1935 will attest, he was a good deal more.

His choreography for "Lullaby of Broadway" in "Gold Diggers of 1935," for example, is surprisingly dark and even frightening, ending with singer/dancer Winifred Shaw pushed to her death from a window by a massive crowd of tap dancers whose moves, as the number progresses, begin to increasingly resemble an aggressive march—complete with something that looks suspiciously like a Nazi salute. The fact that the scene takes place in a massive, surreal space only adds to the fascist imagery.

All of which brings us to Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "Remember My Forgotten Man," the finale of "Gold Diggers of 1933." Up to this point, the movie has been typical fluffy backstage romance. As the curtain rises on this last number, though, we see Joan Blondell as a down-on-her-luck blonde sharing a discarded cigarette with an equally downtrodden man and reciting lyrics with an unexpected political punch:

"I don't know if he deserves a bit of sympathy
Forget your sympathy, that's all right with me
I was satisfied to drift along from day to day
Till they came and took my man away
Remember my forgotten man
You put a rifle in his hand
You sent him far away
You shouted: 'Hip-hooray!'
But look at him today"

Singer Etta Moten takes up the song and the camera pans to images of women of all ages, clearly left alone and desperate. Next we see a parade of soldiers returning from World War I to cheering crowds. At first we see the victors, hale and hearty. But they’re soon replaced by the walking wounded, trudging through the rain. Then by the homeless in a bread line. The message is clear: once the veterans had done their job, America forgot about them.

Sound familiar? It certainly would have to viewers of the film in 1933, since FDR had made the "forgotten man" the theme of a "Fireside Chat" radio address in 1932. "These unhappy times," he said, "call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid."

They would also have remembered the 1932 march on Washington, D.C., of the "Bonus Army"—a rally of 43,000 protesters (including 17,000 WW I veterans) demanding payment in cash for their service certificates. Then-President Herbert Hoover responded in typical fashion by sending the infantry, cavalry, and tanks to drive the marchers out and burn their tent city to the ground.

The number ends in typical Berkeley fashion with an elaborately staged scene of marching doughboys and unemployed, but unlike Berkeley’s usual finales defiant instead of joyous. That’s right: this classic bit of fluff ends with a huge musical protest song.

So take a few minutes from your Memorial Day cookout to watch this angry hymn to America’s forgotten men—and, these days, forgotten women as well. And observe how little some things have changed in this country.

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