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Entertainment

Old Movies Parallel The Present


James Stewart It's A Wonderful Life

James Stewart It's A Wonderful Life

Watching old movies from the 30’s is a joy many of us have, and it’s like travelling back in time to a bygone era. However, lately it is more like watching the evening news or a documentary, as the old stories of the depression and war era start to parallel the present.

Take the case of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the run on the building-and-loan company of the hero, George Bailey. The panicked citizens of Bedford Falls try to rescue their nest eggs. George tries to explain that the money isn’t available because they’ve invested it in each other; one person’s savings helped to finance another’s business or secure a neighbour’s house. The scene, though meant as a portrait of solidarity, seems more relevant today as an account of moral hazard. In any case, the townspeople don’t believe George, who is rescued when his fiancee empties their $2,000 honeymoon fund to provide an emergency bailout. Now bailout sounds familiar.

Or consider the slightly corny artefact “The Grapes of Wrath”. Early on in the film, a flashback shows Muley Graves, an Oklahoma dirt farmer, being dispossessed by a well-fed gentleman with a fine car and a big cigar who disavows any personal responsibility. He’s just doing the bidding of the land company, which is doing the bidding of the bank, and on the chain goes; all the way up to the fat cats back East. That no one is to blame puzzles poor Muley. “Well, who do we shoot?” he asks. A similar question may be forming in the minds of more than a few people in 2008.

And then there is “Sullivan’s Travels,” Preston Sturges’s tale of a Hollywood director who sets out to make a serious movie about real-life poverty and misery. On the way, he discovers that real people, however poor or miserable they may be, want laughter and escapism.

All three of these pictures, though they evoke the Great Depression and seem to belong to it, in fact were released after the worst of the economic crisis of the 1930s had passed. In the case of “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) and “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), the next crisis, World War II, was already in full swing. And by the time “It’s a Wonderful Life” came along, in 1946, the war, too, was over.

There is a popular impression that movies were the mainstream of life in the depression days, and that people went to the movies to escape reality. The reality is that he industry was precariously new, and not yet fully established. When the stock market crashed in 1929, talking film was younger than YouTube is today. The film industry almost collapsed, with attendance falling 30 million (35%) between 1930 and 1933.

It was only in 1934, that things began to turn around, thanks to increased production, new investment from Wall Street and, intriguingly, by the intervention of the federal government and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration.

Will Hollywood studio bosses be the next executives to come to Washington pleading for a bailout?

About Craig Hill

Teacher and Writer. Writing has been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and others.

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