My mother and I watched lots of old movies in the 1950s on a tiny TV screen in our tiny winterized screened in breezeway. My mother knew all the supporting players by name. Her own sisters had been MGM contract players. She was never political and always voted Republican except for George McGovern. But without her knowing it, the movies we watched left a deep impression on me. They reinforced the idea of “getting in other people’s shoes whether they were worn out with holes in the bottom or velvet ones studded with pearls. I could feel for the “down and out” while coveting the lacy ball gowns, crystal goblets, and fox furs. It nurtured my love of contradiction that persists to this day.
The economist, Milton Friedman, was right in one respect. He once said, “When a crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas lying around.” This statement became the basis for Naomi Klein’s frightening book “The Shock Doctrine.” In it, she chronicles the ways his followers jammed his free market ideas down the throats of citizens in various countries when a crisis, man made or natural, occurred. Some of the ideas lying around during the 1930s and 1940s that produced movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) were often anti-capitalist, labor friendly and surprisingly saturated with feminism. I watched “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” (1947) this past Christmas. It’s about a hobo who occupies (YES, Occupies!) a rich man’s mansion every winter when the rich guy goes to his winter home in Virginia. The hobo wears his clothes, smokes his cigars, and drinks his wine. Year after year nobody noticed anything awry.
One day on his daily stroll through Central Park. The hobo happens upon a homeless WWII vet (YES, veterans are always treated like crap even after “the good war”.) Against his better judgment the hobo takes in the veteran. The daughter of the rich man runs away from her snooty college and decides to hide in her father’s mansion. She overhears the hobo confessing that he’s a hobo to the vet. She decides to pretend to be poor so she can stay there too and cuz the Vet is cute. Turns out that the vet has a bunch of ex GI buddies and their wives and kids who also need housing, so, somewhat reluctantly, the hobo takes in all of them. The vet and his buddies then hatch a plan to purchase an army barracks and turn it into communal housing. Well there are many more complications when the rich man (who started out poor) comes back to New York to look for his missing daughter. When they finally meet, the spunky girl confronts her father. She tells him that she doesn’t understand why they should have big empty houses when there are people who need them. Then she convinces him to disguise himself as a bum and join the merry band of people inhabiting his mansion. And soon her divorced socialite mother joins up disguised as a poor cook.
Other movies of that era also have spunky females like Barbara Stanwyck in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) who writes a Martha Stewart-like column in a NY newspaper about her Connecticut stately farm. Truth is she’s a poorly paid journalist who lives in a one bedroom flat in NYC. “Holiday Affair” (1949) is about a war widow raising her son and trying to find a good father while trying to maintain her dignity and independence. “My Man Godfrey” (1936) is my favorite film. Filmed at the height of the Depression, it opens with a bunch of rich people going on a scavenger hunt. One of the “items” they must find is a “forgotten man”. So they go to where all the homeless are shacked up tin order to find one. And audiences loved these stories of people struggling together in an often dog eat dog world. They still do if given the chance. “The Devil Wears Prada” is in this tradition, but not quite as subversive as the old movies.
Besides giving people work on sewer systems and dams in the 1930s, the WPA funded writers, artists and photographers. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have another WPA type deal in order to have writers and artists come up with other ideas. Margaret Thatcher once famously said about financial capitalism aka Milton Friedman’s“free market” that “there is no alternative,” referred to as TINA. But there must be. There were other ideas not so very long ago. Time to dig them up and repot them. We need to “imagine” a better world that we can actually Occupy rather than watch on the TV. I was lucky to watch old movies with my mother. No, she didn’t make me a Commie, but she did help make me a Contrarian.
 “The Good War” was the name of the 1985 book by Studs Terkel. It is composed of first hand accounts of veterans of World War II.
Evie Taloney’s Series Worth ‘Ropin'”
Some thoughts on the series 1883 and The Gilded Age
Switching from 1883 on Sunday to The Gilded Age on Monday is a “Tale of Two Countries”! Taylor Sheridan’s new Paramount Plus series 1883 is about the Dutton family of his Yellowstone series. It’s how the Tennessee farmer James Dutton and his family got to Montana in the first place to build their empire. Julian Fellowes’s new HBO series The Gilded Age is about how the scrappy Russell family (with ties to Irish potato farmers) built their fortune in railroads and now are trying to elbow their way into New York City’s snooty old money society. The Texas to Montana series has a lot of grim but determined people in brown/grey homespun clothes bouncing around in rickety wooden wagons bumping along the vast prairies of the West while some taciturn ex Civil War veterans in boots and chaps mosey behind them pushing a herd of cattle. The New York City series has a bunch of prim but equally determined people in rustling silk dresses swishing into carriages in order to parade around a flower filled bustling Central Park while dandy men in jodhpur pants and derby hats trot along beside and nannies push babies instead of cows.
Both stories take place after the terrible U.S. Civil War in the years 1882 and 1883. America is a land of dreams for immigrants from Europe and some choose to work their way up the ladder in the big cities and some decide to literally hitch their wagons up and head to the untamed and open West to stake their claims to the land. Those pioneers must contend with hostile Indians, nasty bandits, big ass storms and sneaky snakes. The New Yorkers must deal with hostile neighbors, nasty gossips, big ass bankers and sneaky snakes.
There’s lots more to be said about both stories, but for now Cowboy Clay and I would like to suggest that you watch both together. One is harrowing and seat of the pants type storytelling that can scare the crap out of you and can have you dissolving into tears in the next scene. It’s a bourbon and branch kind of night.
So, it’s a relief that the story the next night is a more relaxing trip in a smooth-riding carriage while our eyes feast on the sumptuous costumes and scrumptious lobster spread and our ears hear snarls from wicked tongues. It’s a sipping Champagne or a nice IPA kind of night.
Two stories. Two countries. Two Americas. The more we watch the more we see all the contradictions of this vast country; between stinginess and sharing, meanness and caring, cowardliness and daring, hell and heaven. And then there is that freedom thing; the feeling of freedom when you take off that gun belt and strip down to your long johns or when you take that darn corset off and slip into your nightgown or better yet when you slip into some trousers and jump on your horse and take off at a gallop and feel that wind in your hair! Yeehaw, we say, and pass those fish-egg things.
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Posted in film and book reviews, Flics Worth Ropin', Media, Social Commentary
Tagged Taylor Sheridan, The Gilded Age, westerns