Thursday 26 November 2009

Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933)

Director: Lewis Milestone
Star: Al Jolson
Jovial Frank Morgan often got to play figures of authority, as any glimpse into his thirties career attests: not just wizards (and there's a 'no place like home, no place like home' line here to presage that role he wouldn't play for another six years yet), but kings, colonels, lords, professors, majors and governors. Here he began that trend with a slot as the Mayor of New York City, though we find him first in Florida hamming it up for the camera by shooting a migrating goose and wearing an Indian headdress. The goose lands at the feet of a different mayor though, one he knows well. He's the unofficial Mayor of Central Park, a bum called Bumper, who's also on vacation with his friend Acorn. Bumper is a jolly sort, as you might expect given that he's played by Al Jolson, who doesn't wear blackface here for a change, settling instead for a real black actor, Edgar Connor, to play his sidekick.

You'd expect an Al Jolson movie to be a musical and it is, sort of. There are a couple of actual songs but most of the story is told in something that's less of a song and more of a chanted poem, with words and lines bouncing around between many voices, speaking, shouting, rapping, and on odd occasions even actually singing. It's an interesting experiment but on a single viewing I'm not sure if it actually works or not, even though it's written by people as talented as Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who both have cameos in the film too. However much I'm happy to hear songs sung in a style other than classic musical, these often come off as a bizarre and very carefully paced precursor to rap, far more interesting than actually enjoyable. It's a little annoying to begin with but becomes routine as the film goes on, that annoyance happily being lost.

The writing is variable but often clever and happily a little risque. When Bumper gets back to Central Park and his fellow bums ask what he's been up to, he suggests that it's just the usual stuff: 'panhandling, manhandling, inebriation... and repopulation', in chant of course. This crowd are a cosmopolitan bunch, not remotely like the bums we see today, given that they're reasonably clean, sober and well behaved. They seem able to flit in and out of society as they see fit, which they merely don't too often. They're more like those who live up to what are more usually just euphemisms: gentlemen of the road or gentlemen of leisure. Given that the film was set during the Great Depression, I'm sure the real homeless folks of Central Park weren't quite so enthusiastically happy with their lot as their highly romanticised equivalents here.

Jolson is infectious as Bumper even though he wears a perpetual grin that makes him look more than a little simple. In other circumstances it would seem a little more sinister, but worth putting up with just to see him out of blackface. It's merely a shame he didn't do so more often, not because of any political take on what the concept meant (his work did much to help black music and musicians, for a start) but because of the change in style that came with it. Jolson was a huge name at this time, the highest paid entertainer of the decade, though he's mostly remembered today for those five famous words, 'You ain't heard nothing yet!' at the very end of The Jazz Singer. As this performance proves, he was more than able to act without a mask of black paint.

He gets two stories to play with here, the obvious one tying to a young lady named June Marcher. She's the mayor's girl but he's foolish enough not to trust her and so inevitably loses her. In particular, he doesn't believe her when she loses her purse, which contains a thousand dollar bill he'd just given her, so she heads off into the park to jump off the bridge into the river. Naturally it's Bumper who saves her from this suicide attempt and he falls in love with her too, a love that she happily returns given that she's suffering from amnesia. Of course you know that that's not going to last forever as she's hardly going to remain his lovely Angel for long, but it's played out well for all that the idea is almost entirely transparent.

The other is the one that has real value, though it's easily debatable as to what that value is. Ben Hecht, the first winner of a writing Oscar for 1927's Underworld, conjured up a politically charged story that is as pervasive as it is vague. The whole thing compares the happy go lucky lifestyle of the poor bums in Central Park with the troubles of the rich. The Mayor of New York, John Hastings, is the epitome of wealth and power, giving away a thousand bill note not once but twice, as if money means nothing. Yet he's an unhappy man, bored with all the official functions he has to work and unable to trust the one woman he loves. On the other hand, the Mayor of Central Park, and his cohorts thrive on the freedom brought through having no money. After Bumper gets a job to support his Angel, they even stage a kangaroo court as if getting employment is a crime against humanity.

There's only one bum who works, Egghead by name, though he does so on a voluntary basis cleaning up litter from the park. He's played by Harry Langdon, looking every inch of the silent era comedian he was, unlike Chester Conklin whose heyday may have been in the Keystone Kops but he looks entirely with the times as one of the Central Park horse drawn taxi drivers. Egghead is seen as the exception to the rule, the closest thing the bums have to a pariah in their midst. He wants to work so he's treated as if he's insane, the very verdict the kangaroo court finds Bumper guilty of. And sure enough the only time Bumper finds a reason to venture back into the real world, he comes back depressed and damaged. It's nothing he did, it's merely inevitability that he tried to battle.

I can't imagine what life in the Great Depression must have been like, as people leapt out of buildings rather than face poverty, turned into the wild boys of the road to relieve their families of the expense of their presence or spent every waking moment in lines waiting for handouts or the mere possibility of work. It wasn't a happy time for anyone, but the tone here is utterly different, very much one of freedom and opportunity. In Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, the Great Depression was a wake up call to the people of the US that money isn't worth anything compared to the sky and the birds. Nowadays it's an interesting take on things but in 1933 it could easily have been rather offensive.

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