Saturday 26 December 2009

The Younger Generation (1929)

Director: Frank R Capra
Stars: Jean Hersholt, Lina Basquette and Ricardo Cortez
Frank Capra, one of the most beloved of all American film directors, actually spent just over half his credits with a middle initial, though many of his fans won't have seen it. His last such credit was a real turning point in his career, being perhaps his first true classic, The Bitter Tea of General Yen in 1933. Everything afterwards was the big time, full of great movies that have become perennial favourites, films like It Happened One Night, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life among them. Yet the films before it are often more interesting, often free of the Capra-corn that he'd come to be known for and often unlike anything you might expect. Some of them were pretty good too. Films like Dirigible, The Miracle Woman and Platinum Blonde are excellent, if not quite at the level he'd reach later and American Madness is an underrated gem.

The Younger Generation sat at a different turning point, the one between silent movies and sound. It began as a silent film, with some synchronised sound but no dialogue, and it plays out as you'd expect with title cards and music and some minor overacting. Then, 23 minutes into the film, it suddenly becomes a talkie without any advance warning at all. Julius Goldfish merely plays out a silent movie card game and walks into a sound movie dining room. It's a little jarring, especially as I had the sound turned down quite a way to avoid waking up the rest of the household and had to turn it back up to hear what people were talking about, only for it to promptly turn silent again. Such was the draw of talkies that studios as prominent as Columbia had to convert to sound midway through movies and release them in such a mangled state.

Julius Goldfish is the head of the Goldfish family, who lives and works in the slums of the lower east side of New York City. Julius is happy there, cracking jokes and playing cards with his friends instead of making a living out of his handcart. His wife Tilda has delusions of grandeur, delusions that turn into reality through her son Morris, a kid when we first meet him but a little businessman already who sells his papers and saves his money. Julius doesn't think big but Morris does, so much so that when he accidentally sets fire to their apartment he salvages as much as he can so that they can have a fire sale. Soon he builds a business that quickly runs all the way up the scale, from Julius Goldfish & Son ('We buy and sell everything') to Goldfish & Son, Antiques and eventually to Morris Goldfish, Importer on Fifth Avenue.

It's a real soap opera of a story, the moral message being painted in broad strokes ('money can't buy you happiness') but the emotional message takes us on a real rollercoaster of a ride. It plays out with similarities to Citizen Kane, but with overblown melodrama instead of clever storytelling at every step and not even a glimpse of artistic genius. Ma Goldfish loves every step up the social ladder but Pa is quickly fed up with the whole thing, wanting nothing less than to escape from the prison of these riches and return to a life of poverty with people he cares about down on Delancey Street. We wonder why he doesn't just do that given that his son Morris is such a despot that he leaves orders with the help not to give his father any clothes until he's bathed every day.

Morris even changes his name from Morris Goldfish to Maurice Fish, because it's somehow more socially acceptable. Hey, it worked when Samuel Goldfish became Sam Goldwyn, right? He promises his family that he'll turn them into 'real people' yet. He's hardest on his sister Birdie, calling her 'an ungrateful snip' and her boyfriend from back home, Eddie Lesser, 'an East Side bum' to his face, refusing to let him come anywhere near his house again. Of course this just leads to trouble. Eddie, a budding songwriter, accepts a thousand dollar job from a bunch of crooks to play a song outside Kahn's jewellery store while they rob the place. It's never made clear whether he knows and doesn't care or is just too dumb to realise what's going on but he's guilty nonetheless. He runs for a while but Birdie finds him and persuades him to marry her then turn himself in, which he does.

You can see where it's all going to go from there, except it's a little more melodramatic than you might imagine. The introduction suggests that story is going to be about the generation gap in the melting pot of New York's lower east side, but that's nonsense. It might talk about how 'the younger generation struggles to free itself from the old-world ideas of its fathers,' but it doesn't show it. What we see is an ambitious son, a mother who rides his coattails, a father who doesn't want anything to do with it and a sister who just wants to live her life. The only generational conflict is what Morris builds himself by inserting himself in the middle of all communications between his family members and making their lives a misery. That's just him being a self righteous prick and while Ricardo Cortez could do that very well indeed, it doesn't tell us anything about old world anything.

Like most 1929 movies it was based on a play, this time by Fannie Hurst. She was probably best known for writing the novel Imitation of Life, filmed a number of times including a memorable adaptation with Claudette Colbert and Warren William in 1934, but she wrote many other stories and novels, including Sister Act which didn't become the Whoopi Goldberg movie but did become the Claude Rains/Lane sisters saga of Four Daughters, Four Wives and Four Mothers. It feels like a play being mostly stuck in a couple of definable sets, a requirement not of the source material but of the technical equipment in use to record the sound.

The acting is decent though hardly spectacular. Jean Hersholt and Rosa Rosanova are solid in the roles of the parents though the latter, like a number of actors here, is notably better in the silent portions than the sound ones. Lina Basquette is annoying but she seems to have been known far more for her tumultuous private life than her screen career. She did appear in a few important films, especially around this time, including the Richard Barthelmess silent The Noose in 1928 and Cecil B De Mille's The Godless Girl in 1929. Her biggest achievement though may have been her part in persuading Sam Warner, one of the four Warner Brothers and one of her nine husbands, to push for sound films and even to cast Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Compared to that achievement her acting is a distant second. That's not a bad way to describe this film either.

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