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Tag Archive: Great Depression


Review by C.J. Bunce

A leg thrown over the arm of a chair.  A monster tossing a girl into the river.  A gangster with a Tommy Gun shooting a room full of people.  A woman is expecting a baby.  A man bites a woman to drink her blood.  Actresses backstage get ready for a show.  Dancers on stage kick their legs.  “Kept” women.  Physical violence.

Rural audiences and even film goers in big cities like Chicago would label all this as “smut” or “disgraceful” back in the day.  In the realm of what is appropriate and what is not, the cinema has approached each new boundary with baby steps.  But in the Depression-era early 1930s, many previously unaccepted concepts soared onto film.  A new book takes a look at this era, now referred to by film historians as the “Pre-Code Era”–1930 to 1934–a time when the self-regulating movie industry pushed the bounds of its own rules, only to hit a wall when the public pushed back.  Turner Classic Movies′ Forbidden Hollywood takes an educational, film school-level walk through an industry fighting within itself to both make money and please an audience it would find varied widely by geography, down to the community level.  The handling of decency by the industry would have ramifications that would have an impact on generations of film creators and audiences.  The chaos and in-fights would last until July 1934, when religious groups combined to take a stand, prompting the industry to bow to their demands with the formation of the League of Decency.  That group would govern movie standards for nearly 35 years–until the ratings system would arrive in 1968.  Even real-world gangster Al Capone thought the new, 1930s era of movies was bad for kids, saying “These gang pictures–that’s terrible kid stuff.  They’re doing nothing but harm to the younger element of the country.”

Film historian Mark A. Vieira provides a scholarly examination of the studios, the directors, producers, and writers, including excerpts of decisions made and processes followed (and not followed), resulting in the promotion of the careers of some of Hollywood’s biggest names: Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Marlena Dietrich, Clara Bow, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Ward Bond, Bela Legosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney.  Looking at elements incorporated into–or scissor cut from–dozens of films, including The Divorcee, Dishonored, Grand Hotel, Dracula, A Farewell to Arms, 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Riptide, Red-Headed Woman, She Done Him Wrong, Call Her Savage, Convention City, and Frankenstein, Vieira takes an objective look at the factors that influenced all sides in determining what would be appropriate in the movies and what role movies would take in society.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

As professional baseball takes us into the playoffs this week, we could have a repeat of last year’s World Series, with the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians again vying for the championship.   Just in time, a new Harry Turtledove novel is now in bookstores that will take baseball fans backward in time with a bird’s-eye view of life as a farm team ball player during the Great Depression.  The House of Daniel follows a down on his luck “Okie” as he plays a season of semipro baseball on a team based on the real church-sponsored team called The House of David, known for its religious flavor and long-haired players–an early take on the Harlem Globetrotters but without the theatrics.  During the Great Depression the team barnstormed the country along with dozens of other teams that sprouted out in every corner of small town America, providing a source of income for players and providing the average American a few hours of respite from a bleak reality, all for a few cents per ticket.  Hugo Award winner Turtledove’s account of player Jack Spivey is a fictionalized one, but his knowledge of farm teams and forgotten byways reflects a historic realism that will make you forget this is also a supernatural tale.  Turtledove is known for his alternate histories, and this time he throws in a past with a Kim Newman style change-up, with vampires, wizards, werewolves, voodoo, UFOs, and zombies interspersed in what would otherwise be a typical work of historical fiction.

Baseball fanatics will be impressed, but fantasy readers may not find enough here to satisfy.  In fact, about 100 pages into the novel only the slightest mention of a fantastical element will remind the reader this isn’t entirely straight fiction.  The fantasy elements could easily be excised leaving behind the kind of account that will have you thinking you’ve picked up a lost John Steinbeck novel.  Spivey is a semipro baseball player.  Everyone everywhere is poor, except for the few with power and influence to control the rest.  Spivey is asked to work over a guy by the man who controls him–the price for a bit of protection and relief money, but when Spivey arrives and finds the target of his thuggery is a woman, he tells her to get out of town and he looks for a way out.  Fortunately for him, two ball players for the well-known barnstorming team called The House of Daniel literally collide while fielding a pop fly into the outfield, leaving an opening for Spivey to join up.  Thus begins a long, really-small-town by really-small-town-travelogue, told first person by Spivey, as the team bus takes him and his team across every bump of every gravel highway, into every diner, into every small field, and bunked at every boarding room between Enid, Oklahoma, and Denver, between Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls, and between Seattle and San Diego.  But first Spivey needs to wear a wig and glue on a fake beard until he can grow his own.

Long-haired baseball players from the real House of David team that inspired Turtledove’s House of Daniel team in his novel.

Spivey infrequently looks over his shoulder for the mobster’s hitman who could show up any day to claim his pound of flesh.  Meanwhile we follow Spivey and get to know him and his Southern Oklahoman accent thanks to Turtledove’s believable dialect forged from the Tom Sawyer school of talkin’.  After a few chapters the reader gets the hang of his colloquialisms and from then on it’s hard not to get sucked in.  The road and player’s life on it becomes “old hat” for Spivey, and whenever the meandering, wandering from town to town (with the ultimate destination a tournament in Denver) becomes a bit stale, Turtledove inserts his fantasy bits.  Like a couple of encounters with Depression era vampires trying to con their way into an invitation to the current boarding house.  Or strange lights in the night sky over a small town in New Mexico.  Or zombies, who have replaced slave laborers in some parts of the country.

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