History of the World According to the Movies: Part 60 – The Great Depression

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Though more of a contemporary movie than a historical one, nevertheless, John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has become the definitive film about the Great Depression. It’s also famous for making Henry Fonda a star in his iconic role as ex-convict Tom Joad. It’s a saga about the Joad family who are forced off their farm in Oklahoma and become migrant workers in California. The Joads’ bleak economic condition and displacement leads to the disintegration of their family as well as puts them in worse shape than ever before. Yet, this movie demonstrates the strength of the idea of community in the face of hard times held by women like Ma Joad who endure just about any obstacle that might hit them.

Unfortunately the bad economic practices of the 1920s soon caught up with everyone that by the 1930s much of the world was engulfed in the greatest economic crisis in history. It began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 with its effects lasting for over a decade. Banks failed, businesses closed, jobs were lost, homes were foreclosed, fortunes were lost overnight, and so on. Millions of people had lost everything and struggled to make enough to survive. In Europe, while the Depression wasn’t as bad as it may seem in the United States, but some countries were dominated by totalitarianism like Nazi Germany and many of these ruthless dictators had a following of fans outside their borders. And later in the decade, Europe would become engulfed in power struggles that would eventually lead to all out violence in conflicts like the Spanish Civil War as well as World War II. This isn’t seen as a happy time in movies and no wonder yet sometimes films seem rather optimistic of what was going to happen compared to what was yet to come.

In the United States, the Great Depression is a period known for its widespread poverty, mass unemployment, folk singing hobos, and the Dust Bowl. During this time, a third of the nation went to bed hungry. Radical politics was common place with an intensity and popularity perhaps unprecedented in American history. Yet, this is also the decade of the New Deal which was instituted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt with programs like Social Security, public works projects, banking reforms, labor relations, labor standards, and others. While it’s still debated whether the New Deal programs had any effect in the positive sense, what can’t be denied is that many of these programs are still around which have been credited for preventing another horrible economic catastrophe from happening since and for overseeing a relatively stable economy most of the time. But in the 1930s, you also have the beginnings of the Golden Age of Hollywood with musicals, screwball comedies, gangster films, and other masterpieces. Still, while movies set in this time get some things about the Great Depression right, there are plenty they get wrong, which I shall list.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

FDR had no qualms for appearing in a wheelchair as president. (Though the image of FDR in a wheelchair is well-known today, FDR went through great lengths to hide his polio-induced disability since he thought that being seen like this would ruin his credibility. Many people had no idea he spent a lot of time in a wheelchair until close to his death. Still, there are a few photographs that exist of him in one.)

FDR said, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” in 1932. (He said this in his first inaugural address which was in 1933. Of course, Scout was only six at the time and probably got things mixed up.)

Sports:

Trainer James “Sunny” Fitzsimmons had an Irish brogue. (He had Irish ancestry but he was born in Brooklyn.)

Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen were fictional characters. (Unlike what The Legend of Bagger Vance tells you, these two guys were legendary golfers as well as real people.)

Babe Ruth left the Yankees in 1935. (He left the Yankees for the Boston Braves in 1934.)

Red Pollard:

Red Pollard’s mother’s name was Agnes. (Her name was Edith. His wife’s name was Agnes.)

Red Pollard was single during his final days with Seabiscuit. (Actually, he had a wife named Agnes who was his nurse when he injured his leg and they were married at Charles Howard’s ranch and had a daughter in 1940 as well as a son several years later. Also, she was the one who gave him the Saint Christopher medal. Still, she’s absent from Seabiscuit.)

Red Pollard was born in the United States and his family fell on hard times during the Great Depression. (Contrary to Seabiscuit, he was born in Edmonton, which is in Canada. Also, his family lost their brick factory business because of a flood and the insurance didn’t cover enough of the damages in 1915. Thus, Pollard went to the United States with a friend of a family who abandoned him at a race track in Montana in 1922.)

Seabiscuit:

Seabiscuit started dead last in the race during his 1940 Santa Anita Handicap win. (Charts show that Seabiscuit was running no worse than fourth at any point during the race.)

Seabiscuit was shorter than War Admiral. (They were both about the same height, with some sources saying that Seabiscuit was the heavier of the two. Also, they were of similar breeding and descended from Man O’War. In fact, War Admiral was technically Seabiscuit’s uncle.)

Jim Braddock:

Jim Braddock’s wife begged him not to fight Max Baer. (Contrary to Cinderella Man, she was thrilled to see him fight Baer since he’d get substantial money out of the fight regardless of outcome, yet she did worry about him and didn’t watch his fights in person since 1930s boxing was a brutal sport.)

Max Baer:

Boxer Max Baer was a brutal thug who boasted about killing two of his opponents in the ring. (He only killed one of his opponents in the ring and the incident haunted him for the rest of his life. He also regularly gave money to the man’s widow and paid for his children’s education. As for the other guy who died weeks after facing Baer, well, he already had meningitis and the flu and even his family said that Baer had nothing to do with his death. Still, Baer was remembered for his lighthearted personality and was celebrated as an American hero for his defeat of Nazi Germany’s champion Max Schmeling while wearing a Star of David on his trunks. Not to mention, he had a son who’d play Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies. His family was not happy with his depiction in Cinderella Man.)

Lou Gehrig:

Lou Gehrig’s 1939 retirement speech at Yankee Stadium went like this:

“I have been walking onto ball fields for sixteen years, and I’ve never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. I have had the great honor to have played with these great veteran ballplayers on my left – Murderers’ Row, our championship team of 1927. I have had the further honor of living with and playing with these men on my right – the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees of today.

“I have been given fame and undeserved praise by the boys up there behind the wire in the press box, my friends, the sportswriters. I have worked under the two greatest managers of all time, Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy.

“I have a mother and father who fought to give me health and a solid background in my youth. I have a wife, a companion for life, who has shown me more courage than I ever knew.

“People all say that I’ve had a bad break. But today … today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” (This is his speech delivered by Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees. The actual speech went like this:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”)

Lou Gehrig was given a very tragic diagnosis of ALS, dismal prognosis, and brief life expectancy from his doctors at the Scripps Institute. (He was diagnosed with ALS at the Mayo Clinic. Lou knew that his days were numbered and wrote to his wife about it but the Mayo Clinic doctors painted an unrealistically optimistic of Gehrig’s condition and prospects than what’s seen in Pride of the Yankees. Among other things Lou said he was given “a 50–50 chance of keeping me as I am” for the foreseeable future, and was told that he “…may need a cane in 10 or 15 years.” However, this would’ve been a realistic diagnosis if you were talking about Stephen Hawking who has had ALS since his college days and is still alive in his seventies {as of 2014}. Gehrig lived for about two years. Deliberate concealment of bad news to patients, especially when it concerned cancer or an incurable degenerative disease was common practice at the time. Still, because of Lou Gehrig’s unfortunately contracting ALS, this incurable degenerative illness is now known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.)

Lou Gehrig won the American League Triple Crown on the same day as his wedding. (Lou married Eleanor in September of 1933 while he won the American League Triple Crown in the 1934 season.)

Lou Gehrig’s streak started when he first took first base. (Almost everyone believes this but according to records, his streak started the previous day as Gehrig pinch-hit for shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger. The GM put Gehrig to play first base the following day.)

Hollywood:

Shirley Temple was famous in 1933. (She wouldn’t achieve fame until 1934.)

Camille came out in 1933. (It came out in 1936.)

Charlie Chaplin:

Charlie Chaplin was married to Paulette Goddard during the 1930s. (Well, they lived together but we’re not sure if they were technically married because there’s no record of them having done so.)

Jean Harlow:

Jean Harlow was married once. (She was married 3 times.)

Jean Harlow was a horrible sexy person. (Despite the 1965 Harlow movie and other adaptations, Harlow was said to be sweet and funny and was called “Baby” by her friends. Not to mention, she wasn’t as naïve as many movies said she was.)

Jean Harlow died of pneumonia in 1937. (She died of renal failure at 26 perhaps of uremic poisoning.)

Katharine Hepburn:

Katharine Hepburn dumped Howard Hughes for Spencer Tracy. (She and Hughes were done long before Hepburn ever met Tracy. Still, Katharine more or less dumped Howard Hughes because Hughes’ interest in Kate had more to do with her being a famous actress than her personality. Hughes liked the image of being a Hollywood playboy and was more obsessed with collecting women than loving them.)

Katharine Hepburn’s older brother committed suicide when she was a star. (Her brother killed himself when Katharine was a child.)

Cole Porter:

Cole Porter’s riding accident happened in his back yard on a stormy afternoon that sent the horse into a frenzy. Cole was thrown from his horse when lightning struck a tree branch and was soundly trampled. (Though the accident is depicted like this in Night and Day, it actually happened in 1938 on a clear day on a Long Island Estate of Countess Edith de Zoppola and the horse wasn’t his. In fact, attendants tried to discourage Cole from riding a skittish horse to begin with. It happened on the top of the hill when the horse shied at a clump of bushes and reared. Cole failed to kick the stirrups free and the horse crushed his legs. He’d later have several surgeries but would never regain the use of his legs.)

Monty Woolley heard about Cole Porter’s riding accident while making The Man Who Came to Dinner. Yet, he promised Cole not to tell Linda about it. (Monty would make The Man Who Came to Dinner in 1941 and Cole’s accident happened in 1938. Besides he probably knew about Cole’s accident in the papers like everyone else did and there was no way he could’ve kept the whole thing secret from Linda. As for Linda, she immediately rushed to Cole’s side from Europe demanding that no decision about the amputation be made until she got there. She would never leave Cole’s side again and did everything possible to aid his recovery like closing their house in Paris and shipping all her furniture to their California home though she hated the place.)

Billie Holiday:

Billie Holiday was arrested for using drugs in 1936. (Her drug arrest was in 1946 and she always claimed that she didn’t start using drugs until the 1940s. However, I’m pretty sure Billie said this because she wasn’t caught using drugs before then but it’s very likely she used drugs way before then. I mean she worked as a prostitute during her teens and drug usage wasn’t unusual at all among 1930s jazz performers. In fact, drugs like heroin, booze, and marijuana were part of that culture.)

Billie Holiday’s mother was a saint. (Sadie Harris wasn’t a saintly woman who basically left Billie in the care of others during the first 10 years of her life. Like Billie, Sadie was also a prostitute in Harlem and they were both arrested when Billie was 15.)

Billie Holiday recorded “Love Me or Leave Me” in 1934. (She recorded the song in 1941.)

Billie Holiday was inspired to sing “Strange Fruit” after she stumbled upon seeing a young black man get lynched by the KKK. (The song was based on a poem about lynching by a Jewish school teacher in the Bronx named Abel Meeropol {he’d later be the guy who adopted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s two sons} and had been previously played in teachers’ union meetings. Billie was introduced to the song by a Greenwich Village club owner but she almost didn’t perform it since she said it reminded her of her father’s death {who was a jazz musician named Clarence Holiday who was denied treatment for a fatal lung disorder because of racial prejudice}.)

Billie Holiday knew her husband Louis McKay during the beginnings of her singing career. (She probably didn’t know Mafia enforcer Louis McKay until later for she married him in 1952 and he was her third husband. Though Lady Sings the Blues was correct that McKay tried to get Billie off drugs, he was no less abusive than her other two husbands as well as an opportunist who eventually left her. Billie certainly would’ve divorced him had she not died in 1959 from liver cirrhosis. In the biopic with Diana Ross, he’s played by Lando Calrisian. However, McKay wasn’t the only man in Billie’s life as a jazz singer but her life was the opposite of a happy Hollywood story.)

Woody Guthrie:

Woody Guthrie’s singing partner at LA’s KFVD was Memphis Sue. (Unlike in the film Bound for Glory, her name was Maxine Crissman known as “Lefty Lou” because she shared Guthrie’s politics and was just as outspoken.)

Woody Guthrie was fired from KFVD in Los Angeles in 1939 because of his left wing politics. (Yes, and no. Unlike in Bound for Glory, Guthrie was never pressed to stop singing union-organizing songs because station owner Frank Burke was a populist New Dealer who agreed with him. The real reason that Guthrie was fired from KFVD was due to World War II when the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. Guthrie would start singing songs that mirrored the Communist Party line and denounced the war as capitalist fraud. He’d later change his mind once Germany invaded Stalingrad though.)

Glenn Miller:

Glenn Miller and his wife had adopted two children by 1938. (Their kids were adopted in 1943 and 1944 and it’s likely Glenn may have only saw his son once and never met his daughter. Also, unlike his Jimmy Stewart portrayal, he was only 40 when he died.)

“Tuxedo Junction” was recorded after the sequence was filmed. (Actually it was recorded before the dance sequence was filmed.)

Ray Charles:

Ray Charles did nothing to help his younger brother George from drowning in their mother’s washtub because he thought the boy was joking. (Actually contrary to Ray, according to his autobiography, Ray Charles said he tried to pull his brother out of the tub after realizing he was actually drowning but was unable to save him.)

Malcolm X:

Malcolm X’s father was a race leader willing to brave opposition to promote Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. (Yes, his dad was an activist as well as a Baptist lay preacher but the elder Little is somewhat idealized in the Spike Lee film Malcolm X. The real Malcolm X remembered him as an abusive husband and father though Spike Lee was right that he was most probably murdered {despite police saying Earl Little’s death was an accident and the life insurance company saying it was a suicide}. Still, after his father’s death, his family fell apart.)

Howard Hughes:

Howard Hughes reshot Hell’s Angels for sound. (He just reshot the dialogue sequences only, tweaked the plot, and replaced Greta Nissen with Jean Harlow.)

Howard Hughes was a self-made man. (While this is implied The Aviator, we have to accept that if Howard Hughes didn’t have wealthy parents who died when he was a teenager, he wouldn’t be the guy we know today.)

Howard Hughes referred to Katharine Hepburn as “country mouse” while Hepburn called him “city mouse.” (It’s actually the other way around according to telegrams since Hughes lived in suburban Los Angeles and Hepburn was a regular in New York.)

Howard Hughes was left handed. (According to photos he was right handed.)

Howard Hughes’ first film Hell’s Angels was the most expensive film ever made at that time. (Actually the 1925 Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ was but Hell’s Angels wasn’t far behind.)

Howard Hughes’ germ phobia originated with his mother. (Somewhat since his mother did get hysterical about germs and coddled her only child excessively. Yet, Howard Hughes’ aversion to shaking hands wasn’t since that probably began when he contracted syphilis {this isn’t shown in The Aviator}, which revealed itself in the form of tiny blisters forming on his hands. After receiving medical treatment, Hughes’ doctor recommended him not to shake hands for a while. Hughes would follow that for the rest of his life. Oh, and unlike what The Aviator implies, Hughes liked African Americans as much as he liked germs.)

Most of Howard Hughes business deals were spur of the moment decisions. (Actually, they were complex business deals that were arranged well in advance.)

Howard Hughes burned all his clothes as a response for Katharine Hepburn dumping him. (Go ahead, Martin Scorsese, blame the women in his life for making Howard Hughes do crazy things. However, the real Howard Hughes didn’t burn all his clothes just because Katharine Hepburn dumped him. The clothes burning had more to do with Hughes’ overreacting to his syphilis diagnosis by ordering every piece of clothing and bed linen in his home destroyed.)

Amelia Earhart:

Amelia Earhart was an annoying brat. (She was said to be charming and rather soft-spoken.)

The romance between Amelia Earhart and George Putnam didn’t attract scandal. (Actually it did because he was married with a kid when they hooked up.)

George Putnam was old enough to be Amelia Earhart’s father. (He was actually only 10 years older than her, but Richard Gere is 25 years older than Hillary Swank which makes it kind of look creepy in Amelia. Still, when it comes to sexual chemistry, let’s say you’re better off reading about the real thing.)

Amelia Earhart had an affair with Gene Vidal. (They knew each other but it’s highly unlikely they had an affair. By the way, Gene Vidal was Gore Vidal’s dad.)

Miscellaneous:

Prohibition was repealed early in 1933. (It was repealed in December of that year.)

Hopping onto moving trains was perfectly safe. (No, it’s not.)

Members of the Klu Klux Klan were ardently racist. (Many of them, absolutely. However, there were people like Hugo Black who mainly joined the KKK just to get into politics because he was from Alabama and thought that he needed to do so to enhance his political career. However, he admitted that joining was a mistake. Still, between the world wars, the Klan was a powerful organization in this period. And the Second KKK was more of a nationwide organization with Indiana being the most dominated Klan state in the 1920s.)

The stock market crash was the direct cause of The Great Depression. (What caused the Great Depression wasn’t just the 1929 Stock Market Crash but also other shady business practices like an unregulated finance system, lack of economic transparency, too many people making bad stock investments like buying on margin, living beyond means, and others that had culminated in over a decade. Also, the Great Crash was part of a string of worsening economic conditions.)

Swing music was around in 1933. (Actually the earliest swing music wouldn’t be recorded until late in 1935.)

It wasn’t unusual in the South to have mixed black and white prisoners in the prison population and in the chain gang. (This wouldn’t have happened in the 1930s but we see integrated prisons and chain gangs in a lot of films, including those made in the 1930s like in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.)

In 1935, prisoners were executed in Louisiana by the electric chair in the state prison. (Sorry, Stephen King, but Louisiana executions in the 1930s were carried out in local courthouses. The state wouldn’t start electrocuting prisoners until 1940 and they wouldn’t be conducted in state prisons until 1957. Also, it’s unlikely that a 1930s Louisiana radio station give any airplay to a Billie Holiday record.)

“You Are My Sunshine” was a popular song in 1937. (It was written in 1939 and recorded and released in 1940.)

The Stock Market Crash happened in 1928. (It occurred in 1929.)

Lots of stock brokers jumped out of windows during the 1929 Crash. (Few did, if any. Yet, about 23,000 did kill themselves in its first year though.)

The Great Depression started with the Crash of 1929. (Actually as to when the Depression began depends on locations. Sure the Crash of 1929 might have set the Depression in motion and banking system collapsed in 1932-1933. And in the South, the Great Depression was well on its way due to cotton boom of the previous century and its traumatic ending.)

Starvation was rife during the Great Depression. (Though people starved, most were able to survive through resourcefulness and charity. Not to mention, virtually no one starved to death during the Great Depression.)

The people of Sallisaw, Oklahoma were driven from their land due to eviction and the Dust Bowl. (Actually Sallisaw is in the Eastern part of the state and is considered green country. The Dust Bowl never happened there but rather in the western part of Oklahoma. The Joads more likely fled their home due to eviction.)

The Lone Ranger was a popular character in 1931. (Michael Sullivan’s kids wouldn’t be reading books by him at this time because the Lone Ranger was created for radio in 1933 while the books came later.)

Hoboes were just harmless old drifters full of tall tales and song just wanting to see the world.

The Klu Klux Klan used the Confederate Battle flag in their rallies. (Only the US flag was used in KKK rallies during the 1920s and 1930s. The KKK wouldn’t use the “rebel” flag in their rallies until the Civil Rights conflict of the 1960s. This is why we associate the “rebel” flag with racism today and why it’s absolutely not OK to have it on public display even if you are a redneck or Lynard Skynard fan. It’s the same reason why wearing KKK robes and using blackface are never OK.)

You could easily buy alcohol in Mississippi in 1937. (Actually though Prohibition would be repealed in 1933, Mississippi still prohibited the sale of alcohol until 1966.)

W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel was a two term governor of Mississippi. (Yes, he did exist and wasn’t made up by the Coen Brothers. Yet, he had no political presence in Mississippi and until 1975, incumbent governors in Mississippi weren’t allowed to run for reelection. The real Pappy was a Texas flour salesman who became a radio personality {as host of broadcasts of Bob Wills and the Light Crust Doughboys}, then used that as a platform to launch himself into Texas politics, becoming governor, and later Senator.)

1930s radio programs had recording sessions. (Recording sessions didn’t exist in radio until the late 1940s. All radio broadcasting at this time was live, with national shows produced twice for the East and West coast.)

The FDIC was created in 1933. (It was created in 1934.)

John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were alive and well in 1933. (Carnegie had been dead for 14 years by this point while Rockefeller was 94 years old.)

Hobos always carried their belongings in bindle sticks.

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