Realism can also entertain

March 06, 2009|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

Recession meets escapism equals huge box office" became the Hollywood equation of the season when box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian coined it to account for "the biggest start to any box-office year I've ever seen." Immediately, entertainment journalists began using it to explain the success of movies as different as Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail and Slumdog Millionaire.

Slumdog Millionaire?

Here is a movie that, for two-thirds of its running time, depicts squalid sectors of Mumbai, India, that outdo the London slums of Dickens' Oliver Twist for depravity and mayhem. Here is a movie that is ruthlessly unsentimental about the bonds of brotherhood and the sway of money in the halls of media and political power.

Yet, here is a movie that does leave an audience energized and hopeful because of the resilience of its hero and the ardor of his quest to win the heart and hand of his true love. That's not merely escapism. That is entertainment for hard times.

Indeed, Slumdog Millionaire jumped from a cult to a mass audience because it brings the zesty spirit of Hollywood in the Great Depression to a milieu that makes it fresh again. Old-movie lovers can see in it the influence not just of Dickens movies like A Tale of Two Cities and Dav id Copperfield but also of Jimmy Cagney gangster movies like Angels With Dirty Faces and even of screwball comedies about unlikely lottery winners and mismatched romantic partners.

Is Slumdog Millionaire a fairy tale? Definitely, but in ways that acknowledge reality. And that was the trick not just of Old School Hollywood escapism, but of the classic stories by Dickens, Stevenson or Kipling that American moviemakers loved.

Before we define escapism as two parts Paul Blart: Mall Cop to one part Slumdog Millionaire, let's think back to a time when Hollywood reversed the ratio, at least for its big-ticket items.

American filmmakers didn't retreat from reality in the face of the Depression: They alchemized it into entertainment gold with a variety and elan that wouldn't again be equaled in popular cinema until the late 1960s and early '70s. You could see contemporary attitudes echoed at each point on the movie spectrum - in urban melodramas like Public Enemy, Westerns like Stagecoach, even epic adventures like Mutiny on the Bounty. (When the American movie renaissance occurred in the '60s and '70s, it often centered on new takes on the same genres, such as The Godfather and The Wild Bunch.)

These days, escapism means a fat comic in a security guard outfit. During the Depression, it often meant a handsome Australian in a doublet. In some ways, this first sensation from Down Under, Errol Flynn, was the most escapist Hollywood star of the 1930s: the quintessential man in tights, always dashing and full of vim. But scratch the seductive surface of his films and there's an edge of rebel desperation beneath the ebullience.

In Flynn's exhilarating The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Olivia de Havilland's ardent Maid Marian exclaims, "You speak treason!" and Flynn's witty Robin Hood responds, "Fluently." When today's Republicans accuse the Democrats of practicing "Robin Hood economics" for "stealing from the rich and giving to the poor," they must not realize that half the audience thinks back to gallant Flynn and feels quite good about it.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Hollywood had one advantage that it lacks now: Talkies were taking the country by storm. As a new artistic tool and show-biz gimmick, sound of course dwarfed today's IMAX or digital 3-D. Movies were also, indisputably, the focus of mass entertainment. They were, as Pauline Kael once put it, "Our national theater."

But maybe they could be our national theater again if filmmakers looked back to the diverse, vital fare American movies offered before the studios became cogs in corporations and media groups.

During the last few years, whenever topical dramas (including a slew of Iraq war movies) failed to gain commercial traction, studio execs and financiers decided that "serious" movies were out. They didn't consider the possibility that these films bombed because they were artistic fiascoes.

Roughly eight decades ago, ruthless realism didn't squelch the box-office prospects of that still-exciting expose of a cruel criminal-justice system, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Actors like Chain Gang's Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar and Five Star Final, as well as Cagney, became superstars in urban muckrakers. Clark Gable did the same in that grown-up erotic drama Red Dust. His most successful costume role before Rhett Butler was Fletcher Christian, the righteous, mutinous first mate who defended common seamen against Charles Laughton's tyrannical Captain Bligh in Bounty. (Flynn had already played that role.)

Even the 1930s' most enduring Western, Stagecoach, brought John Wayne into prominence as a noble outlaw who epitomizes a democratic ideal when he treats figures of ill-repute (a prostitute, a drunken doctor) with more respect than he does a banker.

Stagecoach came out in 1939, along with Ninotchka, Love Affair, Beau Geste, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of M ice and Men and other classics, including, of course, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Not all of them were "realistic," but all had real tension and emotion.

Before 2009 is out, we'll hear many reasons for 1939 becoming a miracle year in American movies. Hollywood's talent pool, drawing on European expatriates as well as emigres from the East Coast, was never deeper; its technical departments worked at peak performance. But the main reason may be that our filmmakers realized social-political crisis could create artistic opportunity.

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