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Economy got you down? Depression-era comedies still ring true

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant wonder whose line it is in "His Girl Friday."
Columbia Pictures
Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant wonder whose line it is in “His Girl Friday.”

William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

Indeed, as current fortunes crumble, the Parkway Theater‘s “Sweet Escapism: Screwball Comedies of the Great Depression” series appears as old as tomorrow’s headlines.

The five-film series of 1930s comedies will run on Monday nights, starting March 31.

“There’s certainly a parallel between the economic situation of the ’30s and [that of] the present day,” says Barry Kryshka, who programmed the event through his Take-Up Productions.

Though the series opens with 1937’s “Easy Living,” whose high-society setting would seem foreign to most moviegoers of any era, Take-Up’s marketing helps put “Escapism” within one’s reach: “all tickets five bucks,” the website declares (in democratic lowercase, yet!).
Built to last
That the Minneapolis Parkway was constructed in the ’30s stands to give the series an even more classic feel. But it also reminds us that popular cinema — or “escapism,” if you prefer —was and remains among the few feasible investments in hard times. The Parkway’s recent renovation, along with Take-Up’s modest success with repertory programming there, suggests there’s still money in entertainment.

But there’s a good deal more than money in it, as a quick glance at “Easy Living” will tell you.

Written by screwball master Preston Sturges, “Living” (not yet on DVD, by the way) begins with a close-up of a banker’s shoes being shined — an aptly economic image of class stratification. “To Have and Have Not” could be another title for the film, though Faulkner ended up using it for the movie he wrote for director Howard Hawks in 1944.

“There was a class consciousness built into these movies,” says Augsburg College professor Robert Cowgill, who takes playful issue with the “Escapism” tag. “It’s too superficial to say, ‘Oh, people are just happy to get out of their humdrum lives and go and watch these movies.’ In fact some of these movies are quite serious and highly critical of the status quo.”

Cowgill says that Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” (1940), screening April 14, is “an indictment of power structures” —marriage and the newspaper biz not least. Torn between these two forces, Rosalind Russell’s whip-smart Hildy Johnson figures out a way to have both, but at a cost — namely the hardship of sharing both bed and byline with Cary Grant’s outrageously manipulative (but charming!) editor Walter Burns.

In her classic book “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies,” author Molly Haskell — the Hildy Johnson of critics, this reviewer would say with the highest praise — wrote that films such as “His Girl Friday” and “The Awful Truth” celebrate “difficult and anarchic love rather than security and the suburban dream.” Haskell asserts that this preference is “wedded” — her pun presumably intended — “into the very conventions of the ’30s, favoring movement over stasis, and speech and argument over silent compliance.”

A nod to nostalgia
Cowgill, who co-founded Oak Street Cinema in 1995, recalls that the mid- to late 1990s wasn’t such a good time for Depression-era screwballers. When Oak Street ran Hawks’ 1934 gem “Twentieth Century” (screening April 7 at the Parkway), Cowgill sat laughing with only a half-dozen others in the theater.

It makes sense that comedies of the mid-1930s might fail to connect with audiences of the mid-’90s — a boom era wherein 1940s and ’50s fare drew bigger.

Perhaps poor Hildy and Walter, talking and typing over each other’s words, speak more loudly to the overlapping depressions of today. Nevertheless, the ultimate lesson of “His Girl Friday” — that it’s tougher to manage a marriage than a newspaper — looks in 2008 like pure nostalgia.

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