The Goo Goo Dolls famously had a song lyric, “…reruns become our history.” This is not necessarily a bad thing and it is certainly quite true, especially for GenX-ers and older. Perhaps for the millennial generation it is more like, “…user interfaces and form factors become our history.” That paradigm shift is for another essay, though.
In any case, the cultural zeitgeist of a time is captured in the reruns of television shows for sure. However, television reruns only go so far back. Also, the unifying vision of television fragmented relatively quickly as cable began to break the network stranglehold on America’s attention. Movies, on the other hand, go back more than a century. There is a great store of historical information in older black and white movies.
As an avid history buff, I often watch old movies with an eye to learn some history. Some socio-political writers here review current movies, like Kitanya Harrison. As I read his reviews, I thought someone ought to review the older movies. Many younger people do not even know these time capsules exist. Some of these movies give REAL insight into the American psyche. However, many Americans just do not know of them. If they do know of them, they are turned off by the lack of color. They also figure the story lines are stale and have nothing to do with today.
The fact is that these old movies, especially the ones before WWII are quite germane to the lives of Americans today. We are living in a second Gilded Age very similar to the one that ushered in the 20th century. I have decided I need to introduce 21st century Americans to some of the ideas and beliefs of 20th century Americans. Many 21st century Americans think of their 20th century counterparts as boring, conservative, rule-following automatons oozing with racism and sexism. There is a lot more depth there and there is much to be gleaned from the society that spawned the American century.
I will be reviewing black and white movies that I think offer real insight into the attitudes of Americans in the first half of the 20th century. For my first movie, I have chosen one of Lucille Ball’s more dramatic vehicles. Most Americans think of Lucille Ball as the red-headed screwball of the early TV sitcom, “I Love Lucy”, but she was a lot more than that. She was proof positive that a smart woman does not need a man to run her business for her. She was an astute businesswoman, who was the brains, the brawn and the money behind Desilu, a very successful TV production company.
The movie I will be reviewing is Five Came Back. Here is a short synopsis: Twelve people are aboard an airplane on the way to South America when it encounters a storm and is blown off course. The plane ends up crashing into jungle known to be inhabited by head hunters. The two pilots attempt to fix the engines and take off before hostile natives or lack of food overcome them. The situation brings out the best and worst in the stranded dozen. They hack out a runway and prepare to escape before the natives attack. But damage to the plane and low fuel reserves means that only five people can leave.
Five Came Back (1939)
Lucille Ball, John Carradine, Wendy Barrie, Joseph Calleia, Allen Jenkins, Patric Knowles, Chester Morris, Elisabeth…
Obviously, near the end of the movie the major plot element is who the five will be? However, there is actually quite a bit to look for in this movie before we get to the end. There is not that much ethnic diversity admittedly, but there is some real CLASS diversity. There are characters from every walk of life on the plane. The Lucille Ball character is an adult woman traveling alone for reasons unknown. There are the two pilots who are different while being the same. There is the right-hand man of a “retired” gangster, who has been put in charge of his boss’ young son. There are eloping lovers and an older professor and his wife. Additionally, there is an anarchist being taken back to face justice by a bounty hunter and a steward aboard the plane.
While watching the movie, it is important to remember the context of this time, 1939. The country has made it through a nasty economic Depression, one that most believe was caused by irresponsible “gambling” by the nation’s financial classes during the twenties. Prohibition has only been over for about six years after a long period of alcohol being illegal, which most understood had caused more harm than good. Now you know the players, the background and the context.
The anarchist character is quite interesting. His name is Vasquez and he is essentially a “terrorist” in today’s lexicon. He has planted a bomb and killed people. Crimp, the bounty hunter, is taking him back to face justice, which all seem to understand to be a hangman’s noose. Crimp, played by John Carradine, has some “official” standing as early on he is seen collecting Vasquez from military individuals and other officials at a consulate. This law enforcement character plays a surprising part in the ensemble production.
Unsurprisingly Peggy, Lucille Ball’s character, is “slut-shamed” through the first half of the movie. Some of her behavior towards the pilots is meant to enhance the idea that she is a woman of lose mores. On the other hand, when the Crimp character hits on the Peggy character, she is quite direct in putting him off by saying with some disdain, “I don’t talk to cops!” It is hard for me not to laugh out loud every time I hear her deliver this verbal stiff arm.
Here is a moment where we get an insight into societal attitudes toward law enforcement. Post-Prohibition law enforcement is not held in high regard. After all, drinking alcohol is not such a sin that people should be thrown in cages and their lives destroyed. Law enforcement was quite enthusiastic in its prosecution of Prohibition. When it ended “the people” did not forget. Cops were seen as people not to be trusted. Willing to just do what they were told for a salary rather than realizing that the laws were wrong and misguided.
Alcohol is no longer illegal at the time of this movie, but it still is a problematic drug. There is no pulling of punches about this as two of the characters turn out to have serious alcohol problems. In fact, Crimp ends up losing his gun to the “terrorist” Vasquez fairly early in the movie due to him being drunk. The shocking thing is that after the plane crash, when the group decides that one of the pilots should be in charge of things just as the captain of a ship would be in charge after a shipwreck, Vasquez voluntarily turns over the gun that he has surreptitiously obtained because Crimp was drunk.
Even more shocking to the eyes of contemporary Americans than a terrorist willingly giving up his weapon in this context, is he is trying to support the group’s chosen leader to make sure he has the necessary tools to act as the leader. Just as surprising are the actions of the “gangster”. The gangster also offers up the weapon he is carrying, but for some reason the pilot decides that the gangster should keep his weapon. Clearly, leadership is concerned that law enforcement not be armed, but is unconcerned by the gangster having a gun. Again this is an artifact of Prohibition. The police are abusive and not to be trusted. Gangsters may or may not be bad people. It kind of depends on the circumstances, but many at this time saw the gangsters of that era as just regular people trying to make it in a tough world.
Alcohol does not just take hold of the bounty hunter. It turns out that the groom in the eloping couple is a fairly rich man. He is also traveling with quite a bit of alcohol. Under the stress of this crash and stranding, his alcoholism becomes quite apparent. This is another recurring theme of pre-WWII movies, that the rich are useless parasites upon society. The only thing this person is ever able to offer in the drama is alcohol, unsought advice and money. None of these things are worth a DAMN in the jungle, but the rich person can provide nothing else.
This is about the Dignity of the Common Man. It those that DO that matter in America in the thirties. Those people that can DO things are highly valued. Those that can fly the plane and repair the plane are most important and the group gladly support them with the things that they can do. Obviously, there is plenty of work for the group beyond just the repairs to the airplane and everyone gladly pitches in except for the rich guy.
It is here that we also see the Dignity of the Common Woman. At one point, shortly after the crash, the Lucille Ball character is asking one of the pilots about the true nature of their predicament. As it turns out, their outlook is rather grim. There are many obstacles to their successful escape from these circumstances. The Lucille Ball character takes the news in a matter of fact fashion. The pilot starts to compliment Lucy on her mental and emotional fortitude, but ends up just complimenting her on her coffee. Through this interaction, we begin to see Lucy’s character redeemed as a truly contributing member to the group. Her morals no longer seem to matter as the group recognizes each that contributes to their success as a valuable member, not to be judged, but to be embraced as part of the team that will get them out.
However, it is the Vasquez character and his conversations with the professor that are most surprising. His redemption in the eyes of the group is surprising, especially since he is essentially a bomb-throwing terrorist. In one of the conversations, he shows little remorse for his actions as he feels they were necessary. The idea that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is clearly illustrated here. It is especially poignant when the professor thanks Vasquez for his earnestness late in the movie. Vasquez’s answer is to the professor’s gratitude is quite telling.
“If there were more men like you, there would be less men like me,” he says. It is the closest thing we see to remorse from the terrorist/anarchist. Seeing the terrorist as a human being is important. I simply cannot recommend this film highly enough. All Americans should watch this movie, especially in this day and age. This movie is quite germane to American society today.
We are currently coming out of a much longer prohibition than alcohol prohibition. Marijuana is most likely going to be made legal. What about all the people whose lives have been destroyed over the last few decades during the War on Drugs? Will there be redemption for them? What about all the overzealous law enforcement officers that busted heads, destroyed lives and locked people up indefinitely for having a joint? Do these officers deserve our trust as they mindlessly executed laws that we know today to be draconian and wrong? What about the crash of our economy in 2008 by the bankers? Nobody ever went to jail for that, but surely some should have. However, the rich have a stranglehold on our government and it appears to only do their bidding while neglecting the needs of the common American.
No, this movie could not be more timely than if it had been made last week. I cannot say much without giving away too many important plot points and spoiling the movie. The movie needs to be watched and needs to be watched closely. There is no CGI. There are no big explosions or huge gun battles or even color. There is only the interaction between the characters to tell the story.
Here are some other things to watch for while you are viewing this movie. See how much interaction people have in society during this time. There are very few places that are off limits for people. All people have access to all things to the benefit and the detriment of us all. Note how comfortable the passengers are in their airplane compared to the “cattle cars” that make up airlines today. In fact, the way these passengers are treated has come back into vogue as many high end airlines now treat their passengers just like the ones in this movie. However, that treatment is only for the rich now. The Congress is so beholden to money that it cannot even designate a minimum seating space for a passenger, despite people now dying from deep vein thrombosis directly related to the flying conditions of today’s passenger.
Note the fact that there is a Chinese restaurant at the Mexican airport to understand that the globe was already very interconnected by this time. Also, note how the child is seen as a commodity in this movie. It is hard to imagine such a cold and ruthless view of children. It is here that perhaps I feel the most divergence from today’s world. Or perhaps it is the lack of any military authority in this movie that is most striking. Soldiering was not seen as a profession of the common man. Soldiering was necessary for sure, but it was not the “profession” of the common person. Of course, any person might be drafted into that “task”, but it was not seen as a profession to aspire to. There was no idea of the military having authority over everyone and no belief that Captain America Super Soldier would be our savior.
This movie is a story of how Americans are a good people in general. When I read @umairh’s criticisms of my country or @caityjohnstone ’s scathing com mentaries on US foreign policy, I so much want to tell them about this history. I want to say, “No,No. There is something good about us. It’s in here somewhere.”
I want so much for us to remember our heritage and to remember the things that make us great and make predictions of our collapse be incorrect. It is the authorities and the rich that make America less than she should be, not the common people. We have forgotten this about America. It is US, the people, the common people of America, that make the nation great. America is a formidable nation, because of the common people. On September 11th, the only plane that was stopped was stopped by the common people of America. No plane was stopped by the government, the police or the military. Hopefully, this Lucille Ball vehicle will remind you of that.