Finishing School (1934)

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Any film with Billie Burke has me at Hello. But she leaves pretty quickly, after dropping off daughter Frances Dee at a v. posh boarding school in this pre-Code drama co-written and directed by Wanda Tuchock (adapting from a play). Ginger Rogers is Dee’s room-mate Pony, the It girl in the school or ‘The Pal’ as she is billed in the interesting titles sequence. She organises a weekend trip to the city where Dee fulfils her ambition to ‘get tight’ (!) and meets Bruce Cabot, a lower class med student bringing room service in the hotel where they stay. She has to stay at school over the Christmas vacation (neglectful folks going to Florida)  and they fall in love (look at that lovely shot with snowflakes falling into his shoeprints outside the boat house) a situation that causes consternation. In a world where Thou Shalt Not Get Caught is the edict, this promises more than it can deliver but is fascinating for its portrayal of class difference, underage smoking, drinking and sex, pregnancy (Dee is called Virginia for a reason), what  girls do when they wear mouth braces (I remember!), twisty ending, the fact that the Catholic Church condemned it (always a good sign) and as a relic of its time – plus Ginger giving her all. Some things never change however – trampy teenage girls come from all classes! Fun fact:  5 months after the film opened, Dee gave birth to actor Jody McCrea, her son by husband Joel McCrea. Their marriage survived until his death. She died aged 94. This was the year the Production Code introduced in 1930 came into force under Joseph Breen, hence the interest in a pre-Code film such as this, which aroused such ire amid the new push for purity in a sea of ambiguity.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

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John Steinbeck’s marvellous portrait of poverty, starvation, police brutality and the truth behind the American dream in the Depression, got the A treatment under Darryl F. Zanuck’s supervision at Twentieth-Century Fox courtesy of a fine adaptation by Nunnally Johnson and direction by John Ford. There are so many things to treasure – the composition of the shots by Greg Toland, the random acts of kindness matched by the beatings, the roadside burials, the terrible injustices. But what really stand out are Henry Fonda’s eyes, burning brightly with intent. A genuine masterpiece of cinema.

Ironweed (1987)

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Quite why the homeless opt out is something that forms the bedrock of this film’s narrative, adapted by the author William Kennedy from his novel. Star performances elevate the downbeat Depression-era material, with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep giving real depth to these sad street people. He is back in his hometown at Halloween, for the first time in decades. She is his occasional girlfriend, a former musician who has long abandoned her musical dreams – her hallucinatory performance of He’s My Pal is a highlight. It’s nice to see Carroll Baker, turning up as Jack’s ex-wife in a radiant performance. The cruelty of society, the beatings administered by ex-servicemen and the awful tragedies that have caused decent people to become hobos, are problems that are relentless and persistent and while the poetry of Kennedy mitigates the depression, the outcomes don’t. Babenco had previously made The Kiss of the Spider Woman but this was his first film proper for an English-speaking audience and he followed up with At Play in the Fields of the Lord. In other words, he is a serious filmmaker of serious films. And Nicholson is indelible as the sad Francis Phelan.