Heroes and Hoovervilles: Films of the Depression

Date Film Time
4/24 Man's Castle 7 pm
4/25 No Greater Glory 7 pm
5/2 Mills of the Gods 7 pm
5/23 Black Legion 7 pm
5/30 Make Way for Tomorrow 7 pm
6/5 Heroes for Sale 7 pm
6/12 Wild Boys of the Road 7 pm
To coincide with the Museum’s exhibition, The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940, Block Cinema presents a companion film series featuring socially conscious films from the 1930s. The series begins with two gems from director Frank Borzage, including Man’s Castle, about a destitute young couple who cohabitate in a shantytown, and No Greater Glory, a powerful allegory about the senselessness of war. Also included is a rare pre-Code film, Mills of the Gods, about a labor strike and an unlikely love affair, and Black Legion, about the titular hate group. Make Way for Tomorrow is Leo McCarey’s masterful tearjerker about an elderly couple that faces separation when they lose their home. The series concludes with two films by William Wellman, Heroes for Sale, which depicts postwar realities for returning soldiers and the harsh conditions of the Depression, and Wild Boys of the Road, about a community of throwaway kids who ride the rails. Collectively, the issues covered in these films, including unemployment, labor struggles, xenophobia, poverty and homelessness, were a compelling call for reform.

Man's Castle

Thursday, April 24, 2014 7:00 PM
(Frank Borzage, 1933, US, 35mm, 75 min.)

Frank Borzage’s late 1920s and 30s romances are among the most emotional and lyrical ever committed to film. They’re also striking in their frequent focus on down-on-their-heels Depression-era working class couples. In the stunning Man’s Castle, Spencer Tracy meets a starving Loretta Young in the park and treats her to a dinner he can’t pay for. Both unemployed and homeless, Tracy invites Young to move in to his shantytown shack (this is a pre-code film!). Tracy is at his most raffishly charming, and Young positively glows onscreen with an innocent passion for her new lover, whose wanderlust and roving eye threaten their relationship.

No Greater Glory

Friday, April 25, 2014 7:00 PM
(Frank Borzage, 1934, US, 35mm, 74 min.)

The astonishing No Greater Glory is ample demonstration that director Frank Borzage’s 1930s social commentary was not limited to his romance films. Based on Ferenc Molnár’s 1907 novel The Paul Street Boys about two rival gangs of boys battling over control of a playground, No Greater Glory is a powerful allegory about the senselessness of war. A box-office failure at the time, the film has gained in reputation over the years and is one of a handful of 1930s films that uses youth to explore grown-up issues facing Depression-era America.

Mills of the Gods

Friday, May 2, 2014 7:00 PM
(Roy William Neill, 1934, US, 35mm, 66 min.)

Fay Wray plays Jean Hastings, the wealthy and spoiled scion of a factory-owning family led by her irrepressible grandmother. Sparks fly when Jean meets Jim Devlin, the labor leader who’s spearheading a tense worker’s strike against the factory. After circumstances force Jean and Jim to spend a night together in his cabin, she begins questioning her family’s ruthless tactics. This hard-to-see Columbia pre-Code film by British director Roy William Neill not only features Wray as a brunette but also includes an explosive depiction of labor strife.

Black Legion

Friday, May 23, 2014 7:00 PM
(Archie Mayo, 1937, US, 35mm, 83 min.)

In Black Legion, Humphrey Bogart stars as Frank Taylor, a machinist who is passed over for a promotion in favor of a Polish immigrant. A co-worker goads Taylor with racist hate-speak and invites him to join the titular xenophobic hooded order. Black Legion is a cautionary and at times terrifying tale inspired by real events. Though Warner Bros. stopped the story just short of implicating the political influence of right wing hate groups, a studio’s willingness to take on such charged material was unusual. A decade later Bogart would be one of the first in Hollywood to speak out against the persecution of the leftist filmmakers known as the Hollywood Ten.


Make Way for Tomorrow

Friday, May 30, 2014 7:00 PM
(Leo McCarey, 1937, US, 35mm, 91 min.)

Best known for his comedies, Leo McCarey’s masterpiece is arguably this heart-wrenching and perfectly realized family drama. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play a devoted elderly couple who lose their home and may be forced to live separately unless one of their adult children agrees to take them both in. McCarey handles the story with a sensitivity rarely afforded to the aged on screen, and Moore and Bondi give performances that are devastating in their subtlety and emotional economy. “Hollywood movies don't get much better than this.”—Jonathan Rosenbaum

Heroes for Sale

Thursday, June 5, 2014 7:00 PM
(William A. Wellman, 1933, US, 35mm, 73 min.)

Heroes for Sale is a striking companion film to the Block’s current Left Front exhibition. Richard Barthelmess stars as a World War I soldier who returns home to find that someone else has taken credit for his heroism. After the war he struggles to make a life, complicated by a morphine addiction from his wartime injuries. Director William Wellman (Wings, The Public Enemy, A Star Is Born) presents a stark depiction of postwar realities for returning soldiers and of the harsh conditions that increased during the Depression. Despite a studio-imposed optimistic ending, Heroes is unusually sympathetic to leftist and “Red” critiques of capitalism for a Hollywood film.

35mm print courtesy of the Library of Congress. 

Wild Boys of the Road

Thursday, June 12, 2014 7:00 PM
(William A. Wellman, 1933, US, 35mm, 68 min.)

Worried that they’ve become a burden on their destitute parents, teens Tom and Ed decide to run away and ride the rails. The boys soon find themselves part of a community of throwaway kids on the road who beg, steal, and establish their own Hooverville. But their quest for independence is stymied by authority figures (townsfolk, railmen, and the law) who pursue them at every turn. Though director Wellman lobbied for a more realistic ending, his film’s stark depiction of desperate youth was a compelling call for societal reform.

35mm print courtesy of the Library of Congress.