Friday, June 20, 2008

Movie: Hallelujah, I’m A Bum (1933)

I’m not entirely sure how or why the title of this movie became a punchline around Chez K, but I do know this: Rosemarie started it. She said it so frequently that when I found a poster for the movie in a store I bought it for her. Can’t be many research administrators on the West Coast with a picture of Al Jolson in their offices. Maybe four at the outside.

Last week it dawned on me that neither one of us had actually seen the movie.

I expected an amiable bit of fluff. What I got was a politically barbed satire tucked inside an amiable bit of fluff, with enough innovations to mark it as an oddity 75 years later.

Jolson plays Bumper, the hobo known as the Mayor of Central Park. Frank Morgan, always and forever the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, is the Mayor of New York. You know the movie has several cards up its sleeve when it not only presents these two men as friends, but posits that they’d cross paths on vacation. In Florida.

Also in the cast are silent movie comic Harry Langdon as the city sanitation worker who is Bumper’s sometimes nemesis, and Keystone Kop Chester Conklin as a hansom cab driver.

There’s a plot about the Mayor’s girlfriend suffering amnesia and falling for Bumper that doesn’t kick in until halfway through the movie. The script by S. N. Behrman and the great Ben Hecht is more interested in addressing the Depression head on. It both glorifies and sends up the itinerant lifestyle, even as it suggests that them with money ain’t so bad. More impressively, entire stretches of the script are rendered in rhyming dialogue as lead-ins to peppy songs by Rodgers and Hart, both of whom appear unbilled.

Jolson’s storied charms as an entertainer elude me. His generation of performer simply works too hard; he comes across as your manic uncle who has too much to drink at a family get-together, and throughout his antics you’re pitying the wife who has to pour him into the car for the drive home to Ronkonkoma. But damned if I didn’t feel for him when the simple story drew to a close.

Hallelujah’s avant-garde nature gives it a currency that many films of the era lack. For every device that dates it, there’s another, like a flashback introduction of a character that wouldn’t be out of place on Arrested Development or 30 Rock, that makes it seem almost contemporary. And as a time capsule of its era, it can’t be beat.

You can watch one of the film’s numbers here.