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How's this for offbeat: a musical about poverty, scored by Rodgers & Hart!
To call this film "unusual" feels like a thundering understatement. Hallelujah, I'm a Bum is so strikingly original, so unlike anything else Hollywood ever attempted, one hardly knows where to begin in talking about it. What can you say about a musical-comedy-drama with satirical touches made in the darkest days of the Depression that celebrates the superiority of happy-go-lucky hobo life, centered on a motley gang of homeless people who live in Central Park and consider "work" a dirty word? What if the unofficial leader of these hobos is none other than Al Jolson, that brash show biz legend who, in this incarnation, is a humble tramp nicknamed 'Bumper' who pals around with a young black sidekick called 'Acorn'? And just to add to the incongruity, what if fading silent comedy star Harry Langdon is added to the mix as a trash collector called 'Egghead' who spouts Marxist rhetoric and warns his cohorts that the Revolution is imminent? Speaking of odd casting, what if the romantic lead of the story, the melancholy, middle-aged Mayor of New York City, is played by the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan? (And by the way, he does a damn good job!) And what if the characters switch from naturalistic dialog to Rodgers & Hart songs and then to a kind of rhyming recitative, rather like a comic operetta? In short, there's no fast or easy way to sum up the experience this movie provides, but I'll say right now that even allowing for occasional patches where the material doesn't quite come off the film is absolutely fascinating.
During the transition to talkies in the early '30s director Lewis Milestone was known for dynamic effects at a time when many of his colleagues were still struggling to regain the fluidity of late silent cinema. Milestone took full advantage of his medium with swooping tracking shots, rapid montage, offbeat camera angles, and clever use of sound, and all of these techniques can be found in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum. A bravura comic highlight combining several of these effects is the sequence in which the mayor must lay a cornerstone at a new school with all due pomp and ceremony while earnest, homely children serenade him with "My Country 'Tis of Thee." This film integrates its songs into the flow of action with finesse, which is all the more impressive when you consider that only two or three years earlier most Hollywood musicals were clunky stage pageants trapped within the proscenium arch. Milestone takes the action to Central Park and stages some of his best scenes outside under the trees, although the movie's best known song, "You Are Too Beautiful," is sung by Jolson to leading lady Madge Evans on the fire escape of her dingy apartment, while couples across the street slow-dance at a club called Loveland. It's a moving scene that artfully captures the melancholia of the era.
Beyond these directorial flourishes, however, the most striking thing about this movie is its off-the-wall casting. I've never seen Al Jolson as likable as he is in this film, and in a role utterly unlike anything else he attempted in his Hollywood career. He is our central figure and drives the story, yet Jolson, uncharacteristically, is nonetheless only part of an ensemble of strong performers who each make major contributions to the success of the whole. I gather Roland Young was originally cast as Mayor Hastings and filmed a number of scenes, but he took sick and was replaced by Frank Morgan. Those who know Morgan only from The Wizard of Oz or from the blustery character roles he played later in his career are in for a surprise: he is a revelation as the aging, rueful playboy mayor --doubtless based on NYC's Mayor Jimmy Walker-- who suffers from romantic difficulties with his much younger girlfriend, the gorgeous Madge Evans. Hastings is often depressed and morose, yet he's a square-dealing guy who earns our sympathy. (And in an accidental inside joke, the future Wizard of Oz at one point drunkenly intones: "There's no place like home.") Morgan is terrific, and so is Harry Langdon, the one-time silent star who received his best-ever talkie role on this occasion and rose to the challenge like a champ. A number of other silent comedy veterans appear along the way in small roles, which is a treat.
There's no denying, however, that Hallelujah, I'm a Bum sugarcoats the reality of poverty, and it did so at a time when millions of formerly middle-class Americans found themselves in dire financial straits, which was doubtless a factor in the film's less-than-stellar showing at the box office. On some level audiences must have seen through the songs and comedy and recognized that some very handsomely-paid screenwriters, composers and performers were trying to convince them that they were better off poor; after all, as Jolson sings, "What Do You Want With Money?" That couldn't have gone over too well when this movie was released in the last days of the Hoover Administration, a time of bank failures, foreclosures, evictions and genuine, widespread distress. For us, the struggles of 1933 are long past, but as we deal with the problems of our own era this film stands as a fascinating time capsule, a one-of-a-kind curio that captures the mood of its age better than any other.
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