Arts Listings

Pacific Film Archive Shines Light on Depression-Era Cinema

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Wednesday March 25, 2009 - 06:20:00 PM
Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is a drama of juvenile hoboes wandering the country.
Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is a drama of juvenile hoboes wandering the country.

Do you feel like you’re reliving the 1930s Great Depression? Compare and contrast the nature of economic hardship and social and political unrest then and now, through a short film series in April at UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. 

“Americans sought relief from the grim reality of the Depression in movie palaces supplied with escapist fare, but studio heads and stars, like everyone else, were not neutral about ‘that man in the White House’ and his policies,” historian Gray Brechin writes in the program notes introducing the series, which focuses on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

Titled “From Riches to Rags: Hollywood and the New Deal,” the series includes four main films and five short subjects, filmed and produced between 1930 and 1960.  

Curated by PFA’s Steve Seid, it ranges from documentaries to government films to fictional dramas. “Each evening of the series a notable activist or historian will redirect the themes and issues of each film toward the present, so that we may reflect upon our newest of New Deals,” says Seid. 

The series begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 1 with Our Daily Bread, King Vidor’s 1934 parable of a “penniless urban couple” moving to a derelict farm and organizing a utopian “cooperative community.” Followed by The Plow That Broke The Plains (Pare Lorentz, 1936), a “melodrama of nature” and the Dust Bowl. Introduced by Eric Rauchway, author of The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction.  

Wild Boys of the Road is the main feature at 8 p.m. Sunday, April 5. It’s a 1933 drama of juvenile hoboes who, without economic prospects, wandered the country. It is paired with the short, We Work Again, a promotional film of the Works Progress Administration and its impact on African-American communities. Introduced by Harvey Smith, board member of the National New Deal Preservation Association.  

The main attraction at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 15 is 1933’s Gabriel Over the White House, the story of a Hoover-like president who experiences a conversion of sorts following an accident, and sets out to “rid the nation of racketeering, eliminate unemployment…promote world peace,” while also suspending Congress and assuming dictatorial national powers. Two shorts follow, one of them a 1944 cartoon made for Roosevelt’s fourth re-election campaign. Introduced by Berkeley resident Gray Brechin, founding scholar for California’s Living New Deal Project. 

The program concludes with a 6 p.m. screening Sunday, April 19, of Elia Kazan’s Wild River, in which a family resists relocation by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The “rural drama is colored by a subtle sorrow, perhaps knowing that when the floodgates of progress are opened they wash away the good along with the bad,” writes Seid. The Columbia, a 1941 promotional short, precedes the main film. Introduced by Charlotte Brody, program director of Oakland based environmental activist organization Green for All, and preceded by live music of the Depression performed by East Bay band, Jugology. 




Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way. $5.50-$9.50. 642-1124.