Tuesday, January 27, 2015 at 7:30pm
Workers Film and Photo League + Busby Berkeley
155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
The National Hunger March 1931, Film and Photo League, 1931, 16mm, 11 mins
Detroit Workers News Special 1932: Ford Massacre, Film and Photo League, 1932, 16mm, 7 mins
America Today / The World in Review, Film and Photo League, 1932-34, 16mm, 11 mins
Bonus March 1932, Film and Photo League, 1932, 16mm, 12 mins
Gold Diggers of 1933, Mervyn Le Roy, with musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley, 1933, 16mm, 97 mins
“A working class cinema for America?...A cinema reflecting the struggles and growth of the revolutionary proletariat of the United States? A cinema relentless, merciless, in its analysis of the American bourgeoisie? A cinema passionate, ultimate, in its indictment of the capitalist slave-system of America? In its exposé of the fundamental lie underlying American society? A cinema, in a word, that offers the exploited class of America precisely the opposite, in spirit, technique and ideology, to the Hollywood Movie—the advertisement for American Money?”
So began journalist Seymour Stern, in the Spring 1931 issue of The Left. His essay announced the formation of the Workers Film and Photo League of America, a cadre of artists, writers, and laborers devoted to documenting the strikes, protests, and police violence that erupted in the wake of economic collapse. Taking up silent film cameras (recently junked by the industry in the transition to sound), members of the League created Vertov-inspired agit-newsreels. Some of their films were successfully pushed into theaters, but more often they were shown within the movement itself, which rapidly spurred the development of Leagues in cities across the US. The collective's activities extended beyond filmmaking as well. Members held lectures and discussion groups, published journals devoted to cinema, and even served as a makeshift distribution company for new Soviet films by the likes of Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and Shub. Certain of its members are now remembered as the key artistic figures of the era: writers Harry Potamkin, Jay Leyda, and Lewis Jacobs, photographers Berenice Abbott and Margaret Bourke-White, filmmakers Leo Hurwitz, Paul Strand, Sidney Meyers, and numerous others.
Many of the League’s productions have been lost over time; a collectively-made feature documentary on the 1932 National Hunger March, for example, no longer survives, and what remained of other works were reconstructed as late as the 1980s. But the extant films nevertheless retain an uncompromising power, picturing massive forms of activism in the 1930s that have all but been erased from the public memory—images that, today, look more like Paris ‘68 or Ferguson ‘14 than how we’ve come to picture the Great Depression. Ford Massacre, produced by the Detroit Film and Photo League, shows marchers braving ice and snow to petition for unemployment relief at a Ford Motor plant, only to be met with tear gas and guns wielded by police and hired goons, leaving four protesters dead. “They asked for food and jobs,” the film cries. “They got bullets!” Bonus March depicts actions by thousands of jobless WWI veterans who marched on Washington to demand an immediate payment of their so-called “war bonuses,” which Congress planned to hold in reserve until 1945. In the capital, the vets are assaulted by the standing US Army, who confront protesters with cavalry and tanks, and burn an Occupy-style “Hooverville” to the ground.
Notwithstanding Stern’s critique of bourgeois Hollywood, Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933 upends the conventional notion that Depression audiences only ever found escapism at the movies. Even today, many of us know its opening sequence, in which Ginger Rogers and a troupe of scantily-clad showgirls gleefully dance and sing to the ditty “We’re in the Money”—but less well-remembered is the fact that this sequence ends abruptly when men from the sheriff’s office arrive to repossess the theater's sets and costumes, shutting the production down. It’s "the Depression, dearie,” Rogers wearily explains to her suddenly unemployed co-stars. Gold Diggers—one of the flat-out masterpieces of American musical cinema—never forgets the irony of staging exuberant scenes of glamour and excess in a desperate time of tightened belts and empty wallets: offstage, the women banter about starving stomachs, steal milk from their neighbors, and jockey for wealthy boyfriends. The film culminates in a blues-inspired musical number devoted to “The Forgotten Man”—that is, the same WWI veterans that only months before had been attacked by their own government outside the lawn of the White House.
These works by Busby Berkeley and the Film and Photo League stand as two remarkable articulations of the same moment of social crisis—the former is classical Hollywood at its most spectacular and immaculately choreographed, the latter is independent cinema at its most raw, spontaneous, and necessary.
Tickets - $7, available at door.
Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.