Jobless Number

Economics and sex in a Depression-era Busby Berkeley musical
by Martin Rubin  posted August 4, 2008
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Sex and the Single Girl: The Escapades of Busby Berkeley,
UCLA Film and Television Archive, August 2-12, 2008

F.D.R.'s most celebrated speech of the 1932 campaign was a radio address in which he cited the national mobilization of World War I and called for "plans like those of 1917 that...put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid." The phrase "forgotten man" immediately seized the public imagination, and this became known as the "Forgotten Man" speech.

"Remember My Forgotten Man," the climactic Busby Berkeley number of Gold Diggers of 1933, combines two major ideas of early ’30s political discourse:

1. The spirit of the Great Crusade—the high ideals that were aroused by the First World War and later betrayed, first by the materialism of the 1920s, then by the catastrophe of the Crash

2. The New Deal equation between the emergency of the war and the emergency of the Depression, resulting in a call for a revival of wartime spirit and collectivism.

Both ideas converged in an ugly event of the early Depression: the Bonus March of Summer 1932. An "army" of about 15,000 disillusioned, unemployed veterans—complete with uniforms, military discipline, and parades—squatted in Washington, D.C., to demand money and/or jobs. They and their families were finally routed by U.S. cavalry, infantry, and tanks—one of the most controversial actions of the Hoover administration.

The "Remember My Forgotten Man" number is remarkable for both its explicit reference to the still-warm Bonus Marchers issue and its unmistakable sympathy for their cause, as attested by the unforgettably withering gaze that saucer-eyed Joan Blondell fixes on a surly cop as he collars a sleeping bum who is wearing a medal beneath his ragged coat. But what is most remarkable (and most Berkeleyesque) about the number is its expansion of the political message to a sexual level.

The number begins on a stark street-corner set. Blondell walks over to a bum, lights her cigarette from his butt, and gives him the fresh cigarette. Wistfully caressing a lamppost, she sings in recitative, "You put a rifle in his hand/You sent him far away/You shouted ‘Hip hooray’/But look at him today." Blondell's lament, soon passed on to women of various races and ages in a nearby tenement, is twofold. She wants a job for her man and love from her man. The latter is dependent on the former: "And once he used to love me/I was happy then/He used to take care of me/Won't you bring him back again/’Cause ever since the world began/A woman's got to have a man/Forgetting him, you see, means/You're forgetting me/Like my forgotten man."

The number is based on an equation between economics and sex, a confluence of social and psychological factors. For workingmen in the Depression, the loss of earning power represents a form of impotence. What Blondell and the other women in the number are saying is: Because my man can't get a job, he has lost his virility—he can't love me the way he used to.

After this downbeat introduction, there is a rapid fadeout, and the number suddenly opens up to a flashback of men marching off to war, erect, proud, employed—images of virility. Blackout: the screen parts to show soldiers marching in the rain and trudging back from battle, wounded, bleeding, sagging—images of castration. Blackout: the screen parts again, this time to reveal a line of unemployed men in a soup kitchen, shivering, sheepish, subdued.

Several war-related films of the era, such as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), Heroes for Sale (1933), Turn Back the Clock (1933), and The World Moves On (1934), draw a parallel between the traumas of the First World War and the Crash. Unlike those films, Berkeley’s dreamlike condensation of history cuts out the buffer period: there are no victory parades, no wild parties, no soaring stock indexes. The men go directly from the frontline to the breadline, reinforcing a series of sliding connections: war/castration/Depression.

The final grand tableau shows women watching from the sidelines as the men kneel before the unattainable Woman, in the form of Blondell, and images of their past glory, in the form of rifle-toting doughboys circling endlessly on Sisyphean treadmills in the background. The finales of the classic Warner Bros. musicals typically combine social and sexual dimensions, but here the separate male and female choruses do not merge as they do at the climaxes of “42nd Street” (42nd Street, 1933) and “Shanghai Lil” (Footlight Parade, 1933). The economic disaster of the Depression has inhibited sexual relations between man and woman. (The facts support the number’s theme: between 1929 and 1933, the marriage and birth rates declined 22 percent and 15 percent, respectively.)

"Remember My Forgotten Man" is the simplest and most straightforward of Berkeley's big numbers in the classic Warner Bros. musicals. Its directness is a consequence of its political commitment. Its points are punched across for maximum impact, most forcefully by the jarring blackouts that drive home the number's thematic connections more viscerally and vigorously than even a direct cut would do. "Remember My Forgotten Man" is one of Hollywood's hardest-hitting political statements of the ’30s—much more so than the treatment of similar material in Warner Bros.'s Heroes for Sale.

One of Hollywood's earliest responses to the emasculating implications of the Crash was the "fallen woman" or "shady lady" cycle, represented by such films as Morocco (1930), Tarnished Lady (1931), Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931), Safe in Hell (1931), Blonde Venus (1932), Virtue (1932), and (variations on the theme) Shanghai Express (1932) and Back Street (1932). In the typical fallen woman story, the female star, as the result of some unfortunate circumstance (her husband is dying, her marriage was aborted, etc.), turns to prostitution (or a euphemistic equivalent such as dancehall girl, cabaret singer, etc.). This moral detour often involves a journey south to an exotic tropical locale (i.e., hell). The hero eventually finds the heroine and self-righteously spurns her, until, through suffering and self-sacrifice, the fallen woman redeems herself in his eyes.

Andrew Bergman, identifying the fallen woman cycle in his book We're in the Money, interprets it as a feminized counterpoint to the gangster film. Whereas gangster films are masculine power fantasies and perverse success stories, the Fallen Woman melodramas are "failure stories" that demonstrate women's dependence and weakness: "When forced to rely on themselves, the heroines find that only their bodies are marketable. Each picture made evident the fact that no woman could perform work functions not directly related to sex."

Although Bergman's pinpointing of the fallen woman cycle is exemplary, his interpretation of it seems lopsided, more appropriate to the plot summaries of the films than to the way they play onscreen. Certainly, the stories degrade and humble the heroines, but in these films the male figures are usually played by bland actors (Donald Cook in Safe in Hell, John Boles in Back Street), or they are as pigheaded and unreasonable (Clark Gable in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, Pat O'Brien in Virtue) or old and weak (Herbert Marshall in Blonde Venus) or narcissistic and insular (Gary Cooper in Morocco).

The heroine, on the other hand, is usually played by a powerful, vibrant, and intensely sympathetic star like Garbo or Dietrich or Bankhead. Her character suffers from being misunderstood and unjustly tormented by a male-dominated society (these films are chock-full of unsympathetic lawmen, brutal fathers, loutish rapists, slimy seducers). In the final analysis, this fallen woman towers high above the man of whom she is purportedly so unworthy. Not too far beneath the apparent antifeminism of the fallen woman cycle, one finds frantic distress signals of masculine self-confidence and an implicit indictment of patriarchal society, which, after all, had just laid a large egg called the Depression.

The "Remember My Forgotten Man" number is noteworthy because it makes explicit the implicit subtext of the fallen women films; it sets the record straight. Rather than countering a real fall (the Depression, male unemployment) with a compensatory, mythical fall (the moral status of women), it puts the "fall" back where it belongs. In "Remember My Forgotten Man," it is the men who have fallen—no doubt about it. Sullen, defeated, they skulk in doorways and soup kitchens or shuffle aimlessly down the Depression-blighted streets. Joan Blondell's costume and on-the-street position leave her profession suggestively ambiguous, but there is nothing fallen about her. It is the woman who dominates the song, supplies its voice, stands on the highest step, lights the cigarette, and subdues the club-wielding cop with a powerful counterphallic stare.

Even more remarkably, "Remember My Forgotten Man" does not counter the figure of the fallen male with that of the castrating female (in the manner of film noir), nor does it indulge in the sadomasochism of suffering and punishment that underlies the fallen woman cycle. The frustrated women in "Remember My Forgotten Man" regard their fallen men with nothing but sympathy and concern, on an equal footing. This is because they view their relationship not as dependent but interdependent. The status of one sex is directly—not inversely—proportional to that of the other: “Cause ever since the world began/A woman's got to have a man/Forgetting him, you see, means/You're forgetting me/Like my forgotten man."

This article is adapted from "The Crowd, the Collective, and the Chorus: Busby Berkeley and the New Deal," an essay from Movies and Mass Culture (ed. John Belton, Rutgers University Press, 1995) 


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Courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive
Mervyn LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933
Photo Gallery: Jobless Number


August 2-12, 2008 Sex and The Single Girl: The Escapades of Busby Berkeley


Martin Rubin is Associate Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. He has written books on Busby Berkeley and thrillers.

More articles by Martin Rubin