Saturday, February 25, 2012

Film Review: Down to Earth

"Down to Earth" *** (out of ****)

In 1933 Hollywood decided to make a musical out of "The Great Depression" in "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933). Remember the musical finale, "Remember My Forgotten Man"? Well, philosopher extraordinaire Will Rogers beat them by a year making a comedy about the stock market crash in Down to Earth (1932).

"Down to Earth" is a sequel of sorts to another Will Rogers comedy, "They Had to See Paris" (1929). Of the two of them, I actually prefer "Down to Earth". Rogers is a bit of an acquired taste in my opinion. He isn't as side-splittingly funny as the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy or that other comedy philosopher W.C. Fields. Rogers had a much more gentle, delicate sense of humor. A kind of mid-western, aw-shucks personality.

The humor in both films stems from a fish-out-of-water situation. In "They Had to See Paris" we follow the old cliche of the ignorant American clashing with the sophisticated European. There is an element of that in "Down to Earth" but the humor mostly comes from Rogers not being comfortable with his wealth. A man can have all the money in the world, but, if he can't be comfortable in his own home, what's the good of it (see, I told you Rogers was a philosopher). Rogers feels his butler looks down on him when he tries to dunk his toast in his coffee or put bread in his soup.

The story is told against the backdrop of the beginning of "The Great Depression". Direct reference to the crash is made. Rogers, who plays Pike Peters, keeps warning his family about the out-of-control spending and how society is burrowing too much money. People, especially the rich, need to relearn the value of work and having a real job, not playing the stock market, looking for "easy money".

I disagree with this theme. The film and Pike, make it seem all people have to do is go back to work and the depression will be over. The problem was, as I understand it, people couldn't find work during the depression. People weren't waiting in soup lines because it was a Sunday afternoon and the grocery stores were closed. They were doing it because they didn't have food and no job.

Of course, I don't know what society was like leading up to the depression. Perhaps there was too much burrowing and spending going on. Here in Illinois we know something about that (thanks Gov. Quinn!). But Pike's simple words aren't realistic in my view. The movie is simplifying the problem.

But, lets not watch movies like "Down to Earth" in the hopes that they will solve our economic and political problems. Their objective was to entertain a depression era audience. And the movie does something most movies from the period did. It brings the rich man down to the same level as the working man. Establishing the message, we are all in this together and together we will get out of it. I suppose that was something audiences wanted to hear.

The movie was directed by David Butler. Probably best known for directing Bob Hope and Doris Day vehicles such as "Caught in the Draft" (1941), "Road to Morocco" (1942), The Princess & the Pirate" (1944), "Tea for Two" (1950), "Lullaby of Broadway" (1951) and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" (1953).

He may be a big reason why I prefer this movie over "Paris". Butler knew comedy. He worked with Will Rogers on another picture, perhaps one of Rogers best known comedies, "A Connecticut Yankee" (1931). So the two men string things along nicely together. This is a pretty fast moving picture.

Irene Rich returns playing the role of Idy Peters, Pike's wife. She loves high society, it was her idea they go to Paris. She wants to impress everyone with her cocktail parties and become the social belle of the town. Meanwhile, their son, Ross (Matty Kemp) is as oppose to work as before. He has taking up gambling. He is in love with Julia Pearson (Dorothy Jordan) a girl from a rich family who now faces bankruptcy. But another girl, Jackie Harper (Mary Carlisle) has her eye on Ross. And her money seems unlimited.

I'm honestly not sure how today's audience will react to Will Rogers' humor. It might be a little slow moving for them. Rogers was a wit, he didn't depend on physical humor. Also, his persona might bother some. Again it is very gentle and delicate. He is not as "loud" and dominate on-screen the way way Groucho Marx or Bob Hope would be. He's more subtle.

Still, if this sounds like your type of comedy, many of his comedies have been placed on DVD. At one time Will Rogers was considered a national treasure.