Accent on Living

THOSE of us who worried our way through the thirties were probably unaware at the time that the period was in the process of becoming a costume piece. But it was and did. We look back today on the thirties as if on Shakespeare’s England; the peruke and the lace jabot of the French court seem hardly more remote than General Hugh (“Ironpants”) Johnson and his followers as they marched in the great NRA parade; the touring cars and towering sedans of the period remind us of the Selden patent or the Conestoga wagon; and although the women managed somehow to escape being quite so dated as the men, the ordinary passers-by of the thirties look like models for a Rogers group.

The thirties were by no means the most attractive decade of the century, and there must be many middle-aged citizens who wince at remembering them. But tha period is being rejoined to the present — indeed it is all but taking over the present — through its domination of the television screen. For hours daily TV is occupied by all sorts of old movies, some from the forties but more, so it seems, from the thirties. One assumes that the twenties, with their newfangled talkies, would be a little too creaky even for TV, while the product of the forties is probably still flickering out its final years in your nearest naborhood popcorn dispensary. So it’s the thirties that are in such rich supply, with the quaint ways of a bygone day.

Many of the people in these old films are long since defunct. Those still surviving are so much older and fatter that one can hardly recognize them in the lively youngsters on the TV screen, whizzing about in their antique La Salles and Marmons and usually, in those days before the thruways and turnpikes, leaving great clouds of dust behind. It was the day of the vertical windshield, when the spare wheels were mounted in wells on the front fenders and the height of the ordinary sedan reached between six and seven feet above the roadway; and every afternoon on TV, here in 1958, we see any number of such “classic” designs. Because almost all these cars would qualify today as jalopies or worse, their casual use has a curious effect on the TV viewer. When the ancient Buick, for instance, pulls up at the door of a smart supper club, one half expects a family of Okies to come tumbling out and unload their household goods on the sidewalk. Not so. Those who step down — and we see a liveried, chauffeur at the wheel of this stately old vehicle — are a couple of obvious plutocrats, very sharp in their double-breasted dinner jackets. Anyone with $7500 a year or more shifted to a black-tic rig after 6 P.M. in the movies of that period, especially the gangsters, who were always the dressiest of the lot.

The men’s clothes in the films of the thirties are just as confusing to the viewer as their jalopies. In general, everything was sharp, so that most of the men in the film look like gangsters, but one never quite knows whether the rich type descending from the old Buick is about to produce his Tommy gun or merely an umbrella. The perplexity on this score becomes multiplied when an extra-sharp man about town appears on the screen wearing a four-button coat that buttons practically up to his chin and a curly-brim derby with a rather high crown. If the viewer secs a hansom cab or a carriage and pair in the background, he will realize that he has tuned in a film made in 1934 but having to do with events in the year 1907, but it is just as likely that the four-button man will suddenly produce his chopper and begin blazing away at a Stutz Black Hawk, recklessly driven through what purports to be the Chicago of the thirties. (British films are of course the exception in all these points, since men’s clothes and the London scene never change at all, and there are enough old cars still on the streets there to fit any period of the past half century.) Of all the quirks of attire in the thirties, one is struck by the great number of men who wore, in addition to the sharp double-breasted jacket, a vest and, as often as not, a hat.

The households of the thirties were well staffed with servants, and they were servants who worked hard and eagerly, indulging the behavior of their employers, no matter how overbearing, and on duty at any old hour of the day or night.

Along with these deferential servants and their 24-hour availability, the TV viewer would undoubtedly bracket the employees of an automobile manufacturer. The manufacturer, in one of the old films, was the daughter of the rugged individualist, deceased, who had founded the company. She was a capricious minx, who ruled with an iron hand. Her entire work force was terrified of her, and one could only wonder what the outcome would have been had Walter Reuther come along with talk about the guaranteed annual wage and the split-the-profits requirement.

There was a great deal of train travel at the time, and in almost every one of these old films characters are arriving or departing at a busy railroad station. Travel in those days was not something to be taken lightly, and when a character boarded a train or arrived on one, there were always relatives and well-wishers on hand to make an occasion of it. No one in these films had ever heard of a diesel or streamliner, and the train that came thundering into the station in clouds of smoke and steam was a monstrous old iron horse of the pre-Kettering era.

Tune in on it any afternoon around three o’clock.