(This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon.)
In September, the London Stock Exchange crashed; Wall Street was to follow before the end of October.
1929 was the year Greece outlawed political insurrections, Afghanistan suffered civil war and revolution, and Joseph Stalin kicked Leon Trotsky out of the Soviet Union. And in the West? There was a colossal economic implosion and the start of the Great Depression.
The signs were there: a small-scale market crash in March of that year; dubious Wall Street decisions; overextended consumer credit. But society rolled merrily along, and why not? You can’t blame anyone for wanting to believe the economy will always charge over the hill to save the day.
Hollywood movies reflected this optimism. Gold Diggers of Broadway was the highest-grossing film of the year, followed by Sunny Side Up and The Cock-Eyed World. The first Academy Awards were hosted that year (Wings won Best Picture), and Hallejuah! was released – the first film with an African-American cast.
Actor/humorist Will Rogers made his first talking picture in 1929: They Had to See Paris. This well-dressed comedy, the 27th top grossing film of the year, could almost be the story of the Western World during this period of uncertainty.
Rogers plays an small-town-Oklahoma auto mechanic with two grown children. When his newly-constructed oil well literally becomes a gusher, his wife (Irene Rich) decides they must take their children to Paris so they can meet All The Right People. Although Rogers firmly believes all the right people live in his small Oklahoma town, he accompanies his family to the City of Lights.
This is an amusing film, with some poignant moments and real exterior shots of 1920s Paris. But Director Frank Borzage is telling a bigger story than what appears to be a feel-good, America-is-the-best-country-in-the-world romp.
Example: When Rogers’ well is first put into operation, his fellow townspeople gather to watch. The oil derrick sits at the top of the hill, while the townspeople stand below. A man slides a metal weight down the well and oil immediately sprays upwards, spewing barrels of the stuff. As oil runs down the hill, the townspeople seem to welcome the black liquid, scooping it up with their their hands, almost as if in an act of worship.
Another notable scene hints at the sizeable economic loss France suffered as a result of World War I. When his wife throws a party for French aristocrats at their country château, Rogers is shocked to discover she is paying honorariums to many of the guests, a practice that started after the war.
The film also gives a nod to the sizeable American ex-patriate community living the bohemian life in Paris at the time. Rogers’ son (Owen Davis, Jr.) gives his parents the slip and secretly moves in with an attractive young artist in the Quartier Latin.
They Had to See Paris is more than a vehicle for Will Rogers. It offers a glimpse of the Western World just before the stock market crash. The film’s themes of helping those in need, and placing importance on family and friends, were the traits folks needed to help grind their way through the Great Depression.
They Had to See Paris: starring Will Rogers, Irene Rich, Owen Davis, Jr. Directed by Frank Borzage. Scenario by Sonya Levien. Dialogue by Owen Davis. Fox Film Corp., B&W, 1929, 95 mins.
This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and yours truly. Please be sure to read the other contributions:
The Silent Era (1915-1926): Hosted by Movies, Silently
An Uncertain World (1927-1938): Hosted by Silver Screenings
The War Years (1939-1950): Hosted by Once Upon a Screen