HALLELUJAH, I’M A BUM (1933) – Singing a song of socialism

The following is my first of two entries in The Unemployment Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Oct. 4 – 6, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of movies that relate to the subject of getting a job!

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum is surely the strangest movie musical I’ve ever seen. As with a lot of movies intended as Big Statements, at first it seems to have a lot on its mind, but it eventually surrenders to the hoariest of movie tropes.

If nothing else, the movie offers a novel twist on U.S. society as it was affected by the Great Depression. Al Jolson, the box-office smash of his time, plays Bumper, the unofficial “mayor of Central Park.” Bumper has seemingly hundreds of followers — park layabouts who are happy to follow Bumper’s philosophy of not looking for employment that isn’t available anyway. The only naysayer in the Central Park group is a socialist street sweeper named Egghead (Harry Langdon), who is the constant butt of the bums’ jokes simply for wanting to work so hard.

(Bumper also has a sidekick, a cheery black man named Acorn [Edgar Connor]. In modern terms, Acorn seems like a glaring stereotype. But if you know anything about Al Jolson’s filmography, you can be grateful that Jolson didn’t ask to play the part of Acorn himself.)

Rounding out the starring quartet is the actual mayor of New York City, John Hastings. (He is played by Frank Morgan, later to gain film immortality in the titular role of The Wizard of Oz — and this movie, which came out six years earlier, has a surprising reference to the later film.) At first, it seems surprising that Hastings is so willing to make friends with Bumper instead of arresting him, but the duo turn out to be in synch with each other’s roguish personalities.

It is at this point that the movie is at its most intriguing, turning upside down the popular Depression attitude of “We shall overcome.” What if the entire country had decided to embrace its inevitable poverty rather than fight it? And the movie is helped along in its offbeat viewpoint with its musical dialogue — “talk-singing” songs composed by the legendary Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

Sadly, it is also at this point that the movie resigns itself to conventional movie plotting, when it introduces us to Hastings’ girlfriend June. As played by Madge Evans, she is lovely and charming — so much so that we quickly get tired of Hastings’ wild accusations, backed up by no evidence, that June is cheating on him.

(SPOILER PARAGRAPH ALERT) Suddenly, a movie that had bubbled over with originality quickly succumbs to the most naked of plot contrivances (AMNESIA!!), as well as what the late film critic Roger Ebert deemed “The Idiot Plot,” wherein the characters’ misunderstandings could be resolved instantly if one or the other of them didn’t behave like total idiots. And when Bumper ends up falling for June, the Great Depression suddenly seems like the least of this movie’s catastrophes.

All of the movie’s performances are quite wonderful. (Jolson, in particular, scores points just by underplaying like never before.) It’s just a pity that the movie’s makers (including top-notch screenwriters Ben Hecht and S.N. Behrman) didn’t have either the courage or the stamina to steer their unique scenario all the way to the end.

(If you liked this blogathon entry, click here to read my second entry discussing the 1974 TV-movie Thursday’s Game.)