Monday, January 13, 2014

Too Poor and Too Rich: Little Man, What Now? (1934) & The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Premiering finally on home video last October as part of TCM's Universal Vault Series, Little Man, What Now? (1934, Universal) provides even further evidence of the extraordinary emotional richness and thematic consistency of director Frank Borzage's Depression-era body-of-work, a cinema that considered as a whole comfortably places the Italian-American auteur in the pantheon of studio-era filmmakers. Adapted from Hans Fallada's best-selling 1932 novel, Little Man, What Now? opens with a lengthy intertitle from producer Carl Laemelle, Jr. that defines the filmmakers' intentions in presenting the work: namely, to render a "social service" by offering a solution to the "WORLD'S DAILY PROBLEM," which is to say the economic hardships that prevailed in its mid-Depression time of production. This answer is proposed early in Borzage's German-set, Pre-Code melodrama, following the soapbox homily of a socialist speaker who opines that the "rich are too rich and [that] the poor are too poor." Though Borzage's film isn't without sympathy for this view, particularly where it comes to the deeply felt material sufferings of his under-class protagonists, Little Man, What Now? ultimately proffers a more Roman Catholic response commensurate with many of his other signature achievements, from the supreme Man's Castle (1933) to the more middle-range, though no less thematically essential Mannequin (1937); here, Borzage frames his family-centered, hearth-and-home philosophy in the form of question, one to which male romantic lead Hans Pinneberg (Douglass Montgomery) will receive an affirmative answer: "if one is satisfied to accept his life, peacefully, he's better off, isn't he?"

Little Man, What Now? finds much of its drama in Hans's struggle to do something so seemingly simple, to accept the domestic happiness that his beautiful young wife Lämmchen (Margaret Sullivan) seems eager to provide, even in the most materially scarce - and thus classically Borzagian - of circumstances. In his resistance, Hans provides another example of the director's archetypal male, a man of some ambition, and even more pride, who fruitlessly strives after worldly success. (By contrast, Sullivan's Lämmchen, in the image of Man's Castle's Loretta Young, embodies the redemptive woman, the figure whose extraordinary love and uttermost faith provides meaning in an indifferent Depression world.) At the same time, as the film's opening political rhetoric indicates, Little Man, What Now? does not entirely lack a class consciousness, thanks not only to its inscriptions of poverty and on occasion, ill-gotten wealth, but also to its dramatizations of Hans's mistreatment by a deeply unjust employer class. Little Man, What Now? accordingly accedes to the problem that the film's inscribed politics approaches - but not its materialist solution (thankfully, given the film's situation in Düsseldorf and Berlin on the eve of National Socialism). As always, Borzage's is a fundamentally Roman Catholic work, a film that imagines happiness within the context of the sacramental family - not in wealth or even the lack of material want. (Of course, owing to its late Pre-Code timing, Borzage depicts a couple who, at the film's open, are both unmarried and expecting their first child; this is simply to point out that marriage is not a pre-condition for family in Borzage's liberal, post-World War I universe.) 

A work therefore that is consistent both thematically and morally with Borzage's broader body-of-work, Little Man, What Now? equally shares the fleshed-out domestic spaces that define the director's visual art - and confirm his family-centered philosophy - with the couple's various top floor flats echoing the private worlds, for instance, of 7th Heaven (1927) and Man's Castle. (In Little Man, What Now?, a ladder memorably leads to the couple's final flat, a space so modest that it transforms Lämmchen, her husband and their newborn into a modern-day Holy Family.) Borzage's signature is no less present, likewise, in the film's smaller details and motifs, in the bread (cf. Man's Castle again) that one supporting player complains is being fed to the birds rather than to he and his starving wife. It is indeed here, above all, that the Depression and Borzage's social consciousness is felt most acutely - even as the politics that this same secondary character spouts are undercut by a previous act of political selfishness, one that indirectly will lead to his devoted wife's death.

Though to do so would be hardly fair or even appropriate, Little Man, What Now? is precisely the sort of film that might be used against Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): Borzage concerns himself with the victims of financial injustice, while Scorsese's narrative (in terms of screen time, at the very least) favors a predatory elite; the studio-era director grants his heroine moral strength and greater spiritual intelligence, whereas Scorsese's depiction of his female characters has occasioned vociferous accusations of misogyny; Borzage's spaces are memorably robust and feel lived in, while Scorsese's shallow visuals routinely strike the viewer as overly artificial and can be inelegantly planar; and finally, Little Man, What Now? is upfront with its conceived social value, one that speaks eloquently to its precise historical moment, where The Wolf of Wall Street's is perplexing at best. In short, Little Man, What Now? offers a sort of accusation and even testimony against the lapsed Catholic's latest, a film, speaking of Scorsese's, which seems to do little more than exist in its flawed, even suspect form.

And yet, exist it does with so much comedic verve and formal adventure*, that the above litany of accusations, whether or not they merit serious consideration, lose any real force. In bringing Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, in what might be a new career best performance - see the "cerebral palsy-stage" scene, a latter day master-class in the key of Gilbert Grape) and his marry band of idiots and rakes to the screen, The Wolf of Wall Street proves extremely effective farce - as opposed to satire - an object of ridicule wrapped in the (occasionally) more and (more often) far less appealing dimensions of their unfettered consumption. Well, actually Jordan's addiction, be it his dependency on sex, narcotics or money, which in each instance the filmmakers bring to the screen with extraordinary frequency and excess. Scorsese's latest is indeed another work of his signature expressionism^, where Jordan's internal life ultimately intrudes on and shapes the world that reaches the viewer - in its visual distortions and gaps in continuity, not to mention its detours into contingent possibility (cf. the two depictions of his drive home from the country club) and even its free and playful use of an audible interior dialogue at the Swiss bank. Scorsese's form, not to mention the tone and content of his dialogue and the lead's near constant voice-over, brings a lightness ultimately that belies the implications of Jordan's crime and his self-destruction.

The Wolf of Wall Street thusly stands as the latest of the director's Citizen Kane narratives, a film that witnesses the rise and fall of a great (American) man who is anything but, and in this particular case, has no obvious excuse - in his social acculturation - for his beastly behavior. Jordan, in some sense, just is this way, he exists as a figure of corrupted animal nature who, in the end, receives a typically (for Scorsese) small dose of redemption. The Wolf of Wall Street devours the straw man and emerges as one of the best films among this year's Oscar hopefuls.

* Little Man, What Now? also witnesses a moment of genuine formal freedom in its wonderful carousel set-piece: Sullivan and Montgomery are able to carry out their conversation only in snippets, on the occasion of each of the merry-go-round's revolutions. 

^ Tativille co-author Ms. Broad emphasized both the filmmaker's expressionism and the film's tepid redemption in a post-screening discussion.

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