With the National Hobo Convention in play this weekend, it seemed a good time to revisit the terrific and wonderfully strange Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and a book by S.N. Behrman from a Ben Hecht idea.
In this Depression era anomaly, Al Jolson plays “the Mayor of Central Park”, sort of the king of the bums, who’s actually a good friend of the actual mayor of New York, clearly based on Jimmy Walker, and played by Frank Morgan. The very first scene is crazy: the two men meet while duck hunting in Florida, instead of some logical place in New York.
Back in New York, Jolson’s pals include Harry Langdon as a communist sanitation worker, and Chester Conklin as a hansom cab driver, and several silent comedy hands and vaudevillians in smaller roles and walk-ons. Plenty of magic in that cast! And also in the fact that a good bit of the dialogue is rhymed and sung—it’s actually an operetta. The plot has to do with the fact that Morgan is having all sorts of troubles with his girlfriend (Madge Evans). She tries to kill herself by jumping into the pond at Central Park and is rescued by Jolson. She has amnesia. The two fall in love. Jolson subdues his freedom-loving hobo philosophy and gets a job to support her. Then Jolson sees a photo at Morgan’s house and realizes he has to give her up. The instant she sees Morgan she gets her memory back, and sees Jolson only as a dirty bum. But he goes back to his old ways—and happy to do so. What a part that would have been for the young Nat Wills!
The film has many magical elements but somehow lacks the alchemy to be the complete transformational experience that would have made it a better-known classic. It seems a little torn perhaps between two standard genres of the period: 1) crazy fantasy comedy and 2) screwball comedy. (I wish there were better terms in place for me to more clearly make the distinction between the two very different forms I referred to.k The former refers to films like the early Marx Bros, of W.C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs, or International House…crazy comedies with no real rules: outlandish plots and characters with crazy names—anything goes. The latter (screwball) generally refers to Capraesque romantic comedies, a sort of flip side of noir actually…where the coming together of a mismatched couple makes sparks fly in all directions and they have an adventure.
Though the film is beautiful in its way, it could have gone farther. The production feels sort of cramped and low-budget. The costumes and sets could have gone wild… the hobos and their camp could and should have been been amazing, but fall short. Another thought: by 1934, it’s very hard to have sympathy for the Jimmy Walker type — the guy who’s into high living. Though Depression era movies were full of rich people and their foibles, I don’t think we usually see much of the decadent, dissipating type, at least not as a sympathetic character. The moment for drunken partying was past. So this character seems sort of out of step.
Interesting to me that the communism of Langdon’s character is presented as a mere foible…that would have been impossible in films just a few years later. It’s definitely a bellwether of the time in which it was made.
For more on many of the stars in this film see my books No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube