“What’s the deal, Louie?”
“Me and the boys are gonna crack that joint’s safe. It’ll cough up at least 10 Gs.”
“Swell. We’ll be sitting on easy street. But if it ain’t yer kinda setup, Louie, you and yer pals will wind up in the slammer.”
Fans of Turner Classic re-runs will recognize that lingo. It’s typical of gangster films of the Great Depression. The cops and robbers speak in harsh, nasal monotones an octave above normal. The gun molls rant about their men in high pitched squeaky voices. Everyone is always dressed up, the men in ill-fitting double-breasted suits with stripes, neckties, and gray fedoras; the gun molls strut about, stuffed into skin tight dresses, cheap furs, their flashy hairdos topped with cockeyed hats with veils.
Men are called “boys,” women are “dolls” or “babes.” Money is “dough” and prison is the “big house.”
The hard times of the Great Depression provided fertile ground for good guys to rebel and for criminals to justify their actions. Movies made them all seem heroic. The dark heroes of the gangster films were played by tough guys like Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. In “Scarface” (1932) a lesser known movie tough guy, Paul Muni, plays Tony Camonte, a violent, insane gangster. Both bad guys and good-guy rebels heap scorn on the rich — the “swells.” The 1930s audience cheered and then left the theater feeling their Depression era misery had been vindicated.
If not vindication, an hour or two of escape from the misery of The Great Depression was had watching films about the exploits of the wealthy. For an hour or two the audience identified with the rich. The “swells” in these movies all wore tailor-made tuxedos or tails, carried walking sticks and oozed savoir faire. The carefully coiffed women sparkled in jeweled evening gowns, or shimmered in long silk peignoirs that brushed the floors of their sumptuous boudoirs.
In a popular drawing room comedy of the time, “Stage Door” (1937), an elegantly gowned Katherine Hepburn, clutching a beautiful bouquet of flowers in her arms, intones wistfully, “The Calla lilies are in bloom.” And everyone who first saw the film “Grand Hotel” remembered ever after Greta Garbo’s plaintive line, “I vant to be alone.”
In an earlier column, I described the dialogue in these films as mock British upper class. No matter that all the actors are Americans speaking American English. British was “in.” The first talking movies in the 1930s borrowed the language of the American stage, which happened to lean toward semi-British pronunciation. Actors dropped their “r”s after vowels, as in “hahd” for hard. The suave and debonair Fred Astaire “hahdly evah” spoke down-home American English in all his wonderful old Hollywood musicals.
Three cheers for Turner Classic re-runs of the 1930s! Their innocence and their naiveté give us a bright picture of the language, the values, and the fashions of the time.
JACK SMITH is a retired Shenango Valley high school and college English teacher.