Director: Lewis Milestone
Cast: Al Jolson, Madge Evans, Frank Morgan, Harry Langdon, Chester Conklin, Edgar Connor
TCM has been doing a wonderfully showcase this month on Thursday nights on movies about the Great Depression. There are still some wonderful movies coming up, like Gold Diggers of 1933, Faithless, and American Madness. During the first week, they aired this rarely seen on TCM gem, Hallelujah I’m a Bum. It’s not hard to see the purpose of this movie, the glorification of homelessness during a time when a fair deal of the population of NYC was homeless.
Al Jolson plays Bumper, a hobo who happily lives in Central Park with his fellow homeless friends. He enjoys living outside and doesn’t even attempt to get a job. He’s also buddies Mayor John Hastings (Frank Morgan). Hastings is in a clandestine relationship with June (Madge Evans), but after an argument June takes a dive off of a bridge. Bumper fishes her out of the river, but she’s lost her memory and has no idea who she is or where she came from. Not knowing that she’s the mayor’s girl, Bumper falls hard for her.
In New York City during the Depression, Central Park really was the go-to for people who were out of work and without homes. It was the main location for many of the Hoovervilles, and it also served as a home to people like Bumper, who preferred to simply sleep outside. With so much hardship and the lack of homes in the city, it was only natural that the studios over in Hollywood would try to make some movies to lift the spirits of those people. Hallelujah I’m a Bum is easily the most blatant of these types of movies. Bumper and his friends are all homeless, yes, but they’re happy and they’re loving it. Their lives are carefree, especially when you compare them to the lives of the wealthy, like the mayor and his dramatic romantic problems. The “Gee, isn’t poverty swell!” tone to the film may induce some eye-rolling today, but when you remember the time it was made, it’s actually kind of sweet.
It stars Al Jolson, so it’s naturally a musical film. The songs aren’t exactly memorable, but they’re prevalent throughout the film (I’d say more than half, maybe even about two thirds of the movie is sung) which gives the movie a strange but infectious rhythm and pace. It also makes what could be really depressing (not just the homelessness problem, but also June’s attempted suicide) more charming than sad.
Jolson was likable enough in the lead role, but he never really had that leading man charisma when it came to talkies. Frank Morgan, though, was wonderful as he always was. He really was one of the most dependable character actors of the studio era, and this role shows his range. In so many of his films he’s sort of a sweet, but bumbling guy. It’s nice to see him play someone smart and kind of suave. And then of course there’s Madge Evans. How I adore Madge Evans. She’s simply one of the most charming and likable actresses in Hollywood history. And she’s just as charming and wonderful here as she always is.
Hallelujah I’m a Bum isn’t a conventional movie from the 1930s, from the music, to the pacing, to the ending, but it’s certainly a good movie, especially when viewed in the context in which is was made.
By Katie Richardson