Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Movies: Back Door to Heaven (1939)

By far the weirdest, and the most absurd, of the four films I saw as part of MoMA's Hollywood on the Hudson series, Back Door to Heaven begins in a small town's one-room schoolhouse. For graduation day, each student (they appear to be about ten years old) must perform some little piece that relates to what they plan to do with their lives. The premise preposterous already, one little boy who is to be a lawyer recites Portia's speech from The Merchant of Venice; another, who is to be a banker, does arithmetic in his head. A boy who is to be an artist draws something on the chalkboard. A pretty little girl sings a song (because, as the schoolteacher brightly points out, women can have careers too these days!) and a boy, who we saw moments before with his alcoholic father and well-meaning but brow-beaten mother, who are dirt-poor, stands up and plays a song on a harmonica. After this, the sheriff arrives; it seems the boy stole the harmonica from the window of the hardware store, and so he is sent off to reform school, where he promptly engages in a fistfight with the local ringleader.

A placard then tells us that "time goes by. . ." and we now see the boy grown into a man, washing floors in a prison. Again, he gets into a fistfight. But, he and two other prisoners are set free one day, having done their time, and they go back to visit his old town. No one is doing so well as they had hoped (except for the banker, who now runs the whole town)—the lawyer hasn't ever tried a case, the artist is an alcoholic who trades his skill for liquor at the local bar, the girl is a somehow still chaste, but incredibly lonely singer in a dive. When the hero remeets the singer, their childhood affection is rekindled and they are instantaneously in love, but his no-good friends drag him down; they plan a robbery in a restaurant, and when he goes to stop them, he walks in just as they're shooting up the place. Now he's wanted for murder.

His old friends try to help him—the lawyer agrees to defend him for free—but he's found guilty nonetheless. He escapes from prison long enough to join the school reunion the banker is throwing for his classmates under the pretense of benevolence but actually only for positive PR, as he's tearing down the old schoolhouse and forcing their old teacher into retirement. Everyone at the reunion (all five of them?) are so happy to see the hero, and so sad to hear him shot to death by the police after he says goodbye and walks out the door, in possibly the most morbid ending to any movie ever.

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