Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (1933). 82 minutes. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Starring Al Jolson (as Bumper), Frank Morgan (as Mayor John Hastings), Madge Evans (as June Marcher), Harry Langdon (as Egghead), Edgar Connor (as Acorn), Chester Conklin (as Sunday), and Louise Carver (as Mrs. Sunday). Music by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. Written by S. N. Behrman. Based on a story by Ben Hecht.
Hallelujah! I’m a Bum is a pre-Code, Depression-era musical starring Al Jolson and Henry Morgan that seeks both to amuse the audience with comical characters and a healthy dose of light opera, and to unsettle us with a portrait of a down-and-out society on the verge of revolution. It focuses on the adventures of a New York City hobo named Bumper who chooses to be a vagrant because it is, to his mind, the freest way to live. As we follow him, we see the disparities affecting American society during the Great Depression, articulated through the film’s juxtaposition of Bumper—the self-proclaimed mayor of the hobos—with his friend John Hastings, the mayor of New York. In its assessment of hobo life, the movie exhibits a pervasive exuberance for counter-culture that reminded me of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) And yet even more than that movie does, Hallelujah! I’m a Bum stresses the idea that revolutionary chaos in the form of Bumper and his cohort of hobos is always simmering beneath the surface of society and threatening to overturn the established order. It has to be one of the most socially and politically radical movies of the 1930s.
The plot of this movie is deeply rooted in the circumstances of the Great Depression. Bumper is a self-proclaimed bum who, although pressured by a trash collector acquaintance called Egghead to find work, chooses to live a life of panhandling and scrounging in New York’s Central Park, along with a slew of acquaintances. Bumper’s friend Mayor John Hastings is having a tempestuous affair with a woman named June, who one day is injured and develops amnesia. Bumper comes across her in the park and, not understanding who she is, cares for her, abandoning the hobo life he advocates and taking up work in a bank in order to provide her with an apartment and small trinkets. One night when Hastings accompanies Bumper back to the apartment, he discovers June there, and she instantly recovers her memory, turning to Hastings for comfort and rejecting Bumper’s company. Bumper gives up his job and returns to the park, content to live out the rest of his life as a hobo.
Part of the way that Hallelujah! I’m a Bum establishes its radicalism is by reframing what might otherwise seem radical in the context of the 1930s and rendering it tame in order to make way for an even more revolutionary stance. Consider the context of the movie’s references to communism, made frequently but without positioning the resident and dominant communist voice of Bumper’s Central Park, the trash collector Egghead, as an abhorrent or dangerous force. Egghead is angry at Bumper’s menagerie of hobos because they will not find work (interestingly, this idea is not voiced Mayor Hastings, who represents the film’s uppercrust contingency). The trash collector is especially perturbed at them because they, via Bumper, extol the virtues of perpetual unemployment rather than labor. They scrounge, they laugh, they sing, they make use of the great outdoors—thus they are an impediment to the international workers’ cause.
As a result of Egghead’s nagging and complaining, his Bolshevism (he refers to mounted policemen as “Hoover’s cassocks”) ends up feeling like one of the more conservative forces in the movie compared to Bumper’s hobos, even as Egghead calls for mass uprisings. This is largely because Egghead himself strikes both the hobos and us as a moralizing busybody, someone who is tightly wound and fussy—all qualities that are exhibited in his minor occupation, newspaper trash collector. He wears an ill-fitting suit as he jabs and pokes at stray papers, an image that conveys his inflated and inappropriate esteem for his occupation. And what value does his exalted labor accomplish in the end? While Bumper distracts him, the hobos pick all of the newspaper out of his wastebasket and strew it along the path beside him. The camera pans to show an enormous stream of newspaper on the ground, which Egghead will have to collect all over again in a kind of endless cycle of fruitless work.
Thus Hallelujah! I’m a Bum manages to take one of the most tumultuous political movements of the twentieth century and render it aimless, bourgeois, and tepid. Bumper and his colleagues, who coolly refuse to work and are shown flourishing in the paradise of the city park, seem in comparison supremely radical. Rejected by the disruptive revolutionary spirit of the early twentieth century, they appear even more out there; as the embodiment of an even newer era and a newer cause, they upset both the long-established tradition that tells us to value hard work for the way it shapes our moral character and the newer order that tells us to value work for its political significance.
The hobo politics that make Egghead’s communism seem tame are born out of desperate times where everyone is more or less living in extreme circumstances. Although the men in the park experience what appears to be a life of ease, there are real signs of distress and poverty in this movie that frequently emanate from those outside of the hobo world. In one beautiful tracking shot in the bank where Bumper and his companion Acorn find work for a time, we move from two men discussing a substantial financial deal worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to men discussing a deal that is worth only hundreds of dollars, and finally we see a man at a teller’s window trying to cash a check for a meager five dollars. The teller will not help him—the bank does not cash checks that small. In this way, the camera not only moves horizontally from vignette to vignette: it charts movement from high to low, large to small—and the grand cascades down to the pathetic.
This movement is echoed elsewhere in the film. By carrying us back and forth across the world of New York City Mayor Hastings and the world of Bumper, mayor of the Central Park hobos, the film is constantly panning although the camera is not always moving as it does in the bank scene. Even the movie’s title walks us through the drama of transitioning from the grandiose to the pathetic: in just a few words, the enthusiastic high of the exclamatory and multisyllabic “Hallelujah!” tumbles down into the flat monosyllables and destitution of “I’m a Bum.” The movie is thus infused with the erratic nature of the period, the terrific highs and crashing lows that triggered the world of the Depression—a world where life is unstable and turmoil (economic and otherwise) is always around the corner.
The underlying tension of these episodes erupts perhaps most strikingly in a scene where Mayor Hastings lays the cornerstone for a public school. As the stone is set in place, a band strikes up the song “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” and a chorus of school children begins to sing. Consider how this scene could have potentially been presented: we could see the mayor beaming as we hear the voices of the children singing in a sequence that reassures us of the stability, coherence, and order of the American way of life. Instead, during the performance the film cuts from child to child in closeup, focusing on their faces, and the effect is thoroughly unsettling. This is because the children appear to be angry, full of contempt, or (at best) muddled with frustration.
These are the only children shown in the film, and the laying of the cornerstone is intended to be a grand affair for their benefit, one that looks towards a glorious urban future. But the closeups compel us to think of other possibilities. As they go through the motions of mouthing patriotic, faithful language, the children create in juxtaposition an emotional tidal wave of discontent and instability that seems powerful in part because no one in the chorus is given a name or identity. These mysterious young people, who seem to stand for all young people, will inherit the city, the country, and the world, but what does their stark disenchantment harbor for the rest of us, including the straight-laced, mainstream working population? Although they are young and small, they appear menacing and dangerous—embodying not the promise and hope of tomorrow but rather the precariousness of the wide, open unknown that stretches in front of a society that is already in trouble.
If we were thinking of taking comfort in the idea that the children’s chorus offers a minority viewpoint insofar as the singers are juveniles, Hallelujah! I’m a Bum makes it clear that the chorus is, in fact, just a small sample of wider society. As the mayor prepares to depart from the event, we see construction workers jeering–so the polished veneer of the mayor’s ceremony not only brushes over the discontent of the children performing but also of the attendees. We must ask ourselves: which version of this event do we believe in the most—the orderly, acceptable, mainstream messaging of the mayor, or the subversive reactions of his constituents? The options are complicated by the fact that the mayor himself wishes to shirk his duties and questions their necessity in public: earlier we see him try to get out of the school dedication in favor of a tryst with his girlfriend; then after the dedication, he is cornered to do a photo op with a large family that he protests against. In the end, even the primary figure of authority in the film is shown questioning the necessity of his official work.
Whereas scenes like the cornerstone laying depict a society—all the way down to its youngest members—on the verge of an emotion-driven revolution in the context of a political ceremony, the laws governing those who fall in line and show respect to conventions of work and romance are also shown to be unstable and wildly enforced. This is demonstrated most dramatically in the apartment where Bumper establishes June after the onset of her amnesia. He arranges for a modest job for himself and Acorn at the bank, and when payday arrives, he showers June with trinkets: a musical stein and a doll, among other gifts. None of the trinkets are necessary or particularly functional, except insofar as they keep June amused. He is clearly proud that he can afford them and bestow them upon her—it is a form of conspicuous consumption at its finest. This is not likely the dream of Egghead, who commands the hobos to work, but not to work and squander their paychecks; so even as a laborer, Bumper flagrantly disappoints the ideals introduced to him by the communist, meaning that even his labor cannot straightforwardly tie into recognized revolutionary practices.
Bumper dances with June as the music from the club across the way, Loveland, fills the apartment. Romance and beauty do not seem out of reach—until suddenly everything comes crashing down when Mayor Hastings accompanies Bumper back to his apartment and discovers June there. Just as she pleaded with Bumper earlier not to leave her, so now she uses those same words but implores Hastings, rather than Bumper, not to depart. She clings to him and looks at Bumper with horror and disgust. It is hard to watch and not wonder how the fortunes of one man can change so rapidly, in the same room and with the same language no less. How can one sentence mean one thing one minute, and then another the next? It seems random and unfair.
That is one of the reasons why Hallelujah! I’m a Bum is so special: it is willing to show the disparities inherent in Depression-era society and apply them to a wide range of misfortunes—financial, political, romantic, and otherwise. Being a good worker, a good person, a good lover—none of these things promises a life of success, love, or fulfillment. The movie ends with a shot of Acorn hanging up Bumper’s clothes back in Central Park, with Bumper outstretched on a bench, back to the life he knows well, wearing a grin on his face. At least we might feel confident that he has been resituated in a context that we know he can thrive in.
In contrast, Mayor Hastings reunites with June and reasserts his commitment to her, but these comparatively acceptable characters seem doomed. Although they appear to be highbrow members of stable and respectable society, their spats, lies, misunderstandings, and general drama reveal that in reality they are constantly on the brink of disaster, much as everything else in this film rests on a knife’s edge. The movie suggests that its restless hobo will actually weather life’s misfortunes more successfully than June and Hastings will: Bumper thrives on precariousness, indefiniteness, and unpredictability. It is in getting attached (to a woman, to an apartment that he is paying for, to trinkets that has purchased, to a neon sign flashing on and off all night long in the distance for a club like Loveland) that Bumper makes his mistake. Back in the park and content with nothing, he has everything.
I should note, because I have not already, that the idea that the hobos of Central Park are living the hobo life out of deep reverence for the freedoms and pleasures it affords them, rather than out of some deep necessity or possible dysfunction, is a quaint idea that has the potential to distort reality and misinform. Turning homelessness into a positive lifestyle choice rather than an act of desperation that isolates its participants and endangers them in an outdoor ecosystem of streets, parks, and alleyways certainly overlooks the dark side of wide-scale urban disenfranchisement. The mythology of the hobo offered by Hallelujah! I’m a Bum and other movies of this period—including My Man Godfrey (1936)—affords audiences a comfortable perspective on the homeless, one that is palatable to those would prefer to think of homelessness as a spirited way of life rather than as a widespread consequence of the Depression or an indicator of how far American society had strayed from the stability of pre-Depression years.
That being said, the movie also has a lighter side, most effectively conveyed with charm and froth by its operetta style, with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Al Jolson’s singing style differs greatly here from his work in recorded music and films such as The Jazz Singer (1927). His vocals in Hallelujah! I’m a Bum are less pompous, with less vibrato and less projection—in fact, both when he was singing and speaking dialogue, his voice was sometimes quiet enough that I had trouble discerning what he was saying. It is a welcome change in the performer’s film persona, and as I watched him, I gradually forgot that I was viewing the Al Jolson who was famous for hammy, on-his-knees singing and tasteless blackface and instead enjoyed his performance as a sweet and sensitive man of the streets.
Hallelujah! I’m a Bum is the kind of movie that can successfully cause us to reevaluate so much of what we thought we knew was true and reliable going into it: our belief that work is necessary, the confidence we have in elected officials, or the idea that good things come to those who are charitable. The movie is charming in its musicality and cool in its easygoing attitudes, but it possesses an extraordinary capacity to unsettle and unnerve us. Perhaps the vagrant existence has always been always fraught with danger, but the potential for vagrants to be a danger to the fundamental fabric of society has rarely been embraced by film with so much pleasure. It is a wonder to see.