It is one thing to see the Depression in photographs — black-and-whites of men in suits and hats lining up for food. It’s another when it is recreated on screen by good actors, and a director who made his first film — a documentary about the Depression — when he was in 11th grade.
There is a scene in Cinderella Man that for me completely captures the reality of what it must have been like to live during that dark time in America’s history.
The movie tells the story of James J. Braddock (played by Russell Crowe), an Irish-American boxer who lost everything when the stock market crashed (October, 1929). With an injured right hand he’s washed up as a fighter, but he does what he can — working on the docks when he can get a shift — to provide for his wife and three young children.
The scene takes places at the breakfast table. Rosie, Braddock’s young daughter, is still hungry after eating her one slice of bologna. Braddock who is gaunt and hungry himself (Crowe does an incredible job of portraying Braddock) gives her his breakfast (his one slice of bologna), telling her he isn’t hungry because he’s just woken up from a dream in which he’d eaten a great big steak.
It’s impossible to capture the poignancy of this scene in words. You feel like you are in the room with the father and daughter, experiencing the hunger of the child and the love and quiet despair of the father.
Suffice to say it left me in tears. While I am always unsettled by photographs from the Depression, seeing it on the big screen brought it home, and made me more fully understand what it must have been like not to be able to provide food for your children.
Ron Howard, the director of Cinderella Man, you’ll remember from his other “Irish” movie Far and Away, which had those great scenes of the land rushes — settlers who raced by horse and wagon to compete for land on which to settle. Here again he brings another piece of American history to life.
The director, who spoke after a screening of the movie in New York, said he first learned about the Depression from his father, who helped him make that 11th grade movie. “My first lengthy film project [28 minutes] was a documentary I did for a high school history class, where I interviewed people who had lived through the Depression.
“My own family were not victims of the Dust Bowl [the drought that lasted ten years, crippling agriculture and desecrating the southern plains] but they came from Oklahoma and Kansas and everyone struggled.”
Howard also said that his father always held up Jim Braddock “as someone who did not give up.”
“Braddock gave everything of his own up first,” said Russell Crowe, also at the same screening. (See Crowe interview on page 32.)
After the breakfast scene we see Braddock signing up for relief. In real life too, Braddock had to go on welfare. But he paid back every cent when he got some fight money. “He was an amazing man, paying back social security. I own the receipt now. It’s for $368,” said Crowe, who bought the receipt on an Internet site that sells boxing memorabilia.
With Cinderella Man, Howard and Crowe, and a very fine team of actors and technicians, have created a film that while it’s a story of one family’s survival, is also a microcosm of the despairing America during the Depression era.
“I felt that it was a great opportunity to deal with a great story that presents the possibility of hope and celebrates one family’s survival. But it acknowledges the loss and pain and struggle of so many people who didn’t make it,” Howard said.
In other stories in this issue that further attest to the strength of the American spirit, we honor The Wall Street 50, and the resilience of the men and women who are involved in the financial sector.
We also bring you the story of Tom Westman, a survivor of a different kind. Tom is a New York fireman who survived Sept. 11 (he was at home with his family when the attack occurred and arrived on the scene after the towers fell). He recently competed for a million dollars on Survivor, the reality TV show, and he won. Tom will use the money to educate his children. (See interview on page 68).
In a final note on Cinderella Man, Crowe says, “It’s not just about Braddock. Millions of American like Braddock, put their children first, and didn’t give up.” ♦