Made in America

As I've written about here before, I love research.

And I thought it might be interesting for my blog readers to get a sense of what I've been doing the last few weeks to prepare for Bonnie & Clyde. I've found some really cool books and DVDs that are giving me so much insight into this time and place, and into the characters themselves.

These are the DVDs I'm working my way through...

The Great Depression was the first video I watched. I knew a lot about this period (from research on The Wild Party and The Cradle Will Rock), but this four-part documentary from the History Channel was a nice refresher course. And seeing it all now through the lens of Texas, the Dust Bowl, and how it affected the Barrow and Parker families, really made their world and their struggles concrete for me. Such poverty, such hopelessness, such shame and despair. No wonder our fucked-up heroes wanted a way out.

Ken Burns' Prohibition is an excellent three-part documentary about what led to Prohibition and all its unintended consequences, most notably making the act of law-breaking not just common, but kind of cool. The word scofflaw emerged during this time to refer to someone who openly scoffs at the law (usually Prohibition). This is the culture that led to the many rampant crime sprees in the early 1930s. The cheerful disregard for the law we see in Bonnie and Clyde (and Capone and Dillinger and all of them) is learned behavior. This is interesting both for its insights into the culture that birthed Bonnie and Clyde, but also for that period's lessons about (drug) prohibition in our own time, especially at this very moment in our history, when marijuana prohibition gets chipped away more each day.

Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl was a revelation for me. I never knew more about this topic than what I got from The Grapes of Wrath. I never understood that this was entirely an accidental, man-made ecological disaster. And this ecological disaster surrounds Bonnie and Clyde for most of their youth, bringing with it death and poverty. You can see how this long nightmare would change a person's perspective on what's right and wrong, how it might lead to a justification for stealing from corporate America and its banks. It makes me wonder what I would've done in similar circumstances. It makes Bonnie and Clyde seem less like monsters and more like the inevitable unintended consequence of American greed and gluttony. Monstrous, sure, but only because they're the cultural offspring of monsters.

Some of this documentary was hard to watch. Such misery, such poverty, such shame. I've never known anything like that. I'm the guy won't go camping because there's no AC or cable. I can't imagine the weight of growing up in the middle of all that. It's the same setting as the opening of one of the most brilliant of the cable dramas, Carnivale if you haven't seen this show you must), a story that revealed an ongoing battle between a being of pure good and a being of pure evil which must be fought once a generation. It wasn't hard to see the 1930s zeitgeist in those metaphors. The trick is that Evil comes in the guise of Good...

And that's the world in which Bonnie and Clyde set off on a two-year crime spree.

When The World Breaks is an extremely cool collection of intercut interviews with people, some famous, who lived through the Great Depression, talking about our country's emotional life, our psychological life, and our artistic life, during this crisis. Lots of period footage and very some very emotional stories. It really brings home the reality of the Depression for those of us who just can't imagine going through that. The others docs are great, but this one places it all on such a personal level.

In one interview, comedian and actor Jerry Stiller talks about his childhood. He remembers this kindly shop owner who always treated him so well. Until one day, when young Jerry shows up to find the shop closed. Why? Because the owner was so deep in debt and so bereft of any hope that he hanged himself. Stiller started crying as he told the story. Very powerful stuff that brings home the point of the song "Made in America" in horrifically stark terms.

I'll admit it, I'm a documentary junkie.

But the other half of my research is the culture that shaped Clyde and Bonnie and their times, especially the films they probably saw. We know from biographers that Clyde saw James Cagney in the title role of the 1931 film The Public Enemy (one of many thinly veiled biopics about Al Capone), and Clyde no doubt saw this fictionalized version of Capone as a role model, alongside Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (also 1931) and Paul Muni in Scarface (1932), both also essentially about Capone.

We know that movies reflect their times. How interesting that in 1930-1932, we got three movies about Al Capone! Guess who had captured the public's – and Clyde's – imagination...

Here are some movies that Clyde and Bonnie almost certainly saw. Watching them now, it's so easy to see how these fucked up kids modeled their lives on these film images.

Scarface (1932) was, according to the TCM website, "without a doubt, the most controversial of the gangster films of the Great Depression (when the genre was beginning to flower). The film was produced before The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, its better-known counterparts, but its release was delayed almost a year by producer Howard Hughes's protracted battles with the Hays Office and regional censor boards." The article goes on:
Unlike The Public Enemy or Little Caesar, which were fictional products of the studio system, Scarface was a renegade independent production that flaunted the codes of decency and drew an obvious parallel between its on-screen anti-hero and his real-life inspiration, Al Capone. According to the trade publication Motion Picture Herald, Capone was so perturbed by the film's thinly-veiled references to his criminal career that he sent gangland emissaries to visit director Howard Hawks in order to arrange a private screening of the film prior to its release. 'The Big Shot will have to lay down his money at the box office if he wants to see Scarface,' was Hawks's alleged response.

TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Gangsters: Prohibition Era is a terrific set, including The Public Enemy (1931), The Roaring Twenties (1939), Little Caesar (1930), and Smart Money (1931). Watching these films, it's easy to see where Clyde Barrow got his role models – not from his family or community, but from fictional accounts of real gangsters. In the first scene of Little Caesar, the Capone doppelganger says, ""Money's all right, but it ain't everything. Nah, be somebody, look hard at a bunch of guys and know they'll do anything that you tell 'em, have your own way or nothin' – be somebody!"

The Mythical Monkey movie blog says this about The Public Enemy:
The Public Enemy starts out with a traditional "good brother-bad brother" conflict, a favorite trope of storytellers ever since Moses penned the fourth chapter of Genesis, but then Cagney, director Wellman and screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon upset our expectations and with them, societal norms, by making Cagney's Tom dynamic and exciting and the good brother a shellshocked, underemployed sad sack. Part of this was the result of a last minute casting change – Cagney originally had a supporting part until Wellman saw him in rehearsals and switched him with projected lead Edward Woods -- and part is the result of some wicked subversion on the part of all involved, especially Cagney, but in any event, the lesson is clear: crime pays better than a straight job and since either way you wind up dead, what are you waiting for?

When America's fathers (especially those in the Dust Bowl) had lost their their self-respect, their pride, their natural authority, to the indignities of the Great Depression, who could a boy look to for a role model? Herbert Hoover? Of course not. The Police, who everyone knew to be corrupt? Nope. The clergy, who were preaching that poverty was godly and morality was black and white? Nope, Clyde could see that neither of those were true.

After all, the book Go Down Together tells us, “Many local lawmen earned most of their income by claiming rewards for capturing criminals, and the rewards for Clyde in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri were widely known to cumulatively total around $1,000.” And also, “The Jesus worshipped by Cumie Barrow [Clyde's mother] and her fellow backcountry fundamentalists saved through fear rather than forgiveness. You did what the Bible said because Jesus would send your soul straight to hell if you didn’t. At home, the Barrow children were reminded of this daily. It would have also been pointed out to them in church as well as by their mother that, I fact, their poverty was a plus in their relationship with Christ. The Bible was replete with reminders that Jesus loved poor people a lot more than he did rich ones. Wearing patched clothes and sometimes not having enough to eat were, in effect, evidence of personal godliness. The implication was obvious, if not declared outright: poor people were good, rich people were bad.”

King Vidor's Billy the Kid (1930) is the other obvious influence on Clyde. We know he saw this film, just a couple years before their crime spree, which paints the infamous outlaw as a romantic, avenging vigilante, part Lone Ranger, part Batman. In this movie, mainstream morality isn't equipped for the times, so Billy makes his own morality; it's easy to see Clyde draw the same conclusion.

But the musical Bonnie & Clyde makes twin cases for fucked-up cultural influences. Clyde finds Capone's violence attractive, and Bonnie finds Clara Bow's overt sexuality attractive. It's eerie now, watching these gnaghters films, because it almost feels like Clyde literally used them as blueprints for the life he and Bonnie led until their deaths. But we can also learn a lot about Bonnie by watching Clara Bow's films...

It (1927) was the movie that made Clara Bow famous and gave her the legendary title of "The It Girl." Seeing it for the first time recently, it was mind-blowing, first at what a good movie it is, and second, at how Clara Bow's sexuality was both very aggressive and also very innocent.

So what is "It"?

Well, it's sex, of course, but it's more than that. In the film, we see a shot of a section of text in author Elinor Glyn's Cosmopolitan article, "It," in which Glyn writes, "The possessor of 'IT' must be absolutely un-self-conscious..." That was certainly true of Clara Bow – and now I know that was her secret, completely natural acting, as if no one's watching and there is no camera, yet as alive and vivaciousness, and focused as anyone you've ever seen. I doubt there was a more authentic, more honest, more naturalistic actor in the silent era. But that's not Bonnie. In sharp contrat to her role model, Bonnie (at least in our story) performs her sexuality. And while Clara Bow's appeal was in her authenticity, in how comfortable she was in her own skin, Bonnie wants to be somebody else. Bonnie wants someone else's authenticity.

It doesn't work that way.

Wings (1927) was the first film to get the Oscar for Best Picture, and though Clara Bow isn't in a big part of the movie (which includes the best dogfight footage anybody ever shot up until Star Wars), but her presence is felt throughout. She was a real movie star and everything Bonnie wished she could be. Clara Bow also had a fairly scandalous off-screen life as well, often detailed in movie magazines, and it's a good bet that Bonnie found that element as exciting as her onscreen sexuality.

The Actors: Rare Films Of Clara Bow includes Mantrap (1926) and Dancing Mothers (1926), and The Actors: Rare Films Of Clara Bow Vol.2 includes Free To Love (1925), My Lady of Whims (1925), and the scandalous Hula (1927). Mantrap is the best of these.

And then there's this...

Cartoon Rarities of the 1930s is a collection I picked up, mostly just for fun, but also so the cast could have as full a sense as possible of the culture. The collection includes Betty Boop (modeled at least in part on Clara Bow), Tom and Jerry, and a very early Porky Pig. It's interesting in these cartoons to notice cultural assumptions that we just don't have anymore. It really was a different time and place.

And in case you think I'm just a stoner couch potato watching videos, I've also been reading some great books in prep for the show.

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn, is such a wonderful book, chronicling in great detail Clyde and Bonnie's upbringing, families, cultural context, and all the details of their relationship and crime spree. Nothing else I've found gives me as complete or as insightful a picture of these two kids.

Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough, is a really cool book about how the FBI was created specifically in response to the Midwest crime wave that included Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and others. So much I didn't understand about all that...

Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn, is a really interesting book about this iconoclastic, convention-busting woman who refused to live the way others wanted. Reading this book makes me wish I could have met her. She seems awesome.

My Life with Bonnie and Clyde by Blanche Caldwell Barrow, is a book that's been recommended to me, but I haven't started it yet. I know our "Blanche" (Sarah Porter) is reading it.

I believe in what Uta Hagen and other actings teachers have taught, that acting is really just understanding the world of the play as fully as possible, then acting naturally. But to do that, you have to have every bit of information you can have about the time and place we're invoking. And all this research does that for me and for the actors. The better they know our world, the more the audience will believe in it. I know that "Clyde" (Matt Pentecost) has already watched both Scarface and Billy the Kid, to get inside Clyde's experience. Stuff like this always helps.

We finish music rehearsals tonight, then we'll have a read-through-sing-through, then we start blocking the show! I have so many ideas about staging, and I can't wait to see what works and what doesn't. Stay tuned.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!