In a poor economy, we're the richer for these 10 films about economic woes

Robert W. Butler
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The Grapes of Wrath

Poverty. Hunger. Dislocation. Joblessness.

Most of us go to the movies to get away from these grim realities.

Yet some of our most memorable films have reflected hard times and the ways in which we cope with and sometimes overcome the boogeyman of economic depression.

Here are 10 great "hard times" movies. They range from children's fare to grown-up seriousness, from somber drama to hilarious comedy.

"Wild Boys of the Road" (1933): Unbelievably grim social drama about homeless children on their own during the Great Depression. Some considered William Wellman's film too shocking for mass consumption. It hinted at child prostitution, and in one notorious scene a boy loses a leg under the wheels of a train.

"The Grapes of Wrath" (1940): Simultaneously poem and documentary, John Ford's adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel follows the Joads, a family of displaced Oklahoma farmers searching for migrant work in California during the Great Depression. Indelible images, great performances (Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell) and empathy for the honest underdog make this one of the great American movies. It's No. 23 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American movies.

"Sullivan's Travels" (1941): In this classic satire from writer/director Preston Sturges, a producer of escapist movies (Joel McCrea) does research for his upcoming "serious" film by donning rags and hitting the road as a hobo. His Swiftian amble through American poverty is full of surprises - some funny, some shocking. With Veronica Lake. Voted No. 39 on AFI's list of the 100 greatest comedies.

"The Bicycle Thief" (1948): In postwar Rome an unemployed father finally gets a job putting up posters. But when his bicycle - critical for his job - is stolen, he launches a desperate search. Shot in the streets with non-actors, Vittorio De Sica's drama is a heartbreaking study of poverty. Perennially on lists of the best movies ever made.

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969): In the depths of the Great Depression, hungry misfits (Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia) sign up for a marathon dance contest. The couple left standing after days of nonstop dancing will earn a cash prize. Sydney Pollack directs this grim existential drama.

"Trading Places" (1983): In this worthy successor to "Sullivan's Travels," two scheming millionaires (Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy) share an unethical bet. They'll reduce an aristocratic young man (Dan Aykroyd) to poverty and elevate a street bum (Eddie Murphy) to fabulous wealth, just to see what happens. We get laughs with a message.

"The Journey of Natty Gann" (1985): Perfect for kids. Separated from her father, a tomboy (Meredith Salenger) takes a boxcar tour of Depression-era America, befriended by a young man (John Cusack) and a huge wolfish dog. From Disney.

"The Full Monty" (1997): This Brit film inspired a musical and is widely regarded as a comedy. Yet its first half-hour is painful, depicting the emotional and mental toll of joblessness among a group of former foundry workers. With Robert Carlyle, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Addy.

"Cinderella Man" (2005): Once-proud prizefighter Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) undergoes a crisis of confidence when he can no longer provide for his wife (Renee Zellweger) and children. A shot at the title brings him back. Ron Howard mixes sports movie elements with social insight and individual psychology. True story.

"The Pursuit of Happyness" (2006): Will Smith stars in this uplifting but grueling based-on-fact story of a man who lands an internship at a corporation; at the same time he's living on the streets of San Francisco with his young son. You won't forget the scene in which they take shelter in a subway restroom.





Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.


Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.


Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.


Inventions' 'Continuous Portrait' Blurs the Grandiose and the Intimate

Explosions in the Sky and Eluvium side project, Inventions are best when they are navigating the distinction between modes in real-time on Continuous Portrait.


Willie Jones Blends Country-Trap With Classic Banjo-Picking on "Trainwreck" (premiere)

Country artist Willie Jones' "Trainwreck" is an accessible summertime breakup tune that coolly meshes elements of the genre's past, present, and future.


2011's 'A Different Compilation' and 2014 Album 'The Way' Are a Fitting Full Stop to Buzzcocks Past

In the conclusion of our survey of the post-reformation career of Buzzcocks, PopMatters looks at the final two discs of Cherry Red Records' comprehensive retrospective box-set.


Elysia Crampton Creates an Unsettlingly Immersive Experience with ​'Ocorara 2010'

On Ocorara 2010, producer Elysia Crampton blends deeply meditative drones with "misreadings" of Latinx poets such as Jaime Saenz and Juan Roman Jimenez


Indie Folk's Mt. Joy Believe That Love Will 'Rearrange Us'

Through vibrant imagery and inventive musicality, Rearrange Us showcases Americana band Mt. Joy's growth as individuals and musicians.


"Without Us? There's No Music": An Interview With Raul Midón

Raul Midón discusses the fate of the art in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. "This is going to shake things up in ways that could be very positive. Especially for artists," he says.


The Fall Go Transatlantic with 'Reformation! Post-TLC'

The Fall's Reformation! Post-TLC, originally released in 2007, teams Mark E. Smith with an almost all-American band, who he subsequently fired after a few months, leaving just one record and a few questions behind.


Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.


The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.