It is extremely unlikely you will ever see the 1938 movie “You and Me” starring George Raft and Sylvia Sidney. I don’t know if TCM shows it, but I saw it on a TCM 4-feature movie set I bought on sale recently called Dark Crimes (I very much enjoy film noir, which this is, more or less). So I will discuss it very briefly, spoilers and all, because it makes some noteworthy points.
First of all, IMDB (where 500 users gave it a 7.0 out 10, which I agree with) summarizes this Fritz Lang film as follows: “An altruistic department-store owner hires ex-convicts in order to give them a second chance at life. Unfortunately, one of the convicts he hires recruits two of his fellow ex-convicts in a plan to rob the store.”
This is a bit misleading by omission, because the statements themselves are true. However, there is SOOO much more to the movie than this. First let’s deal with the supposedly turn-coat employee (played nicely by George Raft). It is too convoluted to detail all the reasons he sets up the robbery, but it is definitely not ingratitude, ill-will, or even greed or stupidity. There is a major sub-plot regarding his marriage to another employee (the Sylvia Sidney character) which is largely responsible for the unfolding of the drama (and also, alas, the weakest parts of the movie, which are laughably bad verging on the farcical). Nevertheless, the robbery is foiled by the department store owner, a Mr. Jerome Morris (well played by Harry Carey), who has arranged, in a climactic scene, to have Silvia Sidney (as Mrs. Helen Dennis) demonstrate mathematically why “crime does not pay” as her husband and “the gang” look on in stunned silence.
The demonstration is a straightforward math tabulation that Silvia executes briskly in chalk on a blackboard, starting with the projected value of the “take” the thieves would have started with in store merchandise, then subtracting all the expenses in cashing in, from a pre-payment made to a lawyer (“they always get a thousand dollars” she says from experience, since she, too, is an ex-con employee at the department store) to the fence, who gets another big slice, with the ringleader getting a full third). That leaves a paltry sum for each of the “gang,” which appears to be an eye-opener to them (although why experience hasn’t already taught them that lesson is never explained).
Also left unexplained is why the thieves would have taken merchandise rather than cash from the safe, although presumably that would have been more time-consuming and posed a bigger risk. There is a safe-cracker on the payroll of the department store and participating in the robbery, though; that’s established in the first five minutes of the movie.
The Hard-Knock Life
In Little Orphan Annie, there’s a famous song called “It’s a Hark-Knock Life,” and one of the most fascinating themes of “You and Me” and is the effect of prison life on the criminal persona. I won’t go into detail on this because you’re already familiar with it in detail, if you’ve seen any movies featuring prisons or read any books on the same theme. At least, you’re familiar with how it’s portrayed in books and movies, and “You and Me” doesn’t deviate from that script.
But what was most interesting to me about this is that all of the characters in the gang are white. There are only two black characters portrayed pushing brooms in a sanitation scene that lasts about five seconds. There is absolutely no way that prison life would be portrayed as all white in the last forty or fifty years. If made today, those scenes would feature predominantly black and Hispanic actors/inmates, with a small minority of white criminals.
It’s not just that “times have changed” along with the prison population. Most of the people I know who have a racial bias (whether they are “racist” or pretend not to be with various degrees of success) base their racism on a presumed judgment of inherent character and a sense of sociological fatalism. At it’s most generous, this could be paraphrased as “of course that’s the prison population! They grow up in a dead-end drug culture drowning in a sea of gang-imposed militancy that is impossible to ever fully escape or overcome. What do you expect?”
Well, regardless of whatever grains of truth may lie in such statements (which are more class-based and economic than racial in character), nevertheless the prison population shown in “You and Me” is devoid of those supposed “victims."
You and Me!
And one of the main reasons I suspect this is so is that the writer, Norman Krasner (who wrote the “book” or screenplay for “White Christmas,” ironically enough!), intended to make the point that the prisoners are “just like you and me” except they don’t have the socialization and incentive to be “honest, upright citizens.” There is no implied possibility of redemption here, but there is certainly a presumption of common humanity, which is signally absent from the present-day racially biased portrayal of prison populations, who are never presented as “just like you and me,” whatever other allowances might be made for them.
Finally, there is a completely different but equally dramatic “you and me” element in “You and Me.” At the very beginning of the movie there is a short tour of the department store that focuses on the merchandise (you’re not even aware it’s in Morris’s at that point). The theme of this brief tour is how much fun it is to enjoy the finer things in life, but how impossible it is for many/most/nearly-all people because they can’t afford to buy any of them. Each time a cameo of luxury items is displayed, the film cuts to a shot of the big brass cash register with it’s huge array of keys for ringing up values up to $99,999.99 (when the average income was $1,700 per year, a new car averaged $860, and a good home went for $3,900). As this video ballet unfolds, Krasner’s script presents us with a voice-over prose/poem about the lure of luxurious consumption, and how tempting it is to be drawn into that vortex. He is a Pied Piper of Pampering and pulls it off quite effectively. Even if you are a penny-pinching miser who watches every cent, you can’t help but be drawn into the mystique that Krasner sets up.
When Mr. Dennis tries to woo and impress Mrs. Dennis (the actual state of their marriage is a major but complicated theme of the movie), he rings up a sale of $16.34 (the 34 cents is tax) for a bottle of the perfume that Helen has told him is her unaffordable favorite and puts his own money from his own pocket into the till, and even writes up a bill of sale in the sales person’s receipt book. This is done in the empty Morris’s after the thieving gang, Mr. Morris, and Helen have all left and Joe Dennis is there by himself with only his conscience to account for. He could have pocketed the boxed perfume and no one would have been the wiser (until stock-taking time…), but he chose not to. He did “the right thing.” So Krasner ends on the theme of “if you can’t have it all, enjoy what you can afford, and be happy.”
You and I can’t be like the top 1%, but we can be the happy part of the 99% if we do it sensibly. The top 1% aren’t like “you and me,” Krasner implies, but that doesn’t matter, because Krasner feels he’s like you and me, and he wants us to identify with Helen and Joe as just like us, too. Somewhat ungrammatically, “You and Me” are in this together, so enjoy it, and deny the green giant of envy any oxygen!
Finally, in the last ten seconds of the movie, Joe asks Helen, if we’re just pikers in this business of thievery (which I don’t need to explain, it’s obvious), who are the Big Guns in this line of work? “Politicians!” she exclaims with an exuberant chuckle. Some things NEVER change….
P.S. I didn’t emphasize this above because it would sidetrack the flow, but the Jerome Morris character is extremely dedicated to his mission of employing ex-cons (exclusively) because he believes they deserve a second-chance, and if no one will hire them, it will be impossible for them to break out of their vicious circle of desperation, crime, and incarceration. He says his wife urged him to take up stamp collecting instead, but he sticks to his guns, so to speak. His principle-driven mission is a baseline theme of the movie that is mentioned only a few times but permeates the film, which would be impossible without it. And it is the major ingredient that is lacking in real life in virtually all the social-work approaches to contemporary problems dealing with today’s vicious circles of crime and poverty. In the end, who suffers the consequences? Is it “You and Me?” The movie “You and Me” could be the basis of an entire social studies curriculum, and I always feel that when a book or movie achieves that standard, it’s a real treasure, indeed!