Depression Lessons #4

Here I present a work-in-progress lexicon of depressed speak. Sadly and magnificently, the tell offs and witticisms are almost entirely specific to the time when automats, dances and Dempsey were tradable cultural vernacular—but nevertheless! I encourage you to adapt these to make them your own in our time and bring them out to the streets again.

Care to dance?: "How about you and me steppin' on each other's feet?" —Docks of San Francisco (1932)

I could eat: “It’s gettin’ so my stomach does nip-ups every time it hears a nickel drop in the automat slot.” —Parachute Jumper (1933)

Greetings: "H'llo Jack Dempsey—how's fightin'?" —Docks of San Francisco (1932)

Agreed: "That suits me down to the ground." —Docks of San Francisco (1932)

I need new shoes: "Worn so thin I could stand on a dime and tell you whether it was heads or tails." —Central Park (1932)

Putting on airs: "Say listen brother, they don't bury anyone in a high hat." —Broadway to Hollywood (1933)

Watch yourself!: "Say, are you beggin' for a bust on the beezer?" —True to the Navy (1930)

Every true word is a picture, it seems to me, and the wisecracks that emerge from my favorite Depression films evoke the amorphously surreal images of a Max Fleischer cartoon. Turning hard luck into quixotic verbal arabesques, early talkies manage nonetheless to retain a profound sense of truth. Of course "The Dirty Thirties" were replete with less lyrical forms of expression, and I collect those too.


Part of our on-going series Depression Lessons.

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5 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Bobby Wise

    Wow. These are better than some of the classic noir quips of the 40s and 50s. I guess the hard-boiled tradition was alive and well a decade earlier.

  • J.M.

    Professor R., this could be a method toward an “occupation” of the storied yet verboten back-lots, long-overdue and barely considered since the days of Herbert Biberman. Is it “work” that is going on in that quasi-town? Or is it professional vulgarization of the very notion of dialogue?

  • Cache Duglas

    The ‘Dirty Thirties’ is where I wanna be

  • Daniel Riccuito

    Thanks all! Bobby: Yeah, there are wonderful links between pre-Code and noir — the lingo looms big in that regard. J.M.: Huh? And Cache: Our Even Greater Depression will get grimier and grimier, rest assured.

  • Michael

    Can’t wait to use this in real life. Next time somebody cuts me off I’m going True to the Navy on him.

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