Friday, May 07, 2010

Bordering on Romance--or Just Crossing Over?

Here’s a thought next time you are tempted to go on a rant about those damn Hollywood liberals: How likely is it that today’s Hollywood liberals would green-light a motion picture in which an entire police department comes to the aid of an illegal alien? Not likely, you say?

True, there has been more than a few movies produced during the last three decades in which individual various members of the law enforcement community -- especially members of the Border Patrol -- went to bat for undocumented individuals -- but most of these were generally characterized as mavericks suffering from a crisis of conscience. Even in the 2009 movie Crossing Over, it was generally understood that the immigration agent who bucked procedure on behalf on such an individual was not likely to expect a whole lot of support from his fellow agents. Indeed, the one agent in that movie who was most successful at “aiding” such an individual was doing so for obviously selfish reasons: the individual in question was a cute young Australian woman and by “helping” her, the agent in question managed to “rent” himself a mistress. (If that sounds like a disgusting plot development to you, rest assured that the screenwriter agreed with you and was not shy about having his characters point that out.)

So imagine my surprise when toward the end of 1935’s Romance in Manhattan, a movie made at a time when sympathy toward undocumented immigrants was hardly greater than it is today, a key plot twist involved an illegal alien getting aid from the local police department. Not just one conscience-stricken maverick helped out; the whole force did. And though it could be argued that their efforts went to a worthy end -- aiding a well-meaning immigrant in his quest to do the right thing and gain U.S. citizenship -- it still seemed like such an unlikely development as to seem like something out of a fairy tale.

Nevertheless, Romance in Manhattan seems more watchable than most entries in the “Lo! The Poor Illegal Immigrant!” school of filmmaking because it does not seem to be concerned with establishing political talking points as much as it is telling a story. In this case, the story involved a pretty young princess named Sylvia Dennis (played by Ginger Rogers) “masquerading” as a chorus girl who one day stumbled upon Czech immigrant Karel Novak (played by Francis Lederer), a hungry beggar who proved to be a handsome prince from across the sea. Okay, in actuality, he was more a pauper than a prince and Dennis really was a chorus girl but he was still handsome and kind-hearted and she was friendly and beautiful and it was no surprise to the movie audience that Novak and Dennis soon became romantically involved.

But, alas, there were obstacles to this couple’s happiness. Novak dared not express serious interest in Dennis because he feared she would be unwilling to marry a non-citizen. But when the landlady discovered that he had been staying at her apartment -- with her kid brother, Frank, around as chaperone, natch -- and local authorities threatened to take custody of Frank away from Sylvia unless she got married, Novak‘s hand was forced. Novak approached a local lawyer in hopes of gaining American citizenship so that he could marry Dennis only to find himself betrayed by the lawyer and slated for deportation. Could anyone prevent such a revolting development?

It could be argued that Novak was a lot more idealistic about America than most real-life immigrants and indeed, some of the funniest scenes in the movie involve the contrast between his immigrant idealism and Dennis’s native-born cynicism. For a change, it was the European newcomer who played the idealist and the American citizen who played the snarky cynic. But in this film, such a turnabout worked because both characters were portrayed as essentially decent types who wanted to do the right thing and who only ended up in trouble due to circumstances beyond their control.

Of course, it is hard to imagine this same scenario working nowadays. Too many American movies and TV shows depicting the darker side of American life are shown to foreign audiences for today’s immigrants to be as believably naïve as Novak. And indeed, one of the few virtues of 2009‘s Crossing Over is its willingness to realistically depict illegal aliens as both victims and victimizers.

One Jewish illegal, for example, attempted to scam the immigration authorities by posing as a Rabbinical student while, ironically, his Australian girlfriend became a victim of the unscrupulous immigration agent mentioned above. Moreover, another subplot involved a family of Iranian immigrants and their children which may or may not have been involved in an honor killing. Unfortunately, these three storylines are forced to interact with other storylines: one involving the adoption of an African refugee by the wife of the unscrupulous immigration agent, another involving the involuntary deportation of an assertive Bangali teenager who made the mistake of defending the 9/11 hijackers to the wrong audience, one involving a Korean-American cholo wanna-be who engaged in one last crime the day before his naturalization ceremony and one involving a dead Hispanic woman. Not all these subplots worked and while I admired the ambition of the filmmaker’s attempt to deal with subjects most Hollywood filmmakers would not touch with a ten-foot green card, I could not help but feel that the individual stories deserved better.

The young Australian immigrant’s story seemed especially underdeveloped. While Ray Liotta managed to be very convincing as the agent who exploited her, there was something about the way the camera focused on almost every square inch of the Aussie that could be legally uncovered in a mainstream Hollywood movie that made it seem as if the filmmaker was sending a mixed message: one that read not so much “oh, look how awful it is for such a nice young woman to be at the mercy of such a scoundrel” as “oh, look how awful such a nice young woman has it -- and how cute she looks without her clothes on.” Let us hope that that message was unintentional. And be glad that such scenes were not possible in 1935.

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