Fran Phelan, ex-bigleague baseball player, down-and-out bum, alcoholic, mentally ill and plagued by hallucinations of those he has killed and wronged during his life. Fran has lived on and off with Helen Archer for the past nine years. Helen, ex-concert pianist and singer, also a down-and-out bum, also an alcoholic.
But both Fran and Helen are not bad people. While praying in church, Helen says to God that: "I've never betrayed anyone, and that's what counts." Fran tries his best to protect other bums in whatever way he can.
In this darkly powerful film, several important metamessages or themes are at work. Although it is the depression era that the film depicts, these themes are relevant to life now and will be forever relevant.
· In a Capitalist society, powerful social forces, significantly influence what happens to human beings. The thundering powerful train at the start and end of the movie symbolizes Capitalism. It has the power to grind and smash up anything that gets in the way. Although you may be riding in first class one day, that doesn't mean you will be so lucky the next day. It is the uncaring power of institutions that we must be wary of.
· Memories…….it is memories that make us who we are to a significant degree. Memories plague both Helen and Fran. Helen has angry memories of her family that "stole" her inheritance from her. Fran is haunted by the memory of having accidentally killed his 13-day-old son by dropping him. You make and interpret your own memories…..so be very careful about what memories you build in your life. Memories…..be sure to care for others, to reach out, to find love, and to live with honesty and avoid betrayal.
· Friends…..although they are bums, although they get angry at one another, they are still friends. As the Pete Seegar song goes (from the introduction to Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon): "Old devil time, I'm going to fool you now, you'd like to bring me down, my friends gather round and help me fight you one more time, Old devil fear, Old devil hate"….it is his friends/lovers that gather round and help him rise to fight one more time. It is friends that make such a powerful difference in our lives. Therefore, choose those friends wisely, carefully. Get rid of those who are trying to tear you down and make sure your friends are ones that will not betray you. Those friends can be significant others, spouses, family. They can even be parents who have passed on but who you keep in regular touch with through memories and prayer. The friends can be mentors and role models. But, whoever they are, use them to help you rise up and continue the battle when times get hard.
· The film deliberately has Fran and Helen come from backgrounds where they were at one time very successful. The film is alerting you to how fragile success is, how fickle and unreliable life is under Capitalism. Fran and Helen could be you, we are all endangered species. Therefore, it is essential that we show love and empathy for the least amongst us, that we reach out with a caring and gentle hand to those in trouble---to the mentally ill, to the alcoholics, to the bums, to all of humankind. Don't be like the "good" citizens at the close of the film who come out with clubs to beat up and burn out the bums. This happened during the depression because people feared the bums and didn't want to share what little they had. Overcome your fears, reach out.
· Don't let employers destroy your soul. When the Trolley Strike happened, the workers fought back and Fran killed a man who now haunts him. Fran knows that the man asked for it because he was a scab…a person who takes the job when the workers go on strike. Don't be a scab---either literally or metaphorically. Don’t sell your soul, don't let employers get you to do things you know are not right. Don't betray either yourself or others.
This film can be seen as depressing. Or, it can be seen as a challenge. It challenges you to reach out and embrace life, to care about others, to build friendships, to live a life that is full and rewarding so that you have wondrous memories to draw upon. It challenges you to sharpen your awareness of the power that our institutions can have upon you so that you do not let them rob you, abuse you, treat you unfairly---or murder your soul! When viewed as a challenge, the film then rises to become great art! That is the intention of the actors and director.