The Kids Stay in the Picture: Paper Moon, by Aaron Pinkston
Though comedian W.C. Fields famously said “Never work with animals or children,” the cinema is full of wonderful stories told through the eyes of the young. Films with child protagonists span every genre, generation, and film movement. “The Kids Stay in the Picture” surveys this interesting subgenre, following the School of the Art Institute and Gene Siskel Film Center film series “The Child in Cinema.” The series will cover the many historical and social contexts around why films centered on children are so integral to the landscape of world cinema.
Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon sits in a particular middle-ground of relevance, neither an obvious staple of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s nor a buried treasure, one which somehow passed me by over the years. Given this, I was particularly interested in seeing it during this series. Bogdanovich is a key, if overlooked, member of the director-driven era, and Paper Moon is a fantastic showcase as a blend of 1970s sensibilities and 1930s nostalgia. And, as a film with a child protagonist, it’s tough to find a cooler child character or better performance.
Paper Moon stars real-life father-daughter pairing Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as a con artist team during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In its opening scene, Moses Pray (Ryan) attends the funeral of a woman with whom he had a sexual relationship. Presenting himself as a traveling salesman, he stumbles into agreeing to take the woman’s daughter Addie (O’Neal), to her only remaining family, an aunt in St. Joseph, Missouri. We quickly learn that his presence (and lack of resistance to taking Addie) is part of a scheme to shake down a man tied to the mother’s death with the girl as a bargaining chip. Ultimately, he and Addie stick together on the road to Missouri, running petty cons and bigger scores along the way.
They end up being a pretty good team. “Moze” seems to be a pretty capable con man (at least for the small-time variety) though he lacks the skill of recognizing and adapting to circumstances, which shows to be a strong suit of the perceptive young girl. As he sells bibles to new widows under the pretense that their late husbands made an agreement, Addie is a natural at using context clues to determine what price should be given. Moze sees her brash asks as a risk without recognizing her value; he likely diminishes his prospective profit with a consistent, though moderate asking price. He does realize, however, the other obvious value of having Addie along, that a cute little child is a perfect screen for sympathy and trustability. Addie, who is otherwise rough for a little girl, knows how to play the game well.
The film builds Addie up nicely, showing her as a quiet and sad orphan in the opening scenes, before the ultimate reveal of her true character—between lighting up a cigarette and demanding the money that Moze weaseled in her name, the contrast is sudden and amusing. After her first unprompted assist on a bible sale, the smile Addie gives is priceless. She may have been rough around the edges beforehand, but in this moment she seems to have found her true calling and the smile shows understanding of her wrongdoing with the devious gratification that comes with. She isn’t unlike other children we’ve seen in this series (the number of small-time criminals and roustabouts is pretty alarming, actually), with a strong nostalgic tie to Jackie Coogan’s title role in The Kid. Her relationship to Moze is mirrored in the silent classic, as is her haircut.
Gender emerges as a key theme. The film knowingly plays with the silliness of a child working as a con artist, especially a young girl. Looking back at Little Miss Marker, Shirley Temple always kept her innocent girlishness despite living in a world of male criminals. Addie is the classic tomboy, much more like Coogan than Temple in appearance and behavior. Addie seems to be curious about being more feminine, but she often considers the idea as a way to have more success in her schemes. In Trixie Delight (played by the always wonderful Madeline Kahn), she sees the power a woman can have to get a man to give them whatever they want—even the experienced con man Moze has no way of seeing that she is playing him. On the other hand, Bogdanovich more closely aligns Addie and the Temple persona at specific points, particularly when she sings the type of rosy tunes that were highlights of any Temple film.
In this way, Paper Moon shows its reverence for films of the past. Yes, the film is a bit more explicit in its sexual content (it doesn’t need to shy away from characters being prostitutes or floozies) but it almost works with the Hay’s Code in mind. Compared to other films of the New Hollywood, Paper Moon balances its nostalgia and edgier content more equally. Moze, for example, is ultimately punished for his illegal dealings. He isn’t killed off like the typical James Cagney gangster, but he is caught, beaten and set back to his broken former self. While Paper Moon eventually comes around to a happy ending, it is a restoration of the unconventional family, much like The Kid and Little Miss Marker.
Moze Pray is one of the most interesting parental figures of the series, a nice mix of the unprepared parent and criminal with a heart of gold tropes. O’Neal’s performance is buoyed by the film’s subtext, wherein Ryan and Tatum’s real-life relationship is teased with rumors that he is Addie’s father (they have a similar jaw, you know). These rumors are never really confirmed in the film, but they are worn on its sleeve pretty plainly—and in any case, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Moze is Addie’s father given where the narrative goes. The actors have fantastic chemistry, as you might expect, but it isn’t exactly just father-daughter familiarity. Their connection isn’t of loving fondness, but like two old friends with a contentious competitiveness.
Paper Moon delivers on every level. It is a hilarious con man genre film with moments of transcendent emotion and a beautiful look back at classic Hollywood while fully entrenched in the edgier cinema of the 1970s. Bogdanovich is rarely mentioned as a great filmmaker, perhaps because of his relatively small output or because he is first thought of as a writer and commentator on Welles and Hitchcock. Paper Moon shows off his knowledge of form and history of cinema. The Hollywood lore that Paul Newman was set to star in the film with his own daughter is interesting—sure, Newman would be an upgrade over papa O’Neal (funny enough, O’Neal seems to be channeling Newman in the performance), but I just can’t imagine a better Addie. Of course, ten-year-old Tatum won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the youngest to ever do so. Tatum is a force in Paper Moon, hitting both the comedic gruffness and the emotional stakes at the end of the film. Three years later she went on to star in The Bad News Bears, expanding on her tough girl persona in a film somehow more irreverent.