Paper Moon (1973): Bogdanovich Depression Era Tale, Starring Tatum O’Neal in Oscar Winning Performance

Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon was yet another work by a director preoccupied with Hollywood’s classic film genres.

The film was inspired by Little Miss Marker (1934), a Shirley Temple vehicle in which the child star won out over an opportunist.

Like Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, this film was at once an evocation of a specific time and place and a commentary on it. And like that film, Paper Moon was also shot in black-and white (with distinguished cinematography by Laszlo Kovac), an homage to Gregg Toland’s work in The Grapes of Wrath and others.

Set in rural Kansas and Missouri during the Depression (circa 1936), it concerns the growing affection between Moses (Ryan O’Neal), a con artist, and Addie (Tatum O’Neal), a girl who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter.

The most controversial aspect of Paper Moon was the character of Addie, a far cry from the roles played by Shirley Temple, Margaret O’Brien, and other Hollywood child-stars. Addie is a precocious nine-year old girl who manipulates Moses in the best way possible. Tough in attitude and behavior, she swears, using foul language. In her leisure, Addie stays in bed, lights herself a cigarette, and listens to the radio.

Completely adaptable to changing conditions, Addie saves Moses several times. Moses sells the bible to bereaved widows, whose names he takes from obituaries. Highly intuitive, it’s Addie who sets the price for the sale; when she senses it’s a rich man’s house, the price goes up. Addie has no moral scruples and is not above cheating. She embarrasses a cashier in a department store, implying that she had given him a twenty (actually five) dollar bill.

The narrative consists of two major and two secondary characters. In the film’s second part, Moses befriends a floozie (Madeline Kahn) and her maid, a black girl. Unlike other films, Paper Moon at least acknowledges the presence and subjugation of blacks in the l930s. When Addie asks the black girl, “why don’t you quit” she says her mother had forced her to become a maid, believing that “the white woman would be good to her.”

However, as soon as Moses’s attention centers on the floozie, Addie sees to it that she quickly falls from grace. At first, Addie refuses to give her the front seat of the car. Then, she schemes a gentleman caller, a hotel’s clerk, to visit her and makes sure she is caught by Moses.
In one of the film’s better-written scenes, Addie confronts Moses. She is upset that “they don’t work anymore,” and that they waste their money on clothes and nice hotels. Protesting, she demands that Moses get rid of his flame. At first, the floozie tries to pacify Addie with a child’s talk, “I’ll let you put on my earrings,” or “I’ll teach you how to put on a make-up.” But Addie is a tomboy who could not care less about these frivolous matters. In the end, what changes Addie’s mind is her touching speech, culminating in the sentence, “in any case the affair won’t last long…it’s hard times.”

The period details in this film are quite impressive: the old cars, people’s the fascination with new models, the old popular radio programs featuring Jack Benny, Fibber McGeee, and others. Manipulative, the film opts for a tone that’s cynical and detached and devoid of genuine feelings for the characters.

This makes the picture’s resolution sentimental and its morality debatable. Moses fulfills his promise and delivers Addie to her aunt in St. Clouds. However, stealing on the run is more appealing than settling down to normality and getting an education, unlike other children her age. Experiencing second thoughts on his own, Moses finally takes Addie back.

Paper Moon features anarchic philosophy with a twisted view of childhood, one that could be just as harmful as growing up within a suffocating Milieu since both education and domesticity are rejected. Glamorizing deviance and legitimizing Addie’s status as a child-monster, the narrative fails to provide a clue as to how Addie is going to make the inevitable transition from childhood to maturity and womanhood.