Great Depression: Hollywood Movies and the American Community

Great Depression: People and Perspectives. Editor: Hamilton Cravens. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

Depression-Era Movies and Values


During the 1930s, Hollywood movies helped define and also reflected broad American social, cultural, and political values. The United States was one of the few industrial countries that did not lurch dramatically to the right during the Great Depression, and it is interesting to speculate on plausible explanations. Some historians have written about “the genius of American politics” (Boorstin 1953) and have suggested that Americans simply do not gravitate toward extremes. Others have suggested that such fascist movements existed in America but lacked ongoing charismatic leadership to equal Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and the militarists in Japan, among others. But popular movies produced for a mass audience helped explain the Depression, offered relief and escape, and, after 1933, promoted values supportive of the status quo.

Hollywood benefited from a largely homogenous audience. In The Search for Order, Robert Wiebe found that, in the immediate years after the Civil War, America was “a nation of loosely connected islands,” that is, isolated communities, and late nineteenth-century industrialization, urbanization, and immigration threatened to overwhelm the older order. Before World War I, the United States was a nation of so-called hyphenated Americans, for example, German-Americans and Polish-Americans, and our differences in language, culture, and religion were as great as the factors that united us. There were great culture wars over a national “language,” religion, alcohol and prohibition, the women's right to vote, and other so-called wedge issues.

This homogeneity developed from the rise of mass culture in the 1920s, which helped create a broad American language to overcome differences in ethnicity, religion, and culture. World War I brought what had been a divided an American people together with a common language and shared values. Doughboys and marines had fought well on the Western Front and had impressed the German enemy with their irrepressible courage. Soon thereafter, in the 1920s, mass culture helped replace individual ethnic culture as radio, mass circulation magazines, professional and college sports, and movies, for example, became dominant means of recreating and also releasing anger and frustration at the inhumanities of an increasingly urbanized, industrialized, and impersonal society.

By the 1930s, Hollywood-produced movies were the dominant popular culture in America. The coming of sound to film, which was in the vanguard of a host of technical improvements, and the rise of the production system that ensured a steady stream of quality films for what were largely movie production-owned theaters meant audience satisfaction and steady profits. Hollywood stars dominated the cultural landscape, and when, in 1934, Clark Gable took off his shirt and revealed he was not wearing an undershirt in It Happened One Night, cotton producers and manufacturers were aghast. Gable soon starred in advertisements extolling the virtues of cotton T-shirts.

Such images and themes may help explain the improvement from the popular despair of the Hoover years to the greater hope of the Roosevelt years. Hoover tried to maintain morale without dramatically changing American politics or economics. Sadly, the depth of the Depression overwhelmed his measures—including the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, initial construction on what became Hoover Dam, and other projects—and such phrases as a Hoover “blanket” (a newspaper used to cover a homeless person) and a Hoover “flag” (an empty pants pocket turned inside out)—entered common language. Roosevelt seemed an irrepressible warrior, and his optimism and energy seemed to improve the mood of the American people. But, as we shall see, movie themes created an environment in which Americans could forget their troubles for several hours and emerge better prepared to face the situation about them.

Popular culture had risen to dominance in the 1920s. Radio, mass circulation magazines, Madison Avenue advertising for a consumer society, sports, and movies all helped create mass culture and provide entertainment and escape to an ever-increasing audience. Their common images, language, and catch phrases created a common culture that helped bring the American people together. Radio broadcasting began in 1920 at KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and by 1922, there were more than 600 stations, and by 1930, 60 percent of American families had radios around which they gathered for nighttime entertainment. Radio stations broadcast music, sporting events, newscasts and weather reports, and commentary of interest to the listening audience. After the end of World War I, mass circulation magazines largely moved from muckraking to consumerism, and advertising became so entrenched that the phrase “Madison Avenue” as a synonym for advertising companies entered the daily lexicon. Time began publishing in 1923, and new tabloid-size newspapers such as The New York Daily News gained large circulations. Advertising benefited from and was critical to the growth of such mass circulation publications. Advertisements for soft drinks, home appliances, automobiles, cigarettes, clothing, and hundreds of other items became standard fare in such outlets. Under the leadership of commissioner (and former federal judge) Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball recovered from the “Black Sox” scandal and entered a golden age symbolized by Babe Ruth who moved to the New York Yankees and became one of baseball's greatest homerun hitters. Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney's heavyweight bout in 1926, watched by tens of thousands and listened to by a huge radio audience, exemplified the popularity of boxing; their rematch in 1927 became famous as “The Long Count Fight.” Bobby Jones led a dramatic increase in the number of golfers and also in golf courses. College football came of age in the 1920s, and new stadiums were modeled after ancient Greek stadiums and the Roman Coliseum. Attendance at games doubled during the decade, and commercial radio broadcasts helped involve fans in teams many miles away.

An “Exceptional” American Movie Industry


In America, the movie industry developed quite differently from Europe.

From the outset, European filmmakers appealed to an elite audience and charged ticket prices equivalent to other fine arts performances. American filmmakers appealed to immigrant masses seeking distraction from the stresses of adjusting to a new society and urban life. Prices were low and theaters were initially small rooms with a white sheet hanging against a wall serving as the movie “screen.” While movie production began in New Jersey perhaps reflecting Thomas Edison's pioneering role, it eventually centralized in Los Angeles because labor prices were lower, sunshine was abundant (important because so many sets, both indoor and outdoor, were outdoors), and diverse locations from mountains to oceans were within a short drive.

Movie themes in the 1920s changed in mid-decade as the audience diversified from mostly lower-class, frequently first-generation urban residents to a broader, more middle-class audience. In the early 1920s, Charlie Chaplin spoke directly to a lower-class audience facing daily challenges in the struggle for life. His “Little Tramp” character survived overbearing authority with dignity and humor. Many other actors were similarly slight of build—Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd—symbolizing their unequal battle against larger forces. Thereafter, movies began to play up themes of the roaring twenties—speakeasies, Prohibition, easier relations between young men and women, and a fascination with aspects of urban life—as movies began to appeal to middle-class audiences. As movies increased in popularity, movie stars became the definition of attractiveness, and Americans sought to look and dress like their favorite celluloid figures. Bigger audiences generated greater profits, and movie companies constructed grand theaters with thousands of seats in major American cities. Middle- and upper-class Americans admired the chandeliers, the art work, and the luster of these palaces.

Sadly, beneath the veneer of the roaring twenties was a shaky economic foundation. World War I was ruinously expensive and added to the death and destruction of the conflict were nearly 20 million deaths from the so-called Spanish Flu soon after the war ended. Instead of helping revive the world economy, the U.S. government passed a series of increasingly higher tariff bills making it difficult for foreign goods to sell competitively in America, thus harming the rebuilding economies. At the same, the U.S. government limited its influence over the domestic economy by reducing expenditures and taxes, while the relatively new Federal Reserve Board did not fully grasp its powers to control the economy and moderate cycles through the discount rate and other tools it possessed. Income was too concentrated in the upper classes; the broad middle class, the bedrock of a consumer economy, arose later during World War II. The speculative mania of the 1920s reached its zenith in stock market investments. By 1929, some companies were using assets to purchase shares of other companies, rather than expand their own businesses, because stock purchasing seemed a surer route to corporate profits. In a well-documented sequence of events in late October 1929, the market, heavily dependent on margin loans, began to contract, and the pressure to sell to meet margin “calls” soon began a panic and the market continued to decline into 1932.

The stock market crash, while not causing the Depression, put more pressure on the U.S. economy. The crash destroyed economic optimism, soaked up investment capital, and gradually companies and individuals had to pay for years of borrowed money. With increasing speed, the economy worsened in 1930 and 1931 and dropped off precipitously in 1932. President Herbert Hoover believed it was a temporary down phase of the traditional economic cycle, and avoided profoundly dramatic steps that would alter American values. Despair increased as more and more people lost jobs—perhaps 25 percent of the population—and others feared loss of their jobs. Prices fell, loan payments—whether for business, agriculture, or personal—were difficult to make, thus threatening the banking system, and many people looked for someone or something to blame.

Into this void stepped the motion picture industry. By 1932, Walter Gifford, the head of President Hoover's Organization on Unemployment Relief, “advocated the distribution of free movie tickets to the poor,” ranking movies only behind food and clothing as necessities. In 1929, Warner Brothers studio premiered The Jazz Singer, a mostly silent film with four talking interludes. Audiences reacted favorably: “Jolson sings!” The excitement led to a doubling of weekly paid admissions, and Hollywood introduced sound into thousands of theaters across America at a cost of millions of dollars. The relatively rapid move to sound greatly affected the movies and its audience appeal. Adjusting to the requirements of sound caused many actors from the silent era to retire early—foreign accents, high voices, or unappealing mannerisms ended the careers of many—and a generation of actors trained on the stage to travel west to Los Angeles. Movie directors had to learn how to handle microphones and to permit the camera to glide about noiselessly filming the action. Moving the camera led to greater depth in sets, and hence more complex scenes, and that too added to the appeal of movies.

Sound obviously increased the cost of movie production almost precisely as America fell into the depths of Depression. Initially, talking movies helped Hollywood survive, and profits in 1931 exceeded those of 1930. But income and profits fell in 1932 and 1933, causing movie studios and the eastern investment syndicates that financed them to close studios and movie theaters—some 30 percent of them, to lay off thousands of employees, and to cut pay of others. At the same time, Hollywood lowered the price of most movies from $0.30 to $0.20 and provided various giveaways all to maintain a shrinking audience. Hollywood carefully focused on films that would draw audiences to the theaters, and so films sought to follow trends in the larger society. Profit rather than art was the key.

Until 1933-1934, movies appealed to a broad audience while offering a distinct and absolutely inaccurate explanation of the Great Depression. It was the heyday of “corruption and depression” as movie themes, although the Depression really resulted from speculation in the markets, inadequate income distribution, tariffs inhibiting international trade, and little effective action by government to direct and moderate economic cycles. As Robert Sklar wrote, “movies called into question sexual propriety, social decorum and the institutions of law and order.” The goal was to maintain the audience as the Depression worsened. Equally important, as Martin Quigley and Robert Gertner wrote, “movies did much to maintain flagging morale as the country and the world sank deeper and deeper into the Depression” (Quigley and Gertner 1970, 39).

Gangster films help establish this world of “corruption and depression.” Edward G. Robinson starred as Caesar Enrico Bandello in Little Caesar (1930) and, as Rico, he rises through his criminal organization to achieve supreme power. Jimmy Cagney mesmerized audiences as Tommy Powers—an obvious play on the tommy gun, associated with gangsters in the 1920s—and as someone who took great pleasure in killing and mistreating women—the famous scene where he shoved a grapefruit half into the face of actress Mae Clarke—in The Public Enemy (1931). Cagney's character contrasted with his brother, Mike, who joined the Marines. Paul Muni played a fictionalized Al Capone—Tony Comonte—in Scarface (1932); unlike Robinson's Rico, he was not particularly intelligent, and unlike Cagney's Powers, he was not particularly shrewd. Rather, his violent ways caused other mobsters to turn on him, and fearing an outbreak of gang warfare, the police eventually killed him in a beautifully filmed final scene. But Paul Muni in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) best symbolized the despair of the era; at the film's end, standing in the shadows outside his home, he answered his wife's question, “How do you live?” with “I steal,” and then disappeared into the darkness. In all, the chaos in the lives of the principal characters reflected the more general chaos in American life, and thus these films resonated with the movie-going audience in these years who were suffering chaos in their own lives.

Government and society collapsed under the Hollywood criminal onslaught. In Lawyer Man (1932), William Powell played a corrupt attorney who, when his secretary tried to open an office window for fresh air, closed it to keep in the corruption and filth. In The Secret Six (1931), a group of six masked gunmen—all prominent citizens—acted outside the law as vigilantes to bring crime boss Ralph Bellamy to justice because the system was so corrupt and broken. In Corsair(1931), the hero took the law into his hands chartering his own ship to seize the cargoes of bootleggers bringing illegal booze on shore.

If men became gangsters, women had a worse fate. In Faithless (1932), Tallulah Bankhead was forced to engage in prostitution. The same fate awaited Dorothy MacKaill in Safe in Hell (1931). In each case, the women sold their bodies, the only work they could find in the Hoover Depression years, to obtain needed funds to help their respective men. In Susan Lennox, Her Fall and Rise (1931), Marlene Dietrich underwent an amazing ordeal. She prostituted herself to a wealthy politician, played by Cary Grant, to raise money for her husband's radiation poisoning treatments; her husband cast her out when he learned what she had done, and she migrated south to a flophouse and whorehouse in New Orleans, in a sense mimicking a decent into Hell. Somehow she traveled to France where she used her body to rise to the top, but in the end, begged her husband to forgive her and to accept her. Woman's lot was bad in the Depression, perhaps a payback of a sort for the wild times during the roaring twenties.

These films glorified criminals and frequently degraded those with whom they interacted. They also seemed to speak to the American people, offering a deep social critique about the failure of government and the allure of criminals. They served as a safety valve, allowing people worried about the future to purge themselves of anger and relieve their stress in the darkness of a movie palace rather than by demonstrating in the streets.

Comedy films exposed flaws in the existing social and moral order. Director Ernest Lubitsch challenged society's mores in such films as Trouble in Paradise (1932) in which two lovers, actors Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins, robbed each other as they professed their affection for one another. That is, Lubitsch suggested that all love was grounded in great deceit—a fine value system on which to construct a society based on family life. W. C. Fields made four short films for Paramount in 1932-1933, The Dentist, The Pharmacist, The Barber Shop, and The Fatal Glass of Beer, and attacked pillars of small town society in each one. For example, Fields, the pharmacist, wrapped stamps in paper bags—a picture of great incompetence—and Fields, the barber, strapped patrons into barber chairs and then dropped blazing towels on their faces—a picture of sadism. In destroying these minor pillars of society, Fields and Director Mack Sennett provided no substitutes—it was nihilist and reflected the despair of many Americans at the seeming failure of our representative democracy and capitalist economy.

The Marx Brothers made the most sustained attack on language, relations between men and women, and the existing social order. In Cocoanuts (1929), based on their successful stage play, the Marx Brothers critiqued the great Florida land boom of the mid-1920s that died in the great hurricane; until that moment, there were more real estate agents in Miami than there were other residents. Groucho's exchange with brother Chico about crossing the viaduct—”why a duck, why a no chicken?”—was a moment of supreme silliness. In Animal Crackers (1930), Groucho single-handedly destroyed the image of adventurers challenging themselves against untamed and unknown nature. In Horsefeathers (1932), the brothers attacked the sanctity of college, as Groucho moved from a teaching position to the college presidency, making fun of fellow faculty, football, students, alumni, and all those involved in higher education. In one of the film's funnier moments, he and his brother Chico seek entry into a speakeasy and cannot remember the password, “Swordfish.” Critically, in 1933 they filmed Duck Soup, which played in many theaters in 1934. Groucho played Rufus T. Firefly, the president of Freedonia, and engaged in a pointless war with neighboring Sylvania. He asked long-time foil Margaret Dumont how her husband died, and eventually she answered that “he died in my arms” to which Groucho commented, “so, it was murder!” During a Cabinet meeting, Groucho stated the report was so clear that a four year could understand it, and then turned to his brother, Zeppo, and said “get me a four year old.” At another point, he and Chico tell brother Harpo that “while you're out there risking life and limb, we'll be safe in here thinking what a sucker you are.” So much for bravery, patriotism, and self-sacrifice. But the film played after Franklin Roosevelt became president, New Deal measures generated vast amounts of energy, and public attitudes were shifting, and making such fun of national leaders, even fictional ones, no longer fit the American attitude. Thereafter the brothers declined in stature as they filmed A Night at the Opera (1935) and eight other films, leaving the heights of national leadership to those better qualified to lead.

Out with Nihilism, In with Optimism


Musical films were frequently tied to the stage and often with the Depression outside the theater. Musicals were still in their infancy, the only genre really to arise with the coming of sound (imagine musicals—singing and dancing—during the silent era!). The great musical 42nd Street (1933) typified musicals during the Hoover presidency. “Julian Marsh” (played by actor Warren Baxter), a successful Broadway director, produced a new show. The show's principal backer was an old man in love with the show's star; the star, “Dorothy Brock.” She broke her ankle the night before the premier, and Marsh pressed “Peggy Sawyer,” famed dancer Ruby Keeler, a mere dancer in the chorus to take the lead. As the orchestra began playing the prelude, Marsh gave Sawyer a pep talk clearly tying the film to the Depression outside the movie theaters where the audience sat:

Now Sawyer, you listen to me and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It's the lives of all these people who have worked with you. You've got to go on, and you have to give and give and give. They've got to like you, they've got to. Do you understand? You can't fall down. You can't, because your future is in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you. All right now, I'm through. But you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out—and Sawyer, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star [emphasis in his speech].

Of course, she succeeded, but the musical clearly was set in Depression-era America, and the musical numbers needed a stage to unfold, that is, they existed apart from the film rather than advancing its plot line through song and dance.

Meanwhile, Western movies all but disappeared, relegated when made to hour-long B films aimed at children. In the 1920s, Westerns were so popular that, in this silent era when film could more easily move across national borders (simply change the “dialogue” cards), they were the most popular films in Japan. But with films glorifying the roaring twenties, the West of Tom Mix and others—of heroes and villains, of good and bad—faded, and in the early Depression years, few Americans seemingly wanted to relive the great story of unfolding civilization across the harsh frontier.

When Franklin Roosevelt became president, and the New Deal exhibited great energy if not a great turnaround in the U.S. economy, Hollywood movie themes changed. Roosevelt remarked in 1934 that “when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby [Shirley Temple] and forget his troubles.” Roosevelt sought to buck up the American people, thinking that in part the Depression was a state of mind and thus he famously stated during his Inauguration on March 4, 1933, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Hollywood helped fill the gap, providing inexpensive relief and entertainment that those affected by the Depression could turn for escape. To be sure, movie theaters gave away dishes and ovenware several times a week to lure audiences, lowered ticket prices, and slashed costs, but the movie industry fared at least as well as any industry in these years. Still, Will Hays, who became the head of the Motion Picture Producers Association, stated that “no medium has contributed more greatly than the film to the maintenance of the national morale during a period featured by revolution, riot and political turmoil in other countries.” As Terry Cooney wrote in Balancing Acts, “whether films offered visions of order restored, affirmations of work-centered values, or celebrations of a culture rooted in the mythic American village, they also held out images of competing worlds that might be entered through mimicry or consumption” (Cooney 1995, 39). Or, put differently, the characters portrayed in films of the late 1930s lived in a world of fancy furniture and highly polished floors, of expensive suits and elegant gowns, of nightclubs redolent with cigarette smoke, fine champagne, and modern music, all of which had little in common with the world in which the majority of the audience lived; however, the opportunity to live a better life vicariously was well worth the $0.25 cost of admission.

People's spirits seemed to revive. Historians have always recounted events with a degree of amazement. When he became president, Roosevelt announced a banking holiday as net outflows of dollars threatened a general bank failure. Several days later Roosevelt announced the banking system was once again sound long before the federal government could meet the challenge with the Glass-Steagall Banking Act of 1933, and three-quarters of a billion dollars returned to bank accounts. Fireside chats, exhortations to action, and the activity of the first Hundred Days combined to raise spirits if not improve the economy.

Hollywood movie themes changed, and it seemed they helped account for the return of hope in America. Movies during the Hoover presidency emphasized the Depression, and glorified gangsters and crime, denigrated law enforcement and politics, showed economic catastrophe hanging over musicals, and suggested if women left comfortable home and hearth their alternatives were severely curtailed. Perhaps a sincere desire to help improve the national mood, an effort to reach out to the new Democratic administration, and recognition of the need to self-police themes to avoid federal legislation—the so-called Breen Code—combined to change movie themes from despair to hope.

Gangster films largely disappeared, although actors and themes would reemerge toward the end of the decade as Nazi spies and agents, for example, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). The 1935 film, G-Men, symbolized the change as the bland FBI agent became the hero, while the gangster was neither glamorous nor victorious. To forestall federal legislation, the movie industry hired Will Hays, a former postmaster general under Warren Harding, to administer a movie production code that required movies not lower the morals of the viewing audience. Since gangster films helped lower respect for law and order, there was pressure to restructure plots. Equally important, repeal of the 18th Amendment in December 1933 ended Prohibition, and gangsters lost some of their attractiveness to the general public. In G-Men, James Cagney starred as a ruthless FBI agent determined to infiltrate criminal gangs operating in the Midwest. While Cagney's character was every bit as violent as the gangster characters of several years earlier, he worked to uphold the law. First National Pictures, which released G-Men, claimed in a press release that it “performed a patriotic service by showing how one branch of the government's law enforcement agencies will wipe out gangland”—perhaps a bit of an overstatement but good for drawing in audiences. In Bullets or Ballots (1936), Edward G. Robinson went undercover and joined a criminal organization, to bust it. In Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), James Cagney became a criminal condemned to execution while childhood friend Pat O'Brien played a priest who convinced Cagney to act as a coward on the walk to the execution chamber so impressionable young men who idolized him would not follow him into a life of crime. Cagney agreed, and his walk had the desired effect. In each case, the films upheld the existing order, suggesting it was well-intentioned and contrasted favorably with the violence and brutality of the criminal world. Cagney's turnabout became complete in 1942 with the great musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which he played, sang, and danced as great George M. Cohan, uplifting spirits during the dark days of World War II. Comedy films underwent a spectacular change, from the deceit of Ernst Lubitsch and the anarchy and nihilism of the Marx Brothers to the feel-good films of Frank Capra and other directors of screwball comedies. Robert Sklar wrote that screwball comedies were used “to support the status quo” and that they were “romantic comedies whose purpose was to show how imagination, curiosity and cleverness could be channeled into support of things as they are” (Sklar 1975, 187). The key to these films was a series of juxtapositions—of educated and uneducated, rich and poor, intelligent and stupid, honest and dishonest, and, most important, of male and female. Sharp language and frequently silly situations—the screwball, and the hope that the lead actor and actress would, indeed, fall in love—drove the plot and drew audiences. These films included My Man Godfrey (1936), Bringing Up Baby and Holiday (both 1938), and The Philadelphia Storyand His Girl Friday (both 1940). The characters were typically wealthy and the films demonstrated that the rich were funny, loveable, and harmless. In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant played against his suave and sophisticated image as a somewhat bookish and unworldly scholar studying dinosaur skeletons who became caught up in the madcap world of Katherine Hepburn, and after she thoroughly destroyed his carefully constructed existence, he of course fell madly in love with her. In Holiday, again starring Grant and Hepburn, Grant told his girlfriend, Hepburn's younger, greedy sister, and her father, a wealthy investment banker, that he was in business only long enough to make money to escape. The younger sister rejected him because he rejected her world, but Hepburn found herself reborn, and the two of them ran off together. Audiences likely lessened their resentment of the wealthy as they observed that the wealthy were as troubled and stressed as they were, and that money, in the old cliché, did not buy happiness.

A Happy Ending Trumps All


Frank Capra created his own world of screwball comedies. In his first great film, It Happened One Night (1934), Clark Gable, the hard-nosed reporter, and Claudette Colbert, a somewhat scatterbrained socialite, met, settled their differences, and fell in love to the ultimate joy of everyone involved. In one famous scene, Gable engaged in a long explanation of the art of using one's thumb to secure a ride—hitchhiking—but he failed. Colbert showed him, raising the hem of her skirt, and the very next vehicle screeched to a halt. Such films were profoundly, socially conservative. As Sklar wrote, “for women, especially, the messages were persistent: romantic love is better than gold digging, marriage better than a career or divorce” (Sklar 1975, 187, 188). As for Capra, he was sentimental and sought to revitalize the nation's old communal myths, and thus many of his films—for example, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) ended with the scene in which all the disparate elements of the society portrayed in the film came together to celebrate the wisdom and insight of the protagonist, in the former, Gary Cooper, and in the latter film, Jimmy Stewart. Film historians have commented that Capra's films extolled the basic goodness of human nature and show the value of unselfishness and hard work.

Musical films entered their Golden Age. Faster film, improved sound, and deeper focus camera boxes improved the quality of musicals. Sound quality obviously helped determine movie quality, and new film stock helped accentuate the contrast of black and white, which was a staple of the grand sets in the famous Astaire-Rogers musicals. Faster film helped keep pace with swiftly moving stars, while the so-called deep focus cameras allowed great depth in scenes so dancers, for example, could effortlessly glide from center front to the far corners of the set and remain in focus.

Unlike earlier musicals, the Depression rarely appeared in the frothy escapist films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Fred was resplendent in his signature tuxedo—top hat, white tie, and tails—while Ginger stunned in a variety of gowns. They traveled in exclusive circles, and money—or its lack thereof—rarely was an issue. Instead, moviegoers focused on the classic tale of boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy chases girl, and after various fits and starts, boy gets girl, and fadeout, in which the songs helped advance the plot and the plot—such as it was—helped support the singing and dancing. Astaire and Rogers made nine films for RKO Pictures, and Top Hat (1935) was in many ways their signature movie. After a decade's hiatus, they made The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), which was the least successful. As The Literary Digest reported in 1936, “the 80,000,000 persons who weekly jam the motion picture theaters of the United States by this time are divided into two clearly defined groups: There are approximately 60,000,000 who can't keep away from a Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire picture, only 20,000,000 who won't be drawn to see one.” As the publication noted, “they arrive at a happy ending.” Technically, Astaire insisted the camera shoot the entire dancer, and dance numbers flowed logically from the story and helped further it; meanwhile, the movies featured great music by such outstanding composers as George Gershwin and Jerome Kern (Literary Digest 1936, 17-18).

Success of the Astaire-Rogers films helped popularize movie musicals. Shirley Temple was but five years old in 1934 when Paramount released Little Miss Marker. In the film, her father committed suicide, and a gambler played by Adolph Menjou married his girlfriend, played by Dorothy Dell, to adopt Temple. She made some 20 films in the decade, all with tear-jerker stories, in which she sang and danced, and audiences could forget their troubles while admiring her precociousness. In 1938, 20th Century Fox released Alexander's Ragtime Band, where twenty-eight Irving Berlin tunes formed the basis of a movie about a band that started in San Francisco and eventually enjoyed great success capped by an appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Interestingly, the swashbuckler, staple of the mid-1920s, returned, every bit as unrealistic but inspiring as its predecessor. Errol Flynn almost single-handedly defined the genre. Whether it was the Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), or The Sea Hawk (1940), Flynn initially appeared as an everyman, wronged by the system, who fought back according to his own rules, triumphed over adversity, and won the hand of beautiful Olivia de Havilland. Adventure films showed heroes fighting impossible odds, defeating evil, winning the hand of the fair maiden, and eventually restoring goodness where there was chaos and problems.

The swashbuckler was always tall, handsome, virile, brave, and victorious—a great contrast to the gangster-villains of a few years earlier. In Captain Blood, Flynn played physician Peter Blood sentenced to deportation to the Caribbean and a life of a slave on a sugar plantation. He was but one of many, many desperate men condemned to that island, and he organized them, escaped, seized a ship, and preyed on English shipping to extract his revenge. After a brief alliance with a French brigand played with great panache by Basil Rathbone, a frequent Flynn foil, Blood returned to the fold, helped secure British control over the Caribbean, and in turn, was appointed by the King as governor of the island—a kind of Robin Hood story. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, Flynn played Sir Robin of Locksley, who ran afoul of evil Prince John and escaped to Sherwood Forest where he attracted other desperate men and women. They formed a community and financed their activities by robbing the rich and sharing it among the poor. While stopping and robbing Sir Guy of Gisbourne and the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin spied the beautiful Maid Marian and, of course, fell instantly in love. He was willing to risk all to save her, and in the end he stabbed Gisbourne, rescued Marion, and helped restore “good” King Richard to the English throne after his return from the Crusades and imprisonment. In turn, with an honest, caring, and efficient government restored, King Richard exiled his brother, Prince John and restored Robin to his lands. Robin and Marian ran off, presumably to marry and start their own personal adventure.

Clark Gable helped define the genre in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), based on the true story of a crew mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty in the late eighteenth century. As the mutineers put ship captain Charles Laughton (Captain Bligh) and several loyal crewmen onto a small boat, Laughton yelled, “Well, you're wrong, Christian! I'll take this boat, as she floats, to England if I must. I'll live to see you—all of ya—hanging from the highest yard arm in the British fleet!” In Anthony Adverse (1936), actor Fredric March in the title role eventually learned that his father killed his mother's lover and gave him to a convent; along the way he battled adversity—hence the film's title—that in many ways made the travails of the Depression seem rather minor. Of course, in the end he triumphed.

Perhaps the greatest spectacular of the 1930s deserves its own special section. On December 15, 1939, after two years in the making, Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta, Georgia. Georgia Governor Eurith Rivers declared a state holiday and former President Jimmy Carter remembered it as “the biggest event to happen in the South in my lifetime.” Based on Margaret Mitchell's novel, the movie told a story of the South framed by the tumultuous relationship of Scarlett O'Hara (actress Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). It moved from the eve of the Civil War and life in the South through the devastation at Tara and the burning of Atlanta, and ends with Scarlett promising that she would persist. It was prejudiced and racist, and certainly favored a white Southern view of slavery and the war. But its acting, directing, set design, script, and overpowering images made it, based on the number of paid admissions, the most popular American film in history. These adventure films created a world in chaos, similar to the United States during the Depression, and argued that one good and strong-minded man—and it had to be a man and not a woman—could restore order and happiness, perhaps like President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal.

Westerns returned in the mid-1930s. In explaining the appeal of the western, Thomas Schatz has written that “the Western depicts a world of precarious balance in which the forces of civilization and savagery are locked in a struggle for supremacy.” Cecil B. DeMille, the great silent film director, shot The Plainsman (1937) and reminded Hollywood of the power of the myth of the West. Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane battle a crooked arms dealer, the Native Americans who receive the guns, and each other. As they work out their sometimes-tortuous relationship, Custer and his men die at the Little Big Horn because of the guns the Indians received from Lattimer, the arms dealer. The utter lack of historical accuracy contrasted with the exercise in myth-making, and as the newspaper editor later said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1967), “this is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” John Ford's classic, Stagecoach (1939) subjected the inhabitants of a stagecoach ride from Tonto to Lordsburg, Arizona, representing the disparate elements of society, to various pressures. They included a righteous sheriff, the stagecoach driver as comic relief, a prostitute with a heart of gold, an alcoholic doctor, a bank executive who just embezzled the bank's assets, a whiskey salesman, a gambler who is a refined killer, a cavalry commander's wife who is pregnant and searching for her husband, and the hero, John Wayne, as “the Ringo Kid,” who is both an escaped criminal and a brother bent on avenging his brother's death. In the end, the Ringo Kid kills those who killed his brother and rode off with Dallas, the prostitute (Clare Trevor) to restart society, now freed of the shackles of its value judgments. Westerns told an epic tale of good and evil, where good eventually triumphed and values from the civilized East did not matter. The same year Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland starred in Dodge City. It contained all the elements of a classic western, save for an Indian attack. Flynn helped make a wild frontier town safe as a terminus of the cattle trails from Texas, rids the town of its bad elements, and of course wins the hand of de Havilland.

Walt Disney began a series of extremely popular full-length cartoon features with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It premiered on December 21, 1937, and amazed audiences. Disney was politically conservative, and Snow White told a traditional tale of a young man, Prince Charming, having adventures, while a young woman, having to flee a wicked stepmother, lives with seven dwarfs, and falls into a deadly sleep after eating a poisoned apple only to be reawakened when the prince kisses her. Snow White stood as moral counterpoint to films of the roaring twenties in which men and women cavorted equally together.

Finally, there were the great biopics. In the early Depression years, Hollywood focused on the violent and those who lived at the margins of society. In the Roosevelt Depression years, Hollywood offered a series of movies about great individuals, including Abraham Lincoln, who each made a great difference in human existence. John Ford directed Henry Fonda as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and again Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). Paul Muni moved from Scarface to acting out The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). In the first, he told the story of the French scientist who found a cure for anthrax and for whom pasteurization is name; in the second, he acted out the life of the French writer who fought hypocrites who denounced his novel, Nana, and defended a French army officer Louis Dreyfus, who was a victim of anti-Semitism in French society.

Spencer Tracy won back-to-back Oscars (not equaled until Tom Hanks in 1993 and 1994) for Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938). In the first, he played a wise Portuguese fisherman who saved a boy who fell off an ocean liner and amid great adventure on the high seas taught him, very much against his will, how to live a life. In the latter, he played Father Flanagan who started Boys Town west of Omaha, Nebraska, to create a place to save boys ruined by life in Depression America's cities. In all these movies, great men made a great difference. Lincoln saved the Union; Pasteur dramatically advanced our knowledge of germ theory; Zola fought for justice; the old fisherman passed on wisdom; Father Flanagan saved troubled boys. At dark times in the past, great men and occasionally great women helped save troubled societies.

Social Change and the Movies


What was the relationship between popular American film and the American people? Dick Cavett perhaps said it best in a documentary, Hollywood: The Dream Factory (1972). He noted that, whether Hollywood created American values, reflected such values, or ignored them, film left a rich legacy of images that drew Americans into movie theaters during the Great Depression.

This relationship hit its peak during World War II. While wartime spending ended the Great Depression, the vicissitudes of a worldwide war created a need for escape, and Hollywood provided it. Movie attendance peaked at 110 million weekly paid admissions in a nation of 140 million people (and with 12.8 million in the armed forces). Hollywood continued with the themes of the later 1930s to which it added war films, most of rather dubious quality and accuracy, and a new genre, presaging some of the doubts that the postwar era would bring—film noir, including such great movies as The Maltese Falcon (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Double Indemnity (1944), and Force of Evil (1948). In each case, action is reflected in shadows; the audience rarely sees all that is occurring, and a woman is usually more threatening to the hero than the more obvious villains, perhaps reflecting American life as veteran returned home and society tried to force women back into an updated cult of domesticity.

Thereafter, the breaking of the vertically integrated industry, and more important, the socioeconomic complex of suburbia, the baby boom, and the rise of television pushed movies to the edge of popular culture to be replaced by television and popular music. In 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the system in which movie studios also owned movie theaters was illegal, and broke the cozy world. Separately, Olivia de Havilland won her suit over long-term contracts, and movie production companies cut back salaried actors, moved production offshore (frequently to Europe where the dollar went further), and reduced the number of movies produced each year. This blow to the movie production system likely mattered less than the key trend of the postwar era. The baby boom lasted from 1946 to 1964, and millions of American couples left cities to move to new, mass-produced homes in brand new suburbias, often moving in before construction of schools, stores, and other essential services. Leaving grandparents behind, parents of small children were less likely to go out, and movie attendance suffered. Television viewing increased dramatically, and many B-movie stars and character actors migrated to television production. Gross income from movies fell below $1 billion in 1947, a figure not reached again until The Graduate and Herbie, the Love Bug tapped both ends of the baby boom generation some twenty years later.