Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
“Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Big bad wolf, big bad wolf?” This musical line originates from the Three Little Pigsmovie, produced by Walt Disney in 1933. The big bad wolf in Walt Disney’s animated short film is a metaphor for the Depression of the 1930s. People needed to sing that song through the vehicle of the movie to defend against their fear of what lay ahead. Likewise Americans needed their movies. Movies had become a cultural institution as well as a cultural necessity. No other form of entertainment had come to play as important a role in American’s everyday life, not even radio. Sixty million to 75 million people still faithfully attended even if the price of a seat was too much for them to pay.
The great mass of people who were affected in some way by the economic crisis of the Great Depression, not only sought escape into the movies, but they also sought meaning as well. Frequently they sought meaning and escape in the same movie. Movies also depicted things desired or things lost, all of which Depression audiences could relate to. This period was lovingly known as “The Golden Age of Hollywood.”
The 1930s were an era that brought about the advancement of film, both technically and with the establishment of specific types of film “genres.” Some popular genres explored by Hollywood were gangster films, comedies, musicals, law and order (including federal agent films and westerns), social consciousness films, horror, and thrillers.
Devised by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the production Code of 1930, enforced in 1934, had a major impact on the content of movies. Various themes important to the Depression populace ran through the films. Americans could find hope while watching a character’s success and believe that betterment was still possible. They could laugh irreverently at traditional American institutions or at forces that they could not quite define but that had altered their lives in the 1930s. For two hours each week Americans could enter the dark comfortable movie houses and share in the communal experience of being transported into another reality. In 1939 the quest for better times was confirmed in Judy Garland’s hit song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” one of the memorable compositions from the popular movie The Wizard of Oz. The song was a testimonial to hope that reigned at the end of the decade.
The Depression Hits Hollywood
Established beneath the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California was a golden community known as Hollywood. Through the 1920s Hollywood had churned out thousands of silent films captivating the whole nation. Talkies, or movies with sound, premiered in 1927, as more and more Americans flocked to the theaters. Although the stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression, 110 million people still went to the movies in 1930. The introduction of sound proved enticing and Hollywood’s profits continued. As the economic conditions, however, steadily worsened nationwide Hollywood’s apprehension grew. Their fears were legitimate because attendance dropped to roughly 60 to 75 million by 1933 and profits evaporated. The unemployment rate hit 25 percent that year and almost everyone’s salaries had declined significantly. The public could no longer afford to attend the movies as frequently as before.
The few cents it took to get in the movies was an extravagance for many. Still those 60 to 75 million that faithfully came represented 60 percent of the population. In comparison 10 percent of Americans attended the movies in the 1970s. This figure is a powerful testimonial to movies as a cultural institution. Ultimately the industry would be saved because movies no longer represented simply entertainment but a necessity in the lives of Americans.
In the meantime the movie industry, having expanded wildly in the 1920s, was in trouble. The five major studios were RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum), 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), and Paramount. Loew’s, Inc. was a subsidiary of MGM. These Hollywood studios exerted the most influence over actors, writers, directors, and producers. Two smaller studios were Columbia and Universal. As early as 1931 profits were plummeting. A 1930 surplus of $3.3 million at RKO plummeted to a $5.6 million deficit in 1931. After a $9.2 million profit in 1930, Fox posted a $5.5 million loss in 1931. Warner Brother’s 1929 profit of $17.2 million declined to $7 million in 1930 and was in red ink by $7.9 million at the end of 1931.
By 1933 the five majors had a combined stock value of $200 million—down from approximately $1 billion in 1930. Paramount, which earned a respectable $25 million profit in 1930, was reduced to filing for bankruptcy in 1933. MGM was the only major to stay out of the red but its profits of $14.6 million in 1930 fell to $4.3 million in 1933. By summer of 1933 one third of all movie houses had closed. Still the industry hung on; Americans continued saving their pennies to see a weekly movie.
By fall of 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933-1945) was president and the bank crisis had moderated. The motion picture industry was on the mend as customers began to slowly return. Coincidentally at this same time Walt Disney, who had introduced Mickey Mouse in 1929 in a silent film, had worked out a three-color Technicolor process. He introduced this process in his 1933 film the Three Little Pigs. The pigs sung “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” The song cheered Depression audiences and it became a sort of mantra to use as a defense against fear, the “Wolf” representing the Great Depression. All major studios, now less fearful of the “Wolf,” hoped for a profit by 1934. Although 60 million attended faithfully, theater managers worked to increase attendance with countless enticements.
Animated (Cartoon) Films
When Walt Disney pioneered the field of animation in the 1930s a totally different form of movie escapism was created. There are two main elements in animation: characters and background. The sketches of the animation are traced, inked and painted on transparent celluloid, also known as cells. In the meantime, the backgrounds are made to fit the various needs of the action. The completed drawings are then placed in frames below a large camera and photographed one cell at a time. Many techniques are used in taking the pictures to create depth, action, and perspective. Dialogue for the film is usually spoken first and the sound effects are then connected with it. This process enables the animator to determine exactly how many frames are needed to cover a particular word or sound.
One of Walt Disney’s first creations, Mickey Mouse (1929) was probably more famous and familiar to the public than many politicians of the day. In 1933, when Disney released The Three Little Pigs, its theme song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” became the national hit. Some of the public thought the movie had as much to do with raising the nation’s morale as did the New Deal legislation. Some thought the moral of The Three Little Pigs was that the little pig survived because he was conservative, diligent, and hardworking. Others thought that it was the pig who used modern tools and planned ahead who would win out in the end.
In 1937 Walt Disney Studios premiered the first feature-length animation film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The movie was produced at the unheard-of cost of $1,499,000 during the depths of the Depression. During the next five years Disney completed other full-length animated classics such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. Disney Studios became known for pioneering sophisticated animation and, most especially, for producing films which delighted generations of children.
Attracting and Holding Audiences
The operators of motion-picture theaters were compelled to resort to many tactics to keep their attendance up. Merely lowering the price was not enough. It was during this period that the double feature was introduced. The double feature consisted of two full-length films as well as short subjects. Usually the fare included a main attraction that was paired with a “B-Movie,” a film produced with a low budget and often lesser known actors and actresses. On Saturdays theaters often showed a serial that left the heroine or hero in such a dire situation that viewers had to come back the next week to see the outcome of the story.
Gimmicks known as “Bank Night,” “Dish Night,” and Bingo Night were very popular with the Depression era populace. Fox Theater first introduced Bank Night in a Colorado movie house. Bank Nights happened on the lowest attendance night of the week and tickets became part of a lottery for prize money. Thankful for even the tiniest windfall, moviegoers showed up for Bank Night, however they were always hopeful that they could win prizes of up to $3,000. One movie official commented that he did not even need to show a movie on Bank Night, just have the lottery and people would come. Bank Nights became common practice throughout the country. Dish Night was another gimmick to draw in people. On Dish Night each moviegoer received a piece of china. A whole set of dishes could be collected over time. Bingo became the most popular gambling game of the decade after a movie house in Colorado first used it as an enticement.
For the first time since 1931 all major movie companies operated in the black during 1936. That same year Columbia Pictures approached the status of a major studio. Despite financial woes throughout the first half of the 1930s, studios never halted production. During those years there were an estimated 23,000 theaters with seating for 11 million people. Those 60 million who managed to attend weekly did so because movies, offered in various disguises, helped them continue their belief in the possibility of individual success. Movies preserved the traditional American viewpoint that perhaps tomorrow would be a better day. For most Americans movies ranked at the same necessity level as food, shelter, and clothing.
Americans had many types of movies from which to choose and their tastes changed often. The primary genre or types of film in the 1930s included gangsters, shysters, comedies, “fallen” women, musicals, G-Men (federal agents), westerns, and movies with social consciousness. Other types were horror, thrillers, swashbucklers, and literary adaptations (from classical books).
Gangster films did not appear in a cultural and social void. After World War I (1914-1918), and the subsequent increase of immigration, journalistic accounts of gangster stories flourished in local and national newspapers. A large national audience became fascinated with, but also frightened by the evils and deeds of powerful gangsters in the 1920s and early 1930s.
In the early 1930s, however, gangster films enjoyed incredible success among Americans. In the context of social and economic breakdown, dynamic, successful, and flamboyant gangsters contrasted with the hardship and despair experienced by many in the early years of the Great Depression.
Three of the most renowned gangster films, Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) are concerned with the social ascension of young men from humble origins in the slums to the luxurious penthouses of High Society. As opposed to paralyzed, inefficient government and ineffective law enforcement agencies, gangster characters appeared competent, modern, and stylish. Gangster films were usually set in an urban environment amid easily recognizable symbols such as neon lights and smoky bars. They provided audiences with fascinating and thrilling stories about the city and the sensuous world of urban pleasures. Gangsters, and the women they caroused with, dressed in fancy clothes. The gangster’s charming and stylish appearance reflected the aspirations of a population increasingly attracted by the lights and promise of consumption associated with the city.
Historians and scholars of Depression movies have debated why so many people faithfully went to the gangster movies. According to Andrew Bergman despite their “gangsterism,” most of these films implicitly promoted traditional American values. Above all, and despite a moralistic ending depicting the tragic death of the central character, Bergman argues gangster films were stories of individual achievement. Little Caesar (Warner Brothers, 1930) was the first great gangster “talkie.” The film follows the story of Rico Bandello or “Little Caesar,” played by Edward G. Robinson, as he climbs the ladder of the criminal underworld. Rico was a thinly disguised Al Capone, the powerful and captivating mob boss of Chicago. Like Capone, Rico robbed and murdered, but also showed qualities of kindness and generosity. Although Rico’s activities blatantly ran outside the law and his life had to end in an early death, Bergman believes Americans connected to Rico’s success. They kept up hope in the American ideal of rising up to success and a better life.
Another viewpoint on Little Caesar and gangster movies came from historian Robert S. McElvaine in his book, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. McElvaine believed audiences saw the character of Rico as a representative of the greedy businessman willing to step on anyone who got in his way. Just as American business fell in 1929, Rico also met a swift end. Nevertheless McElvaine reflects about Rico talking of the “Big Boy,” the head of the city’s gangsters. The movie implies that Big Boy was still at the top despite Rico’s demise just as those men at the highest levels of the business world were still on top despite the Depression.
With the box office success of Little Caesar, studios recognized a money maker, money which they were desperately in need. In 1931 some 50 gangster films appeared. Civic groups, religious leaders, and parent-teacher associations denounced glorification of the gangster and the disrespect shown law enforcement. In reality the dismal depiction of law enforcement authorities and politicians accurately reflected the public’s opinion of law and politics. They knew corruption ran deep; even if the law and politicians were not corrupt they were highly ineffective in the public’s mind. Despite all the clamor people, young and old, packed the movie houses. These people, however, in the throes of the worst part of the Depression did become a bit uneasy about reveling in the gangster exploits. Some feared their attendance added a moral decay to the already existing economic decay. Then Tommy Powers entered their lives in Public Enemy.Tommy, played by the irresistible James Cagney, was industrious, classy, a wise guy, a ladies’ man, and unfalteringly upheld the code of honor of his fellow thieves. Ordinary men and boys saw themselves in Tommy. Cagney’s character was not seen as troubled or vicious but a man who directed his rage against injustice. This rage also dwelt in the hearts of many Americans during those economically bleak days.
The gangster movies’ heyday was 1930 and 1931. By 1932, although Scarface, a story of Al Capone, came out that year, the moralistic anti-gangster crusade began to take hold and studios produced fewer gangster films.
Along with the rise of gangster movies in the early 1930s came shyster movies. Shysters were corrupt, charming, slick individuals who, among other activities, conned, set entrapments, and weaseled their way through life. The shyster’s story always was set in the sinful city. Shysters were dishonest lawyers, politicians, and newspapermen who, in the end, sometimes went straight. Shyster movies had the unmistakable mark of an early Depression film because they stamped a laughingstock image on the law. Classic shyster lawyer films were Lawyer Man (Warner, 1932) and the Mouthpiece (Warner, 1932). In both, flashy lawyers, loved by beautiful women, moved through their cities with confidence and great self-assurance. No crooked politician or gangster seemed to be able to control them. Nevertheless both leading characters eventually renounced their shyster ways to return to upright lives, distancing themselves from the corrupt individuals. In Lawyer Man the main character started as a humble honest lawyer, became a shyster in response to an entrapment scheme that he fell into, and, in the end, returns to his original practice to protect others from people who would trample on them. The clear message was that merely returning to righteousness and to work within the traditional American democratic process could put the social order back on a straight course. Shysters always had control over the corrupt individuals and one could never get a hold of them. For Depression audiences, who felt so much out of control, this was a welcome Hollywood fantasy.
Comedies of the Screen Anarchists
An anarchist looks on government authority and established groups with disdain and carries out rebellious acts against them. By the early 1930s the two prominent so-called “screen anarchists” were the Marx Brothers—Chico, Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo—and W.C. Fields. It is generally agreed that the Great Depression’s worst years were 1930 to 1933. During that approximate time period the screen anarchists entertained a bitter and despairing population that was expecting the worst from everyone. The Marx Brother’s and Fields’ slapstick and zany words and actions actually had Americans chuckling with irreverence at topics previously held valuable as government and family.
Paramount made five Marx Brothers films between 1929 and 1933: The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930),Monkey Business (1931), Horse-feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). Reason and logic were out as the brothers lifted word play to an art; every conversation was a prank. The first two films were early “talkies” and, due to the still-unrefined technology, hard to understand. Nevertheless they became big moneymakers for Paramount. Everyone laughed no matter how silly or nonsensical since the chaotic and absurd language seemed to match the chaotic early years of the Depression. Americans sensed that truths they once held dear were now irrelevant to their lives.
Duck Soup, which historians consider a classic, was perhaps the most interesting of the five because of its subject matter, the timing of its release, and its acceptance by audiences and critics. The film is considered a classic because unlike previous movies this film blatantly attacked the idea that government and national loyalty were important. No previous films had dared adopt such a perspective. The film premiered in 1934 to poor reviews. Audiences who poured into movie houses for the first four and who would enjoy future Marx movies soundly rejected Duck Soup. Interestingly, Mussolini, head of the Italian government, banned the film in Italy. The most logical explanation lies in the timing of its release since it was released after President Franklin Roosevelt had been in office long enough for many of his New Deal programs to begin benefiting the public. As a result, Americans found renewed hope and confidence in government and were not as willing to bash the government as they had been only a year earlier.
A W.C. Fields’ short film, The Fatal Glass of Beer, appeared in 1933. The masterful comedy tore into two American institutions—the family and the Western frontier. America’s brilliant funnyman had not had an easy childhood and regarded family as a farce. It was hard to define the exact enemies in Fields’ films but man was always susceptible to them. Depression era Americans could relate as they were unsure of who was to blame for the hard times but they had been clearly susceptible. Fields also made the routine of man’s daily life into a comic art. In 1933 he made three shorts:The Pharmacist, The Dentist, and The Barbershop. An example of the humor in The Barbershop comes when the barber straps customers into his chair before dropping blazing towels on their faces. The chaotic, edgy, fly in the face humor of the Marx Brothers and Fields produced absurd comedy for a desperate time.
A comic contemporary of the Marxes and Fields was Charlie Chaplin, but he was not of the anarchist bent. The enemies of his characters were apparent—the wealthy and powerful. His kindly sentimental films contained a great deal of innocence and decency. Chaplin, a master of silent film, continued producing silent movies after talking movies had become mainstay. He produced City Lights in 1931, which dealt with unemployment. The hero of Chaplin’s 1936 filmModern Times depicts man being overwhelmed by the machines that were replacing humans in industry. Chaplin’s tramp character represented the “little guy,” or underdog, who used wit to win over his adversaries. This theme was highly popular with the Great Depression moviegoers who believed they were fighting for their economic lives against big business and big government.
During the early 1930s financial troubles resulted in a dramatic number of prostitutes walking the streets. In Hollywood even megastars such as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Tallulah Bankhead found their only saleable possession was their beautiful bodies. The studios, in their own financial crunch, cast them in roles of sex for sale. In Faithless (MGM, 1932) Tallulah Bankhead’s business was prostitution. Garbo, in Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise (MGM, 1931), and Dietrich in Blonde Venus (Paramount, 1932) portrayed women forced to be mistresses of rich men. Their characters were allowed redemption only after they submitted to becoming totally dependent on the men they truly love.
Director Ernst Lubitsch, in three sophisticated movies for Paramount—Design For Living (1933), One Hour With You (1931), and Trouble in Paradise (1932)—also played games with adultery and relationships. In Design For LivingLubitsch tells the tale of a sort of sexual New Deal. The female lead, Miriam Hopkins, is in love with two men played by Gary Cooper and Fredric March, in the end she decides to live with, or “employ,” both men.
It took actress Mae West to demolish the dependent “fallen women” image. Her first words in her first starring role, She Done Him Wrong (1933), were in response to a bystander that told her she was a fine woman: “One of the finest women who ever walked the streets” (from Bergman, We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films, p. 51). From the same movie came a line that quickly worked its way into the American common language, “Come up and see me sometime.” The line instantly gained popularity because it placed the female in a more assertive character, in control of her destiny, rather than the more passive character traditionally shown in movies and the stereotype behavior expected in U.S. society. Her second starring film, I’m No Angel (1933), was the biggest box office attraction of the year. West was witty, tough, strong, and assertive. Her eyes delivered exactly the message she intended. Her refusal to take herself too seriously made women realize they were active partners in sex. She put faith in diamonds—material goods—rationalizing that no women with diamonds would need to walk the streets.
While Depression women did not toy with men or keep diamonds in a safe, they saw the female role on screen as a release from the dependent, subjected role. In the work of the Marxes, Fields, Lubitsch, and West, moral limits and definitions were pushed out and broken apart. It worried much of society that a moral depression was descending on the United States on top of the economic depression as offered in the movies. A line would be drawn by 1934.
During the 1920s a number of films used nudity and immorality and appeared to endorse drinking and smoking. The loose lives of actresses, or “vamps” (sexual vampires) with heavy makeup and scant clothing, led some to demand government control of films and filmmaking. In response to these issues a group was formed to evaluate, comment, and set standards for the film industry.
Once the chairman of the Republican National Committee and President Warren Harding’s (served 1921-1923) Postmaster General in 1921 and 1922, Will Hays moved to Hollywood in 1922 to head the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). The MPPDA was a motion picture industry group attempting to institute codes and standards to cleanup the film industry. The West Coast Association of the MPPDA agreed in 1927 to 11 “don’ts” for film production. Ten “don’ts” dealt with sex and nudity and only one with law concerning depicting illegal drug traffic. In response to the first silent gangster films of the late 1920s, MPPDA created a 1930 Production Code. It established more extensive “don’ts” including showing sympathy to crime, ridiculing law and justice, and showing methods of crime such as theft, robbery, and brutal killings. The 1930 code was not enforced and was basically ignored. Hollywood continued in their pattern of violence and sex for which Americans went right on buying tickets.
In 1933 the Catholic Church in America established the Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Motion Pictures. They were to head-up the League of Decency charged with identifying morally offensive films. The powerful Protestant Council of Churches and the Central Conference of Jewish Rabbis joined the campaign. In reaction Hays and the MPPDA began enforcing the 1930 Code by 1934. Movies cleaned up by not showing adultery and violent crime but also nude babies, double beds, long kisses, and four letter curse words. The day of big musicals, law and order, screwball comedies, and socially conscientious movies was ushered in.
Not only were the morals of movies transitioning in 1933, but the nation had a new president. President Roosevelt succeeded in quickly reviving a measure of hope and confidence. Nevertheless the Depression was to drag on through the decade and audiences still needed to see that individual success was possible. A cleaned up version of success and hope translated into big splashy musicals. Warner Brothers big three of 1933—42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Foot-light Parade—saved the studio from financial disaster. These productions were a “New Deal” in movies and reflected the new, more optimistic spirit under Roosevelt. Busby Berkeley choreographed (producing the dance sequences) the colossal productions. Amid the singing, dancing, beautiful girls, plumes, glitter, and magnificent sets ran Great Depression themes. The main character was broke in 42nd Street, everyone was broke in Gold Diggers, and the star ofFoot-light Parade feared he was headed for the breadline. The song “We’re in the Money” originated in Gold Diggers.Long-legged girls flipped up flash cards in Footlight Parade that displayed a grinning President Roosevelt and another, the Blue Eagle symbol of the National Recovery Administration, a New Deal agency. All three, even in their lavishness, related directly to the 1933 facts of Depression life yet lifted spirits in hopes of a better time. Perhaps if there was enough singing and dancing the Depression would drift away.
The biggest moneymakers in musicals were the enormously popular dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Perhaps some of the purest escapist fare was offered in their musicals produced by RKO Studios including Flying Down to Rio (1933), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), and Follow the Fleet (1936). Also a wonderful escape were the movies of curly headed moppet, Shirley Temple, who seemed to return a lost innocence to the nation.
Shirley Temple Movies
One outcome of the new decency codes was the introduction of Shirley Temple to theater audiences. Adults and children were drawn to the young film star who became the most popular child film star of all time. She was a sophisticated performer who often seemed more mature than the adults around her; she had no problem upstaging her more experienced costars. At the age of six, Temple starred in her first full-length film, entitled Carolina, which was made in 1934 for Fox Films Corporation. However it was her next film, Stand Up and Cheer (1934), that made her a star. Some of her other notable films included Now and Forever (1934), The Little Colonel (1935), Curley Top (1935), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), Dimples (1936), Heidi (1937), and The Little Princess (1939). She appeared in six films in 1934 alone followed by four in 1935 and 1936 each.
By 1938 Temple was the top box office attraction and ended up with 25 movies during the 1930s. A whole industry grew around her including Shirley Temple dolls, clothes, coloring books, and other items. Shirley Temple look-alike contests became popular across the nation as mothers dressed their daughters and curled their hair to resemble Temple.
Return to Law and Order: The G-Men and Westerns
Ridiculed in gangster and shyster movies, law and order made its movie return in 1935. As so many times before the movies paralleled real life. Just as President Roosevelt took over the reigns of Washington in 1933, MGM Studios released a strange shocking film, Gabriel Over the White House. In “Gabriel” fictional U.S. President Hammond assumes complete dictatorial power, putting a quick end to crime by speedy trials and firing squads. Although President Roosevelt chose not to follow such a radical course, the movie illustrates the desperate longing of many for someone to take authority and proceed with immediate action.
When Roosevelt assumed the presidency he appointed Homer S. Cummings as his attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice, which included the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) headed by J. Edgar Hoover. Unknown outside government circles, Hoover had labored to fine-tune his bureau with outstanding agents. Only in 1934, however, were the agents allowed to carry guns and cross state lines in pursuit of criminals. Also at this same time outlaws such as John Dillinger, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde were terrorizing the Midwest. In two short years, 1934 and 1935, Hoover’s men gun downed or captured all of the infamous outlaws. By 1935 Hoover was America’s No. 1 cop largely due to Warner Brothers’ 1935 sensational hit, G-Men. Hollywood instilled new life and credibility in the law by creating the prototype of a new tough policeman. Jimmy Cagney who portrayed Public Enemy No. 1 in the 1931 filmThe Public Enemy, was the heroic lawman in G-Men. The “G” stood for government. Just as New Deal programs were helping the public economically, the government was once again its protector in law enforcement. After a name change, G-men became known to the public as FBI agents. Another bad-guy actor gone straight was Edward G. Robinson who played Rico in the 1930 gangster movie Little Caesar. In Warner Brothers’ Bullets or Ballots (1938), however, Robinson portrayed a plainclothes cop who acts as a double agent. He enters a gang on the bottom level and destroys it on his rise to the top.
Westerns in 1933 had little following left; the public seemed to be bored with the old predictable horse dramas. By 1935, however, the law appeared to be returning to the western landscape. Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, and Hopalong Cassidy rode to fame in 1935. Two Paramount 1936 movies, The Plainsman and The Texas Rangers, cleansed and civilized the West. There were so many outlaws to be corralled that the westerns endured into the 1960s. By the mid-1930s the federal government again was a benevolent protector and law enforcement quite effective. Just as musicals and law and order films followed the MPPDA Production Code, another type of film—screwball comedy—also toed the line.
Unlike the irreverent and absurd comedy of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, screwball comedy was warm and good humored. It was fast paced, very funny, made use of highly talented actors and actresses, and most importantly, it was healing and unifying. Through its “screwballness” what the Great Depression had divided was pulled back together. Highly fractured social classes and families were united and the wealthy usually abandoned their selfish ways and took on the values of ordinary men. The first screwball comedy, and one of the most popular of all time, was Columbia Pictures’ It Happened One Night (1934) directed by Frank Capra. The film was produced on a minimal budget and featured the then second-rank star Clark Gable and an actress borrowed from Paramount, Claudette Colbert. Gable portrays a lower middle-class reporter, while Colbert’s character is an heiress. The walls of class are broken down as Colbert ends up in Gable’s arms. Having made his fortune through hard work, Colbert’s wealthy father even appreciates Gable’s strength. Capra’s film helps dismantle a Depression myth that all wealthy are idle. The wealthy father had put in just as many hours of work as the salaried man or wage earner. It Happened One Night ran for months and made fortunes for Columbia. It won all major Academy Awards for 1934. Likewise You Can’t Take It With You (Columbia, 1938) ends in a kindly feeling toward the wealthy. A popular screwball series of films were The Thin Man series begun in 1934, starring the sharp and witty Myrna Loy and William Powell.
By the second half of the 1930s Capra’s movies tended to portray the common, ordinary man as the hero, and the wealthy urban businessman as the villain. Capra directed Columbia’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) that brings rural values to the city. A screwball tuba-playing small town guy wins $20 million and ends up living in a mansion in New York. Besieged by New York’s shysters for money donations, he measured every request by his small town yardstick. Rebuking all the shyster requests he gives his money to the needy in rural communities. Capra manages to reconcile and unite all parties both urban and rural.
In 1939 Capra directed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for Columbia. Jefferson Smith, played by the always affable Jimmy Stewart, is a junior U.S. Senator from this state. In very humorous episodes he attempts to deal with corrupt power wielding senior senators, however, Smith’s pure idealism holds out for honest democracy. The underlying meaning that Americans easily read was that dark forces, whether they be at home or looming around the world, could be overcome by faith in democracy.
The Social Conscious Movies
As early as 1932 Warner Brothers began to address social problems. These social conscious, or “topical,” films addressed among other issues unemployment, hobo children, and fascism and communism. These films were not major box office attractions but were Hollywood’s attempts to dramatize the social and economic upheaval of the time. Warner’s I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) deals with unemployment, unjustified imprisonment, and escape. Itis a bleak film without hope, a film where a man’s life is twisted by forces he can never really explain.
Warner produced two topical social films in 1933, Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. Heroes was a confused film that was pro-individual work and success but at the same time was anti-capitalist, anti-machines, and anti-communist. On the other hand Wild Boys was the simple story of high school kids riding the rails after their parents lose their jobs. At the end one of the boys goes before a judge resembling President Roosevelt. The judge, with a Blue Eagle symbol of the NRA painted behind him on the wall, tells the youth that things all over the country will soon be better. Two more topical films, MGM’s Fury (1936) and Warner’s They Won’t Forget (1937) were anti-lynching films. Lynching commonly refers to the murder of black Americans by white mobs. These crimes were frequently not investigated by the local white law authorities.
The popularity of films during the 1930s frequently was tied to escaping the brutality of everyday life, at least for a few hours. Few movies realistically portrayed the actual hardships of the Great Depression. One exception was the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The movie by the same name premiered in 1940 and told the story of refugees of the Dust Bowl who were dubbed “Okies.” John Ford directed and Henry Fonda played the leading role.
The last social movie of the Depression era was another John Ford film, How Green Was My Valley (1941) adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn. The movie was set among the working class culture. Both The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley were clear calls for a spirit of cooperation among people. Ordinary people realized that independence and self-respect could only be had by cooperating and sticking together.
Horror Movies, Thrillers, Swashbucklers, and Literary Adaptations
During the Great Depression Hollywood set the standard for horror films for the rest of the century. Approximately 30 horror films produced by eight of the largest studios appeared between 1931 and 1936. Horror films used dark sets of old castles filled with cobwebs, cemeteries, and deserted city slums. Boris Karloff starred in Universal’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), both directed by James Whale. Bela Lugosi starred in another Universal film, Dracula(1931). Universal’s The Invisible Man (1933) featured Claude Rains. RKO Studios’ King Kong (1933) had several levels of meaning. It could simply be viewed as an escapist monster movie, but it seemed to call up a more reflective meaning for many. The people who torment the beast are characters drawn straight out of the lawyer-newspaper-politician shyster films and the setting is New York City, the capital of shysterism for many Americans. King Kong reigned supreme in his natural environment, but his urban captor degraded him. The final scene has him atop the Empire State Building totally entrapped by the city. Many humans during the Great Depression felt senselessly entrapped within cities.
Alfred Hitchcock emerged as a master director of thrillers during the Great Depression. One of his masterpieces was The 39 Steps (1935) focusing on murder, a mysterious woman, and an international spy ring. Swashbuckler films involved pirates or knights coupled with swordplay or cannon fire. A typical swashbuckler of the era was Mutiny on the Bounty(1935) with Clark Gable. Every decade studios produce literary adaptation or movies from classical books. The 1930s included Little Women (1933), David Copperfield (1935), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935).
Hollywood’s Golden Year—1939
The period of movies through the 1930s ended the decade with an epic year. Such notable movies as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Babes in Arms, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington entertained massive audiences.
Gone With The Wind (1939) was based on the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell which had won the Pulitzer Price. The story dealt romantically with the Civil War (1861-1865) through the life of Scarlett O’Hara, a young woman played by Vivien Leigh. The story included pre-war scenes, the war, reconstruction, and Scarlett’s three marriages. The film, made in color, won ten academy awards and was the most expensive movie made at that time. Produced during the Great Depression when racial relations were even more tense than earlier times due to the national economic difficulties and increased competition over jobs. The novel and the film raised disturbing questions about racism and the depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. It secured, however, a wide following. Clark Gable played the role of the dashing Rhett Butler.
Director John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda, and Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, depicted early life in America. Good was pitted against evil on the frontier. In contrast, Babes in Arms starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland was a sentimental comedy about show business and William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights was a memorable adaptation of a literary classic.
In the Wizard of Oz a young girl played by 16-year-old Judy Garland is carried from the Depression-struck farm country of Kansas by a tornado. She lands in magical Oz where she searches with her make-believe companions for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Garland sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a beautiful uplifting song of hope. Although the end of the Depression was near, Americans would soon find World War II (1939-1945) at the end of that rainbow.
By the late 1910s black American-owned movie production companies began producing movies with strong black characters, in contrast to the way blacks were depicted in the major movie productions. Introduction of the more expensive production methods of sound, however, and the onset of the Great Depression affected black movies. In 1933 white director Dudley Murphy directed black actor Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones. Though the movie, produced by United Artists, received poor reviews overall, the acting capabilities of Robeson stood out as he played the lead character Brutus Jones. Jones was a railway porter who lands in prison and escapes to a Caribbean island where he becomes the ruler known as Emperor Jones.
Most of the movies, known popularly as “race movies,” were shorts directed by whites and focused on jazz music and the musicians such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong among others. Barbershop Blues (1932) was an example of this movie type. New black stars appeared including Hattie McDaniel, Bill Robinson, and others. However their roles still remained largely stereotyped characters such as the servant, Mammy, played by McDaniel in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel’s exceptional performance earned an Academy Award, the first Academy Award presented to a black American. A notable exception to stereotypic characters was Mae West’s I’m No Angel (1933) in which the white mistress and black servant both rise from poverty.
Hollywood Provides More than Entertainment
The Great Depression had a profound influence on the movie industry in various ways. The industry had experienced an economic boon through the 1920s. As attendance sharply declined by 1932, the industry had to make major financial adjustments after having overextended themselves into debt by free spending. Expectations were that the good times would keep coming. Aside from financial concerns, the Great Depression audiences sought much more from the movies they did attend. No longer were movies strictly viewed as a means of entertainment. Most Americans were either directly impacted by the Depression through job loss or income reductions, or simply lived in constant fear they might lose their jobs if economic conditions continued to worsen. Therefore they sought more than entertainment, they sought to escape and they looked for meaning that might apply to their economically stressed lives. They would more than ever place themselves into the characters’ roles; characters who faced major obstacles and fought for the good of mankind against “villains,” such as the bungling government or greedy business tycoons. Hollywood quickly sensed this desire of its audiences and produced movies to satisfy these demands. Hollywood would again thrive in this new atmosphere. Through the later 1930s attendance at movie theaters broadened and by the end of the Great Depression attending Hollywood movies had become a national pastime.
Development of Motion Pictures
The geniuses of the turn of the century, including Thomas A. Edison, contributed to the invention of the gilded screen. The first motion picture was taken in 1872 by a horse. California photographer Eadweard Muybridge set up a row of 24 cameras and from the lens shutter of each he stretched a thread across the track to a fence. The horse, as it ran, broke through each thread in succession and thereby worked the shutter of each camera. By using a white horse and painting the background fence in black, Muybridge was able to obtain clear pictures of the running horse. This photographer, working at the horse farm of Leland Stanford, later to become the site of Stanford University, was one of the pioneers in capturing motion on still film.
Thomas A. Edison invented two devices, the Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope, both of which were important in the history of the motion picture. The Kinetograph was a machine for taking photographs on film and the Kinetoscope was a machine with an eyepiece or “peephole” where an observer looked to see the moving pictures. The problem with the Kinetoscope was that only one person could use it at a time. Both of Edison’s inventions used George Eastman’s roll film and the sprocket that moved the film along at regular intervals brought each picture into focus for a single moment before moving it on.
On April 23, 1896, the first theatrical showing of a motion picture in the United States was made in New York City. Thomas Alva Edison produced the film, but played it on a projector created and developed by Thomas Armat. Inventors from all over the country, and the world, were rushing to try to improve the film industry. The early days of the motion picture industry were filled with patent disputes, often resulting in producers keeping their cameras under lock and key. They sent out false reports of the places where they intended to take motion pictures in order to defeat spies who were looking to steal ideas and technical advancements.
Attractions of Southern California
Originally, films were produced in or around New York and Chicago. Early in the twentieth century, however, moviemakers discovered California and the bright sunshine that aided in the filming. Located in Southern California, Hollywood in a few years became the movie capital of the world. Lying northwest of downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood is a district at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains;
Beverly Hills is to the west. Horace Wilcox platted Hollywood in 1887; his wife named the community after the home of a friend in Chicago. Because of water shortages, Hollywood in 1910 consolidated with Los Angeles.
Audiences began attending moving picture shows in the 1890s, but not until 1903 with the melodrama The Great Train Robbery did moving pictures gain large audiences. The film was not only the first American story film, but was also the first film depicting the cowboy, which influenced movies and “westerns” for years. Five-cent theaters, popularly called “nickelodeons,” featured the film. The sudden growth in nickelodeons increased the demand for motion pictures and investors formed companies to produce them.
In 1908 filmmakers completed the movie The Count of Monte Cristo in Hollywood. Construction of studios for making films began in 1911 and led to more than 20 companies erecting movie lots and nearby theaters for those who flocked to see their productions. With warm and sunny weather, Hollywood attracted people hoping to be a part of the wonder of the silver screen. Thousands of “extras” found jobs in the cardboard cities behind Hollywood’s high wooden fences and sound stages. Early producers often featured nudity and heavily done up females which caused a bit of public outrage. As a result, those involved in the industry were forced to set up their own rigorous code of censorship. Producers had to appeal to the public, for it was their money that would help to propel the industry into the future.
The first World War (1914-1918) helped the motion picture really come into its own, when it was used as an engine of anti-German propaganda. Specially prepared “hang the Kaiser” films aided in selling war bonds and in boosting morale. Those who attended the movies were shown news clips that gave a visual picture of the war in Europe. Viewers were able to see the realities of the war in Europe but were also quickly lost in the fantasy of the movie that they paid to attend.
Another early movie that gained popularity was D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). In spite of its vicious racial intolerance, the movie excited audiences for years. The film cost almost $400,000 to produce, but it was one of the greatest moneymakers in the early industry. The movie followed two families, one in the North and one in the South, through the Civil War (1861-1865) and the following period of social upheaval in the South. Native Americans were portrayed in the movie, In the Land of the Head Hunters, produced by Edward S. Curtis in 1914. This film was unique in that it had an all Native American cast and depicted traditional life among the Kwakiutl Indians of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
By the 1920s movies previously only novelties became big business. Studios produced what they knew would sell. Productions became slick with elaborate costumes and sets. Thousands of theaters and “movie palaces” catered to millions of Americans seeking adventure, romance, and entertainment. Films presented exciting, glamorous views of life.
By 1921 the technology existed to make sound movies, or “talkies.” Not knowing how the public might react to the noisy movies, Hollywood continued to make silent films. Toward the end of the decade technology was ready and so was the public. On October 6, 1927, the first talkie, the Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, premiered. Many predicted sound was a passing fad but theaters bought equipment and wired for sound as quickly as they could. The public became all the more enamored with movies.
For most people in the United States movies became a necessity of life during the 1930s. They would save and penny-pinch just as diligently for the price of a weekly admission ticket as for the purchase of food. Hollywood paid careful attention to what genre of movies sold the most tickets and then produced what the public wanted. Early in the 1930s gangster movies were a prime example. After the initial success of Little Caesar in 1930, approximately 50 gangster movies appeared in 1931. Why did people flock to gangster movies?
Historians have speculated why so many people spent so many hours watching gangster movies. Many success starved Americans could taste that success in the films. To others the gangsters’ self-centered, greedy rise to success must have resembled the rise of the very wealthy Americans whom many now blamed the Depression on. The characters’ ultimate failure represented social justice to this group of moviegoers. Yet another group of moviegoers probably simply identified with the characters as men who worked hard but failed just as they had worked but failed.
Correspondingly in the early 1930s many Americans were becoming more and more alarmed at the glorification of gangsters and the ridiculing of law enforcement agencies. Other threats to the public’s moral safely such as scant clothing, vulgarity, suggestive language, reduction, and four letter curse words were decried.
Will Hays and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) had passed a list of 11 “don’ts” mainly dealing with sexual excesses in 1927. They added violence in the Production Code of 1930. Hollywood, forever producing what they perceived the public wanted, ignored the Code. By 1933 civic groups, parent-teacher groups, the American Catholic Bishops, the powerful Protestant Council of Churches of America, and the Central Conference of Jewish all demanded enforcement of the Code. The very edgiest in America were concerned that many people would actually learn techniques of crime and use them against society. By 1934 the Code was tightly enforced.
A Powerful Medium
William Randolph Hearst, a radically conservative newspaperman, had a studio of his own, Cosmopolitan Studios. Cosmopolitan produced Gabriel Over the White House, a film about a dictatorial president of the United States. MGM, causing much consternation to many at the studio, distributed the film in 1933 for Cosmopolitan. The film was believed to be Hearst’s vision of a more efficient America and it drew considerable attention and publicity. The character obeyed Hearst’s fantasy by cutting off the slow moving Congress, using a national police force to eliminate crime, and bullying other countries. Hearst simply recognized what a powerful medium movies were by influencing public opinion. By the late 1930s and with a world war looming studios used the powerful medium to build a strident support of American democracy and America’s Armed Forces.
For a time minorities, especially black Americans and Asians in the mid-1930s, were presented in stereotypical roles. Though praised as a great achievement in filmmaking, Birth of a Nation has long been criticized for its racist portrayal of black Americans and its sympathetic treatment of the Ku Klux Klan. The brilliant dancing of Bill Robinson and the forceful definition of character portrayed by Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, were overshadowed by the restrictions script writers and directors placed on them because of race.
The American movie industry became much more aggressive in marketing its movies to foreign countries by the late 1920s. European audiences became highly receptive to the new talking American movies. Due to the fact that Britain was an English-speaking country, it became the first major foreign market for Hollywood productions. Britain, however, added important developments to the movie industry, such as new direction techniques introduced by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock made several highly successfully movies, including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), before moving to Hollywood himself in 1939.
European movie theaters that were slow to technologically adapt to sound and language differences posed problems. The technique of dubbing would not be developed until 1931. The French movie industry went in another direction to compete with the Hollywood domination. Independent movie companies experimented with avant-garde films, characterized as Impressionalist films and were met with great success among the French public. From 1928 to 1938 the amount of French film production per year rose from 66 films to 122 films and French audiences were second only to the United States in terms of attendance. By 1938 French movies were the most critically acclaimed movies in the world. With the looming crisis with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, however, most French films in the late 1930s were filled with despair.
In Germany, Hitler exacted tight control over the German movie industry. Like Mussolini in Italy, he encouraged filmmakers to produce light entertainment and avoid any themes that might be thought provoking.
Contributions of the Depression Period in Movies
The “Golden Age of Hollywood” emerged out of the trials of the Great Depression. The Depression audience posed a major influence on Hollywood and the kind of movies it produced. Escapism and movies with meaning replaced movies made for only entertainment value. The impacts of this area were multiple. The growth of the industry almost eliminated vaudeville and minstrel shows. Vaudeville acts were light entertainment on stage involving comedy, dancing, song, and pantomime. The acts traveled around the country entertaining the public. Minstrel shows involved stage performances of black American traditional melodies and jokes performed by white actors impersonating blacks, including having their faces “blacked.” Both vaudeville and minstrel shows continued into the new medium of movies, carrying forward those forms of entertainment and racial prejudice.
Filmmakers used new techniques of sound, color, and animation to develop movies that attracted large audiences. Movie production became an important economic activity and generated a flow of income in communities across the nation. Hollywood filmmakers developed important genres of movies in the 1930s. Many of these endured for years and, from time-to-time, have sparked revivals of themes. Hollywood in 1930 adopted a Production Code which set moral standards and self-policing in the film industry, moving away from the use of profanity, nudity, and the role of the “vamp” in films in the 1920s. It was not actually enforced until 1934 but then continued until 1968 when it was replaced with a movie-rating system. “Movie Palaces” built in the 1920s and the 1930s endured for decades becoming important gathering places for promoting popular culture in America. Founded on fantastic architecture, the theaters adapted designs from exotic places to house auditoriums, pipe organs, and snack bars to entertain millions. Actors and actresses emerged as “stars.” Most were held by contract to specific studios who selected their roles and managed their images.
The Post-Depression Era
Success of the motion picture industry in the 1930s carried right into the 1940s. During that decade almost five hundred films were made each year. During the early 1940s 80 million people attended the movies each week. The Office of War Information labeled the movie business an essential industry for the war effort. In fact the Bureau of Motion Pictures was created to ensure only positive portrayals of the war effort were shown. Almost four hundred of the over 1,300 movies made between 1942 and 1944 dealt with some aspect of the war. German Nazi and Japanese characters were always represented as evil and the Americans always triumphed. The movies served to reassure the public and keep morale high.
With the high demand for more and more movies in the 1940s, the large movie studios became like factories with assembly production, from shooting, editing, cutting, and distribution. The economic return was definitely worth the effort; in 1946 the studios took in $1.7 billion.
The economic good times were short-lived however. First the movie industry was hit with a major lawsuit claiming the big studios were monopolies, keeping small studios out of the business. The congressional inquiries in the late 1940s into the movie industry regarding possible communist sympathizers ruined the careers of many. In addition television came into common use by the early 1950s causing many to stay away from the movies. Whereas Hollywood was making 550 movies a year during the Great Depression, that figure dropped to 250 a year in the 1950s. Attendance dropped each year until by 1964 it had dropped by 75 percent since 1946. Film companies were facing their greatest financial losses in movie history.
A new generation of filmmakers began appearing by the late 1960s replacing the generation that had become established during the Great Depression. This new group included Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, and Martin Scorsese followed by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Movies such as The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) introduced the era of block-buster movies. The Godfather was the biggest box office success since Gone With the Wind of the Depression era. The highly successful Indiana Jones series beginning withRaiders of the Lost Ark (1981) borrowed from the entertaining action movies of the Depression. These productions greatly revived attendance and interest in the movies. By the 1980s the movie industry became the central focus of media commercial empires. By the 1990s computer-generated imagery had further increased attendance to movies. Computers added greater realism and allowed for more elaborate fantasy. Movies such as Jurassic Park (1993), Twister (1996), and Titanic (1997) highlighted the new special effects and kept the public coming to the movies in substantial numbers.
Later Movies of the Depression
Few movies after the 1941 The Grapes of Wrath were centered around the theme of the Great Depression. World War II had captured the attention of Hollywood in the early 1940s ending abruptly much introspection of the period. Of note were Aunt Mame (1958) which won six Academy Award nominations including for best picture and was later remade into Mame (1974) starring Lucille Ball. The story focused on an eccentric and wealthy woman whose life changes when she becomes guardian of her late brother’s young son. The story follows them through the boom years of the 1920s to the Great Depression when they are financially rescued by a wealthy Southern plantation owner.
In the same vein as movies of the 1920s gangsters, particularly Al Capone, came a movie in 1969 focused on the outlaws of the early 1930s. Bonnie and Clyde starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty was a romanticized account of the couple on their Midwest crime spree from 1932 to 1934 when finally gunned down by law enforcement authorities. A box office hit, the movie won two Academy Awards and was nominated for seven others.
Places of the Heart (1984) starring Sally Field is the story of a widow during the Great Depression who tries to save her Texas farm and keep her two small children together. She weathers storms and labor problems to make her mortgage payments on time. The movie also explores the racism of the South during the Depression. Field won the Academy Award for best actress and the movie won best screenplay. The movie was also nominated for five other Academy Award including best movie.
Also of particular note was the long running and highly popular television series The Waltons. Based on an earlier movie starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara, Spencer’s Mountain (1963), the series ran for ten seasons from 1972 to 1981 and remained a popular television rerun into the early twenty-first century. The Walton family lived on a small income earned by running a sawmill in the Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The program followed the family through the Depression and world war.
Another television production in 1997 also explored life during the Great Depression. Miss Evers’ Boys is set in 1932 in Macon County, Alabama. The story focuses on the federal government’s medical study concerning syphilis among black men. Starring Alfie Woodard, the story is from the perspective of Nurse Eunice Evers who is aware that the 412 men in the study are being withheld actual treatment unknown to them. Most eventually died of the disease and the study was not halted until 40 years later when it became the subject of a U.S. Senate investigation. The movie made for television won numerous Emmy Awards including best special and best leading actress. The program also won a Golden Globe Award and numerous international film awards.
Fred Astaire (1899-1987)
Astaire was known as one of the top professional dancers of the 20th century. Astaire made some 30 movie musicals, including ten highly acclaimed films with co-star Ginger Rogers. Some of Astaire’s movies included, Dancing Lady (MGM 1933), Flying Down to Rio (RKO 1933), Roberta (RKO 1935), Top Hat (RKO 1935), and Follow the Fleet (RKO 1936). Even though Astaire’s dance style appeared effortless, it was noted by fellow co-star Bing Crosby that Astaire was a perfectionist. Astaire performed in movies, on the stage, on radio shows, and eventually on TV programs. He also went overseas to Europe during World War II to entertain the troops.
Busby Berkeley (1895-1975)
Berkeley was an American film director born in Los Angeles as William Berkeley Enos. He was originally a Broadway choreographer and directed dancing in more than twenty musicals. Samuel Goldwyn brought him to Hollywood in 1930 to direct the dancing in the musical Whoopee. In the 1930s Berkeley directed for Warner Bros. and his major works included Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933). He used huge chorus lines, mirrors, special lighting, and a camera mounted on a monorail. His films fostered a sense of freedom and escape.
Frank Capra (1876-1991)
Born in Sicily, Italy, Capra’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was six years old. After graduating from California Institute of Technology, he became an army engineering instructor. Capra became a director of movie shorts in 1921 and by the late 1920s he had directed some popular comedies. The popularity of Capra’s movies grew through the early 1930s. He won the Academy Award for best director for three classic comedies, It Happened One Night (1936), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take It With You (1938). During the Great Depression, Capra’s movies provided an air of optimism in a humorous setting with the idealistic hero winning over shrewd opponents.
Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)
Chaplin was raised in poverty in the slums of London, England. At a young age he became a music hall performer and while touring the United States in 1913, was persuaded to join Keystone studio. Chaplin’s international reputation grew after he released short films for Essanay, Mutual, and First National Studios. In 1919 Chaplin co-founded the organization United Artists and in the early 1920s began independent production of films. Some of his films included, City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). The majority of Chaplin’s movies were silent films but he did make several talking films in the late 1930s. He was determined, however, to demonstrate the value of the silent medium and continued to produce many silent films after the advent of “talkies.” Chaplin was married four times and refused to accept U.S. citizenship. In 1953 he was accused of being a communist while overseas and was unable to reenter the United States. Chaplin had an amazing impact on the early film industry by performing, directing, producing, writing, composing, and editing many of his films.
Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959)
Son of a playwright, DeMille studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He began an acting career in 1900. In 1913 he joined with Samuel Goldwyn and others to form a play company that eventually became Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. DeMille’s first film was one of the first full-length films produced in Hollywood, The Squaw Men (1914). DeMille became known for his production and directing of large spectacles including The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). His major films in the 1930s included The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Union Pacific (1939). His The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) won the Academy Award for best picture. DeMille is remembered as the originator of the Hollywood movie epic, a distinctive movie genre.
Walt Disney (1901-1966)
Walter Elias Disney was raised on a farm near Marceline, Missouri. He became interested in drawing at an early age. In 1918 he tried to enlist for military service but was rejected because he was only sixteen years of age. Instead Walt joined the Red Cross and was sent overseas where he drove an ambulance. Instead of his ambulance being covered with camouflage, Disney painted his with drawings and cartoons. After the war, Walt returned to Kansas City, where he began his career as an advertising cartoonist. In 1923 Walt moved to Hollywood, where his brother Roy was already living, to try and begin his animation career. Pooling their resources, Walt and Roy bought the appropriate equipment and set up their first studio in their uncle’s garage. Disney’s first screen debut featured Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, (1928) and was the world’s first fully synchronized sound cartoon. Disney’s innovations and techniques continued to grow and so did his business.
Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931)
Edison gained recognition as the greatest inventor in history because of the impact of his inventions. Edison’s first patented invention was an electrical vote recorder for counting votes in Congress. He also invented the stock ticker at the age of 22 and received $40,000 for its purchase. Edison continued to experiment and invented electric lighting and power, incandescent lamps, electric fixtures, electric railways, electric motors, the carbon transmitter for telephones, motion pictures, and the phonograph. In the phonograph and motion picture machine, Edison provided a common form of entertainment for all, opening almost unlimited opportunities in the field of recreation and education.
John Ford (1895-1973)
Ford was born Sean Aloysius O’Feeney to Irish immigrants in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, in 1895. Following an older brother, Francis Ford, to Hollywood in 1914 Ford found a job with Universal Studios as a property man. Soon he changed his name and became an assistant director for Universal and was assigned work on shorts and westerns. Ford gained recognition for Iron Horse (1924), which further opened the door to high-budget westerns. He became director, producer, and writer of over six hundred films. He was noted for use of wide-open expanses and showing depth of his characters. His most acclaimed films dealt with social themes, such as The Informer(1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941). He is remembered most, however, for his westerns including Stagecoach (1939). Another popular Depression era film of Ford’s was Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) starring Henry Fonda. Three of his films including The Grapes of Wrath won the Academy Award for best direction.
Clark Gable (1901-1960)
Gable was born William Clark Cable in Cadiz, Ohio. After seeing a play he was inspired to become an actor. Gable married Josephine Dillon, twelve years his senior, who was a manager of a theater. She supported him and took him to Hollywood where he met Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore got Gable a screen test with MGM where he launched his career playing a villain in the Western, The Painted Desert (1931). Gable soon became one of the hardest working actors of the 1930s. Gable left MGM for the studios of Columbia where he made It Happened One Night(1934). The decade ended on a high note for Gable with his role as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939).
Greta Garbo (1905-1990)
Garbo was born as Greta Lovisa Gustafson in Stockholm, Sweden. Garbo’s career in front of the camera began with filmed commercials for a department store in Sweden in 1922 and a few European films in subsequent years. At the age of 19 Garbo went to a movie screening where she met Louis B. Mayer (MGM) and signed a movie contract that required that she go to Hollywood. In 1925 Garbo began work on her first American film, The Torrent(1926). The film was a success and MGM realized that Garbo might look ordinary in real life but that she could transform herself when on the screen. In 1926 Garbo went on strike to protest the poor quality of scripts being offered to her and her $750 a week salary. After months of negotiating, Garbo signed a five-year contract with MGM for two films a year, with her pay starting at $2,000 a week and escalating to $7,000 by the fifth year. In 1930 Garbo’s first speaking film, Anna Christie,opened and broke box office records. By 1935 Garbo made $500,000 per film with continued box office success.
Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947)
Lubitsch became known for Hollywood’s sophisticated comedies. Born in Berlin, Germany, he studied acting and joined a play company in 1911. He was also known for his elaborate costume features in the early 1920s that were the first German movies shown abroad. In 1923 he was hired to direct actress Mary Pickford inRosita. He remained in Hollywood and produced and directed numerous popular movies through the 1930s. Lubitsch brought a very distinctive style involving graceful wit and implied sexual overtones packaged in sophisticated comedies. His movies included The Love Parade 1929), Monte Carlo (1930), Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Merry Widow (1934),Ninotchka (1939), and The Shop Around the Corner (1940).
Rouben Mamoulian (1897-1987)
Born into an Armenian family in the Georgia province of the Russian Empire, Mamoulian became involved in acting, directing, and playwriting at the Moscow Art Theater while attending law school. He moved to London in 1918 where he directed operas and musicals. Mamoulian then immigrated to the United States in 1923 where he became production director for a theater in New York state. His production of the play Porgy in 1927 brought him wide acclaim. Mamoulian moved to Hollywood in 1929 where he introduced new concepts in sound and mounting cameras on wheels. His popular films during the Great Depression included the gangster film City Streets(1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), Queen Christina (1933), the first movie using Technicolor Becky Sharp (1935),Golden Boy (1939), and The Mark of Zorro (1940). Mamoulian also produced musical comedies such as Love Me Tonight (1932), The Gay Desperado (1936), and High, Wide and Handsome (1937).
Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952)
McDaniel grew up in Denver, Colorado and, in 1910, left school to join a traveling minstrel show. The Great Depression largely destroyed the vaudeville and minstrel programs, but McDaniel found a job performing at Sam Pick’s Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then a role in a radio show in Los Angeles. McDaniel first appeared in a film in 1932 and secured a major part in Judge Priest (1934) where she sang with Will Rogers. Her role as a happy southern servant in The Little Colonel (1935) created controversy but McDaniel persisted and played a maid or cook in nearly 40 films. She secured the part of Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939) and became the first African American to win an academy award for that role. After World War II her career was mostly in radio.
Bill Robinson (1878-1949)
At the age of eight Robinson began dancing and, in 1908, entered the vaudeville circuit in black musicals and comedies. Eventually Robinson shifted from vaudeville to movies and had roles in 14 films, including The Little Colonel (1935), In Old Kentucky (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm(1938), and Just Around the Corner (1938). Robinson was an innovative dancer and could run backward almost as fast as others could run forward. Robinson’s most memorable movie/dancing roles were with Shirley Temple.
Mickey Rooney (1920-)
Rooney grew up in a vaudeville family and made his film debut at age six. Between 1927 and 1933 he starred in over 50 episodes of the Mickey McGuire” series that established his place among Hollywood actors. He began appearing in feature films in 1934. In 1937 he began a 15-film series of “Andy Hardy” that lasted until 1947. He won wide recognition for his performance in Boys Town (1938) and was nominated for Best Actor in the Academy Awards for Babes in Arms (1939).
Shirley Temple (1928-)
Temple was born April 23, 1928 in Santa Monica, California. At two years old she began her dancing and singing lessons. At three years old she began her career and became known as one of the most successful child stars in the history of film. Known for her blond ringlets and her appealing lisp, and recognized for her ability to sing and tap-dance, Temple became a celebrity in 1934 when she starred in four films: Now and Forever, Little Miss Marker, Baby Take a Bow, and Bright Eyes. At the end of 1934 Temple was given a special Academy Award for her outstanding contribution to film. Shirley Temple retired from acting in 1949 and later became a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations (1969-1970), and was U.S. ambassador to Ghana (1974-1976).
Jack Warner (1892-1978)
Jack and his three brothers, Harry, Albert, and Samuel, founded the Hollywood motion-picture studio, Warner Brothers. They were sons of a Polish immigrant cobbler. They entered the movie business by acquiring movie theaters beginning in 1903 while they were still inexpensive and then began distributing movies to theaters. In 1913 they began producing their own movies and moved to Hollywood in 1917 where Warner Brothers Pictures was established in 1923. Jack and Sam were in charge of the Hollywood studio while the other two brothers handled other related business.
The Warner’s were responsible for the first sound Hollywood movies in the mid-1920s including Don Juan (1926) with only a music soundtrack and then The Jazz Singer (1927) with dialogue too. On with the Show (1929) was the first sound and color movie. These films brought great profits and established Warner Brothers as a major studio. In the 1930s Warner was producing one hundred motion pictures a year. Its hits included the early 1930s gangster films such as Little Caesar (1930) and Scarface (1932). During the 1930s they also produced swash-buckling movies with Errol Flynn, musicals, and dramas with Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and many others. Jack Warner retired in 1972 and by 2000 the company had, through mergers, become Time Warner Inc., the largest media and entertainment corporation in the world.
William Wyler (1902-1981)
Wyler was born to a Swiss-born merchant in Mulhouse, France. After attending the Paris Conservatory, he joined a New York foreign publicity office of Universal Pictures in 1920. Having moved to Hollywood in 1921, he quickly worked his way up from office boy to director by 1925 and directed over 50 westerns by 1927. By the early 1930s Wyler established his reputation as a serious director and produced a series of popular movies including These Three (1936), Dodsworth (1936), Jezebel (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Westerner (1940). He won Academy Awards for Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ben Hur (1959). Wyler contributed a very technically polished style to the evolving Hollywood movies of the 1930s and focused on human relationships.
Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979)
Born in Nebraska, Zanuck was abandoned by his parents at age 13. He joined the U.S. Army as a young teenager and fought in Belgium in World War I. Following the war Zanuck pursued a career as a writer though barely literate while working as a steelworker and professional boxer. Having attracted attention in 1923 for a proposed screenplay, he joined Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood in 1924. Zanuck quickly rose to the position of executive producer by 1927 when he produced Hollywood’s first sound movie, The Jazz Singer. He then began the popular series of gangster films for Warner Brothers including Little Caesar (1930) and Public Enemy (1931). In 1933 Zanuck founded Twentieth Century Pictures and produced The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Zanuck retired in 1971, the last of the major studio leaders of the 1930s. having produced over 165 films including “All About Eve” (1950), which won six Academy Awards including best picture.
We’re In the Money
“We’re in the Money” was a song from “Golddiggers” of 1933. The phrase quickly entered everyday language (from Bergman, p. 62, “We’re In the Money.” Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. Copyright 1933, Remick Music, Inc.).
We’re in the money,
We’re in the money.
We’ve got a lot of what
It takes to get along.
We never see a headline
About a breadline
Bank Nights were used as gimmicks to increase attendance at movie houses. The following article by Forbes Parkhill appeared in the Saturday Evening Post (December 4, 1937, p. 20).
Of course you’ve heard about the visiting Englishman.
“At the cinema,” he explains, bewildered, “a blindfolded urchin withdraws something from a revolving drum, a blighter standing on the stage calls out a name, a woman shrieks: ‘Whoops! I’ve hit it on the nose!’ and everybody else cries out, ‘Aw, nuts!’ Dashed singular, eh? What is it? A game?
‘Yeah,’ elucidates his patient American host. ‘Everybody plays it. Anew angle on the old sport called Something for Nothing.’
Bank Night has blossomed into an American institution. In the four years since it burst upon an unsuspecting public in a small town in Colorado, at least 100,000,000 persons in motion-picture audiences have participated in Bank-Night drawings. Each week more than 5,000 theaters distribute almost $1,000,000 in prizes, as high as $3,400 each. As many more promote some variation of the Bank-Night idea.
It’s got to the point where nobody can schedule a basketball game, a church sociable or a contract party on Tuesday night, because everybody is down at The Gem hoping to cop a cash prize—usually standing in the street beyond the marquee because the theater is much too small.
Bank Night was an oxygen tent for the gasping motion-picture exhibitors, who, during depression depths, had been disastrously dunked in a sea of red ink.
Respect of the Law
Respect of the law in movies and in real life had returned by 1935 as reflected in the following item published in Timemagazine (June 1, 1936, p. 26).
What makes it [the 1935 Warner Brothers movie Bullets or Ballots ] a good picture, despite its solemn interest in the obvious, is that it brings Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar) back into the crime fold; this time on the side of the Law. A plain-clothes man exiled to The Bronx, Robinson goes into action when a reform movement attempts to break racketeering from the bottom up.
Suggested Research Topics
- Identify the impact of movies on the public as a means of escape from the economic depression existing in the country during the 1930s. How did the “movie palaces” create exotic atmospheres for the fantasies of films? What was the role of the Marx Brothers in Hollywood in the 1930s? [Chico Marx (1886-1961), Harpo Marx (1888-1964), Groucho Marx (1890-1977), Gummo Marx (1893-1977), and Zeppo Marx (1901-1979)]
- Discuss the technological developments in photography, animation, sound, and color that enabled the movie industry to develop and grow despite the economic hard times of the Depression.
- Describe the economic impact that the movie industry had in the 1930s when the majority of businesses were struggling to stay afloat.
- Assess the role of movie stars and development of American popular culture shaped by films in the 1930s. Even when most “Westerns” were B-Movies, why were they so popular and sources of stardom for cowboy actors? How were African Americans portrayed in Gone With the Wind, the Little Colonel, and other popular films of the 1930s? How were Will Hays and the “Production Code” important to the direction Hollywood films took in the 1930s?