Overview for films in The Great Depression
(Digital History ID 2961)

In 1934, Will Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, said 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." During the Great Depression, Hollywood played a valuable psychological and ideological role, providing reassurance and hope to a demoralized nation. Even at the Depression's depths 60 to 80 million Americans attended the movies each week, and, in the face of doubt and despair, films helped sustain national morale.

Although the movie industry considered itself Depression- proof, Hollywood was no more immune from the Depression's effects than any other industry. To finance the purchase of movie theaters and the conversion to sound, the studios had tripled their debts during the mid- and late-'20s to $410 million. As a result, the industry's very viability seemed in question. By 1933, movie attendance and industry revenues had fallen by forty percent. To survive, the industry trimmed salaries and production costs, and closed the doors of a third of the nation's theaters. To boost attendance, theaters resorted to such gimmicks as lower admission prices (cut by as much as 25 cents), double bills, give-aways of free dishes, and Bank Night--in which customer who received a lucky number won a cash prize.

Why did Depression America go to the movies? Escapism is what most people assume. At the movies they could forget their troubles for a couple of hours. Depression films, one left-wing critic maintained, were a modern form of bread and circuses, distracting Americans from their problems, reinforcing older values, and dampening political radicalism.

Yet movies were more than mere escapism. Most films of the depression years were grounded in the social realities of the time. The most realistic films were social problem films--like I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang - "torn from the headlines," usually by Warner Brothers or Columbia Pictures. Yet even the most outrageously extravagant Busby Berkeley musicals - portraying chorus girls as flowers or mechanical windup dolls - were generally set against recognizable depression backdrops.

The kinds of movies that Hollywood produced during the depression underwent sharp changes as the public mood shifted. During the depression's earliest years, a profound sense of despair was reflected in the kinds of characters Americans watched on the screen: a succession of Tommy Gun-toting gangsters, haggard prostitutes, sleazy backroom politicians, cynical journalists, and shyster lawyers. The screen comedies released at the depression's depths expressed an almost anarchistic disdain for traditional institutions and conventions. In the greatest comedies of the early depression, the Marx Brothers spoofed everything from patriotism (in Duck Soup) to universities (in Horse Feathers); W.C. Fields ridiculed families and children; and Mae West used sexual innuendo and double entendres to make fun of the middle class code of sexual propriety, with lines like "When a girl goes wrong, men go right after her."

The gangster pictures and sexually suggestive comedies of the early '30s provoked outrage--and threats of boycotts--from many Protestant and Catholic religious groups. In 1934, Hollywood's producers' association responded by setting up a bureau (later known as the "Breen Office") to review every script that the major studios proposed to shoot and to screen every film before it was released to ensure that the picture did not violate the organization's "Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures." The Production Code, drafted by a Jesuit priest, the Father Daniel Lord, had been originally adopted in 1930, but the producers had regarded it as a public relations device, not as a code of censorship.

But in 1933, the newly appointed apostolic delegate to the U.S. Catholic Church, the Most Reverend Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, called on Catholics to launch "a united and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which has become a deadly menace to morals." Many Catholics responded by forming the Legion of Decency, which soon had 9 million members pledged to boycott films that the Legion's rating board condemned.

Threatened by a realistic threat of boycotts, the producers decided to enforce the production code and placed one of their employees, Joseph I. Breen, in charge. The code prohibited nudity, profanity, white slavery, miscegenation, "excessive and lustful kissing," and "scenes of passion" that "stimulate the lower and baser element." It also forbade Hollywood from glorifying crime or adultery. To enforce the code, the Breen Office was empowered to grant or withhold a seal of approval, and without a seal, a movie could not be played in the major theater chains.

The Breen Office dramatically altered the character of films in the later 1930s. It had at least one positive effect: It led Hollywood to cast more actresses in roles as independent career women, instead of as mere sex objects. More negatively, it encouraged moviemakers to evade the harsher realities of Depression-era life and to shun controversial political and moral issues. It also contributed to what Maury Klein has called a "stylization of technique" as directors and screenwriters searched for subtle, creative, and often witty ways to treat sexuality and violence while avoiding censorship.

A renewed sense of optimism generated by the New Deal combined with Breen Office censorship to produce new kinds of films in the second half of the Depression decade. G-men, detectives, western heroes and other defenders of law increasingly replaced gangsters. Realistic Warner Brothers exposes rapidly declined in number. Instead audiences enjoyed Frank Capra's comedies and dramas in which a "little man" stands up against corruption. The complex word-play of the Marx Brothers and Mae West increasingly gave way to a new comic genre--the screwball comedy. Movies like It Happened One Night or My Man Godfrey, which traced the antics of zany eccentrics, presented, in Pauline Kael's words: "Americans' idealized view of themselves--breezy, likable, sexy, gallant, and maybe just a little harebrained."

As Andrew Bergman has shown, the fantasy world of the movies played a critical social and psychological function for Depression era Americans: In the face of economic disaster, it kept alive a belief in the possibility of individual success, portrayed a government capable of protecting its citizens from external threats, and sustained a vision of America as a classless society. Again and again, Hollywood repeated the same formulas: A poor boy from the slums uses crime as a perverted ladder of success. A back row chorus girl rises to the lead through luck and pluck. A G-man restores law and order. A poor boy and a rich girl meet, go through wacky adventures, and fall in love. Out of these simple plots, Hollywood restored faith in individual initiative, in the efficacy of government, and in a common American identity transcending social class.

Recommended Film

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Among Hollywood’s most powerful social conscience films, this movie tells the story of a World War I veteran and aspiring engineer who is wrongly implicated in a crime and sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang. Based on the real-life story of Robert Burns, who was convicted of robbing an Atlanta grocer of $5.80, it captures the fatalism and demoralization of the early Depression years.

Copyright Digital History 2021