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Hollywood during the Great Depression Previous Next
Digital History ID 3453


Hollywood played a valuable psychological role during the Great Depression. It provided reassurance to a demoralized nation. Even at the deepest depths of the Depression, 60 to 80 million Americans attended movies each week.

Movies reflected a despairing public's mood during the Depression's earliest years, as Tommy-gun toting gangsters, haggard prostitutes, and sleazy backroom politicians and lawyers appeared on the screen. Screen comedies released in these years expressed an almost anarchistic disdain for traditional institutions and values. The Marx Brothers spoofed everything from patriotism to universities; W.C. Fields ridiculed families; and Mae West used sexual innuendo to poke fun at the middle class code of sexual propriety.

A renewed sense of optimism generated by the New Deal combined with industry self-censorship to produce new kinds of films during the Depression's second half. G-men, detectives, western heroes, and other defenders of law and order replaced gangsters. Audiences enjoyed Frank Capra comedies and dramas in which a little man stands up against corruption and restores America to itself. A new comic genre arose--the screwball comedy. This new variety presented a world where rich heiresses wed impoverished young men, keeping alive a vision of America as a classless society.

In the face of economic disaster, the fantasy world of the movies sustained a traditional American faith in individual initiative and in government and upheld a common American identity of transcending social class.

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