Back to Hollywood's America
and the Great Depression
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, giveaways
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
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 movie makers 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.