From the Crash to the Fair
The Public Theatre, 1979
Photograph Apr. 1939 by Dorothea Lange. Westley, CA
Waiting in line at the sugar rationing board.
Photograph by John Vachon. June, 1939. Elking, West Va.
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Photograph 1939 by Russell Lee. Theater in Waco, Texas
Like other industries, Hollywood was hit hard by the Depression, but managed to recoup its profits through a variety of methods. One favorite way of attracting patrons was to offer sweepstakes and drawings at the theater for prize money. Even the promise of just a little bit of money was a big draw for impoverished Americans. At an average price of $.27 a ticket, movies offered a relatively inexpensive way to vacation from reality. Always popular, this sort of diversion was especially sought-after during the Great Depression.
Audiences gloried in spectacular fantasies of high society and easy living that they would never know. The zany characters of Screwball comedy could afford to be screwballs, while the average American could not. For an hour or two, though, we can all pretend to be Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn.
Another symptom of this fascination was the Society Papers. The lives and goings on of the rich and powerful in the city were considered news. (c.f. The Philadelphia Story) Housewives read the society feature pages avidly for a glimpse into the lives of the upper class. While it is true that Americans today still glory in details of the private lives of celebrities, Depression-era Americnas differed in that it was wealth they were fascinated with, and not celebrity.
These pictures also offered a kind of cultural escape valve:
a safe battleground on which to explore serious issues like class under a comedic (and non-threatening) framework.
Class conflicts often surfaced, even overtly, and were resolved happily in the movie.
While the moviegoers loved to identify with the rich, on some level they also resented them.
Jimmy Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story"
speaks on behalf of this viewpoint when he remarks snidely that
"the prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged
class enjoying its privileges."
In the end, though, he learns that people of all classes can be "a heel";
its not the class that counts, rather it is the people in it.
Revolution is not on the menu in screwball comedies.
People who do not reconcile themselves to the way the system works
look foolish and spoiled.
George, the jilted fiance shouts, "You and your whole rotten class! You're on your way out!"
Of course they are not on their way out. They are the delightful cultivated, witty jet set;
they represent what the lower classes are working for and could theoretically acheive in through the magic of capitalism.
The simplistic class system offered in these movies hinges solely on money.
Beginning in 1921, individual distributors throughout the nation began cut the films to conform to their state's particular ideas of censorship. There was a hodgepodge of laws concerning what could and could not be shown on the screen. Kansas censors cut out scenes of women smoking, Ohio censors did not mind this. In Pennsylvania, pregnant women were banned from the screen, but in New York, pregnancy was okay. This obviously had a butchering effect on the films that the studio did not like.
In the '20s, the studios did have guidelines (more like suggestions) for decency in their work. These were called the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls", and as their wimpy title suggests, they were not enforced. When Senator Brookhart introduced a bill that would put the movie industry under the Federal Trade Commission, Hollywood decided it was time to self-regulate rather than submit to federal censorship.
Under the direction of former postmaster general Will Hays, a Production Code was drafted in 1930 and adopted by the Association of Motion Picture Producers and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. This plan did not have teeth either. Since any producer could appeal a ruling to a commission of 3 other producers, it was fairly easy to get around these rules. After the release of violent gangster films such as "Black Caesar"(1930) and "The Public Enemy" (1931), and the scandalous Mae West movie "She Done Him Wrong" (1933), religious groups began to agitate again for regulation for the film industry. The Catholic Legion of Decency Campaign formed in 1933, and even civic groups like the Boy Scouts rallied to this issue.
"The pest hole that infects the entire country with its obscene and lascivious moving pictures must be cleansed and disinfected," the Catholic Women's Association declared in 1933.
As the threat of censorship reared its ugly head once again, it was time to rethink enforcement of the Code.
Hays hired Joe Breen to take over as Production Code Administrator. He promised to be hard-nosed in his enforcement of the code, and he delivered. The Code was premised on the firm belief that entertainment had real power to "affect spiritual or moral progress." The regulations covered everything from violence and vulgarity to dancing and proper dress. Audiences learned to read between the lines.
As necessity is the mother of invention, directors began to find ways to deal with sexuality and topics outlawed by the code that would escape censure by the censors. This was often accomplished through elaborate symbolism.
There are many such examples in the screwball comedies here under examination. This particular genre of comedy developed within, and partially as a response to, these constraints. Sexual tension was sublimated into a battle of the sexes, enacted through verbal sparring. These are characters who love to hate each other in comedies about sex without sex. In many of these films, the director skillfully implies adultery in ways that are technically allowed under the Code. (c.f. The Awful Truth) Screwball comedies are full of clever bits that slipped in under the censors' radar.