As unemployment reached an all time high in 1933, this decade, sandwiched between the roaring twenties and World War II, left little to be highlighted other than the dismal consequences of the Great Depression. From failed farmers to discouraged businessmen to working mothers to displaced children, the Depression between 1929 and 1939 invaded homes across the nation. Twenty-five percent of the country was unemployed at the peak of the Depression in 1933 while even more just barely made ends meet. Despite the excruciating economic hardship faced by nearly all of the country, 60-70 million Americans still packed into theaters each week. This phenomenon forces the question: Why go to a movie during such a troubled time? What made sitting in a theater for an hour and a half worth a hard-earned 15 cents?

"The content of the motion picture still was designed for escape, the majority reflecting the tastes of tired or jaded adults seeking a never-never land of luxury and melodrama, sex and sentiment."

-Dixton Wector, historian

First, to answer these questions we must understand the relationship between the audience, the society, and the film industry. Trying to generalize the mentality of every Depression riddled American would be ludicrous; however, every American by the 1930's did have one common label: the consumer. The idea of a commercialized society had increased tremendously since the industrial boom of the 1890's. Competition and variety emerged as industries grew and commodoties flourished. The film industry was no exception. And, in the 1930's with an economic crisis affecting even the most prominent Hollywood studios, attention to consumer tastes was crucial. As Herbert Gans simply states, "The audience is obviously limited by what it is offered but what is offered to it depends a great deal on what it has accepted previously." With this increasingly consumer-ized America, as commodies became cultural objects so did each film. Films reflected American desires just as American desires reflected films--making it impossible to ignore the significance of Hollywood during the 1930's.

"Whether films offered visions of order restored, affirmations of work-centered values, or celebrations of a culture rooted in the mythic American village, they also held out images of competing worlds that might be entered through mimicry or consumption."

-Terry A. Cooney, Balancing Acts

From ganster films to musicals to screwball comedies, Depression films took on the responsibility of reinstating the mythical American values of individualism, classlessness, and progress. Americans might have come to these films in search of escape from their arduous and hopeless lives but that isn't to say the themes and motifs of these films appeared out of reach. Hollywood, while upholding American institutions such as government and family, also created characters and plot lines that stayed within the realm of possibilities. Had Americans not believed in and related to the drama, music, comedy, heartache, and successes displayed on screen they surely would find entertainment elsewhere. Film industries recognized this consumer power and carefully evaluated the types of films people responded to. Hollywood knew that buying a ticket and sitting in a theater among friends and strangers was an independent and self-effacing action. Hollywood understood the shame of standing in breadlines and the helplessness of losing a job. Musicals such as Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, and Footlight Parade directly addressed the Depression. Subsequently, this strategy by Hollywood made these three musicals the highest money making ones of the decade. No longer did films take on the idealistic outlook of the 1920's. Musicals in the 1930's gave people more realistic visions of aspiration and attainment. Stars such as Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, and Fred Astaire became models of strength, courage, charisma, vulnerability, and triumph as they sang and danced their way into the dispirited hearts of the American public.

"During the Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles."

-President Franklin Roosevelt

As aforementioned, Hollywood musicals often reflected America's growing need and desire for escapism. In addition to magical worlds of Oz, musicals painted more familiar scenes such as Depression-stricken cities and tension filled homes. While relating to the harsh times, these settings not only capture the emotions of its audience but also manipulates them with a positive turn of events at the end. Subsequently, without asking for anything in return, musicals boosted morale and lightened the burden of their audiences.

| Musicals in the Depression |

Last Updated on December 15, 2000

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