The Society Film Contained


Once critic whom I will address later writes that it is "popular knowledge" that people went to the movies during the Depression in order to escape reality, but this is an ungenerous view of the roles film played during the 30s. Andrew Bergman properly notes in his study that "films are not viewed in a void, [and] neither are they created in a void. Every movie is a cultural artifact... and as such reflects the values, fears, myths, and assumptions of the culture that produces it" (xii). There is something deeper in Depression-era film than mindless distraction: because movies are made on the assumption that they will appeal to a wide audience, Bergman argues, we must be able to make some assumptions about society and its desires reflected on the screen. History has thoroughly documented the economic hardships endured by the American people in the 30s and the accompanying psychological effects. Depression-era film, however, offers a more telling glimpse of the nation's hopes and perceptions. It represents the tensions of the times and, finally, does its part to keep traditional American values alive.


Some of the popular Public Enemies.
For the first four years of the Depression, however, the film industry was as shocked as the rest of America. It was not devastated by the economic collapse (60 to 75 million people continued to attend theaters each week), but it would never again achieve the enormous numbers it enjoyed at 1930, when sound was still a novelty. It took years before the industry could plan and react to circumstances, and as a result the early films of the Depression simply present a world gone awry as audiences and movie makes alike try to figure out what went wrong in America. 1929-1933 marks the era of the gangster, shyster, and "fallen woman" of film, a period of seediness and corruption that even touches Marx Brothers comedy. Critics from every walk of life were horrified when Little Caesar and a slew of outlaw films appeared in 1931. The problem was not that violent subject matter was turning the populace's collective stomach: gangsters were winning in these films, or, even worse, meeting death in a manner that could almost be called tragic. A "code of conduct" for such films appeared immediately, requiring that they present murder "in a way that will not inspire imitation," and concern grew greater as enormous numbers of people, especially the young, attended them.

Movies of political corruption were also popular, usually set in big cities and painting authority in an harsh, unflattering light that would not appear again until the late 60s. The same urban backdrop also graced another related genre, the "fallen woman" film, in which prostitution and other displays of feminine indignity were featured for the first time. These varieties, when combined with gangland drama, all point to a fundamental obsession: moviemakes seemed almost unerringly interested in a broken society where nothing works. The government cannot be trusted, lawless types thrive almost unchecked, and traditional gender roles are in serious danger of breaking down. Even absurdist, slapstick comedy couldn't serve as an escape from corruption and greed. Bergman provides a lengthy analysis of the Marx Brothers political farce Duck Soup (in which the comedians take on dictatorships) and proves the inescapable grip the Depression had on screen entertainment: "The most desperate years of our national experience produced our most desperate comedy, one that rang some hilarious and savage changes on a hundred conventions. The freewheeling nihilism of the early Marx and Fields films has not been approached since... the screen anarchists entertained a bleak and heartsick civilization that expected the worst from everyone. What has been called 'zaniness' was really the dark side of American irreverence, a wild response to an unprecedented shattering of confidence" (41). There is no uplift, no better place for millions of Americans to escape to in these films, and as such they are perfect representations of the new American despair.


The democratic "Mr. Deeds" is uncomfortable with servitude.
After 1934, however, the film industry was on stabler financial ground and began producing movies that Bergman calls reactionary. Where the gangster once thrived, the cowboy and the "G-man" rediscover their old righteous authorities. Law was heroic again, and there is no doubt that Roosevelt's New Deal inspired new hope and faith for directors and screenwriters. Filmmakers were still wary of largeness and complexity, though, as Bergman notes in an analysis of King Kong. A film distributor, instructing his employees on how to best hype the new movie, emphasizes the fact that the gigantic ape terrorizes New York City at the end; the cruelty of the city and the masses who mock King Kong in captivity are the greatest villains of the film. Understandably, the public couldn't be expected to jettison all disillusionment following the stock market crash and the failures of most large institutions. Film, however, offered an alternative: the "simple life" and traditional American values gained a new emphasis in late 30s film, and with them came new hope.

The movies of Frank Capra are Bergman's favorite alternative to gangster/shyster films and the uncaring city they were set in, and it is only until this "age of Capra" that one can truly find the embodiment of American hope on screen. Earlier films simply presented conflict; after 1934, the new possibilities of American romantic memory at last appear. One common theme unites the various genres, and it is increased faith in America's social equality. "Rags to riches" stories and displays of democratic character pervade many of these films and, in Bergman's words, even though "classlessness was an obvious fantasy... the myth obviously was dear to Americans" (147) After four years of chaos, filmmakers had learned their roles in America's recovery: traditional American values and ideals were resurrected on screen, and audiences met them with great enthusiasm.


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