Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
The United States is known internationally for its popular culture. Easy access to multi-channel television, video games, video, DVD, the World Wide Web, movies, magazines, radio, live music, recorded music, books, and other such amusements and entertainment are taken for granted. It is important, however, to recognize that this access to popular culture, and the leisure time needed to enjoy it, is relatively recent. Most people living at the beginning of the twentieth century were more concerned with the day-to-day matters of survival and had little leisure time. As a result, amusements were relatively limited and especially cherished.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, industrialization, new technologies, labor unions, and population movement to the cities began to contribute to an improved quality of life for most people. Survival, for many, became less time consuming. With more money, a higher standard of living, and amenities to make life easier, people found themselves with more free time on their hands. The increased leisure time contributed to unprecedented growth in amusement activities and other forms of popular culture.
Significantly, people living at the time of the Great Depression may have only been the first or second generation in their families to experience leisure time and the options it afforded. Despite the economic devastation of the 1930s, people were not to forego what they had so recently come to take for granted. In fact, popular culture—and the amusements and entertainment associated with it—may have been crucial to public well being during the period. Attending movies, listening to the radio, dancing to live music, and reading cheap magazines or books containing sensational or gruesome material, popularly known as pulp fiction, allowed people to escape from the uncertainties, anxieties, and loss of self esteem associated with the Depression years.
Living during the Great Depression is closely associated with the popular culture of the time. Unlike other industries in the 1930s, many of the entertainment industries responsible for creating and distributing popular culture thrived and evolved. In the case of radio and movies this period is considered a “golden age.” Since so many people were unemployed during the Depression and had no other options, they sought for ways to fill their time. Due to lack of funds, they turned to cheap and easy entertainment. Furthermore, much of what we enjoy today as popular culture can be traced to roots in the Great Depression years.
In 1938 social science researchers hypothesized that unemployment leads to emotional instability. These studies seemed to indicate that the longer a person was unemployed, the more likely his or her personality would become fatalistic and distressed. In an attempt to escape from this psychological state, it was speculated that people were turning to popular forms of entertainment such as the movies, radio, or reading. Such speculation is not unreasonable given studies that show children will play even during the worst of times. The fact that very few popular culture forms dealt with the realities of the Great Depression in any explicit way further supports popular culture as a vehicle of escape. Using pop culture to escape emotional stress can also be supported through the generally accepted psychological idea of “flow.”
Flow is that point within any activity when you lose your sense of self and become one with whatever you are doing. With the complete absorption in an activity, time disappears, along with the sense of self and all that it might have been feeling prior to absorption. It is plausible that becoming absorbed in an off the wall comedy, a radio adventure, melodramatic pulps, or dancing to the Lindy Hop would provide relief from the uncertainties associated with everyday life.
Entrepreneurs, investors, and popular culture promoters exploited the public’s desperate desire to escape by continually creating, distributing and promoting radio shows, movies, print media, fads, sporting events and the like for an eager audience. This creativity was simultaneously stimulated by technological developments, which allowed for the mass distribution and consumption of what was being created. Hearing a piece of favorite music by a particular orchestra was no longer dependent upon being near a concert or dance hall. Technological advances allowed music to be available coast to coast over network radio. The same was also true of sporting events. Technology associated with the motion picture allowed the nation to sit together in movie theaters across the country and enjoy the common experience of watching their favorite actors play compelling roles in fascinating stories.
The technologies associated with mass production and distribution of products, such as assembly line production, would stimulate the mass consumption in virtually all cultural forms. The benefits of mass production and distribution meant a greater audience for the goods, and trends could sweep the nation, rather than remain local or regional phenomena. For the first time in the nation’s history the United States could claim an American culture. The resulting wide appeal of music, drama, dance, literature, and moving pictures was based on the commercialization and mass distribution of these cultural forms, and it gave the individuals something to relate to and share as a nation.
Leisure in the United States 1929-1941
Just prior to the Great Depression the relationship of culture to democracy was most evident in “the democratization of entertainment.” Prices were low and forms of entertainment were readily available and accessible. The country was participating in leisure time activities because of an ever-increasing standard of living coupled with new technologies supporting participation in a variety of cultural forms. The Great Depression, however, brought, for the first time to many, forced leisure, as the standard of living collapsed due to unemployment, underemployment, and wage reductions. Forced leisure meant that, due to lack of employment and lack of money to support activities like vacations and such, many people had no choice but to fill their time with activities traditionally considered leisure. Unemployment and reduced standards of living compromised peoples’ self esteem and social status. At this point probably many used readily available and economically accessible forms of entertainment and other leisure time activities to escape from the psychologically painful, stressful, and demanding realities of everyday life.
Nine years into the Great Depression the National Recreation Association completed a study of five thousand people asking them to name the recreational activities in which they participated the most. Among the most frequently mentioned activities were reading newspapers, magazines, and books; listening to the radio; going to the movies; visiting or entertaining; motoring; swimming; writing letters; conversation; card parties; picnicking; going to the theater; attending parties and socials; hiking; family parties; tennis; and serious study.
It was apparent from this list that the economic situation in the United States was definitely influencing the type of entertainment and other types of leisure time activities in which children, youth, and adults were participating. Many of the activities on this list were available for free or at low cost. For this reason, the 1930s are sometimes referred to as the “nickel and dime decade.”
The National Recreation Association list of activities is best understood by considering it within the context of the breadth of popular culture available in the United States during the Great Depression as well as public preferences for popular cultural forms during the period. Popular culture during the Great Depression has been categorized as fads, radio, print media, the movies, popular music, sports, and miscellany.
Numerous public fads emerged during the Great Depression. Many were short lived and have since disappeared from popular culture such as dancing “The Big Apple” dance steps. Others continue to periodically capture the public’s imagination either in their original form, such as miniature golf and jigsaw puzzles, or as translated into newer technological formats. It is also interesting to note that Great Depression era fads were centered both in the home as well as in the public sphere.
Some fads transcended age groups with participants being children and youth as well as adults. For example, just prior to the Great Depression bicycling and roller-skating were primarily activities for children. During the Great Depression, however, both became popular with adults. Bicycling in particular had not been considered an adult pastime since the 1890s, when it first became trendy. Parlor games such as bridge and board games enjoyed an unprecedented popularity and in 1931 alone five hundred thousand people were enrolled in bridge courses. An estimated twenty million were playing the game including children as young as 11. Monopoly was mass marketed by Parker Brothers in 1935, and by 1937 six million games had been sold.
From 1932 to 1933 children, youth, and adults were all infatuated with jigsaw puzzles. Prior to this time jigsaw puzzles were expensive and thus not accessible to most people. Once they could be mass-produced through die cutting, however, they could be marketed very cheaply. In an attempt to generate more interest in them, jigsaw puzzles were given away as incentives for buying products such as toothpaste or over the counter medications. Images appearing on jigsaw puzzles included landscapes, scenes from history, artwork, movie stars, and even personal portraits. At the height of the fad for working jigsaw puzzles they moved beyond the home and family to became the focus of clubs and parties.
Some fads were associated with get rich quick schemes. For example millions of chain letters began to circulate requesting that sums of money be sent to people appearing at the top of the chain. Lotteries and sweepstakes also became more popular and accepted by the general public. In 1930 thousands of Americans entered the Irish Sweepstakes. By 1933 four hundred thousand Americans were participating and hoping to win the $150,000 prize. By 1936 an estimated $1 billion was sent abroad for such purposes.
Endurance manias also became popular during the Great Depression. Tree sitters, egg eaters, pie eaters, goldfish swallowers, phone booth crammers, and the like attracted local, regional, and national attention because people were intrigued by how long someone could sit, how much a person could eat, or how many people a space could hold. The public also enjoyed bicycle marathons and roller derbies. It was not unusual for roller derby teams to skate four thousand miles in 35 days.
Some of these endurance contests provided both a public spectacle and an income for the participants. Couples were attracted to dance marathons by prize money and free refreshments. In the beginning the dancing was lively and the audience tried to guess who would ultimately become the winners. The earlier contests would last several days, the later contests for several months. Sometimes known as “pageants of fatigue” or “the dance of death” economically desperate contestants would do anything necessary to remain the last ones standing in the contest. Fifteen-minute intervals per hour were allowed for rest and refreshment and, frequently, a sprint or walk-a-thon was staged with the slowest contestants being removed from the contest. Contestants pushed themselves beyond the normal boundaries of exhaustion and some deaths were reported.
Amateur photographers captured many of these fads for family photo albums. Snapshot photography became popular with the release of the $1 Baby Brownie camera by Eastman Kodak in 1934. Some families also documented their activities in 16 mm and 8 mm home movies. It was even possible, beginning in 1935, to make a home movie with sound.
The 1930s are often referred to as the “golden age” of radio. This label resulted from the rapid proliferation of radio listeners coupled with the quality and breadth of programming. Shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, radio, unlike newspapers, was able to increase revenue from advertising. Radio could more easily reach far larger audiences than individual local newspapers. At the beginning of the decade the United States census reported that 12 million of the nation’s 30 million households had a radio. By the end of the decade 80 percent of the population had a radio, a figure that included over two million car radios. In 1934, in response to the growth in the number of radio stations and radio networks, the United States Congress passed the Communications Act resulting in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
As numbers of listeners grew, so too did the breadth of programming. Radio listeners could choose from an array of offerings on a daily basis that included music, news, comedy, drama, variety, women’s shows, children’s shows, and sports.
All types of music, both live and recorded, could be heard on the radio. Listeners could tune into dance orchestras led by Guy Lombardo and Paul Whiteman. Popular vocalists included Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith. The former was known for singing through a megaphone and the latter for her rendition of “God Bless America.” The crooner Bing Crosby also made his radio debut in 1931.
Jazz and swing enthusiasts could listen to the orchestras and artistry of Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Louis Armstrong, or vocal stylists such as Ella Fitzgerald and the Andrews Sisters. Country or “hillbilly” music was plentiful, performed by singing cowboys like Gene Autry or heard in the live broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. For classical music enthusiasts there were contralto Vaughn DeLeath, known as the “First Lady of Radio,” Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and George Gerswhin, hosting his own show.
Songs, now considered pop standards, heard on the radio during the 1930s included “As Time Goes By,” “Love Letters in the Sand,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Fans could buy magazines, usually with a favorite singing star on the cover that contained the words to their favorite pop songs. In 1939 announcers began to be paired with recorded music to become known as “disc jockeys.” They paired music with comedy routines, news, community notices, and fielded listener requests.
Radio did offer listeners a number of daily news programs. Some of these programs presented news as information, but also entertainment. One example of news as entertainment was “The March of Time.” This news and entertainment program dramatized news stories from “Time” magazine on a weekly basis. Celebrity news and gossip was also popular. At times a news story heard on the radio would attract national attention. One example was the 1937 broadcast as live report (actually it was taped) by Herb Morrison of the crash and burning of the German airship, the Hindenberg. Morrison was heard coast-to-coast giving a detailed and emotional description of the fiery crash at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Numerous radio shows on air during the Depression were comedic. Probably the most notorious and controversial was “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The show focused on the misadventures of two black American men, played by white actors, seeking their fortune in the city. The show was immensely popular; for example a survey of farmers in 42 states ranked it as their number one show. It was so popular that movie theaters piped in episodes into theater lobbies so that people would not stay home to listen to it instead of attending a movie. Many people, including large numbers of black Americans, however, considered the show racist and offensive. At one point a petition was circulated to have the show removed from the air. Seven hundred and fifty thousand people signed but the effort was futile as the highly popular show’s ratings soared.
Humor associated with ethnic groups was generally a popular radio staple. Vaudevillian and Jewish humorist, Eddie Cantor, was a huge success on the radio. So too was the show “The Goldberg’s” starring Gertrude Berg. These shows played off stereotypes people held about Jewish peoples and culture. Less controversial were shows like “Lum” and “Fibber McGee and Molly” that dealt with issues more common to the mainstream white Protestant society. They did not exploit minorities to such a degree.
Like comedy, drama was also popular. Exemplary was the CBS Mercury Theater on the Air. Although only run between 1938 and 1940, it epitomized the way in which drama could be translated from the stage into a sound only environment. The Mercury Theater also attracted notable actors of the time. The “Mercury Players” included Martin Gabel, Ray Collins, Joseph Cotton, and Agnes Moorehead among others. Such actors as Orson Welles and Basil Rathbone augmented the players. Productions included “Dracula,” “Treasure Island,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Immortal Sherlock Holmes,” and the “War of the Worlds.” Of these the most famous is “War of the Worlds.” Orson Welles, Frank Readick, and Bill Herz’s acting in this production about an invasion of earth by aliens was believed by some to be real. Panic and pandemonium ensued in some locations.
Another form of radio drama that emerged during the Great Depression was the soap opera. Notable examples include “The Romance of Helen Trent” on CBS and “Guiding Light” on NBC.
As vaudeville waned in popularity, many of its stars moved on to radio. Some hosted variety shows while others became regular guests on such broadcasts. Comedian W.C. Fields, now known primarily for his movie comedies, debuted on the radio in 1937. Crooner Rudy Vallee hosted a variety show, as did ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy. McCarthy, the puppet, received top billing, and the show premiered in 1937 as the “Charlie McCarthy Show.”
Special Interest Programs
A number of radio programs appealed to specific audiences; for example women, sports fans, and children. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a regular contributor to radio broadcasts that focused on women’s issues and contributions. Numerous radio programs addressed cooking, housekeeping, child-rearing, fashion, and other domestic arts. Children could listen to a radio version of the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie.” There were also quiz shows for children. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City also read the daily newspaper comic strips over the air.
Radio is credited with maintaining a public interest in sports during the Great Depression with virtually all types of sporting events receiving airtime. Sports were first broadcast on the radio in 1920. The first sporting event to be broadcast was a baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Corsairs (Corsairs won eight to five). Radio sportscasting during the Great Depression has been likened to poetry. Sportscasters created play-by-play descriptions of games that people could only hear. It was not unusual for sportscasters to employ sound effects to heighten the experience for listeners; tapping a wood block for the sound of a bat or hiring a group of actors to provide cheering. Sportscasters also became linked to certain catch phrases like “Holy Cow,” “Going, Going, Gone,” or “How sweet it is.” Common use of all of the phrases would persist in American culture throughout the twentieth century.
Movies were the most popular form of commercial entertainment during the Great Depression. In the early 1930s there were an estimated 23,000 theaters seating 11 million people. Attendance was almost equal to the population of the United States. A multitude of movie fan clubs existed across the country and autographed pictures of movie stars were a popular collectable.
The 1930s are sometimes referred to as the “Golden Age” of movie making because of the quantity, quality, and breadth of the films being made, as well as the quality of the actors appearing in them. Twenty-two movies, either released or in production from this period, are on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the one hundred greatest films produced between 1915 and 2000. At least 34 of the stars listed among the 50 greatest screen legends appeared in films during the 1930s. No other decade is as well represented.
Movie theater owners used a variety of strategies to keep people coming through their doors during the Great Depression. One strategy was to create a hierarchy of theaters so that a film might premier in a first run theater, be bumped to a second run theater to make way for a new release, and then be bumped again to a third run theater. In this way a film could be kept in circulation for a longer period of time before disappearing from the nation’s screens. Another strategy used by theater owners was to initiate what would become known as “Bank Night.” Bank Nights occurred on those days of the week when attendance was usually low, with tickets becoming part of a lottery for prize money. At one point five thousand theaters were distributing $1 million per week on Bank Night. Some theaters initiated “Dish Night,” where moviegoers received a piece of china. Over a period of many months of movie attendance an entire set of dishes could be collected.
The popularity of films during the Great Depression is usually associated with people desiring an escape from the economic brutality of everyday life. In support of this belief is the fact that very few films from the period deal with the Great Depression in a realistic way. One notable exception is the Grapes of Wrath (1940), directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, based on John Stienbeck’s novel about economic refugees. Another is Sullivan’s Travels(1941) directed by Prestin Sturges and starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, which tells the story of a movie director trying to find out how the Great Depression affected the impoverished. More typical for the period were movies associated with genres such as gangster, comedy, animated features, musicals, westerns, horror, melodramas, costume dramas, thrillers, and literary dramas.
The Gangster Genre
Gangster films were often inspired by headlines in the nation’s newspapers. Such films cost little to produce and contained lots of action. Doorway to Hell (1930) directed by Archie Mayo, Little Caesar (1930) directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and The Public Enemy (1931) directed by William Wellman are all Depression era movies that fall within this genre. In Little Caesar Edward G. Robinson plays a small-time hood and killer who becomes head of a mob. Like most gangster movies from the period, gun-fights, killings, robberies, and other forms of mayhem entertained audiences. Like many of the films associated with this genre, Robinson’s character dies at the end of the movie under circumstances that communicate some larger moral lesson.
Comedies were of several types. Some had sophisticated plots and characters and have come to be known as “screwball” comedies while others contained more slapstick. Another type of comedy featured “child” stars.
Mr. Smith goes to Washington (1939) starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur and directed by Frank Capra was a typical screwball comedy. Stewart’s character finds himself a member of the United State Senate. This movie is serious in its presentation of democratic ideals, but comedic in the situations encountered by a freshman senator. Many screwball comedies were set in palatial surroundings with wealthy, but zany characters. Notable examples include Bringing Up Baby, (1938) directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn; Topper, (1937) directed by Norman Mcleod and starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett; and It Happened One Night, (1934) directed by Frank Capra and starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable.
Comedies featuring the Marx Brothers are typical of those that used slapstick. For example, A Night at the Opera (1935) directed by Sam Wood concentrated on the hijinks of Groucho Marx as an opera promoter attempting to con a wealthy patron played by Margaret Dumont. Like all Marx Brothers films this one combines very funny one-liners with hilarious physical routines. Other Marx Brother classics include Animal Crackers (1930) directed by Victor Herman and Duck Soup (1933) directed by Leo McCarey. Charlie Chaplin who became famous for his physical comedy during the 1920s became known during the Great Depression for using physical comedy to bring an audience’s attention to important social issues. For example in Modern Times (1936) directed by Chaplin, Chaplin played a character struggling with industrialization and new technology.
A number of child stars emerged during the Great Depression around whom comedies were developed. These stars included Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Shirley Temple. Audiences for these films were both children and adults. Shirley Temple was by far the most popular of these stars, appearing in numerous, very profitable films, such as Little Miss Marker (1934) directed by Alexander Hall, Captain January (1936) directed by David Butler, and Heidi (1937) directed by Allan Dwan.
During the Great Depression movie audiences were usually treated to a feature length film of around ninety minutes coupled with previews of coming attractions, a “newsreel,” an adventure “serial,” comedy short, and/or an animated short subject or cartoon. The Walt Disney Studio gained prominence for creating animated short subjects with characters like Mickey and Mini Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. Beginning with the Three Little Pigs in 1933 and continuing with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Fantasia (1940) the studio pioneered animated feature length films. The Disney studio also pioneered the development of merchandise and social clubs associated with its releases. Audiences for these animated features were both children and adults.
Extravagantly staged filmed musicals were another popular genre during the Great Depression. Such movies concentrated on elaborate dance sequences, compelling melodies, fabulous costumes, and thin story lines. 42nd Street(1933) directed by Lloyd Bacon and starring Warner Baxter and Ruby Keeler included dance sequences choreographed by Busby Berkeley that are a combination of dance movements and elaborate cinematography. Set on Broadway, movie audiences’ emotions are manipulated by a plot in which an understudy to a narcissistic dancer is able to take center stage, become an immediate star, and save the Broadway musical from folding. “42nd Street” was so successful that it was followed up in 1933 with “Gold Diggers of 1933” also directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Song standards such as “We’re In the Money,” “Pettin’ in the Park,” and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” were featured within another Broadway oriented plot.
The enormously popular dancing team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers became famous for movie musicals such as “Top Hat” (1935), directed by Mark Sandrich. “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) directed by Victor Fleming and starring former child star Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley, whom are all representative of the movie musical genre.
Numerous movies during the Great Depression were set in the American west. Stagecoach (1939) directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne epitomizes the genre. The plot revolves around passengers traveling by stage during hostilities between Apaches and European American settlers. This film is a classic for many reasons including its use of placing stock characters such as a dance hall girl, drunken doctor, pregnant woman, a gambler, a banker, and an outlaw together under dramatic circumstances.
The Great Depression years set a standard for horror films that has yet to be eclipsed. Frankenstein (1931) andBride of Frankenstein (1935) directed by James Whale; Freaks (1932) and Dracula (1931) directed by Todd Browning; and King Kong (1933) directed by Merian C. Cooper continue to be seen on late night television, on video, and during repertory film festivals. Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula caused terror in their audiences and have come to symbolize the visual image of these monsters. Few movie monsters today communicate the violence, compassion, eroticism, and pathos of King Kong. Fay Wray’s scream, while held in the monster’s grip, chilled and thrilled American audiences.
Actors like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Joan Fontaine became know for appearing in melodramas or what are sometimes referred to derogatorily as “weepies” or “handkerchief” films. In these movies characters having to live though a series of adverse and tragic circumstances heightens the drama. Typical is Dark Victory (1939) directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Bette Davis. In this film Davis’ character faces blindness and a brain tumor. She also falls in love with her doctor and then learns that she has one year to live. She is ultimately able to make peace with her circumstances and die with dignity.
Costume Dramas and Swashbucklers
Gone with the Wind (1939) directed by George Cukor, Victor Fleming, and Sam Wood, and starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable epitomizes this Depression era genre. Gone with the Wind is continually shown on television and is periodically re-released to theaters in restored copies. It regularly appears on lists of the best film of all times. There were many other notable costume dramas and swashbucklers, however, produced during the period.
Swashbucklers are those movies that are often set among pirates and knights and which include melodrama coupled with sword play and/or cannon fire. Captain Blood (1935) directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn is typical. The plot involves a wrongfully convicted doctor who becomes a slave and then a pirate. After a series of battle scenes between ships and sword fights, Flynn’s character regains his honor and wins the hand of his true love. Also typical of the genre is Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughten. This movie combines elements of the costume drama and the swashbuckler. The plot revolves around the hardships endured by the crew of the H.M.S. Bounty in 1789 under the captaincy of Captain Bligh and the eventual mutiny of its crew.
Alfred Hitchcock emerged as a master director of thrillers during the Great Depression, with The 39 Steps(1935) as one of his masterpieces. The plot focuses on murder, mistaken identity, a mysterious woman, and an international spy ring. Another example of this genre is The Maltese Falcon (1941) directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. Like many thrillers it featured a private detective, a sinister atmosphere, mounting tension, and a convoluted and purposefully confusing plot. Such detective stories are referred to as “film noir” for their dark and moody atmospheres.
During the Great Depression numerous literary classics were adapted for the screen. These classics included Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie” (1930) directed by Clarence Brown; Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” (1933) directed by George Cukor; “David Copperfield” (1935) directed by George Cukor; and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935) directed by Max Reinhardt.
At times movies associated with this genre might also be exemplary of another. For example James Whale directed “The Invisible Man” (1933) but earned fame for his direction of the horror films “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein.” He used his skills to execute horror in the service of H.G. Welles’ classic story of a man who makes himself irreversibly invisible, becomes insane, and terrorizes the citizens of a small town.
We know from Depression era surveys that reading fiction and non-fiction was a popular pastime of the period. Readers searching for escapist literature had a vast array of materials to choose from, including “pulps;” comic strips and comic books; general interest magazines; and fiction.
For 10¢ readers could buy a cheaply produced periodical containing lurid stories about such super-heroes as Doc Savage, The Shadow, the Lone Ranger, Phantom Detective, The Ghost, The Whisperer, Sheena Queen of the Jungle, and Ki-Gor, King of the Jungle. Primarily read by youth, these periodicals were filled with mystery and adventure taking place in exotic locations with good triumphing over evil. Locations could include the American west as in the case of the Lone Ranger or the tropics as in the case of Doc Savage and Sheena. Parents and schoolteachers did not always approve of such escapist literature, believing that it lacked literary merit and appealed to baser instincts.
Comic Strips, Comic Books, and Little Big Books
Comic strips first began appearing in the nation’s newspapers towards the close of the nineteenth century. During the Depression, strips and comic books began to feature characters very much like those found in the pulps. Readers could enjoy the capers of “Dick Tracy,” the jungle adventures of “Tarzan,” the heroics of “Prince Valiant,” the domestic comedy of “Blondie,” and the superheroics of “Superman,” “Batman,” and “Wonder Woman.” Expertly drawn, with great attention paid to rendering the human figure in action, these strips and books captivated both children and adults with action oriented adventures. Good always triumphed over evil, but not without the heroes or characters being first put to the test and facing down certain death or domestic chaos. Comic strips and books were both criticized regularly for their violence, slapstick, and political leanings. For example, Daddy Warbucks in the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” was regularly singled out for representing corporate greed.
Closely related to comic strips and comic books were Little Big Books. They were inexpensive and similar in content to comic books and strips, however, their stories were usually presented in a narrative format with pictures supporting the text. Little Big Books had a unique dimension of one inch thick by four inches by four and one half inches.
Magazines were available to a broad range of interests and frequently responded and supported other forms of escapism like the movies, sports, or radio. Some magazines targeted a specific gender. For example romance-oriented magazines like “Modern Romance,” “True Story,” and “Secrets” were confession-oriented publications marketed to women. Women audiences also purchased movie-oriented publications like “Modern Screen,” “Movies,” and “Movie Life.” Men were more likely to read magazines about sports or the male lifestyle. Two such publications that are still in print, but which originated in the 1930s are “Sports Illustrated” and “Esquire.” Men also tended to read crime-oriented periodicals such as “True Detective Mysteries” and “Official Detective Stories.” “Photography” and “Modern Photography” stimulated the fad for photography during the Great Depression. The 1930s was also the era in which photojournalism magazines like “Life” and “Look” premiered.
As in film, numerous genres dominated the market for escapist fiction during the Great Depression. Raymond Chandler gained popularity for mystery thrillers such as The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell My Lovely (1940). Writing within the same genre was Dashiell Hammett, known for The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Thin Man (1934). The popularity of these books ultimately resulted into all four being made into movies.
Historical novels during this period are exemplified by Margarett Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), which was also adopted for the screen. Edna Ferber also created notable historical novels such as Cimarron(1930). Readers attracted to what were considered exotic locations turned to Pearl Buck and Louis Bromfield. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), was set in China and Bromfield’s The Rains Came (1937) was set in India.
The Depression era may be one of the very first periods in American history so closely associated with popular music that it almost serves as a soundtrack for the times. Despite the fact that the recording industry was in a free fall, people were able to continue consuming popular music through live shows, radios, and movies. As a result jazz, in the form of “swing” became mainstream and country western music emerged as a combination of folk sounds from Appalachia and other parts of the south. Singers like Woody Guthrie used folk music as a way to vocalize the nation’s troubles.
Popular music during the Great Depression was dominated by “swing.” Swing, a form of jazz, was so pervasive that it is considered by many to define the era. Swing, somewhat less improvisational than modern jazz, incorporated written arrangements, emphasized solos, and included danceable rhythms. Rhythms were freely borrowed, particularly from African rhythms.
Swing bands were larger than jazz ensembles and became know as “big bands,” including saxophones, trumpets, trombones, clarinets, guitars, a keyboard, bass and drums. Notable big bands included those of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw, among many others. Typically a “stand up” vocalist or two would also accompany a big band. One of the most notable was Frank Sinatra who began his singing career in 1936 but became a national celebrity in 1940 when he joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
Big bands played in dance halls across the country with names like the “Aragon” in Chicago, the “Alcazar” in Baltimore, and the “Ali Baba” in Oakland. Big band musicians, particularly bandleaders and vocalists, received the same kind of admiration and public attention as movie stars and sports heroes.
Swing was so pervasive during the Great Depression that it could be heard simultaneously on the radio, live in dancehalls, on records, on jukeboxes, and in the movies. Swing was also associated with dances such as the Lindy Hop or jitterbug, the Big Apple, the Shag, and the Suzy Q. All of these dances emphasized a series of basic steps, some improvisation, and high physicality including aerial moves. Swing permeated the culture to such an extent that it even had its own slang and clothing styles, such as the “zoot suit” worn by black and Mexican American men.
Music critics during the Great Depression found in swing a musical equivalent to New Deal progressivism. In this regard swing has been credited with introducing mainstream American culture to black American music for the first time. Most bands, however, were not integrated; with black American bands playing one circuit and white American bands playing another. Bandleader Benny Goodman’s decision to add Charlie Christian, a black American musician, to his band in 1936 was an extraordinary and controversial decision on his part.
Folk and Country Music
Folk and country music also enjoyed some popularity during the Great Depression. Shortly after the onset of the Depression, Woody Guthrie began to write new lyrics to old folk songs and periodically played live on local radio. Woody Guthrie’s songs appealed to listeners because they often focused on trying to get by with little or nothing and life as a hobo. Guthrie’s best-known song from this era is “This Land is Your Land.”
Beginning in the early 1920s it was possible to turn on the radio in the southern United States and listen to “barn dances” with “hillbilly” music. Commercial recording companies began recording such music for sale shortly afterwards. Jimmie Rogers, credited with being one of the first and finest country western singers made his first recordings in 1927. Because of the popularity of country western music, the film industry began to make movies that featured singing cowboys. Throughout the Depression Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Tex Ritters’ cowboy crooning was heard not only in the United States, but also in Europe. When record sales plummeted during this period, because people didn’t have the funds to buy the records, country western music could still be heard on the radio. It was during this period that Nashville, Tennessee’s Grand Ole Opry was broadcast coast to coast for the first time.
Sporting events and athletes grew to be immensely popular during the Great Depression. This occurred as a result of new technological advances such as the radio, changes in the ways that some sports were played, and people’s inclination to personally identify with particular teams and athletes. In combination these factors contributed to sports being a major form of escapism during this period.
In the early 1930s the rule changes in college football allowed for more passing and thus a more exciting and unpredictable game. College football games were also broadcast on the radio for the first time. The growing popularity of football during this period is evidenced in the proliferation of bowl games. At one point during the Great Depression college teams were playing one another in the Rose, Orange, Sun, Sugar, Cotton, Eastern, and Coal bowls. Also bringing public attention to college football was the creation of the Knute Rockne Trophy and the Heisman Trophy. Pro football also gained in popularity, which is traceable to radio broadcasts, rule changes encouraging passing, and a slimmer football that allowed for greater passing distances.
Baseball adapted to the nation’s depressed economy by also allowing games to be broadcast on the radio and by holding games at night. Players like Babe Ruth also helped to attract national attention. Little League baseball originated in the 1930s as one response to the growing popularity of baseball.
During the Great Depression basketball, golf, tennis, and boxing also had their fans. Again a fan base would often grow because of the popularity of a particular athlete. For boxing it was Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber” and his capturing of the world heavy weight championship over James J. Braddock in 1937. Louis became a representative of black America in popular culture and gained international acclaim when he defeated German championship boxer Max Schmeling in 1938. The victory to many represented the supremacy of American democracy over Nazi Germany.
The United States hosted both the summer and winter Olympics of 1932. During the summer games Babe Didrikson Zaharias came to public attention for her ability to excel in multiple sports. It was the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, however, that galvanized the nation. This was particularly true because of the success of black American athlete Jesse Owens in numerous track and field events. His superior athleticism, coupled with a simultaneous shattering of Adolf Hitler’s propaganda regarding Nordic superiority, captured national and international attention.
Leisure in Difficult Times
People entered the Great Depression years with an acquaintance with leisure time and a predisposition to enjoy it through a variety of pursuits. Myriad forms of inexpensive entertainment were available to the general population. People were not prepared, however, for the economic devastation resulting from the Great Depression and the forced leisure that many would experience as a result. Given the nation’s severe economic downturn it is remarkable that the Depression years were ones in which popular culture was sustained, and in many cases thrived. This was probably possible, in part, because of people’s desire to escape from the stress associated with economic instability coupled with technological developments commercialized for entertainment purposes.
Leisure in the United States 1900-1929
The United States entered the twentieth century as the world’s leading economy. This economy resulted from the industrialization of the nation that began during the nineteenth century. This industrialization was also resulting in more and larger cities. In 1900 fully 40 percent of the seventy six million total population of the United States population was living in urban areas. This was an increase of 25 percent from only 50 years before.
A higher standard of living for the majority did not initially result from industrialization. In the beginning a very small percentage of the population controlled the largest amount of capital. Workers labored long hours for little pay. The average workweek at the beginning of the century was 60.2 hours per week and weekly salaries of ten dollars were not unusual. It is not surprising that these conditions resulted in the unionization of labor. Unions are organizations formed by workers that bargain with the employer for better pay and working conditions.
With unionization, working conditions and the standard of living improved and for the first time in the nation’s history large numbers of people found that they had leisure time. This development, particularly in the growing urban areas, was coupled with new technologies such as automobiles and radios. People had more information about leisure time options and the ease with which to participate. Soon entrepreneurs began to realize that money could be made by providing people with leisure time alternatives. This realization resulted in the commercialization of leisure.
Popular pastimes during the first three decades of the twentieth century included theatrical forms such as vaudeville and burlesque as well as short silent movies. Amusement parks proliferated and exhibit halls featured shows about sports, pets, and transportation. Baseball became “the national pastime” and the World Series began in 1903. Prizefighting captured the public imagination. People also began to document their lives through snapshot photography. People sang and listened to music at church socials and community sings. Pianos and phonographs became affordable. A national American culture began to be formed through such shared pastimes.
By the 1920s discussion began to rise around what culture should be within the United States. Much of this discussion centered on the relationship of culture to democracy. Some argued that democracy encourages business entrepreneurs and the wealthy to greatly influence the public toward participation in cultural activities, including leisure time activities, that they believed to be best for the “common good.” Not surprisingly this common good was often closely associated with economic gain through the commercialization of culture. Others, however, believed that all people contribute to the definition of culture within a democracy, including the entrepreneur and the common citizen. The resulting variations contribute positively toward a unique national identity. They felt confident that over the long term culture for the common good in a democracy would more likely come from contributions of the many rather than only a few. Therefore commercialization of culture and leisure can dominate society’s view of culture but does not always necessarily do so.
A Demand for Escapism Rises
The 1920s had been a decade of unprecedented prosperity. Suddenly beginning with the stock market crash of October 1929, leisure time took a different course. As the Great Depression swept across the nation leisure became a byproduct of joblessness. Certain forms of leisure began to serve different purposes including providing an escape from the economic problems. By 1933 unemployment reached a scale never experienced before. The sudden collapse of the nation’s banking system and dramatic decline in industrial production were very distressing to people trying to cope with it all. Various forms of escapism were taken by the jobless, those who still had work but at reduced incomes, and the youth.
Though the precise level of unemployment was difficult to estimate, for the month of March 1933, when the Depression was near its worst, the federal government estimated that over 15 million people were jobless. It was estimated that almost a third of the workforce was out of work. Many families in the rural areas were abandoning their farms and youth were riding the rails in search of employment and to get away from the harsh realities of home. The demand for escapism had never been greater in U.S. history.
National and Local
The story of escapist culture during the Great Depression is very much a national story rooted in popular culture, mass production, mass distribution, and mass consumption experienced by the great majority of citizens on the local level. Because the population of the United States was continuing to become more urban during this period, the spread of popular cultural forms was easily achieved. It is important, however, to remember that despite the growth of urban areas, large numbers of Americans lived relatively isolated lives in rural areas. Some of these people were only infrequent visitors to those urban centers where dances were held, movies were seen, and printed material was purchased. Until the Rural Electrification Act of 1935 great parts of the United States were without electricity and thus without easy access to the radio. In addition, because of crop failures in various parts of the country and/or discriminatory rural labor practices, there were Americans who were living in abject poverty that could never afford to participate in the popular culture with which the country was obsessed.
Ultimately, there is no consensus that the popular culture of the 1930s was totally escapist despite its emphasis on humor, melodrama, craziness, and blatant exhibitionism. For example, scholars are not in agreement about the actual messages conveyed by American movies during the 1930s. Some scholars see the movies as advocating traditional ideas about individualism, success, consumerism, and progress. Others see the movies of this period as projecting fantasies about the past based on American myths and values such as simplicity and community life. The movies projected an ideal of what people thought America represented. These perceptions provided a sense of security colored by what people wanted to believe as much or more than what they actually experienced. The case can also be made that while most popular films were often comedic and superficial, some films did address important social issues such as the transformation of the United States from a farming (agrarian) society to a more urban one. Gangster films have been singled out as helping Americans to master their new environment and make sense of, and control, the social facts they were encountering in their daily lives.
Other scholars see the popular culture of the 1930s as reflective of socio-economic class tensions during the period. Despite the Great Depression there were many people in the United States who amassed a great deal of wealth. Thanks to mass communication, this wealth and the lifestyles it afforded were not hidden from public view. Class differences were very much on the minds of people, particularly on the part of those struggling to get by on a day-to-day basis. On the one hand the country was being urged to unify in the face of economic instability and hardship, while on the other hand there were clearly have and have nots. Screwball comedies on film and radio, with their emphasis on wealthy and zany characters, made manifest some of the resentment felt towards the rich by making them appear as buffoons. Or take a radio program like the enormously popular, but racially problematic comedy “Amos n’ Andy.” On the surface this show appealed to its listeners’ sense of humor. They were probably also appreciative, however, of the main characters’ attempts to get by during harsh and difficult times.
A conclusion about the purpose of popular culture during the Great Depression can probably be found somewhere in the middle. Certainly the popular culture being consumed was immensely entertaining and potentially escapist. We should not, however, let that quality interfere with a careful analysis of the content of the entertainment. A careful study of the popular culture consumed by citizens of the United States during the Great Depression is likely to continue to reveal a citizenry engaged with the very important issues of the time. The best summation may have come from the period’s movie producers and directors who believed “that it had been they who had staved off revolution, because they had worked to make people happy. They had achieved a careful, artful transformation of social anger and stress into laughter and shared experience.” (Brinkley, Culture and Politics in the Great Depression, 1998, p.10)
International Popular Culture
The 1930s were a politically turbulent time in most parts of the world. Americans, when not concerned with their own personal well-being, were probably most concerned with the political changes in Europe and the European sphere of influence and vice versa. Fascism was prevailing within the governments of Italy and Germany. Spain was in civil war with Fascists also prevailing there. In France, the Popular Front was gaining popularity and would take control of the government in 1936. Great Britain’s colonialism was being challenged, particularly in India.
Technology was also stimulating the growth of popular culture in Great Britain and Western Europe. Britain, France, Germany, and Italy all had movie industries. In Germany and Italy the films produced supported a nationalistic agenda. The case of France is interesting because rather than movies becoming escapist during a time of social upheaval they tended to concentrate on a socially realist perspective mirroring the eagerly anticipated changes hoped for from the Popular Front. Britain and the United States film communities were closely aligned, with numbers of filmmakers and actors from Britain coming to the United States to work. Among many notable examples include James Whale, director of “Frankenstein” and Vivian Leigh, star of “Gone With the Wind.”
As the 1930s progressed parts of Europe became more and more fascinated with American popular culture. For example in March 1939 Duke Ellington and his Orchestra played in France to great critical and popular acclaim. The Orchestra was also well received in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark. German youth were also entranced by American swing. Nazi soldiers, however, would not allow Ellington and his entourage to disembark from their train because of policies barring “foreign blacks” from Germany and because they saw jazz as “Nigger-Jew” music.
The Great Depression era was a period of severe economic instability coupled with a national obsessive infatuation with popular culture. Evidence suggests that this infatuation was reinforced and stimulated by forced leisure and people’s desire to escape from the daily stress of living with economic uncertainty. To only think in these terms, however, about the surge in popular culture during the Great Depression would be simplistic. It is also important to recognize the role of new technologies, corporate entrepreneurship, and aggressive marketing campaigns as a part of what encouraged and shaped popular culture during this period. It is equally important to look beyond the amusing and entertaining quality of the culture of the period to find and identify those values, attitudes, and beliefs embedded within the movies, radio, print material, fads, and the like that were capturing people’s attention. Also important is to consider what the impact of this period has been on subsequent generations.
One very obvious point of impact is the way that people have come to think about the Great Depression era. Given the apparent superficial character of much of the popular culture consumed by the public, coupled with the fact that much of this popular culture failed to portray the realities of the Great Depression, it is not surprising that we see the people of the era as fearful and anxious; wanting to escape the stress of everyday life. This very one-dimensional view does not encourage us to know that many citizens were thoroughly immersed in the most important issues of the day. To only know the Great Depression through a superficial look at its popular culture is to deny national, regional, and local conversations that were taking place around reshaping the nation economically and politically towards a more equitable and democratic society. Ignored also is the collective dialogue that was taking place about the United States and its role in the world.
Also of concern is to what extent the nation remains obsessively infatuated with popular culture and the possible ramifications of this obsession. Arguments can be made that the Great Depression era heralded an even greater infatuation with amusements and entertainment continuing to the present. Neal Gabler in his book Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, (1998) argues that entertainment now pervades all aspects of American life to such an extent that it has become the most powerful agent of social change. He compares it to a kind of cancer that promotes simple narratives built on sex, scandal, gossip, and action promoting neat and tidy resolutions.
A more positive legacy of the period may be that popular culture allowed the United States to become a more integrated society. For example, the enormous popularity of swing allowed for more interactive relations between black American and European American communities. At least one scholar has argued that American popular culture is far more pluralistic, dynamic, and tolerant than United States legal and political culture. The Great Depression also was an era in which folk music became popularized as large numbers of people simultaneously learned of its ability to communicate the hardships of daily life and as a musical form able to contain a political purpose. This legacy was first fully realized during the protests by young people during the 1960s.
Finally, the Great Depression era, with its surging popular culture, encouraged distinctions between what was then considered to be high art (i. e. painting, sculpture, classical music, theater, ballet) and low art (i.e. movies, jazz, pulp fiction, the jitterbug) to begin disintegrating. Few would make the argument that films like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) with its innovative cinematic techniques and socially critical screenplay or a jazz composition by Duke Ellington are in any way inferior to those other creations called art. This change in attitude about popular culture would allow artists like Andy Warhol during the 1960s to unabashedly draw subject matter from popular culture and to break down barriers between high and low culture once and for all.
Because of huge numbers of celebrities that accompanied popular culture during the Great Depression it is difficult to single out a few notable people from the time. The following selections are merely representative of the types of contributions made during the period.
James Algar (1912-1998)
James Algar was one of the principle animators for Walt Disney Studio’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Originally trained as a journalist, he came to Disney in 1934. Following his work on Snow White he became Animation Director at the studio.
Jack Cooper (1888-1970)
Jack Cooper was the first black American disk jockey on the radio. He bought time from WSBC in Chicago around 1931. He is also known for the production of the “All Negro Hour” radio variety shows.
Vaughn DeLeath (1894-1943)
Vaughn DeLeath emerged in early radio as a woman who could sing without destroying radio power tubes. She did this by perfecting a lullaby like singing style that would become known as “crooning.” Billed as the “First Lady of Radio” and later as “The Original Radio Girl” she was imitated by many including Kate Smith. DeLeath was also a radio manager and producer and in 1930 Vaughn appeared on early television.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
A jazz singer, Fitzgerald joined the Chick Webb orchestra in 1935 and made her first recording that year. Her first major hit came only three years later in 1938. Fitzgerald stayed with the band until it broke up in 1942. She then had a spectacular solo career for the next 50 years and was regarded as the “First Lady of Song.” Fitzgerald’s greatest fame came in the 1950s when she won 12 Grammy Awards for her various recordings.
Benny Goodman (1909-1986)
Goodman was a clarinetist who made his first recording with the Ben Pollack jazz band in 1926. After moving to New York City from Chicago in 1929 he formed his own orchestra in 1933. Goodman’s orchestra became the most popular swing band in the United States and introduced mainstream America to jazz. By later in the 1930s he performed in smaller jazz trios and quartets, some of the first racially integrated jazz groups. He performed steadily through the 1950s before reducing his number of performances. Goodman was widely noted for his fast rhythm, enthusiasm, and improvisation.
Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)
Throughout the Depression Woody Guthrie wrote songs inspired by the Dust Bowl and his intermittent life as a hobo. In 1934 Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to spend a month in Portland, Oregon, putting into song the damming of the Columbia River to bring electricity to areas of the Northwest. In 1937 he moved to California to pursue a country music career by teaming with his cousin, Jack Guthrie, on a radio show on KFVD-Hollywood where he was able to sing his Dust Bowl ballads live. In 1939 Guthrie moved to New York to be an active part of the socialist movement. Guthrie performed with Bess Lomax on occasion who was the sister of Alan Lomax, one of the first ethnographers of American folk music. Alan recorded Guthrie on several occasions at the Library of Congress. RCA Victor released Guthrie’s first album, “Dust Bowl Ballads,” in 1940. Guthrie’s most famous song is “This Land is Your Land,” a song that protests the private ownership of land, hunger, and poverty.
E.Y. “Yip” Harburg (1898-1981)
Yip Harburg wrote the song “Brother Can you Spare a Dime”(1932) that combined popular ballad with a social protest song. (“Once I built a Railroad, I made it run, I made it run against time…now it’s done, Buddy can you spare a dime.”) Harburg worked for Universal and Warner films throughout the Depression. Harburg also penned “Over the Rainbow” from the film The Wizard of Oz, winning an Oscar for this song.
John Lomax (1867-1948)
In 1933 John Lomax began his work in the Library of Congress as the curator of the American Folksong. Throughout the 1930s John and his son, Alan, traveled the South and Southwest recording folk music. While recording prison songs in Louisiana, the two discovered Leadbelly who went on to become a successful recording artist. The two also recorded Woody Guthrie.
The Mills Brothers
The Mills Brothers were the first black Americans to have a show on network radio. They were signed to the CBS radio network in 1930. The Mills Brothers consisted of John Jr. (1910-1936), Herbert (1912-1989), Harry F. (1913-1982), and Donald F. (b. 1915). Born in Piqua, Ohio, the Mills brothers were the sons of a barbershop quartet member father and a light opera singer mother. The brothers sang locally until 1928 when they went on the radio in Cincinnati, Ohio. Duke Ellington is credited with helping them gain national attention by introducing them to a New York record label. While in New York they signed with CBS radio. Mills Brothers hits include “Tiger Rag,” “Goodbye Blues,” and “Lazy River.” In 1931 Radio Digest named the Mills Brothers the “vocal find of 1931.”
Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967)
Billy Strayhorn joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1938 as an arranger and pianist. With a background in classical music and jazz, Strayhorn came to the attention of Ellington as the composer of “Lush Life.” From 1938 until his death he was a close collaborator with Ellington who described him as “my listener, my most dependable appraiser [and] critic.”
Mae West (1888-1980)
Mae West first emerged as a child vaudeville star known for doing comedy. As an adult she brought her knowledge of comedy to the theater and the movies as a playwright, screenwriter, and actor. West made her film debut in 1932 in Night after Night. Her risqué dialogue, bejeweled appearance, and independence made her attractive to movie audiences. These same characteristics, however, made her a target of censorship under the Hays Act. During the Great Depression years she made nine films, five of which she received a writer’s credit for, one of which wasDiamond Lil is one of the most famous.
On May 6, 1937, the German airship the Hindenburg crashed and burned at the Lakehurst Naval Station, killing 36 passengers and crew. The next day Herb Morrison’s commentary during the crash was heard over the radio, as if live, to a captivated and horrified nation (as quoted in Michael Macdonald Mooney. The Hindenburg. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972, p. 148).
It’s crashing. It’s crashing terrible. Oh, my get out of the way, please. It’s bursting into flames. And it’s falling on the mooring mast. All the folks agree this is terrible, one of the worst catastrophes on the world. Oh, the flames, four or five hundred feet in the sky, it’s a terrific crash ladies and gentlemen. The smoke and the flames now and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity and all the passengers.
William Hays’ comments on the importance of film to national morale and education during the Great Depression are reprinted in Andrew Bergman’s We’re in the Money: Depression America and its Films (1992). William Hays was the head of the Hays Commission, which developed a moral code that guided what images were appropriate for including in movies.
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. It has been the mission of the screen, without ignoring the serious social problems of the day, to reflect aspirations, optimism, and kindly humor in its entertainment.
The Hays Commission’s code was not without its critics, however, and film producer David O. Selznick argued with William Hays over the inclusion of a memorable line he considered critical to a movie he was producing at the time,Gone With the Wind. Selznick addressed Hays on October 29, 1939 (quoted in David Colbert, Eyewitness to America,1998, pp. 455-456).
As you probably know, the punch line of Gone With the Wind, the one bit of dialogue which forever establishes the future relationship between Scarlett and Rhett, is, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”…
Under the [Hays] code, Joe Breen in unable to give me permission to use this sentence because it contains the word “damn,” a word specifically forbidden by the code.…
I do not feel that your giving me permission to use “damn” in this one sentence will open the floodgates and allow every gangster picture to be peppered with “damn”s from end to end. I do believe, however, that if you were to permit our using this dramatic word in its rightfully dramatic place, in a line that is known and remembered by millions of readers, it would establish a helpful precedent… which would give… discretionary powers to allow the use of certain harmless oaths… whenever… they are not prejudicial to public morals.
Al Cunningham was a youth growing up during the Great Depression. In 1999, at the age of 73, Cunningham’s recollections were recorded adding to the oral history of the period. He recalled his experiences in escapism in an article titled “How I Came to Love the Classics” (as quoted on the Reel Classics website http://www.reelclassics.com/Articles/Statements/alcunningham.htm ).
Movies were one of my greatest pleasures and I would try to go every weekend, although that was seldom possible. It wasn’t often that my folks were able to come up with the price of a ticket (ten cents), so I had to be creative and find other ways to find the money. Hunting for returnable soda bottles in order to get refunds was one of my methods. Another was searching the gutters along the curbs of the busy shopping areas.
Sometimes the only way I could get to see a movie was to sneak in. My best bet was at a certain theater about five miles from home … Unfortunately, my only pair of shoes had holes in the soles, which were bigger than the size of quarters. Even though I would cut out pieces of cardboard and place them inside my shoes, the long hike would wear through them long before my journey had ended. Seldom was the time when my feet weren’t cut or blistered. A bloody foot wasn’t all too unusual, but hiking to see a good movie was well worth it.
Many of the neighborhood theaters in those days would give away dishes. One night each week would be “Dish Night,” and every lady in attendance would receive a free dish with the price of admission. Each week a different dish was available and by returning week after week, you could eventually collect a complete set …
There were the days when many of the great classic films were made and I was there to enjoy their debut n the silver screen. As a young boy I recall enjoying most every type of movie Hollywood produced including westerns, musicals and adventure films.
Suggested Research Topics
- Compare and contrast the movie genres common during the Great Depression with those genres common today. Speculate on the reasons why some have continued while others have disappeared. Speculate on what movie genres will be unique to the first decade of the twenty first century.
- For the most part, popular culture during the Great Depression ignored the social realities of the period. This has been attributed to peoples’ desire to escape from the painful realities of the period. To what extent does popular culture attend to the social realities of today? Do you believe that there is a link between economic downturn and how people choose to amuse themselves?
- The focus of this text has been primarily on public figures. Discover those notable people who ran the companies and industries responsible for creating and distributing popular culture, but who may not have been known to the general public.
- It has been proposed that entertainment now pervades American life. Look at an area of social concern that is of interest to you. Discover to what extent the social issue is addressed by the popular entertainment. If it is addressed by entertainment, do you see that as a positive, negative or neutral influence?