Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression

Hollywood 1929-1941

Hollywood 1929-1941

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
Suggested Research Topics
See Also


"Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? Big bad wolf, big bad wolf?" This musical line originates from the Three Little Pigs movie, produced by Walt Disney in 1933. The big bad wolf in Walt Disney's animated short film is a metaphor for the Depression of the 1930s. People needed to sing that song through the vehicle of the movie to defend against their fear of what lay ahead. Likewise Americans needed their movies. Movies had become a cultural institution as well as a cultural necessity. No other form of entertainment had come to play as important a role in American's everyday life, not even radio. Sixty million to 75 million people still faithfully attended even if the price of a seat was too much for them to pay.

The great mass of people who were affected in some way by the economic crisis of the Great Depression, not only sought escape into the movies, but they also sought meaning as well. Frequently they sought meaning and escape in the same movie. Movies also depicted things desired or things lost, all of which Depression audiences could relate to. This period was lovingly known as "The Golden Age of Hollywood."

The 1930s were an era that brought about the advancement of film, both technically and with the establishment of specific types of film "genres." Some popular genres explored by Hollywood were gangster films, comedies, musicals, law and order (including federal agent films and westerns), social consciousness films, horror, and thrillers.

Devised by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the production Code of 1930, enforced in 1934, had a major impact on the content of movies. Various themes important to the Depression populace ran through the films. Americans could find hope while watching a character's success and believe that betterment was still possible. They could laugh irreverently at traditional American institutions or at forces that they could not quite define but that had altered their lives in the 1930s. For two hours each week Americans could enter the dark comfortable movie houses and share in the communal experience of being transported into another reality. In 1939 the quest for better times was confirmed in Judy Garland's hit song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," one of the memorable compositions from the popular movie The Wizard of Oz. The song was a testimonial to hope that reigned at the end of the decade.


Horace Wilcox lays out the city of Hollywood.
George Eastman invents roll film, a critical step for making modern motion pictures.
Thomas A. Edison develops the Kinetoscope, a "peephole machine" with an endless roll of film moved along by means of sprocket wheels, which produce a moving image.
C. Francis Jenkins invents the motion picture projector and shows the first movie in Richmond, Indiana.
Edison's motion picture is shown to an audience at Koster & Bial's Music Hall in New York City on a Vitascope, a projector developed by Thomas Armat who had worked with C. Francis Jenkins.
The Great Train Robbery is the first motion picture to tell a story.
Edison wins a lengthy patent conflict and forms a licensing company for production motion pictures.
Filmmakers complete The Count of Monte Cristo in Hollywood.
Construction begins for large studios intended for the use of filmmaking.
Thousands of movie theaters and "palaces" cater to millions of Americans in the era of silent movies.
The Jazz Singer is the first successful "talkie."
Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America (MPPDA) headed by Will Hays adopts the Production Code; however, it is not immediately enforced.
Motion picture studio profits plummet as the Great Depression sets in.
Walt Disney adopts a three-color Technicolor process for cartoons.
Walt Disney introduces the Three Little Pigs animated feature movie.
The first drive-in movie theater opens in New Jersey.
Three-color Technicolor is used in live action film.
The Production Code of 1930 begins to be enforced.

Issue Summary

The Depression Hits Hollywood

Established beneath the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California was a golden community known as Hollywood. Through the 1920s Hollywood had churned out thousands of silent films captivating the whole nation. Talkies, or movies with sound, premiered in 1927, as more and more Americans flocked to the theaters. Although the stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression, 110 million people still went to the movies in 1930. The introduction of sound proved enticing and Hollywood's profits continued. As the economic conditions, however, steadily worsened nationwide Hollywood's apprehension grew. Their fears were legitimate because attendance dropped to roughly 60 to 75 million by 1933 and profits evaporated. The unemployment rate hit 25 percent that year and almost everyone's salaries had declined significantly. The public could no longer afford to attend the movies as frequently as before.

The few cents it took to get in the movies was an extravagance for many. Still those 60 to 75 million that faithfully came represented 60 percent of the population. In comparison 10 percent of Americans attended the movies in the 1970s. This figure is a powerful testimonial to movies as a cultural institution. Ultimately the industry would be saved because movies no longer represented simply entertainment but a necessity in the lives of Americans.

In the meantime the movie industry, having expanded wildly in the 1920s, was in trouble. The five major studios were RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum), 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), and Paramount. Loew's, Inc. was a subsidiary of MGM. These Hollywood studios exerted the most influence over actors, writers, directors, and producers. Two smaller studios were Columbia and Universal. As early as 1931 profits were plummeting. A 1930 surplus of $3.3 million at RKO plummeted to a $5.6 million deficit in 1931. After a $9.2 million profit in 1930, Fox posted a $5.5 million loss in 1931. Warner Brother's 1929 profit of $17.2 million declined to $7 million in 1930 and was in red ink by $7.9 million at the end of 1931.

By 1933 the five majors had a combined stock value of $200 million—down from approximately $1 billion in 1930. Paramount, which earned a respectable $25 million profit in 1930, was reduced to filing for bankruptcy in 1933. MGM was the only major to stay out of the red but its profits of $14.6 million in 1930 fell to $4.3 million in 1933. By summer of 1933 one third of all movie houses had closed. Still the industry hung on; Americans continued saving their pennies to see a weekly movie.

By fall of 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) was president and the bank crisis had moderated. The motion picture industry was on the mend as customers began to slowly return. Coincidentally at this same time Walt Disney, who had introduced Mickey Mouse in 1929 in a silent film, had worked out a three-color Technicolor process. He introduced this process in his 1933 film the Three Little Pigs. The pigs sung "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" The song cheered Depression audiences and it became a sort of mantra to use as a defense against fear, the "Wolf" representing the Great Depression. All major studios, now less fearful of the "Wolf," hoped for a profit by 1934. Although 60 million attended faithfully, theater managers worked to increase attendance with countless enticements.

Animated (Cartoon) Films

When Walt Disney pioneered the field of animation in the 1930s a totally different form of movie escapism was created. There are two main elements in animation: characters and background. The sketches of the animation are traced, inked and painted on transparent celluloid, also known as cells. In the meantime, the backgrounds are made to fit the various needs of the action. The completed drawings are then placed in frames below a large camera and photographed one cell at a time. Many techniques are used in taking the pictures to create depth, action, and perspective. Dialogue for the film is usually spoken first and the sound effects are then connected with it. This process enables the animator to determine exactly how many frames are needed to cover a particular word or sound.

At a Glance Paramount Studios

Founded in 1913 in a horse barn near Sunset and Vine streets in Los Angeles, Paramount moved to Gower Street in 1926. Today it is the longest continually operated studio in Hollywood. As Paramount Studios grew, it took over the former properties of RKO Studios. In the 1930s major stars acting in films for Paramount included Marlene Dietrich, William Powell, Gary Cooper, Clara Bow, and Claudette Colbert.

One of Walt Disney's first creations, Mickey Mouse (1929) was probably more famous and familiar to the public than many politicians of the day. In 1933, when Disney released The Three Little Pigs, its theme song, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" became the national hit. Some of the public thought the movie had as much to do with raising the nation's morale as did the New Deal legislation. Some thought the moral of The Three Little Pigs was that the little pig survived because he was conservative, diligent, and hardworking. Others thought that it was the pig who used modern tools and planned ahead who would win out in the end.

In 1937 Walt Disney Studios premiered the first feature-length animation film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The movie was produced at the unheard-of cost of $1,499,000 during the depths of the Depression. During the next five years Disney completed other full-length animated classics such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. Disney Studios became known for pioneering sophisticated animation and, most especially, for producing films which delighted generations of children.

Attracting and Holding Audiences

The operators of motion-picture theaters were compelled to resort to many tactics to keep their attendance up. Merely lowering the price was not enough. It was during this period that the double feature was introduced. The double feature consisted of two full-length films as well as short subjects. Usually the fare included a main attraction that was paired with a "B-Movie," a film produced with a low budget and often lesser known actors and actresses. On Saturdays theaters often showed a serial that left the heroine or hero in such a dire situation that viewers had to come back the next week to see the outcome of the story.

Gimmicks known as "Bank Night," "Dish Night," and Bingo Night were very popular with the Depression era populace. Fox Theater first introduced Bank Night in a Colorado movie house. Bank Nights happened on the lowest attendance night of the week and tickets became part of a lottery for prize money. Thankful for even the tiniest windfall, moviegoers showed up for Bank Night, however they were always hopeful that they could win prizes of up to $3,000. One movie official commented that he did not even need to show a movie on Bank Night, just have the lottery and people would come. Bank Nights became common practice throughout the country. Dish Night was another gimmick to draw in people. On Dish Night each moviegoer received a piece of china. A whole set of dishes could be collected over time. Bingo became the most popular gambling game of the decade after a movie house in Colorado first used it as an enticement.

More About… Techniques Developed During the 1930s—Sound and Color

In spite of the Depression experimentation to bring sound and color to the screen, a new era in film began in 1927 with the success of the first "talkie." The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, brought a new age for movies as theaters everywhere were wired for sound. At the same time the industry was beginning to experiment further with the medium. Many stars of the silent screen were unable to speak their lines convincingly and so a new type of actor was sought out by the industry. Most of the early "talkies" were successful at the box-office, but many of them were of poor quality. The pictures were often dominated by dialogue with stilted acting and an unmoving camera or microphone. Nonetheless, a variety of films were produced with wit, style, skill, and elegance. The films Applause (1929) and Love Me Tonight (1932), both directed by Rouben Mamoulian, were revolutionary in many ways. Mamoulian refused to keep the cumbersome sound cameras pinned to the floor, and he demonstrated a graceful, rhythmic, and fluidly choreographed style. Applause also introduced a new sound technique with a double-channel sound-track with overlapping dialogue. After 1932 the development of sound mixing lifted the limitations of recording on sets and locations. Scriptwriters were becoming more advanced with witty dialogue, realistic characters, and plot twists.

The first, feature-length, all-color film was Toll of the Sea (1922). Now the director and the designer could use color to add to the effect of the screen story. This became particularly useful in outdoor and costume pictures. In the late 1930s, two films, The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone With the Wind (1939), were expensively produced with Technicolor. Special-effects processes were further developed in the late 1930s, making it possible for more films to be shot on sets rather than on location.

For the first time since 1931 all major movie companies operated in the black during 1936. That same year Columbia Pictures approached the status of a major studio. Despite financial woes throughout the first half of the 1930s, studios never halted production. During those years there were an estimated 23,000 theaters with seating for 11 million people. Those 60 million who managed to attend weekly did so because movies, offered in various disguises, helped them continue their belief in the possibility of individual success. Movies preserved the traditional American viewpoint that perhaps tomorrow would be a better day. For most Americans movies ranked at the same necessity level as food, shelter, and clothing.

Americans had many types of movies from which to choose and their tastes changed often. The primary genre or types of film in the 1930s included gangsters, shysters, comedies, "fallen" women, musicals, G-Men (federal agents), westerns, and movies with social consciousness. …