Hollywood and the Film Industry

views updated


Motion pictures had already occupied a central place in American entertainment for nearly thirty years prior to the onset of the Great Depression. But during the ensuing decade, the Hollywood film industry assumed a new level of importance in the lives of Americans and in the shaping of a national culture. Movies offered needed escape for Depression-weary audiences, and they created powerful myths to reconcile social tensions and affirm traditional values. Indeed, by the time the nation went to war, the products of Hollywood had become virtually synonymous with America itself.


The stock market crash of 1929 came at a particularly difficult moment for Hollywood movie studios caught in the process of financing the transition from silent to talking pictures. Initially, the popular novelty of sound was enough to keep audiences coming to the movies, and moviegoers in 1930 actually outnumbered those in 1929. But by 1931 attendance had dropped, and Hollywood lost millions of dollars over the next several years. The movie industry cut salaries and production costs, lowered admission prices, and closed up to a third of the nation's theaters. Despite the steady popular demand for entertainment and escape, Hollywood appeared far from Depression-proof. Desperate to lure audiences back into theaters, the motion picture industry experimented with new genres, themes, and subject matter. Hollywood's own financial depression had largely ended by 1934, but not before the industry had tested the boundaries of cultural acceptability in its drive to win over moviegoers wracked by social dislocation.

Certainly the most controversial films to emerge from this era were the gangster pictures. Director Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1930), starring Edward G. Robinson as the Al Caponeinspired nemesis, established the basic elements of the genre. An ethnic criminal protagonist would climb his way to the top of the mob, leaving a path of bullet-riddled corpses behind him, only to meet his fatal comeuppance in a hail of police gunfire at the end. The recent introduction of sound allowed for gunshots, screams, and squealing tires to amplify the unprecedented violence central to all these films. The Public Enemy (1931) included an unforgettable scene of Jimmy Cagney's gangster character shoving a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. Director Howard Hawk's Scarface (1932), starring Paul Muni, featured characters and situations so disturbing that it was almost too explosive for its time.

While there are many ways to interpret such films, it seems clear that Depression-era audiences must have experienced a vicarious thrill by seeing nihilistic gangster antiheroes shoot their way through a society in chaos, for such disorder paralleled the lives of millions of suffering and frustrated Americans. Gangster pictures also reflected a cynical view of society, in which the Victorian middle-class success ethic had been perverted into a drive fueled by merciless and ultimately self-destructive ambition—a suitable metaphor for the causes of the Depression itself.

Some movies spoke even more directly to the theme of common Americans victimized by cruel economic and social forces. In LeRoy's powerful I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Paul Muni plays an unemployed war veteran wrongly implicated in a robbery and sentenced to hard labor in a brutal Southern prison. After escaping, he establishes a new life as a respected engineer, but is sent back to prison after his vengeful wife betrays his identity to the authorities. He escapes once again, but only to the life of a fugitive, running from shadows and stealing to survive. An unjust society thus forces a good man to become a criminal.

Comedies of the early 1930s also captured the prevailing mood of disorientation. The Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo) developed an inimitable style of lightning-quick improvisation and anarchic humor that sometimes left even their supporting cast confused but had audiences literally rolling in the aisles. In such films as Animal Crackers (1930), Horse Feathers (1932), and A Night at the Opera (1935) the Marx Brothers typically played the role of unemployed charlatans who mocked the pretensions and snobbery of the upper class. In Duck Soup (1933) Groucho satirized a "reforming" national leader who was in fact out for himself. At a time when much of the nation was pinning their hopes on Franklin D. Roosevelt, the film was not as well received as it was to be in later years. Mae West became the most influential female comedian of her time by subverting middle-class norms of sexual propriety and male dominance with smirking double entendres. W. C. Fields sharply satirized family life in The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) and established a funny, yet vaguely unsettling, screen character deeply at odds with civilization.

The search for a winning formula to get audiences into the theaters led some studios to exploit the fantastic, the bizarre, and the grotesque. Universal Pictures found a youthful market for horror with such films as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932). RKO's King Kong (1933) employed pioneering special effects to tell the story of a gigantic ape captured from his tropical island home and brought to New York City by greedy promoters. After escaping, rampaging through the city, and scaling the Empire State Building with his captive woman, Kong is killed by American fighter planes, and the audience is left oddly ambivalent about the justice in his tragic fate.

The Depression era also saw the birth of the exploitation film. Certainly the most bizarre stab at winning an audience through shock was Freaks (1932), which documented the underworld of actual deformed sideshow performers. Not for the squeamish, this oddity has since become a cult favorite, but it is doubtful whether many contemporary moviegoers were ready for it. The remarkably lurid and inept Reefer Madness (1938) purported to be an expose of the demented marijuana subculture. Its effect, however, was probably more likely to titillate and inspire curiosity in the "devil weed."

While most of Hollywood's output during the early Depression years remained well within the bounds of mainstream social acceptability, the attention generated by the most lurid, violent, and sexually provocative films supplied new ammunition to those calling for greater censorship. Since the earliest days of the motion picture industry, such interest groups as the Catholic Legion of Decency had worked to restrain the cultural influence of movies and control their content, but the studios had so far resisted most outside pressure. Confronted with diminishing profits and the uncertainties of a Depression-wracked market, however, Hollywood capitulated. In 1934 the industry appointed Joseph Breen to supervise the Motion Picture Production Code Administration. When Martin Quigley, a Catholic layman and motion picture trade publisher, first prepared the Production Code in 1930, moviemakers had treated it mainly as a public relations tool. But now Breen would have the absolute authority to approve, censor, or reject any Hollywood movie subject to the code. The code prohibited a whole range of actions and expressions, including the kind of suggestive sexuality that had recently made its way into the movies. It also dictated that all "bad" acts had to be followed by sure punishment or rehabilitation, and insisted on no ambiguity between good and evil. The enforcement of the Production Code effectively ended Hollywood's brief era of adventurism in the early 1930s.


The films of the second half of the decade reflected both the influence of the code and the desire of leading moviemakers to shift the artistic focus of their industry. Top Hollywood producers like Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox and MGM's Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick decided that there was greater prestige and profit to be gained from more conservative and dignified pictures that appealed to the ideals, dreams, and traditional values of moviegoers. As a result, the films of the later Depression years tended to reinforce and reaffirm the social order, rather than challenge or disrupt it.

One could see the changes, for example, in the new style of comedy. Gone was the edgy and subversive humor of the early 1930s, and in its place were such lighthearted "screwball" comedies as My Man Godfrey (1936), Topper (1937), and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Although these films sometimes played with social conventions, they ultimately affirmed the sanctity of marriage, accepted class divisions, and upheld the status quo. Mae West, W. C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers continued to make movies, but only with their wilder impulses tamed into more insipid vehicles that traded on past glories. The most anarchic and irreverent humor in film could no longer be found in live-action features, but survived in the madcap animated shorts directed by Leon Schlesinger and Chuck Jones at Warner Brothers and by Tex Avery at MGM.

The later Depression years also saw the steady release of big-budget films based on classic novels and respectable best-sellers. Such pictures as Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and the biggest film of the decade, Gone with the Wind (1939) provided high-quality entertainment couched within conservative morality: respect authority, cherish small-town communities, and persevere with individual courage in the face of adversity. Likewise, Walt Disney produced dazzling animated films adapted from classic fairy tales and children's stories like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940), each of which extolled respect for traditional values.

Two of the most important directors of the decade, Frank Capra and John Ford, produced films that aimed to reconcile traditional Jeffersonian values with the new reality of big government interventionism in the New Deal era. Americans would prevail in these hard times, so assured the movies, because of their intrinsic morality and simple integrity. Capra celebrated the decency of the common man and praised the virtues of small-town America in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which pitted the plainspoken idealist Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, against corrupt senators presiding over an ineffectual U.S. government. Ford reinvented the Western film as cinematic art and a symbol of patriotic regeneration with Stagecoach (1939), featuring a star-making performance by John Wayne. He then went on to direct the greatest of all motion pictures about the Depression, The Grapes of Wrath (1940). While acknowledging the positive role played by federal New Deal agencies, the true heroes in Ford's adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel are the Joad family themselves, who maintain their heartland spirit and noble dignity throughout a grim exodus from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to the wretched migrant camps of California. As Tom Joad, actor Henry Fonda delivered the film's definitive speech, promising his mother as he bids her farewell, "I'll be all around . . . Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat . . . Wherever there's a cop beating a guy, I'll be there . . . And when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there too." In further affirmation, his mother closes the film with another rallying speech, "Can't wipe us out. Can't lick us. We'll go on forever. 'Cause we're the people."

With few exceptions, Hollywood's image of the "common man" did not include a place for black Americans. Aside from a few roles allotted for servants and slaves, such as Hattie McDaniel's character in Gone with the Wind and Paul Robeson's singing performance in Showboat (1936), blacks found expression primarily in independently-produced "race movies." Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering black filmmaker of the silent era, directed several films during the 1930s. And the gangster genre lived on in black films like Am I Guilty (1940) years after the Production Code effectively killed it in Hollywood.

Various political winds blew through the motion picture industry during the 1930s, some with a far-lasting impact. Frightened by the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign of socialist Upton Sinclair, the studios distributed to theaters reels of what amounted to campaign attack ads that helped to foil his election bid. But the film industry as a whole tilted toward liberal causes. In 1936, despite wide mainstream isolationist sentiment, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League organized to highlight the menace of international fascism and champion the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. The leftist politics of the Popular Front attracted idealists within Hollywood, and the film industry also became a base for Communist Party organizers, who successfully recruited a number of movie workers. Within a decade many of these leftist writers, directors, and actors would find themselves under attack and sometimes even blacklisted for their Depression-era politics, as Hollywood succumbed to the red-baiting of the Cold War.



Bergman, Andrew. We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. 1971.

Buhle, Paul, and Dave Wagner. Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Films. 2002.

Ceplair, Larry, and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–1960. 1980.

Cripps, Thomas. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942. 1993.

Hamilton, Marybeth. "When I'm Bad, I'm Better": Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. 1995.

Horne, Gerald. Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930–1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, and Trade Unionists. 2001.

Kendall, Elizabeth. The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s. 1990.

Louvish, Simon. Monkey Business, the Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, with Added Gummo. 2000.

May, Lary. The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way. 2000.

McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. 1992.

Munby, Jonathan. Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. 1999.

Roberts, Randy, and James Olson. John Wayne: American. 1995.

Sarris, Andrew. "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet": The American Talking Film: History, and Memory, 1927–1949. 1998.

Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. 1981.

Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. 1988.

Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney. 1968.

Sklar, Robert. City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield. 1992.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. 1975.

Smoodin, Eric. Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era. 1993.

Bradford W. Wright

About this article

Hollywood and the Film Industry

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article