News Media and Entertainment
News Media and Entertainment
The American population became increasingly concentrated in cities in the early twentieth century. Because cities had more public schools than rural areas did, the population's shift to the cities meant that more children had access to education. The literacy (ability to read and write) rate increased accordingly and spawned a thirst for knowledge. To satisfy their need for information, the American public looked to newspapers. Newspaper circulation increased in large cities and small communities. By the 1920s, newspapers could take advantage of improved printing techniques, expanded communication systems, more-efficient news gathering, and increased advertising revenues. Newspaper organizations became big corporate businesses and enjoyed huge profits.
By the early 1920s radio stations started making regularly scheduled broadcasts; two early leaders were KDKA of Pittsburgh and WWJ of Detroit. Radio programming grew steadily in the 1920s. Hollywood movies, which had previously been only novelties, also became big business in the 1920s. On October 6, 1927, the first talkie (a movie with sound), The Jazz Singer, premiered. Many people predicted that sound was a passing fad, but theaters wired up and the American public was hooked.
The Great Depression began in October 1929 with the crash of the stock market. It was the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, lasting until the United States mobilized for World War II (1939–45) in 1941. At its worst, unemployment ranged from 25 to 30 percent. The Great Depression affected the newspaper, radio, and movie industries in unique ways: Weaker newspapers merged with healthier papers. Reporters worked long, hard hours; they specialized in certain issues, such as labor, and began to interpret news as well as report facts. Radio became increasingly popular and a regular part of Americans' lives when other types of entertainment became too expensive. (Social workers reported that families would rather part with their ice box than their radio.) Although movie attendance declined in the early 1930s, 60 percent of Americans still regularly paid the few cents charged for admission. In 1939 The Wizard of Oz premiered. Its theme song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," was testimony that hope was again alive by the end of the decade.
The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 had major adverse effects on the newspaper industry. A decline of up to 40 percent in advertising revenue between 1929 and 1933 meant less money for wages and production. Most newspapers reduced operating expenses by firing reporters and editors and lowering the wages of others. Those who kept their jobs faced increased workloads and were poorly paid. Work-weeks were six days long, ten to twelve hours per day. Job insecurity was a constant. By the late 1930s reporters had unionized (formed trade unions to negotiate better work conditions from employers) and were able to stabilize their economic situation, but the early 1930s were very difficult.
For newspapers that survived the early years of the Great Depression, the 1930s brought major changes. Many newspapers merged with larger papers, forming newspaper chains. Newspaper chains are networks of newspapers located in various cities under a common ownership. Coverage of government activities expanded as the New Deal (policies of relief, recovery, and reform introduced by President Roosevelt) thrust government into the everyday lives of U.S. citizens. Rather than having a few reporters covering all facets of the government, newspapers developed full reporting staffs. Different reporters specialized in covering different topics, such as agriculture, labor, economic policies, and social work. Also, in an effort to help the public better understand the complex issues of the 1930s, reporting began to include interpretation of news in addition to the facts. "Who did what and when" was still important, but the "why" behind each story received increasing coverage.
Syndicated columns, written by experienced journalists located close at hand to events occurring in such places as Washington, D.C., or New York City, arose in response to the need for interpretation of national and world news. (Syndication means selling a piece or column written by one journalist to many newspapers across the country for simultaneous publication.) These columns were often printed on the editorial pages, the section of a newspaper where writers could express their own views. At the beginning of the 1930s some of the best-known syndicated columnists writing on economic and political affairs were Frank Kent of the Baltimore Sun; David Lawrence (1888–1973), who wrote for several Washington, D.C., publications; and Mark Sullivan (1874–1952) of the New York Herald Tribune. Joining that trio by 1931 was Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) of the New York Herald Tribune. By 1940 Lipp-mann was the highest-paid syndicated columnist in the United States; his column appeared in about 165 of the nation's largest newspapers. Heywood Broun (1888–1939) began writing his column "It Seems to Me" for the New York World in the 1920s. By the 1930s his friendly, casual writing style had gathered a large reading audience. In 1933 Broun founded the American Newspaper Guild in an effort to organize journalists to fight for better, more stable working conditions. Dorothy Thompson (1894–1961) became one of the most important journalists of the 1930s with her column "On the Record," written for the New York Herald Tribune. In the later 1930s she and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) were considered the two most influential women in America.
A group of very conservative publishers known as the "press lords" used their papers to strongly oppose President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) and his policies. The "press lords" included William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951), Robert R. McCormick (1880–1955), and Roy W. Howard (1883–1964). Hearst, for example, supported Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election, but by 1935 Hearst called the New Deal a "Raw Deal." He believed the government was wrongfully intruding into business and American lives. He denounced the new Social Security Act (1935; see Social Security chapter) and his extremely conservative antigovernment views were reflected in his newspapers. The Hearst publishing empire in 1935 included newspapers in nineteen large U.S. cities. By 1936 more than 80 percent of the press opposed Roosevelt, but he won reelection to the presidency by a landslide. The press came under a great deal of criticism from the American public, who thought the press was out of touch with the views of everyday Americans.
New Deal press conferences
Regardless of particular journalists' political points of view, President Roosevelt was always considered a "newspaperman's" president. As soon as Roosevelt assumed the presidency in March 1933, it was obvious to all reporters that he would pursue a "new deal" relationship with the press. Unlike previous presidents, Roosevelt undertook press conferences with no prior written questions. He genuinely enjoyed the give-and-take of a news conference. Roosevelt delighted in revealing a news story for the first time. He was informal, lively, reassuring, funny, or sincere—whatever the news of the moment required. The informality and honest information exchange of his press conferences remained constant throughout his years in office. He met with the press an average of eighty-three times a year, a total of 998 presidential news conferences. This was almost four times the combined number of news conferences held by Presidents Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61), John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63), and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69).
Just as the president had, Eleanor Roosevelt developed outstanding relationships with the press. A reformer and women's rights advocate, the First Lady scheduled press conferences for women journalists on Monday mornings at 11:00 a.m. She held her first press conference on March 6, 1933, only two days after the inauguration. From 1933 to 1945 the First Lady opened her "new deal" conferences to women only, forcing major newspapers and news-gathering services to have newspaperwomen in Washington, D.C.
Roosevelt's Fireside Chats
In the 1930s radio became the primary vehicle for communicating information and news. President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted his "fireside chats" only eight days after his inauguration. On March 12, 1933, Roosevelt delivered his first chat over radio in a calm and reassuring manner. He explained the crisis in U.S. banking and what he had done about it. Roosevelt had the uncanny knack of seeming to sit right in a person's living room as he explained major events and issues of the day. He always began with "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America." The fireside chats allowed Americans to feel an intimacy with their president—to feel as if he understood their situation and their concerns. Whether they agreed or disagreed with what Roosevelt had to say, politicians and journalists were in awe of his skill in making use of the mass media. The radio chats built Americans' trust in Roosevelt as he saw them through the Great Depression and into World War II (1939–45). Roosevelt delivered twenty-eight fireside chats to the nation during his presidency.
Still in its infancy in 1930, radio increasingly invaded the field of news reporting, which had previously been left entirely to newspapers. Advertisers quickly realized they could reach more people over the radio waves. Wealthy businessmen not heavily affected by the Great Depression bought up local radio stations, creating radio network chains. Even at the depth of the Depression in 1932, early major radio networks such as the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) were profitable.
To regulate the expanding telecommunications industry, Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934. Part of Roosevelt's New Deal, the act provided for the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The act survives largely intact at the beginning of the twenty-first century: The FCC continues to regulate communication services in all regions of the United States; it also regulates rates and licensing of radio stations. Part of its responsibility is assigning radio frequencies and call letters to radio stations. The FCC also requires that candidates for public office be treated equally and their sponsors identified.
Two of the most famous radio commentators to emerge in the 1930s were Lowell Thomas (1892–1981) and Hans von Kaltenborn (1878–1965). They reported daily events and added their own commentary as radio journalism grew and prospered. In Europe, a political and military crisis that would lead to World War II (1939–45) was unfolding. Radio commentators were in demand to relay events in Europe to the American people. Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965) vaulted to fame in 1938 as a European correspondent and later a war reporter. Newspaper and radio journalism had matured to the point of keeping Americans informed with news from around the world.
Despite the Depression, increasing numbers of American families found a way to buy a radio. They did not want to miss out on major world news or President Roosevelt's "fireside chats." Begun in March 1933, these radio broadcasts allowed Roosevelt to explain his actions and New Deal programs. Americans also wanted to hear popular new entertainment programs. Radio was an inexpensive form of ready entertainment. It offered new avenues to escape the realities of unemployment, homelessness, and hunger, and it quickly became the country's primary entertainment source.
By the mid-1930s two-thirds of American homes had radio sets. By 1939 many rural homes had been electrified through a special New Deal program, and about 80 percent of American homes had radios. After the initial expense, radios proved to be a good investment: The entire family could enjoy drama, comedy, quiz shows, and musical entertainment for free in the comfort of their home. Often the whole family would gather around to listen to programs together.
The 1930s are known as the "Golden Age of Radio." Radio programs multiplied, in number and in type, at an astonishingly quick pace. (This time of rapid, exciting growth was somewhat like the 1990s growth and expansion of the Internet.) Music programming led the way, and, despite growth in news, dramas, and comedies, music still provided 50 percent of radio programming by 1940. At first music was performed live, and studios were built large enough to accommodate full orchestras. Only later was recorded music broadcast. The orchestra of Guy Lombardo (1902–1977) and his Royal Canadians was a favorite as was jazz musician Count Basie (1904–1984). Singers Bing Crosby (1904–1977) and Kate Smith (1909–1986) entertained audiences for decades.
Comedy was a key part of the "Golden Age." Everyone in America knew the comedian Jack Benny (1894–1974) and the tight hold he kept on his money; this characteristic appealed to and amused audiences whose own finances were tight. Popular comedian Bob Hope (1903–) went on to a career in film and television. The husband-and-wife teams of George Burns (1896–1996) and Gracie Allen (1906–1964) and Ozzie Nelson (1906–1975) and Harriet Hilliard (1914–1994) became radio phenomenons in the 1930s. Both couples humorously portrayed an idealized everyday existence in American culture.
Perhaps the most popular radio program of all, Amos 'n' Andy was created by Freeman F. Gosden (1899–1982) and Charles J. Correll (1890–1972). These two white men developed a complex world for their characters—two black American men who had moved from the South in search of jobs in a northern city. Considered a comedy, the program captivated listeners, who waited impatiently each evening for another episode about the adventures and mishaps of the twosome.
Radio drama was also popular during the Depression. The great radio theater drama productions of the 1930s included classic scripts and major stars. The most popular were Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre on the Air, the Lux Radio Theater, Screen Guide Theater, and Studio One, later known as Ford Theater. Productions generally were broadcast in "prime" evening hours so families could enjoy the shows together.
Comic strips had long provided entertainment in the newspapers, and some became popular radio programs. Little Orphan Annie, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Dick Tracy were children's favorites. Parents, constantly worried over Depression budgets at home, appreciated the conservative message of Annie, who reminded the audience that you have to earn what you get.
By the 1920s a golden community located in Southern California beneath the San Gabriel Mountains was established as the movie capital of the world. That community, known as Hollywood, captivated the whole nation with its silent films. Talkies (movies with sound) premiered in 1927, as thousands of Americans flocked to the movie houses or "movie palaces." Movie theaters were often the most elaborate and showy buildings in town. Although the stock market crash of October 1929 marked the beginning of a grave economic crisis in the United States—the Great Depression—approximately 110 million Americans a week went to the movies in 1930. The introduction of sound was an exciting development that audiences could not resist, and, as a result, Hollywood's profits continued. However, as economic conditions worsened nationwide, Hollywood began to worry. By the early 1930s attendance had dropped to near sixty million
During every period in the history of American literature, talented writers have appeared. The Great Depression years were no different. While some authors wrote without much regard to the situations surrounding them, others produced books that revealed a great deal about an America caught in economic devastation. Prompted by the economic struggles of the Depression, many 1930s writers authored socially conscious books known as proletarian (working-class) literature. Feeling betrayed by the competitive U.S. capitalist society, these writers watched as an elite group of business leaders became extremely wealthy at the expense of the majority of people, who continued to fall further behind economically. Supporting working-class individuals and advancing philosophies of cooperation rather than competition, Michael Gold edited two proletarian magazines, Masses and New Masses. Grace Lumpkins's To Make My Bread (1932) is considered one of the best proletarian novels about the horrible working conditions of textile workers.
Many authors who produced proletarian literature went on to fame, including John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, Erskine Caldwell, John Steinbeck, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. John Dos Passos (1896–1970) believed that the promise of a good life in the United States was being destroyed by a small class of wealthy and powerful people. For him the Depression pointed out the stark distinctions between the economic classes in America. Dos Passos created a historical saga that follows the growth of American materialism in the 1890s to the Depression of the early 1930s; this saga appeared as a trilogy (three novels): The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). Standing as tall as Dos Passos in literary artistry was James T. Farrell (1904–1979). Like Dos Passos, Farrell produced a trilogy: Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935). The trilogy tells the story of a young Irish American attempting to rise from the bleak existence of the Chicago working class as the Depression closes in.
Erskine Caldwell (1903–1987) wrote powerfully of poor white Americans in rural areas and the brutal treatment of black Americans. His novel Tobacco Road (1932) is a study of a poverty-stricken tenant farming family in the South at the onset of the Depression. The book was adapted for the stage and ran on Broadway in New York City for years. Caldwell also published God's Little Acre (1933), another novel about a poor family. He teamed up in the mid-1930s with photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1906–1971) for You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a book that documents southern rural poverty.
John Steinbeck (1902–1968) also wrote several decidedly proletarian novels: Pastures of Heaven (1932) is about a farm community near Salinas, California; Tortilla Flat (1935) tells a story of migrant workers and poor farmers; In Dubious Battle (1936) portrays labor problems in California; and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by far the most famous Depression-era novel, tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma family that loses its farm to drought and migrates west to the promised land of California. The Grapes of Wrath won a 1940 Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie.
Richard Wright (1908–1960) was a black author recognized for literary excellence in the late 1930s. He took on the issue of racial prejudice and the problems of black Americans in a collection of four short stories, Uncle Tom's Children (1938). He completed his first novel, Native Son, in 1940 and his second, Twelve Million Black Voices, in 1941. Langston Hughes (1902–1967), another black American, was a prolific writer from 1926 until his death in 1967. Considered the poet laureate of black America, Hughes's writings spoke for the poor and homeless black Americans suffering through the Depression.
Documentary literature, another type of writing that emerged during the Depression, came from a few journalists who decided to leave their solitary desks and travel about the country to better understand their fellow Americans and the impact of the Depression on ordinary people. Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941) collected his stories over a two-month period in 1933 and published them in a 1935 book entitled Puzzled America. Another well-known book of this type is My America (1938), written by Louis Adamic (1899–1951). Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) stands out above others in this category. Created by author James Agee (1909–1955) and photographer Walker Evans (1903–1975), the book examines the life of an Alabama sharecropper's family.
Writers' efforts to look at the real America—at the lives of unexceptional people—were encouraged by the Federal Writers Project (FWP). Beginning in 1935 between six and seven thousand unemployed writers received support from the FWP, a branch of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was one of the agencies established by New Deal legislation. Before this, federal support for writers had been nonexistent. Two of the most famous writers to receive FWP help were John Steinbeck and Richard Wright. Of the 278 pamphlets and books published by the FWP between 1935 and 1939, "These Are Our Lives" was one of the most critically acclaimed. The stories it contains were recorded with pen and paper by members of the FWP in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia.
per week; the few cents needed to get into a movie seemed an extravagance for many. Yet those millions who faithfully attended represented 60 percent of the population. (In comparison, in the 1970s only 10 percent of Americans attended movies.) It seems that by the 1930s movies had become a cultural institution. Movies were the place to take friends or the family. Movies could be talked about for days, and they set standards for taste, styles, songs, and morals. Although all movie companies suffered major economic setbacks in the early 1930s, the public's need for movies would ultimately save the industry.
Holding Movie Audiences
To keep audiences coming back, movie theaters tried many tactics. Lowering the price of a movie was not enough, so the double feature was introduced. (Double features consisted of two full-length films.) Walt Disney (1901–1966) introduced his first animated cartoons in the early 1930s, and newsreels were also a new feature. On Saturdays, a day that children filled the theaters, serial-type movies were shown. These to-be-continued stories left the hero or heroine in such a perilous state that viewers had to come back the next week to see what happened.
Gimmicks such as "Bank Night" or "Dish Night" were popular during the Depression. On Bank Nights, usually held on the lowest-attendance night, tickets became part of a lottery for prize money. Bank Nights drew audiences throughout the country—people everywhere were hopeful they might win the money. One movie official commented that he did not even need to show a movie on Bank Night—just have the lottery and many would come. Dish Night was another way to get people to come and keep coming back. Each moviegoer would receive a piece of china; moviegoers could accumulate a whole set of dishes if they attended often enough.
Through the Prohibition days of the 1920s, when the manufacture, sale, and possession of liquor was banned, city gangs provided Americans with illegal alcoholic beverages. The organized gangs became enormously wealthy and powerful and paid off law enforcement officials to ignore the illegal activity. Accounts of gangster exploits were carried in local newspapers, and the American public became fascinated. Hollywood churned out gangster films by the late 1920s and into the early 1930s, and the films were top box-office attractions. Three of the most popular gangster films were Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932). The gangsters were portrayed as smart, dynamic, successful, and flamboyant. The films showed the gangsters rising from humble beginnings in big-city slums to wealth and power. Of course, the gangsters' activities ran so far outside the law that in the endings they met early, violent deaths. Law enforcement agencies were portrayed as bungling, paralyzed, and inefficient. This depiction of law enforcement authorities and politicians accurately reflected the public's opinion of law and politics in the early 1930s. The public knew that corruption ran deep. And even if the law and politicians were not corrupt, in the public's mind they were highly ineffective given the poor economic condition of the nation and the government's apparent inability to improve the situation.
Historians and scholars of Depression-era gangster movies have different theories about why Americans faithfully went to gangster movies in the early 1930s. In his book We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films (1971), Andrew Bergman explains that gangster films are stories of individual achievement. For example, Rico, the lead character in Little Caesar, follows the model of an American's climb from the bottom rungs of his business upward to the highest level. (Rico is a thinly disguised movie version of Alphonse Capone, 1899–1947, the organized crime boss of Chicago.) And in Public Enemy Tommy Powers, played by James Cagney (1904–1986), is an industrious, classy, wise guy and a ladies' man. In the discouraging days of the Depression, Americans connected with these successful characters, who gave them hope in the American idea of rising to a better life. A different viewpoint comes from Robert S. McElvaine in The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941 (1993). McElvaine sees Little Caesar's Rico as a representation of the greedy businessman who is willing to step on anyone to get to the top. Many Americans believed the greed of businessmen was a prime cause of the Depression. In 1929 American businesses had come crashing down along with the stock market; likewise, Rico comes to a sudden and deserved end. The punishment of the greedy was an appealing movie theme for everyday Americans in the 1930s.
Unconcerned with the reasons behind the films' success, Hollywood knew gangster movies were money-makers, and Hollywood desperately needed money. Approximately fifty gangster films premiered in 1931 alone. However, even as they packed the theaters, increasing numbers of Americans were becoming uneasy about reveling in the gangsters' stories. Civic groups, religious leaders, and parent-teacher associations denounced Hollywood's glorification of the gangster and its disrespectful depiction of law enforcement. Scarface came out in 1932, but by then the anti-gangster crusade had taken hold, and the number of gangster films decreased.
The Three Little Pigs
Producer Walt Disney (1901–1966) released his cartoon creation The Three Little Pigs in 1933. "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf," the theme song of this short animated film, became a national hit. The "big bad wolf" was widely recognized to be a symbol for the economic depression of the 1930s. Hearing the song helped many people defend against their fear of what lay ahead. Some Americans felt that The Three Little Pigs had as much to do with raising the nation's spirits as the New Deal legislation did.
Shyster movies were as popular as the gangster films of the early 1930s. Lawyer Man (1932) and Mouthpiece (1932) are two classic shyster movies. Shysters are lawyers, politicians, or newspapermen who are dishonest in the practice of their work. In the movies, shysters are slick and charming individuals who con and weasel their way through life. Like gangster films, shyster movies present a laughingstock image of law officials. Shrewder than the law officers, shysters could always control a gangster or crooked politician; no one could get the better of a shyster. For Depression-era audiences who felt their lives to be so out of their control, this was a welcome Hollywood fantasy. Frequently the shyster characters eventually turned away from their shyster ways to live upright lives. They then proceeded to protect people from other dishonest characters. This theme was very popular in the Depression days.
A popular comedian of the 1930s was Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977). Chaplin performed in films that featured characters full of innocence and decency. Chaplin was a leader in silent films in the 1920s; besides performing, he often directed, produced, composed music, and edited his films. By the 1930s he was billed as one of the top entertainers in film. Considered by many his greatest work, City Lights (1931) tells the story of a blind girl and Chaplin's character, "the tramp," and the efforts of a millionaire to show them life is worth living. Many Americans needed to be convinced of this message during the Depression. Also, since the end of the Civil War (1861–65), industrialization of America had progressed at a rapid pace with mass production factories full of machines taking the place of skilled craftsmen. The hero of Chaplin's film Modern Times (1936) is a man overwhelmed by machines that are replacing humans in industry. This film reflected the real-life situations of many industrial workers in the 1930s.
Comedy and Screen Anarchists
Anarchists dislike the activities of government and carry out rebellious acts against it. The Marx Brothers—Chico, Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo—and W. C. Fields (1880–1946) were prominent "screen anarchists" of the early 1930s. Between 1930 and 1933, at the depth of the Depression, the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields entertained a despairing population that had come to expect the worst of everyone. These comedians were zany and slapstick, and their antics had Americans laughing with irreverence at topics not traditionally considered funny, such as government and the family. Five popular Marx Brothers films, all produced by Paramount, were The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horsefeathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). W. C. Fields's The Fatal Glass of Beer and three of his other short films—The Pharmacist, The Dentist, and The Barbershop—all appeared in 1933.
Even though comedians ridiculed much of American society and many Americans laughed right along with them, increasing numbers of people were seriously concerned about the gangster and anarchist films. They worried that a moral depression was enveloping the United States by way of the movies.
The Moral Decay Problem
In 1922 Will Hays (1879–1954), the postmaster general under President Warren Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23), decided to move west to Hollywood and accept a post as head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). The MPPDA was a motion picture industry group attempting to clean up the film industry and establish production codes. The West Coast Association of MPPDA agreed to ten "don'ts" in 1927. Those "don'ts" mostly dealt with sex and nudity. After the first silent gangster films of the late 1920s, the MPPDA established in 1930 a longer "don'ts" list, which included a ban on showing sympathy to crime and criminals, making fun of law enforcement, and showing methods to carry out crime. However, the 1930 codes were not enforced. Then in 1933, tired of gangsters being portrayed as heroes while law officers were shown as bumbling and incompetent, several groups joined forces. Catholic Church leaders in America established the Catholic Churches Committee on Motion Pictures. The powerful Protestant Council of Churches and the Central Conference of Jewish Rabbis joined forces with the Catholic Church and forced Hays and the MPPDA to begin enforcing the 1930 code by 1934. Movies cleaned up: Nakedness (including naked babies), double beds, and long kisses were among the many forbidden movie screen images. This cleanup ushered in big musicals, law and order films, screwball comedies, and movies with a positive message.
President Roosevelt's New Deal programs brought new hope for many Americans. Together with the moral codes for movies, this hope for renewed prosperity inspired the squeaky-clean big musicals of the 1930s. The "new deal" in movies began in 1933 with the "big three" Warner Brothers musicals: Forty-Second Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade. Busby Berkeley (1895–1976) produced the dance sequences with beautiful girls, glitter, plumes, and colossal sets. Still, Depression themes run through each film: The main character in Forty-Second Street is broke, everyone in Gold Diggers is broke, and the star of Foot-light Parade thinks he may end up in a breadline. The song "We're in the Money" was first sung in Gold Diggers; in Footlight Parade a sign with a grinning President Roosevelt and another with the Blue Eagle symbol are held up by long-legged dancers. The Blue Eagle was the symbol of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), a New Deal agency.
There were also purely fun musicals, such as Flying Down to Rio (1933), Top Hat (1935), and Follow the Fleet (1936). The lavishness of these musicals lifted spirits, and for Depression-era audiences that was enough to make the films a success.
Shirley Temple Movies
Shirley Temple (1928–), a curly-headed, multitalented young girl, was introduced to movie audiences in 1933 and became the most popular child film star of all time. Her movies fit perfectly with the new decency codes for films. Temple appeared in six films in 1934 and four in 1935 and 1936. By 1938 she was the top box-office attraction. Some of her most notable films are Stand Up and Cheer (1934), The Little Colonel (1935), Curly Top (1935), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), Dimples (1936), and The Little Princess (1939).
Mothers curled their daughters' hair and dressed them to look like the child star. Shirley Temple look-alike contests were popular nationwide. An entire industry grew up around Shirley Temple—dolls, clothes, coloring books, paper doll cutout books, and more.
Soundly ridiculed in the gangster and shyster movies, law and order returned to movies in 1935. When Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933, he appointed Homer S. Cummings (1870–1956) to head the Department of Justice. J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972) and his Bureau of Investigation were part of the Justice Department. Hoover had a well-organized and highly trained group of special agents itching for real law enforcement action. Cummings charged Hoover and his men with cleaning up a group of outlaws that had been robbing banks in the midwestern states. In two short years, 1934 and 1935, Hoover and his men gunned down or captured the outlaws, including John Dillinger (1903–1934), Bonnie and Clyde, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd (1901–1934), and George "Machine Gun" Kelly (1895–1954). Hollywood immortalized Hoover and his men in the sensational Warner Brothers hit G-Men (1935). With this film Hollywood helped reestablish the government as the protector of the people. Gmen—the "G" is thought to stand for "government"—soon became known to the public as FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents.
Screwball comedy in the 1930s was friendly and funny feel-good fare. Talented actors and actresses delivered fast-paced lines as they got into and out of hilarious situations. Screwball comedy story lines attempted to heal and unify the economic classes of America. For example, one of the most popular screwball comedies was It Happened One Night (1934). Directed by Frank Capra (1897–1991) and featuring Clark Gable (1901–1960) and Claudette Colbert (1903–1996), the film unites a lower-middle-class reporter with an heiress. Gable, the reporter, discovers that the heiress's dad works just as many hours as a regular laborer. For the 1930s film audience, the reporter's discovery helped dismantle the Depression myth that all wealthy people are idle. A later Capra film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) stars the always good-humored James Stewart (1908–1997) as a junior U.S. senator who proves that troubles can be overcome by an old-fashioned faith in democracy.
Socially Conscious Movies
Socially conscious films (those that raised the public's awareness of political or social issues) were being produced as early as 1932. With the exception of one, The Grapes of Wrath (1940), these films were not major box-office hits. They dealt with despair, outcasts, lynchings, hobo children, and economic hardships. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang deals with unemployment, unjustified imprisonment, escape, and in the end hopelessness. The film is an expression of the national mood in 1932. Wild Boys of the Road (1933) tells the story of high schoolers riding the railroads after their parents lose their jobs. Fury (1936) and They Won't Forget (1937) are both antilynching films.
Even though Depression themes run through these movies, few of the films realistically portray the day-to-day hardships of the Depression. One exception is the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. Directed by John Ford (1895–1973) and starring Henry Fonda (1905–1982), the movie was released in 1940. It tells the story of refugees from the Dust Bowl migrating to California to find work and a better life. The last socially conscious movie of the Depression era was another Ford film, How Green Was My Valley (1941), adapted from a novel by Richard Llewellyn (1906–1983). It tells a story of working-class people in America. Both movies were a clear call for their original audiences to cooperate with one another and stick together in difficult times. With World War II (1939–45) looming, these were lessons not only for pulling through the Depression but for enduring the war to come.
For More Information
allen, frederick l. since yesterday: the nineteen-thirties in america. new york, ny: harper & brothers publishers, 1940.
bergman, andrew. we're in the money: depression america and its films. new york, ny: new york university press, 1971.
best, gary dean. the nickel and dime decade: american popular culture during the 1930s. westport, ct, and london: praeger, 1993.
black, shirley temple. child star. new york, ny: warner books, 1989.
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