1930s: Film and Theater
1930s: Film and Theater
Although many people and businesses suffered during the Great Depression (1929–41), the movie industry did not. In fact, the years of the 1930s are considered the golden era of Hollywood cinema. Eighty-five million people a week crowded movie theaters across America to escape their sometimes desperate financial situations. From black-and-white and two-color "B" movies to new three-color Technicolor "A" movies, audiences had huge quantities of movies from which to choose.
The technological advances of color and sound made the best movies truly extravagant. Broadway choreographer Busby Berkeley (1895–1976) created some of the most elaborate musicals. Dancing partners Fred Astaire (1899–1987) and Ginger Rogers (1911–1995) turned dance into an art form on film. Large, powerful movie studios turned actors and actresses, such as Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992), young Shirley Temple (1928–), and Mickey Rooney (1920–), into superstars by featuring them in film after film. Rooney played the popular character Andy Hardy in a series of films that could be enjoyed by the whole family.
Some studios specialized in different types of films. Horror films such as Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) terrified audiences. Epic dramas like Gone with the Wind (1939) captivated audiences for hours. Western movies captured and enhanced the myth of the American West through sweeping landscape shots and tough cowboys played by the likes of John Wayne (1907–1979). Gangster flicks were especially popular in the 1930s. Actors James Cagney (1899–1986) and Edward G. Robinson (1893–1973) perfected the nasty movie criminals patterned after real-life gangsters like Al Capone (1899–1947). Capone had become notorious in Chicago, Illinois, during Prohibition (1920–33) when he and his henchmen (tough-guy associates) built a criminal empire supplying people with illegal alcohol.
For fun, films offered screwball comedies, including It Happened One Night (1934), featuring the witty banter of stars Cary Grant (1904–1986) and Claudette Colbert (1903–1996), and the Oscar-winning The Awful Truth (1937) starring Grant and Irene Dunne (1898–1990). These screwball comedies, combining slapstick comedy and urban sophistication, remained popular from the middle to the end of the decade. Another fun type of film was the animated feature. Walt Disney released its first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937 to great success. The sometimes playful, sometimes scary, and terrifically successful Wizard of Oz was released in 1939.
The New Deal—a set of government programs designed to stimulate the economy and aid Americans harmed by the Depression—offered support to theaters across the nation. The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was created by the Works Progress Administration in 1935 to employ actors, directors, and set and costume designers. The FTP made theater affordable to everyday Americans. The FTP was in charge of organizing distinct theater chapters for each state. Until the project lost its funding in 1939, it supported the creation of children's plays, new dramas by American playwrights, and productions of the classic plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The FTP also sponsored theaters for the blind, productions in various languages, and—perhaps the most memorable productions—the "Living Newspaper" dramas that entertained as well as educated audiences about American history. The FTP productions were seen by nearly twenty-five million people. A Negro Theatre Project also paralleled the FTP's development with all-black productions.