Richard James Havis
In hard times, audiences like escapist entertainment. That was as true in America's Great Depression as it is now. But Breadlines And Champagne, a retrospective at New York's Film Forum, reveals that some films did highlight the soul-destroying poverty and physical hardships of that era.
'There weren't that many films where the depression was the actual subject matter,' says forum programmer Bruce Goldstein, who organised the retrospective.
'The depression is mainly known for its escapist entertainment,' he says. 'But in Warner Brothers' films the depression is always in the background. You get a sense of how people are living during that time.'
Breadlines and Champagne is a broad programme that shows the ways studios and audiences reacted to the poverty of the 1930s.
A few films, such as William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road, focus directly on the hardships of the time. The 1933 movie tells the story of a group of teenagers who leave their poor families so they aren't a burden on them. Other films use the bad times as a backdrop. Man's Castle is a love story set in 'Hooverville', a slum full of unemployed people in New York's Central Park.
The era also became known for its screwball comedies. These were popular with audiences seeking respite from their tough daily lives. They were witty films that often dealt with the differences between rich and poor.
Naughtiness was also a popular form of escapism. The 'Pre-Code' movies - so named because they ignored the Production Code, the newly adopted censorship guidelines - stand in stark contrast to everything else.
The depression was an angry time, and films such as Wellman's Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys Of the Road depict that anger. In the latter the nomadic boys just want to do an honest day's work, but they have to fight with the police, railway employees, and just about everyone else to get one.
Goldstein says it was rare to show this anger on screen. 'Only a handful of these films are really angry,' he says. 'Wild Boys of the Road is [angry] and the ending of Gold Diggers of 1933 is an indictment of the government. But these are the exceptions. Hollywood suspected the audience didn't want to have their nose rubbed in the depression - they wanted escapism. So production of these films tailed off, although Warner Bros would continue to make a few late into the 1930s.'
Audiences wanted escapist entertainment, says Goldstein. 'Screwball comedies became very popular,' he says.
'They were comedies with a social consciousness and they often focused on the clash between the classes - the conflict between the rich and the poor. One of the big films of the decade was Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. That film transformed Hollywood by jump-starting the screwball comedy,' Goldstein says.
The story is about an heiress who falls in love with a reporter, and the theme is that the poor lead happier lives than the rich. 'That film may be the most emblematic of the period. It defined the spirit of the era.'
Sex was also in demand as entertainment. Although the censorious Production Code had arrived in 1930, racy and sexually outrageous films were screened before it was enforced in 1934.
Films such as Baby Face, which features Barbara Stanwyck as a hooker sleeping her way up the corporate ranks, provided some thrills. ('She climbed the ladder of success - wrong by wrong!' quips the original poster.)
'Baby Face is more than racy - it's still quite outrageous today,' says Goldstein. 'After all, she takes a guy to the Men's Room to 'stoop' him, as we say here in New York. Some groups put a lot of pressure on Hollywood, saying that films like this were going to degrade children. So after 1934, there was no hint of sex in films. Any vestige of real life was erased from the movies.'
The depression films weren't the big pictures of their day, Goldstein says. 'They made money for the studios, but they weren't the movies that are remembered, or the movies that won the Academy Awards.'
As the 1930s progressed, comfortable films became the order of the day. 'The depression movies were replaced by films that were the complete opposite,' says Goldstein. 'Shirley Temple captured everyone's hearts. All the big stars were homey types. Marie Dressler, a kind of ugly duckling, was the biggest box office attraction of the early 1930s. The depression made people want to celebrate the traditional homespun values.'