When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, it heralded the beginning of what became known as The Great Depression. Hollywood was in transition; the era of movies with sound was still in its infancy. Movie careers had ended and others were being made.
As the country faced unprecedented hardships, 60 to 80 million Americans went to the movies once a week or more. For the price of 10-25 cents, the viewer would get four hours of entertainment that included two full-length films, newsreels, and cartoons. On Saturdays, there was usually a serial, such as Perils of Pauline, Buck Jones, and Flash Gordon, that left the hero or heroine in such a dire situation that the viewer had to return the next week to discover the outcome.
The movie business became one of the few industries to actually benefit from the Depression. When most other industries were struggling, the movie industry succeeded by giving the movie-going public a therapeutic diversion from their troubles. But the movie industry had borrowed heavily, to a combined total of more than $400 million, to convert shooting sets and theaters to accommodate talkies. To survive, studios trimmed salaries and production costs and closed the doors of a third of the nation’s theaters.
Still, the remaining theaters had to find ways to increase attendance so they developed gimmicks such as Bank Night, Dish Night, and Bingo Night. Looking for even the tiniest windfall, moviegoers showed up on Bank Night, which was usually on the lowest attendance night of the week, when their tickets became part of a lottery for prize money as high as $3,000. Dish Night, when each moviegoer received a piece of china, was another popular draw. Over time, a whole set of dishes could be collected.
In the first years of the Depression, the most popular movies of those years spanned a variety of genres, from comedies to musicals to gangster films, that offered the audiences the escape they needed most. While comedies and musicals served to distract many movie audiences from their misery, there was also a new mood of gritty cynicism that emerged in film which matched the grimness of the times.
Columbia and Warner Brothers filled theaters by showing films whose scripts were seemingly dragged from the grim pages of the newspapers. These films featured wronged heroes overwhelmed by forces outside their control or rogues who weren’t cowed by the Depression and even turned it to their advantage. Showing a new contempt for law and government, audiences reveled in the adventures of organized criminals. Such films rocketed Edward G Robinson and James Cagney to stardom overnight despite the films being criticized as breaching boundaries of morality and good taste.
But by 1933, as mass unemployment took hold of America, movie attendances began to fall. By the time attendances began to recover in the late 1930s, Hollywood had to cope with the strictures of the newly formed League of Decency, which had raised a formidable political lobby and attacked films for their immoral content. From that point on, Hollywood had to start selling America instead of attacking it.
As a renewed sense of optimism emerged in the second half of the Great Depression decade, new types of films were produced. Detectives, G-men (FBI), western heroes, and other defenders of law increasingly replaced gangsters. Audiences enjoyed comedies and dramas in which a “little man” stood up against corruption. Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart, is a great example of this theme. The complex wordplay of performers like the Marx Brothers and Mae West gave way to the screwball comedy, such as Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
Ultimately, the fantasy world of movies played a crucial social and psychological role in the lives of Americans during the Depression. Films repeated the same plot formulas time and again, but it was through those simple themes that Hollywood restored faith in individual initiative, in the government, and in a common American identity that transcended social class.