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In 1932, a quarter of Americans were unemployed. There was no social safety net, social security, or unemployment compensation. It was an economic and social catastrophe.
Everyone blamed Hoover for the Depression, and even once FDR stepped in as president, there was a lot of work to be done.
During the 1930s, films exhibited the despair that many Americans felt. Corruption was rampant and feckless in the United States, but people wanted to believe in success. The focus in many films was the abuse of politics and the justice system. The solution iun these films as a change of leadership, thus satirizing politics.
A Few Examples
1932 saw the film Dark Horse, which was about a kingmaker who finds someone to become president.
Movie musicals made an effort to dance and sing the Great Depression away. One great example from the 1930s is The Wizard of Oz, as Dorothy (Judy Garland) travels to the technicolor land of Oz after her Kansas house gets caught in a tornado.
The films that portrayed success and were ever popular were gangster movies. They were typically rags-to-riches movies with gangsters as heroes. Movies like Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931) had irresistible plot lines, and their main characters became the archetype for gangster movies up to today. People wanted to believe what films promoted, that "the government is here, benevolent, and the judges are here to help."
In 1933, the popularity of gangster films fizzled down. They were replaced by cowboy films and and G-Men films (federal officers of the law). They promoted that the government is good.
The Hays Code, in 1934, made sure that gangsters and criminals were killed off, stating crime doesn't pay and that justice always prevails. Audiences discounted moralistic endings.
When FDR became president in 1932, his plan to pull America out of the Depression evolved very slowly. From that point on, films reflected this uncertainty which morphed into confidence. The films that were made during Hoover's presidency had an anarchic, satiric and subversive tone about them (which was more of a vaudeville style to humor). Once FDR became president, there was a more distinct narrative to the humor, which is called comic realism, retrospectively. This shift was distinct, and films matured in this way.
For example, in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, James Stewart plays the nice guy hero who ultimately defeats the shady democratic forces himself. Mr. Smith demonstrates that one person can make a big difference, just like FDR.
The 1930s also saw the rise of screwball comedies. There was almost always a romance between a poor person and someone affluent. It would end like many of Shakespeare's comedies--in marriage. A class conflict would get resolved onscreen, usually involving class envy. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers starred in these kinds of films.
This kind of escape showed the levity in class conflict, and brought a battle of the sexes to the forefront as a great motif in films. Slapstick and situational comedy would sometimes be part of the film as well. The former was a major aspect of vaudevillian comedy, and the latter is still a common setup for television shows (sitcoms, anyone?).
Films like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby made people laugh in times like the Great Depression, and is still a very popular genre today.
The 1933 Marx Brothers film Duck Soup was the last of the films they had in their contract with Paramount. If you haven't seen it yet, you are missing out, as it is hailed as one of the funniest movies of all time.
The story follows Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as he presides over the chamber of Fredonia. He could not be more bored of his position, as he plays jacks during meetings and proceedings. In order to liven up his job, he hires a peanut stand vendor (Chico) to serve as secretary of war.
The film mocks the ordinary American voters who will do anything they are told. For example, when Firefly stands on his hands during a court proceeding, so does the people.
The satirizing of American democracy's distribution date heavily effected its reception. The film was originally meant to be released in 1932 when Hoover was still president. Because it was not released until 1934 during the FDR era, people were uninterested in its satiric message.
Even though the Marx Brothers were big stars, it is ironic that their best film over time was a flop upon its release. Their other films, which were lower in quality turned into big hits.
Today, one of the most well-known movies that represent the highs and lows than many people felt during the Depression was Seabuscuit. Americans wanted to badly to be optimistic, and Seabuscuit brought that to them.
The change in leadership from Hoover to FDR, who was an inspiring and ambitious politician, and FDR did what Hoover couldn't.
Overall, the escapism brought to those suffering from the Great Depression through movies made people forget about their troubles, if only for a little while.