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How the Great Depression inspired Hollywood's golden age


Stars such as Ginger Rogers, pictured with the director Howard Hughes

Stars such as Ginger Rogers, pictured with the director Howard Hughes

Stars such as Ginger Rogers, pictured with the director Howard Hughes

For some months now over-excitable commentators have been comparing the current global economic downturn with the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

And while one hopes they're overdoing it a bit, you would think that in the coming recession cinema -- a luxury if ever there was one -- will be among the first industries to be badly hit. Yet this summer, box office receipts were up significantly in the US, Australia, here and Britain (where attendances are at a 40-year high), and if the lessons of history are anything to go by, Hollywood may be among the rare beneficiaries of the economic slump.

In 1929 when the bottom fell out of the global economy, bankrupting millions of people and prompting mass unemployment, years of hardship and even suicides, Hollywood entered a sort of golden age. The advent of talking pictures helped re-energize the medium and people, no doubt desperate for diversion, began flocking to the cinema in unprecedented numbers.

Even in the depths of the Great Depression, between 60 and 80 million Americans went to the movies once a week or more, and back in those days they really got value for money. In the early 1930s, an American movie ticket would buy you a cartoon, a newsreel, a B-feature and the main film, which amounted to something like four hours' entertainment for a nickel, the price back then of a gallon of petrol or a packet of cigarettes.

The perceived wisdom was that Depression audiences went to the cinema to be distracted from their misery by escapist and romantic fare, but this is not entirely accurate. In fact a new mood of gritty cynicism emerged in Hollywood pictures that matched the grimness of the times. There were the glitzy distractions, of course; from the absurdly elaborate dancing set-pieces from the choreographer Busby Berkeley to lavish exercises in escapism like the Garbo classic Grand Hotel (1932) and the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical Flying Down to Rio (1933). But these were the exception rather than the rule, and most Depression films were grounded in the social realities of the time.

Columbia and Warner Brothers packed theatres across America with films whose scripts seemed to be dragged directly from the grim pages of contemporary newspapers. Typical of this new tide of social realism was I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), a Warner Brothers film in which Paul Muni plays a desperate man who's fooled into taking part in a heist and ends up escaping from a vicious Southern chain gang. Films in the early 1930s were full of these wronged heroes, who seemed as overwhelmed by forces outside their control as the down-at-heel punters watching them.

But even more popular than these hapless victims were the rogues who refused to be cowed by the Depression and even turned it to their advantage. A new contempt for law and government allowed audiences to revel in the adventures of organised criminals, and Warner Brothers quickly became masters of the gangster genre. Edward G Robinson and James Cagney became stars overnight by appearing as vicious thugs in films that were criticised at the time as breaching boundaries of morality and good taste.

In Little Caesar (1931), Robinson shocked audiences with his no-holds-barred portrayal of psycho hoodlum Rico, who guns down a priest on the steps of his church because his preaching is making one of Rico's gang feel guilty.

Irish-American actor James Cagney was right behind him, exploding on to the screen as Tom Powers in Public Enemy (1931), and breaking another taboo by smashing that grapefruit into Jean Harlow's face. Cagney would go on to star in the great Warner gangster pictures of the late 1930s, which also introduced the public to Humphrey Bogart.

If the gangster films gave audiences an outlet for their impotent rage, even the most popular comedies of the time were mocking, and angry. The original anarchists, the Marx Brothers, made the transition from Vaudeville to Hollywood just when the stock markets collapsed, and in their classic early comedies like Animal Crackers (1930) and Duck Soup (1933), they and their writers gleefully attacked the sacred cows of patriotism, monogamy and marriage.

How bitterly audiences must have laughed when, in Duck Soup, Groucho's Rufus T Firefly sang "If you think this country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it!" W C Fields famously mocked marriage, children, pets and all the cornerstones of cosy domesticity -- and America loved it.

Hollywood, in other words, partly through a desperate public need for diversion, and partly through its own ingenuity, managed to thrive while the rest of the world was collapsing. But only for a limited period, because the other great lesson to be drawn from the Great Depression is that if economic slumps go on for long enough, everything is affected. Though the studios rode out the first few years of the Depression comfortably enough, by 1933 their massive debts were catching up with them. All had borrowed heavily to finance the mass purchase of movie theatres and their conversion to sound, leaving them with combined debts of over $400m (€285m).

And by 1933, as mass unemployment took hold of America, cinema attendances began to fall -- in that year by a massive 40pc. Attendances would not recover until the late 1930s, and by that time 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 would have to start selling America instead of attacking it.

Of course, these days cinema is not the dominant medium it was in the 1930s, and must now compete with TV, computer games, DVDs and iPods. All the same, the cinema audience boom in times of economic crisis seems to be holding true. It will be interesting to see how modern cinema is affected by the changing public mood.

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