The Great Depression had an impact on many aspects of American culture. American Film, especially in the Comedy genre was a good example of this.
By the 1930s, the country had undergone huge social changes. Women had recently gotten the vote and were beginning to gain a previously unheard of social independence. The Stock Market crash of 1929 began an economic depression that soon affected most of America. By the peak of the Depression in 1933 almost twenty-five percent of the country was unemployed, while even more people just made ends meet. Motion pictures and radio however just grew in popularity and gave Americans a common culture and a greater sense of connectedness.
American film soon reflected these realities. Film was rapidly becoming the entertainment of choice for the vast majority of Americans. Even with huge unemployment and widespread poverty, 60 to 70 million people a week were escaping from their problems for a few hours at a time by spending fifteen cents to go to the movies.
As American social structures were rocked by the depression, comedies released in these years began to express a disdain for traditional institutions and values. The Marx Brothers spoofed everything from class structures, to universities, to patriotism in such films as “Animal Crackers” (1930), and “Duck Soup” (1933). Mae West used sexual innuendo to poke fun at the middle class code of morality and was the first woman to make racy and suggestive comments on film. Her early films, “She Done Him Wrong” (1933), and “I’m No Angel” (1933) resulted in the Motion Picture Production Code. Bowing to pressure from various groups, the Industry instituted the Production Code of 1934 that prevented films from depicting sexually suggestive actions or dialogue.
At the same time Hollywood had to contend with these restraints, the studios had an increasing need for good writers to craft needed dialogue for the talkies. Hollywood was one of the few places with full employment and rising salaries. Soon, some of America’s best writers were flocking to the West Coast. The writers brought a new sophistication and much creativity to the problems prompted by the necessity of adhering to the Production Code.
All of these factors lead to the development of the screwball comedy. It featured sharp dialogue, women who were smart and strong, fanciful plot twists and turns, and a storyline that often included the interplay between the wealthy and poorer classes. The films generally sided with their lower class protagonists and often showed the wealthy classes to be inept and in need of the good common sense of the masses.
“It Happened One Night” (1934) is perhaps the best known of the screwball comedies. Claudette Colbert is Ellie Andrews, a wealthy rebellious socialite who married a society wastrel. Her father has the marriage annulled, and she runs away to go to her husband. Incognito, she meets a savvy street-smart reporter Peter Warne played by Clark Gable. She needs his help and they end up traveling together as Warne hopes to get the big scoop. Gable’s character is the strong, competent, wise cracking everyman not dazzled by Colbert’s wealth. He has a strong moral center and would not take advantage of the intimate situations they experience. This character appealed to the largely middle and working class audience. Colbert’s character is strong and smart and after a few “fish out of water” jokes, soon fits comfortably into the situations garnering the admiration of Gable’s character, and more importantly, that of the audience. This showed that the wealthy upper classes were the same as everyone else and reinforced the American ideal of a classless society-a popular notion with the audiences of the 30s.
My Man Godfrey (1936) is another good example of the genre. Carol Lombard plays Irene Bullock, a young, wealthy eccentric who goes to the city dump where she meets a derelict named Godfrey, and hires him as family butler. Godfrey brings a much-needed sense of reality to the crazy, spoiled and rich family. This again reinforced the competency and the ascendancy of the working and middle class-the audience.
While relating to the harsh times, these settings not only capture the emotions of its audience but also manipulate them with a positive turn of events at the end. Film Historian Ed Sikov says that they serve the cultural function of humanizing the wealthy, especially in a time of widespread poverty and social unrest
The Great Depression was the biggest socio-economic event of the 1930s, it is fitting that it had an important impact on a major aspect of American culture – our films. The films also had a huge impact on the Society. President Franklin Roosevelt said: “During the Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”