American Cinema of the 1930s: Themes and Variations

By Ina Rae Hark | Go to book overview

1932

Movies and Transgression

DAVID LUGOWSKI

This year ushered in the worst of the Great Depression. Thirteen million Americans were unemployed, business losses were reported up to $6 billion, and industry was operating at half its capacity from before the Crash. Extremes, challenges, uncertainties, and episodes of upheaval set the tenor for the times, both at home and abroad. Japan took full control of Manchuria; over 10,000 Salvadorans were massacred in an indigenous uprising; Italy's Benito Mussolini met with Pope Pius XI to woo Catholics to fascism; the Nazis declared Adolf Hitler their presidential candidate; and French president Paul Doumer was assassinated. A hunger strike by Gandhi helped pass the Poona Pact, granting equal rights to India's "untouchables." On the domestic front, President Herbert Hoover's Reconstruction Finance Corporation failed to stem the economic devastation. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World predicted a grim future. Popular songs reflected desperation ("Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"), denial ("Say It Isn't So"), melancholy ("Willow Weep for Me"), and even hope ("Happy Days Are Here Again").

Ordinary people enjoyed Walter Winchell's brash radio gossip, and those who could afford it were now able to purchase Revlon makeup, Campbell's tomato juice, and Frito's corn chips at groceries. The middle classes bought instantly developing Polaroid film and saw movies in an incredibly lavish new showplace, Radio City Music Hall. The underprivileged, too, had some moments of triumph. Women, facing increased pressure to enter into prostitution for money, found heroines in Amelia Earhart, making her transatlantic flight, and Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. The Norris-LaGuardia Act passed, barring companies from requiring that employees promise not to join unions as a condition of their hiring. And the newly elected president, Franklin Roosevelt, promised a "New Deal."

Issues of flamboyant excess, poverty, violence, politics, and gender inevitably manifested themselves in the cinema. Hollywood, heavily invested in theaters and sound equipment, had believed that the "talkies" were Depression-proof. Nothing prepared the studios for the losses of this year:

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