American Cinema of the 1930s: Themes and Variations

By Ina Rae Hark | Go to book overview

1938

Movies and Whistling
in the Dark

SAM B. GIRGUS

Still in the midst of the Great Depression and suffering from accumulated woes of poverty, unemployment, poor housing, economic inequality, Jim Crow racism, and social injustice, most Americans probably hoped and thought they had survived the worst of times and could look forward to change for the better. In fact, the country stood at the gates of hell. Such an image provides an appropriate metaphor for the country's and the world's place at that moment in history. Even the experience of World War I could not prepare people for the devastation to come. Who could foresee how the world would come through on the other side of this journey to hell, let alone imagine the journey of horrors itself—the tens of millions dead, the Holocaust, the death camps, the massive displacement, the total destruction of life as it was known? This year started the fulfillment of the implied prediction by Freud in his book that opened the decade, Civilization and Its Discontents. The death instinct, the irrational, and the incurable division of the Western psyche started to bud in its preparation for a full flowering of death and destruction.

The signs of this destruction were there to be seen and interpreted this year, but few could imagine the future from the seemingly fragmented and distant events. In March, Germany easily annexed its neighbor Austria to the chagrin even of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who chafed at his friend Adolf Hitler's conquest of the country at Italy's border. Like America during those months and weeks, Europe was preoccupied elsewhere. Mussolini himself was dealing with the problems of his own aggressiveness in the Mediterranean, Spain, and Africa. Britain busily worked to make peace agreements with the Italian dictator, including acceptance of Italy's defeat of Abyssinia, while also acquiescing to Germany's takeover of Austria. French concern focused primarily on its own internal political problems with a new cabinet crisis.

Not content to stop with the incorporation of Austria, Hitler through the winter and spring increased the tensions of the German-Czech crisis.

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