Americans Go to the Movies
American movies and radio had one of their most successful decades in the 1930s. Never before were so many Americans in all parts of the country entertained and informed by standardized media. Until then, it was still possible to think of America principally in terms of regions, but by virtue of the impact of national media, national brands, and national advertising, along with improved opportunities for travel, one might, by 1940, think of America as a more unitary culture. Radio and movies not only helped formulate this homogeneity, they also, of course, supplied major clues to its identity with symbolic statements about how Depression Americans felt and what they believed. The fact that the public often sought entertainment from the movies or radio as a mode of escape does not invalidate them as a measure of the national culture. What the American people wished or allowed themselves to escape to was still part of their sensibilities. What played on the dial or on the screen does, in fact, furnish important measures of what Americans held dear while in the heart of the Great Depression.
Movies were big business in the 1930s. Hollywood, virtually synonymous with the film industry in America, was producing three-fourths of the world's motion-picture footage and was widely known as the "entertainment capital" of the world. 1 Perhaps 5,000 films came out of Hollywood in that decade. 2 Great movie studios were operating then: Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, Twentieth Century-Fox, Warner Brothers, Radio-Keith Orpheum, and Paramount. And unusually gifted movie stars, perhaps the greatest ever, captivated the decade's viewers. 3 Theaters, less sumptuous than the palaces of the 1920s, were nevertheless restyled in streamline form; they were flashy and exuded optimism for patrons. Their intent was to catch the eye of the passersby by reminding "the show began on the sidewalk." At times, theater