American Cinema of the 1930s: Themes and Variations

By Ina Rae Hark | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Movies and the 1930s

INA RAE HARK


A Decade of Dislocations and Transformations

In perhaps no other decade did the Hollywood film industry and its product look so different at its conclusion as compared to its beginning. In 1930, the industry had not totally solved the problems that came along with the transition to talking pictures. Hollywood was still negotiating content standards that would appease critics in the heartland and yet enable the production of movies that sold in the big cities. Whether the industry could survive the economic effects of the stock market crash was up in the air. By the end of the decade, however, in what has been called "Hollywood's Greatest Year," spectacular films that used both color and sound had established themselves as American icons. The major studios had consolidated their power as a mature oligopoly—a term economists use to describe an alliance of certain businesses in the same field who grant each other reciprocal benefits in order to monopolize trade—vertically integrating production, distribution, and exhibition of films. They had weathered the Depression, the establishment and enforcement of the Production Code, and labor actions and unionization among the creative ranks to become a well-oiled industrial powerhouse.

The chapters in this volume are linked by several common threads. First, the availability of sound and the voices of performers drove many changes. The musical became an important genre for the first time. Many of the stars to emerge during the decade had very distinctive voices: comedians like Mae West and W. C. Fields with their peculiar comic inflections; the foreign-accented exoticism of everyone from Greta Garbo to Bela Lugosi; the instantly imitable vocal rhythms of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, or James Cagney.

Secondly, the reality of film audiences was characterized particularly by sudden and unexpected shifts of fortune. An American head of household could be a plutocrat one day, a pauper the next. A comfortably bourgeois

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