American Cinema of the 1930s: Themes and Variations

By Ina Rae Hark | Go to book overview

1936

Movies and the Possibility
of Transcendence

SUSAN OHMER

Reflecting back on this year in American culture, writer Studs Terkel described it as a time of "great ideals and hope and trauma" (74). Since he was speaking retrospectively, Terkel knew that the ominous events unfolding in Germany, Italy, and Spain would eventually lead to World War II, but many at the time felt that the Depression was beginning to lift, that America would soon be back on its feet. Business was expanding; the economy was picking up steam; and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs seemed to be working, despite fierce opposition from Republicans and the Supreme Court. Hollywood, too, enjoyed a banner year at the box office with many outstanding films that extended established genres, introduced new stars, and displayed the possibilities of new processes such as Technicolor.

Like other films of this decade, the ones made this year represent the Depression, sometimes directly, more often indirectly or symbolically. In live-action features and animated shorts, in genres ranging from screwball comedies to historical dramas to musicals, the characters, plots, and settings often speak of struggle, defeat, and continuing hope. Educator and sociologist Frederick Thrasher, writing in the Journal of Educational Sociology near the end of the year, argued that motion pictures "make a unique contribution to art that cannot be made in any other medium of human expression." Unrestricted by physical time and space, film can give viewers new perspectives, "transcend the material into realms of fantasy which other forms of art find it much more difficult to present" (130–31). The cinema's power to transport us has led many to think of Depression-era films as offering escape, but Thrasher's formulation offers another way to look at the films of this era. In them, we see how formal devices such as music, sound, camerawork, set design, and costumes incorporate elements of the material world but lift us beyond it into another realm. Five films in particular from this year demonstrate that the idea of "escape" is too simple. In Show Boat, Swing Time, Mod-

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