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Selling the Lure of the New and Foreign: Hollywood in the 1930s
by Sophie Stanish

As unemployment reached an all time high in the early nineteen thirties, the Great Depression firmly settled into place, its grip on the United States almost strangling the nation.  Sandwiched between the Roaring Twenties and World War Two, the nineteen thirties as a decade produced nothing of note, save for the crushing melancholy of the Great Depression.  From out of work businessmen to destroyed bankers to farmers whose farm became a part of the Dust Bowl, nearly twenty five percent of the population was out of work and actively searching for a job. (Fig. 1)  Pods of roaming job seekers criss-crossed the country, seeking employment, food, and money.1  Thousands more barely eked out a living on limited funds, surviving from day to day, going hungry whenever bills absolutely had to be paid.  The economic situation was dire and deteriorating every day.  And yet - millions crammed into movie theatres each day, spending the few cents to see a picture.  With such harsh conditions, fierce competition, and low pay, why would people pay fifteen cents for an hour and a half of entertainment?  What was the allure of going to the movies?  What was the draw of Hollywood?

The answer is consumerism.  Every American, regardless of economic status or lack thereof, by the nineteen thirties was a consumer, in that each and every one of them held the idea of a commercialized society.  Since the Industrial Revolution, the practice of competition among business had flourished into common procedure, promoting healthy rivalry.  However, with the economic downturn, even the thriving, and relatively large, film industry was affected.  As such, the Hollywood studios were forced to cater to the demands of the public, to mirror the public mind set.  Films such as 1932’s If I Had a Million clearly illustrated the concept of a life ruled by the economy, a concept to which the audience could completely relate. (Fig. 2)  also held out a ray of hope for the people watching, as they saw a prostitute receive a million dollars from an unknown benefactor for no real reason other than that he picked her name out of the phone book.  Films during the interwar era managed to present characters and plot lines that were plausible to the viewer, which stayed within the realm of possibility of actually happening, like the anonymous benefactor ofMillion Million. Depression films took on the “responsibility of reinstating the mythical American values of individualism, classlessness, and progress.”2 Americans may have come to these films in search of escape from their arduous and hopeless lives but that isn't to say the themes and motifs of these films appeared out of reach.  Hollywood, while upholding American institutions such as government and family, also created characters and plot lines that stayed within the realm of possibilities.

Hollywood provided a pretense of escapism, crowding people into theatres in millions each week.  As Margaret Farrand Thorp observes in her 1939 study America at the Movies, “There are other people who make the movies besides the artists and technicians in Hollywood.  Eighty-five million Americans go to see a picture every week.”3  They entered expecting to be entertained and they were not often disappointed.  The industry catered to the audiences, maintaining certain illusions, becoming a form of escapism, allowing the audience to leave behind their miserable lives and enter worlds of dancing and singing and cocktail parties and handsome men and beautiful women. (Fig. 3) The theatre’s job was to “make its spectators forget that they are participating in a practical activity, to invent a sphere that seems far removed from the manipulations of the everyday.”4  The audience got so involved in a picture, such as Follow the Fleet, the 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaboration, that they believed that they had been transported to another world, one which was much more exciting, less despairing and less full of reminders of the failure of the government and of their own lives.  Hollywood films often reflected America's growing need and desire for escapism. In addition to magical worlds such as Oz, films painted more familiar scenes such as Depression-stricken cities and tension filled homes and then drew a happy or engagingly entertaining plot from the setting, leaving the audience with a feel for the great possibilities inherent even in their desperate situations.

Films, with their visions of sparkling efficiency, happy accidents, and lucky coincidences, took people away from all of the awfulness evoked by the Great Depression. (Fig. 4) Films promoted journeys and all the brilliant new ways of taking them, showing sleek and shiny cars, busses and boats full of laughing people.  Films painted glowing pictures of the happiness of travelers, the adventures they had, and the sights they saw.  Films held the power of suggestion over their impressionable viewers, subtly ingraining and equating the idea of travel and methods of transportation with the concept of contentment, happiness and prosperity.  Films influenced what people thought of as modern or attractive.  Take for instance, Ginger Rogers.  The girl could dance and was pretty enough, but gained little recognition as an actress until paired with Fred Astaire, a dancing star, in Flying Down to Rio, the star vehicle of Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond.  Her small role as a band member nevertheless catapulted her to stardom through her interaction with the famous dancer and the down-to-earth character she portrayed, a girl who resonated with working and middle class women.5  The film industry made her a star through the part.  It also brought other new and seemingly odd trends and ideas into the limelight, promoting consumerism and the thrill of the foreign during an age when money was not spent lightly or on frivolous or non-essential things.  The rising star of the 1930s was Art Deco, the movement begun in France. (Fig. 5)

Beginning in 1931 with the films Transatlantic and Reaching for the Moon, Hollywood began to present the glamour of Art Deco as well as the glamour of travel on the sea. (Fig. 6)  In Transatlantic, Art Deco is presented as a style of contrasting blacks, whites, and geometric forms. These decorative motifs went on to influence a host of copy cats and convinced movie patrons that life on the high seas was very good indeed.6  Likewise in Reaching for the Moon, the ocean liner portrayed is sleek, modern, elegant, and stylish, the epitome of Art Deco, again subtly hinting to the audience that life on the seas could be very good.    The audience, unconsciously drawn into the delicate web of suggestion concocted by the writers, directors and actors of the movie, equate the ocean with class, and class with superiority, and superiority with money.  Therefore, in their minds, the ocean, and luxury liners which travel upon its swells, equal money.

The reasoning is very simple. In the films, ocean travel is portrayed as glamorous and indicative of money, since only the very rich or very lucky were able to afford.  Though few of the movies’ patrons would actually undertake a sea voyage, especially a transatlantic voyage on a luxury liner as a passenger, the possibility of such a temptingly bright future appealed to the Depression-oppressed nation.  The luxury liner became a sign of prosperity and a ray of hope.  Whenever a liner won the coveted Blue Riband and became the fastest liner, the masses caught up in the celebration felt that much closer to the elite.  Hollywood’s clever marketing of ships at once showed people what they did not, and could not, have but left them, not particularly envious, but instead hopeful and open to the changing thought of wealth and its representations.  The ocean liner was a symbol of modernity and class, an image Hollywood fostered. It symbolized glamour, luxury, and convenience. With their sparkling white design, polished metal railings, and luxurious interiors, the liners represented all that was modern and elegant. Although most of the audience would never set foot on an ocean liner, the echo of such imagery created an attitude of approval of these vessels.  Thus Hollywood sold the ocean liners as the symbol of utmost class.

Notes
 1.Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. 116.
 2. “Hollywood in the Depression.” American Studies at the University of Virginia. 15 Dec 2000.  27 Oct 2009. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug02/FILM/hollywooddepression.html>.
 3. Thorp, Margaret Farrand. America at the Movies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939. 1.
4.  Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. 113.
 5. Gallafent, Edward. 2000.  Astaire and Rogers.  New York: Columbia University. 13.
 6. Young, William H., Nancy K. Young. "The 1930s: Travel and Recreation." In The 1930s. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2002. http://popstaging.greenwood.com/document.aspx?id=GR1602-1018 (accessed October  11, 2009). Also available in print form.
 














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