Between the beginning of the Depression in 1930 and the early days of the Roosevelt administration in 1933, when confusion and desperation gripped much of the country, Hollywood momentarily floundered. Not only did the studios have to make the difficult transition to sound, they had to adjust to the rapidly changing tastes of a nation in upheaval. These two variables–sound and the Depression–created a whole new set of aesthetic demands requiring that the old Formula be placed within a new context.
The studios at first experimented with extravagant musicals and photographed plays, but dwindling audience interest quickly prompted them to revert to action and melodrama. It didn’t take too long to realize that the talkies required a greater surface realism. The romantic, ethereal fantasies of the twenties’ films sounded ridiculous when put into words: John Gilbert’s passion may have been eloquently mirrored in his face and eyes, but when he attempted to express it verbally the emotions seemed silly and banal.
Correspondingly, the hard facts of the Depression demanded a shift in subject matter. Latin lovers and college flappers now seemed rather remote, completely unrelated to the changed mood and the overriding preoccupation with social breakdown. The romantic ideals of the thirties had to be more firmly grounded in a topical context.
The films of the early Depression years reflect much of the desperation of the time, both in their initial groping for new character types and settings and in their eventual preoccupation with an amoral society and the inefficacy of once-sacred values. By late 1933, with the New Deal inspiring confidence, Hollywood had found its bearings. The studios were now secure with the new sound medium and had established the dramatic conventions expressive of new attitudes. New Deal confidence and Hays Office moralism removed much of the hard edge from the early thirties cycles, but the basic groundwork for the remainder of the decade had been laid and Hollywood could now proceed with greater self-assurance.
The most popular of the prototype cycles was the gangster movie. It reestablished the action movie as Hollywood’s staple by grafting a realistic, fast-paced narrative style onto stories out of the headlines. For the first time, films went beyond mere talk and exploited the full possibilities of sound, utilizing the sound track to create a physical impact which increased dramatic tension. The screen exploded with “the terrifying splutter of the machine gun, the screaming of brakes and squealing of automobile tyres.”
Furthermore, the gangsters were character types more familiar to audiences than the teacup sophisticates of the photographed plays. They spoke like truckdrivers (Bugs Raymond in Quick Millions, 1931), slum kids (Tommy Powers in Public Enemy, 1931), Italian immigrants (Rico in Little Caesar, 1930, and Tony Camonte in Scarface, 1932), and stockyard workers (“Slaughterhouse” in The Secret Six, 1931). And most important of all, the films adapted the Formula to make the gangster a contemporary hero.
Stress was still placed on the individual but his circumstances were made more appropriate to the times. Like the traditional Formula hero, the gangster hungers after personal success, but he is different in that he can no longer fulfill this goal within the bounds of society and must pursue it through crime. The old avenues of fulfillment had been circumvented by the Depression.
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