The diversity of pictures that sound made possible was the most characteristic feature of the movies in the 1930’s. They were filling the democratic role that the theatre itself had played a century earlier, and nightly programs often showed a startling resemblance to those of the popular playhouses of that earlier day. As well as straight theatre, the movies offered a modern equivalent for the equestrian melodramas, elaborate burlesques, and variety shows which had once had such wide appeal.
At firstrun houses there might be seen in quick succession a classical play filmed with all the artistry the producers now commanded, an extravagant girl-and-music show, a detective thriller, a bloodand-thunder western melodrama, a sophisticated comedy, and a slap-stick farce. A single show, again like those of mid-century, invariably included one of these main features; one or more specialities, which might well be a singing or dancing act (the news reel was an innovation for which the theatre had had no parallel); and a comedy short, which took the place of the nineteenth-century afterpiece.
The feature films derived from plays of the legitimate stage ranged from Camille to Petticoat Fever, from Pygmalion to Idiot’s Delight. Historical romances were elaborately produced: Disraeli was a favorite picture one year, and in another Cimarron, a story of Oklahoma pioneering. Gone With the Wind was a sensation at the close of 1939. Well-known classics were adapted to the screen, with such notable successes as Captains Courageous and David Copperfield.
New possibilities opened up with animated cartoons. The “Silly Symphonies” had a great success, and one of the most popular pictures in 1937-38 was the cartoon fairy-tale (photographed in color) of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To provide a comprehensive service to its exhibitors, a studio also needed to keep a stable of stars representing each of the most prominent types. Competition between stars was exaggerated by studio publicity and fan magazines, which delighted as much in inventing feuds between female stars of sirnilar appeal as they did in devising new romantic permutations among Hollywood’s leading figures.
The revolution wrought by sound had given rise to a new galaxy of stars and introduced new types of pictures. Many of the familiar figures of the movie world continued in the talkies their success in silent films; a few staged remarkable come-backs after a period of eclipse while they adapted themselves to an unfamiliar technique. Actors and actresses of the legitimate stage, who had often scorned the pantomime of the silent film, made their hopeful way to California in droves, and a good many of them remained. Singers and dancers, for whom the talkies represented an entirely new opportunity, were suddenly in great demand. In a whirl of expanding energy, Hollywood exploited all the means at its disposal to reach the still broader market for popular entertainment now opening up.
The studios ensured that their stars stayed as prominently before the public eye as possible, but they were also constantly engaged in private struggles to keep stars powerless to shape their own careers. Actors and actresses were tied to their studio by long-term contracts with harsh penalty clauses, and only the most popular were able to choose their roles or suggest script changes.
Movies told similar stories over and over again, with minor variations on recurring themes. By far the most persistent story element was romantic love – nine out of every ten movies used it either as the main plot device or in a prominent subplot, while the endless publicity chatter of dalliance among the stars built Hollywood into the “capital of romance”.
If movies rarely depicted the social and economic realities of the Depression, they did offer a series of psychological parallels in their emotionally heightened accounts of the impact of adversity on families and relationships.
In the early years of the Depression, when confidence in the businessman as national hero was at its lowest ebb, there was a notable absence of strong father-figures in movies. Without a firm patriarchal presence, it seemed, younger brothers might run riot and become hoboes or gangsters, while wives and daughters could be tempted into worse sins, which might bring on the destruction of the family itself. The chaotic state of movie families reflected the economic chaos and the fears of political chaos in the nation.
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