Hollywood and the Great Depression: The Impact of Economics on Film History

This paper was originally written as the culminating experience for the Film and Media Studies graduate program at Arizona State University, completed April 15, 2021.

Beginning with the stock market crash of 1929, the United States and then the world went into an economic crash known as the Great Depression, which lasted until some variable point in the late 1930s or the beginning of World War II. This time of widespread poverty paradoxically coincided with the formulation of the classic Hollywood “dream factory,”which developed the “invisible style” of American filmmaking. Film histories focused on this era often examine the influence of real-world economics on both production and content of American films. And indeed, the history of “The Golden Age of Hollywood” is inextricably linked to the Great Depression. Even as spending was negatively impacted, the luxury of the movies was able to survive because of the escapism Hollywood provided, in tandem with subtle and not-so-subtle commentary on contemporary class issues. The justification for and criticism of Hollywood decisions during the Great Depression have shifted in the decades since its effect.

At the onset of the Great Depression, just as the talkies began dominating Hollywood film production (1929 is considered the first full year of sound films in America), not many films directly reckoned with the impact of the economic devastation. The new musicals, which were a short-lived fad until the mid-’30s, provided a glittering, backstage glamor. The Broadway Melody (Beaumont, 1929) features some sordid relationships, but generally delivers raucous parties, big sets, and beautiful costumes. Their Own Desire (Hopper, 1929) is a love triangle romance film, set in the privileged homes of the rich. Even the “fallen women” pictures that were very common in the early ’30s (and beyond) foreground the action in swanky settings, as in The Devil’s Holiday (Goulding, 1930). All of these films were nominated in various categories in the earliest years of the Academy Awards, reflecting not only what was being produced but also what the film industry itself thought worthy of praise.

Alongside and shortly after the trends represented by the“glamorous” kinds of films mentioned above were those that more starkly portrayed the divide between the poor and the rich. Gangster movies like Little Caesar (LeRoy, 1931) depicted the rise of a small-time criminal to extreme wealth and power, showing the grit of “real life” during its title character’s rise. The Champ (Vidor, 1931) showed the struggle of a washed-up boxer, a single father who weighs giving his rough-and-tumble son back to his estranged mother, now in a relationship with a rich man. Min and Bill (Hill, 1930) follows a similar plot, as a dockside innkeeper faces the prospect of relinquishing her adoptive daughter to her birth parents to give the girl a better life. These films also received nominations at the Academy Awards alongside the “glitzier” productions mentioned in the above paragraph. The disparity between the escapism of the likes of The Broadway Melody, Their Own Desire, and The Devil’s Holiday (which are admittedly not without their drama) and the grit of films like Little Caesar, The Champ, and Min and Bill illustrates Hollywood’s role as an aspirational dream-maker and a reflection of contemporary society.

These examples are made to demonstrate the divide in approaches to economics in films of the Great Depression and this interpretation is informed by the hindsight of more than 80 years. Beyond the broad economic realities and films of the earliest years of the Great Depression, academics have examined the ways the production and content of 1930s films have impacted other social considerations, such as gender. In short, much of contemporary film historiography in regards to the formative decade of American sound movies moves beyond straightforward class discussions.

For example, with the rise of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s, American films of the 1930s were reevaluated for their relatively positive portrayals of women, as opposed to the decades to come. The “Pre-Code” era, which refers to the period from 1929–1934 when the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was not strictly enforced, is especially singled out. Philip Hanson, in “The Feminine Image in Films of the Great Depression,” uses economic realities to segue into how the depiction of women in film had changed. Hanson makes an important point in explaining that “the studio moguls were not necessarily interested in selling a feminine value of cooperation, but their interest in what would sell resulted in a constant need to read the market” (118). The history of artistic progression in film has been reevaluated more cynically, or realistically, as an exponent of societal considerations that businesses wanted to take advantage of.

In any event, Hanson uses the example of Dinner at Eight (Cukor, 1933) to demonstrate the transformative aspect of the Great Depression. “Brought into the realities of the Depression, she [Dinner at Eight’s Millicent] proves that, given the chance, she is up to it, and can contribute” (119). Hanson also cites Swing High, Swing Low (Leisen, 1937) in regards to the development of these themes later in the Depression. He projects an understanding onto the audience that the film’s ending, in which the female lead supports the male lead, represents “an image that a devastated nation, with a significant number of families experiencing a shift from male to female breadwinners, would have understood” (121). Just as the implementation the Hays Code was seen to counteract the more liberal nature of Pre-Code film politics, Hanson also acknowledges the continuing conservative elements acting against or in synchronicity with feminist notions. “The vast majority of women in the 1930s who were active in social affairs did not set out to repudiate the roles of wife and mother” (128). This comment illustrates the projection that film histories can bring to the industry and society within which some opinions are expressed.

The historical costume drama in the mid-to-late 1930s can be seen as an evolution or offshoot of the films following the lives of the rich in the early talkie era. They presented romantic, idealized versions of the past, and as Chris Robé expresses in “Taking Hollywood Back: The Historical Costume Drama, the Biopic, and Popular Front U.S. Film Criticism,” contemporary leftist critics were establishing a historiography of the genre in real-time. He cites Irving Lerner and his contemporary review of Queen Christina (Mamoulian, 1933), in which Lerner counteracts the problematic framing of Hollywood’s historical costume dramas. “A true historical film, for Lerner, must abandon genre conventions of love and glamour to instead represent the collective power and historical oppression of the people” (Robé 73).

As introduced by Robé, this leftist interpretation was informed by the developments of the Great Depression. Robé uses The Life of Emile Zola (Dieterle, 1937) as a primary example of the leftist critics’ appreciation of political biopics, and whether intentionally or not, this comparison serves as a lesson in film historiography itself. Retrospective evaluation of Zola often concerns its undeserving Best Picture win at the Academy Awards and simplification of its source material. However, at the time of its release, it was praised for its depth and commitment. The immediate circumstances and the effect of the Great Depression impacted the critical evaluation, while removal from the setting that birthed such a film provides a different reading.

The form and content of 1930s film are often looked at as transition points into (even if just marginally) more modern trends in filmmaking and film production. Philip Hanson, in “The Arc of National Confidence and the Birth of Film Noir, 1929–1941,” uses the era to explain the development of the 1940s’ defining genre, film noir. Hanson uses the national confidence of America by the end of 1920s, and its sudden fall, to look at the far-reaching social impact in the country, not just the economic or cinematic elements. The fallen women and gangster films described above are a focus of Hanson’s, which he describes as “threat[s] to faith in authority” (398). This is an effective summation of the retrospective effect of the films of the 1930s, especially in the earlier part of the decade.

The movies of the Great Depression are now seen for the value of their subtextual themes and commentary on the state of the day. But as Hanson himself had pointed out, the business decisions of the Hollywood studios were informed less by artistic statements and more by potential profits. If there was profit to be found in films with progressive ideologies, it was because the nation was willing to pay to see them. Because the Great Depression coincided with the development of film techniques that still survive in today’s movies, and because the 1930s is seen as providing the gold standard for such techniques, film historians, academics, and critics have taken to evaluating the political messages embedded in the cultural products. How those messages have been received has changed over time, as the realities of the Great Depression have been removed from most living persons’ experiences. It is a keystone era to explore film historiography because its economic realities informed the production choices of Hollywood, the content and form of the movies it produced, and the contemporary criticism and history-making already in the process.

Works Cited

Hanson, Philip. “The Arc of National Confidence and the Birth of Film Noir, 1929–1941.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 42, no. 3, 2008, pp. 387–414.

Hanson, Philip. “The Feminine Image in Films of the Great Depression.” The Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 2, 2003, pp. 113–141.

Robé, Chris. “Taking Hollywood Back: The Historical Costume Drama, the Biopic, and Popular Front U.S. Film Criticism.” Cinema Journal, vol. 48, no. 2, 2009, pp. 70–87.