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Econimic Inequality Through the Eyes of Depression-Era Hollywood Movies

By  · Published on July 26th, 2012

The common, received wisdom about Hollywood during The Great Depression tends to go like this: Hollywood played an important role as a place for escape, or a low-cost brief vacation, for a populace struggling to make it day-to-day. Much of Hollywood entertainment no doubt possessed escapist entertainment value, and the importance of Hollywood’s social role in this respect shouldn’t be dismissed. But the assumption that Depression-era Hollywood worked exclusively – or even mostly – as a purely escapist institution with little reflection on the overwhelming social conditions and problems of the time is greatly misinformed.

The Depression-era-escapism argument about Hollywood has significant implications. While the industry’s role as an institutionalized dream factory had been well established by the early 1930s, the early years of the Depression were instrumental in the formation of a Classical Hollywood mode because it was during these years that synchronous sound became solidified with other standardized industry conventions. Genres like gangster films and westerns certainly existed during the silent era, but these genres acquired their shared signatures as sound grew into an expected, important part of the cinematic experience, just as the sonic spectacle of the musical or the rat-a-tat dialogue of screwball comedies became essential defining components of their respective genres after the standardization of sound.

So, in short, how we conceptualize Hollywood in the 1930s is instrumental to understanding the foundation of Hollywood’s entire history.

Even the most fantastic and seemingly escapist of films during this era had profound social implications echoing the breakdown and growing lack of trust in the institutions that previously governed American life without question. Despite the mandate by The Hays Code that gangsters must die for their transgressions at the end of crime films, for instance, James Cagney, Paul Muni, and Edward G. Robinson became populist heroes who commandeered wealth and gave a stiff middle finger to authority. Screwball comedies often concerned the lives of the very wealthy, but rather than providing a wishful escape which allowed audiences to continue to aspire to similar wealth they would likely never encounter, such films often made charming buffoons of wealthy characters and their manufactured “problems.”

But then there’s another category of Depression-era Hollywood cinema: those films that dealt directly in some way with class disparity, impediments to social mobility, and the ills of capitalism. Here are four such films included in The Criterion Collection.

#46: The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

The early 1930s found studios like RKO and Universal releasing a host of monster movies. But in a few of these movies, like Erle C. Kenton’s The Island of Lost Souls (also in The Criterion Collection) and even King Kong and Frankenstein, humans ultimately proved to be the true monster. Films like King Kong, …Lost Souls, and Earnest B. Schodesack and Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game were allegorical experiments in fictional cinematic anthropology, positing fantasies of how a society can be structured in arenas where humans are permitted to make their own rules; in such scenarios, the worst comes out in people, and the supposedly civilized reveal incredible potential for unabated savagery.

In …Lost Souls, uninhibited science is the great evil, but in The Most Dangerous Game, humanity’s dark nature is its essential predisposition towards competition in every sector of life. Is there a more apt metaphor for predatory capitalism than a man of wealth literally hunting down fellow humans? The fact that Zaroff’s (Leslie Banks) primary prey in this scenario is not a humble proletariat, but a fellow wealthy big-game hunter (played by Joel McCrea) is significant. If The Most Dangerous Game staged the former, the film would seem to be a comment on aristocracy, on inhumane efforts to retain what are perceived by Zaroff to be unassailable class differences. But that Zaroff instead hunts a man of comparable status and privilege is essential to his pursuit of becoming the “best” hunter. In doing so, Zaroff must reduce to his prey to a state of dehumanization. Compassion and co-identification inhibit the success of the hunt; it’s much easier to participate if one does not see their competition to be human at all. Sure, Zaroff employs “rules” for the game, but these only create the illusion of respect and fairness; such rules don’t actually manifest an equal playing field.

The “game,” in short, is rigged from the start.

#114: My Man Godfrey (1936)

Gregory La Cava’s celebrated screwball comedy finds the “forgotten man” of the titular role (William Powell) working as a butler for the über-wealthy Bullock family. Even though several members of the family seem benevolent and appreciative when first encountered in public, Godfrey’s sudden immersion into their private lives provides a lens for the audience’s access to the childish squabbling amongst the insulated socialites. Powell’s dry performance as Godfrey is pitch-perfect; though he gets some righteous verbal jabs in here and there, the funny shots of Godfrey reacting to the antics of the privileged is all that is needed to bring home the comic absurdity surrounding the Bullock family’s complete lack of awareness of any social problems outside the walls of their own mansion. So much power, yet so little to do with it.

However, My Man Godfrey’s attempt at a crowd-pleasing ending is deeply cynical. The Bullock family discovers that Godfrey is actually not a forgotten man but an educated elite who miraculously saved the Bullock family’s investments following the patriarch’s irresponsible financial engineering. It is this incident that earns Godfrey the Bullocks’ respect: the help proves valuable and worthy of respect only once he reveals himself to be a fellow member of the elite. Godfrey uses some of the Bullocks’ money to open a restaurant on the shore where he posed as a vagrant. Despite Godfrey’s thoughtful gesture, My Man Godfrey presents a society without social mobility; the poor are, in some way or another, continuously in service to the rich.

#505: Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)

In 1937, Leo McCary directed The Awful Truth, one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made in Hollywood. But that same year, he also released a heartbreaking, under-appreciated dramatic gem about an elderly couple who find themselves without a place in society. Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) find themselves unable to work in their old age and without enough money to retire in their own homes. They rely on their grown children for shelter and care, but this shift causes them to become separated, and they find themselves an unwanted burden on their unappreciative offspring.

McCary, a devoutly religious political conservative, saw Make Way For Tomorrow as a comment on the dissolution of family – and a powerful comment it is; this 75-year-old film should make anyone think twice before reminiscing on the “good old days.” But the film’s narrative, uncompromising ending, and historical context also make Make Way For Tomorrow a case study on the urgent necessity for New Deal reforms like Social Security and Medicare. The dependence of the elderly necessitated a new understanding of one’s civic duty to their fellow human in FDR-era America.

#543: Modern Times (1936)

Charlie Chaplin has always been one to question inherited power and root for the underdog. Before he took on fascism in 1940’s The Great Dictator, Chaplin gave audiences his final silent feature, Modern Times, a hilarious and artful critique of industrial society. Chaplin’s Little Tramp is an assembly line factory worker who dreams of a humble middle-class life that constantly eludes him. The Tramp endures humiliations at work including never-ending criticism from his superiors and subjection to a feeding machine prototype.

Modern Times is a critique of the mechanization of labor, showing that technology designed for greater “efficiency” in fact rarely accomplishes any such thing. The film is also depicts the dehumanization of the worker brought about by industrial society (or what Marx would call the “objectification” of the labor class), starkly and hysterically literalized here with The Tramp’s journey through the gears; he’s literally a cog in the capitalist machine.

However, against the supposed “escapist entertainment” of 1930s Hollywood, Modern Times definitely looked like an outlier, not only for its potent critique of modern industry, but by the film’s then-already-retro preference for silence.

Final Thoughts

Besides their shared depictions of class conflict and human exploitation, these four films have one other thing in common: they’re all incredibly engaging and massively entertaining. After almost eighty years, The Most Dangerous Game continues to thrill, Modern Times and My Man Godfrey still make audiences chuckle, and anybody who watches Make Way For Tomorrow without crying doesn’t possess a human bone in their body. These four movies prove that escapism is not mutually exclusive to entertainment.

As we continue to watch movies and visit the theater as a “cheap vacation” during our own Great Recession, it’s important to remember that it’s possible for Hollywood to tell great stories and show astute political awareness at the same time. In the context of nearly three hours of clunkiness Dark Knight Rises, which is all allusion and no statement, it’s important to remember that Hollywood used to combine entertainment and social commentary with relative ease, even during one of the most inescapable traumas in American history.

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