Where did such great art come from? Was it pure escapism, a reflection of the times, or both? After listing our picks for the best '30s movies of all time, we turned to an expert -- Morris Dickstein, author of the '30s cultural history 'Dancing in the Dark' -- for his take on the films of the period, the importance of screwball comedies and his picks for the most enduring movies of the era ... not to mention the film we honored that he considers "not a good movie." (Ouch!) History remembers the 1930s as a period of immense turmoil and economic strife, as the U.S. struggled through the Great Depression. But at the same time, the films of that period were wonderful -- from Fred Astaire's toe-tapping to Cary Grant's charm to Jimmy Stewart's visit to Washington.
Where did such great art come from? Was it pure escapism, a reflection of the times, or both? After listing our picks for the best '30s movies of all time, we turned to an expert -- Morris Dickstein, author of the '30s cultural history 'Dancing in the Dark' -- for his take on the films of the period, the importance of screwball comedies and his picks for the most enduring movies of the era ... not to mention the film we honored that he considers "not a good movie." (Ouch!)
What do people think of when they think of '30s movies? And is that different from what the reality was?
I think [it's] split into two camps. Either [they feel] it was a period of social realism where people focused intently on what was happening in the Depression, because the American people were going through such an unprecedented trauma ... or they feel this was a period when people just wanted escapism, they wanted to go to the movies to get away from their troubles. They didn't want to think about what was bothering them because it was bothering them 23 hours a day.
Which tenet do you think was more true? Or was it both?
I think it really was both. When I look at the so-called escapist culture, what I see is many more references to the Depression than anybody realized. The basic storyline that recurs in the Astaire-Rogers films is separation, misunderstanding, people at each others' throats, until suddenly, somehow, they manage to come together in this sublime way when they dance. And this is pretty much what happens to the families in 'The Grapes of Wrath': Gradually, as they come together, they realize they might have a chance of surviving. While economic survival and romantic sublimity are two very different things, the structure is actually quite similar. This was one of the few periods in American history where the collective, or the community, was more important than the individual.
So what you're saying is that you could look at a single movie and see both elements of escapism and realism.
Yeah. It's most obvious, let's say, in '42nd Street' or 'Gold Diggers of 1933,' where on the one hand, you have showgirls who are out of work, dying on their feet, falling over from hunger, which is the Depression element. On the other hand, you have this whole magical myth of stepping out of the chorus and into stardom, which is the fantasy life of the Depression -- in other words the idea of sudden changes in fortune, magical experiences of success, beauty, romance, love and fame.
What's a movie that encapsulates issues of the Depression in the most obvious way?
One of the best combinations is definitely screwball comedies that, instead of ignoring the Depression, deal with the Depression. 'My Man Godfrey' is kind of a zany, absurdist treatment of the relation of the poor people in Hoovervilles, some of whom happen to be former rich people, and this daffy rich family, Carol Lombard's family, that's been going out on a treasure hunt to find the forgotten man ... [who] turns out to be a Boston brahmin down on his luck. And he helps the family, and they help him, and they both manage to recover and survive. This is a pure Depression myth. You help me, I'll help you, we'll both make it together.
Would it be fair to say that the movies that were most successful at dealing with the issues of the Depression were comedies?
I would say that, definitely. Comedies and even musicals. [For example] the movie 'Dead End' ... deals with class in a heavy-handed way that is very dated today. You feel that they're putting their hand on the scales, and it's too blatantly obvious: "Here are the rich living right next to the poor, look at the relationships they have with each other." In 'My Man Godfrey,' all that is effortless, and the film feels like it could have been made yesterday. And it's set in exactly the same spot, on the East River, on the east side of New York. It's dealing with the clash between the rich and the poor, but in comedy it works more effectively than in what you might call social problem drama.
What is one film from the '30s you can watch over and over again, that holds up to this day?
I just watched 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' again. I think that that holds up so beautifully. [Frank Capra] doesn't quite get there when he's making 'Mr. Deeds,' he's a little over the top with 'Meet John Doe,' [but] he hits the perfect equilibrium with 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' This is the '30s trope of the ordinary guy, the plain man, the common-man hero, and Capra does it with such wonderful snap and vigor ... it's not strictly a Depression movie. It's not about the Depression, it's about political corruption, and the political process. But this is a classic piece of Depression filmmaking
Do you think a director like Capra would have made it today?
All I can say is that all the later directors that tried to imitate Capra failed. They either sentimentalized the little guy, which Capra didn't really do, or they just don't get it. And I think it's not so much the individual talent, but the times. We no longer believe in the heroism of the common man. Arthur Miller believed in the tragic heroism of the common man. Capra believed in it. We don't believe in it today. And so no director can authentically make it. They're not really invested in it. The age is not really invested in it. We're invested much more in celebrity than in the life of the ordinary.
1939 was a banner year for movies. Why? What happened that year?
I'll give you two reasons. One is that often at the end of something, you reach a kind of ripeness just before the thing dies. As the Depression was ending, [filmmakers] achieved the kind of equilibrium that Capra got in 'Mr. Smith.' The Depression ... was winding down, it was fading. They knew how to deal with it. There was a kind of autumnal quality. You look at a gangster film from that year like 'The Roaring 20s,' and you really feel it's a kind of nostalgic look back at an era from a considerable distance. It's not exactly a gangster film so much as a kind of meditation on a gangster genre.
The final reason was that the '30s created the mass culture that we know today. It created the studio system that continued certainly for the next 30 years, it created the star system, it created the individual styles of studios, and by 1939 that had reached a level of maturity ... Each of the studios was humming and purring, and I think it made possible films like 'Gone with the Wind,' 'Grapes of Wrath,' 'Stagecoach.' It just was a wonderful moment.
We just published our list of best movies of the '30s. Not to put you on the spot, but off the top of your head, what would your top five be?
I would say the top five for me would be 'I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,' 'It Happened One Night,' 'My Man Godfrey,' 'Bringing Up Baby' and 'The Grapes of Wrath.'
Here's our list of the top 15. Of that list, what do you most violently disagree with?
I would say 'Frankenstein' doesn't belong there. It's a pretty creaky film compared to 'The Bride of Frankenstein.' It's really very awkward -- it's based on the stage play rather than the novel. It's not a good movie.
Best movies of the 1930s