Escaping Reality in the 1930s

Paper by Eleah Colton.

“During the Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” -President Franklin Roosevelt

When hard times hit and there is no hope, just struggles over struggles ,how do we snap out of it? We go to the movies!!! The Depression of the 1930’s was a tragic and very difficult time in America, and all industries went under even the film industry couldn’t escape this dire moment. With The Great Depression the motion picture industry reconstructed itself and changed the game especially when sound came along. Sound brought a whole new feel ,itself was amazing and gave so much more emotion, but song and performers singing, that was just magical. Musicals were such a big hit during the Depression and gave us so much positivity and strength.(Lewis .P92) During this crucial time, everyone was down and in despair so going to see a motion picture and escaping reality was the thing to do and 60-80 million Americans also participated in that movement. Going to the movies was a true escape to forget all your problems and troubles. For 90 minutes you can be put into a world where there was no worries, and even the most absurd, or glorious society seemed possible.(Lewis.136) It was a way of distracting us from reality and was a modern form to reinforce values. The fantasy world of film offered a social and psychological role for the Depression Era. (

The whole film industry was changing and becoming more powerful, and how it was like working during the depression was demanding. Film industries working during the Depression had to deal with working under harsh conditions but still managed to create a masterpiece that we still watch and has made history that everyone knows. Musicals were happy movies and just fantasy like, they took away reality and put you in a good place instantly and that helped with tension during the Depression and gave people that outlet that they needed through these films. The Musical proved to be an extremely important genre especially during the Depression Era in America. It tells stories about average everyday people who are just down on their luck but could simply change the mindset and sing and dance their way to triumph.(Lewis.135)

Why do we go to the movies during hard times? Everyone loves to escape reality and a film was just that, not just any film but musicals to be exact. Musicals reflected Americas growing need and desire for departure and to enter a magical world. Musicals in the 30’s gave people more realistic visions of aspiration and fulfillment. They related to the harsh times but in a subtle way so they can boost us and our spirit and lighten the burden for our audience. Musicals that were huge during this time were Gold Diggers 1933, 42nd Street 1933, and Footlight Parade 1933, these three musicals were directly addressing the Depression. This strategy made these three films the highest money making musicals of the decade. (xroads.virginia) Also these three films were choreographed by William Berkley and so was Scarecrow’s dance number in The Wizard of Oz. Musicals stayed with us because they just make life so beautiful, simple and pleasurable to watch, and two great examples for that are The Wizard of Oz 1939 directed by Victor Fleming and distributed by one of the Big 5 studios MGM and Top Hat 1935 directed by Mark Sandrich and distributed by again a Big 5 studio RKO. Musicals distracted us very easily and put us into a trance almost instantly, we fell in love with the story, the characters and the songs. The characters also escaped through the music which transported the audience into a world of ecstasy. (Lewis.137) They made the film and danced and sang their heart out and instantly won ours. These characters became our models of strength and courage ,charisma, vulnerability and triumph.

The Wizard of Oz was an extraordinary fantasy musical from distributor MGM, it has everything you want in a musical very interesting characters, an insane villain and beautiful unforgettable songs that just haunt us but in a good way. They start out in a flat, dusty ,dirty and dry Kansas but then switch it on us into this fantasy dream like world “the land of Oz “ and we are easily engaged and astound. This film helped sustain a national morale, but also distracted Americans from their problems but metaphorically reinforces values and political radicalism. (escape mechanism) The songs and dances are integrated into plot and film. This musical’s main lead is Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) a young girl who represents a new youthful blooming powerful voice during the depression and who is personally affected by the depression herself in the film. She’s got bright ideas and looks on the positive side of things even at such a horrible time, Dorothy impacted the world and still is such an ionic face we all know and love today. Dorothy represents the American people and its values as she is loyal, and resourceful to everyone she comes in contact with. She engages the audience to envision the hope of reaching and to overcome such a stupendous goal. We think to ourselves why she would ever want to go back to Kansas when she has this beautiful dream world right in front of her and still desires to go back home. During the Depression it was hard to feel safe and financially secure, and home was the comfort zone and it’s true when they say “theres no place like home” and that phrase is very true and stuck with us for the past 70+ years. All characters, sets and dialogue became indelibly remembered and has lived on. (xroadsvirgina) For 15 cents to feed the imagination and peoples hunger to escape the reality and distract them into a different more simple and innocent direction …it was hundred percent worth it. This musical distracted us from the depression but added their own subliminal hints within the story. With all the dancing and great fun songs to sing, all of this stood for political situations and at this time the populist movement but we were so engaged and in awe it didn’t hit us instantly, because once they break out into song we as an audience fall in love. All the characters stood for something during the depression even if it didn’t come off right away. Dorothy was our young, naive good natured all american girl , Scarecrow represented the wise western farmers, Tin Man represents the dehumanized factory workers. The Yellow Brick Road is the golden path that leads to the power, and Emerald City is green for a reason the color is associated with greenbacks($$ paper currency) . It was pretty interesting finding that out but made complete sense watching the film over again, we start to realize things we never noticed. Even seeing the film for the 100th time we still find something new to point out, during the hard times no one paid attention to this mechanism they had we just fell in love with the fantasy of it.

All the wonderful songs in this film just create a spell and put us into this trance and gave us hope in a way ‘somewhere over the rainbow” was a song that just gave the average person motivation for success. While relating to harsh times this film, settings, story and characters captures so many emotions but manipulates them with a positive affect in the end.(xroadsvirginia)

Top Hat 1935 was another musical that was so engaging and a fairytale of two strangers falling in love after the first meeting in a hotel. This film was filmed during the Depression and still had so much class and elegance but with touch of dreamlike fantasy to it. Everything was so simple, innocent and a happy feel film that was magical, whimsical and elegant. Top Hat was a great 30’s dance musical that was such a great box office hit for RKO and made over $3 million. This film was a romantic/comedy musical and who doesn’t love a good love story plus great music. Fred Astaire who was Jerry and Ginger Rogers who was Dale were a fascinating duo who later teamed up as the Astaire-Roger team and appeared in nine films for RKO. They broke out in song and dance and just illuminated the whole scene with their persona. Watching this film took me out of reality as well and caught myself falling in love with the story and singing the songs. This musical takes us away from reality because not everyday we fall in love instantly with a stranger and have an amazing fairytale experience and sing and tap our heart out, but here thats what we have and empathize with it and live vicariously through it. The songs is what distracted us from the hard times and again numbed our troubles and put us in this film and feel the romance and emotion . These songs are so uplifting and conquer so much positive emotion that we are all just put in a trance. The song Lovely Day was such a beautiful song and sung while it’s pouring outside in terrible weather but both our characters are just so positive and make the best out of it and sing about how lovely the day is as long as they are with each other. Doesn’t matter how bad the situation is as long as you have that connection or with someone you love.

This scene to be exact was so inspiring and kept the hopefulness within the audience. Also the other song Lets call the whole thing off was a stupendous song and dance that intrigued the audience because of how simple and amusing the song was. Both of these musicals have accomplished and achieved so much and since being released during such a sever and crucial time for America they really did speak out to us and helped with that fear and anxiety everyone had. They both are extravagant musicals for this time especially without any technology just based on human ingenuity makes both films such more worthy and memorable. During the Depression allegory of state of affairs existed in America in the 1930’s, so with the stock market crash and bankruptcy of the U.S Government who wouldn’t want to escape reality.

The Wizard of Oz and Top Hat showed us to stay calm and be positive the good things are coming. From every song sung it was just another message of inspiration that we all needed to hear and get lost in, and that was absolutely accomplished. In the 1930’s with an economic crisis affecting most Hollywood Studios, the attention for consumers tastes and likes were crucial. Even though musicals were the happy feel good film they also reflected American desires just as American desires reflected the films, making it so impossible to intentionally ignore the significance of Hollywood during the 1930’s. (xroadsvirginia) No matter wether our character is rich or poor we fall in love with story and songs in musicals and they bring the light of day and joy to us for 90 min. but last with us for eternity. If you have great songs, great actors, and great dancing it will never go out of style. Going to the movies during the depression was a good thing for a lot of people it opened our eyes and hearts and made us feel good while drowns out the harsh reality . It was a high for people and helped them get through the day and can start singing the songs and instantly put them in a positive mood because music really does sooth the soul. I choose to discuss musicals in the Depression Era because I truly love musicals and they help me when I’m down and I can see why they were such a huge success back then. They have this control over you and everything about them is so intriguing and enlightening. There were so many more musicals released during this time that got outstanding recognition. Musicals were an outlet for everyone and still today, I find myself singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” every now and then. When anyone is down and in a sad, bad mood throw on a musical I’m sure they will cheer right up. It’s contagious!

“The content of the motion picture still was designed for escape, the majority reflecting the tastes of tired or jaded adults seeking a never-never land of luxury and melodrama, sex and sentiment.” – Dixton Wector , Historian.

Work Cited

“Hollywood in the Depression.” Hollywood in the Depression. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
“The Impact of Hollywood During the Great Depression.” NSSC. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print. P92
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print. P135
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print. P137 “Top Hat (1935).” Top Hat (1935). N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016. “The Wizard of Oz (1939).” The Wizard of Oz (1939). N.p., n.d.
Web. 10 Nov. 2016.


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