Light at the End of the Tunnel: Musicals in the Depression Era

Paper by Alex Buckley.

In 1929, America experienced the biggest economic Depression we have ever had. People all around America were being affected by the Great Depression in many different ways. While the rich were barely affected and pretty much oblivious to the suffering going on throughout the country, 60% of Americans were affected in someway. Unemployment rates “hovered close to twenty-four percent” (Eyewitness to History). Families were probably the most affected group. Men were losing their jobs and began “rely[ing] on their wives and children in some cases to help make ends meet” (Eyewitness). So many men were in distraught over losing their position of power, they couldn’t take the pressure of having so little. “A 1940 survey revealed that 1.5 million married women had been abandoned by their husbands” (Eyewitness). There was loss all over the country and families and businesses weren’t the only ones feeling it. The film industry was struggling “to finance the purchase of movie theaters and the conversion to sound” (Patrick Price) and by 1933 “movie attendance and industry revenues had fallen by 40 percent” (Price) with debts ranging to $410 million. So why did Americans find solace in movies during this time of such loss? Going to the movies was an escape from the everyday strife of their lives. Furthermore, musicals provided reassurance to a shaken country. In the face of economic and personal tragedy, film kept the idea that there could be personal success and happiness once again throughout America.

Many genres were emerging in the 30s, but musicals made the most lasting impact on audiences. Humor, dance, romance and music enticed audiences and gave them a happy distraction from their bleak lives. The film industry initially thought they were “Depression-proof” but they were no more unaffected than any other business or industry. They had to make massive adjustments to stay afloat. To help revenue, salaries and production costs were trimmed and a third of theaters around the country were closed. To help boost sales, they had to resort to gimmicks such as lowering prices by 25 cents, double bills, free dishes giveaway, and sometimes a bank night win which one audience member would win a cash price by means of a raffle. The smallest things like free dishes made audience members affected by the Depression feel better. Even in the worst moments of the Depression, “60 to 80 million Americans attended the movies each week” (Eyewitness). Not only did studios have to adjust to continue making movies, the Hay’s Code continued to limit what they could do. Broadway did not have any kind of limitations and therefore had lots of creative freedom. Even in Hollywood wanted to buy the rights to a musical, “the Hays Code made that impossible. The most benign lyrics were tweaked with idiotic regularity by inane sensibilities” (Laurence Maslon). Writers Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers suffered greatly in the industry. They were “shunted around from studio to studio, doctoring pictures, writing songs for films that were either cut or rewritten by other hands” (Maslon). These reasons are to blame for producers challenging the code and making movies that were more appealing and enticing.

The switch from silent film to talkies was a long time coming. When Edison initially created the technology to capture film, he always intended to have sound accompany it. Synchronization made it very difficult to make that happen and it was still a problem producers were facing as the switch to sound began. The Jazz Singer forever changed Hollywood. While it was not the first sound film, it was the first to introduce a realistic dialogue. Actors were facing many problems because of these changes. Actors with heavy accents or squeaky voices found themselves suddenly without work. People didn’t know “that cowboy actually spoke with a thick German accent” (Devin Faraci) and actors facing this problem lost many opportunities. Since actors had to speak into a hidden microphone, films became almost motionless and actors “had to adjust to a stiff, motionless style” (Faraci). Studios were scrambling to “install sound equipment, …build soundproof facilities, come up with sound projects, and find ways to master a very different way of making films”. The beginning of musicals were just literal reproductions of Broadway shows. As mentioned before, the Hays Code got in the way of what producers could do and then on top of that, the problems with microphones and synchronization made it even more difficult. Sound editing and pre-recorded soundtracks helped with the problems surrounding sound synchronization. The cost of equipment was over $25,000 per theater. Since there was such a high demand, producers didn’t really have a choice but to make the switch to sound regardless of how abrupt it was.

Movies in the 20s were all about portraying an idealistic view of life. Musicals in the 30s focused on “more realistic visions of aspiration and attainment” (Hollywood in the Depression) to relate to the suffering audience members were experiencing. Films were trying to instill the “possibility of success through enduring the hardship of an unsympathetic environment” (Hollywood) instead of dwelling on the fact life was so difficult. Actors were taking on new roles during the Depression. Actors such as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Ginger Rogers became “models of strength, courage, charisma, vulnerability, and triumph as they sang and danced their way into the dispirited hearts of the American public” (Depression). The musical duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared in nine films together. They both were trained in dance but “engaged in the same sort of dancing that “normal” people did” (Jon Lewis). “Backstage musicals” provided stories to people down on their luck. As conflicts present in the films, actors escape through music along with the audience. At a time when life was so difficult, escaping from the outside world for a couple of hours seemed to be the answer to all of their problems. For just a few hours, that “ridiculous, glorious notion seemed possible” (Lewis). Judy Garland had a rough life and with her vast success, she gave hope to people around the country. After the loss of her father, she pushed through to have amazing roles in films including her most famous role as Dorothy in Wizard of Oz. This film introduced the concept of escaping from her bleak black and white world into one of magic and color, something Americans were longing for. RKO films focused on life and love of rich people while Warner Bros focused on people “singing and dancing their way if not to success then to some sort of transcendence” (Lewis).

Top Hat, made in the middle of the Depression-era in 1935, is a great example of what RKO films focused on. You can tell without having to do any research, that this film was taken straight from the stage to the screen. The way the musical numbers flowed easily from the dialogue is a clear giveaway. That is how most early musicals are. They are direct reproductions of plays rather than an interpretation. Wealth in this film is portrayed through extravagant backgrounds, surroundings, and costumes. The film had undertones of poking fun at the wealthy through just how ridiculous they dressed and carried themselves. But, these are all the things audience members were longing for. The film provided a “wish-fulfillment for mid-30’s audiences” (Filmsite Movie Review), and gave hope to those suffering in the audience. This movie was very lighthearted and full of romance. The only conflict was the case of the mistaken identities. But other than that, the film focused on great dance numbers, catchy songs, and the romance between Jerry and Dale. The plot may have been simple, but it was enough to put smiles on audiences faces. For a couple hours, the charm and sophistication of Astaire and Rogers was enough to distract people from the turmoil of their life. As the characters escaped through music, the audience members could too. This film didn’t have a very complicated plot or many conflicts so it relied more on music. But, regardless of what was happening, the musical numbers were enough to put smiles on peoples faces.

Another Astaire and Rogers film, The Gay Divorcee was another film adaptation taken straight from Broadway. One of the major impacts that the Depression was having on families was the issue of divorce. The fees were so high and they often had no choice but to stay together or be abandoned. This film has a little bit more of a plot than Top Hat. Mimi is desperate for a divorce from her husband and ends up being pursued by Guy, a man she thinks is supposed to help with the divorce. All conflicts are quickly resolved and the film offers outstanding musical numbers and dances. I think that this film was able to relate to audience members because Mimi was going through a situation similar to what was going on during the Depression. While the reasons she can’t get a divorce don’t have anything to do with the cost, there were still so many couples desperate for a way out and were unable to find one. In the end, Astaire and Rogers presence, lightheartedness and talent continue to be an outlet to audience members. Any conflicts are solved with a quick song or dance. These simple–regardless of how outrageous–solutions were exactly what people longed for.

One of the most relevant films was Gold Diggers of 1933. This film directly related to the Depression and portrayed the characters suffering the consequences. Showgirls Polly, Carol, Fay and Trixie and their producer Barney find themselves without work after the Depression hit Broadway. They have everything they need to put on a show except for the money. They meet wealthy and talented writer and get the money they need to perform the show. Of course, Brad and Polly fall in love. All of the “gold diggers” marry wealthy men in the end except for Fay. During the Depression, the wealthy were the least affected by the turmoil and it seemed the only way to escape poverty was to marry wealthy, thus resulting in the term “gold digger”. This film is full of happiness, drama, love and musical numbers. Towards the end of the film all is looking well and the prospect of wedding bells seems to be right around the corner. But in the last musical number, soldiers are marching the street, wounded and dead. We’re shown breadlines of starving Americans trying to support their families. This showed audiences that maybe not everything would be okay, something that films hadn’t been doing a lot of. 30s films focused on the positive, that one day things would be okay and back to normal. But with Gold Diggers, this was not the case. Despite finding happiness with rich husbands, thousands of Americans continued to suffer. Just because they were able to be put in the show, that didn’t mean everything else would be okay. This correlates to the real life attempts to create organizations and jobs to regulate the economy under FDR. The small feets were nothing compared to the bigger picture.

Musicals helped people in even the lowest of times. Life was difficult and confusing during the Depression. People were starting to feel like things would never change. Studios like Warner Bros and RKO helped portray the fear and struggles Americans everywhere were feeling.The central themes in movies such as Top Hat, Gold Diggers, and The Gay Divorcee portrayed the lavish lives Americans wished they could live, conflicts with money and love, and the lasting impact the Depression had on the working class. Going to the theater became an outlet for families, couples, and just people down on their luck. The last fifteen cents that people had left in their pockets went to things that could help them escape the dreary reality they were living in. While it may have been all they had left, it made the biggest impact in their seemingly empty life. Why were Americans spending their last cents on movie tickets instead of food? Because “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).

Works Cited
“America in the Great War,” EyeWitness to History,, 2000.
Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 1930s.” Film History of the 1930s. AMC Filmsite. Web. 25 June 2016.
Faraci, Devin. “Talkie Terror: The Transition From Silents To Sound.” Birth.Movies.Death. 31 Aug. 2014. Web. 25 June 2016.
“Hollywood in the Depression.” Hollywood in the Depression. Web. 25 June 2016.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
Maslon, Laurence. “Broadway & Hollywood.” PBS. PBS. Web. 25 June 2016.
Price, Patrick. “The Impact of Hollywood During the Great Depression.” NSSC. North Shore Senior Center. Web. 25 June 2016.
“Top Hat (1935).” Top Hat (1935). AMC Filmsite. Web. 25 June 2016.


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