The 1930s and 1940s are often regarded as Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” Cinema was as significant as radio during this period. The initial impact of the Great Depression caused a decline in the movie-going audience, and with the closure of more than one-third of movie theaters by 1933, the future of some of the major film studios seemed in doubt—indeed Paramount and Fox went bankrupt.
   However, numbers gradually started to climb, with eventually 60 to 75 million people—60 percent of the population—going to the cinema at least once a week. Cinema offered an escape from the harsh economic realities of the outside world, and it has been suggested that this escapism helped sustain the population through hard times. Walt Disney’s cartoons, like Mickey Mouse, who first appeared in Steamboat Willie in 1928; The Three Little Pigs (1933); and the first full-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), seemed like childish entertainment, but the songs “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” “Heigh-Ho,” and “Whistle While You Work” clearly had a morale-boosting impact. Even Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933, with its focus on a play about the Depression, had the uplifting song “We’re in the Money,” although it ended with the haunting “My Forgotten Man.” Another musical featuring Berkeley’s choreography and with a similar storyline, 42nd Street (1933), was reputed to have saved the Warner Brothers’ film studio from bankruptcy. One of the most famous musical films was the fantasy The Wizard of Oz (1939) set in Dust Bowl Kansas and starring Judy Garland singing, among other optimistic songs, “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Optimism too perhaps underlay the success of the epic film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War novel Gone with the Wind (1939), ending with the immortal words, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
   Escapism also came in the form of the adventure King Kong (1933), in which the giant ape was finally shot down from the Empire State Building, or in the zany comedies of the Marx Brothers and in Charlie Chaplin’s humorous critique of factory life, Modern Times (1936). The 1930s also saw the emergence of a new genre—the crime thriller. This led to the film noir, first with the classic gangster films, starring Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar (1930) and James Cagney in Public Enemy (1931), and then with Humphrey Bogart as the private eye in several films of the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, including The Maltese Falcon (1941). During the 1930s and 1940s, America’s western heritage also became the backdrop for the classic films of John Ford, starring John Wayne, while Frank Capra focused on traditional small-town values and beliefs and the strength of ordinary people in 20th century America in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
   Not all film was about escapism or nostalgia. One of the major successes was Ford’s powerful film of the John Steinbeck novel dealing with the plight of the Okies, The Grapes of Wrath (1940), starring Henry Fonda. Even more bleak was Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), starring Paul Muni. Another great film classic, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), used a montage of newsreel intercut with studio scenes to reveal the life of a newspaper magnate. Realism also featured in the documentary films made for the New Deal by Pare Lorentz and others. These films dealt with problems of soil erosion and the need for conservation.
   During World War II, Hollywood was recognized as an important medium for “informing and entertaining,” and although affected by wartime shortages and limited in terms of the amount spent producing each film, it escaped direct government control over content. The number of films released fell from 533 in 1942 to 377 in 1945. Many in the industry enlisted in the war effort, and directors like Capra and Ford were among those who made films for the army or the government outlining “Why We Fight” or depicting some of the major battles of the war, like The Battle of Midway (1942). Several of the major stars joined the military during the war, among them Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart. Countless others in the industry contributed to War bond drives and morale-boosting performances for the United Service Organizations, including the servicemen’s pin ups, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, and Dorothy Lamour.
   Despite an initial drop in audiences immediately after Pearl Harbor, cinema attendance soon rose, and during the war about 60 million people went to the movies once a week. Among the feature films were war films celebrating American heroism either in World War I, as in Sergeant York (1941), or in World War II, as in Bataan (1943) or Objective Burma (1945), a picture starring Errol Flynn in a far-fetched role that offended the British. More realistic was a film version of Ernie Pyle’s reports, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and various wartime documentaries, like Memphis Belle (1944), the story of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. Women too featured in patriotic roles as nurses on Bataan in So Proudly We Hail (1943) and in the Philippines in Cry Havoc (1943). The shift from detached noninvolvement to commitment by an American was famously captured in Casablanca (1942), starring Bogart with Ingrid Bergman. American home life was celebrated in Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Holiday Inn (1942), and the nostalgic Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), while the lighthearted musical Going My Way (1943), starring Bing Crosby, swept the Oscars in 1944. Rather less cheerful was The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), dealing with the plight of returning servicemen and their problems readjusting after 1945. After the war, Hollywood was affected by the Cold War in a number of ways. First, Hollywood became the focus of investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and some writers and directors, like the Hollywood Ten, were blacklisted. Others were excluded after being listed in Red Channels and after 48 leading executives from the film business had agreed in November 1947 to keep out any individuals identified as possible “subversives.”
   Second, films sometimes dealt directly with the supposed threat of subversion, either directly in I Married a Communist (1950), I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), or Big Jim McLain (1952), starring John Wayne as a HUAC investigator, or indirectly in the later science fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Despite this there were still great moments in cinema: Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1948), starring James Stewart, quickly established itself as a perennial Christmas classic. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby continued their successful formula in the Road films with Road to Utopia (1946), Road to Rio (1947), and Road to Bali (1952), and Ford continued to mine the American Western heritage in Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). Stewart also appeared in one of the first postwar Westerns to present a sympathetic view of Native Americans in Broken Arrow (1950). Other notable films of the period were The African Queen (1951), an adventure with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn; the musical starring Gene Kelly, An American in Paris (1951); the Western Cold War allegory with Gary Cooper, High Noon (1952); another musical with Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain (1952); Shane (1953), a Western starring Alan Ladd; and The Wild One (1953), a film about motorcycle gangs starring the young Marlon Brando and signaling the rise of the teenager as a media phenomenon. However, cinema audiences, which reached a height of 90 million a week in 1946, began to decline thereafter as the baby boom forced people to stay home and as the new domestic entertainment, television, began to replace film. In 1953, 50 million people watched an episode of the TV series I Love Lucy, while only 45 million went to the cinema.

Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . . 2015.

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