Movies and Pop Culture–The 1930s
A Review of Roger Dooley’s From Scarface to Scarlett
Beth S. Wenger is the Associate Professor of History and Director of the Jewish studies program at the University of Penn. She has won the Salo Baron Prize for New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1992. She currently teaches Jewish History and other social studies classes at Yale.
BY KATRINA YANG
America—this prosperous nation first developed from a series of colonies dependent on England. It is known as the land of the free and home to an eclectic mix of popular culture. Springing from the roots of a once English-dominated culture, it became the development of mass media and entertainment. Entertainment took the shape of movies, plays, and musicals; these forms of entertainment were the center of America’s spirit. They embodied not only the heart of American culture, but also played a major role in increasing morale during the 1930s, following the Great Depression. The Great Depression was often known as the downfall of America — however, mass entertainment continued to prosper because there were no foreign competitors and as a result positively impacted American popular culture. From Scarface to Scarlett by author Roger Dooley critically analyzes how the plots and characters in movies characterized America during “by way of balancing contemporary judgments with those of posterity.”1 Throughout the work, Dooley parallels the topics, heroines, scenes, and villains to the common archetypes of the 1930s seen in society.
Hundreds of movies were churned out of Hollywood within the decade—most of which dealt with subjects that were admired as well as many controversial topics. Their increasing popularity was due largely in part because it was a “cheap ticket away from depression.”2 Subjects ranged from housewives to gamblers and jewel thieves, literary classics to historical fiction and medical leaders. Although Hollywood branched from America, many British celebrities were popular in the U.S were popular among many citizens of the 1930s. Likewise, American stars began the blooming process into well-liked film, theater, and television stars. Hollywood continued to embody the ideals of grandeur and poise; many citizens in America at this time saw this as a model for what they hoped their lives would be like. Films produced in the 30s often paralleled plays and novels that were written in the 20s. At this time, women began to take pleasure in “following the well-publicized lives of the very rich.”3 These often expressed the newly-gained freedom that postwar women received instead of the exploitation of women; this newly-gained freedom would later develop into a standard of everyday life. In some films, however, women manipulated their sex appeal to acquire an extremely high standard of living that was virtually unavailable to most women. This occasional promiscuity entertained many and was bred on the notion that women were sexual creatures that were not afraid to use their assets for personal gain. Often, however, women were then forced to choose between a luxurious, fantasy-like lifestyle, and a romantic love in a simple, small town cottage. Women were depicted as the main characters in many thirties films—some worked through life with sex appeal, many were gold-diggers that attached themselves to wealthy and powerful men, and the remainders were hard-working women who struggled to maintain their happiness due to the incredible stress loads forced upon them. As seen in Street Girl, the “heroine was actually pure” and struggled to maintain her lifestyle, paralleling the common heroines portrayed in contemporary films of the era.4 Clichéd subjects commonly reared its head in Hollywood works—many, of course, were “Cinderella romances” that captured the hearts of hopeful women nationwide. Like in The Bachelor’s Baby, a young, playful, and lovable girl manages to “win the heart of [a]…bachelor figure,” and soon after, marrying him to fulfill the “happily ever after” women dreamt of.5 This era created hope for many women and aided in advancing their roles in society.
The wave of popular culture through the 1930s represented both a comfort and a hope for the general masses; in an era of disappointment, it presented itself as an incentive for the disenchanted. Characters such as gamblers and jewel thieves were viewed as charming and witty—people who overcame their own obstacles and met yet more in the dawn of their comically shown ventures. These men and women—criminals—portrayed on film created people for the frustrated Americans to look up to, and showed qualities people found fanciful and worthwhile. A “Grand Hotel formula” transformed into a fusion of the grand and the natural, “representing a cross section without moralistic pretensions”—this new naturalism brought about a sense of both humanity and a sense of nationalism, pushing forward through the abyss carried by the difficulties of the time.6 With this formula, Americans viewed themselves as a strong force, overcoming struggles and burdens; with this formula, a sense of pride conjured. With a surge of modernism, the trains of the past were too slow for the fast moving idea; they were a reminder of the old when an indication for the new as needed. One idea, however, lingered as a remainder of the antiquated: racism. Even Hollywood held onto the ploy of racism, usually preferring to hire Caucasians over others. Hollywood appealed to the WASPs, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants that typically characterized America within the past few decades. As a fear of Orientals rose, hatred toward Asians ignited. The period of hope seemed to contradict itself-- the wind of racism blew the flames of the “Yellow Peril” toward its vulnerable victims. While popular culture waved to new beginnings and aided the population, it reigned unnecessary supremacy over life.
Not only did the films of the 1930s concentrate on the heroes, villains, and clichéd romances in the society, but it also refreshed America’s fervent love for the literary classics and historical fiction. Long-established literary classics attracted many film-makers because of a “special nostalgia” typical of a “family-album familiarity” each classic exuded.7 Moby Dick, unarguably, was the first American classic filmed in the 1930s. Based on Herman Melville’s classic novel, it escalated the definition of love and exemplified the societies of American literary classics. A well-known novelist, Mark Twain had several of his novels filmed during this era, including the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and The Prince and the Pauper. Transformed into movie productions alongside others such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, these classic works embodied the increasing interest and revivals in the classics. In addition, historical fiction looked back to the past and took from it examples like slavery, wars, and the past presidents of the United States. Films like Slave Ship and Souls at Sea described the interest of filmmakers in the cruelties of the once-disputed, controversial topic of slavery. Literary classics inspired many of the films made in the 1930s; the majority of these films remain an essential part in film development today.
Though films dominated the era, many off-camera productions took place. For instance, musicals and plays grew in popularity during the 1930s; many came directly from Broadway and embodied the creativity and genius within. For example, John Murray Anderson’s King of Jazz, was seen as “most impressive and the last of the all-star extravaganzas.”8 It utilizes an imaginative setting and also photography, making it a grand musical that focuses not only on storyline, but also its surroundings.9 As musicals and plays grew in popularity, filmmakers saw an opportunity to recreate them. Recreated from the originals, films such as Romeo and Juliet reemphasized Shakespeare’s original, creative genius. The sudden recreation of musicals and plays expanded America’s cultural experiences and also its new connection to the once rejected. From newly-written books and popular music to musicals and films, the 1930s was a unique era that was unlike all others—despite the economic downfall, these forms of mass media entertainment were major characters in rebuilding the American spirit lost in the late twenties and early thirties.
In From Scarface to Scarlett, Dooley makes a claim: the 1930s was the “most productive decade of the golden age,” and with that came the big-time development of movies.10 Though ironic because the Depression simultaneously took its toll on America, his statement argued for the recognition of how mass entertainment advanced itself in the 1930s. The lowest point in the young nation’s history falls into place; but entertainment brought up the society’s low morale. During this period, the economy was falling but the entertainment rose. Typically, films made during this era of economic downfall characterized the hope that existed between struggling citizens. Lives of grandeur provided for an idealistic model to admire, which lifted the long-forgotten spirits of citizens and temporarily took their minds off of the spiraling economic depression they lived in. In addition, the claim made by Dooley reaffirms the fact that films in the 1930s brought in colossal amounts of profit—and during this time, this was the most significant increase in profits.
Dooley also holds a strong point of view: Hollywood’s Golden Decade is best described by the enormous amount of excellent movies produced that captured the heart of America, and in modern times, is seldom seen. Capturing the essence of the 1930s, all 5,000 films produced within the decade, he saw, were collectively the best movies of the 20th century because of their sheer brilliance and ability to boost the low morale that burdened 1930s America. He found that because of the production of movies, musicals, and other forms of mass entertainment, the economically poor nation was rich in popular culture. These elements of popular culture were the essence of a prosperous community; Dooley found that this kept the American spirit alive during the downfall. He hoped that “the greatest achievements will stand out all the more clearly” once the public was educated on the brilliance of the 1930s film advancements.11
Progressive historiography immensely influenced Dooley, in that the movies he reviewed were all based on common topics within the progressive historiography era: the rich and poor, less privileged and privileged, as well as many others. Class differences commonly exemplified the movies that were made during this era because most contained plots that had characters who struggled with others, often those from upper classes, for acceptance or fulfillment. He saw movies made during the era a remnant “among [America’s] brightest memories of [an] otherwise grim decade,” referring to the current Depression in 1930 America.12 He wrote this work with historiography from the 1930s; he analyzed how the thoughts and opinions of the filmmakers steered the historical aspects and cultural abundance of each movie made.
From Scarface to Scarlett is enormous in size but lacks content; in a review from Kirkus Book Reviews, the critic argues that the work is researched to a point of exhaustion and unhelpful to use as a reference to mainstream films. Kirkus Books Reviews states that the massive work is made up of “misleading compartmentalization and sheer confusion” that fails to through ugly educate readers of the film history of the 1930s, and instead sums up the plot of a movie per paragraph and unsatisfactorily describes the immense importance of the film during the era.13 The critiques over this work nonchalantly dismiss its information as unaccommodating to the serious movie-goers as well as dull to the touch.
This 600-page historical work exhaustively analyzes many of the movies of the 1930s. Though supposed to be a clear indicator of the pop culture of films within its hundreds of pages, what lie buried beneath the massive plot summaries of a never-ending list of films was its relation to pop culture. Because of its hidden nature, readers must learn to, while reading this work, dig deep into the depths of the publication to understand what roles and plots each movie held related to the significance of pop culture. This leads readers to form their own opinions on the fifty different genres Dooley names due to the burial of its main ideas under thousands of sentences. Every “minute classification” is stated, making for an unnecessary amount of information that would be better served as a Dooley’s purpose.14 However, though exhaustive, his work does include comparable background information and plot summary on not only the films, but also the analysis of the films as a whole. His take on movies in 1930s pop culture, though hidden, is agreeable.
The production of movies and musicals during the era of the Great Depression did, surprisingly enough, significantly bring in a hefty-sized profit, according to Dooley. Individually, the 1930s did mark a watershed in American cultural history, in that its unprecedented economic downfall led to a nation that soon became more culturally aware and accepting of things and notions that were previously banished. He states that “seldom has a decade been so clearly marked off at both ends,” implying that the 1930s is easily distinguished from its surrounding decades because of its significant change in cultural fervor that began and ended the decade.15 With this, American society in the thirties stands out because of its new cultural fervor. Ideas that were previously held prior to this era transformed immensely—for example, an inspiring patriotism rose up from the downfall of American economics, unseen before in previous years. Also, within this decade, a slew of newly appreciated heroes made their way into the culture of the American public—civilian heroes. Believed to be a vital role to Americans, these civilian heroes depicted were often made up of daring citizens with dangerous jobs and those who built up the strength and mindset to battle a near-impossible fight against the demanding, harsh, and unfeeling force of nature. The 1930s played a large role on current American history; Dooley reaffirms that following the 1930s was an era where “profits soared because Americans working in war plants had more money to spend than since before the Depression,” and since then, profits have exponentially soared.16 Due to this, the 30s was a decade of cultural flourishing.
Furthermore, America in the 1930s was a turning point in American cultural history; the nation was once described by the wars and revolutions by citizens, but within the development over the 160 years prior to the 1930s, a culture unlike any other was discovered. The emergence of pop culture significantly changed previously held practices and ideas through its emphasis on creating a movement that would distract citizens from the realities of the economic downwards spiral. Although not understood or seen before, films were “taken for granted for popular entertainment,” but little did citizens know that today, it is “cherished and studied as among the finest example of…lost art.”17 Now, because the 1930s was home to the beginning of big time film entertainment, the era remains an etched imprint on America’s cultural life.
At the end of its decade, the 1930s was a decade of success only to the entertainment businesses. Movies and other productions were made during this era that fully glamorized or humanized everyday life and characters. Most thirties stars “continued to reign throughout the 1940s” went on to extensively display their talents and abilities to the public.18 The Great Depression was solely responsible for the popular culture fervor that occurred in the 1930s. Had it not been for the Depression, the nostalgia and attitudes about society would not exist and leave behind a memorable trail of influential movies seen in the later 20th century.
1: Dooley, Roger B. From Scarface to Scarlett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. xxiii.
Katrina Yang is currently a junior at Irvine High School. Born in Gardena, California, she is currently interested in pursuing a career in law studies as well as biological sciences. She will be graduating June of 2011 and will then be sent off to college to pursue her dreams.
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