And we’re off again!
The Farm Girl, the Princess, and the Housekeeper: 1930-1940
INT. NIGHT. A SMALL HOUSE.
Your HOST leads you to the door and opens it, revealing a landscape of lush colors and soft light. He flashes you a smile before running out to frolic.
The addition of color to film wasn’t really the game-changing revolution that sound was. With sound, the transition happened over the course of a year and silent films were obsolete within months after that. When color was introduced to film, it would be a good thirty years hence before the black and white film fell out of fashion (and even then, it never completely went away since some directors continue to shoot in black and white for artistic reasons.)
So, this decade isn’t REALLY all about color and how amazing it was. Instead, it’s more about how cinema became REALLY important to audiences during the Great Depression. There’s some great stuff that happens here.
The Great Depression sucked for a great many people in America. So, when life sucks, what do you do? You go to the movies! And when you get there, you don’t want to think about hardship or the unfairness of everything. You wanted fantasy.
And since audiences reacted so well to The Jazz Singer, studios figured music was what kept bringing people back. And they were right!
And thus, the gooey movie musical was born!
Musicals in the 30’s were often very light on plot and heavy on spectacle. It was pure fluffy escapism at its best. Enter Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! Their films aren’t known for their complex thought-provoking plots or their deep nuanced characters. We remember them for their AMAZING dancing. These two were a match made in the ether of divine perfection. Even the most cynical of folks would find it hard to ignore their flowy footwork and electric chemistry.
The two starred in nine films for RKO during this era, dancing to music by some of the greatest musical minds of the day, including Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
If you’re looking to sample the magic of these two, you should check out Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1937). They’re pretty much exclusively fluff, but its super pretty fluff.
While I’m on the subject of musicals, I should also mention Busby Berkely, a choreographer who, with his talent for extravagant dance numbers featuring scads of beautiful chorus dancers, moved musicals away from the stiff affairs they had been in the early days of talkies (thank goodness for the invention of the boom mic, which allowed actors to actually move around instead of sticking close to only one area). He also established film performances as different from stage performances, using the camera to give the audience an experience they couldn’t get on stage (think of the iconic shot from his 42nd Street (1933) where the camera passes between the legs of a line of dancers).
42nd Street is an absolute delight and a favorite of mine, but you should also check out Gold Diggers (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933). Berkley was apparently a very busy man in 1933…
On the subject of huge poofy musicals, I also have to mention The Great Ziegfeld (1936). In the annals of huge ridiculous musical sequences that comprise nothing but pure spectacle, I should direct your attention to the song, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” The song had been around for a little over a decade (one of Irving Berlin’s), but this version of it is insane. If I remember correctly (it’s been a few years since I’ve seen it) the whole thing is done almost in a single shot, spiraling up the levels of a gargantuan wedding-cake-like structure packed with costumed chorus members all singing, dancing, and acting out mini scenes as the giant cake rotates, carrying the camera up and up and up as the song reaches explosive heights, culminating in a woman in the BIGGEST dress ever perched atop the highest point, surrounded by curtains and a chorus of women in poofy gowns. The song hits “The Beautiful Blue Danube” waltz, the famous tenor aria from Pagliacci, and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” along the way. The final scene where the camera pulls away from the massive rotating structure as the spiral curtains descend back onto it is pretty spectacular, even if it’s completely devoid of narrative meaning.
Here’s a link. It’s cray.
It makes the next film I want to mention seem restrained by comparison.
Of course, I have to mention The Wizard of Oz (1939), one of my all time favorite movies. Unfortunately, despite what many believe, it wasn’t the first color film. Color was actually considered a gimmicky and silly diversion that, while fun, was too airy to be of much significance (this was obviously when people began to grow weary of fluffy plot-lite musicals). The movie wouldn’t become the iconic American classic it is today until it became an annual television event in the 1950’s where, ironically, it was shown fully in black and white.
But getting back to my point, color preceded Oz. Technicolor, a three-color process by which film could show a relatively full spectrum of color on screen, was invented by this cool guy named Herbert Kalmus. Before Technicolor, there was color in films but it was either a two color process (which created a sort of sepia-ish cast with only a little color variation) or splashes of color here and there for visual effect (early silent films used that here and there). The first full film made with Technicolor was this blaaaaaaand film called Becky Sharp (1935) adapted from the novel Vanity Fair. But it was boring as all get out and nobody really cared about it. Before studios got brave enough to use Technicolor in feature films, Walt Disney’s groundbreaking cartoon Flowers and Trees (1932) used the new three-color Technicolor process to beautiful effect. Here’s a link if you want. It’s a cute cartoon that delves into surprisingly dark territory. I’ll get back to Disney in a bit.
The Wizard of Oz was one of the first color feature films to really show off how brilliant Technicolor could be. By starting out in a sepia-toned world, the transition to color when Dorothy opens that door into Munchkinland is that much more amazing. My mind is boggled at the thought of critics and audiences going, “Meh…” when it first came out. I think they were expecting it to be huge and meaningless like many previous musicals, and so nobody took it seriously. Color was very much considered a fad that wouldn’t last. By then, the worst of the Depression was beginning to level out and people were able to worry about the rumblings of what was going to be WWII. Cinema in the next decade would become very realistic and sharp-edged, so it’s easy to see how Oz came about a little too late to really make a splash. But it’s all good because Dorothy and the Wicked Witch would become Pop Culture Icons eventually.
I could EASILY go on for literal days about how much I love Oz, but we’ll move on because we’ve got a lot to cover, still.
On the flip side of the soft lights and glittering sequins of the musical realm, there were the dark atmospheric horrors of Universals iconic monster movies (which are AMAAAAAZING). Like the musicals, these films offered an escape from the bleakness of reality by presenting people with monsters that could be defeated. Poverty and an uncertain economy felt like they wold always be there, but Boris Karloff’s Mummy could be defeated by the reincarnated Ankh-es-en-amon praying to Isis, Dracula could be staked in his lair by the cunning Abraham Van Helsing, and the Wolf Man was vulnerable to silver. These films are pretty tame by today’s standards. many people don’t even see them as horror films, but you’ve got to admire the cinematography and the use of light and shadow.
Karl Freund, who directed The Mummy (1932)–one of my all time favorites–is so good at creating an eerie atmosphere that you don’t really notice that there isn’t much in the way of peril. It’s atmospheric and transporting nonetheless. The same goes for Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931) as well as the (in many ways) superior Spanish language version directed by George Melford.
The most iconic of these is probably James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Of all the early Universal monster films, these two probably get the closest to being genuinely terrifying by today’s standards. The sets are spectacular, drenched in shadow, and the monsters represent a genuine threat to the order of things. Taking pages from the books of the German filmmakers who experimented with surrealist imagery, these films have embedded themselves in the public consciousness. Everyone knows OF Dracula in his various incarnations, but everyone KNOWS what “It’s aliive!” comes from without you ever having to say it.
They didn’t have huge budgets, but these films really worked with what they had and showed everyone just how effective black and white films could still be. There’s no doubt that the effectiveness of black and white film’s ability to heighten mood and tension in these films inspired later decades as they gave life to the noir film genre (but we’ll talk about that later).
Moving back into the light, I wanted to come back to Disney. The 30’s is when Walt Disney really showed the world what he could be. I mentioned Flowers and Trees which pioneered a new cutting edge color process. Another short deserves mentioning and that’s The Old Mill (1937), a beautifully animated atmospheric piece which showcased a new technology that reinvented animation: the multi-plane camera. Here’s a link to the short. The multi-plane camera allowed for depth in a cartoon by shooting down through stacked layers of glass, each layer getting a different celluloid representing different parts of the image. You could have mountains actually be in the distance. You could have foreground objects move faster when passing them by. You could have trees part to allow the viewer to move into a spooky forest. The effect was amazing, and Disney put it to use in his first feature-length Technicolor cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
People thought Disney was crazy to try for a full-length cartoon, since at that point, cartoons were filler, showed in theaters between newsreels or other films. A full length animated musical seemed bizarre, but it was an incredible success and got Disney started as a world-renowned animation titan. He would have a very up-and-down road to success after this, especially in the 40’s, but his success with this film gave him the confidence to get more daring later on.
Another film which made a huge splash, of course, was Victor Fleming’s 1939 Civil War epic Gone with the Wind. This one impressed audiences a lot more because it didn’t shy away from depictions of brutality (the bloody scene where Scarlett O’Hara, Queen of Sass and Amazingness, shoots a creepy burglar and possible rapist in the face is still pretty effective) and much more frank depictions of sex, pregnancy, and the horrors of war. Now, granted, the fact that the film idealizes slavery and casts all the slave characters as silly and happy with their lot in life is troubling, and it’s necessary to view this film with a VERY critical eye. But it is notable that the film did get the ball rolling a bit faster in terms of how African-Americans were depicted on film.
In fact, this film led to the first African-American person winning an Academy Award. The sensational Hattie McDaniel (who played Mammy) had to walk to the stage from the segregated eating area where she had to sit at the Oscars (and even that was a concession since the hotel didn’t allow black people in at all), but she won that award and she deserved it. There were some who were angry that they felt she won that award only by playing into a stereotype that continued to demean the black community (and that is true), but it was a step in the right direction, even if it was a small one. Things didn’t change quickly (they’re STILL changing, unfortunately), but this film DID contribute, in at least a small way, to getting black actors to be taken more seriously in the world of film, troubling racial depictions and all.
Gone with the Wind is a marvelous sweeping film that definitely heralded the upcoming decade’s aesthetic. In that final scene where Rhett Butler, incurable scallawag, vanishes into the mist of a darkened street seemingly out of Scarlett’s life and she decides that that is just NOT how things are going to happen and runs after him, it’s almost like they’re moving into the film noir era, leaving the bright colors and poofy gowns of the escapist films of the 30’s behind.
You should totally rewatch it ! I’ll even come over and watch it with you. We can talk about how Scarlett is the Queen of Sass and is amazing and how Ashley is boring as moist bread and Rhett is hunky and Melanie is entirely too pure for the world and Mammy is not one to hold her opinions back, and we can stand up and hug each other as Scarlett basically punches the post-war devastation (and by extension the Great Depression) in the face, screaming to the heavens, “As God as my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!”
And on that rousing note, I will bid you goodbye until next week when we will start looking at the 1940s!
Also, as always, here are my sources.
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
Shipman, David. The Story of Cinema.
Sklar, Robert. A World History of Film.
As well as a few clips on Youtube and Dailymotion.